Interview with Bruce Clay

MARK: So we’re sitting here in sunny Simi Valley, CA with Bruce Clay, president and CEO of Bruce Clay, Inc. and we’re talking about the beginnings of SEO, and what got him started, and what’s so attractive about this business.

BRUCE: Well. I have so many things I could say. In the beginning, this was in 1996 when I took it seriously and decided this was going to be a real business, there wasn’t really anyone out there doing it. It wasn’t called search engine optimization, it was search engine ranking; that’s what people started referring to it as, getting ranked in search engines. When I started there weren’t really people doing it; I mean I wouldn’t know how to search for what I do when there’s only a double-handful of people doing it and nobody called it the same thing. The primary way I got into I think was through just looking around for ways to market on the Internet, and what could I do to get in and get ranked? I was looking for topics like “search engine ranking,” “improvement,” “how to show up in search engines,” you know, you do searches like that. There are only a few people that were around way back when.

MARK: In ’96 who was the ruler of the day, Yahoo!?

BRUCE: Well there was the Yahoo! directory, but the real ruler believe it or not, was a company by the name of Infoseek. Infoseek was a wonderful search engine. I was really impressed by it. The primary advantage of Infoseek was that it was as lab environment, you could actually change a page, submit it to Infoseek, and within a minute – literally one minute, it would be live on the index; you could go in a query and see how you did, “Did I go up, or did I go down?” and you could change it and then you could re-submit it. Every 10 minutes you have a new page up, and it was the world’s best lab environment, you debug things that worked on Infoseek, and then after a while you expand to other kinds of search engines. If you go way back there was AltaVista, Excite… there was no Google. Google didn’t occur for another two years, so in the beginning that’s what we had, and I got myself as a website pretty well ranked. Danny Sullivan was out doing things, there were lots of things going on from the standpoint of journalistic kinds of things that emerged. I remember the very first Search Engine Strategies conference. We showed up to do the conference; nobody had met anybody else. I mean, literally, we had never been together in the same place at the same time. Everybody you met was like, “Oh, that’s what you look like.” There was no way of anybody knowing anything about anybody. At the first conference, every one of the speakers was handpicked by Danny, and we sat around one round table in a bar; every speaker was around ONE table in a bar. The conference was 200 and some attendees, which is a little bit less than the 12,000 that we’re seeing today. It was just a different environment. We got together, we met, there was a lot of sharing and colleague kind of things, but let’s face it there were really not even a dozen of us that were doing this seriously, and we had never met each other: generally we hadn’t even corresponded with each other. A lot of the people were new and this was all emerging for every one of us. I consider myself fortunate. I mean, how many times in a life-time would anybody ever be able to participate in the formation of an industry. I mean, the Internet was growing and it was becoming commerce aware, and the people that were out there that were early adopters were building websites, and the way you did it was to open up Netscape, and you edit it yourself… that’s where all the early stuff was coming from… I mean it just left room for improvement. With such a quick turnaround from Infoseek and other search engines, we were able to get in, people were able to make money, I told two friends, people started doing some articles or websites or newsletters or whatever you might be involved in. There were forums long before then, Webmaster World was around forever; it was originally a BBS system, so Webmaster World was a resource and all of this just sort of grew, and as we got better we got more business. I’ve been in business since the beginning. My first projects were really pretty cheap.

MARK: What kind of things did you do?

BRUCE: Well we would just edit pages; that was all there was. There was no need to really spend a lot of time developing links, because links were not part of an algorithm because there was no Google yet, so it was pretty easy. So, we would edit pages and be able to push them to the top of Infoseek and then other engines, because you had plenty of opportunity. Usually if you got at the top of Infoseek, you were able to get yourself elsewhere. Just like if you get to the top of Google, often you can get some things going elsewhere. So, we were able to do that; it really was fun. It was clearly one of these cottage industries; every single person in the industry was working out of their house. There were no companies doing this, there just weren’t. A couple of the early companies came in, and they would bring in, “Hi, I’m a web design house, and I do SEO,” which was really submitting it to the search engines. There were a lot of people believing, “build it and they will come,” there was a lot of misinformation.

MARK: You see some of that today still.

