Happy 25th Anniversary, Bruce Clay Inc.! Find Out How It All Started…
This year we hit a milestone: 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of Bruce Clay Inc.! What started in January 1996 with one man working off his dining room table has grown into a multimillion-dollar agency that has served thousands of clients via offices around the world.
So how did we get our start? The story goes way back to the 1990s, before search engine optimization — or Google — was even a thing. Bruce, having run several other businesses, was ready for a change. He started a consultancy in his name (Bruce Clay Inc.) and well, the rest is history.
We know the timeline (see our company history here). But we wanted to hear the story of how we got to where we are today from the man himself. So enjoy this interview with Bruce, which details the journey of how a guy with a vision of internet business turned Bruce Clay Inc. into a global brand.
The year was 1996 … how did you get started?
Bruce: My bachelor’s is in math and computer science and I’m a programmer at heart, even though I was managing businesses before that. And my MBA is from Pepperdine, so I liked the concept of business marketing.
Prior to 1996, I had run other businesses. And I decided I really wanted to be a consultant. I didn’t want a cast of thousands in multiple cities nor did I want any of the things that went with operating a business.
My general feeling at the time was it’s just gonna be me, my notebook computer, and a Corona on a beach. That’s what I was going to do. And it ended up taking on a life of its own.
Back in January of ‘96, when Al Gore “invented” the internet (even though the internet had been around for 20 years), everything I read made me realize it was going to get to be really, really big. And I looked around and determined that marketing on the internet was through something called a search engine.
I figured out how all the data moved around and what kind of data the search engines used. And it really turned out to be a puzzle. And the more I did it, the more I loved it.
But this was years before Google. The landscape had Infoseek, AltaVista, Excite. It was chaos at the time. We actually made the very first search engine relationship chart pretty early on, in the year 2000 (you can see that below).
What was business like the first year?
Bruce: A vast majority of the time I was building the website and doing a lot of research on search engine ranking, which is what it was called back in the day.
I used Netscape to build my handwritten HTML website. I learned how HTML and search engines could work together if I changed the HTML. I just kept adding content. So there was a lot of experimentation going on.
And then all of a sudden, people started hiring me. I was making enough money to make ends meet and grow.
And then I started getting more business and I raised my prices. Then, I got more business and I hired people. Then we raised our prices and I got more business again. And before you knew it, I had to move the business out of the house. That was in the year 2000.
What were your first clients like?
Bruce: They were very small companies — like one-person companies. They were people who said, Hey, I’m going to get on the internet. I’m going to sell this thing online.
I remember that one of my first few clients was an actual witch.
So I felt very good because I think every SEO company at the beginning needs to have a witch on their client list.
Tell me about the first big milestone for Bruce Clay Inc.
Bruce: Well, the first real milestone didn’t happen quickly. I think the first milestone was when I could afford staff. Then the next milestone was probably when I started speaking at Danny Sullivan’s conferences, Search Engine Strategies.
And then from there, the next milestone was probably a million-dollar year. And then it kept going from there.
After reaching those milestones, I felt I had really succeeded. I had run other businesses successfully, but with Bruce Clay Inc., I pivoted into a whole new, yet-to-be-discovered industry and I was once again succeeding.
Anybody can succeed once. So I really felt strongly that I had actually succeeded twice.
Let’s talk a little more about the early SEO conference days…
Bruce: I think ‘99 was the first year of Search Engine Strategies. For the very first one, I was there, as were most of the people who had started doing search engine ranking.
Danny Sullivan got all the key speakers together for his conference. We all sat at one table in a bar to discuss what we were doing. That was the conference. That’s how few of us there were.
Had there been an earthquake or disaster of some kind, the SEO industry would have been wiped out.
A lot of my early fame was because I was vocal and answered questions freely, participated in conferences and gave away information. And I’ve been given a lot of credit for the foundation-building of the industry by doing that.
And I’m proud to be in that position. I think that’s how I got the honor of having colleagues name me the Father of SEO.
What are some of your achievements over the years?
Bruce: Well, obviously, there is success. That is really a great thing.
Over the years, I have been on TV shows, in major publications like Wired magazine’s spread on Google before Google went public, and even on the cover of magazines. We’ve been pretty fortunate that we’ve been able to retain recognition.
When Wiley asked me to write the Search Engine Optimization All-in-One for Dummies book, that was a nice surprise and recognition.
I also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from The History of SEO advisory board.
One of the other things that comes to mind — almost a moment when I didn’t know how to react — was the first few times that people came up and asked to have their picture taken with me or asked for an autograph. The first time that happens, it’s like, You’re talking to me?
I could have let it go to my head and become a really terrible person. But all it made me do was double my efforts to train people, answer questions and engage.
When did you start the SEO training program and why?
Bruce: The catalyst was a client who asked for on-site SEO training around 1998. I had a lot of materials because I was training my staff, but I didn’t have a formal training program. So I had to create one.
I built a PowerPoint deck and went out and did the training.
And it was a couple of years later that I started offering my own classroom course.
So I’ve been doing training for about 23 years now. I’ve trained over 5,000 people by my rough count. Now we are releasing our online SEO training course in March.
When did you launch the SEOToolSet and why?
Bruce: Within six months of starting the company, I wrote my first tool. At the time, it was called the Keyword Density Analyzer, which evolved into the Single Page Analyzer today.
I was tracking keywords in spreadsheets for pages I was optimizing, and it became very tedious. So I wrote a program that would read the webpage and build a report that told me where all the keywords and keyword phrases were used on the page.
I started building the tools out in about 1998, and we have 40 of them in the SEOToolSet® today. Recently we added a WordPress plugin and even got a patent for our analysis software. And we are expanding the SEOToolSet even more in the near future.
How did the brand go international?
Bruce: I had people from other countries asking me if they could open Bruce Clay offices. The first time that happened, there were a number of things that ran through my mind — Do I want to do this? Is it going to succeed? How do I structure it? — but equally as important was: Is it a place I want to go on a vacation?
And Sydney, Australia, was nice. So I set up Australia first in 2007. Today, we have offices there and also in Japan, India and Dubai. We are looking to expand in Europe and Singapore next.
In many cases, the international locations had clients before they even had offices because the brand was strong. I would make sure the employees knew what they were doing beforehand, but we also had our training program in place. So we were able to train people to do SEO our way.
The international offices were almost an instant success.
What sets BCI apart?
Bruce: There are a great many companies that have only one expert and a whole bunch of junior people supporting them. At BCI, we are now a company of only experts. I made the decision a few years back that 100% of the staff working on client projects would have 10 years or more of experience in their field.
By hiring experts, I found that larger companies are drawn to us. I’ve had people come to us and say the reason they are talking to us is they got tired of having to train the prior agency’s SEO team on how to do SEO because they knew more than them.
So we’re a company of experts. We’re certainly not the cheapest nor the most expensive in town, but we are one of the best. We’re not a cast of hundreds of employees here in the U.S. We don’t need to have hundreds to be the best.
What do you like best about what you do?
Bruce: I solve puzzles for a living.
We are working in an environment that is a moving target. Google changes the algorithm an average of 10 times a day. You have competitors that want your lunch and they’re going to do whatever it takes for them to get it.
Every day, we go to war. Your website is the tool we bring to the battle as the weapon. We are fighting in real time against other businesses in the search results. If we lose, the client company might have to let people go.
Some other industries out there are not so mission critical in any given moment. If an SEO messes up a company’s website and SEO strategy, they could damage the company’s revenue and people’s livelihood.
And so there’s a level of responsibility with SEO that very few industries have.
What’s in store for Bruce Clay Inc.?
Bruce: In the first month of 2021, we saw almost exponential growth. I think 2021 is going to be an unbelievably amazing year for digital marketing because everybody’s at home.
Things pivoted in 2020, but nobody knew the impact of it until this year, when all of the marketing money is going to digital. From the inquiries that we’ve had in January, I see that companies recognize that there’s an opportunity they need to jump on.
We may have to hire a person a month for the whole year just to keep up with growth, maybe more! So I expect 2021 to see rapid growth. Our near-term focus is on SEO training and the SEOToolSet. And services, of course, will need to keep up with demand.
Happy 25th anniversary to Bruce Clay Inc.! We look forward to many more years of serving businesses with the very best SEO strategies out there.
Interested in talking with us about your digital marketing needs?