I recently had a chance to interview SEO Book's Aaron Wall.
SEO Book has transition to offering SEO Training  rather than the old eBook model. The SEO Book training program grants users access to:
- A comprehensive set of training modules on Internet marketing 
- An active community forum where Aaron and other seasoned online marketing pros answer questions, offer feedback, etc.
- And a set of premium tools and coupons
I wrote a review of the SEO Book SEO Training program  a while back and would strongly recommend the program to anyone engaging in online marketing (I'm a happy customer myself).
Aaron was gracious enough to answer the following questions about SEO, the Brand Update, conversion optimization, and the future of SEO Book. Enjoy!
You broke the vince/brand update in your Google Branding  post back in February. What sorts of signals lead you to that type of conclusion? What types of steps do you take to confirm that type of assertion?
For that update a number of people mentioned it in our forums (I think Ari was first) and I had a conversation about it with the guy who goes by the nickname Cygnus. He had a pretty solid working theory as to what had happened, but nobody had documented a lot of public proof of the change. I stumbled into that RankPulse and put some keywords into it and was shocked at how dramatic the changes where and how well timed they were.
Unfortunately shortly after that happened Google announced they were going to stop supporting old API keys and RankPulse will likely either go dead this fall or need to start scraping search results to get the data.
That post got a ton of attention in the search space. In the post, you talk about how you almost made it subscriber-only content. How do you make a decision like that? Is it a bit like the thought process behind sharing an unknown technique and utilizing it for your own marketing/SEO efforts?
I figured going half and half with it would allow the message to reach tons of people, and pull in a lot of subscribers as well. So splitting it in half made a lot of sense because it brought in tons of new links, dozens of new subscribers, and the best bits were still kept as subscriber only.
Most of our premium stuff we try to make subscriber only, but it makes sense to share some of it because content is our main channel through which we do marketing.
Sometimes we give away stuff for free that is worth money because it has a strong strategic value. SEO for Firefox is a good product, but it works best for more sophisticated webmasters. Giving away our SEO Toolbar made that same type of data available to webmasters in an easier to use format. We are on lots of desktops between those 2 and our Rank Checker. We have not done much marketing with this distribution, but in time we can.
We also bundled all 3 Firefox extensions and require registration for people to download them. That helps get our 7 day auto responder out in front of more people, and it makes it easier for them to become a premium member of the site since they already have a basic free account.
I’ll steal one of your interview questions from your interview with Fantomaster  and ask it of you: “In many ways (nofollow, nepotism, publishers requiring payment for links) the "organic" link has died a slow and painful death. Do you see Google and other search engines moving away from linking as a core component in their relevancy algorithms?”
I still see links as being important for quite a while for one reason that I don't see a lot of people talk about: links have an informational bias. We are much more likely to link to an informational article or a free tool than we are to link to a buy now product page.
You mentioned on your blog that you have been focusing a lot on conversion optimization, and that you’ve worked with Conversion Rate Experts . Are there any general or specific insights you’ve gleaned from that process? Do you think a focus on on-site conversion has made you a better SEO?
I think it has made me more of a better salesman than a better SEO. But SEO is just a tool to drive traffic and get sales. Anything that increases your visitor value and lifetime customer value lengthens the lifetime of your business and the value of your business.
Probably the biggest thing I hosed up off the start was that I had not given people much incentive to sign up and create a free account. There are also lots of usability issues that have since been improved. For instance, go to training.seobook.com and see how the homepage looks different if you are logged in as a paying member vs logged into a free account vs not logged in.
Thinking more about conversion also helps me understand the conversion process more. I made this graphic to sorta highlight selling points of different business models and think through where most of our clients are and most of our potential clients are.
If you were just getting onto the Web today with no brand and no money, but knowing what you know, what would you do?
Short term if I had no cashflow at all I would probably try to get a job and at the same time publish some articles with affiliate links on social media sites and then point some links at them to try to rank them.
Once I had enough cashflow that survival was not an issue, I might look for things I was really interested in. I still think building from your interests is important, because it is hard to stick through the ups and downs of an unproven business model if you are not interested in what you are doing...at least for me. But I have never really been that driven by money though. You really have to work from your motivations and interests if you are going to be your own boss.
SEO Book offers a training program complete with a series of informational modules and an active community forum where you and a host of other veteran search and affiliate marketers answer member questions. You’re currently capping registration at 1,000 members (I believe). I have (potentially) two questions:
- Do you think this model is something that can scale beyond 1,000 members?
- If yes, what needs to happen to make that possible?
Yes to #1. But I am not sure if we want to scale that much. It might also make sense to productize some offerings and offer multiple price-points for different things.
As far as what needs to happen...well I sorta stopped speaking at most SEO conferences and went head down into working hard on the site. The problem is if you don't do any push marketing it is hard to gain marketshare. So all we would need to do is maybe hire another couple people to do some more aggressive push marketing.
But ROI-wise SEO Book is one of our worst sites. So much of the SEO market wants everything for free and unless you are really aggressive with sales it is hard to change the mindset of people. This is why it makes a hell of a lot more sense to build out stuff focused on PPC
- PPC people typically want help spending money more efficiently
- SEO people typically want free traffic
We have many other sites that perform much better on the returns front than SEO Book, particularly if we price my time at market value. So my wife and I also grow those out as well. And growing them tends to be far more scalable than SEO Book. Perhaps when that stops being true we will start pushing harder on growing SEO Book, and I am speaking at SES San Jose...so we should be able to start growing more again soon.
The more you push for hard and fast aggressive growth the more you get people who do not really fit in. So that causes you to spend a bunch of time with customers who are not going to stay customers long. We like slow and steady growth. We have members that have been with us for over a year and each of those members are worth far more to us than 10 or 20 of the lower end or poor matching type customers who join then quit real quick.
If you were building a search engine, how would you exploit Google’s weaknesses and biases to gain market share? If I gave you the Cuil money or the Bing budget, what would you do with it?
I think the easiest way to beat Google is to simply arbitrage their organic results. Sites like About.com, Wikipedia, eHow, and even the worthless Mahalo are quite good at this.
What would I do with a huge search budget? I would likely try to blend editorial and algorithmic aspects and try to create something that competes on relevancy for the tail of search while offering a better user experience for head queries. Part of the trick will be branding it such that the site can also arbitrage Google's organic search results, ranking in Google.
The other thing I would love to do with a decent chunk of cash is invest in whatever Rich Skrenta is doing. :) He founded DMOZ, Topix, and is now focused on a search start up.
Many thanks to Aaron for taking the time to be interviewed. Be sure to check out his SEO training program .