Interview with Derrick Wheeler

MARK: So we’re sitting here with Derrick Wheeler at Greg’s Grill in beautiful Bend, Oregon along the river, and we’re just talking about how it got started; when, where, what, who? Who influenced whom? What was your first project? How did you ever get interested in search for crying out loud?

DERRICK: Well that’s easy. I was working in CompUSA in Tigard, Oregon with Marshall Simmonds and Andre Jensen and a bunch of other people in a retail computer store. Marshall quit; he met some guy that came in to look at computers and the guy was telling him how he worked at this internet marketing company; Marshall got all excited and ended up quitting CompUSA and working for the company Multi-Media Marketing Group, which was John Audette’s company.

MARK: Who was this guy he met in the store?

DERRICK: I can’t remember his name but he was one of the first employees of MMG, but he wasn’t there by the time I got there, so I don’t know who he was; but there was a guy in CompUSA buying some computers for John Audette’s company, and Marshall met him because Marshall was selling him computers, and Marshall ended up getting an interview and working there and it was in Lake Oswego, Oregon next to a sewage treatment facility.

MARK: Nice. Fancy Digs.

DERRICK: There were some other guys that worked there, Adam Sherk, a guy by the name of Matt Hawken who’s still in the industry and lives in Bend – he moved away and then came back, and some other folks. Marshall kept telling me, “Oh you should check out this company, you’d love it. It’s cutting edge.” He tried explaining it to me and I didn’t really get it or understand what it was. I went in there for the interview, they offered me a job and they said in two weeks we are moving the company from Lake Oswego to Bend, Oregon, and I accepted the job. I actually heard that Marshall was making a little bit more than me from someone and I got some advice to go back to John Audette and say, “Hey I’d like your offer, but here’s how much I’d like…” you know, I tried to do my first salary negotiation.

MARK: How’d that go?

DERRICK: Not good. John is a smart guy. He knew I wanted to work there; he knew it was a good career move for me. He said, “We want people who are excited about the company, who are willing to move to Bend, and maybe it’s not the right opportunity for you.” And I wrote back immediately and was like, “Oh no, no, no, I’m good!” So then I drove to Bend from Portland one day and looked at Bend, got lost, and then drove back after being here for 15 minutes. I didn’t know what I was doing; I just had a day off of work.

MARK: Now were you married?

DERRICK: No, but I thought, “yeah it sounds good.” I used to ski Mt. Bachelor every once and awhile during spring break. So I accepted and moved here and lived in a Motel for a week. Our office was near the BBC above… I forget what it’s called. Now it’s above Silverado, there used to be a barbershop there. So we had this loft up there, and at the same time I was hired Heather Macklehaney was hired. She is Jeremy Sanchez’s wife from Global Strategies. So it was Marshall, Me, Adam Sherk, JP Audette who is also named John Audette – it’s one of John’s sons, Vicki Audette, and Matt Hawkin I think were the core groups of the Bend group. There were some people that have worked there and then not worked there but I don’t know their names or anything. And then Marshall and I got a place together, so we became roommates. We started hanging out a lot, we worked together a lot, and we became good friends.

MARK: And you knew each other from Portland.

DERRICK: And we knew each other from Portland. And then I started using a contractor – we had this top 100 submission service, it was one of the first. Basically John went out and collected all of the search engine and directory submissions pages, and came up with all of the criteria for what you need to be included in this engine or directory. He offered it as a free thing online, where people could go and fill it out themselves and submit to all of these engines, in fact when submissions was pretty much all you could do… into a directory, or even submitting to Excite, so that they would come crawl you.

MARK: I remember that list. I remember the top 100 thing.

