About a week ago I had the pleasure of interviewing John Doherty of Distilled. The night I hung out with a bunch of SEOs in New York, I never actually got to chat with him, so I called him up and recorded it. He told me all about his background, working for Distilled, some tools he’s been playing with lately and lessons learned thus far; proof positive he’s someone to keeps your eyes on in the world of SEO.
So go follow him on Twitter @dohertyjf, grab a coffee or latte or maybe you’re into tea or fruity drinks, and come back and enjoy the interview.
Dan: First question. Can you tell me a little bit of your background like what you studied in school and what you were doing before you got into SEO?
John: Absolutely. I went to University at James Madison University in Virginia where I studied technical writing and web development. After I graduated I went to work for a software company as a webmaster and a consultant. After a year I decided to quit that job and move to Europe for a while to run a book publishing company in Europe, kind of an entrepreneurial thing. Long story short, I was in Europe for a while and had a good time but then came back, moved to Philly and got my first inhouse SEO job there last October.
Dan: Can you tell me more about your computer background?
DAN: How old are you now?
Getting Hired at Distilled NYC
Dan: So ’92, so that’s 19 years. How did you end up working with Distilled?
John: I was working in house and I went to their Linklove conference back in March, and it was there that I learned about the New York City office. I had been reading blog posts written by the guys from Distilled, and saw they were smart and were doing a lot of good things and had the opportunity to apply and do an interview. They hired me, so here I am!
Dan: That’s great. Do you think that there’s any one particular factor that might have gotten you hired? Anything that you would say to somebody trying to get a job like that?
John: Honestly, just be a real person. I started interacting with them online, on Twitter back in December and January. Re-tweeting their stuff, engaging with them in conversation, just being real with them, and building the relationship. Then when I went to the conference I made sure to introduce myself and meet them and it went from there. I didn’t try to impress them I was just myself and it worked out.
Dan: So getting hired also has a lot to do with personality and being true to yourself. Of course it has to do with technical things too and your skill but obviously it has a lot to do with these other attributes as well.
John: Absolutely, I began The Beginner SEO website back in maybe beginning of February so I was writing a lot and trying to share a lot of knowledge with the community and engage with the community, so I was showing my technical know-how as well but you’re right, a big part of it was personality. Culture is a big deal within Distilled.
[quote cite=”John Doherty”]…just be a real person.[/quote]
Working at Distilled
Dan: What does your typical work day at Distilled look like?
John: Well, I usually drive into the office between 9 and 10, get some coffee, eat a bagel. It sounds like I’m kidding but I’m not. Then I get down to work, you know, different days, different clients going on. I have a number of projects in progress right now. We’re writing blog posts, posts for different industry blogs, for SEOmoz and the Distilled site. We’re doing some internal stuff for events we have coming up, internal marketing for that, so its quite varied.
Dan: How much time do you spend on actual hands on technical things for SEO?
John: Probably 60-70% percent of my time.
Dan: Could you divide up that time? Is it link building? Is it onsite technical work? What is it exactly?
John: Thus far with Distilled its been mostly on-site stuff. It has been a lot of strategy, working with some short term clients, doing site audits, keyword research, and information architecture and then putting together strategies for 6-12 months out for linkbuilding and marketing. So I haven’t done much linkbuilding for clients since I’ve been here. That’s been mostly our other consultants in our Seattle office who have long term clients. We’re starting to get long term clients now in NYC so I’m expecting to do more link building and hands on work soon.
Dan: Sure. Who are you interacting with the on a day to day basis other than the people at Distilled? Is it the people on the front end of the businesses that you have as clients or are you talking directly with programmers and developers?
John: Both. So far its been mostly the front end people, because they are the ones heading up the project but they always pull in their technical people. I have a client that’s starting soon that I’m going to be going on site a lot, so I’ll be working with the developers and their internal support to get things done.
Communicating with Programmers and Developers
Dan: Is there anything you’ve learned or any advice that you would share in terms of dealing with programmers and developers? Ways to communicate with them to get the job done?
