Interview with Laura Lippay

MARK: We’re sitting here with Laura Lippay of Yahoo! Media. We really appreciate your time this morning thank you for joining us.

LAURA: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

MARK: What we like to ask folks to do is to back up in time to the career you had prior to getting into search, and then walk us through your entry into this fascinating industry.

LAURA: (Laughs) You want me to start with where I was before search?

MARK: Yes, please.

LAURA: Let’s see. There were all kinds of things going on. Back in the day, I started school at the North Hampton Community College, and when I was there I decided that I wanted to skate for a living instead – rollerblade for a living.

MARK: Wow.

LAURA: So I dropped out of school and moved to Boston and skated for this rollerblade team called Rollerblade Launch Project, and we were actually funded by Rollerblade to do stunt skating kind of shows on the east coast. So I was doing that for a couple years and when I was there I got word from one of my teammates that Ringling Brothers Circus was hiring rollerbladers, they kind of caught on to the end of the extreme sports thing that happened back in the day.


LAURA: So they decided that in their extreme sports they wanted a rollerblade act. So I went to try outs in New York and I made it. It was one of those phone calls I’ll never forget, calling my mom and dad and telling them I joined the circus (laughs).

MARK: (Laughs) What year was that?

LAURA: Oh gosh, well I started the circus in ’96, so it must have been early ’96 and then we actually started the show in late ’96.

MARK: So far this is a totally unique story, by the way (laughs).

LAURA: (Laughs) You know it would be really cool if there were other people that had been in the circus that got into search; it would be kind of interesting.

MARK: I will call you if that happens.

LAURA: (Laughs) So yeah, I did that for a while. It was only a two year show so for two years we roll around and do our thing, live on a train, and travel the US. After two years was up I was starting to think about what I wanted to do and after two years they changed the show so they had said, “Well, if you want to stay you could stay and be a dancer,” and I figured that was probably not in the cards for me. So I was thinking about this, “What do I want to do?” and there was a class I had taken the first time I went to school for the advertising design thing, and I drew on the computer. It was the only computer related anything. It was this one class where I drew a frog pixel by pixel on the computer. I thought it was the coolest thing. I knew I liked that and I liked commercials a lot. I loved picking apart advertisements. I didn’t know anything about marketing and advertising, you know being on rollerblades since I was out of school, so I called a bunch of schools wherever I thought I might want to live and I said, “This is what I like to do: I like to draw things on the computer and I like advertising. What have you got?” So the Art Institute of Philadelphia picked me up and they said, “We’ll put you in graphic design,” and I said, “Ok, sounds good to me.” So I went there for the first semester and it was just drawing and I was like, “Ugh. This drawing thing is ok,” but we had a computer lab and I was sitting there in the computer lab talking to somebody and I said, “You know, I really like this drawing thing, it’s alright, but I love being on the computer. I just want to be on a computer all the time,” and the guy was like, “Well you should take multi-media instead,” and I said, “Multi-media? What’s that?” This was in ’98. He told me what it was and I went straight to my admin office and changed my program and took multi-media there instead; which is kind of what launched me into this direction at least.

MARK: Right.

LAURA: So the cool thing about this multi-media program was that we learned about creating 3-D scenery, we learned how to use music software, audio software, we did video, we did scripting-like code and JavaScript and HTML, and we did Flash; and Flash was the way that I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life (laughs). I was determined to be a really great Flash producer when I left school there.

MARK: What happened next? You’ve got this 3-D graphic design capability and you’re having a blast and then you go join the work world. What was your first entrée?

LAURA: What’s kind of funny is when I think about when I left school there, I graduated in 2000, and I think that was when I first started using Google. It must have been around then because I remember I used to use back then; that was my main search engine (laughs) with a little bit of Dog Pile. I entered at this place called Yikes, Inc. in Philly. It was really fun. I did mostly Flash, but any kind of code stuff we did, any websites that we did, it all had to be hand-coded. That was really great as far as really learning what you’re doing. Then I moved up to San Francisco thinking this is the place to be. I had heard of Silicon Valley and what was going on out here, and I had a friend out here, so I move out here and that was when I put my feet up and I would play my answering machine and it would be like 14 different job offers that day, and I would be like, “Nah, not that one. No I don’t want that one.” It was great. So I finally picked one called Comedy World, and I sort of said, “I think this is going to be good for me, so why don’t I just try it out for a month and see if you guys like me and if I like you, and if so I’ll sign on.” In that month they had gone down and that was it. After that, the bubble was burst, pink slip parties all over San Francisco which was kind of fun but sad at the same time. Then I was out of work for about three months.

MARK: When did the stint at Comedy World happen?

LAURA: I guess it was early 2001.

MARK: And you were there for one month?

LAURA: One month (Laughs). It was fun, you know, Flash and funny things, I thought I had found the perfect job, but yeah.

MARK: Are you responsible for JibJab?

LAURA: I wish, no (laughs). I would love to claim responsibility for JibJab, that stuff is great. No, no, I don’t even remember what I did there; I’m sure it was Flash. So after that I was out of work for three months and I was looking around and you know what’s really kind of funny is that when you’re looking for three months for a job after the bubble burst, it’s like you’ll take anything, especially I was straight out of school so I needed to just find anything that people would give me. When jobs opened up on Craigslist people would just swarm, hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of emails and it would open up and minutes later they would post something again that would say, “Stop emailing us, we’ve got enough,” (Laughs) and the one that I thought that I might actually get that I had applied for was some porn site (laughs) and I thought oh this is going to be a great phone call again to my parents telling them again to my parents telling them, “Now mom and dad look what I’m doing.” But I actually didn’t get that one.

MARK: (Laughs)

LAURA: Probably a good thing, I guess, maybe, I don’t know. But let me clarify, to do coding and stuff for the porn site (laughs).

MARK: Right, right, right. Just in case people’s minds wonder.

LAURA: (Laughs) It wasn’t that bad. At the same time I got two interviews. One was for Live365 and one was for this place that was called, at the time, GH Multi-media. I went to interview at both and Live365, the music site, they offered a higher salary, but GH Multi-media was just so much cooler to me because it was a really small group with potential to do a lot of really cool things. Live365 was coming down, they were giving me this number, they were like, “Let us know if you’re interested,” and they were waiting for me to respond, and I was practically threatening my future boss from GH Multi-media to hire me (laughs). I was like, “You have to hire me!” I really laid it on him. I guess it worked because he hired me (laughs). So we kind of turned that place over from multi-media to marketing. I spent a lot of time there and that was where I really started to move from the flash thing into the SEO thing, because our clients were mostly biotech clients and they didn’t want flash; they wanted cut and dry and they wanted data. So I learned a heck of a lot there. I would spend every day… I would spend nights; I slept over at that place. I would bring my sleeping bag and my teddy bear and I would stay up all night and sleep on the floor for a little while all the time just to fill my brain with all of this marketing stuff and data and reporting and SEO. It was really a great experience for me.

MARK: How long were you there?

LAURA: I think I was there three or four years?

MARK: Wow. That sounds like an awesome experience.

LAURA: It was cool. It was a really small place and everything internet related was my job. If it was, “Create a website,” that was my job. If it was, “Get some contractors and build this more advanced back-end system,” if it was doing CD-roms, we did so many CD-roms, and Flash animations of scientific things (laughs), I had to do all of that stuff. I liked doing all of it, but once I discovered SEO that was really what I wanted to do. It was so cool and it worked, and I definitely thought that’s what I wanted to do. So I ended up leaving the Linus Group to do that for myself for a little while and I hated working by myself (laughs), so that didn’t last very long.

MARK: Well I think I might know the answer to this question, but what compelled you to sleep on the floor and do whatever to fill your brain, as you put it.

LAURA: (Laughs) I don’t know, I don’t know. I just really liked what I was doing and I love working at night where there are no phones ringing and no people asking for things, and emails and stuff, so once the shop shut down that was when I really came to life and I just dug in; I couldn’t see anything around me, all I see is what I’m focusing on. I would stay up all night and just learn, learn, learn. Or work on things, make sure things were finished. It was fun. I still do that sometimes but not as much. I don’t sleep at the office anymore because here at Yahoo! it’s a little weird.

MARK: So the work at GH Media sounds like your real inoculation, where it happened.

LAURA: Yeah, yeah. It’s not the Linus Group. They’ve grown and they’ve expanded, which is really cool to see.

MARK: So you’re learning took place by just immersing yourself with a project, and where did you go for outside resources? Where did you go to learn more? I’m looking for websites, books, or conferences that you attended.

