Lessons from Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday joined us at work in June 2020 to discuss The Obstacle is the Way, life after COVID-19, and other tips for success. We got to spend around 45 minutes listening to a lecture from him followed by Q&A. My notes are below.

In life we don’t control what happens but we do control how we respond.

Accept reality unflinchingly. Accept that you have a lot of power over everything else.

Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies are muddled by crisis. Great companies are improved by crisis.

Andy Grove

Two main reasons for his success:
1. Develop mentors – find people who have done what you want to do. Attach yourself to them. Put up with anything. Do any job. Play any role to get into a position to learn from them.
2. Read widely and learn from history and those who have gone before you.

Most people have been doing modern marketing for 150 years. Tactics change but you can learn a ton from people like David Ogilvy in 2020. People focus too much on tactics instead of principles.

Paid media can be boring and earned media has to be interesting. Do things that are so interesting that others want to share them. Boring media is expensive.

As the world becomes crazy, it necessitates normal order within ourselves. If you have more time on your hands, use it to create more order and structure. Structure creates presence and focus.

We tend to think of obstacles as one-time occurrences. The reality is more of Murphy’s Law, we are always bouncing into new problems each day.

Obstacles are bigger in our imagination than they often are in reality.

His morning routine: wakes up early and first thing he does is avoid phone for a minimum of three hours. Don’t let outside noise interfere with your day.

Make before you manage.

Tim Ferriss

Do your most important thing of the day first before you get sucked into the world.

If you put off the things that require focus, concentration, and clarity, you have a million excuses to not do it later in the day.

Stillness is primarily about owning the morning.

Stoicism isn’t the absence of emotion, it is the absence of destructive emotion.

You pick each day if you want to have alive time or dead time. Dead time: Sit back and watch time tick away. Alive time: you do everything you can to be successful. You can waste years as Dead Time.

Are you using your days or are you watching them waste away?

Ryan Holiday’s 2020 Book Recommendations

Quick way to get non-commercial search results

Problem: Oftentimes, when I’m using Google I’m searching for informational content that gives advice. What’s the best type of t-shirt to buy? How do I cook this steak? Why do lightbulbs flicker when they turn on? How much does a vanity cost?
Etc etc

The search results for a lot of these queries have been monetized to death. Instead of real recommendations, you get sponsored content from a shirt company, a cooking blog saturated with affiliate links, remarketed for lightbulbs, etc.

Soultion: The quick hack I’ve been using lately for queries like this is to add reddit to the end of the query. This restricts the results to anonymous posts on reddit that are far less likely to be monetized content. I’ve found you get better advice from real people this way. You hear from actual people who tried to find a substitute for cream cheese in a recipe, not from a content writer who is talking in hypotheticals.

Restricting to the search results to reposes by real people greatly improves signal to noise ratio for informational/advice queries.

the web i remember

The death of the personal website has been lamented by many but I’m going to do it again. It is the worst trend to hit the web in the last 10 years. As Google and Facebook (and lately Amazon) have centralized the web, personal websites are vanishing. Instead, people and bots yell at each other on sites that mine our data and watch what we do.

The web I remember was different.

Twitter and Facebook were once places where you shared links to your website, not the place where you shared the content yourself.

Google was the directory where you discovered new content to visit, not the destination for consuming hours of content per day.

There was something special about typing in a URL and going to a site that was maintained by the person writing on that site. Each website was unique. Some were ugly, even.

Those were the good ol’ days where the broader experience of the web wasn’t over-engineered to death to maximize engagement at every turn.

Fundamentally, the web is still driven by content created by individuals. But by giving all of our content to Google and Facebook, the power of the web has greatly shifted to 2 companies instead of being distributed among the people.

Ironically, it is easier than ever for people to create their own sites, host their own email server, host photos, etc. 1-click installs are ubiquitous, WordPress is easier than ever to customize. But more and more content is shifting away from personal sites.

The last few years have already revealed Google and Facebook shifting to a pay-to-play model. We give them the content and if we want anybody to see if we have to pay. This is digital sharecropping on steroids that Nicholas Carr has written about in the past on his personal blog.

Carr penned the term in 2006 and he was rightfully scared of where things were headed and they’ve turned out even worse than he could have imagined.

Another scary trend is the integration of Facebook, Google, and Amazon into the personal website. Through hosting, commenting platforms, codebases and by controlling 80% of the web’s referral traffic even going the personal website route is difficult to escape big tech’s grasp. Your choice is to either give in or get no traffic.

Unless you go to extremes , by using the web in 2019 = using Google. Your visits, clicks, photos, tweetstorms, et. al are funneling into the Big Three in one way or another. You can fight hard to limit your contribution but the Big Three’s ever expanding web will catch you sooner or later.

Google Capital & SEO

Note: My man Jacob just published an awesome post looking at the SEO efforts of these companies. We have been writing the same post apparently. My charts are a touch different so I hit publish shortly after his went live.


“Few companies have such an in-depth understanding of the Internet as Google,” said Lending Club CEO Renaud Laplanche. “We believe our relationship with Google will be very helpful in better serving our customers. We couldn’t be more excited to have them on board.” [via]

This is hardly scientific but with all of the chatter surrounding Thumbtack’s relationship with Google I thought it’d be interesting to look at organic search traffic for other Google Capital investments.

I pulled these estimates using SEMRush and dropped in a marker when Google-backed investment rounds were announced for each company.

First, some background on Google Capital:

Founded in 2013, it focuses on larger, growth stage technology companies, and invests for profit rather than strategically for Google. In addition to capital investment, Google Capital’s approach includes giving portfolio companies access to Google’s people, knowledge, and culture to support the companies’ growth and offer them guidance.

Survey Monkey – Online survey solutions
Google initially invested in Survey Monkey on Jan 16, 2013.



Glassdoor – Anonymous company reviews
Glassdoor reaped huge benefits and doubled traffic from the Panda 4.0 update. That was several months before Google completed their investment round, however. Glassdoor ranks on page 1 for seemingly every company’s brand name.


Lending Club – Peer-to-peer lending
There has been chatter for a little while that Lending Club is getting a helping hand from Big G in the search results. Google invested in them in May 2013.


Fresh Desk – Online customer support software
FreshDesk was added to Google Capital’s portfolio in June 2014.


Renaissance Learning – Learning analytics
Google Capital invested 40m in February 2014.


Auction.com – Online marketplace for real estate
Joined the Google capital fold in March 2014.



Credit Karma – Credit & financial management platform
Google Capital invested in another high competition industry when they led an 85m round in March 2014.


MapR – Enterprise software
MapR closed a 110m financing round led by Google in June 2014.


Thumbtack – Online marketplace for local services
Ahh, the infamous Thumbtack that shows up for nearly every local SERP in every city. Google Capital invested in August 2014. If you think they are good at sourcing local vendors….they apparently are even better at writing reconsideration requests.


Innolight – High speed optical transceiver supplier
Google capital invested in September 2014.


CommonFloor – Real estate in India
Google Capital’s first 2015 investment took place in January 2015.


ZenPayroll – Online payroll solution
A 60m round lead by Google Capital closed in April 2015.


DuoLingoApp that teaches new languages
Series D round in June 2015. Too soon to really analyze their search traffic.


Read into these amateur charts however you’d like.

No way to tell from this if Google’s SEO “advice” goes beyond emailing a link of the Webmaster Guidelines or not. Google’s investing in companies that are forecasted to grow regardless of SEO help or not…not to mention the huge influx of cash for these companies when the investment rounds hit.

Maybe they are all investing all of that new cash right into SEO.

Whether they are getting inside info or not, it is frustrating to know that the same company that controls the flow of traffic around the web has large financial interests in dozens of companies ranking extremely well in competitive verticals.

PS – Somebody could do a deep dive into the link building tactics or on-page optimization that these companies have employed. I would like to read that.

Leaked: Thumbtack’s Reconsideration Request To Google

Dear Google Search Quality Team:

We are writing this to request reconsideration of our site in Google’s search results. We have received notice of unnatural links pointing to our domain. It is with great care that we have reviewed each backlink to our site.


It’s me Marco Zappacosta, CEO of Thumbtack…you know, the Thumbtack that Google Capital invested $100m into last year.

Anyway, the links….yes, those sketchy anchor text links you are probably looking at right now…you can disregard those. Our advisers at Google Capital assured us those are “brand citations.” We need to verify websites on our service somehow so what’s the harm in a backlink? I can assure this whole unnatural links thing is purely a byproduct of successful branding.

Let me paste in the message Dave at Google Capital sent us about this whole thing below:

<a href=”https://www.thumbtack.com/ky/louisville/commercial-cleaning/”>Commercial Cleaning Louisville KY</a>

Ahh shoot. Don’t know how I copied that…I swear!!!!!

Let me try again:

Dear Thumbtack Community!

We have an exciting new opportunity for members of our community. While we can no longer offer you 20 points for linking back to our site anymore, if you add this line to your .htaccess file we can offer you 40 points! Just paste this in below and you’re good to go:

Redirect 301 /  http://www.thumbtack.com/

Thanks for being a loyal Thumbtack Professional!

