The SEO Learning Life-cycle

Aug 4th

I think the idea of breaking SEO down to the white hat and black hat camps really misses where the real divisions are. I believe that the biggest differences between SEOs are in their levels of experience, their honesty, their creativity, and how aggressive we are.

After search engines stop ranking brands that you worked hard to build it is easy to lose a bit of respect for them, especially if they promote what they would otherwise call spam if it wasn't in their network, and they rank a few of your sites that are so bad that you are a bit embarrassed to admit you own them. With that, I present the the SEO Learning Life-cycle, and things we might say as we progress along it :)

The Newbie SEO

Here is a person new to the market.

  • follow search engine guidelines

  • you don't want to get banned for spamming
  • spammers get banned forever, and will never rank!!!
  • I have been creating 10 high quality articles a day
  • the best site ranks at the top
  • everything is overpriced, you can learn everything you need from forums
  • the search engine representative said ____ so it must be true
  • I make $3 to $30 a day off AdSense!

A Search Optimizer With a Few Rankings

The excitement of a few top rankings is just setting in! Google has yet to burn down any of your websites.

  • list your site in directories and submit articles and trade links

  • make sure you submit to my high PageRank directory!!!! submissions are now 50% off
  • you can learn most everything you need from forums
  • AdSense is a great business model...I love AdSense
  • keep creating content and building links it is only a matter of time until it ranks
  • BTW...here is another high PageRank directory you can submit to

A Person With Many Top Search Engine Rankings

At this level you can afford to go to many conferences. After attending a few of them, you no longer care about rankings, you want results. You start patterning your actions after those who are making money, not those who are giving the same speech they gave 6 years ago, and not those who are popular but can't figure how to make money from their popularity.

  • wow most of these rankings amount to nothing

  • search is not as good as people claim it to be
  • I better start tracking results a bit better
  • wow these few pages make a lot...maybe i should make a few more pages targeting these terms, and rewrite these other pages to make them more conversion oriented

The Arrogant (Semi)Professional SEO

Here you start getting full of yourself a bit prematurely, but are profitable enough to get away with it, and ignorant enough that you don't know any better. Google has not burned down any of your sites yet, and if they did you figure those sites deserved what they got because they are low quality.

The sites you care about are of high quality though, and they will grow almost every month until one of them gets toasted.

  • I am a professional SEO. I know this stuff. These are the rules

  • We are better than everyone. We have the best content
  • We don't buy links because we are white hat SEOs
  • People link to us because we have the best content, as do our clients
  • We don't make much from our rankings, but that is because we chose not to, because we are ethical

The Seasoned Pragmatic SEO

At this stage you are making more in a month than most people make in a year, spend most of your time working on your own sites, rarely do client work, are rather selective with the client work you are willing to take on. If you do much client work you created a business model that sells a product or a bulk low value services.

Google has helped you build at least one 6 figure a year income stream, and has also probably burned down at least one of them. Even if you think it was unfair, unjust, or unreasonable they taught you the value of paranoia, anonymity, and make you become much more aggressive and much more quiet about the projects you are working on.

You likely have partners, and the questions you ask at this level are no longer black and white, but are colored in shades of gray, and often framed from the perspective of how others will react to what you are doing.

Quality content once again becomes a myth, after you see some of your best information go nowhere, and some of your worst referenced all over the web. The realization that creating garbage that strokes someone's ego is more important than the quality of your content smacks you in the face. You become results oriented. Your marketing is better targeted than ad agencies or public relations firms could dream of creating. Some of your marketing is so effective that your sites get penalized because you got too many links too quick.

  • It doesn't look like spam if everyone is talking about me.

  • If something didn't work before, it probably isn't going to work again, but here is a quick test site I don't mind losing. If it does work how do I scale this idea commercially?
  • What can I bolt onto this thin affiliate site to get it links? Here is our first feature article: 43 ways to get and use a credit card without actually having it registered to your real name
  • How do I add enough value (without harming the conversion rate) to get this to pass a hand check?
  • Some of those links from _____ pack more of a punch than you would think, but if everyone has too much information to act on any of it I am best off if I don't say anything. :)
  • Does this bought link look like a bought link?
  • Wow I can't believe how many links yahoo are buying, is my brand strong enough to get away with that?
  • If my brand is not strong enough to buy links, then I will buy a few high ranking websites, just like all the big players are doing.
  • Wow I can't believe my friend just cloned my site. And so did Google! Attacked from every angle!
  • Why is that spammy site ranking? How can I leverage that exploit on someone else's authoritative domain, or if I use it on my own site, how can I do it without looking as spammiy as that did?
Published: August 4, 2007

