Interview With SEO Book’s Aaron Wall

by on March 27, 2012 | posted in Link Building Interviews,SEO Theory

Aaron Wall is someone I greatly respect. He is unarguably one of the smartest public figures in the SEO space, and for that reason alone, every post he writes on SEOBook is worth reading. His opinions are sometimes controversial, but they are always cogent and continue to make SEO Book’s blog one of the only must-read blogs in the space. I have been considering joining Aaron’s high-level community for a long time, and likely will join soon. There are simply not enough places to openly discuss things with smart people that are controversial – which is why his blog continues to be at the top of my reading list – because he continually does the dialogue for me. Many thanks to Aaron for doing this interview. If you haven’t already, follow SEO Book on Twitter and bookmark the blog.

1. The SEO community has managed to evolve the “SEO is dead” conversation to a “SEO is evolved” diatribe, whereby many believe and/or hope “inbound marketing” can eclipse and/or completely take over the term. This is clearly not going to happen, however, how commonly held “inbound marketing” becomes as a term is yet to be seen. Do you think there’s any potential for this idea, “inbound marketing”, to cannibalize many of the market traffic many “SEO” sites see today? SEOMoz itself seems to be jostling over a rebrand in the long-term aims at an exit (and need for growth) – and their platform has in many ways been a platform for SEO evangelism and the way many view “SEO”. Even if total market size grows head over heels, it seems to be a possibility that “SEO” traffic could be eaten away by secondary terms and/or beaten back by a market shift by the primary evangelical mechanism. Do you imagine SEOBook to be (largely) the same thing it is five to ten years from now as it is now? In my (short) time as an SEO, it seems that the only real marked change has been one redesign.  What market conditions do you expect to partially sway the way you do business? Or will you largely ignore them and shift as they come?

Without keying on any particular company or person or word, it is worth nothing that first & foremost, marketers do marketing. The need to spin old concepts as something new ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suRDUFpsHus ) is done for a number of purposes

  • linguistics & appearing fresh + relevant:
    • It is very hard to have something new to say every day (or even every week). It is far easier to relabel old concepts & put them in a new wrapper than it is to come up with new concepts.
    • Have you ever noticed that many people claiming to do “advanced” SEO label certain activities as spam, wait 6  or 12 months & then write about the same techniques as being cutting edge “white hat” strategies? That in and of itself reveals intent more than anything else.
    • Sadly most of the market is too ignorant to piece together such trends…wanting to ride whatever sounds new and exiting without putting in the effort to understand things in a deeper context. I have long highlighted that the easiest money in the market comes from monetizing newbies ( http://www.seobook.com/images/customer-pyramid.gif ), though most our membership tends to skew toward the expert end of the market.
    • When I write short & easy posts they get lots of comments, but if I write something that takes 20 or 30 hours to finish it will get lots of interaction in our member forums, but on the blog almost nobody comments on it beyond saying something like “must read” on Twitter.
  • building a downstream of evangelists:
    • build catch phrases that put yourself at the center of them in the minds of newbies entering the market who will be duped into providing free marketing for your site, while remaining ignorant that they are pawns/shills for your marketing strategy
    • this year’s “____ marketing” is no different than an “_____ code of ethics” badge from 5 or 10 years ago
    • I have also mentioned how Edward Bernays talked about ethical public relations…the same dirtball ran a scam to have Guatemala bombed to increase his client’s profits ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnYZVNVqBgU ) & gave hundreds of thousands of women lung cancer with his staged torches of freedom campaign
  • show growth:
    • looking at this SERP ( http://www.seobook.com/images/newyorkhotels.png ) it is hard to sell SEO as a growth story. as Google eats its own search results & SEO becomes less predictible, marketers need a different label.
    • I think it was Debra Mastaler ( http://www.alliance-link.com/ ) who suggested that the main purpose of a different keyword is to broaden the perspective / scope of the alleged addressable market to investors to try to promote the perspective that investors should offer companies raising funds a higher valuation

I don’t see new words for rehashed marketing concepts reshaping the perception of marketing anytime soon, but gradually small changes can add up over many years.

