Today I am interviewing Aaron Wall, founder and author of SEObook.com. The site started in 2003 as an ebook teaching people SEO methods, it has now grown into one of the most respected SEO learning websites on the web, SEOBook is now a subscription based SEO learning website however there are plenty of great resources including Free SEO Tools, their blog and lot’s more. It has a community of leading SEO analytics and practitioners to network with, if you want to join you can find out more here.
Read on to find out about how the world renowned guru got started, it’s a great read, and if your going to learn from anyone Aaron Wall is the guy to learn from:
Oliver: Where does your interest for SEO come from? What made you take the step to starting your own business?
Aaron: I was attracted to the idea that anyone could spread just about anything so long as they really believed in it & that search helped level the playing field. For a period of time it allowed individuals and small companies to complete with monopolies. As the biggest search engine has become a monopoly, they decided that it made sense to assume that “size = quality” in many ways, & so that initial interest in SEO has faded a bit.
The reason I started my own business was a combination of 2 things:
– Being in the military was easily the worst experience of my life … by orders of magnitude
– The job I had after the military further informed my opinion
– I respected the people & enjoyed the job, but…
– I presumed much of that job was going to get replaced over time by technology (it was an inventory management company & RFID has been coming along)
– Sometimes I would be tired driving to or from work & was burning myself out with the rotating hours of the job and trying to learn web stuff while also trying to do my best at work
– I figured if I was going to work that hard it probably made sense for me to work for myself. & given a lack of savings + the global reach of the web, the web was an obvious choice as a low-cost entry point into the market.
Oliver: I read that you’d been in the military and done some college, what have you learnt since starting SEOBook, has it been worth leaving the military so far?
Aaron: I should clarify that I have went to college as a guest speaker & a school has their students gain access to our website, but I have not gone to college as a student. In terms of being in the military, after seeing how fraudulent the Iraq war was (even an insider like Alan Greenspan stated it was for oil http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/sep/16/iraq.iraqtimeline ) to some degree I am sad to know that I ever served in the military.
When my grandfather was in the military there was a legitimate purpose to it, but now I sort of see military as an extension of large corporate interests (rather than the interests of the people). The Iraq war was sold with lies about “weapons of mass destruction.” Those who pushed those lies were never punished for their war crimes in a war that…
- Was started under false pretense
- Lasted a decade
- Killed over 100,000 people http://www.iraqbodycount.org/
- Cost trillions of Dollars (see this article) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/03/AR2010090302200.html And then the fourth estate laughed about not calling out the lies. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKX6luiMINQ You too can be a murderous thug! Sad stuff.
The single biggest thing I have probably learned since leaving the military is how fraudulent most forms of authority are.
This has only been reinforced by things like the financial crisis, where those in positions of power say that the poor schleps need to “honor their debts” while the politically connected criminals get bailouts that were against the will of the people by at least 100:1. But I have also learned loads about marketing & markets as well. I have wrote thousands of blog posts & such sharing those sorts of tips and bits of advice.
Oliver: It seems that it’s always been easy for you, it is hard to imagine without having been there at the start now with so much positive recognition surrounding you and your website. Did you come across any challenges with SEOBook?
Aaron: There are always a lot of challenges:
– When you are new you have to gain awareness and knowledge at the same time. and when people who are more established than you see you coming up in the rear view mirror some of them will aggressively try to discredit you.
– If you are new & give away a lot to try to gain attention, then over time you will create more demand than supply at the price of free. That in turn will cause many people to hate you when you begin to charge more for some of the things you do (as their internal lack of value is reflected outward and they express their rage toward your desire to actually value your life).
– As Google displaces the organic search results with some of their scrape-n-mash garbage there is almost a feeling of existential emptiness to SEO. Even if your niche doesn’t get hit, you know it might any day.
– The algorithms are getting much more convoluted. A lot of building a profitable business comes from creating processes and scaling them. However the more complex the algorithms get (and sort of the more trip wires there are built into the algorithm) the harder it is to view SEO as being an isolated channel. Thus one needs to work other aspects into their strategy like public relations and branding. Some of the best ideas in public relations or branding come from deep knowledge of a niche (and/or are time sensitive), thus in some ways they are not things that are easily scaled.
