I just recently did an interview with an old high school friend, Ashley Rader, who is now in the SEO business. Since I build custom web applications and websites, but know next to nothing about SEO, I took the opportunity to ask questions that I think web developers of my background would appreciate. The interview follows.
Dan Moore: My understanding of SEO is that it is how you show up on the first page in search engine results. How is that understanding incorrect?
Ashley Rader: That is mostly correct, yes. Although if you were to ask Google that question, their aim is to deliver sites at the top of the search engines that are most relevant to the search. They like quality sites, with unique content, and with a level of “authority” where google has found other sites to reinforce that relevance. SEO is the process by which webmasters and site owners can attempt to increase the likelihood that Google thinks their site is relevant to a particular search. Sites can still rank at the top of google for particular results without SEO techniques, but it is a lot harder to do so.
Dan Moore: Why is it harder?
Ashley Rader: Without SEO you would have to have some other form of publicity working in your favor. For example a new movie comes out. There are commercials on TV and buzz amongst movie gurus. They might naturally begin linking their websites and blogs to the movies website which in turn yields higher search engine results for that website. The webmaster of the site probably doesn’t have to do anything “unnatural” to enhance their search engine rankings because other forms of marketing are working on their behalf to enhance their search ranking for a particular phrase. Most ordinary website owners and business owners don’t have that kind of marketing available to them so in those cases, they would need to use SEO techniques to get the same result.
Dan Moore: So, if I understand you correctly, SEO is a form of marketing, just like TV ads?
Ashley Rader: Not exactly, there are forms of marketing that you can use as a part of an SEO or SEM campaign. Buying text or banner links and advertising on a page might be part of an SEM campaign. However even when it comes to marketing your site in other mediums online, there are different goals for purchasing an ad. For our network of sites we sometimes purchase ads in order to gain traffic from a particular site, and in other cases we might purchase advertising for the sole purpose of search engine optimization and having google see a link from a particular site to our site. SEM (search engine marketing) could be considered a form of marketing, that is the broader name for it. SEO is the process of in a sense manipulating the way google (or the other search engines) might view your site and the topics or search phrases that it might deem it relevant for.
Dan Moore: Is it worth targeting anyone other than Google?
Ashley Rader: Not worth spending a lot of time on anyone but Google, no. That’s why I keep mentioning google. Some of the things you do will enhance the results for Yahoo, Live, etc, but not worth spending hours and hours trying to rank for both.
Dan Moore: Can you elaborate a bit on how you started out in the SEO field?
Ashley Rader: I started my website back in 2005 and really started researching online, how do all these sites get to the top of the search engine results. I didn’t have a lot of money for advertising my website so I was more interested in finding out how to do it for FREE (or with the only cost being my own sweat and labor). There are a million ebooks out there on how to do SEO and I was lucky enough to find one from a guy who really knew what he was talking about, and is one of the experts in the industry.
Dan Moore: How many ebooks/methods did you try before you found the one that worked? And how did you know it worked?
Ashley Rader: Actually just the one. As I started to implement some of the things I was reading about, my first site started moving up the search results pretty quickly. Since then the author of the original ebook that I read started an SEO/SEM membership organization (called Stompernet) of which I’ve been a faithful member since 2006. SEO has changed completely even since I started in 2005 so it is really important to stay current on the kinds of things that work today. The things that I did SEO wise for my site back in 2005 might get me banned from Google today, so its always changing and definitely keeps things interesting.
Dan Moore: So even now, you are constantly overhauling your website(s) to take advantage of new techniques that you read about or discover?
Ashley Rader: Not exactly overhauling, but tweaking – yes, I’m constantly tweaking. If you start off the bat by implementing good structure you likely won’t need to completely overhaul it, but there are always little tweaks and things that tomorrow might require a different kind of title tag, or a different linking structure.
Dan Moore: A different kind of title tag? What do you mean–different phrasing, or what?
Ashley Rader: Changing up the keywords, changing the way it is written, changing the “call to action”. Since title tags control what appears on the primary line of the search results, its important that they are optimized not only for SEO purposes – so including your main keyword(s) for the page. You also need to balance that with the fact that it is your main line of advertising in the search results so you want it to be compelling for people to click on. Title tags written without keywords or with a bunch of extraneous unrelated text are often not clicked on.
Dan Moore: You mentioned implementing good structure at the beginning of website development–what does that typically look like?
Dan Moore: There are ‘validation’ programs to show malformed HTML on websites; are there any analogous SEO programs?
