Is the SEO Industry Crumbling from Within?
In the immortal words of Chess Grandmaster Ben Simon, “The Truth Hurts!” and that’s the point behind this interview.
There has been so much shit in the past few years in the SEO industry that I decided to jump into a real conversation about the real state of things with a real expert – David Cohen.
I’m relatively new to the industry, and what I found out about the people in it shocked me.
On the one hand, there are good people. People like Bill Slawski, Gisele Navarro, and our guest today – David Cohen. On the other hand, there is a lot of scummy, shady stuff going on.
Is it perhaps time that we really addressed this? Of course, braver people than I have already started speaking out about it. Perhaps this interview is more about restoring my own faith than anything else.
Let’s dive right into it, peeps – David Cohen, everyone!
Digital Marketer and Aspiring Tsar,
CEO, SEO Elixir
Date: 12 May 2019
Nirvana: Hey, David. Glad you could do this with us. Could you give our
readers a quick intro about yourself?
First, thank you for asking me to be a part of your interview series. About me … ahh, I’m fairly boring overall. Some people know me professionally by working on various marketing and business growth projects, or as member of the illustrious ‘SEO Troll Brigade’, or by me helping people with their resume or getting a new job in marketing. Which I love volunteering my time helping people with in Philly and others around the world [more about volunteering later].
Recently, I was offered some cool marketing consulting opportunities, lead acquisition and revenue growth stuff. So I stopped saying no to consulting and yes to helping other businesses grow, including digital marketing agencies. Offering demand gen and revenue growth consulting to SEO and paid search agencies for their clients who need leads and lead nurturing are marketing challenges I love. The variety in consulting is exciting.
My personality? I’m probably not much different than what you see in this picture of me as a kid at a summer party at my grandparent’s, playing with their dog Barney.
I’m pretty much still just a kid like in this picture.
Nirvana: I can appreciate that. Digital marketing is so hip and happening now. Tell us a bit about the industry when you started off.
Ha! Yes, digital marketing is ‘happening’ now which I think is due to the demand for services + supply of people selling them being more aligned with how marketing budgets have evolved the past 10 years. Hipper? Definitely, there are way hipper people than than me in the marketing game now.
The job of the marketer hasn’t changed relative to how channels, buying habits, and technology is evolving. There’s always a duality in marketing – for all the added complexity there’s never been easier access to broader audiences globally.
10 years ago there was no Instagram or ways to create custom targeted audiences on Facebook and LinkedIn to reach people for pennies per click in some cases – but whether then or now, the most clever and curious marketers who take risks, test ideas, admit failure and change, and never stop pushing themselves to grow typically win.
Me then: 10 years ago starting off in digital marketing – normal and happy:
Me now in May 2019: old and ugly from the years of marking and won’t show my face – like in this recent “selfie”:
The job of the marketer hasn’t changed relative to how channels, buying habits, and technology is evolving. For all the added complexity there’s never been easier access to broader audiences.
– David Cohen
Nirvana: That’s not true. You know that you’re still the prettiest in this interview! 😉
Does it irritate you when absolute greenhorns say that they are ‘experts’ in digital marketing? A lot of that going around nowadays.
Do links still matter? Does the Earth revolve around the Sun? Are the Montréal Canadiens the greatest team in any league ever? Why yes of course but it’s even more irritating when old industry gatekeepers and gods parade around as ‘experts’ in self-serving ways, especially the stage celebs who don’t do the work or lead from experiential knowledge. This holds people and the entire marketing industry back.
SEO and marketing bandits are everywhere now. There’s also a resurgence in late ‘90s style ‘How-to courses’, mastermind groups, and monthly subscription-based coaching programs once popularized by direct response marketing pioneers like Gary Halbert and Dan Kennedy. Those can all be valuable and legit businesses but they also breed parasites who prey on people who are less educated or new to the digital marketing world.
The state of SEO self-owns in 2019 is more over-the-top than I’ve ever seen it, especially in SEO Twitter. The focus on awards is raging – it’s irritating to me and many others because the work we do in marketing isn’t about the individual achievements, accolades, awards (F awards) or the celeb-style ego jerking. This all sets a bad example of achievement and success for younger people making their way in the SEO world.
