Last month, I had the pleasure of joining Sean Van Guilder, our Director of SEO and Analytics along with Rand Fishkin, the Wizard of Moz and David Lindahl, President of the Seattle Search Network and Digital Marketing Product Manager from CDK at Techstars Startup Week Seattle as a moderator for the panel “Beware the Backlinks: Modern SEO Strategies for Startups”. Since it wasn’t filmed, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to catch up with Sean to break down some highlights. Below is a transcription of our interview. Enjoy!
Maureen Jann: Okay. Hi everybody I’m Maureen Jann, the director of marketing here at Point It, a digital marketing agency in Seattle, Washington, and I’m here with Sean Van Guilder, the director of SEO and analytics. Hi Sean!
Sean Van Guilder: Hello.
Maureen Jann: Today we’re talking about … We’re doing basically a review of “Beware the Back Links”, a panel on modern SEO strategies that Sean was on earlier this month at Start-up Week Seattle, sponsored by Tech Stars and Chase. So that was a lot of fun, and I was the moderator. So it will be extra lively today. Sean, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sean Van Guilder: Yes, as Maureen mentioned I’m Sean Van Guilder. I’ve been doing web development, SEO, analytics, paid search for going over 20 years now. And I love SEO because it’s partly technical, but there’s also some creativity that goes into it with the marketing aspect. So anybody who wants to talk SEO with me, please let me know.
Maureen Jann: Great. Well, on the panel we had Sean himself, as well as [inaudible 00:02:27] and renowned SEO expert as well as David Lindall, the solutions manager at CBK Global and the president of the Seattle Search Network. We covered some really interesting questions, and since we didn’t get to actually record that session, I thought it may be helpful for us to kind of go through the questions, you and I, since I have you readily available. And we can talk through what we went over.
So the first question that we talked about was: How do you define a high performing SEO strategy? I thought that was really interesting because that was pretty high level, and the audience was start ups, so we did a very start up specific look at it. So talk to me from a start up perspective, like how do you define a high performing SEO strategy?
Sean Van Guilder: I think it takes into account everything SEO, right? So we talk about the three pillars of SEO. There’s the technical, which is basically the foundation of your website. There’s the on page, which is your content, your information architecture. But then thirdly, who’s linking to you. So high performing … I think basically the best strategy when going into building a new website or redesigning a site is looking at the longevity of it. Making sure that, number one, the technical piece, the technical pillar, the foundation of your house basically for your website is solid. If you don’t have that it’s going to be very hard to rank with other things, especially for mobile searches.
Your content, so looking at how your content is structured on the pages. How are you answering questions? How are you relating to the people who are actually going to search for your product or service? But then also, too, what is your outreach? How are you getting this content in front of those people that want your services? So ensuring that you have a good social media presence, that you have a content calendar, that you’re actually promoting your content out to your social media channels. A lot of companies forget all those pieces work well together.
And ideally, if you can as a start up, use other digital marketing channels, but specifically with SEO is making sure that you have that first six months planned out and that you’re taking into consideration all the technical items in your competitive analysis that goes into starting a new business or a new website.
Maureen Jann: So I find that part very interesting. SEO isn’t SEO in a standalone sense. It’s not you slapping a bunch of keywords on a page. It’s bigger than that, and it’s really making sure that you have a strong strategy that you can apply the SEO strategy to, you know. You have to have a foundation. You have to know who your competitors are. You need to know where you want to show up compared to those competitors. You want to know who those customers are compared to who your competitors customers are as well.So SEO always surprises me, especially when I talk to you. It doesn’t operate in a vacuum, you know?
Sean Van Guilder: Yeah. And one of the things that I’ve talked to other people about too is when SEO first came about it’s because we were truly optimizing for the search engines. We weren’t really optimizing for customers or user searches, queries, that sort of thing. And I think to some degree SEO is a bit of a misnomer now. It’s not really search and optimization. It’s user intent optimization. So understanding who your customers are. Build personas. Do the research, like you were mentioning, of who are the competitors clients. Who do you want for a client? And then making sure that you’re meeting that client halfway in the engines and through social media et cetera to get them to be a devoted customer for your product.
Maureen Jann: Sure. That makes sense. Brand personas. That’s a flag I could wave all day long.
Sean Van Guilder: And that’s one of the first questions I ask clients when I first meet them, especially marketing teams. Do you have personas developed? Because oddly enough, oftentimes they don’t think with SEO that we’re going to use that to inform our strategy that’s going to help them move the needle and increase sales and leads.