DERRICK: Yeah. And then one of our services was that we would actually do the submissions for you, which could be anywhere between a four or five hour project. I think we started charging like $500, maybe $1,000 or something, but there was a lot of value in it for clients that have this website that now was linked to all of these directories, and was in all of these search engines. We had link building as a service. We had forums monitoring and posting, so we would monitor industry forums on our clients behalf and post, or recommend that they post if it was appropriate. We never spammed as far as we knew, sometimes we would accidentally send something that people took as a spam and we would apologize. John had a newsletter called I-Sales which had a lot of subscribers; I think some of the founders of Amazon were subscribers. A lot of people that were just starting up that ended up being big huge websites were on that list. That’s kind of how he built his business, by getting referrals through this discussion list that he moderated. He built an online community.

MARK: How did you get drawn in? What was really cool and fun about this?

DERRICK: Why I left CompUSA to go work there? It was a salary position, not an hourly position. It was more of a professional career in a new field. It was not retail, and it was just a chance to move further away from the family – the parents (laughs). Keep moving further and further away until they can’t just show up! No, but I didn’t even know what I was getting into. Then I became a project manager. I would do link-building campaigns all day, and that was before search engines used links as a relevance factor. So we were just building links for traffic. That after a while just became monotonous, and it didn’t really produce a lot of results, especially if you were contracted with a client to do fifty hours of link building per month for a year; at the end of that year, where are you going to be submitting and trying to get links? The internet wasn’t that big at that time. A lot of our clients were big corporate clients that didn’t want to exchange links, they just wanted to get a free link, so there wasn’t a lot of value in it for the person that was doing the linking unless it was just a great resource, and there were a couple great resources that we had as clients that the link building campaigns were phenomenal. One was like a death calculator; you fill out all of this information about your life style and it would give you the year that you were most likely to die based on all of these national averages and statistics, based on how many drinks you had, if you wear your seat belt, all of that stuff. That got a lot of links. The first website out of Vietnam got a lot of links; a lot of Vietnam Veteran sites linked to it because even though they fought in this war against Vietnam, they really loved the country, so they would link to this site. Those were some of the kinds of campaigns we worked on. I actually didn’t get into search specifically until John Audette had Danny Sullivan fly to Bend and do a few hours of training with all of the employees, to tell us about SEO and how search engines work so we could then start providing it as a service. I remember Marshall and me driving home that day, and I said, “Wow, that’s really cool. I want to head up that new service.” But I didn’t say anything to John; I just thought maybe he would pick me. I think Marshall went out and promoted himself and said, “Hey I really want this,” and that was another lesson for me is if you want something you have to go get it. So I collaborated with Marshall on search because we worked on a lot of the same projects, so I was learning about search. I managed all of the top 100 type of work, I managed all of our link-building campaigns, and I soon took over as online promotions director which was basically everything but search; Marshall headed up search. And then Marshall hired Detlev Johnson and then he hired a guy named James Gunn, who now works at Intrapromote, which is another internet marketing company that I worked for for a little while. James Gunn; he is a really good guy. Then I started this program called MMG Express. Basically, we wanted to offer our services to other agencies, and be kind of the production arm, but we didn’t feel that anybody could just come in and sell our services because they are very specialized – you can’t just sell search and not understand it. So we had all of these people apply to become partners. They flew into Bend, Oregon and we did two days of training on our services, and then they went back out, put stamps on their sites that said they were certified MMG Express partner, and they would re-sell our services. In the meantime, we were getting so many leads that we couldn’t follow up with, so part of the agreement was that we would distribute those leads out to our partners so they could follow up with them. No commitment that they needed to use us for the services but just kind of on honor system; if there is an opportunity to use us, go ahead. Well there was one particular partner Intrapromote that really stood out and really did a good job, and these two guys used to be clients of mine when I worked at another company; they started a company and they started getting most of the good leads because they were doing a really good job servicing their clients and getting results and working with us. Then MMG was acquired. Some of those partners were Declan Dunn, he’s a big affiliate marketer…

MARK: What’s his name?

DERRICK: Declan Dunn. He was really big on the affiliate marketing thing back in the late 90s. I don’t know if he still is; he was one of the first people to write books on affiliate marketing. They were pretty significant names in internet marketing at the time but now nobody has probably ever heard of them, but they were some of our partners. Some of those partners are still out there. I think Sherrie might have been a partner, I’m not sure if she was or not. I think she came to the partner trainings, but I don’t think we ever did any business. She did come to Bend one time to meet with us, and she also had a service called Directory Enhancement that she wanted to have us take a look at and we provided some feedback on that. So we kind of collaborated with her a lot too. She used to say that John Audette was the reason she got into search to begin with; she always gave him a lot of credit for her career, so that’s another tie back to Bend.

MARK: Wow, she doesn’t say that anymore?

DERRICK: I don’t know that she gives credit to anybody for anything anymore, but anyway she was involved there for awhile, and I know her and Marshall shared information back and forth, so she kind of helped him along in his career too by providing him some insights into different projects and different things like that.

MARK: Did you stick with it through the acquisition?

DERRICK: No, Marshall left to go work at; he got the big job. That left his “head of SEO” position open, and at that point John Audette had hired Bill Hunt, and Bill headed up both Marshall’s department and my department, so we both reported to Bill Hunt who then reported to John. I think at that point we had already been acquired by Outrider, so I think Marshall left either right before or right after we were acquired. I basically took over search at that point. I worked with Detlev; he headed up the search, I was online promotion director, and then someone else headed up the other gorilla marketing promotional stuff. That’s really when that MMG Express program started taking off and we started signing up a lot of partners, bringing in another round of partners to train, I don’t even remember who all of them were.

MARK: Do you remember the Cascade Conference?

DERRICK: Yep, the Cascade Conference, we did that. We created a little band; I played the bongos – that was fun. Who did we have? The guy from Iconacast, he presented at that conference; I can’t remember his name.

MARK: We can Google it. Or I guess I can Microsoft Live for it.

DERRICK: Life Search it, yeah. Anyway, so then I left and I went to go to Intrapromote who was an MMG Express partner. The MMG Express partnership just faded away at that point, and I wanted the focus exclusively on search; I didn’t want to do all of the other stuff, like link building for example. So I got into search, learned all that I could, you know I already had a good foundation and considered myself pretty knowledgeable but I actually helped Intrapromote build out there whole search offering from what the proposals looked like, how we implemented, all the deliverables, the reports, I managed a lot of our campaigns; I did a lot of our sales pitches, so I pitched American Express from my closet because my dogs were barking, because at this time I had to work from home and my dogs were barking outside like crazy; I was in a closet with the door shut pitching American Express for business against all of the other – you know Iprospect, and all those guys, and we ended up getting it.

MARK: (Laughs)

DERRICK: They were a client for the whole rest of the time I was there, which was probably a little over two years. We worked with The Los Angeles Times, and we just had a lot of really good clients that we got there. I think it was because we put together a really good service. The problem was that we were limited on resources as far as, we were a small team, we weren’t very scalable, we had no technology of our own, and then that’s when MarketLeap came along who was Molmic Michael Poloin, who you know. And what I liked about them was that they actually had a developer, so they were creating some technology which I thought would be great because I wanted a more scalable approach to SEO and I wanted tools to help SEO specialists get their job done better without clicking around through a site just to try to analyze it. So that is another tie back to Bend is that Paul Owen the founder of MarketLeap was in Bend, when he was with Block.

MARK: Right. I was working with BLOK… Keith, Dave, Michelle, and Paul…

DERRICK: And Noel had been a client of mine when he worked at Catholic Healthcare West, so the link development campaign with the life expectancy calculator was a campaign for the company Noel worked at. We kind of built a relationship over the years; we always know we wanted to work together again but the timing just wasn’t right. Jeremy had just left MarketLeap; so Jeremy Sanchez worked at MarketLeap for a little while. And then Keith Boswell and I both started at MarketLeap at the same time and then it seemed like that was when we really started getting some traction. We really spent a lot of time improving our crawler, so we could analyze sites better. We had some free tools where people got to know our company because of our free tools and they already had a really good experience with us through those free tools so by the time we were pitching clients they already knew exactly who we were, they had heard of us for years from our free tools and now they were really glad to give us their business and we were able to build that, that was acquired by Digital Impact, Digital Impact was acquired by Acxiom, and then a year or two later is when I went to Microsoft.

