BY LINDA BAKER
Like Leo Tolstoy, I’ve never been a fan of the “great man” theory of history, in which lone, albeit powerful, individuals — i.e. Napoleon — are considered the primary drivers of historical events.
Still, open-mindedness is a virtue. And when I heard about the history of the search marketing industry and how it gained a foothold in Bend, all narrative threads did seem to lead back to one man. That would be John Audette, an Internet pioneer who founded a Portland company called Multi-Media Marketing Group (MMG) in 1994, moved it to Bend in 1997, and is widely credited for coining the phrase “search engine optimization.”
I happened across the Central Oregon-search connection a few weeks ago while interviewing Adam Audette — son of John — for an Oregon Business feature story. His father’s company “seeded a lot of talent,” said Audette junior, whose own Bend-based search company, AudetteMedia, was acquired last summer by RKG, a Virginia-based online marketing firm.
At least two other search companies of national stature call Bend home: Global Strategies International, and G5. The latter was recently named one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the country, with revenue growth of 2,111% from 2006 to 2010. There are also a handful of smaller search companies and consultants in town, including Derrick Wheeler, a former MMG employee who continues to work from Bend as Microsoft’s search engine specialist.
It’s a good industry to be in. Seemingly recession proof, the ever-evolving search marketing sector keeps moving along at double-digit growth rates. Spending in the North American Search Engine Marketing sector reached $16.6 billion in 2010, up 14 percent from the year before, according to SEMPO, a Massachusetts-based trade association.
Based on job volume, New York is driving that growth, with Los Angeles a close second. Enter the mavericks in Bend, which ”is very much a hotbed considering its size and that it isn’t a major market,” says Jeremy Sanchez, CEO of Global Strategies International. I had called Sanchez to get his perspective on the Bend-search connection, only to discover that Sanchez had also worked for MMG and John Audette —“before Google was even a search-engine company.”
Marshall Simmons, SEO director for the New York Times, is yet another MMG protégé.
Sanchez did invoke the name of another “renowned industry figure:” Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, whom Audette hired in the late 1990s to train people in Central Oregon. Audette’s innovation was to conceive of search as a marketing service, said Sanchez. Sullivan’s focus was how search engines as operating systems “really work.”
Today, Audette senior is reportedly launching another company offering Internet services to the nonprofit sector. And as search expands into social media and onto mobile platforms, Bend companies continue to grow. RKG, for example, recently signed a lease on a new 10,000-square-foot Bend warehouse—tripling the size of its existing footprint.
Labor and infrastructure costs are lower in Bend than major cities, said RKG chief executive George Michie, adding that the central Oregon town has other advantages—namely, employee retention. “We like the model of a small town where people like to grow roots and stay.”
Like Tolstoy said: broader social, economic and geographical factors are at least as important as a single great man, or woman, in determining the course of human events. Then again, the Audette factor is clearly the main reason why one small Oregon town has so much search. Says Sanchez: “It all ties back to one individual.”
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.