Meet your SEO: Bill Sebald

Here in Berlin is raining. I mean, apparently there is no summer. It’s not that I care too much since I’m a winter guy. But it’s good to me to inform you about this kind of stuff.

It seems people like to talk a lot about flushing twitter followers in these days. I like to do it too, but just because people I follow sometimes get boring, always talking about ONE and ONE topic only, when there are times in my life (almost always) I need to think about other things, like art, books, music, education. I think it’s like the “inbox zero” topic: you don’t have to do it and to tweet about it just because you want to receive attention (I receive email too, even if I don’t write “inbox zero” every other second). You have to do it because you don’t want to follow people who are not interesting for you, not just because you like the idea to have a low number of people you follow. And a tip: there are A LOT of interesting people out there, even if they are not SEO’s.

Ok, back to our lovely “Meet your SEO” interview series. Today I have the pleasure to chat with Bill Sebald. Bill is an SEO consultant, web designer, and a rockstar. I mean, he has a lot of skills and I enjoy really much to follow him on twitter. He is always engaging, ready to discuss, to answer you back and to tweet about interesting things. You can read more about his thoughts on his blog, GreenLane SEO.

Allright, Bill, let’s rock!

Bill Sebald

When did you enter the SEO world, and why ?

My interest in search started somewhere in mid 90s while at college. I got hooked on the web pretty early – the BBS and telnet. I was studying marketing but the “online marketing as a possible career” connection didn’t happen until years later. I was studying textbook marketing (and not enjoying it).

Search engines introduced me to webpages, showing me a lot of people had the same stupid interests I did. Webcrawler became my addiction, so when I made my first Tripod sites and wanted other people to see it, I started testing. I started learning about how to get it in Webcrawler. Chatted / argued with others on forum boards under fake names, etc. Really early, sketchy SEO.

Then I took a few years off for a short career in the music business – most of those years are a blur, but in 1999 I came back to the web with some good business connections. I started a music website where we were given access to major musicians. The Napster thing was happening so we had all this great semi-controversial content but nobody was seeing it. That’s when I really got into SEO (by this point the acronym was invented). It’s also when I started seeing SEO as a marketing discipline. Ultimately I got squashed by

I liked the fact that it was an industry designed by rogues and brilliant degenerates. They weren’t teaching this kind of marketing in school, but you could actually make money at it. You could make your own SEO rules. My family never understood what I was doing but they saw I was surviving with it somehow.

Other than my own sites, I didn’t start working for someone else doing SEO until 2004. Eventually I got into the agency world working for GSI (now owned by eBay) and many of their big brand clients. I built the SEO practice in their agency, but still had the love for the small brands. I’m currently doing stuff for newer, smaller companies and love it.

A great tip about onpage optimization?

I think on-site search is a tool that surprisingly few people rely on. In working with ecommerce, I found that people ask Google and websites different questions. People tend to think of Google as a door opener, though when they get on the website, they really get descriptive in their queries.

A lot of long-tail stuff happens in the on-site search that can inspire content, feed your keyword research, or help you learn more about what your consumers really care about.

If you believe the details are what signals onpage authority (as I do), these details are great to collect and review before you write. I love using search to inspire content. There are so many gems and persona nuggets right there if you dig for a couple hours.

The most stupid thing people believe about onpage optimization?

That the strategies and tight code concerns of 2002 are still relevant in 2012.

If the code is bad, Google knows it’s their burden to reach that content (as long as they want to stay the best search engine). They don’t want to leave authoritative content out of the index just because a developer sucks at coding. Tag soup, bloated code, outbound link count, order of keywords in a string, using strong tags, whatever – Google is infinitely better at overcoming that. Sounds obvious, but not with everyone.

I’ve seen a couple sites in the last couple years rebuilt for code because of an SEO’s strong recommendation, to ultimately prove absolutely no noticeable lift. Only empty wallets. Engines will ask for help via microformats and social signals, sure, but the days of the “a site must have x characters in their title, and a so-and-so code to content ratio” are gone as far as I can tell.

I’m often pitched by vendors who don’t know I happen to know SEO. It’s really amazing what they still pitch about onpage content optimization.

A great tip on how you build links?

Until Google goes after it in Panda version 48.2 (whatever they’re up to at the time of this post), I’m really in the guest authoring camp.

I love tools like Ontolo and Link Prospector to get some good leads, or Followerwonk.

I like what Danny Sullivan has always said about “earning links” – and is saying again with his last SMX rant. If that means the marketing team needs to occasionally put up a wall to defend themselves from their daily grind in order to get creative, so be it. Danny echoes what a ton of old schoolers learned and still do. I think the old dogs have a lot of stuff to teach the young pups post-Penguin.

Marketing needs creativity – link building is no exception. I use tools like Ubersuggest to scan Google Suggest questions, and think about good post titles that could answer those questions. Then I have a bunch of good ideas to pitch bloggers, and some validity to reinforce why it’s a good topic. It really becomes a simple task (but still stays a big time suck).

The most stupid thing you heard about linkbuilding?

A couple years ago I started hearing from prominent sites that exact match anchor text is dead. It clearly wasn’t.

Now the “told you so” peeps are back (despite a real timeline disconnect and a heavy dose of revisionist history); in spite of what many think Penguin was designed to do, I have trouble truly believing that we should be running away from exact match anchor text.

Someone recently tweeted something about “a link profile that uses head term keywords as anchor text always looks artificial.” I forgot who said it, but it seems to be a popular sentiment to a portion of the SEO space. I don’t know what kind of sites these people work on, but when I went through a few of my sites to eliminate the exact match head terms, I found it really hard to make those changes. In many, many cases the exact match anchor text made absolute sense.

Ultimately I don’t think Google is that aggressive about head terms (again, they need to consider bloggers who aren’t SEOs who might be using exact match anchor text because it just looks right in their post). I think some SEOs are taking too many crazy pills, and need to get out of the nerd pool and get back into the marketing pool.

If you have to explain what you do at a 10 year-old kid , what are you gonna say?

I have an 8 year old, so I tell him I “help websites be number 1 on Google.” I also say that to any girls I take out on dates. It impresses the kids more though.

What do you drink when seoing?

What I’d like to be drinking is Jack Daniels, Bell’s Hopslam, Dogfishhead 120, or Founders Devil Dancer… but what I’m really drinking is coffee or Pepto Bismol.

What do you think about SEO community?

I think we’re still a bunch of maniacs. But I like it. We’re diverse and passionate. Some are all right-brained (like me), and some are heavily into data and numbers. I believe SEO has a lot of definitions depending on where you stand – and they’re all accurate. So with that in mind, I can handle the polarizing chatter. I just try not to sit in any one room.

Who is your biggest SEO influence?

Getting started, I guess it was everyone in the High Rankings forum. We had some snarky people in that world though, so I moved on to SEL and the other sites that were higher level. I didn’t really learn a lot about link building (which was fine, because it wasn’t really needed with the big clients). But eventually I became friends with Ian Howells, Anthony Moore, Bill Rowland, Eppie Vojt, Nick Eubanks, and a bunch of other Philadelphia area beasts. I’ve learned a ton from Wil Reynold’s SEER blog and all those guys over there. The Philadelphia SEO scene is booming – I’ve learned more in my last 3 years with these guys than I have from any other source at any other time.

If you weren’t an SEO, what would you like to do?

I’d be a rock star. I’m not even kidding. To this day I’m still a rock star in my own mind playing imaginary guitar solos to sold-out crowds.