Bruce Clay Interviewed by Eric Enge

Published: September 22, 2008

Bruce Clay Photo

Bruce has operated as an executive with several high-technology businesses, and comes from a long career as a technical executive with leading Silicon Valley firms, and since 1996 in the Internet Business Consulting arena.

Bruce holds a BS in Math and Computer Science and also has his MBA from Pepperdine University, has had many articles published, has been a speaker at over 100 sessions including Search Engine Strategies, WebmasterWorld, ad:Tech, Search Marketing Expo Advanced, and many more, and has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, PC Week, Wired Magazine, Smart Money, several books, and many other publications.

He has also been featured on many podcasts and WebmasterRadio shows, as well as appearing on the NHK TV special "Google's Deep Impact". He has personally authored many advanced search engine optimization tools that are available from the company web sites.

He is recognized as a Wikipedia Notable SEO.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Letís talk a bit about white hat and black hat approaches to SEO.

Bruce Clay: I think it is appropriate to consider the origins of white hat, black hat. Twelve years ago when I started in the industry, the search engines really didnít have any stringent spam rules. They basically said donít put white on white, but they didnít even have a way of enforcing it. And, the spam filters were really, really pitiful. So, back then a lot of the orientation was, my client is paying me to get them rank; the search engines arenít even enforcing their own rules.

So, getting them ranked was your job, I would say everything was white hat because you were working without spam rules. You had a fiduciary responsibility to help your clients achieve their goals. Most of the SEO companies did it that way. When I started, I felt that the web was going to be like the Gold Rush, and we all know that the people that made money during the California Gold Rush were people selling picks and shovels to the miners, while most of the miners went broke.

So, for every 100 sites that I would likely see, 99 of them would die off eventually. And, most new sites were at risk because most of them were under-funded. So, I thought that was the prudent way to do it; I am selling picks and shovels; Levi Strauss is still here for a reason. So, that was my approach, and I felt at the beginning that it wasnít ethical to really color too far out of the stated spam boundaries even if not enforced. You donít want to burn your client, ever.

SEO ethics is fundamentally about doing no harm to your client. I played within those bounds, but the only way that you know where the middle of the safe zone is, is if you know where the edges are. And, as a result everybody doing SEO work twelve years ago was doing experiments to know where the acceptable zone was and to keep out of trouble. They were experimenting on their own test sites to learn what worked and what was spam to the search engines.

And, thatís where a lot of the spammers really started coming in, they were running 30 sites, 40 sites, 50 sites, or even more pushing Pills, Porn and Casinos, or something else that was easy money.

The spam influx occurred because it was big money back then, and that was really what forced the search engines to come up with stronger spam rules and put some teeth behind them. I think that there was no white hat or black hat until the rules were better defined and had teeth; until then you worked for your client and not the search engines. Even if the client was yourself.

Yes, there were people who colored outside of the lines, and they did get slapped a little bit. And then, they went on and did other things, and then they got slapped again, and then the rules became rules. Google actually started enforcing their spam rules and everyone started paying attention.

It was in the í98 to Ď99 period when the spam filters showed up. 2000 is when they had teeth; it wasnít until Google really said I have these best practices, and we are enforcing it that a lot of people felt that they had to play by rules. Until then the rules were Wild West rules.

SEO was too often whatever it took to get ranking; my client is paying me -- not the search engines, so I owe ranking to them at any cost. I am happy to have the search engines around so I can make money, but the search engines are not paying me and I owe them nothing.

I think the actual term (black hat) was coined by Mike Grehan. In the cowboy era there were white hats and black hats and the good guys always wore white hats. And, that does actually describe the SEO in the Wild West era. And that does relate to how people treat their SEO approach even today.

When the SEO has an objective to get ranked at any cost, including violating best practices, and the kinds of things they do are deceptive, and they do things the search engines are known to be fighting, and they do it deliberately, that becomes black hat.

I think there are only a few people who are really good at black hat. I have to give them some credit for being black hat and being nimble and smart enough to be here today. The black hats have spent their entire lives figuring out where the acceptable spam boundaries are.

