The University Network

The Keys To A Successful Career — Advice From The Architect Of SEO

In college, few questions carry as much weight as, “what are you going to major in?”

This difficult question — imposed by parents, friends, and teachers, alike — pressures students to have a one-track mind. To find professional success, students are persuaded to pick a career path and stick to it.

That approach that may have been advisable decades ago, when individuals stayed at the same company until they retired. But today, the workplace is evolving faster than ever before, and a college major doesn’t always define success.  

Instead, students must be intellectually curious, take advantage of opportunities, and make learning a life-long process.

Take Bob Heyman, the coiner of search engine optimization (SEO), for example. Throughout his career, he took advantage of opportunities when they came knocking and equipped himself for changes in technology and the workplace.

Heyman’s road to many successes

Before Heyman coined the term SEO, he worked for 15 years as a music lawyer, representing the bands Jefferson Starship and New Riders of the Purple Sage, among others.  

Growing up, he always expected to be a lawyer — primarily because he didn’t have a better idea.

“I wound up being a music lawyer — partly out of interest in music and partly because it was the least lawyer-like part of law,” Heyman said. “What music lawyers did — at least back then — was get musicians record deals. And if you got them the deal, you would do the contract, but it wasn’t the day-to-day routine of doing contracts or going to court. It was a little more like being an agent.”

Heyman was never overly excited about the idea of spending his life practicing law, but he anticipated it. And for 15 years — from 1979 to 1994 — he found a niche in which he was seemingly comfortable.

In 1994, however, he came across an opportunity that would ultimately land him in the “sweet spot” of his professional career.

It was the early days of the internet, and his client Jefferson Starship decided they wanted a website, Heyman said.

Since he had a friend who he knew could help him out with development, Heyman decided that web design was a great new opportunity. So, he and his business partner chose to create the website for Jefferson Starship.

Subsequently, on one night, when members of the band were talking to a promoter, they decided they wanted to show the promoter their new website. But, “they could not remember their own URL,” Heyman said. (The correct URL was, simply, jstarship.com.)

So — without a better option — the band members decided to look it up in a pre-Google search engine, and were irate to find they were at the bottom of page two, Heyman explained.

“The manager called me up in the middle of the night to yell and scream at me because they made the obvious point that they were THE Jefferson Starship, and if someone was looking for Jefferson Starship, they should be number one,” Heyman said. “And the only way I could figure out how to get him off of the phone was to promise to make them number one.”

The next day, Heyman and his team decided to figure out why the website for the official Jefferson Starship ranked so low on search. And after some reverse engineering, they discovered that it was because the other sites had used the words “Jefferson Starship” more frequently, Heyman explained.

So, Heyman and his team decided to run the name “Jefferson Starship” in black font all the way down the page against a black background. The text was there, but the common viewer couldn’t see it. This technique is now referred to as “keyword stuffing,” and it has been a “no-no” for close to 20 years now, said Heyman. But at that point in 1994, the technique worked, and sure enough, the official Jefferson Starship was able to secure the number one search spot.

“(Jefferson Starship) called up to express their joy and happiness, and they asked us what we called this wonderful thing we did for them,” said Heyman. “We couldn’t figure out a better word, so we looked at each other and said we call it ‘search engine optimization.’ ”

Heyman and his team saw an opportunity and jumped on it. “We became the earliest practitioners of search engine optimization,” Heyman said.

At that moment, SEO was merely the clever response to an angry 3:00 a.m. phone call. But today, the concept has grown to shape the internet and the marketing strategies of some of the world’s largest, most influential companies.

Although this story covers only a brief period in time, it reflects the larger theme of seizing opportunity — something that has resonated throughout Heyman’s life. It’s what he attributes a great deal of his success to. And for students and recent graduates, he suggests they should do the same.

Since selling his first company, Heyman has taken on 11 different professional roles across various industries, and he has become a seasoned author. Throughout all of his experiences, however, he enjoyed the early days of the internet the most — largely because it presented the most opportunity for innovation.

“Technology — at least in my lifetime — has always provided new opportunities in business,” Heyman said. “Things change, and people who are the established ‘big dogs’ aren’t the first adopters, because, why would they be? They know what they’re doing, and they have a formula that works. But there is an opportunity for innovation, and I find that if I had a secret it was basically trying to capitalize on those opportunities.”

Throughout his professional career, Heyman has received credit for being a visionary. His approach to innovation is patient and calm, but — without hesitation — he knows when to pounce on an opportunity.

For the average student or recent graduate, Heyman’s resume and success stories may seem unattainable. However, he offers two pieces of advice that helped him successfully pursue any opportunity that required knowledge past what he already had.  

Firstly, Heyman suggests pursuing life-long learning.

Heyman is now considered to be an expert in marketing. Since 1994, much of his career has been centered around the subject. He has worked directorial marketing positions for multiple companies, and he has authored six digital marketing books.

He achieved this despite not majoring in marketing. In school, he focused on taking classes that would prepare him to be a lawyer.

“I had never studied marketing, so when I found myself in the marketing business, I found that there were lots of really good books to read that could make you as smart as if you had gotten a degree,” Heyman said.

And, secondly, Heyman attributes much of his professional success to his ability to find smart, capable partners.

In 1994, when Heyman first dipped his toe into the cyber industry, he was not an experienced or knowledgeable coder, he said. And when he started his agency, he struggled with sales work. But, he found qualified partners who were eager to compensate for his insufficiencies.

So for anyone out there searching for professional success and career satisfaction, it isn’t easy. Finding it takes deep self-reflection and perseverance. But most importantly, remember to open the door when opportunity knocks.