No matter what, people need to think for themselves. Depend less on the SEO stage celebs for answers or direction, asking “why” more often, test and validate ideas, and just being curious and confident about your work is the advice I give people who are new in the SEO or marketing game.
Do the work – be curious – test technology. This is a screenshot from my Google Local Guide view which I’ve been doing as a way to teach myself local SEO, Google Maps, local SEO keyword research, local content … I wanted to be an expert in these areas so I just started doing the work myself without ever telling anyone.
And now I’m like 200 points away from the highest level Google Local Guide and my content in Google Maps is approaching 2,000,000 views and it’s not even that great. Any reasonably intelligent marketer can do the same in order to learn and grow.
Nirvana: I’m still at Level 4. But I get what you mean. Doing things yourself is an awesome approach.
Now, this is interesting and I’ll get back to this soon, but first: every vertical in digital marketing has two sides – the mechanical and the creative. Which one do you feel more comfortable doing?
Both but for sure I’m more skilled on the creative side. I can build a website but I’m far more comfortable being the one responsible for getting people to it and then getting them to do things once they get there and that help a business grow.
And of course, in SEO there are some brilliant people who have both skill sets in harmony and balance. It’s nearly impossible to emulate but in digital marketing, I think to make it work there’s a duality and order to it and that you see all over the natural world to make life work.
The technical and creative balance – repeated patterns and order that govern our lives in ways that maintain balance – like how there’s always 24 hours in a day, 4 seasons each year, and hundreds of planetary and star events in the cosmos that people have predictably known for tens of thousands of years. And in some cultures and traditions like The Vedas tens of millions of years of predicting and calculating micro and macro cosmic events.
So this duality and natural order in digital marketing is achieved with success by balancing your mechanical and creative contributors to produce natural results.
– David Cohen
Nirvana: What’s the one thing that you keep telling yourself to do but never
get done? (Mine’s to quit smoking. Yeah, that’s not really going too
well for me. Apparently, commitment isn’t what smokers lack!)
Love the self-callout but goodness quit smoking! Last December, the day after my birthday I quit drinking and began therapy for alcohol dependence. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made and should have made years ago, even at the urging from loved ones.
At least for me, being a slave to the vodka created life problems that will now take time to fix and heal, so I encourage you to quit the smokes, brutha!
I’m all over the place all the time. I could list 148 ideas I have that never get done. Unfinished paintings. Unread books. Untraveled to places. See, I can’t even focus and pick one thing I need to get done more often.
Art – I’ll go with that. Making more art, seeing more of other people’s art, and collaborating with other artists, especially with music. Oh, and the other thing I want to get done is reading more books, especially from authors like Immanuel Velikovsky.
This is one of my paintings. An acrylic from 2017.
Nirvana: Hmm… The best that I can draw/paint is a very sad looking apple. This interview was not a good idea for my ego.
Anyway… How often do you say no to a prospect and why? Also, HOW do you do that without sounding like a jackass?
Not caring what people think about me is how … but, this attitude comes a little easier for me than perhaps most. So a reverse would be to care about your reputation more than the money you can make – if you care more about your professional integrity and legacy it’ll be easier to say “no” and then accept getting called a jackass for it.
For the past 3ish years it’s also been easy to say no to recruiters and consulting leads alike as I was focused on building our software company where I have equity.
About 2 months ago I was getting coffee and ran into a friend who connected me with someone needing a freelance marketer to complete a competitor and audience research project. We all met the next day, good vibes, and I agreed to take the project.
From there, I was offered another project to advise a team on lead acquisition tactics that build off the initial audience research work. And since kind of floating back into marketing consulting, I now have three freelance projects going, all mostly focused on digital marketing tactics related to lead gen and helping marketing and sales teams more naturally work together to achieve shared growth objectives. More so advising teams of people on how to do the work and measure its performance.
Saying no – it has to be done in consulting and business. I’m sure in the near future I’ll get an opportunity that pays well but doesn’t align with my ethics or is a garbage product I can’t get behind, and I’ll have to say “no thank you”.
