Tony Adam

MARK: Tony Adam.

TONY: Mark, how’s it going?

MARK: Pretty good. SEO manager for, wow, that’s quite a bit of responsibility you must have.

TONY: (Laughs) It’s a good amount. It’s actually not all of Yahoo!, but Yahoo! Media we switch off properties.

MARK: Well, hey a couple things, first I wanted to get your permission to record our conversation so we can use that for transcription purposes and also eventually an MP3 online.


MARK: Then, the background here is, one of the things that the History of SEO is trying to accomplish is this space is growing and all of these new folks are coming in, and they’re hearing names and learning about these SEO folks and how they got their start, and so we’re wanting to rewind in time to go back to the job you had before you were involved in search; what it was that got you started and then walk through the things you’ve been up to, and also, if someone is stepping into this space looking for ways to learn, what are the kinds of things you did or things that you would recommend folks could use as a way to get started in this industry.

TONY: Got it.

MARK: What do you think of that?

TONY: Sounds like a plan.

MARK: It’s pretty fun, I’m telling you. The stories are so diverse and meeting you at PubCon this last year just reminded me of all the other cool folks that we get a chance to talk to. I have no idea how you got started, I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m excited to learn it.

TONY: Yeah, it’s kind of an interesting one, totally. I’m excited to tell it. I’m always excited to tell it (laughs).

MARK: (Laughs) So let’s do dates and places. Where were you and what were you doing before you got involved in search?

TONY: So, I got involved in search in… well, I was in the current role with a different job I was in, so it was kind of like a migration within the company, but what I was doing before that was a little bit of everything. I mean, I kind of ran the gamete when it came to technology. So I was either doing consulting, sales, that type of thing, to actually going out and doing infrastructure, and network implementation, and then web design, development, etc. etc. So I pretty much did everything at this company. The company was called Fame 1 Computers. They’re also a computer hardware and sales distributor in Los Angeles County. I helped them grow their consulting division, and from there was like, “Alright, well we need a web presence.” So that’s kind of how I stepped into the SEO side.

MARK: You built the website and did the search engine optimization, or kind of stumbled into, “Hey how do we rank at this thing called Yahoo!”?

TONY: It’s funny you say that, but really that’s exactly how it happened. I was still in college at the time, and I was getting my degree in computer science, and I was a total engineer, not even design wise I wasn’t even good at that; it was just back-end code, “Let me mess with it, and let me run with it.” I had hired some consultants to come in and work on building out this site, so essentially what it was, was, we wanted to have live, up to the day costs, availability, and all that up on our site, because we were planning on doing wholesale computer parts.

MARK: Wow, what year is this?

TONY: 2002 – 2003, around that time. I mean, it was a dying business. It was really well margined but we were like, “Let’s see what we can do with this. Let’s try to do something online.”

MARK: “And keep all these prices current.”

TONY: Right. So what we did was we tied our back end to Ingro Micro, which what we were doing was running like a pearl script; it was a mixture of php and pearl scripts, to take fifty thousand products at like 2am, run them through our database, update it so the next day we would have live, up to the minute pricing.

MARK: Were you scrapping? Fifty thousand parts?

TONY: No we weren’t scrapping, we actually got a feed from them because we were a distributer for them, so they gave us a little feed every night. It was a connection that we had and we basically pulled all of those products in, collected the data, put it into our database and ran with it (laughs).

MARK: Wow.

TONY: Then from there we also started a computer leasing division within the company and it was kind of like, “Ok, what do we want to focus on? Do we want to focus on building out more of these computer parts, and trying to rank for ‘computer products’ and get sales that way in a business that’s really low margin and really hard to compete in?” I mean you have stuff that’s like, Next Hardware Shop, and Newag, and all that. We weren’t sure if we wanted to do that or if we wanted to go into a more high-margin, less-quantity of customers I guess you could say, style business. Essentially that’s the route we took. We wanted to have all of those parts online so that if people did want to complete a lease they could go in, pick all the products they wanted, and then lease them online. But our main target was leasing and so it was basically, “How do we get people to our site?” I think it was one of those generic like, “How to get traffic to website” like really corny search term that I had done and pulled that up, and I think I stumbled onto one or two WebmasterWorld posts, got really involved there, constantly looking at stuff online, constantly participating in discussion, reading, reading, reading, non-stop. I didn’t even look at any logs back then, it was all WebmasterWorld that I learned everything from.

