In this special issue of our interview series, we are very excited to share with you Aaron Wall’s insights on blogging, SEO and affiliate marketing. Aaron is an online entrepreneur, a brilliant and very successful SEO expert, blogger, speaker, affiliate marketer and, of course, the founder and CEO of SEOBook, the world’s leading SEO training program.
Victoria Galperina: Hi Aaron. First of all I would like to personally thank you for agreeing to do this interview and for sharing your advice with our community. To start off, please share with our blog readers how you came up with the idea to create the SEOBook website, and then went on to establish a #1 SEO training program?
Aaron Wall: When I got started in SEO, ranking websites was quite cheap and easy. Based on how fast and easy it was, like most new SEOs, I undervalued SEO, but I could see it was going to be big for quite an extended period of time. I had no money to speak of (actually even a bit of credit card debt) and wasn't making much when I first got on the web, but could tell it would grow and that it was sort of a once in a lifetime opportunity. Back then the web was far more open than it is today.
- There wasn't all the fear mongering about links, rel="nofollow" didn't exist yet, etc. You could literally just ask people for links without payment and get many positive replies, even if the links were pointing into commercially oriented pages. Couple that with how heavily PageRank and anchor text were counted in the algos and it was quite easy to rank.
- Blogging was popular and widespread. Social networks were seen as more of a side thing rather than central to the web. And independent bloggers often wrote about topics covered on other blogs, with their own spin on the topics. It was more of a meritocracy back then.
- Search engines and social networks were not busy trying to create closed vertical silos. The results were all about 10 blue links.
It being so easy to rank was part of why I had the idea of creating a guide to SEO. The reason I liked the ebook format idea was it could take a sales weakness and turn it into a strength. It was widely understood that SEO books were perpetually outdated by the time they were printed, so the idea of an ebook was that you could constantly revise it and sell that up-to-date status as a point of differentiation.
I also blogged quite regularly back then. I could see that bloggers were getting (and, giving) a disproportionate share of new links being created because they made it easy for people to subscribe to them through feed readers. The regular blog updates also reinforced the perception of regular updates of the ebook.
In the current market it is much harder to build and maintain strong rankings.
- Penguin and manual link penalties make it more risky to overly focus on links.
- Panda meant that you had to worry much more about the post-click user experience and general awareness of your site, rather than building links in isolation.
- Many people are frozen in fear on the strategic front AND think they have been penalized when the primary shift that happened was some of the relevancy signals mix changed and them being frozen in fear means they haven't been investing in some of the new signals.
- Google's various vertical search offerings and larger search ads also drive the organic search results below the fold for many search queries.
When people bought my ebook I would answer questions via email. Early on the questions and answers were quite easy. But search adapted to become more:
The model of answering questions via email stopped working / scaling, because some questions would be so complex they might require a lot of background research to answer. Also as the book grew longer I suspect many people were buying it but then quickly asking me questions without even reading it (as many questions shifted from things which were not covered to things which were). The combination of those two is what caused me to want to shift away from selling a single linear ebook to having an interactive member forum, newsletter and training modules.
That way people who want to read the guides can, people who want to interact and get feedback right away can, etc. And there is also the benefit that as a community one can get feedback from a number of people rather than having everything fall on one person who may or may not know much about a particular language (programming or otherwise), culture, a specific CMS tool, etc.
VG: What would you say works best in terms of marketing your service?
Initially it was blogging. If you had original ideas, and were willing to share helpful advice it would get a lot of exposure. The SEO industry was a meritocracy back then. In spite of me starting out as a total outside I was quickly accepted into the industry. Today the industry is far less of a meritocracy. Some of the most insightful bloggers like John Andrews rarely blog because the industry isn't what it once was.
When we sold an ebook a couple things that also worked well for us was sites like WebProNews syndicating some of our articles to their email newsletters and then doing things like buying AdSense ads on SEO-related forums, where sometimes people would ask questions about the ads and start threads that would turn into testimonial threads. Those worked great at driving sales because people on SEO forums knew what banner ads looked like and would rarely click on them, so the CPM rate quickly approached zero.
