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?
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.
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