Rae Hoffman (sugarrae) is one Hell of a character in a industry that is chock full of them. Brash and unapologetic, Rae has forged a reputation as one of the best SEO’s working in the business, but also as someone that has no problem telling it like it is, even if it ruffles a few feathers. I have known Rae since the very early days of her career and recently took some time to talk to her about the past, the present and what the future might hold.
I am pretty sure that we first met in 2004 at Pubcon Orlando when search marketing conferences were really in their infancy. They have obviously grown massively from the niche events, that were for the most part, attended by a really tight community. Other than the size of the events, what do you see as the biggest change in the way the conferences have evolved and how can a newcomer to the world of search get the most out of attending? What do you miss most (if anything) from those old smaller events?
Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that conferences have WAY more female attendees ten years later. The obvious stated, I think there’s a lot more folks looking for clients vs. looking to exchange tips and tricks of the trade as well. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing per se, but it is what it is. At PubCon 2004, nearly everyone I met was an affiliate or was doing SEO for their own company. There weren’t really a ton of agencies. When we chatted at the bar, we chatted about the sites we owned, the tactics and strategies we were using – nowadays when you hit the bar, you’ll hear a lot of talk about who has what clients and a lot of commiserating re client horror stories. But, it’s ten years later – we can’t really expect that the state of search conferences wouldn’t have evolved.
As far as what I miss most, it is definitely the almost everybody knows everybody feel. You weren’t “famous” for speaking on stage, you were “known” for the vetted info you shared on various forums and groups (with “what’s your username” being almost everyone’s first question of someone they didn’t know). I think we all had a bit more trust in each other as well – blogs weren’t prominent and aside from Matt walking around with his little notebook, you didn’t have to worry too much about sharing “what worked”. Not that people don’t share that info now – but we didn’t used to have to preface every conversation with “no blogging this”.
In regards to newbies, you have to speak up. You can’t go to a conference and wait for people to run up and introduce themselves. Remember that every “name” is a regular person – don’t be afraid to go up to them, but also don’t expect them to lead the conversation. If you meet a favorite blogger, don’t just say, “I love you blog” and wait for them to further the conversation. If you’re wanting to chat with a speaker, after a session the moment they get off stage after an hour long session isn’t the best time to do so if you want to do more than have a quick two minute conversation. Have respect for everyone’s time. And bring and exchange business cards (and wait a week to follow up on them after getting home so you don’t get buried in anyone’s post conference sea of emails). And for the love of God, if you’re an asshole when you get really drunk, don’t fucking GET really drunk.
I think it was affiliate legend Mike Mackin that described affiliate marketing as addictive as crack. I know that from the time I got my first ever affiliate check, I was instantly hooked. Do you remember getting that first payment? What was it like when you first realized that this was a way that you could actually earn a living? What kind of a site was it that earned your first commission?
My first site was in telecom and I very much remember my first check. It was for less than 50 bucks and I couldn’t believe someone sent me 50 bucks. My dream of making $1000 a month in extra income might come true!
Then I got into Phentermine way back in the day. I built a legit affiliate site and built its backlinks via what people now refer to as “content marketing”. I remember Mike Mackin telling me the spammers were going to, and I quote, “eat me alive”. I just figured fuck it – a friend said he was making good money with it and I didn’t see any harm in trying.
One morning I woke up and like usual, I checked my inbox. Email after email had the subject line “Congratulations! You’ve generated a sale”. There were 17 of them in total. 17. That’s the exact number. It had to be wrong. I noticed my IM windows were flashing and after opening a few, it became evident there had been a “Google dance” the night before (this was back when Google only updated its rankings every four to six weeks). I did a search for some core terms and was shocked as all hell to see myself at #1 for buy phentermine and #3 for phentermine. The sales emails were fucking real. That month I made more in affiliate commissions than my then husband did in six months of working at his job.
There was no turning back for me after that. I never envisioned owning an agency, speaking or shit turning out like it has, but I knew that day that I’d found “my thing”. I was suddenly one of those unicorn people who did something I loved – and who made an income doing so.
Back in the day, it was far more common for affiliates to “churn and burn” sites than today, where for the most part, there seems to be more of a focus on building quality. Were you ever a churner and burner? Ever make any money with a one page wonder? Ever still get the urge to just spam the crap out of Google?
