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60 Minutes With Barry Schwartz




Deepak: Hey, guys. Hey, Barry. For those of you who don't know who I am or who we are, my name's Deepak. I, from time to time, pop onto SEMrush to interview really, really interesting people.

We're with Mr. Barry, who is the CEO of RustyBrick. Let me rephrase. Barry is a man who's been around, on God's given green Earth since 1980, as per his Wikipedia. First of all, I'm going to say, happy 40th Earth day, Barry. How're you feeling about turning 40?

Barry: Are you trying to say I'm old or something?

Deepak: I'm trying to say that you're 40. 

Barry: Okay. No, I feel fine. I think SEO has aged me a lot. 

Deepak: When did you turn 40, specifically? Let me just check the Wikipedia.

Barry: Just around the time they did the lockdown in New York was... so, right after the lockdown, they're like, "Barry turns 40. No parties, no nothing." Which is good actually, because I think they were planning something for me, like my wife and family and the bigger community. I'm like, "Sorry, not happening." 

What Has Changed in Digital Marketing Over the Years?

Deepak: Now that you've been in the industry, let's say the digital industry for decades, when you look back on it, are you surprised by how much has changed? We were talking about, for example, one of the first speeches that you gave back in 2005, right, at PubCon. If you were to look back, do you feel a lot has changed or do you feel that you know what actually, not too much has changed?

Barry: Yes and no. A lot has changed in terms of where people were back then versus where people are now. The search engines still have the same goal, I guess. They still want to rank the best content, but how they do that has changed over the years. 

Back in 2005, it was like just generate a lot of links to a lot of bad content and you can rank for anything you want to. Very easy to make a lot of money very quickly. Now, you kind of have to do things the right way. 

But, the ultimate goal back then was still the same thing. Search engines wanted to rank the best stuff on the internet the highest. The way they did that was just less sophisticated. 

People have come, people have gone. People have worked at Google, left Google. People have worked as an SEO, joined Google. Danny Sullivan is now working for Google. Did I ever expect that to happen working with him since so many years? No. Will I ever work for Google and sell out like he did? No. 

Yeah, things have changed, but at the same time the ultimate goal has not. SEOs still try to do the same thing, make their client's website the best possible so that they could rank as high as possible on Google.

Approaching SEO Proposals as a Software-Led Company

Deepak: Okay, okay. I mean, one of the interesting things we just spoke of, before we went on-air. Now, RustyBrick, your clients know you as the man who will do anything that's software-led. How do those conversations go when they present to you an SEO proposal? 

Barry: It's a good question. RustyBrick, really...that's the one difference I have from other people who write about SEO, is that I don't offer SEO services because I don't want it to bias what I write, if that makes sense. 

We have clients; we build software. A lot of those software applications are web-based or mobile-based or both. A lot of them have front-facing websites that are associated with it. Often our clients trust us and they'll probably get us on the phone, "I hired this SEO company, yada yada. Can you get on the phone?" "Sure, no problem."

I get on the phone, I speak to them. Most of the time they have no idea who I am, which is great. And then, I'll go back to the client and say, "This advice is good, this advice is bad," based on knowing what I know and then move on. Most of the time it's not so awkward. 

But then, the client sometimes asks, "Well, why isn't their plan good? They're charging me almost nothing and they promised the best things in the world. I'm going to go try it out." I'm like, "If you try it out and they're promising you everything for nothing, obviously that just sounds too good and I could tell you that's not going to work." 

Then, I have to go ahead and explain my credentials and how long I've been writing about SEO and talking about SEO, and so forth. I like to help people before they make bigger mistakes. 

Deepak: I still find that fascinating. I mean, what has kept you from the temptation of immediately expanding into offering SEO services, right? Because, you could do it and you could probably double your billing pretty easily by virtue of your reputation.

Barry: I mean to be fair, I do offer, very rarely, maybe like one hour every few months, like an SEO consultation for SEOs. If you're part of a Fortune 500 company and you have like 10 SEOs and you want to ask a bunch of questions, I'll do that on an hourly basis. I rarely do that, but I do it. 

When it comes to offering web development services or software development services and mobile apps, there's a spec. If you build this, you deliver it. With SEO, there's no real... I mean you could say, I'm going to offer you content development and link building and social media. 

