Interview with Lee Odden

MARK: How goes the world of search?

LEE: (Laughs) Oh, we’re finding answers; that’s what we’re doing. We’re finding solutions. How is it going for you?

MARK: It’s going well. It’s a very busy time. We’re growing and looking for more people as I speak. There are about twenty of us right now. It’s just crazy growth. There is a lot going on. That’s not a complaint; I love it this way. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

LEE: Right. Anybody who is doing good work I think is in that situation.

MARK: We are over in Oregon. What part of the country are you in?

LEE: Minneapolis.

MARK: Viking fan maybe?

LEE: No.


LEE: No after you’ve had your heart ripped out as a child multiple times it sort of sticks with you.

MARK: (Laughs) But Fran Tarkenton maybe was a child hood hero?

LEE: Yeah, absolutely.

MARK: And maybe by the fourth super bowl you said, “Ok that’s enough.”

LEE: (Laughs)

MARK: Well, hey what I’m doing… it really just started off as a side project, I was going to talk with some folks that I used to work with a little bit many years ago back in ’96 – ’97 and then from there it just started bubbling out. The premise is that it’s a growing market and I’m seeing lots of new people getting involved who are trying to navigate their way and as they do that they are running into obstacles. As I listen to these obstacles I was surprised to see that they are the same obstacles that folks have been running into for many, many years. Maybe there is a slightly different twist on it but it just got me into wanting to talk to more people with lots of experience, respected names in the industry and talk to them about their beginnings before they were into search, and how they got into search, and some of their early obstacles. The idea is a new person coming in can listen and hear about the challenges that we had and realize that they are no different than the folks that are the champions today and they just need to persevere, because the folks that are still in it have indeed done that.

LEE: Right.

MARK: So I’m just trying to put together a collection of personal stories together that kind of get into that topic area and what I didn’t know was how much fun this was going to be.

LEE: Well I suppose learning stories would be interesting, definitely. One person I’ve heard that has lamented the “full circleness” of what is being seen by newer people who are writing articles about issues or whatever, is that a lot of it is “been there done that” and that’s Eric Ward. He talks quite a bit about that sort of thing sometimes publicly a lot of times not.

MARK: Yeah.

LEE: Because you know, someone like him who really helped define a particular category of promotion has had to encounter lots of things, I mean just by sheer volume of client experience you come across things and deal with them and solve them, right?

MARK: Well let’s just lead right in. What were you doing before you were doing search?

LEE: Um, God, what the hell was I doing. I had a direct sales company that traveled all over the country and I said, “This is not going to bode well for my personal relationships,” so I sold that company and took about a three or four month period of time off; this was in ’96. A friend went into being a mutual friend of a business owner who had just started a company that was selling websites to vertical markets; specialized websites, pre-made template websites to certain vertical markets in ’96.

MARK: 1996? Who was that?

LEE: At the time they were called Home Town Marketing. They have evolved into something else. In fact, David Carlick one of the founders of DoubleClick is now the CEO of that company, or maybe he is the chairman of the board. They are called something else now; they’ve turned from a company that sells templated websites to vertical markets into an add network for the grocery industry, and were years and years ahead of their time. The stuff they were doing with coupons and customized online and off-line data integration and personalization, and providing information to CPG advertisers. It’s insane. Anyway, they were just selling these templated websites and I was kind of an internet savvy kind of guy anyway, at least I was curious about it, so I started working there in the sales capacity just to learn about the company and then I said, “Hey look, I could hire like five to seven other sales people, and I’ll train them.” So the owner let me do that, and we were selling a lot of websites. People started asking, “How am I going to get traffic to these websites?” So I started teaching myself how to fool around with front page, and doing a little CGIM Pearl, and ultimately some Cold Fusion to create more interesting functional websites, and I started to grow the custom web development side of that business as well as the internet promotion side of that business. From the beginning of ’97 to several years later, what I was doing was probably 65 – 70% of all revenue. This template website stuff was the rest of the revenue. I just got to a point where I was making this other guy a lot of money, and I decided to join forces with Sue Misukanis and start another company.

