This is an interview series from 2006 that was originally published on my personal website, I have moved the series here and you can also see the other SEO interviews below.
Todd Malicoat Interviewed
Solo Consultant Life, Clickstream Data, Conference Speaking & Algorithm Hints
Todd Malicoat aka Stuntdubl
Todd I understand you have recently left We Build Pages to pursue a career as an independent SEO/SEM consultant. How is that going for you? Any exciting projects on the go?
Actually yes! I’m excited about several different projects that are in the works. Of course, if I told you too much about them it might jinx them. I will say that the client project I am most excited about is a viral idea that I’m hoping will have some great success around the holidays. We’ve put a ton of work into it, and it’s really a fun idea. It’s probably my favorite client project to date, and I’m hoping it will be a real success that will inspire other clients to attempt larger scale viral marketing campaigns in the future. It’s funny, I feel like I’ve been thrown into the world of “traditional” marketing more and more by the day, doing things like acquisitions of sites and campaign development mainly because it’s so tough for other people to place a monetary value on a lot of these things and gauge the return on them.
I have a few personal projects going as well that I’m pretty excited about. I’ve spent a lot of time doing project management for others on large projects, and I’ve finally got one going that holds a lot of potential where I have a large vested stake as well. It’s still got a long ways to go, but the work is definitely rewarding.
In addition to these, I seem to get a nice mix of clients to do consulting with. I’ve prided myself in working across many different industries, and being able to see the commonalities in business and marketing models that work, and applying them in new spaces. It’s always exciting to work with new emerging niches, and I love working with other folks who have great (not just good) ideas.
What are the advantages of being a solo consultant vs working within a larger SEO/SEM company?
The biggest advantages are that I can make my own schedule and choose who to work with, and what to work on. It’s really nice to feel like you’re “in control of your own destiny”, though sometimes it can be extremely overwhelming. I really like sleeping in and working late (I’m currently on PST time, though I’m in the eastern time zone). I also like being able to be picky about who I work with on consulting projects – it keeps life much more fun. It’s also nice to have a 30 second commute down my stairs to my living room.
The biggest drawbacks to being a solo shop:
1. I hate accounting, billing, and taxes
2. Worrying about insurance and other such nonsense
3. Not having resources that complement my skill set to work directly with every day
4. There’s not much division between “at work” and “at home” sometimes.
What was the 'tipping point' of your career and a true sign that you had made it as an SEO?
Hmmm…this sounds like a trick question. I still don’t feel as though I’ve “made it”, though I am happy with where I’m at, I’m by no means satisfied. I think the signs of the best SEO’s is that they’re generally retired from SEO (unless you make them an offer they truly can’t refuse). It has really been a slow painful process of working pretty hard nearly every day for five or more years to get to where I’m at. I feel like I’ve still got a long ways to go to get to where I want to be. I still get signs of feeling successful when I get requests or do business with large well-known brands, or successful individuals. It feels great to be respected as an SEO, but there are many folks better than me, I just was very public with sharing information and self-promotion. There’s a lot to be said for credibility when you’re explaining an art/ science that is pretty difficult to wrap your mind around sometimes.
Could you tell us a little about clickstream data, whether it has been implemented in Search, and if you have testing in this area?
To be honest, I don’t do a lot of testing. I tend to do a lot of observing, and very little conclusion drawing. There are literally so many variables in the algorithm that it’s near impossible to keep up. I tend to do more philosophical discussion with others, and basing future strategies on my observations, and the observations of the core group of other SEO’s whose opinions I trust and respect.
My general thought process on clickstream data is that it’s used more as a “validation” metric than anything. I've posted a few thoughts on clickstream as a validation metric after talking with Michael Gray and Greg Niland on Good Karma in the past. The rationale, from most people that I’ve discussed this with, is that clickstream data is generally tough to manipulate, and thus tough to incorporate into algorithmic relevancy processing. An example of this would be overcoming what is commonly referred to as the “sandbox”. To get a new site out of what I prefer to refer to as the “ trustbox” you need a few things: 1. trusted links and 2. user clickstream to VALIDATE that the links are justified. This is certainly oversimplifying, but it is really how I envision the use of clickstream data.
I am sure there are probably many more uses that will be rolled in as the data integrity of clickstream data is scrubbed, audited, and improved, but there are still a lot of oldhat SEO’s that I hear refer to directhit (just a bit before my time of loving the game) and how easy it was to game because of its’ dependence on clickstream data. Clickstream and personalization are ultimately what will transform SEO, but these types of things have made an UNDERSTANDING of fundamentals essential. SEM kinda feels like an elaborate Rube Goldberg device now where you must do everything in the right sequence without going under or over thresholds and filters are the entire project might have to be retrofitted.
What other new ranking factors have you see become part of the algo over the past 6 months to a year?
I hope it’s not too big of a disappointment, but most of my processes really stem from “best practices” that tend to work time tested. I constantly refine the process, but it seems to stray more and more into the realm of studying and working on "traditional media" marketing then studying algorithm updates. There are so many algo variables now that have been made so difficult to manipulate SE's most of the time without a whole lot of work. I'm not a big fan of work, so I just repeat the things that have worked well in the past. I've told people often, that even if the SE engineers told me the whole algorithm (which I would most likely understand about half of at best), I would probably change 5 - 10% of my process anyways. Time tested best practices are the best way to go. I sometimes refer to this as the SEO algorithm which is really just the process of meeting quality thresholds for improving your site's trust.
As you may (or may not) know I do a fair bit of SEO/SEM work both for myself, clients and seo companies, I am literally snowed under with new opportunities and new clients interested in having seo/sem work done. I can't imagine what a day in the life of Todd Malicoat must be like! Describe your typical day, how do you sort the wheat from the chaff, and keep everyone happy?
Snowed under seems to be a common theme with SEO/SEM folks. I think clients should be a bit leary of an SEO consultant who ISN'T very busy most the time. There is really so much to do as an SEO both from a learning and workload standpoint that it can be extremely overwhelming at times. I tend to be very to the point with the services I can provide, and have learned the right questions to ask of a client to be sure they will be a good fit for the things that I do well. If I am not a good fit I try to refer them to some other folks I know and like. There are different people for different types of jobs, and having the abundance mentality to send leads to people better suited when that is the case has truly been rewarding for me personally. It also keeps me from wasting my time or clients, and it helps to bring in prequalified leads from other folks who know my strong suits. The biggest thing that many consultants and companies don't learn is managing client expectations - it is a #1 failure, and just creates misery for everyone involved. If you don't take on the right clients in the first place, their expectations will always be misaligned from your own.
My typical day starts with a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal between 9 and 11 am, some blog and reading and or posting, client work, personal site project management, and various other web chores. This generally goes on most the day with handful of phone calls, a lot of email, and occasionally a pinch of instant messaging. It's tough to not want to do EVERYTHING that comes along - but I've learned to say no to things much better now. I've also learned how important time management and prioritization of tasks is as well. I've also learned to relax and enjoy the rest of life a bit more, and it makes work even more enjoyable.
Could you describe the perfect client?
This is a very important question for consultants to ask themselves, as it creates an ideal to strive for. For me, the perfect client is fun some of the time, learns well and applies what I teach them. The perfect client also teaches me about something knew in the process of learning, and has a lot of potential that I can see for being successful directly from our online marketing efforts. I like companies that have good staff that are looking for someone to give them an overall business marketing strategy audit from the online perspective. I really enjoy laying out timelines for optimization and other online marketing efforts to be coordinated within the allocated resources (both time and financial). I really enjoy project management with good teams.
I actually have a company that I've been hounding to let me do work for them - I'd probably be able to help them quite a bit, and it's a topic that I really enjoy - I've got plenty of requests that would probably pay much better, but it would just be plain fun for me to work with them because it's something I really see as fun and worthwhile. The perfect client also has to have a freakin' sense of humor, because if you can't laugh at work you might as well work in a cubicle doing phone support for AOL.
I notice you are very knowledgeable with the psychology of dealing with larger online companies and bridging the gap between the 'marketing' and the 'technical' department, could you explain this in a little more detail for our readers?
I wrote an article called "The Marketing Guy that Speaks Techie" that I really thought would be a much bigger hit than it was. In my mind, it was one of the best posts I had created in quite a while because it was humorous, and touched on a very important topic of bridging the gap between the creative departments and the technical departments in a company. Perhaps I didn't cater the article to the decision maker audience, or the humor was so specific that it was lost on most people, I'm not real sure - I guess it also reminded me that I shouldn't be impressed with my own cleverness too often.
I talked about this topic with Greg Boser and Todd Freisen on SEO Rockstars recently as well. I always feel bad for the tech guys when I come in as the consultant, because generally I am making them a whole bunch of work (or making them look bad by pointing out errors). I do my best to focus on the positive things they have done, because IT work is generally a pretty thankless job since no one else really understands it, and they really only call attention to themselves when something goes wrong. If you want your SEO project to succeed, you better work on making your techies look good - they can make it fly or make it flop.
A friend of mine Paul Hayden (Flairview Travel SEO Manager) caught some of your sessions at SES san Jose, he said you were an excellent speaker with an awesome knowledgebase of search and was thoroughly impressed. Do you enjoy speaking at search conferences? What are the highlights both for yourself and regular people attending such a conference?
Well please thank Paul for me, or allow me to mail him so I may thank him personally for the kind words. Public speaking is still very new to me. I was absolutely scared to death during my first speech at the New Orleans Webmasterworld Pubcon. I had really never spoke in front of a group of people that size, and it was truly trial by fire. I've done probably close to a dozen sessions since then, and it's gotten much better. At the recent SES in San Jose, I did a session on tagging that was NEARLY enjoyable. I'm still quite nervous, but the idea of public speaking is growing on me a bit, and it's a challenge that I'm very glad that I took on, and something I'm constantly striving to improve.
The highlight of the conference for me is getting to talk to so many new people. It is really an amazing experience. I really enjoy when folks come up to me and introduce themselves. It was only a few years ago that I was doing the same thing, and that was pretty awesome when I was just walking up to people introducing myself as well. It was really less than three years ago that I was the wild eyed new guy at Orlando pubcon sucking in all the knowledge I could manage and trying to meet all the "big dogs". Jim's got some nice tips for conference goers as well .
When are you planning to visit Australia and explore this great country?
Man, believe me I would love to. It's certainly on my list of places to visit before I die. Be sure to let me know of any Aussies who need consulting advice that wouldn't mind paying for strategy + travel expenses? :)
Any hot SEO/SEM tips for our readers?
Create site for users - that would indicate high quality to a search engine engineer with an eye for credible indicators. Don't believe in magic bullets, and keep testing and learning. SEO/SEM is not easy work, but it is rewarding. Try 10 things, and you'll stumble accross one that works. Try 10 variations of that. Rinse and repeat.
Search Fact file for Stuntdubl
Years in Search: 5+
Employees: 1 (me!)
No of Clients: 3 – 6 consulting clients at any given time
Services Offered: SEO training and consulting
Mentor(s): Oilman, WebGuerrilla, Brett Tabke, Too many WMW members and moderators to list
Favourite SEO/SEM reading material? SEObook, SEOMoz.org, JimBoykin.com, Bill Slawski, Shoemoney, GrayWolf, and lots of other blogs that I skim daily, weekly, and/or monthly.
Are you Whitehat, Blackhat, Confused or Not into hats? There are no hats, only goals.
Who you know? or What you know? Both. Who you know for what they know. Knowing the right people for the right jobs, and knowing who’s the right person to use or ask questions of (as well as not asking too much, too often).
Biggest SEO/SEM mistake? Buying an off-topic ROS link on 10k pages on a new site right before update Florida hit (luckily, it was for my own site).
What are your hobbies outside of Search? Deep Sea Fishing, Mountain biking, Turntables, Eating, Travel
Any shameless plugs for our readers? I've pretty much beat the shameless thing to death - stuntdubl.com
Todd Malicoat offers SEO consulting services for people who are fun, cool, have a sense of humor, and 2 other clients that he hasn't fired yet. You can read more of his raving lunacy on business and search marketing consulting on his site Stuntdubl.com.