Aaron Wall talks about his career in SEO.  You can find Aaron on his website at www.seobook.com and at his renowned online training program http://training.seobook.com/.   You can also find him on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.   

What do you do for a living?

Read, write, learn. 🙂

We have a blog about SEO, run an SEO community & publish a number of sites that are largely SEO driven.

How would you describe what you do? 

I am known as an SEO, but I try to know a good amount about most areas it touches. I think much value creation comes from understanding numerous disciplines & tying them together.

For example, if you have a site in a particular niche you are more likely to be able to create featured content that people like if you understand what people care about in that market. And if you know a decent amount about web analytics then you can make the value of your rankings increase & you can use the analytics data to further drive your SEO strategy.

What does your work entail?

 At any given point in time I might  play…

  • blogger
  • community manager
  • algorithm analyzer
  • web analytics studier
  • keyword researcher
  • business strategist
  • manager
  • ad buyer
  • biz dev negotiator
  • domain buyer
  • domain seller
  • 0site buyer
  • site seller
  • business manager
  • link builder
  • brand builder
  • quick n dirty web designer
  • webmaster
  • makeshift programmer (though thankfully we have a programmer FAR more talented than I)
  • public relations hack
  • and on and on

Individually some of these pieces (update WordPress, do keyword research, map out keywords against URLs, etc.) might be repetitive. Though combining them adds some level of variety.

In any of the above we also get help from our community, our network of contacts, and a couple great employees. We also have a few partners on some projects.

What’s a typical work week like?

I am a pretty boring person & sit far too long in front of computers. So I don’t have to “go to work” anywhere, but it is also very hard for me to leave it. When crap breaks I am often “the guy” that has to fix it, or work with our employees to help get it fixed. In some cases when things go astray this means working 35 or 40 hour WEEKENDS.

We have always been somewhat under-staffed, so crap sandwiches come up quite often, which force each week to be somewhat unique.

Some examples of various treats include…

  • some person from Vietnam stealing dozens of credit cards & trying to push through like 40 bogus orders to try to get affiliate commissions on them
  • algorithmic updates that torch websites, or ones that don’t hit your sites but you still have to research them to better understand how they impact other members and what Google was trying to do,  what the signals might be, and where they might be headed
  • WordPress hackers loading your site up with spam & having to clean it (with some of the shadier hackers coding in a way where the spam instantly reinstalls itself unless you manage to delete all their files file-for-file and change your passwords and salts all at once)
  • dealing with upstream business partners who sometimes do stuff like shave traffic value (lots of companies are super honest on this front, but if you work with 10 companies at least 1 of them will be doing something like that)
  • software breaking in ways that lock out user permissions or break a tool (forum upgrade that resets password, Drupal update messing up email permissions or unsubscribe link, MySQL database with a crashed table preventing login, data source API change, Firefox browser update, search engine SERP update that breaks data extraction, and so on)
  • and on and on

Some of the stuff (updating a number of blogs or setting user groups by hand a number of times or reading through boatloads of emails) is pretty boring & tedious. To help offset that nature I try to do things that I think are fun, even if there isn’t a particular business model or business objective behind them. For example, recently we had a bunch of Lego-styled drawings of SEOs made ( http://www.seobook.com/images/lego/ ).

I find it is getting somewhat harder to write about SEO because the algorithmic layers are becoming harder to explain and there are many more “but xyz” qualifiers to any piece of advice. A few years back Google AdWords sort of peaked in terms of direct response marketing & they decided they needed to start going after brand ad Dollars.

In what is surely completely unrelated, for years Google has been tilting the search results toward favoring big brands at the expense of smaller players. It basically undermines/kills the economic incentive to share tips publicly when your competition only needs to be 5% as good as you are to beat you.

How did you get started?

I created a pretty crappy site (of course I thought it was a brilliant site due to my lack of knowledge at the time :D) & then discovered affiliate ads. I was a poor speller & at one point in time was like 1 of 2 matches in a search database for a misspelling that was worth thousands and thousands of dollars.

Obviously I knew that was mostly luck and not something that would last, so I kept investing in learning & trying to build better sites. (If I were savvier back then I would have took that income from that misspelling and used it to create thousands of pages for related misspellings and made millions from that. However I didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity back then & search engines have become much better at doing spell correction over the past decade.)

When I first got started I had a regular job that I worked at for about 8 months while learning the webmaster stuff on the side. I also had credit card debt when I started too. One of my buddies was going to college, so we bought a trailer home so that his living costs in college would be ~ $0 and I would have minimal living costs while trying to get up to speed online.

My roommate moved away after a few years to go help out his dad (and later returned to college) but I kept living in the trailer for a few more years until I met my wife. Then I moved to California to be with her. She was big on pushing me to apply SEO much more aggressively rather than writing about it and so on. I mean we always had a few sites, but after I helped get her site to a #1 rank she pushed me to do it a few more times in other categories. That in turn has better helped us understand the algorithms.

 What do you like about what you do?

 What initially attracted me to search was the idea that a person could compete with companies many orders of magnitude larger than they are, that search could both be a viable business channel & it could give a voice to the voiceless. Throughout history this has been true of many new communications networks, but invariably they end up being controlled by monopolies. In Tim Wu’s The Master Switch ( http://www.amazon.com/The-Master-Switch-Information-Empires/dp/0307269930 ) he highlighted how there are historical parallels between the AT&T of years gone by and the Google of today.

What kept me attracted to search was the idea that it kept changing, it was something I could do from anywhere, and there was so much to learn (as search has influenced & been influenced by many disciplines).

However what initially attracted me to search is not particularly applicable at this point, as to some degree search has become corporatized & the opportunity for independent players via search isn’t as strong unless they are ridiculously better than the market to where they can overcome the brand bias coded into the search algorithms.

Scale & quality are not the same thing. Look no further than the US banking system to appreciate that.

That said, when you compare search to the offline world, when SEO stuff does work the ROI tends to significantly outpace what you could get from other channels.

 What do you dislike?

 People find certainty comfortable, but there is no way to massage risk to zero or guarantee certainty.

What is very hard about SEO is that you can pour your heart into something & watch it get flushed down the toilet. And when it does get flushed sometimes something that is worse replaces it (though we all tend to think our own babies are prettier than they are).

As you try to build something you are constantly analyzing the level of investment & how you are investing. And there are 2 competing clocks you are racing against:

  • algorithmic enhancements that wash away stuff that isn’t seen as being good enough / high enough quality
  • search engines that scrape & displace the content sources, which in turn kills the margins for many publishers who did great work, but had their margins destroyed by a combination of…

-bigger AdWords ads

-Google vertical search integration driving down the organic results (in areas like credit cards, local, hotel search, flight search, and shopping search)

-aggressive insertion of Google properties like YouTube in the organic results

-companies like Google funding sites like eHow that scrape useful sites & create a well formatted looking but thin version of the same content

– larger companies cloning some of the successful promotional efforts of smaller innovative companies & launching them tied to the strong brand and more integrated promotional efforts

The other piece of SEO that can be tough is the lack of sense of purpose. A farmer grows corn & they see the corn they produce. A chef cooks a cheeseburger & they look out and see people eating. When you make things with your hands and interact with people face to face you can easily see & appreciate meaning in your work.

With SEO everything is an abstraction. Even if you get high quality links or create an amazing piece of content that goes viral, it is very hard to see/feel/appreciate the human aspects of what you are doing. From afar everything is just a number that can change at any point in time. Of course a lot of promotional efforts bomb, but even on the winners you still can’t be certain that an algorithm update won’t wash it out to sea next month. 😀

In some ways that uncertainty adds a level of excitement because balancing it all can almost feel like gambling & the resets do force you to learn more, work harder, & up your game over and over again. But after you do something for more than a decade at some point you shift from seeking maximum yield to wanting something with lower risk. However as search engines become more adversarial against publishers, risk only increases over time. Both Panda and Penguin washed many old & long successful projects out to sea.