John: You have to show them that it works. There are lot of developers that are stuck in their ways like “Hey, I’m just going to do this, and is it going to work, and let it be”. And I say,”Well you can do it a different way that is also going to benefit this business as a whole and is going to make you look good.” Showing them that it works and showing them that its going to benefit them as well.
Dan: Is there any particular tactic that you found to show them that it works? Maybe case studies or examples? What would you show them?
John: Pulling from my web developer background, I go in and use different tools available in Firefox and Chrome. I’ll turn off (CSS) style sheets, browse as Googlebot, and show them how Google is actually seeing their website. And they’re like “Oh. NOW I see why this isn’t working”.
Dan: You kind of speak their language and show it to them in ways that they can understand.
[quote cite=”John Doherty”]You have to show [developers] that [SEO] works. Turn off CSS style sheets, browse as Googlebot, and show them how Google is actually seeing their website.[/quote]
“The Beginner SEO” Blog
Dan: That’s great! On your blog it says Beginner SEO. Can you say exactly how long you’ve been specifically be doing SEO? Has it just been the past year?
John: Full time, for about the past year. I was trying to do a lot of online marketing for a publishing company I was running. That’s really how I learned about SEOmoz and Distilled. The title of my website is The Beginner SEO because I was kind of a beginner at the time but also because I wanted to share resources for people learning SEO, so they could come to my site and gain some knowledge, make some connections in the industry and really set themselves up for success.
Dan: I was curious because I’ve also only been involved in SEO for maybe 3 to 4 years and maybe about a year very intensely. I often think that we’re kind of along the same lines because we haven’t been doing SEO for 5 plus years. Are there certain advantages that you think that we have being a little newer to the world of SEO?
John: It all depends on the person. I think we might be willing to be a little bit more agile with our methodologies and quicker to change. As Google is changing we might be a little bit quicker to adapt and change our strategies as opposed to someone who’s been doing it for a long time, and they’re kind of stuff in their ways. That’s definitely not true across the board of course. I know some SEOs that have been doing it for 8-10 years who are constantly changing strategies and keeping up with what’s going on in the world of search.
Dan: One thing that I that came to mind for me was that since I’m not familiar with the world of SEO maybe 4 years and past that point, like you said we’re not really stuck in any of those old ways and especially black hat old ways of buying links and reciprocal linking and things like that.
John: In a way, I kind of think that it’s necessary to know that stuff. It helps to have done a little bit of that. Obviously you’d never do that on a client’s site, but I think you can learn a lot from people who are doing less than ethical things on their websites.
Dan: Do you think there’s any kind of special ingredient to being a successful SEO? Would it be a skill or personality trait or frame of mind? Do you think there’s like some special thing that we need to have?
John: I think curiosity is a big one. I feel like I’m constantly solving problems in my job and I’m constantly curious as to why sites rank, or if a certain test is going to work or not. I think an openness to finding out new things and a desire to learn new things is huge in SEO.
Dan: I completely agree with that. What are your future goals for being an SEO? Do you plan on trying to continue with Distilled? What do you have in mind for the future?
John: I’ve been at Distilled for two and a half months now, and I love it. I love the people I work with. How long am I going to stay here? I have no idea. I have no plans to leave, that’s for sure! I’d love to stay in this industry. Someday I’d love to run my own company or have a startup or something like that, but that’s way down the road, I’m not even really thinking about that. Within the world of SEO, I plan to keep writing, keep blogging. I’m speaking at SMX East in September so I’m excited about that. I hope to speak at some more conferences. So really, just continuing to learn everything I can and developing a name for myself in the industry and also making Distilled even more awesome.
SMX East and LinkLove Conferences
Dan: What are you speaking about at SMX in a few weeks?
John: I’m on the panel called Twitter, Facebook and SEO. Basically looking at how Twitter affects SEO. So I am going to be doing a little more of the tactical and tools that would be more helpful for the people in the audience. I’m not going to give away any more than that! You should come and see my panel.
Dan: And Distilled has a search conference coming up October 31st and November 1st, Is that right?
