Women in Technology

Hear us Roar

A Woman, in Search

by Jessie Stricchiola

Jessie Stricchiola is the founder of Alchemist Media, Inc., a San Francisco search engine marketing company.

Indeed, that is an accurate phrase to describe me. As a 10-year veteran of the search engine marketing industry (generally referred to as "Search"), I am also a woman in constant search of ways to grow, to challenge the constraints of convention, and to be fully alive, conscious, attuned, and informed in the process. I've learned that viewing life through this lens automatically puts me in the minority. And that being a woman (and business owner) in a technology-related field only adds spice to an already saucy, sassy brew.

The opportunities, experiences, relationships, challenges, and revelations that I have been blessed with (and, yes, challenges are huge blessings!) have been to a great extent influenced by—and made all the more rich by—the fact that I am a woman. As a graduate of Smith College, I definitely came into the "work" world with very little fear around my role as a woman. In fact, I think that started way before Smith; I'm sure it's one of the reasons I found myself at a women's college in the first place. I never imagined that I would work in the technology industry. In fact, I had already been accepted to law school when the Internet (specifically, search engines) captured my attention and held it with a grip that has been going strong for over 10 years now.

I started doing search engine optimization while I was still in college and then, upon graduation, I was hired for a position with a startup in California. At 22, I was considered an "expert" in this new, emerging field. When I sat in the board room with the CEO and the entire web development team—all of whom were men—explaining to them why the company needed to overhaul the web site's architecture completely in order for it to be found in the search engines, I was unaware of the fact that I was in any way different (being as young as I was and not a man). Looking back, I am awed by my gumption. What was driving me then was the pure passion I had for my work; anything else that didn't support or align with that somehow just didn't show up on my radar. I don't think I even knew that folks could be thinking "Who is this toddler chick telling us how to run a web site?!". But they listened to me. With the traffic and market share that resulted from these efforts, the company went on to secure funding, survive the dotcom meltdown, and thrive as a leader in their industry.

Fast-forward a few years to my first rude awakening to harassment in a male-dominated work environment. On my fourth day as the VP of Online Marketing for a nationwide law firm, I walked into the office as I had each morning before, straight to my desk past all of the swanky, living room-sized glass-enclosed partner offices. About ten minutes after arriving at my desk—which was situated in the "web team" room—a partner (and co-founder) of the firm (let's call him Ted) walked in and asked the roomful of web guys to leave, and then he shut the door behind him. Ted looked me dead in the eye, and said, "When you walk by my office, you are to wave and smile. Do we have an understanding?"

If his words and my entrapment in the room alone with him weren't clear signs of his desire to intimidate me, his aggressive body language definitely made his intentions clear. Interestingly, as I played with my eyebrow ring, I found myself more shocked than frightened by this situation. I actually found myself laughing inside (and almost audibly) at this poor man who was so clearly intimidated by me. His dramatic antics had made me feel sorry for him. I did actually smile at him every day from then on, not out of fear or subordination, but out of pity. I knew (somehow instinctively) how to choose my battles wisely.

While I worked at this law firm managing their pay-per-click (PPC) search engine marketing campaigns, I discovered something very disturbing: a little flaw in the PPC system, something called click fraud. This is the unnecessary bleeding of advertiser money to fraudulent click activity; an activity that only pads the pockets of the search engines. This discovery launched me into yet another challenging environment—taking on the search engines themselves.

Since I was the first to identify click fraud in the search industry and the only one willing to talk about it (and given the fact that PPC advertising was, and still is, the source of over 95 percent of Google's total revenue as a company), I was given a platform at the industry's leading conference to talk about what I had discovered. I also talked about how advertisers could begin to identify click fraud in their marketing campaigns, as well as how they could protect themselves from it. To make a long story short, I spent the next four years as the "click fraud queen;" I was the lone advocate for advertisers willing to put my neck on the line. I was willing to stand up publicly against the engines, challenge the "party" lines, and fight what I thought was an injustice. I was eventually hired as an expert consultant in the class action lawsuit against Google and Yahoo!. Google later settled for $90 million. Once again, I found myself in the hot seat: publicly, as a young woman challenging the paradigm and privately, sitting in mediations with high-powered male attorneys twice my age who didn't know a thing about technology, let alone about click fraud. I could sense their disrespect immediately, but that usually dissipated once I started talking.

I still stick my neck out there on this issue. Just this past August at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, I spoke on yet another click fraud panel. But throughout it all, I've maintained close friendships with people from both search engines.

As a woman in search, I do what I love and what my intuition tells me is right. This has led me to a fair amount of success in the technology industry and in life, in general. Success, as I define it, is making a reasonable living with a fair amount of freedom doing something I love; having a life full of close friendships; strong business relationships; and exciting opportunities that have not only tolerated my appetite for questioning assumptions and challenging paradigms, but that may have even thrived because of them.

And, now and again, I still smile at the memory of Ted. That smile is just a lot bigger now.

Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Reading more about this fascinating case: http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1784217,00.asp (just one article among the many that I found by doing a, mmm, Google search.)

Return to Women in Technology.