Oliver: What do you do to keep on-top of SEO?
Aaron: Our community wasn’t built to be the biggest, but rather built around having the smartest members. Thus our community itself is a spot to teach, share AND learn. Outside of our community & data from our own sites, I also read the daily search engine land newletter.
I subscribe to a number of SEO blogs like Johnon.com ( http://www.johnon.com/ ) though a lot of the folks who know the most don’t blog that regularly. I keep track of trends on TechMeme & there are a number of friends who I chat with over instant messagers as well.
Oliver: Tell me why a young person should learn SEO if they are interested in web-business/development.
Aaron: If you look at online advertising, search currently represents about half of the revenue. And yet measured in time, search is something like only a few percent of user’s usage of the web. Google’s ability to extract that much revenue out of such a sliver of usage highlights how potent and valuable search traffic is.
Or, to use an analogy, search is the online equivalent of the interstate highway system. If you build great search rankings for a number of relevant keywords it is like building a big highway right in front of your business & having many other highways come right by.
Oliver: How did you get people interested in SEOBook initially?
Aaron: In 2003 I could see that blogs were getting a disproportionate share of inbound links (relative to the effort that went into the content & the quality of the content). Thus I figured it made sense to create a blog. This key insight which is entirely obvious in hindsight a decade later was much less so a decade ago.
There was also a common belief in the SEO industry that SEO books were always outdated. That I kept writing about searched kept reinforcing the idea that our ebook was more up-to-date than the printed books.
We also did lots of interviews of others, gave away a bunch of free tools, and I was sued by a company full of criminals & that lawsuit got a lot of exposure. I hated those criminal dirtbags so much that we did a donation drive to fund the legal fees & then I even paid for the lawyer of another person they sued. I think we raised about $5,000 and I spent something north of $40,000 on the lawsuit. Those legal fees nearly wiped me out back then, but I wasn’t willing to let those dirtbag criminals win. That is part of the beauty of our system of justice.
– If you have money you have a voice (even if you are a criminal organization like the biggest banks and the biggest pharma companies) and if you do not have money your alleged “rights” often fold like origami.
Oliver: Can SEO be done for free – enough to beat established brands?
Aaron: A person can be scarce on money or they can be scarce on time, but rarely are they scarce on both. (If you don’t have much money, then that means you can’t be pricing your time at hundreds or thousands of Dollars per hour.)
If you have no budget you might not be able to rank for “credit cards” or other similar ultra-competitive keywords, but certainly one can still compete on some longtail keywords.
Generally though Google is displacing the organic results with their vertical offerings & biasing the remaining results toward promoting big brands. One way to get around the issue (without needing to build a big brand) is to also build content that rides on some of the large branded platforms that are benefiting from Google’s “no brand left behind” policy.
Oliver: You’ve mentioned before that small business’s can take on bigger players in the search rankings with SEOBook, how is this possible?
Aaron: Well…I also mentioned above the bit about a sense of existential emptiness too.
Yes it is still possible to compete & win on limited resources, but the barrier to entry keeps lifting & one often needs a lot of drive to succeed.
Oliver: Is it beneficial in SEO to have social media marketing knowledge?
Aaron: Absolutely. Any additional traffic channel you have access to is both a form of diversification AND can help create additional incremental signals for search engines to pick up on. However, one should view social media as a signal amplification tool.
– If a person spends most their time on social media sites they are doing so at the expense of neglecting their own site. If their own site does not have great content then social media doesn’t have anything to amplify…it is sort of like multiplying a number by zero.
– But if you create great content & then use social media to help further push/promote it in order to help make it go more viral then it can back out.
For most people (outside of perhaps BlendTec) social media is more of a top of the funnel awareness tool rather than a direct response demand fulfillment tool like search. That makes ROI harder to measure, which in turn leads back to the point about using it as an amplification tool for viral content you create on your site, rather than a tool in isolation.
Oliver: If you have a low budget and are just starting out is SEO the best bet for traffic?
Aaron: I think it is very easy to over-generalize search as a cure for all. There are some markets where search is a great fit, but there are some areas where it is not.
Eric recently made a post about how important it is to look at the SERPs to determine the layout of the competition on a keyword-by-keyword basis ( http://www.seobook.com/importance-determining-serp-competition ).
