Interview with Damien Finlay

MARK: We are sitting here with Damien Finlay. It’s Thursday, March 19th, of SES New York. We just got done with a site clinic; it was great. Damien did a great job.

DAMIEN: Thank you.

MARK: We just wanted to learn about your beginnings, what year you got started in search, things like that.

DAMIEN: Like many in the industry, I kind of fell into it. My background has been in a lot of government work and large corporate work in database design and development. I was an Oracle DBA before I became an SEO; I was doing a lot of development there. I was looking for a new opportunity, a new change of course, and in 2004 I went to visit some friends in Edmonton, Alberta, and I saw this great opportunity with this small company Epiar, and they were looking for a Search Analyst and Account Manager at the time. I was like, “You know, search engine technology has always been very cool to me,” but I never really understood what it involved. So I was like, “This sounds like a great opportunity.” I was fortunate enough to get the job, and I’ve been with Epiar ever since, growing within the company to where I am now as managing director. I’ve helped, I believe, the company grow in the time frame that I’ve been with them too. So it’s been four great years, and here’s to 40 more.

MARK: And you came at it from a database architectural background?

DAMIEN: That’s right, a lot of database architecture background. I actually studied Political Science in Commerce in a university and then did post-graduate work in IT and Database Design, so my background is pretty much all over the place. To be honest, I think that search is where I’ll stay. I’m still pretty young at 35 but I still think that with the evolution of search we’re at the very beginning of it in terms of marketing the technology, the exposure, what’s happening with the online world today… it’s just been fascinating and I think we’re in for a great ride.

MARK: So what is one of the biggest attractions for you in search? What’s fun about it? What are the things you’re doing where you lose track of time?

DAMIEN: There are so many things. I think that the fast pace is phonetic in how quickly things move; that’s always been great. Every day it seems like there has been a new announcement or there is a new player in the game, and obviously you know and everybody knows that Google and the majors are dominating in the space but even within the major search engines, they are always rolling out a new feature or some new development that has been fascinating. So, I love that fast pace, the phonetic pace. The flip side to that is that I like how clients react when you actually get them success, whether it’s the large enterprises or the smaller clients. With smaller clients, I think you get the best satisfaction because you know that you can level the playing field in search and we’ve had some fantastic success with some smaller clients and it’s been very rewarding to see how well they are doing.

MARK: That’s awesome. So 2004, Oracle DBA, all of a sudden it’s time to learn about search engines, where did you go to learn?

DAMIEN: You know, it’s amazing how little if anything I knew about search. I was a Googler. I love Google, but my previous search history to that was Hotbot, AltaVista… going way back, and I loved AskJeeves, or Ask. I gradually moved into Google and loved Google too. But I didn’t understand anything about search or how it works. When I went to work at Epiar, there was a lot of fun job training. I was fully immersed spending all my days just learning, learning, learning.

MARK: Who was your mentor?

DAMIEN: My mentor at the time I guess was Ken Jurina, the president of the company. We kind of marched to our own drum at Epiar where we want to be making our own strides within the industry, and we’ve done that. But at the same time you look at the thought leaders of who are behind search, and who I followed and read of course you know Matt Cutts has been with Google for awhile. If the man opens his mouth and says anything it’s always of importance. Then you look at guys like Danny Sullivan of course, and Chris Sherman, and Rand Fishkin – I really like his blog and the work that he is doing at SEOmoz. From there I branch out. I follow Jakob Nielsen for usability and some of his stuff is a little bit out there, but at the same time it always comes back to a very common sense approach. Seth Goden has been amazing; I’ve read all of his books religiously since they’ve come into the search world and I follow his stuff as much as I can. There are just so many great people in this industry as well, and everybody has their own opinion but everybody also has some fascinating ideas on the whole industry in general.

MARK: So in 2004 when you were first getting started, who was one of the first blogs you signed up for, or what were the websites you were reading?

DAMIEN: Back then I was looking at a lot of daily newsletters from MediaPost, Marketing Sherpa, all of those. I was on the forums a fair bit, so Jill Whalen’s High Ranking Forum, I always looked up to what she had to say and still [do] today. Rand Fishkin as well, it’s been fascinating to see how far he has grown in the four years. When he was first blogging at SEOmoz to where he is today, I think he is a real thought leader in the industry. Definitely Danny’s blog as well at Search Engine Watch and what he was doing. I also like the other side of things so I was always wondering what Dave Nailer was up to, guys like that. BlueHatSEO, I find to be a fantastic blog, he doesn’t blog enough but when he does it’s always been interesting.

MARK: These new folks are coming on. They want to learn and they’re starting off tomorrow where you were four or five years ago. How would you recommend they take this thing on?

DAMIEN: Some of them think that they’re already late to the game and I always have to caution them and say, “Look search has been around now for ten or twelve years, but really in the last five to eight years has it grown into its own industry.” I’m thinking in a time span of marketing that has been going on traditionally for hundreds if not thousands of years, we’re at the very early beginning, so there is certainly a lot of information, so don’t be overwhelmed. There is a steep learning curve initially, but once you actually figure out “Ok, what is a page title,” or “What is a meta tag” and you get beyond that within a couple of days in fact. Then you start talking about the technical aspects of a site architecture, on page optimization and off page optimization, and social media. There is so much you can learn if you are interested in a particular area and you think you can find your niche then I would certainly recommend that. You don’t have to be all things to all people. If you think that you have a good analytical mind or background, then maybe you will want to focus on keyword research, and that’s where your strengths will lie. If you’re vocal and creative and engaging then maybe social media is an area that you would like to excel in. Try to pick up as much information as you can, and the mind in search I think is a sponge when it starts off, so absorb absorb absorb. Then try to figure out what your niche is or what you want your niche to be, focus on that and you can truly excel.

MARK: Everything has its obstacles. Do you have a personal story of some wall that you hit that you pushed through?

DAMIEN: Yeah, there are so many I’m trying to figure out one. We’ve had some fantastic success at Epiar, but like any small start up there is always growing pains. I guess it’s not really indicative of search itself, but of pretty much every business out they’re starting up and you have info structure demands verses hiring demands, verses how you get the clients you want, how you get the exposure that you need, how you get your brand out there to be visible. There are many different challenges there, many successes as well; we’re still growing. In the four years that I’ve been with the company we’ve tripled in size.

MARK: How many employees are there today?

DAMIEN: We’re at nine now with Epiar and we have a sister company that handles design and development called the Top Draw and there is another nine there, so we’re at just under 20. We are still a small firm but we are growing very well. We’ve had a number of accolades. We are fortunate that in addition to myself speaking at these conferences, Ken Jurina, the president, as well as Curtis Doick the senior account manager have also had the opportunity to speak at conferences and different engagements, which has done very well for us in getting our name out there and promoting ourselves. The client’s success has come with that as well. We’ve worked very hard at coming up with a business model for services that we offer that we find as very transparent and accountable to the client, they like that, and the success has come with that. When we can actually tell the client exactly what we’re going to do, implement that work, and then deliver. The majority of our business comes from client referrals, so I think that’s a real testament to the work that we do.

MARK: Excellent. So in the terms of conferences, there are a lot of them out there, certainly there are educational opportunities here. Would you recommend that new folks try the conference for a fit?

DAMIEN: Definitely try to pick one near-by. We are at the largest one right now here in New York and I was talking to Stuart Queely, who’s a coordinator, the other day and Stuart was telling me there are like 7,000 people at this conference in attendees, exhibitors, and trade show attendees. I was like, “Wow.”

MARK: That’s amazing.

DAMIEN: Three weeks ago I was at SMX West and the numbers there were well over 2,000 as well. So you can really see how quickly these conferences are growing. For the first time this year there is an SEM conference that is focused entirely in Canada called SEM Canada, that’s taking off and going to be in Calgary. There is going to be a fantastic turn out there. I think that already the organizers have a great list of speakers and keynotes.

MARK: Who’s putting that one on? I haven’t heard of it.

DAMIEN: Lorick Hallow is putting that on and it’s going to be in Calgary in September I believe. Like I said, it’s going to be a great line up of speakers. It won’t be entirely focused on Canada of course; it should be looking at attendees from the US as well. But there are so many conferences out there. You can pretty much find one in your area very easily and I would recommend for any one new to the industry to try to take advantage of that.

MARK: You’ve got books, Seth Goden, websites, conferences, it’s huge, and it’s just getting started. It sounds like a lot of opportunity.

DAMIEN: I know, so much opportunity. I mentioned earlier about what fascinates me about this frenetic pace in this industry, but also the opportunity that’s there. There is just so much opportunity. In many respects the big brands have been late comers. Some of them are still spending their money on traditional ad spend and traditional media, and gradually you’re seeing more and more of that money being moved over to online or digital media opportunities. The playing field is somewhat level, obviously budgets are going to be different across the board, but I think the opportunity there for a newcomer to make their mark in this industry is just outstanding. I think as well as on the client’s side for a small business owner, or mid-sized company, or the large-scale enterprise level companies, we’re all in this.

MARK: Huge growth. Well that is really encouraging. This is beautiful. I can’t think of anything else to ask you. We see the same thing, tons of growth.

DAMIEN: Yeah, we see the growth. We see the opportunities.

MARK: Lots of folks still aren’t awake yet and that means there is room.

DAMIEN: They’re not and you’re right. The early adopters are on board and moving forward and it’s great when you get to work with a client who is that forward thinking; who sees the opportunity in search and can take advantage of it. As search grows and the industry grows, the educational opportunities certainly grow as well. You certainly see now in college and university level the introduction of E-Commerce Marketing and even SEO and Search Engine Marketing. I think that we are still early in stages of education with what people know about search, but at the same time, as that grows the industry will grow too.

MARK: I just thought of something, have you ever run across a short list of CMS “peeves”? Where you run into junk and you say, “Oh, I wish this problem would go away.”

DAMIEN: Yeah, I tell you every CMS out there has its own strengths and weaknesses. There are many content management systems, I’m sure you know, that have great usability aspects. They are not always as search engine friendly as possible. That’s certainly a major component that anyone out there who is planning on building a CMS, or purchasing one for their company, needs to consider these things; how search engine friendly is it? Does it have URL rewriting capabilities? What kind of access do you have to change page titles and meta information? These are always good factors to consider when you’re looking at one and I would certainly recommend for anyone out there who is considering purchasing one or building one, to make sure that it is as search engine friendly as possible. That seems to be the major components these days that need to be considered.

MARK: Yeah and those things you mentioned seem to be almost obvious points, but yet it’s surprising how many of them don’t get that point.

DAMIEN: That’s right. There are a number of open source content management systems out there that have search engine friendly components, that anyone with a CMS you would think would be taking advantage of it, but many of them just aren’t; they aren’t using the add-ins. At the same time there are a number of very good proprietary systems out there whether it’s a small-medium size scale, or the large scale enterprise level. We’ve run into problems in the past with at the enterprise level where you would think those would be the ones that would be the most search engine friendly and in many cases they are the ones that are the least. So there are certainly a lot of factors that are necessary to consider there.

MARK: And I know you have some concerns with proprietary systems. What kinds of problems have you seen customers have?

DAMIEN: The biggest concern with proprietary systems, I think, is the fact that when a decision is made to purchase a proprietary system you have to make sure that you’re considering not just the short term, but the long term; the future of what your site is going to be held on five or ten years down the road and what kind of support that the company that you’re purchasing the content management system off of is going to provide. Are you just buying an off the shelf product that will work great right now but in two years with search changing so much, considerations that we have yet to even think of, how are they going to fit in? Is their support going to be there from the company that you’re purchasing the CMS from, the CMS provider? That’s always a concern. With open source, for instance, that may not be as much of a concern because you know it’s always going to be around and it’s free so people will always be working on it. But then that also opens up a whole plethora of concerns as well.

MARK: Yeah, I’ve seen people who lock onto the term “open source” and think, “Open,” how great that is.

DAMIEN: Exactly.

MARK: And then they have a programmer code for a year and then that guy leaves. How open are they?

DAMIEN: That’s right exactly. One of the biggest features of open source CMS is that everyone says they’re customizable, so once you actually get an open source CMS and then customize it, well how open is it? You’re right.

MARK: Plug in architecture might be a critical piece. What is it like? How good is it?

DAMIEN: That’s right.

MARK: I’m like you, I love this stuff. I see a ton of opportunity. We are working with customers and we also want to help the folks that are just getting started; give them some encouragement and some good pass-forward how to get on it, because it is a ton of fun. And it’s not for everyone. There is plenty of room for consumers of search, but there is also lots of room to help make it happen.

DAMIEN: Yeah. As early in our progression in this industry, I’ve already seen people leave it. People have moved on and progressed into different areas, whether its internet commerce or they’ve gotten out of the business entirely. So as fascinating as it is for both of us in terms of growth and opportunity, some people have already left and I think that will be the case with any industry; people will fall in and fall out and on it goes. Yeah, I’m just fascinated by the opportunity.

MARK: It seems like things like Search Bash would help keep you in the…

DAMIEN: (Laughs) Search Bash, yeah, God love Webmaster Radio. What a party last night.

MARK: (Laughs) That was crazy.

DAMIEN: You’re right. Coming from the background that I have with government and large corporate enterprise, I find that the networking opportunities within search are just fascinating. Everybody is friendly. Everybody is in it together, and you share a laugh and a story and a beer, and commensurate over client experiences or talk about successes, and there is a pat on the back. Everyone laughs and has a great time.

MARK: Well you’ve been really generous with your time, I truly appreciate it. Thank you again. If a follow up is needed, I’ll just give you a jingle up there in Alberta, Canada.

DAMIEN: Yeah, up in Alberta, Canada. I’m headed back to the outpost tonight. I’m praying that the snow is gone.

MARK: So it’s still called the great white North?

DAMIEN: Still the great white North and there’s a reason why it’s great and there is a reason why it’s white.

MARK: (Laughs) Thanks again.

DAMIEN: Thank you. I appreciate your time today. It was great.