Evan Bailyn didn’t intend to advise everyone from politicians to celebrities on how to get to the top of Google when he started out.
But the 30-year-old entrepreneur from San Francisco had a lucky bolt of inspiration after trying his hand at selling products and services ranging from college admissions essay coaching to antiques and furniture on the web. The companies had varying degrees of success but achieved terrific visibility online.
“I realized my skill was not in selling furniture or antiques,” he says. “It was getting to the top of Google,” he says.
In 2009, Bailyn founded First Page Sage, a search engine optimization and social media marketing firm with offices in San Francisco and New York, teaming up with his brother Bradley, now 33. “It’s been profitable from the very first day,” he says. He started Good Media Co.—which helps organizations with “good causes” build a social media following—shortly thereafter. Their combined revenues are now in the millions, says Bailyn.
The folks who devise Google’s algorithms may be techies, but Bailyn discovered pretty quickly that he didn’t need to be one to outwit the search engine.
After studying English and creative writing at Columbia University as an undergraduate, he went on to New York Law School. At the same time that it was dawning on him that law school wasn’t his thing, he tried to sell a book called Flexible to Random House about his experiences as a male cheerleader at Columbia (more on that later). The day he finally dropped out of law school, his editor sent him a letter telling him the book wasn’t quite ready, because of structural problems. “That was really disappointing,” he says. “I grew up needing to achieve.”
Running out of options, Bailyn decided to start a business from the office of his brother Bradley, who was establishing a a new practice as a divorce lawyer. “He said, `Come here every day, and I’m sure something will happen,’” Bailyn says.
Bailyn, who had gotten great feedback from the admissions folks at Columbia on his essay, accepted Bradley’s vote of confidence and set up shop to advise college applicants on writing their own essays. Unfortunately, he soon realized that handing out flyers in front of Penn Station in New York City didn’t work. “I had no customers,” he says. “I was charging $500 for 8 hours of time with me. No one wanted to spend that much.”
To improve traffic to his company’s website, he began hanging out in chat forums about search engine optimization and studying what the sites of members with top ranked sites in Google had in common—and struck gold. “A year after this studying began, I showed up as number one for `college admissions essay’,” he says. The business took off.
How’d he beat all the other sites to the top? “What it all comes down to is getting links from other websites,” says Bailyn, who’s written a book about his strategies called Outsmarting Google. As he explains it, Google counts such inbound links like votes in an election—except that votes from giant websites like Yahoo! count a heck of a lot more than those of a tiny site. “All I do is I’m able to get people to agree to link from their websites,” he says. “It’s a people skills type of thing.” His ability to persuade webmasters to link to his sites, often through a well-crafted note, has enabled him to earn top ranks for terms like “doll” (for a paper doll site he once owned) and “personal injury lawyer” (for a client).
Bailyn learned another lesson on the cooperation needed for website optimization on the cheering squad, where he, jokes he was “dragged kicking and screaming” by female team members who needed a few guys to participate and, he says, showered him with attention. He came to enjoy doing tricks like tossing a team mate above his head, which required tapping into the power of an athlete who was moving in the same direction simultaneously.
“I think about that all the time in business, the amount of momentum that comes from two people that really enjoy working together,” he says.
These days, Bailyn’s momentum seems to be moving in the right direction, as he lifts his many clients’ sites to the top of Google.