Conversations in Search: Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the Founder of Ian Lurie, LLC

Ian lives in Seattle with his wife, Dawn, and college-aged children who will be at school after the pandemic, Morgan and Harrison, where he spent 25 years building Portent, a business that was recently acquired by Clearlink Technologies.

Graduating from UC San Diego majoring in History in 1990, Ian followed it up with a law degree at UCLA, graduating in 1993. So repulsed by law, he rediscovered the joy of marketing.

An avid cyclist, Ian likes nothing more than spending time with his family, playing dungeons and dragons or re-reading Lord of the Rings series.

This post is part of a series called ‘Conversations in Search’. I discuss the current state of SEO practice with other SEO experts and discover their views on the future of SEO.

Damien: Ian, thanks for the time to chat! I’ve got a few questions for you if that sounds okay with you? How are you and your family at this time?

Ian: We’re safe, and we’re like a lot of people sheltered in place. It’s a good thing we all like each other. I’m in Seattle, Washington. It’s gorgeous, and we got some of our first good summer weather today. 

We’ve been fortunate through all this. Covid started getting a lot worse, but not in Washington State, for whatever reason; we’re sparsely populated or more people wear masks or whatever, so far, we seem to be okay. We’re all still under a lot of restrictions too. The states that have opened up are the ones that are having issues.

Damien: So you’ve been a nerd since 1968, tell us more?

Ian: A quick bit of trivia I was born in London. My parents are both American, they were there though, working for a few years on a project, they’re both scientists. 

I’ve been a hardcore nerd from birth, child of two PhD scientists, computers in the house in the mid-70s. I was the one that you know people in the neighbourhood would come over to check out that weird thing on the desk that didn’t type on paper when you typed on a keyboard. 

My first computer was a Heath kit, they were kits, and you could build a very basic computer. I think it had maybe one kilobyte of RAM, and the coolest thing about it was that it would type ahead so if you started to type a word, it would finish the word for you. It was state of the art at the time. 

I was eight years old, I guess, in the little spare office in our house when I sat down at that computer for the first time. I was writing basic programmes by the time I was 10 or 11 just for fun.

I majored in History at UC San Diego in 1990, and I never studied computer science. I then went on to law school after that at UCLA. I kind of went straight through and graduated from there in 1993. I thought I’d be changing the world, and fixing things, taking all my experience with history, and saw how all the people who made significant change went to law school. 

It turns out I hated law school, I was not very good at the law, it was a struggle, but I graduated. The joke I’ve told a lot of people now is I loved law school so much I became a marketer the day I graduated.

Damien: You got out of law school. You decided I’m going to change the world in marketing?

Ian: Yeah, I did copywriting and a lot of tech stuff. I helped a company here in Seattle get set up to manage, not just copy and marketing, but also manage their internal information just because I was the one who knew about computers. That got me back into a lot of the stuff that I had been a little out of touch with during law school, and at the same time, it got me going on marketing. 

I mean I always loved being a writer, and that’s that was the one constant through everything. I didn’t study computers because they were just a thing. They were a tool that was always around for me, but it was fun to get back into it again, and then, of course, the internet started coming along and about 1994, so the timing was perfect.

Damien: You started your first company in 1995, tell us more how that started?

Ian: I was working at this engineering company, Trinity | ERD, which was where I was doing copywriting and tech stuff. I was talking to the owner, Colin Murphy, and I said ‘You know, this isn’t really for me, if I am going to stay here I need to become an engineer, and that’s not my thing. I think I’m going to go and start my own business’ and he said, ‘Cool, we’ll be your first client.’ 

Colin gave me some good advice, and it was my first grown-up job. I got to watch him grow and build a business because his company was five or six people when I started, and it was 15 or 20 when I left. There was a lot of practical experience, and he helped me get the business launched.

Damien: You’re on the cusp of starting your own business, and you’re still employed doing the copywriting, what was the most valuable lesson you learned from Colin?

