Remember the 1990s, when people used old school search engines? Cost per click for SEO was unheard of back then. Now, everybody uses Google. People have more control over marketing content than ever before. What’s the best way for your target audience to discover your marketing content? Search engine optimization (SEO).
Today’s guest is Stephan Spencer, SEO expert and co-author of The Art of SEO. Stephan describes myths and truths about SEO, including why remarkable content wins.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- Stephan’s Career Path: Studying for a PhD in biochemistry, only to switch to SEO
- What makes a good headline? Decision to consider SEO and keywords that attract users
- Quality over Quantity: Google rewards sites with Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (EAT) and Your Money or Your Life (YMYL)
- Myths Debunked: Meta keywords and descriptions are not as valuable for rankings and click-throughs; guessing game with no data to back it up
- BS Detector: Ask specific SEO questions to verify so-called expertise
- Where to begin with SEO: Start by defining strategies, followed by tactics
- Prioritize and balance both internal and external requests; don’t become the “butt” of jokes
Nathan: Marketing used to feel intrusive. Take watching a TV show for example. Give or take eight minutes into that show and three minutes of ads would interrupt that experience. Today, the power to see only the content you want to see is more within your control than ever before. You can skip those commercials entirely or you could just choose not to have cable at all. Success for marketing then relies on new publishing content so good that your audience actually seeks it out on their own. Topics they want to discover, types of content they find most valuable. So, what’s the best way to help them discover your content? Optimize it so that you can actually find it, and most of the time, more often than not, it’s going to involve search engines.
Today we’re chatting Stephan Spencer on the Actionable Marketing Podcast. Stephan is an all-around expert on search engine optimization. In fact, he’s co-written a book on it called The Art of SEO. You may have read or you may have seen him talk about marketing on NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, The CW, you name it. Anyway, you get the picture, Stephan knows his stuff about SEO. Today, on the Actionable Marketing Podcast, you’re going to learn about SEO miss and truths, and I’m going to be the first to admit it, I didn’t know a bunch of this stuff that Stephan is going to talk about. You’ll learn why remarkable content wins and you’re going to learn to punch above your weight with SEO.
I’m Nathan from CoSchedule, now, let’s get AMPed with Stephan.
Hey, Stephan, thanks so much for being on the show today.
Stephan: Thanks, Nathan. Great to be here.
Nathan: It’s great to have you. Obviously, I know a couple things about you. I’ve read a little bit. Knowing that you have this book with Rand Fishkin, that’s a pretty big deal. I was wondering if you could just kick this off and help everyone know a little bit more about you, Stephan. Tell me about yourself and your career path with SEO.
Stephan: Sure. I’ve been doing SEO for decades now. I don’t look that old, but I’m one of the veterans from the 90s, doing SEO’s since 1990, whatever. I started my previous agency that I sold—it was called Netconcepts—in 1995 even before SEO was a thing. Just started getting really into SEO. Even before Google was messing around with optimized for Infoseek, GECK sites, WebCrawler, AltaVista, all those old school search engines. Over time, we became more of an SEO firm and not as much of a web development shop.
We built an ecommerce planning platform with SEO baked-in called Gravity Market, we created a lot of ecommerce websites for clients, but then I got very interested in using proxy technology and created a platform for doing SEO as a Software as a Service. Head clients like Zappos and Nordstrom were using and we would get paid on a performance basis. It’s pretty cool, cost per click for SEO which was unheard of back in those days.
In 2003, I first invented the platform called GravityStream. Came out with my first O’Reilly book in 2009 with Rand, as you mentioned, and a couple other co-authors. That was The Art of SEO first edition. We came out with the second edition a few years later. Now it’s in the third edition and it keeps growing.
It’s now almost a thousand pages, maybe 10 pages short of a thousand pages, which is a little overwhelming for a lot of folks if I hand a prospect, a free copy of the book. Here, she’s like, “Oh, wow. Can I just hire you and not have to read this?” Of course, the answer is yes. It serves as a very effective big business card essentially.
