Since I was old enough to use a mouse, I have been in love with computers. My dad has worked with computers since they were available for personal use and so I naturally became interested in them at a very young age. From playing PC adventure games that took up 8 floppy discs to learning my first programming language in 6th grade, I pretty much always knew I wanted to work with computers in some way. Then when the Internet came to our household, I was hooked. It took a few years to realize what I could do with it, but once the idea came to me that I could make websites, it immediately became a hobby of mine. My first website came in early high school and was called Insane Entertainment, and like many personal pages of the early 2000s, it consisted of pages with lists of things I liked. I had also gotten involved in modding a PC game called Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and this site was where I made my creations available for download.
It was also this Star Wars video game that became the catalyst for a series of events that would change my life in a very real way. Because of my intense interest in this game at the time, I wanted to find out everything I could about it, and I was also extremely interested in learning more about creating mods. A mod is basically any change made to the game, and most of the mods I created were new items added to the game. This led me to finding my first online forum called LucasForums, where there was a very active community involved in creating mods for this game. I joined so that I could ask questions and share the relatively simple mods I did make with the community. But soon I was addicted, and I was browsing this forum just as much as I was playing the game, or more. Internet forums were much more popular at this time due to there being no such thing as Facebook or Twitter or Youtube, so they filled the time sink role that these other websites occupy today for many. As LucasArts (the developer of Star Wars games) came out with more titles after Knights of the Old Republic, I continued to be active on LucasForums, and eventually became a forum moderator after I became more of a regular. As any teenager on a message board would be, I was ecstatic at this, but I never thought it would eventually lead to something much bigger.
By this time I was a senior in high school and had made several websites since my first one. A new version of Insane Entertainment was created with its own forum, where many of my high school friends gathered to hang out online. I wanted to make a forum as big as LucasForums myself, but Insane Entertainment wasn’t meant to be. I was also helping with several of the websites associated with LucasForums for different games. Around this same time I also got involved with another forum called AdminFusion which was a community made up of other forum owners. Within a year I became a moderator and then administrator of this board as well. Being involved in running so many different websites, I was on the Web as often as possible. We had had broadband Internet for a few years at this point, so gone were the days of having to ask to use the Internet in the evenings and making sure no one was using the phone. I have probably painted a picture of myself as quite a shut in, but I was still able to maintain a social life and was involved in sports every semester at high school.
LucasArts was a huge part of my childhood and in the 90s they were one of the top game companies around. I never had a Nintendo system, and while we did have other consoles like Sega Genesis, PC gaming is the most memorable gaming experience of growing up with Star Wars games like TIE Fighter and Rebel Assault II. As the 2000s rolled around, they became less and less memorable, and are in quite a sad state today. But because of this lifelong love of their games, I continued to follow the company and be excited for their games even when they would end up being disappointing. One of the most over-hyped and simply mediocre games they have ever released was a title called The Force Unleashed in 2008. When this game was first announced though, it looked amazing, and so naturally I wanted to create a website about the game. At first I created the site on my own with the domain SWForceUnleashed.com. After six months of running the site on a very generic WordPress template, I offered to run my site for LucasForums. To help migrate the site over to their servers, I worked with one of the owners of the forums, Michael, aka ZeroXcape on the forums. However I mostly kept running the website on my own and it mostly functioned as a news blog with info pages and screenshots from the game. With almost all previous LucasArts games, LucasArts would actually work with high up staff members of LucasForums for things like developer chats on IRC, giveaways, and exclusive info or media. But starting with The Force Unleashed, that pretty much ended. Sites like IGN and Gamespot had taken such a huge part of the fansite market away since they could provide professional coverage for the game my site covered, plus every other game.
While ForceUnleashed.net (our new domain name) was never a huge hit site, it was the first site I had ran targeted to a specific topic and one of the biggest learning tools I have ever been exposed to. Because I was never going to get LucasArts to send us huge amounts of traffic like they used to, I had to turn to the search engines and this is where I really became a self-taught SEO. I knew the basics of search engine optimization before, but didn’t have a platform to test different strategies and watch the results. In short, I was able to rank very highly in Google for my main search terms, above the juggernauts like IGN and Gamespot’s pages for the game. Of course, the world of search changes faster than almost every other industry, and rankings do not matter so much anymore because of extreme personalization of results we see today. But in the time I was working on this site, from 2007-2009, having high ranks was huge. With ForceUnleashed.net, I was able to rank in the second position in Google for “force unleashed”, the highest traffic term related to the game, under the game’s official site and above Wikipedia.
With ForceUnleashed.net I learned how to do both on-site and off-site search optimization and saw great results. I was still very interested in forums at this time, and so in 2008 I started another project around a different game which you have probably heard of, World of Warcraft. This market was extremely saturated and while I was optimistic, it was not ripe for competition, already having many very large forums about the game, not even including the game’s official forums. The forum was more successful than my previous attempt at a forum due to it being focused on a single topic, and also having a much better idea of what I was doing. This website is another example of great success I was able to have in the SEO field. For many people, learning skills like SEO is not something they would do for fun, but when you combine it with a topic you are passionate about, it is very motivating.