Ha. You know I was a churner and burner at one point, but thanks for being polite about it. ;-) I was what many would call an extreme whitehat in the beginning of my career. Part of how I made my “name” in the industry was that I competed – successfully – in the phentermine SERPs without spamming. But then the Florida update came and it wiped out a lot of my sites. At the time, we didn’t know the Brandy update a few months later would “undo” a lot of the collateral damage folks were hit with during the Florida update.
To say I was pissed would be an understatement. I was chatting with someone (my apologies that I can’t remember who) and I was like, “I think I know how they’re spamming this shit”. I had nothing to lose, so I threw up some one page wonders and manually hit them with the below board things I believed were needed to rank them. And sure enough, they popped. Only, these sites didn’t take tons of work like all the other sites I’d built. Easy. Money.
For the next few years, I definitely hit the churn and burn method pretty hard. I moved on from doing it manually to buying programs and then having programs built to exploit it as much as I could. But somewhere around 2006, I noticed that churn and burn was having a lower success rate and had much less “staying” power. Google was getting smarter. So, I decided to take on of the industries I knew was pretty damn profitable from burning it hard and build a legit site around it.
By the time 2007 rolled around, I was once again 100% above board again. And I kept building out legit sites from there. However, not because I believe “churn and burn” is “wrong” so to speak. Just because I don’t think it’s a long term strategy. And while easy money is nice, long term money – to me – is better.
You have always embraced the notion of the Power Of The Unpopular by being unapologetic with your brash approach and style. I guess that when you are a lone wolf affiliate, your online persona wouldn’t necessarily have an impact on the bottom line. From where I stand you don’t seem to have really changed much since moving to the agency side. Does your affinity for dropping “F” bombs and telling it like it is with a no holds barred attitude ever raise eyebrows with clients or do you not really give a shit?
I’ve always tried my best to just be me. When I was an affiliate, I didn’t NEED to care. My voice was my voice and if you didn’t like it, it didn’t affect my affiliate commissions one damn bit. By the time I’d moved into doing any sort of client work, my “voice” was already defined within the industry. Changing it was never an option and never will be – nor would I want it to be. The only agreement I made with my partner in PushFire in regards to my voice when starting the company was not using the work “fuck” in writing on the actual PushFire site. Outside of that, my voice remains unchanged.
I know my voice has cost me business over the years, but I also know it’s specifically why some people have chosen to work with us as well. I don’t curse to be “shocking” and I’m not cursing AT anyone (ok, well, at least not at clients) either – it’s merely a part of my vernacular and I think most people can sense that. Here’s my take on the whole thing. You can choose to hire an agency because they sound corporate or because they know their fucking shit. I’m not saying someone can’t possess both. I’m saying that I’m ok with only working with people who hire me because they believe in my skills and my services, despite me dropping the F word when discussing the latest Penguin update.
Recently you wrote a Titanic post that ripped Google a new one for the way it wields its power by way of algorithmic penalties and calling attention to the hypocrisy of it’s actions. I think my favorite line out of that post summed it all up quite succinctly:
“In Penguin, Google isn’t taking action on “low-quality or spammy sites”. Google is taking action against sites being LINKED TO by “low-quality or spammy sites”.”
It really is quite remarkable that this very significant and devastating algorithmic feature is based on something that in theory, can be out of the site owners control. Having said that, do you think that negative SEO is a significant issue? Do you believe that there is a a lot of collateral damage as a result of Penguin?
Negative SEO has been an issue for a really long time now and it will continue to be one for as long as Google’s algorithm hands out penalties for things outside of a site owner’s direct control. I believe both Panda and Penguin create an extreme amount of collateral damage with their current implementations. But at the end of the day, Google’s MVP is Google.
Is the disavow tool just the biggest honeypot in the history of ever? What do you think Google is doing with all that data? If they have built this massive database of sites that are not trusted do you see them moving away from actively punishing sites by way of manual or algorithmic penalties and just not counting these links or will they continue to yield the punishment stick to strike fear in to the community?
I think probably the single most effective thing Google has done to prevent gaming their algorithm was Penguin. And not because Penguin works per se, but because it destroys anyone who gives a shit about their website from even having a THOUGHT about crossing the line. So, instead, the churn and burn spam takes the place of the formerly “gray hat businesses” because in all honesty, Penguin isn’t as great an algorithmic filter as it is a FUD machine. Tons of spam, especially on authoritative domains, continues to rank. They could get “hit” at any time – which is a risk you shouldn’t take with a site that pays the mortgage, but is a risk that most hard core churn and burners won’t even blink about taking.