Do I worry about that? Not really, for a couple reasons…

  • If the market ever becomes so static that there aren’t new concepts being created (or old concepts being respun as something new) then it means the market is becoming so stagnant that it is being commoditized.
    • While painful in the short run, things like the Panda update are a great thing for professional SEOs because they increase work security by making the barrier to entry higher & requiring constant learning.
    • As the structure of the web changes so will methods of optimization & the optimal level of investment in various areas.
  • I wrote about some of the linguistic changes in the SEO market years ago in our member’s area.
    • I think I have coined or helped popularize a number of keywords in the SEO niche…I just haven’t been anywhere near as public this year as years prior. Everything goes in waves.
    • Once you understand the trends you can be pretty good at predicting some of the changes that will occur in other markets as well.
  • Also, for as much as people push hard on the SEO keywords, they don’t drive that much actual business.
    • commerce in SEO is largely a sector dominated by word of mouth marketing ( http://www.seobook.com/word-of-mouth-marketing )
    • There are too many spams & scams in AdWords + various pieces of misdirectional advice from search engines ( http://directmatchmedia.com/googles-trust-us-penalty.php ) for people to trust the search results as an objective source of SEO information.
    • Some people still do trust the SERPs, but I view it more as a point of potential credibility than a singular point of success or failure.

The big problem with any marketing label is that if it got any level of success it would get reframed in the same way people try to reframe SEO … spammers & scammers try to pattern after whatever looks normal and legitimate ( http://www.johnon.com/293/seo-consulting-2.html ). Con artists require confidence & thus like the people who would be likely to hose you are more likely to have trust badges, industry organization badges, and so on displayed on their websites ( http://www.benedelman.org/publications/advsel-trust.pdf ).

As far as SEO Book goes, when I started it (2003) I figured it might be around for 3 to 5 years. Every year I tend to push the window back a bit, but I don’t worry about 1 years down the road…I try to presume that everything will be gone in 2 or 3 years, so that it focuses me to ensure I am doing the best I can in the short term. And then at the end of the year I typically figure things still have another 2 or 3 years left. But invariably a site like SEOBook won’t live on forever & eventually at some point it would make sense for me to retire from SEO stuff (though this still could be 5 years or more away from now). The big thing for me is inspiration/drive/purpose. I have sort of slipped a bit on those fronts over the past year or so, but things really do go in waves. Sometimes when I feel the worst things go really well & sometimes I feel surprisingly good even when things blow up / fail.

2. In the recent past, you stated on SEOBook that you would no longer be developing new properties for purely SEO purposes because of the constant wiping undertow of affiliates and other alike services by Google. Are you still steadfast in this? For people without such a developed market position as yourself in community/software, where do you think the future of high-paying SEO stands? Companies packed with talented SEOs and former affiliates such as Blueglass are (seemingly) focused exclusively on high end consultancy, making one worry about the sustainability of developing our own sites.  Is it in the best interests of the “new guard’ of SEO to pave a route in that direction instead of attempting to develop their own sites? Does this mean it makes a lot of sense to “brand” oneself as a high value SEO/go the route of attracting Fortune-500 clients now instead of tunneling under the rubble and building out a network of our own domains?

I am not certain that I said I would never develop any new sites. Curiosity & wanting to be a professional who understands all aspects of the game on sites new + old / large + small / branded + unbranded / etc. forces me to keep creating new things. That forces me to launch new sites. One of the big things that separates us from  some other well known SEO sites (some that sell “SEO lifestyle image” but don’t have in-the-trenches SEO knowledge) is that we do frequently launch new projects & have many of them in various states of development. Someone with aggregate stats has a very hard time knowing the game as well as a person with deeply intimate knowledge of a dozen or so websites of different sizes in various markets.

I do think that SEO consulting is going to get hit pretty hard in terms of pricing power over the next 3 or 4 years due. A lot of consulting jobs will dry up in favor of in house positions that pay less than what the affiliates & external consultants make. This trend is already well underway. It’s not surprising that smart SEOs aim to service the fortune 500 market. Given that Google is flagrantly biasing their algorithms in that direction ( http://www.seobook.com/learn-seo/infographics/brand-branding-brands.php ) while also adding tons of layers of risks to smaller independent businesses ( http://www.seobook.com/learn-seo/infographics/affiliates.php ) means that focusing on the corporate market makes sense. Its easier to blow a snowflake off the side of the mountain than it is to roll a snowball up a mountain.