MARK: Brett’s going to love that plug.

TONY: (Laughs) Yeah, I know right! It was funny because I was so into it at the time. I mean, I was learning search; I was really getting into it. I was like, “Forget this engineering stuff, I love SEO!” I’m like, “Alright, I’ve got to go to PubCon.” I hadn’t even heard of SES, I was so into WebmasterWorld that I didn’t know the world outside of that. It was funny because I didn’t know it and I went to PubCon in ’04 and kind of made my way into the industry I guess you could say. It was amazing. I actually met Brett back then and it was funny because his first comment to me was, “You’re the type of person we’re looking for” and that’s kind of what made me really want to get into the industry, was the fact that everyone was so amazing and so helpful. I thought that was just awesome compared to the hard core tech community where it’s a little bit different.

MARK: That’s cool. So you get this website ranking on all these different things and you’re selling computer parts, but then you’re totally bit by the SEO bug, and everything else becomes boring.

TONY: Yep.

MARK: So what happens next?

TONY: Well I had said, “This is exactly what I want to do. I want to be an SEO but I have this computer science degree,” I mean, kind of to back track a little bit, it was amazing to me because we basically increased our margin and our revenue by ten x because of the fact that we started ranking for “computer leasing” and I think a little bit of computer financing terms and basically “lease” plus brand name, so like “lease Dell” or “lease IBM” so all of that we started ranking for and we were ranking above the brand, which was awesome. So we were doing really well with that, and I loved the instant satisfaction from that and I said, “I love this, but am I a marketer? I don’t think that’s me? I’m more of an engineer. I love the engineering side of things.” So, again, I really tried to get into engineering and I left that company and I went to work for NBC and Universal. Did some ERP and back-end fees for people with post-development. Also, some .net Internet type stuff, and I was maintaining a lot of that and within four months I lost interest and I couldn’t do it anymore and I said, “This is not what I want to do. I do not want to be in a cube for twelve to thirteen hours of the day not being able to work on deals, not being able to see that instant traffic hit,” or not even instant but just going out there and working it like you do in SEO. I basically decided I’m going to have a one year plan to getting into SEO full on, and I had to figure out how to do it. I took a couple of little jobs, did some more start-up work more on the project management end just to get out of NBC and make my way. From there again I did some consulting for some of the clients we were currently working with…

MARK: When you say “we” you mean…

TONY: I was working with another guy and we were doing some consulting projects together.

MARK: Oh, in the world of SEO?

TONY: No, it was more start-up, like social network, social media type stuff; one of the sites was

MARK: Oh ok, yeah.

TONY: We helped them build out a social media site for travel. So I was kind of getting involved in a couple things; in the social media side of the world and also the SEO side of the world. At the same time I had taken two months off of working. I was working on some side projects, I started a business with a friend; we were ranking for “Los Angeles computer networking” really local, Los Angeles computer and consulting type stuff. Really easy keywords to target, but I was helping him with that, and I was doing some SEO stuff, and then I kind of got a hold of PayPal and started working there; again, it still wasn’t the full on SEO stuff but it was a lot of evangelism and a lot of trying to get SEO into the company more than it was. It was very broken at the time.

MARK: What kind of challenges did that bring compared to when you were doing your own stuff?

TONY: Oh, it was like night and day. Working on your own stuff involve the challenges of getting rankings, the challenges of taking a small company and getting them ranked for things like larger organizations do like Dell; that’s all the real SEO love. At a larger company it’s a little different. It’s more of, “How do we get people to believe that SEO is actually important?” They’re getting traffic from viral sources, or all of these other sources, like for PayPal it was people coming in off eBay. So how do we get traffic through search to even be on top of people’s minds? I can tell you we used to have these things called design reviews, where executives would sit in and review basically each product, each marketing piece that would go out, and I would sit in there and ask, “Have you guys thought about search at all?” and nine times out of ten you would get the response, “Well we’re not really concerned with search traffic,” and my response was always, “Well, you should be. You’re missing out on x amount of traffic per month.” It was interesting to see how the marketers would respond to that, but again, it’s all about getting buy-in, getting people to believe it actually matters, and how you integrate that. We had actually a full time SEO analyst doing keyword research, trying to come up with different strategies and whatnot and the problem was, again, it was broken. The marketers didn’t know we had him, or they didn’t know that he actually had all of this great research done for PayPal, and it was a matter of “Hey, Kevin meet Keith. Keith meet Kevin. Go run with it.” It was amazing because people just didn’t realize it was there. The opportunities that people didn’t see and whatnot, putting it in front of them, sometimes it was like, “Wow, we have an opportunity here. Let’s run with it.” And others it was more of that, “How do we get people to believe this is important?”

