Ruud Hein: “How I Stay Ahead of The SEO Pack”

Gabriel Goldenberg
Author: Gabriel Goldenberg

Ruud HeinRuud Hein and I conducted this interview by email, which is why some of the tantalizing bits he leaves off on don’t see a followup – it was a preset bunch of questions. In any case, the interview is about business but gets personal too – all of which makes for a great read, imho. Enjoy! -Gab

You’re known as a technically savvy SEO, as seen via your Search Explained series. Does that interest come from your programming background? Either way, can you share some detail?


I think the programming and the analytical approach of SEO come from the same source; it’s me freaking around with something, following a rabbit trail and before I know it I’m reading, digesting, analyzing, trying, playing…

I don’t know how much time you have — we could easily go back to my LEGO phase… But no, seriously; I don’t like black box stuff. I like to know how something really works.

My first computer was a Sinclair/Timex ZX81. 1KB RAM. One measly kilobyte… TWO if you counted the “video RAM” and didn’t mind black dots randomly appearing on the screen.Sinclair Computer

I wasn’t sure why I wanted that computer, just that I did. Like, these vector-based video games consoles, right, they were powered by computers, they said, so I would have something like that — only instead of being stuck with one game you buy, I could do anything with it. Anything!

I remember sitting down with the thing. It had the most used commands of the programming language BASIC printed on its keys.

And I was wondering just which one of these would make a nice graphic, right?

I mean, you weren’t going to tell me someone was drawing all that… I had to come out of the computer… automatically.

After manually entering a couple of hundred lines of BASIC code which caused an exclamation mark to chase a question mark Centipede-style I realized that, no, these things didn’t happen automatically; there was no magic “insert cool 3D image” command.

So … how did they do that then? And how did collision detection work? If I change these IF-THEN lines, what happens?

From that comes machine language, assembly stuff, a jump to client-side scripting, then server-side scripting and, yeah, one day you find you’re “into SEO” and the whole thing starts again. How does search really work?

I rolled into the whole game because I tried some basic stuff. Basically keyword repetition, looking back. And … I was amazed this stuff worked … I was ranking better for, hold on, “download free virtual pet” and people actually came in droves. Like wow, man! So then…

Well, yes, then what? H1, title, meta – but how did these people know that?

Ah OK, they test. So then it’s just randomly coming up with stuff? There has to be some kind of logic to this thing, no?

And that’s where you find yourself on another rabbit trail; how is information collected, how is a web page broken up and how is that information stored then, etcetera, etcetera.

What are the advantages and drawbacks of developing this technical savvy? Based on those, should we conclude that one needs such savvy to be a competent SEO?

Tech SEOThe advantage is of course that you can work on what works, not just on what appears to work today.

You can do great SEO with just a bit of knowledge but then you’re bound to be a follower, bound to be the second rate. You’re always walking behind the facts; you work on what works today until the whole thing collapses. Then you spend time listening to others what might be wrong, what might be needed to fix it. And there you go off into another SEO bubble…

[gets more coffee] Look, it’s a lot like working on Wall Street in the early 2000′s and saying “folks, this thing is going to blow up” based on what you know about how economies work.

Meanwhile, year after year huge profits are made — and you look sillier and sillier. Careful folks are fired or simply don’t get promoted; risky ones promote up until the choir on top sings the same song and there’s no-one to say “are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

Then one day, when the whole thing blows up, you get to jump in to get it fixed now.

Technical SEO is like that.

Technical SEO is saying years ago clients should blog, because that is what social was all about back then, and you have to wait for a huge link game to get devalued before the thing gets implemented — while they could have been first.

It’s pushing widgets and gadgets before Google’s directory is filled with thousands upon thousands of them.

It’s saying someone should be on Twitter and they wait until the whole world is there and Dell, Zappos, and Oprah have stolen their thunder.

It’s saying that links can be the self-reinforcing result of “being out there”, of “great content, well-marketed”; that it can be a pull technique instead of a push job.

And that’s the disadvantage then: the irritation of advice not acted upon because it’s too early, followed by the frustration of explaining that why, now that it is finally implemented, everything is much, much harder.

Because see, that’s the other side. If you come to the game at the right time – that is: before you read your SEO guru and hundreds like her advising it – you reap extra award. The game is easier, simpler, faster – the payback is better once it starts to snowball. To make it into a verb; it Googles, it YouTubes, it Flickrs, it Zappos. It’s first. You don’t get that same boost by being an “also-ran”.

