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October 20, 2010

Interview with Disa Johnson: Women of Internet Marketing Series

By Julie Joyce



Welcome to the latest (and possibly greatest) installment in the Women of Internet Marketing Series, where we interview, um, women. Today's interview should definitely interest you, as it's none other than Disa Johnson, a very outspoken SEO known as much for her brilliance in in the field as for the fact that she used to be male. I had the honor to meet her in person at SMX East recently and we'll soon be seeing her blogging a LOT.



Q: For anyone unfamiliar with the phenomenon that is AirDisa, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into SEO?

A: I was always interested in the arts. I dabbled in painting and it was by studying music that I assumed a career as an accomplished musician. In the nineteen eighties, I took note of how technology was changing music as a whole. I used to listen to records on vinyl, but I was the first on my block to own CDs and a player. Peter Gabriel's So record was the first ever to use digital equipment through the entire process from recording to CD. I was fascinated by that.

It was about that time that I also read a piece in the LA Times about new equipment called digital modems using telecommunications networks for household computer to computer data connectivity. That intrigued me greatly too. In one instant, I saw that musicians of the future would be empowered to distribute their music individually, without label support, using this new technology. I learned all I could about computers and the Internet so that I would be prepared for the change to music.

I started out with a 14.4k baud modem surfing local bulletin boards. The rest is SEO history.

I've worked as an expert witness on matters of Web technology and search for the US Post Office and several trademark cases involving Google rankings and competition acting unfairly. My attorney would probably advise me that it's a growth area for my business hah hah! It's always been good to have in my arsenal of skills, and been good for the health of my consulting practice. If you know SEO, and you are extremely savvy about legal matters of copyright, trademark and digital publishing, then it can be rewarding.

I had a hand in helping Danny build the SES conference series, and a little to do with SMX as well. He has so many moderators these days that it's hard to imagine when Danny and I were the only ones starting out trying to cover as many topics as we had then. We began with expert roundtables with up to five topics per room. We quickly realized these discussions deserved one room per topic. We had a two track conference for years, until Danny hired Chris and utilized all the SEO personalities that grew out of those early conversations.

Q: You've made no secret out of the fact that you were once Detlev Johnson. As you were a big name then and now, as Disa Johnson, can you speak to how you were treated as a male in the industry vs. a female? I must say that you have a totally unique perspective!

A: I'm having the time of my life. I always loved my life as Detlev too. I like to think of these things as equal overall, but with different benefits (obviously). People treat me differently in the realm of courtesy and respect. Detlev generally commanded instant respect, and now I can safely assume a certain courtesy will be extended to be by men that have self-respect. These aren't absolutes. There are both men and women out there who act badly. I think most people have had such experiences.

Q: Are there any people you've worked with both as Detlev and as Disa? If so, are there any differences in the before and after relationships?

A: Oh yes. I'd say it took a serious turn in every sense working with people and not everybody chose to continue working with me. The exception are the women owned businesses. Everybody I knew previously from women owned businesses generally just had one or two questions, and we then moved on like before.

Most SEO firms are owned by men though. There would be some difficult questions, difficult for them, mind you. I am open about anything to try and help people get it. Things moved on with male owned business often as though I were still Detlev, or until I made them laugh with a joke or two to break the ice. Sometimes someone would brave a joke, and I always love to see a guy try hard to make light when I know their wheels are turning uncomfortably.

At first, you see, my voice hadn't noticeably changed. Most of my work starts over the phone. It's very difficult to not sound like Detlev on day one. Even after a year I have people slipping and calling me Detlev and using male pronouns with me on the phone. That's an indication that they see me as the guy Detlev was. When they catch themselves, they believe they have to correct it out loud and apologize profusely.

I take it upon myself to inhabit Disa. Most of my friends have made the adjustment quickly, impressively fast. Only one or two can't easily hack the switch. Over time they will all make the switch. I'm reaching that point now. My voice is a lot different. You can go back to WebmasterRadio.FM archives with me on it and hear for yourself how I shifted my voice.

Q: Can you tell us about your new webcrawler tool?

