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Stellar Startups: A startup for the little guy
By DAVID SHAMAH
03/09/2010
The SEO (search-engine optimization) business is a real, solid option with a proven business model.
 
There’s gold in that thar Web, or so they say. But where exactly? In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Everybody’s getting rich off the Internet – except us!”

Never fear: the money is out there, in the bits and bytes of Google searches, in the clicks on Web display and text ads, and in social-media leverage. For those who got left out of the “startup nation” – those who worked for an Internet startup that went bust, or who are looking to make a new start in a growing industry after their old one proved unable to weather the recession – what is loosely called the SEO (search-engine optimization) business is a real, solid option with a proven business model.

Not “everybody” is making money off the Internet – but some are, and those who can access their secrets have an opportunity to build their own little startup, or use the skill they develop to get hired by a company looking to advance its Web business.

And some of those “in the know” lent their time and talent for the benefit of about 250 Israelis seeking to advance their skills in the areas of SEO, search-engine marketers, social-media optimization pros, etc. At the second of what he hopes will become an annual event, SEO expert Barry Schwartz organized the Sphinncon conference at the Jerusalem College of Technology on Sunday.

Participants included the leading lights of the “Internet business” in Israel (as well as some special guests from abroad), who gathered to discuss topics such as “best SEO practices” (keyword research, copywriting, search-engine-friendly design, etc.), how to acquire links for your site, using social media (Twitter, Facebook) to build “buzz,” Web analytics and more – all aimed at getting more people to click on a link to a site, hopefully generating income, either through a Google payout program (like Adwords) or getting them to actually buy something.

Schwartz is an old hand at SEO work; he is CEO of Rustybrick.com, which helps companies with online marketing and builds Web and iPhone applications for clients (of which 2.5 million have been downloaded). He has been in the business for years, authoring and editing top industry sites, including http://www.seroundtable.com/ and http://searchengineland.com/.

“Sphinncon is a sort of mini-version of Search Engine Expo, a popular US program I’m involved with,” Schwartz says. “I was here for a family celebration a few years ago and I decided it might be a nice idea to organize something similar for Israel,” where there is a great deal of interest in Internet marketing, he says.

No sooner said than done. Schwartz announced Sphinncon 2008, where several speakers discussed Internet marketing issues and answered questions for about 180 participants. This year’s Sphinncon, with some 30 speakers and presenters, was announced in December, and in a matter of weeks, about half the tickets were sold. By the time show day came around there wasn’t a ticket to be had; in fact, a major line formed at the door, with non-registrants hoping to have a chance to get in.

And with good reason. The speaker lineup included several highly successful and sought-after speakers, including Vanessa Fox, creator of Google Webmaster Central (http://www.google.com/webmasters/); Gillian Muessig, head of SEO firm SEOmoz; and Dixon Jones, one of the top Internet marketers in the UK, along with a host of major Israeli figures in the business.

Sphinncon attracted a wide variety of people, Schwartz says, including marketers, ad agency folk, professionals and newbies. “I know it was a good mix because some people – the beginners – came up and told me they had never heard much of what was presented, while others – the pros – told me it wasn’t advanced enough,” he says. Nevertheless, checking out the Twitter tweets labeled “Sphinncon,” it appeared from the posts that many people were having a good time – as well as getting an education.

Although Israel doesn’t necessarily have an organic advantage over any other place when it comes to the science of search rank, Schwartz says he has met some very capable people here: a few who try to manipulate Web sites using “SEO tricks” to “get over” on Google and get their Web sites to the top of the pile; but mostly those who play by the rules and use the traditional, recommended methods of increasing their standings in Google’s rankings.

That former path – the “getting over” path – is not something Schwartz recommends, by the way. “It’s a cat and mouse game, and if someone is successful for awhile using methods that are not permitted by Google, they’ll get themselves caught after awhile – and then they’ll get banned,” both by Google and the community, he says.

And community really is where it’s at in the online marketing world. The system is built to require interaction, with a site ranked by, among other things, the number of links it includes or that link back to it. That’s one reason experts freely give of their time to help others (as Schwartz does in the sites he edits). As such, SEO is as fair a playing field as there is: meaning that anyone has an opportunity to make it big – and make money – on the Web.

“There’s no question that SEO is a career path for many people,” Schwartz says. Which means that it’s an ideal path for those seeking to build their own startup, even if they don’t have access to angel money or a killer app. “We plan on doing this next year, and we hope to be able to accommodate as many as 400 or even 500 people,” he says. And whose to say that the next big SEO CEO won’t be attending?
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