MARK: What was that person’s name?

LEE: Sue Misukanis. Misukanis Odden is kind of a holding company that is a PR firm; it was started in 2001. She and I had hired each other at various times previous five or six years she had hired us to do their first website for one of the payroll companies… they had some other businesses that we helped build some websites for. So it was kind of self taught stuff. It was really great. We were a company that did web dev, custom web dev, said “yes” to stuff that had never even been created before and then got programmers to go and make it in ’98, ’99, 2000, that sort of thing, that vaporwear period.

MARK: Yeah.

LEE: Then working in an organization that was hosting 20 to 30,000 websites was also very beneficial; has been beneficial at certain points in understanding some of the technical server side kinds of things from the search side… anyway, that’s what I was doing before Top Rank. Top Rank was started as kind of a product of Misukanis Odden Public Relations, and very quickly and ironically became 70% of all revenue and today is still a little bit more than that. So Top Rank has been and is marketed as a separate company. In fact, we have dedicated employees that just do Top Rank Stuff, and we have other employees that do PR stuff.

MARK: You’re no longer affiliated with that original template web development company?

LEE: No, I left there in 2001. I still have a small interest, which is part of my compensation, but I’m not involved with them.

MARK: Right. Ok. So did you like any particular element of this new line of work that drew upon some passion?

LEE: I like the idea of it being like putting a puzzle together where the picture changes frequently. There is nothing boring about it. In a university, I studied sociology and business and organizational development and I really found there to be some congruencies in how the web worked. Especially now since we are into such a social realm of the web, and technology gets more and more interesting with connecting people from a social aspect. It’s become even more interesting. So search in and of itself has always been interesting because of being able to consume lots of data and combine that with being intuitive in seeing what it is that’s working and what’s not. And being able to do something and produce a result in a way that other people for whatever reason can’t easily grasp. There has been so much documentation about what works and what doesn’t with search and people creating layman’s explanations of information retrieval and that sort of thing that more people do get it, and that’s great. But it continues to be interesting to me because of the whole social aspect of it – people trying to figure that out. Each of these social networks is a different community with its own formal and unwritten rules, and I just find that to be fascinating from an experiential standpoint as well as a marketer. Just in studying social characteristics of communities in the real world like I did in school.

MARK: Right. Sometimes I feel sorry for the new folks who go onto the internet to learn about SEO, and I think it’s really confusing. Like, “Always do this. Never do that.” Black hat, white hat, it seems challenging because there is so much information out there and advice taken out of context can just be an absolute horrible idea.

LEE: Exactly.

MARK: So that passion is a common thing. That’s really cool. It’s the same thing for me. There is a fun little puzzle and there is a technical side to it, but there is also this creative element as you go about trying to solve it. What are some of the things you’ve noticed over time? Let’s just talk about Black Hat vs. White Hat for a little while.

LEE: Well, I know for me at least, early on, I was much more liberal about poking to see what pokes back; I mean, there was less documentation really, about what to do and what not to do. Even if there is more now-I don’t trust it; the best data source is your own testing and the results that you can see first-hand. I know early on I was very open, a lot more open than I am now, at just trying different things to see what would work and what wouldn’t. I don’t know of anybody who has been in the business for ten years that didn’t, for example, create lots of doorway pages at one time, or screw around with things like web position gold and create custom web pages for Excite, AltaVista, Hotbot, and Lycos, Direct Hit, you know?

MARK: (Laughs) Right.

LEE: Of course, where are they now?

MARK: Yeah, Google took over.

LEE: So the stuff like that that was kind of fun to play with years and years ago, but I think as people mature it really comes down to just marketing. Let me give you an example; we don’t buy any links ever, and we never have. I don’t have a problem with other people buying links, I really don’t care. I think the search engines should be smart enough to pick it up and if they can’t then that’s their fault. I don’t like to buy links just because I know I can get the job done from a PR perspective, gaining high quality links from and editorial, or PR perspective, from a content promotion perspective, and I figured that out. Some people don’t want to wait that long. They don’t want to invest in something. They don’t want to be more creative than the next guy and they would rather just get instant gratification, and that’s fine. There are just some things that we don’t do, not so much that we have a problem with them, or that they are against the search engines terms of use, it’s just that we’ve found other ways that are more sustainable, low-risk, or no-risk, and in some cases don’t have any hard costs to them.

MARK: That takes a little bit of time, but when you get it you’ve earned it.

LEE: And that’s the thing; if you are doing this stuff on behalf of a client they’ve got to understand that there are some things you can do in the short-term, that kind of fall more into the buzz, viral PR side of things, and pay-per-click of course, or advertising where you just throw money at something and bam you have visibility. You can do some creative stuff with PR and social, bam you have visibility right away on a brand new website, and then at the same time you are doing the sort of things that are long-term and sustainable. You don’t see an immediate return necessarily but if you persisted, the effect is cumulative. The more pages you have indexed, the more links that are out there, the more quality links that you have over time starts to help a site, as you know I’m not saying anything new, but it matures and starts to gain a certain amount of momentum. On the marketing side, if a site is doing the right kinds of things in terms of creating channels of promotion, the kind of link building that people know really becomes relevant; because if a site is a content source and it’s doing a really great job at producing content that is of interest to their target market, and has been doing a great job at creating different channels of distribution of that content, what happens is that so many people are watching what’s coming next that they are getting as many or more links un-solicited organically to that great content as opposed to trying to manufacture links through link pitching or link solicitation, buying directories and buying text links and that sort of thing.

MARK: Have you ever found a directory that you just believe was a really high quality, high relevant, “Wow this client really belongs here. How do we get them in here?” and it turned out the only way to get in there was to purchase a listing?

LEE: Um, I should clarify, when I say, “Don’t buy links,” we’ll buy links in a directory and those directories are limited to the fingers on one hand. Yahoo, Best of the Web, maybe a couple of others that are vertically specific, but as far “Has to be there,” I don’t know that there is any directory that makes me think that, compared to our ability to get a client written up about in a main stream publication.

MARK: Right. I love what you’re doing, like you said, is probably a little harder and it takes longer and you have to be creative and skilled. It does require a checkbook because it takes time to do what you’re talking about, but it’s the real stuff and it lasts and you don’t have to ever wonder if you’re going to get in trouble for doing that stuff. How could that ever be black hat?

LEE: Yeah. Well if it’s serving the needs of the user, people that will interact with that stuff and the search results, and obviously you have to be cognizant of the search engines terms of use, clearly it’s their game, I mean it’s not their game, but it is. They are borrowing all of our content and indexing it and running ads against it, so they’re making money on that. So I guess it’s sort of a give and take.

MARK: So maybe let’s talk about one challenge that you had. You’re entering into the world of SEO, you’re trying this thing out, and you run into a wall and you have to work through it, just like all of us. There are these new folks coming on and they’re bumping into some of these obstacles and sometimes it feels insurmountable. What have you done to deal with that or do you have a story that you could share with us?

LEE: One of the things that come to mind is that client relations and account management are as important as the mechanics of the marketing that we’re doing. So with someone that folds into managing client expectations, dealing with political issues that happen with the client either shortly after they come on board because someone else’s task is sourcing vendors, or because of staff changes on the clients side; so let’s say the VP of Marketing gets the ax and moves on and the new one comes along and wants no evidence what-so-ever of the previous, how do you deal with that? How do you go through an audit? Are you prepared to go through an audit; an hour by hour audit for the last three years? Stuff like that is always interesting. Being presented with those scenarios, of course, one learns to start logistically managing things a bit differently. That adds overhead to the project, but it’s a good thing to do. There are account management, or customer relationship sorts of things that come up that I think a lot of people don’t anticipate, especially when you get into a complex organization, where there are inter-dependencies between departments on the clients side between legal HR, marketing, and public relations, or whatever. Approval processes are very different obviously in a large company, then working directly with a CEO of a five million dollar business. A CEO goes, “Here’s my FEP Account, go do what you have to do.”

MARK: Yeah.

