The tech world has developed at what feels like warp speed in the last couple of decades, and my guest on today’s show had a ground-floor view of all of it.
Todd Friesen is a colleague and friend from way back. He’s evolved his expertise across SEO, CRO, analytics, demand gen, and growth; fortunately, our paths have crossed often! As an SEO pioneer, Todd cut his teeth on early search engines like AltaVista and Infoseek. From affiliate marketing to agency leadership and in-house roles at companies like Salesforce and Vimeo, he’s continued to stay on the leading edge.
In our conversation, we explore the wild early days of SEO and Todd’s adventures as one of the first “black hat” marketers to speak publicly on these tactics. He shares lessons from the trenches on transitioning organizations’ views of SEO from a tactical marketing function to an integral strategic capability. He offers surprising lessons from Salesforce, Vimeo, and other companies he has worked for, many of whom were simply building the plane as they flew! He’s a guy with a fascinating background in the SEO and martech world who generously shares some powerful insights, so without any further ado, on with the show!
In This Episode
- [02:03] – Stephan welcomes Todd Friesen to share insights on evolving SEO and marketing strategies from the early days to the pr
- [03:05] – Todd reveals early success with ranking keywords and how he discovered SEO potential.
- [08:43] – Todd and Stephan discuss the early days of the internet, where people used handles to protect their real identities due to concerns about Google’s ability to target sites based on domain registrations and hosting accounts.
- [16:08] – Stephan and Todd elaborate on the potential impact of AI on society.
- [20:53] – Stephan warns of AI-generated misinformation and encourages learning the technology while avoiding reliance on it for content creation.
- [31:04] – Todd emphasizes the importance of fixing obvious issues on a website before conducting any tests, such as A/B testing.
- [32:42] – Todd explains the challenges of SEO being pigeonholed as a checkbox within companies despite the complexity and breadth of knowledge required.
- [39:54] – Todd and Stephan reflect on the personal and professional challenges that have shaped their evolution as SEO experts.
- [50:47] – Todd suggests finding him on LinkedIn for more information or to inquire about hiring him for SEO.
Todd, it’s so great to have you on the show.
It’s my pleasure to be here, Stephan. We were just talking in the preamble when we connected with how many times we shared the stage at those many conferences, sitting in hotel lobbies over a beer, and things like that. It’s my pleasure to be here and finally have this on the calendar. I will raise my hand and take responsibility for the many times you have requested to have this time to hang out, and I was just unable to, so I’m glad I am today.
Me, too. It’s great to have you. Let’s start by sharing a little bit about how you got into this world because, as an SEO pioneer, it was the Wild West back in the day. There was so much opportunity to make bank doing some sketchy tactics, black hat stuff. You were quite notable or infamous in the industry as somebody who figured out how to print money back then.
In the early days, it was part of that smoke and mirrors thing of marketing to a large extent. I cut my teeth, and then the black hat and the spamming of the early Google. There were certainly many people doing much more sneaky, nefarious things than I was.
I like the stage and conferences, and I was the first to raise my hand and say, “Hey, I do this black hat.” I was one of the first to talk about it publicly, and I think I got a lot of notoriety out of it just for being the first guy to go to a conference and say, “Hey, this is what I do. This is why you get in trouble as merchants when I was doing the affiliate stuff and so on.” It was a lot of fun.AI is impacting every industry. Plug your business into AI and take advantage of its benefits. Click To Tweet
To back up to the first thing you asked, “How did I get into this?” It was the late nineties. I always loved computers, and people were learning how to build websites. Microsoft’s front page was right around the corner way back then. A friend had been helping me learn HTML, build simple web pages, etc. I was an accountant for an oil company at the time.
While we were going through this, and I was learning a little bit of HTML, my friend sent me a program that I don’t even know how he got it. He goes, “Hey, you might find this interesting.” He sent me to this website. It was the very first version of WebPosition Gold if you recall.
For anybody who doesn’t know what that is, WebPosition Gold is software into which you fed all your information, including your keywords, copy, and everything else. It would make pages specifically for all the search engines at the time, which was pre-Google. There were no crawlers. You had to submit it.
It would make all these pages for HotBot, WebCrawler, Lycos, Infoseek, Alta Vista, and all of these things, and then you would submit them. You’d publish the pages and submit the URLs to all the search engines, and then they would come, ingest, and rank them. That was how it all got started.
I looked at this and went, “Oh, you can manipulate pages to rank better?” It hadn’t even crossed my mind that you could influence search engines, but when it did, that meme exploded, and that was it. I was all in on SEO at that point, and then slowly, I worked my way through and started building and SEOing websites.
I did all my affiliate stuff, moved into the agency space, went in-house, and fast-forward to here—one little piece of software. A dump truck was the one you’d load the URLs in, and it would go to the auto-submission. That was the very beginning of it.