Ian: I guess it’s going to sound kind of trite and maybe glib, but remembering that we were heading into the late 90s with all the craziness around startups the lesson I learned was that a healthy business plan is to make more money than you’re spending. Financial security, you know cash is life for a business.

Damien: Absolutely because you know you moved on. You’ve written that every shit-show is different. The context was running an agency in a crisis.

Ian: Yes, every shit show is different.

Damien: You spent nearly half of your life, so far, building your first business. What were the most important lessons you took away from it?

Ian: Well, I mean, you know, as times changed the biggest struggles I saw in the businesses I worked with and worked for early on were more around building the team and building the client list. That was the first struggle. 

When I started in 1995, my business had a different name it was then called The Written Word, but it became Portent, it’s always been the same business. 

The biggest struggle over 25 years was building the team and getting the group of people that could work on their own and then learning how to manage that team in a way that worked for them. The most significant influence on my career has been the people that I’ve worked with. To some extent, they taught me how to manage and how to work.

The hardest lessons were that the soft skills matter and intellectual curiosity matters a lot. It is perhaps the most critical thing, because if someone is intellectually curious, then they’re willing to learn, ready to learn about everything. 

I’m not just talking about learning the subject matter, I’m talking about learning how to work well with the team. Then I realized I had to move on, I mean I couldn’t just keep running the business forever. Once I sold, I started thinking about it, and it became more, I’ve had the same job for 25 years might be a good time to try something different. 

I had someone, Chad Kearns, who was very, very capable and ready to assume leadership, which was fantastic. He had come up from an intern, so he knew how the company worked, and he was very committed. I was in a place where I wanted just to do something different. It’s interesting because I still miss it to some extent, and I still miss working with the team.

The biggest thing I had to learn as a leader, and it took me a long time was to be more patient. I also had to learn to take my hands off the wheel occasionally to let everybody do their job. Relinquishing control can be complicated. You start as a consulting company, and then you’re two people, and then you’re three people, and then all of a sudden, two years later you’re ten people. That’s the toughest change.

If I’m going to continue to grow and develop as a professional, I have to change occasionally. Being acquired brings a certain amount of security to the agency because the company that owns Portent is tremendous because they provide stability, particularly now as clients are coming and going more rapidly. 

If you put me in a teaching space like a conference, I love teaching, and that’s the part of the job that I will always treasure. I love sharing knowledge, so I’ve almost infinite patience there.

Damien: What’s next for you?

Ian: I have no idea, and I still don’t, I’m brutally honest. I started a one-person consulting shop, and it’s great, I enjoy the work and it’s all good. For all my old clients out there, don’t worry, I’m not suddenly going to embark on a vision quest.

Where precisely this goes, what I’m doing five or ten years from now, I’m still not sure, and I think being freed up gives me time to figure it out.

Damien: To new adventures! Ian, tell us, where do you think Google is right now in the way they deal with SEOs?

Ian: Oh, boy. I don’t think they like us and I’m not talking about individuals like John Mueller. I’m talking about Google in general. I believe that they have co-opted as much of the industry as they can, but they’re not giving us great information anymore. They’re telling us very general things and make statements that are hard to nail down at times. 

That doesn’t make them evil there’s nothing wrong with that, but they have their algorithm, they don’t want to share it they never have, as the algorithm gets more and more complex, their lack of desire to share it makes life harder and harder for SEOs.

Google then provides these broader and broader pronouncements, you know, give a good user experience whatever else. To me, that’s not an indication that they love us all that much. It’s not their job to love us, and it’s not their job to be kind to us. John Mueller doesn’t host SEO hours; he hosts Webmaster hours.

Damien: As a business, you can understand Google will be focused on a few things: ‘What’s going to make our users happiest?’, ‘How do we guarantee the longevity of revenue stream?’, or simply ‘How do we grow our business?’. Their perspective is different from the view of SEOs.