BRUCE: Well, there is a lot of that today, but I don’t think the “build it and they will come” holds true. I think more people are beyond that. I think we have an opportunity in looking back on all of this to really be amazed that it got out of the bedroom. People started making money. I remember in my experience it was me, and people started calling me, and then all of a sudden I filled up my time, and then I raised my price. I mean, I was looking for this to be a one person consulting gig. You know, take vacations, play golf, thank you very much; real easy, but too much demand came very fast. I brought in my girlfriend, brought in her brother, raised my price, brought in two more, had to move out of the house, and now look at me. I’m looking to have a building built and I’m in four countries. It has grown over time. It is really an issue of focus; you have to pay attention to the standard things. I’ll admit that the industry has changed a lot. I think Google changed a great many things. I was fortunate; I had done well enough in optimizing my own site, because it was my learning tool, and my only source. I never ran an ad; I didn’t do ads at all. I didn’t even know where to run an ad for this industry; I mean it was that early on. I had ranking and when Google showed up I was in the top five, and I’ve been in the top five ever since, so I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been as high as number one and as low as number five, and now I’m number four. In that range, I always have had people contacting us for work and business and things like that. It’s been good, but I could never have predicted that it was going to force me to network out of my table. I remember distinctly having conversations saying, “We’re never going to grow over eight people. Don’t worry we’re not growing over twelve. Twenty is my limit. Ok, twenty-eight. OK, thirty-six,” and I’m sitting on a plan to be at forty-nine, and at forty-nine I’m out of office space until they build my building. And I’m going to probably run right up to forty-nine, and then as soon as they build my building, I double. The building is laid out for one-hundred fourteen people. If I exceed that, I have to buy a bigger building. That’s all I can do, it gets harder and harder. I don’t want to build a big business, but I also believe strongly that all of us that started at the very beginning, we remember that it’s the smaller companies of the world, the early adopters, that allowed us to get to where we are, and I have an obligation to support that class of client; while we may not particularly publicize it we have pricing for under a thousand dollars a month. We don’t tell people we have that, but I owe it to small companies. The big companies, they require way too much service. You know, they require the ability to ask you a question and have it take 60 hours, and you’re going to absorb it and get back to them in a week. I mean, that’s not a little company that can do that, and we have massive massive clients-very large. But we also have a lot of very little clients.

MARK: Do you remember back then some of the names of the people and companies; some of those early folks that were around that table with you, or years shortly after that?

BRUCE: Well, I remember web mama Barbara Cole. She was around and very active in the beginning. She’s always been very active in the industry. She’s just an interesting person, and I like her, you just don’t want to be on her bad side. But back then it was so interesting when you were introduced to these people, and you would see them look at you and you know they are saying, “Oh, that’s Bruce Clay,” “Oh that’s Barbara Cole,” the people that were there… I think I would be hard-pressed to remember all of the speakers. I mean, obviously Danny was there, I was there, and I know Barb was there, I think Jill was there. You’re meeting in a bar, come on…(SMILES)

MARK: It was a long time ago.

BRUCE: WOW, yeah. I think the first SES was nine years ago… something like that. It’s so strange to think back that the industry was ever that small. I mean, think about it, how would you know to even look for this service before this service? How would you know? But we did it, and we had enough people finding us that we made a living out of doing it. And it was clearly a cottage, we grew up, I was working on my dining room table out of my house. And then I grew it up to 600ft, and then it grew to 800ft, and then 1800ft, and it just keeps growing; but it was wonderful to do it in the early days.

MARK: Without mentioning client names, but do you remember what those early engagements were like, because today it’s quite different I’m sure.

