Summer Stories: How I Got into Search

First published July 23, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This time of year always causes me to look backwards. My birthday is in the summer, so the increasing tally of years is hard to ignore. But it was also summer, specifically the summer of 2004, when I wrote my first Search Insider column, called “The Growing Pains of Search.” That was 213 columns and about 180,000 words ago (I’m rapidly closing in on David Berkowitz and his 224 SI columns). And, finally, it was the summer of 1999 when Enquiro (then Search Engine Position) was born, so this marks my tenth official anniversary in the biz (I’ve been playing around at organic optimization since 1996).

All this preamble brings me, finally, to my point: I really don’t want to write about Bing or Google or Yahoo today. In fact, for the next few weeks, I want to go public with a few of the stories that usually only get told at Enquiro staff parties when I’m feeling a touch nostalgic (or a touch inebriated).

This week: How Danny Sullivan first got me into search…

As I said, it was in 1996 that I first started playing around with organic optimization. As the owner of a small, fledgling ad agency, my clients (in this case, a hotel in Kelowna, BC) started to ask whether I designed Web sites.

“Of course I design Web sites…”

How hard could it be? Soon, I had FrontPage and was trying to figure out how to get a sliced image to stay together in a table. After much trial and error, I had a Web site that was good enough (by 1996 standards, which thankfully weren’t too stringent) to go live. There’s still a reasonable facsimile of the original design at archive.org (check out the funky animated gif of the rotating diamonds). Inevitably, the next question came…

“So, when does everybody start booking online?”

Ooops! I hadn’t thought about traffic. If you build it, aren’t they just supposed to come? That was when I first started thinking about search engines, which at the time were Infoseek, Yahoo, Lycos, Excite and AltaVista. How the heck do you get on those things? I submitted the site, but it seemed to have little impact. The hit counter was ticking over at a rate slightly slower than Continental drift.

At that time, I was also a regional reseller for an online yellow pages site, which was supposed to be the “next big thing.” I remember going down to a reseller meeting in Vancouver, B.C. where an outside consultant was introducing a new service we could sell: search engine positioning.

“Hmm, this sounds intriguing.”

The guy, who was counting on this new business to finance a semiretired lifestyle, passed out an information sheet explaining what he did, along with what he charged, which was several thousand dollars per site.

“How hard can this be?” I said to myself (yes, it’s a recurring theme in my life). I looked over the information sheet….

“Meta tags. I know what those are. Alt tags. Yep. I know what those are too. I wonder…. ”

I took the sheet home and decided to check out this “search engine positioning” thing. The verbiage on the sheet seemed impressive. The guy sounded like he knew what he was talking about. But the sheet was very short on detail. There must be something else out there on this search “stuff.”

After some stumbling around the Web, I happened on a site with the title “A Webmaster’s Guide to Search Engines.” And there, verbatim, was all the stuff from the sales sheet. This “consultant” had simply cut and pasted sections from it. The great part was that everything was there, all the things you needed to do to optimize your own site. The guy was charging thousands for doing the same stuff that was laid out free for anyone on the Web. I was so grateful I actually became a subscriber to that site so I could lend some support.

I immediately started optimizing the client’s site. A few weeks later, they broke the top 10. And by the end of the month, they were number one for their top key phrases. For those of you who have been around as long as I have, you may remember playing Infoseek “Leapfrog.” Because Infoseek indexed almost instantly and updated results, you could use it to test your SEO skills and see what happened, ratcheting up the rankings against your competitors. Using the Webmaster’s Guide as my base, I soon figured out the fundamentals of search positioning (as it was then commonly called).

“What the hell! This stuff actually works! Maybe there is a business idea here after all.”

It took me a few more years to actually get the guts to focus exclusively on search, but that’s how I got started. Of course, the author of the Webmaster’s Guide was Danny Sullivan, and it later became Search Engine Watch. It would be 2001 before I ever met Danny, at my first Search Engine Strategies event in Boston. I didn’t get the chance to say it then (or since), so I’ll publically say it now: Thank you, Danny, for getting me into this business. It’s been more fun than I ever imagined.

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