Maureen Jann: Yep. Absolutely, that makes sense. Fantastic.
Well, our next question is really about the practices we put in place and what does success look like for SEO for a startup. Especially if you’re like second round, and you have some money and you have some content. What does that look like?
Sean Van Guilder: Yeah, as far as modern SEO practices and things like that go, looking at if you have a website already. Right? So ensuring that you’re using that data and understanding it, interpreting it. Aligning whether or not there’s been updates to Google’s algo and you’ve seen varying degrees of either positive or negative gains through organic search, through back links, et cetera. Understanding whether or not you’re aligning to best practices.
Another thing to look at is how well are you using the tools that engines give you. Google and Bing both have wonderful tools when it comes to understanding things like schema markup. I won’t go into details about it, but you can do a lot of research on it. And basically the way that I’d describe it is it’s hyper HTML. It gets information about your company, about your website, about your products in front of the engines so that the engines don’t have to interpret or try to make assumptions about what you’re trying to tell them.
Looking at, especially now with Google, moving to a mobile first index. Ensuring that your site is performing well, it loads fast, it looks nice on a mobile device, and it’s easy to navigate. Cause if you don’t, there are a lot of companies out there that are going to end up getting negatively impacted by not having a mobile optimized site.
Maureen Jann: Sure. That makes sense. So you mentioned using the data on your website. Can you tell me a couple samples of kind of the data you can glean off of your website.
Sean Van Guilder: Absolutely, so the first thing I do anytime I have a new client, we’ll go through and pull in the last three or four years worth of data. And there again we’ll look at the organic traffic from Google, Bing, Yahoo and other engines to see if there have been these dips and valleys within each of their engines. If there have, that data is fairly evident that there have been those dips and increases, we’ll look at the history of updates. We’ll go into the larger ones by Google. We’ll look at some of the other minor ones to see if it could have been impacted. And then that informs us to look at other things like, for example, bounce rate.
Overall bounce rate for organic traffic, not just the entire site, but then looking at pages that should be ranking well and garnering that traffic for their business. Looking at those specific pages click-throught rate from engines, the bounce rate, the time on those pages et cetera that will help inform what you should be addressing.
Maureen Jann: Okay, great that’s really helpful. The other question I had for you was, you said something about tools, and I like tools. And people like free tools. So tell us all about the free tools.
Sean Van Guilder: Yeah, unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to find free tools. Moz, they offer some great free tools right now, especially around site explorer et cetera. But to some degree SEM Rush has some free analysis that they do. I mean, it’s limited to a certain number of rows of data et cetera. Ahrefs is the same thing. So you can get down the path of understanding what’s going on with your site with those tools.
But then also too making sure that your site is verified within Google Webmaster Tools, which is now Google Search Console. As well as Bing Webmaster Tools because they provide a wealth of information that’s free.
Maureen Jann: I like free. Free! Thumbs up! Fantastic, okay. Well, I know we spent a lot of time on this question at Seattle Startup Week because people like to talk about what’s wrong. But in this case, let’s talk about … What are some of the common pitfalls we see in SEO approaches? And I remember your initial reaction was ‘how much time do you have?’, but this is a short video, Sean. A short video.
Sean Van Guilder: I know. I think I mentioned this at Tech Startup too … There’s a whole hashtag on Twitter around SEO horror stories. And that’s the hashtag. So it’s funny to .. It obviously goes on and on, but I think the main pitfall is people, especially in the startup world they’re needing to get the site up and running to conduct business. That is their business. That’s their revenue generator, so they have to get it out the door.
And oftentimes then we’ll have clients come to us after that happens and say, I know we need SEO. The site’s up and running. It’s not doing very well, and instead of actually starting with SEO as a foundation it’s usually an afterthought.
The other pitfall I see companies get into is with budget. You pay for what you get. If you’re going to pay for a consultant that comes to you with, oh I can get you on page one for $750, that’s just not going to happen. The other thing is I would never say to a client, I guarantee I’m going to get you on the first spot or on page one unless it’s for certain keywords like their brand name. That’s going to be easy, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s actually about understanding how to get traffic to the site.
Another common pitfall is … I think it goes along hand in hand with starting out with SEO, is making sure that your site information architecture is structures such that it’s going to be easy for not only search engines to understand, but especially your users. The visitors to your site. You know, I’ve seen so many companies start up a website with their own terminology, just completely ignoring the KISS mentality of keep it simple, stupid. Instead they want kitschy or clever with some of their terminology, and it confuses people.
Maureen Jann: Bad navigation makes everyone cry.
