Interview with Garrett French of Ontolo

by on October 18, 2010 | posted in Link Building Interviews

Garrett French is somebody I’ve been paying special attention to as of late – and if you’re at all privy to new developments in the SEO world, you’re noticing him too. He is the Co-Founder of Ontolo, whose link building tools are rapidly making the act much easier for us scale-crazy SEOs. French has done a great job of branding himself, and his company, as link building extraordinaries – so I wanted to pry a little deeper and see what his thoughts were on some more off-the-cuff subjects, and also, hear a little more depth about the Ontolo link building toolset.

1. So, first, what brought you into SEO? The way I like to think of it might be better phrased this way – what life dream did you give up that brought you to search?

I wouldn’t say necessarily that I’ve given up any dreams – I’d say I followed them through logical progressions. 🙂 At 18 I decided to be a sci-fi/fantasy author, and I wrote obsessively for hours each day. After college, a year of drifting and a semester of architecture school I started as an editor at WebProNews. That’s where I discovered SEO. At the time I made a firm distinction between creative pursuits and business pursuits. When I went solo in 2006 I made less time for “purely creative writing” as I accepted just how much creativity my clients and their markets required. And now with Ontolo’s shift from agency work to software sales I’m finding even more outlets for my creativity. 🙂

2. There’s a lot of talk about scale, scale scale in link building, and your new link building tool helps a lot in that regard by expediting a lot of the link building processes that evaporate much of our time. But at the end of the day, scale can only progress so far, because link building, ultimately, isn’t a game of who can enter data the fastest, it’s a game of who’s the best at human interaction. Every incredibly scalable process like directories has been picked up (or at least devalued), by the search engines. I see your progression here as a nice step forward in link building for enterprise-size SEOs – but I wonder, how much more can we scale?

The opportunities for scale primarily exist on the link prospecting, qualification and outreach side of the equation. But in order for companies to achieve repeatable link building at scale they must have the right linkable assets for their target linking audience. When we work with companies who know what attracts links in their market (linkable assets like donations, products for review, experts for interview, free tool launches etc..) we can really help them cut time and resources by showing them exactly who they should be contacting (and finding contact info for them). There ARE still plug and chug opportunities out there that work so long as you know your linking audience well.

I do agree with you that being great at human interactions can be a powerful linkable (and business) asset. At Ontolo we’ve made very little headway on our target SEO terms, and frankly we’ve only occassionally asked for targeted anchor text from our linkers. And yet our business is booming based primarily on referral traffic from links we’ve earned through placing expert content on industry publications, reviews, interviews and our “unofficial partners” who we seek to support and promote and who often promote us in return. This relationship and thought leadership part is the hardest thing to instill in clients though, and it’s what has shaped my thinking in regards to the link strategist.

Again though, it’s possible to use tools to accelerate the relational side but you’re right – quality, engaged human interaction will always be a bottle neck. It’s important – at scale – to know which kinds of opportunities require engaged attention (from the PR department for example) and which require a templated email from an intern.

3. Since us rationally thinking folk realize that SEO will be around in 10 years, let’s think about more forward-thinking questions, like SEO Tools. Where do you see SEO Tools advancing in 5 years? 10?

Awesome, a sci-fi question! 😉 So as a tool builder I can see why there’s a drive towards broadly applicable tools in an attempt to appeal to as wide of a market as possible. My belief is that link building and SEO tools will become more specialized around specific tasks and doing them really well – BuzzStream for Link Management is a perfect example of this. Further, we will see industry-specific tools emerge such as Darren Shaw’s Local Citation Finder… in fact I could imagine a local citation finder specialized for lawyers or doctors or restaurants, all of which will have different linkable asset types and very different resource levels available. We’re largely in an era of “one-tool-fits-all” and that’s where tool builders still go first in a bid for success and market share. They will continue to do well, however I think that we (collectively, we marketers) are still learning what marketing means in the internet era. As we learn more, our tools will specialize and evolve.

One thing I’ll say (and I forget where I read this) is that any time you’re using a spreadsheet, that’s an opportunity for a tool.

4. Since link building is the name of the game and we wear out the word “content” like it’s a pair of shoes, how do you imagine that in 10 years? We can’t possibly be rewashing infographics in 10 years, can we? They’re a relatively recent phenomenon, one that’s already starting to wear the tread off the tires – so there must be some evidence to say that a more creative standard, like Kayak’s Explore map or this type of AJAX-type investment, will become the linkbait standard of the immediate future. Is that raising the bar too high? In 10 years will I still be reading list posts, or otherwise, expecting them to draw links? What will I be reading?

Only the LINKING audience knows the answer to that one 🙂 Each market has its own audience of info curators (aka linkers) and info seekers. I believe this dynamic (teacher/student) will continue as it has for millenia. The curator/seeker relationship is the one that you must deeply understand for the markets you’re targeting. I think the flavors of the month are less important than really understanding why, how and what kinds of information your target audience shares. All that said I do believe you will still be reading lists Ross – it’s a “content container” that communicates useful information in a highly actionable way.

5. I’d say you’re a bit of an enigma, or rather, perhaps you do an incredible job of branding yourself. You are the guy who knows how to locate link prospects. But beyond that, I don’t know or hear much more. Are you working with clients actively, or committing all of your time to the toolset? Beyond how you find link building targets, can you tell us more about your link building philosophy?

I do tend to keep a low personality profile these days… As a father and sole provider for my household I’ve become relentlessly focused on building value through links. Some lean consulting years certainly helped with that relentless focus. These days I’m still doing a bit of consulting for clients, and I probably always will. It’s in the decisions and hunch-following of campaign design and the hustle and on-the-fly problem solving of execution that I’ve always learned the most valuable lessons. That said, my role is becoming more of a trainer for our tool clients and, in particular, guiding the bright and ambitious stars from our clients’ organizations along the path of the link strategist. I absolutely love it.

6. So, the good stuff. Tell me more about your tool. How is it going to change the game? Are there any future improvements planned? Where can we go to learn more?

Yay! Now I can pitch 😉 Really what we’ve done is simplify link building for two types of companies – those with resources for highly specialized, highly scalable campaigns, and those that are still working to determine what kind of campaign is effective for them and their market. We have some other types of companies targeted for future releases, though our developers would kill me if I mentioned who 🙂

For those companies with solid, well oiled campaigns we deliver targeted link prospects – link leads if you will – that they can go out and close. For those who are newer to the link building game our toolset includes 26 different filters for analyzing link prospects. This makes it very easy to test various types of campaigns and assets (guest posting for example, or blogger outreach).

Further, we make it easy for customers to tell us what types of prospects they want in their data set – that is, our customers can adjust prospect types one day, and the next day we will have added those types of prospects to their data base. Every time I crack open a data set and start searching it I smile – it remains astounding to me the quality and quantity of prospects we’re discovering for our clients.

We also speed things up enormously by recording contact emails and contact page urls – you can sort your prospect results pages by contact emails for a quick list of emails to reach out to.

We will continue to tweak and advance our core toolset functionalities, and as we grow we will continue to meet the needs of different segments of our market.

Our demo videos are worth 10,000 words, so please check them out.

Thanks Garrett! As Garrett mentioned, I suggest you give the toolset an in-depth look and also follow their link-building blog closely for more great tips on how to rule the SERPs.

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