A Startup Exposes SEO Secrets, on the Cheap

Today, BrandYourself.com, a startup launched by Syracuse University classmates three years ago, landed precious real estate in Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal and more than two dozen other outlets.

Considering the news it had to share, that’s a coup. The company’s main announcement was about a year-old $1.2 million funding round. (Yawn.) An additional news tie-in, that BrandYourself just “relaunched” a platform that most people have never heard of, wouldn’t typically do much to stir reporters’ attention, either.

So why all the virtual ink? For one thing, BrandYourself is tapping into something that each of us wants: it promises to let users control their own search results, affordably. It also has a savvy pitchman in 24-year-old CEO Patrick Ambrom, who was running a tiny search-engine optimization company from his college campus apartment when he came up with the idea of BrandYourself with two other students.

I talked on Tuesday with Ambrom to learn more about the genesis of BrandYourself; why people should care about the company; and how, from Syracuse, where it’s still based, it managed to capture the imagination of some important investors, including Powerset founder Barney Pell.

I understand that while still in college and looking for an internship, your friend and now cofounder, Pete Kistler, kept being mistaken for a drug dealer with the same name. Why not just help him with some of your SEO prowess and leave it at that?

Because it’s not a complicated process once you know the basics. And I just thought that the average person who wants to look better online, or who’s being mistaken for someone else, should [have control over what others see] without having to pay thousands of dollars for it, which is the one option that most non-tech-savvy people have long had. The reality is that most people don’t have that kind of money.

You were a recent college grad with no money or connections. How did you manage to attract Dan Chote, a former director of software development at Match.com,  to be your VP of engineering?

When you’re 23 with no experience, it’s harder than you might think. But we had a good thing going for us in that BrandYourself is something a lot of people can relate to. We were also laser focused. With both Dan and with our investors, I basically made a list of people who I thought would add value, found a way to get in front of them, then pitched them. Everyone turned me down initially because we weren’t ready. But over time we got Dan to believe in the mission of the company; he said, ‘I like your roadmap and I think I can bring a team.’

Meanwhile, after spending months and months of giving investors updates on a weekly basis – most of which went unanswered for a long while – the investors knew who we were by the time we were ready to raise money. They knew we were serious about pursuing this idea, including because we were able to attract Dan.

You have one free product, and another for which users pay $9 a month, or $79.99 a year. What does each offer people who sign up for the service?

For free, you can give us three links that you’d like to appear higher in search results and we’ll find a dozen things you can do to make that happen and share those exact steps so you know how to do it yourself. For users who want to go into deeper into process and understand why, we’ll give them all that kind of analysis.

Paid users can boost an unlimited number of links. They can also create a BrandYourself profile that’s been designed to pass search engine authority and so ranks higher, and you can add your LinkedIn account to that or anything else you’d like.

The obvious question, of course, if why users will continue to seek out your services once you’ve educated them about how SEO works.

Because if they don’t, we’ll stop tracking them, meaning they’ll have to Google themselves every day [as well as check other search sites] to monitor what’s happening [with their online reputation]. There’s a real convenience in having our system do that automatically and to send our users alerts, and we anticipate that being enough for users to pay a modest price.

As for potential privacy concerns?

We’re not selling any information to a third party. We have no side revenue stream. All we need to become profitable is for 2 percent of our users to pay for the premium model.

A lot of people like Pete want something they can use and can trust, and we’re staying true to that.