Punk Rock SEO

Preface: This is the blog post version of a talk I’m giving at State of Search today! Wish you could have been there. If you were there, high five! Check out the slide deck here. As you start reading this, fire up the Punk Rock SEO Playlist on Spotify in a new tab. 

I Used to Be a Punk Rocker

I used to be a punk. Well, at least that’s what the 18-year-old version of me would say. That younger, scruffier, and slightly more angsty Mike would probably have some choice words to say to this has-been, sellout, old guy.

The blue mohawk meant I was really punk rock
The blue mohawk meant I was really punk rock

These days, I don’t play in any bands, I shop at Whole Foods, I buy designer clothes from time to time, I have a mortgage, and I own a marketing company. The 18-year-old version of myself never could have called that.

I started playing guitar when I was a Freshman in high school, in vain attempt to become cool. It didn’t work, so I transferred my frustration into playing loud, fast music and becoming a punk. I was in plenty of garage bands, I had a blue mohawk at one point,  I’d go to punk shows every weekend, I broke my collarbone stage diving, and I even had some success with some of the bands I was in. I recorded four albums (a few of which you can find on eBay) and I toured up and down the West Coast. It was pretty rad.

WTF Happened?

So what the hell happened? Well, I graduated college after nearly 7 years and decided I had to get a real job. It was a massive bummer at the time, but I ended up falling into this SEO thing that I loved, so it’s not all bad.

Exhibit A - Aging punk rocker
Exhibit A – Aging punk rocker

I still listen to super loud and angry music and I still consider myself a punk; I just don’t talk about it much any more. I even still go to shows every once in a while when a band I know that actually still tours comes to town. Let me tell you: new music is hard to keep up with. Kids these days. Amiright? The biggest difference between then and now is that I’m wrecked after going to a show and have to sleep in all Sunday. BTW, there’s this great site called The Hard Times that’s basically The Onion for hardcore punk. It makes my life.

I’ll tell you what hasn’t changed – I still get pretty angry about stuff. Even though I’m not fighting the man, I take the fight to enterprise bureaucracies and shitty search results.

Punk Rock SEO

Punk Rock SEO is about recognizing a situation in organic search that pisses you off and doing something about it. It’s about using everything you have, even though it might be close to nothing, to make the change you think needs to happen a reality.

After working at agencies for a few years, I’d kinda had it with enterprise bureaucracies. This was a pretty typical story.

  • “Oh, you want to update our title tags. Yeah, just let me clear that with the Senior Marketing Manager.”
  • Two weeks later – “Yeah, he’s clearing that with the Director of Online Marketing”
  • Another week later –  “Okay, now she’s getting that approved the by VP or North American Marketing Web Properties and then they’ll file a request to put the change in the work queue”.
  • A month after that –  “Yeah, honestly, he never really responds to anything that’s not business critical, so let’s move onto something else.”

My inner punk rocker is smashing a guitar at this point.

At the same time, I started to notice that the SEOs who I looked up to, the ones who were actually getting things done, did things that reminded me a lot of punk rock.

Values Here

As it turns out, a lot of the values of punk rock align very closely with what I’ve found makes for effective SEO. We’re looking for SEO that does more than sound cool, SEO that’s more than just a bullet point on an RFP. The SEOs getting the best results were just like punk rockers in that they were pretty anti-establishment. There weren’t that way because they just wanted to be anti something; they adopted that mindset because they could see that the current state of the world or the current state of search (eh? eh? get it?) wasn’t cutting it.

Great SEOs were also part of the community (aka, the Scene). They shared and received knowledge and became better for it. They also had a admirable DIY ethic, something that has always been a big part of punk rock. DIY (or Do It Yourself) is typically the only option when you’re in a punk rock band. Record labels aren’t exactly lined up to give you a record deal.

A final similarity (though the parallels don’t stop here) is forgetting perfection and just playing fast and hard. It’s not a strictly SEO thing, but Facebook has the words “Done is Better Than Perfect” painted on a wall. Jonathon Colman used to say it and it always stuck with me. In SEO and punk, getting something done and making a lasting impact is what’s most important. Forget the polish if you don’t have time.

