My Strange Path Into SEO (and the time I met Al Haig)

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 02/20/2010

This post is about how I got into the field of search engine optimization, met Al Haig along the way, and ended up in New York doing SEO consulting for to some of the biggest brands in the world.

There’s something special about an Engineer’s method of thinking. While Scientists forge the path, Engineers pave the way–making it accessible for everyone to follow. Because lives are often at stake, as with bridges and cars, an Engineer must take every conceivable factor into account, revising designs from the feedback of rigorous testing and diagnostics. It’s part detective, part strategist, and (I would argue) part artist. I have a MacGyver-like image of Engineers knowing how to get things done. And when their plans actually come to fruition, the world is slightly different after their work in a way according to their design. I have always found that thought satisfying, and have tried to emulate this thinking.

This guided me towards a fine local engineering college when I came out of high school. I had visions of spearheading lunar colonization. But instead, due to my less-than stellar study-habits, Physics I and Calculus II did me in. I was not happy on my path to becoming an Engineer, and projected that to the entire field.

So, in a move I always knew was possible given my choice of schools (Drexel University–the first school to require ALL their students buy computers, which happened to be Mac), I switched from Engineering to Graphic Design. I figured it would be a cakewalk with an engineering outlook–and I was right. Computers already were changing the design profession, and with me with like a 10-year head-start powered by the ahead-of-it’s-time Commodore Amiga Computer, which I happened into during my senior year in high school.

With the exception of actually having to actually do each assignment eventually, I breezed through college, using my excess capacity to strengthen bonds with the local Commodore crowd that I happened into via my involvement in the local Philadelphia Amiga Users Group, which happened also to meet on Drexel University.

I started working for Commodore right out of high school, even before the Drexel co-0p program kicked in. I traveled to trade-shows. I made multimedia demos on the Amiga that were actually used (a big kick). I was their lead advocate in a student advocacy program where I was sent to various campuses, like Virginia Tech where every comp-sci student was required to purchase an Amiga 3000 because it ran AT&T Unix SVR4. This was one of the best implementations of Unix on a personal computer in its day, leading me to toy around with Unix for the first time. This was way before BSD or Linux were mature.

During this time, while I was technically an employee of Commodore, I was also a customer advocate, and attempted to lead a shareholder revolt in which I traveled to the secluded and inaccessible meeting place in the Lyford Cay Club in the Bahamas, to speak out against their Chairman of the Board of Directors, Irving Gould–and as it happens, Al Haig, who was on the Board. Sadly today, number two of the four board-members there that day are gone.

I remember sitting next to Al Haig waiting in Dulles International Airport (now Reagan Intl), waiting for my flight to the Bahamas, wondering whether I should strike up a conversation with him. Knowing he was a Commodore director, I thought I’d make my case early. Maybe ask him if he could take charge. But alas–I chickened out, and didn’t really talk to him until addressing the tiny meeting, where another guy, Richard Ash, was physically kicked out for insisting that Roberts Rules of Order actually be followed.

As you can imagine, that put a damper on the atmosphere of the Commodore shareholder meeting that day–but I still spoke. I told them how PCs caught up, and could do 256 colors in “high res” (640 x 480 in those days), and how the Amiga was falling behind, still only able to do 16 colors in hires. But their priority was a smaller, cheaper Amiga–and not one that actually kept pace with the industry. Some inner-circle Commodore people will tell you Commodore’s demise was because they screwed up one holiday season with a supply issue. That’s not true. Commodore was a poor steward of the Amiga technology–the awesomeness of which principally spring from the brain of one ex-Atari Engineer, Jay Miner. The bittersweet story of how it got into Commodore’s hands is one of the greatest under-told stories of the computer industry.

Commodore then quickly let the rest of the industry catch up and surpass them, squandering what some consider a 10-year head-start. This is all while customers were clamoring at Commodore’s door, telling them what they wanted, only to be ignored. This is a pattern that I was destined to see again very soon, with a familiar set of characters.

This was all between ‘88 and ‘91–before the Web, but after the Internet. I dialed into the Commodore VAX for email and newsgroups. I got a whirlwind experience that touched on many disciplines, but I became a master of none. Or maybe I should say I mastered DeluxePaint 4 & 5 and AmigaDOS, both of which are worthless in today’s marketplace–and probably even then, too. None-the-less, it set the tone for the sort-of techie, artsy, engineer-wannabe on the fringes of real action.

There in the suburban boondocks of Philadelphia was the heart if a computer empire and one of the true, if under-acknowledged, pioneers of the industry. I got enamored with the situation and put many of the folks I worked with on a pedestal, who I later worked with at a Commodore pseudo-spin-off multimedia software company. This company made multimedia software for running TV bulletin-board systems (or “barker channels”) and actually made some money doing it. It was a dream come true to find a place I could use my obscure tech-skills. I call this company a “pseudo-spin-off”, because the founders were Norwegians who never actually worked for Commodore. But the ambitious new US branch, empowered by investors, raided the decaying nearby corpse of the once mighty Commodore for talent–making this company one of the local safe-harbors for those who didn’t return to Silicon Valley. So this company gathered in many of the last rats to jump ship.

Even though I was a recently graduated college student, with my Commodore experience all as an Intern, I still was one of those rats. I actually joined them about a year before the big influx of Commodorians, when the last tip of the Commodore ship went under. And when they arrived boy, did I put them on a pedestal. And that golden halo in my eyes lasted up to about 6 years later, until after I had quit and come back–enticed by earning a percentage of company gross revenue as a sort of new-age webmaster/salesperson.

And let me tell you, there’s nothing to re-wire your brain like working on commission–yet not having control of the final sale. It makes you look closely at where things break down. I was recently coming back from a 2-year stint at Prophet 21, a true sales organization that used Mike Bosworth’s Solution Selling method for selling difficult products with long sales-cycles. I was also by that time an avid reader of Peter Drucker, business-guru extraordinaire, and a sort-of cheerleader for self-enabled knowledge-workers. After watching this startup still fail to start up after 15 years, my patience wore out. I had some theories I was ready to put to the test.

What I planned to do to set the course right was the biggest endeavor of my life so far. It was time to culminate my first 30 years of skills. So, I built a pixel-tracking system like Google Analytics to collect keyword intelligence and track users. I built a search-friendly content management system based on data transforms, allowing me to remix content and rapidly launch sites. I built an agile framework akin to Ruby on Rails to tie it all together. With that, I made an order-entry system, with inventory tracking, bill-of-materials, and a shipping log. I made a blogging system to easily roll out new content and target new keywords. Each of these items answered a direct urgent need at the company–particularly the order management system, which I was explicitly asked to “turn back on”–a hopelessly outdated system that I created during my prior tour of duty.

As part of this new round of work, with search optimization on the brain, I wrote the very blog-posts that populated that system with search engine fodder, resulting directly in new partners, customers, and resellers. I made a message-board system that was adapted into a private discussion system for lead management, which was extended to a worldwide network of resellers of the this company’s product, supporting a sophisticated whisper communication where the manufacturer could help the value-added reseller close the sale–still in use to this very day. There is another story here, how I opened up the Japanese market to this company with a single blog post that targeted “plasma display applications”, leading directly to their largest partnership, in a progression that could be followed from search-hit to discussion to deal.

But the picture wasn’t so rosey on the 99.9% of the other sales-lead discussions in the system. So, I fatefully started interacting with the prospects to see if any follow-up at all was occurring.

And guess what? That’s where it was all breaking down–abysmally. It turns out, there was absolutely no pre-qualification sales process. Sales-guys were just eyeballing leads (if they were even looking at them at all), and ignoring them in droves. And it was made all the more infuriating and ironic, because these same salespeople were crying out the same “blame marketing” mantra that plagued Commodore. The marketing was in fact working–just a new breed of marketing that was perfectly suited to this emerging industry, and unfamiliar to the company–search engine optimization! The sales-leads were geographically dispersed. And the terms that people were searching on in the course of their research were of unlimited variety. So, there was really no telling where a sales-lead was going to come in from, and on what concept they were researching. As you might imagine, this made it ridiculously hard to do traditional marketing. Where would you run a print ad? In what country? Targeting what audience? On what concepts?

Well, with search optimization, you could target every country on every concept, reaching every audience who was researching–from the executives of large Japanese companies, to ma-and-pa entrepreneurs getting into the computer network and audio/visual value-added reseller (VAR) business for the first time. Customers existed. A surprisingly high proportion of sales-leads that turned out to be qualified, but ignored. Product existed. They were in fact knocking at the door. And for a few insurmountable reasons, the final steps generally didn’t occur, and prospective customers went away dejected, only to look elsewhere for there wares.