MARK: Do you have a success story with that where maybe one person at first didn’t get it, but xyz happens and now they’re a card carrying member of the SEO club?

TONY: (Laughs) Um, I can tell you that at PayPal specifically there was one where it was one of our marketing managers was not really interested and wasn’t really worried about search and I basically talked to him about a campaign that had to do with safer browsers and how we wanted to move people over to IE7, and it was more of the process. I don’t think we actually went through with it because of resources and time and that’s another big challenge, but everything after that was, “Well, what are we doing for search? What are we doing for search?” And it was because of talking to them and giving them an understanding of “Ok, this is really a part of your brand. If you are trying to be a thought leader in safety online, you need to be ranking for terms that have to do with safety online; so ‘anti-fishing,’ we need to be ranking for stuff like that if we are going to champion it at PayPal.” After he started hearing that and thinking about it along the terms of branding and whatnot, it was interesting to watch him completely shift from, “We don’t really care about search. It’s not a big deal traffic wise” to “Ok, this is really important for our brand.”

MARK: Interesting. See I had not made that transition myself, so it’s interesting to hear someone else’s story. I wonder how that guy is doing today, if he’s all over search?

TONY: (Laughs) You know, I haven’t actually talked to him, but the last time we talked the first thing that came up in one of our meetings was, and obviously now I’m at Yahoo!, but the first thing that came up in one of our meetings was, “Is there anything we can do from search? Is there something that we need to worry about?” things along those lines, and it was really interesting, I have to admit. It was awesome for someone in SEO to watch that at a big company happen.

MARK: Right. There was this 180 happening and you were a part of it.

TONY: Exactly.

MARK: So NBC Universal, boy those media kings over there, where did you go next? Did you go from there to Yahoo! Was there any in-between steps?

TONY: There was a lot of in-between.

MARK: Oh (laughs) some of your own project work?

TONY: It was either my own project work, or… before I got to NBC I was working on starting a business with a friend and I was going to do some SEO and web design and whatnot and he was going to do the infrastructure and networking side, so I did a little bit of that and it didn’t really work out, sometimes partnerships just don’t work (laughs). Let’s see, I went from NBC Universal to 1105 Media to kind of bring in some SEO and project management help, and that just didn’t work out, again it wasn’t a good fit, so we both called it. Then I did consulting for the website, and I did some project management consulting with a friend on a site called PLPRESS, and a lot of it wasn’t really on the SEO end again, it was more of getting by (laughs) so I could get into SEO and I was really strong in project management and organizing and making sure stuff gets done, and that was basically what I did, and along the same lines concentralizing great products, coming up with good product features and whatnot. I mean, that’s essentially what I did for a year, was coming up with that. Again, like I said, I’ve kind of run the gamete from the technology side of things.

MARK: And underneath there is this C++ programmer.

TONY: Right C++, I’ve done that, I’ve done some .net, I’ve done some PHP, but the thing is it’s funny because I haven’t touched it in over three years. I was telling a friend it’s been three years since I’ve done any heavy back-end development and the other day I was like, “You know, I kind of miss it. I’m going to install Ruby on Rails, get an environment set up.” I don’t know we’ll see where it goes, but it’s kind of interesting because I’ve taken that complete, like you mentioned earlier with the marketer learning search, I’ve taken a complete 180 away from engineering.

MARK: Right, I hadn’t thought of that. Where are you with .net today?

TONY: Ooh, I could probably start a project and pull up some data, massage it, but it would take me a bit. I’m really rusty when it comes to any development. The only thing I’m still really good at is HTML CSS, because you really need that when it comes to SEO. I’ve kind of become a real good HTML CSS guy and I have to attribute a lot of that to one of my managers at PayPal, her name is Kimberly Blessing; she coeds the web standards project, and I can’t think of anyone that knows HTML CSS better than her and being under her was amazing because you get to learn so much.

MARK: Wow. That’s awesome. Did you ever work with any of the SEO folks on any projects during your early days?