They know what the boundaries are, because they play right at the edge. The people that are white hat do not often play at the edge, but they do pay attention to black hat behavior and thus also observe where the boundaries are. Generally, the white hats choose to play in the middle of the acceptable area. And, fundamentally thatís my take on how the white hat and black hat mentality differs. The white hats are going to play by the rules, and they are not going to go near the edge and get hit or hurt. And, the black hats recognize that if you can play there and get away with it, there is a lot of money to be made.

The ethics difference between white hat and black hat I think is clear. Ethics being a statement of ďdo no harm, do not put your clients in harms way; do not do something to your clientís website that will cause it to be bannedĒ. That is really where ethics is involved in SEO; it is unethical to harm your client. And, if I know that doing something will harm the client, itís unethical for me to do it.

Eric Enge: Right. Of course there are all kinds of shades of gray right, which is a class of things that you can do, which probably wonít harm your client. But, they are not without some risk. In which case, youíve got to disclose the nature of the risk, right?

Bruce Clay: Well, is it ethical to tell your client who may not understand SEO at all that this is something thatís going to generate a lot of traffic? And that you think you can do it in a way that wonít hurt them when it really could. Is that ethical? I would contend that in many cases the client doesnít have a clue what you are talking about, they have to trust the black hat, and they are being led down a path of doom.

It is clear to me that thatís not an ethical act. Look what happened to BMW. Somebody made a decision that they were going to do something thinking that we are BMW we are immune, and they were wrong. So, who pays the price?

Eric Enge: The client pays the price.

Bruce Clay: So, I would contend that with their clientís uneducated permission that itís still an unethical act. But it does get really fuzzy, you are right.

There is white hat that plays in the middle and observes where the boundaries are. There is black hat that plays at the edge and knows where the boundaries are. And then, there are the gray hats that are in the middle. I contend that maybe 80% of the people who are gray hats are just undereducated in the white hat way of doing SEO. They donít know where the boundaries are, but if they see somebody else getting away with it then they assume itís OK.

Eric Enge: For example, a lot of small webmasters want to go out and do some advertising, and they buy some links for traffic, and they may not even realize that there is an SEO benefit to all of that.

Bruce Clay: And, they take as gospel the statements made by the people selling these services. People believe that what they are doing is okay. There was a little company in Vegas named Traffic Power, and they had a version of their clientís page which was visible to end-users and they had a different version of the page which appeared until the mouse was moved that was stuffed with keywords.

They started selling that because they could show that they were able to get ranked with it. And, there were many, many clients that had this technology installed. At least they did until Google rolled over on them and basically put Traffic Power out of business. Essentially they went out of business because they were spamming. The clients should have known they were spamming but did not, and the company stated that it wasnít spam, that their technology was totally cool and it worked. And, people bought it, snake oil salesmen are still out there preying on the uneducated.

ďBuy my link and you will never get caughtĒ is said way too often. Buying ads is not the same as a testimonial grade link.

The best way to succeed on the web is to do things naturally. Do not do deceptive things; and do not try to fool the search engines. You have to play by the rules; and you need to know where the edges are. You need to know this technique is out of bounds and this other technique isnít. And, you need to pay attention to what the search engines are allowing versus disallowing.

There is a request from Matt Cutts at Google that if you detect a spammer, report them. Report all the spam you find; everybody should report spam. Google wants to catch it all.

Eric Enge: You will be interested to know that I heard from a Googler at the Google Dance that they receive one million spam reports everyday.

Bruce Clay: Wow. From my point of view with a million a day, nobody has enough energy to go penalize sites one at a time.

What they have to do is categorize them into the types of spam they are, and assign it to a programmer that will find a million sites at once. Let the spam filters do their job.

Itís been reported by people who were black hat that have now switched to the white side of the force, that in their beginning 10 years ago it was taking approximately 9 months for Google to catch a new spam tactic, and now itís in the 3 week to 4 week range. Google has become much more efficient at catching these spam techniques.

Eric Enge: Right. WordPress templates are, for example, one of the latest ones.

