August 20th, 2007 - Todd Malicoat Interview
This is a complete transcript of my interview with Todd Malicoat, SEO expert and mastermind behind the popular blog Stuntdubl. The interview was a valuable source for an article I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald. The interview was conducted in early August, 2007. I caught Todd at the end of a long day and he was very gracious in lending me the remaining time in his day.
Todd Malicoat: Yeah, definitely right around the 5-6 year range, kind of a transition from doing the webmastering kind of stuff to actually focusing solely on improvements in search rankings and a little bit of a progressive transitory period there.
I kind of just started dabbling and doing Web sites and everything else and worked for a hospitality company doing their Web site and got interested in it. I was kind of the junior network admin and ran around and fixed everybody’s printers and computers and all that good stuff. The webmaster left; and so I by default became the new proud owner of the Web site, and during the downtime, just kind of stumbled across Wordtracker and ended up going to a small business meeting or something where somebody was talking about meta tags. It was like
More recently, I kind of went into just a traditional SEO agency at We Build Pages here in upstate
Todd Malicoat: It’s actually Meta4creations, but Stuntdubl is usually what I go by and certainly the site that everybody’s more familiar with, incorporated as just a different name, though.
Dan Skeen: Good stuff. Are there any clients that you would care to mention?
Todd Malicoat: I usually don’t; I don’t do a lot of ongoing stuff, and it’s always been kind of a catch 22 thing because it’s nice to list clients but at the same time I guess you get a stigma attached with them if they’re doing SEO so…I traditionally usually don’t myself.
Todd Malicoat: I think a lot of times it’s because there’s a lot of transparency in terms of competition within the SEO marketplace. So, if one of my clients mentions that they’re doing SEO with me, their competitors may see me at a conference or something and start drilling me for information or be able to catch on to what my client’s doing. I would say that’s probably the number one reason, that and fear and paranoia of the search engines having a problem or taking a closer look at what they’re doing.
Todd Malicoat: It’s definitely an interesting topic, the back and forth between, what do they call it, kind of an information arms race, I suppose. It’s just kind of that back and forth of something works real well and gets beat up by the optimizers, the engineers then decide okay, it doesn’t create good relevancy for users any more; so we’re going to devalue this. That’s been kind of going on and on and escalating back and forth for a decade now. That’s part of where the paranoia stems from, too, is the more people that learn about a technique that’s working, the less likely it is work anymore; so it’s not necessarily a manipulative thing. It could just be fairly innocent tactics that get overused and then become less valuable as quality signals for relevancy. There’s probably a handful of examples.
Another example would be image alt text. People started putting keywords in the alternate field for images; and rather than just having two or three words, they might have 20 words. That was a really effective technique in terms getting a page to rank then everybody figured it out, more people did it, and it became less and less effective both from the optimizer perspective and for relevancy perspective.
A more recent example would be run-of-site text links; so links that were purchased across, and I’m actually debating this with Matt from Google in a panel in
Todd Malicoat: Yeah, yeah. I have a big, long rant on the site of saying I’m not a link communist and that it should be perfectly okay. Optimizers obviously have a somewhat biased point of view there because we all make our living from that sort of thing, so we certainly think that paid links are an okay thing. From certain perspectives, I can appreciate what Google is saying about not pursuing text links; but it’s kind of a fear and uncertainty, and they’re really spreading that fear that we talked about earlier — the more people that think it’s not okay to do or that it’s wrong to do, the less likely people will be to do it. That makes their job easier is what happens at the end of the day. I don’t really see it as a manipulative technique, no more so than someone buying sponsorship on a billboard or on a radio station or anything else. It’s just kind of a little more indirect way of advertising.
Another example of a technique that was kind of devalued was people would buy run-of-site text links, so run-of-site would be if I purchased a link on a site that maybe had 10,000 pages and actually, I’d do that as one of the very first techniques or the very first pages I optimized was my Meta4creations site; I had just created it as a Web site kind of company, I suppose, with myself as the sole proprietor. I was reading about SEO and everything else and I bought a PageRank 7 link off a joke site that had about 10,000 pages on it. I think it was just a little link at the bottom of the page that said “SEO services”, but it was across 10,000 pages; and so by the next monthly update, I was in the top five for “SEO services”. So, at the time, that technique was effective enough to bump that right up there. Now, this is probably four or five years ago, a year after that, that technique no longer became useful; and that wouldn’t fly anymore. So, the back and forth race is kind of beneficial, I think. I don’t think the search engines like to admit it we’re kind of helping them advance the artificial intelligence across the web.