What is the most lucrative, prestigious keyword you managed to rank for in those early days?
Phentermine is the prescription diet pill craze. That was the first big money part of the affiliate space. It ran rampant. It was diet pills, hair loss, Viagra, and some birth control pills. That’s where it all started, and then it got so big that the online prescription company started offering more things. All of a sudden, one day, narcotics started showing up in online prescriptions. We all were like, “It’s over.”
At that point, the government came in and said, “You can’t be doing that.” The OPs got shut down, and everybody was flurrying to sell off their websites and domain names to anybody still willing to take their risk. Eventually, it all went away. We started doing other things. Casinos were the next big thing. I never got into what I consider more of the darker side, preying on the vices of humanity. I never went down that road, particularly.
I remember Hamlet Batista, a friend of mine. He managed to rank on page one in Google for Viagra for quite a while, and that made him millions.
It was just money every month. That was back when Google did the monthly updates—the Google Dance, as it came to be called. You would sit there, watching your rankings, checking them every day, and then there’d be a fluctuation. The next day, it’d be a little. You’d take three to five days of fluctuation, and then it would lock-in. Wherever you were, that was where you were for the next month.
You’d see SEOs around the world sitting there watching, waiting, and seeing what locked in, replicating it like mad for the next month and hoping that the next month, you’d lock in some more. It was a crazy time, man. You think back to these static indexes or indices that you would have a month at a time. That was a long time ago.
How did you end up with the handle Oil Man?
Everybody wants that to be a better story. I prefer letting people guess because it’d be like, “Oh, oil, slippery, slick, getting away with things.” I was in the accounting and finance department at Chevron Canada when I joined all the online forums, which were even pre-WebmasterWorld, like virtual promote and the gym world forums.
Nobody used their real names, so you had to have a handle. I was working at an oil company, so Oil Man seemed appropriate, and then it just stuck with me for all those years. Probably five or six people would still call me Oil Man and never by my real name if I were to bump into them today.
Back in those early days, you didn’t want to get doxed. You wanted to buy your handle because if folks knew who you were, especially at Google, they could target and take your site rankings away.
Absolutely. Those were the days when we registered domains. You’d pick up the phone book, open a page, and register a domain in a different city and name. We had multiple hosting accounts all over the place. You didn’t want shared IPs. You wanted to leave as little footprint and connectivity as possible because of exactly that.As soon as you give AI a personality, it can converse with you and may develop other subtle human characteristics. Click To Tweet
With it being the wild, wild west, there were no rules at that time. Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) wasn’t auditing domain registrations for accurate information and things like that. We’ve come a long way from that, but you would watch Matt Cutts at a conference. The stories are rampant of people who saw him click a button and nuke an entire network using Google tools that connected all of that kind of stuff. You’d even want to obfuscate your affiliate IDs so they are not the same across all those sites because they would pull that information together.
Yeah. I knew people who would go up to Matt Cutts to ask him a question at a conference, but they’d turn their badge around so he wouldn’t know their name when the guy went up to talk to Matt.
I remember one time we were doing a site clinic at a conference. We were on the panel with my old buddy, Greg Boser, Web Gorilla, his handle, and Matt Cutts, who was up there. Tim Meyer may have still been at Yahoo at that time.
The mic went to one guy, who raised his hand and asked his question. He explained what he was doing. Greg and I started thinking, “Stop, stop, don’t. Do not finish your question. Don’t say it.” He said it, and that was the end of his network. We knew what he was doing was a violation.
He wasn’t intentionally doing it. He had some bad information, but Google was still acting on that. Intentional or not, they wanted their index to be pure and clean. We were yelling, “Dude, stop talking!”
Speaking of Greg Boser, what’s he up to these days? Do you keep in touch with him?
Our paths cross on social media now and then. We’ll comment on something. I know Shelley Walsh has been doing The SEO Pioneers podcast, and he did an episode on that. I haven’t chatted with the guy in quite some time, which is a good reminder. I should reach out and see what he’s up to.
Yeah, for sure.
It’s one of those things. Life gets going. The conference world was one thing, but many of us grew up in it and retired from the circuit side of it. That was the only time a lot of us ever saw each other. We live in different countries, different states, what have you. Once you stop doing that, the distance grows quickly.
But you also were a dynamic duo, where you would speak on panels together. You’d speak about doing workshops. Do you remember the SEO workshop you did at the Web 2.0 Expo that I just walked in?
It looked very much like your SEO workshop, didn’t it?
You got to tell the story. That’s classic.
This is almost shameful. I’m so glad we apologized and made things right with you so I can tell the story now. Greg and I, a hundred percent, were almost interchangeable. People would joke about that. We were always hanging out. We became really fast friends in the space. We had our SEO Rockstars podcast, which we did for a long time, or a radio show.