The Uncertainty of Offering SEO Deliverable to Clients

What they really are hiring an SEO for, is they want more visibility in Search. They want to rank in a certain position. At least in the old days, it was like, “you want to rank in position one or two. I can't guarantee those deliverables.” That's one reason that I won't offer it, because I just can't guarantee those deliverables. 

I like to be able to write things without having to worry about, will this affect my business? I can't tell you how many times I've seen SEOs write about certain things that they're clearly writing about it just to go ahead and improve their business or to say what Google said is not true.

One of the biggest examples that I see all the time is guest blog posts. Some company offers, maybe not as often today or maybe like five, 10 years ago, people were like, "Well, Google said guest blog posts are not acceptable. But, they don't mean these types of guest blog posts. My guest posts are fine, but those are the bad ones. That's what Google really means." I don't have that bias or the conflict of interest when I'm writing about this type of stuff. 

Deepak: When in the case of for example RustyBrick, you clearly notice that one of your clients, because you're doing ongoing development work, has taken on SEO services because you're seeing some changes perhaps in the CMS. Or, maybe you've looked them up on SEMrush. There's never a temptation to have that conversation. You just kind of stay out of it, even at a company level?

Barry: I'm not selling it to them. I'm just saying if what they're suggesting is correct. You should make sure your content great. You should make sure your title tags are relevant to the page that it's on. You should make sure you have schema on those pages. I mean these are all things that will improve the website. 

I definitely agree SEOs are very valuable. I just have a hard time selling it for that reason. A Google update could happen and then the site could be just wiped out.

There's lots of false negatives, false positives, and stuff like that around Google's algorithms and I can't necessarily control those deliverables. I know a lot of SEO companies do a great job of managing customer expectations and stuff like that. 

Writing About Search as a Hobby: 30,000 Posts

Deepak: That makes a lot of sense. Recently, as of maybe two weeks ago now, it might've been a bit longer, you officially wrote your thirtieth thousand and I wasn't sure if that was a typo, but you wrote your thirtieth thousand post.

Barry: I've written over 30,000 articles on search if you count Search Engine Roundtable, Search Engine Land. I used to write back in the day when Danny Sullivan was at Search Engine Watch. I've probably written, if I had to guess, 40 000 articles. All thin, low-quality content stuff over the years. I type fast and I type short, just like I speak short. I like to get to the point. 

Deepak: Do you consider yourself a writer? 

Barry: No. If you'd told my teachers in college or university that I would be writing and people will be reading what I'm writing, no. I consider when I write to be a hobby. 

People at Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan, always hated when I said I'm not a writer or I'm not a journalist. I consider myself a hobby blogger. He used to hate when I used to say that. I don't make my money really writing about... it's a hobby. People like to go fishing, people like to do whatever. I enjoy writing about search engines and SEO.

Deepak: But, has that changed as your written contribution has helped to build Barry? I'm just curious, because I mean writing is central in many ways or has become, even if accidentally, to the growth of your brand. 

Was there ever a point where you are like, "Well, you know what? I'm kind of a bit bored of writing. But, god it's so helpful to everything I do. I want to continue"?

Barry: I can really count on my hands, over the past almost 20 years of writing, how many clients I got from writing. Because, again, we don't offer SEO services. We do software development. 

Just so you know, we built the original Text Link Ads software from Patrick Gavin. We built their software to automate the buying and selling and placement of Text Link Ads, when it was a business back in the early, early days. We didn't do SEO for them. We just built their software.

Maybe five (clients) over the course of 20 years that I got from writing about search. I do it early in the mornings. It would be usually between the hours of around 6:00 AM to about 8 AM, sometimes 8:30 AM. That's usually when I spend my time writing about search. 

I just love writing about search, because I love how it's changing so fast. It might help with my personal brand. The search stuff is not really paying my tuition bills or putting food on the table. 

Barry’s Daily Schedule

Deepak: Let's talk a little bit about your ordinary day then and also kind of with a reflection as to where writing fits in. Now, you mentioned the 6:00 to 8:30 thing. But, was that the same in December 2003 or has it changed quite dramatically as your life has changed with marriage and family and business?

Barry: Well, I guess the schedule has changed. I've always been what you call, I guess, a workaholic. I enjoy working. I work crazy hours. I guess a lot of people do. 

These days people kind of like say that's not a good thing, meaning they look down on people working too much. I don't know. I believe that you could work hard but you need a lot of luck also to do well. I don't think working hard is enough. I don't think being smart or even having good connections is enough. I think a lot of it is luck.

I've been very, very fortunate and lucky over my career to financially be able to support stuff and do things for my family and for my company. I've been lucky in that sense and I feel very privileged in that area. I think a lot of it's luck. 

Yeah, but my schedule. I do find the blog to be a responsibility and I think people expect it. I'm very, very passionate about being consistent, or a certain level of respect for people and responsibility. 

If people expect something from me, I kind of want to live up to that. I do find that in terms of the blog is not just a hobby. But, it's also something that, and I love doing, but it's also I feel there is a sense of responsibility for what I'm doing. 

A lot of people have come and gone in the industry since then, started things and left. I'm the type of person that starts things and never gives it up, even if it's not doing well. I never remove things from my lists, so it just gets more and more busy.

Intentionality vs Observing How Things Work Out

Deepak: How much of your journey, would you then say, has been kind of intentional versus, I don't know if accidental is the right word, but you wrote for the sake of writing is what it sounds like. It's something that you love. Have the other outcomes of your life been similar? Did you see the blog developing as it did? Did you see RustyBrick developing as it did? 

Barry: Yeah, I think most of the things that I've done at least, wasn't necessarily intentional. Search Engine Roundtable is like a notebook of what's going on in the SEO forums. Now, it's also social media because it's all one big forum. It's now basically a notebook of what's going on in this community. It's very interesting and I wanted to write it, so I could remember it.

RustyBrick, it was basically building out like...in 1994, building out websites for the local Chinese store. And then, it was like, "All right, could you build this? Could you then build that?" 

We got hired to build a calendar application for kind of like a doctor type of office. And then, it turned out to be like patient scheduling, patient billing, doctor scheduling based on their sleep patterns. Things just kind of go from there.

Not everything does well. Like, I built a budget application for bloggers to keep track of what they want to write about. Didn't take off. I built SEO ranking software, so you could track your rankings back in 2004 or something, where I thought it would be useful for SEOs to be able to keep track of their rankings using the Google Search API. They had an API for tracking rankings back in the day, which you can't get anymore. 

I released that and charged for it. Google sued me because I used the name Google. I removed the name Google. And then, Digital Point, Shawn who I was very friendly with back in the day, he built the free version. There goes that business model. 

Some things work, some things don't. I just generally like to build things that I find to be useful for me and then hopefully it's useful for other people. Some of those things take off and some of them don't. It's not like I'm looking to do it to necessarily make a lot of money. I'm just doing it because I find it to be useful.

How to Determine What Projects to Take On

Deepak: How do you make a determination with projects that you should take on that then and projects that you shouldn't, in terms of stuff you either see as being a RustyBrick entrepreneurial project versus a regular kind of project that you build for as a client? 

Barry: Yeah, I mean some clients come to us and they want something built. When it comes to our own internal projects, it has to be something that myself or my partner find useful. And then, we have to find time to do it. One project we started, I don't know, a certain year and we didn't really start developing until 10 years later.

I have a list of ideas and we build them out. Most of these ideas are small, in terms of being very niche. Sometimes, they turn into something bigger. But, again, anything we find that we personally will find useful and helpful that hasn't been out there before, I guess.

The Importance of Consistency 

Deepak: We're going to take some of the questions now guys, which is fantastic. Itamar asks, that's actually a really good question, "What are your other hobbies apart from writing about Search? Or, is writing about Search the hobby that has lasted, of course, decades? Is there anything else that stands alongside it? 

Barry: No. That is my pretty much one hobby. When I was a kid, I loved playing sports. Basketball was one of my favorite sports. I like to watch some sports but I'm not a big... I don't watch sports or TV or do any entertainment. It's mostly just SEO.

Deepak: One of the things that I find interesting within that is, how big do you think focus has played as part of your success? Because, you've purposely chosen to, for example, not offer SEO or other services as part of RustyBrick. You've purposefully chosen to focus on this hobby. Most of us, you kind of start something, maybe even keep it up for like a year and a half, and then you get bored or then you switch. There seems to be a huge level of consistency in what you do.

Barry: Yeah, I find consistency to be very important. Like, people know when I write, they'll find a blog post on the blog usually between the hours of X and Y. They know when to expect it. I think that's important. 

At the same time, like I said, a lot of people have done it and then got out of it, because there's not much money to be made from it. Like I said, my other businesses support me financially. I'm able to do my hobby and provide this level of service to the community, even though I'm getting a lot out of it myself because I enjoy doing it. It's a win-win situation for me and for the community.

Responsibilities to Clients and Employees

Deepak: It sounds like responsibility is a huge driver for you now. That's what is a big motivator. In the early days of RustyBrick or when the team... how big is the team that you've got now? I think it was about 25 that I read, but it might have changed. What were the drivers, for example, when it was you and your brother?

Barry: What was the drive? It was just about making clients happy. That's still a huge driver. But, over the years, I've learned that it's not just about making clients happy. It's also making sure your employees are happy, because I always say in the company, "Happy employees make for happy clients."

If you have happy employees that are happy with their job and happy with what they do and they feel like they're secure in what they're doing and they're confident, they will produce much better results for your clients. And then, that cycle just keeps repeating itself.

Deepak: Interestingly enough, how, in your opinion, would your team describe you at a dinner table when they're like, "Oh, what's it like working with Barry, because we see this guy on the podcast or the interviews?" How do you think that they describe you?

Barry: That's a good question. A lot of them don't even know much about the SEO side. Some do, of course. I don't know. It's hard. I don't want to say how people describe me. I don't like to worry them about what my responsibilities are for them, but I do hope they appreciate me being concerned about making them feel well and them being well financially.

Barry’s Commitment to Hard Work

Deepak: Is it sometimes challenging bringing work home, when you've got a brother that you're in business with? How has that been, kind of the management of the different domains, when you're at the table with your kids and stuff?

Barry: Now that I'm working from home... I used to literally be in the office for probably like 12 hours a day. My office is like 10 minutes, 15 minutes away. And then, I used to literally come home, open my laptop and work from my room over there. Say goodnight to the kids before they go to sleep and that's it. 

Now that I'm home, I see them more often. But, I probably work a little bit more because of it. There's no real work/life separation in my life, except for, as you can see, I'm Jewish. I'm observing Jewish and I'm offline for Saturdays, the Shabbat and I'm also offline for Jewish holidays. 

Sometimes, those Jewish holidays, they'll last like two or three days straight. I'm like shaking from not being able to check email or RSS feeds and stuff like that, making sure the servers are up and stuff like that. But, over the years, I've learned to get better at that. I used to actually get sick on holidays from withdrawal, internet withdrawal. 

Deepak: That's pretty interesting, you said that, "I actually used to get sick." Was there a time there where you said to yourself, "Okay, I need to get on top of this because actually, I'm not regulating it at all"?

Barry: No. It was good. I'm like, "Oh, I'll get sick on holidays and I can just sleep it off. I'm not missing work anyway, so it's a good time to get sick." I'm not the person you want to look at, in terms of work-life balance and stuff like that. 

Deepak: It actually sounds like a significant amount of your life today, your adult life, certainly has been spent doing something that you love. I mean, writing is a passion of yours, right?

Barry: Yes.

How Does Barry Wind Down

Deepak: When we remove that from the equation, is it still 12-hour days? I mean, because other people will be playing soccer or at the gym or watching something on Netflix. When you subtract that, is it actually, "I'm doing like 9:00 till 6:00," in terms of RustyBrick?

Barry: It's hard to say, because everything's so mixed in with this working from home thing. I don't really watch much TV.

Deepak: When, for example, you take your occasional moments to kind of wind down outside of work, what does that period entail? Is it 20 minutes of...

Barry: Sleeping. I'll go to sleep. What do I wind down doing? Since COVID, I actually started to exercise a bit on the elliptical. I do the elliptical for about a half-hour. Work and eating and not being healthy is not a good thing. 

The Influence of Barry’s Upbringing on His Work Ethic

Deepak: Growing up, was discipline and focus a big part of your upbringing? There's some cool things here. There's a focus upon work. There's small talk is relatively quite functional. There's a consistency about you that, "If I say I'll do something, I'll do it." There's also kind of a big sense of straightforwardness, what you see is what you get. 

Barry: Yes, I think a lot of my upbringing is about working hard. My mother had two jobs always, teacher and working in the orthodontist office. She always worked two jobs or almost always worked her two jobs. My father worked crazy hours, although he tells me not to work so much. Yeah I think there's a lot of that there in terms of working hard.