Bruce Clay: Right. Well, you spam; you get away with it for 3 weeks, then you die. It isnít worth doing. But, when it took 9 months, or if you did have the benefit and were somehow just flying under the radar, this was when clients saw success and said oh, they are getting away with it; it must be legal. And, thatís where the gray players come from.

They are not as well educated about what white hat is and how it really should be played. Those are the ones that end up getting burnt more often. They are also the ones that are hurting the industry. Most of the black hats in my opinion are doing their own personal websites.

SMX Advanced in Seattle in 2008 received a black eye. A lot of the people who were presenting at SMX Advanced, in order to cover advanced topics, inadvertently had a fair number of speakers who were black hat. That makes sense, because the people that are playing at the edge (speakers advocating black hat techniques) are the ones that are trying to obtain colleague approval Ė which did not happen.

Where it went wrong at SMX Advanced is they had had black hat speakers presenting tactics where the speakers were running their own website not corporate websites. But, the audience was full of corporate webmasters, and the audience heard over and over and over again statements like, donít pay any attention to Google, they are just trying to keep you from being ranked. Do it this way and youíll get the traffic; and Matt Cutts was in the audience writing it all down.

Eric Enge: There were a bunch of other Googlers. I also think there was another dynamic at the conference. Itís much, much easier to have a presentation well received if itís funny and entertaining. And, when someone talks about, or makes a rash statement, or talks about a real well done black hat tactic, then everybody is laughing.

They are entertained, and even though the reason why people are sent to conferences is to learn something that goes back to the ROI of the business sending them there, I think there is a certain amount of pressure to entertain the audience as opposed to simply educate. Thatís just easier to do if you say something crazy.

Bruce Clay: Well, at SES there was the white hat, black hat session, and I was on the panel with Todd, Greg, Jill and Dave. Halfway through the session Matt Cutts requested a microphone in order to respond to a couple of statements that were made on the podium. His response was to a specific statement that large companies get away with spam and that Google looks the other way. And, his response was most large companies do not get away with murder, Google just does not publicize it, and neither do those large companies getting caught.

In many cases the large companies donít even know they have been penalized because they are not smart enough to figure out that they just lost all this ranking.

When things like that happen I think that you have to know that Matt takes it personally. He really, really, really lives anti-spam. And, as he is one of the early Google employees I am sure he is worth a little bit of money, and he can sit there and not take it personally, but the fact is he does. He has earned my respect for his caring.

In addition, a lot of his staff takes it personally. And, these are people that work for a company with billions of dollars in revenue with one mission: protect our property. Youíve got to think that the areas where you can color outside of the line and get away with it are shrinking exponentially as Google gains momentum, and as they become smarter, wiser at spam tactics and how to fight them. In essence, know thy enemy, then beat them.

Youíve got to think that the longevity of a black hat is going to shrink, they know it, and itís just a matter of time before they turn to white hat type of tactics. One more thing worth mentioning, and this came out in a panel, a vast majority of the black hat folks are only black hat when they are running their experiments, but they are white hat when they are dealing with clients.

That is an entirely different scenario than existed 10 years ago. So, I would have to think that even the people who are openly violating the rules are sometimes just determining or validating the rules. They are finding out if there are holes in the rules; they are finding out what they can get away with. But, they are not necessarily doing that to their clients, and everyone on that panel whole heartedly supported my statement that it is unethical to harm your client.

As I mentioned earlier, I think that a lot of the ďspammersĒ are just uneducated. They donít understand what the rules are, and what the constantly shifting boundaries are, or what you can and cannot do. They are home grown SEOís, and I think the conference audience generally agreed with the idea that what we really need is more education in the market. My company does face-to-face training; there are a lot of companies that are now getting into the seminar business, and collectively we are doing a lot to introduce SEO to the masses.