We were invited to speak at the Web 2.0 Expo, the new hotness in conferences when Web 2.0 was a thing. Now we’re into Web 3.0 and whatnot. They asked us to come and do this thing.
We gave the same cursory attention we gave, like a site clinic or things like that. We’re at a search engine conference where we were so comfortable, and then we find out it was just a lot as we get closer to Web 2.0. It was a lot bigger. We were mainly staged in a room that held a couple thousand people.
We left it way to the end as we do. We were like, “What are we going to do? This is a serious thing. We can’t just get up there and get by on our good looks and a bunch of jokes.”
We searched online for file types, PDFs, and PPTs, looking for Web 2.0 and all this stuff. We came across this great presentation that covered many of the points we had been throwing around. We reworked it a little bit and put it into a deck. We were like, “All right, perfect.” Of course, it was 2 AM the night before.
We got up, and we were laughing because to get to the punch line a little early, it was a Stephan Spencer presentation that had been published online, which was excellent. We thought we could totally use this and get away with it. That was the whole thing. We would get away with it because Stephan goes to the search conferences. That’s no big deal.
Whether you’re pro-AI to the core or not, the tools you’re going to be using to do your marketing and whatever else are all incorporating AI.
We’re on stage, getting ready to go. They’re testing the mics and everything. I looked up, and in the fourth-row dead center, there you are, in the room for our presentation. I leaned over to Greg and said, “Dude, Greg, look who’s down there.” We just started laughing. I think we owned up to it right at the beginning of the presentation, even with you sitting there in the room.
What I recall was I raised my hand to ask a question. It didn’t dawn on me that you used my presentation until a couple of slides in, where it mentioned some tools. A bunch of tools were listed, and one of them was an obscure tool that was mine, Netconcepts link checker or something like that. I raised my hand to say, “Hey, thanks for the shout-out.” Before I could finish my sentence, you told the audience, “Okay, we got an embarrassing admission here. This is actually Stephan’s deck.”
We weren’t invited back to Web 2. 0 after that. It’s shocking.
Do you know who was giving that workshop? That was me.
Like, “Stephan, do your presentation properly.” That would be great.
That was absolutely hilarious. It was so perfectly orchestrated from above. I’d never go in to hear other people’s workshops on SEO. I can teach the thing.
For whatever reason, I saw you and Greg giving this workshop, and I’m like, “Okay, I’m really interested to hear what black hat stuff they’re going to work into the presentation to people in the Web 2. 0 world.” I was in the audience, expecting your usual brilliance or crazy sketchy stuff.
We had talked about that, too. Like I said, the Web 2.0 was the new hotness. It was going to be the thing. This was legit. We didn’t feel that anybody wanted us to come in and talk about the sketchy black hat stuff. We wanted to give more professional SEO things for these people to do with all their Web 2. 0 properties and not get in trouble. So we didn’t want to go down. We made that decision very clearly, but then we said, “Well, neither of us owns any collateral or any decks on that side.”
Nowadays, you can just ask ChatGPT for a whole outline.
I had to do it. I had to do a job description. I was hiring a front-end developer at Vimeo, and my boss said, “Hey, maybe we’ll get to that later, but I needed a whole team.” They gave me the website. It was just me and one other SEO guy. They’re like, “Rebuild the website. We need some resources for that.”
He says, “Go hire some engineers.” I’m like, “I’ve never written an engineering job description before.” I ChatGPT’d that thing, and it was awesome. It was like a two-prompt request, perfect front-end engineering with bullets and everything. It’s kind of scary.
It’s amazing. People afraid of this brave new world are not opening their minds and hearts up to the fact that this is all unfolding with exquisite orchestration from above. If we can’t take our next breath without the creator willing it, then certainly we’re not headed to a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome future. You just have to believe in the benevolence, forgiveness, and unconditional love shown to us every moment. You’ll know this will not be one of those dystopian sci-fi horror movies.
It’s dystopian, but not in a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. We’re all going to be fighting over water, but it is interesting when you get into the AI stuff. I can never remember his name, but the CEO of NVIDIA said that general artificial intelligence is five years away, which is what that Q* thing that Altman and his crew were secretly working on.
It’s interesting that, as we were talking beforehand, I’ve been enjoying some time off since the beginning of August. I’ve been enjoying that time mostly off. A lot of the AI stuff, a lot of what’s gone on with ChatGPT, has been in those last five months, more so than the few months ahead of it, because it’s been about a year since GPT even announced.
It was the first few months, so I haven’t followed it that closely. I know SEOs are using it. People are pumping out content like crazy, but I haven’t. I have not dabbled in it a lot, so I’m not super versed in it. I’m okay with that. Spending too much time there seems like a rabbit trail to me.
