Conversations in Search: Dixon Jones

Dixon Jones

Dixon Jones is CEO of InLinks

Dixon is an entrepreneur with a flair for spotting opportunities early. His first business, Murder Mystery and Mayhem, started offline in 1989. When he was acting in events more regularly, Dixon would be cast in the role of ‘Inspector Clu d’Eau’.

Best known for his work in bringing the backlink analysis tool Majestic to market, Dixon has worn many different hats in his career including agency owner. Dixon enjoys bouldering indoors, and likes to take his Pilgrim Bulldog called ‘Carrot’ out for a spin and is treasurer of Pilgrim Car Club.

This post is part of a series called ‘Conversations in Search’. I discuss the current state of SEO practice with other SEO experts and discover their views on the future of SEO.

Damien: Dixon, thank you so much for taking the time. How are you doing?

Dixon: I’m doing good thanks. Everyone is healthy, and we’re getting on with the new normal.

Damien: Take us back to your university days. Where did you go, and what did you study?

Dixon: I was at Brunel University and studied Maths and Management Studies. It was a weird thing to put together as everyone was doing either Business Studies and, or science but the maths and management together seemed odd pre-internet.

I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 1988 at Thatcher’s Britain, with a third-class degree, and the world was falling apart. I was then president of the Students Union for a year which I went for as I learned I could be the nominal head of an organisation with 100 employees and all sorts of businesses from nightclubs to creches.

When I started my first business, I was getting £40 a month on the ‘enterprise allowance’, a government scheme at the time. I couldn’t live on that, so I then had to go and get a part-time job washing up in the mornings. Then I found I was no longer eligible for the £40, so needs must! I started up the murder mystery company in 1989, I loved creating plots, and I just love games. 

Damien: When did you move your first business online?

Dixon: In 1997, I saw SEO as a bit of a game and was looking at Yahoo one day, typed in ‘murder mystery games’, and I saw an advert for Adidas at the top of the results and thought, that’s crazy. I created the first version of my murder mystery site using FrontPage, I loved it. 

My first ever SEO speaking gig was at the Microsoft FrontPage users group in Reading. They asked me to talk about search engine optimisation. As I am looking at these search results, I thought surely the marketing opportunity here is to figure out how to get my website coming up first organically rather than paying thousands for search ads.

At the time, I lived on the Hanger Lane gyratory system in London, and my office was in Mill Hill, and I had to drive past a building that was a datacenter selling website space. Having just built my website I thought what I needed, if something goes wrong with my site, was to be able to bang on the door, and ask for my data back, I was that naïve back then. 

I went to that web hosting company because I could see the building and I knew where my data was. The one thing that they had was a log analysis programme, Web Trends, that ran every Thursday and showed me where my traffic was coming from. When I saw that people were coming to my website from places like Ohio I thought ‘Well, I can’t possibly get my actors to Ohio.’

So, I wrote a downloadable version of a murder mystery started selling it, and then started optimising, and we sold them all over the world and, including Antarctica, to the Antarctic Expedition one Christmas. I then set up my first and only SEO consultancy, Receptional, in 1999, which I had for many years before I sold it and migrated over to Majestic, the backlink analysis tool.

Damien: How did you make that choice to make the change direction, from selling the murder mysteries to open up a digital agency?

Dixon: I got married and then had a baby, so my daughter, Genie, arrived in January 2000, so I knew I had the pressure of a baby coming. I tried to step back from the murder mystery games, especially the acting side of it, to concentrate on the downloadable games, the SEO side of it. It was tough to step back as I love all aspects of the business, but I’d already mentally shifted into SEO mode. 

Then I started the agency in the fall of 1999. The idea there was no one knows what SEO is right now, but they’re going to because this is going to be huge.

Damien: Do you remember your first client at your agency?

Dixon: My first client at Receptional was my wife. My main first client was some businesses owned by Mohammed Al Fayed. I also had an agency client, the agency that had built the site for Mohammad Al Fayed, they then gave me a couple of other customers as well; that’s how the agency started out. 

