Seven Questions For SEO Pioneer John Audette

I wasn’t that well-versed in John Audette’s contributions to the SEO industry before meeting and chatting with him recently at the Bend WebCam search conference. During the “History of SEO” session that concluded the festivities, each of the panelists that worked with John back in the mid-90’s universally praised his professional guidance and acknowledged his formidable impact on our industry. If ever an SEO “hall of fame” is established, John surely will be one of the first nominated given his contributions to the field.

So, John: who are you and what do you do for a living?

I founded one of the first internet marketing agencies, called Multimedia Marketing Group (MMG) in 1994. Started in Portland, I moved it to Bend, Oregon in 1997 with seven employees. Of those seven, most are still active (and prominent) in the internet marketing world today: Marshall Simmonds, Derrick Wheeler, Adam Sherk, my son Adam Audette, Matt Hockin (and yours truly).

MMG moved steadily up-market and worked with many large-name enterprise clients. It grew to 85 employees and was sold to a London based agency in 2000 and was the foundation for an internet marketing roll-up for them. The roll-up is a significant player today and is called Outrider.

A number of other internet marketers got their start with MMG in Bend, including Bill Hunt, Disa Johnson, Jeremy Sanchez, Andre Jensen, and many others.

My most recent endeavor was to help my son Adam Audette launch AudetteMedia, a boutique SEO firm that has grown and moved up-market quickly over the past three years.

Rumor has it that you coined the phrase “search engine optimization.”

We started SEO before arriving in Bend, but we formalized it in early 1997. I paid Danny Sullivan’s way to Bend in ’97 to work with us and we subsequently strengthened our services. I coined the phrase “search engine optimization” in early 1997, which is documented by a copy of the MMG site in the Wayback Machine .

There is more discussion about this claim in a blog post that my son Adam Audette wrote for theAudetteMedia Blog.

Can you tell us about your recent business ventures?

I have recently left AudetteMedia for a new endeavor. My father once said to me, “you are so idealistic.” He was right. I was young and I was idealistic. The odd thing is that it has never gone away—it has pervaded every business venture that I have ever undertaken. Which brings us to the itch…

I have worked my entire life in marketing and sales, with some technology (systems integration) thrown in. Of course the object of that is to help folks sell more stuff. I’m pretty good at and I have especially enjoyed my time using the internet as my primary marketing channel. I gain satisfaction from helping folks sell their stuff, and it has been materially rewarding for me at times. But now, in my dottering old age, I’m looking for a little deeper satisfaction. I’d like to feed the idealistic streak that never went away.

I intend to start a new company, called 501 Strategies that will offer internet services to the non-profit sector. I have a junior partner, Tom Warton. Tom is a very bright MBA who shares my idealism. It’s kind of in his genes as his father, also a MBA (and an ordained minister), has applied his efforts over the years to build companies in third world nations in order to create jobs. His belief is that you need to feed their bodies before you feed their souls.

Our idea is to build a for-profit, employee-owned (I have always wanted to structure a company as employee owned—another aspect of the idealistic streak) company that works with non-profits, the type that is being referred today as “social enterprises.” I mentioned to someone who asked what we would be doing that we would be providing internet marketing to non-profits, and Tom corrected me, saying that we would be offering internet management to non-profits, a description I much prefer.

We think we can get pretty fired up helping social enterprises further causes that we ourselves are passionate about. We’re hoping to do well enough so that we can use a portion of our profits to enable some of our clients to start without paying a fee.

While I’m somewhat of a newbie to the non-profit world, it occurs to me that I will still be selling product. In the case of non-profits they are really seeking only three things that I can identify: a spreading of their message in order to build awareness and supporters; time from volunteers; and financial support. Of course the internet and particularly the rise of social media and mobile, are just perfect for this. My sense is that strategies and tactics used for non-profits will not differ all that much from those used working with the folks who sell widgets and time. As many of you know, my former company offered a full suite of internet services and I anticipate that 501 Strategies will do the same, as opposed to specializing in one area.

What specific challenges and opportunities do non-profits face with internet marketing?

Some challenges that come immediately to mind are at times a modest budget level and possibly a modest expertise level (with so much dependence on volunteers). We are hoping to help them with both. While 501 Strategies is being formed as a for-profit company, our hope is to start our fee structure at zero by using a portion of our profits to fund the marketing efforts of worthy non-profits. As to filling their expertise needs, I’m confident that my long experience in the industry, strong contacts within the industry, and a proven ability to build a world-class team will create a resource of value.

Opportunities are vast. Social media marketing is just a natural for non-profits. What a powerful tool to increase and enhance communications among those who share a passion in a cause. Plus many non-profit websites are pretty primitive and do a poor job of converting their call to actions. And very few have a mobile-friendly version of their website. I envision as being just huge for non-profits. Plus the entire area is under-served for one reason or another.

At the Bend WebCam, you made the following statement: “SEO turned ADD from a negative to a positive.” Can you explain this further?

This was a little tongue in cheek, but not entirely. I have always had a short attention span, which is a fault in most lines of work. However, in the early days of the internet, things were moving so fast that it was imperative to adopt an approach of “ready, aim, fire,” which is what comes naturally to me. Unlike most corporate settings, there was no time to aim and aim and aim. You had to move, innovate, create—and do it all quickly. Remember, we were making it up as we went along.

How do you see SEO and social media working together?

Search marketing is a great way to provide content and links that help an SEO cause. Oddly, though, I don’t think that SEO is as important to non-profits as to many other organizations. The reason is that so many non-profits are local in nature and the local innovations that are currently occurring in search really help those locally focused.

What advice would you offer to new people just getting into SEO?

Be careful about being a one-trick pony. Things change fast with the internet and there is a great deal of added safety in mastering and/or offering more than one area of expertise. For example, mobile search at Google has increased 10x in the just the past year and that has many implications. It’s a bit of a challenge: while it’s important to have specialized expertise in a medium that is becoming ever more complex, it’s also important to maintain flexibility as things can change right out from under you practically overnight.

John, thank you very much.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

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About The Author: Todd Mintz, who has been with PPC Associates since March 2011, has over 10 years experience in search marketing and has used Google AdWords since its inception. He also is very visible in the SEM social media space and encourages people to connect with him via Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. He was one of the founding members of SEMpdx (Portland's Search Engine Marketing Group) and is a current board member.

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