We’ve seen such incredibly rapid change in search over the last two years and I’ve watched the culling begin. Gone are the days of content spinning and push button link building. Gone are the days of focusing on search engines over users. Things have gotten tougher and as the wheat is separated from the chaff, the true online marketers from the hacks, certain individuals have risen from the proverbial ashes.
AJ Kohn is one of those individuals. He has been an inspiration as a blogger, content curator, and a strong contributing member of the SEO industry. His work provides original and useful content to a community in need, helping us all to understand the intricacies of many of the new developments in our space. I thought it would be fun to catch up with AJ and get his two cents on a number of important topics. Here goes:
EF: Tell us how you got your start in search marketing and a bit about how you’ve evolved as a search professional in the rapidly changing search landscape.
AJK: I got into search marketing in a serious way back in 2004 when I joined Alibris (an eCommerce site focused on used and out-of-print books). At that time I was focused on paid search and used that channel to help power their consumer business. This was a time where CPCs were low and I had a vast inventory of terms I could bid on. While it’s tough to know exactly, our AdWords representative indicated that we were one of a few who originally surpassed the one million keyword mark.
But as the Google Tax increased I knew that paid search wasn’t going to be the way to move a business forward. So I focused my attention on organic search instead. I read a ton of stuff and implemented as many things as I could both at work and on personal sites. I found SEO to be far more interesting because it was so chaotic. Things changed and you had to adapt and that suited my personality.
After a few twists and turns I decided to go the consulting route. I did that full-time for a short stretch before one of my clients made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. For the next three years I worked at Caring.com in a number of capacities (SEO, Marketing, Product), 3 days a week while also building my consulting practice 2+ days a week.
It was a great opportunity to work with a talented team but to also build a reputation and referral network for my practice. In 2011 I decided to go back to consulting full-time, in part because I lost a few potential clients who were concerned I wouldn’t have enough bandwidth to manage their work. Thankfully, business has been incredible in the last 18 months.
EF: I’ve noticed that you’ve done a great job of promoting yourself over the years and I’ve watched you rise from relative obscurity to a household name in the SEO industry. What do you attribute that success to?
AJK: First off, thank you. Second, I think most of it has to do with content. I worked hard at blogging and putting my ideas out there and then figured out how to get that content in front of the right people. That meant submitting it to the defunct Sphinn but also doing a fair amount of commenting on other blogs and answering questions on Quora.
I also met some folks on FriendFeed, not so much because I was looking to promote myself but because that’s where I hung out and SEO is what I did. So I suppose my passion was part of the equation too and for some, I became the ‘good’ SEO guy.
It was dreadfully slow at first and you feel like nobody is reading your stuff. But then you get a few folks to engage. You make some connections and bit by bit you build a reputation. To me it all came back to my content. People needed to read my stuff and believe that I added value to their business or to them personally. It wasn’t about quantity, it was about quality.
Then I just went for it. I wanted to be on the SEOMoz Ranking Factors Panel and I wanted to be a part of Sphinn (now Marketing Land). But I was only able to do those things because I’d committed to producing valuable content and had a track record that people could assess and evaluate.
One of the things I never did was overly self-promote. I always wanted my work to speak for itself. That may have slowed me down at first but I think it’s paid off in the long-run. I also think I built a community of sorts.
I like the idea behind Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans. My work attracted some fans with whom I engaged and they were absolutely vital in promoting my content (and brand) on other venues. Whether they referenced it in blog posts, in comments or in answers, it was the generosity of those folks who helped expose me to the larger community.
I also worked very hard at providing a valuable Twitter feed that was my take on what was interesting and valuable. I think content curation was another way I provided value and because of that people were more likely to give my own stuff a read as well.
Lastly, I was authentic and helpful. This comes naturally to me. I’ve engaged with folks and I’ve exposed more of who I am. Being real is important and taking a few moments to respond to an email is just something I feel I’m supposed to do. It’s getting tougher these days but I continue to aspire to that level of response.
EF: What have you learned through this process that brands might use to enhance their visibility as you have done?
AJK: Be authentic, be engaged and produce great content. That content doesn’t always have to be yours. Content curation is extremely valuable if you’re willing to put in the work.
