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Interview of Dan Thies, Keyword Guru

July 16, 2005

Dan Thies is the founder of SEO Research Labs. He has written a couple books about search engine optimization, is known as the keyword guru, and also teaches beginner and advanced search engine optimization courses.

I asked him if I could interview him. He said sure. And so it goes...

How & when did you get into search?

I've been doing stuff on the Internet since before the web, newsgroups, email, that kind of thing. When the web started to gain steam, I got involved in building websites, promoting websites, and search became a pretty important factor in that by 1996. Turning into a "search engine guy" sort of happened by accident, I wanted to write a book, planned to do something on email marketing, but I had so many requests to do something on search engines, I figured I should get that out first, so put 5 chapters of email marketing gold on the shelf and banged out the first edition of SEO Fast Start over a couple months.

You and I both wrote fairly strong selling books about SEO? what did you think was the hardest part about writing an ebook and marketing it?

Writing it. For me, with SEO Fast Start, the hardest part was getting it down to the right size. I had set a target length of 80 pages, because you lose beginners with too much information. So most of what I wrote ended up in the "save for later" file.

Which actually turned out to be helpful, because it gave me a lot of fodder for writing ezine articles. When I started selling it, the site was new and had no search engine presence, so I had to promote it with other methods.

Since I already knew email marketing (better than I knew SEO at that point), it was pretty easy to create demand. Once people started reading it, I had testimonials and other things to use.

What were the biggest surprises that came out of writing books about SEO?

The biggest surprise was how much hostility came out of the SEO people. They didn't like my sales letter, and figured me for just another marketer. I had to do some things to make my point, like pushing my sales site up into the rankings for "search engine optimization," which was pretty easy to do, but the "optimized" copy didn't sell as well.

I have pretty good relationships with these folks now, but people like Alan Perkins and Jill Whalen were pretty dismissive in the beginning. About the only SEO person who gave me any encouragement back then was Mike Grehan, who was actually my first customer. He somehow found my site and bought my book before any of the articles had even been published.

You think *you* have your ear to the ground, but that guy has some kind of radar we'll never fully understand.

What marketing techniques have you found most effective? Are there any that you believe SEOs are relying too heavily upon? or are there some they are not looking at deeply enough?

Well, in terms of pure SEO, people don't use their own websites very well. Good structure, internal anchor text, content... and there seems to be a whole lot of money going into the most expensive forms of link building, instead of stuff that's easy, natural, and profitable. Writing and distributing articles, if you can find the audience by email and through content sites is an easy way to generate leads, sales, and links all at once.

People who are writing blogs instead of distributing content are relying on a very small subset of the web.

It seems to me that within that large number of SEO firms there are few that have strong brands. You seem to be one of the few in the SEO space who get branding. Where did you learn about branding? What has helped you develop a strong brand? What can SEO firms do to build strong brands & strong credibility?

SEO consultants, in particular the small firms, the one-person shops.... I've rarely seen a group of people with more talent going to waste, because they don't get marketing, they don't understand sales, they can't write proposals, they spend so much time chasing bad leads. If I had a dollar for every consultant who has asked for advice on how to get someone to spend $500 on SEO...

If $500 is an issue, you either have no credibility (because you haven't created it) or they just don't have any money. Most of the time, the budget is there, but the credibility isn't.

The coaching program I did earlier this year, the *original* idea was just to teach consultants how to consult, and how to sell their services.

What can SEO firms do to build strong brands & strong credibility?

I don't really want to talk much about branding, that's not much different from branding toothpaste. How do you want to position yourself and your company? Just decide, just do it, then start making that part of every message.

Credibility comes from two-way communication. Most consultants get very little information from new leads, never try to understand the prospect's business, and then deliver a generic proposal. When I did SEO consulting, my initial proposal was for (a fee) to perform a comprehensive business assessment and deliver recommendations.

Most of the time, their design firm or in house resources could handle most of the SEO work. So my job in writing proposals was to identify some business issues, speak to how those might be addressed, but be honest about it and say that we can not prescribe a solution until we do a real diagnosis.

I've seen a lot of losing proposals, and there's sort of a common theme, the initial proposal is something like "we'll optimize 50 pages, get you 100 links, and deliver ranking reports every month." But nothing about how they came up with 50 and 100, or why any of it is relevant to the prospect's business.

What are the marks of a good proposal? Are there any templates, books, or proposal software products you recommend?

Roger Parker's Streetwise Relationship Marketing on the Internet is a great book about understanding the market, and building a good website. That's important. Tom Sant's book on winning proposals is right on the money, and if you do a lot of proposals, Sant's ProposalMaster software is worth every penny.

