Interviewing the great SEO software companies has been a superb learning process. I’m surprised how most have been truthfully honest with their replies, and truth be told, not surprised when some replies are toned down due to branding restraints.

This week Ben Wills from Ontolo has taken time out to be interviewed. Ben’s responses are honest, frank and human. For all the efforts we endeavour in branding, when you tell it the way it is, there’s no truer testament than understanding the face behind the name.

Thanks again Ben.

  1. Can you describe Ontolo as if I knew nothing about it?
    Ontolo is the only link building tool on the market that allows you to fully customize your link prospecting. Instead of chasing competitor backlinks, with Ontolo you define specific topics and link types for us to research and find for you. If you want to find guest posting opportunities for an article about Italian cooking, we quickly find you exactly those opportunities.
    On top of that, we’re the only SEO tool in the industry that builds your link prospect database in a way that’s fully searchable, not only on the content of each link prospect like you can search with Google, but across over 50 other data points from SEOmoz and more. In the end, we help you to quickly discover relevant and valuable backlinks for your link building campaigns.
  2. What was your inspiration for creating Ontolo?
    Honestly, the impetus was boredom. I had been in the SEO industry for about seven years and felt unchallenged. I had the fortune of working with Andy Beal and many other great marketers at an SEO company in the early 2000s that had over 1,400 clients at one time. My responsibility was to design the SEO services, their execution and direct the teams that worked with our clients.
    So, since I’ve been involved in SEO, discovering both a customizable and scalable solution had been in my mind. When I was looking for what to do next in that summer of 2008 and saw that no one had yet solved the link building problem in this way, I began working on what would become Ontolo.
  3. Since the commencement of your SaaS product, what have been the highs and lows for Ontolo?
    When you’re bootstrapped, the lows come a little more easily, especially in the beginning. ;) In terms of management, working with someone who you’re paying more than twice what you are and over-drafting your bank account, but they’re still unhappy with their compensation, that can be tough. But as the owner, you deal with that yourself and move on. In terms of the product, I’m sometimes challenged by having a clear vision of how the product can produce great results for our customers, but it takes time and resources and new technology to make that vision a reality.
    On the flip side, getting to see this vision you’ve had for years turn into a reality is an incredible moment of which we’ve had many. Bringing on Andy Davidoff in 2010 has been amazing. He rewrote all of the code I’d written over the previous two years in less than a week and a half and, suddenly, this thing was real. I can’t begin to explain what a wonderful moment that was. In terms of marketing, being Rand Fishkin’s first recommendation about a year ago for SEO tools to check out was an amazing rush, both in terms of how it all happened, then the amount of visibility we got as a result of that.
  4. Which top 3 features of Ontolo would you say outshine the competition?
    As I mentioned above, I’d say the two obvious features are the ability to fully-customize your

    1. link prospecting is the first.
    2. The second, I would say is the ability to search on the full text of your link prospects along with dozens of SEOmoz data points, PageRank scores, outbound link data, etc. The result is that our users are finding relevant and valuable link prospects really quickly.
    3. The third, and this is a new one for us that’s in the release of the UI/UX coming out/that came out in November 2011, is how we’ve organized our marketing tools around the marketing process. We looked around – and the previous disorganization of our own tools was the catalyst for this – and saw that no one else was organizing their tools around the process. The result is that users have this set of tools that they don’t understand how to fit into their day-to-day. We’re making that much easier for users to say “Oh, it’s time for prospecting,” and they go straight to all of the tools that do that rather than having to memorize what tool does what.
  5. Do you have time to read the SEO blogs while developing Ontolo, if so, which blogs/twitter accounts do you follow?
    I almost solely use HootSuite and actually rely on my Twitter stream for news. I’ve made it a point to curate a few private lists that usually keep me really well updated. Then, I quickly check those lists via HootSuite a few times throughout the day.
  6. There is a broad range of techniques within the SEO industry, how do you think Ontolo manages to facilitate this?
    I have a confession to make: I’m in love with how well Raven Tools facilitates so many online marketing process. If we could do that in our own way (we have slightly different ways we aim to provide value to our customers, both complimentary), it would be amazing.
    For now, we’ve chosen to focus on solving a small handful of specific problems. Bringing relevance/linguistics into link building (as opposed to simply quantitative measurements like PageRank, etc) like we have is a much more complicated process than it might sound like. Which leads into the next question…
  7. Without giving too much away, what juicy features are on your roadmap for the next 12 months?
    We made a big bet on bringing relevance and linguistics to link building. In the beginning, the technology and technique seemed like overkill to many folks.
    In the next 12 months, we’re looking to bring even more advanced linguistics technology to the content marketing and social media marketing space. I look around and see rudimentary linguistic analysis applied here and there, especially social media marketing, and just think to myself “I *know* that can be done more effectively.”
    Relevance and value. It’s quite simple, really, and incredibly powerful. It’s the bet that Google made, it’s the bet that Facebook made, and it’s the bet that we’re making in the marketing tools space with Ontolo.
  8. What third party tools do you wish you could implement but don’t currently have an API?
    Until I found out about AlchemyAPI yesterday, I’d have said an API to perform many of the functions they provide. Other than that, combined with web-scraping, I can’t think of information we would want, but don’t have access to. (Obviously, I’d love Google’s raw search and link data, but that’s just not going to happen.)
  9. Who inspires you in life and how is this transposed into your work life?
    I’m sure this one has been said a million times and is completely cliché, but when Steve Jobs passed, it ended up affecting me much more than I would have imagined.
    Aside from Jobs:
    The business philosophy of Toby Hecht at the Aji Network. Some ideas in his ontological design are where I came up with the name Ontolo. I’ve also listened to his lectures across over 500 hours over the past few years. I’m not enrolled in any of his programs, but hope to when I’m ready.
    The management philosophy of Ricardo Semler at Semco. Right now, Ontolo is just two of us. I live in Boulder and Andy lives in Austin. We work when we want, from where we want (I traveled more than six months this year) and we don’t expect to change that any time soon, no matter how large we grow. 37 Signals has a similar philosophy: “work doesn’t happen at work.”
    The personal development work of Eben Pagan, both as himself and David DeAngelo. The pickup artist community, understandably, gets a bad rep. But if you’ve ever listened to any of Eben’s work with a bit of sincerity, you might have been surprised at some of the deeper conversations being had. And, as he’s transitioned completely into business and marketing programs, I’ve continued to keep up.
  10. What conferences are you attending over the next 12 months?
    You know, we’ve not really been big in the conference scene as we’ve been focusing on the product and getting it to where we think it can and should be. Now that we’ve come to where we are, I expect to be at many more in 2012.

Thanks again Ben.

Ben Wills has been an SEO and link builder for over 10 years, directing the efforts of more than 1,000 clients. In 2008, he started Ontolo, a suite of web-based link building tools that helps you quickly find more relevant and valuable backlinks.