Summer School: Learning from the Experts: Aaron Wall
This summer we are taking you back to school! We are focussing on education in Digital Marketing: what is the best education, what background is important? Questions you will see answered throughout the summer by those you can learn from the best: the experts. Those that already earned their stripes and are now willing to share with you how they got there and what you should do to get that far as well.
Today we listen to Aaron Wall. Aaron is a well known SEO who runs the SEOBook.com website; a site packed with tools, videos, a private member’s forum, and so much more.
What type of education did you have?
I graduated high school & a couple weeks later at the age of 17 joined the military.
Is your education related to what you do now?
In the military I worked as a nuclear reactor operator, which is just about as far away from online marketing as you can get. After that I was a middle level manager for about a year & quit that job when I gained confidence in SEO being something I’d enjoy doing & profitable to engage in.
How did you get into digital marketing?
I didn’t have much (any?) money, but loved the democratizing effect of online publishing. I was a big fan of how search allowed tiny companies to compete side by side with huge ones. Some of that love for the game has certainly faded a bit as the ecosystem has become far more closed off over the past few years, but there still is solid opportunity for people who are willing to work hard & focus.
Did you need extra schooling? If so, what type of extra schooling did you get?
When I was young I traded baseball cards. That taught me a lot about things like segmentation, the value of organization, trend following, predicting market shifts, minimizing friction & so on. While a quick glance at eBay.com reveals my lessons were learned in a bubble that has never recovered (unless you count mint copies of old & rare issued cards), those marketing lessons translated into SEO quite well.
Even reading reading through old books about “investing” in the baseball card market written during the boom time, or a retrospective book like Mint Condition teaches a lot of marketing lessons.
And then when I got into SEO there were lots of other people I talked to & learned from, like a great mentor nicknamed NFFC & the moderators at the SearchGuild forums.
The public SEO blogs & SEO forums were vastly more revealing & transparent a decade ago than they are today. Google was far less dominant, abusive & fearmongering back then.
There have been a ton of other people who gave me a shot & helped me along. Even to this day I learn tons from our members and folks like CygnusSEO ( https://twitter.com/CygnusSEO )
How do you think the state of education in marketing is these days? Do marketers learn what they need to learn?
Marketing is such a broad & diverse area that it is hard to comment on it as a singular set of skills. Almost everyone in marketing has way more they don’t know than they do…it crosses platforms, devices, networks, cultures, customs, languages, etc. … and consumer preferences & responses to various strategies or techniques change over time.
Some SEOs view themselves as a modern day John Caples or David Ogilvy. I am not naive enough to view myself in such a light. I still have lots to learn & mainly think I was just quite lucky with timing, as the search relevancy algorithms were quite primitive a decade ago. They are much blurrier today & far harder to reverse engineer.
There are a lot of anti-truths baked into conventional wisdom in almost every large market. Many espoused ideologies only apply externally, thus they act act conversation starters & flame bait to be referenced by experts while appealing to newbies – rather than attempting to inform.
In that regard, marketing is just like any other niche/market. Quite often lessons need to be learned through pain, but they do get learned.
In terms of SEO specifically, a dominant player in the broader search market has to some degree destroyed the economic viability of sharing certain types of information publicly. So a lot of that type of information isn’t as widely shared publicly as it was say 8 or 10 years ago. I think that is well reflected in the multi-year ramp up of fear-based messaging syndication & many players becoming more closed off with sharing specifics.
There’s a belief system feedback loop in SEO. The more people who believe in something & invest in something that provides a stable and predictable positive ROI, the greater the likelihood of the central market operator taking steps to drastically shift the economics of it. By that line of reasoning, doing something which in the future may get reclassified as being “spammy” isn’t really trying to be deceptive & sneaky, but rather doing something profitable that was too widespread while not being on the winning team.
Imagine if I wrote a blog post which was titled “ok folks, now that guest posts are out, here’s what’s next!” and it was widely read and became popular.
What would be the outcome of that post?
Whatever was highlighted as “next” would see lower response rates in the market as it became saturated, then as it became more widespread Google would move to penalize people for doing that technique excessively.
The technique isn’t what’s important. What’s import was that there was a widespread channel of ROI without the central network operator getting a taste of the revenues.
