Interview with Michael Martin

Mark Knowles: We’re here with Michael Martin, SEO director of Resource Nation at SMX West 2010. Good afternoon, Michael.

Michael Martin: Good afternoon, Mark.

Mark: We’d like you to go back in time and explain what you were doing before you got into SEO. This will help our readers understand how you, personally, got into the industry. We’d love to hear your story.

Michael: I went to school at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth back in the ’90s and got my degree in computer engineering. Right out of school, in 1999, I started to work for a software company in Cambridge. I was doing software consulting and I was on “pager duty” during Y2K. Thankfully—nothing happened—but I was on call just in case.

So, in the summer of 2004, I just got sick of the rain and snow and decided to make a move to somewhere warm and dry who also had a tech sector. So without a job or a place to stay, I started driving to San Diego and began interviewing with companies as I approached. I interviewed with an SEO company while at the Grand Canyon so once I arrived in San Diego in the summer of 2004, I could start a new career in SEO for a company up in Carlsbad.

Mark: The summer of ’04.

Michael: Right, right before the Red Sox won the World Series.
While in San Diego, I learned a lot in the SEO field working for an agency then moved in-house, which is a general evolution for people doing SEO. You can cut your teeth on the agency work, and then be ready to do it for yourself—or for an in-house company.

Mark: How did that first SEO project go? Who brought you in or what did you do to get up to speed?

Michael: My tutelage was under Burkan Bur, who was the head of SEO project managers at SEO, Inc. in Carlsbad. He’s still someone that I look up to, and he still works there and teaches SEO classes at the University of California, San Diego. I also worked with Aaron Shear who used to work for Yahoo and now does work with Zapple. A couple of years ago, I pinged him about speaking then he got me in the speaking circuit over at PubCon. That’s where I started then spoke at SNXs, SESs, and WordCamp.

Being a part of the speaker circuit is like a family where you get to develop a network to lean on and get further advice when you need it. That’s the real key: it’s not just nuggets of knowledge—but the networks of knowledge of people who really preserve you.

Mark: While in San Diego, what’s the name of the company?

Michael: Then? SEO, Inc.

Mark: Where did you go from there?

Michael: I went to another agency in Lahoya called MatrixMT, which got bought out by Geary Interactive then I worked for Active Network. They were like the Ticketmaster for triathlons and marathons, and I was doing registrations for their services. They had a large network, and it was a very well-run company with great people. We used to have “boot camps” allowing us to have lunch then sweat it off. Everyone there was athletic and young, which was a great environment. Then I got pulled back to SEO working for agency, Inkjet, followed by in-house SEO work for Resource Nation.

Mark: What kinds of things happen in the in-house world? Have you a team of people who you work with?

Michael: Well, I’m Director of SEO where I set up the plans, goals, and have a team that executes, along with myself. We have a team of writers and an IT team that I set guidelines for weekly. Since my background is project management, I’m a big believer in having schedules and measurable milestones that we’re hitting. And if we’re not hitting the milestones, being able to quickly change directions and figure out a better, more intelligent way to do things.

Mark: Do you ever hire folks who don’t have any SEO experience?

Michael: Actually, I prefer to especially relative to junior people. My feeling is a lot of SEO can be learned. What I feel is more important is a person with energy and drive to really persevere and stick with SEO. Not someone whose just looking to data mine then take off and do their own thing. Having SEO knowledge is great, but I feel energy and drive is more important.

Mark: How do you get new folks up and running?

Michael: First, I give them an educational set, which is a bit like a seminar. Then I give them guidance on what to read on sites like SEO Model, Search Engine Watch, Aaron Wall’s SEO Book—and Outspoken Media. All the sites are interesting and entertaining, especially Lisa Barones’ writings. So I send them out there with a baseline and see how they grow and pick it up. And if there’s something they’re really interested in, I tailor it to their niche. If they want a cursory knowledge of SEO and would rather write, I give them more on content. If they are looking to grow into SEO and maybe go into link building or designing sites or portals, I guide them further.

Mark: What do you think about conferences? And what do you do to get the most out of one?

Michael: You see many of the same faces at the conferences and as I said earlier it’s like a family. I enjoy collaborating with them. My favorite is SMX Advanced in Seattle. A couple of years ago, it was more like a “black hat” but it’s where some really interesting things happen.