Network Solutions is running a seminar series in something like 40 cities this year to audiences that are about a hundred people each. They took my course both onsite and at our facility several times and learned how to do white hat and thatís what they are preaching. After their seminars, I usually get two or three phone calls saying they talked about me, so they are obviously teaching proper SEO. I think that at the end of the day Network Solutions is doing a great service to our industry. And, as an extension to the education of Danny Sullivanís SMX conference, I am personally doing a two-day training course at the end of SMX in New York.

Eric Enge: At the end of the day the time that you spend in a white hat strategy gets paid back in a stable business. A black hat strategy is not stable; itís very transient as you point out. One of the things that I remember from the panel at SES is the statement that a black hat can do in 30 days something that will take; I think it was, a year or two years for a white hat to do.

Bruce Clay: When I said that I used the example of three and a half years, but yes thatís true. It obviously depends upon the industry. I think that a white hat in a local market with few competitors can get them ranked quickly, but most projects are more complex than that. If the keyword is worth having, you can bet somebody is competing. And, if they are competing they are probably doing some form of professional service provider SEO which means that it will become even more competitive; hence it may take two years.

Eric Enge: The timeframe just seems a little long to me. You know we do things in a purest white hat way here at Stone Temple Consulting. And, it just doesnít seem to take three and a half years to accomplish our goals. If the goal is to take an established site and double its traffic; gosh it seems like itís doable in a lot less time than that.

Bruce Clay: If your site has 50 to 100 million pages, and you are going to double traffic, you are talking about probably needing an architectural change. Maybe a redesign of the site; maybe moving servers, you are looking at things that wonít cause your servers to melt down into a silver puddle. Thatís going to take a lot more. My three and a half year example resulted in a 900% traffic increase for a major site, something well worth waiting for.

But itís still true that on the average that like you we have done quite well in 6 months (plus or minus) for many clients. There is often low hanging fruit that you might get in of the first few months, but thatís generally not the big win. Itís somewhere between 5 and 9 months for most sites. Impossible words take longer.

Eric Enge: Then, of course there are plenty of sites where there arenít enough relatively easy wins to get you there that will take quite a bit longer. I agree with that; so I guess there is a spectrum here as well.

Bruce Clay: If I wanted to rank well for ďcar dealershipĒ I would be facing how many SEO savvy dealers are in any one city? The answer is ďnot manyĒ. On a local level you would think that if I just did my job right it would take a few months, not a year to get ranked. If I want to rank for ďcarsĒ, that will take a little longer.

So, it really depends upon the business. In a more complex environment, you are also dealing with other things that impact the project: the complexity of the clients CMS, multiple release cycles, distributed servers, things like that really change the project. A small website like we saw on the average 10 years ago; HTML and seldom dynamic content, were easy, those were the days.

Now with all the dynamic content, the restrictions of many CMS systems, web designers who believe they are designing for people instead of search engines, those kinds of things slow down SEO projects and they do take longer. The more complex the environment, the longer it takes.

Eric Enge: Letís shift gears a little bit, because I know we wanted to talk about some of the big changes coming in search in particular, some of the things like behavioral search and intent-based search that they are going to change the landscape of the way things work. Can you talk about that at an overview level for a little bit first?

Bruce Clay: There is so much money to be made by properly targeting ads to queries, and by properly targeting ads to the established behavior known for the person doing the query. Behavioral search and intent-based search are going to change the face of SEO. I will give you an example, and I think it will help you understand how this works.

If you had a room of people and they all searched for the word Java, some people would be looking for coffee, some people might be looking for a programming language, and some people might be interested in travel. So, today you do that search and you get back generic results that might include all three forms of those sites.

Eric Enge: Right. Today search engines deal with the ambiguity by mixing and matching results basically.

Bruce Clay: Right, especially if they donít know which you wanted. With behavioral search, they are able to determine your past behavior. So, if you visit a lot of travel sites, they would bias the search results towards travel information. You might get one programming site, one coffee site, and eight travel sites. They might also determine, based upon your prior behavior that you like snorkeling, or you like golf, or you like deep sea fishing.

So, even the people that did the query for Java that were interested in travel would get different results. Now, at the end of the day you may have fifty people doing the same query and all fifty might get a different sequence of results.

Eric Enge: So, the intriguing thing there is whatís involved in collecting enough data to be able to make those judgments.

Bruce Clay: You are right that data collection is hard. I think that what we are going to see is that the design world is going to change a little bit. You are going to have to be more focused on the community of your customer, and not just the keywords.

Keyword research is going to change; the old approach of this is right way to do keywords, donít pick keywords that donít convert, and know what to throw away and which ones to keep may be absolutely wrong in a behavioral world.

What I think we are going to need to do is change the way we view keywords. And, we are going to have to change the view we have of ranking reports. If I do a ranking report I may say you are #2 where a client will walk up to his computer, type it in and he is #8.

Eric Enge: That can happen right now.

Bruce Clay: It can happen right now, but with behavioral itís pretty much going to happen a lot.

Simply put, the measurement of the success of an SEO program is going to be based on how much traffic it can generate and not based upon just ranking. And, the traffic that SEO generates includes all the long-tail keywords, not just the few keywords selected for a project. Searchers type in combinations of words that you and I would never dream of using together, and if done properly it results in traffic.

People type in ďseo ppc design analyticsĒ in any order and we show in the results. I wouldnít type it in, but some searchers have. If you are in the results then you are going to get the traffic. It may not be your targeted traffic, but if you did rank then you are getting some long-tail traffic.

What I think we are going to see is that the way we perform keyword research is going to change. We have already changed some here at my company. I think that the approach to how we measure success is changing. We have already changed it; we actually became an Omniture agency just so we can report on analytics and integrate it into our tools.

We are reengineering our entire SEOToolSet around what is in the market as well as what will be the market a year from now. We are preparing for the needs of the future market that I think that we are going to need worldwide.

Eric Enge: Yes. I have written on our blog about the kinds of the things that you should be monitoring if you are an SEO. I am just not at all a fan of ranking reports and havenít been for some time. I certainly go on a website I am working on, and Iíll go poke at a term or two occasionally. But, if it doesnít change what you are going to do today, why are you looking at it?

If what you are supposed to be doing is to build some great content and promoting it to get links, and being smart about how the content is targeted and matches up with conversions. Well, none of that involves a lot of the things that people end up spending a lot of time looking at.

The more hilarious thing is people that were obsessed with different data centers. And, the difference between ranking reports and data centers oh my goodness; you could spend hours on this stuff, and you are doing that instead of work.

Bruce Clay: Yes. Traffic rules.

Links are another great traffic source. The best thing you can do is to behave in a natural way to develop websites that everybody will to link to. We refer to these as link magnets.

Eric Enge: My name is Link Nirvana. The links come without effort.

Bruce Clay: You got it, Link. I can spend a hundred hours designing a page and get a thousand links. Or I could spend a hundred hours begging for links and wish I had spend it elsewhere.

As a summary, you have ranking instead traffic as we think is important, and we find too many link begging instead of building content worth linking to. I think that you have SEOís going in the wrong direction. There are a lot of people out there that are teaching classes and I think they are teaching the wrong stuff.

It is not helping people understand that traffic is king. It is not helping them understand how to build things that people will link to, and itís not telling them how to understand the relationship between natural behavior in an index and the content they just wrote.

I will tell you right now. Every journalist on the planet thinks they are writing good content; and they are trained to write content. And most of it doesnít have a chance of ranking.

Eric Enge: Right. It gets a little deeper than just writing good content, because if thirty other people have written that article, I mean not exact same words of course, but, essentially the same content, then it has no draw. So, how do you bring unique new value to the picture becomes a big question I think.

Bruce Clay: Yes. And, I think that changing to these things is going to ripple throughout the entire system. I think we are going to see a lot of people who have tools that are centered on keywords, or ranking, or things like that have diminishing impact on our industry. They need to evolve. SEOís who havenít really paid attention to industry changes are just going along day by day and one day they will be out of business.

The SEO tool is a tool to provide data for humans to consider. There is a big difference between having data and having wisdom. The tool gives you data; you apply the wisdom.

