Interview with Scott Willoughby from SEOmoz

Interview: Scott Willoughby

So we thought it would be a good idea to introduce an interviews category onto the blog in order to give us an excuse to chat with friends around the search industry. To kick off the category, we have Scott Willoughby, from SEOmoz.

Before we let Scott introduce himself, let's see what kind of a job we can do. Most people reading this blog will know who SEOmoz are. For anyone who found us without knowing them (how?), SEOmoz is one of the most high-profile SEO companies in the world. Based in Seattle in the sunny(?) Pacific North-West of the USA, they have worked with many of the great names of the Internet and, earlier this year, started the move towards a subscription-based business-model around their hugely popular blog whereby they offer tools and premium content to those willing to pay for it (including us). SEOmoz premium content.

Duncan and I met Scott when he, Rand and Rebecca came to London earlier in the year for SES. I had already spent some time with Rebecca on her previous trip to London and had corresponded with them all before that. When they were all over here, we had a great time at Boisdale restaurant (still no idea how to pronounce it) near Victoria in London. A few whiskies, some haggis and some fine steak later, we felt like we'd known them for ever.

Very kindly (and with no alcohol involved), Scott agreed to answer a few of our questions to kick off our interview series. It makes for quite a long post, but I think the answers are entertaining and well worth a read all the way through.

##So, into the interview:

First up, can you introduce yourself (business-wise and outside work)?

> [Scott:] First off, thanks so much for inviting me to do this interview, I really appreciate it; hopefully I’ll give you some decent answers. My name’s Scott Willoughby (aka great_scott! on the blog) and I’ve been at SEOmoz for almost exactly a year. My educational background is in Communications, Theatre, Film, and Science. My vocational background before SEOmoz was equally as diverse: merchandising, creative development in film, political campaign work, and healthcare administration.

> I fell completely backwards into SEOmoz when I saw their job post and, knowing nothing about SEO, thought, “I could definitely enjoy working with whoever wrote this job ad.” Jane actually got that position, but after Andy Beal suggested that the company should hire someone to help manage their client campaigns, they offered to bring me on and I’ve been enjoying myself ever since.

Rand recently wrote about how you had found your niche in business development at the 'moz after starting out in a different role - can you tell us a little about what you're doing now relative to when you started?

> [Scott:] As mentioned, when I first started it was primarily to handle client campaigns, but we began to shift away from a consulting-based model not long after I came on. Our Premium Membership numbers grew very quickly and we realized that we’d be able to move away from client work sooner than anticipated.

> As we moved away from that, I began discussing and working with Rand and Gillian on strategy and ways to partner and better expand our offerings, as well as helping to negotiate some large contracts and monitor operational and reputation-oriented matters. Currently, Rand’s handing off the reigns and I’m running point on all of our business development efforts. It’s all work I really love doing, so I’m glad to see how my role in the company has begun to evolve.

And where do you see that going? What do you expect to do differently as the make-up of SEOmoz changes (with expansion, focus on internal projects, external funding, etc.)?

> [Scott:] I imagine that my role will continue to develop in the same general direction. As we grow and work with more capital, I imagine I’ll begin to focus more on larger-scale, high-value partnerships and marketing efforts as well as, hopefully, continuing to offer input on the strategic direction of the company and our projects.

Your profile on says "I'm Batman." Care to expand? (It also says you worked as a Campaign Manager for the DNC during the 2004 Presidential race - how much like the West Wing was that?)

> [Scott:] Hahaha…yeah, well, I wish I could say I literally had a Batcave, Batmobile, Bat Utility Belt, and (especially) Bat Shark Repellant, but alas, it’s just me being goofy on my profile. One of the greatest things about working at SEOmoz is how relaxed and fun our office culture is. I wouldn’t say we’re an immature bunch around here, but we definitely have a good time.

> As to the 2004 Presidential race, my involvement wasn’t much like the West Wing at all, unfortunately. I was a Campaign Field Manager for the Seattle office of the Democratic National Committee’s grassroots campaign. It was a lot of hands-on, face-to-face campaigning and fund-raising. It was an exhausting job, but incredibly fulfilling. Unfortunately my side lost the election…sorry about that. I’ve often thought of getting involved in law and politics, and I still may one day. For now though, I’m loving the SEO industry and SEOmoz, so no plans to go anywhere for a while.

We know you have been a major driving force behind the Whiteboard Fridays and do a lot of the video work - and Jane alluded to the professional lighting rig, etc. you are gradually acquiring. How professional do you see this getting - where does it end? Tom also wants to ask: the first SEOmoz video was a roundtable and that was good fun (and would be even better if the sound levels were sorted better) - do you have plans to revisit this format?

