Interview with Jill Whalen

MARK: So, how are you doing?

JILL: Good how are you?

MARK: Good. Well, I live in a climate that is about 17 degrees right now, but I’m in California today where it’s in the 60’s, so I’m feeling pretty good.

JILL: Well, that’s good. Yeah, we’re all rainy and gross here.

MARK: Now, what part of the country are you in?

JILL: I’m near Boston.

MARK: Boston, OK. So I assume that you will be at the SES New York?

JILL: I will, yes.

MARK: Is that an easy show for you to get to?

JILL: Oh yeah, that’s a simple one. There’s a nice bus that goes straight from here to there that makes it easier than trying to fly.

MARK: Nice. Well, what we’re doing is a series of articles about the History of SEO, how people get started, what’s attractive about it, what some of those early successes and early challenges looked like; there’s a couple things: one is to really get a grip on those early days, and then secondly be able to tell that story to someone who is just getting involved. Your name came up, and so I hope you don’t mind to take great notes, I would like to record our phone call.

JILL: Sure.

MARK: And we’re going to transcribe it and build an article series out of it, so with no further ado I’d love to get started…

MARK: I’m here with Jill Whalen; she’s the president of High Rankings, a long standing SEO firm out of Boston. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?

JILL: Sure. I got started back in 1993 or ’94, but not really professionally for others until ’95, so it was before there was the term “search engine optimization” or “SEO” or anything like that. Really I just got started because I had my own parenting website, and wanted to learn how to get that found in the search engines for related phrases like “parenting chat,” and things like that. So I just kind of set out to figure it out by looking other websites online, and what would show up in the search engines of the day, which wasn’t Google, it was things like Excite and Lycos and AltaVista. So I would basically type in different phrases and see what pages showed up, and then I would try to figure out why that was happening because back then there were no articles on it or books, or classes, or anything to figure it out, so you had to just figure it out on your own.

MARK: So, you had a parenting website up on the web in ’93-94, somewhere in that time frame?

JILL: Yeah, I think I started the website in ’93.

MARK: Wow, what was the name of that?

JILL: That was the Parent’s Room.


JILL: No, it was It may still be there, I have actually given it to a friend, and it’s been sitting up there for ages, but she’s going to be turning it into a whole new site at some point over the next year.

MARK: Well, the domain age counts for anything, that one’s good. So, you had your own site, and like you said, Google wasn’t around then, but you were paying attention to Excite, Lycos, and AltaVista…

JILL: Infoseek; all of those old ones that are pretty much not around anymore.

MARK: So when you started to make this concerted effort to rank better, who else were you able to talk to about that type of a project? What names started showing up there early as well, along with you?

JILL: Well, at that time, nobody really. There was just no talk when I first started. Eventually, I somehow found the I-Sales email newsletter list.

MARK: Right, right.

JILL: I found that, that was the first sort of business list that I got on that wasn’t the parenting thing or something. There would be people sometimes that would ask me questions about search engines or things like that, because I was one of the few people who actually knew anything about it, I would start answering their questions. John Audette was the moderator of that, and there were a lot of other people in the web design industry and that kind of thing. But there weren’t too many people talking about search at the time, not early on. Eventually John Audette made the I-Search newsletter as well, as sort of a spin-off of I-Sales, a few years later when search started to become more interesting or more prevalent. At that point John had the company Multimedia Marketing Group–MMG–and he had people doing SEO, and had people working for him like Detlev Johnson and Marshall Simmonds, these names that you may still know from today. I think they even had Danny Sullivan come in and help train their people. Danny Sullivan was one of the early people that were talking about SEO as well.

MARK: Yeah, wow, that was a long time ago.

JILL: I think I actually remember Danny’s first newsletter. Somehow I had stumbled upon his site, I guess it was probably SearchEngineWatch at the time or whatever he may have had before that, and I signed up for his newsletter. I think I remember getting his first one.

MARK: You don’t happen to have a copy of that around still, do you?

JILL: I don’t think so.

MARK: One of the little side bars for this project is to find some artifacts, things like that, or emails from…

JILL: I think I have some really old I-Search newsletters… I might have some old copies of those.

MARK: That’d be great.

JILL: I would have to check. Or even maybe some of the old I-Sales; I’m not sure what year we’re talking here, that was the late 90’s I think, but I’m not even sure.

MARK: Yeah, that would be the good news too; we could connect that to a time line. I’m asking everybody to think back 12-13 years ago, and it’s hard to do.

JILL: You know, I did this exercise a little bit when I went to trademark my name High Rankings, because I had to find out how long I had been using stuff, and I was surprised how long ago–I remember actually seeing some of those old I-Sales newsletters because I was looking to see when I started using that company name. I can look some of that up for you and email you.

MARK: That would be great, thank you. Do you stay in contact with any of those folks from MMG?

JILL: Yeah, well they’ve all kind of gone their separate ways, most of them still speak at conferences so I do still see them and talk to them when I can; but there’s a slew of new folks around as well.

MARK: If we stay back in the mid 90’s, are there other names or companies that come to mind as things started to pick up? I’m thinking of the firsts, like you just mentioned Danny’s first newsletter, that’s excellent. Are there other firsts that you remember, or conversations that you had with different folks in that same time period?

JILL: Yeah, Bruce Clay was around back then, I remember sitting with him at the first conference I went to–probably in 2000 I think. I was sitting and talking with him at lunch one day. Most of the people who were there in the early days are still around. Intrapromote, that company was around back then; Derek Wheeler used to work for them after he worked for MMG – I don’t think he works there anymore, I think he’s working for Microsoft now.

MARK: Right. That company was called Interpromote?

JILL: Intrapromote (In-tra-promote) and they’re still around as a company.

MARK: Wow, that’s a new one to me.

JILL: Oh really? Yeah, they’ve been around a long time. A lot of the people from MMG also went to… oh I can’t think of the name… Jim Stabb is the guy who owns it, Positiontech.

MARK: Oh right, Positiontech, yes.

JILL: A lot of the guys went there, Jeremy Sanchez and Detlev Johnson worked there for a while, I’m not sure if he’s still working with them or not.

MARK: Yeah, I’m still trying to track him down for an interview as well, he’s on my list. One of the things that is really interesting is I at least get one or two names out of an interview, a new name that I haven’t heard of historically, which takes me to more interviews; it’s getting kind of exciting, I think it’s going to be a really good story.

JILL: Yeah, if you are going to do the whole history it definitely would be interesting. I’ve actually thought of doing that myself, but a lot of those things would take so much time.

MARK: Yeah, I can attest to that. Ok, so we gather our first conference, you’re not sure but you think it was around 2000, and this was with Danny, and Bruce was there.

JILL: The first one that I went to was definitely in 2000. It was the Dallas Search Engine Strategies.

MARK: And that was in Dallas, Texas?

JILL: Yeah, that was the first one that I went to. They had had them going for maybe at least a year before that. I wasn’t involved in those very first ones.

MARK: The engines’ prominence shifted and changed as time went by, and you mentioned earlier that some of the engines unfortunately we are not working with these days, but after that conference, what happened next in terms of your work and how you approached it? I don’t think Google was on the scene quite yet, or they were just getting ready to show up maybe.

JILL: Yeah, they were around in 2001 or so, I’m not sure the exact time line on that either. The difference was because there were so many different engines, and there was no one that had any dominance at the time, so you really had to pay attention to all four or however many there were; it was kind of exciting that way, because you’d just be looking at all of the different engines and you would see that you were ranking really well for these phrases in this engine, but these other phrases in this other engine, and it was cool to get high rankings in all five engines for different things, where now it’s just Google dominated, and that’s the only one you need to care about; it’s good and bad, you only have to think about one, but you’re also stuck with just one. If you’re not doing well in Google you’re kind of screwed.

MARK: Right, and Yahoo is number two but yeah…

JILL: Oh yeah, you have Yahoo! and MSN, but I don’t know about anyone else, but they don’t bring very much to it.

MARK: Right. Any comments on the Microsoft bid for Yahoo!?

JILL: Not really, I don’t have too many comments other than it’s bad in a way because if it happens and they merge into one, then we are left with even fewer engines, but since Google is really the only one I worry about anyway, it really doesn’t make much difference to me.

MARK: So I remember back… I went to one of the SESs in San Jose, and I remember Danny, he’s always doing market share and kind of showing traffic, and Google had just obtained that number four spot and they were moving way up the ladder, and I don’t think there were any conferences on Link Strategies, or any sessions on that at the time. As those engines shifted I think our strategies shifted, which influenced the types of services we were doing for customers, and the dynamics to get those things done; so I was curious in the time line, when did things start to shift for you, and what’s different today then back then?

JILL: Well, that’s interesting because although with Google linking became more of an SEO skill because people felt they had to get links to get rankings. Linking was always an important part of my strategy before Google even came about, because links bring traffic and I did linking in the 90’s without Google, and you did it for the right reasons because you wanted to get traffic, you wanted your links to be out on other peoples’ sites so that people would find you and come to your site, and that was an important thing to do for clients. If people would still do it for that reason today, then we wouldn’t have the mess that we have with people just trying to scam links, buy links, cheat… you know, they’re not getting them for the right reasons, they’re just thinking, “We have to get links because that will get us found in Google.” That is I think where the shift, and where it’s gotten crazy and mixed up and messed up.

MARK: Yeah, because back then it was just pure, “Oh yeah, I’ll put a link on my site,” and we never thought about, “I shouldn’t have more than one hundred on a page,” or “I’m doing this for page rank,” none of that.

JILL: No, you did it to bring traffic, and you did it because it made sense. I would sit there and I would contact related sites that I thought would be interested in linking to my clients’ pages because they would help their visitors, it would provide additional information for their visitors, and people would link to them because they would be like, “Yeah, that is a cool site, I will link to it. I’m sure my visitors will enjoy it.” That’s the way it still should be today, but people lose the plot somehow and don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, they just do it because they hear they need links and they’re not thinking about the reasoning; and that’s why Google values links because they value them as a vote to someone’s site the way that they’re supposed to be, that people just naturally link to you.

MARK: Right. I’ve almost forgotten that day.

JILL: And you’re not alone; I try not to forget it, and I try to make sure to explain it to people on our forum everyday who lose the plot… that’s really what it is, they’ve lost the plot.

MARK: So were you alone at the beginning? You had, and it was a one person show? When did you become a company and start adding folks onto your team?

JILL: It was just me for the longest time. At one point about four years ago maybe, I partnered with a web design company in Cambridge here and formed a separate company, but we disbanded that a couple years ago, so really this past year since February or so, where I’ve really hired employees. I have my office… just a year ago now, when we moved into the office where we have actual employees and payroll and all that stuff, so it’s been an interesting new job in a way for me, going from just SEO to being Manager and Boss, and all that fun stuff.

MARK: So you’re coming up on your one year anniversary.

JILL: Yeah, it’s been just a year. We moved into the office in February. I was working with other people still but more remotely the year prior.

MARK: What was that web company? What time line would that follow? It sounds like it was under a different name, or you were working….

JILL: We started a company called Search Creative, I think somewhere around mid 2004, and then basically disbanded that a year and a half ago.

MARK: So ’04 to mid ’06… a couple years.

JILL: Yep.

MARK: And the idea there was to combine your search strategies with web design…

JILL: Yeah, I was finding a lot of clients who were wanting web design too, to go with the SEO, and I had done that back in the early 90’s but I never kept up with web design skills, so it was fit; it was a company I knew of and people I knew so it seemed like a good fit to do it, but I just decided in the end that I would rather focus on building High Rankings, instead of trying to get too many companies and brand them and build them up, I decided to go back to my core which is search.

MARK: Got it. How many folks are there in your group now?

JILL: There are three of us including me right now.