Assuming you know how to do SEO, and assuming you know what your community is, and how to behave in a natural way within that community, and how to create things that people will link to, you will then have one of the many building blocks for SEO.

Eric Enge: You talked a little bit earlier about localized search.

Bruce Clay: I think that that has to do in part with intent-based search. If I am looking for general information like how do you make a pizza, I think that itís natural for the sites that come up to not be specifically local to where I am.

If I say pizza parlor address, I would expect the search engine, if they can, to figure out what community I am in, and to give me pizza places that are near me.

Now, that I think this is going to driven by mobile a little bit more, but that is what I would expect. Thatís really where local is going to play. Local is going to be tied to the intent of the query; if the intent of the query is to find a restaurant then the search engine will give you local results automatically.

If instead of a commerce oriented search it is a research oriented search then the location of the site that answers that question has nothing to do with local. From a standpoint of what we are trying to do at a local level, I think local is a great concept that needs a catalyst. And I think that intent-based search will be that catalyst. I think that if we can understand the kinds of words that people are using to query for us, then we can optimize for that.

Then, we can come out and say okay, this is a keyword that people will use to find me within my community, and the intent of the keyword will trigger a local search. Then, I think everybody will understand thatís the way they have to build their content. And, I think thatís where SEO is going to come in.

Eric Enge: Another big influence I think, is that more and more people are beginning to understand the branding impact, right? Iíve had it happen many times in dealing with major brands that they are getting very emotional about their rankings on certain kinds of things. I had a situation like this the other day where somebody was ranking fine for their brand name themselves, but three places below them was a rip off report.

That was just lambasting the brand, and thatís the reputation management aspect. And then, there are perhaps the core keywords for their product space, maybe its used cars, or something like that. And, they want to rank for those too, and they are not even so much concerned about the ROI as with the brand issue.

Bruce Clay: I have been paying attention to brand name sites and we see that 80% of their traffic from organic search contains their brand name in the query. They are not getting traffic at all from generic search. And because they get traffic from only those already brand aware and not new customers, they are really losing brand recognition and future revenues.

I am getting a lot of calls from people who have tried other SEO companies, even very large SEO companies, and that ended the relations with the SEO the day the client actually saw their analytics data. They are realizing that all that happened is they got ranked for terms that they couldnít lose anyhow. Itís a shame.

Eric Enge: Yeah, I know. When we talk with people like that, we always start with okay, whatís your current search traffic, and get that answer, and say okay, now letís remove the branded search traffic. Okay, so thatís the piece that we can grow, right? We are not going to grow their branded search traffic unless their TV campaign drives more interest in their brand, right? The only thing we can do is take the other part of it, and bring that up.

Bruce Clay: You are so right.

Eric Enge: Thatís the way we always go over it. Itís just ends up being common sense, right? I think it takes a little while to develop enough knowledge of the industry to see it that way.

Bruce Clay: Yes.

Eric Enge: So, that should be a pretty significant change as well.

Bruce Clay: I think it will be; I think that we are going to see local search come as result of intent-based search.

I think we are going to see behavioral search play a big role, and organic search results are going to be considered volatile when in fact they are almost predictable by community that you are in.

There are going to be problems even in behavioral. If I spent a lot of time looking for a gift for somebody who just had a baby, I donít want to go through a life having search engines think I just had kid.

But, once these things are cleaned up and are running; we are going to see behavioral be a big play or intent based search be a big play. They are already both being focused on by the search engines and built in to the search engine process today.

Traffic is going to be the way we get measured. If what you are doing is selling them first page rankings, what are you selling?

There are Snake Oil Salesmen who are guaranteeing rankings. The best we can do is help the client build their business by helping them in getting into search, thus getting into the face of the people in the community that is served by their customers is the best we can do.

Eric Enge: Thanks Bruce!

Bruce Clay: Thank you!

Have comments or want to discuss? You can comment on the Bruce Clay interview here.

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About the Author

Eric Enge is the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting (STC). STC offers Internet marketing optimization services, including SEO, Social Media and PPC optimization, and its web site can be found at: http://www.stonetemple.com.

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