The biggest mistake people make (other than proposals titled "Proposal") is that they don't speak to the prospect's business needs. Start with a summary page outlining what you understand about the prospect's business picture and what they need, THEN talk about how you can solve the problem.

People want to be understood. Demonstrate that you understand the prospect's internal picture, and it's a whole lot easier to explain why your solution will help.

There are like allegedly 34,000 SEO firms. I just made that number up, but there are a lot. Yet when I think keyword research usually I think Dan Thies, WordTracker, and that's about it. What made you decide to specialize in keyword research? Do you still see the need for generic full service SEO firms, or are people better off specializing?

One of the things I offered folks who bought my book was email support. I kept getting emails from folks asking if they could hire me to do the keyword research, because let's face it, that's a hard job for someone who only has one website. So when I did the 3rd edition update, I added an offer to 300 of the emails, to do a keyword report for something like $125. I got 120 clickthroughs and sold something like 40 reports.

So I knew there was a demand for it, and started building the team up. What surprised me was how many SEO consultants wanted to outsource to us. That's turned out to be a better market than individual webmasters, actually.

But it's been a long strange trip, from an online marketing generalist doing email campaigns, copywriting, conversion improvement, search engine optimization, and lots of stuff.... to being the "keyword guy." Which is why it was important to me to get something else out on the market, and that's how the SitePoint project came about.

I needed to let folks know that I do know a lot more than keywords.

So in that regard do you believe becoming the keyword guru has hurt or helped your ability to market broader things?

It hasn't really hurt, I mean it got me into a regular speaking opportunity at Search Engine Strategies, and I'm finally doing a session in San Jose that isn't about keywords. Keyword strategy is really important, and folks have been really lax about it, so I feel good about bringing more discipline to the discipline.

The other thing it's let me do is position myself as a researcher, so that a lot of folks will call me first when Google starts dancing around or something. My paper on Topic Sensitive PageRank is still being downloaded and read every day - I wouldn't have had as much exposure for that if I didn't have a bunch of people in SEO who were already listening to me about keywords.

People I consider real experts, you know, they call me when they get confused so we can talk through stuff. Mostly because there's a good chance that whatever they need to check on, I've probably tested it, or I have data I can use to ask/answer questions.

Since you are the keyword guru :) where do you start the keyword research process? Do you have to understand the target customer, business, or business model to do keyword research? Does extensive keyword research experience help you get by without needing to know the businesses as well?

You have to try to understand the business, the target customer, the products/applications. The more our clients can help us with that, the more focused our research can be, but you can actually build very broad lists without much knowledge.

At some point, before you start mapping search terms to content and writing PPC ads, you have to apply some domain specific knowledge using relevance to help identify the best search terms.

What are the biggest keyword research errors people make?

KEI is the biggest mistake in the history of SEO. So paying attention to KEI numbers is the biggest mistake you can make in keyword research.

What is KEI?

The biggest mistake in the history of SEO. :D

It's a formula that some folks use to try to evaluate the usefulness of search terms, but it's a really stupid formula and utterly useless. There is no magic number.

Most folks doing their own keyword research utterly overlook the customer's side. What problems does the product solve, what applications does it have, how do they use it, why do they choose it over an alternative?

How does keyword research for pay per click different from keyword research for SEO?

Not as much as you might think. Yahoo/Overture 's PPC product doesn't consider singular and plural words to be different, but that doesn't make a difference in doing keyword discovery work for PPC. Mostly, if you do good work on the SEO side, you have something useful for the PPC side. The converse is not true.

Keyword *strategy* is different, because PPC lets you do different matching strategies, run different creatives and landing pages against different matches, run different bids at different matches, etc. I know that some folks take their maximum bid, and reduce it based on the relevance assessment they did for SEO. So if they're willing to pay a dollar for the best traffic, they might only bid 50 cents for a term that's half as relevant.

I like to use a lot of testing and feedback loops, so your SEO informs your PPC and your PPC informs your SEO. By doing both and being smart with analytics, you can do both better.

Are there any keyword research tools or keyword discovery techniques which most people do not know about, or are not fully taking advantage of?

Wordtracker's "other" tools are often ignored, like compressed multisearch, comprehensive search, etc. KeyWordDiscovery.com has a cool tool in the paid version that will spider a page, pull out all the possible search terms, and then sort it by the search counts, so you get actual search terms instead of the gibberish you usually get from keyword density analyzers.

SEMPhonic.com has a tool called MarketScan Analyzer that will spider a bunch of sites and come up with a giant list (tens of thousands) of possible search terms, and show you ads running against them on Adwords. That's cool, the lists are too big and full of junk to be practical at this point, so we're building a tool that will use the Wordtracker API to find the "real" search terms.

AdGooroo is pretty cool if you have a high volume market. Hitwise's Keyword Intelligence is a nice keyword discovery tool, but like AdGooroo they have a data set that's too small and too consumer focused to be completely useful. The Hitwise Search Intelligence service is very costly, but for about $30K per year you can see search terms that are driving traffic to a specific website.

GoodKeywords is a nice brainstorming tool, a little Windows app that's free. How's that for a list? Most folks don't know any more than the free tools. A lot of people do SEO based on the Yahoo/Overture suggestion tool, which is nuts because it doesn't preserve plurals, or the word order on multi-word search terms.

We use all of these tools, but at the end of the day we prefer the popularity data from Wordtracker over any other source.

Are there default modifier terms that people should look at to include or exclude from their keyword campaigns? Do lists like these exist anywhere on the web?

We've tried, but mostly what you find is that the useful words will show up in keyword research, using tools like the Wordtracker compressed multisearch.

I can give you a list of good negative matches: free. That's the list.

I remember you saying something in the Search Engine Watch forums about being able to turn traffic off. I don't think most SEO's ever mention that they wanted less traffic?

Well, I think it's important to recognize that SEO has risk associated with it. Not just that you might get banned, which is pretty hard to do, but that you might get more traffic than you can handle and not be able to turn it off. People went broke after the Florida update, because Google traffic had driven them to hire more people, get bigger warehouses, carry more inventory, etc.

If you do really well with SEO on Google, because of their incredible dominance, you can end up putting your business in a very risky position, because it can all go away tomorrow. That's why I tell everyone in our SEO classes to at least do some PPC, so they can test ads, and get ready for the day when it goes away.

For SEO Research Labs, our keyword research business is growing very quickly, and we may have to turn the PPC campaigns off while we're hiring and training a new person. I need to protect my existing clients first, before I worry about bringing in new clients. If I put more effort into SEO, it would be on parts of the business that can absorb the growth without as much risk.

I hate it when the high-and-mighty crowd will tell someone who's just lost their Google rankings that they shouldn't have put all of their eggs in one basket, because it doesn't matter how well diversified your marketing strategy is, nothing can compare to the firehose of traffic that Google represents. When it shuts off, it can be devastating, so my advice to most folks is to be very careful with what they target.

If you were starting in the search field from scratch today where would you start, and would you build the same type of business you currently run? If starting a niche one, is it best to target a front end service like keyword research or are there other niches that seem appealing? Are there many opportunities people are missing out on?

If I had to start today, I'd be doing what I'm doing now, but that's me. Link building is a field with a handful of professionals and a boatload of spammers, certainly ripe for someone to make a play there, but like writing a book on SEO, you have to find a way to rise above the noise. PPC campaigns are another opportunity, and of course conversion improvement is going to be huge.

We're looking at several areas for expansion, including content development and promotion, email marketing, conversion improvement, sales training for SEM consultants, creating a 'broker' type model, and some innovative approaches to PPC strategy and services that I think will be very well received.

One of the biggest complaints of mid-sized firms is that they can't bridge the gap between one person doing it all, to having account managers etc. - it's a big investment, so we're looking for opportunity within that gap.

Recently you have developed SEO classes. Who are the classes targeted at? How are they formatted? Approximately what do they cost? What is the hardest part about teaching them? Have any developments with the classes surprised you so far?

The classes are done via a conference call, with a web-based presentation. I do a 60-90 minute presentation in each session, then we do Q&A. That's worked very well, it helps people avoid travel expenses, and they get to spread it out over several weeks so the information is easier to digest and act on.

The cool thing about using PowerPoint for the presentation is that I can distribute the deck as a PDF file before the class, so folks don't have to get online. We can also record the lecture as narration, and give people that presentation file - when they want to listen to a topic again, they just fire it up, go right to that slide, and listen.

The hard part is talking for two hours... but the feedback we get from the sessions is fantastic, and it's worth it to get an updated presentation on each topic. I've done the Advanced SEO class 4 times this year, so we can give folks the latest and greatest information every time, and let the past students have access to it without forcing them to take the class again.

We've got a new program now, which is a hands-on workshop, so I'm leveraging the class format in new ways, to let us take a small group through the SEO & PPC process step by step, hold their hand, give them homework, etc. It's 10 weeks, so we're doing a class session every other week, and I have a Q&A call during the off weeks when they will be doing their assignments.

With a small group like that, we can actually get each participant into a different strategy for link building, content, PPC, etc. and still support them as they go through it.

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Thanks for the interview Dan.

If you would like to learn more about Dan or his SEO training courses check out SEO Research Labs.

- by Aaron Wall, owner of Search Marketing Info

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