TONY: No I hadn’t, I mean, when I was at Fame 1 we had talked to a couple of people to see if we could bring them in; I think I had talked to Jesse Strikiola and Dana Todd about having their companies come in and do everything because I just didn’t have the time (laughs). I was doing consulting during the day and doing SEO at night. It just didn’t work out because the owner of the company was kind of running out of budget and then at the same time he wasn’t really interested in spending money on having a company come in and do all that. I was really trying to sell it (laughs), and I really wanted them to come in and re-do our entire site more from a branding perspective because if you go to the site now it’s still the same site I threw up four and a half years ago with no design skills, so from a branding perspective we needed someone to come in and redo it all. I mean, I had thrown up images that I had found online; it was one of the stock photography companies. I didn’t even know how to optimize them, just threw them up on the site so we had some type of images on there.

MARK: (Laughs) Right.

TONY: I was still in school. I still had not done some heavy back end stuff and I was doing all this stuff on the fly. I wasn’t a designer. Our whole focus was, “How do we get this data in. How do we massage it and get it out?” and “We’ll worry about the design later.” Again, that’s the big reason why I wanted a company to come in and take a look at it from the outside and say, “Here’s what you really need to be successful from a branding perspective and a conversion perspective,” because I had no insight into that as well.

MARK: How did you mosey your way over to Yahoo!?

TONY: I think one thing led to another. At PayPal I realized that from an SEO angle, or perspective I guess you could say, there wasn’t really anything I could do there other than to take a role as an SEO and I just didn’t find the product fun enough to want to do that full time. I wanted to be somewhere where there was a true publisher content model I guess you could say. I had either thought of quitting PayPal at the time and starting my own thing and doing consulting and starting a few sites and learning the affiliate game. I had actually attended SMX Advanced and a friend of mine in the Industry Laura Lippay who is now my manager was there and talking about how they had an opening and I was like, “Oh my god, I’d love that. That would be awesome. I’d love to work for Yahoo! as an SEO,” and we talked and I went over to an interview and one thing led to another and I’m back down in Southern California working for Yahoo!.

MARK: So what does a day comprise of in your current responsibilities?

TONY: I would say a mixture of working with product teams on strategy. Working with engineering teams on what I call “templating” just from like a “where do we place H1s? Should we have unique titles and descriptions on pages.” Making sure all that HTML is correct and that all the keywords are in there. Then editorial teams, making sure they’re understanding how to title things, to use keywords, all that. It’s a mixture of working with a lot of teams on a lot of different things. Again, it’s a lot different than what I’ve done in the past. In the past I’d hire writers to get some pages to me and I’d throw it all up and I’d be in control of it all, now I have to wait on people non-stop.

MARK: And you’re more of an influencer than the doer.

TONY: Um, it’s a mixture. I love going in and getting sites going but at a bigger company you have to be the influencer. You can’t be the doer. There have been a couple times where I’ve asked, “hey give me an engineering machine, I’ll figure it out and I’ll do it myself,” (laughs) but you can’t; it’s got to go through it’s levels of process.

MARK: Right, right.

TONY: So it’s a matter of working with the teams and figuring out how to get integrated with different teams so that they’ll actually believe in SEO. A lot of the times, again like I did at PayPal, it’s buy-in, making people believe it’s actually important; showing them numbers, showing them competitors and whatnot.

MARK: So when you were picking this stuff up it sounds like you had plenty of opportunity within your projects that you were working on, on the side or in your primary line of business, and with your engineering background when it came to learning you just dove in there and figured it out. Do you have any tips or tricks for some of the new folks that are just getting started to SEO? They show up at the conferences and I think conferences are a great way to learn; I’m always intrigued when they ask the audience, “Who’s here for the first time?” and I usually see 40-50% of the hands go up, which makes me think there are a lot of new folks coming on. I’m curious, what are some of your favorite learning methods or how would you encourage someone who is just getting started to learn this thing we call SEO?