Adding insult to injury, if the prospect went digging deeper in the site, they’d find a customer forum where internal staff were being verbally abusive and demeaning to existing customers. And here I was in this situation working on commission!

Well, you can guess I went off like a firecracker. I called everybody out over their complicity on a situation I viewed as a hair shy of criminal. I felt like I was brought into the company under false pretenses, and decided my only positive recourse was to force sales to close. In a start-up that couldn’t actually start up after 15 years, how could they stand up against competence fueled by righteous fury? Could there be anything more satisfying?

And guess what? I ran headlong into a the true source of the problem–a corporate culture that was inherited directly from bowels of Commodore–what some in the industry call a “reality distortion field”. But unlike the famously renowned one of Steve Job’s, resulting in actually changing the world–this one resulted in keeping the world precisely the same–perpetuating the status quo, and through an insidious mechanism, also allowing pay-roll to be met. Ah ha! The smoking gun.

So here I was with all this incredible, beautiful information technology machinery that I built which was generating interest, compelling behavior, and leading prospects all the way along the sales-funnel right up to the non-existant sales qualification process–the first thing not under my direct control. It seemed like an untenable situation, that anyone looking at objectively would understand and quickly share my view.

I was right, and as it turned out, the problem was a complete lack-of accountability, lack-of penalty for passing the buck, and an ability to talk in circles and obfuscate the situation. Lost opportunity could not be seen, much less quantified.

Accordingly, I designed my system so that each sales-lead resulted in a single unified private discussion, which had one-and-only-one “Accountable Person” assigned to it. There was no fragmented email discussions, and when it did start to occur, a unique discussion-combiner rounded it all up into one unified single thread. That thread could be re-assigned, but you could always see who passed the buck, and where it stopped. And in doing so, they were creating a linear chronological history on each lead, with a logical beginning, middle and end (unlike today’s Google Wave). The linear flow of the message-board system meant there was no confusing multi-threaded discussions. The last and latest posted update was clear and obvious. Almost anyone on the internal site could do any action, like re-assign leads, but the action was recorded and displayed. In other words, there was 100% accountability, no passing the buck, and zero-opportunity to talk in circles.

Here is the Engineer’s mind at work. There was a challenge. A river of sales-leads were coming in, only to careen off a cliff like a waterfall. I built a new waterway, threw a switch, and smashed the sales-lead spectacularly and undeniably into the middle of a company that didn’t believe the river existed.

Of course, the system was universally loved by customers and resellers, and universally disdained by on-staffers. And let me tell you, did the reverberating dissonance between what staffers were saying was going on, and what my system was saying paint an illuminatingly clear picture. I was now armed with the objectivity of numbers, and readily-accessible and uniquely “humanized” data, because each discussion thread told it’s own story. First I went to the prospects, through search engine optimization. Then I went to the resellers by assigning the prospect to a reseller, where the system was immediately used. And then lastly, I went to the internal employees tasked with signing up resellers, and conducting select direct-sales, where the system was rejected, but still tracked whether the opportunity was qualified and closed.

Apparently, it was clear enough to overcome the effect of the reality distortion field, and changes started taking place, and there were mandates to at least record the lead status. I took advantage of this small success to try to order new equipment to replace my decrepit vintage 1993 server that I still managed to do all this on. The system administrator objected–the same one who disrupted sales by posting the nasty-grams to customers in the public forums. But I used the undeniable effectiveness of my system versus its unacceptably slow performance, (which he tried to inaccurately blame on my programming) as leverage to get the purchase approved anyway. I decided that if I could actually get these servers, things were not so bad, and my commission-fueled livelihood, and indeed my very career could move forward. And if not, well… the servers became a sort of canary in a coal mine.

And as it turned out, it took almost six months of reminding and cajoling before the hardware was actually in-house, only to find out that the sysadmin never had any intentions of delivering it to me in the first place–which only came out in a slip of the tongue. Ah ha! The canary died! I described my plan of using these servers as a test to a sympathetic co-worker, who got a kick–calling it the Sun Tzu of server politics.