Ian: Google’s job is to make money. I don’t like the directions they’ve taken the business. In the end, their job is to seek profit, and that’s what they’re doing, I can’t hold that against them.

Suppose you look back through the history of marketing. There was a misalignment between advertisers, television, and broadcasters too. If you’re an advertiser or if you’re an SEO, then the business growth delivered by the channel is everything to you. Still, for the channel, it’s the revenue growth for that channel. 

Damien: We talked about shit-shows before, if Google has one, what would that be?

Ian: Google has taken so much control over speech and information and content; they have monopolised so completely. At some point, some government entity is going to come for them. 

They are now doing things with the scraping of information and disintermediation where you don’t go to the website anymore that are just completely wrong. They are currently working harder, harder to keep people on the SERPs and not letting them out.

Let’s say that I have a travel site, and when they started scraping travel sites, they would have a flight search embedded into the Google search results page instead of letting the user go to the travel site, they’d broken the long-held bargain with site owners. The bottom line, that’s not okay. 

They’re taking content, republishing it within their platform, and this is something I’ve talked about for a long time, they’re trying to go from being a search engine to a publisher, they’re not paying for the rights to information, and they’re just shutting people down.

Damien: In the US, internet companies have protection under a federal law known as Section 230. It stops them being prosecuted for the content users publish to their platforms. This safe harbour is currently up for debate with a recent Presidential order. So, it looks like the internet companies can’t have it both ways?

Ian: At some point, that’s going to be their shit-show, they can’t have it both ways. 

Damien: Ian, what are the face-palm moments for you in SEO where clients get it wrong? 

Ian: Execution. It continues to be execution. Just getting it done is the best way to put it. Mainly, clients I’ve worked with on re-platforming, on-site upgrades, on new websites, who struggle with launching sites in a good place. 

If you step back from site relaunches, you know, I’ll provide lots of advice, but somewhere along the way someone has to do the work. It’s tough for a business to get it done. If they want to get a lot of value out of marketing and out of hiring me, they’ve got to be able actually to make the changes and do the work.

The other problem I see folks running into is they’re always looking for the ‘one thing’. They’re looking for that one lever, whether it’s a specific thing within SEO, or it’s focusing too much on SEO and not focusing on other things. It’s a natural response that you want to try to find one thing you can fix. And of course, that doesn’t work.

Damien: You’re now using your profile to build your new venture, effectively you’re starting up again, and your competitors, some of which are doing things Google tells SEOs not to do.

Ian: Wil Reynolds wrote an article years ago titled ‘Google makes liars out of the good guys in SEO‘ because we go and we tell people ‘Don’t buy links’, and then someone goes and buys links and they kick ass with it. Or we’ll say ‘Don’t write crappy posts and spray your site with them’ and then someone does it, and they kick ass because of it. Or, ‘Don’t do client-side JavaScript’, then engineers from Google come along and say ‘Client-side JavaScript is a-okay’. 

Then every single site I see using client-side JavaScript gets hammered in the rankings, and as soon as we change it, they move up again. Clients keep looking for that one thing. They keep tuning in to what Google says, and at the same time looking at what their competitors are doing. 

They always find the thing most favourable to their thinking, that’s human nature. You’re biassing towards the qualitative version of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. You’re biassing towards the results that match up with your hypothesis. If you think JavaScript client-side works, then you find the examples, if you consider buying links is okay, you see the patterns. And every time Google’s there to make us look stupid.

Damien: Google might argue they’ve improved webmaster/site owner relations with the format of their team?

Ian: I would just prefer they were consistent. If they can’t do that, then just don’t say anything or just say JavaScript client-side JavaScript is good but not as good. 

Instead of these lengthy videos and write-ups about JavaScript and indexing or JavaScript that never quite get to the point of ‘Yes this is okay and does not pose a disadvantage’ they just say ‘Yes we can index it’. 

