SEO Kaleidoscope: Exploring the various facets of search engine optimization

Jan 16th

Guest Post by Hugo Guzman

Here’s the thing about SEO. Everybody thinks they’re an expert.

From the greenhorn working out of their (or their parents’) garage, to the recent college grad working in the marketing department of Fortune 500 corporation, to the seasoned and often burned-out veteran working at a name brand interactive agency, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of “search engine optimization experts” both in U.S. and the world at large.

And the reality is that very few of them really understand what SEO is all about. Sure, a lot of people know what keyword research is, or how to mine for link targets. But true optimization goes much deeper than that standard set of deliverables.

I currently work for one of those brand name interactive agencies, Zeta Interactive, and if there’s one thing I’ve come away with from my experience in this field it’s that finding and retaining good SEO help is not easy. Both from a site-side and link-building perspective, the workload is extremely heavy, often forcing SEO employees to choose between quality and timely delivery of recommendations. Furthermore, interactive agencies have a nasty habit of failing to take true ownership over the clients they manage and viewing SEO with a pair 2002 glasses, making the job of a truly scrupulous SEO purist extremely demoralizing at times. Add a high level of competitiveness among agencies and the result is a high level of turnover and relatively low number of truly qualified applicants. And did I mention the endless stream of meetings, calls, presentations, and contractual legwork?

When one of my colleagues ponders the cause of this most exasperating of working conditions, I always offer up a painfully simple response; all of the really great SEOs don’t need a day job.

What do I mean by that? Well I’ll tell you if you promise not to get offended. And before I do, please bear with me as I explain a little bit about my own SEO background.

In my former life, I was a salesman. I hated my job and was looking for a more fulfilling way to make a living. A client of mine turned me onto SEO back in 2002, explaining to me just how despite a six-figure advertising budget and a team of marketers and programmers he was simply unable to rank organically for the terms associated with his products. The client basically told me that if I could figure out how to do that for him, and others, that I could probably make a whole lot of money.

That sounded like a plan to me.

Fast-forward to 2004. After roughly two years of working for local search firms in Miami, taking on my fair share of small consulting clients, creating small personal web projects, and writing as much as I could in the various SEO discussion forums, I landed a gig in the marketing department of CBS Sportsline as an SEO coordinator (among other things). I felt like I had finally made the big time. No more foraging around for small business contracts with little monthly budget. No more collection calls to delinquent clients. I was now in charge of SEO for a Fortune 500 company. I should be on easy street from here on out, right?

Wrong.

I quickly found out that corporate bureaucracy and office politics prevented me from implementing many of the most cutting edge techniques that would have given sportsline.com the competitive advantage it needed to set itself apart in the organic space. Mind you, this lack of implementation wasn’t due to incompetence on my part, because I did so well at my position that I was quickly put in charge of cbsnews.com and various other related properties, and was retained by CBS Interactive as a consultant after resigning from my position in the summer of 2005. It was just that certain individuals within the organization were either too lazy or too shortsighted to understand the significance of SEO in terms of both traffic and brand awareness.

Ironically enough, many of Sportsline’s stiffest competitors, specifically in the uber-competitive “fantasy” sports genre, were non-corporate entities that were able outmaneuver corporate behemoths like CBS due to their SEO agility and vision.

So I got to thinking, “man, these independent site owners are working for themselves and whipping the pants off the big boys. Now that’s what SEO is all about!”

Mind you, all this time, I had been developing my own small sites and working feverishly to establish a presence in the major SEO communities such as WebmasterWorld, SEOchat, and several others. I wrote features for SEOchat, served as a consultant to various prominent entities (mostly in the paid link arena) and began to make connections with other bright SEO minds like Rand Fishkin and Aaron Wall.

Little did I know, that soon thereafter, guys like Rand and Aaron would make a permanent mark on the SEO community and establish themselves as true SEO rock stars.

I, on the other hand, chose to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity of my own, accepting a position and a majority stake at a startup by the name of Real Football 365, Inc. Based on my experience at Sportsline, I figured that it would be easier to reach the Promised Land in the sports genre than the SEO genre. Plus I happen to absolutely love football!

It was while working on www.realfootball365.com that I learned what true SEO is all about. Not so much because of my efforts or results with that site (hell, that site still has plenty of SEO shortcomings) but because I gained access to dozens of successful site owners that make a comfortable living doing something that they love. And the best part is that they’re able to dominate competitors with much deeper pockets and diverse resources because of their know-how in the organic search space.

