The funny thing about SEO is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The tactics shift, and the penalties increase, and the black hats get smarter, but SEO is still fundamentally just marketing. The biggest difference between SEO 15 years ago and SEO today is that the search engines (especially Google) are better at spotting “pigs.” - Jenny Halsz, Columnist at Search Engine Land and President of JLH Marketing.
There are a handful of people who had a monumental impact on my professional life, and one of them is certainly Jenny Halasz, whom I’ve known since 2006 when I was just getting started in SEM. I cannot speak highly enough of Jenny, both in terms of her SEO expertise and character, so I am really excited to publish her Q&A with SearchDecoder.
Jenny’s a true SEO veteran who’s been giving solid advice to brands since 2000 and, unlike many other consultants, her sober, common sense instructions have stood the test of time, through Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird, and every other change that’s come down the pike. She is a regular columnist on Search Engine Land, where she writes about SEO, SEM, and content marketing.
Jenny Halasz is the President of an online marketing consulting company offering SEO, PPC, and Web Design services. She occasionally offers her personal insights on her blog, JLH Marketing.
Originally, I was going to close my recent book, SEO Like I’m 5: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization, with a chapter on how to make money online, but I couldn’t do this in good conscience without including this article by Jenny Halasz, which provides a great 2014 SEO playbook for businesses and entrepreneurs. So, I included a large chunk of Jenny’s insights below as a bonus chapter in my book. Hope you will enjoy it!
The funny thing about SEO is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The tactics shift, and the penalties increase, and the black hats get smarter, but SEO is still fundamentally just marketing. It’s always been the case with traditional marketing (print, TV, radio) that instead of just marketing to the customer, you’re also marketing to the channel.
What I mean by this is that ultimately your product or service should be appealing to a target customer, whether it’s B2B or B2C. But you have to consider the channel you’re promoting it in. In print, you had to squeeze your message into a single 8 ½ by 11 page, or on TV into a 30 second spot. In SEO, it’s a certain number of characters, or a certain format. The search engines have rules for websites the way that magazines have rules for font sizes and typefaces.
But here’s the thing. I’m from the South, and we have a saying here. You can put lipstick on a pig, and it might make it prettier, but it’s still a pig. If you have a website that fundamentally sucks in terms of layout or structure, or a product that doesn’t deliver to a need, or a service that talks big, but fails when it comes to keeping people happy, it’s just a pig. And you need to examine what underlying issue has to change.
The biggest difference between SEO 15 years ago and SEO today is that the search engines (especially Google) are better at spotting pigs.
If I had to give advice on three things to stop, start, and continue with SEO, it would be these:
Studying Google’s algorithms, patents, and updates is fun if you’re into data. But if you’re doing it just to reverse-engineer the algorithm, you’re going to fail. Google now makes something like 500+ algorithm changes a year. And most of those go unnoticed by everyone except people who were trying to game it.
If you’re treating your link building efforts like ‘skunk spray’ – stinking up the entire area in the hope you’ll overtake predators – then you are absolutely doing it wrong. Think about the way you party now compared to the way you partied in college. Moderation! Directory listings are good – in moderation. Guest posts are good – in moderation. Articles are good – in moderation. Do any one of those too much and you’ll be the guy passed out in the corner while the party goes on around you. Think about what will help your business, and do that instead.
The Internet has matured. People expect companies to have great features, great service, and great product selection. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be the next Facebook or Apple without a tremendous investment in time, technology, and capital.
70% of people rely on reviews to make purchasing decisions, according to Google. Companies only get good reviews when they surprise and delight their customers. The old adage is true – make someone happy, they’ll tell two friends. Piss them off, they’ll tell twenty. Except on the Internet, the ratios are more like 200 to 2,000.
At the end of the day, make sure you’re building, making, creating, and selling something great. Make people happy or help them solve their problems. Make their lives just a little bit easier. Make sure your site is not just readable on mobile, but mobile friendly. Go the extra mile to provide a pleasant experience with your email campaigns, your coupon experiences, and your customer service. There is nothing better for SEO than a bunch of happy customers.
Think about wearables like Google Glass and the iWatch. Realize that the Fitbit, the Garmin, and myriad other tools will become more advanced. Consider critically how your product or service fits in. How will you leverage this new technology in your business?
Everything is related to something. If your name is Sam, then Sam ‘has’ car, Sam ‘has’ house. House ‘has’ Sam’s wife, wife ‘has’ children. Children ‘have’ computers, computers ‘have’ apps. Start thinking in this way to understand why and how schema works. Whether we have to keep tagging everything ourselves or search engines just get more advanced at discovering the relationships themselves, entities are the future of how we’ll search.
If they tell you to nofollow, do it. If they give you a new schema tag to use, use it. If they tell you to stand on your head, ask them for how long. Like it or not, the search engines rule SEO. We are free to ignore their recommendations, to block their robots, or ignore their penalties. But it’s like the kid at the playground that you don’t play nicely with. He will just take his ball and go home. Google doesn’t need you. So feel free to question, criticize, or even get irritated by what Google requires. ‘But do it anyway.’
Rankings are nice to track, and they can tell you a lot about things when you view them in categories. Visits are cool, but there’s a lot of noise from affiliates, pay to click programs, and DOS attacks. But what really matters at the end of the day is money. So make sure your analytics is set up to track actual goals. Assign a monetary value to them or don’t, but make sure you know what contributes to real, actual customers instead of just a first place ranking for your CEO’s name.
I think the biggest mistake new SEOs make is taking things at face value. Dr. Pete wrote this amazing open letter to SEOs, where he hits this right on the head.
Just because someone you respect says your Title tag should be 56 characters for maximum click-through doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way with your business, your industry, your clients. A caveat though. Unless your purpose is purely academic, be careful of falling into the trap of testing all the time and never creating. You have a responsibility to your clients and to yourself to deliver results, not just the results of tests.
Everything. Seriously, this is an extremely hard question to answer for me. I love everything about SEO. It’s how I define myself. Many people don’t know that I actually started my career in affiliate marketing. Then I shifted to event marketing, paid search, account management, copywriting, and finally SEO. SEO was where I found my home.
To me, it’s the perfect combination of creativity and writing, technology and data mining, analysis and implementation. The community is so welcoming, and I’ve found so many people who I call my friends even though I only see them at conferences and on twitter or Facebook. There’s nothing like being able to find someone to talk shop with at any hour of the day. This is such a male-dominated part of the industry, but I feel welcome. The men are just as supportive and friendly as the women. And while there’s a fair amount of sexism in the industry overall (like there is in any industry), my fellow SEOs speak a common language. I’ve never felt anything but welcome and loved by my fellow SEOs.
And that brings me to probably my most important piece of advice. Don’t compete, collaborate. There is plenty of work to go around. SEOs are amazing at sharing – tools, ideas, spreadsheets, concepts, case studies, stories. Most of us collaborate with each other and we are better for it. We don’t worry about things like intellectual property or trade secrets. We sub work to each other, and pay each other as consultants when we know we need help. Sharing elevates all of our skills, and we know it. It’s just one more thing to love about SEO.
If you enjoyed Jenny’s insights on my blog (or in my book), you want to check two of her latest blog posts: