I first became aware of Dustin when he dropped my name in a post (which is still a very effective way to get someone’s attention). I ended up meeting him at the first SMX Advanced networking function and we’ve been friends ever since. We’ve called upon Dustin to speak at multiple SearchFest events in Portland and his search marketing insights, offered both in person and online, mix keen intuition with real-world business awareness.
1. Please give me your background and tell us what you do for a living.
I’m a veteran in-house SEO who finally went out-house. By “out-house,” I mean I now work out of my house as a Seattle-based SEO consultant. Like many SEOs, I focus on other web topics like domaining, social media, usability and analytics. Unlike many SEOs, I also dabble in filmmaking.
2. We’ve both been in SEO for roughly a decade. How has SEO changed /evolved over the last 10 years?
In many ways it has changed tremendously, in others it hasn’t changed at all. In the early days SEO was hardly an agreed upon term and even when it gained industry-wide acceptance, most people, even web professionals, didn’t know what it was or how it worked.
SEO was considered magical and often mythical. Despite the plethora of “Dustin work your magic” requests and successes, it was often difficult to get executive buy-in on SEO. Often the power of search would fall into the shadow of the latest piece of technology or eye-candy. One time I had to put my job on the line to keep the company from switching to an all-flash website because a self-declared web visionary tried to convince our company that “no one uses search engines to find websites.”
Even after SEO became widely accepted, many “experts” have claimed that SEO is dead. With the recent social media movement a number of marketers & media personalities are preaching this once again. What I think they don’t realize is that even if search engines were to disappear (which will never happen), SEO professionals would still thrive. In truth, most SEOs are really web traffic optimizers and dominate more than just search. The most successful Digg, StumbleUpon, Twitter, and Facebook campaigns often have an “SEO” behind them.
3. Many in our industry (such as yourself) have transitioned from corporate jobs to home-based consultants. How has that transition worked for you?
The corporate atmosphere certainly comes with the benefits of stable income, social interaction, and the opportunity to be a shining star within the organization. The downside is red tape, politics, and working with people who may not get it.
Taking the plunge to self-employed, especially when you are a father of two with a large mortgage to pay, can be scary. There’s nothing steady about it and the future is always uncertain. I’ve had periods where I had little work and others, like a couple days ago, where I worked 24 straight hours. There’s a tremendous amount of flexibility working for yourself, which is both a blessing and a curse. I’m a person who likes try many things so I have to watch what I’m spending my time on closely. For example, I’m experimenting with trading some of my time for equity to help out a couple startups in the Seattle-area.
I’m getting closer to having a set number of steady clients and look forward to the time when I have to decide if I want to run an agency with other employees or if I want to stick to being a one-man show. I also make 3-6 times what I made an hour as an in-house SEO and my skills can benefit a number of companies, rather than just one.
4. How do you differentiate your services from prospective clients that might be considering you versus a full-service agency?
My first couple contracts surprised me. I was up against what I’d consider the top agencies in the industry and beat them out. I think what makes me attractive is my decade of working in-house for web companies. Audits and recommendations are one thing, but knowing how to implement and continually grow a company’s search traffic when all the basic & intermediate SEO tactics have been covered is what really sets me apart.
It may be a mistake, but I’ve decided to focus purely on SEO and social media. I’ve always been a firm believer in organic search & word-of-mouth. During my Allrecipes.com days, we never spent a penny on advertising. Paid search, affiliate marketing, and banner advertising certainly have their place, but I think that full service agencies that offer those alongside SEO may be creating an environment where there is conflict of interest.
5. User-generated content is the holy grail for generating long-term search traffic. What’s are the best ways for generating it, harnessing it for maximum utility, and policing it so that it conforms within the high standards of the brand it represents?
Strangely enough, UGC tends to get overlooked by many SEOs. I think it is partly because people have trouble fathoming how large the long-tail of search is. There are some crafty ways to attack the long-tail from a programmatic standpoint, but harnessing user-generated content is usually more powerful and more effective.
When I worked at Wetpaint, I was in charge of SEO for 1.5 million user-generated sites. Our UGC portions focused mostly on wikis, forums, news coverage, but I’ve worked with and for other companies that used reviews, Q&A, and many custom-built pages or tools that allowed site visitors to contribute to the site. You’d be surprised how many of the most trafficked sites on the web focus primarily on UGC.
Adding UGC to site that didn’t have it before can be a daunting task. Usually a key ingredient is to already have a sizable audience to work with—the more passionate the better. Building UGC components certainly comes with technologic challenges, but I think the greatest challenge is getting company-wide buy in. Once you get past that hurdle, the key is to know your audience well enough to know what would encourage them to contribute. Some people are motivated by ego, others want to promote their business, and some just want to help create authoritative information on a topic they are passionate about.
Most successful UGC launches that I’ve been a part of involved a good amount of content seeding up front as nobody knows what to do when they look at an empty slate. It’s important to inspire & interact in the beginning stages. Later on, the community can police itself. Anyone who has ever edited a Wikipedia page realizes how fast the community can police content.
From an SEO standpoint, there are many things to look out for with UGC, including duplicate content, spam prevention, overwritten or deleted content, improper categorization, plagiarism, brand attacks, and even spammy SEOs who are trying to get backlinks.
There’s actually more to UGC than I can possibly cover in this interview. I’m actually launching a UGC SEO blog next week to help shed more light on this topic.
6. How can social media be best leveraged to help a company’s search effort?
There’s no secret that social media can play a large part in a company’s search efforts. Social media is where the conversation happens and having a large social media presence can certainly draw attention, and more importantly, links to your site. I really enjoy helping companies grow their Twitter accounts to the point where they become the largest influencers for their niche.
Making the homepage for sites like Digg and Reddit is a great way to instantly attract thousands of links, but it requires the creativity and connections most companies don’t have. Even without connections, it’s not hard to make waves with smaller social sites within any industry.
Traditional linkbuilding is not usually a fun task, but creating link bait and spreading it via social media can be very fun and very productive from an SEO standpoint.
7. What are the top 3 things SEO’s should understand about Domainers and what are the top 3 things Domainers should understand about SEO’s?
Fun question. Many SEOs don’t realize how much money domainers make even if their domains aren’t indexed by Google. There’s a surprising amount of traffic directly typed into the browser and many domainers create much more sophisticated pages then the old parked pages many of us have seen in the past. In the search industry, pretty much anyone has a shot at being one of the best – it’s anybody’s game. The domain industry, however, is faced with a limited quantity of top notch domains and they are typically owned by a small number big players who often buy/sell/and trade domains amongst each other. For the domains that don’t monetize well from PPC ads, the big payday might be way down the road. It’s like owning a piece of property that sits vacant until the right company comes along willing to build upon it.
Many domainers don’t realize how much traffic search drives and how difficult it can be to rank for certain keywords. More and more domainers are starting to build out real properties, but often fail to look past one or two keywords because that is how domains work, but any SEO will tell you there’s a lot of traffic opportunity outside the top keywords and multi-word queries are much easier to win. The greatest challenge for a domainer who might be working with an SEO is to have patience. SEO results rarely happen fast, but when they do happen, they last for a very long time.