That was my first book with O’Reilly. It was The Art of SEO, but I have a couple others. I have Social eCommerce, so I’m not pitching whole of this “only an SEO expert.” I know quite a bit about social media marketing as well.
Another kind of SEO book—it’s actually for everybody because everybody uses Google—is called Google Power Search. That book is now in its second edition. It assists you in becoming a power user of Google so that you can find anything online with just a simple Google search. For example, competitor’s business plans, forced to research reports—it normally costs thousands of dollars—that sort of stuff.
I sold NetConcepts in 2010, as I alluded to, and then I started another consultancy. Pretty much shortly after that, same year, I did my earn-out over a six-month time period waiting for the check to clear and then right out the door. That’s me in a nutshell.
My career path didn’t start in SEO or online marketing or anything business-related. I was studying for a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and just decided I’m going to ride this gravy train to success with the internet back in 1994 when I first heard of Netscape and I’m like, “Wow! This is going to be huge. I need to drop off of this path to becoming a professor,” which would not be very lucrative. That’s my story.
Nathan: I love that. I always love the stories about people who never intended to be in the marketing sphere and just ended up there. For example—I can really relate to it—my major is in German Linguistics. How I ended up in marketing is a story.
Stephan: Wow. German Linguistics. I studied German in high school, I don’t remember any of it.
Nathan: I could teach you, I was thinking about becoming a teacher, but…
Stephan: You’re better off where you’re now.
Nathan: Exactly. Stephan, thanks for the history. I really appreciate that. Obviously you’ve been a veteran in the space. It’s been fun to hear about how you grew into this throughout even the 90s and then obviously moving forward. I feel like you’re the best person to ask a question like this. SEO seems like it’s ever changing and I was wondering if you’ve seen a few of those best practices that withstood the test of time and if you could share those with us.
Stephan: Oh wow, so many best practices that stand the test of time. I think of SEO as just whatever is good for the user and good for the bot is probably a best practice. I know you guys have a great headline analyser. That was your brain child, right?
Stephan: That was very good.
Nathan: That’s definitely fun project to be a part of.
Stephan: Yeah, very cool. If you write a good headline, then that is good for the user and that’s good for SEO. What’s a good headline? One that where you’ve made a considered decision about what keywords you use in the headline. If you’re not baiting and switching, you’re being legit with what you present in the headline is what you deliver on in the copy, if you do some keyword research to identify what words people are actually searching for in Google, and what their vocabulary is.
I remember working with Kohl’s Department Stores years ago, and they were just fixated on this keyword ‘kitchen electrics’ which I tried to convince them is not a term that anybody would ever utter in a sentence except for maybe them internally. They still were fixated on ranking on page one for that term, even though it’s an industry term that nobody else uses. Sometimes you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
There are nuances and things change as far as SEO. Years ago, I discovered that it didn’t matter that it was an H1 Tag or could be an H6 or could be even a font tag. If the text was large and prominently positioned on the page, it would get a certain amount of emphasis from Google and whether you tagged it with H1 or H2 or whatever, or even a font tag, it didn’t matter. That still is true today and it’s funny when I see “best practices” that say to use an H1 Tag because back in 2010, it didn’t matter. And now, we’re well into the end of the decade now and it still doesn’t matter. You got to be careful about who you follow.
Think of SEO as an experimental science because it is. You have hypothesis, then you test those hypotheses, and you see if they hold to be true or not. More best practices, links very much matter and it’s not, of course, about quantity, it’s about quality. There’s a lot of nuance now about what quality means.
For example, there’s a term that Google uses called EAT. It stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. Some of the recent Google updates from last year, there’s the Google birthday update, Google medic update, some core updates from this year and so forth, where you’re seeing a lot of emphasis on what are rewarding happening to sites with a lot of EAT. In particular, EAT matters for sites in YMYL category. Just again another Google term, they use in their quality rated guidelines which is now public, used to be confidential, but they decided to allow that to be out there because it kept getting leaked. So they just gave up and now they released it.
YMYL stands for Your Money or Your Life. Remember if you have EAT, you have expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, how do you show that you’re trustworthy? How do you show that you’re authoritative? Because in large part you have great links from important websites.
For example, I’ve spoken at Stanford before. Because I spoke at Stanford and they wanted to provide some additional resources to the attendees in my workshop, I had a number of links that point to different resources on my site that are on stanford.edu, which is an amazing opportunity. That’s the sort of thing where it’s not just the quality link, it’s a high trust link, it’s very hard to break in to satnfrod.edu and get some great links. You have to work very hard for it.
Another example was HBR (Harvard Business Review). I recently got an interview published my first one with HBR and it links in the bio line to my website. That’s another huge win because it’s very hard to get published with HBR. It’s really easy to do a guest post on some no name blog, but that doesn’t convey any authoritativeness or trustworthiness.
We could go on and on. There’s a ton of things that tried and true best practices that still work— on-page stuff, title tags, and all that’s still important. Off-page stuff, I mentioned links and other quality of them and so forth, but there’s a lot of stuff that we could impact. About a thousand pages worth actually.
Nathan: I hope you’re learning as much as about SEO as I am with Stephan. We’re going to get back to the show in just a minute, but right now, here’s some news. CoSchedule just launched its all new marketing suite. It’s a family of agile marketing products that are there to help you stay focused, deliver projects on time, and make your entire team happy. There’s content marketing software, work management software, and brand new digital asset management software. And now, CoSchedule also offers social media listening. It really makes our social offering a complete social media management platform. It’s pretty exciting stuff if you like to organize all of your marketing in one place. Go ahead and learn more about it at coschedule.com/transform-modern-marketing. Now, let’s get back to the show with Stephan.
I really like that you brought up the large text prominence. It made me think about other miss. I’m sure you could rattle a couple at the top of your head, but what would be a couple of things or traps that we should avoid that we might fall into, like the large text in prominence, for example?
Stephan: Oh, my goodness. There’s so many. I actually created an SEO myths free download, which I’ll share with your listeners.
Nathan: We’ll include that in the links for sure.
Stephan: Awesome. I think I have about seventy some myths in there. It’s crazy what people think are true and then Google says otherwise. Google could be lying about that and whatever and yeah there’s some conspiracy theories out there. I’m sure that there’s some things that Google has said that aren’t true, but there are plenty of stuff that you just have to take Google at face value.
For example, this is an old one. It’s crazy how there’s people still out there talking about putting keywords in different places that Google doesn’t wait including in the meta tags, and that includes meta keywords and meta descriptions. You could put keywords in the meta tags and let’s say meta keywords as an example that never counted in Google. There’s a myth that is easily busted, that Google publicly stated us that they never positively counted meta keywords. If somebody says, “Well, meta keywords don’t matter like they used to.” “Well, like they used to, huh? When did they actually matter with Google?” That’s a great way of in fact you can use some of these points as trick questions if you’re looking to hire an SEO in house or an SEO consultant to just work on a project for your company. Ask them questions like this, but you’ve got to formulate it so that they don’t realize that you’re trying to trap them.
You could ask them a question like, “Tell me what’s your process or optimizing meta keywords?” and they’ll probably answer with something like, “Those don’t really matter so much anymore with Google.” Then you know that they aren’t very good at SEO, because they would know that as far as Google’s concerned, meta keywords were never useful and never counted. Then there’s meta description which are not a ranking signal. There’s some people out there that believes that a meta descriptions are valuable for rankings. It’s surprising that those people still exist, but there are.
Meta descriptions are only valuable from a click-through standpoint. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable at all. It just means it’s more of a second order activity because I like to focus on things that will improve rankings and improve click through. That’s the one-two punch. Optimizing a title tag is more effective than optimizing meta description because that’s going to definitely be a ranking signal, and it’s also something that users look at and make a click decision from the search results. In fact it’s the first thing they look at. Before they look at the snippet text underneath the URL in the search listing, they’re looking at the title because that’s the most prominent part, and it’s clickable. That’s very important to focus on the title tag.
There’s so many myths out there, I don’t know which direction to go with them. There’s myths about how links work and AI, machine learning, and Google’s incorporation of those things. A lot of it’s conjecture because Google’s not very public about how they incorporate machine learning into their algorithms, but there’s RankBrain, and there’s a lot of methodology about RankBrain and as far as what it’s used for and stuff. It’s all conjecture. People are just guessing, so there’s no data behind it. I don’t know which direction you’d like me to go in, but that maybe also a bit of a starting point for you in terms of myths?
Nathan: Yeah. I appreciate that. I figured you just hit on some of those common ones that as someone who lives near SEO but isn’t eating, living and breathing it every single day, some of that stuff is really good for me to hear, too.
Stephan: Yeah. Also, if you want, I can share this BS detector for hiring an SEO which has some of these trick questions taken from the myths so you could just slip those into the interview process without your candidate knowing that you’re doing that. Pretty effective and you’ll be surprised how often they’ll get stuff wrong and you ask them questions about featured snippets, for example, and they don’t know the difference between a featured snippet and an instant answer that’s pulled from the knowledge graph. It’s pretty fascinating.
Nathan: It sounds like it. Actually, that leads into something I wanted to talk to you about. If I’m thinking about hiring somebody or just making sure that I have more focus on helping people find or discover our product or brand or companies through search engines, I’m thinking about a road map there. I was wondering how you would recommend to marketers who may just be working on lots of internal request. I hear this all the time that, “Hey, we’re just trying to make things happen. We’re getting all these requests.” What would you recommend as some of those first steps for actually getting a more strategic SEO road map in place? Where would you begin?
Stephan: There’s this quote that I love from The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Have you ever read that book?
Nathan: Basically CliffsNotes version of that.
Stephan: Okay. This is my favorite quote from it. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
Nathan: Love it.
Stephan: We got to start with the strategies and the tactics will come after we’ve defined what the strategies are. If you’re going to be strategic with SEO, you’re going to need to identify what’s the outcome you’re after. You’re going to need the baseline where you’re at now in terms of that outcome. So much of the time this is not done. Just looking at your Google Analytics after the fact and say, “Well, where are we currently versus where we were at?” “What’s the most meaningful metric that you care about?” It’s like, “Well, leads or sales or whatever it is.” It’s like, “Is that being tracked at Google Analytics?” “Um, not really. No.” “Oops. Now we’re thinking of this?” You got to preemptively identify what the metrics are that matter. What are those success metrics that helps you to keep score of whether you’re winning or losing and being outcome-focused.
This is super important. Because if you’ve got your outcome now defined and you’re doing a lot of busy work for SEO like so many “best practices” that will keep you buy forever on low value activities. Too many SEO practitioners are activity focused. They want to tick off the box that says they did this. “Okay, I went through and optimized the meta descriptions.” It’s like, “Well, that’s really a second order activity because it’s not going to move your rankings up at all. You’re neglecting these other things that have a profound impact on your rankings. Why aren’t those getting handled?” That outcome focus is really important to strategic success.
What are some of the strategies that will get you way beyond your competitors? Punching above your weight. That is where you’re going to need to get your creative juices flowing and thinking of crazy brilliant content marketing campaigns that will get you lots of high value, high trust, high authority links. What can you do that would be so remarkable, worthy of remark, that it deserves links from high value websites? That’s part of your strategy. What can you do in terms of on page optimization, technical SEO, and so forth as well that will really move the needle significantly? How can you be super strategic in your application of technical SEO?
I’ll give you a quick example. I just did a revamp of stephanspencer.com—a visual revamp, which I’m very happy with—and now we’re going to go native AMP with that. That should be going live hopefully in the next month or month-and-a-half. That’s a way of me showcasing that I eat my own dog food, I do the sorts of things that I tell folks in keynote presentations and so forth to do. I actually got called out on this once where I was keynoting at India Affiliate Summit a while back. Another thing that you want to do is you want to make sure that your site is secure, it’s running on HTTPS. Somebody called me out in the Q&A and said, “Actually your website stephanspecer.com, your blog is not on HTTPS.” It’s like, “Good point. I’ll get that handled.”