And it is work. It takes a lot of time. As an aside, I essentially dedicated 50% of my time in 2011 to building the brand versus doing client work. So my advice is, don’t skimp on it. It’s sort of like compound interest. At first it doesn’t seem to be doing much but as you add more to the balance that interest starts to add up.
EF: I love your blog Blind Five Year Old. It’s one of the most thoughtful and well researched blogs out there. I particularly enjoyed your posts about authorship and I have you to thank for optimizing my own social profile so that Google began displaying my image by posts. Can you say a few words about the future of authorship online and its value as a ranking signal?
AJK: Thank you again. I love authorship and think that it’s a very interesting way for Google to help deal with the crazy amount of digital content being produced. From the outset it was clear the Authorship Project had two goals: to highlight authors and to help rank search results. That’s essentially the last line in the official announcement of Authorship by Othar Hansson. They’ve ticked the box on the first goal but are still working on the second.
What Authorship comes down to for me is the ability for experts to help provide a content filter in their area of expertise. I’ve written about this in terms of curation a few times but Authorship takes it to a whole new level. It’s essentially human curation of the web. That doesn’t mean that the link graph goes away. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, Authorship can help provide higher definition for all of those links because of who is giving them.
I think Google is still grappling with how to implement it as a signal and figure out how to discover real expertise versus popularity. But I think it’s going to happen. The folks from PostRank and Social Grapple aren’t just twiddling their thumbs and the Google+ Activity API reveals a bit about what they’re trying to measure.
As I mentioned in my MozCon presentation, we as marketers need to skate to where the puck is going not where it’s been. Authorship is about future proofing your efforts.
EF: I’m sure you’ve noticed of late that the SEO is dead heads have been popping up again. What are your thoughts on the future of SEO? Do you think that we’ll all end up in PR firms?
AJK: I don’t think we’ll wind up in PR firms but we might all simply become marketers – if we aren’t already. SEO is alive and well depending on how you define that term. I see it as a very broad discipline that encompasses social, conversion rate optimization and user experience.
You could also lump us in with the new hot term of the moment: growth hackers. These are folks with a fair amount of logic and technical know-how and apply that to marketing. Now, honestly, that’s what direct marketers have been doing for decades, but online we now have more than just simple data-mining at our disposal.
The key here is that we bridge the gap between data-driven techniques and tactics and marketing strategy. Putting those together is a pretty epic combination.
EF: Putting on my tinfoil hat, I can imagine a future where Google will be the one stop for all online activity. Google will produce a page on the fly that not only matches each particular users query but is also optimized around their particular proclivities, interests and lifestyles. With the increasing awareness and promotion of semantic markup by the search engines is it in our best interests to follow suit, to categorize our own data so that the engines can use it as they see fit? Or do you think this is a natural evolution of the web?
AJK: I think this is absolutely coming but I see it as a good thing. One of the issues I see is that search results are a reflection of the expectation of the user. Google is measuring how users respond to results and are adjusting accordingly. What this means is that five years ago that feedback was from a smaller group of people who were closer to the beginning of the adoption curve. They had different expectations of results.
Today, nearly everyone is online, even late adopters and laggards. Those groups actually represent a larger portion of the universe than innovators and early adopters. So if Google is optimizing results based on feedback, that feedback is coming from a very different set of individuals.
Long story short, we have homogenized results that don’t match the perceived relevance of every group. The only way to fix that is to apply personalization. That’s a good thing in my book as long as there is an escape hatch to the homogenized version for reference.
It’s the same thing we see in retargeted ads. People feel it’s an invasion of privacy and claim they don’t want this level of targeting, yet the numbers around CTR and conversions tell a different story.
I think it also extends to mobile. Google has big plans for Android and Google Now is just the start of a different type of search experience where they’re able to predict what you’ll need.
EF: Where do you see yourself in search marketing in five years?
AJK: Good question. I hope I’m still writing great content and providing value to clients and readers. (I really enjoy the writing.) I have a few product ideas that I’d like to have launched by then (some related to search and some not) and Blind Five Year Old should be bigger by then too.
Then again, I’ve learned that you can only really make the decision that’s right in front of you and see where it leads.
Thanks AJ! AJ Kohn is Owner of Blind Five Year Old, a San Francisco Internet Marketing firm specializing in search.