After a couple years, my interest in WoW was waning and I stopped actively managing the forums, but left them open and checked them every once in a while to clean up spam. This is where I was truly impressed with this site’s results, as I was able to maintain first page rankings for very competitive terms even after I had stopped doing any work with this forum. I remained on page one of Google for terms like “WoW Forum” until I finally let the domain expire in 2011. I was kicking myself earlier this year then, when out of curiosity I checked to see if anyone had picked up the domain. I found that the domain was available on GoDaddy, but not for standard purchase price, but instead as a premium domain going for $2,800 or more, at least partially because of the SEO value associated with it that I had built. Lesson learned: never let a domain expire, as you can get at least $100 on an auction.
Back to early 2009, when I was a sophomore in college. I had never had a real job before, and despite my successes in the SEO realm with several of my sites, I had only ever seen a few $100 Google Adsense checks out of it, as I was intimidated to get into any type of advertising where I could lose money. So while I had been able to stretch the money I had gotten from high school graduation a very long ways, by this time I didn’t have very much money and decided I should finally get a job. The previous summer, I had two job interviews. One was with Best Buy, and the other was for a local company looking for a web developer. For whatever reasons I was unsuccessful in both of them. I wasn’t sure what type of job I was really going to look for, but I definitely needed to find something. One of the problems people always say about finding a job is how does someone get a job when they don’t have any experience. I was in a similar boat, but unlike a lot of people, I did have experience in something, just not in a real job. I had been doing web development and SEO work for years already and this was before I was even halfway done with college. Just because you haven’t gotten paid to do something doesn’t mean you don’t have the skills to do it and to list it on your resume. I’ll write a post in the future about how to write a resume if you are in this type of situation.
Many of the jobs I was looking for at the time wanted some type of reference from a former or current employer, and the closest thing I had to that was the work I had done with LucasForums. By this time I had worked with the owner, Michael, on several projects and he was well aware of my capabilities, so I felt comfortable asking him if he could be a reference for me. I knew Michael worked at an advertising agency for his day job, so he was a credible person to have a reference from. Well I’m not sure if I realized it at the time, but Michael ended up being one of the most valuable connections I would ever make to this day with regard to kickstarting my career.
In college I was studying information systems. I chose this because I wanted to work with computers, but did not want to go the programming-heavy route of computer science. Information systems was the closest thing to “running websites as a business” that my school offered, although the program ended up having very little emphasis on web technologies. By the time I took the Web Design course during my junior year, I already was way beyond the material that was being taught. If I hadn’t started learning SEO and web development outside of school, I’m not sure what I would have ended up doing as a job after college, but it would have been much different than what I’m doing now.
When I asked Michael about using him as a reference and putting LucasForums on my resume, I did not anticipate at all that he would give me an internship offer on the spot. But that is what happened, and 3 months later I was staying in beautiful La Jolla, San Diego, doing both Internet marketing and web development for the company he works for. I brought up my field of study in school to show that what I was studying was only somewhat related to this internship position, and I could have been studying something completely different and still been qualified for this position because of my outside efforts. I do not regret what I studied in school as who knows how things would have turned out if I had done something different, but I do think you can learn a lot more by being proactive and finding something you truly enjoy to teach yourself and become awesome at.
So that is how I got my start in Internet marketing. While I had been doing SEO on the fan sites I worked on the past few years, now I had the opportunity to demonstrate these skills on big name clients in the biotech industry. I was even given the responsibility of reworking the company’s own website into the Drupal CMS (a process I’ve come to know as Drupalizing). With this reworking came huge SEO benefits, and I was also able to give the site a boost of several positions in the search engine results pages (SERPs) for their main key phrase. This internship was also my first exposure to pay per click (PPC) marketing using Google Adwords, which is now something I deal with on a daily basis. So it is safe to say that this internship is one of my most valuable experiences I’ve ever had, and paraphrasing Michael, I learned more in 4 months working with them than the previous two years of college.
That is how I started my career in a field outside of what I studied in college, but it didn’t end there and still hasn’t. Anyone can apply this story to what they want to do. While I certainly had a degree of luck and meeting the right people along the way, there are several things I did that you can do too to help get you to where you want to go. First, do what you want to do. Find something you are truly interested in and do not look at it as work, even though it could have the potential to be work. The trick is to find something that you can be passionate about and can make money from. I was (and am) very interested in video games, but I didn’t have anyone offering to pay me to play them. But I used my interest in them to learn about web development and Internet marketing and was able to find real jobs from this experience. Next, learn lots. You can almost never be too good at something and it will take some effort to become awesome at what you want to do. Learning is awesome, and if you find something you really like doing, it will be awesome.