MARK: Awesome, and I assume everybody is busy because this is certainly a growing market place and I hear news about some kind of a economic slow-down but no one in the search market is talking like that.

JILL: No, it’s hard to say since that’s just beginning, but what I’ve learned through the years is that even through economic slow-downs is search almost becomes a priority for people because it’s such a high return on investments if people are willing to make that investment, it’s not really that expensive compared to other forms of marketing and what you get back from it is so great, it could be thousands of times what you’ve spent, or more, as long as the clients understand that–which some do, some don’t. Search will probably still do well, and maybe even do better because you might take some of your TV budget or radio budget or things like that that are more expensive and put it into search–that’s much more reasonable.

MARK: So if you compare anything from back then to today are there any differences that are notable?

JILL: Well, let’s see, I actually just wrote an article about that recently so I’m trying to make it come back to me. Surprisingly the more things change the more they stay the same, but there are definitely things that are somewhat different; the whole linking thing has become so much more prominent because of Google. But in general, it’s always been the same thing : that search engines always want the same things–they want the best most relevant web sites for their users who are the searchers, and that hasn’t changed; it’s trickier now because there is so much more competition, you can’t just make any old website and have it show up fine. It used to be pretty easy in the old days: just make a website, optimize it on the page, and it would show up; but with so much more competition you really need a website to stand out these days, you have to be different, you can’t just put up yet another whatever widget site, when there is already 50 billion widget sites. If you are going to make the 51 billionth one, you have to do something different with it and make it stand out from the crowd, and just like any business it’s turning more into a real business that would be in the real world, as opposed to on the internet where you used to be able to just slap something up and suddenly you were in business.

MARK: So if someone is brand new starting out, they learned how to spell SEO yesterday, what path would you recommend for them? They want to learn more, they want to do this thing, and they’re just getting started, they’re brand new…

JILL: Ok, so they want to do it for their own website or they want to become an SEO, or does it matter? The strategies are a little bit different.

MARK: Probably most folks are coming in wanting to work on their own site, I think that is the most common entry point I hear about.

JILL: Yeah, and that’s a good thing to do because you can still do it on your own if you want, if you get the right knowledge. For somebody like that I would say start reading online all the various articles, but try to be discriminating to a person or a website that speaks to you. I mean, on my High Rankings site I have tons of articles and my newsletter and everything else, and that’s going to speak to a certain type of person who agrees with the way I do things, but other people may prefer to read somebody else’s stuff that optimizes a different way. There are still many ways to skin that SEO cat, so find somebody’s method that speaks to you, and then basically stick with that, follow that method, go to the forums, read the articles, sign up for training classes, there are a lot of various training classes offered these days–SEMPO has online training classes, Marketing Experiments has online training classes, then there’s in-person training classes (we’re doing in-person ones here in our office on a monthly basis), then there are bigger conferences, but I would suggest to wait until you have a little more knowledge under your belt before going to a bigger conference because they can be pretty overwhelming, and you get lots of good tid-bits and nuggets from them but you’re not going to get like a strategy “Exactly How to Optimize My Site” that you might get from a smaller training class that is more customized.

MARK: That makes me think of how the training could provide a framework where you understand these pieces, and then you go to a conference and you actually start putting things in the framework; if you went to the conference without the framework, maybe your head is just spinning at the end of four days.

JILL: It would be totally. We just did our training class last week, and it was about five people–five different sites–and I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, if they just went to Search Engine Strategies first they would be so confused,” but yeah over time definitely, those things are totally valuable as well, but at the right time.

MARK: So, we get some training, maybe go to a conference, take the training knowledge and are you suggesting we work with someone on our site and they’re kind of coaching me as I work on my own site kind of scenario?

JILL: You can certainly do it that way. It depends on what you’ve learned and how much you want to do yourself. I mean always say with SEO or really anything, it’s kind of a question, “Do you have more time, or money?” If you have more time, then learn it all yourself and just start experimenting, you can’t really ruin anything, everything is reversible for the most part unless you somehow go into crazy cloaking or black hat, but you know that’s harder than just regular optimizing, so I don’t think most people would start out going that route. Don’t be afraid to just experiment and try stuff like the way I learned years ago, and that seemed to be a problem with a lot of people learning today, they get a little confused because there are so many different ways of optimizing and so many different articles so they get kind of a brain freeze where they don’t know where to start and they get confused; but just try something, do your keyword research first, so you know what keyword phrases you want to optimize for, and figure out how you can integrate them into your website, assuming you have a current website, and just do it–try it and see what works.

MARK: I think that’s good advice. Do you have a list of names thinking back? We’ve talked about a few folks already, and historically again, folks that I need to make sure that I get in the interviews.

JILL: I think I mentioned Marshall Simmonds already.

MARK: Marshall, absolutely that’s a great name.

JILL: Derek Wheeler, he’s the one that used to work for Intrapromote years ago.

MARK: Yes, and he has recently moved to Microsoft.

JILL: I think I mentioned most of the old ones that I could think of.

MARK: OK, excellent. You know, it’s a little funny, this industry is really–you know you mentioned 1993–that was way before these services were available for someone else, you were doing it for yourself, but you weren’t offering those services at that time, so the industry is what 14 or 15 years old? That’s pretty young, and if I get into the 1995/1996 era, that’s when I notice, “Hey, now I start to see some places you can learn more about this stuff, and companies are offering these services, but not very many.” You look at this thing today and it’s still very exciting and I think there are a lot of new people coming on; I look at these conferences and it seems like half of the attendees are just getting started.

JILL: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s definitely a new generation of SEOs that have a good handle on it already that are speaking at the conferences and things like that. There’s sort of the old crowd and the young new crowd, and it’s pretty exciting to see a whole new generation learning this stuff and teaching it to others as well.

MARK: Yeah, and I don’t mean to exclude those folks either, they’re a part of that history too and I know Rand has been at it for a few years, and he’s doing a great job and there are many others as well; as I move forward through that timeline the name list starts expanding significantly. Do you have any ideas for me there?

JILL: For the newer people? Definitely Rand and his people, even Bruce Clay has Lisa working for him; some of the older crowd has new people with them. There is Neil Patel who does a lot of social media stuff; his name comes up a lot. Even Lee Oban, even though he’s been around a while during PR, he’s newer to the SEO stuff and he’s become a big force to be reckoned with.

MARK: Excellent, I will definitely add those folks to my list. Did I leave anything out?

JILL: That’s it for now, when are you getting this all printed up, I can look through some of my old emails and things to see if I can give you some better dates too.

MARK: Well, we hope to get the article series started in March, so this is my last month to gather interviews and then we expect to have a series of articles build together–getting everybody’s pieces and hooking them together–it’s possible that I could end up with the need for a follow up; I hope you wouldn’t mind if I needed to do that.

JILL: Yeah, no problem, and you said you were going to be at SMX?

MARK: Yes, we’ll be at SMX, there are four of us from our company that will be there.

JILL: Maybe we could hook up there and talk.

MARK: Yeah that would be super; I’d love it.

JILL: I’m actually heading out to New Zealand on Saturday morning, so I’m a little swamped right now…

MARK: Vacation or work?

JILL: Work, for the most part, I’m speaking at a conference out there; but then I’m going to be in Hawaii sort of half on vacation, half on work, and then going straight to Santa Clara for SMX, so I’m going to be out of the office for the next three weeks; but those times may actually be good for me to look up some of this time line stuff for you.

MARK: Oh, that would be great. I will definitely come bug you. We’ve met before but you’re probably meeting a lot of people at these conferences at a speaker and maybe you will remember me, maybe you won’t.

JILL: Yeah it’s hard to say sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t; but definitely let’s hook up, send me an email at the time or something and we can even plan to meet up for coffee or a drink or something.

MARK: That sounds great. I really appreciate your time this morning. You’re very generous. Have a safe journey and I will see you in Santa Clara.

JILL: Great, thank you.

MARK: Thanks Jill, bye.