Mike Arnesen, Punk Rock SEO at State of Search 2015
Punk show photography courtesy of Thomas Ballantyne

Hey, All You #StateofSearch Punks

I blogged about this a while ago, but going to conferences reminds me a lot of punk rock shows. Talking to people on stage and sharing something together gives me the same feeling that playing in a band did. When friends ask me if I ever think about being in a band again, I tell them “No”, because I’m still playing shows.

I’d like to share some lessons that I learned while I was playing in punk rock bands that I hope can inspire anyone reading this to look at SEO in a new way.

13 Punk Rock Lessons for SEOs

Adopt a DIY Ethic

Ian MacKaye, frontman of Minor Threat and founder of Discord records is all about DIY. Ian has great stories about what it was like trying to make stuff happen in the early days of punk rock.

“We had no idea how to make a record. We took apart a sleeve from a 7-inch record to see how it was configured. “We opened it up, sketched it on a piece of paper, put our own art into that and took it to a print shop. Then using scissors and glue, we cut and folded every single record sleeve.”

That’s something I want to see SEOs do more of, because it’s what great SEOs already do. Taking apart things to see how they work and then trying to do it yourself is the best way to get results on your own, without waiting on someone else’s budget approval processes.

Join a Band

With very few exceptions, punk success stories center around bands, not individuals. When you bring a group of like-minded people together and then can work toward a common goal, great things can happen.

Similarly, it’s hard to be successful in SEO by yourself. I’d recommend finding people who are as stoked about SEO as you are and creating a work group. Before I had a team of my own, I used a group chat of a few close industry friends so we could bounce ideas off of each other and bring in our unique perspectives.

Maintain Against the Grain

There’s a great Bad Religion song called Against the Grain.

Against the grain
That’s where I’ll stay
Swimming upstream
I maintain against the grain”
– Greg Graffin, Bad Religion

Even before Bad Religion, going against the stream was a core part of what punk rock was. More than ever, as our “traditional SEO” opportunities are drying up, this is something we need to remember.

The tactics, hacks, and sites that everyone’s using will get overused. Look for the unconventional, hard to get SEO opportunities. These will outlast the others. Just think of guest blogging up until last year. Do you think the folks who did things the hard way and negotiated writing great content that required a big investment on a well established publisher are kicking themselves right now? Nope, but I bet those who just flocked to “guest blogging” as a tactic are.

Writing Good Songs Isn’t Enough

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how great your songs are. If you’re lucky enough to get an audience’s attention, you’d better show them that you’re into your own music. If it doesn’t look like you mean it, people won’t support you.

No one wants to grill with Rich
Exhibit B – No one wants to grill with Rich

Show your audience what sets you apart when you’re lucky enough to be in front of them. Play faster and rock out harder than anyone else and make the conversion. This is absolutely true for punk and I think it holds a ton of truth for SEO and content marketing as well. Take a look at Exhibit B.

No one wants to grill with Rich.

The spirit of Texas inspired me and I searched for “the history of barbecue” and found this sad infographic on grillingwithrich.com about 20 pages back. It’s mostly text, uses muted colors, is based on a large helping of stock photography, and has earned 0 links and 2 tweets…over 3 years. It’s clear that Rich wasn’t that into this infographic and guess what – no one else was into it either. It could be correlation, but it’s my belief that if you aren’t absolutely stoked about your content, no one else is going to be either.

Know Your Audience

Playing at a sports bar in Reno is never a good gig. Playing the indoor skate park in Ventura or Simi Valley is a whole other story.

Know who you’re playing to and you’ll do well. If there’s a disconnect there, your band’s set (aka, your SEO) is going to fail.

Sometimes, you’re playing for robots and they don’t care if you have a shiny guitar or if you’re using a vintage speaker stack; your band’s headlining a show in a basement, the acoustics are shit, and the only light is from a single light bulb hanging from the cord in the center of the room. As long as you play fast and give the crowd a good experience, the robot’s are happy.

Sometimes, you’re playing for a room full of punks in your hometown. You’ve got to remember that you need to play songs that speak to who they want to be, not necessarily who they are. I see this disconnect all the time – marketers want to put out content centered on who they think they’re target demographic is. What they should be doing is figuring out who their potential customers want to be. Was “homeowner who needs a new filter for his hot tub” who you wanted you wanted to be when you grew up, or do you want to be “they guy who knows that the Ancient Egyptians started putting hot campfire stones into water-filled calderas in 2,000 BCE”? One is infinitely cooler than the other.