> [Scott:] We definitely plan to upgrade our equipment and provide more video content, as it’s proven to be very popular with our readers. Our interview series from SMX Advanced in Seattle was very well received, and we’d like to do more on-camera interviews and even multi-person discussions at future events. We’re also producing a video training series based on the seminar we put on at the beginning of October. That should be finished sometime in early 2008.

> As far as Whiteboard Friday goes, I love being part of what has become our most consistent content piece. People really seem to enjoy Whiteboard Friday and it’s great to read the feedback, especially when people mention that they look forward to it every week. In fact, several months ago I began posting WBF late Thursday night (in Seattle) so you folks across the pond would be able to watch it during the work day on Friday. We’ve discussed doing more group roundtable-type videos, and we may in the future. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get everybody away from their work at the same time and, since I’m not a huge fan of long, static shots, I’d either have to operate the camera or wait until we have at least one more for editing purposes…but that’s mostly just me being picky.

We had a fun night out drinking Scotch whisky when you guys were in London. What's your poison of choice?

> [Scott:] Well, Rebecca and her boyfriend recently threw a Scotch party (Scotchtoberfest, natch), so I got to sample some really nice Scotches, including a 21-year Balvenie Portwood (that you and Duncan recommended, thanks!) that was spectacular. Although I’m a big Scotch fan, it’s a bit too pricey to be a default, so my usual cocktail is Whiskey and Diet Coke, which Jane and Rebecca affectionately refer to as “The Willoughby.”

To get back (slightly) on-topic,

One of the areas I specifically wanted to ask you about was to do with managing your (business') reputation when under fire. Recently SEOmoz was the subject of some controversy and you guys found yourselves in the middle of a firestorm of responding to negative and heated comments and with an escalating situation on your hands as it got more and more personal.

My intention isn't to go back over the issues behind the issue - that has been done, done again and done to death, but I am interested in your approach to the situation. As the conversation got more heated, you left a comment (paraphrased below) that was both measured and reasonable. Watching from the outside, it seemed to me to be the tipping point in the issue when sanity and reason (somewhat) returned to the conversation (and it has been cited by people on the other side of the debate as such).

Can you tell us a bit about what was going through your mind at the time? How do you think this approach generalises to other situations when you are under fire?

> [Scott:] I’ve heard similar feedback from several people, and I certainly appreciate it and take it as a huge compliment. As I mentioned in the comment, I didn’t agree with what Rand had done and I could even see how some people could have misinterpreted the tone and intent of some of my other co-workers’ comments. I did, however, take umbrage once the attacks seemed to become personal and well beyond the scope of legitimate criticism in my view.

> I noted in the post that we here at SEOmoz are all good friends and the comments got to a point where I felt it necessary to try and bring things back down to reality because they were way too heated and occasionally out of line. I deeply respect my co-workers and I’m very proud of what SEOmoz has been able to accomplish while I’ve been here. I believe we do far more good than harm in the search world than our critics at the time were giving us credit for. I simply wanted to make a statement that, while people may have taken issue with the situation at hand, it was unfair to dismiss everything else SEOmoz has done because of what was, admittedly, an unfortunate mistake. I think that sentiment resonated with a lot of people following the thread: we may have screwed up, but we’re good people and a good company, and we definitely didn’t and don’t set out to do harm to anyone. I added the last bit because I wanted people to know my comment came from me, it wasn’t “authorized” or intended as a corporate statement, as there had been some criticism that Rand wasn’t exercising enough prior restraint on some comments from staff.

> I wasn’t thinking “strategically” per-se at the time, but I do think that when things get heated, people can tend to get both over-defensive and over-aggressive, usually over minor points of contention. Helping everyone to step back and see that there is common ground so they can re-evaluate the true issues and realistic scope of the argument can often ratchet things back a bit. I’m fond of saying that people often think they’re arguing against each other when really they’re arguing beside each other. A slight difference of viewpoint can lead people to think they’re opposed when they actually agree—they’re just focusing on different aspects of the same argument.

##Extracts from Scott's comment:

> We’re not perfect and sometimes mistakes are made and statements are taken the wrong way. Overall though, we try to treat people fairly and openly. We don’t speak in press release jargon and we don’t vet comments on our blog. We respond to criticism when we feel it’s warranted ...

> I appreciate differences of opinion, but to immediately call professionalism into question when you don’t agree with one of us is beyond hypocritical, it’s just mean.

> This reply is my view and opinion. Neither Rand, nor any other member of SEOmoz has read it or, to my knowledge, is even aware I’m writing it.

SEOmoz offers fantastic premium SEO content (we subscribe and my testimonial got all over the place after being used in the landing page contest). In the modern world, the search engines play a massive part in reputation monitoring and management (and we write a lot about that here - since our reputation monitoring tool is designed to help with that). Have you thought much about how the tools in your portfolio might help these kinds of areas?

> [Scott:] We have certainly thought about it and found it to be a deficiency in our current offerings. We currently have several new tools in development, including one that will allow Premium Members to track tons of different data for multiple keywords per URL over time. This will be a huge asset for measuring the effectiveness of SEO campaigns, as well as monitoring reputation-related issues.

Do you pro-actively monitor things that are said about you / your company or do you find that tend to hear about anything you need to hear about (and does this change when you are in the middle of a firestorm?).

If you do pro-actively monitor things, how much of your time do you find it takes (and what percentage of the time you spent reading blogs can you claim is 'reputation monitoring and research'!)?

> [Scott:] I get automatic updates from Google Blog Search every couple of days in order to keep an eye on any mentions of us. GBS tends to be pretty thorough and catches most everything out there. I also take a quick glance at Sphinn every morning. That will usually alert me to anything controversial that may arise within the industry.

> That said, Rand, voracious blog devourer that he is, usually catches wind of anything on the far ends of the positive/negative spectrum almost as soon as it emerges. We’ve also had several members on the site graciously and vigilantly give us a heads up when they see something questionable. As you know, news (especially the gossip variety) travels fast in the SEO world, so we usually don’t have to dig very hard to see when and where we’re mentioned. Since I don’t focus as much on strict SEO as Rebecca, Jane, and Rand do, I’d actually say the majority of my blog reading time is related to reputation monitoring and management.

##Going back to the fun stuff

We're going to wrap up with a couple of questions from the floor (ok, the rest of the Distilled office):

Having worked in LA on big film productions, is it your dream to write/direct/star in your own film? If so, what would it be about? (And will it be full of famous SEOs playing bit parts - I can just see Rand playing "taxi driver #4" and Rebecca as "ninja on right")

> [Scott:] I love movies and I loved working in producing and creative development, but the industry and the town require one to adopt certain personality traits if you want to make a career there. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable with after a certain point, so I doubt I’ll go back to the film industry anytime in the foreseeable future. That said, Rand wrote a blog post a while back with a title that played off of a lyric from the musical “Rent.” I think it’d be hysterical to do a parody called “Rank,” wherein myriad SEO figures are fighting to eek out their marginalized existences in the face of a disapproving world and the oppressive powers of Google.

You don't tend to blog as much as the other mozzers - why is that?

> [Scott:] I’d like to say I don’t have much time for it, but Rand’s ridiculous schedule nullifies that argument. In reality, I only like to blog when I feel like I have something really valuable or interesting to write about. There’re a ton of good SEO blogs out there (ours included), so I feel like a lot of mainstream, search-oriented material is already covered by Rand and others who know way more about SEO than I do. As it is, I only usually write when I find something I feel I can speak with some knowledge about that I think others will find unique and valuable, and that’s not already being well covered in the industry. As we continue to develop our business model and marketing efforts I hope to blog more and, hopefully, do some speaking in the near future.

When you started you said you knew nothing about SEO - what was it like working for an SEO company not knowing the industry? And quite how deep was the deep end Rand threw you in when you started?!

> [Scott:] It’s always been great working here, even when I didn’t know the industry. I was excited to come to SEOmoz because I saw a lot of traits in both the company and the industry that I’d really enjoyed about previous positions. Turns out it was a pretty good evaluation, as I’m very happy where I’m at.

> Looking back, the end I was thrown into was pretty damn deep! Two of the first things I did in order to learn SEO when I got here were to do a site review of on-page factors for a major client (with Rand’s editorial supervision, of course) and write “The Professional’s Guide to Link Building,” which truly proved the adage, “the best way to learn is to teach.” There’s no better way to force somebody to learn SEO than to task them with writing a best-practice guide on how to do it! To be fair, Rand also gave me some pool toys to play with, in the form of letting me write a bunch of ridiculous content for Drivl.

From our end, I just wanted to end by saying thank you to Scott, for taking the time to answer so many questions in such an entertaining and informative manner. Thanks Scott - you're definitely one of the good guys ;)

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About the author
Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. For the...   read more