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How I Became Obsessive About Obsolescence-Proofing

Mike Levin, an SEO expert who coined the phrase 'long-tail marketing' in the industry, is determined to stay relevant in his field. After his father's death due to diabetes and heart failure, Mike was nearly killed by a robber, motivating him to study SEO with a 'fool me once won't get fooled again' attitude. With HitTail, a keyword suggestion tool he created in 2005, Mike is determined to stay ahead of the curve and never become obsolete.

Never Become Obsolete: My Journey to Obsolescence-Proof My Career After a Near-Death Experience

By Michael Levin

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Hello World! I’m Mike Levin. I’m an SEO who hasn’t done much SEO for myself in ages. In the early days before Google got so smart (before RankBrain), I could do almost any page to the top of search results, given the targeted keywords were anything but the most competitive (and fortified) out there. I was the master of the long-tail, and even helped coin the phrase long-tail marketing in the industry. Today, I don’t even hold the first position on my own name, much less any automatic revenue-generating side hustles. It’s time to remedy that, and you can follow along as I do it in this much more competitive landscape.

SEO stands for search engine optimization. I got into the field in the late 1990s when I switched out of graphic design and print production into being a webmaster. My path led me into New York City as a vice president of a tiny marketing agency that was looking for some high tech super powers. I provided it by creating HitTail, Web 2.0 keyword suggestion tool in 2005 that had a 15-year run, finally being shut down in 2020. It was much longer-lived than most products from that era. I got a lot of things right. With a little refactoring, tender love and care it could have had another decade of life breathed into it juiced with machine learning, for basically the same purpose as a writing topic suggestion engine. Who knows, with all the AI-writing tools, it probably could have done the writing too. But that’d have been too spammy.

So why didn’t I nurture HitTail and upgrade it to the modern world? I was only offered 10% ownership which is fair as it was work-for-hire, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. Also I got married and had a kid and had other priorities. My life sort of went crazy as I bought a half-million dollar apartment NYC apartment at which time members of my family went on a needless war with the neighbors. Life at home went downhill and I couldn’t focus at work. This was unacceptable in NYC marketing agency life where you’re always-on and always need your A-game to stay competitive with the millennial youngin’s flooding the job market. Meanwhile, the old world of Microsoft Active Server Page (.asp) on which HitTail was built was going away and the new breed of “full-stack” webdev based on JavaScript libraries, jquery and bootstrap at the time, were repulsive to me. Node was just appearing on the scene.

Since then, it’s just been one JavaScript framework after another. It is a mean landscape. Early on one of the most complete and over-engineered entries in the ring was Google’s Angular framework, typically used with MongoDB, Express.js, AngularJS and Node.js (MEAN). Ugh! I couldn’t see myself going from Microsoft’s IIS, SQL Server and VBScript to another stack with a steep learning curve and short shelf-life. I was right to wait because Soon Facebook threw ReactJS into the ring, which was slightly less mean, but not much. Code generators vomit up tons of scaffolding reminiscent of how Ruby on Rails works, another web framework I tried and hated. JavaScript, and to a lesser degree Ruby, are just not my vibe. Over the years I must have tried taking up Ruby twice and JS five or six times. Every time I back off saying “not for me”.

That took us from coming out of college with in 1992 with a graphic design degree from Drexel University through the rise of the Web around 1996 and repositioning as a webmaster doing Microsoft .asp web development, being in NYC having developed HitTail in NYC by 2005. I met my soon-to-be wife in 2006, got married and my professional life started going downhill. My skills were very last-era and I was on the hamster-wheel rat-race of NYC marketing which I hated almost as much as the JavaScript frameworks I was going to have to learn to stay modern.

In thin double-crunch-crisis I realized how deeply damaging wrong moves could be at this time. I had images of flipping burgers in my 50s, unable to support my soon-to-be-born child. I saw my dad go through such a decline. He did not have the benefit of Google and the Internet. I think it would have done him good. His research turned up

My dad ended up obsolete in his own field as a textile quality assurance engineer, was forced to switch businesses in his late 50s, bought a check cashing store, died from diabetes and heart failure, dumped the place on me where I almost got killed by a robber. I considered myself lucky to even get back into tech after that, you know as opposed to dead. At 40 with a kid on the way the way with my marriage and career going downhill, I was terrified of going obsolete in my own field just like my dad. So I made a study of it with a fool-me-once won’t get fooled again attitude. I was 40. It was 2010. I was losing altitude, terrified and motivated.