Brothers Fred and Mark Hajjar own a clothing company. And it’s pretty successful, generating about $3.5 million in revenue last year. So it’s reasonable to think they’d know something about fashion.
But when I ask them about their design backgrounds, there’s an awkward pause. Finally, Mark haltingly says, "I've kind of studied it since I've been here?" As an example of a product of theirs he likes, Mark tells me about a sweater with a mirror embedded in it, above a ribbon that says "ugliest sweater prize."
"You can go up to somebody and say, hey, check out the ugliest sweater," he says during a recent phone call, "and they see a picture of themselves. So, we just think of these crazy, off-the-wall ideas and make them reality."
What’s going on here? To find out, just Google "ugly Christmas sweater." We'll wait.
Okay, so you saw that the Hajjar's site, UglyChristmasSweater.com, is the first or second result, depending on the day. That’s not an accident; it’s a result of a lot of hard work. Because their real work—their real passion—isn’t designing sweaters, it’s dominating search rank.
By now, search engine optimization, or SEO, is a well-documented, modern art form. It's about convincing Google or Bing or Yahoo or any other search engine (but, really, mostly Google) that when people search for something—"home mortgage" or "dentist" or "what is this lump"— that your site has the best information for them. This makes the search engine bring it up first. There are lots and lots of details to this, more than 200 separate data points, according to Google itself. But the core is about looking at how many times the Internet links to a particular page in reference to a particular topic. This is a site’s pagerank, and here is a link to a very long paper by Sergey Brin and Larry Page on that subject you can read if you’re seeing this article while trapped somewhere without anything better to do.
All this stuff is just supposed to reflect reality. That is to say, people find a site useful, so Google is going to show it to you. But there’s a whole world of professionals who work hard every day to trick search engines into directing people to sites they really don’t want to visit by making it look like other people found them useful. They put up dummy websites that only exist to link back to their page. They obsessively monitor Google for every tiny update in what they prefer: Make your site seem local by putting an address on it, use hyphens instead of underscores in your URLs, seeding their site with commonly searched-for keywords (and synonyms for those words), and much more. They obsessively monitor the web for broken links which they try to get re-directed to their own sites, a practice called "broken link building." Alternately, a business might just contact people who’ve linked to its competitors and try to convince them to link to their own site instead.
In truth, there’s been something of a renaissance in SEO in the past several years: a move away from blackhat (deceptive) SEO and toward whitehat (or less deceptive) SEO. The practice has come out of the shadows so much, and become so central to businesses of all kinds, that in a dizzingly ironic move, Google itself is now hiring an SEO manager. It’s no wonder. Being high in search results matters; A 2013 study by online ad network Chitika looked at a sample of 8 million clicks and found that a full 94% of people didn’t go past the first page of search results.
Fred Hajjar understands this to his core. He talks about SEO—a topic some find boring at best, and sleazy at worst—in almost poetic terms. This makes him sort of the Don Draper of SEO, if you will.
"You really have to be creative," he told me when describing his SEO strategy. And then we warmed to the thought:
It's got to be an approach where, you know, we really want quality back links but not just trying to pay for them. If we have a creative aspect with our social media, and actually getting PR, actually getting good customer service, running contests that are somewhat beneficial, and getting quality content. From an overall perspective, we really think we want to convince Google that we are the best site for that term.
Fred’s always monitoring what Google’s looking for to make something a quality link, and updating his own, fake links to reflect that. Newer innovations include a strong focus on social media, (in some ways—in others, like on its own Twitter feed, the company is decidedly not active), and phone numbers on all the pages linking back to his pages. "I think that [search engines] will actually want to see a presence," he says. "There's tons of sites that hide all of that stuff, and you know, they become skeptical."
Fred’s love affair with SEO started in a dorm room in Michigan. Back in 2002, he was studying computer engineering at Michigan State University. He had what at the time was a pretty unusual obsession: selling things on the Internet. He’d started on eBay in 1999, and saw how quickly e-commerce was growing, and how much money there was in it, and was obsessed with making it his college job. There was just one problem: He had no idea what to sell.
Well, he had some idea. It seemed that—and he can’t really explain it—all of his websites revolved around selling merchandise related to old TV shows. Fred’s business model was simple. He bought his gear—mostly T-shirts—from the small company that had the official license to manufacture it, and then marked it up. That was it—he wasn’t screen-printing in the bathroom or arranging for shipments from China. Still, it didn’t seem like anyone was interested in what he had. He tried selling I Love Lucy shirts and Knight Rider shirts, but nothing would stick. Then, he noticed that one of his domains—DukesofHazardStore.com—was getting a lot of traffic. "At the time, we were actually probably getting more traffic than the Warner Brothers' shop for Dukes of Hazard apparel."
This is when Fred had an epiphany. "The key at that time is you just had to be found. There was no price comparison, [like there is now with] Amazon. It was really just if you Googled it, or Yahoo'd it at the time, [my site] would come up." He could basically charge whatever he wanted because search engines made it look like he was the best place to get these shirts people wanted. It was like he was driving to the store, buying a bottle of water for a dollar, and then selling it to you for two dollars because you had no idea the other store existed.
In the past 15 years, Fred’s used this insight to grow his companies from one person in a dorm room to 35 employees, including his brother and his sisters. He owns a whole group of websites that made $12 million in gross revenue in 2014, and for which they project 2015 revenues of about $15 million. They’ve had double-digit growth in revenues every single year they’ve been in business. But the key, he readily admits, isn’t what he’s actually selling, it’s making sure that he’s at the top of the Google rankings.
Their good search ranking hasn’t just helped the brothers find customers. It’s helped people and businesses looking for someone to whom they could sell merchandise find them. Their list of upcoming licenses is extremely impressive: This holiday season, you can find Christmas sweaters from The Rolling Stones, Harry Potter, and Star Wars exclusively at UglyChristmasSweater.com. They owe it all to SEO.
But, paradoxically, all their success at SEO has got Fred and Mark thinking about getting out of the sweater business altogether. "Recently Mark and I were attending the Internet retailers show and we kind of came to think that we're actually more of a technology company than just a retail company," he says. "So we've been offered quite a few positions in outside consulting. But I've never really pursued it."
Perhaps it's only a matter of time before the brothers Hajjar get serious and do pursue such opportunities. Why, after all, bother managing a warehouse of joke sweaters when your real product is in high demand?