Beyond that sort of advice, I would also make the suggestion about being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a small fish in a big pond. By that I mean that a lot of folks are likely to go to the biggest sites & networks and whatnot and try to get exposure on them. But they might already be too saturated & the barrier to entry might be too high. Like when I started out in SEO I could have spent a lot of time on some of the biggest SEO forums, but instead I primarily focused on smaller ones like SearchGuild.
Whatever industry you are in, it is probably worth it to spend more time on relevant niche sites that are smaller(ish) than it is to spend loads of time on Facebook and Twitter. Also on some niches there are vertical marketplaces that are a great fit.
Want to sell Lego items? Set up shop on Bricklink. Want to sell handmade crafts? Set up shop on Etsy.
Oliver: Should people with small time/money be worried about penguin and panda?
Aaron: They should at least have a baseline understanding of some of the concepts associated with them so that their strategy does not align with a profile that is likely to get hit.
Oliver: Has SEOBook made you a millionaire ?
Aaron: I was born in 1979. A million Dollars in today’s money would be $315,906.27 back then. And that is if you trust the official inflation numbers (less so if you don’t). So even if a person had a million Dollars, that wouldn’t be a lot of money (especially not in California, where houses can cost significantly more than that).
But I don’t really dwell on money so much, unless we are almost at nada. I can say that if you go back 5 years ago I was almost at $0 at one point (in one year I moved across the country to California where living costs are higher, bought a new car, bought new furniture, got engaged, got married, and changed business models … all the while investing in growth AND working a bit less since my wife and I played a lot of games that year & the run up to our wedding had all sorts of family activities and such).
Since then I have swayed over toward working too much & being cheap, but it was perhaps at the expense of personal health & I need to lose weight. Everything in life is a trade off of some sort.
When I screwed up my knee earlier this year & was unable to straighten my leg until seeing a doctor the old “health is wealth” maxim beat me upside the head (and leg).
I have been through periods of time when I had little money, where I had no money & loads of debt, where I had plenty of cash & no debt, and so on. About the biggest thing I can say on that front is money really matters a lot when you don’t have any (as it creates a lot of incremental stress). But if you have some savings there isn’t a big change in life quality beyond that baseline level of comfort & lacking financial stress.
A lot of people as they make more they spend to keep right up with it, never developing a cushion. The reason I was able to afford moving cross country and doing a boatload of things in a year was because prior to that I had no debt & lived way below my means. I even lived in a trailer park in spite of making above average wages. We have a small cushion built up, but it isn’t something to dwell on, especially as there is a good chance currency will get revalued/devalued against gold at some point in the next decade or so (based on some of the interesting analysis Eric Jaszen shares on iTulip.com).
Oliver: A website that is slightly better then most other sites in terms of SEO and ranking is a website that does what?
Aaron: I think one needs to be careful playing in search with the mentality of “slightly better” being good enough. What happens when one tries to be slightly better is that they keep doing better and better until one day a Panda or Penguin update happens and then they discover that slightly better wasn’t good enough.
Oliver: Why should I invest in SEOBook? Or what free tools can I get from SEO book?
Aaron: We off a number of free tools here ( http://tools.seobook.com/ ) and an autoresponder here ( http://www.seobook.com/free-account/ ). In terms of joining our site as a paid member, if you find value in what we offer in some of those free things & our blog ( http://www.seobook.com/blog ), then you would likely like our paid membership site too.
Oliver: Any tips for anyone interested in learning SEO?
Aaron: Make sure you have analytics installed from day one, so you are tracking your progress.
– If you think SEO should be cheap or free, throw some money at AdWords & learn the value of search traffic by paying through the nose for it. 😉
– Also, if you are unsure what converts & where you should focus, AdWords can be a great spot to start to buy market data. Even if it doesn’t directly pay for itself it can still be worth a lot of money to invest a bit in paid search to have that inform your organic SEO strategy.
Thanks so much Aaron for your time, it has been great talking to you!
Cheers A (Aaron is so massive he is now known as A, seriously.)
SEOBook is very easy to understand for beginners and valuable to those who already have knowledge of SEO, it is definitely worth checking out. http://www.seobook.com.