LEE: I mean, that can be really cool some times. Anyway, that’s one thing that comes to mind when you say “obstacles” just situations that come up in that way and you have to understand that just because someone owns a business or just because someone got hired as the VP of Marketing doesn’t mean they are rational or that they don’t have baggage of some kind, or preconceived notions about how things should go, which might be very contrary to reaching business goals for the client company. I think one of the most common examples everybody who does SEO for any period of time has run into in that category, would be that those executives who have these “ego phrases” and then they’re still stuck on the notion of rankings too, you know, “We must rank number one,” for this or that, and it may or may not be something that is particularly in demand by the market place. “But I don’t care. We need to be ranking on this or that,” so the CEO goes away, they still have this preconceived notion, a VP or Director of Marketing manages the relationship with the SEO company and of course they’re accountable to bottle my revenue, and so they are going to be more focused often times on the kinds of search visibility that drive sales and maybe a couple months into it the CEO is sitting in his boxer shorts or whatever and at two o’clock in the morning they go to Google and they type in that “ego phrase” and they go, “What in the Hell?” (Laughs) “Why aren’t we number one? I’m paying these people money!” So that’s an interesting thing. It may not happen so much in the future because folks are getting more focused on traffic and conversions, or various types of conversions, as opposed to just this notion of rankings.

MARK: Right, right.

LEE: It’s just one of those silly situations that have to be dealt with from time to time. The way to get around that of course is by being very up front and being willing to push back from day one, and to say no to the engagement if you see certain signs of that kind of irrational, unreasonable, expectation. Even if somebody has a ton of money they’ll throw at you, if they have those kinds of unreasonable expectations, like now-a-days all that reputation management… people are all out. There are these damn bloggers who will throw twenty grand a month at this for three months if you can just get rid of it; and it’s like, “That will treat the symptom, but it’s not going to be your cure because those bloggers are going to see what you’re doing, they’re going to continue to say bad things if you don’t solve this problem.” So there is a PR component, there’s online reputation management that a lot of SEO people don’t deal with, they’re just out there creating micro sites and filling out social media profiles and sending out press releases and setting up blogs in order to displace the negative search results.

MARK: Yeah. I was at about a month ago wanting to buy a second power supply for my notebook, and right on their site they have people just ripping the product apart because I guess it’s had some problems, and at first I was shocked, “How could they let that happen?” but then I found some other folks that had no problem with them, and it seemed like the bad problems were older. I realized the transparency that Apple was willing to display and I ended up respecting them for it.

LEE: It’s interesting. It’s kind of along those lines of the conversations about your brand is going to happen with or without you, so why not encourage people to have that conversation in your own backyard? On the executive side, company management side, “Holy crap, these people think bad things about us on our own website,” well, that’s great because now they aren’t saying it somewhere else that you’re not aware of and you can present a counter point to it. Most people are fairly reasonable and they see someone either being a troll or just with a legitimate beef, and there is a lot to be said for how the company then responds to that.

MARK: Right, right, because every company has problems.

LEE: Of course.

MARK: It’s what they do with them.

LEE: Yeah, it’s like that idea of you get a sense of what someone is really like by seeing them under stress (Laughs).

MARK: Somebody told me, “Take someone golfing.” Ha-ha. So when you were getting started when did you start going to conferences and start speaking? Who were some of your influencers?

LEE: I was a lurker of the tenth degree for many, many, years. I didn’t even get active on forums until 2002, and I mean active just by voicing my opinion or answering questions. I think Kim Krause Berg had posted something on a forum somewhere and she was giving away a lot of information in her answer to somebody, and then she was saying, “Look, I’m just trying to make the industry better. I’m not looking for clients,” and I thought, “Wow, that’s really weird.” You know what I mean? Everything I thought was, “You’re out to market. You eat what you kill.” I come from a 100% commission sales background and you just didn’t give stuff away to people. This notion of giving something away as an investment in your reputation and building credibility, this was a foreign thing to me at the time. So I ended up going to Kim’s forum, Create a Site, and also High Rankings with Jill Whalen. A friend of mine in Minneapolis here, Ed, who I think is kind of out of the search game now, but he had introduced me to Jill Whalen and Andrew Goodman at a conference and I don’t know, I just started to connect more and more with going to conferences and I started a blog which of course has been instrumental in everything. Our blog has been the glue between online and offline networking and PR, and credibility building, so we’ve been able to do a lot of really good things as a result of direct or indirect interaction with our blog between media partners, media sponsorships, clients… so now I made a decision about two years ago, I think we are doing some special stuff within our organization. We have some really talented people. We work with some incredible clients, and I think we are really doing some great stuff and I want to get the word out more, so I decided to use public speaking as a way to do that and counter it with blogging.