MARK: And Acxiom is still around…

DERRICK: Acxiom is still here. They have I think ten or so people in the office in the Mill Point complex. G5, they’re a search marketing company in Bend. Global Strategies, Bill Hunt and Jeremy Sanchez’s company, they have an office here in Bend, so they have employees here. And there’s probably a bunch of them that I’ve never even heard of that offer SEO out of Bend.

MARK: Yeah, or they worked with someone who got their start here. It seems like there are a lot of companies… like Intrapromote was an early MMG Express partner…

DERRICK: Yeah, and they were virtual, they still are virtual. One of them was in Ohio, and one guy was in Chicago. They were both clients of mine when I worked at MMG but then they went off on their own and started their own business, which is very typical. Once people get a taste for SEO and Internet marketing they want to start their own internet marketing company, right, because people were thinking well I can either go out into the Gold Rush and dig gold, or I can sell axes and picks to the people who are trying to dig the gold – which was kind of Internet marketing at the time. There were a lot of really crazy businesses that came across our project list during those years, but we never had a problem getting business, if anything we built companies on the leads that we could have just thrown away, Intrapromote is a perfect example of that.

MARK: Right. What do you like about it?

DERRICK: Well I’ve taken the Strengths Finder 2.0, it’s a book, and when you get the book you take a test. The reason I did that was because I was in a leadership training program, Acxiom, and it identifies your top five strengths. So I’ve kind of gone back and thought, “Why would I get into SEO based on my strengths?” One of my strengths is “Restorative” which means I like to fix things that are broke, so that’s perfect. Another one is “Strategic,” which fits into search engine marketing because you have to think strategically about how you want to approach different challenges. “Individualistic” which means I can identify strengths in others, which is why I wanted to get into a leadership role at Acxiom, so I could put a team together and make sure that everyone was doing what they enjoyed and what they were best at. “Futuristic” is a strength, so I’m always thinking about the future and trying to anticipate where things are going, which I think is very good in this industry, so it’s almost like to me the future is like a painting if I sit down and think about it, I feel like I can really tap into where things are going. I’m not always right, but I think that’s a part of it. So, if I’m always thinking about the future this is a perfect industry to be in.

MARK: What do you see out there?

DERRICK: I see the real challenge is the constant threat of spam, according to one of the key notes at that SMX conference, the reason that Google became so popular and had more relevant results than AltaVista, was because AltaVista only used on the page factors, and after a while when spammers really started gaining ground, AltaVista’s results almost became useless they were so bad. Google came along and used off the page factors which gave them better results, and it took spammers longer to figure out how to get in the system. So I see the combating of spam as a critical factor in the future of organic search as a “crawling the net and trying to index the entire web” issue. If spam gets too bad, and the engines can’t combat it, then what I see is there’s going to be some way of regulating inclusion into the search engines. They’re going to have to be trusted sources of information that the engines know, or of a high quality where they’re feeding data into the search engines; the fee structure of that – no idea. I don’t think it’s going to be cost per click, it might be per page or something, but if the spam gets in the way it’s going to have to go to more of a regulated inclusion model. That’s just something I potentially see. The sharing of data, the API thing, is going to just blow up the whole innovation; when you can tap into different data sources and create your own applications, you can now create something unique just by tapping into all of these APIs; that’s going to create a lot of innovation. I still see the fundamental “best practices of SEO” standing the test of time, which is quality content, solid architecture, and having something that’s unique and worthy of people going to and seeking out, which creates links.