BRUCE: Yes. Well they were all very small companies. The websites generally were sub-standard. I mean, they were often “website in a box” kind of things. There weren’t any advanced WYSIWYG editors back then really. There were some that were WYSIWYG, but I wouldn’t say they were advanced. Many of the original websites were raw, hand-edited HTML. I think we started the industry where everybody doing SEO was doing hand-edited SEO. We changed HTML. There was no high level to it. I think we started seeing spammers pre-Google, so there were some of those things going on, but there were so few people in the industry and so many websites, that it wasn’t really an issue. These are small websites. I had one that I’ll always remember. I kept her for a very very long time as a client for free, because she was one of the first. It was a woman who was a practicing witch, into Wicca, in the San Fernando Valley. She sold pendants and witchcraft, Wicca supplies, out of her garage. It was a one woman company, and she came to me, and it was like a hundred and some odd dollars a month and then I edited it and submitted it, and I got her ranked, and she built a second website and moved all the way up to three hundred and twenty dollars a month, and ten years ago that was pretty good, but that’s what it was like, and that’s what we did. The whole industry was that way. I don’t think there was really anyone out making millions. Nobody with that much money even thought SEO was needed. It just didn’t happen.

MARK: Did any other companies, besides Bruce Clay, Inc come along and step up as conference vendors? When did that start happening and who were those folks?

BRUCE: In the 2nd maybe the 3rd year we started seeing more companies. They were originally web designers so what we saw during the early stages, unlike me who went straight into the ranking business, especially after Danny had started the conference series we saw emerging web design companies that became marketing companies. So they already had going concerns, they just didn’t have any ranking people. They were starting to do other forms of advertising. They were starting to do banners, because banners were big. We started seeing placement of ads and things like that. We were running overture, buying overture ads on the Yahoo! side, or what became the Yahoo! side, at 2 cents a click; that was the minimum bid, and then it went up to a nickel. We thought, “Oh my god, a nickel!” but those were some of the early bids, and what we were dealing with at that point. We started seeing companies that now were able to make some money because they were web design houses that were expanding and adding on services. I would say probably just before 2000 we started to see an emergence of a lot of 10-15 person companies, a dozen of them doing web design, but they started to be able to play. That’s where I think I ran into a lot of the staff from Sitelab, Dana Todd, and those folks were really trying… a lot of people got onto the speaking circuit because Danny was talking about Pay-Per-Click; it wasn’t just SEO. SEO was adopted very early. I know Danny at one point had given me credit for coining the term, but there’s a reference to it in an un-authenticated email where somebody talked about it that was picked up by Wikipedia. I don’t really care. All I know is that I’ve made a good living doing it, and that’s what matters.

MARK: You’ve been in it awhile.

BRUCE: If I was given credit for inventing the term, it doesn’t really matter to me, I don’t really care. I did the search engine chart, and that chart was in 2001.

MARK: The first one?

BRUCE: I think that’s right; and it was 23 search engines, or some ridiculous number, and I remember having to cut some off because I didn’t have room on the chart for all of them. There were a lot of search engines, and they just sort of got consumed or floated away; I haven’t heard from them. Maybe they went niche and they never surfaced again, but certainly there were a bunch of search engines back then. I remember in one of the very early charts there was actually this site, which was WebTV; well where’s web TV? It’s been ten years, where is it? I don’t know where it is, but it was there back then… I still can’t find WebTV. There’s no WebTV out there.

MARK: Do you remember the I-Sales list?

BRUCE: Yeah, I-Sales was big. That was run I think by Detlev. He was doing it for…

MARK: Multimedia Marketing Group, or Audette Media?

BRUCE: May have been; that sounds familiar, but Detlev started that. He’s been around for a long time, from the early days with Danny. You know, there are so many people when you think about it. I lose track of when they started. It’s like they’ve always been here. When you are in an industry like this, and all of these people are good people, and they grew up on their dining room table, they’re not cut-throat. You can go have a drink and say hi, and tell them secrets and they tell you secrets… back then everything was a secret; nobody knew anything, so everyone was saying whatever they wanted and it was all a secret. So everyone grew up, and I think it turned out to be very nice that we got to be friends and colleagues early. It helped the industry grow quite a bit.

MARK: Do you remember the first spider? Yahoo! has a directory. Yahoo! wasn’t really looking at your site, and then all of a sudden…

BRUCE: The spiders were actually in existence when I started, so they must have been around forever. As I said Infoseek was there when I started and I know they were one of my first tools, and they obviously had a spider. You go to an addURL page, you got spidered. I think spiders have been around for a very long time. Search Engines pre-date me. They must have had spiders to go around and suck in the educational content and white papers, and thesis, and the food of the web at the time. I mean, you can tell I’m old from the standpoint of the web because I remember when there were .mil sites, military sites, actually indexed in the search engines. That was some of the earlier content that is hard to find today, I’ll tell ya! You’re not going to find military pages indexed.