Todd Malicoat: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think there’s less tricks and that sort of thing; so there’s a lot less things you can do like that that are just a real quick solution, but there’s still a lot of things together. For a long time it might have been more of that arms race; certainly, the search engines win in that regard because they’re ultimately creating better relevancy all the time. It gets billed as that, but it’s really, I guess, more almost cooperating and competition at the same time. So, there’s kind of a real high level of mutual respect there generally between optimizers and the search engineers, just based on they’re really passionate about the things most of the time. They’re just kind of working on different science in a sense.
Dan Skeen: A lot of noise has been made about ethics among SEO tactics. I’m interested in your thought in how much is ethics really a factor. I mean, if something works, is it appropriate to use it; or are there tactics that you just feel are distasteful that you will stay away from?
Todd Malicoat: I think everybody kind of has their own unique code with regards to that. For me, my SEO code of ethics is more so based on industry. There are certain industries that I won’t personally work in, one because they’re just high competition and two, because it’s not something that I’d get involved. So, that’s more of the ethical question to me. In regards to actual tactics that the search engines like or don’t like, I would say it’s more a question of risk or risk tolerance and competition level. One of the quotes from Eric Mayer at Yahoo, one of the engineers over there, was “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight,” and that was in regards to people trying to use what would be deemed White Hat, or White Hat isn’t even a good term, but what would be deemed very low competitive or just traditional methods for ranking for something like Viagra or a pharmacy term, something that’s going to be very high competition. There’s always going to be kind of the aggressive tactics in those fields. So, in those areas, it’s more of a risk competition thing. Because with that level of money, it’s always going to be there, so I think it’s more industry-specific that way.
So, the other ethical point I would say is for me there’s always been the spam reporting question, the question of spam reports. People were reporting spam to Google and to the search engineers. Most of the reports they’d do was on competition, especially if they’re business owners or whatever else because it’s just competitors reporting a competition site within their own field. To me, that always felt more unethical than anything, mainly because I’ve learned more from my competitors than I’ve ever learned from search engines in terms of technique and tactics and everything else. To me, the spam reports is an unethical thing; but that’s just, I suppose, my own unique code of ethics.
Todd Malicoat: Yeah, I’ve never really got into that myself. I guess I respect the technique to some extent, but I certainly think it makes the Web, and probably the world, in general, a worse place to be, which is definitely not my approach to life. That the people that are doing this have some understanding of how it impacts the rankings, I have some level of mild respect; but it is definitely a pollutant to the Web, and it’s very obnoxious as a blogger and as a writer and as a human.
Dan Skeen: How about Black Hat tactics? What are some of the more devious ones that you’ve seen over the years?
Todd Malicoat: Probably, the more devious ones are just scraping of content; and that’s always been an issue on the Web just because of the open nature of it, people scraping content and then kind of using it as their own. That’s a real big one that’s pretty annoying as a site owner because it can certainly cause problems. When AdSense was released, it kind of gave a whole new way to monetize websites with that as basically a revenue model. It created a whole different marketplace, basically putting a dollar value on any type of content, which is a whole paradigm shift across the Web and across every industry in terms of just how to generate revenue from a Web site; but it also created this economy of people stealing content. But, when it first came out, the paranoid side of me says it was almost a competitive tactic to pollute other search engines. People just generated hundreds of thousands of pages based on content that they had swiped from someplace else. They then put AdSense on it; and even though they might only make a tenth of a penny from every single page, they were stealing millions of pages a day, and then trying to get that stuff in there for ranking for even four- or five-word phrases.
Todd Malicoat: I think they’ve improved it substantially. It’s becoming quite a bit better. There’s a fine line, I guess, between what defines a Made for AdSense site. When they’re first kind of launched AdSense, there were really just horrendously ugly ones that were gibberish and just AdSense. Now, they’re sites that still have just AdSense as a revenue model and may not have the greatest information in the world and are using AdSense as a revenue model where it just isn’t necessarily a great site. They’ve been pretty diligent about trying to clean up, bring up some quality to that.
Todd Malicoat: I think people are becoming more and more open about their methods. The trouble is, just like you said, if I find something that’s working real well, even the social media stuff is what really works well now; and so, 95 percent of what I do now, I would openly tell a search engineer and explain the tactics to them or whomever. But, I think it’s just after doing it for so long and kind of having that veil of secrecy that’s become an ingrained part of the code.
For awhile, it was felt the need to defend the reputation of the industry and everything else. Frankly, a lot of it is there’s a lot of garbage peddlers out there; and it’s unfortunate, but I think the best way to combat that is to really educate people on what the process is. That’s really what a lot of it is is just knowing all the process involved; so really, the White Hat side of it is being able to put together a game plan marketing the business strategy versus just specific tactics. It’s pulling all those tactics together and using them in a coherent form and then doing them sequentially. So, in terms of kind of dispelling those myths, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen because there’s always going to be 10 spots in the top 10, and the stuff that really is working well defeats the purpose of blogging about or telling other people about it.
