Jim Boykin has been a longtime friend & was one of the early SEOs who was ahead of the game back in the day. While many people have came and went, Jim remains as relevant as ever today. We interviewed him about SEO, including scaling his company, disavow & how Google has changed the landscape over the past couple years.
Aaron: How did you get into the field of SEO?
Jim: In 1999 I started We Build Pages as a one man show designing and marketing websites...I never really became much of a designer, but luckily I had much more success in the marketing side. Somehow that little one man show grew to about 100 ninjas, and includes some communities and forums I grew up on (WebmasterWorld, SEOChat, Cre8asiteForums), and I get to work with people like Kris Jones, Ann Smarty, Chris Boggs, Joe Hall, Kim Krause Berg, and so many others at Ninjas who aren't as famous but are just as valuable to me, and Ninjas has really become a family over the years. I still wonder at times how this all happened, but I feel lucky with where we're at.
Aaron: When I got started in SEO some folks considered all link building to be spam. I looked at what worked, and it appeared to be link building. Whenever I thought I came up with a new clever way to hound for links & would hunted around, most the times it seems you got there first. Who were some of the people you looked to for ideas when you first got into SEO?
Jim: Well, I remember going to my first SEO conference in 2002 and meeting people like Danny Sullivan, Jill Whalen, and Bruce Clay. I also remember Bob Massa being the first person "dinged" by google for selling links...that was back in 2002 I think...I grew up on Webmasterworld and I learned a ton from the people in there like: Tedster, Todd Friesen, Greg Boser, Brett Tabke, Shak, Bill, Rae Hoffman, Roger Montti, and so many others in there over the years...they were some of my first influencers....I also used to hang around with Morgan Carey, and Patrick Gavin a lot too. Then this guy selling an SEO Book kept showing up on all my high PR pages where I was getting my links....hehe...
Aaron: One of the phrases in search that engineers may use is "in an ideal world...". There is always some amount of gap between what is advocated & what actually works. With all the algorithmic changes that have happened in the past few years, how would you describe that "gap" between what works & what is advocated?
Jim: I feel there's really been a tipping point with the Google Penguin updates. Maybe it should be "What works best short term" and "What works best long term"....anything that is not natural may work great in the short term, but your odds of getting zinged by Google go way up. If you're doing "natural things" to get citations and links, then it may tend to take a bit longer to see results (in conjunction with all you're doing), but at least you can sleep at night doing natural things (and not worrying about Google Penalties). It's not like years ago when getting exact targeted anchor text for the phrases you want to rank on was the way to go if you wanted to compete for search rankings. Today it's much more involved to send natural signals to a clients website. To send in natural signals you must do things like work up the brand signals, trusted citations, return visitors, good user experience, community, authors, social, yada yada....SEO is becming less a "link thing"...and more a "great signals from many trusted people", as well as it's a branding game now. I really like how SEO is evolving....for years Google used to say things like "Think of the users" when talking of the algorthym, but we all laughed and said "Yea, yea, we all know that it's all about the Backlinks"....but today, I think Google has crossed a tipping point where yes, to do great SEO, you must focus on the users, and not the links....the best SEO is getting as many citations and trusted signals to your site than your competitors...and there's a lot of trusted signals which we, as internet marketers, can be working on....it's more complicated, and some SEO's won't survive this game...they'll continue to aim for short term gains on short tail keyword phrases...and they'll do things in bulk....and their network will be filtered, and possibly penalized.
Every website owner has to measure the risks, and the time involved, and the expected ROI....it's not a cheap game any more....doing real marketing involves brains and not buttons...if you can't invest in really building something "special" (ideally many special things), on your site to get signals (links/social), then you're going to find it pretty hard to get links that look natural and don't run a risk of getting penalized. The SEO game has really matured, the other option is to take a high risk of penalization.
Aaron: In terms of disavow, how deep does one has to cut there?
Jim: as deep as it needs to be to remove every unantural link. If you have 1000 backlinks and 900 are on pages that were created for "unnatural purposes (to give links)" then all 900 have to be disavowed...if you have 1000 backlinks, and only 100 are not "natural" then only 100 need to be disavowed... what percent has to be disavowed to untrip an algorthymitic filter? I'm not sure...but almost always the links which I disavow have zero value (in my opinion) anyways. Rip the band-aid off, get over it, take your marketing department and start doing real things to attract attention, and to keep it.
Aaron: In terms of recoveries, are most penalized sites "recoverable"? What does the typical recovery period look like in terms of duration & restoration?