Ashley Rader: Yes, there are a TON of programs out there that can look at many of the factors that influence ranking. All should be taken with a grain of salt as the ultimate determining factor is how you actually rank. The one that I use is iBusinessPromoter. They will analyze many of the onpage factors and tell you if you are over or under optimizing in comparison to the sites that are top ranking for your particular keyword. I have a number of colleagues who focus SO much on tweaking their on page factors and aren’t looking at the big picture of their overall SEO campaign, and they are just spinning their wheels wondering why their site is still not ranking well. These tools can help, but are not the end all be all. Also Google Webmaster Tools provides some fantastic information as to why a site might not be ranking well whether it be the site layout, lack of incoming links, or if maybe a penalty has been imposed.
Dan Moore: I always tell people that the best way to get better placement in search results is to produce regular, interesting content about whatever niche they are in. You have been talking about some techniques that can produce better results, so is my advice incorrect? If so, do you have a similar (or better!) short capsule of advice?
Ashley Rader: Your advice is 100% correct. There are other things you can do to reinforce that, but google LOVES regularly updated, unique, quality content. Google loves blogs for that very reason.
Dan Moore: Do you blog?
Ashley Rader: I have a number of blogs (I think maybe 6 or 7 for some of the niches that my websites are in), although at this time I have so many fires in the pot that I am not contributing to them as much as I should. That is one of the areas I’m working on consolidating and improving on.
Dan Moore: 6 or 7, that’s quite a few. How do you mean “consolidating”? Generating more multipurpose content? Getting other contributors?
Ashley Rader: Other contributors. Many of them are set up right now with RSS feeds from different sources but that is not ideal. Matt Cutts from google says that RSS feeds are ok to include, but blogs still need original content. I have a writer from Odesk who does daily posts for 2 of my blogs.
Dan Moore: Ahh, ok. Can you talk about the future of SEO–what developments on the horizon excite you?
Ashley Rader: Well I’m not 100% sure what lies in the future, SEO is kind of an “in the moment” type of science. Since we don’t know what changes Google is going to make tomorrow to their ranking algorithm it is hard to say. But since I have started, they are moving more and more towards rewarding sites that provide really unique, valuable content to their users. Actually, one thing they are beta testing right now is the concept of “social search”. Search results that are different for every user based upon their surfing patterns and sites they visit and elect to come up higher. I can log into my google account and all of my websites (even my brand new ones) are all #1 on google for their search terms! 🙂 Right now google says these voted results aren’t affecting the current algorithm, but I would guess in the future they will. Social networks seem to be the way that google is moving so out are the days where you could put crappy, scraped content on your site and spam it to rank well. You need to provide a valuable experience for your website visitors and in turn google will begin to reward you for that with higher rankings.
Dan Moore: Are there any SEO campaigns that you are particularly proud of and/or would point to as proof of your expertise?
Ashley Rader: My main website is www.momentsofelegance.com. Currently (just checked) #4 on google for “wedding favors” which is a very popular and competitive search phrase. During the summer months which is the height of wedding season, we get about 3500 hits a day and 98% of those are from organic google search results. Sorry it’s #5 on google not #4.
Dan Moore: Cool, well, thank you very much for your time. This was very helpful; any parting thoughts?
Ashley Rader: The most important factors I would say are make sure you know and understand your industry, the search phrases that people are using to find the times of products or services that you offer (and to research this as what you “think” people might not be searching for is not always what people are actually looking for). Use those keywords in your site design – not in a spammy way but a natural way. Then if you are providing good, quality content that appeals and attracts visitors, your site will gain relevant links and will be rewarded by google with better rankings. You’ve got the right idea, content is king and with good content you will have more returning visitors and better rankings.
One other small point I should make is not to ignore the “long tail” or more specific keyword searches for a site. We get about 25% of our traffic from our main search phrase “wedding favors”, but the majority of the traffic comes into our product pages using very specific keywords. Those are actually the “money phrases” as people who are looking for “wedding favors” are usually just researching, people searching for “hot pink favor boxes with personalized ribbon” are usually ready to buy. Just an important distinction to make to not ignore the more specific search phrases.
Dan Moore: That’s actually how the search keywords for my blog work out–the majority of the search terms are unique and I get maybe 1 hit a month on them.
Ashley Rader: Thats the good thing about blogs, there are a few basic plugins you can use and your site is pretty much SEO optimized and your internal blog pages can rank very well for the longer tail search phrases.
Dan Moore: Thanks again!