I also had a left-field research project with Honda at the time. They said ‘Right, we need to know what the hell everyone else is doing.’ What we did was to run a programme, checking competitors every day, and seeing what was changing from week to week on their web pages. We were looking at Ford’s website and Vauxhalls website, and the other major players and analysing what was changing and then providing a report to Honda every week. That kept me fed for a year or two.

Damien: Changing your career up for necessity you then went on to get involved with Majestic. Tell us about that change?

Dixon: That was a leap, eventually, I got tired of being agency-side and went over to the tool-side, with Majestic. I saw that opportunity when Alex Chudnovsky, who owns Majestic, showed me what he had built. I had heard that there was this new link tool out there. The only one that we could use at the time was Yahoo Site Explorer, which everybody else was using.

I had a look at this new one, and it cost me £10 to get some backlinks. It didn’t work the first time I used it; there was a bug. I found myself angrily emailing the owner of the business who politely replied that he had fixed the bug, and to please try again and here’s another £30 worth of credits. As soon as I saw that he hadn’t used the Yahoo API in any way and he had got this data from first principles, I thought I know everybody in the world that needs this.

The only other company putting backlinks out at that time was SEOMoz, led by Rand Fishkin. I knew that I was going to be working with Majestic for several months, but I couldn’t talk about it, I had to be quiet.

I was at a conference in Iceland at the time with Rand and Geraldine, his now-wife. I was on a panel, talking about backlinks, and I had the Majestic back end open. Rand was the moderator and about halfway through he said, ‘What are you using for that analysis, are you using Majestic?’.

Rand invited me to his wedding that day, and I thought I couldn’t possibly go, I’m not allowed to tell you that I’m going to start working with Majestic. Apart from the fact that it was 7,000 miles away for the wedding, I can’t possibly. To this day, I regret not being able to their wedding. 

The next time we met was Mel Carson’s wedding, whose ex-Bing and has been an ambassador of Majestic. I didn’t know if Rand was going to hit me or hug me,  but he’s Rand, he hugged me. It took me quite a long time for that, that relationship to build up, trust takes time.

Damien: It’s evident you’re very capable of finding new opportunities. I wonder what lessons you’ve learned about yourself from these different businesses, Dixon?

Dixon: The thing is my skill set is good at getting business from nowhere to somewhere.  I’ve done it with most of the companies I’ve worked for. I’m not suggesting that I’m the best at that in the world, but I do find that when a business gets to a certain size, my skill set is not as good. 

My skill set is much better at ideation and creating something out of nothing, and I enjoy the startup phase. There was something to do with tabletop cookware which I did straight out of university, which was not my idea, but I jumped on that and failed dismally, so I’ve had my share of failures. 

If you’re going to fail, fail fast, and try not to do it with too much money. The thing is on the internet, and you don’t need as much money to start something up. It’s not saying you don’t have to risk something. I did have another let’s say ‘non-starter’ about 18 months ago. After getting some distance from Majestic, I was looking at harvesting energy off of the body. Everyone’s body gives out heat, and you’re using your arms etc. etc. I researched if there was enough power there to harness, and if so, could it keep, say a mobile phone charged?

I did some maths, and I put a patent application in for some ideas, but ultimately, the patent is unlikely to get approved. That takes away all the USP for the whole thing, and then it would need quite a lot of money to build out the technology from an idea into workable concepts. I’m sure some big organisations are working on these things, but it turns out it’s not for me.

Damien: It’s a good demonstration that not all of what you’ll do will be a success. Sometimes you have to then realise this is not the right thing and move on.

Dixon: That’s true. One of the hardest things is not to take it personally. When you realise that you’ve walked down a cul de sac, get up, dust yourself off and move on. 

Putting a patent application in, using lawyers, that’s money down the drain I’ll never get that back. At least I’ve not spent three months trying to raise millions of pounds on a project that ultimately wouldn’t succeed.

Damien: Your current business is inLinks, how did you get into that?

A couple of years ago, 2018, I pulled back from Majestic and took a bit of time just sort of breathing and recovering. I’d just completed an MBA from Aston University Business School, specialising in strategy too. My wife, Maria, eventually said, ‘Dixon you’re getting under my feet. Please can you go and earn enough money to buy that big house on the edge of the village.’ I met a French developer, Fred Laurent, after he contacted me on my website and said ‘Hey I’ve got this project, inLinks, and I think you’d be a good match.’, so I invested, and now I’m the CEO.

inLinks is a tool that will automate internal links on your website, and it will automate schema for your website and help you optimise your content. It does it in a fundamentally different way to anything built pre-2015 or so. Google, when they bought Metaweb and Freebase, started the process of thinking about the world’s knowledge in terms of entities and topics, rather than in terms of collections of web pages. 

Whereas they were thinking about everything as links between web pages, they could start having their encyclopaedia if you like, about particular subjects or things. Then all of those web pages can start informing that knowledge repository. The Google Knowledge Graph is increasingly important as we move forward so by understanding things in terms of concepts and topics, then our optimisation becomes different. We can say if you’re going to talk about an entity you should probably talk about those things closely related to it. We find semantically close topics to optimise.

Damien: With your years of SEO experience, you’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, and you’ve seen people approach common challenges, what are those that you still see?

Dixon: The first problem in bricks and mortar type of businesses is that the managing director or the C-suite team always start thinking about SEO as a secondary problem and thinking that the brand is first. On the other side, many SEOs are trying to build websites just for SEO without thinking about the brand. The brand and the SEO go hand in hand.

If you’re going to want to get organic traffic, then you’re going to have to start tightly associating your brand and your brand story and the SEO, in the markets you’re operating. SEOs do tend to go off sometimes with a little bit of arrogance, and I put myself in that category over the years. It helps when you get older, you get a bit more mellow.

The arrogance that you think you know what you’re doing doesn’t go down very well in a team environment. As SEOs we get angry and annoyed because a web developer says ‘Oh yes, I’ll put it up, but I’ll put it up in my way, and I’ll just change these URL structures along the way.’ 

Both web developers and SEOs have arrogance and are protective, and it stems from quite natural psychological feelings. SEOs have this worry that they don’t know what they’re doing, because Google’s never told them, and we’re all living in paranoia. That is a much bigger problem than we give ourselves credit. Google not telling us how to do things, or instead, telling us exactly how to do something [an optimisation] in veiled ways, creates an air of worry.

This fear is very prevalent in the agency world. When you start a project, it’s excellent, and you can do things. You know what you’ve got to do: you can fix the canonical URLs, you get to fix the 404s and iterate. If you haven’t gotten the message across to your client that this work carries on, your client expects those numbers just to carry on increasing every month. 

You’re just waiting for an algorithm change, which by definition if you were optimised before an algorithm change you’re going to be de-optimised after an algorithm change. This wait is a huge, huge thing for an SEO because then an angry customer says ‘You have no clue of what you’re doing’.

It’s a very stressful industry really, which is one of the reasons why I went to the tool side. 

As to why SEOs and web developers tend to fight with each other I think it’s both people trying to own their part of the ship but not seeing the problem from the other person’s point of view.

Until you can understand that, then I think that you have trouble. There’s an excellent book I’d recommend, which is ‘The Chimp Paradox’. It explains the differences between emotional decision making and rational decision making. We assume in a conversation that we’re having a rational discussion. It’s absolutely not, and it’s based on emotion all the way.

I’m using a business mentor for the first time, and a guy called Robert Craven is my advisor, a monkey on my shoulder. His advice is tremendous and tempers my irrational mind.

Damien: Your success is a function of the work you put in and of those people around you, who has had the most significant influence on you, Dixon?

Dixon: With Majestic, and with inlinks I have worked with business partners who are the CTO, and they own more of the business than me, and I find this to be a right way for a marketing person to go into business. Those two people are pretty influential in my world. The Chimp Paradox has been a good way for me to build a process, so I’d put the author, Dr Steven Peters on that list as well. 

My marriage is key to my success because I’m a fully-fledged hunter-gatherer. Maria is fully-fledged, in a traditional sense, to bringing up and protecting the family. We are very traditional in those ways which probably doesn’t suit the modern-day very much, but we respect each other an awful lot, and we know that we can do each other’s roles.

We’ve been married for 22 years. We had our first day on Valentine’s Day, and then we got engaged on Valentine’s Day, so we made a point of not getting married on Valentine’s Day because it’ll be a costly way to do your anniversary – so we got married seven days later.

Damien: Dixon, thinking back on your accomplishments, when have you been most satisfied?

Dixon: Family events aside, about twelve months in on any of my business ventures. That startup mode where you begin to get money coming in, you know it’s on the rise, and you’re onto something that isn’t a complete disaster.

Damien: We all have things we value, and gratitude is a powerful motivator and reflective tool. How do you keep track of those things you value?

Dixon: Oh, yes, I have a Trello page. It has my pillars of life, things like humour, happiness, and a couple of things like that. Then in another column, I make a point of every time I think of something that I’ve done that I enjoyed, or that I’ve found valuable, I put it down on a card within Trello. 

I have a list of hundreds of things from seeing the Grand Canyon to planting a tree or whatever. Every time I have got something that I remember that was good, I jot it down. In business, when you start to feel a bit low or feel that you’re not doing the job right, that everything’s falling apart around you. It’s usually just introspection that you’re in the trenches, and you can’t get that strategic view. 

I go back to these cards and go through those good things. When I see them, it sparks my mind and reminds me of good things I am grateful for, and the power of optimism even when things are tough.

Damien: Tell us about your latest business, inLinks?

Dixon: We’ve done quite a good job of not making it an audit tool. There are a lot of audit tools out there, and that’s great. They tell you what’s wrong, but they don’t tell you necessarily how to fix it. The magic is that until Google started properly understanding JavaScript, you couldn’t use JavaScript to do internal linking reliably. 

Now the timing is right, as Google looks at that DOM, almost instantly as it crawls the website, and then renders it and puts it through its indexing engine. That makes a complete change because it means that you can take a lot of the SEO headache away with one line of JavaScript.

On top of that, thinking about linking in terms of concepts and not keywords lifts the whole optimisation. It will only build internal links within the body text, around concepts and not keywords. It’s a semi-intelligent system, but because it’s not fully-intelligent, we also do rely on SEO brain 2.0.

SEOs can review what the automation has done, and then modify or change if there are issues that our machine learning has not been able to grasp. We tell people that the natural language processing algorithm that we use pulls out entities aggressively, much more aggressively than Google does. 

Damien: Where do you think SEO is headed, what’s the future of SEO, Dixon?

Dixon: Google does change a lot and changes fast, but the quality rater guidelines are a useful document because they are telling us what quality raters are looking for when they evaluate a web page. Those guidelines and the quality raters are not directly affecting or changing results, but they are judging Google’s algorithm on how good it’s doing its job.

You can then try and make sure that your SEO approach matches the goal, and even if an update starts going in the wrong direction for you, that’s Google’s problem, because Google is trying to get to the same goal that you’re trying to get.

There’s no point doing all of this unless Google has understood that internal links are an entity or a topic or a concept in their own right. It may be I need to take a few steps back, and start looking at the semantic world, much more closely.

If I’m trying to optimise for something that isn’t in the knowledge graph, then that gives me a problem ultimately until Google makes it something in the Knowledge Graph, Google’s energies are going in a different direction to yours.

Damien: Fantastic, Dixon, thank you for your time and insights and speak soon.

Follow Dixon on Twitter @Dixon_Jones and discover more about InLinks.