We’re all marketers and should understand how Google search works, so we’re all capable of spending even an hour doing basic research on a prospective client, project collab, speaking gig or whatever the professional opportunity is by finding the answers to the following and weighing the risk vs reward:
- Can I morally and ethically get behind the product and company [or professional event where I’ll present]?
- How does the company treat its clients or customers?
- The people who buy from the company – what do they think and have to say about their overall experience?
When I get future consulting opportunities that’s the type of research I’ll do as we’re in the meet-n-greet phase of discovery and business development. In fact, I’ve already turned down a pharma lead before doing any research because I already know I won’t take pharma money.
How to say no – ahh, this is also no problem for me because I like saying no and explaining why I can’t get behind the people or idea. But this approach isn’t for everyone and should be done with more tact than what I do.
My best advice – no one deserves your explanation for saying “no”. You don’t owe anyone anything other than a “no thank you”. How direct you want to be from there is up for you to decide.
Nirvana: See that, people? That’s Swag, right there. Now to darker topics. Because the world is way too happy right now.
The SEO world has been getting a lot of negative rep lately. Why do you think that is?
Been getting? SEO has had a bad rep since at least 2012 and especially into 2014 as some of the most notorious behavior in SEO history went down and was published all over Twitter and the internet for anyone to find. And then the SEO celeb re-brand began with the big move to become “male feminists”. In name only of course.
But based on much evidence and proofs, the problems stemming back to those days and happening even in 2019 – women in SEO being sexually harassed – aren’t solved.
I definitely take some blame for a few attacks on the celebs in 2019 but this behavior is nothing new from me. I’ve just gotten more attention for it lately.
Take the YoastCon debacle for example … some people began to catch on quick that I wasn’t trolling or wasn’t some maniac on a crusade against female CEOs and maybe there’s more to it.
So they either just naturally joined the fight or asked me to explain my motives and purpose and joined the other brave people demanding accountability from SEOs most powerful leaders for the same sexual harassment issues they’ve stated knowing exist yet have gone unresolved.
So yeah, it may look like SEO suddenly has a bad rep but in reality it’s the same past that’s still a problem coming to light in order to finally create action from SEO elites to act decisively with those who’ve knowingly been involved in any sexual harassment or creating environments unwelcoming to women and welcoming to potential harassment.
Actions which effect change usually mean cutting money connections. Un-inviting people to speak at SEO conferences. Or other uncomfortable actions were taken by male leaders in SEO so that women have the same freedom and opportunities to flourish in the marketing or SEO world too. Men can make the choice not to harass women, it’s really that simple.
As it stands in May 2019 after the YoastCon and SMX Munich debacles, and things like the celebs getting outed for launching some wild troll attacks as reprisals, actual positive change, and progress to make SEO events inclusive for women in ways that prevent sexual harassment is happening.
Gisele Navarro and her husband Danny Ashton were among the very first leaders to go into action to turn the darkness that was resurfaced into positive change for the SEO industry, especially women.
Another true hero and fighter is Jane Copland, who was the first to take on the most powerful and influential elites in SEO 7 years ago to put an end to the sexual harassment issues women in SEO faced then.
To me, Jane gets the credit for starting the work to solve what seems like one of the most challenging problems ever, especially in the marketing and tech worlds.
Editor’s Note: Nirvana and David actually first got in touch over Gisele’s article on Medium about sexual harassment and elitism in the SEO industry. If you haven’t read it yet, go read it. Read it now.
Nirvana: Wow. There’s no way anyone could have said it better.
What’s your take on getting a digital marketing certificate? The newer generations actually seem to believe a lot in getting one. Have you ever learned anything in digital marketing without trying it first-hand?
Getting any kind of marketing certificate or even a college degree in marketing is probably a waste of time and money, especially if the educators aren’t successful digital marketers and teaching from real and current experiences.
