Ive wanted to talk with Aaron Wall ever since his posts started to be of the straight up type. Ive wanted to talk with him the same way Id want to talk with Stephen King more than pry his mind for SEO thoughtlets.
I asked for, and got, an interview.
Somewhere a year, year-and-a-half ago the tone of your posts changed. Your voice changed. Some were ... almost grumpy. Others "in your face" honest. I love the change and feel like I'm reading something genuine.
Are you a shock jock? Growing up, coming off age and telling it like it is or... ?
I think it was a fusion of a number of things here. The change wasn't 100% intentional. But there are a variety of lenses upon which we view things, and as we grow those change.
Under my old model (selling an ebook) I always had a lot of people contacting me and always tried to help as many as I could. But because of my model (one off sale) there was little incremental cost to customers for me to help them over and over. And I even tried to help thousands and thousands of non-customers.
What I discovered (especially for the non-customer segment) is that any barrier you put before them will cause them to bitch and moan and complain. And they take their own internal lack of self value and self esteem and foist it upon you.
Now you can ignore it, but I just don't feel comfortable doing that. If you try to ignore it eventually you internalize a lot of it. And that doesn't bode well for your own long term self esteem and confidence.
So that is one issue; I guess we could call it me realizing that when I tried helping rude freetards I was only wasting my life trying to help a bunch of mostly unappreciative people who lack the internal drive to become successful.
Note that I don't say everyone who does not send me money is a freetard -- but those who want to value my time at nothing and expect me to give them years of experience and expertise AND my time AND individualized attention for free ... those people are the freetards! As are the people who complain about you setting up a sales funnel while never having any intent of buying
A Rackspace community manager on Twitter told me that they were going to stop recommending my tools since I required registration to gain access to some of them. This was days after I bought a $1,200 per month server from them with all sorts of high pressure sales calls with many "final offers" and such.
They don't list their prices on their site and require you to go through the high pressure sales process, and yet they bitch about you not being 100% transparent in something you give away for free!
Succumbing to freetardom will destroy your business if you let it!
Another issue is that originally we were not publishing anywhere near as many websites as we are now. So now that we do so much with publishing stuff, I don't feel the need (or desire) to give away as many high value tips on the blog. I have seen tweets about people bitching me out for not doing x or y ... and then done research on the background of the person bitching me out only to find that they run a venture funded company in the same space as we operate: many have age + experience + brand + capital + etc etc etc.
Where possible we try to make websites as complete as possible (hiring editorial staff, great design, great domain name, great SEO, etc.) but largely our competitive advantage *is* SEO. If we share everything we know publicly then realistically I am decreasing my income far more than I am increasing it. Why? Because if you share killer tips publicly most people still won't respect them or do anything with them. But some of your competitors will do a lot with them, while giving you 0 income for the privilege of reducing your future income. My post "SEO is a zero sum game" discusses a lot of this.
Another lens (which most people do not get to see) is that I do still help a ton of people and share a bunch of case studies on "do this, make a few thousand more every month" and stuff like that.
The big brand problem is ... when I do decide to share that sort of information it is typically behind our paywall in our member forums. And there are a bunch of others like Debra Mastaler, Stever, Anita Campbell, Will Spencer, etc. who have built thriving businesses and who share stuff in our forums that doesn't get shared publicly. Not only are our moderators great, but many of our customers share more and know more than the practitioners at most SEO firms. Whenever I have ideas that I think can create a lasting competitive advantage those absolutely get shared amongst our paying customers, but a person who only reads our blog does not get to view all that stuff, and only sees a fraction of the positive oriented stuff while seeing lots of the sorta blunt commentary.
One last factor which has perhaps impacted my view of business in general is the fraudulent banker bailouts. Trillions of Dollars worth of mortgage fraud with nobody in jail, and the criminals getting free money for committing crime. Generally every year my view of business has grown more cynical and less trusting. Yes there are some great people in the SEO space, but a lot of business models (especially in finance) are entirely parasitic. I mean, if I gave you a trillion Dollars to play the market and was willing to let you keep your "profits" on the winning 1/2 of your trades and absorb your losses from the losing 1/2 of your trades then how hard would it be for you to "turn a profit"?
Businesses game markets for their own self interests. They sponsor or write the legislation to suit their own purposes. The same bankers who wanted teeth in the bankruptcy bill *for consumers* had no problem sucking from the teet of government after they looted trillions of Dollars via accounting control fraud. This sorta self-serving in business is everywhere. Warren Buffett thinks "derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction" except for when he owns them.
Did you notice Google's recent black PR campaign against Facebook? Or how when they were competing against Youtube they mentioned that they could try to threaten to change copyright law to coax or force free access to premium content? Or how they recently fixed some of their racial slur issues with Google Suggest, but still openly welcome recommending warez, cracks, torrents, keygens, & serials searches? Those are all business decisions from the company which hides behind the cute cuddly colorful logo.
And yet Google has been pretty good to me of late, but I just like to track how and when they abuse their power such that when they reach a tipping point of sorts the information is public so they can be reigned back in. Sorta like the Google engineers just did to Facebook.
John Andrews explained his perspective on Google and mine is fairly consistent with that. If you like reading deep books then A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History is a pretty cool book which offers tons of insights into the formation and mutation of languages, organizations, markets, companies, and economies.
Right now in Greece they are throwing Molotov cocktails. They are doing that because their markets got warped by debt and corruption. Most economies around the world seem to be in a race toward the bottom...where the oligarchs get free money, and everyone else pays for their losses through money printing, inflation, looted savings, and removal of services.
You're the Boy Wonder of SEO, having written the book on SEO. There's Danny Sullivan the brilliant SEO reporter and then there's Aaron Wall the SEO prodigy. Fine as that may be, we now know from your posts that that didn't translate in monetary success. People ripped you off, stole your content. Your wife, Giovanna, convinced you to go premium community. Now why can't I steal that? Become a member for a month and rip off all your -- no doubt excellent -- advice?
Right around when we launched one of our competitors did something just like that with our training program though. They joined, read our tips on using 301 redirects on self hosted affiliate programs, and then promptly told Matt Cutts about it, blogged it, and made a video about it asking "who should Google come down on." In response to that I highlighted how they acted like a douchebag very publicly for a few months, and I doubt they will be doing anything that stupid again, at least not to me, now that they are aware of the potential cost.
When people go out of their way to intentionally harm you then you must take it out of their brand equity. Opportunists exploit any opportunity they can, and so you must make screwing you over an expensive endeavor if you want to discourage people from doing it. When people intentionally screw me over you can count on me making it very public - almost every time, as a matter of principal.
Back when we had an ebook based business model this was a real problem, especially as Google started recommending "seo book torrent" as a keyword when someone searched for our brand. But it is less of a problem now because our community prohibits directly quoting information from within the community outside of it. And every day we keep adding new content to our community...so quite literally every day the content and the forum's site search improve.
And as far as someone consuming everything in a month...they can consume a lot, but we offer tools + training + a community packed full of information. If someone tried to consume it all in a month and spent any time applying it my guess would be that they wouldn't want to cancel as they would get great returns. But the key to really making it work is balancing consumption and research with spending time applying what you have learned.
Is a premium community then the answer publishers look for? Could Business Week make money setting up a paid community with feedback and tips on how to make money? Why or why not?
The Wall Street Journal makes plenty of coin off their paid membership website. But Bloomberg's business model is in selling access to their terminal to hundreds of thousands of investors at something like $1,500 a month. Bloomberg (owner of BusinessWeek) considers its media assets as a bit of a loss leader to push their terminal.
Outside of that specific example, I think business is a sorta broad category to create a membership website around. Could it be done successfully? Absolutely. But it would probably likely be far more profitable and far more sustainable as a series of sites and services - one on legal services, one on start ups, one on taxes, one on investing (or different ones for various types of investing including stocks, forex, bonds, etc.)
Just in the small SEO vertical there is enough market to make a pretty good living and to support companies of a dozen to a few dozen employees. Likewise there are services related to keyword selection & organization, competitive research services, services related to buying domain names, services for social media, web analytics services, etc.
For paid educational media to have lots of perceived and sustained value there typically has to be some level of immediacy to the data and/or a sharp niche focus which allows it to be far and away the best at what it does. Sure we buy lots of video games, music, and many people subscribe to TV channels...but those are entertainment expenses.
Another thing which is rarely mentioned about community sites (and certainly almost never mentioned by people promoting their own community website or information product or software platforms built around launching community websites) is churn rate. The myth is that a community site pulls you out of Google's direct line of fire because you have recurring revenues. The truth is that you need to find new customers to replace some of the old ones because people do quit for whatever reason - they were not a good fit, they are on limited financial resources, they already got the advice needed to succeed and are doing well but don't feel like growing further, etc.
Even with software as a service sometimes a niche focus is key. The more niche you are the easier it is for you to serve the needs of your market exactly. With open source software and free + paid plugins lots of really broad ideas get commoditized pretty fast, because it is hard to be best in class at many different things.
If you're really that good at picking winning investments -- why would one be an investment consultant instead of simply filthy rich from successful investments? Likewise ... if you're that good at SEO, why do you work? Your money-making site would rank across the board and pull in the money 24/7, no?
As an ironic twist, I think Eric Janszen from iTulip has one of the most brilliant minds in finance and macro-economic analysis, and I am a paying customer to his membership website, and have been for years.
Even if most of your income comes from being a publisher there is still value in having a community of like minded folks with whom you can exchange business tips and such. And there is indeed some overlap in keeping up with SEO and leveraging SEO for profit. The business models are highly synergistic. Income diversity has value as well.
If you look at our current price point you would see that we didn't optimize for maximum revenue generation or maximum size of membership, but that our main goal was to optimize for quality of customer. If you can learn from your customers then that is more profitable than a business model where you keep describing what a page title is 8 times a day every day.
On your about page you mention being "scammed by a shoddy SEO firm for over $5,000" ... That doesn't computer for me. How come the guy writing the bible on SEO needed an SEO firm to begin with?
I think everyone who is currently an SEO at one point started from a position of extreme ignorance. And if you look at the offers which people run into first...
- email spammers and hard sales phone calls from fraudulent "promise the moon" scam enterprises like Traffic Power
- web hosts and registrars who know nothing about SEO, but sell garbage packages of search engine submission services and such
- web designers who know nothing about SEO but claim to because their customers want it
I would venture to guess that for most people their first investment in SEO is typically a money loser. Unless you are educated about what it costs and how it works you are likely to under-appreciate its value and under invest. John Andrews covered this concept in his piece on SEO & a market for lemons.
In response to that first interaction some people write off the industry, some people decide to pull up their sleeves and learn, and others adjust with a more reasonable budget & do a better job of choosing a competent and trustworthy firm. I chose the second route. And then a person read my notes and wanted to hire me before I knew I was trying to sell anything. I was hesitant, but they were persistent, and I am glad they were 😀
Seems these days everybody knows the basic "how to" of SEO, from "get links with your anchor text" to "optimize your <title>". What's left then? Marketing principles?
The trick with SEO is not just that you are getting the best ranking you can -- you are trying to optimize returns on investment. So how you are leveraging capital matters - there are many ways to the top, and some are more profitable than others.
You can be driven by traditional mechanical SEO, grow by acquisition, be creative in how you design partnerships, use a strong public relations strategy, or maybe just get to a new market segment first. And the above strategies can be mixed and matched along with different models based on content quality and content quantity.
Any form of change harms some businesses while helping others. Understanding how (and why!) certain things are changing with the algorithms (and even broader trends in publishing) allows you to prepare for said changes to minimize risk while maximizing returns.
In terms of what is left, I certainly agree that deeper integration of SEO into a holistic marketing strategy will become increasingly important as time goes on.