For my own part, I learned just how important a role content plays in SEO (hint: Google is telling the truth. Content is king). I also experienced the joy of working on something that was at least partially my own and the freedom of experimenting with the most radical of SEO-related initiatives.

Most importantly, from a business perspective, I learned the value of developing professional relationships with industry peers and how catering to your base of users, whether they be customers or readers, is a crucial SEO skill. In fact, there are many skills that seem vaguely related, or completely unrelated, to the SEO discipline but are in fact the centerpieces of a truly successful SEO campaign.

Aaron often discusses some these facets on this very blog, but I feel that many enterprising optimizers soon forget the lessons being offered up, giving into the ever-present allure of keywords, meta tags, and paid link considerations. I’m not saying that traditional SEO skills aren’t important, but rest assured that the difference between the average “SEO expert” and guys like Aaron does not lie in the ability to properly construct a title tag.

So what did I mean when I said that the great SEOs don’t need a day job? It’s simple. Great SEO requires an entrepreneurial spirit and an understanding of the underlying business and marketing considerations that will help a particular company be successful. Failing to understand this, whether you’re a garage marketer, in-house optimizer, or agency SEO, will ensure your continued failure to ascend from good to great.

I think about this every day as I juggle multiple clients at my agency gig up here in NYC and continue to consult for realfootball365.com from a distance, hoping that small site eventually pays the way to my early retirement and to that ultimate personal jump from good to great. In the meantime, I’ll remember my humble beginnings and remind my coworkers to avoid the explicit ineptitude that made me laugh at agency SEO proposals back when I was an in-house evaluator.

If you’re also in the business of “selling” SEO (whether to small businesses or large corporations) or have otherwise fallen short of my definition of great SEO, don’t be offended. Just continue to pay close attention to guys like Aaron and always remember that some of the greatest SEO minds of all time don’t even hang out in SEO hubs like Sphinn.com or WebmasterWorld. They’re busy implementing new business initiatives and raking in the spoils of their non-SEO related web empires.

Published: January 16, 2008

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Comments

January 16, 2008 - 8:02pm

I truly appreciate the opportunity to guest post on your site, Aaron! And while I truly enjoy working in the interactive agency space (gradually building what should one day be the best agency in the universe here at Zeta) I have a lot of admiration for self-made guys like you that don't have to work a "day job".

January 16, 2008 - 8:50pm

Great post, thank you for your insight. It is great to see people who have been at both ends evaluate the pro's and con's of the 9 to 5 SEO (9 to midnight for me) and the SEO entrepreneur. I am also very happy to see that you can do both.

Keep the dream alive!

January 16, 2008 - 9:38pm

Masterfully written (and a wonderful companion piece to what John Andrews wrote yesterday).

January 16, 2008 - 10:03pm

The link to football 365 is broken.

January 16, 2008 - 10:09pm

fixed it. thnx

January 16, 2008 - 10:56pm

Great post Hugo. It gives me a lot of hope. :)

After studying SEO for a year, I recently jumped from doing web development to doing SEO work. The goal being to try to get to the SEO entrepreneur stage as fast as possible.

I may be too much of a perfectionist, but when you are trying to work with a bunch of clients it can get frustrating (why do people still build frame sites!? that's insane!).

I much prefer working on my own projects, where I can do it right from start to finish.

January 16, 2008 - 11:19pm

YES!!

January 16, 2008 - 11:30pm

Hugo, I enjoyed your post. I concur fully. Many of the greatest SEO minds are in the trenches daily, until they finally realize that they can also do SEO marketing for their own interests. Then they retire early, because when your income is from your hobbies you tend to be very good at it and do very well with it.

My problem is that the trenches are my hobby.

Thank you for contributing such an erudite composition.

Robert
www.mrwebguru.com

January 16, 2008 - 11:54pm

It's posts like this that separate the gazillion "SEO" blogs out there from the truly valuable ones like Aaron's.

January 17, 2008 - 12:45am

Nice post Hugo,

it's how I've thought of SEO for a while (as in seeing 'SEO' (the technical parts of it) only really as a small part of what I do/want to learn).

What do you mean by your last phrase when saying non-SEO related web empires, though? Wouldn't it be more correct to say in their web empires for which SEO only plays one (maybe a small) role? just wondering if I got your point

This makes me want to ask you a question, Aaron:

In your book and on your blog you usually seem to share the opinion that for 'white hat'/long-term SEO the technical understanding of how search engines work only plays one role, but that influencing those factors is even more important. I think that's true, because you could have Google's formula right in front of you and know how they weigh which factors, etc., but if you didn't know how to INFLUENCE those factors then it would be of little use.