MARK: That’s cool, a perfect strategy.

LEE: The irony of it is, I suck as a writer, and I really suck as a public speaker.

MARK: (Laughs) whose stuff do you read today?

LEE: Jolina Pettice, Dana Larson, Kevin Sawyer, these are employees of mine. Of course I spend time on Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land. The Spinn community is kind of interesting. Increasingly for the last month or so though, I tell you, I use Twitter as a filter for interesting things. A lot of interesting useful content I’ve found is because of people dropping links in Twitter.

MARK: Excellent. So you’re using social media to find some of the stuff that you’re reading.

LEE: Oh, absolutely. I mean when you think about it, people are serving as a filter at some level. That’s a great way. I mean just like social search is supposed to work.

MARK: Right. It’s someone you know or trust and they’re saying it’s interesting, well gosh, that’s worth a lot more.

LEE: Right. For example, when Jeremiah Owyang drops a link in Twitter, I’m probably going to go follow it. Or if I see Danny drop a link on something… not because of who he is, but because he’s really good about actually linking to stuff that’s really interesting; or one of the Kevins.

MARK: So what are some of the things you like to do outside of work?

LEE: Well, I have a family, with two boys and a young princess. They keep me pretty busy. With the speaking stuff I’m traveling about a week every month, and I’m going to try to cut that down a little bit. You know, just regular stuff, cooking, eating… (Laughs)

MARK: You sound like a nice normal guy.

LEE: I don’t know. I hope so.

MARK: How many employees do you guys have at your company?

LEE: We are at seventeen.

MARK: What do you want to be doing in a couple years?

LEE: A couple years? A lot can happen in a couple years. I know by the end of this year we will probably be closer to twenty four or twenty three, something like that.

MARK: So you guys are growing. That’s great.

LEE: We have a need both for PR people and search people. Actually we tend to just look for people with marketing experience, or agency experience, and then we’ll train them.

MARK: Right, because you’re not going to find your unique blend of stuff anyway. They’re not going to walk in knowing it.

LEE: No, not at all.

MARK: Gosh, you’ve been very generous with your time, and I have really appreciated learning more about you and what you’ve been doing and how you got started. I think you’re going to make a valuable contribution to this series.

LEE: So, how are you publishing it? Is it a blog post or an article?

MARK: I’m doing them as a series of articles, and I’m going to launch a decent body of them all at the same time. And it’s been evolving, but now clearly there is an important time line that I think people are going to be interested in, in terms of the history of SEO. Then there are all of these people with different numbers of years of experience that have been doing this that have an incredible and unique story to help the new folks that are coming on just kind of get a grip of who these folks are. They go to a conference, they might be able to read all of these stories all in one place and maybe help them hit the ground running. I’m hoping if we can help some new people get up to speed quicker, that the creativity inside of our industry is just going to go up.

LEE: Yeah, I think that’s something that distinguishes. I think there is a big distinct point, and it’s the level of creativity within the search agency, and those that are focused mostly on technical things.

MARK: Yeah, I totally agree. I think what I need to do is I’d like to get a photo of you, and I know you have one on your site, but if you had a nice high res one that my graphics team could work with, that’d be cool, and then of course when this thing goes live I’ll send you a link so that you can read it.

LEE: Yeah, that’s great. I can do that. I’ll send you an email and then if you have any other follow up questions I’ll be happy to answer them.

MARK: I appreciate that I know that I will. What’s your next conference? Are you going to be at SMX Advanced?