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Comments

rob armstrong
August 5, 2007 - 7:51pm

This post demonstrates the value of resources such as SEO Book for those in the newbie phase as I am. Having bought and read it, I feel I will be able to skip over some of the "beginner's traps" make fewer mistakes, and be more profitable sooner.
Having been firmly seated in the #7 spot for my phrase for months, I took #1 within 6 days of reading you.
-Guess that blows my chance of a refund huh?:)

atul
August 12, 2007 - 1:12am

i jst wanted to create a IT firm realated to SEO (search engeine optimization)..i have the man power & technical strength...but not the link ..that from where i can get the buisness..
i mean the client for my buisness....can any body sort me out from this problem..
it will be really so nice of u..please if possible reply to on my email address...it is catfitt21@gmail.com

regards,
Atul

August 12, 2007 - 3:22am

Hi Atul
If you can provide a high value service you likely do not need clients.

Eric Itzkowitz
August 6, 2007 - 9:21am

I've realized that the mindset, skills, and general abilities of a successful SEO and entrepreneur are very similar in many ways.

Such a person is typically:

>> Strong willed
>> Creative (no not like being able to stay within the lines when coloring)
>> Inclined to take the road less traveled
>> Able to endure sacrifice (time, money, relationships)
>> Able to shun the naysayers
>> Able to take an idea and make it reality
>> Inclined to make a better wheel as opposed to re-inventing it
>> Forward thinking
>> Sees failure as an opportunity to become better

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Nice article Aaron!

- Eric

August 6, 2007 - 9:33am

If you replace 'The Arrogant (Semi)Professional SEO' with

The Arrogant (in-house)Professional SEO

you'd get the top tier of in-house SEO.

We think we know our shit.

We rank for thousands if not millions of awesome competitive SERPs across many industries, mostly through our super authoritative network but we're really not monetizing them as effectively as we'd like - for both the company and ourselves.

Our stop-gap measure for industries where we have little-to-no-market-share is to acquire the leading dot.com (that our competing network has not yet acquired) and to add them to our run-of-network links.

August 6, 2007 - 8:20pm

Great post Aaron. I like the 2nd and last one. Like someone else mentioned, I like working with clients. I think we all strive to add our 2 cents to the world and working with clients is my way of giving to it. I like helping a client rank and convert and build their business 100% from last quarter or year. It feels great.

August 7, 2007 - 10:34pm

Providing SEO consulting services is also a good reality check every once in a while and keeps you on your toes. Oh and getting paid $500 per hour usually does not hurt either :).

Seriously though, most clients, prospective and current, really do not 'get' the value of SEO services and firmly believe that at those rates I am the only one making money, hand over fist. However, if any of them saw what my other clients are making they'd also think I am idiot for even consulting with them in the first place (at any price) rather than running a profitable web site on my own. I do both.

PS: turning a service into a product is very smart business plan indeed, almost every intelligently run organization has done it at one point in time.

August 14, 2007 - 9:50pm

I am surprised you did not do a category on married versus single SEOs...

Or SEOs just in it for the parties

Ernesto
August 9, 2007 - 1:16am

I'm in the "Search Optimizer With a Few Rankings" fase.

I hope I can bypass the intermediate steps and get directly to the "Seasoned Pragmatic SEO" one!

August 9, 2007 - 3:36pm

I'm with Bob G. on this one. I don't mind building up my client's sites as my clients pay well, respect my work, and I don't have to bother with anything beyond the one site I currently manage.

I'm not sure where I am on the list, hopefully I'm not too ignorant and not too arrogant.

umair
August 4, 2007 - 8:46am

and you are which one?

August 4, 2007 - 8:48am

Google is currently beating my arrogence out of me, but I am probably not fully in that last group yet.

August 4, 2007 - 9:01am

Great post, I like that one. I like the people that show there rankings but there not competitive rankings at all. Or I should say you do a few directory submissions and get ranked for the easiest keywords and then they call there e self the best. If you ask me someone thats doing pretty good is drawing in 2k plus uniques from search engines, and from social media traffic considerably way more.