MARK: Right. This is kind of funny, I was talking to someone about title tags like in 1997, and here 11 years later we’re still talking to people about title tags and then wondering, “Well where’s search going?” Well, I guess until the world gets all of its title tags straight…

DERRICK: 95% of the projects I’ve worked on in my entire time at Microsoft, other than getting to understand the organization and getting to understand the site, are about getting the fundamentals in place. Most websites never get beyond that, unless they have a very narrow keyword market that is very competitive, then they need to not focus on the best practices, they need to focus on building links, which means they need to have something super unique, super cool, super interesting, that draws links into it – which is kind of the whole “link bait” concept. Otherwise it’s really difficult to get rankings for those very popular competitive keyword phrases.

MARK: “Refinance your home.”

DERRICK: “Refinance your home.” You could build one silly little app and probably show up for “Refinance your home,” or you can spend years building the site, getting the good content, building up links to all kinds of different pages, or you can build one silly little YouTube video and maybe end up with a ranking now-a-days with universal search. So depending on your keyword market, that’s going to drive your overall strategy; how much time you have, how many resources you have… but it’s still the basic fundamentals: quality content, solid structure, you can be indexed, and then something that makes people want to link to you. I think it is going to be a while before that changes. Having user influenced search results, you know, it’s all going to be open to spam that’s the whole thing. It’s like as soon as people figure out how to spam Google with links to the point of which links can no longer be used as a factor, there is going to have to be some new way of…

MARK: Google is going to stomp that. Do you have any theories about the Florida 2003…?

DERRICK: I didn’t even see a negative impact of that. Until I was reading about it I had no idea it even happened. Maybe it’s my own stupidity…

MARK: Or maybe you were on a project that just didn’t get hit.

DERRICK: Yeah, I think that was it. I think just none of our clients got hit. They were all just normal brand brands, so maybe they weren’t going after Los Angeles Times and American Express. They weren’t really doing anything wrong. Again, most of my work with those guys was just to try to get them to implement the most basic techniques. They weren’t doing anything over the top. It’s like they could barley do just the basic level, so if Florida was about over-optimization, is that what people were saying, “You were over-optimized.”?

MARK: Yeah for dot theory.

DERRICK: None of our clients were over-optimized. If anything they were barely scratching the surface on how much optimization they could do.

MARK: What about that whole link farm thing? It seemed like last year Google kind of put the hammer down.

DERRICK: Yeah, I’ve always hated link farms. In fact, when I was with Acxiom, we didn’t do any link building campaigns, because unless you had something special that you wanted to promote that was worthy of linking you might as well not even bother other than just your normal places where you can get links: your directories, some of your niche directories or topic related sites.

MARK: And I’ve seen tools. This seems fair to me: you have a list of competitors and you go out there and you analyze their back links and you look at that list and you go “Oh gosh, well I didn’t know about those guys. We belong there too.”

DERRICK: Yeah you can spend five hours doing that, but then when you start charging people five hours at 200 an hour, 1,000 dollars, to get two links? It might be worth it now-a-days but I don’t know. It was very difficult for me to get into the whole link building thing. One, I was burned out on it when I was with MMG; I just got tired of the whole link building thing. Now with social media I think it changes link development.

MARK: Where do you hang out with social media?

DERRICK: I haven’t had all that much time to get to know it all that well. Being at Pubcon and SMX has really opened my eyes to it, so I started updating all of my own LinkedIn accounts, and Facebook just for my own personal socializing. But the whole link bait thing, where you put out an article that’s like a top ten list of something related to your industry and people can dig it and they can rise to the top, and that will generate links to your site, that to me is just a very sophisticated way of doing online PR. Link building is really online PR. That’s how I view it. You need to understand the different publications you’re trying to get in, and understand the ways of getting in there and creating content that’s going to get you in there. A lot of people send out press releases as just an announcement, but press releases are suppose to be like a news story so it’s really easy for a news editor to just take it and put it in there and maybe cut off the bottom of it so it can become an article, so link bait is about creating an article. It used to be that in the old days you would send out your articles or information about your site launch to all of the editors of different publications that sign up to receive it. It was a way of distributing your site announcements to editors, and it was up to them if they wanted to write something or not about your site launching, but now you want to get those articles in all of these social media sites, verses getting them in something like The New York Times. If I were starting my own SEO company, I would have my technical group that focused on site architecture, I would have my content group that focused on copy writing and titles and tags and all that, and then I would have my what I would call “Online PR” which would mostly be like a link building arm. They would focus on social media sites, making relationships with reporters online that covered topics related to my business, that’s another way of getting links. So I would basically have those three arms. Then I would have a reporting arm that was project managers, account managers, and then some kind of reporting platform.