Jim: oh...this is a bee's nest you're asking me..... are sites recoverable....yes, most....if a site has 1000 domains that link to it, and 900 of those are artificial and I disavow them, there might not be much of a recovery depending on what that 100 links left are....ie, if I disavow all link text of "green widgets" that goes to your site, and you used to rank #1 for "green widgets" prior to being hit by a Penguin update, then I wouldn't expect to "recover" on the first page for that phrase..... where you recover seems to depend on "what do you have for natural links that are left after the disavow?"....the time period....well.... we've seen some partial recoveries in as soon as 1 month, and some 3 months after the disavow...and some we're still waiting on....
To explain, Google says that when you add links to the disavow document, then way it works is that the next time Google crawls any page that links to you, they will assign a "no follow" to the link at that time.....so you have to wait until enough of the links have been recrawled, and now assigned the no follow, to untrip the filter....but one of the big problems I see is that many of the pages Google shows as linking to you, well, they're not cached in Google!....I see some really spammy pages where Google was there (they record your link), but it's like Google has tossed the page out of the index even though they show the page as linking to you...so I have to ask myself, when will Google return to those pages?...will Google ever return to those pages??? It looks like if you had a ton of backlinks that were on pages that were so bad in the eyes of Google that they don't even show those pages in their index anymore...we might be waiting a long long time for google to return to those pages to crawl them again....unless you do something to get Google to go back to those pages sooner (I won't elaborate on that one).
Aaron: I notice you launched a link disavow tool & earlier tonight you were showing me a few other cool private tools you have for working on disavow analysis, are you going to make any of those other tools live to the public?
Jim: Well, we have about 12 internal private disavow analysis tools, and only 1 public disavow tool....we are looking to have a few more public tools for analyzing links for disavow analysis in the coming weeks, and in a few months we'll release our Ultimate Disavow Tool...but for the moment, they're not ready for the public, some of those are fairly expensive to run and very database intensive...but I'm pretty sure I'm looking at more link patterns than anyone else in the world when I'm analyzing backlinks for doing disavows. When I'm tired of doing disavows maybe I'll sell access to some of these.
Aaron: Do you see Google folding in the aggregate disavow data at some point? How might they use it?
Jim: um.....I guess if 50,000 disavow documents have spammywebsite.com listed in their disavows, then Google could consider that spammywebsite.com might be a spammy website.....but then again, with people disavowing links who don't know what they're doing, I'm sure their's a ton of great sites getting listed in Disavow documents in Webmaster Tools.
Aaron: When approaching link building after recovering from a penalty, how does the approach differ from link building for a site that has never been penalized?
Jim: it doesn't really matter....unless you were getting unnatural/artificial links or things in bulk in the past, then, yes, you have to stop doing that now...that game is over if you've been hit...that game is over even if you haven't been hit....Stop doing the artificial link building stuff. Get real citations from real people (and often "by accident") and you should be ok.
Aaron: You mentioned "natural" links. Recently Google has hinted that infographics, press releases & other sorts of links should use nofollow by default. Does Google aim to take some "natural" link sources off the table after they are widely used? Or are those links they never really wanted to count anyhow (and perhaps sometimes didn't) & they are just now reflecting that.
Jim: I think ~most of these didn't count for years anyways....but it's been impossible for Google to nail every directory, or every article syndication site, or every Press Release site, or everything that people can do in bulk..and it's harder to get all occurances of widgets and mentions of infographics...so it's probably just a "Google Scare....ie, Google says, "Don't do it, No Follow them" (and I think they say that because it often works), and the less of a pattern there is, the harder for Google to catch it (ie, widgets and infographics) ...I think too much of any 1 thing (be it a "type of link") can be a bad signal....as well as things like "too many links from pages that get no traffic", or "no clicks from links to your site". In most cases, because of keyword abuse, Google doesn't want to count them...links like this may be fine (and ok to follow) in moderation...but if you have 1000 widgets links, and they all have commercial keywords as link text, then you're treading on what could certainly turn into a negative signal, and so then you might want to consider no following those.
Aaron: There is a bit of a paradox in terms of scaling effective quality SEO services for clients while doing things that are not seen as scalable (and thus future friendly & effective). Can you discuss some of the biggest challenges you faced when scaling IMN? How were you able to scale to your current size without watering things down the way that most larger SEO companies do?
Jim: Scaling and keep quality has certainly been a challenge in the past. I know that scaling content was an issue for us for a while....how can you scale quality content?....Well, we've found that by connecting real people, the real writers, the people with real social influence...and by taking these people and connecting them to the brands we work with.....so these real people then become "Brand Evangelist"...and getting these real people who know what they're talking about to then write for our clients, well, when we did that we found that we could scale the content issue. We can scale things like link building by merging with the other "mentions", and specifically targeting industries and people and working on building up associations and relations with others has helped to scale...plus we're always building tools to help us scale while keeping quality. It's always a challenge, but we've been pretty good at solving many of those issues.
