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What Selling Knives Taught Me About SEO

Posted by Melanie Phung on Monday, July 21, 2008 at 12:26 pm

Long ago, when I was a freshman in college, I took a sales job for a company called Vector Marketing — a business you may know of second hand even if you’ve never heard their name. If you’ve ever heard jokes about college kids selling Cutco knives door-to-door you’ve heard of Vector.

(Just to be clear, we didn’t actually go door-to-door, that would just be crazy! It was a referral business.)

It was possibly the worst job I’ve ever had — it was hard, it was stressful, I worked 7 days a week… I had to go into the homes of people I didn’t know (and I was painfully shy) to SELL KNIVES … and if I didn’t succeed, I didn’t get paid.

But it was also one of the most valuable work experiences of my life. In addition to some terrific anecdotes, that short-term gig taught me some great skills and life lessons. Even better, I can apply these lessons to search engine optimization.

1. It Doesn’t Count If It Doesn’t Stick

You can sell several thousand dollars worth of product on a sales call, but if the client cancels their entire order after you leave, you get bupkis, nada, nothing.

If you pull all sorts of shenanigans and get yourself ranked #1 in Google, good on you, but it’s not worth anything if you get booted out of the index faster you can say “How do I file a reinclusion request?”

If I were to write this list in reverse order of importance, in the style of a count down, I’d save this one for last. But frankly, I can’t count on everyone making it all the way to the end of this post, so I’ll put it first: If the sale (ranking) don’t stick, it don’t count.

Luckily, with Google, you can beg for a second chance. You can undo everything you did wrong and beg for reinclusion, but that’s a tremendous waste of time and energy. In the door-to-door knife business, it was much harder to save a sale that’s falling through. I learned that closing the sale right was more important than closing the sale fast, but either way you had to close the sale and keep it closed.

2. You Can Have All the Talent in the World, But You Still Gotta Pick up the Phone

You could be a great salesperson, capable of selling ice to an Eskimo, but if you didn’t go on sales calls, you weren’t going to sell anything. Unlike the minimum wage retail job alternatives I could have taken, this was not a job where you got paid just for showing up. It being a pure commission gig, no one cared if you showed up at all, in fact. Being able to set your own hours, work when you wanted to or not work at all sounds great to most people, but it required a lot of discipline I didn’t necessarily have at that point in my life.

Unless you’re paid to blog or do nothing but speak at conferences, all the SEO knowledge in the world won’t actually improve your rankings and it won’t pay the bills.

Even if they’re not working on a pure pay-for-performance basis, most hardcore SEOs are going to want to be able to show real, significant results – not just talk about what it takes to get them. And a good SEO knows that in most cases real results require rolling up your sleeves and doing the work, not just knowing your stuff.

3. You Never Know Who Your Allies Will Be

Sometimes I’d show up at a customer’s house, take one look around and think “there’s no way this person can afford what I’m here to sell.” I might have brushed them off, done a half-assed pitch, rushed it, and not treated them like a valued customer — it’s trite, but trust me, the customer can always tell. In that case, the no-longer-prospective customer was just as happy to have me out of their house as I was eager to move on to my next appointment.

Other times I might have dedicated myself to building a rapport, listening to their needs and doing my best to get that sale. However, even if I wasn’t able to close the sale, these prospects became my allies. They liked me, they believed in what I was selling even if they didn’t buy it. The difference is that I’d leave these people’s houses with a long list of referrals. In most cases a list of referrals was of more value than any single sale anyway.

Don’t overlook folks you think aren’t influential enough — they might very well be the ones to recommend you to friends who will end up being your very best source of revenue/inbound links/conference speaker opps/customer referrals/etc.

4. Every Customer Is Different

Just like no single set of kitchen tools is right for every cook (you ever talk to serious cooks about their knives? They ain’t foolin’ around), there is no one size fits all solution to SEO.

As a Cutco salesman, if you simply memorized your sales spiel and recited it verbatim to every new customer, maybe you could sell something, but you could never communicate the full value of the big ticket items. When I was on a call, I never gave the same presentation twice.

When I’m optimizing a site, it would be crazy to follow the same plan I used for another site. There is no single site architecture, no copy style, no page title formula and certainly no link-building strategy that you simply reuse from client to client. It just won’t work.

5. Be Your Own Customer

The most effective salespeople were able to draw on their own experience with the product. Vector required you to own the products you showcased; all the best sales people actually used them too.