Google says we can handle duplicate content. Well, they can handle it by shoving you down in the rankings because they’re trying to figure out what’s there. Of course, they can handle client-side JavaScript, but they won’t rank you as well, and that’s a subtlety.

Damien: It’s interesting, and it is subtlety. Jono Alderson said in an earlier interview with me that Google does not care because other sites will just take up the ranks.

Ian: I don’t think another competitor will appear on its own, but I look back to other communications monopolies and information monopolies and what has happened to them and just when they look entirely unassailable, somebody comes and breaks them up. I think Google might do it on their own defensively.

They have so much money, and they can buy another planet and just move part of their business there and diversify that way. I’m a little sarcastic here. 

Google is going to take a hit somehow, whether it’s voluntary or involuntary. They have taken so much control over information and content because they have managed to create this kind of dilemma where businesses have to take it or leave it choice. Three-quarters of what happens online starts at Google, let’s face it, you take your site out of Google, you better be Amazon.

Damien: I’m wondering what would you say is the most significant competitive advantage in marketing today?

Ian: I would say the ability to write and communicate well, whether it’s writing or some other form. You could be the best technician on the planet, and you could be great at SEO whatever. But if you can’t create good content and I don’t mean just like in the definition of useful blog posts, you’re going nowhere. 

I mean, a good message, whether that’s product descriptions or ads, or a stump speech or whatever if you can’t do that well it’s just crickets and all you’re doing is spreading crap.

Damien: It becomes a cacophony of crickets at the scale of all of the different web sites who want to play in the zero-sum game if only focused on SEO.

Ian: Yeah, I’m still a historian, and if you go back 100 years of marketing communications of one kind or another, again from politics to whatever, because to me it is all marketing. And I don’t mean that cynically, but it is all marketing it is all messaging it’s all about the level of discourse if you can’t communicate then what is the point? You have a well-dressed pile of nothing. To me, that’s the most significant competitive advantage.

Damien: Where do you think SEO is as an industry right now?

Ian: I think it’s where it’s always been, which is struggling a little bit for relevance. I don’t mean that it’s not essential. I mean getting people to understand how important it is — we’re all struggling to find the One Thing which I think is always a mistake. 

I think that the industry has become a lot more sophisticated, you see a lot of people who are getting very good at the more advanced technical side of things and where they will struggle is in the basics of marketing smarts. 

The SEOs you see out there who are truly exceptional are the ones who also have solid experience of fundamental marketing expertise. They just understand that there’s an audience and the message has to get to that audience. Suppose you can’t do that ultimately Google’s in the business of delivering the right information to the right people. If you can’t prove you have the correct information, then you’re down to buying links.

A notable person who hits this mark, I would say is Seth Godin, he is pretty high up there. His ability to communicate is something I’ve always admired. He’s a broad thinker about marketing and sort of a philosopher of marketing which I know some people look at, and they’ll be like ‘Oh you know he’s not doing the thing anymore.’

Damien: Arguably, what Seth Godin has done is to choose an alternative direction for his career consciously. He’s taking on the kind of job that he enjoys more, almost what you’ve decided to do?

Ian: Well yeah, there’s some of that too. I guess to some true extent. You know his way of thinking, you know after that I look back to historical figures like Nelson Mandela, Lincoln, and others who were unflinching communicators and welcomed contrary opinions in their inner circle, and I look at the team builders. And the people who are best at that and those are my biggest professional influencers.

Damien: Seth Godin pulls no punches, and he gets to the crux of marketing the product effectively.

Ian: Right, well and doing it in a way that’s not the stereotypical ‘used car sales’ hard pitch and doing it in a way that’s much more about the power of communications and how relevant communications is beyond just selling stuff. Every time we put a message out there we are taking part in the public discourse and the quality of our message and our ability to communicate it elegantly and in a way that maintains people’s faith in the discourse is crucial. 

If we degrade trust in say, you know, ads that sell say paint we are also at the same time deteriorating confidence in a larger conversation that’s going on out there, and this is something that I’ve ascribed to for a long time, a lot of people roll their eyes. Marketing is communications, and it impacts overall interactions for us as a society.