I think we've been really good at scaling in house....many content marketers are now more like community managers and content managers....we've been close to 100 employees for a few years now..so it's more how can we do more with the existing people we have...and we've been able to do that by connecting real people to the clients so we can actually have better content and better marketing around that content....I'm really happy that the # of employees has been roughly the same for past few years, but we're doing more business, and the quality keeps getting better....there's not as many content marketers today as there was a few years ago, but there's many more people working on helping authors build up their authorship value and produce more "great marketing" campaigns where as a bi-product, we happen to get some links and social citations.
Aaron: One of the things I noticed with your site over the past couple years is the sales copy has promoted the fusion of branding and SEO. I looked at your old site in Archive.org over the years & have seen quite an amazing shift in terms of sales approach. Has Google squeezed out most of the smaller players for good & does effective sustainable SEO typically require working for larger trusted entities? When I first got into SEO about 80%+ of the hands in the audiences at conferences were smaller independent players. At the last conference I was at it seemed that about 80% of the hands in the audience worked for big companies (or provided services to big companies). Is this shift in the market irreversible? How would you compare/contrast approach in working with smaller & larger clients?
Jim: Today it's down to "Who really can afford to invest in their Brand?" and "Who can do real things to get real citations from the web?"....and who can think way beyond "links"...if you can't do those things, then you can't have an effective sustainable online marketing program.... we once were a "link building company" for many, many years.... but for the past 3 years we've moved into full service, offering way more than what was "link building services".... yea, SEO was about "links" for years, and it still is to a large degree....but unless you want to get penalized, you have to take the "it's way more than links" approach... in order for SEO to work (w/o fear of getting penalized) today, you have to look at sending in natural signals...so thus, you must do "natural" things...things that will get others "talking" about it, and about you....SEO has evolved a lot over the years....Google used to recommend 1 thing (create a great site and create great things), but for years we all knew that SEO was about links and anchor text....today, ...today, I think Google has caught up with (to some degree) with the user, and with "real signals"...yesterday is was "gaming" the system....today it's about doing real things...real marketing...and getting you name out to the community via creating great things that spread, and that get people to come back to your site....those SEO's and businesses who don't realize that the game has changed, will probably be doing a lot of disavowing at some time in the future, and many SEO's will be out of business if they think it's a game where you can do "fake things" to "get links" in bulk....in a few years we'll see who's still around for internet marketing companies...those who are still around will be those who do real marketing using real people and promoting to other real people...the link game itself has changes...in the past we looked a link graphs...today we look at people graphs....who is talking about you, what are they saying....it's way more than "who links to me, and how do they link to me"....Google is turning it into a "everyone gets a vote", and "everyone has a value"...and in order to rank, you'll need real people of value talking about your site...and you'll need a great user experience when they get there, and you'll need loyal people who continue to return to your site, and you'll need to continue to do great things that get mentions....
SEO is no longer a game of some linking algorithm, it's now really a game of "how can you create a great user experience and get a buzz around your pages and brand".
Aaron: With as much as SEO has changed over the years, it is easy to get tripped up at some point, particularly if one is primarily focused on the short term. One of the more impressive bits about you is that I don't think I've ever seen you unhappy. The "I'm feeling lucky" bit seems to be more than just a motto. How do you manage to maintain that worldview no matter what's changing & how things are going?
Jim: Well, I don't always feel lucky...I know in 2008 when Google hit a few of our clients because we were buying links for them I didn't feel lucky (though the day before, when they ranked #1, I felt lucky)....but I'm in this industry for the long term...I've been doing this for almost 15 years....and yes, we've had to constantly change over the year, and continue to grow, and growing isn't always easy...but it is exciting to me, and I do feel lucky for what I have...I have a job I love, I get to work with people whom I love, in an industry I love, I get to travel around the world and meet wonderful people and see cool places...and employee 100 people and win "Best Places to work" awards, and I'm able to give back to the community and to society, and to the earth...those things make me feel lucky...SEO has always been like a fun game of chess to me...I'm trying to do the best I can with any move, but I'm also trying to think a few steps ahead, and trying to think what Google is thinking on the other side of the table.....ok...yea, I do feel lucky....maybe it's the old hippy in me...I always see the glass half full, and I'm always dreaming of a better tomorrow....
If I can have lots of happy clients, and happy employees, and do things to make the world a little better along the way, then I'm happy...sometimes I'm a little stressed, but that comes with life....in the end, there's nothing I'd rather be doing than what I currently do....and I always have big dreams of tomorrow that always make the trials of today seem worth it for the goals of what I want to achieve for tomorrow.
Aaron: Thanks Jim!
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