It’s possible, but awfully hard, to recommend strategies, speak intelligently about time lines or probabilities of effectiveness, or answer client questions about specific techniques if you’re not constantly perfecting and finetuning them. While it certainly makes sense to be doing that on current projects with other clients, the best SEOs perfect and finetune their ranking tactics on their own side projects (the ones they’re fired up about and perfect on their own time).

6. You Have to Have Executive Buy-In

As much as I liked thinking that stay-at-home moms had completely autonomy over their household budgets, it happened more than once that I totally sold the mistress of the house on the value of my product, only to have a message waiting for me when I got back to the office that the husband came home and blew his top when he saw the bill.

It’s not enough to get buy-in from your contact. You need to arm her with the right information so she can be just as persuasive relaying the value of what she bought when the (other) executive starts asking questions. If she can’t get him to buy in to the value you’re offering, you’re facing an almost impossible battle.

Whether you’re an in-house SEO or an outside consultant, you need buy-in from the right people, not just your direct contact, or your projects aren’t going to get resourced or prioritized to the level required to move the needle.

7. Sell People on What They Need, Not What They Think They Want

One of the best ways to find a new customer was to have them find you. I loved having friends of previous customers call me up to tell me they heard great things about the product and that they wanted to buy a knife. The easy thing would be to write up the order right there over the phone, but I always took the extra step to come to their house and do the full demo. I’d ask them what it is they liked about their friend’s set and why they wanted the particular piece they mentioned, and wouldn’t you know it, I’d always be able to upsell at least one or two more pieces (and sometimes their final order didn’t even include the piece they originally called about). Why? Because every customer is different (see #4).

The friend would tell my new customer the ways that she used her knives, not the way that her friend would likely use them. After being educated on how “a tool for ever job; a job for every tool” applied to her kitchen, the referred customer got what she actually needed, not what she thought she wanted — which always led to a more satisfied customer (and more often than not, a bigger sale). Even better, I could be assured that they didn’t injure themselves using their knives incorrectly.

A lot of potential customers think they know what SEO is. They’ve heard it has something to do with link building, or meta data, or cloaking, or whatever, and they go to an SEO firm to execute on their idea. More often than not, there are better ways to accomplish their specific goals, but you’ve got to figure out what the clients need, not just what they’re asking you to do. If you execute SEO tactics based on the latter rather than the former, you might actually be doing them a disservice.

8. Don’t Apologize for Your Price: Focus on Value

If you’re top notch, don’t compete on price. My prospective customers knew I wasn’t peddling $5 Ginsu knives because I knew it; I never apologized for the price, because I was selling the value.

There were always a handful of customers who didn’t get it, didn’t want to get it, weren’t ever going to get it, and it was best not to waste your time on them. Even a relatively short sales presentation came at an opportunity cost — if I cut down my 90-minute presentation in half, that gave me time to make phone calls and set up a few more appointments with clients who might actually generate commission.

If you’re selling SEO services and it’s clear that your clients don’t value your services, they’re going to end up being a pain to work with in the long run, and you need to decide if you want to sink time and effort into a project that you’re not being adequately compensated for. A client who doesn’t value you at $150 an hour, isn’t going to value you any more if you drop your fee down to $85 an hour. Know what your services are worth, and don’t apologize for it.

9. Some People Are Crazy – Don’t Let Them Near the Knives

In the real world, like the Internet, you’ll come across some people who are a little off. Trust your instinct, and don’t hand them anything that may end up causing you harm just because you’re desperate to make a sale (or gain a StumbleUpon friend, or get some Digg votes, or get entree into the cool kids club on Sphinn).

Used correctly, a knife could be a wonderful tool. In the wrong hands…

photo by darkpatator

Whether your “knife” in this metaphor is a particular SEO secret, an industry relationship, your client list, personal info or whatever… be careful not to hand it to people who are going to go totally psycho on you.

10. A Good Investment Lasts a Lifetime…and Other Conclusions

I was pretty good at my knife selling gig, but it involved blood (literally), sweat (my car didn’t have A/C) and tears (yes, sometimes it was that bad). Although the metaphorical blood, sweat and tears are never completely out of the picture, the SEO industry has been better to me and I’ve lasted a lot longer as an SEO (and made a lot more money) than I did as a knife salesman. The experience as a Vector direct salesperson, however, was invaluable.

For what it’s worth, I still own my Cutco knives and they’re great. I’ve taken advantage of the almost-sounds-too-good-to-be-true guarantee to have my well-used and even damaged pieces repaired or replaced completely free. It was an investment that paid for itself many times over.