Read “filthy linking rich” again and then imagine you’re one of the first to pursue great links before everyone else was doing it. See the strength and payback that gives? See how much smarter you work then and how much harder you would have to work now to get the same kind of payback?

[sips more coffee] And competence? I don’t know… I think you’re putting that question out there in a very black-and-white fashion.

No, you don’t need to know about information retrieval or how stuff is stored and accessed by search engines to be competent at what you do.

We’re all skating on thin ice here but to skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been, you need to do more than just show up.

You don’t need to be a geek. [Emphasis added.]

If you want to assess your own competence, imagine that the tactic you rely on most to rank is 100% devalued tomorrow. What would you do instead? What would you do different? Would you still be able to rank? If not, would you know how to figure out how to rank? [Emphasis added.]

You take a lot of pictures for your Flickr account and seem to be a well-rounded individual, judging by the information you’ve put out there in the Ruud Hein search results. What are your passions besides search?

Oh, I like the “seems” in there, ha hahaha.

I’m passionate about my family. They are the real thing; they’re what I’m about. Without them, my life would be very different. Their presence and lack thereof colors a lot of what I do, think, feel, say. We’re now with the last, the youngest, and I’m drinking in every moment because I miss the day-to-day presence of the other two so, so much.

My wife, my kids; they are my reason.

Yeah, so, anyway; Flickr… I use it kind of like an online backup for our photos. A couple of hundred photos show public but I have over 17 thousand photos there. So I guess you can easily call that a passion: taking photos. Here in Quebec, we call someone like me, the “Kid Kodak” of the family.

Whenever I leave the house I usually carry a camera on me. I’m not into fancy stuff, just point and shoot with some creativity. Looking at the world differently.

The preview screen of my camera is quite small so it’s always a real surprise to see what turned out how. I love it!

Oh, and I really like my camera! It’s a Pentax Optio MX from 2004. Because of the form of the camera, it can have a lot of lens movement which means it sports 10 x optical zoom. 100 x zoom if you add in a digital zoom but, no, that doesn’t count.

Besides great photos, the thing takes a really good 640×480 MPEG video.

I love that little camera so much that when my first one fell this Christmas, I didn’t trust it to last and got myself another one on eBay, just in case. It’s a shame they stopped this line of development.

I love reading.

I’m Dutch but I’ve been reading in English since I was 12. When I got to French Quebec getting affordable English books was a bit of a challenge.

I’m in a small town and back then we didn’t have an English bookstore or a lot of second-hand places to dig up some treasures. I got myself a Palm IIIxe on eBay and have been carrying it, and nowadays an IPAQ pocket PC, on me at all times ever since.

I have it loaded all the time with at least 3 to 5 books. A stolen moment while waiting in line, a few pages while waiting for the water to boil, etcetera, etcetera.

Coffee! I love coffee. I drink it all day round in various strengths, using various brewing methods and various kinds of coffee. Different mugs too. Love it.

And, oh man… there’s so much I’m wildly excited about, excited like a kid.

Blue skies with sunshine cause an energy burst in me; the light is one of the things I appreciate from winter here versus winter in Amsterdam.

A good tune to which I can do some moves – private only! – which make me resemble someone wearing CPR pads, full time.

Seriously, although I love it, no-one can accuse me of having any sense of rhythm.

So many great tracks, you know? Born Slippy, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Papa’s Got A Brand New Pig Bag, Where The Streets Have No Name – to me the existence of music is God’s way of saying “I rock!”

Oh, and good comedy of course! It’s my preferred movie genre too.

Comedy, laughter, is an amazing thing. It’s a real, freaking miracle. You don’t see ants roll on their back from sheer laughter… I suspect dogs smile though…

Anyway, comedy. I grew up with Tom & Jerry, the real Tom & Jerry, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin. Colors my life: I have a cartoon mind. Look at one of those old Tom & Jerry’s — that’s how I see a lot of stuff around me. … John Pinette, John Candy, George Carlin, Steven Wright, Bill Cosby, Michel Courtemanche, Rowan Atkinson; so many others.

And Christmas! Love Christmas, adore it. And.. oh, ah… many more things. But well, hey, you got a limit to your patience too, right? Hahahaha!