2k a day from search engine traffic is not bad, but then again depends on your niche.

August 4, 2007 - 9:04am

I may be alone in this, but I like working on client sites. I don't really have any interest in building sites for myself just for the financial benefit.

I don't know where that sticks me on the scale, though. You don't have a category for naive wage slave.

Tony
August 4, 2007 - 11:52am

Yep I think I have falling into the last category why build a million dollar site for a 4 figure salary when I can build the million dollar site for myself.

Michael Duz
August 4, 2007 - 12:15pm

Perceptive and sound analysis Aaron.

I was thinking along similar (but sightly less serious) lines when I wrote The Ten Levels of SEO

- Michael

Hamlet Batista
August 4, 2007 - 2:14pm

Aaron - Great insights. My learning cycle has been a little bit different, and I'd like to add a
couple of items.

A Person With Many Top Search Engine Rankings

I understand what you say here, but if you learned PPC before SEO, like I did,
you always worry about results. I've never been to a SEM conference (I plan to), but
I always aim for at least 80% ROI from my PPC efforts.

The reason why I love SEO, is that when I get the same high converting PPC sites to rank organically my ROI goes through the roof to 800%.

The Arrogant (Semi)Professional SEO

The best way to make money online, IMHO, is to target money rich markets. Unfortunately, most of the time the competition is fierce. In 2005 got my most profitable sites burned down. First by Google, then by Yahoo and last by MSN. At that time I thought about going back to PPC, but Google stopped accepting Ads for that industry. I had to change my strategy.

I built an affiliate network and let other affiliates do the marketing for me. Affiliates now account for more than 90% of my income. I was able to do that because I had access to better margins (thanks to volume) than most of them and I was able to compete and be profitable.

I still do SEO, but I complement it with several other marketing strategies. Live by Google and die by Google thought me a lot :-)

The Seasoned Pragmatic SEO

I agree with the fact that you need a business model that sells a product. If it is not a commodity even better.

Google has helped you build at least one 6 figure a year income stream, and has also probably burned down at least one of them

I'd say 6 figure a month with a least 30% net. You normally would need at least a small team of people to help you.

the value of paranoia, anonymity, and make you become much more aggressive and much more quiet about the projects you are working on.

Being quiet, would depend on the type of project. There are projects that other can copy easily and you want to remain quiet, but there are others that took you years to build that you want everybody to know about.

I would add another step in the learning cycle: The SEO investor

At this stage you have made so much money ( at least a few million dollars) from your own sites/businesses that you take a step back a let others handle the show. You seat on board meetings and discuss future products/directions. If you are hands on, you also get involved in the operational and product development meetings.

You spend the rest of the time traveling, playing golf or doing whatever you enjoy.

Solomon Rothman...
August 4, 2007 - 4:09pm

"The Seasoned Pragmatic SEO" - Running multiple website companies that make 6 figures per year each is not SEO. That's an abuse of the word. It may involve SEO, but the core tasks that make that successful go much further than even generic definitions of the word. Six steps in becoming a self-funded entrepreneur may be a more accurate title. I know that SEO is a problematic term in general and is used in both a narrow and broad sense, but come on - that's way to broad to have any meaning.

You may have taken what you learned about SEO a step further and made yourself very wealthy, but the fact that you are creating website companies, with unique marketing plans, employees and varied revenue models lies outside the scope of SEO and is in the regular business / marketing arena.

Although you have a lot of knowledge / skills, that's not the only reason you've made all that money online or I'd say even the main reason. You've said yourself many times that when you were building your online presence you worked 12 hours plus per day, neglected a social life (no girlfriend until recently), and neglected your body. You are a work-a-holic who sacrificed many things to get where you are. Most people would not to trade or make those sacrifices for success.

Even now you're cranking out articles daily for this blog, and running all those other sites you own, and probably planning something large for the future all at the same time.

It's not the "SEO" mastery that got you to millions, it's the entrepreneur spirit or less poetically stated - your obsessive work-a-holic drive in combination with a high IQ.

I have a lot of respect for what you've accomplished, but don't attribute it to SEO knowledge. If you put that work ethic, aptitude for learning and drive into other business models you'd probably have similar levels of success.