Errr…WTF. That’s not right! That’s a draft in my email inbox. Not sure what is going on here. Let me try one more time…

Yooo waddup! Here is how it works: If you have a dope post that you would like us to tweet out – get you MASSIVE traffic – then put this html (below) at the bottom of the post and send me the URL along with the EXACT text you want tweeted. I will send that shit out and it will bloooowwwww up

Wait! That’s from my buddy Mahbod Moghadam at Genius. We exchange link buildi…”branding” tips on occasion. This copy/paste thing just isn’t working out.

How about I just attach what you need? See the Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free.PDF file that I’ve included. This was included in our signed agreement with Google Capital (see page 35, section c).


We are committed to doing whatever it takes to meet the Google Search Quality guidelines. If you or your team still finds links that do not meet the guidelines, we would highly appreciate an example of the specific links that are outside the guidelines to help our efforts in removing these links.

Thank you for your time and your consideration.

PS – Kiss that $100m goodbye if you don’t approve this in 3 days.

On Mobilegeddon: Why Google’s Free & Open Web Kind Of Sucks


A free and open world depends on a free and open web.
The Internet empowers everyone to speak, create, learn, and share.
It is controlled by no single organization, individual, or government.
It connects the world, and we should protect it.


Heartwarming, Google. We’re actually on the same page for once.The Internet is best when it is free and open and accessible. I owe a lot to the Internet and the freely available information that can be found. I wouldn’t know how to hang heavy things on the wall or fix a leaky faucet. I wouldn’t know what books to add to my reading list or the best travel route for a vacation. I wouldn’t have a job without a free and open Internet. The Internet rules.

Google’s message hits home for me but it’s also awash with irony, especially this part:

It is controlled by no single organization

Well, not yet at least.
Continue reading

SEO is everything, SEO is nothing

Interesting discussion going on about what being an SEO actually involves in 2015.

There are a bunch of different sides to this issue, but the two ends are:

SEO is everything. Google wants to rank successful brands. Anything you add to your brand is SEO.
SEO is nothing. Google wants to rank successful brands. Spend your time creating a brand and don’t worry about SEO.

Few people would agree 100% with either of the statements above but fall somewhere in between. They either view SEO as a byproduct of success or a driver of success.

Your perspective on SEO’s role in business depends largely on the type of online marketing campaigns that you’ve worked on in the past.

If you do SEO work for large brands, you’re more likely to believe good SEO is a byproduct of success. The site you manage is already trusted by search engines. You aren’t out building links or finding longtail keywords you might have a chance to rank for. You are publishing content like crazy and running conversion tests to make the most out of the powerful domain.

If you work for startup/small/medium size companies, you are more likely to view SEO as a driver of growth vs. a byproduct of other things. You can’t get away with the same things from a site structure or technical standpoint that established brands can get away with. Your time is best spent doing what we traditionally think of as SEO work: keyword research, writing page/product copy, optimizing title tags/URls, cleaning up links…you know the drill.

It’s a good sign for SEO as a marketing channel to see it mean different things to different people.

A mature marketing channel is going to play different roles for different strategies. SEO for Acme Brand might manifest itself as a year-long content marketing campaign. SEO for Widget Co. might end up looking like 5,000 unique product descriptions.

This is a good thing. Nobody thinks of print advertising as a short list of 5 strategies and anything else isn’t “real advertising.” SEO as a channel shouldn’t be limited to only writing meta tags or sending link removal requests. Even if some people are misguided in the role of non-traditional SEO signals as ranking factors, more people are placing importance on the role of SEO as a channel.

It can be frustrating to know and study the art of classic SEO and then watch some stooge parade around a conference stage proclaiming how SEO is now content marketing or link building is dead. I get annoyed by that too.

But if you work in the industry, the more exposure SEO as a marketing channel gets, the better.

(Plus, if other people want to optimize their websites by asking friends to +1 them or by focusing solely on UX…fine by me :D)

Small SEO fixes, big returns

There’s a weird pattern with websites I’ve done SEO for over the years. The campaigns with the most drastic improvements were usually the easiest to fix.

The biggest issues with optimization on most sites aren’t crazy fixes that require hours of development time. They are usually simple things done wrong: duplicate content, duplicate or poor page titles, thin content, site/URL structure. These are all SEO 101 fixes that cause massive issues for poorly optimized websites.

I’m all about attacking the tough fixes but the best results come from simple changes.

Here are a few examples:rel-canonical-fix

– I increased year-over-year revenue 62% for an ecommerce sites by adding one character to their source code. It wasn’t SEO voodoo or black magic…but their rankings plummeted because of a typo in a sitewide rel=canonical that I found on the site. Google had no clue how to index their domain. As soon as the proper canonical tag was added, traffic and revenue shot up. The site has continued to grow steadily since then by adding new products and improving other SEO issues but nothing will match the canonical fix.

