[Warning: This post may contain traces of strong language. It also contains large chunks of my personal life. People who suffer queasy allergy at the slightest hint of sentimentality should remain within reach of a plastic bucket. It’s a very long post. Side effects may include feelings of drowsiness possibly leading to a coma in severe cases.]

Please don’t let me be misunderstood…

That’s the title of a song which was a hit for a band called The Animals, generations ago (it was originally a Nina Simone hit, actually).

My father owned the nightclub where The Animals got their first break before going on to international superstardom. Even though I was a bitty-kid, back then, quite a lot of their songs stick with me because of the old man.

That one, in particular, has been going around in my head since my ClickZ column was published earlier this week.

Most of the week I’ve been tied up installing a new mixing desk and studio equipment for a podcast I’m launching soon. So I haven’t really had any blog-time. But I did want to find time to post something as a follow up, to a follow up from my ClickZ column.

Writing an opinion column, as I do, is bound to attract feedback from people who either agree or disagree and want to put their point of view forward. That makes for good debate, I don’t mind constructive criticism at all. But I have to say I was a little taken aback after someone pointed me to an outright personal attack.

Since then, I’ve received a full apology from the publisher who was having a bad hair [shoe?] day, or something. And that’s good enough for me. I’m not one for holding grudges, apology accepted, water under the bridge and all that.

However, the “flaming” post did set off its own little chain reaction of follow-up comments which I read. The first one coming from some very aggressive sounding person who seemed be rounding up a posse for a lynching party, judging by his tone.

And that’s why I’ve been at a bit of loss to understand why it is that some people seem to take my words so personally. I don’t believe that anybody has been singled out.

No hint of a rebuttal here, but reserving the right to reply, I do think it may be worth while trying to elaborate a little on my views. Because I really don’t want to be “misunderstood.”

After reading the series of comments in the post, there’s something very obvious to me that I’d like to address first. And that’s about communication. I’ve been involved in communications for 25 years now. And for anyone coming into communications, I have some sage advice I’d like to pass on. It was given to me years ago by the BBC, where I was trained. And that is: Know your audience.

ClickZ is an online network for marketers in general, which is why I write specifically from a marketers point of view in a professional marketers voice. It appeals to Fortune 1000 type marketers.

The word “arrogant” arose in my little roasting, I believe, because I used the words “a paltry $50k” in my column.

This, mainly, I’m sure, from people who seem to believe I have no empathy with mom and pops who only have, say, $2000, perhaps, for a budget (this was mentioned in more than one follow up comment).

Here’s the original paragraph I wrote:

Do a marketing audit before you take on a client and get a better understanding of what you’re really up against. If the client offers you a paltry $50,000 to do some SEM work in a marketplace where competitors usually spend millions on TV, radio, press, and integrated online advertising, you may want to think twice.

Now let me take the same paragraph and swap it around a bit for those commentators who mentioned the mom and pops:

Do a marketing audit before you take on a client and get a better understanding of what you’re really up against. If the client offers you a paltry $50 to do some SEM work in a marketplace where competitors usually spend at least $2000 on TV, radio, press, and integrated online advertising, you may want to think twice.

Now, I ask, in all honesty: what would my ClickZ audience think if I used the latter example?

Well… They would probably think I’d had a mental breakdown writing my column and was now en route to a hospital bed. To that audience it’s just not a tangible example.

I write for my ClickZ audience about my own working knowledge and experience, in an effort to connect with theirs. And it works. Believe me. That audience needs as much info about SEO, even at their level of budget as any mom and pop does to compete. And I get very positive feedback from them.

Arrogant? I beg to differ. I write with that specific audience in mind. And there are some readers in that audience who wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I said “paltry $250,000.”

My buddy Kim Krause, is among the follow up commentators too. She gives me a little poke in the ribs about me perhaps not seeing things from the point of view of the “stay at home parent” for instance.

Actually, this is something I empathise with greatly. Because for six years, I was a lone parent myself.

One moment, there I was sitting in my big leather, executive chair in my swanky downtown office. I was running the PR side of a neat advertising agency, loving my clients and every minute of the job.

And then, almost overnight, there I was sitting at the end of my dining room table, with a laptop computer, printer, telephone… box of crayons… and a three year old propped on my knee.

I had to give up my job and embark on a new career as a work from home parent. It was a nightmare!

The times I pitched for work from clients where I knew I could do the job and yet lost because of the kids and working from home, used to send me NUTS!

Corporate bastards. As far as I was concerned, they all were.

So yes, I know pretty much how difficult it is for a micro business trying to get a little traction when they’re starved out by the big boys.

I did eventually get back into employment when both the kids were in school full-time. And then, in late 1995, along with a guy who knew cool stuff about getting on the internet and doing html, I started my own Internet Marketing Consultancy (I registered the domain netmarketing.co.uk in 1996)

Once again, after having worked with national and international clients on behalf of an advertising agency, here I was, a two man shop pitching against the giants again. So I know what it’s like taking on the responsibility of office leases and overdrafts and working all hours and the frequent disappointment of not getting the gig.

Not only that, after eventually building up a head of steam, in 1998 my business partner and I had a serious bust-up, leaving my name securing the lease, the overdraft and the business loan.

Okay, I detect the sound of somebody throwing up, as violins begin to swell in the background, so I’ll leave that there…

However, I persevered. Pretty soon I was working with national and international organisations again, employing people and business was booming. In fact, for a while, it felt as though I was the only search engine positioning (as it was called then) consultant in the UK.

Better still, word had spread to the head offices of large American companies from their European counterparts and soon things in the States really began to pick up.

Why have I gone to great length to tell you this? Just so anyone who gives a shit, knows that I also know exactly what it’s like to struggle above the noise of the big boys on limited resources. And I also know it CAN be done.

So, let me address the mom and pop thing again. Why don’t I work with mom and pop outfits? What would I do for a mom and pop with only two grand to spend? That’s what I was asked.

And my answer is: I’d do nothing. Nothing at all with them.

Is that because I’m arrogant and look down my nose at smaller outfits with tiny budgets? Absolutely not. It’s because I can’t bear the thought of failure.

Now some SEOs would take the two grand and then when little or nothing happened, I’m sure they would happily blame it on the so called “sandbox”.

Personally, having been a tiny company looking for help to grow, I wouldn’t call that helping a smaller outfit – I’d call it daylight robbery.

My comment about a client with “a paltry” fifty grand in my article is actually true. I was asked to weigh up the competition in a very saturated space by a potential client trying to penetrate the market.

When I asked him what kind of budget he had, he told me “I’ve got fifty grand to throw at it.” Now, I knew that space quite well and was fully aware that his competitors (and there were many of them) were spending millions on both on and offline marketing.

While the competitors were buying eyeballs elsewhere on everything from outdoor signage to TV promotion, and thousands and thousands more dollars on search than he could, what chance did he really stand?

Maybe I could have taken the fifty grand and given him the old sandbox story afterwards if he crashed and burned. But to me, that would be the same as taking the two grand from the mom and pop outfit.

But, perhaps even more to the point, as I’ve said many times before, search is not a marketing panacea. What if a mom and pop’s budget is better spent elsewhere, where more tangible results than they’d get with just pure SEO may be achieved?

People still use Yellow pages and read classifieds offline. And they have post boxes for pamphlet drops and… Well there are lots of things that small companies can do with smaller budgets to get the sales they desperately need to be able to grow their businesses – and their marketing budgets.

Kim Krause also pointed out that it seemed to her that I was suggesting you’ll only win at search if you have a budget of zillions. But that’s not really what I’m saying at all.

Search engine positioning started out in classic mom and pop style itself. A cottage industry which once even saw a young Fredrick Marckini sitting at his dining table in his bathrobe, writing his master plan.

It’s been a constant mantra to make SEM a “line item” so that we can make a decent woman out of this industry. Search engine optimisation has oft been dismissed by larger companies as nothing but “smoke and mirrors.” But as the cost of keywords in more competitive areas begins to escalate, the more the big boys are looking at those very juicy organic listings.

This coupled with the fact that, search engines, once only perceived as technology companies, are now actually morphing into true media companies. And whereas before, they paid a little attention to analytics and what end users did around the interface: end user data is now becoming the holy grail.

At the beginning of last year, I spoke at length with Apostolis Gerouslis, founder of Teoma. He emphasised that SEOs may be the content creators on the web, but search engines control the end users.

During the course of last year I spoke to many researchers and scientists about user behavior analysis at search engines and got a good grasp of the kind of data and how it can be used.

One of the conferences I regularly speak at and thoroughly enjoy is Jim Sterne’s eMetrics summit. This is where I get an opportunity to talk to people who are passionate about analytics and user behavior and deep profiling and… Well, they can get just as geeky as we do in SEO, about analytics.

I learn fascinating stuff from the vendors who are working with huge corporate web sites. And it’s amazing what they can tell you about audience habits, likes and dislikes, without even having to survey them. And search engines are just the same now. I don’t know that they are in control of the end user though. I believe in order to deliver a quality audience and some decent demographics, they have to understand the end user. And that’s why I say the end user is in control at search engines.

Am I pooh-poohing SEOs when I make comment. Heaven forbid. However, I’m fully aware that SEO is rapidly changing from words-on-a-page-led, to links-from-page-to-page-led, to end-user-marketing-led. It’s going to become a whole new ball game.

Goliath Vs Goliath.

I tried some experiments last year attempting to induce end users to search for specific brands. It’s the “pull” thing I’ve been talking about.

Take this situation for a moment. It’s not mom and pop up against each other, it’s authority site Vs authority site. Now lets assume I’m up against one of the great technical SEO wizards in this industry, like Dave Naylor, for instance.

So, I bring in another industry superstar on my team. Let’s make that Mikkel deMib Svendsen (just because I happen to know them both). Now I’ve asked Mikkel to monitor Dave’s work and match it every step. What happens when the code is all used up. When they’ve zapped each other senseless and they’re left there eyeball-to-eyeball (by the way, this assumes they are doing things in their best grey hats).

In this case, why wouldn’t a marketing “pull” tactic be appropriate? Usage data is what’s now required to get that extra oomph! Some greater awareness is needed to get more searchers either to search more or brand switch.

Maybe for a little while longer there’ll still be the odd “David” of an SEO, with nothing more than code in his sling to fire into the eye of the corporate “Goliath.” But I do believe they’ll become few and far between, as search engines rely more and more on end user behavior and personalization data.

Let me go back to Goliath Vs Goliath and think about a tactical promotion. What about, we give away a discount coupon to everyone on our mailing list (which as a large company may be sizable).

But, instead of putting a link to a promotional web page on the site, we cut and paste a link for a search on Google for brand+product. And instead of using “click here to get your token” as the call to action, we use “Just Google us and click through for your coupon.”

That certainly works to increase number of searches and usage data for a larger organisation which is going to be found in the top 20 anyway. There’s an extra bit of oomph!

But even a smaller company can do that. If you sponsor niche newsletters and ezines in your space and use the same tactic, you’ll end up with a noticeable query stream. This is very much a guerrilla tactic. In the first instance, your end users may not be likely to find you in the results. But it’ll sure as hell ring a little bell to let Google know there’s somebody new at the door.

Why brand+product? Here’s a little clue. Go to Jeeves and search on my name (Mike Grehan – it’s a long post so you may have forgotten who I am). Then take a look at “Expand your search.”. You’ll see that my brand (my name) is related to two of my products. Think about it.

To sum up my views, I’m really trying to get people to just think “out of the box” (sandbox, that is). Just as there may be technical ways to achieve things in this industry, so will there always be alternatives.

Here’s a final analogy I like. My wife is Russian. And Russians have a wonderful anecdote about technology. Way back when, scientists at NASA spent a fortune researching and developing a ball pen which could pump ink to the ball. This was so that astronauts could write upside down, if need be, when they were weightless in space. When the Russians heard about this development, they sent NASA the result of their own research into the problem. When the guys at NASA opened the little box they had received – it had a pencil in it!

There’s always more than one way to skin a cat!

Okay, this has been a long slog, so it’s time to trundle towards the end.

The post started with me reflecting on being flamed. So I’ll try and finish on that note.

When I heard that someone in this industry had created hate sites about Jill Whalen, like many others I was furious. Anyone who stoops as low as that is demonstrating the maturity of an eleven year old, as far as I’m concerned. It’s just not necessary in this industry, or any other for that matter.

I respect Jill very much. I consider her to be a personal friend. We don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, so we have professional disagreements from time-to-time. And because we know each other well, she can come sit next to me at the bar and open the conversation with: “Hey, shit brain I see you’ve been talking thru the back of your ass again!” Hug, drink, get over it, get on with it.

There’s a bit of mutual respect goes on between us. So it wouldn’t bother me in the least. And what a fun way to make your point!

Anyway, finally, what about Mr Angry, the aggressive guy I mentioned at the top of this post who wanted to have me lynched, burned at the stake, dipped in the duck pond, whatever…

Well, I can promise you this, he’ll get EXACTLY what he deserves from me if I ever meet him…

A hug, a beer and some general chit-chat at the bar. The same as most people I meet in this industry, I guess.

I’m not really the Prince of Darkness in SEO land. Ask my Mom, she’ll tell you.

[Hello… Hellooo… is anyone awake? Oh well, maybe I’ll win a prize for world’s longest blog post…]

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