Further one other big issue is there is a big gap between what pays the most and what helps people the most. As an example here, if you were creating content just before the tech stock bubble imploded & you were warning people of the risk, there probably wouldn’t be much profit potential in offering advice that could have literally saved people’s life savings.

Whereas if you were selling into the internet stock ponzi scheme you probably could have made pretty good coin from the surrounding ecosystem. If you were telling people to buy gold in 2001 you were seen as an idiotic doomer goldbug. The tech stock bubble happened before I got into SEO, but generally speaking the same concept holds true today. The value systems that are most broadly believed in and exploited pay the most. Telling the contrarian narrative typically pays less.

It is more profitable to sell someone a Paxil pill subscription for life than it is to help them cure their depression. Creating profits and delivering value are not often the same thing & in some cases maximizing one requires sacrificing the other to some degree. And if you rely on third party ad networks that agnostically seek yield, those will have some of the darker shades of gray mixed in too (Google’s AdSense even has a “get rich quick sheme” ad category in it).

I try hard to make our forums have as much of a connection as I can, but when you meet in person seeing people’s faces light up & hearing their stories really helps turn the abstractions into something a bit more concrete & feel like there is a bit more meaning to it all. I really ought to do that a bit more often, as there are things you can say & do in person that you can’t online. You can’t hear a person’s voice inflection or see their physical response to a joke through written word. Hearing some of the old war stories & how SEO turned an almost failed business into something that has grown by leaps and bounds is quite inspiring too. It takes the abstract or numbers-driven marketing that can feel like it has little purpose & ties it in with the human element, adding emotion and purpose.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated? 

Primarily we run a membership website, but at various points in time I do (or have done) …

  • consulting
  • affiliate websites
  • sites selling contextual ads
  • sites selling direct ads
  • sold domain names
  • sold websites that were generating revenues

At any given time the revenue mix depends on a ton of factors. Sometimes a really good consulting project comes up, sometimes it makes sense to push growing our membership site, sometimes old sites do well, sometimes new sites pop up out of nowhere & on and on. Many of the pieces go up and down while the whole isn’t anywhere near as volatile.

How much money do you make? 

We make enough that money is rarely my primary motivator for work. Though the key distinction there is not trying to earn a boatload, but to live as though you don’t make much, so that there is a decent cushion if/when things go south. As an example of this, we recently got a second car & when we did my wife got a used one. We could have bought a new one & paid cash for it, but my wife wanted to save the difference.

The one area where we are a bit weak on this front is that we live in California, where living costs are of course expensive. But being near my wife’s parents is worth the extra cost. Whenever anything happens with them we can try to help some & whenever I do something stupid (like hurting my knee pretty bad a few weeks back) they do their best to help us too.

How much money do SEO’s make?

The highest grossing SEOs are not publicly known as being SEOs, or they intentionally keep a rather low profile. The ones that do the best are more into using SEO to drive business results rather than gathering SEO celebrity.  There have been a number of strong affiliate sites that have sold in the low 8 figure range, where most of their revenues were SEO-driven. Some people in the SEO niche are likely strong into the 7 or 8 figures per year range. But the people operating at that level are those who are strong at business development & just use SEO as a tool for business development.  Most people who make a lot of money from SEO also know something else (another discipline, being great at business development, knowing another market that they tie SEO into, etc.)

The SEO market directly is too saturated with competition because it is such an obvious market. Thus whoever works their ass off being known as an SEO could likely make something like 5x or 10x as much applying their knowledge to various projects rather than working hard to get attention within the SEO market.

It is hard to say what the “average” SEO makes. There is bias to surveys (the top end of the market generally won’t respond to them & people at the lower end of the spectrum likely skew their data points high … sort of like if you ask people their weight a lot of people would skew them low).

I think it comes down more to the living costs of the person & their ability to sell themselves. I do pretty well now, but when I first started out I made very little in part because I was so bad at selling myself. This is part of the value of having multiple streams of income though, as the cashflow generated from one stream helps you justify the pricing on other pieces of it, so if you are notoriously bad at underpricing your time, the cashflow generated from some side streams will help you push it up.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

I didn’t make much. Back when I first got started with SEO I learned far more about applying SEO than I did about applying it to create profit. And by that I mean it was pretty easy to get links a decade ago (even for free), so I sold SEO services way too cheap. While I still had a day job someone hired me & for like $150 or something I got them ranking #1 in under a month. Within a couple weeks of hiring me they landed a client who paid them thousands. Obviously if I were more clever I would have charged more for the service. 😉

The two things I did that really helped me out off the start were having a job that paid my living expenses while I was learning (such that I was not desperate enough to take on crappy clients) & then when I was confident I knew enough to quit that job I moved to where my living expenses were next to nothing , so that I didn’t have to produce much to get on well, which in turn left plenty of time for learning & side projects. If I had to include a third thing here I would say that being willing to work 16 hour days 7 days a week can help you catch up pretty quick…you are basically working 3x as long as most competitors at that level. So long as you don’t drive yourself crazy or burn out, it is very hard to consistently lose when you put in 3 times as much time as other people do. 

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to become an SEO?

I never went to college, but back in high school and such I have generally been in the top few percent of students in math. I was in the military for quite a while after high school as a nuclear reactor operator & one of the things they taught a lot was troubleshooting. I think understanding half splitting, logic, isolating variables, etc. is crucial to doing well at SEO.

There are many vectors to do well at SEO

  • math & logic
  • writing & creating featured content
  • knowing programming to create free utilities
  • public relations
  • hiring others to help fill in the gaps
  • and on and on

There are many ways to do well with SEO. A person who leads with public relations can be every bit as successful as an algorithm buster. And if you work in house at a big company then being able to sell & evangelize SEO internally is probably even more important than knowing intimate details of the algorithm (getting everyone rowing generally in the correct direction is more valuable than knowing the precise location of the destination).

Likewise a person who does a great job of increasing conversion rates or maximizing visitor value allows you to be able to buy more advertising & acquire more mindshare in the marketplace. That in turn leads to the creation of many algorithmic signals.

What is most challenging about what you do?

 When Google smokes a vertical & inserts a thin arbitrage layer that is counter to all the ideals they espouse for others it can seem like SEO has little to no purpose. Google’s Flight Search is a great example  of a service that would be described as “pure spam” if it was done by an affiliate (not comprehensive with full coverage of airlines, OTAs blocked out, booking features broke for those who fail to pay Google the prescribed CPC), yet it is hard coded right at the top of the search results below Google’s other AdWords ads. Their hotel search feature is equally outrageous.

  • in Google’s remote rater guidelines they suggest that helpful hotel affiliate sites should be labeled as spam for no reason other than them being affiliate sites
  • not too long ago Google’s price ads for hotels (integrated directly in the search results) included hotel price listings for a car rental service 😀
  • more recently Google’s hotel search vertical started including a featured placement sold on a CPC basis. a user clicking on the booking link does not book using their favorite service, but rather with whoever is willing to pay Google the most per click. so you don’t even know where you are clicking into on the booking link until AFTER the destination page loads

The other big issue is that our industry has a lot of self-serving hacks in it who parrot espoused ideals without considering how those same ideals apply to the source. There are many folks who sell  direct outbound links & so on, while calling others spammers for buying or selling links.

If you lack critical analysis skills or blindly parrot things (that you don’t actually follow in private) then you are considered white hat. This in turn means that you are allowed to operate as a black hat SEO without question, because you are a public relations vector spreading the search engine’s misinformation. Whereas, if you highlight the duplicitous nature & absurdity in some statements, you are seen as either a black hat spammer or a whiner.

Such is the nature of power…it is far easier to sell into the momentum than it is to question it.

As an example of the above…

  • Google bought BeatThatQuote
  • BeatThatQuote had a bunch of paid inbound links that would be seen as spam if someone else was doing it
  • I highlighted those links & Google then penalized BeatThatQuote
  • generally when sites are penalized for spam links they typically get hit for 2 or 3 months at a minimum & they get hit long enough that they have cleaned up the spam links before they rank again
  • 2 weeks after my blog post BeatThatQuote started ranking again in Google WITHOUT cleaning up a single spam link
  • I highlighted those links yet again & Google then penalized BeatThatQuote again
  • a year later Google hard-coded BeatThatQuote promotions at the top of the search results

Hundreds of reporters wrote about Google’s acquisition of BeatThatQuote & yet there were only a couple who cared enough about their story that they wrote about the above sequence at all. You basically had to read a niche SEO site or The Register to find any mention of it.

If anyone in the mainstream media writes an article critical of Google you can almost guarantee that a certain (allegedly) 3rd party site will quickly write a rebuttal for Google. Google is always right. Yet when Google craps on SEOs it is seen as an evolution toward better user experience & is good for the industry. Some sites in our industry have also acted as an unofficial extension of Google’s public relations efforts in writing attack pieces toward Bing and so on.

Quid pro quo.

Google is first and foremost a public relations company. And there is not a single person in our industry who has the PR chops that Google does. I could make a case that some Googlers like Matt Cutts are even better at PR than Frank Luntz is. Rarely will you find an engineer with that sort of talent on the marketing front. His IQ is likely far closer to 200 than 100.

What is most rewarding?

When I was in the military we would do things like use a hacksaw to cut up the floor supports so they could be lifted out of the escape hatch and repainted. This made them “look” better but destroyed their structural integrity. The nicest thing about SEO is that we don’t have to do stupid things like that. There might be some arbitrary hoops one needs to jump through, but life isn’t just an endless series of arbitrary hoops.

I have also done well enough to help out extended family members. That takes the intangible bits of the web & turns it into something more concrete.

My wife was one of my customers in the past & I joke with her that there is a “free husband with every 13,843rd order” 😀

Sometimes I have also injured myself & having the ability to work while broken or move my schedule around has been a huge win.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

 In isolation I wouldn’t consider SEO to be a longterm career.  A multidisciplinary approach and/or some form of knowledge outside of pure SEO will be required to have longterm success with SEO over the coming decade. The past year and a half has seen more change in it than the prior 8.5 did & the rate of change is only accelerating. At some point a lot of SEO becomes a biproduct of other marketing efforts rather than an isolated entity.

SEO was possible to be a career for a long long time due to the openness of the ecosystem. However Google is becoming like Apple in creating a closed ecosystem. That won’t destroy all the opportunity in search, but it will require those playing in the SEO market to also have some other non-SEO intangibles they bring to the market.

How much time off do you get/take?

Not much. I could take off a lot more, but partly realizing that the cost structure of SEO keeps increasing makes me want to work more now to work less later. I have no idea how well that will pan out over time though. Sometimes I do feel like taking a month or year off would be good idea. 🙂

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

Many people market SEOs as spammers (in an attempt to claim how they themselves are somehow pure and/or better), or try to conflate illegal website hackers with SEOs (which grants search engines further leeway when ensuring SEO is drug through the mud when discussed by the mainstream media). To be good at SEO one needs to be able to read through the lines, understand trends, and in many cases question authority. Of course the media teaches members of society to obey authority, so whenever SEO is discussed they usually make it sound pretty bad.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I am not sure I have any at the moment.

 What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

If a person accepts the label of spammer or black hat then they have a far greater chance of being trustworthy than a person who preaches on about how white hat they are. Be careful who you trust!

Also, a lot of conventional wisdom is very much incorrect. At a minimum, trust but verify. But even more profitable is test, test, test.