SEO Scott Thompson contrasts his first SEO strategy with his current modern SEO challenge.
When I first spoke to Rob Shields, the founder of LocalPrice.com, the purpose was to help him find an Search Engine Optimization (SEO) guru and maybe provide a little bit of free SEO advice. I’d done this many times before with various small business owners and friends starting Web businesses so it wasn’t anything new to me. I’d been out of the SEO game for a couple of years and was quite happy managing Websites and letting the agencies handle SEO. After looking into the Local Price concept I was so impressed that I wanted to work on this new SEO project and wasn’t about it hand it over to anyone else. Of course, the SEO game had changed.
SEO used to be easy. The tactics for ranking were pretty straight forward. Get dozens of links with the right anchor text pointed to the desired page, write good copy, build out your Meta tags, submit the directories and search engines and bam you had rankings. Now it’s not so easy. Even though the old tricks still have some merit it takes a more comprehensive strategy to succeed in the Web 2.0 Internet world.
My First SEO Project
My first SEO gig was in 2002 for a start-up franchise advertising company. I had studied computers with an emphasis on hardware in college but found the job market bleak. I found a start-up through a friend and begged them for a job. The only thing they had open was for an SEO Manager. I had no idea what search engine optimization was so I looked it up online the night before the interview and my new found knowledge and eagerness to work landed me a job that would lead me down a completely different path than I had planned.
In 2002 Google was still on the rise and not the powerhouse it is now so I would optimize for multiple engines at once. There were tricks for each search engine that I tried to employ on each page, but the first step then, as now, was to find the right keywords and keyword phrases to optimize for. This was as much art as science. I would start with Wordtracker and find variations of phrases. I might type “food franchise” into Wordtracker and learn that “hamburger fast food franchise” was a popular phrase that didn’t have many sites competing for it. This would give me a phrase I could rank for quickly while I worked to rank for the popular, and more difficult term of “food franchise.”
The “Content is king” mantra was always on my mind as I worked with copywriters to ensure the correct keyword phrases made it into the copy and headers and image tags, but despite content being king nothing ruled like inbound links. The quality of the website mattered, the relationship to the site theme also mattered, but what mattered most was simply links. I soon learned that the best way to rank was to exchange links and to buy links from anyone that was willing to sell. Text link advertising services didn’t exist yet, so buying links meant finding good sites, contacting the site owner, and negotiating a deal. Most were more than willing to sell a link for a year for a hundred bucks.
As with any start-up the franchise company founder was a visionary and a risk taker. When he learned how well link building worked he wanted more links. “Let’s find a way to dramatically multiply our inbound links.” To accomplish this I hired his niece to gather links. She was a stay at home mother living in rural Louisiana. Then I contracted with several of her friends who were also Louisiana stay at home mothers. We supplied them with refurbished PCs, paid for their Internet connections, and set up a compensation plan. My new teams of “LA Linkers,” as we affectionately called them, were paid a base and a bonus for each link. Links with low Page Ranks might only get one dollar while links from good PR sites would get as much as five dollar per link.
This seemed simple enough but it didn’t take the LA Linkers long to game the system by exchanging with link farms and other sites that offered link exchanges in bulk. I quickly nixed exchanging with any link farms or scraped bulk sites. I also blocked casino sites and of course anything that could be considered offensive. To help monitor the links our Web developer built an in-house system that checked the links for return links, the Page Rank, and the anchor text of the inbound link. This custom tool helped ensure we were getting what we paid for as checking every inbound link from every LA Linker would have taken hours per week.
My LA Linkers gathered thousands of inbound links to our franchise advertising Websites with 25,000 inbound links to just one site gathered in a couple of years. We ranked in the top three positions of the first page for almost all of our targeted and highly competitive keyword phrases, both short and long tail phrases. The link building project was a huge success and even though the project took significant management and resources the concept was simple.
A Modern SEO Project
Things had changed since I last worked as an SEO. I knew that working with the start-up Localprice.com would be different in this new world dominated by Google. Rob wanted to hire an SEO specialist but I insisted that the job be more comprehensive. SEO alone is not enough for long term success. To be successful we would need a comprehensive Internet strategy. Yes, we could rank at the top of Google for our targeted terms, but to bring users back and build word of mouth it would take more. For a Website to be successful in the Web 2.0 Internet we had to consider onsite factors like usability and conversions, and offsite factors like social media and brand building. Then there were emerging technologies on the horizon like mobile media to think about as well.
Scott Thompson (left) with SEO great, Bruce Clay
My initial audit of Local Price revealed a well built site with easy to use navigation and all the foundations of SEO in place: strong meta tags, good header tags, and targeted content. I’ve audited dozens of sites in the past few years and I’ve often been surprised at the sites that don’t even have the basic ranking factors in place. I’ve seen sites that were all Flash or contained all graphical text. Sites with the same title tag on every page and sites with navigation that was impossible for the search engine spiders to follow. I tweaked a few metas and some code, but fundamentally Local Price was a well built site.
Although the basics were in place I knew we needed more onsite content and one of the best ways to provide content is to provide free advice for visitors. This not only gives the search engines more information to help in ranking your site, but also creates link bait from other sites that find your advice valuable. The Internet is the place people now go for information and if you can provide that information you’ll increase your traffic. One method for Web writing is to write good copy first and then edit it for the keywords you want to target. In the past all you needed was a lot of keywords in any place you could put them, but now the search engines prefer more natural writing with the keywords appearing in good copy. If you try to write specifically for your keywords you’ll create hokey copy. When you write good copy you might be surprised how many of your keywords appear naturally.
Networking in business has long been a path to success and in the Web 2.0 world it’s also a path to Website success. The Local Price concept was new and to get people using the site we had to introduce them to it. Starting in the metro Atlanta area first we needed to get the site in front of as many Atlantans as possible. One method was to network with as many local Bloggers as possible. By offering to create posts for the blogs and interviews with Rob we both won. Local Price increased brand recognition and the Blogger gained new content.
Social media exploded in 2008. While it was once the domain of teenagers and college students it’s now used by Web users of all ages and demographics. From Linkedin for the professional to Facebook for friends social media is too important to ignore. While there are still unanswered questions about how best to use social media and how to measure it the consensus is that it is important. Trying to be everywhere at once is impossible and not effective so we selected a few of the top social media tools including Facebook and Twitter to interact with users. There are many ways to optimize for each of these but the main point is use these tools to build your brand and get feedback to improve your site.
To understand what’s working and what’s not we spent time each day with Google Analytics. There are many great analytics tools but Google Analytics is free and on a start-up shoestring budget free was just the right price. You’ll have to decide what’s most important to you depending on your goals, but for Localprice.com I check the keywords, referring sites, and unique visitors daily for indications of what techniques are working and where I need to do more.
SEOs must now involve themselves with every aspect of the Website from start to finish and must be knowledgeable in many Internet strategies. Some say that search engine optimization is dead. I don’t think it is dead. It has simply evolved to a point where the SEO can’t just be an SEO anymore but an Internet Strategist.
Editors note: When I asked Scott to review this article he asked me to remind everyone that Localprice is a great place to find “Atlanta Limos.” You can never get the SEO out of some people. Scott’s an interesting guy. Check out his Bio at Localprice.