Life In The Post SEO-as-a-Secret-Weapon World

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 04/25/2014

Times are changing, and I’m switching from the field of search engine optimization (SEO) that I had been in for about 15 years of my life into the fields of social media and programming. Why? Because word-of-mouth has always been more powerful than search, and it’s only natural that the world re-calibrates to a more natural state. Google was a tour guide during the creation of a rapidly shifting wild new landscape that no one knew how to navigate without them, but the Web honeymoon is now over.

When you think about it, even empires like Google are built from word spreading on the grapevine. Create something so fantastic that it can’t help but be talked about—and people WILL talk about it, spreading the word and your message, no matter the channels. Google really was that much better than AltaVista and Webcrawler that came before it, and people talked about it. Today, the chatter channels may be Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, and countless other micro communities, but back in the days of Google’s stellar rise, it was email and the water cooler.

Ahh, the water cooler. I remember 1998 like it was yesterday. The Web was new. People searching the web were rare and using Webcrawler and AltaVista. I dismissed the concept of optimizing websites for search until the job of converting a 16 page brochure landed in my lap at about the same time Google hit. I had recently left my first stint at a Commodore spin-off company—my first full-time job out of college—to be a full-time webmaster for an industrial software company where I decided to make their website a lead source. So when converting this 16 page brochure, I used an obscure but awesome tech called XSLT to slice and dice the brochure into discrete focused pages and low-and-behold, web-leads started coming in because of it. The clouds parted to angelic music and with sudden clarity, I was an SEO.

That’s when I realized being the webmaster could and should be the company’s strongest sales position, so I sought out an opportunity to develop along that direction, and it led me to my second stint at the company, doing it for a percentage of the company’s worldwide gross revenue—and let me tell you, did that rewire my brain! I plowed through political and technical obstacles like a hot knife through butter. All my speculation about web lead development proved out true, giving me a sort of steamrolling momentum against all odds and all obstacles.

I realize in hindsight that I could have went off on my own and become a sort of Salesforce.com at the time, but I was ill-prepared for entrepreneurialism and risk taking, and I felt I had a good thing. Dot com billionaires weren’t a thing yet. This company was a startup company at the time that had failed to start up after fifteen years, and I after all that time was finally making progress. I basically proved to them that those elusive mythical customers were actually undeniably and accountably there, and all the company had to do was pick up the phone and engage in “Solution Selling”, which I learned about at the the industrial software company where I had a brief 2-year stint between my two stays at the Commodore spin-off.

I had a love/hate relationship with the people at the company. Carry-over love from the Amiga computer bought my ex-Commodore engineer co-workers a lot of slack in my mind. It verged on hero worship, and I felt honored to still be working with them. It’s like the mothership exploded, and I as a tourist ended up on a lifeboat with all the people I imagined myself working with in some fairy tale alternative future where Commodore succeeded and I became a career employee there—perhaps one day the president. Was it really such an unrealistic dream? I was starting out there at eighteen years old after all.

What went on at the company in those early days was a real lesson in human nature, group-think, and myth building. I became a one-man myth buster. Co-workers and alleged superiors would throw up old smokescreen platitudes, like: “We can’t make new sales until the next version of out software with such-and-such a feature”. I would say: “I don’t think that’s true: here are ten sales leads that came in just today where no one is asking for that feature.” I started disseminating the sales leads out to the international dealers who were often able to develop them into sales.

So think about it: I created the web content that found the prospect. I crafted the website that enticed them to provide contact information and ask for follow-up. I created an international lead-assignment and discussion system with private messaging between the company and the dealers from within the dealers discussion with the prospect, lending our expertise secretly to the discussion. I deployed the system building the relationships with dozens of the company’ s dealers around the world. And I did a bunch of other internal systems to help with building and shipping products. This episode of my life is a big part of my story.

By this time I was viewed as a nuisance by the sacred cows in the company who were unaccustomed to being challenged. They tried to crush me under their thumbs and were surprised to find themselves nursing broken thumbs. The company’s Board of Directors at the time actually saw my plight (through the eyes of the system I built), and sympathized with my simple mission of getting call-backs to occur to the prospects who came knocking at our door. I think I may have been protected while the company was restructured around the new truths I was revealing. It was very satisfying, but it was also very emotionally draining, and frankly poisoned the watchers for me there in the long-term. That’s where almost all the energies of my mid-to-late twenties went.

Older and wiser and understanding how important this strange search-anomaly brought about by Google’s stellar rise, I moved to New York to become a full-time SEO (website optimizer) and a vice-president of a public relations firm, and a software developer. This is the time circa 2006 I created the still-going-strong HitTail app. All the stuff I worked on as obscure little projects for my employers went mainstream, like Blogger-like software, WordPress-like software, and even Ruby on Rails-like software. I always pre-guessed major breaking new areas and was there first with private implementations that rarely saw the light of day. HitTail was an exception.

Now I feel that anomalous trick called SEO and the strange time-period where it was so effective is winding down. There will always be “natural”—that is to say an algorithmic attempt at editorial objectivity—but it won’t be the kingmaker it was during the rise of the Web. Now, with everyone onto the trick, the gold-rush is over. SEO is just one part of a healthy marketing mix—no longer a secret weapon. I’m interested in secret weapons.

Social media is now much more appealing than SEO. It doesn’t have the long-term planning and build-up. You don’t have to be as technical, so there’s a lower barrier to entry. The current generation of digital native kids grew up with Facebook and Twitter and are savvy in the ways of message amplification on the grapevine. And even though they may be a little attention-span challenged, that’s fine because social media needs more frequent but disposable attention-grabbing spectacles that can momentarily break through the noise.

Short-term social media wins with big traffic numbers are frankly a lot more exciting to talk about than the slow, meticulous, circuitous route to success of SEO. SEO does still work, mind you! It’s just the long, hard uphill battle that it always was, but even more-so because Google is progressively shutting all the shortcut loop-holes to short-term SEO success. They probably correctly surmise that if they just make their paid advertising projects cheap, effective, and appealing enough to tweaks and dweebs like me, we’ll follow the path of least resistance and just become a genuine Google advertiser than system-gamer. My latest adventures in Google AdWords Script (a lightweight JavaScript API to do very advanced ad manipulation) proves in my mind that Google is providing legit non-SEO outlets to satisfy all us technical (but not-hardcore-programmer) types who found ourselves in SEO. Mainstreamed programming for marketing!

And so it is with my repositioning away from SEO to something more interesting. And here’s the rub: tricks don’t last as soon as enough people learn about them. Either all the gold in the vein gets mined, or the authorities fence off the area. Either way, game over. But secret weapon seekers like me are always looking for the next trick for a competitive advantage. But if the trick is a product, then everyone else can buy it and ruin the trick. Therefore, tricks need to take a certain amount of work and be custom every time.

Enter the post SEO gold-rush world where the extreme technical savvy gets plowed into where it SHOULD go: custom programming. Programming is not a thing unto itself. It’s just a way of expressing ideas so that those ideas come to life in a semi-automated way. Nothing is fully automated, or humanity would be gone by now. Every automation is temporary like spinning a top. And therefore the trick to making real traffic-moving tricks now that SEO is just like any other component in the marketing mix is the ability to slam out rapid automations that does a short-term job for you faster and better than everyone else is trying to do in a more manual, labor-intensive fashion.

In this world, you rarely build things up into polished finished products, but rather, you produce easily write-able, easily readable, mostly bug-free code that you only invest a few days into, and get a few weeks or months of awesomeness out of. Rinse and repeat. If you’re onto something, you can refine it and make your occasional packaged product. If it’s not going somewhere, you got value out of it, and can move on—but now with some more sample code in your forever-building arsenal of code. There’s steep start-up effort here, because you have to know how to program quickly and comfortably as if the programming language is like your native spoken language like English. You have to keep yourself from losing your past code examples through hard drive crashes or job switching. Then you need a place and a way to execute your code regardless of any changes around you. There’s some system administration and operations skills you need to have here that doesn’t come naturally. This is why even though the Cloud is such a cure-all, mastering low-investment hardware under your direct control like Raspberry Pi’s is such a growing trend. This is the path I’m taking: natural, quick programming to carry out sometimes complex and clever ideas that make a greater impact on the world, albeit a digital world until I’m programming robots (soon), than I could have done manually.

I’ll end this article with the cost-quality-time triangle of getting things done. So the saying goes: “Low-cost, high-quality or fast time to completion; pick any two!” Because of the Internet and international competition, that balance has been thrown off-whack because at any given moment, there is someone somewhere who will deliver all three, paying for it out of youthful energy and the determination to make their mark. In other words, they charge very little and deliver high quality fast in order to build their reputation and portfolio. This has always been the case, but these days with efficient online marketplaces that pair buyers and sellers with reputation systems built-in, its becoming more the norm than the exception. The customer is admittedly taking a risk, but it’s easier than ever to find those gems. And so the trick for people who no longer have that youthful energy and reputation-building drive have to look to other techniques to compete in this off-balance competition.

Enter programming and automation, and the reminder that programming isn’t really a thing unto itself. It’s just an extension of your wisdom, knowledge and know-how by adding a language for expressing the automation of your smarts. This is not so true today, because its too easy to get hung up on all the decoration and unpleasant baggage that comes with programming. But having this natural programming ability will be just about the only way to compete in the hyper-competitive world where the old cost/quality/speed proposition has gone totally out of whack.

Discovering the Python language and developing the Levinux distribution of Linux has alleviated much of the hang-ups for me, giving me a deeper understanding of what I’m doing, and stripping away all the superfluous nonsense that has sprung up around programming because of bloated desktop computer environments. More than ever today, actually creating automations to go out and do your bidding in a digital world is a hairs breadth away from imagining such a thing in the first place. Oh, and just wait until actually useful robots hit.