Old School SEO with Kristjan Mar Hauksson

Old School SEO

Next up on the podcast was Kristjan Mar Hauksson; an old school SEO who started out in this industry back in the 90’s optimising for Yahoo and Altavista. These guys back in the day were trying out everything and anything to see what worked and what didn’t and I love hearing their stories of some of the things they used to get up to.

Kristjan also runs the RIMC conference over in Iceland which has been on for the last 16 years. He has built up successful agencies and worked on many other side projects over the years and really is one you should be listening too from the old school SEO guys.


Transcript Below:

C: Welcome to today’s podcast, where I’m joined by one of the most famous SEOs from back in the day, Kristjan from Iceland. When I was over at your event last year and I shook your son’s hand, my hand still hurts from that handshake he gave. I’m like, “Fuck, what the hell?” So yeah, a strong bunch of guys.

C: But yeah, thank you for coming on. Obviously you are as an experienced SEO as there possibly can be out there. So how long have you been doing this for?

How Did Kristjan start in SEO?

K: I studied electronics, then went to system engineering, so programming and doing stuff. Actually putting together servers and computers, more like a grease monkey, way, way back. Then I was part of a community. I think it was the Chamber of Commerce or something like that in Iceland, and somebody said to me, which is quite typical at least for the day, “Kristjan, you are working with computers, aren’t you?”

K: And I said yes. “Well, what do you think about the internet?” I was like, “Well, it’s brilliant.” I hadn’t so much thought about it from that point of view because I was just putting together computers, so I was a grease monkey as you would call it.

K: Then this is 1996/7 — something like that. So I started looking at the computers more from a marketing point of view. I had a “eureka” moment when I did my first search, and I was probably on Lycos or Yahoo or something like that.

K: Then I also realized that actually being a programmer or actually understanding programming and computers in general helped me a lot with the way that you can reverse-engineer the algorithm. Because at the time, specifically with the early search engines, we were quite simple.

K: Then Google enters, and that was a game-changer. They came in and did a lot of interesting things. Then the task was to rank on Google. It was interesting to see the way that Google kind of just took over. You have AltaVista and Yahoo and these guys and they were the strong guys on search, but in reality, they were shit. Google came in and with their algorithm, even if it was as ‘good’ as it was at that time, it actually just blew everybody out.

K: Just because I was building computers for people, I became a marketer.

K: It’s funny you say that because a lot of people who see that I work on a computer think I actually build and fix computers. So my family comes to me saying, “Can you fix my computer?” And I’m like, “Why come to me?” It’s like, “Dad, you work in computers all day,” and I’m like, “I don’t fix these things for anyone.”

K: And still today, people say to me, “You were working something with computers, aren’t you?” Like, yes. “Yeah, brilliant.” And then that’s where the conversation ends actually.

C: Yeah. I’ve got friends and I’ve tried to explain to them what SEO was and stuff like that. But it’s easier to just say I design websites. So again, I’ve got hoards of friends who say, “I’ve got this mate who wants a website.” I hate websites and we don’t offer them as a service or anything. But yeah, so it’s a difficult one of the people understanding what the hell it is we bloody do. But as long as we understand, that’s the main thing.

RIMC Conference in Iceland

K: The conference in Iceland which you came to, I started that conference basically because I wanted to learn. Initially, this is 2003 or something like that, I wanted to go to New York to go to SES, and didn’t get a budget for it where I was working. Then I thought, okay, if I can’t go to the mountain, let’s bring the mountain to Iceland.

K: So I reached out to Danny Sullivan and asked if he was willing to come to Iceland, and he said yes, and he said, “Can I bring my wife?” I said, of course. At the time, there was something called SEMPO, which I actually became a board member of for a while. But there was this woman called Barbara Cull. Very lovely lady and I worked with her later. I asked if I could get her to come also, and he knew her and he was going to talk to her and all that.

K: Then something happened to his wife. I think she chopped a finger off or something like that, so Danny couldn’t make it. So he pointed me to Chris Sherman. Chris Sherman, his business partner actually became one of the biggest influences in my professional life. We became good friends. He came to Iceland. I think Barbara couldn’t make it either, so Shari Thurow came also. I don’t know if you’ve met her. She actually is brilliant and I’ll talk to you about that from an SEO point of view also.

K: But then I was offered to go to Stockholm to speak. That was my first kind of gig. That was 2005, I think. Then since then, I’ve been to 25 conferences. Spoken at over 100 conferences in countries like Iran, Nigeria, Ukraine, Serbia. I’ve had people with weapons escort me between airports and hotels, and it’s been absolutely brilliant. It’s been a really good experience. Meeting people like you, Craig, and others that you wouldn’t have met without the ability to do that.

K: But I think the moral of the story and what I’m trying to say is that I realized then for me to actually make some business in Iceland, which is a country of 300,000 people, or 350,000 people, I would have to educate the market. So that’s why the conference actually started. The conference started not because I had a UT going, which I of course have. But because I wanted to teach the market, because I knew that if I would educate the market, then the market would know and potentially I would get more business.

K: People kept saying to me, “Why are you doing this? You are telling all your secrets and you’re getting all your contacts.” It was never about that. It was actually about educating the market. So that was the reason why.

C: And it still runs to this day. That conference is on again this year?

K: Yeah, so we are thinking about changing the format a little bit. It’s been going on for like 16 years. There’s another conference which we have, which is called Cross Media, which is in October/November, September/October. That is more about design, creativity. So we’re thinking about how we can mix them together. But yes, no, the conference is going to be there, but we didn’t decide on the format yet.

C: I got the opportunity to come out there last year and I always thought Iceland was just some small, little place where no one lived and there wasn’t a lot of business and stuff going on over there. Obviously, when I got to the airport, driving in the taxi, I thought, “Yeah, I was right. This is like being on the moon. No one stays here.”

C: But obviously then getting to the conference and realizing some of the companies that are based over there; you’ve got your LEGO and various other people with offices in Iceland. You realize there’s a lot more to Iceland than meets the eye and a great place. But I was unfortunate that my kid wasn’t long born I had to head off kind of early, so I didn’t get to see the blue lagoon or the other great stuff that you were showing everyone. But yeah, one day I’m definitely going to come back. Great place if you ever get the chance to go out to the event, anyone listening.

C: Every speaker I know or have spoken with at other conferences always mentions your conference. Like Judith Lewis or Lucas Zelezny; all of these guys are all just like, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve done this, I’ve done that. I’ve been there.” Amazing place. So it’s a great event and it obviously attracts great speakers as well, so long may that continue.

K: Chris Sherman came and Shari Thurow and then Bill and then these guys, and it just spiralled. For me, it’s always been about the experience. I was actually quite sad that you couldn’t stay longer, but I understand why. I’ve been watching your kid grow up. That’s the other twist to this. I met with Micheal Dimit a couple of days back. He was speaking here in Norway at the conference in Lillestrøm.

K: I met with him, but I’ve known him for, I don’t know, 10+ years, and I’ve been watching his kids grow up. His daughter was just a couple years old and now she is a teenager and actually growing up to be a grown-up woman and as clever as her dad and as beautiful.

K: You can see the matureness of the people who are in this industry and you can kind of be watching the industry grow up not only through the people that you met at these conferences, but also through the kids. Now you are part of that; now I’ll be monitoring your kid grow up and you better do good there.

C: It is good to watch other people doing good things, and as you say, having kids and everything else. It’s certainly a weird industry where if you walked in any other industry, you probably wouldn’t get those opportunities to meet these people or have the same kind of look on things. So that’s certainly an interesting one.

C: But out with you running your conference and everything else, what are you doing on a day-to-day basis these days? Because obviously you’ve been in this industry for a long, long time, and you’ve had agencies. You’ve still got an agency, to my knowledge.

C: I was with Peter van der Graff last week, and we were just talking about old stories which I love hearing about all these guys in the past who had done this, that, and the next thing. He was talking about what you mentioned there, people escorting you around with guns and Nigerian things and all this kind of stuff. He was telling me all sorts of crazy stories about you. As I say, I love hearing those stories. But you’ve done everything and anything, so where have you landed now? How do you make money these days?

Funny SEO Stories

K: I don’t. I want to say that anything that Peter van der Graff says is a lie. I just want to put that on the record here. You should never trust him, ever. No, there are some good stories that can be told.

K: So, SEO is something which I still do. I still have some plans and I still love it. SEO is absolutely brilliant. That ties me into Shari Thurow, who came to Iceland at the first conference, Reykjavík to the marketing conference. She actually said something interesting at the time. I was relatively immature.

K: As an SEO guy, I was just learning and getting things kind of started — trying to understand the bigger picture. She said that there were three things that needed to be in place, and it was good site architecture, good content, and the proper technology for the website. Then you have done everything you can from an on-site point of view to get the website done properly. Then anything that happens after that just builds up on top of that.

Stick to the SEO Fundamentals

K: What I try to do every time when I look at SEO today is that I always try to just look at the fundamentals. We tend to go into all kinds of details or structured data or I don’t know what it is. But the first thing I always look at is the technology. The technology to me is kind of the silent killer of SEO.

K: We all are kind of like, “We should do content strategy. We should do this and that.” But in reality, if you have a shitty CMS system or there’s something wrong with the way that your website is accepting business from Google, that’s basically just killing any efforts that you have. So, the silent killer in SEO is actually technology and the way that you structure your website.

K: So what she said to me then was that it kind of doesn’t matter what algorithmic changes Google does as long as you have a good site architecture and the proper set up of the CMS system and the technology is sane, and then you have good content on your website. Then everything else, you just pan out. But if you’re doing shitty stuff and then you are in the game of burning domains and you need to get instant visibility because you are in PPC, pills, poker, and casinos, then, of course, there are tactics that you just basically do to … And most of them just basically burn the domains.

K: So yeah, I’ve always used that … Always just keep it simple. When you look at SEO, look at the simple first stuff. Don’t try to complicate it. In most cases, that’s actually what fixes things, from a simplicity point of view.

C: Yeah. Again, it’s strange you say that. I have a friend and problems with the website. It wasn’t ranking. He was building links. He was doing everything. He then hired a few technical consultants to look at why the website wasn’t ranking well. They couldn’t come up with anything. They were looking at all these kind of crazy things that he maybe had or hadn’t done.

C: Then he came to me and I said, “Your website’s full of duplicate content. What the fuck?” He was like, “No, it can’t be that. It can’t be that.” I said, “That is.” He went away and changed it. So he went through all these consultants who are looking for something amazingly technical that’s super wrong with the website.

C: I think the fundamentals are very much left and people don’t bother checking them. I get a lot of good ones out of rookie mistakes, just basics being done. I tend to agree. I don’t think, from my SEO career, that things have changed that much. Obviously, Spearman and everything else is different, but the core fundamentals are obviously a decent structure to work on and then having unique content and building everything else out as organically as you possibly can. It’s always going to stand the test of time, so I think I’m not one for knowledge graphing. I don’t chase all that stuff yet. I think people obsess with that stuff, so yeah, I tend to agree with that. Obviously everything else can be panned out if it really is such a big thing.

K: Yeah. Just keep it simple. Then as you start to see that that is not working, then you look at going to things with more detail. But yeah, so what I realized also maybe seven years ago, something like that, that I was being too technical. I was more or less always being told what to do. So I wanted to try to move myself up in the ladder.

Strategic SEO

K: Maybe 11 years ago, I was offered to go to the UK and work with a creative agency there, an advertising agency, and help them. It was a group of advertising agencies that were being merged together. I was offered to go out there and kind of teach them the merits of digital marketing. This is 2007, ’08, ’09, something like that.

K: What I realized then is that the creative part, the strategical part, is actually something which I really want to do. So when I went back to Iceland from the UK, I thought I would want to try to kind of focus on that. It wasn’t until 2013 I was offered to go to Norway and help build up kind of a big tele-arm of an advertising agency. Did that for five years and then sold out last year, like a year ago. Since then, I kind of been trying to understand where I want to go next. So I used the time to reinvent myself a little bit as a professional.

K: Some of the most creative people I’ve ever met are actually SEOs. Peter van der Graff is probably one good example of that, and the bukkake story is a good example of that. That is actually a creative approach. People like you and others, which I’ve met with and spoken to, they ooze of creativity, because that’s what SEO often is about, is to be a bit creative about the way that you post content and work with content, get links in, and so on and so on.

C: Yeah, I think it’s the craziest bunch of guys I’ve ever met, and girls by the way. But obviously talking about the man, Peter van der Graff; a guy that I’ve looked up to for a number of years and has great stories. But I’d love to know; obviously you’ve been in the industry a long time and some of the stories from back them, like the bukkake story and so on are some real story. Is the bukkake story the funniest story you’ve ever heard, or is there something else?

K: Well, the bukkake story kind of summarizes for me, in essence, the creativity around SEO and how you can actually work with content.What amazes me, again and again, is the lack of computer literacy within like, just globally.

K: By that I mean, for example, how people look at content, and I think the election of Trump and the way that things were being used through Cambridge Analytica and all that is a really good example of the way that people are basically being fooled because they are being fed into the echo chamber, their own echo chamber, of beliefs. That then creates some kind of a culture or system. So that is another kind of angle of this.

K: Some of the best SEOs I know from the past, they don’t work obviously as SEOs; they basically just work with governments and organizations that are trying to lobby gun rights in the US or whatever. So, some of those SEOs, they just don’t announce themselves as SEOs anymore because they are in the dark here somewhere working on things that end up on the table. I can admit that I have done a couple of those projects. These are great stories which I will not share here on this … I’m sorry to say that, but I can tell you those in person.

K: But I think the bukkake story is kind of in essence the creative power that SEOs have, because you have to think about that. I think Lisa is John Myer’s ex.

C: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Creative Link Building

K: I can’t remember her last name. Sorry, Lisa! But they did some brilliant stuff from a link building point of view, where you kind of create a really nice set of content and then kind of build that as a bait to get people to link. They were getting some nice valuable links from the likes of BPC and so on, just because of the value.

K: That is creativity also. That’s the way that you build up topics. What are people likely to do and what are people likely to link to and how will they accept the stuff that we are sending? So, there’s a lot of things both, let’s say, a grey hat and then white hat that you can do, and then, of course, there is stuff which is dark, black hat.

C: Yeah. The good stuff. For anyone is listening, I’m going to have Peter van der Graff on in a few weeks’ time, and he can explain exactly the bukkake story because every time I hear the bukkake story certain bits of it change and stuff. But we will let him tell the full story of that and what was involved.

C: But yeah, I think the bukkake story for me is just one of the funniest, just because it’s crazy. But I think out of all the kind of guys, it’s all you older school guys like yourself, Peter van der Graff, you’ve got Jason Duke and all these kind of other guys. I think it would be safe to say that some of the stories can never be said on here.

C: But if you ever do get a chance to meet these guys and hear the stories and some of the stunts they’ve pulled, then it’s certainly worth buying these guys a few beers. I’m just thinking about some other Peter van der Graff stuff because of last week at Black Hat Conference.

C: Peter, for anyone who doesn’t know, has kind of been in the darkness for the last five years, hiding behind this agency, not doing any talking, not doing anything. But for anyone who thinks this guy’s dead and forgets about SEO, he’s very much still up to his old tricks. Yeah, so he’s still doing some crazy stuff. He’s not, by any stretch, trying to come clean and change into a white hat. He’s still up to no good, but he has promised to come on.

k: There are a couple of people out there that if you talk to, and we can take that offline, there are actually a couple of people that they concentrate … Who have decent agencies and have done a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of interesting people out there, like Yoast for example, is a really good example. He started doing SEO quite young. He then makes this plug-in, the Yoast SEO plug-in, and that plug-in basically is probably on more websites than any other plug-in. So when there are problems, Google actually calls him to see if things have rolled out properly.