LAURA: Yeah, it was all High Rankings Forum in the beginning I think. High Rankings Forum and Search Engine Watch were my teachers back then. I have been actually just looking at some of my High Rankings Forum questions that I would ask back then, and it’s the same stuff that people ask us now, you know, that you get tired of answering over and over again, you’re like, “Yeah, this is what you have to do here, blah blah blah.”

MARK: (Laughs)

LAURA: I guess the less advanced stuff, the more basic stuff. I was looking at my questions from back then and that’s what they were and I was like, “Yeah, gosh, I really was like that at some point,” I don’t remember it, but I was there too. I don’t think I went to my first conference until I think it was a Search Engine Strategies. I think it was the year that Yahoo! rented out Great America and we ran around doing rollercoaster rides and stuff, all the SES people. It wasn’t that long ago. It was a while before I actually got to go to my first conference.

MARK: One thing I’ve noticed in the audience, they ask people, “Who’s here for the first time at a conference?” and I see like 40-50% of the hands going up, which makes me think there are a lot of new folks getting involved.

LAURA: Oh my gosh, there is so many.

MARK: And what’s interesting, one of the things that we’re trying to do at The History of SEO is help people understand how some of the folks that have been at this a long time got in. I think when they read those stories they’ll realize, “These people are just like me and I’m on that similar road.” It doesn’t really matter what year it is but these beginnings are really fascinating and they’re very familiar. I don’t want people to feel discouraged like they’re getting in too late. There is plenty of room and the stories are fascinating. If you had someone coming in this time right now, 2008-2009, what kind of things would you recommend they do to get caught up and learn as fast as possible?

LAURA: We were just actually training somebody here and what we did was we sent them to Bruce Clay first thing and then gave them the resources, the websites, forums, Search Engine Land, SEOmoz, all of the tools where they could go play around see what is involved. My suggestion was to build a site and play around with it, see what you can do. Or build a couple and try to target something, even just your name if you want to, something that obviously isn’t going to be like “sports” or “elections” or things like that where you’re never really going to get there at first most likely, but something easy. Work on it yourself; you have to be hands on to learn. You can repeat what everybody else says, which I know happens a lot, without really having the hands-on experience unfortunately, but you really need to have the hands-on thing. I always say, “If you have SEO in your heart, you’re going to be good at it. If you don’t have SEO in your heart you might be close to what you want to do but maybe there is something else for you.”

MARK: It is an industry of a lot of passion.

LAURA: Oh isn’t it? I love it. It’s great. I love this industry; it’s awesome (laughs). The people are wonderful.

MARK: I totally agree with you, and there are times when you’re having those rough days, or a hard time getting the results you’re after, it’s that passion that keeps you in it.

LAURA: Yeah, and the communities are awesome. When I was here and even after I left the Linus Group and I was working on my own, I was like, “Where are the San Francisco SEO people?” I just didn’t know where to look. I think I had found Martini Buster online somewhere and knew that he was in the area and it was a PubCon a couple years ago where someone introduced me to him and I was like, “Wait, you’re Martini Buster?” and he was like, “Wait you’re SF Girl?” or whatever my avatar was. And we’re like, “No way!” So we met each other in Boston, but we’d actually both been from here and there happened to be a whole bunch of SEOs from San Francisco there at that PubCon and I finally got to meet everybody and I felt like I finally found my friends (laughs). I found my peeps in San Francisco and we still have SEO get-togethers all the time. They’re great. I love these people. I love that it doesn’t matter how old you are or where you come from, or what your life is like outside of SEO, it’s all SEO, it’s all industry, it’s all interesting conversations around all of this stuff. It’s really fun; I really like it. I mean, not even just in San Francisco, everywhere.

MARK: Right. I find a lot of smart, interesting, people almost every time.

LAURA: Yeah, it really gets me going. I love it (laughs).

MARK: So what are you doing now? You’re at Yahoo! Media. What does the next year look like for you? What are some of the things you’ll be taking on?