– I’ve been lucky enough to work on 4 or 5 projects where high trusted sites had tons of organic links (DA over 50) but had never been touched by anybody who knows SEO. This type of “virgin ground” is getting less common by the day but nothing is more fun than rewriting a handful of titles tags and adding copy to pages and watching traffic from Google soar to new heights.

Hoping for some in-depth, never before seen tactics? Sorry to disappoint.

SEO isn’t really that complicated most of the time. The hardest part — which I’ve been fascinated by lately — is the process behind the SEO: ensuring any potential issues are audited and addressed ASAP. Knowing SEO 101 isn’t a very valuable in 2014 but knowing how to execute & deliver SEO can be a game changer. You can deliver results in any situation when you lean on process.

That said — the  bigger and more optimized a site becomes, the harder it is to grow.

In the early stages, you can double traffic by changing one line in header.php. Every unique product description you write for an ecommerce store is guaranteed to increase search traffic by that page tenfold.

A few years down the road, growth is a lot harder to come by which makes for other unique and more in-depth challenges.

No matter where your skills in SEO lie, savor the days of early stage SEO when starting a new project. The results you can get for even 10 minutes of your time are mind-blowing.


Penguin 3.0 or Ebola?


The weeks before an impending Google algorithm update are strange times. SEOs check rankings even more than usual, write and store “Ultimate Guides” to penalty recovery in WordPress and wear out their CTRL+R buttons refreshing Matt Cutts and John Mueller’s Twitter Google+ pages.

Mostly, though, these pre-algorithm update days are full of hyperbole. SEOs embarrass themselves by making predictions, spreading FUD and disavowing links to save their sinking ships. Woof.

If you didn’t know about search engine algorithm updates one could easily confuse Penguin 3.0 with something far more sinister…like ebola.

In fact, just change a few of the words in recent Penguin 3.0 fear-mongering pieces and they could easily be about the worldwide viral outbreak:

Penguin or Ebola?

Ebola will bring tears to your eyes (via)

How to avoid getting slaughtered by Ebola (via)

The key takeaway from this post is that EVERYONE needs to check their  fever regularly to ensure that it’s clean. If it isn’t clean, NOW is the time to do something about it (via)

Ebola is Coming Soon. Will [You] Survive? (via)

This week, Mueller also confirmed that a Ebola refresh is indeed required for an affected site to recover. (via)

Hope for the best, Sound horrible. (via)

If you’re hit, you’re website will remain at the mercy of Ebola (via)

Take action now and reduce the risk of being hit by this impending virus before it’s too late. (via)

The impact should be noticeable within a few days following the Ebola release. (via)

Google gets set to unleash Ebola (via)

The Incoming March of Ebola and How You Can Avoid It! (via)



Who needs Hot Dogs or Legs when you can play Penguin 3.0 or Ebola?

It’s cool to analyze algorithm updates and I’m very much curious about Penguin 3.0. But making it out to be a matter of life vs. death, creating over the top graphics of blood-lusting penguins and making the general public fear SEO is bizarre.

And we wonder why everybody thinks SEOs are crazy?

Weaponized SEO

weaponized-seoDejan SEO recently shared an extortion email that they received from a negative SEO spammer.

They are threatening to send a XRumer blast to DejanSEO.com.au unless they receive $1,500USD.

Scary stuff indeed.

In the old days, SEO was fun because it could only help you, not actively hurt you.

Blast 400 domains to a new site? Go for it! Hire somebody to build 100 directories for $5? Sure, why not.

Looking at new backlinks used to be exciting. If you run a big site nowadays you are probably holding your breath every time you open up a recent backlink report.

As Google gets more aggressive on anchor text and blog posts, negative SEO attacks become more valuable and easier to execute.

Links used to only help you. Now 75% of links can only hurt you.

Learning SEO gives you a lot of power to help improve a website’s search visibility but manual penalties and Penguin also give you a lot of power to do damage to other people’s websites. You can weaponize SEO into a tool to knock off competitors.

To me, the scariest thing about negative SEO is how well it scales.

Think about your traditional SEO agency. You’ve got to figure out how to build quality links in a number of different industries. You need lots of top notch website copy. You need development and design help.

A negative SEO agency needs a few pieces of software and a rudimentary understanding of Google’s algorithm.

There’s a tipping point that the SEO industry is approaching where the numbers look better knocking off 15 competitors with negative SEO instead of investing in trying to naturally outrank them through traditional SEO.

You can build 10,000 links in XRumer for less than the cost of an infographic or a well-written blog post.

When Google guesses at the intent of a link, they open the door for a new era of weaponized SEO. These extortion emails might not work against an SEO company but send hundreds to a bunch of small businesses and I bet you’ll get a few hits.