Kahena Interview VIII – Alan Bleiweiss
There aren’t that many people in the world of SEO who have been around as long as Alan Bleiweiss. He has seen it all before and that appreciation of history and the sense of perspective it provides is invaluable; as is his ability to call it how it is. There is too much sugar-coating in SEO and with Alan you know exactly where you stand. As such, his views, talents, articles, comments and opinions are highly-sought after and he is a regular fixture on the speaking circuit. If CSI ever has a Forensic SEO Specialist on the show, they would most likely cast Alan. His #EpicDinners are just that – and you haven’t been truly initiated into the world of SEO until you have attended one. With his virtual-door always open, he is a mentor to many in the industry and it’s our pleasure to be able to interview him
Where do you think the industry will be in 2 years time?
In 2 years I expect social will have more impact on search – right now, it’s still in its infancy, and search engines are still experimenting with how to integrate social signals consistently. That will likely have changed significantly. Links will NOT be dead, contrary to some voices proclaiming otherwise- because links are what make the web what it is and thus will still be a critical factor.
Has anything in the evolution of SEO surprised you?
When Google first claimed “let us figure it out”, that was a big surprise. I mean, the web is so vast, across so many platforms, and mostly filled with content created by people who use such a wide array of words, methods, and platforms it’s like “is their algorithmic system THAT good?” Such a notion was beyond my initial belief. Obviously with the rollout of sitemaps, authorship, rel prev/next, snippets, breadcrumbs and now Schema, those words they spouted and for too long repeated, proved silly at best.
Scroll to 3:15 to hear more about Alan in his own words from a Google Webmaster Hangout
What has been your biggest mistake to date and what did you learn from it?
Early on in my SEO career, I assumed I could get away with doing only a couple things to get client sites ranked. It was a pure speculative naive and myopic view. It was literally “wing and a prayer” methodology. Of course, I fell flat on my face in short order for some of those sites. Fortunately PPC was there to bail me out as far as clients getting business through search engines. I learned though, that it takes more than a little understanding about how organic search works.
That it takes true dedication to learning all you can, holding up what you read or hear against a “does this make sense from my understanding of how it’s all about Information Retrieval / UX as seen through search algorithms filters?” perspective and from there it takes the opportunity, ability and willingness to do our own testing. Not so easy. Yet simple nonetheless.
What things about SEO/SEM drive you crazy?
Ha! Do you have six days for me to rant? Actually, things that used to drive me the craziest don’t as much anymore. I’ve become jaded, thick-skinned and otherwise accepting of the fact that any business arena that can potentially generate lots of revenue will always attract asshats and greed-focused players. So SEO/SEM is no different. No matter how much search engines work to clean up the muck, someone’s always going to try and rip off as many people as possible, or alternately, just as vile, collaborate with equally greedy clients to generate craptastic “solutions” for quick-hit grab-all-you-can-now goals regardless of how much that just pollutes the eco-system.
Nowadays, my biggest thorn is how polluted Google is as a company. I honestly believe, for example, the webspam and search quality teams really do care about quality content. However I know full well that they’re only two parts of a much bigger machine and too often (more now than ever) those bigger corporate factors make search, and the work we do, worse/more challenging/more complex than it otherwise should be.
Does Google have too much power?
Odd you should ask that since I actually hadn’t seen this question when I provided my last answer. Part of me wants to say yes – they have too much. There’s not enough competition in a significant enough way, to force them to give enough value and respect to the quality organic aspects of the SERPs. I think they’ve got more competition in the PPC arena of course, just enough that they’re only barely going too far in their radical changes to the AdWords system.
However I need to say this, being totally honest here… Part of me likes the fact that Google controls the playing field. It means that 80% or more of my focus only needs to be on Google and their path/processes. And that makes my work that much less challenging, believe it or not.
Imagine if Bing had a much bigger slice of organic search? And if they then went as far as Google does in how they push the industry? We’d be ripped to shreds due to such different approaches in how they rank results.
What does a typical day of yours look like?
LOL I don’t have typical days. Okay, they are for me. Yet they’re always different. Some days, I hit the keyboard first thing in the morning and don’t stop until an audit write-up is completed. That could be 5 hours or it could be 12. Okay I do stop for breaks. But otherwise, I’m laser focused on the audit and action plan I’m dealing with. Other days, I surf. A lot. Twitter, industry sites, sites like TechDirt for legal concepts and issues, friends blogs… It’s those days that I’m observing, reflecting, absorbing…
Other days, it’s non-stop back to back conference calls, email exchanges, skype rants… And then some days it’s a mix of all of the above!
Away from work, how do you like to relax?
I love to read. A lot. Spy or war fiction, Popular Mechanics or Popular Science usually. That takes my brain away from the otherwise ever-churning world of SEO, running a consulting business, life responsibilities… And I love to get together with friends and have quality time. Not connected time. Not thinking about work or business or life. Like playing Scrabble. Or socializing in general. And my ideal also includes getting out in nature, being one with the world around me without actually interacting with others in a major way.
You’ve already achieved a lot. What are your unfulfilled goals?
I look forward to the day I can settle down, have a few babies… Oh uh yeah, no, that’s not me or my future at all I’ll be 53 in July, and I have no desire, plan or intent regarding babies. Not sure if you mean career goals or personal goals here. On a career aspect, I would love to be able to have a greater and more positive impact on newcomers to the industry as well as people who want to reach a new level. It’s why I recently publicly announced I’m available both as a trainer and mentor. Each has its place in helping me achieve that goal.
On a personal level, I just want to retire comfortably well in Southern California eventually – preferably by the time I’m 65 (or sooner?).
Who are your favorite heroes in fiction and real life?
In fiction my heroes follow a common archetype. Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s novels, Neo from the Matrix, Master Li Bu Bai from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the BulletProof Monk… so many more like that… In real life? Jesus. He represents the ultimate transformation from human to oneness with God. Rand Fishkin. He runs SEOmoz and conducts his life in a way I admire greatly. Still quite human, yet able to achieve great things while elevating everyone around him, and in turn, providing a great service that so many benefit from…
What are your biggest indulgences?
Following my heart when my head says otherwise. That’s huge for me. Comes across as crazy at times. Yet always leads me to that next amazing place in the world physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically.. Eating at really high quality restaurants. Not that whole gourmet food stuff, but just really well prepared foods that I like set in a great atmosphere and where the staff treat you like a rock star, even if it’s for just a couple hours.
I also love doing crazy things to give back to the community. Like my #EpicDinners (though it’s been too long since the last one), or the time I dropped a few thousand paying the majority of the tab when several industry friends and I pulled an all-nighter at Haze Nightclub in Vegas during last years Pubcon. Or just going into the Moz Pro Q&A area and answering a slew of questions with knowledge I’d normally charge hundreds of dollars for, even if it means burning a couple hours of my otherwise hectic day… Because giving back based on my ability, my gifts – that’s the stuff true joy can often come from. And it’s all based on serving others – giving back to the community that so freely helped me get where I am.
When does optimized become over-optimized?
When you take one or three minutes to look at a site and you can see so clearly “this was obviously written for search engines”. Of course, some content is total nonsense – make-believe web sites. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about sites that try to “earn” rankings in ridiculously over-saturated, abusive ways even though at the core of the site, buried underneath a mountain of keywords, exact match anchors and the rest, there lies an actual legitimate site that could otherwise actually provide real value to users/visitors.
Do you still think Google Analytics is flawed?
At the same time, I think they’ve come a long way to give us more tools. Like the whole on-page Analytics section. Its just that we as SEOs need to recognize that such data sources need to be seen as “guides” and “trend-based” resources.
Alot of people in the industry look up to you. Who are the people in the industry you look up to?
I have so many it’s stupid. If I had to narrow it down to my top industry role models? Rand Fishkin, Danny Sullivan, Greg Boser, George Revutsky, Rhea Drysdale, Matt Siltala, Arnie Kuenn, Lisa Barone, Will Scott. Each of them has taught me a lot about how to behave out in public (okay I still have a LOT to learn), from an industry leader perspective, each in their own way as relates to how they fit within the industry.
