This week I was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with SEO pioneer Jill Whalen. For the very few of you who are not familiar with Jill, she is the founder of HighRankings.com and has offered SEO consulting since the early 90′s. In addition to her consulting, she offers an SEO newsletter where she tackles current search marketing issues as well as answers to user submitted questions.
Jill, you have been a pioneer in the search world for years. For some of the newer faces in the ‘SEO world’ would you mind giving a small synopsis of how you started in Search Engine Optimization?
Jill: The short story is that I had a parenting website in the early ‘90’s and wanted it to be found in the search engines of the day, i.e., Excite, Lycos, Infoseek, etc. There were no books, articles or even forums back then which talked about this subject, so I had to try to figure out for myself why certain pages would show up for certain phrases. One of the main things I noticed was that pages would tend to show up highly if they were using the exact search query phrase within the content of the page. With that knowledge I edited my parenting website pages to make use of the phrases I thought people would search for that were relevant, such as “parenting advice” and “parenting chat” and it worked like a charm!
Shortly after I started offering web design services for some of the online friends I had met, and used the same technique on their pages. I always outsourced the copywriting to professional writers, and taught them how to do what later was coined as SEO copywriting.
Eventually, I was on some email discussion lists that focused on online marketing and the like, and would answer anyone’s questions about how to get found in the search engines. This got me most of my clients back in the 90’s as well as formed many of my industry relationships that I still have today, such as with Danny Sullivan, Marshall Simmonds, Derrick Wheeler. In 2002 I was invited to speak at one of Danny’s SES Conferences, and I had also started the first generation of my SEO Newsletter.
To this day while linking has become an important part of all the search engine’s algorithms, I still prefer to concentrate on the on-page SEO factors. These, of course, go well beyond just the words on the page, and are often technical as well as site architecture issues.
Nick: I absolutely agree! Too many times do people over look the technical / architectural aspects of SEO. Achieving successful rankings can be extremely difficult if your site isn’t built correctly.
With your 15+ years of SEO experience, what do you believe is the key to being a successful SEO consultant and or SEO agency?
Jill: Getting results! It’s very easy to talk a good game in SEO, but it’s a different matter all together for your website recommendations to actually make a difference to the bottom line.
Nick: Great point, it’s too often people get caught up in ranking guarantees and search engine domination. If your bottom line doesn’t increase then your SEO isn’t paying off.
What is your take on Google+? Do you see it as a legit competitor for Facebook and Twitter? Also, do you see Google+ playing a role in Google’s search algorithm currently or within the future?
Jill: Google+ has a nice interface and a lot of great features. It’s also very easy to use and is integrated well into other Google products such as search and gmail. I have to say that Google was brilliant to change the top toolbar so that if you’re logged in you will see if there are any new messages or contacts. We’re all on Google for one thing or another at anytime during the day and that little number glaring at you is hard to resist clicking on. So that alone will keep people coming back. (Although, I am considering logging out of Google during much of the work day so that the little number doesn’t distract me!)
As to whether or how much G+ or even Twitter RT’s and Facebook Likes will contribute to Google’s algorithm, I tend to think it won’t be much unless we’re talking really high numbers of +1’s from extremely high authority accounts. Otherwise it’s just too easy to game, and god knows that those in the SEO industry are only too happy to game whatever they can to gain any sort of perceived advantage.
Whether G+ will overtake Twitter and/or Facebook is anyone’s guess. I think only time will tell. My guess is that all three will survive, but they may each find their own specific niche.
Nick: Google+ sure is cool but how long it will stick around we have no idea. I do tend to agree with you that social rankings are easily gameable. In fact I still take a bit of flack for my post about Social rank dying in 2011
You have been an extreme advocate for cleaning up SPAM found within the search results. Over the years would you say this issue has gotten any better? If not, would you say it’s a direct result of Google allowing too much to slide or is it that the Spammers have gotten that much better at adjusting to the constant algorithm changes?
Jill: I go back and forth on this one. Sometimes I think that Google just doesn’t care since they make money from people clicking their ads not their organic results. But other times, I do think they care and are trying, but it’s just too overwhelming for them. Link spamming seems to be the worst, and the hardest for them to deal with. While I’m sure the Google engineers are a lot smarter than I am, I can’t help but think that if they simply put less weight on anchor text across the board that it would solve a lot of the link spam problem. But I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Nick: Link spam and as a result SERP spam has always been an issue. While Google continues to ‘fight’ SPAM it may just be a losing battle. I would love for Google to prove the both of us wrong here. Keyword exact match domain names may be a good spot to start.
What SEO ‘technique’ do you think is most underutilized these days? And why do you think such?
Jill: I think that having the proper site architecture is probably the most underutilized SEO technique, mainly because it can be a major change for most sites to implement. That’s one reason why some of my favorite SEO consulting to do is website redesign consulting. It gives me the chance to really have an effect on what how the new website’s navigation will be designed, i.e., which pages are linked to which others. This can give a website a serious advantage for their short tail keyword phrases.
Nick: I couldn’t agree with you anymore with this tactic. Both my clients and colleagues can vouch for the value I place on proper site architecture and internal linking. Especially with large sites, you would be amazed the value you can achieve through proper internal linking. You can’t always control the amount of links or the anchor text you receive from other websites, but you have full control over it on YOUR SITE. Take advantage of it!!!
What SEO ‘technique’ do you think is over utilized that you believe offers little to no value
Jill: People have a false sense of security that if their URLs are in their XML sitemap, then they’ve done SEO. When, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
Nick: As discussed earlier, there is no substitution for proper site architecture and internal linking.
Lightning Round Questions:
Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ for your favorite social hot spot?
Jill: All three. Twitter is by far superior for getting eyeballs to new content, however. At least as it applies to the online marketing industry.
Reporting your competitors to Google for ‘black hat’ techniques or ignoring them with the idea that Google will eventually toast them with algorithm updates?
Jill: I used to be vehemently against reporting websites to Google for spamming. For one, it’s up to them to catch the bad guys not us, and for another they never seemed to do anything about it if you did report it. But when I realized last year that Google obviously can’t keep up with the spam, I decided that if I wasn’t going to at least try to help, then I shouldn’t complain.
I don’t know if the regular spam report does anything or not so I don’t use that. But I have sent some really egregious spam sites directly to Matt Cutts over the past few months. He passes it along to his people and whatever happens, happens.
Favorite Analytics Tool: Google Analytics, Site Catalyst or other?
Jill: Google Analytics, hands down. Can’t beat the price or the features.
Thank you Jill for taking the time to answer these questions. As most SEOs know, there are many different ways to achieve SEO success. With that said, I really enjoy talking to other SEOs to get their perspectives on certain search related topics. It’s especially nice to be able to pick a brain that has been involved in the search industry as Jill’s. For the people that aren’t already following Jill on Twitter check her out @JillWhalen