I learned this from Darryl Anka. This might sound hokey for some, but he channels Bashar, this being that just speaks through him. It’s a trans channel. He explains that the fear of missing out creates the missing out. Otherwise, you are not missing out on anything. It will happen if you are meant to hear, learn, or read something. It’s preordained, predestined that you will receive that.
Many people don’t realize we’ve been using AI for years and years, and it’s built into all kinds of things. The difference is that generative AI is now talking to us.
What is getting us in trouble is fear because fear is an inverse faith. I learned that concept from the book The Game of Life and How to Play It by Florence Scovel Shinn, which was written a hundred years ago. If fear is inverse faith and fear of missing out (FOMO) is that you’re afraid you’re going to miss out on something if you don’t attend this event, or if you don’t play with this AI tool, or if you’re not keeping up with every single advance happening on week by week basis with AI, you’re going to miss out, guess what, then you are asking the universe to create some missing out for you because that’s what you’re focused on.
You’re focused on the fear of missing out. You’re missing your menu: “Okay, coming right up.” You’re programming that into your illusion, your simulation, which you’re experiencing as reality.
I follow the logic that you’re only missing out if you decide you’re missing out. If you weren’t there, you weren’t there. Did you miss out? I’ll follow the logic on that. I don’t know if I should go further with it, as you believe, and that’s okay. But the logic of missing out, how that all works, is that you missed out; it’s only missing out if you think you missed out. That all makes sense to me a hundred percent.
Yeah. If you want to live in a place of scarcity, lack, fear, and chase after the next algorithm update, AI tool, or whatever, by all means. I’m just being hypothetical here. I’m not speaking to anybody in particular, but if that’s your experience, then you’re ordering that up to be your experience.
I would want the ease, grace, and joy of trusting that everything is being handed to me, orchestrated in the heavens for me, and nothing else I’m meant to experience will be missed.
I think that a lot of it is just a distraction, too. You see tons of companies right now just getting distracted with it. “What are we doing with AI?” Don’t do anything with AI, and your business is working. Keep doing the fundamentals, and they steer away from it. You start to lose the fundamentals, get your eye off the ball of the things that work for you, and then you’ve got to return from that.
It’s all very cool and fun. Everybody doing it for that spun over to AI to create content is getting called out on it. If you say, “Hey, we’re going to do most of our content now with AI,” then you have to hire a bunch of fact-checkers because it’s getting wrong. You want to talk about spreading misinformation, which is not helping, not even a little bit.
All ChatGPT AI are the most likely to be based on an unbelievable amount of data.
It is just full of misinformation, what AI folks call ‘hallucinations.’
That’s such a great word for it.
It’s an obfuscation, really.
Right, but it’s giving the AI too much credit. It’s humanizing to say it’s having a hallucination. We’re getting into that feeling of this is a general intelligence. This is heading down the road to a being because we’re anthropomorphizing it like we do our pets.
That’s not helpful to humanity. On the other hand, I don’t want to dissuade people from playing with AI and becoming well-versed in it because it is the future. Having that as one of your skill sets will make you future-proof in many ways, so I will encourage you.
The quote I love to cite on AI is from Peter Diamandis. He says, “There are going to be two kinds of businesses by the end of this decade, businesses that are using AI at their core, it doesn’t matter if it’s service industry or whatever, or out of business.”
I don’t want people to think I’m anti-AI because I’m not. I’m optimistic and excited about this new chapter in humanity, but there’s also a new chapter unfolding for humanity that’s not just about AI. It’s about a great awakening of humanity to their connection to that unseen world, their creator, and all that is. That’s very exciting. That’s much more exciting than AI because that changes everything. That changes the whole nature of reality at the very fundamental level.
Like I said, I don’t know about much of the rest of it, but AI is going everywhere, and it’s getting plugged in. Whether you’re AI to the core or not, the tools you’re going to be using to do your marketing and whatever are all having AI built into it.
On one hand, there’s this excitement about AI and where it’s going. And then there’s this big detractor or a lot of fear around it, especially when we talk about general intelligence coming in the next few years.
Many people don’t realize we’ve been using AI for years and years anyhow, and it’s built into all kinds of things. The difference is it’s now talking to us, generative AI. It exploded very quickly. Part of it is they gave it personality to a certain extent. If you’re polite to ChatGPT, it’s polite back to you. If you are businessy about it, it’s more just the facts, but that’s what’s got people freaked out.
I spent years at Salesforce. Many years ago, you looked back to when they announced Einstein 1 Platform, the artificial intelligence within Salesforce for sales forecasting and help desk support. It’s already been there for a long time for all these things. Nobody was scared of that, and it was all very helpful.