I'm actually surprised you don't go really big. With your online influence, money and access to the market, you could launch something on par with the "digg" story. I think you have the drive, skills and market savvy to potentially launch the next 200 million dollar+ web property. You wouldn't even have to make any initial profit off the site, just launch it, build the brand and cut away enough market share to sell out for many millions.

Look at all the web 2.0 companies that pay huge executive salaries and are funded off venture capitol that still sell out. You could fund your own site, keep the expenses tight and push the hell out of it. If you owned all of it, it'd so easy to find a buyer or go public if you could manage to get even a small peace of the market.

To further digress on my point. You could look at some of your colleagues that don't make anywhere near the money you do (like seomoz). I think they're very good at the general definition of SEO (link building, traffic, community building) and would be in the seasoned SEO category, but because they don't have the business savvy you do (and time management, drive etc) they make a ton less money and I couldn't see them launching anything huge themselves, even though their SEO knowledge may be top notch.

August 4, 2007 - 6:31pm

Or, you realize that a domainer can make more money in one transaction than a top notch SEO can make in many years a work, so you realize you gotta learn what that's all about.

See ya in Seattle, Aaron :.)

Lester
August 4, 2007 - 7:58pm

Aaron, the way you presented the SEO life cycle is really interesting. I guessed I am still at the newbie stage moving on to the "A Search Optimizer With a Few Rankings". Modelling against other people who are making money seems like a good take for me and a way to hone my SEO skills. Thanks for sharing!

August 4, 2007 - 9:54pm

I may be alone in this, but I like working on client sites. I don't really have any interest in building sites for myself just for the financial benefit.

I think what ends up happening with some clients is that they only listen to some of your advice and end up paying you about 1% of the value you create. Even low-balling some people on price, you find that some want performance based payment plans for a month of work that will pay you less than you make in a week anyway. If you mention anything about equity in their company (perhaps a real performance based pay) they run screaming for the hills. That is not equitable, so they can keep the crumbs they offered.

As search marketing keeps getting more competitive it only makes sense to move oneself up along the value chain. Having some of your own sites is a way of verifying your own advice too.

It feels satisfying knowing you have no need for clients, and I believe that lack of need is what attracts the best potential clients anyhow.

The SEO Investor... I built an affiliate network and let other affiliates do the marketing for me. Affiliates now account for more than 90% of my income. I was able to do that because I had access to better margins (thanks to volume) than most of them and I was able to compete and be profitable.

I know numerous people who should be deemed as SEO investors. Good call on that name, and sweet move on the leveraged position.

I'm actually surprised you don't go really big. With your online influence, money and access to the market, you could launch something on par with the "digg" story. I think you have the drive, skills and market savvy to potentially launch the next 200 million dollar+ web property.

Flattering comment! I think you think more of my business savvy than I do. Of course I plan on trying something like this eventually, but only time will tell if it succeeds. :)

Or, you realize that a domainer can make more money in one transaction than a top notch SEO can make in many years a work, so you realize you gotta learn what that's all about.

Too true!

August 4, 2007 - 11:24pm

The most condensed wisdom concealing a kick in the ass (for SEO's who need it) I've ever seen. Nice work!

Spending too much time on Digg .. I immediately wanted to digg this article and mark it a personal #1 ...

August 5, 2007 - 1:35am

I may be alone in this, but I like working on client sites. I don't really have any interest in building sites for myself just for the financial benefit.

I don't know where that sticks me on the scale, though. You don't have a category for naive wage slave.

You got to have brand if you want good clients, I mean how will people find out about you, but then again every ones got there own techniques.

Branding plays a vital part in marketing plus it allows you to charge the prices you want and draw loyal clientele in, so have a nice website with good rankings and good traffic will show you know what your talking about and what your worth.

Let me ask you this why does tommy hilfiger, polo, chaps, and all the brand name cloths sell for such a high price and only people that wear them generally have money, and cloths like Hollister and etc its because of brand and quality.

August 5, 2007 - 1:38am

Bob Gladstein : sorry don't mean to be confusing, but the last message I was talking to you. :).

August 5, 2007 - 6:23am

Wow, very funny, very insightful. You have completely neglected the "fart joke" level where I currently reside.

Micheal: nice post

Hamlet: great comment

Solomon: hey dude, long time no hear :)

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