LEE: I’m thinking about SMX Advanced. My next conference is in San Francisco for seven or eight days for a combination of a client conference and a public relations conference. So I do a mix. 30% of the conferences roughly I do are search oriented. Roughly 30% are public relations, and the other 30% has to do with the direct marketing association. So I speak at the annual VMA conference, the annual PRSA international conference every year, and there are other related conferences, and each of those different PR and PM areas. I like those a lot. It’s a nice contrast to some of the search conferences which is kind of like a bunch of people talking to each other about stuff they already know.

MARK: (Laughs) I’d love to join you at one of these direct marketing or PR conferences.

LEE: One conference I would definitely check into is going to be happening in Florida in May I believe. It’s called Search Insiders Summit. I would highly recommend it. It’s put on by Media Post who published Omma, the conference and magazine. And of course there is a column called “Search Insider” that Gord Hotchkiss writes, or David Berkowitz, and quite a few other people like that. So they actually build a niche conference off of that and it’s pretty cool because it’s a bit more expensive than the SMX conferences but that kind of keeps the attendee count to three to five hundred. They always have them at resorts and the schedule is like 8-noon of sessions, and then in the afternoon you can golf, water ski, or last time I was there it was in Deer Valley so we were skiing, snowmobiling, whatever, and then there is a sponsored dinner at night. So it’s very heavy on the networking because it’s a little exclusive. For whatever reason a lot of brands like to go there, knowing that if there are vendors there the really had to pay to get there. So that is a conference that I try to get to whenever it happens. It’s only like twice a year I think.

MARK: I’m going to look into that one.

LEE: Google “Search Insider Summit” or something like that. They have a page I’m sure.>p>MARK: I really like Gord, I’ve listened to him for many years, and I love what he’s up to, but it’s always been through SES context. Have you ever heard of Stomper Net?

LEE: Yeah. I don’t know a whole lot about it and those guys but I’ve seen a couple of videos. I know Dan Wiese a little bit, and I’ve heard some things about Stomper Net from him, but I would never say that I’m quite familiar with it. I’ve just heard of it, and that’s just about it.

MARK: Same here. I just heard about it a few times here recently and it made me curious.

LEE: Yeah, well they are good at video production, that’s for sure. Good marketers.

MARK: Well, again I appreciate your time, and if I need to do a follow up I’ll just give you a buzz and just use this same format. You’ve been very generous. Did I leave anything out?

LEE: I have no idea (laughs). There are so many people that I could mention that have been big influences on me. There are people who really gave me a big break on the speaking side. You know, there’s a gal named Kristina Hoverson here in the twin cities that gave me a shot at doing my very first speaking gig on search engine optimization, and it was cool because I talked about online PR, press release optimization blogs, and SEO, and this was like three years ago, and no one had heard anything like that before, and it was cool. People like Heather Lloyd Martin; she’s my connection at DMA. Bret Tabke, all of these people gave me a shot at speaking long before I ever made it to an SES. Long before I ever had any visibility to Danny Sullivan what-so-ever. He had no idea; I’m sure, who I was or what I was doing or anything like that. Not that he should, it’s just that for whatever reason these people at all of these other conferences were taking note and asking me to come and speak long before anything like that every happened with SES. Of course now things are very different. I have a very good relationship with SES folks, and we are an immediate sponsor for SMX as well.

MARK: So you see both conference series as viable?

LEE: I do because I see SMX right now as being a great source of content. They do a very good job on the content side. I would go there if I were going to educate my employees on search or social media or whatever. I would not send people there to prospect though. Hell no. I would send them to SES in a second.

MARK: Right.

LEE: And I saw that evidence just last week. I’m like “Oh my god, look at all these clients eyed people looking to buy. There are buyers all over the place.” So it depends on why you go to conferences you know?

MARK: Right, exactly. That’s a good observation.

LEE: It was good talking with you. I’ll shoot you an email with the photo thing if that’s useful. Then definitely give me a ring or and email if you have any other questions.

MARK: Will do.

LEE: I appreciate it.

MARK: Again thank you so much; take care sir.