As soon as you give it a personality, you give it a conversation and then start to anthropomorphize it to a certain extent. People start freaking out. That part is certainly more scary because it provides articles, information, and facts versus just something in the background that’s doing complicated math for you.
It’s giving out medical advice and financial advice, and it has exactly zero real-world experience.
It has the experience of all the information on the internet, Stephan.
But the experience is not its own. It’s pigeonholing it together without having performed one surgery, created one business, built one factory, one home, or purchased, flipped, and made a profit off of one real estate deal. It has exactly zero experience with all that. That’s why Google incorporated the extra E in their EAT, so it’s now EEAT, this acronym for quality standards. You have experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. And that’s what you need to convey in your web content. Otherwise, you’re going to get dinged for it.New generation SEO is content-focused. The technology has improved and grown exponentially — if you utilize it correctly, your content will stand out. Click To Tweet
Absolutely. It’s easy enough to figure out. Google’s pretty smart at this point, let’s be honest, and all AI is. At its deepest core is a whole bunch of if-then statements that go bigger and bigger.
All ChatGPT is the most likely next word at the end of the day based on an unbelievable amount of data, but it’s still just the most likely if-then scenario, so it will get it wrong. It’s a hundred percent going to get it wrong. I get stuff wrong all the time; ask my wife.
It’s certainly an interesting time to be alive. I encourage folks to play with AI and not be afraid but instead embrace it as another tool in their tool chest. If you can take a screenshot of a web page you’re working on and ask ChatGPT to look at it and advise you to improve its SEO, conversion, authority, persuasiveness, and all that, it will do that. It will do a good job of it.
You could even ask it now to design you a new logo. Here’s a screenshot of my website, of my homepage. Give me a logo, or give me a podcast cover. I did this yesterday because my wife, Orion, is working on a new website. We have a beautiful mockup of the new homepage, but we’re still trying to dial in the logo and the podcast cover and ask ChatGPT or DALL-E to create.
I totally agree with you on that. We were talking about AI, and you can feed in all kinds of logo design page conversions. Going down that road with it is cool because everywhere I’ve been, most recently at Vimeo, you need to test something, even when working on what we’re doing from an A/B or multivariate testing program.
At Vimeo, I set up all the technology, trained everybody, and said, “Here’s the new testing program.” It was very cool. It had some AI built-in on the backend for optimization and stuff like that. However, it’s only as good as what you put in the front end to test.
You sit back, and then everybody starts having ideas. Red button, blue button, and then it gets more complicated from there on down, but it’s still only as good as what you put in there. We sometimes get tunnel visioned into that, where you can have stuff generated, but then you’ve got to come back and test it, which is the key point to saying, “Hey, ChatGPT, tell me how to improve the CRO (conversion rate optimization).” Great, prove it out because you still don’t know. That could be one of those hallucinations. It can be based on other things that aren’t as relevant to your business, whatever the GPT experience when it made that recommendation for you.
One of the foundational principles of CRO is to fix what’s broken. If it’s broken, just fix it. You don’t need to split test it or multivariate test it. After that, the stuff that you’re unsure about, whether it’s an AI that’s giving you the advice or a high-price consultant who’s bringing you the advice, if you’re not sure about it, you can test it. That’s the beauty of tools like VWO, Optimizely, etc. I have a theory, I have an idea, I have a hallucination. Let me test it. Let me see if it proves it out or if, in actuality, it doesn’t work.
The key to dialing in on what you said is that they’re moving past the AI stuff for a second. You just need to fix some of this stuff; not everything needs to be tested. Some ideas we know are the right thing to do. Again, that’s another battle you get in businesses and larger corporations, where a whole bunch of people are in the room, and somebody says, “Hey, I’ve been doing this for 25 years. This is wrong, this is right.”
There are certain things you just know, and they’re like, “Well, we’ll test into it.” I’m like, “No, just do it.” Finally, somebody says, “Oh, well, we’ll test it, run it for a week, and you test it.” Some fundamental truths in marketing and website development are just what they are. You shouldn’t do things differently because you think it will work better. Nine out of ten times, you’re not the guy coming up with the next new conversion idea.
Unless you’re in Eisenberg, those guys always come up with cool stuff.
Awesome. I missed that guy. I haven’t seen him in years, either.
Some fundamental truths in marketing and website development are just what they are. You shouldn’t do things differently because you think it will work better.
I haven’t seen him in person for quite a while, but that’s a great episode. If you could give us the real-world problem scenario with SEO and how it fits into a corporate structure because you worked at some very big companies trying to push through SEO initiatives, get buy-in, and get attention, focus, budget, and all that, but this stuff tends to get pigeonholed, gets sidelined, or misattributed, let’s talk about that for a few minutes.