Sean Van Guilder: Yes. Yeah, I mean I’m probably more impatient than most people, but I think when it comes to landing on a website, if I don’t understand completely right away where to go and get the information, I bounce. And most people do.
Maureen Jann: Yeah, I agree with you. And the other part about that is that’s, I think, a huge issue for most marketers, especially when you’re looking at landing page optimization and that kind of thing, is making sure that you have a very clear path for your users from the first moment you’re on the website to after they’ve read the whole page. Where do you want them to go next? What’s the most important thing to your business or to your customer? More importantly to your customer, so …
Sean Van Guilder: I think tone of voice is really important to when people rank content. Because I’ve worked for companies before, as well as had clients where basically they get in the way of themselves. I always use the analogy where if I’m reading content where I feel like I’m at a party, and I’m cornered by this guy who’s constantly talking about himself and his boat and his house and his cabin and all this … I tune out. I’m done. Versus write your content so it informs me of how you solve my problem. That is really going to drive not only leads, but revenue down the road.
Maureen Jann: That’s a conversation I spend a lot of time with … For the Point It copy, as well as the other kinds of copy that I write, we talk a lot about making the customer the rockstar. How can you make them better at their job so that they look like a rockstar to their company? That’s a foundational principle for us.
Sean Van Guilder: Yeah, and I think if you keep in mind that every person coming to your site has a task or goal that they’re trying to accomplish. You’re getting in the way of them accomplishing that by just talking about yourself and how great you are versus how great this is going to make your life. So storytelling.
Maureen Jann: Absolutely. Man, storytelling’s so key. Not only that, but people are more likely to finish your story than to just bail.
Sean Van Guilder: Yep.
Maureen Jann: Yep. Fantastic. So the last question we talked about at Start-up Week was: What are the first SEO strategies that start-ups should invest in? So talk to me about that.
Sean Van Guilder: I would say your social media program and garnering high quality back links. So doing content promotion through those channels using something like Outbrain et cetera, but you know. Moz has a great list of, I think it’s called the first 50 back links that you can get. But making sure that you’re getting your content out there is a great investment. And I’m not saying purchase links, I’m saying promote your content. If you purchase links you’re going to get banned by the engines, guaranteed.
I think the first one is making sure you’re getting those links organically, and the best way to do that is to use some sort of content and promotion tool like Outbrain. Investing in some paid search, I think, is a great one. And what that’s going to do … I know it’s weird for an SEO person to talk about paid search, but the great thing that that’s going to do is it’s going to inform you and provide you deeper data into what people are actually searching on versus just offering in a vacuum.
So put some investment into paid search that’s actually going to impact your organic, but also more importantly invest in garnering those links through paid social, whether it’s paid social media, organic social media, get eyeballs in front of your message.
Maureen Jann: The nice part about social media advertising is that it’s very flexible too for the start up budget. And highly targeted.
Sean Van Guilder: Yes.
Maureen Jann: For a variety of reasons, both from indicating behavior, buying behavior perspectives, to demographics and interests. I think the tricky part especially right now, is we’re running into Facebook messing with the algorithm so that’s the only way you can get in touch with your Facebook followers, which is crazy pants. But you know, that’s a whole nother topic.
But I know Twitter has worked really well for us in sharing content and getting eyeballs on content and getting them to the site. So that could be a great way … And people think that Twitter is dead, which I think is crazy. I think it’s just a matter of they haven’t found their community, and they don’t understand how the hashtags work. So I encourage people to look into those things to help get more backlinks essentially.
Sean Van Guilder: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s one of those things where I think we, in this internet age, have such a short attention span. I’ll hear, oh, Twitter’s dead now. It’s not. We still see a lot of good connections coming from that. And depending on your business, especially if you’re selling products online, running campaigns that are contests or things like that can just generate this viral message that boosts your traffic so much.
Maureen Jann: Totally.
Sean Van Guilder: So as far as the order, I would say: Number one, social media, whether that’s organic or paid. And then looking at how you can do outreach through various websites, either through advertising like Outbrain or manually reaching out to those within the industry that are experts for your market.
Maureen Jann: Yep, absolutely. Fantastic. Well, that brings us kind of to the end of our interview here, so I appreciate your time. I’m really glad we got the chance to talk through the questions and give a little overview for our audience.
Sean Van Guilder: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I love talking about SEO, so anytime.
If you like this, might also enjoy our other new video project called Quick Tips! It’s digital marketing insights under 3 minutes. Take a look at the latest tip from Sean Van Guilder, our Director of SEO and Analytics.