The flip side of that is that’s how people have made the reputations; and certainly, I’ve done some of that myself in writing, not really about specific techniques, more so just general theory. I think that’s what people miss a lot of times is just the real community nature around us. So, there is that veil of secrecy, to some extent; but it’s also very open community, and people that come into it willing to learn with open minds, there are a lot of people that really will help those people to learn. Just so they’re not just coming in and trying to rape and pillage the information from the community.
You can really tell the people that have been active in the community versus the people who just kind of practice on their own. Those that have been active in the community generally come in and ask a lot of questions and everything else and do so, hopefully, the ones that are successful do so in pretty respectful way and kind of have a high level of respect for this. The people that started it, I mean, really the SEO community just started with a couple dozen people or whatever over the message boards and everything else, and really work at kicking out the search engines, poke and prod, and everything else. Then, they taught a handful of people; and it was kind of a pay it forward kind of thing, I suppose, of then the people that learned alternatively came back and taught new people. That’s kind of the way the communities have grown, and the people that did come into the community with a calm and respectful attitude generally come away with a whole bunch of knowledge and turn into successful SEOs and discipliners.
Todd Malicoat: Sure. Let’s see. That one’s really tough without being specific. It’s really amazing to see the success of organic search, when it works because even the people that probably deserve to be there for specific searches oftentimes aren’t. They just have some of the entitlement mentality that people or companies that have been around for 50 or 100 years that have been traditionally the leader in their industries just naturally truly think that they deserve to be there, so everyone kind of has this same partner, competition, vendor, client relationship of Google, in a lot of ways, from business owners to SEO to everybody else. Google has really changed the way that everybody thinks about a lot of these things.
It’s kind of across the board from starting a small business; it’s a real trickle starting off slow. I’ve helped a mom and pop very small company to grow; you can see this actually, it’s out there publicly; so I suppose I can say it. It’s listed on my client’s page, Main Street Seed and Supply.com. They’re ranking nationally for vegetable seeds and that sort of thing and really just a small mom and pop company that does a good job with their Web marketing; and the person that first did it was one of the few people that taught me on how to do the meta tags and everything else, and they’ve just always been mindful of how important it was to market their Web site through the search engines and have continued to learn that process and stick with it. So, they’re just a small operation in
For larger corporations, the results can be just extraordinary. Actually, with just a tweak in the right places, they can easily raise traffic levels from 20 percent to the roof. I’ve definitely seen double, triple traffic on certain occasions.
Todd Malicoat: A lot of times it depends on the size of the site and what they’re already working with and then what changes needed to be made for them.
A lot of companies kind of have that entitlement mentality, and Google really has the opposite of ‘we don’t owe anybody ranking. Nobody deserves to be ranked for anything’. The only person that deserves to be ranking is the most relevant for whatever search phrases — they’re constantly trying to refine that. But, they’re not saying any one company deserves to be there for a certain phrase; and that being the case, it is going to become a competitive landscape. Google’s always going to say buy AdWords. If you deserve to be there, buy AdWords to be there.
Todd Malicoat: So, there are really only two things that matter in SEO at the end of the day – the content and how it’s structured, kind of the on-page optimization that people traditionally think of and the off-page optimization, which is the links or references for the site. There’s more than that with user behavior and now that Google has both DoubleClick and their toolbar data, there’s more user data starting to be incorporated, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be the same techniques to develop this good quality content and get it well linked. All the other techniques, whether Black or White, would generally be based around that as to finding ways to generate more content or generate more involved links to a site.
The social media has been effective for link development because it get articles and content in front of a wider audience of generally webmaster-type people, so it’s a way to get that audience in one place or even reach that audience in one place with some specific targeted content, more so that’s geared toward their mentality. So, the social media is certainly useful for that. In terms of where it’s going, I think probably Google is getting better at incorporating their user data; so they’ll just continue to find better metrics and variables for determining the quality of a site.
So, an example of that would be it is usually a good sign if people stay on the Web site for a long time and bounce around and read a lot of information. Where that might not be true is if the layout of the Web site is not optimal, so you can’t just say if someone comes into a Web site and spends 10 minutes, that’s a good sign because it might be that what they should have done only needed to take two minutes or it might be a navigational kind of Web site where they are just going there for directions or something like that. So, it’s not a cut and dry issue; so certainly, I don’t envy search engineers at all because they have a tough job, but I think they’re getting more adept at disseminating user data.
Todd Malicoat: I just can’t see Google going away at this point with their market cap and everything else is…and really the same with MSN. I don’t see anybody coming along that they’re not going snatch up in the meantime and really just coming out of the dark without Google or Yahoo! noticing it and coming up and snatching up that technology. I really see the barrier to entry is far too high for a new competitor there now. That being said, I’ve certainly heard rumors of Yahoo! and MSN somehow working under an agreement to compete with Google, and that’s probably the more realistic future.