Let’s talk some more about passions. What typically leads you to become passionate about something? How does that emotional/rational drive get started, and how does one keep fueling it?

Oi… You’ve got some serious stuff lined up here, don’t you?

Cripes… how does it get started… I like something that is new or makes something new. I can lose myself in setting up a new site or getting a new process in place. Once there, it’s sometimes harder to keep that focus, right?

I love breaking through the barrier. It’s easy to become complacent and not do, not create, not learn, but when you break through that and push yourself, the payback is learning and enthusiasm. And I say “you” but mean “I.”

You fuel it by changing around, mixing it up, stepping out of it and coming back from another angle.

So much of our time is spent setting up processes and routines; it’s like we’re preparing to set up camp for the rest of eternity. Well, we’re not, right? It’s a couple of years and then it’s done so for crying out loud, let’s not pretend we can pin the thing down and put it in “set it and forget it” mode. [Emphasis added.]

So that’s how I fuel it. When using this tool that got me so excited becomes boring and a drag, I explore some other options. When doing the same thing over and over again, I make sure that the “again” is different this time around.

This week I went outside to draw with chalk on the road and sidewalk together with my youngest daughter. I traced my steps and then the footsteps of my wife from the corner of our house to the side door.

That’s how you fuel it :-)

You’re also a savvy analyst of the search industry, as your Search Wiki analysis showed. How does one develop such analytical skills?

With the kind of praise you’re bestowing on me, I keep expecting you to jump out of your seat, hold out your hand and go “oh, and could I borrow $100 bucks please?” [Ed: I was actually lining him up for $1000 and some free links… guess he’s not such a savvy analyst after all.]

I don’t know, Gab. You label it “analytical”; to me, it’s also a lot of “what if…” That “What if…” is the typical last born in me. A lot of years passed before I was dropped on the planet so there’s a bit of Only Child in me as well; list maker, scholarly, logic, organized, loving facts and ideas.

Or maybe it’s the Melancholic in me. Same deal; organized, analytical, long term goals…

I don’t really believe you develop analytical skills, the same way you don’t develop singing skills. It’s there or not, and when it’s there, it’s something that’s like this it’s you, it’s intertwined with you; it’s how you are, how you live.

Oh sure, you can teach it to anyone just like you could teach me how to have rhythm and how to dance – but it won’t make me Fred Astaire.

So to me the books I’ve read, the thinking I love to do, the “what if A is part of B?” ideas, are more the effect of something analytical inside than the other way around.

Also, how do you glue together the disparate bits of info to make a coherent whole (or at least, an educated guess at the whole)?

Oh, dude… Now you’re getting me on my hobby horse. I’m going to need much more coffee!

It’s a whole Hercule Poirot thing; a detective game. Somebody says something. Fine. Someone else says something unrelated. Neat. Now a third person makes a statement and you think “Hey… that connects A and B!”

The biggest issue there is what we all encounter when we know we saw a specific page last week but for the life of it can’t make Google or our browser history give it back to us: recall.

It’s there that I spend a lot of time on two tools: Evernote and PersonalBrain. Those are the two places where information can live here in my office.

When I see a statement of interest I highlight it, copy, CTRL+ALT+V and it’s a new note in Evernote, source URL automatically included.

What did Matt say about Expo Markers? How many servers does it take to run Google Calendar? Having #1 Adwords position is comparable to which organic position? Did you know that we know only since 10 years ago that the brain grows new cells? On a day to day basis? You can’t use ini_set() to turn register_globals off – so how do you fake it?

All that is in my Evernote. I add about 200 notes per month ranging from “where did I put the Christmas gift for mom” to “why IDF is expressed as logs”

So when I hear or read something and something goes “hey, but wait!”, I often can pull up a specific piece of information about it.

I also use PersonalBrain. A unique program and one that causes a lot of amusement at my home. PersonalBrain users have this way of talking that’s just… odd, geeky; fun. “How large is your brain?”, “I’ve added 20 thoughts to my brain”… Heck, you can even right-click an entry, a “thought”, and select “forget” … which is still one step away from Delete…

Think of it as an application where you can map relations: parent, child, and sideways or jumps.

To me, it serves as a visual knowledge management tool and it acts, to quote another user, like a hard drive of my mind.

A lot of information that goes into Evernote also goes into my brain. There it gets linked to parent or child thoughts … and that sometimes shows relations to information that I’ve sheer forgotten about or wouldn’t consciously think of to connect.

PersonalBrain is a very powerful, very broad scope application. Over the years it has increasingly grown to be my second desktop. It contains files, applications, shortcuts, bookmarks…

Some kind of marriage between these apps could be awesome but I’m really very, very happy about the setup as-is. Passionate, you could say

Anyway, that’s how it goes; I read tons, pick out the interesting tidbits and use data tools to help me with recall and data visualization.

Do you read Matt Cutts’ blog? Why/not? What do you get out of it, and what could be better?

Not often.

A lot of the gold dust and nuggets have moved to the forum, first Google Groups. The information there is often very actionable and can provide real value. Some of those things you can easily test for yourself but it’s nice to be able to point to someone and say “see, he said so too.”

[Ed.: I’ve found SEM 2.0 to be one such nice group started by the always-quality Andrew Goodman. I also recommend the Google Webmaster Forum.]

And it’s not that his blog is bad or whatever but he’s a webspam guy and I’m not on the flipside of that coin.

I know what’s spammy and don’t work that way myself; I’m not into trying to make it look natural, I’m into causing it to be natural – so this whole “can I link 20 of my sites in the footer and …”-whatever debate is not mine.

I’d love for someone like Matt to communicate his idea about quality much more efficiently. Go beyond “make a good site” and preach, man! Because, seriously, that’s where the money is.

Doing things the right way is simply much, much more effective. Take something stupid like clean coding and lite, fast loading pages. Boring! Well… yeah… sure… so now go pay and build a mobile site because your table-based, broadband clogging web page doesn’t load on a mobile phone. To quote Holmes on Homes: make it right.

If you’re thinking a bit sane you know very well when you’re preparing your own Wall Street crash.

If I sit down with you and you can tell me one reason why you rank the way you do, that right there is your weak spot.

There should be no singular reason why you rank. [Ed: Emphasis added, because relying on a single point makes you easy to reverse-engineer and means you have no barrier to entry…]

It shouldn’t be your directory submissions or press releases, it shouldn’t be your strong titles or themed site structure – it should be all of it. And as soon as anyone of those becomes important and talked about a lot in the industry, it’s time to move on to new, green pastures.

So, I wouldn’t mind some help from mister Cutts in that area, in saying; look, if you do it smart you can make it right the first time and it pays back for itself.

As SEP’s blog editor-in-chief, what responsibility challenges you the most?

Meeting content deadlines.

I run both SEP’s native blog and our community blog SEO Scoop. Between those two there are about 16-18 contributors, each with their own posting schedule and frequency. On top of that, there are guest appearances and interviews.

Managing all that in a way that posts go out in a consistent manner is much more hands-on involved than I had initially thought.

I love the challenge though.

How do you balance the desire to use SEP’s blog to promote SEP with the desire to attract high-quality writers and posts (eg. Jordan Kasteler on Thankyou pagesCindy Alvarez on getting customers talking about you )? And what is your company philosophy in that respect?

There is no balance there at all: we come down 100% at the side of stellar content. If that means that someone needs to link to their own site or company go for it; we’re all for it.

There’s no danger from where we’re looking. What’s the worst that can happen? That someone gets exposure, picks up an extra client? Well, that’s not something scary; that’s great! The butterfly effect in a pay it forward kind of way. [Ed: Damn that’s a good answer!]

I simply believe that good people write great posts.

It’s only happened once that a post was submitted which was intentionally crippled and instead had links going out to the writer’s web site at every point. I edited the post quite a bit in half-day, hopefully staying true to the writer’s own style, and posted it under his (or her…) name. No harm is done.

Our philosophy is, like I said earlier, exceptional, solid, stellar content.

Thanks for the interview, Gab – really nice to be talking with you!

Ruud Hein is an SEO consultant and web publisher employed with Toronto’s Top SEO and Internet Marketing Firm. They recently released The Blog Link & Traffic Analysis plugin for WP.[Ed: Anchor text my own; Ruud was going to have Ruud Hein and Search Engine People in the anchor text. He’s not being an ‘icky self-promoter’ for all you namby-pants “I hate other SEOs doing SEO” out there. :P

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