MARK: To be like a consistent face of the results for the customer.

DERRICK: Yeah, and that’s what we tried to do. We just didn’t have the link building arm at Acxiom. The sales guys always wanted us to have it because clients asked for it, but I came up with this thing, “link building starts at home,” get your internal links working for you first, if you can’t get that under control don’t even bother going out and trying to get links. I’ve kind of changed my philosophy on that a little bit, it really depends on what you’re trying to achieve, but that was kind of my way of saying, “we don’t have a service right now, but I don’t want to lose your business…

MARK: (Laughs)

DERRICK: because chances are you really don’t need it yet, you’ve got all these other problems to deal with.” If you try to build a bunch of links to a site that’s crappy, you’re just wasting your time.

MARK: Right.

DERRICK: That’s my philosophy.

MARK: Yeah, you better build something innovative that people want to link to.

DERRICK: Yeah, I’m not going to go out and do a link building campaign for your site the way it is right now. Get the fundamentals in place, then later if you want to talk about a link building strategy, like what kind of content you need to have in order to get links or what kind of application you should build or what kind of a wigit can you offer, that takes a lot of time to come up with that kind of stuff. I don’t want to have that get in the way of them getting the fundamentals in place. Because you can get easily distracted by all of these link building ideas, and then miss out on all of the fundamentals. Which may work, but your keyword market will be smaller if you focus only on link building because your relevance is dictated mostly by your links not all your pages of content. So if you do that strategy, you want a very narrow keyword market, but most of our sites were huge; huge architecture issues, complex dynamic inter-related product linking issues, bread crumb linking, dynamic bread crumb trails that created weird search result. You know, Mrs. Packman game, the bread crumb trail would say, “home health and fitness exercise machines,” because the breadcrumb trail was based on how you got there, not that the product lived in a category, so you had infinite ways of getting to that product through navigations, you had infinite breadcrumb trails, so you had infinite numbers of duplicate content pages, and whichever one the engine decided to index, that could be the one, so I search for Mrs. Packman Game, I go to that particular page from the search result, I click on it, and I want to find more video games but the breadcrumbs say “health and fitness” well, I got to the site but now I can’t find more of what I was looking for because of the stupid navigation, let alone it impacts ranking because now you’ve got this one page of content that’s duplicated hundreds of times and each one only has one link to it, and then you have a crawling issue because at some point the crawler is going to realize it’s caught up in this infinite number of URLs and stop. They might have missed half of a site of quality content because of all of these dups. So those kinds of issues are pretty complex and can create a whole multitude of problems. I was dealing with a lot of those kinds of issues, so I wasn’t focused on links with those kinds of issues.

MARK: Do you remember any of the dates when you got started? Do you remember when you moved to Bend?

DERRICK: I moved to Bend in ’97.

MARK: Spring, summer, winter, fall?

DERRICK: It might have been summer. It would have been the same time Marshall did, so whatever he said.

MARK: I can’t remember. I’m 47 now, but we can look it up.

DERRICK: (Laughs) Whatever Marshall says, unless my times earlier then it’s one week before his. ’96 or ’97.

MARK: And your first day of work was in Bend?

DERRICK: My first day was in Bend, yep. I lived in Westward Ho Motel, and I probably wouldn’t want to live there now.

MARK: When you’re up there with Microsoft do they put you up at the Westward Ho in Seattle?


MARK: (Laughs)

DERRICK: I was on Mercer Island for 60 days, and then I was just north of campus for another 60 days, and we decided to do hotels and go up for short bursts for now, at least until we figure something out.