Do you want your audience to recommend your site and your content?

Don’t create content about who they are. Create content that speaks to who they want to be.

Sell Out The Show

Face it, most of you have no extra budget for SEO aside from what you’re already being paid for. If you can walk up to your boss or your client and ask for $1,000 to develop a cool piece of content without getting the stink eye, I’ll be seriously impressed.

You have to focus on what you can do yourself. If there’s something you think you can’t do yourself, you might be able to do it anyway. Get out the door and spread the message about your site where it’s going to be heard.

I can’t emphasize this enough: find out where your fans hang out and put up your fliers there. Don’t post your new blog post on Reddit if that’s not where your users hang out – you’re going to pack your site/show with people who are either going to leave when you start playing or boo you off stage. Find the record shops, second-hand stores, and pizza parlors where your fans hang out and post something up there.

Also, don’t forget to help other bands promote their stuff. You’ll be manufacturing serendipity, even if you want to call it something more punk.

Covers Are A Great Thing

A cover is when a band plays another band’s song and puts their own spin on it (figured I’d better explain that in case anyone’s not familiar). I think covers are awesome. Having another band cover a song you wrote is huge; it means you did something meaningful. Covering another band’s song allows you to learn from what they did and it highlight the unique things your band brings to the table.

Punk Rock SEO CoversFYI, a punk record label called BYO did a whole series of albums where two bands covered each other songs. I love the NOFX/Rancid Split.

I’ve noticed that great SEOs tend to relinquish ownership of their ideas. They don’t treat their ideas as trade secrets, clutch them close to their chests, and get angry when others use and modify (dare I say, improve) their work. No, great SEOs open their ideas up to being covered by the community and they, in turn, iterate on the ideas of others. That’s why conferences like State of Search are so great. We all learn from each other and hopefully when you get back to the office, you’ll have been inspired to cover a few songs you heard here.

Turn over your ideas to the community and interpret the ideas of others. Everyone wins.

Pop Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

Kids who think of themselves as “real punks” hate pop punk with a passion, but pop punk caught on for a reason. There was something there and I think it’s important to not disregard that. You might be able to draw on something their doing to spread your own punk message.

Same deal with SEO. BuzzFeed can get super annoying at times, but don’t disregard them just because they’re addicted to page views and are a glorified click bait factory. If you see something that’s working well, analyze it and look at all of its components. There might be something in there that you can make your own so that you can get your message out.

Analyze brands getting the results you want. Leverage their tactics to spread your content.

The Ceremony Lesson

If you want your content to succeed, you need to be willing to put in effort and make investment up front. That’s what a band called Ceremony did. I honestly don’t know how much of this is true and how much of it is just a punk scene legend, so take this with a grain of organic, non-GMO salt.

Five guys decided they wanted to start a band, but they wanted to be able to hit the ground running. They weren’t into the typical punk path of playing to five drunk dudes in a bar for their first few months of touring; they wanted to start strong. So what did they do? They staged a private show and invited all their friends, taught them the words to their songs, and then recorded every one going nuts during their set. They posted that video to YouTube and then started booking actual shows. After people saw that video, they thought “who they hell is this band? They look huge! I could get into these guys.” Well, it worked. The blew up seemingly overnight, all because of the effort and investment they put in before asking for anyone’s attention.

The lesson here is to not be afraid to take a gamble and sink effort into something that could be great. You can’t be successful in search by only doing what you know 100% is going to work ahead of time. ROI goals cloud our judgement a lot of the time.

I mean, it’s great to have goals, but only executing on ideas with a already-proven ROI is why we’ve had to deal with shitty infographics for the past five years. Everyone assumed that infographics were guaranteed success and so that’s all anyone wanted to do!

So next time you’re working on a potentially great piece of content:

  1. Build a solid foundation on your site so you’re ready to offer a memorable experience when the time comes.
  2. Loop in people you know and respect. Let them know you’re working on a piece of content and ask what they think, see if they’ll review it before you publish, or just hint at it in conversation.
  3. Let the people who are already your fans know about what you’re doing. Either before or right after you hit Publish.
  4. Use your friends and your team to build social momentum.

It’s a gamble, but your odds of success go up with increased effort.

Punk Isn’t Mass Produced

Punk handbags?Anything mass produced oversees to sell in retail stores isn’t punk. Take this dump truck full of “punk rock handbags” that I came across the other day.