A: It's a thing of beauty. It's the first distributable crawler, meaning that the same code runs on any device's browser with a Javascript Interpreter. That's a lot of browsers including mobile versions. For account holders, it securely communicates with a database at Search Return. Given that it's distributable, the crawler is only limited by how many browsers you can run. On the desktop, you can run it inside as many tabs as you have memory to handle. It can't be stopped, spoofed or limited by any site since it uses the browser engine. You can even crawl behind pass-protection.

Q: Where do you see us going with mobile SEO? Will it continue to be popular? I confess to being very poorly informed about all things mobile. I'd especially like to know your thoughts about how the ipad will continue to factor into our lives, because I like to justify the cost.

A: Mobile SEO is becoming increasingly important. At this time, just get your content in mobile format. Google's new basic SEO document spells it out clearly. They want site owners to think about mobile. The adoption of mobile has gone according to past forecasts, at a faster clip than other platforms of Web computing. I have completely mobilized my office in anticipation of our mobile future, our crawler looks fabulous on an iPad.

My advice is to think of mobile in two ways: Mobilized legacy SEO services with boots on the ground at your client's place of business using an iPad or similar device. Also consider the biz dev situation at a conference, or at an Admirals Club or Starbucks. Laptops have become clumsy. The other thing to make sure to learn, is what works and what doesn't work on mobile devices. There's a whole new reason to avoid Flash. I may be able to view Flash on my iPad with a string of apps, but it's not conducive to the interactive style of Flash in any case.

If Jakob Nielsen says: "Flash is 99% Bad" on the desktop, Flash is 100% awful on mobile devices with a touchscreen. Flash is just doomed to fail for anything but banners and games. As for the iPad, it's selling 4.5 times faster than the original iPhone. There's no stopping it. That said, our crawler will run on any device with a browser and full Javascript Interpreter (which would include any surprise competitors).

Q: When you say you're truly mobile, what exactly does that mean? Can you truly do all your work (even coding) from mobile devices? I'm a bit scared of messing with a spreadsheet on my iPad still.

A: I'm at Starbucks. I could also be anywhere I have coverage with my data plan. I can crawl the Web with my software and use apps to accomplish virtually any task I handle in my business. It wasn't easy to get to this point, a lot like it's not easy to switch sex. It takes commitment to a whole different level. You have to start to cut all the ties with the past and forge new dependencies on mobile communication, which is scary.

Critical spreadsheet info is not so easy to handle but it's possible once you are comfortable with the limitations. If you have to handle macros scripts in your Excel, use Word comments regularly then you're going to be disappointed even by Microsoft Mobile 7. The iPad can open Excel and I can change data cells but writing macros is something I would do on my laptop at home. I would do that from my iPad by logging into my laptop at home via the iPad. I do everything but writing source code native to the mobile device I'm using.

Q: What is the AltaDisaSEO℠ Score?  Also while we're getting technical, If you could list 5 skills necessary for a good technical SEO, what would they be?

A: AltaDisa SEO is essentially a set of scores that are unique to my way of thinking about SEO. Being a vet, there are things which are painfully obvious to me which somehow go neglected by today's SEO. My Pagerank Integrity(sm) score is specific to a site's links. Every other tool that analyzes these things get into unnecessary complexity too quickly, and often skip the most obvious big thing you want to know.

I also have a Related Indexed Backlinks score. My AltaDisa trademark is established as a placeholder for the compilation of all these scores into a search engine for account holders. I have SEO practices that I've quietly held on to which is published throughout the application. As far as skills, I've always highly valued writing skills in this business.

It's not enough just to be a good writer though. Marketing savvy is an important accompaniment. In potential employees I look for an information filtering process, which is absolutely necessary on the Web. I don't require tech experience, but I do look for people clever enough to spot dynamic objects at play on a page. The last two skills go hand in hand when considering bots. Recognize dynamic objects and screen your incoming information.

I had an employee burn out within 6 months at age 24 because he tried to keep up with 3,000 feeds of SEO news sources. He knowingly read something like sixteen versions of the same story looking for whatever insight, I don't know. He eventually lost it, the poor soul. I don't ever want to repeat that and hurt anybody's brain. Filter new information first by noting that bots create the third half of all the Web's content, and go from there. The Web is all fluff and bad SEO.

Yesterday, I saw what I consider bad SEO at CNET. They're an authority that rank exceedingly well. How could they screw this up? I searched for a release date for an iPad copycat device, and in the result set was a CNET review with 'release date' text. I would have been satisfied with a simple rumor. The CNET page was an auto-generated empty review page, keywords in the title, ranking top ten for the tablet I was looking up. That's just daft and a bad search experience which reflects most poorly on Google.

It's a win for the SEO, who probably used a ranking report to show off, but is a total failure for CNET who pays them good money for wrong-headed advice. The most important skill in SEO that is actually doing SEO. Everyone wants a 'push button cash machine' like CNET in their portfolio. Because CNET buys the bells and whistles, and would rave about the most modest gains when viewed through the tiny lens of an upward moving line graph.

I look for anyone who has the sense to do better than that.

Q: Anything going on in SEO today that you hate? I'll go first by saying that I truly despise both the debate about "ethics" and Google Instant. That's right. I've disabled you!!

A: I have one other thing that bugs me, but I completely understand it - and it's not limited to SEO. What I hate is when someone assuming they came up with a novel idea, is just hacking an older idea. Twitter is novel for it's mobility, and that's why I like them to beat Google Instant forever. There are very few novel ideas that are actually novel. Blogging is basically just someone taking old guestbook software and tweaking it. The two are hosted HTML-form based publishing with comments. They're really not that different.

People rarely (if ever) make the connection that I just drew. Guestbook spam by bots was a problem. Blog spam by bots is a problem today. The spammers know that guestbooks and blogs are the same exact thing. The best part for me is that Google loves these things even more than when Infoseek used to love guestbooks - hah hah! I haven't seen a new SEO technique in years. It's all repeating stuff we did ten years ago and calling it new or improved. Google's public SEO document even uses sentences that I wrote ten years ago that is now all part of the SEO lexicon.

Q: What's a typical workday like for you?

A: I get up early, but I can veto that myself if I had a late night. My day can start as early as 4am with NPR then a workout. It's common that I'm at the gym by 7 or 8am. When I started my transition, it was like packing two lives in the time space of one. It's less like that now, after about a year and a half, but there's still a lot to do - much more than it took Detlev to be a successful SEO. My business suffered while I had stays at the hospital, and concentrated on working out to heal and get fit. I went from size 24 to size 10 in eighteen months. I work on it daily to better myself, since I knew nothing about being a woman on the outside when I started. It only takes me two hours to look totally fab for anything.

Q: How did you change your weight so drastically? That's very, very impressive. I type that as I sit here cramming in pita chips, of course.

A: There's no pill or diet fad. There's just eat well, watch calories and workout. If you burn up more than you eat then you'll lose weight. It's that simple to start. I stopped eating cheese except once in a rare while. I stopped eating chocolate too, except once in a rare while as well. I don't butter my toast anymore. It sounds like a shame until I explain about how much fun I"m having doing all this. Also, I get to allow myself a budget for things that I love like cheese and chocolate. I just have to think of it differently.

Working out is hard to start and maintain but you can't let yourself down in this regard or weight loss can be painfully slow unless you practically starve yourself. I like cheese and chocolate and as long as I'm losing weight I get to eat well balanced which can include those items without worry. It's all about a balance that is going to get your weight down, and into those size 10 jeans. It's so exciting to fit into size 10 from 24. They don't make the best clothes in plus sizes. Plus size women have to make do with what's available. It's not fair. It's the way things are.

Q: What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself still doing this in 5 years?

A: I definitely intend to continue to be involved with search. Perhaps I'll still be consulting personally but I like writing code best. I am actually very excited about my service marks and what I'll unfold with my applications. I also have other interesting prospects, including a possible return to music and art. The Web will always be hugely central to whatever it is that I'm doing. I'm a digital girl. I'm all digital bits now. I get to live forever. Who wouldn't want that?

Now, the fun ones...and I did try to limit these because there were a billion things I wanted to ask!!

Q: What are your current favorite bands?

A: My music did turn hard towards appreciating music that I wouldn't have intentionally put on as Detlev. I now have this incredible love affair with music that Detlev loved because I am doing so well as Disa. I get to listen to Jimi Hendrix and think along the same lines I always did. Led Zeppelin is intriguing but for a whole other reason. Besides, Heather and I saw Robert Plant in concert and he checked us out. How cool is that?

What's different is that I am filling out the natural curve in music I would have had if I had switched earlier in life. I'm going back to the eighties music, through to Alanis Morissette where I'm getting more depth into the bands I missed out on following the arena rock that Detlev did. I get to bring my arena rock experience to music that I'll participate in down the road. I have more a punk edge today than I did, and I like it all.

Q: Where do you buy your boots sister??

A: Boots! I buy them online, I buy them in physical stores. When I know by way of my stylist precisely that I want that Hunter boot, I'll order it online through Net-a-Porter or Zappos. When we're out shopping, (he's the most fabulous stylist in the universe), we'll try to find something perfect down in The Village or The Meat Packing district in the city. That's where I got my riding boots last year.

Eric also brings me things to whet my chops for high fashion, but we find things in second hand stores too. I got great Frye boots used in Andersonville here in Chicago. They are used, as in better than new, since it truly looks like I've personally had them for years. I've learned everything I know through Eric. I wouldn't trust another soul with my style, especially not me!

Q: How can the SEO industry be more friendly to the GLBT community?

A: No one is asking for perfection but SEO is not perfect in this regard. Danny was very kind to come out to. I was mentally prepared to be tarred and feathered by the rest, but I personally cared about Danny. No one should have to feel so much apprehension about living a successful life. I would say people have been very kind, and some haven't. There are rotten tomatoes thrown about in SEO by cowards, just as much as any other industry. I'll stand and take it.

Those who were backing me were gracious, some even had the guts to stand up and say stuff publicly stand beside me, prepared to defend me. Most people were unaware for a long time, didn't care, or actually were just intimidated by it and afraid to ask. No one showed up for my panel discussion to answer questions. I would say people should speak up more often when it comes to human rights, but it's generally great to be SEO and be gay or whatever.

Q: Ever been smacked on the arse and called cupcake? If so, when and where? If not, do you plan to be?

A: A drunk attorney squeezed my ass and boobs without any permission, and somehow he stole a face lick all at the same time. To this day I can't figure out how he got that lick in too. Previously to that, we were having martinis, talking about music. He seemed totally harmless, coy. I'm 42 and I think he had me by at least time and a half. Not that age is a problem with me, (unless a guy is way too young). It just came as a shocking surprise that someone of age acted like that.

On another occasion, I was standing in line to speak with Vint Cerf (I'm a fan!) and an obnoxious guy cut ahead of me in line. Again, any man with self-respect extends courtesy to women, it's just that simple. Vinton Cerf turned from his conversation, told the man: "ladies first" and took me aside to field my questions.

That was very special to me. I was just starting out, still size 24, and could easily have gone ignored for a multitude of reasons. It was even more special to me because that was the first time "ladies first" had ever been said in reference to me. It was Vint Cerf, I'm a happy geek girl.

Q: Who have you learned the most from in the industry, and what have these people taught you?

A: Heather Lloyd Martin. I learned way more from Heather than any other personality in the industry. We were a couple in business for several years in the mid nineties. Working alongside her taught me a great deal about the writing process in general. Previously to that, my writing was far too technical without tone and voice. It's still like that today but I've developed tone and voice over the years. I exercise it everyday with Twitter now.

Q: Any advice for anyone in ANY minority group who wants to be a part of the SEO community?

A: Live everyday like it's your last. Joy is where you'll find it: It's right inside you! Rise above the noise and walk with your dignity intact (regardless how you feel). Feelings last only for a time, even when they last for what seems like a long time. Feelings will change eventually, just remember they're chemically driven, so eat well and exercise. Watch "It Get's Better" on YouTube (by Dan Savage). No one but *you* are responsible for the way that you feel, one minute to the next. After all that, dismiss the importance of loud jerks if they're pestering you. It happened to me, it can happen to anyone. Once I dealt with the damage, I just moved on with a smile about what's coming next. My life is my message.

So there you have it folks...Disa Johnson. I'd like to thank her for agreeing to do the interview and be so honest and open about her life.


A very interesting and informative article.

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