Damien: There is a world of change going on right now, from gender equality to redressing the wrongs of racist history and indeed current events, what’s your view?

Ian: As marketers, we are driving parts of  the conversation and, you know, the way we change as an industry is to adjust our messaging, and that changes the overall conversation.

Damien: What questions should SEO be asking of businesses that they work for within all clients if they’re consulting or agency?

Ian: What else are you doing, and how else can I help? When I say what else are you doing I mean, what are you doing beyond SEO? Our job as SEOs is, you know, and again I’m using the broad ‘we’ because I part of this comes back again to my bias which is that I don’t just do SEO, so I look at the broader mix a lot.

If I’m working as an SEO for a client, I do not want the clients’ existence to be staked purely on my success as an SEO so when I asked what else are you doing, if the client has nothing. Then I’m going to say okay, here are Google ads, here’s Bing Ads, here’s social media, here’s a book by Seth Godin; you need to do all these other things so that you can survive the day that Google changes their algorithm and you lose 30% of your traffic for six months.

That’s part of it and then the ‘how else can I help?’ is vital because as SEOs we are good at a lot of things. It does a disservice to the client and us if the clients look at us as rankings jockeys as opposed to marketers.

A lot of us care about our clients’ businesses, and a lot of us have learned to do things like copywriting like technology and infrastructure. We don’t have to become Jack or Jill of all trades or do everything for every client. But even if the client says ‘You know we’re having this challenge with email’, and I can connect them with someone good at it and then I’ve just helped them do better.

Damien: What do you think the future of SEO is. Where is it headed?

Ian: I think it diverges a lot. For small businesses, it’s going to come down to content and getting out of your own way. Every SEO on the planet is going to say ‘Well duh, of course, that’s it.’ But the ‘getting out of your own way’ part is important: Small businesses make choices that hurt their ability to market successfully later on. SEO will increasingly be about avoiding those mistakes. 

I think that for larger enterprises, you’re going to see more testing taking place. Then also look for more and more work with natural language, with language generation. I’m not just talking about processing. Entity detection has been around for a while. The tools are proliferating, and it’s getting more comfortable for people to do it. The ability to take the content and not spin it, but make it genuinely more valuable in an automated way, that could be a game-changer. 

Of course, I’m a purist right, and I’m a writer. Eventually, we’re going to see, with some kinds of information like content reliant on statistics, that kind of content will have the technology come along and change the way that we communicate, that’s going to impact SEO.

Damien: What books have you read the last few months that you’d recommend?

Ian: I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, honestly. Escape from reality is even more important than usual. Anything by N. K. Jemisin. I just reread Lord Of The Rings. For non-fiction, ‘Now You See It’ by Stephen Few, it’s on my shelf right now, which is about information, data visualisation and information delivery.

I say that’s the most recent thing that I’ve read. Before that there’s a whole series by Patrick Lencioni. I would recommend it to anyone who’s starting or running a company. Good leaders and companies obsess about clarity and over-communicate. They Over-communicate mission, and vision about what you’re supposed to be doing that week, that month, that year. Clarity of expectations is everything.

One of the things I was always grateful for were the people on my team who would come to me and say, ‘You know what that was not okay, that was not the right way to do this’, or ‘It would have been beneficial if you told me this instead.’ 

Their ability to communicate that, that was gold. Reading a book by someone is terrific, but that book is not in front of you every day. Your team is in front of you every day.

Damien: We covered a lot of ground there, Ian. Thank you very much, it’s been a delight to chat, and speak again soon.


Follow Ian on Twitter @IanLurie and discover Ian’s website at IanLurie.com.

Published by Damien Anderson

Hi, I am Damien Anderson, a freelance SEO consultant based in London. I help content publishers solve SEO challenges, from planning and migrating websites to digital transformations and everything SEO in between.

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