I’m not gonna go all Gary Vee on a person and advise them to drop out of college or to tell their parents to F off, but if they’re already in a program or university to go hard on making people connections for future job opportunities in marketing. And also…
Go build some websites! Go sell stuff to people on the internet or through social media! Try to make a video or meme go viral on TikTok, IG or Twitter. Put skin in the marketing, social and SEO game. That’s how any reasonably intelligent person can and should learn to be successful at making money on the internet in 2019 and beyond.
Some of the biggest idiots I’ve ever met are Ivy League grads or kids of millionaires. What you’ve done, where you’ve been, what you know and who you know is far more interesting and relevant to me and others once you get beyond the weird, isolated bubble of most universities.
To your last question – learned anything in marketing without trying it firsthand – yes and no. Yes, for example, I educated myself on how the internet technology works – like I know the cosmology and nature of the internet even though I’ve never handbuilt a server farmer and network of computers that serve pages to users based on their queries.
But no, I’ve not gained any real knowledge and skill without the physical and sensory experience of doing the work with my own hands. It’s also been with the help and hands of many others on hundreds of marketing campaigns in dozens of industries and developed based on various goals and objectives for wide-ranging audiences.
Thankfully and almost by miracle, people have taken chances on me and given me challenging opportunities. I’m always grateful for the risks people have taken with me and the time and money investment they’ve made in our professional relationship for the past 10 years.
To help repay those investments, as I mentioned earlier my volunteerism is helping people improve their resume/CV or LinkedIn profile to get more interviews and better job opportunities. If you’d like help with either you can DM me on Twitter.
My volunteerism is helping people improve their resume/CV or LinkedIn profile to get more interviews and better job opportunities. If you’d like help with either you can DM me on Twitter.
– David Cohen
Nirvana: How horrible is the dating scene for SEOs these days?
Wow, a hell of a question here. Love it! My answers might get some people worked up … but maybe that’s what you are going for with an SEO dating question.
How horrible is the dating scene for SEOs these days? Hmm, I don’t know, how horrible would it be to skinny dip in a mosquito pond?
Based on seeing SEOs flirt at events, especially at after parties, and I’m talking about dudes here, can’t even imagine what the SEO dating scene is like. For sure awkward. Odd SEO puns getting dropped at weird moments and other social awkwardness that probably makes women run for their lives from ill-fated first dates.
I have friends and peers in marketing who use dating apps. I hear some wild stories and mixed reviews. I don’t use dating apps, not really my style especially after observing many online dates at bars all over Philly and anywhere else I’ve traveled since they’ve become popular.
The concept is cool and they definitely work well for some people but I guess if you’re in SEO and already isolated, maybe try going out in the world and meeting people and dating in more physical vs online ways?
A friend who’s a startup related attorney has ownership in a fitness-themed dating app that’s all juiced up with investor money and viral Instagram videos of fitness influencers.
Nothing I’d do personally but to me, this seems like a more positive dating option for SEOs who don’t get out much to have fun and find a significant other in a healthier way.
I’m no relationship expert, though. I’m better at getting in them than keeping them going. But with dating and relationships experiences, I am grateful for women who’ve invested in my life and have taught me to grow and mature in areas where I need to improve.
Nirvana: What are 5 things that you’ve always wanted to try but you never
- Space travel
- Meeting Putin
- Directing a film
Nirvana: I have no idea what a Peyote is, but I’m going to say, good luck with that!
Thanks for taking the time to get real with me, man. I appreciate this a lot. I’m sure that our audience will too. And Gisele – if you’re reading this, we all love you for speaking up. It was a long time coming.
David Cohen, everybody. Bug him on the Twitters with annoying questions about how to write an awesome CV and don’t forget to follow him for more awesome content.
The world has a lot of “SEO Experts” now. The real ones never claim to be anything of that sort. I’m so happy that I got to spend some time with one of the good ones.
This one may have been a little dark, but would you really rather stay blissfully unaware? You don’t have to go all out and start protesting. Just take a long, hard look at yourself and ask, “Am I doing the right thing?”
If you can honestly answer with a hell yeah, then that’s all that matters. Tune in next week for more awesome interviews on News Elixir. Also, share this post because you really should.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter to get weekly updates of more awesome news in the digital marketing industry. Peace out.