The initial investment in the Cutco demo kit was a barrier to entry that kept a lot of half-hearted sales wanna-be’s out of the Vector marketing program. The world of self-proclaimed SEO “gurus” seems to have no such barrier to entry — any wanna-be SEO can start a blog and claim to know their stuff. In the end, however, the ones who’ve got what it takes will keep getting clients and those who don’t have the skills, talent and/or drive will fall by the way side.

Comments (9)

Category: search marketing

Good SEO Consulting Starts with Good Clients

Posted by Melanie Phung on Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 12:28 pm

What do you need to be a good SEO consultant? Besides a modicum of skills, that is. Answer: Good clients.

Aaron Wall perfectly outlines why providing quality SEO consulting is much harder than simply being good at SEO:

“Most prospective SEO customers are not ranked well because their businesses are unremarkable and have little to no competitive advantage. Worse yet, some of them have arbitrary constraints that hold back growth potential. … Those [customers] who have not fully bought off on the power of SEO often end up underpaying the first time they buy services, which precludes honest consultants from working with them. After they got burned once, they want to minimize future risks, which sets off a market for lemons effect.”

Poorly run companies who start off with a handicap generally aren’t willing to invest what it’ll take to overcome that handicap. They hand you a bunch of rotting lemons, don’t allow you to add sugar or water, and are then disappointed when you don’t give them back top-shelf lemonade. See, they say, SEO is ineffective.

If you care about the quality of your work product, that’s bound to make you, as the SEO, pretty crappy. Avoid feeling crappy by not taking clients who are setting you up to fail.

What most good SEO clients bring to the table:

  • A solid business model
  • An understanding that SEO is a process whose success is measured in months, not days
  • Strong marketing knowledge of their own space
  • A willingness to work with you, to integrate SEO into their broader marketing strategy
  • The ability to make changes to their site

That last bullet seems laughably simple, but a lot of bad SEO clients don’t seem to get that this is critical and don’t bother to mention that they are unable or unwilling to execute on your recommendations until after you’ve started working with them.

Building a rewarding career as an SEO consultant isn’t as easy as simply being good at SEO — don’t put your success in the hands of clients who aren’t willing to invest in their own.

Oh, and a final consideration for when you’re taking on new SEO clients:

  • They have a track record of actually paying their vendors

Comments (4)

Category: search marketing

Using Social Media to Promote Social Media Promoting Crap About Nothing

Posted by Melanie Phung on Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 1:39 pm

You don’t see me posting about “how to do social media” a lot because I think it’s one of those things that gets talked about to death by so-called social media marketers who seem to think their job is to win a popularity contest on the likes of Digg, Twitter, Sphinn, etc, as if that were the ends instead of the means. Anyone with profiles on these sites seems to think that having managed to drum up a few votes about some article somewhere somehow qualifies them to be a social media marketer, despite often having absolutely no idea what the “marketing” piece of the puzzle entails. As long as you can blah blah blah about using top 10 lists to get popular on Digg (usually just copying someone else’s blah blah blah), you’re somehow an expert.

Blah Blah Blah

One of the worst trends I’m seeing in social media is using social media sites to blatantly promote stuff on other social media site (which is usually promoting something else). Here’s a great example:

What’s going on here: Sphinn is a social media site devoted to online marketing stories – it votes up stories that are particularly interesting or educational on topics in that niche. Sphinn user BrentCsutoras submitted a page from Digg. Digg is a social media site where users vote on interesting stories on all manner of topics (with a lot of focus on odd humor, technology, politics — and it is known for being very unfriendly to SEOs). The page that was submitted on Digg (to the Travel section??) points to a Sphinn submission from user AnkitRawat – with this description: “Yes this is true .. Mozzers got there Webs2.0 page back into Google index !! Congratulations rand for this achievement.” This page (the one submitted to Digg) is a page on Sphinn, which happens to be a submission of a page on AnkitRawat’s own blog, which is a 3-sentence summary of a comment on an article on

Brent was pointing on the Digg page as an example of what not to do, so let’s cut that part of the equation out and dissect the rest:

AnkitRawat blogged about a post on, which is great if he thinks this is of value to his readers. Rather than repeating someone else’s post or talking at length about something to which there isn’t much to add, he writes a quick summary. So far, so good, except that he doesn’t link to the original.

Rather than simply going to Sphinn, seeing that the SEOmoz article was already submitted and voting for it and leaving it at that, the user then submits his own 3-sentence summary of the primary source to Sphinn. Not only do most social communities not like submissions of derivative work, showing a preference for the original source, but they really don’t like it if the derivative work doesn’t have any meat to it whatsoever.

Understandably, that Sphinn submission only got a few votes. Rather than take that as a sign that the community just isn’t that interested in the story, the author/submitter then goes to Digg to submit, not his original article, but the page showing his submission on Sphinn. Presumably the goal of submitting to Digg was not to drive up views on his own blog but to increase the vote count on the Sphinn community.

Social Media Moebius

The problem, of course, is several fold: People don’t like following a Mƶbius strip of links into a dizzying vortex of self-referential self-promotion, so it’s simply understood that you don’t submit links of social media submissions to other social media sites. Two, Digg users aren’t interested in the topic of whether some page they didn’t care about in the first place had its PageRank dropped and reinstated. Three, Digg users really don’t like SEOs, so any post that simply congratulates SEOs on managing to salvaging their Google PageRank is not just going to be of interest to no one, it’s probably also going to piss those users off.

So what did submitting a Sphinn submission of a 3-sentence summary of an update to someone else’s blog post to Digg actually accomplish (except maybe give more ammo to Digg users who already think SEOs are scummy spammers)?

Here’s what’s even crazier about that little story (and dare I use the word “ironic”) – if you take a look at the original article, it’s indirectly about the Web 2.0 awards, which were already the topic of a big “moral of the story” discussion regarding how Digg doesn’t like self-congratulatory SEOs, prompted by the failure of the Web 2.0 awards to make it big on Digg (the latter link is worth a read for actual technical SEO info).

A few of the lessons I enumerated about that story, lessons that apparently bear reposting, included these:

  • Know your audience, what they like or dislike
  • News Flash: most regular social media consumers don’t like SEOs
  • Don’t go all “I’m part of the cool kids club and know the inside jokes”. It doesn’t make you look cool to strangers, it’s actually a big turn-off.
  • Practice what you preach – if you’re a social media professional who advises clients on how to engage with communities, be respectful in your non-client interactions with those communities as well

So what are the lessons that can be applied outside of the Sphinn community to the broader world of wanna-be social media practitioners?

  • Know your audience, what they like or dislike
  • People don’t like blatant marketing or self-promotion
  • Pulling the “I’m part of the cool kids club” routine doesn’t make you look cool to outsiders. Worse, if you’re not actually part of the cool kids club, the real members of the cool kids clique make fun of you too.
  • Know when to back off – you can only promote yourself (or promotions of promotions of yourself) so much. If no one bites, leave it alone.
  • Only submit actual stories to social media sites; don’t submit submissions of stories on other sites

In that same comment, I also pointed out:

There’s a tendency to operate in an echo chamber where everyone pats everyone else on the back for being part of the club. On the one hand, it’s great because it’s overall a very friendly and welcoming group. But it also has a tendency to be a little too self congratulatory. Every once in a while we need a wake up call that reminds us that SEO/sphinn/etc isn’t the “real world.

Certainly, this issue isn’t limited to the online marketing community; it happens in a lot of micro-communities. People forget that the just because their group cares passionately about something (even if it’s that they care about each other), the rest of the world doesn’t, nor should it have to. The greater irony is not only that we as marketers should know better, but also that we’re the first to point this out to our clients.

The reason it bothers me when this echo chamber pervades in my little world is that we spend so much time talking about marketing, and marketing marketing, and striving to dominate social media, that there’s no longer any there there.

Instead of trying to become great marketers, so many marketers fall all over themselves to become “A-list bloggers” – as if that were an end in and of itself.

Or as Gaping Void doodles so succinctly:

What happened to the products and services? What happened to substance? What happened to results and ROI? There are a lot of people for whom the whole concept of marketing on the Web isn’t actually proven yet — so let’s prove that we add value and that we’re not really just goofing off on the Web all day.

I, for one, welcome the day this unfortunate trend reverses and we get back to doing our jobs — in most cases that does not involve marketing social media platforms to other online marketers, or poking at our navels.

Comments (32)

Category: Social Media

Quote of the Week: Resistance Is Futile

Posted by Melanie Phung on Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 10:22 am

“When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image.”

According to the current issue of The Atlantic, the Web

…injects the mediumā€™s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as weā€™re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaperā€™s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.

Jumping Brain

Jumping Brain image by Emilio Garcia

The author laments that he’s finding it increasingly difficult to read books or anything of substantive length — it’s just too hard to concentrate. As someone who used to read voraciously but now loses patience with anything longer than a thousand words, I sympathize.

The more time we spend on the web, the more it changes the way we process information… the Internet is remaking our brains in its image. Resistance appears to be futile.

Read the article (yep, the whole thing… as in all 4173 words, with only a few hyperlinks and a couple of dropcaps to distract you from all that endless type.)

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Category: Quote of the Week