That said, even though Google is biasing the algorithms towards large corporations it does not mean all that corporate work is easy…you still have to be good at project management, deal with politics, and get buy in from internal teams. And that sort of need for buy in does create demand for external experts to come in and give evangical pep talks from time to time.

3. The SEOBook community subscription service is one that, as far as I know, is unique in the industry, and can only sustain itself on the contributions of its high-value members such as yourself. How scalable is the “community” based model? At first thought it seems pretty scalable, at other times it seems like a proper balance of members/respectable SEOs is required before it gets out of control and it’s possible that a few months could result in a large number of unsubscriptions. SImilarly, something that stood out is that your price is $300 – no play at psychological pricing such as $299. Is this deliberate? On the subject of “deliberate”, it seems your blog is a mixture of both – deliberate (product reviews with optimized URL strings/affiliate codes) and not (random blog entries describing industry developments). Is this “deliberate indifference” the model that a blog must live and die by to not appear too commercialized? Or is it as simple as “I don’t really care, I’m gonna do okay either way, I’ll just write about what I want to write about”, which seems to be the thought process of much of the Hacker News community? Would you still write about SEO if the financial incentive receded close to ramen profitable?

Websites that are primarily software based models are highly scalable, largely because you primarily only have to maintain infrastructure & do not need to build + maintain relationships. Software models also make it easy to offer free trials & so on, to minimize perceived risk and get the widest possible audience to see your offering. Whereas if you have primarily a community-based site then offering a free trial would invite freetards in to pollute up the site and destroy its value for its existing members.

Websites that are primarily community based are much more of a “lifestyle business” than something where you can get VC funding and scale it to the moon. The big issue with any effort to grow quickly is that it would increase member churn & lower the quality of the service. Therefore we don’t really try to optimize for growth, but rather are comfortable running a smallish community of experts.

The reasons for the organized indifference on our blog is largely driven by a combination of my own interests and Google’s algorithmic bias:

  • I write in part to make my thoughts more concrete & to get feedback. As much as anything else the site is a list of notes to myself. :) … That of course turns some people off, but then you don’t need to attract everyone in the world to build a self-sustaining small business.
  • if Google makes it so that a big corporation only needs to be 5% as good as you are to beat you (which was the entire purpose of their Panda algorithm…to crush smaller players while promoting big corporate websites) then you lack economic incentive to share certain tips & tricks publicly (as sharing them will in many cases cost you FAR more than they potentially earn you). At some point celebrity or whatever is irrelevant when doing something means creating more work for yourself in the short run while also destroying your future wages.
  • given the above issue, when I write about certain industry trends it can seem that the blog is overly cynical due to the lack of economic incentive to share certain positive things (why share your competitive advantages publicly when the market maker is tilting the playing table away from you)
  • part of the reviews and so on is to give the blog a mix & diversity. many of the reviews don’t have affiliate links in them & even most of the ones that do never actually pay for themselves. they generally lose money, but we do it as a service for our members and the rest of the SEO community.
  • the above said, sometimes we do share stuff that is pretty valuable, but in many cases we require people to read between the lines to get it, rather than fully spelling everything out. the main reason for writing deeper posts is to differentiate the difference between us and the “10 ways to write 9 lists of 8 items to supercharge your marketing 7 times over to buy 6 cans of cat food for your 5 cats 4 days of the week relying on 3 meats that are liked by 2 cats and 1 other dish” bloggers & to attract some of the best + brightest in the industry to our community. Many of our members are way older than I am & way more successful than I am…we have a lot of really smart people in our community.

4. On the lighter side of things, what does your internet reading list look like? Are there any “indirect SEO” reads that might not directly inform the SERPs, but help you improve at what you do? What is Aaron Wall doing when he’s not focusing on SEOBook and the IM side of things?

SEO probably is my lighter side. I read a lot about economics & am pretty certain that the US is setting up for a MAJOR currency event in a few years. Sites like iTulip, Ritholtz.com, Market-ticker.org & OfTwoMinds.com/blog are all great reads for understanding markets. I think if you understand markets, trends & economics then a lot of that stuff feeds into how to apply marketing techniques to create profitable businesses.

Sadly, we live in a society  that is becoming feudal, where bankster scumbags are never held to account for stealing & destroying people’s lives http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-23/mf-global-s-corzine-ordered-funds-moved-to-jpmorgan-memo-says.html . As long as banksters are above the rule of law, we are careening toward an eventual collapse.

Accounting is largely an abstraction…how is it possible that all these countries are having debt problems at the same time? Who are all these countries in debt to? Someone has to be on the winning side of that scam. Why must almost all currency come into the market as debt? Why do we let private parties print the currency at interest & then remove leverage limits from some private parties in the market? And if the problem is income inequality, then how does bailing out criminal banksters & forcing their fraudulently created debt on to the general populous do anything but ensure we fly face first into a brick wall that much faster?

I am pretty disgusted by the apathy & ignorance of the economics stuff, however much of that is taught & culturally ingrained. We are society built around over-consumption.

Financial structures matter far more than we give them credit for, but we won’t appreciate that fact until we look like North Africa did last year.

At least we live during interesting times!

5. In thirty years, it’s possible Aaron Wall wants to step down from SEOBook or whatever machination it may become. However, it has largely been built on your brand, and the community thrives in a large part based on your personal brand. From that perspective, much of the domain value disappears when you step down. Rand is facing similar issues over at SEOMoz, but has done a good job of “handing over” much of the blogging to other talented bloggers now attempting to leverage the community to build their own brand. You occasionally have other people write for the blog and provide commentary, but the level and diversity of this blogging is much more limited, and SEOBook very much still seems like “you”. Perhaps much of that has to do with your unique viewpoint, which is difficult to replicate. Have you considered allowing more editorial diversity to help you let go/and/or scale the community like SEOmoz? Is there any interest in doing this in the future so that you may lay off and/or pursue other things with more intensity?

I have thought about encouraging a wider diversity of contributions, but it is something that needs to be done in a measured way. A lot of people in the field of marketing want to use any SEO blog as a conduit ( http://www.seobook.com/reddit-distilled-virante ) rather than help build it up. So you really have to look out for those sorts of people. Also, when I think of the blogs I read most frequently, most of the ones that I enjoyed the most were far less enjoyable when the founder was less involved with them. Consider how TechCrunch has lost about half of their uniques since Mike Arrington  quit & that is with them having boatloads of PageRank, links, content, momentum, exposure, etc etc etc

I am 100% certain I won’t be doing SEO in 30 years. However even if we eventually retired the site, we would keep it online. I have paid something like a grand a year to host Threadwatch for many years now. In spite of retiring that site I have kept it online.

We have always ran multiple projects in parallel…the knowledge from one feeds into the other. I am constantly adjusting how hard we promote & work on various projects. If we were to ever want to close down SEO Book we would first discuss it with employees and try to get them more aggressively involved on some of our other side projects. But things are great right now.

Sometimes I lose motivation a bit, but SEO is a pretty darn sweet gig when compared against a regular job. And our community has a broad set of members. Sometimes when I am not feeling great others step up and share some great stuff that adds a lot of value to the community even when I am not around. And having employees certainly helps to keep the machinery going if & when I have an off day. We are lucky to have great community members & I am lucky to have great employees.

6. There seems increasing interest in a secondary search engine, with real investor  in Duck Duck Go or other solutions. Given Google’s growing paid search results and the development of other engines, do you see any chance another search engine begins to erode their market share in the near future? Will we see any considerable dents in 5 years? 10? Where do you think it will come from, if at all?

Google’s biggest competitive threat is Google. Their desire to compete with everyone & hose users on the privacy front will eventually screw them.  Eventually they will hit someone who is too politically connected & that will set various wheels in motion…hard to predict it much beyond that.

Many thanks to Aaron for the great answers and more so, what he does for the SEO community. Check out more of Aaron on SEOBook, on Twitter, and on the SEOBook blog

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