Ben Wills is the founder of Ontolo. Ontolo has earned acclaim for its SEO and Link Building Tools, which have been endorsed by Rand Fishkin, Will Crichtlow and other industry titans. Ben is also a writer, a rock climber, a women’s coach and a former rave promoter. In his own words, “… understanding the world, self and what it means to live a good life has been my utmost passion.”
In this interview, we discuss the concept of ‘starting,’ efficiency in link building and the movie Pretty Woman. No, really.
Ben and I chatted via email.
Page One Power: First, let’s talk about what you were doing before Ontolo came around. How did you get involved in the world of SEO?
Ben Wills: I just want to say, before I get into that, that I thought how you approached me for the guest post was totally awesome. Your personality really come through, it was fun (I laughed several times throughout), and you were totally appreciative. For anyone reading this, if Dustin approaches you for an interview, you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.
As for how I got started, I was actually throwing raves (warehouse parties, glowsticks, house music, people on drugs, that whole thing) in Austin, TX in 2000 and 2001. That business failed when I put all of my money into our final and largest event that had 48 DJs, four stages, etc. When that event failed, I was 19 and moved to North Carolina with my parents who had just moved there as well.
Looking for a job, I knew only one thing: that I wanted to work for an internet company. I lucked into a sales role at a company that ended up being the largest SEO company in the world with 1,400 clients at its peak. Two weeks and zero sales later, I was moved to a client support role. It’s where I met and worked with so many great folks, including Andy Beal, Garrett French, and many others who are doing amazing consulting work or more behind the scenes at some very successful companies.
I worked with Andy Beal at another company after that and we both left it around the same time to start our own thing. After taking on a number of link building projects and being aggravated at how time consuming it was, I started writing code to speed up my processes. And that’s really when Ontolo was born.
Ontolo is a great tool for seasoned link builders. What inspired you to develop Ontolo? Tell us the Ontolo story (as long as it’s not the same story as Pretty Woman, because that movie was pretty boring. See what I did there?).
I don’t remember Pretty Woman, except there was a rich guy and a prostitute and a baseball scene or something? I don’t know. Basically, any similarity between my story and Pretty Woman is purely coincidental. Though, obviously, I’m quite pretty.
The main inspiration for building Ontolo was the aggravation that I found doing link building for my own clients. I hate wasting my time (I have all the same kinds of clothes, plan my meals, and live the rest of my life as efficiently as possible) and doing link building for clients was a huge waste of time. At that time, in 2008, there were no great processes, no great tools, or anything like what’s out there today.
I had a bit of a programming background, so I started Frankensteining this stuff together that quickly doubled my efficiency. Then I doubled it again. Then I doubled it again and again and again.
In 2008, I traveled to a new city every month for over six months. It was a bit of a lost/wandering perioed, and I wanted to figure out what to do with the next few years of my life. I knew I liked analyzing large sets of data, I knew I liked finding uncommon patterns, and I had a large network and seven years in SEO at that point. So I put it all together with Ontolo.
You place great value (near-reverence) on not just the act of ‘starting,’ but on the concept of starting? How has that vulnerable place influenced you in the business world? How did that play into Ontolo?
As much as I revere the concept of starting, I still struggle with it in my own ways. I think that when it comes down to it, you can only think through something so much. After that point, you have to do it – something, anything – because the lessons that follow can only be gained through experience. I discovered that after many years of over-thinking and under-doing.
How that plays into Ontolo mostly comes through in our products. Admittedly, we’re horrible at marketing ourselves. But our products and at least how they’re built on the backend (Andy Davidoff does absolutely amazing work) are, in my very-biased opinion, really great. And we had to start somewhere. And we’ve tripped and fallen many times. But when we get something right, we know it. And we wouldn’t know it if we didn’t implement this feature or that, or really look at the feedback we were getting and take action on it.
What is your exact target audience for Ontolo and how do you approach that audience?
Our target audience has traditionally been agencies and companies with an SEO team. But look for that to change in the next month or two.
As for how we’ve approached that audience, we’ve traditionally done it very much through our product rather than marketing. Everything we do with our products, we do with the intent of it scaling and being customizable; for ourselves and for our customers. There are a lot of link building tools out there now, but not many that really focus on what you need to perform well for advanced link building (custom prospecting, automation, tons of data, advanced search capabilities).
What’s the most notable way that Ontolo might improve the average link builder’s life?
Your body releases a chemical Cortisol when it’s stressed. Ontolo reduces your stress by automating and de-duplicating many parts of link building, letting you find more relevant link prospects, faster.
Cortisol counteracts insulin, which leads to weight gain. And weight gain leads to heart disease. And heart disease is the number one killer in the world, cutting years off your life. Because Ontolo makes link building less stressful, you’ll live longer if you use Ontolo.
Cortisol also decreases the amount of amino acids your body uses to build/rebuild muscle mass. The reduced-stress benefits of Ontolo will make you stronger and looking great, too.
Finally, we all know that when we’re stressed, our sex drive is diminished. Basically, Ontolo helps you have more sex, too.
So, when you really put it all together, with better cardiovascular functioning, greater muscle mass, and an increased sex drive, Ontolo keeps you looking hot, in shape, and having lots of sex.
I know that might be strange to hear, but these are true science facts.
From what I can gather, it seems like “there’s always room for improvement” and “I can always make myself and my endeavors better” are important concepts for you. Ontolo has been lauded by quite a few industry giants, and by every definition of the word, you’re successful. How do you stave off complacency? How do you stay humble?
It’s interesting you ask about complacency. It’s one of the few things that I actually loathe. And, again, that comes from having felt complacent for lengths of time in my life. I’ll never get those years back. As far as staving off complacency, I’d say I do it in a completely neurotic and obsessive manner. Totally healthy, right?
As for humility, that’s a tough one to answer. There are people out there who would never use the word “humble” to describe me. Then, there are others who know me much better (and more recently), who would.
I’m not sure how I “stay humble,” but I’ve learned humility through owning my mistakes. I’ve made a lot of them. I’ve hurt people that I deeply cared about along the way. I’ve made decisions that didn’t completely line up with my values. I’ve made some big mistakes. I’d say that I learned a bit about humility when I began really owning my actions and the consequences of them, particularly in how they’ve impacted others. And I find that the more I do that and combine it with forgiving myself and others for similar things, the more in touch with my own humility that I become.
How does your positive, pro-self-improvement mindset affect the culture at Ontolo?
One of my psychoneurotic tendencies is an obsessive focus on creating meaning and purpose in my life and in the lives of others. So I was asking myself the question the other day of “What am I willing to fight for?”
And what I found to be most true for me is that I think it’s completely absurd that more people aren’t deeply happy and fulfilled. We have thousands of years of eastern and western philosophy, psychology, spirituality, business, and health information accessible to us…yet so many of us are still stuck being unhappy, out of shape and overweight, unfulfilled, consumed by existential despair, etc. When I think of that, it’s physically painful to me.
So I’ve made it a point, almost to the detriment of the company at times, that both Andy and I make sure we’re taken care of, first. And when I worked with Garrett, it was the same thing…I can’t tell you how many times I told him to stop working or told him to take days off to take care of himself and his family.
And, now, when the weather’s great, Andy summits 14,000 foot mountains in the snow (“great weather” is clear and above -30 wind chill, btw), I’ve started working from the climbing gym, I’ll climb outdoors when it’s nice out, I’ll go snowboarding if there’s fresh snow, we both set our own schedules that fit for us, etc. We might be able to make more money doing it a different way, but we’ve both burned ourselves out in the past doing it that way. And from those experiences, we’re clear that’s now how we want to do it. So we do it this way and we’re happy.
This is a broad question and everyone has a different answer, but I’m interested in your take on the matter: what is the future of link building? In its modern White Hat form, will it continue to be an effective strategy?
People have been saying this for years, but it’s finally sinking in: the “future” of link building lies in content and branding. Repeatedly publishing great content (which could also just be your product like Apple has proven) creates a great brand. I think there will always be link requests, guest posting, etc. But the kinds of content that are becoming “normal” were insanely awesome just a couple of years ago now.
I think that’s something people don’t quite remember…we talk a lot of trash about infographics now, but, dang, they used to be insanely awesome not too long ago.
Ontolo focuses on relevancy, and that’s the most important thing to us at P1P. What does relevancy mean to you, in terms of link building?
We believe a “relevant” link prospect:
* Is Relevant to the content the link would point to. (Defined by keywords used, topics, etc)
* Is Valuable enough to invest your time in.
* Has the Potential to give you a link.
In fact, in the first version of Ontolo, we had aggregate Relevance, Value, and Potentiality scores.
What’s your theory on this: does Google just not count some of the iffy the links that they used count, or do they actively punish spammy links? If you go with the punishment side of the coin, how feasible do you think a sort of ‘link war’ or ‘negative SEO war’ might be?
I’ll be totally honest here and say that I have not actually done link building in almost two years. We stopped doing consulting/projects in April of 2010.
So it might be best for me to answer from a philosophical point, having been in the industry since 2001.
What makes absolutely no sense to me is how Google can ethically penalize you for having a link to your site. The exception here is if Google believes strongly enough that they have a method for identifying if a link was placed by you, or if it was not placed by you. Then, if they use some sort of factor to say “this is a spammy link and it was placed by the company, then they should be penalized,” I guess that makes sense.
But, and I feel very strongly about this, if they are actually penalizing you in an automated manner for links that you may or may not have pursued, I find that to be both ethically and morally incongruent. They have a responsibility as the world’s largest search engine to both their searchers and also to the sites they index. To penalize you, as a webmaster, for someone else’s actions against your site seems completely unethical to me and not in alignment with what they have preached since they started in 2008. Determining if a link is relevant and how to value it is their responsibility to figure out, not a webmaster’s. And “cleaning up” a link profile of links that you had nothing to do with in the first place, again, that should not your responsibility. That’s the responsibility of the search engine.
What’s the best advice you can give on that concept of ‘starting’ as it applies to entrepreneurial endeavors or just trying to break into the SEO/link building world?
I touched on it above, but I’ll say it again in a different way here: Everything you do, think it through as much as is useful. Then stop thinking it through. Make a plan. Execute the plan. Analyze your results and experience. Then improve it.
This is the process that has been “discovered” over and over and over. It’s the foundation of Six Sigma, Agile, Lean, and all that. Every process boils down to those key parts.
What’s next for Ontolo? What’s next for Ben Wills?
What’s next for Ontolo is some really exciting stuff. We’re wrapping up some final, key improvements on our automated toolset. Then we’re improving another product. Then we’ll be releasing an entirely new product to help bring link prospects closer to the content creation process. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. We’re really excited about it.
As for me, personally and outside of Ontolo, after a lot of soul searching and support from friends and mentors, I’ve begun coaching women… both one on one and through workshops. It’s something that some of the most amazing women I know really pushed me to do after seeing it in me, and I absolutely love it. The short of it is that I see so many women who are so unhappy because they’ve become disconnected from their own femininity in order to pursue their careers, etc. In so many ways, women have become much more powerful than men, but with so many of them, there’s “this thing that’s missing.” Through hundreds of conversations, I’ve found that many women see that thing that’s missing is that they’ve become disconnected from their femininity. So, what I work with women on is in reconnecting with their femininity in themselves, their relationships, etc. It’s the most deeply fulfilling work I’ve ever done, is the only thing that has consistently brought me to tears, and I have some big stuff planned there as well, which you’ll see soon on my website, FullFeminine.com.
So, from throwing raves, to SEO agency VP, to link building tools, to helping women reconnect with and cultivate their femininity.
Makes sense, right?
Thanks from Page One Power, Ben!