Micah Fisher-Kirshner: How did you get into SEO and how long have you been doing SEO?
Kevin Indig: I got into SEO through computer games. I was that nerdy kid that wanted to spend more time with computer games and taking my computer apart to upgrade its hardware so I could play more games than go and play outside. When broadband internet came along it was over. I remember playing Starcraft for 12 hours straight one Saturday to the strong disliking of my parents. I started to build small (crappy) websites with HTML tables and Photoshop for “clans” (groups of online gamers). I spend nights teaching myself coding, designing and all kinds of stuff. That’s when I discovered you could optimize sites for organic search and so I started to read a lot and try out all sorts of things. I sometimes miss those times because nowadays we often just scratch the surface but back then, I spend so much time absorbing everything there is about a topic. I followed every rabbit hole and “just did”.
After college, I was lucky to get a job at an SEO consultancy that had lots of enterprise clients. I learned a lot and was lucky to have some veeery strong mentors that guided me.
In the end, it was all thanks to computer games. My parents didn’t see that one coming ;-).
Micah: I’m a total computer gamer myself – used to play Starcraft, but more into grand strategy games these days. Do you still play computer games today if/when you have some spare time?
Kevin: Ha, that’s a great follow-up question!
Let me be painfully honest: the last game I played was League of Legends and that was probably 1-2 years ago. I had to de-install it and never touch it again because it had too much power over me. I’m well aware of my addictive tendencies and I find the mental effort to resist just not worth it. It’s like donuts. When they’re in the house, I’ll look at them every minute. So, I’m not bringing ’em home.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I tried to play Fortnite to get a taste of the hype, but my laptop is too weak to run it – probably for the better.
Micah: Haha, I hear that. When I started my first job I cut WoW cold turkey knowing how addictive that was for myself.
Kevin: Haha ya I had that experience with WoW myself. It’s like social media. I gotta reaaaally control it, otherwise it just pulls me in forever.
Micah: What would you say your strengths (or preferences) are within the SEO field?
Kevin: I have a lot of experience in investigative, technical SEO. My strong suit is definitely with large sites (>100,000 URLs). I’m not good at local SEO, for example.
In the recent years, I worked a lot on building out my strategic skills. I can still comfortably talk to developers and build out some very technical stuff, but I enjoy the SEO strategy a bit more. Creating an “SEO machine” at a company and how that machine works together with the greater marketing machine is actually more exciting than it seems at first. SEO is its own ecosystem in a larger ecosystem. You still search for levers and process optimization in the larger system – very much like technical SEO – but on a different level. You can still apply an engineer mindset to SEO strategy.
Unfortunately, SEO strategy often ends at “here are the keywords that are important to you”.
Micah: Who inspires you in the SEO space?
Kevin: I remember in my Ecommerce course in college and hearing the professor talking passionately about this “SEO affiliate guy” who makes tons of money and is invited to all sorts of special VIP events That guy was Marcus Tandler!
Hearing that story about Marcus definitely ignited a fire in me. I dug deeper and when I read stuff by AJ Kohn, Aaron Wall, and Rand Fishkin, I knew I was in the right space. Back then SEO was much “hackier” and Black Hat. I wanted to belong to this group of insiders who do something mysterious only a few people understood.
Things have changed a lot but I still feel excited about SEO. Maybe because Google is such a black box that will never change. Nowadays I look up to so many people… To mention a few: Aleyda Solis, Cindy Krum, Alexis Sanders, Paul Shapiro, Bartosz Goralewicz, JR Oakes, Cyrus Shepard, Wil Reynolds, Mike King … I’m definitely forgetting at least half the people I’d like to mention and there are so many amazing people in this community!
Micah: Why did you decide to join Atlassian and what’s it like doing SEO for a known brand?
Kevin: I actually “stumbled” into Atlassian. I knew the products (Jira, Hipchat, Confluence, Bitbucket, etc.), but never heard of the brand before I joined. I also didn’t know about the unique business model Atlassian has and how important SEO is for the company. I was hired for some contract work, I quickly realized that there are loads of opportunities to do really cool stuff. Then, when the company I was working for at the time moved all people back to Paris, I got a great full-time offer.