Mark: Like the give it up session.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. I always avoid—as I think most people do—the general sessions that are more of a sales pitch. When presenting, I try to always tailor my presentations so there’s some meat and “takeaways” since people are paying for and taking time out to hear these presentations. But the best thing you get is time at the bar at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., connecting with certain people. That’s when “people really do give it up” and there’s more collaboration and true knowledge sharing.

Mark: You’re absolutely right. What would you recommend to someone who is starting in SEO? Maybe they have a site that they are frustrated with. How would you recommend they spend the next three months trying to get up to speed on SEO?

Michael: It’s really about execution. There’s not a huge degree of knowledge that you need to know. Again it’s about executing and really formulating your purpose, scope, and guidelines. Then coding and setting up your site accordingly.

I always recommend, first, that they try to set up their own site; break it; then learn how to do it because you learn better when you get your hands dirty and execute on things.

Mark: Looking back, what changes have you seen in the SEO industry?

Michael: I think it’s gone a lot more “white hat” in a sense and there’s a lot less manipulation tactics. It’s really going to the simplicity of what Google wants and what Matt Cutts constantly reiterates—which is giving people content that’s interesting, different, and informative to rank.

Formerly, if you had a bankroll, you could do anything. Now, they are really trying to clean up that cesspool. The way to rank is really what Google wants. Obviously, there are some tactics that you can still use, but in the end, it really is more efficient right now to fall in the gray area, so to speak.

Mark: Any other significant changes?

Michael: Right now, link buying is going away. If you don’t buy, you can donate to a charity link. Another approach is to create content and send it out to distribution networks, which is what AOL’s doing. The name of the game is creating content, putting links to your site, and distributing it to not only the lower tier, Ezines, but to the higher tier partner networks, such as CNN or Mashable. This allows you to really build your links beyond link buy tactics.

Mark: I’ve heard that people feel a bit overwhelmed with the massive SEO information out there. You mentioned some trustworthy resources: Outspoken Media, Search Engine Land, and Are there other sites?

Michael: Yes, one I forgot to mention is Search Engine Journal, which is really good with Ann Smarty.

Mark: Search Engine Journal. Yeah.

Michael: I really like her posts on Search Engine Journal because she gets right to the meat. It’s not just a big fluff piece. She actually substantiates what she says and talks about tools. Then she gives a little description and links to it. I think that is really important, especially for a beginner.

Mark: That is an excellent site.

Michael: The key is to keep it simple. If you’re a one-man team or have limited bandwidth and money, go for the big ROI pieces. Don’t worry about the details of every alt tag or title on every H ref.

There are little techniques you can do like putting a bold in or italics. But it’s a matter of time, and what you will get the most out of. I try to put a lot more time into link acquisition. Go ahead and build your foundation with onsite coding, but really get the proper in bound links.

Mark: Any other tidbits you’d like to share with our readers?

Michael: A really good book is one that came out last year from Stephan Spencer?

Mark: The Art of SEO?

Michael: Yes, an excellent book. I consider, Stephan Spencer, one of the best technical minds of SEO. He sold his company Netconcepts to Covario about a month ago. So he’s in San Diego quite a bit, and I saw him just the other week.

Mark: That’s a great book. Thanks for bringing it up.

Michael: Absolutely.

Mark: Well how do you feel about the conferences out there? Can someone go to a conference and learn something?

Michael: Yeah, I think before you go to a conference though you need to know your intention and what you are looking to get out of it? Is it knowledge transfer? Is it to connect with certain people? Is it just to get some swag over at the booths? So know what you are trying to accomplish before going in. Make sure you know who’s coming and try to connect beforehand to set up meetings. That way, you make the best of your time.

I’m a big believer in “takeaways and meets.” SMX and SES are great conferences, plus Pope Con, which I consider the Woodstock of SEO conferences. I don’t know whether it’s more of a party, or a conference, but I don’t want to miss it especially down in Vegas. Really all of them are great options for somebody starting and for intermediate through advanced folks. But in the end, it’s connecting with people. As in many things, the heart of it is the people involved.

Mark: Well, on that note, thank you very much for your time this afternoon.