When I got started in search, SEO was super easy and the barrier to entry was super low. That leveled the playing field, meaning small businesses could easily compete with much larger and much more well known businesses. However over time as Google has exerted greater control over the ecosystem, social networks have largely displaced the roll of blogging, etc.; it has become far harder to start something new at a fairly affordable cost which is widely accessible.
Starting a web business has sort of paralleled the costs of starting an offline business. The costs of CMS tools have dropped, but as the network has become more saturated by competition and ads. Along with relevancy signal mix shifting toward confirmation bias / brand awareness, you need to have a strong and comprehensive cross-channel marketing strategy to compete in the search results in most valuable niches.
At one of the first SEO conferences I went to I remember someone asking about what percent of people were in-house versus indie players. Something like 80% of the people were indie players. Then a few years ago at a conference when the same question was asked the answers flipped. Most people were in-house SEOs.
Historically the people who value strategic SEO advice most are those who relied almost exclusively on the SEO channel in absolute or near isolation. They needed SEO to be their competitive advantage or they failed. But now that the barrier to entry is higher and bigger brand sites can rank well with many major strategic issues (based on the strength of their brand awareness subsidizing the rest of the site) I think strategic advice is drastically undervalued by the broader SEO marketplace.
I would say most the market we initially catered toward serving has died off over the past 5 years. The scrappy, self-funded player which was so common before the global recession has become far less common in the years since. Before that recession Google was mostly a direct marketing medium. But when consumers retreated with the recession and some pre-approved brand ad budgets kept spending, Google changed who they viewed as their customer and what the core concept of relevancy was.
Brand. Brand. Brand.
We do have some big brand fortune 500 companies as customers, but we probably under-index in that regard when compared against the broader industry. I think many people have perceived my missives about Google's biases as me being against the concept of branding rather than seeing it as me having a bias of simply rooting for the underdogs of today who remind me of my own roots a decade or so ago.
In addition to the general shift in the search result layouts (more ad heavy, more vertical search results), and changes in the underlying ranking algos (more aggressive penalization, more brand bias); there are many other issues that have increased the complexity of search:
- keyword (not provided)
- responsive design / mobile friendly
- long delay times between algo updates, along with promised "coming soon" updates that can take a year or more to materialize
- http vs. https
- mobile apps and app streaming
- soon to launch AMP
VG: Would you call yourself successful? If so, to what do you attribute your success?
AW: I would say I am not too successful, but I guess I have done at least ok. I've managed to survive over a decade in a turbulent and sometimes frustrating industry (see the TWiG episode where Matt Cutts mentioned wanting to break people's spirits as a goal) that has caused people who are certainly smarter and more talented than me to quit.
Any success I have had likely comes from being willing to work longer than most people would consider normal or rational. I've perhaps shifted a bit away from this over the past few years, but say from 13 years ago to 6 years ago I was likely averaging over 100 hours a week of working.
I think SEO is good at teaching humility, because something that is wildly successful one day can blow up badly the next. Also it helps not to be boastful with any current or past successes, because not only can things change in a day, but if you are the one doing customer service for your customers you don't want to push hype too much or else you deal with having lower quality customers, customers not willing to put the effort in to succeed and lots of chargebacks. I think SaltyDroid years ago posted about how some of the Internet marketing product launch offerings had something like a 40% to 50% refund or chargeback rate on them.
At this point, our site is designed to be a niche site which isn't particularly mainstream. We don't have a free trial to our member forums, our price point is not the lowest around, I don't blog very often, I might attend an SEO conference once every two or three years, etc. ... because we want the site to be a small tight knit group, rather than something broad growing for growth's sake.
I think about four years ago I did a lot of things to help grow the site aggressively, but ultimately found myself burned out and working too much again, where I was trading away health for money. Since then I decided not to work all the time and have tried hard to exercise every day.
A tool provider / data related service like the great offering from SEMrush scales well because once you have collected the data and created the views / formats for it, the incremental handling cost of each additional customer is perhaps not too high. They can sort through the data, export it, etc. without requiring the founder to spend a lot of time working with each individual customer. Whereas sometimes I spend an hour or two reviewing someone's site and sometimes an order of magnitude more than that answering someone's questions if they have many, so our site is not scalable by design.
