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SEMrush Pro Talk with Kristopher Jones

Elena Terenteva
SEMrush Pro Talk with Kristopher Jones

Knowledge, experience and passion for work: qualities that make a good specialist an excellent specialist. We decided to talk with our partners, friends and contributors about their path to Guru-dom.

Today, we’re proud to publish this interview with Kristopher Jones, experienced SEO specialist and best-selling author. Kristopher shared his road to success, and views on the future of SEO, social signals and mobile applications.

We hope you find this as inspiring and informative as we did!

Kristopher, you are a very experienced SEO specialist and author of one of the most popular books on SEO. How did you start? When did you realize the Internet was the future?

I kickstarted my career in online marketing in 1999. It was part of an initiative to launch my family-owned gourmet food business, "Grandma Jones' Pepper Jam" online. At the time, I was the guy in my family telling everyone that the Internet was going to change the world. So, my brother Rick asked if I'd be interested in partnering with him to take our grandmother's food product online. The experience allowed me to learn how to launch a business online, and most importantly how to market a business online.

Within a short amount of time I became very interested in search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) marketing. I'm willing to bet I was one of the first 1,000 or so advertisers on GoTo.com, which at the time was the first PPC search engine. Shortly thereafter I learned how to effectively leverage PPC and SEO to grow my online gourmet food business.

One story most people don't know is that when I started to get the hang of SEO, I came up with an idea to interview celebrity chefs and posts those interviews to Pepperjam.com. My thinking was that, inevitably, I'd get the interviews to rank well on Yahoo, AltaVista and other search engines of the time resulting in free traffic for the Pepper Jam site and increased product sales of Grandma Jones' Pepper Jam. After posting interviews with Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme and other top celebrity chefs, guess what happened? Pepperjam.com got a shit ton of traffic. Yep, we sold some Pepper Jam, but I was faced with an unexpected opportunity — we were getting a lot of traffic and I set out to monetize that traffic beyond the gourmet food product.

In search of ways to monetize web traffic I found myself in the early days of affiliate marketing (networks like Commission Junction, Linkshare and Reporting.net). From there, I realized you can put together pay per click, SEO and affiliate marketing to make a lot of money. That's what I did and from what I've been told from 1999 through about 2004 or so, I became one of the largest search marketing affiliates in the United States. During these years I continued to consult with a select group of clients, helping them launch paid and organic search campaigns and affiliate programs. Did I mention all of this happened while I was a graduate student at Villanova University (M.S., Experimental Psychology) and Albany Law School (J.D.)?

By 2004, I quit my day job (I was serving as district director for a US Congressman) and founded a full-service Internet Marketing firm called Pepperjam (paying homage to my Grandma Jones). We started small, but by 2006 we were recognized on the Inc. 500 list at #293. We made the list again in 2007, and in 2007 we hit #72 on the list. From 2006 through 2008 we experienced nearly 3,000% growth and peaked at about 135 employees. It was a really exciting time.

Pepperjam won a bunch of awards (like Best Places to Work, Top SEO Firm, etc.). Personally, I was recognized as an Entrepreneur of the Year by Bank of America and a finalist for the prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the State of Pennsylvania.

Of course, I'm sharing this not to brag but to hopefully inspire others out there that anything is possible. I grew up in the left hand side of a blue double block to a single mom. Won't go there, but if you set your mind to something and are willing to work until you get what you want, anything is possible.

What an amazing journey! What came next for Pepperjam?

In 2008, Pepperjam launched an affiliate network called Pepperjam Network. Within a short period of time (and thanks to our large affiliate management business) Pepperjam Network quickly became one of the largest and most recognized affiliate networks in the United States.

We were acquired by a publicly traded company by the name of GSI Commerce in 2009, and by 2011 the company was acquired by eBay. Pepperjam Network has since been renamed eBay Enterprises Affiliate Network and, from what I understand, is one of the top two affiliate networks (next to Commission Junction, I'm guessing) in the United States.

I say “guessing” because I actually left Pepperjam in 2010 to found KBJ Capital, an early stage technology investment fund. I have 13 companies in my portfolio, including ReferLocal.com (a local Internet Marketing and E-Commerce company) where I serve as founder and CEO, as well as Internet Marketing Ninjas (the largest and most recognized SEO company in the world) where I serve as Chairman. Rounding out the portfolio are companies like Highlighter.com (tech edu), Pathmapp.com (mobile A/B testing), APPEK Mobile Apps (B2B mobile app development), Yumm.com (social bookmarking for recipes), VigLink.com (outbound link monetization), Online Marketing Institute (digital marketing training), and Internet Media Labs (NYC-based accelerator for start-ups, including OneQube), among others.

I continue to speak on Internet Marketing topics around the world (I'll be keynoting Affiliate Marketing Days in San Francisco early next year and speaking at PubCon, Search Engine Strategies and others). I've also written four books now. My first book (in its third edition) is the popular SEO Visual Blueprint, which has sold over 50,000 copies. My newest book is called "Local Search Engine Optimization (LSEO) - Crush Your Local Competition by Outranking them on Google."

People talk a lot about the death of SEO. In your opinion, is SEO dying?

SEO is not dead and I don't envision it dying anytime soon. In fact, I believe that SEO remains a primary marketing channel and is integral to any multi-channel marketing strategy.

SEO has evolved over the years, and for gamers it's become much more difficult than it was even a few years ago. For instance, the days of simply buying links and not triggering Google Penguin are over. In addition, Google continues to tweak its algorithm to reflect a higher standard for content (Panda). This means that simply building content for search engines or over-optimizing your existing content can land you in the doghouse (Google penalty box, Webmaster tools automatic or manual warning, whatever you want to call it). As a result, there has never been a brighter time to be an ethical SEO firm with a great brand. I would know as I serve as Chairman of Internet Marketing Ninjas and we've added more blue chip clients in the last 12 months than in the previous 14 years of the company’s history. In short, SEO is thriving and very alive for many SEOs.

Can SMM be an SEO killer?

Google seems poised to increasingly use social signals as part of its ranking algorithm. For instance, Google+ (Google's very own social network) provides Google with big data about how people interact with websites and web pages. As Google+ grows and as Google accumulates more and more social data it will almost certainly use that data; much like it uses what it knows about "links" to influence search ranking.

Another important newer factor that Google appears to be looking at with a keen eye is authorship. Recognition of the reputation of the person behind the content provides Google with yet another factor to consider when ranking websites and web pages. A post by Guy Kawasaki (former Apple evangelist and current book author, VC, etc.) is likely to rank higher (because of Guy's authorship authority) than a lesser-known and cited author. Therefore, it's not only about who is linking to you and what social signals might say about your site, it's also about who authors your content.

Google continues to optimize its algorithm, and as long as that remains the case (as I predict) ethical SEOs will continue to grow and flourish.

There has been a huge increase in the use of mobile devices. Is it necessary for businesses to have a mobile version of their website? Can you point out five reasons why they should definitely have it?

Instead of having a Web or Mobile SEO strategy, I encourage everyone to have a device agnostic SEO strategy. In other words, consumers like you and I access the Internet through various types of devices. For instance, by the time you publish this interview I will have received my order of Google Glasses. Not to mention I own an iPhone, multiple generations of iPads, Nexus tablets and Amazon Kindles. I also own various Apple laptops and desktops.

The point is, increasingly, more people will be like me and access the Internet in multiple ways; not only via mobile and through devices that represent what we call a cell phone. Did I mention I own a Tesla? Did you know Tesla comes with a 17-inch Web-enabled LCD computer embedded in the front console? SEO needs to be considered in the different ways folks are now accessing the Web.

Regardless, here are five reasons why Web is dying and mobile is thriving:

  • The last report I read reported 43% of local search on Google is through mobile (some reports peg the number at over 50%). If you only have a Web SEO strategy, your audience is getting smaller.
  • Apple has over 1 million apps in the App Store. We live in a mobile app world, not a mobile browser world (I don't expect this to change).
  • Mobile app stores will see annual downloads reach 102 billion in 2013.
  • By early 2014, Facebook will receive more daily mobile traffic than web traffic. By all measurements, mobile is the way of Google, Facebook and every other major company that cares about the future.
  • During 2014, the number of mobile devices is predicted to exceed the number of desktop and laptop personal computers worldwide.

In my opinion, it's time for website owners to develop a mobile-first strategy. Of course, a mobile-first strategy would include careful consideration and resource allocation to building a native mobile app (if applicable), as well as a website optimized for Web-enabled devices other than a desktop or laptop computer.

Lastly, do you have any concern regarding the Hummingbird algorithm? Any advice for those who are concerned?

The Google algorithm is becoming increasingly complex. Hummingbird represents one of Google's most aggressive attempts at providing more relevant search results through (in my opinion) machine learning. I've always said "Google is not a person; it can't think like a person can." My statement remains true, but in reality what Google is building is pretty darn close to the intellectual power of the human brain. For instance, Google is getting much better at automatically understanding the meaning behind groups of words and delivering more accurate and relevant results to a range of thoughts and sentences versus keywords. Some pundits have referred to Google's new powers as "conversational search."

From an SEO perspective, Hummingbird should be of concern to sites that have over-optimized for specific keywords without using latent semantic strategic and other techniques to move beyond keywords. By the way, ethical SEOs like Bruce Clay have been recommending latent semantic strategies for many years. My point is that Google is making it increasingly difficult to have a vanilla SEO strategy, and requires advanced techniques to stay competitive.

At the same time, building highly useful (shareable) unique content and getting relevant, authoritative people and sites to rank to it will always help you drive more traffic (web, mobile) from Google.

Thank you very much, Kristopher!

Elena Terenteva

SEMrush employee.

Elena Terenteva, Product Marketing Manager at SEMrush. Elena has eight years public relations and journalism experience, working as a broadcasting journalist, PR/Content manager for IT and finance companies.
Bookworm, poker player, good swimmer.
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Insightful and informative interview. The future is definitely exciting!

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