Ian will be speaking about “Building Your Search Agency” at SearchFest 2011, which will take place on February 23rd at the Governor Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Tickets are available now. To purchase, please click the following link.

1) Please give us your background and tell us what you do for a living.

I’m sort of a liberal arts geek. Never studied science or math seriously in college, went to UCLA Law School and graduated in 1993.
But I grew up around computers – both my parents are scientists – so I always looked at them as tools. My first love is really writing and marketing. So after graduating from UCLA Law that’s where I went.

I’ve been a marketer and internet marketer for just over 16 years now, beginning with helping clients use AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe to publish technical materials for prospective customers. That was the start of my company, Portent Interactive (https://www.portent.com), which I’m still running today.

In 1996-7 clients started asking me things like “Why don’t I rank #1 on Alta Vista”. So I started investigating and testing how it all worked. I’ve been a search addict ever since. But I work a lot in other stuff, too: User psychology, social media principles, data visualization, conversion optimization and analytics. The owner of an internet marketing company needs to be a bit of a jack of all trades, or you can’t do the strategic thinking necessary.

I started writing my blog, Conversation Marketing (https://www.conversationmarketing.com), in 2001, and run a fee-based internet marketing training site at https://www.fatfreeguide.com. Those two sites have become a whole division of Portent unto themselves. I love it – I get to write, study and teach marketing, and work with lots of cool clients.

2) Can you talk about some of the important internal company processes that allow your company to function at optimal efficiency?

Before I say too much, I should point out that most of these processes are things I arrived at by accident. CEO of Portent Interactive is my first management job. Hopefully other folks can read this and end up with less trial and error.

Also: We’re a 25-person company. But a lot of what I talk about here works just as well for an individual or a smaller firm:

First and foremost, we codify everything. If there are 20 steps we go through for an SEO site review, those 20 steps are on our internal company blog. If there are sites and tools we should all use, I make sure those are on the blog, too.

Second, we enforce the idea that the company blog is where everyone should go for this information. At least, everyone must start there.

If someone comes into my office with a question, I always ask “Did you check the Fat Free Guide?” (we call our internal training site the Fat Free Guide – the pay-to-play training site is another version of the same content).

Third, we put a lot of time into tools development. One person at Portent works full-time on only one thing: Our crawler toolkit and technology. That toolkit lets us crawl sites of all sizes and automatically diagnose a long list of onsite SEO issues. That lets us scale to huge projects without much strain.

Fourth: We minimize meetings. There’s one weekly office-wide meeting to see what’s going on. Everything that happens in the interim is tracked and stored on a common project management site, so folks can check in there.

Fifth: I encourage a sprint-and-pause work style. Staff work in 45-60 minute ‘sprints’ on tasks, then take a break to check e-mail, etc..

Then into the next sprint. We try to break projects up into tasks that fit those sprints.

Finally, we accept the fact that we are not a software development company. We serve clients. That means that interruptions are part of our working environment. So we build our processes, plan projects and schedule work with the assumption that we will all be interrupted.

That’s life. By doing that, we avoid at least some of the headaches that agencies run into when trying to meet deadlines.

There’s more, but those are the basics.

3) When you hire people with no search marketing background, what traits / characteristics do you look for?

We hire very few people who DO have a search marketing background. So these traits are critical:

Intellectual curiosity: I want people who want to learn. If they don’t, they can’t work at Portent, period.

Integrity: I need honest people who are aware of what they don’t know, and are willing to admit it.

Emotional intelligence: Everyone at Portent ends up talking to a client at some point. So they need to know when the person across the meeting table or on the other end of the phone is grinding their teeth in frustration.

Communications skills: If you can’t write at a college level, I can’t use you, unfortunately. That’s true of everyone, including developers and designers.

Math: If you’re going to work on SEO or PPC, you must be good with numbers. I’m not just talking about addition/subtraction. I’m thinking more about ability to grasp, say, how PageRank works, or how to calculate a rolling average.

Mostly, I want smart, curious people who are just a little bit nuts.

That usually guarantees a perfect fit at Portent 🙂

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