Great topic. It’s one that I’ve commented on a few times over the summer here on LinkedIn and wrote up a couple of different things. The burr under my saddle, so to speak on this one, really is pigeonholing, which is the great word that you used on SEO.
Being the SEO guy, the SEO woman, or the SEO person within the company, they’re just the SEO guy. They do titles, they review your copy, and that’s what we do with SEO. Even after 25-30 years of SEO being a thing, we’re still at this point where SEO is a checkbox, very segregated, not giving credit to people who know SEO well and have been doing SEO for a long time, not to know things like conversion optimization we were just talking about, development, coding, page search, design. We’ve done it all.
To avoid oversteering too far, there are two schools. There are two kinds of SEOs. Some SEOs are content-only or content-specific, and then some SEOs have been around, typically longer and will likely get lit up. You might get some hate mail over this, but a lot of the newer generation of SEO is more content-focused because the technology has improved so much that you don’t have to do as much work on the backend.
What I’ve been trying to do over the last several years of my career is to move my own SEO and to take those skill sets, actually use them, and get recognition for them because, “Hey, we know how to talk to engineers. We know how to do all these other things.” I can own the operation side of the marketing stack for a website. I can own all of that, including SEO, the engineering, the content, and so on and so forth, and effectively run the entire operation.
I’ve been trying to move SEO into the light of a more multidiscipline thing and for my career to do more than just being the SEO guy because you don’t see many SEO VPs. You see the VP of marketing, which owns SEO, and the VP of digital, which owns SEO. You don’t see a lot of SEOs making that last jump into executive or senior executive roles. I’m figuring out how to evangelize that better.
Yes, because it really is strategic, and yet if you look at how it’s allocated, budgeted resources and all that, it tends to get short shrift largely because it is not attributable in the same way as paid searches or paid social. You can’t predict whether the ROI will come, when, and to what degree. You just have to make a leap of faith, unless that leap is oftentimes not made.
You need to test something, from an A/B or multivariate testing program.
A bunch of money on a paid search gets three times the ROI. That’s great. Or 2½x, but you could have gotten that same money into SEO.
But you can sit on that 3x, 5x or whatever it is you get to optimize. You can sit on that all day. You can forecast it, present it to the board of directors, and present it to Wall Street. All of these things, and you go, “We know this.” It’s an easy sell at that point.
You’re exactly right. The number one reason SEO doesn’t work is that it doesn’t get done. It doesn’t get done because you don’t get the resources. I’m not talking about writing title tags and getting the H1s and body copy right. I’m talking about Hreflangs, broken sitemaps, and where you need development resources, especially if you’re in a product-driven company, the vast majority of engineering resources are focused on product and product-led growth, and then you’ll come back to who’s running the website. Part of two engineers every Thursday and Friday on the third week of the month, they can work on the website. We won’t get any of that other stuff done in that case.
Yeah, I was on a podcast with him. 97th Floor put together a little podcast with me, him, and somebody from Eventbrite. We talked about some shops. It was great to see. I haven’t seen Eli in a long time, either. It was great to be on a show with him as well. He’s a sharp guy.
He is very much so. What are some of the most surprising lessons you learned from your days at Salesforce and Vimeo, these other big corporate environments you had been at over the years?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know that I was ever really blown away by anything. Salesforce was my first foray into a big company. When I joined, it had 13,000 people. When I left, it had increased to 80,000.
As we alluded to already, getting things done was the biggest thing. I thought that walking into some of these things, and it’s a big company, they have lots of resources, and they do, but websites and web marketing are, by and large, really left to the bottom of the list for many big corporations.
That’s slightly different when you talk about the publishing powerhouses out there. Dotdash Meredith, with its network of sites, is purely a content play. It has to have all the technical stuff done, but it’s making money on page views, ads, CBS, and other queues.
I’ve known several people who work in those companies, and they still struggle to get the resources to do much of that right. That was probably the biggest surprise to me. I just assumed that that would happen. I think you always assume that everything is more buttoned up than ever.
That was the other big assumption. You roll into this company. From the outside looking in, it’s all fantastic. When you get inside, you realize it’s still just chock full of humans doing their best to do the jobs they are getting paid for. There are miscommunications, power struggles, lack of resources, prioritization battles, and broken internal education processes. You’ve got to get in there and roll with whatever company you’re at. This is how it works here; you’ve got to learn how to navigate that for a career and politically to get things done.
That was my biggest surprise. You pull back the hood, and it’s a mess everywhere. There’s nobody that has it together at all. That surprised me. Now, I’m just cynical about it.
What I’ve been trying to do over the last several years of my career is to move my own SEO and take those skill sets, use them, and get recognition for them.
Everything’s perfectly imperfect. Ram Dass said this quote, which I love: “We’re all just walking each other home.” I feel that’s very true.