Now this is where it gets tricky, and demonstrates the geek equivalent of double-talk that enables a company to stand-still for 15 years. Instead of delivering actual hardware, he tried to deliver a login into a VMWare session. You see, he planned on turning the hardware into a VMWare (virtual machine) host, and deliver back to me only the login to a single VMWare session, which in reality could be running on any box in the facility, and not my dedicated hardware.

Now while at first glance, this may sound acceptable and within the discretion of a sysadmin, what you need to know is he planned on doing this in 2002 with the personal version of VMWare, known as Workstation. I will explain this in more detail, but the outcome is turning a rock-solid high-performance system, into a flakey, slow one, thereby tarnishing its image, and elevating the role of the sysadmin folks to come in and play the “white knight” to the poor application developer who doesn’t know how to stabilize or optimize his own system. It’s a rotten, mean-spirited sysadmin trick.

This gets technical for a moment, but is necessary to spell out precisely why it was an attack. VMWare Workstation doesn’t allow you to start VMWare sessions as a server-style service. A service is something that automatically starts when the server starts, and mitigates resource conflicts. Instead, with the Workstation version you had to start each VMWare session by hand. And if the host machine encountered a power-failure, then each session had to be re-started, which was accomplished through Remote Desktop. And the building where this was hosted just so happened to be very susceptible to power-outages, because it was not a good power-grid, and cars sliding into power-lines caused blackouts all the time.

On top of that, the single biggest bottleneck in a virtualization scenario is crappy performance on virtual hard drives. And with my application making intense use of the hard drive with the pixel-tracking and message-board systems, the performance tanked in real-world conditions. All of this could be mitigated, of course. Better uninterrupted power supplies (UPSes) for example could reduce the power failures. Automatic start-up of VMWare Workstation sessions could be scripted if you could overcome certain timing conditions. The hard drive performance bottleneck could have been solved with a service area network (SAN)–but that would require the paid version of VMWare for servers, called ESX. And to deal with being starved for resources by other VMWare sessions running on the same machine, or to contend with VMWare sessions’ tendency to spontaneously pop like soap-bubbles, you need a product called VMotion. And even then, you can’t perform SQL Server optimizations that advantage of the native underlying hardware. All-told, to do a VMWare infrastructure right that gains back SOME of the advantages you loose when you move off of native hardware, you’re in it for $30 to $50 grand.

Pshew! I know that was a deep dive into techie nuances, but it was all about the nuances. It was the nuances that prevented everyone from seeing why success was not being achieved after 15 years. It took systematic diagnostics, observation and testing to see what was broken. It took building the solution single-handedly. It took being the primary user of the system to demonstrate its effectiveness. It’s about amassing the evidence of an objective truth as undeniable as anything in the physical world. And then it was about recognizing and fending off subversion–all while avoiding looking like Don Quixote charging at windmills.

So this is where I bring the story to a rapid conclusion. The untenable situation finally reached its breaking-point. Management suddenly changed. A mandate came down from new management to “liberate” the servers that by this time were viewed as being held captive. It took an additional 3 months to loosen the death-grip on them–making the duration of the server drama last just over a year, from request to flipping the switch.

And then my sales-making apparatus was working at full gear like a well-lubricated machine, and rebounding from the frequent power-outages, unstoppable like the Italian Stallion vs. Ivan Drago. Still running today, my system gradually changed the very DNA of the company like a retrovirus administered through gene therapy, and is recognized as one of the major contributing factors that turned them to be the dominant digital signage software company in the industry.

Battle-weary and feeling the confines of quaint little Philadelphia, I jumped at an opportunity to go off to New York to become a vice president of a public relations company, where I created a popular Web 2.0 tracking system and keyword suggestion-tool, still in use today on tens of thousands of sites.

Since that time, I changed jobs a few times in New York City. Currently, I am in the process of absorbing it all–permanently re-settling in New York City, and figuring out how I’m going to culminate my first 40 years of skills.

My time at that kooky Commodore pseudo-spin-off company is a hard act to follow. I could have introduced a number of technologies to the world, but didn’t act on them. We’re ALWAYS at a moment where the next big thing is immediately obvious in hindsight–and the trick is divining it and doing the exact right things about it beforehand. And that’s how I got into SEO, met Al Haig, along with a big chunk of my larger story and outlook.