As far as the disavows – I don’t think anyone truly knows how they’re using it, but I have ZERO doubt there is a disavow database somewhere. If I were them, I’d be using it to help me build an “untrusted” seed list (and there is so much potential for collateral damage there).
You have been an evangelist of employing a strategy for building traffic that is not solely reliant on organic search traffic. By using social platforms like Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter to build audiences that engage with your brands, there is an obvious trust that develops with your users, and when done well really can shape the perception of a brand. Is that the primary value add you see as a marketer? What about the other signals that this type of engagement puts off? Where do you think we are with social as it pertains to Google and where do you see it heading?
I just think it’s the only way we can build a defensible business online. I’ve said it many times – Google doesn’t want to make websites popular, they want to rank popular websites. So, building an audience outside the engines is actually an important part to ranking within it. So, the PRIMARY value to me is building an audience and getting them on an email list. The secondary goal is giving off all the signals of a beloved and popular brand that Google should be ranking for terms that connect with my brand.
And don’t ignore Google+, IMHO. There’s opportunity there to be big in a niche while it’s still deemed “too small” for most people to bother with in many niches. Get in, get dominant, be in front of the pack. And if Google actually fulfills their vision for the future, Google+ and your popularity on it could end up playing more than a “bit” part in your rankings (and even now, Google+ has an effect on rankings).
As a marketer, it is necessary to wear many hats. Out of all of the tasks that are necessary to be successful, what is the one that you get the biggest kick out of? Which is the one that you absolutely dread doing?
Ok, so speaking as a marketer and not an agency owner, building my own affiliate sites is still my biggest “kick” and probably always will be. Second from that would be teaching companies how they can actually build links AND visibility to their target audience – how to make them relevant and getting them on a much more defensible course. The thing I hate most? Anything to fucking do with me needing to be anywhere near CSS. :)
Speaking of hats, would you like to discuss “The Hat?” It seems to be an ongoing bone of contention. :)
For those who don’t know, Google once had a black baseball cap with their logo on it. In our conferences circles back in the day, it was pretty awesome to have a Google Blackhat. I had one. Paul did not have one. See photographic evidence below:
After that conference, Paul now has one and I do not have one. YOU STOLE MY HAT. Fucker.
Besides Tim Horton’s coffee, what do you miss most about living in Canada?
I definitely miss “my people” up there. A lot. As you mentioned, I miss my Timmies. I miss the town I lived in, Guelph. I truly loved it. I miss not having to deal with American Politics. :) However, I do not miss not being able to own handguns. :)
Things have obviously changed dramatically over the course of the decade that you have been working in search. Take a look 10 years out and tell me what you see.
I hate when I get these questions, because there’s never a way to answer them without plucking shit out of the sky. :) If you’d asked me this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted Pandas and Penguins and that negative SEO would actually be a “service niche” in our industry. Definitely wouldn’t have seen social turning into the sheer fucking BEAST it has as a publicity and marketing channel.
What I can say is the obvious. Mobile is going to be MORE important then standard computers before the next ten years is up (likely much sooner). Google is going to try and find ways to validate the value of links until they find something to replace them – but I think we’re a long way out on that. Organic search will continue to lose some visibility (and probably won’t exist at all in it’s current form in ten years). But, these are all guesses. 10 years in Internet time is like 100 years in “real time”.
Will you still be doing this 10 years from now Rae? Where will you be and what will you be doing?
Man. It’s something I go back and forth on myself. I have always said I want to be retired by 40. Then everyone tells me they’ll bet money I wouldn’t be able to stay away from more than six months. And I’m inclined to agree. I don’t know if I CAN turn my drive off, ya know? But, at some point, I want to have less time devoted to work – maybe go part time. I guess you and I will just have to wait and see, LOL.
On a personal note, I’ll probably still be in Texas. If I can’t live in Canada, then Texas is where I want to be. :) I’ll also have land. I have 3 kids living at home and they – surprise, surprise – get a little touchy re moving an hour away from civilization on 100 acres. :) So, for now, we’re compromising with moving to somewhere with about four to ten acres (but not as far out) within the next two years because what I do know? Is that the suburbs AIN’T MY THING. :)
Thanks for doing this Rae, and oh yeah….. Thanks for the hat.