John: Yes, that’s right we have that conference here in New York City actually. I am not exactly sure where the venue is but we have a lot of big speakers coming out. We’ve got Rand Fishkin, we’ve got Tom and Will Critchlow, Wil Reynolds – all the big guys in the industry so it should be a fun time. And the week before that we have our conference in London. I’ll be in New York so I’ll be hanging out there for two days.
Dan: So people could come and say hi and meet you.
John: Absolutely. I love meeting new people.
Dan: I want to change gears for a second and ask is there any tools or anything like that you’ve been playing with lately that you’re really liking?
John: I just started running Python which is definitely a challenge in itself but just being able to build out new tools has been huge. Obviously I love the SEOmoz toolbox, it’s a phenomenal set of tools. I’ve been using the keyword difficulty tool recently doing lots of competitor analysis for some clients.
Dan: That’s a tool I’ve been using a lot lately too. I love that tool.
John: I’ve also been using the SEO for Firefox toolbar as well. I don’t use Firefox for anything else but the ability to turn off CSS and browse as Googlebot which has been huge for me.
Dan: What’s the benefit of Python? What kinds of things are you doing with that?
John: So far I’ve just built out one tool that works. It isn’t launched yet on my site but it will be. Basically it’s a way for people to plug-in a URL in a custom box to have embedded video, Facebook, Twitter to share that URL, so anything that can be embedded. I have some friends that are doing some other cool things using APIs, Python and PHP.
Dan: I’ll definitely look out for your tool. Is that something you’re going to put on your website?
John: It’ll be up there in the next couple of weeks.
Dan: I noticed that you’ve been learning a lot of Excel lately. What kinds of things are you trying to do with Excel?
John: Yeah, Excel’s been kicking my butt lately! I just wrote a blog post this past week, that just published yesterday about Excel, which included a couple of spreadsheets, kind of curating them and hacking into one. I’ve been building one out for a guest post that’s going live sometime in the next week or two on an industry site. Yesterday I tweeted out a blog post by Mike Pantoliano , one of our consultant in Seattle, wrote a really great blog post about a year ago about using Xenu for seeing a site’s information architecture very quickly, and that was super helpful for me. I’ll definitely be using that more in the future.
Advise for Newbies
Dan: That’s great. I appreciate you doing this. Is there anything else you want to add, maybe for people looking to get in to SEO like where do you start? What would you recommend?
John: Just go do it! Follow a bunch of sites in your RSS reader, get on twitter, engage with people, following influencers, re-tweet their stuff, engage with them as a real person. Read everything that you can, and then just go do it. Build out a site of your own. Build out a couple of sites of your own around something that you are really passionate about. If you have friends that are starting businesses or if your parents have a business or you know anyone with a small business, just do some work for free for them at first. Practice! That’s the way you get good, you just have to do it. If you want to learn more, you should come to our conference in New York City.
Dan: Yes. Everybody should go to that. That’s for sure. I’m currently trying to save money to get a ticket.
John: Sounds good. You should make that happen.
[quote cite=”John Doherty”]…just go do it! Follow a bunch of sites in your RSS reader, get on twitter, engage with people, following influencers, re-tweet their stuff … read everything that you can … build out a site of your own.[/quote]
Lessons From the Boss: Passion and Import XML
Dan: One last question. I also had the pleasure meeting Tom Critchlow whom you work with in New York. He seems like a very fascinating, generous and just a great guy. Can you tell me a little bit what it’s like working with him?
John: It’s great working with Tom. I mean, he is technically my boss but more than that, he is my friend. He teaches me a lot. Whenever I have questions, he is more than willing to answer and work with me with on things that I am not sure about. He is a great person to work for and to work with. He trusts me a lot to use my skills and to make our clients happy so that’s great. He’s hands off when I need him to be.
Dan: Would you say there’s any one thing he’s taught you that’s really stuck with you so far?
John: The big thing is passion. His curiosity about life and seeing cool things, thinking about them in interesting ways. Technically speaking, his importXML guide that he wrote about in a blog post: I think it was on the Distilled blog. Once I learned importXML that’s just it, that’s been big for me, automating my workflow and automating client research.
Dan: That’s great. Well I really appreciate you taking the time to answer a few questions!