Mike Grehan: Hi and welcome once again to Live on 65, coming to you directly from the 65th floor of the Empire State Building at Acronym’s global headquarters. This is where I get to sit down and speak to the great, the good, and people who had nothing else to do this afternoon in the industry. With me today from AOL is Simon Heseltine.
Simon Heseltine: Hi mate, thanks for having me.
Mike Grehan: Hey there Simon. Simon, is there … Oh, look you got a round of applause eventually.
Simon Heseltine: Oh, there we go.
Mike Grehan: Is there something wrong with your microphone?
Simon Heseltine: Well it is making me sound like I have an English accent, but I think yours has the same problem.
Mike Grehan: We had to do that, that’s just a little in joke between Simon and I about the problem with our microphone giving us both British accents, and if you’d like to get the gist of that you need to come and see either one of us speaking live at a conference. Anyway Simon, great to have another Brit along with us. Let me just see if I get your title right here, you are now senior director of audience development with AOL, yes?
Simon Heseltine: That sounds about right, yeah.
Mike Grehan: Good, because I just read it on your business card. You’re a long way from home. Let’s just do the usual thing. I like to get a bit of background on people who have been in the industry for a while. Obviously you’re a Brit.
Simon Heseltine: Yup.
Mike Grehan: Where did you start in the U.K. and how did you end up in the U.S?
Simon Heseltine: Basically I went to college in the U.K., met a girl and followed her over here in ’92. I’ve been here now 24 years.
Mike Grehan: She didn’t have you arrested for…
Simon Heseltine: No, no, no, no. My first career over here was actually in programming. I was a small talk developer, became a Java developer, and then started working for a company that was taking the print Yellow Pages, putting them on CD for print reduction, and the next logical step was, “Let’s put these on the web.” We put them up there, and we found this thing called an analytics package. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them.
Mike Grehan: Only just.
Simon Heseltine: We put it on the site, and we looked at the traffic, and the traffic was going like that. The next question was, “How do we get it to go like that?” The CEO said, “I’ve heard of this thing called SEO. Why don’t you look into it, Simon?” So I did, and that’s…
Mike Grehan: You came into the industry from the technical side.
Simon Heseltine: Yeah.
Mike Grehan: I find it very interesting when I’m talking to people who are involved in SEO, and they come from various different backgrounds. Some come in from marketing. One of the conversations that I was having recently about SEO was about how it started. When SEO actually started, it was much more of a technical process. You did have to understand HTML and how the code worked, and a lot of it was about helping this primitive crawler as it was back in the day. So is that what you found most of the time, that was technical stuff that you were doing, yeah?
Simon Heseltine: Well for me, yeah, but the team that I had when I first started at AOL was a really interesting mix of backgrounds. It was almost eclectic. We had librarians, we had a pastry chef.
Mike Grehan: You need one of those.
Simon Heseltine: Absolutely fantastic content. Robin Aguilar, or Robin Francis as she is now.
Mike Grehan: Yes.
Simon Heseltine: Fantastic content person, just really digging deep into that. The librarians, very good analytical minds. The developers, we know to come at it from that technical perspective, and getting a nice mix on your team I think can really help you to uncover lots of different things from different perspectives. There’s lots of ways to skin a cat.
Mike Grehan: It’s interesting because I’ve been going back over some of the early interviews that I did, particularly with the guys at Google, because obviously I was around, I guess you were, when Google was just getting off the ground. One of the analogies that they had was that they want their search engine to be like the little librarian at the library who knows where everything is, and able to point you in that direction. That’s where you started. Like I say, you’re with AOL now. How on earth did you end up there, how did that happen?
Simon Heseltine: I went from that small company that was doing the Yellow Pages…I was there for seven and a half years. Then decided, “Let’s try the agency side.” I went to an agency for a couple years, and it was interesting. I worked with a lot of associations, worked with a few e-commerce companies, but I didn’t feel like I had the ownership that I wanted. We’d do these recommendations, we’d sit down with our clients, but we had no way to really push the stuff through. I missed that kind of ownership. I wanted to go back in house. A position opened up at AOL, which was not that far from where I lived, so I applied for it.
Mike Grehan: That was very handy.
Simon Heseltine: Yeah, yeah. I applied for it, and after a speedy six-month interview process, I got in. I’ve been there five and a half years now. My job’s changed a few times as we’ve bought different companies.
Mike Grehan: So there have been some huge changes over at AOL. It’s changed the model. How advanced were they with SEO when you arrived there? Did they actually get it?
Simon Heseltine: Back when I arrived there, we had something close to 200 different brands that we were working with. Some of them got it. Based on the size of the team that we had then, we had a team of ten at that point, so not every brand was getting the individual attention they needed. I was working with a sports site we had then, Fan House, and those guys, they voraciously attacked SEO. We just saw some really good numbers, some really great growth on the organic side. Over time, we bought Huffington Post. That was the big one.
Mike Grehan: Yeah, I was going to ask, that Huffington Post must have been a huge audience driver for AOL, yeah?
Simon Heseltine: Yeah we bought those guys in February 2011, and it just changed things overnight. I actually at one point reported into Huffington Post for about a year and a half. Those guys had a different perspective to how they would do things to how we were working with the other brands. Over time, we’ve all come to great agreements and understandings, and we’re all working towards that common goal of trying to get our brands as high as we can.