In 1980, my sixth grade teacher brought in this thing he had purchased called a TRS-80. It fascinated us. We’d spend hours after school sitting in front of it writing code that would make our names bounce around the screen or draw a blocky smiley face which would frown if that bouncing name hit up against it.
From the very first moment, I knew that everything had just changed for me. I’m not sure that I realized that everything had just changed for everyone.
Online Years Phase One: The ’90s
In the early 1990’s I bought a home computer, a modem, and a separate phone line to launch a local BBS (Bulletin Board System) called Pan Galactica in scenic New Britain, CT. Back then, that’s how we nerds got “online” to connect with one another. There were multi-player games you could play, message boards through FidoNet which allowed us to communicate with other nerds all over the world, and all sorts of rudimentary functions that would lay the groundwork for how the World Wide Web was used.
In 1994, the web was starting to take off. My BBS, the first in the northeast US to have a graphical interface compared to the more common command line interface, was getting its ass kicked by good ole America Online. I knew it was time to make the jump and so I created my very first web site on GeoCities. Celebs on the Web was an ugly monstrosity that acted as a sort of directory of public email addresses, web site links, and news about the (then small) list of celebrities who were trying to figure out how to leverage the Internet to help with promotion and fan relations.
Back in these early days, the notion of using the Internet as a marketing tool was fairly novel and new. Adam Sandler was one of the first people to venture out here – or more correctly, the folks at his Happy Madison production company were. Rodney Dangerfield was another one of the early innovators. In the mid and late 1990’s he was a merchandising machine – and he did a lot of the work himself (which I knew because of several email exchanges between us back in those years).
Online Years Phase Two: The Y2K Bug
As time went on, my site was getting difficult to mange – it was all hand coded so if something was to be added or changed, I needed to dig out the html files and make edits. Then I’d need to edit several other pages on the site to ensure everything was properly linked to and updated to reflect what was new. On top of that, the web was full of directories like DMOZ and Yahoo who both did it better and also covered a much more broad niche.
By now, I really had the Internet bug, though – and if I was going to continue I’d need to learn how to make a web site that was dynamically driven by database so that it could be searched and sorted and take away much of the manual labor. Content Management Systems like WordPress didn’t yet exist, so I needed to build my own. Because of my TRS-80 years in school, I knew BASIC programming, so learning ASP came pretty easily.
What came from that was (the still horribly ugly) Rock-n-Reel.com – a site which used the (then public) IMDB database as a seed, but then focused in indexing the popular music from movie soundtracks.
My big problem there was that Google and a few other search engines were starting to gain ground over the traditional way of indexing the web via directories. They had some difficulties in indexing dynamically driven web sites, though. It wasn’t so much a problem with the ability to load the page, but because there were no real standards in how page names and query strings (those bits of data you still see at the end of URLs that start with a ?) were handled. Googlebot would often get confused and just not bother to spider these dynamic sites.
If I was going to be able to make this or any other web site work in the modern days of search engines, I was going to have to figure it out. Most common convention said that if you wanted Google on your site, you just couldn’t have a dynamic web site. I also knew that popularity of dynamic sites and the birth of the CMS (content management system) was looming. There simply had to be a way to do it, and I was going to figure out how.
Grumpus: The Technical SEO Guy (and the People Who Made Me)
I’d been using the name Grumpus online for a while. The URL for my Celebs on the Web site had /~grumpus/ in it. The name came from two sources:
- When I was a kid and would throw a temper tantrum, my Grandmother up in Maine would always exclaim, “Don’t be a Bo Grumpus!” I was never really clear (and still don’t know) if it was a reference to the late 1960’s band or if it originated somewhere else from her past.
- When I was in college, I had a roommate named Craig who was in (another) band called Bo Grumpus and everyone called him Grumpus. He was (and most likely still is, I hope) an absolute master of the blues guitar. I wanted to be to the Internet what Craig was to the blues and so the online handle just sort of made sense given this and my previous history with the name.
And so it was, online nickname in hand, I set out to figure out just how these new fangled search engine thingies actually worked. I started to frequent online forums like Webmaster World and eventually found a home at the now gone but not forgotten Cre8asite Forums.
It was at Cre8asite where I got to learn (and possibly teach) the most. There was a lot of talent in there back in those days, with each person involved having a different specialty and focus, but a common understanding that it was all connected. Online success was best achieved taking a holistic approach.
- Cre8asite founder Kim Berg (Cre8pc) approached things from a UX (user experience) and Usability angle. Even back then she understood the importance of the user when it came to the web. Nowadays, she has expanded that approach to make her one of the leading experts on web accessibility standards. If your customers and audience are a part of your online strategy (pro tip: and if they aren’t, they should be!) Kim’s insight and analysis can be invaluable.
- Ammon Johns (BlackKnight) came at it all from a marketing and conversion standpoint. Ultimately, if I was to have to pick my #1 influence in learning about how this whole Internet thing works, it would be Mr. Johns. He is the master of explaining complicated things in easy to understand ways. I’m trying to do that here on this site, but I know I cannot hope to ever do it quite as well as he does. He doesn’t post all over the place as much as he used to, but when he does say something, you can believe it’s both important and accurate. You can follow his Twitter feed and you might also catch him once in a while showing up for a Bill and Ammon’s Bogus Hangout.
- Bill Slawski (Bragadoccio) was my “how it all works” guy. Even back then he was digging into Google patents to try to figure out how it all worked – something he is now famous for and continues to do today. Oh, the hours we spent spitballing ideas and speculating in the back rooms at Cre8asite on new things happening in search so that we could feel confident enough to start talking about it out on the public side. In addition to still being active on the Bogus Hangout, you’d be hard pressed to find a site which deals with SEO and doesn’t mention him with some frequency.
- Jill Whalen (HighRankings) was another early admin at Cre8asite who eventually ventured off on her own at high-rankings.com. She’s since left the industry and is focusing on her Healthy Lifestyle endeavors. This list of mentors and influences from the early years wouldn’t be complete with a nod to her, though.
- There were also a fair share of Internet upstarts hanging out back in those days. Young whippersnappers like Rand Fishkin (Randlefish) and Barry Schwartz (RustyBrick) were showing up and eventually surpassing many of us in their own little niche of the SEO tapestry. What started out as a “me helping them” scenario evolved and has continued to be one where I now turn to them when I need to know something going on in the mystical world of the Interwebs.
So it was, in the early days of SEO, I learned how it all worked. In an era where the common thought was that Google wouldn’t even crawl more than a few pages from a dynamic web site, I would proudly show off my home made site and the thousands (and eventually tens of thousands) of pages that Google had indexed.
I know that I’ve left an open invitation for anyone who wants to blame me for the way the Internet works and is treating them, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to blame these people for making me in the first place.
Editor’s note: That’s enough background for now. I’ll be adding more as it comes up and I’ll also be starting to post some “Slice of Stock’s Life” type articles in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!