I was just so focused on my clients that I put that to the side and I was going to get to that later, but getting called out in public on that one was a good wake-up call that I need to also prioritize my own stuff. Thinking strategically in terms of your technical SEO is also valuable.
Nathan: Yeah, definitely. A lot of times I see marketers get so focused on just doing what the organization is requiring them to do or asking them to do. It’s almost like they’re an internal services agency and they’re clients would be like the departments that they serve. I would love your perspective on this that marketers should really try to own an SEO strategy, but they might need to balance some of these internal requests along with it. How might you recommend marketers work through that with prioritization or do you have any experience with what you would recommend to your clients there?
Stephan: It’s uncomfortable, but you need to do it. The analogy I like to use is, is if you have your face to the company, you’re internally facing, trying to please the different stakeholders in the company, whether your role is internal or its an external marketer, consultant that’s effectively working internally, with your face to the company, you have your butt to the customer.
Stephan: That’s not good, right? I need to turn around, face the customer, be customer-facing, customer-focused, and that means you put your butt to the company. Which may get you fired, I have to admit, but you’re going to have a much more effective internet presence because of it. It’s going to be good for everybody except maybe for your career. I recommend doing it, but if it means that you get fired because let’s say that you’re no longer targeting the keyword kitchen electrics and the CEO of the company really cares about that ranking, and it drops and you lose your job because of it, don’t come after me. I am saying this with caveats, that I don’t want you to lose your job, but you’re going to be better off just generally in terms of your marketing initiatives if you face the customer and not so much face the company.
I remember working with Westpac Bank years ago, a big bank in Australasia. Their legal department prevented marketing from using the term mortgage anywhere on the website. Seem crazy to me, and the reason behind it is because from a legal standpoint, mortgages are legal instruments, and they don’t provide the mortgage, they provide a home loan, so they were requiring the marketing department to use the term home loan everywhere in the website and never use mortgage, but of course mortgage is what everybody’s searches for, nobody searches for home loan in comparison. The legal department is effectively the business prevention department. I hate when that happens.
There’s times when the design guide, the style guide or just the brand police prevent you from doing effective SEO. I worked with Chanel. There were so many times where we couldn’t even add any text on pages. How can you SEO a page to rank better when there is no text and we’re not allowed to put any text on the page. I found that hard to wrap my head around, but that was the style guide that prevented marketing from running the look of these pages by adding any text to them.
You just have to work with what you got. Sometimes your hands are tied behind your back and you still have to run the race and try to win. You can still do it even though you’ve got a handicap.
Nathan: It’s good for us to hear sometimes that even an analogy that isn’t so nice, but it definitely gets the point across. I enjoyed that. Tell it as it is.
Nathan: Stephan, I think we’ll wrap up the episode here today. I just want to say thank you so much for being on the show and for sharing your knowledge with us. I definitely enjoyed this. You definitely called out a few things that I didn’t necessarily know about SEO. Thank you for being here and for sharing everything with us today.
Stephan: You’re welcome. Those gifts that I mentioned like the BS Detector and the myths, white paper and all that, I’ll put that on marketingspeak.com/amp, all lower case so that your listeners can jump right to that page. I’ll also include Chapter 7 of The Art of SEO and there, too, which is all about content marketing and link building.
Nathan: That would be awesome. We’ll make sure to have that link, too, in our show notes, get you a back link, and give our listeners a place to go to get there.
Nathan: Who knew Google rewards large font sizes over H1 Tags? Seriously, it’s a tip that I’m going to bring back to the team here at CoSchedule. I guess maybe another way to look at that advice is that you should really try to find those trusted sources for SEO information. It sounds like there are some “fake news” out there. Thank you, Stephan, I really appreciate you being on the show today.