SEO pros

How this Houston company is staying one step ahead of Google

Houston-based Edgy Labs is working on AI technology to constantly stay ahead of search engine technology. Pexels

Where's the best place to hide a dead body? According to Alexander De Ridder and other search optimization experts, it's on the second page of Google where no one ever goes.

Jokes aside, search engine optimization has become a serious business as people have pivoted from making their own decisions based on knowledge acquired or resources available to trusting entities to decide for them, De Ridder explains.

"More and more of our lives are governed by decisions we are outsourcing," De Ridder says. "For example, maybe you jumped in the car this week and you entered a destination. The GPS told you where to turn — you don't question that."

While convenient, the challenge this new normal presents companies is how to make clear to the internet that that their information is worthy of being on the first page of search results. De Ridder co-founded Houston-based Edgy Labs with Michael Umansky and Gary Haymann to figure out for themselves how this "black box" decision making works — and where it's going.

"Our take was let's build a laboratory to understand how that rank or AI works and build our own platform around it and get better insights on how that black box thinks," Umansky, who is CEO of the company, says.

Edgy Labs has two sides to it. At its core, the company is a blog covering trends and research in science and technology that acts as an SEO-testing platform, or lab. Once the team has the developed technology, it's able to provide its best practices and tools to clients.

"We think about innovation in a practical way as something that you need to live out the truth yourself, before you go out and apply it to other people," explains De Ridder, who also serves as CTO of the company.

The SEO business is projected to be an $80 billion industry by 2020, Umansky says, and its evolving from text focused to including voice and video in the search process. When Edgy Labs launched, the focus was on creating content that was primed to be picked up by Google. Through this process, the company grabbed the attention of some large Fortune 100 accounts.

"What we saw was if we applied these same techniques to a large brand, there was a massive uptake in success for the content and the site itself," Umansky says. "What that's led us to want to do is take the power of the technology and put it back in the hands of content creators."

Edgy Labs has found that the key to SEO and marketing online is to be content focused and put the users — and the information they are seeking — first.

"What's been really great is I think we've tried to turn the process upside down and make sure the client is creating content that's data driven insights — not just taking marketing slogans and terms and dropping it in the content, which was the norm," says Haymann, who leads the client-facing business.

Just like any technology, search is constantly evolving. Search engines used to scan the internet to suggest articles to answer your questions. Now, Google is taking information from those articles and regurgitating it for you, rather than sending you to a third-party website. A casualty of that is web traffic for the site that has that information.

This shift is a result of voice searching growth. One in five searches is done via voice search — think: Alexa or Siri — and 40 percent of adults use voice search daily, De Ridder says. With this type of search process, there can only be one response — not pages of results, like web searching. De Ridder says that because of this growth in audio searching, videos will become a more favorable search result.

Another growing digital trend, De Ridder says, is progressive web app pages becoming more useful in search than native apps. These PWAs act and feel like mobile apps, but without requiring the user to download anything. Where this trend metabolized is when the ".app" domains were released. Edgy Labs relaunched its webpage to being a mobile friendly progressive app page and has seen more engagement from its users — longer time on site, lower bounce rates, higher conversion rates.

"As websites want to survive and remain relevant, it will be about providing good information so that they can optimize themselves for voice search, video, and also have amazing experiences of native app-like quality," De Ridder says.

While SEO technology and practices evolve, Edgy Labs hopes to stay at the forefront of the industry.

"It's kind of like we're at the top of the mountain, and the mountain is always getting taller and taller. To stay on the cutting edge, you always have to keep climbing and climbing," De Ridder says. "But, if you're up there, you've got a beautiful view, and that allows you to look into the world and see the opportunity that's associated with that change."


Alexander De Ridder (left), Michael Umansky (center) and Gary Haymann founded Edgy Labs in 2016. Courtesy of Edgy Labs

VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

Many employers are doing reality checks when it comes to workplace training. They're wondering how they can better train their workers. But they're realizing that traditional training can be dull and even unproductive, so they're enlivening and enriching their training through virtual reality.

Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

For the Air Force, HTX Labs creates software that provides immersive training for pilots on how to deal with emergency procedures in the air and on the ground. This is something that traditionally has been carried out only with expensive simulators. Mastercard and Rackspace rely on HTX Labs' technology to teach employees — through VR-generated replicas of actual workspaces — how to handle active-shooter situations, workplace violence, and fires.

Solvay turned to the company for VR-propelled help with training workers about loading and unloading hazardous materials and other aspects of maintaining safety around potentially dangerous chemicals. HTX Labs and Solvay will jointly resell their VR-based courses to other companies, says Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Schneider says.

Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

"A PowerPoint presentation, a YouTube video — it's all about the message the trainer wants to convey as opposed to 'Let's think about how people actually learn.' Studies show people learn by actively doing — active learning versus passive learning," Schneider continues. "We married that idea of active learning with virtual reality and immersive technology to deliver a learning experience that increases retention and the development of muscle memory."

In a VR-based training session, participants are equipped with VR headsets and are plunged into realistic environments where they're presented with scenarios in which they, for instance, pick up a fire extinguisher and put out a blaze, or they land or eject from a military jet that's experiencing a problem such as an engine fire.

Schneider says this type of interactive training helps participants boost the amount of information they remember. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, VR learners retain 75 percent of what they've been taught, compared with a 10 percent retention rate from reading or listening to a presentation.

"It's a much better way, a much more realistic way to learn," Schneider says.

Employers big and small are catching on to this kind of advanced training. According to Schneider, software produced by companies like HTX Labs allows employers to conduct training that:

  • Avoids unsafe real-life settings in favor of safe virtual settings.
  • Does not disrupt workplaces.
  • Reduces costs.

A CNBC article says the cost-saving aspect appeals to a number of employers like Boeing, UPS, and Walmart.

"Training facilities cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to build. Sending out-of-town employees to them racks up travel expenses. And the lost time for training is considerable," the article reads.

By comparison, a one-time investment in VR hardware and software — technology that can be used by many workers — might cost a couple of thousand dollars per employee.

"Most companies in the private sector are dipping their toes into it a bit, maybe doing some stuff internally," Schneider says of VR-based training. "But on a larger scale, there's not a lot of players doing exactly what we're doing."

Schneider envisions HTX Labs, which was founded in 2017, expanding into training centered on augmented reality and mixed reality.

For the uninitiated, VR refers to computer-generated 3D environments that you interact with and are immersed in, according to Live Science. AR superimposes sounds, images and text onto what you see in the real world, along the lines of "Minority Report" or "Iron Man," Live Science explains.

"Mixed reality is the result of blending the physical world with the digital world," according to Microsoft. "Mixed reality is the next evolution in human, computer, and environment interaction, and unlocks possibilities that before now were restricted to our imaginations."

No matter the type of technology, HTX Labs strives to "humanize training" by putting the student at the center of the learning experience, Schneider says.

For now, HTX Labs produces VR training software under the EMPACT brand name and teams up with hardware vendors to sell turnkey offerings.

Today, the company employs 12 people, all of whom are in Houston. Schneider would like to increase HTX Labs' headcount by 50 percent before the end of 2019. Also this year, Schneider hopes to raise its first round of outside capital, but only after HTX Labs secures more private and government contracts. And he doesn't rule out enlarging the company through M&A activity.

Overall, Schneider sees tremendous potential for HTX Labs, as pretty much any employer can benefit from VR training for its workers. VR training — already part of a multibillion-dollar VR market — is expected to be so pervasive, in fact, that software review website Capterra predicts one-third of small and midsize businesses in the U.S. will be piloting VR training of employees by 2021.

"VR is … being used to enhance employee training to give workers immersive 'learning by doing' opportunities they can't find in a classroom or online course," Capterra notes. "It's a revolution in an area that's historically been static and unengaging for workers."


The U.S. Air Force also uses HTX Labs' technologies to train for emergency response procedures.Courtesy of HTX Labs