Fame Trumps SEO in Battle of David Leonhardt Rankings

All those of you with common first and last names like John Smith or Jessica Jones or Bob Johnson will appreciate how hard it is to rank for your personal brand – your name. There must be hundreds of people active on the Internet who share your name.

And any reader with a name like Drew Barrymore or Larry Page… well, you know the chances you’ll ever rank well for your name.

But perhaps the worst off are those with common first and last names who also share their name with a huge celebrity. Think Dan Brown or George Harrison or Megan Fox.

David Leonhardt Posers

Well, this is a personal story. If you search “David Leonhardt” right now, you will see there are three of us with the exact same name with a presence on the Internet. (Guess who the two imposters are.)

When I first started on the Internet, the guy with the domain name ranked #1 – DavidLeonhardt.com ranked at the top for “David Leonhardt”. In fact, the David Leonhardt Jazz Group held several top-10 rankings, as he was in fact the original David Leonhardt active on the Internet.

As I grew increasingly active, some pages related to me started to rank in Google’s top ten for my name. Yay!

But another dude who writes for the New York Times was also getting active, so he also was breaking into the top 10 in a big way.

This New York Times David Leonhardt was in fact causing problems for me offline, too. A friend saw his by-line in the Toronto Star (I think it was) and the topic was even related to my happiness book, and a friend thought it was my article.

Even worse, my brother saw one of his articles in the Globe and Mail (I think it was) and again the topic was related to my happiness book. This time my brother thought it was my article.

And just over a month ago, this New York Times guy who shares my name (never asked my permission, mind you) goes and wins himself the Pulitzer Prize for “Commentary”. Thanks a lot!

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am all over on the Internet, commenting on blogs, active in social media, building links, networking – you don’t get more active than me.

And the winner is…

So let’s take a look at what Google thinks of all of us David Leonhardts. This is a snapshot at the time of writing…

1. New York Times writer
2. New York Times writer
3. New York Times writer
4. New York Times writer
5. New York Times writer
6. Me
7. Me
8. Jazz Group
9. Me
10. New York Times writer

What can we conclude by this case study?

We know that the domain name is important, as is anchor text – and surely the David Leonhardt Jazz Group has plenty of inbound links with “David Leonhardt” in the link text. (I did not check, but I do know he owns a number of other name-related domains specifically for wedding performances, etc.)

We also know that activity, inbound links, social media signals – all the stuff that I am doing just naturally every day (with a bit of SEO-savvy thrown in) are also important.

But it appears fame trumps SEO. New York Times David has six out of ten positions, including the top five. I am holding my own, sort of, perhaps down just a bit from my peak a couple years ago (I think I had as many as five spots at one point, including the third place ranking). And the once dominant Jazz Group David risks being pushed off the top 10 completely.

The lesson: If you want top rankings, get famous. Do things that win you real acclaim out in the real world, and Google will reward you on the Internet for your renown.


This post was featured in Book Marketing Blog Carnival – May 25, 2011.


  1. Yeah, I can relate to the common name problem. There’s a well known baseball player and a bunch of professors so I’m kinda glad to be anywhere on the first page when the competing domains include Yahoo, ESPN, MLB, Georgia Tech, etc…

    This could be a problem for personal branding, but it could also be a hidden benefit too if you’re looking for some quiet, low-profile affiliate publishing.

  2. I think that NYTtimes David is simply publishing more frequently, on more credible sites. But fame has outperformed SEO for a long time. That’s why all-Flash movie sites have outperformed SEO friendly sites for certain terms as well; they’re popular and well-linked.

  3. Hi David,

    I like this story, it’s interesting and funny!

    You are right, doing stuff on Social Media will get you where you want to be!!

    I’m finding that empire Avenue is a great, great place for Social media networking, you should take a look!

    I wish you well and will the real David Leonhardt please stand up!

    Very best regards, Peter (Llewellyn) Masters

  4. I can DEFINITELY relate to the common name problem… there must be a million Jay Chang’s on the internet in just China alone… One thing I would recommend is making your google profile public and having a gmail account address with your full name in it. I seem to see mine showing up more often than before for my name (on other people’s computers)

  5. Great Article, David. I never really had a clue about the fame and Google factor till now. It seems now without getting famous by doing things, there will be no way for anyone to reach the top of the google rankings.

  6. {Bruce|Espresso Machines| http://espressoagogo.com/} says

    I wonder if the NYT David Leonhardt is wondering about his rankings. Seriously. Since he has an online blog, is there someone at the Times that provides some in-house linking?

  7. Fame completely trumps SEO. I own an SEO company and I don’t show up until page 2. An English gangster who is involved with Kitchen products dominates all listing for Vance Miller. HA! And he’s not even trying to be online.

  8. Vance – HA that totally goes to show that the best SEO is not trying to do SEO – just writing well for the sake of writing.

  9. Sucks but soooo true. There are sites that rank ahead of some of my clients that have zero SEO structure but because of a name or being notorious for something they rank ahead.

  10. I share the same name with a couple doctors and It’s certainly difficult to outrank their bio pages on the more reputable/authoritative medical journals. However, my personal Twitter account seems to be in the works of outranking these pages for “my brand” term. Personally, I think the social signals are the key to owning “Your Brand”.

  11. Good story, David. It seems I know more about SEO and have idea about how to do SEO

  12. That is a funny but sad story. Your first and last name combination is not really that ordinary… unfortunately you just had someone with the exact combination as yours. AT LEAST… he is not wanted by the FBI or worse… Interpol for various heinous crimes. Now that would be a super messy situation that I would not wish on anyone.

  13. Cool post David! This actually touches on a question I remember asking at the V7 SEO forum. I was trying to figure out if I should get a site with my name on it being that I don’t have a typical name and it would be cool if people would search ‘Vitaliy’ and found my SEO firm or other endevours I might be in at the time.

    Thanks for the post.

  14. Let me join the club. Imagine trying to promote Mitch Mitchell when the guy who used to play with jimi Hendrix has the same name. I at least compete to a degree with him, but he’s in the top spots and there’s nothing I can do about it. 🙂

  15. Great story David! don’t you think the NY Times guy should pay you some royalties? It seem to me he’s been piggy backing of your web presence to rank high.