Knowing that Google is big on links from authoritative&related sites is great. However, actually making that work in your favor and getting those links is something completely different.

However, I remember a post where you said that only a few people had technical understanding of search that even comes close to the level of guys such as Greg Bowser (hope Im not confusing something and misquoting you!)..and that those people often have learned to use that skill to boast a business, etc.

But are there really any (whitehat) SEOs who are tremendously successful at SEO, because of their technical understanding of search? Did I misunderstand something in that post Im talking about?

January 17, 2008 - 3:41am

Different people do well for different reasons. It is hard to create a universal set of relevancy standards, and anything with great reach has people picking it apart from many different angles.

January 17, 2008 - 12:54am

The first two links in the article aren't working for me.

January 17, 2008 - 3:39am

I think they are fixed now.

January 17, 2008 - 2:38am

Hey Patrick! Thanks for the compliment and thank you all for reading my work. I'm glad you've all enjoyed it.

As for the "non-SEO related empires" comment, it refers to extremely talented SEO's that do not participate in the SEO online community. In other words, guys like Aaron and Rand Fishkin are well known in the community and have proven their SEO (and marketing) prowess, but there are others like them, that do not hang in those circles and have chosen to make money in other niche genres (sports, entertainment, etc...).

I hope that makes sense.

Hugo

January 17, 2008 - 1:52pm

Great post Hugo.

Lots of good sense, expressed clearly.

It took quite a while for me to understand the value of being alert to new and fresh marketing techniques form just being a metatag, links and keyword type of guy.

I've picked up more from blogs like Aaron's in the last few months than years of lurking around some of the mainstream forums.

The generosity that Aaron shows is a good example for seo blogs already running and yet to arise.

Being generous with information needn't cost us much; O.K. there may be times when we have to avoid some specifics i.e. allow others to read between the lines or join the dots to protect our own incomes, but it is unlikely that this will affect us much if we are already in the process of moving on the the next set of marketing ideas.

All the best for business in the year ahead.

January 17, 2008 - 2:53pm

Hugo, this post is excellent. And actually I feel identified with your story. Recently, I worked with a company as an SEO optimizer and it was a difficult experience, not due to the SEO processes but due to the "corporate bureaucracy and office politics" focused on quick results instead of building huge businesses over time. I am an independent consultant now and I have to say I can see an excellent future for my own business by applying all things that I have learned from powerful minds like Aaron's mind.

January 17, 2008 - 3:34pm

Nice job Hugo!
I couldn't have said it better myself!

"from a business perspective, I learned the value of developing professional relationships with industry peers and how catering to your base of users, whether they be customers or readers, is a crucial SEO skill. In fact, there are many skills that seem vaguely related, or completely unrelated, to the SEO discipline but are in fact the centerpieces of a truly successful SEO campaign."

And yes Sales is no fun at all -

January 17, 2008 - 4:47pm

GREAT POST! I love this post especially because your experience is not very different from mine. I can definitely relate.

There are just a handful of posts that I remember from last year that hit me on multiple levels... and this post is going to be one of those handful of posts for this year.

January 17, 2008 - 7:49pm

Awesome post, Hugo. It's always great to learn about the varied paths that have brought people to the SEO space. I especially can appreciate this post as someone who is, at least relatively speaking, still a young padawan with much to learn. Then, I guess part of what attracted me to SEO in the first place was the perpetual learning.

As someone who's grown disillusioned with the "agency gig" as a path to fulfillment, it's also good to know there are agencies out there who have it right and whose employees are confident in the service they provide.

I hope things at Zeta continue to go as good as it sounds like they are!

-Mike Tekula

January 17, 2008 - 8:11pm

There is really no wonder. Each and every day many Americans (mostly) but Europeans also try their luck online.The internet is the new gold rush, the promised land, mecca, whatever you want to call it. The gurus' stupidly aggressive claims don't help either. They promise loads of money overnight but when was that possible? This is how many of the so called SEO experts get born overnight.
Many think that if they find out what the title tag is, they are SEO experts. Someone who truly works hard to do SEO and get traffic to his site will not brag because he knows what hard work it is.
SEO is ultimately a combination of Marketing, Algorithms (so Mathematics), html, content writing (!!!), even programming.

January 18, 2008 - 12:29am

Great post Hugo.

Aaron, the Amazon link (anchor text "good to great") seems to have caught a quotation mark and doesn't work.

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