Greg and George have been instrumental in how my own audit work has evolved and become more polished. Dana Lookadoo has been the most influential when it comes to showing up in a more spiritually conscious way as well.. I better stop there because if I don’t this will become another one of my epic tribute, simply because I look up to so many for so many reasons…
You’ve worked with a lot of big and impressive client – you find it hard to be motivated for smaller one?
I don’t find it hard to be motivated due to client size generally speaking. In fact, for every mega-site audit or consulting job I take on, I’ve got five or ten smaller projects going. The more important issue is 1) do they respect my opinion? 2) are they willing to actually take action based on my recommendations?
What I found over the years is that if you charge a high enough hourly rate, you are much more likely to get clients (regardless of site size) who are willing to pay that rate because they get it. They understand they need help, yet more important, they’re willing to do what it takes to make use of the knowledge I share. So no, it’s not size. It’s attitude.
Don’t get me wrong – doing an audit on a site that gets 10 million of 50 million visitors a month is fun. It’s quite heady stuff. I just care more about, and am willing to give more to companies that won’t toss my recommendations into the “we know we need to change but we’re too comfortable doing what helped us barely survive til now, so we won’t really change” drawer.
In what circumstances wouldn’t you work with a client or cease working with one?
See my last answer It’s not just about making a buck for me. So I’ve become fairly good at figuring out rapidly whether a prospective client is just blowing smoke or they’re serious about not only knowing they need to change but also that they’ve got the willingness and fortitude to do so. I don’t have time for people who aren’t going to step up to the plate and swing that bat after I show them which bat to use, how to hit the ball, and how to read the field in front of them.
Sure every company faces some sort of constraints to what or how much they can do. Yet if they have that willingness, and can implement at least some of my recommendations, I’m not spreading seed on concrete gardens. Who really wants to be paid to spread seed on concrete gardens? Not me.
Over the journey do you have any regrets?
As a perfectionist, and someone who needs regular doses of affirmation that who I am, what I do in the world matters? Lots of regrets. It’s a big area I’ve done my best to improve on over the years. To learn to be more gentle with myself. Recognize I’m human, we’re all subject to mistakes, and poor decisions from time to time. And that I’m not in control of other people’ choices as much as I would otherwise like to be as relates to ensuring my own success in how I interact with them… There’s always room for improvement, so I’m sure I’ll have more regrets moving forward. I only pray the bad choices and decisions I make continue to be less and less negative, have less and less negative impact on others…
You achieve great rankings for a client but there is no traffic and/or conversions. What do you do next?
Time to bring out the CRO guns. Meaning I need to find a way to help the client evaluate what’ missing. Maybe it’s keyword selection – could be we’re on topic, yet missing something critical about the niche aspect within that topic. Or it could be on-site factors that normally aren’t an SEO thing. And in a worst case scenario, it could be the client has a model that’s just not going to fly, at least via SEO. I try my best to catch that on the first prospective client evaluation. And have been known at times to tell prospective clients I think they would be better off no spending their money in this channel.
If you ran Bing for a week, what things would you do?
Wow – that’s way over my head. A whole different world. So I can’t say for sure. Wouldn’t even know where to begin. Except maybe invite several dozen SEO industry people to our Redmond offices, all expenses paid, for a week-long brain-storming session on how we could improve our offerings. Though they did a GREAT thing by just having rolled out the new Phoenix project. So they’re slowly waking up at least
Whats the greatest piece of advice you ever received?
Think for yourself – get past what you think is in front of you and apply critical thinking, then test!
You’re very outspoken and call it how it is – is there any downside to this? Are there any times you wish you had spoken up when you hadn’t and vice versa?
A downside? I suppose there may have been opportunities that have passed me by due to my outspokenness and my abrasive rants. Yet I take solace in understanding that I am who I am, and my nature would result in our not having gotten along over the long-haul anyhow… And thanks to some great mentorship the past couple years, I’ve actually gotten a lot better at the vitriol.. Times I wish I had spoken up and hadn’t? Sure- countless blog article opportunities I’ve missed that were “in the moment” relevant to something going on in the industry. Other than that, no – I’m pretty confident I’ve spoken up often enough, and ranted enough about the majority of issues, concerns and topics in our industry.