VG: What does your typical day look like?
AW: It is somewhat variable. Some days I work five or six hours and some days it is closer to 20. I try to exercise an hour or two a day to help offset sitting at the computer too much. As far as what I do at the computer, it would be something like an hour or two of email, an hour or two of answering questions in our forums, an hour or two of reading news, and maybe a couple hours of testing out various marketing ideas or mapping out strategy or such.
VG: How does affiliate marketing fit into your overall marketing strategy?
AW: I don't do too much affiliate marketing, but I do a small bit of it to help compliment other income sources. We have some affiliate stuff integrated into our Firefox extensions and then a few niche affiliate sites, but nowhere near the footprint we would have had say six or so years ago.
VG: What was your first affiliate marketing success?
AW: This was a long time ago, but I had accidentally misspelled the name of an online casino well over a decade ago and was one or two results in a search index for that misspelling. This was before spelling corrections were as widespread as they are at search engines today, so that was an absurdly good deal for being bad at spelling.
If I were more clever back then, I would have created a directory of online casinos with misspellings, but sadly I wasn't that aggressive back then and didn't scale something that would have been absurdly easy. Of course that one would have been a fluke anyhow, because eventually the search engines got better at spelling correction and many of the online casinos ended up getting blocked over time.
That initial site would have bombed if not for the spelling error, because the site was too broad. In my (newbie) mind at the time the site was great and brilliant, but that view was just an expression of my ignorance back then. In reality it was too broad of a site for an individual to have been able to build a great user experience on. I didn't have better success until I created a few more tightly focused sites tied to smaller niches.
VG: Any advice for newbie bloggers who are just starting out, but want to monetize their websites through affiliate marketing?
AW: First off, make sure you are blogging on your own domain, so that you control your own destiny. If most of your content is on a third party site it can get sold or shut down at any point in time. See what happened to Geocities.
Beyond that, if you go back to before the Panda algo came out, perhaps one could push into the SEO market with a breadth-first approach. Go broad across many markets and then when something works, push deeper into that market and re-invest in whatever is working to keep scaling up to compete for parallel long tail terms and broader and more competitive keywords in the market.
Now that Panda has been around for so long, I think a breadth-first approach is a disaster for anyone just starting out. I think they will most likely get hit by Panda and torched if they try that sort of strategy. Look at how eHow keeps sinking year over year over year over year.
A better approach today is to have a depth-first approach. Create great content and aggressively market it, but make sure whatever content you create has some compelling hook or angle or offers something the market is missing. Try to build an audience via channels other than SEO (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, email newsletter subscribers, write for other popular websites in your industry, etc.) while you build new content and over time all those other sources of awareness will feed back into boosting your site's awareness and rankings across various keyword sets.
A couple other points to consider would be...
- That same sort of breadth vs. depth topic has a parallel with brand vs. generically descriptive domains. As more "relevancy" signals are associated with awareness and brand, it can make sense to go with a branded domain rather than an exact match domain if the market appears to be rather competitive and has big brands ranking well with few smaller businesses ranking in the search results.
- Rather than going for the broadest and most valuable markets for an affiliate (say like insurance, hotels, or such) it can be helpful to go for a smaller market where you have greater knowledge and passion for it, so you both have less competition and a better competitive advantage (by being able to leverage your passion and knowledge in the industry to know what the industry would be likely to care for). I think when Hipmunk launched they knew most of their revenues would eventually come from hotels. However they still launched in the niche where they had a stronger point of differentiation and then only launched the hotel offering later.
- If you want to make an SEO-related play, ensure you look at the search results before you invest heavily in a project. If a search result has large ad units and vertical search results, which push the regular organic search results onto the third or fourth screen worth of scroll, then that might not be a keyword worth targeting, because anything beyond ranking #1 might be like ranking #15 after you account for the ads and vertical search results and such.
Thank you for taking your time and sharing your expertise with us, Aaron!
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