I’ve known Alan for quite a few years now, and one of the things I most respect about him is his willingness to help others in the industry. Alan is one of the few people who have been in the search engine optimization industry before Google existed, and as a result, has a level of knowledge and experience that few others can claim, yet he hasn’t let his status go to his head.
He’s also a U.S. Army veteran, has an unusual obsession with fuzzy blankets, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Fester from the Adam’s Family.
That being said, let’s jump into the interview with SEO extraordinaire, Uncle Fester look-alike, and all around good guy, Alan Bleiweiss:
So you’ve been doing SEO for a long time…long enough, perhaps, to be labeled a pioneer. How did you get your start in the industry?
A pioneer in the sense that I got into SEO when it was just really emerging as a serious marketing channel. Not a pioneer in the sense that in those early days I had to rely on those who had come before me to begin carving any sense of a clear path to success. My start came as a natural outgrowth of my overall web marketing business offerings that go back to the actual pioneer days of the web as a marketing medium, back in 1995.
A web development client came to me one day and said “what’s this SEO thing?” and like any good consultant, I was like “no clue—let me find out”. So a lot of research, coupled with understanding that marketing needs to follow core tenets of brand authority and trust, helped me to get up to speed pretty quick. It took a few years however, for the SEO path to emerge as a primary focus of my work.
What do you like most about the SEO industry?
The fact that since I can’t know everything, and can’t be an expert in every aspect of the work, I can turn to my peer community when I’m stuck or lost, and so many people are willing to help educate and guide and recommend. Most industries are based on fierce competition. Ours however, is one of cooperation and support. It’s vital to my success.
And nowadays, I get to give back in that same way quite often. Educating not only my clients but others in the industry who are newer or who haven’t previously faced some of the things I’ve needed to deal with. The joy, sense of fulfillment, sense of making a difference in other peoples lives is a big part of why I love doing this work.
You’ve seen a lot of changes over the years; which ones do you think were most beneficial to the industry as a whole?
One that comes to mind is the evolution of conferences—especially SMX and Pubcon, though a number of other great conferences beyond those two as well. Smaller, more intimate setting type conferences, like the Digital Summit series and State of Search are a couple of examples. Conferences have become more important to helping business owners, managers and front line people get a ton of great knowledge in one location over one or two or a few days, and beyond that, the networking that takes place. All of that has had a tremendous impact on our industry.
Of course conferences aren’t necessarily “perfect” and speakers don’t always meet expectations, yet by and large, enough good comes out of them and they’re night and day better than some of the seedier, pure sales pitch or clique conference settings that used to proliferate.
Another is Panda. Panda has, more than any other major shift in Google’s history, helped to emphasize the concept of quality over toxic pollution in regard to on-site user experience and helpfulness to people needing real information across most any topic. And I won’t lie—I’ve gotten more audit work from Panda than any other Google initiative ever. It’s helped my business grow and flourish in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
On the flip side, which were the most detrimental?
Penguin. While the core concept of Penguin and manual link penalties is valid, something had to be done on a new level to finally put a serious damper on spam links. For all the good Penguin has done, I can’t tell you how many innocent small business site owners have suffered immeasurable financial harm from it. Over-aggressive penalty losses and the completely insane delay in Penguin updates has destroyed many small businesses where those were tricked and scammed and manipulated into obtaining bad links from reckless, unethical and otherwise foolish agencies over the years.
For all the sites that were created solely for quick profit and driven by spam links, countless other sites are real , valid and worthy business sites where the “should have known better” line of reasoning about bad links doesn’t hold up. Site owners should not be expected to have, themselves, the kind of expertise to know when they’re being scammed.
I’m not talking about site owners who knew what they were buying, or those who didn’t even attempt to get a basic foundation of knowledge. I’m talking about the ones who were assured links were valid, legitimate and in compliance with Google guidelines, when anyone who has any understanding within our industry of whether a link or any technique is used to trick Google vs. help provide real value, knows when a link is bad or not. Site owners can’t know all that most of the time and shouldn’t have to.
So for Google to PUNISH sites for spam links—and that IS what Matt Cutts said it was, a way to punish sites, in order to change the industry, and to mete out such severe, long term punishment is, in my opinion, also unethical in its own way. It was a reckless overreaching without the proper roll-back safety features needed and there’s no real recourse for innocent site owners—complaints only fall on deaf ears.
Except now, I honestly believe the system is so messed up. The algorithm is so broken, that Google’s team are incapable of fixing it without rebuilding much of it from the ground up, and that itself could explain why we haven’t seen an update in a year and a half.
We’ve talked about how marketers will find a way to ruin everything. Which techniques have marketers abused to the point where they will start to lose their effectiveness?
I don’t know whether any serious, proper, sustainable method of helping a site improve SEO has ever actually been completely ruined. Sure, some methods that helped search engines “figure it all out” are gone. Like the meta keyword tag.
But look at the type of methods that used to work that don’t anymore. If not all, most of them were never truly sustainable, or high trust signal methods anyhow. Flooding blog comments for links, creating pages for every single keyword under the sun, creating link wheels, link networks, meta keyword stuffing, hidden text—none of those has ever considered the bigger picture—the “what is this for, if not for SEO?” Either something exists not just for SEO, where that other something is helpful to humans in its own right, regardless of SEO, or it’s not.
And if it is viable for reasons other than SEO, and happens to be helpful to SEO, if you just follow actual best practices, most if not all SEO techniques still work today in spite of spam and over-optimization abuse.
The key however, is to always apply my “5 Super Signals of SEO” to any and all techniques being considered. Either it passes the 5 Super Signal test or it doesn’t.
Simple. Logical. Not rocket science. And not just for SEO.
Are there any techniques you think are generally underutilized?
Absolutely. Off-site PR. People are stuck in a fantasy world of “link building.” You need link building, because links are still so important to Google. Except it’s NEVER been about link building. It’s always been about brand visibility, brand authority and brand trust. That’s why Google likes big brands. Not because they give big brands artificial boosts—but because big brands understand it’s all about the brand, all the time, no matter what the thing is that’s done online.
So old school public relations—the real deal stuff, not the fake, new PR for links stuff, is way under utilized even to this day, even with Penguin and manual link penalties being so big a deal.
Take for example, scholarships. I know several agencies that set up scholarship funds, and then solicit their SEO clients to contribute to the scholarship. Now generally speaking, that’s a wonderful, noble thing for any brand to do—giving back to the community. So they’re not inherently bad, necessarily. And I respect agencies that offer scholarships in general.
Except the core reason behind them in most cases however is not first and foremost “to do good in the world”. Its unfortunately “because you need .edu links and this is a valid way to get them.”
Except that’s myopic at best. And insane at worst. Just having links from a .edu site is NOT an extra link boost. And scholarship links from .edu sites come from very low value pages on .edu sites that “link to all the scholarships”. And those links point to a page on your own site dedicated to that scholarship. Which is a totally mundane, irrelevant page on your site for your market focus and goals, and not anything to do with the intent needs of people searching for your products or services.
So it’s an artificial feel-good link play.
So scholarship links can end up exponentially increasing visibility for a small business brand. Yet it more often than not does NOTHING to attract the kind of people who will want or need your services. So sure – by all means, if you have ALL your other ducks in a row, if your on-site SEO is top tier, if the overwhelming majority of your links are strong, yeah, in that scenario, if you want to set up a scholarship fund, please do so. Giving back to the world IS the right thing to do outside of SEO. And it does help fill in the full spectrum of what big brands do in the world.
For heavens’ sake though please get everything else in order, and recognize that from a link building strategy perspective, they’re a hollow shiny object.
What are some things you wish marketers understood about SEO?
Ha—how about everything I understand about SEO? And how about on top of that, everything I wish I too knew about SEO that I don’t yet? If you’re holding an M4 to my head, and I have no choice but to narrow that down? I’d say get your head out of the narrow buzz-word world of SEO, content marketing, link building, link juice, PageRank, DA, PA, TrustFlow and all that nonsense.”
And wrap your head around the notion that SEO and content marketing and all the rest will only truly succeed when put in the light of user experience and brand trust. The 5 Super Signals can help with that. Yet it’s more than that. It’s a mindset. It’s breaking down ego and “we’re special because we have buzz words” thinking. It’s respecting site owners and managers more. It’s respecting searcher needs more.
How about clients?
Well in spite of my rant about site owners not being responsible for being scammed, I do believe more site owners and managers need to get a better foundational understanding of SEO, as one aspect of overall marketing, and SEO as one consideration when it comes to free-for-all web development. Because sometimes even a fundamental understanding (and where they too need to learn the 5 Super Signals concept), can often help head off bad services or shady tactics before those do harm to the site.
And to recognize that SEO really is the search engines attempt to emulate UX through formulaic methods, so technical issues are critical.
What predictions do you have for the SEO industry over the next 3–5 years?
We’re moving firmly into a world where the 10 blue links is going away—not just because it’s being replaced by universal search, answer boxes, knowledge graph, and all the rest. More important, we live in a mobile world now, and that means organic results are going to take up even less real estate than ever, so you better get your SEO right now, based on sustainable methods. Because sustainable methods are what will be the foundation to earn what little real estate remains for organic.
And Google will eventually expand the mobile friendly test to include page speed, which it doesn’t now. And if Google can pull it off, a massive feat much bigger than Penguin being fixed, they will move to a separate algorithm base just for mobile. So yeah—you better have your sustainable SEO act together before those happen. Because if you don’t, you’re just going to miss out on a boatload of revenue, and have to come to someone like me eventually anyway. That’s if you aren’t driven out of business before that.
Most of your work is on the audit side of the house, particularly for what most people would consider massive websites. What drew you to this specialty?
Since the first day I was introduced to the world wide web in January of 1995, that very first time, I knew right then and there “the web is the future of the entire world’s marketing channels, and it’s MY future career,” I’ve been blessed in having a big vision. In fact, I had that big vision long before that. Like when I was managing a small chocolate manufacturing company that served a 100 mile radius in New York—I wanted to expand it nation wide.
The first name of my web development company was Business Web USA. Sure, I was one person at the time, yet I saw being able to serve the entire country. And then I changed it to STP Web—for “Surf the Planet” because I saw international.
With SEO, I honed my skills on small sites, and just evolved from there, because by then I’d had experience managing web development for Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 clients, while having also served SMBs. So yeah—it was just a natural progression for me.
And a critical factor that helps immensely is that I was able to understand the concept of scalability of patterns. So to me, a 50 million page site really isn’t entirely different from an SEO perspective than a 500 page site.
What sets you apart (aside from your extraordinary age) from others offering similar services?
LOL! Well, my “extraordinary age” actually gives me an advantage. I was doing marketing, and managing marketing long before the internet was a marketing medium. So I truly do understand marketing outside of the narrow SEO perspective. I was doing forensic crime prevention undercover work back when I was an MP in the Army, so I have an investigative mind to dig deeper, look for weaknesses and artificial patterns—that is vital to advanced SEO and especially audits.
I was managing small and mid-size businesses and serving large scale enterprise companies long before I got into SEO, so I have a much better ability to understand bigger business goals and needs and limitations and financial realities than just SEO, so I can help adapt a plan based on those other considerations. That’s just the first few examples that come to mind. Yet all of those are critical to helping me provide solutions many others in our industry just don’t have the experience or mind-set to provide.
More important than all of those though? For all my cockiness and confidence, and the occasional slip into arrogance, I’ve been humbled into open-mindedness in ways I actually pray most in our industry never need to. As a recovering addict with more than 11 years clean, I’ve been to hell and back intellectually, emotionally and physically more than most, and as a result, I’ve needed to learn the kinds of lessons that help me to realize sooner rather than later when a situation needs somebody else’s expertise.
I’ve needed to learn how to say no to the kind of client requests that aren’t a right fit for me, in spite of any fear I might have about not turning down work. And I’ve learned over the years how to detach from codependent relationships, which in a business environment, can be so toxic that nobody achieves their goals.
So yeah, I THINK and BELIEVE I have a competitive advantage over many people who offer these services. Yet at the end of the day, I’m not so worried. There is so much work out there, so many sites needing so much help, that to this day I am not afraid—not of the scarcity of client work, and not afraid that a client who isn’t a right fit wouldn’t better be served with someone who might be more aligned philosophically or for whatever reason, with another provider. And there are some AMAZING people who know as much, and some who know way more than I do.
You’ve worked with some impressive clients. Can you share any success stories?
Yeah. Me. I am pretty sure that, having gone from sleeping on friends couches and being a completely lost addict, to being semi-retired, living at the beach, doing work that I love, and being accepted into and being part of such an amazing professional community is the definition of success.
As for clients though? Yeah—most I can’t because I sign a lot of serious NDAs with companies that have a lot of attorneys just waiting to bury me in years of legal fees if I breach those. So mostly I can share the non-identifying data on several success stories. And I post those from time to time in my Twitter feed. You can go there, and over to the photos section under my profile, just scroll through there and you can see plenty of those.
Or check out my realistic recovery expectations blog post on my own site. (AlanBleiwess.com) While I don’t update that blog too often, that’s a great showcase of several successes I’ve had in my audit work.
What advice do you have for someone looking to get into the SEO industry? (Skills, education, mindset, etc.)
Don’t assume anything without testing and research and asking several people for their opinion. Don’t rely on people who are at the same level of knowledge as you most of the time- find people who have proven success (not just people who write about how to do things, but people who have actually achieved specific, measurable goals and can show that data). Do understand that SEO is not a buzz-word bag of tricks that may or may not work next week or next year. Understand that it’s about the long play – the sustainability, and that it’s ALL about the five super signals.
And most of all—start small—build on that, and grow. Be bold. Be courageous. Just don’t be an asshat.
* Conference photos credit Thomas Ballantyne