Some terms take a lot of money, time and dedication to rank for. Are we at the point in SEO where if we're truthful we have to warn small(er) newcomers that they're basically playing for the long tail only?
I don't see "playing for the long tail" as a derogatory or discouraging concept. It takes time to build momentum and market leverage. And once you have built some, that annoying barrier that you had to go through at the beginning is what separates you from new players in your market.
The long tail keywords typically come in first because they have fewer matches and the relevancy algorithms for long tail keywords are more focused on on-page content. Then as you have some success with that you can go after related broader keywords. One of the best ways to set yourself up for both is to use relevant keyword modifiers in your page title and page copy. That way you get the long tail traffic soon, and can leverage the cash flow from it to work on broader and harder keywords.
Is there MONEY to be made by starting a web site or, at least these days, does it simply mean working long, hard hours for less than minimum wage?
A lot of this comes down to market selection. I could tell you that in the last 2 months I started a site in niche x and have hundreds of unique daily search visitors in a lucrative area. But the only reason it would make sense for me to reveal that sorta site would be if I thought the value of the link would be worth more than the risks and costs associated with the exposure 😀
In many markets there is no money to be made unless you have an old site or have some capital to leverage. But once you have a few good sites you could always add more content to them to build more cash flow. And you can use them nepotistically to launch new sites.
I am sorta being a bit obtuse here, but yes some sites can make decent money almost right away. However each day the pickings do get slimmer as those with fat profit margin re-invest in growth.
You're helping a jobless family get a life together. Its going to happen by making money with their web site. You have to tell them the one single thing they have to work on to make this happen. Which one thing would you tell someone to do or to focus on to make money on the web?
When I was in the above shoes the first thing I did was get a job. That provided cash flow which bought me time for learning. The next thing I did was quite literally move into a mobile home so my living costs were essentially $0. Then, as my income grew, I stayed living way below my means such that if any down period were to ever happen again I would still be fine. 😀
Where should they focus? My tip for a first time person online would be to do something they are interested in. This has a number of advantages:
- you already know something about your topic, so you are not starting from scratch with no knowledge
- you are interested in the topic, so that will give you more longevity than a person who has no interest in what they are doing
- your interest in the topic will help you learn how and why ideas are spreading in your marketplace
And nobody states that there should be a clean break right away from employment and working online. You can start a blog in the background and start building up some personal momentum such that when you do want to make the switch you are fairly confident it will work out.
Another thing I would state here is that it helps to focus on what you are good at. I am pretty decent at SEO stuff, but my wife has more of an eye for PPC. Everyone is unique, and you are typically better off pushing in the areas you find easy momentum and success and/or areas you find interesting rather than pushing uphill against the wind doing something you dislike. Your first business model will probably suck. And likely so will the second one. But you don't have to be perfect to jump in the market, and even when you make mistakes you learn from them.
For what would you like to be remembered, by us or by yours?
This is not an easy question to answer, maybe if we do another interview down the road I might be able to answer that 😀
I would say currently I have been too business focused and need to re-calibrate to put more emphasis on life away from the web.
Now that you're older and wiser you do some things quite different from "back then". What do you expect will be different in 10 years from now?
I think a lot of web businesses will get marginalized between now and then. The web will increasingly become corporate controlled and to some degree will lose a lot of its quirks and charm.
It will become harder to compete as millions of people flood online and the "brands are how you sort out the cesspool" play out. But those who are able to bridge disciplines and connect seemingly unconnected topics, those who are creative, and those who are passionate will always have a job. 😀
The fracturing of society increases the need to seek empathy. As the web becomes more plastic and more corporate people will gravitate toward that which is human, enjoying and appreciating the services + websites + people which are only a little bit broken, but intentionally so.
If you wouldn't have the chance to see your child grow up ... what would you want her to know as the most valuable thing you've learned about Life so far?
Be suspicious of authority and presume that it was ill gained - until proven otherwise. Make people earn your trust. Be loyal to those who are important in your life.
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