Deepak: It's like a positive stereotype about Jewish people working quite... is that a cultural thing?

Barry: I mean I see people these days, especially in my community, sometimes that don't work as hard and it upsets me. I'm like, "You have to work hard." But, I'm trying not to get upset by other people not working hard. I don't think it's necessarily a Jewish thing. I don't know. I thought it was more of an Asian thing. I could be wrong. I thought Asians always worked so hard. 

What Advice Would Barry Give His Past Self and His Kids?

Deepak: We're coming into the last 10 minutes of our webinar. Looking back on things, what advice would you give to 20-year-old Barry, as you look back on stuff? 

Barry: Maybe have more confidence. Although, I have a lot of confidence now. Not that I'm really confident, it's more about I don't care as much what people say. I think that's what happens when you write a lot online. People say a lot of really bad things over the years and everything just kind of like doesn't mean much anymore.

It's like all that feedback kind of just doesn't mean anything really going forward. I'm not sure if I have confidence or not, or more if I'm just numb to everything on the internet now.

It's interesting because I see a lot of people that are concerned about how they dress and how they appear and so forth. I'm not really into that and I don't know if it matters or not. I wonder if I like dress better or got a better haircut or something, would that actually improve my success in the world? People are looking at me saying that, "You're very successful." 

I think a lot of people who have success think they have the answers and they really don't. I don't think anybody should be overly confident. At the same time, you should trust your gut and just go with what you think is right and not worry too much about other people, I guess.

Deepak: What do you think you'll say to your kids, if anything, as they get older?

Barry: Yeah, I think they should work hard. I think working hard is the fundamentals you need to do. I don't think often things are just handed to people. I think you really need to work hard. Of course, that doesn't mean guaranteed success. 

I think luck is very very important and who you're connected with is also very very important. But, I think working hard is the fundamental thing I want to teach my children. Although, I don't know if that's going to necessarily happen. I would like to do that. 

My children are very young in general, so it's too early for that. My oldest is 11, which is probably at the age of, I think, you want to kind of convey that. I think they see from examples. I'm always about lead by example.

In my company, I'm always about lead by example. At home, I'm always the first one in the office, when we went to the office. I'm always the first one on Slack. I always want to lead by example, just because I think if you do something and you ask something from your employees or you ask something from your children, they should say, "Oh, okay, he's doing that. I should also do it. Not just because he's telling me to do it, because he's actually doing it."

What Barry Looks for in Employees

Deepak: What's the number one quality that you look for in a person then when you make hiring decisions or partnership decisions?

Barry: For me, when hiring somebody, it's more about do they fit in the company culture? In my company, nobody is a know-it-all. Especially, when it comes to programmers in general. A lot of programmers think they know everything. I want to hire people that know they don't know everything and they want to learn. 

They want to learn from others. They want to work in a team environment. They want to make sure that it's not like, "What are my hours? 9:00 to 5:00." I don't want people asking what are my hours, because I don't care what your hours are. You can work a few hours a day, as long as you get the projects done that's all that matters to me. 

For me, it's about company culture. A lot of that has to do with my attitude towards stuff. I think company culture is more important than actual skills per se. 

Final Quickfire Questions

Deepak: Yeah. I think it's really compelling to hear about your straightforwardness and how you think about things. I know we've only got four minutes, which is annoying. Guys, we're going to finish up with some of the questions, if any, that we've got here. Okay, we'll storm through them. Bibi asked, "What book are you reading at the moment, Barry, if anything?"

Barry: I just finished, what's the name of the book? The guy who invented stripe, jeez. 

Deepak: The Innovation Stack, is it? Jim McKelvey. 

Barry: I got that book as a present and it was really good. I also love the Steve Jobs books. 

Deepak: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay. Guys, Innovation Stack, check it out. What's your favorite music artist or band?

Barry: I like Neil Young.

Deepak: Okay, amazing. My final question, Mr. Barry, is if there was one thing that you would change about the SEO community, what would it be?

Barry: I just wish at least when you look at Twitter and social media that people didn't make certain assumptions about certain people. Not about me, you can make whatever assumptions you want about me.

What you see on social media is usually not 100% the whole story. Don't make assumptions about what people write, how they write it or what they share, client data they share. A lot of people are really trying to help a lot of people and just give people the benefit of the doubt.

Deepak: Mr. Barry, thank you so much. We've reached the hour mark.

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