How do you feel about online training courses?
As a person who runs an online SEO community I should wholeheartedly endorse them.
But everyone is different & we all have different ways we prefer to learn.
A lot of people want something that is paint by number & the whole reason I had to shift our model away from an ebook to an online community was because the market was growing too complex for a single linear approach to work well in all cases.
Even if search is owned/controlled/dominated by a single entity, that entity might have vastly different models for organizing different markets.
I’d recommend participating in at least one or two forums – maybe even a half dozen until you find one you really like. I think everybody should go to at least one in-person event to see if they click with it & if it is a fit for them. And between those two channels one should hopefully make at least a few friendships where one also has a couple friends in the industry who chat back and forth on IM over news & ideas & so on. Some folks also need to do a lot of in person stuff to get a sense of purpose out of SEO, as it can be easy to get burned out if things are just bits on a computer screen.
If one views SEO as their profession, they should operate at least a couple websites for testing purposes. Those sorts of tests not only give you insights into what is working & what is not (without having to put client sites at risk), but they also help you distinguish the quality of various information providers. You’ll better be able to tell advice grounded from data & experience versus the feel good advice based on monetizing newbies with various flavors of faux idealism.
What is your tip for those that want to learn more?
Read broadly on history, power structures, finance, and the evolution of media ecosystems. In general it is better to read longer works like books, because it is far harder to fluff a full book full of text. I’m not saying it is impossible to fluff a book, just that it is a lot of effort.
That sort of work is good for your historical background into markets, marketing & media – then you need to have some sources or strategy to differentiate what you know in terms of SEO or whatever other form of marketing you primarily do.
If you believe the same things that everyone else believes & have the same knowledge as everybody else, it is hard to have a sustainable competitive advantage. By default a person who only does what they are told to do would rarely be above average & they are typically going to be laggards in terms of adopting new marketing ideas & channels – adopting them after response rates have dropped and ROIs have declined.
To have a sustained advantage you have to find gaps in the market and/or understand how things are likely to change & invest out in front of the herd.
Noticing things which go against widely held beliefs & faux idealisms while being true help you understand not only that a gap exists, but also perhaps why that gap may exist & how it may change in the future.
Nobody will predict the future perfectly, but you really only need to get a couple things right if you aggressively invest in beliefs you have a high degree of confidence in
What resources are best to learn marketing?
Your own data from your own projects, followed by a few great trusted friends who share insights via instant message & advice from people on forums who’ve shared things in the past which went against conventional wisdom but were correct.
If someone’s advice is not aligned with conventional wisdom but is aligned with your own experiences then you can trust that person’s advice & recommendations a bit more. As things line up more and more over time you can trust them more. Or if things are vastly incorrect & turn out to be costly mistakes, then of course that erodes trust.
What’s the last lesson in marketing you learned?
One of my favorite Nintendo games of all time is named River City Ransom. There have been 5 follow up games to it. One of them is called Downtown Special and is on the Japanese Nintendo (named the Famicom). You can play that Japanese game easily enough on a top load Nintendo by buying a 60 to 72 pin converter. The other 4 are for the Nintendo 3DS. They are region locked & only play on the Japanese Nintendo DS. Two of them come as cartridges & two of them come as downloadable software from the Nintendo eshop. I’ve bought all of those games & have beat all of them except the last one, which just came out a couple months ago & I am struggling to complete. The last one is an RPG where you have to talk to different people to unlock certain parts of the game. It is entirely irrational to play games with RPG aspects when you don’t speak the language. It is even more irrational to try to figure out how to search across languages to find walkthroughs for the spots you are stuck. Or to keep playing it after you accidentally clicked to start over when you though you clicked save.
By any rational view I’d play any of the thousands of other great games that came out this year & skip Nekketsu Mahou Monogatari.
But sometimes we learn as much through considering our own irrational behavior as we do through other observations.
The point of the above story is that in a market where we are swimming in endless data, we perhaps miss the human and emotional aspects of what it means to convert. And no matter how good Nintendo’s tracking is, the odds of them knowing that I played a particular game decades ago & based on that experience would buy region locked follow up games in foreign languages on a foreign device in a foreign marketplace is pretty low. I loved that game, so I was willing to walk through walls to convert.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel