Welcome to the inaugural round of a new feature here at Linkarati: SEO Spotlight.
In the land of SEO and marketing blogs, we spend most of our days discussing strategies, methods, best practices and other professional philosophies. It’s time to get personal. We wanted to hear the stories behind some of the industry’s most distinguished and notable personalities.
Our first interview subject should be a familiar name to anyone in the digital marketing realm. Mark Traphagen is the Sr. Director of Online Marketing at Stone Temple Consulting, but he’s also an expert in SEO and company branding, a prolific blogger and public speaker, an award-winning competitive storyteller and one hell of an interesting guy. There are unconfirmed rumors that he plays with a Zydeco street band, but you’ll have to ask him about that.
Without further ado…
So Mark, tell us your story. What was your career before SEO, and how did you first come into contact with the industry?
I’ve moved through two careers before coming to search marketing, starting with sales and moving from there to teaching. Though there was no “life plan” behind those moves, both sales and teaching turned out to be perfect preparation for what I’m doing today.
I think I’ve always had an interest in online marketing for as long as that has been a “thing”; it just took me many years to realize it was what I wanted to be when I grew up!
During my teaching years I became an early adopter of bringing first computers and then the Internet into my classroom. Soon I was teaching students how to build websites. Naturally, they wanted people to see their creations. So that led to exploring along with them how to get found on the web, and how to build and cultivate an audience.
Later on in grad school (for theology of all things, not marketing!), I got a job at the campus bookstore. The store was losing money hand over fist because of Amazon, so with the manager’s support I made a stab at seeing if we could take the store online and find a way to win. Over the next two years I got a crash course in ecommerce, affiliate marketing, online community building, content marketing, SEO and PPC—mostly before I knew any of those terms existed! Long story short, we uncovered a niche market for our books, learned how to serve them well, and returned the store to profitability.
The bigger story for me though was I found myself bitten hard by the online marketing bug. When I finished school, I took an entry level position at a Raleigh NC-area search marketing agency and dedicated myself to learning everything I could about the business.
What motivated you to make the transition and stick with it?
It was fun! A whole new world opened up for me to explore, one I was only dimly aware existed. I liked that you could try things and then measure the results. It appealed to the tinkerer in me.
Which skills do you find most essential to SEO work? Did these skills come naturally or did you hone them in a previous job/career?
I think a natural inquisitiveness serves me well. You have to have a burning desire to find out how things work, and to find out for yourself (not just taking what others say or the conventional wisdom as gospel). But even more important than that has been a healthy skepticism I’ve worked hard at developing in my personal as well as professional life.
People often confuse skepticism with cynicism, but they aren’t the same thing. Properly understood, skepticism means always being willing to ask, “Why?” It means pushing for real evidence or reasons to back up beliefs. Without healthy skepticism, SEOs can get easily trapped in myths that can hurt more than help the sites they work on.
But as I mentioned earlier, I also feel like my sales and teaching careers contributed valuable skills and mindsets to what I do today. Sales is probably obvious. I use my teaching skills all the time though too, because a large part of my job is creating content that demonstrates Stone Temple’s expertise.
What concerns you about the SEO industry moving forward?
It’s still very difficult for most businesses to separate ethical, qualified SEOs from those who are either dishonest or incompetent. This is especially a problem for small to medium sized businesses. I wish I had a solution to that, other than “buyer beware.”
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the SEO industry today?
I’m a big advocate of apprenticeship. If at all possible start out by working in a good SEO agency, or get a job as an assistant to a smart independent SEO. Look for opportunities where they won’t just lock you in away in a cubicle doing grunt work, but where you’ll have opportunities to watch over the shoulder of the experienced SEOs, ask them questions, and gradually get to work on their projects with them.
You’ll learn far more and faster than you ever could on your own.
What makes SEO unique from other marketing disciplines? What is similar?
I think one of the more unique aspects of SEO among marketing disciplines is how technical it is. While other parts of marketing have their technical parts, so much of SEO involves getting deep into the mechanics of a site as well as data analysis.
How has public perception of SEO changed since you began working in the industry?
I actually think it’s made some recovery from the darker days a few years ago when press articles about “SEO Is Dead” or “SEO Is Evil” were everywhere. I have to give some of the credit for that to Google and their aggressive strike back at spam and poor quality in the past few years. The positive side of that is that a lot of SEOs cleaned up their act, and customers became more aware of the difference, making white hat SEOs and agencies stand out more.
How do you explain your job to people unfamiliar with SEO?
I try to keep it simple. I say our job is to help make it easier for people to find businesses when they search. We make the connection “cleaner” so that it is more likely that people who need what a business can do will find it.
Are there any resources you would recommend for someone looking to bolster their SEO knowledge?
I’ll shamelessly plug the book The Art of SEO. Stone Temple Consulting’s founder and CEO Eric Enge is the principle author. It really is a very thorough guide to everything you need to know about SEO. The third edition will be out soon.
Rather than make a list here of other online resources, I’m going to provide links to some of my own curations. Finding and promoting the smartest and most reliable SEO writers and sites has been a passion of mine for years, so I’m not bashful about encouraging people to follow my recommendations.
On Twitter, subscribe to my list of Best Inbound Marketers: https://twitter.com/marktraphagen/lists/best-inbound-marketing
On Flipboard, subscribe to my curated magazines of the best marketing content I read each day: https://flipboard.com/@marktraphagen
At the end of the day, what is it about this industry that gives you the most satisfaction?
- Making significant contributions to the success of businesses and organizations who deserve that success.
- The incredibly smart and generous people in our industry who have become not just colleagues but friends.
There is a lot of camaraderie and cooperation in our industry, even between agencies.
Who would you rather fight: one Matt Cutts-sized kitten or 100 kitten-sized Matt Cutts?
I guess the latter, but only because the prospect of a kitten the size of any human is terrifying!