One wintry Philadelphia day this January, I went to the Seer Interactive office (the Search Church) to meet with Wil and the Seer team. And sure, we talked about search strategy for a while… but we eventually got sidetracked.
As many of you know, Wil is fun to talk to. Wil has a real knack for cutting through the BS in our industry – and getting to the “RCS.” The Real Company Shit. He also has a fascinating personal history with the search industry. (In many ways, as you’ll see in the interview, it’s a cautionary tale.) Besides that, Wil is simply a great human being who has some interesting things to say about the world.
Where do you think we’re at, as an industry?
I’m so frustrated by how many people talk about Panda like it’s a race to the bottom. Algorithms change. We know that Google is trying to make sure that people find the best answer possible on the web, so why do I still have to say “audiences over algorithms” at conferences?
If, say, 2% of SEO companies were doing it right five years ago, now it’s maybe done by 10%. So we still have the same problems.
Seer has a huge range of clients and some awesome content initiatives. What have you been learning at Seer, lately?
One of the things that blew me away was our research on click-through rates. We studied our own clients, looking at what happened when paid search ads showed up alongside a high-ranking organic result.
I was floored by how much click-through rate was impacted, especially for larger brands. Organic CTRs jumped dramatically. That was my “oh, shit” moment. It’s clear we have to run towards more integration of our paid and natural search services.
What do you think the future looks like for search agencies?
I do not know how any SEO agency that isn’t partnered with an SEM, PR, or media-buying agency will survive the marketing integration apocalypse.
Here’s how I’d prove my point. I’d buy a cheap billboard in some area of a random city. After a few days, I’d see if the search volume for its message spiked. I’d see if my ranking changed in that location.
If it did change, I’d be telling my clients, “Don’t you dare turn off that freaking Super Bowl ad. Don’t you dare turn off that offline media. Don’t you dare stop doing your freaking billboards, because you’re going to drop my rankings, on average, five spots.”
I’m looking at the future. I’m looking at ’15, ’16, ’17, and saying, “Damn. To do well in SEO, am I going to become an offline billboard company?” But I need the data behind it to tell my clients, “You want links? You want to show Google some brand activity? You might have to buy a billboard.” I can’t believe I’m even freaking saying that.
When you chose to step away from the CEO role at Seer, what did that teach you? And what went through your mind in doing that?
The impetus was pain. I respond well to pain. I’m one of those people who, when they make a bad decision, like to actually feel the pain of it. The pain reminds me not to do it again.
I learned how to do search in ’99, at the first company I worked for out of school. My bosses had founded an Internet marketing company in 1995, and they knew digital would be big.
They built a shower in the office. That just gives you an idea of how hard we worked. I slept in the office and showered in the office. We worked our asses off. Then, we lost everything.
My bosses were GREAT people, who saw where this industry was going, but they didn’t know how to run a company. And I felt that pain of being so dedicated to a company and watched the leadership not know how to run it. When I left, all I got was a really nice reference letter and a laptop as my severance.
Our largest competitor was a company out in Seattle. Their first employee, because their bosses knew how to build a business, is probably worth somewhere around $50 million today. Yeah. I was my company’s first employee, too, and I got a really nice thank-you note, a really nice reference letter, and a ThinkPad.
Know what the difference is between those two companies? Leadership.
Back to Seer. After a certain point, I’m smart enough to realize that I don’t have the skills to take us to the next stage of our growth. I’m likely to fuck this up. I have felt the pain. I have felt the pain of being the recipient of a CEO who isn’t equipped for the job.
I never want to see any person at Seer and know that I could have helped them achieve more.
Let’s say Seer was no longer. What would you do instead?
I probably would become a concierge . I love my city. I love Philly. It’s just now starting to be recognized as a great place to be. I’m such a cheerleader for Philly, and I love watching people enjoy themselves.
I’d volunteer at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and spend the rest of my days working at some super high-end luxury hotel. I’d just listen to what people want to do and build out custom itineraries so that when they were in my city, they enjoyed it to the hilt.
I’ve had people do that for me at hotels I’ve stayed at. I have memories with my wife that I wouldn’t have had if a concierge didn’t set something up for us. I think that’s a great gift to give somebody.
Will we see you at C3 again this year?
You bet. What I like about C3 is that it brings non-SEO people to an SEO conference. There’s hardcore SEO too, for sure, but to actually be successful at SEO, you better understand the hell out of psychology. But you better also not trip on a canonical tag, right? So you kind of need both and I think very few conferences right now are catering to both.