K: So there are people out there you should definitely talk to. There are more. But I think maybe just to kind of draw a line or put a dot behind the bukkake story, is that when Peter van der Graff was in Iceland, we had this thing called the dark session. It was Fantomaster, it was Mikkel DeMib I think, Peter van der Graff. Yeah, we called it the dark session or something like that.

K: Paul Madden was in the room, and he actually had brought his kid with him, his 10-year-old, something like that at the time. They were sitting in the room and Peter was going off with the story, and then they realized that there was a kid in the room, and Paul was preventing the kid from hearing because it was so graphic the story. There was a panic in the room. They were like, “What should we do?” They were holding back. But it ended up being fine. It’s a good story.

SEO Truth or Lies

K: The main thing is, whether it’s true or not, it is a really good story of why I actually love the SEO part of what I do, and I keep doing it still although it’s not as much as I used to and I just take projects just to kind of maintain my knowledge, is the creative part of it. I really like that. I like the solution thinking, the solution-oriented thinking of having to reverse engineer algorithms and try to understand what impacts what and so on.

C: By the way, that story was true. Last week, he actually had slides with screenshots of the documentation and everything for that doctor.

K: Take that up with him. It’s a great story, and he will tell you that.

Still a place for unethical SEO?

C: Yeah. So, obviously you’ve come the full circle, where you’ve started out and you’ve done all these kind of tactics and everything else. Do you think there’s still a place for that type of stuff in this day and age? Is that stuff still working as well as … We’ve mentioned that the basics of SEO, you still have to look at that stuff. But do you still feel there’s still a place for that kind of thing that Peter van der Graff and all that kind of stuff in SEO?

K: Yes. That would be the short answer. I think SEO is still today one of the most undervalued marketing efforts that companies can do. The big challenge with SEO is that if you look at the marketing department, they are being measured on quarters. So for example, a marketing department might have a budget for the whole year and then they do a plan for the impact of their marketing budget.

K: Because they are being measured by quarters or by year every year, SEO, because of the patience that has to be put into that to actually reach the proper SEO results, you have to be patient and you have to do things incrementally if they understand the changes that are happening. So the value of SEO is not as instant. It’s actually not instant.

K: SEO has a much longer take, which means that if a company is being measured or a marketing department is being measured by the results of a quarter or a year, they will always fail at SEO because the patience isn’t there. The companies who actually get SEO are the companies that are digital natives, like companies that have been born online, that have been like Salondo or Momondo or these companies.

K: These are the companies which kind of get it more than most others because they are born online and they are natives to the environment. So those are the companies that normally get it. So, the companies that don’t get it, they actually fail at it because they’re not patient enough and they don’t allocate the resources that are needed. But SEO is, in my mind, one of the, or if not the, most undervalued effort that a company can do from a marketing point of view.

How Black Hat Would You Go?

C: Yeah. One final question I’ve got for you, Kristjan, and this is just a personal opinion of mine. Obviously I think from me looking at you, I think you’ve always kind of come across as a professional businessman, not dodgy in any way. I’m not saying you are dodgy, but I think there’s obviously the fine line where you go down the black hat route, the white hat route.

C: I think from a personal point of view, watching you over the years, you’ve kind of remained somewhere in the middle. Was that something that was a deliberate choice, or do you not care what side of the fence other people see you being on? At the end of the day, I don’t like the whole white hat/black hat argument, because we’re all just trying to manipulate the same thing anyway.

C: But you’ve always kind of remained … And I know you love the stories about the Peter van der Graff stuff and all that kind of stuff, but you’ve always kind of remained in the middle. Would you say that would be a fair assessment of where you’ve been over the years, or do you happily tell people you do all this other crazy stuff?

K: No, okay. So, my way of viewing things is that if I don’t think I can talk proudly about it in 10 years’ time, I won’t do it. You might say that I’ve done something which could be considered grey hat. I have done projects with that which are actually more of an experiment to me than anything else. I couldn’t say no to speak because the opportunity came about. But interestingly enough actually, that’s a project which I was going to hand over to Peter van der Graff, but he couldn’t take it so I took it.

K: But the thing here is that any of us, us human beings, probably we want … Don’t necessarily have to have the gratitude of everybody or everybody has to look at us in a certain way. But from my personal point of view, if the project to me looks like something which I won’t be proud of in 10 years’ time or 15 years’ time, if history won’t tell me that something that I shouldn’t have done or should have done, then I would walk away from it. I try to take projects that I can reflect positively on later on. To that point, a project which I take just for the curiosity of it … I need my wife.

K: She probably would tell you that I forget to invoice a lot of the projects I do. It’s basically because I love this so much that sometimes there are projects out there that just they capture me. They captivate me in a way that I just want to see how it pans out. So whether I get paid for it or not is not always the main thing. Though I have actually grown wiser towards that as I grow older.

C: Yeah. Yeah, so don’t, anyone listening, don’t shoot Kristjan up looking for some free work.

K: Here’s the thing, is that anybody doing SEO out there, understand this. The value of your work is tremendous. Understand that you have to manage expectations from an impact point of view. You do not control all the situation. You don’t control the algorithms, for example. But as long as you manage expectations and you have a certain way of doing things, you should be fine. Also, invoice for your work. It’s so important. Get money.

C: Yes. Why we’re all here. I know a lot of guys, in this industry in particular, who are very lazy about their invoicing. So it’s good advice. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost into that and the core reason why you’re doing it, which is to make money. So, yeah.

C: Sadly though, we are out of time, Kristjan. But for anyone who may be looking at you or trying to reach out to you, what can you help people with in today’s climate? Can you help with consultancy, training? What would someone come to you for? What are you open to giving back?

K: My baby now is to build marketing automation systems. I really like that. I’ve been building those for the past year. So, building systems where marketing automation happens and lead nurturing. SEO plays a major role there, and content. But AdWords, Facebook, and all that stuff also. Then I’ve been building my own solution around the specific type of analytics, business to business analytics, which I have been developing.

K: Yeah, so that has my attention now. But basically, I’m always happy to help, and if there’s anybody out there that needs a thing they can use my talent, the first cup of coffee is always free, and I don’t even drink coffee, so you can imagine how free that is.

C: Great. So, the best place to get a hold of you? What’s the best email address, or is it Facebook, or where’s the best place to find you?

K: Yeah, so I’m the only Kristjan Mar Hauksson in the world, so if you Google me, you’ll just find me. It’s actually easy to optimize for that. I just remember now my funniest story about SEO. I was on the board of directors for SEMPO. It was Mike Green and a couple of other people. We were in Arizona, in Phoenix, I think. We were doing a … I had been drinking a little bit, and it was fun. Nothing crazy. But we just sat side by side. We were doing a pop quiz.

K: But we made a bet, me and Mike, another bet, but it was kind of a dare. I told Mike that I could make his name rank for a sound cricket. Yeah, that was the word. Because there was these crickets up in the trees making these noises. We were thinking that the noises were made by little crickets that actually had this purpose, to make sounds. So they were sound engineer crickets. I told him that I could make him rank within 10 minutes for that. I did that in seven and a half minutes. We still talk about it. And then I took it out, so you can’t Google it now because-

C: It’s long gone.

K: It’s gone again. The moral of the story is that there are so many great stories out there of just testing things and realizing that Google is not all holy and it’s just an algorithm that if you’re able to reverse then you know what it is about.

C: Yeah. As I said, I love the stories. Love sharing beers with people. Hopefully, we’ll share a beer somewhere sometime soon as well in the near future. But what I will do is put your social media links and stuff, because I’d normally roll this out as a blog as well. So for anyone that wants to get in touch with Kristjan, I will have his contact details below. As I say, it’s Kristjan Mar Hauksson. He’s the only one of these guys.

K: I’m the only one in the world.

C: But yeah. Well, thank you, Kristjan, for taking the time to come on and talk and share some of your tips and experience and stories with us, and catch you soon.

K: Absolutely. Thank you, Craig.

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Craig Campbell

I am a Glasgow based SEO expert who has been doing SEO for 18 years.

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