LAURA: The next year here huh? That’s a tough question. I’ve been here for three years. I went to CNet for a little bit, and then I was here. I did the same thing in both places basically. I came in and was hired by somebody who says, “We need SEO but we really don’t know what to do? You tell us,” which is kind of cool because you create your own job basically. At first it was just me in the US and now we have a small team, but we kind of create our own space here and see what we can do to make it work, which I think is really fortunate for us to be able to do that. So there was a lot to be done, a LOT to be done, and we’ve been working on that for the past couple years and that includes everything from training and educating people, which has really come a long way, and updating the content management systems, providing tools and resources for people to go to because we are a really small team and we’re the only team in the US, so there is way too much for us to actually handle if we really wanted to dive deep in all of these properties and turn them over. So we provide tons and tons and tons of resources and training, and internal conferences, things like that. We have SEO hours where we open up to anybody at the company, because we really just report into Yahoo! Media, which is about, I think right now, 20 or 30 properties, but the rest of the US still wants help so we try to do what we can to help them. Then the reporting systems, which right now is one of my biggest projects, which I love; I absolutely love data (laughs), so I’m in heaven right now working on this stuff.

MARK: It seems like with your graphics background, presenting the data in useful ways is probably a really nice fit.

LAURA: Oh yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing the last couple weeks, redoing our weekly reports so that they are more usable I guess. But we’re working on some bigger stuff; some automated reporting, and it’s not like anything I’ve seen anywhere else really, so I’m excited about it.

MARK: That’s cool.

LAURA: Yeah (laughs).

MARK: What is your next conference?

LAURA: Portland, I think.

MARK: Oh are you going to be up at SearchFest?

LAURA: Yeah. I’m really psyched. It’s so weird, there is this shining bright spot of SEO in Bend that I can’t wait to go see what’s going on up there, at least in Oregon. I know I’ve met quite a few of the people up there but I’d like to see what the Portland SEO community is like.

MARK: Cool. What about SMX West?

LAURA: Oh SMX West! That’s right.

MARK: Yeah, February. I think SearchFest is in March.

LAURA: Um, SMX West, I might stop by it. I don’t know if I plan to go to that one.

MARK: It’s a maybe, but the Portland is for sure.

LAURA: Yeah, I’ve been to a bunch already this year and I just feel like I don’t want to go to all these conferences and then my team not get to go to all of them (laughs), so I want to be kind of fair.

MARK: Right, right. Well who else? Do you have any other names we should interview? Who are some of the folks that you ran into really early on in your career?

LAURA: Oh Dan Thies was probably the first person that really helped me out a lot who is definitely still around, and he’s doing keyword research, I think it’s maybe? I don’t remember. Dan Thies, Scott Smith, Scott Smith has been in the advertising industry for like 20 years. He’s the guy responsible for the Grey Poupon commercial (laughs).

MARK: Oh yeah, those are great.

LAURA: (Laughs) He’s a great guy….very entertaining to talk to.

MARK: I’ll look those guys up.

LAURA: Yeah, cool.

MARK: Well, do you have anything else to encourage those folks getting started?

LAURA: Hmm… not really. The thing is that the saturation point seems to me like if we’re not there already we’re getting close. There are so many people doing SEO these days, but on the other hand, when I see people trying to hire, they’re not finding anybody, so I don’t really know what that means. There is still room to grow in one way or another, because why there are so many people doing SEO and people can’t find anyone to hire is a little bit baffling to me. Maybe it just seems to me like there are so many people doing SEO and there is a lot more that there used to be. But, yeah, it’s a matter of just having a good attitude about it and being a part of the community. That community thing is huge. It’ll get you everywhere.

MARK: Yeah, no kidding. It seems like part of SEO for some companies is really adopting best practices inside their company so they can stop doing some of the things we know don’t work. So I think there are a whole lot of folks getting into SEO just to cure some problems, and they may not even become really aggressive, highly competitive, SEO folks, but at least they’re going to establish best practices within their organizations.

LAURA: Yeah, and a big advantage to having in-house SEO, is that what I’ve seen especially big companies, when they hire a contractor the contractor will come in and they’ll do an audit and provide suggestions and they’ll help them through it and then when that contractor is gone, and the site gets refurbished, so does all of your SEO, your SEO is gone too. You need to have somebody who is going to come in and dig up the dirt and make the system work first before you can actually even make your SEO successful for long term because otherwise you’re just going in circles, you know? Huge advantage to having in-house SEO.

MARK: Right. Well gosh, I want to thank you so much for your time and I look forward to seeing you at SearchFest.

LAURA: Cool, I look forward to it.

MARK: Likewise.

LAURA: Ok, talk to you later.

MARK: Take care Laura.