Besides the potential, there are so many smart people working here you can learn from. That intrigued me.
I don’t think Atlassian is a “normal” brand. SaaS is exploding these days and many companies try to copy what we do here. At the same time, we have over 10 products, different types of sites (marketplace, community, product pages, etc.), and all that multiplied in many different companies… there’s a LOT to do ;-).
Micah: What advice would you give a mid-level SEO to advance their career into the top tier?
Kevin: First, make sure you got all the basics in SEO down. Get some practical experience and find some sort of mentor who guides you.
Second, make sure you have your own project(s) you can learn from. Start a blog, create a little shop, build a web-app, do SEO for a friend’s site – just something you can run experiments on! Test things you read on SEO sites and you’ll be surprised what’s true and what’s not.
Third, put your knowledge out there. Blog about your findings, interact with SEOs on Twitter, go to conferences. Become a contributing part of the community. I should have started creating content in English much earlier.
Fourth, and most importantly, specialize! Take a few topics and go reaaaaally deep. SEO is becoming too broad to do everything well, especially in the technical discipline. But even the content side starts to fork into outreach, content marketing, writing, etc. So, find a sub-discipline that suits you and become an expert in it.
Micah: If you had a say, what factor would you wish to modify/add/remove with Google’s algorithm and why?
Kevin: Great question! I wish Google would value links more! Just kidding…
I could only rely on my biased view, so I don’t think I could add value by adding/modifying/removing a factor. Google already does a good job in taking lots of different factors into account, measuring thresholds and adjusting the weight of ranking factors per query. How they speak about ranking factors publicly is a different question ;-).
Micah: Since you didn’t want to add a factor, what was the most shocking change to Google’s algorithm in your mind?
Kevin: In terms of immediate severity, Penguin. I remember very well what it felt like when the first iteration came out. It was a bloodbath. But I think Hummingbird will have an even bigger impact, we just can’t see it yet. Ever since, Google is just getting in learning and understanding what people want… Which Google capitalizes very aggressively. I find that Hummingbird is a much faster path to the AI Sergey and Larry wanted to create in the first place and therefore, I find it more impactful.
Micah: Why are you a member of BayAreaSearch?
Kevin: Besides meeting new, smart people, I think its’ important to bring the local SEO community together and push it forward. Every profession has that, why not SEO? It’s more than just a platform for discussion, networking, and having fun. It’s also a political institution that can bring the whole profession forward, like a “guild”. I think that’s important, especially in the Bay!
Micah: Tell us more about your speaking gigs & your startup mentorships.
Kevin: The Bay and startups are deeply connected, but I actually stumbled into that space when I was still in Germany, also by accident. Funny how you stumble into things like that ;-).
Nowadays, I’m a mentor at the “German Accelerator”, where I mentor startups in terms of “Growth”. Growth is a lean, systematic approach to grow products at scale covering the whole user journey from acquisition to referral across product and marketing. I find the whole space super exciting and no, it has nothing to do with cheap hacks!
About 1-2 years ago I got much more proactive in sharing what I learned in almost 10 years of SEO and Growth. I started blogging and publishing a weekly curated email, which got me invitations to speak at conferences. I honestly really enjoy that. Less being on a stage – that’s fine, too – but more the process of putting a presentation together. I love really digging deep into a topic and creating a narrative around it. TED talks are an inspiration, but also people like Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, or Tim Urban. They understood how to wrap data and facts up in an exciting story. I admire that!
Micah: What do you do in your free time?
Kevin: I compete in Powerlifting, a sport that revolves around the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. It’s similar to what you see at Olympia, but not the same (that’s weightlifting). It’s a great outlet for me and a good balance to sitting in front of the computer all day. I think I wouldn’t be half as productive without it. It’s a bit counter-intuitive: spending so much time in the gym should actually make me less productive. But it helps me to focus so much better. It’s my meditation.
Between that and writing for my blog, mentoring startups and working on presentations there’s not much free time left ;-). But, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way!
Micah: Thank you Kevin and best of luck in your continued SEO career!
Background by President Micah Fisher-Kirshner: We’re doing a series of interviews with local SF Bay Area SEOs, and if you’re an SEO in the SF Bay Area and would like to be interviewed, please contact us here.