I think we should be equally wary of mass produced SEO. Now I’m going to throw some shade at SEO tools, but I hope no one takes this the wrong way. I have friends who work at (or own) SEO tool companies and I have nothing but the highest respect for them.

What I want to say is that these big tools will only get your so far. Just like with mass produced punk gear, I think we should all be skeptical of anything claiming to be a “One Stop Shop” or an “SEO Solution”.

A great tool is not an “SEO Tool”; it’s a “Tool for SEOs”.

It’s important to have at least a foundational understanding of search engine optimization in order to get your money’s worth out of a Tool for SEOs. I’d love to know about any SEO Tools out there that are ready to use on any site out of the box and that any one can use to get actual results. SEO isn’t mass produced and I’m betting my entire future on the assumption that a real human with SEO expertise will always be the most valuable SEO asset that an organization can have.

Tear It All Down

Punk bands love to sing about tearing it all down, brick by brick. It’s gotten a little cliche I suppose, but I love the idea.

It’s iterative destruction.

In SEO, I want to tear every site apart and consider nothing sacred. We know the revolution isn’t going to happen overnight (whether we’re talking about “the system” or a client’s website) but you can smash something small to pieces and put something better in its place. Take out one brick at a time, replace it with something better, and after a certain point the majority of this thing is something you’ve built yourself.

Pick one thing to tear down and rebuild.
Soon, you’ll have built something completely new.

Let Anger & Frustration Be Your Fuel

And that's how I became a Sith LordPunk was build by kids who were pissed and frustrated about the world and wanted to express that and work to change things along the way. I think we can adopt that for SEO. Pick a battle that you know needs fighting, find that SERP that bugs the hell out of you and try to make it better. Channel your frustration. Embrace your anger.

…and that’s how I became a Sith Lord.

But seriously, get into the habit of getting mad about crappy search results.

Don’t do SEO because it’s your job. Do it because the SERPs suck.

I’m finishing this blog post at 2am, so I’ll plan a follow up post on what I’m about to tease in the next few weeks. If you don’t know Jarno Van Driel, you should. He’s the Structured Data Yoda to my Semantic Search Luke Skywalker.

Jarno’s been doing structured data from before it was cool, but he was frustrated about how rigid the DOM made things and about microdata’s reliance on nesting entities. TL;DR – microdata can be a huge pain because no website is the same and things break, all the time. Jarno knew there had to be a better way, so he took matters into his own hands and helped pioneer the itemid attribute with the W3C!

We’ll dig into this more in a future post, but using itemid, you can turn these disparate chunks of data into something meaningful.

Screenshot 2015-11-16 at 2.50.14 AM

Screenshot 2015-11-16 at 2.50.26 AM

On a related topic, I’ll be taking part in an amazing Semantic Search Open Forum on Google+ next week, so join that if you can. Jarno and I will be there along with schema heavy hitters like Aaron Bradley and David Amerland.


There’s a Place of Peace in the Pit


In case anyone reading isn’t familiar with a circle pit, it’s exactly what it looks like. Kids running around in a circle. I guess you have to spend time in one to really get it.

Punk rock shows are chaotic, you’re never in complete control, and someone stage diving could land on your head at any time. If you stumble or fall, you’ve gotta just get back up and keep moving. At some point, you just embrace the chaos and find a place of peace and clarity. The past and future melt away and all you have be concerned with is what you’re able to do in the moment.

SEO, as we all know, is the same kind of chaos. Things change often, sometimes on a daily basis. Sometimes we feel like we have a good handle on things but sometimes we have no control of our fate. Another State of Search speaker told me he tends to gravitate to PPC because SEO has too many unknowns; you never know if working on an SEO initiative is going to have the expected outcome. Nonetheless, that turmoil and uncertainty is kind of what’s kept me interested in it over the years.

We can’t slow down because if we do we’ll get knocked over. Learn to be comfortable in the center of the chaos and in find your home in the center of the circle pit.

SEO Like a Punk

As Tim Armstrong of Operation Ivy and Rancid always said…

See ya in the pit.

Slide Deck

Written by
Mike founded UpBuild in 2015 and served as its CEO for seven years, before passing the torch to Ruth Burr Reedy. Mike remains with the company today as Head of Business Operations.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *