Jill Whalen on SEO: then & now

Jill Whalen will always have a special place in my heart. Back in the day, we had a lot of “firsts” together.  We spoke at  Search Engine Strategies for the first time together. We presented at our first international conference together.  And we created RankWrite together, the first newsletter that discussed SEO and copywriting.

Jill was also featured in our “SEO women” series as one of the first-generation woman pioneers who helped build and define the SEO and search industry.

Here,  Jill shares about her path to becoming a leader in the SEO copywriting profession, answers our questions about Google’s latest updates, and discusses her perception of the SEO and search industry as a whole…including why truly good SEO copywriters are a rare breed, indeed.

Enjoy! – Heather

Q:  As one of the first wave of women who pioneered SEO, could you share with us your journey into that wild west world?

That’ll take us waaaaaay back to the early 1990’s when my kids were little and I first got online with a 2400 baud modem!

I got interested in IRC chat and created a parenting chat channel. By 1993 I taught myself HTML and developed a parenting website to go along with the chat room.

I was determined to figure out how to get that site found in the search engines of the day, i.e., Lycos, Excite, Webcrawler, so the same way that I taught myself HTML I analyzed what made certain websites rank for certain keywords and others not.

  • Discovering “SEO” – before it was “SEO”

It was pretty obvious at the time that it was the words on the page that would make the most difference. If you wanted to show up for a keyword phrase such as “parenting chat” then you needed to show that your site was obviously focused on being a place where parents could chat. Pretty obvious, but funny how others just weren’t thinking in those terms.

Eventually I started offering to design websites for some of the parents I had met online in my chatroom, and that gave me the opportunity to play with my new found SEO knowledge (it of course wasn’t called “SEO” yet).

Others had started to figure out the whole words on the page “trick” but instead of just making their pages relevant to what they wanted to rank for, many simply hid the words at the bottom of the page or with a font in the same color as the background of the page.  (I laugh when I still see this going on today, as if these people think they were the first to think of something so “clever”!)

  • The power of great copywriting

I went the opposite route for my clients and hired people far better at copywriting than I was, to describe what my clients offered in a way that would entice people to want to purchase from them. (That’s how Heather and I hooked up back in the late 90’s.)

And suddenly the SEO copywriting industry was born!

I found that the hard part of SEO was finding great writers. But once you found them, it was simple enough for them to understand the whole process of making sure they used keywords within their great writing.

Today I find that while great copywriting is still the number 1 thing you can do for a website, and I still recommend it for most sites, I focus my own energies on diagnosing technical issues that can hurt a website’s ability to gain the search engine traffic they deserve.

  • On search engine friendly website design

Website designs have become so complicated, and surprisingly too many developers still don’t understand how to create a truly search engine friendly site.

In addition, I love using Google Analytics (GA) to figure out why a website has suddenly lost a good portion of their search engine visitors. GA is so powerful these days, and if you know what you’re doing, it’s almost like being able to go back in time to see what was previously happening and then comparing it to what is happening now.

Q:  So what is your take on Google’s data encryption? How do you see it affecting keyword research?

Sadly, Google encrypting the searches of people who are logged into Google products such as Gmail and Google Analytics has meant that website owners have lost a lot of keyword data that we used to have regarding who visited our sites.

It shouldn’t affect keyword research as Google’s keyword research tool still provides the same data, but it will affect being able to effectively measure our success. It’s hard to know if the keywords you optimized for are bringing you traffic if you can’t see exactly what those keywords are in your analytics.

I actually just wrote a post about this subject: Measuring Natural Keyword Traffic in the Age of (NotProvided) Secure Search.

Q:  What are your thoughts about Google Search Plus?

It’s good and bad.

Sometimes I like it when I’m looking for a past article that someone in my online social circle has written. And I also like that it’s helping SEOs to *finally* agree that rankings are no longer possible as a way to accurately measure SEO success since they’re different for everyone. (That’s something I’ve been saying for years, but SPYW has made it all that much clearer.)

To go along with that I like that it should help to get search marketers focused on making their pages better overall, rather than being concerned with just a couple of keyword phrases and where their page shows up.

On the other hand, as a user/searcher it’s often annoying as I don’t always want to see what my friends have recommended! (You can hit the “non-personalized results” button, which does help.)

As to how it will affect SEO overall, it’s much too soon to say. They’re still tweaking it a lot and have already made Google+ results not quite as heavily featured as it was at first.

I’d recommend keeping an eye on it, but don’t make any major changes in the way you do business just because of it. You should probably have a Google+ account and filled out profile, though, if for no other reason than to get Google Author status which is an amazing perk for anyone who puts content online.

Q:  What is your take on Google’s “over optimization” penalty?

Aside from the fact that it’s impossible to “over-optimize” anything (because to optimize is to make perfect and you can’t go beyond perfect!) it’s likely just Google propaganda to scare dumb SEOS and web spammers.

But if it is indeed a real thing (and I hope it is) then it’s all a step in the right direction for Google. I’ve always found it annoying that SEO in all the right places could often beat out sites that were actually much better, but didn’t know anything about SEO. You shouldn’t be able to stick an extra keyword in a Title tag of a crappy site and have it beat out a great site!

So if it’s indeed something Google’s working on or implementing, it will finally make what I have been teaching in SEO for over 10 years to be true! (To be clear, what I’ve been saying and teaching did always work, but it was and is a long-term process which could sometimes get temporarily beat out by silly SEO parlour tricks.)

I’ve always said that the better Google gets as a search engine, the better the sites who’ve used my SEO methods would do. And they are! Hard work and good marketing should pay off even better if Google is serious about their spam fighting.

Q:  What would you say are the most important factors influencing SEO now?

This is a difficult one to answer as it’s different for every site. There’s certainly no magic formula or something that will work for every site.

  • Site architecture

That said, I find that having the right site architecture can make a huge difference for most websites. That is, creating a great hierarchy for your site so that the most important top level category pages are linked to from your global navigation, and then those top level pages each link into their own little subset of pages within their sub-category.

This pushes or funnels your internal link popularity properly throughout your site so that your main pages can be optimized for the more competitive phrases and your deeper pages for more long-tail phrases.

  • Technical, duplicate content issues

Another key factor influencing SEO is fixing any technical duplicate content issues. And by that I don’t mean duplicate content in the sense of someone posting someone else’s article on their site, but more the issues that can be created by some content management systems when they create multiple URLs for the same content.

Cleaning up those issues via rel=canonical or other means can make a huge difference to a site’s ability to get targeted search engine traffic.

  • Content marketing

And because nearly every industry has become so competitive online, it’s critical for people to market their websites via a blog and/or email newsletter or some other outlet that can showcase the company’s areas of expertise on a regular basis.

This will help to bring new people to the website who may still be in the research phase, but who may be ready to buy at some point in the future.

Q:  You’ve been in the SEO industry since the (pre-) beginning. What’s your overall impression of the profession, from where it started to where it’s going?

I have both good and bad impressions of the SEO industry.

I know and have met tons of people who truly get SEO and want to make a difference for the companies they work for. Unfortunately, I believe they are still few and far between.

It’s too easy to talk a good game about SEO without really knowing what you’re doing. And many companies are getting burned by them.

While many scammy SEO companies exist, clients have to take responsibility for doing their due diligence before hiring one. It’s often a case of the quick fix mentality, which clients often have. They want what they want, and they want it yesterday.

While a professional SEO consultant will set realistic expectations, often it’s not what the client wants to hear, so they’ll find an SEO company who will tell them what they do want to hear. In which case, they get what they deserve!

I kind of hate to say this, but with SEO being so hard to pinpoint these days (in terms of how to do it), I think businesses new to website marketing may want to start out with PPC first to see how their site performs overall. That way they can learn what works and what doesn’t.

Once they are making some profit through that marketing channel, then they can start branching out into SEO. It will be much easier at that point, because they’ll have hard data that they can use to optimize for the natural listings.

Overall, I feel that the better Google gets at fighting web spam, the better our industry will be. If spammy stuff simply doesn’t work anymore, those bad companies should eventually die out. And the sooner that happens, the better!

About Jill Whalen

Jill is the CEO of High Rankings and has been in SEO since its pre-beginnings, circa early 1990’s.She is a prolific writer and contributes regularly to Search Engine Land and Talent Zoo. Jill also founded and runs the High Rankings Newsletter, and just recently started an online forum for those interested in Google Analytics, specifically its custom reports, at Custom Report Sharing. You can contact Jill via her High Rankings website, and find her on Twitter at @JillWhalen.


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photo thanks to aussiegall




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