TONY: I would say there are a couple things that you need to do. One is, be active in the community even if you don’t know; people won’t get upset if you don’t know something and you ask questions. People will really respond to that I’ve found. Even myself, when I find people that have a question I’m always like, “Oh, here, this is what you need to do,” or “Oh, check this article out,” or “Check this site out,” but be active, ask questions. Especially with all of the platforms that are out there, I mean, going to SEOmoz and contributing there, or just reading and commenting; Twitter is a great way to get in touch with people in the industry. Also, forums like WebmasterWorld. Go on there and spend time reading and commenting and throwing out issues that you might have, no matter how silly you may seem to think it is, everyone has to start somewhere so always feel like you can throw up the stupidest, silliest, thing you think it is because I know I’ve done it, and people will really be willing to help you out. Also I think the second part is just do it. Throw up a site. Even if it’s for no reason at all, you might find a way to make money off of it or just enjoy it. Throw up a blog on WordPress and start talking about things that you enjoy. One of the things I really enjoy is cooking, for example, and one of the things I want to start is a WordPress blog just on cooking, just to talk about it and get stuff out there and do some more testing and whatnot. It’s a great way of learning; going in there and doing it. That’s how I learned, by going in and messing with some sites and figuring out how to get things going. Even if you have an uncle or a brother that has a small business, figuring out how to do local SEO for him, do that just to get your hands wet. I just work it. I think that’s the best tip I can give anyone is work it, figure it out on your own, figure out what works for you, and go with it.

MARK: That’s cool. You get the rewards too when you see that stuff starting to happen. There is nothing quite like that.

TONY: Oh totally. My first time “computer leasing” was the big one and once I saw that we were ranking for that I remember being at a Starbucks working on stuff and checking a rank report and going, “Oh my god, we’re top ten for ‘computer leasing.’ This is freaking amazing,” and saying it out loud watching everyone in the Starbucks go, “Wow, who’s this kid right here talking out loud to his computer?” Yeah, that was me (laughs).

MARK: (Laughs). What about books or conferences or pod casts? Do you subscribe to any of that stuff, or tools that you’ve seen and liked?

TONY: I subscribe to a lot of the main blogs like SEOmoz and Search Round Table, and Search Engine Land. I subscribe to all the major ones. Podcast wise, I love listening to Daily Search Cast just because it gives you an overview of the week, well Weakly Search Cast I should say now (laughs) but I mean, those are great things that I keep in touch with. Especially with social media taking a big part of the SEO pie from the links side of things, even though it’s not only about links, but you know it is becoming pretty much synonymous with link building now, and I think that people like Brent Cstorous, Chris Winfield, Todd Malicoat, and even Rand over on the SEOmoz run, but I’ve been really paying attention to all of that because I think it is really important going forward for links to really understand social media.

MARK: Right, right. Those are excellent tips. This has been really fun have we missed anything good? Do you have any other nuggets you’re holding back on us?

TONY: (Laughs) I don’t think I have any nuggets that I’m holding back. Again, I’ll always say this, “get out there and work it,” whether it’s participating in the community, or getting involved in conversations, or just doing stuff; that is the biggest tip. There are no secrets in my book. Get out there and work it.

MARK: This has been a really interesting story. I really appreciate your time too. Are you going to Austin?

TONY: I’ll be attempting to go to Austin. I’m trying to figure out the travel schedule next year, so far it’s looking pretty hectic and I’ve got to get some work done here at Yahoo!, but I’m probably going to be doing Austin and some of the SMX conferences.

MARK: Should I not expect to see you at the SES shows?

TONY: You know, I’ve never done an SES. I don’t know, I just don’t see a need to.

MARK: Got it. SES San Jose might be the easy one. It’s a decent size show and not hard to get to from LA.

TONY: Yeah, I think if anything it would be SES San Jose that I would go to, just because everyone says, “You have to go to SES San Jose,” so I think if there was an SES I would go to it would probably be that one, but for the most part I stick to the SMX series and PubCon.

MARK: And of course PubCon is a super fun time too.

TONY: Oh yeah. I will never miss PubCon again.

MARK: (Laughs).

TONY: I mentioned that to someone this year. Also, a friend of mine that I’ve met through Twitter in the search industry I tried to convince her, Joanna Lord, to get out to PubCon and she was on the fence about it and I literally went off and I was like, “You cannot miss PubCon. You CANNOT miss PubCon. It is the event of the year.” She asked on Twitter as well and everyone was like, “No you can’t miss it, you can’t miss it.” I’m sure Brett will be happy to hear that as well.

MARK: Yeah we might have to turn that into a testimonial for Web Master World (laughs).

TONY: (Laughs) I know, right?

MARK: Well, thanks again. I look forward to seeing you at the next show and I’ll see you on Twitter. I think that’s it.

TONY: Thank you for taking the time out to interview me I definitely appreciate it and I look forward to seeing you as well.

MARK: Thanks a lot man.

TONY: Alright, take care.

MARK: Take care Tony.