Absolutely. It’s been a wild ride, a great adventure, and there have been so many great people along the way- so many friendships that even catch up with you. Greg Boser is a long-time good friend. I haven’t talked to him in a while. If we picked up the fun, it would be like yesterday. There are just some great memories of all of that.
We all grew up in it. That core of us has been around since the early days and is still connected. Do you remember when we counted the generations of SEOs? We’re all first gen, and then there was a second gen, and then a third gen, and then it just became big, where you could have these markers of influxes into the conferences, you can scale things by? If you go back to that first and second-generation world, there’s a bond to have been part of starting something that has become what it is. It’s very cool.
You’re definitely one of the OGs. I am carrying on with this concept here. I know we’re running out of time, but the lessons learned from the big corporate world. What about the personal and professional challenges that have hit you the hardest through your storied career in SEO that have been gifted? If you want to talk about the disease you had been challenged with and how that fits into your evolution as an SEO and human, that’d be interesting for our listeners to hear.
There’s been a bunch of stuff over the years. There’s a certain amount of life, and life has challenges. Life has twists and turns. You’re going to get hit with them in various places. There are two things. The most recent is all the tech layoffs going on. The cool thing to do if you’re remotely related to tech is to lay off ten percent plus of your workforce these days.
Unfortunately, I got caught up in the layoff from Vimeo earlier this year. I had been there for a while, and I understood how things were changing and how things were morphing. It makes sense. I’m not carrying a chip on my shoulder over that, but it’s been an opportunity to have some time off, which I haven’t had since I was 15 years old, a long time ago, as you can see in the beard here.
The number one reason SEO doesn’t work is that it doesn’t get done because you don’t have the resources.
It was a real blessing to spend some extra time at home and with my wife. I know we were talking a little earlier, spending some extra time with my Bible and getting my Christianity back focused. That’s been a blessing, and now it’s time to go back to work, see what’s next, and go through some different interviews. But that’s been hard, too. There’s been a humbling that has come from that.
My wife will attest to this. When I got laid off, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to take off, and then I’ll just let LinkedIn, let all my search people know, let the network know that I’m back on the market and all the jobs like that. You know who I am? I’m the Oil Man, this very cocky like it’ll be no problem.”
It’s been hard. In realization, I’m not all that, which is humbling to go through and realize that there are many good people out there right now. There are many good people looking for work, very talented, smart people. I can’t be angry or jealous for losing a role to any of those people. I had the same opportunity to interview for many of those roles, and it hasn’t worked out, so that wasn’t the role for me. That’s okay.
In a continuing lesson in humility, which is not a bad thing to experience in life, I truly believe that we need to be well aware of who we are and not get caught up in that. That was hard at first. I’ve been coming around to seeing the gift of that more than initially being offended about it. I hope to be back to work soon. I’m ready to get back to doing something.
You mentioned a disease that I had. I still have it. It’s called Trigeminal neuralgia. It’s a malformed nerve thing. If anybody watching or listening wants to Google it, have a blast. It’s called the suicide disease. I never felt that way, so I didn’t have to worry about that, but I had to go through it.
You were visibly a witness to some of my lowest points in time. You, Chris Hart, and I were sitting in a hotel lobby bar in Chicago after a conference. We were just trying to have some appetizers and a beer. I could hardly eat and talk. It’s a facial pain thing. I’ve since gone through a whole bunch of medication.
One of the blessings of that was working at a company like Salesforce that cares so much about its people. Everybody was cool that they knew what this was. If I had to step away for an afternoon because I was just in too much pain, everybody was just like, “We got you.” There was a real graciousness around that, which was great. There were also short-term disability protections and all that kind of stuff.
Everybody was super supportive about it, but it was still one of those things that was always a struggle to deal with. It’s just been, like you said, part of the growth and life path. I don’t know that I can necessarily say, “Hey, this condition contributed to my career. It was just there alongside.”
Holding in check a bit when I talk about having to go through a lesson in humility this summer, maybe that kept me from going through a bigger lesson. It was an affliction that I’ve had to deal with. I had some surgery for it back at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a lengthy story.
The short version is it was six months into the pandemic, so all the hospital rules were bonkers and bizarre. I’d been just newly married for four months and going in to get this surgery. It took way longer than it should have. I wasn’t coming out of the anesthetic. They were going to send my wife home because I wasn’t even in recovery. They were like, “He’s in.” They were afraid I was going to have a heart attack. They were afraid I was going to stroke out.
You just need to fix some of this stuff; not everything needs to be tested.
They couldn’t get my pain under control. I had IVs up and down both arms afterward from all the heart medication and everything they were pumping into me. My wife is a nurse, and she knows the rules. She was on the phone with the recovery room nurse. They say, “You just need to go home, and we’ll call you when he’s awake.” She was like, “Absolutely not. I know you will come to get me, or I will kick the store down and return there myself.”
They came and got her and brought her back. I was just pale, and my heart rate and blood pressure were through the roof. She just put her hands on me and prayed to God to stop it. I had been unaware of it. I was so out.
I woke up, and the only thing I remember of the whole thing was her praying. She said, “Amen,” and then she was getting ready to leave. I said, “Amen,” all these heads snapped around because I was like, “Where’d that come from?” And then I was out again. That was a pretty amazing moment.
I woke up the next morning, and I didn’t remember it when I first woke up because it was all during the haze. When I woke up, I felt great. I’ve been through a whole night of sleeping and everything. I posted on Facebook about the surgery, all this kind. My wife was so mad because I didn’t know any of the night before it hadn’t been brought back to my memory yet. She came in saying, “Don’t you remember?” I’m like, “I don’t remember any of that.”
When she told the story, I remembered that moment of prayer in the middle. That was cool. Again, I don’t know that it ties to the career or anything, but it ties to an answered prayer and an incredible moment in life. Something very bad could have happened on that table. I could have stroked out, I could have been a vegetable, I could have died on that table. But I’m still here, and I feel great. God’s not done using me in this life yet.SEO is a multidisciplinary approach of hacking your growth in the digital realm. Click To Tweet
Amazing. I remember conversing five or seven years ago, maybe even at the Javits Center or at one of the conferences in San Francisco.
They’re all the same. They’re all blurry.
Anyway, it was just you and I sitting, eating a bite. You were talking to me about the disease and how you were just working through it. I don’t remember exactly what you said, but I do remember the feeling that you were in a state of grace or something like that. You were just in a place of acceptance and knowing this, and I thought that was cool to see.
One thing that comes to mind to stay on the spiritual side of it for a moment is the apostle Paul in the New Testament. He’s constantly ministering. He’s always on the road being a missionary, and he writes all the letters to the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, all of those. He talks in one of the letters about the thorn in his side, but he has prayed to God to remove the thorn in his side, the thorn in his flesh, and it was never taken away. It was part of his suffering here on Earth.
Life has twists and turns. You’re going to get hit with them in various places.
That is the thing that I’ve hung on to. We don’t get the answer we want to everything just because we pray for it. He begged God to take whatever it was. It’s never said what that affliction was, but God never did. But God still powerfully used the apostle Paul to his dying day. I decided within that view, I can’t expect this to be gone, but I can certainly live with it. I can still be productive and useful in learning how to balance these things.
It’s a great way to look at life. Your mission, your soul’s purpose, and where you fit into this big picture, it’s awesome. Thank you for sharing your brilliance, wisdom, storied history, challenges, and everything with us. Thank you for your vulnerability and openness. If our listener or viewer is interested in learning more from you, and if they’re even interested in bringing you on to their team and hiring you as their VP of SEO, where do they get in touch?
I’m very findable. I always joke if you can’t find me, then you don’t know enough about SEO for me to come to work with you anyway.
Awesome. Thank you, Todd. Thank you, listener. Thank you for being a valued part of the tribe and open to these business/spiritual conversations. We’ll catch up with you in the next episode. I’m your host, Stephan Spencer, signing off.
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Your Checklist of Actions to Take
Focus on fixing obvious issues on my website before testing changes, such as broken links and bad site architecture. Take care of the low-hanging fruit issues first to build my foundation.
Utilize AI tools like ChatGPT to generate ideas to improve my SEO and marketing content. Test all ideas before I fully implement them.
Avoid distractions from my business fundamentals and utilize the latest AI tools. Leverage AI to amplify the core of my business. Use AI to improve how I deliver value, communicate with my audience, and promote my services.
Hire an experienced SEO expert who can optimize my content, wrangle developers, diagnose site issues, design tests, and optimize complex funnels.
Highlight my industry experience, credentials, history, services delivered, case studies, and credibility to improve my website quality.
Beware of AI misinformation. Avoid using AI as my only source of content creation. AI-generated content may contain inaccuracies and misinformation.
Test AI-generated suggestions. Whether AI or human consultants provide advice, testing is crucial. Ensure that my AI-generated suggestions are validated before I implement changes.
Develop my AI skills to future-proof my career. Recognize that AI is the future. My business must integrate AI or risk being left behind.
Adapt to algorithm changes. Monitor my ranking fluctuations and adjust my strategies as needed.
Delve deeper into Todd Friesen’s insights through LinkedIn and learn more about growth hacking from one of the pioneers of SEO.
About Todd Friesen
SEO pioneer with 25 years of experience spanning the digital spectrum from SEO, CRO to demand gen, analytics and growth. Veteran leader and team builder.