MARK: So we bump into someone, brand new starting out, all of a sudden they can spell SEO. What path would you recommend they take to get going?

BRUCE: Well, I am somewhat biased; I think they should spend the first ten years working for me at my company, and I am hiring (Ha-ha). I think taking courses and attending conferences, because one of the things that the new comer has that we don’t have, having been around, is that we have learned a lot of the pit-falls. You can always learn what is to be done but it’s harder to learn what shouldn’t be done-what shortcuts shouldn’t be taken-it’s six of one half dozen of the other and they’re not equal but to a newcomer, they look equal, so you always take the wrong six. I think that that’s a big problem. You have to work for an established firm. I wouldn’t go out and hang up my own shingle on day one. You have to attend and listen and participate, and you should optimize your own site. If you started today, because of the competitive nature of the internet in general, you should start optimizing a non-SEO site of your own, and if you can get that ranked, then maybe you’re ready to work your way into the business. But the walk in hang-up of shingles say, “Hi I’m an SEO,” attend a couple conferences, take a course or two, even mine which is spectacular. Even with mine, you’re not ready to necessarily go out and understand how to negotiate a contract with a client. The business end of this you have to learn. What do you do when the client doesn’t answer their phone? How do you handle the Marketing department loves me, but the IT department thinks SEO sucks; how do you handle that? How do you get the customer to speak the same language so that they don’t just start screaming at you every time that you have a phone call with them? How do you manage expectations? How do you build a business? I think that unless you really have some insight to that, you’re going to go up on the wrong path; you’re going to make some assumptions about the industry, or how you do things, that are just wrong. One of the things, for instance, that’s real easy is sales. When you’re selling SEO, you’re not selling anything. The customer is buying, you’re just answering questions. If you try to take a technical person in the SEO industry and sell them something, they’re going to hate you, they’re going to hang up on you, and think that you’re a jerk. They don’t want to be sold. Our industry is not one of selling anybody anything, our industry is one of helping people get ranked, and we do that by answering questions until they say, “Thank you very much. I think I’ll go with you.” But you can’t sell them anything. If you have a hard sell guy it just isn’t going to work. Commission; this is not a commission based business. Selling SEO I think is a big mistake. We have found in times we have somebody, we see what they need, we try to sell them what they really need, and they just shut down. Where as if we listen to them, hear the things they have to say, convince them that it’s what they need until it’s their idea, then we can sell them what we need, and they won’t shut down and we’ll get the sale. But you can’t sell anybody anything. There are no shortcuts through the process; you can’t anticipate what’s going on. So a new guy hanging up a shingle, unless they know that, they’re going to go out and sell things. We can take some of the newcomers in the industry today; a lot of them just shoot themselves in the foot. They’re walking out on thin ice, not knowing they’re on thin ice, and then they’re jumping up and down. I mean, they’re doing dumb things. All that we can do here, for my company, is we can just sit down and watch them. We’ve had a number of people who were established who have taken our ideas, or taken our concepts, or in some cases our property…

MARK: I saw that one site…

BRUCE: Yeah, they massage it, and they publish it as their own, and they still think that, “Hey it was on the internet, therefore it’s free.” We’ve still got those people out there. I think it’s scary. I think it’s annoying for those of us that are getting ripped off, but we can’t help that, there are still people like that on the internet. So if you want to start a business, and you want to do SEO, assume it’s an internship. Assume you have to go somewhere as a journeyman and work your way up through the ranks, take the beatings, find out how to make it work, learn the right way to talk to somebody, learn how to have intuition to know that this one is going to squirt sideways on us if we don’t do something quick about it, as opposed to waiting for it to happen and then you lose the client and destroy your reputation. You’ve got to be really adapted being able to do that. And you make sure you’re doing what you should be doing when you should be doing it.

MARK: It’s not a simple business to start, sounds like.

BRUCE: It’s not a simple business to start. I think everybody, in my opinion truly, everybody should work for somebody else at least three years before they even think about starting something. And even then, the industry three years later is going to be a changed industry.

MARK: Moving target.

BRUCE: It’s a moving target. I teach in my course the fact that behavioral search is going to change everything. The entire SEO focus is ranking. Well, behavioral search means every individual doing a query is going to get different ranking.

MARK: With personalized (search); you log in and it watches you.

BRUCE: Yes. And it’s what you like, and it’s where you go. The query for “java” if you like coffee you’ll get coffee sites, if you like programming you’ll get programming sites, if you like travel you’ll get travel sites; all for the same query for “java.” How do we run a ranking on it and produce any kind of uniform statistic you can measure to? I think within a year the entire SEO industry is going to switch to an analytics based industry. I think Pay-Per-Click is going to be Force the Following, and I don’t think there’s any choice. I think that personalization at the query level, I think that personalized search is going to change everything. I think that what we’re seeing right now is just the tip of the iceberg for millions of localized sites: CPA firms, accountants, lawyers, day spas, people that make money, and a couple mil a year as a localized business should have a localized website. I think we’re going to see over the next two years a great many of those. That’s going to skew the population of every index. What is normal today is not going to be normal when you dump 500 million localized sites on top of the index. The behavior has got to change. The results have got to change, and I think that we are obligated to pay attention to what’s happening, and be able to do localized search. We’ve got to be able to understand it. We’ve got to understand that analytics is the only true measurement of whether you’re getting better or worse at what you’re doing. You can not anticipate or tune for other than I’m going to be a subject matter expert. That becomes your target. You want to rank in a vanilla environment, without any communities, and pray that the right communities match up with your right keywords, and it’s going to become an art again. It’s going to be less science. You’re going to be measuring it with high-end analytics, not garbage stuff. You have to know and trust your analytics tool or you’re not doing it right. I think we’re going to see a significant transformation over the next two years on how people measure success with SEO. It’s no longer going to be, “I measure success with rankings.” It’s only going to be, “I measure success with traffic.” That’s what has to happen. I think that will hold consistent.

MARK: What led you to that conclusion?

BRUCE: Well, I am part owner at a share level with a company called Collarity, which is a behavioral search engine. It’s been out for a couple years. It’s in a few sites. And I know that one of the things that it’s targeting is understanding the behavior of the person doing the search so you can present targeted advertising. We found that you can increase the click through rate on ads, up to four to five times, if the ad is appropriate to the community of the searcher. If you are a soccer mom, we’re not going to give you sports cars; we’re going to give you SUVs. I mean, the click through rate goes up if we can match the product to the community at your end. And when you think about it that means that everybody doing a search is different. So you and I can both search for “Search Engine Optimization” but if you also search a lot on “Pay-Per-Click” and I also search a lot on “Branding” even though we’re sitting here right now typing in “Search Engine Optimization” you and I right now may get different results, if the community bias is the search packet, even if we’re not logged in. Now if that’s the case, what good is ranking?

MARK: Even if we’re not logged in…

BRUCE: Yeah, even if we’re not logged in. What good is that if we get different results? Now, I personally think that the search engines know this. I think they’re not telling anybody, because it’ll freak out a whole bunch of people. It’d wipe out the concept of search engine optimization as people commonly know it. See search engine optimization isn’t search engine ranking; it’s the optimization of content for people who do search. We’ve got to stay to that. We’ve got to make every forum of content the best it can be, and make sure we use words appropriate to the community we are trying to serve, and then we’re going to have to make sure that we are the subject matter expert within that community, both the web page and the video and the news and the blogs and the images maps stock prices, all of the stuff that’s being served up; across the board we have the answers on our websites, and our clients websites, and if we can do that correctly then those sites are going to rank above the people that are just “Me too here’s a web page.” It’s going to really be “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” if it costs a lot of money to do it. Home videos, we can do that. We can figure out how to integrate it, we can do that today. If it waits too long it’ll be real hard to catch up. Early adopters are going to find themselves leap-frogging ahead of everyone else, so a big part of what we’re doing is adopting.

MARK: And it does seem like a lot of those local businesses have something very unique about them, and maybe they haven’t told that story very well in the past, but in the future they’re probably going to end up being very good at telling their unique stories, and they’re going to get found for it, and it’s a value that will stick with them; it’s part of their brand, part of their company, part of their culture, and no one can take that away from them. I think right now the internet doesn’t really acknowledge that as often as it could.

BRUCE: You’re right, as often as it could. I think that there are a couple things that are also going to play: I think that the search engines are going to be motivated, for instance, for mobile search to control it so that the first things you see are going to generate revenue for them. They may not give as many organic results on a mobile device, so that you search for “pizza” my GPS knows you’re in New York or Chicago, and can tell the difference, it knows what street you’re on, what position on the street you’re on, and it can actually tell you the distance of the next five pizza places from you, do you want a map yes or no… and it displays the map right there on your GPS device, and a little bit like Tom-Tom as you walk it measures how you’re doing and guides you right to the pizza place. Well, that pizza place is going to pay for that right? And I expect all of that to really occur within a year. I think that local search is going to change for mobile at that level. I think that local search is going to be rather large. We have a large network through a client that is 40% maybe of all car dealerships in the United States, where their SEO is dealership name, city name, make, model; three, four, five word queries. Where they’re pretty easily able to get ranked for those, the thing is it also totally lines up with the way that people search. If I were anywhere in the United States, at 2am I broke my tooth, the last thing I want to type into Google is “Dentist.” I want to type in “City name 24 hour emergency tooth repair” right? I want to be specific. People looking for things on a local-level are going to search that way. I think we’re going to find a phenomenal opportunity in local search, and early adopters win. And people with, in my opinion, CMS systems that are smart win. And people with analytics that are smart win. And people that can understand how to improve brand, especially at a local level, are going to win. I think there’s an awful lot that has to be done. Architecture is a significant issue; we have to make sure architecture is there. I think we’re going to see companies, especially since the economy is fluctuating so much, I think we are going to see companies starting to entertain the concept of international trade. When the US dollar gets weaker, there’s opportunity.

MARK: It’d be remissive of me, considering last week there was this big news item, it’d be kind of silly to not bring that up, but Microsoft makes a bid on Yahoo! at 63% over their closing price the previous day… any thoughts on that?

BRUCE: Well, Microsoft is pretty smart. I think that Yahoo! has tried and tried and tried and is losing Market share slowly to Google. Google has 90% Market share in other parts of the world, Yahoo! sees it and Yahoo! is concerned about it. Google is doing a lot of things because Google has a lot of Money, and Yahoo is flush. I think that Microsoft has a belief, at least, that their technology for managing bids is really great. They have a higher conversion rate on their Pay-Per-Click ads than any other search engine, on a conversion rate per click basis. If they could take that layer their technology or inner mix their technology with Yahoo’s technology, increase the click-rate and increase the conversion rate, then they have an opportunity to do something nice. Yahoo! Index is a little bit better than the Microsoft Index which has been fighting to get all of these results in there. So that’s something that we have to understand and pay attention to. I think that one of the other pieces of news that most people didn’t pay attention to, is Microsoft I think put in a bid for 1.3 billion to buy Fast Search and Transfer AG, which is the technology that went into the fast search engine which was merged with Inktomi which was merged into Yahoo! Index, and Microsoft is buying that company. So, I think Microsoft is positioning itself for either a merger or a take-over; I think it’s inevitable and since Google is such a big guy, nobody can blame Microsoft as a monopoly, it should go through pretty quickly. I think that what people haven’t started to do yet is recognize the value of AOL. See AOL runs off of the Google Index. The last thing that Google can afford to have happen is for that to switch over to Microsoft; that would be an issue. I think Google needs to retain that. I think that there is a lot of social activity going on. I think Google would be afraid of that. Microsoft has the ability to be a big player, and I think they will.

MARK: And they do have great core technology, but let’s talk about organic for a second. So, Yahoo is out there organically, Microsoft is behind them, Google’s link values and the algorithm seems to just win a whole bunch of people over there – drawing searchers in all the time – how do two bad algorithms come together to be a better algorithm than the leader?

BRUCE: Well, I think it’s going to be hard to guess.

MARK: Well, you’ve been very generous with your time; I really appreciate it, and there may be a follow-up to this in a couple months…

BRUCE: That’d be fine.

MARK: Thank you very much.