Do you feel like you’re investing too much in SEO without seeing any results? It’s probably time to change your approach. Today’s guest has a fresh take on SEO that might be just what you need to get the organic traffic you’ve been waiting for.
Eli Schwartz is a growth consultant with more than a decade of experience driving successful SEO for leading B2B and B2C companies such as WordPress, Coinbase, Shutterstock, BlueNile, Quora, and Zendesk. He is also the author of Product-Led SEO.
In today’s episode, Eli gives us the lowdown on product-led SEO–everything from choosing the perfect SEO KPIs to getting the right links to deciding whether or not it’s worthwhile to invest in content that aims to rank for specific keywords. We also talk about how Google’s algorithms work and how to build your SEO strategy around them. As an added bonus, you’ll get to hear the crazy story of how Eli ended up as the director of SurveyMonkey Singapore for two years. This episode may just be the thing that makes you rethink the way you’ve been doing SEO.
In this Episode
- [00:20] – Stephan introduces Eli Schwartz, the author of Product Led SEO. He is a growth consultant with more than a decade of experience driving successful SEO and growth programs for leading B2B and B2C companies.
- [06:01] – Eli speaks about the memorable experiences he had when he was working at SurveyMonkey.
- [11:36] – Eli tells an inspiring story about his late former boss, Dave Goldberg, who influenced him in writing the book, Product-Led SEO.
- [18:14] – Eli shares some of the best lessons in business and life that he picked up from Dave, which inspired him to apply them to his own business.
- [23:57] – How can you make SEO a regular channel? Eli discusses one of his client’s cases that was successful in doing it.
- [29:31] – Eli and Stephan explain how they see links as being beneficial for your product or brand.
- [35:40] – Eli talks about the crucial questions you should ask regarding rankings and weighing effort vs. returns in investing in SEO.
- [40:27] – Eli gives tips on strategically predicting if your business needs to invest in SEO and how to approach it logically.
- [44:06] – Eli explains how he can justify an investment made for a company’s SEO from a client’s expectation.
- [51:47] – Visit Eli Schwartz’s website at elischwartz.co to learn more about him or check out his book, Product-Led SEO: The Why Behind Building Your Organic Growth Strategy.
Eli, it’s so great to have you on the show.
Stephan, it’s great to be here with you.
Your career as an SEO expert began with just a little company where you were their main in-house SEO person. You want to talk about your origin story and how you ended up becoming a frequent speaker, author, and all that from there?
My origin story actually goes back a little further. I was working at a company called QuinStreet, which is a lead generation company. So they connect people looking for a service with people that can provide that service, but in between, you need a little bit of ugliness that connects those people together.
Say you want someone that wants a mortgage, and you have a mortgage company or a bank that can provide that mortgage. They can’t really find each other, so in between, you need someone that can do some dirty digital marketing and to connect those so the person googling for it would find that person.
I worked at this company—this is a decade-and-a-half ago—where I was working with affiliates. They were really, really good at connecting people looking for that service and people that could provide that service. I was working with these affiliates, and they were making insane amounts of money for what seemed like almost no work. They were building these websites, sitting in basements. Some of them were very young. Some of them were in college, and they were getting tens of thousands of dollars per month driving traffic and turning clicks into leads. I wanted to know how to do that.
This was early in the days of the internet. I actually read Aaron Wall’s SEObook. I asked my affiliates to teach me everything they could about digital marketing, paid marketing, and SEO. And that was my introduction to SEO. So what I did after that was I just changed my resume. I said I was an SEO expert, and I started looking for SEO jobs. It’s a lot easier then because there weren’t a lot of SEO experts. I was very fortunate and someone actually, let’s say fell for that, and they hired me as their SEO person for a recently-funded startup.
There’s a name for that. I’m not going to say ‘fake it till you make it’ because that is disingenuous and doesn’t work. ‘Act as if.’ I love act as if because that just makes everything show up in your life, and it’s very powerful.
Totally agree with that. I actually knew something. I just didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. I didn’t even know if I was faking until I made it, so I actually thought. I read Aaron Wall’s book. I knew everything about SEO. I was optimizing my own sites.SEO is a business that makes you think about how you can help other people more than using that position to become better for yourself and earn more. Click To Tweet
I did get this job at a startup, and my job was to build out our SEO strategy. At the time, SEO strategy really consisted of keyword density and buying links. We worked with real journalists to make great content, but we inserted a lot of keyword density into that real content. We bought a lot of links to that real content.
It was incredibly effective until 2010, when Panda came out. It’s not that Google changed the rules. Google’s AI finally caught up with the way it should have been. Nobody should have been able to dominate on search without using the right tactics. We were sharply penalized by that update, and we lost 65% of our traffic in a single morning. After all was said and done, we lost 85% of our traffic. For a venture-funded startup with commitments to advertisers, we were not in good shape.
That is really when I learned the right SEO. That is when I helped the company recover from that, build our traffic back, and do the right SEO. It wasn’t about fooling Google’s algorithms. It was really about aligning what we had to do with Google’s algorithms.
From there, I moved on to SurveyMonkey, where I was incredibly fortunate that I was working for a brand that was very well-known and had a ton of brand equity behind them. I was doing SEO in ways that I never imagined I’d have to do.
That’s really when I wrote my book about how you get things done, and it’s not best practices. It’s working within a big company. It’s working with engineering teams. It’s figuring out what the strategies are, figuring out where the goal is years into the future, and building towards that. Very, very not much like my initial introduction to SEO which was stuffing some keywords, building some links, hoping Google doesn’t catch you, and if they do catch you, burn it all down and start all over again.
QuinStreet was one of those cautionary tales from the big Panda update, the big first Panda update. I remember a lot of articles about that particular enterprise that had quite a number of websites. I forgot how many, but it was quite a portfolio.
That is really when I learned the right SEO.
And we want Google to do things like that. We want Google to improve the algorithm so the user has a better experience. It’s not stumbling across the same company, with the same websites, as replicating things over and over again, just to get that click.
Let’s talk a bit about your days at SurveyMonkey. I know that for them it was a huge success, and I’m guessing for you, too. But you’re no longer there. You’ve moved on and you’ve got your own business, your own consultancy. Is this something that was just an inevitability, or was there something that made this a fortuitous transition for you?
Maybe you got them as far as you thought you could get them. Or there was a change in leadership or something happened, all right, now is the time to make the leap. Because there’s an expression, I think it’s maybe an ancient kind of adage, and that is leap and a net will appear, or leap and the net will appear. There’s also a corollary to that, which is wait for getting pushed off the cliff, and then the net will appear anyway. So I’m curious. Was there a push off the cliff, or was there a fortuitous moment for you and you made the leap on your own?
I love this. No one has ever asked me this before. I had a very, very interesting time at SurveyMonkey, and I’m incredibly grateful for that time there. I was there for nearly seven years, but I had a very, very different path throughout all those seven years. My first couple of years there, I was just an SEO. It was a great place to be for someone that loved SEO and being able to work with the brand.
I would do things. I would see incredible results that no one at a smaller website could see because we had this great brand equity and brand authority. I wasn’t guessing. I would make a change, and I would actually see real results. It wasn’t like, well, I think it kind of worked in that. A lot of times there’ll be people who write blog posts or speak about things that may not be grounded in fact. But when you work at a large brand, you do get to see things actually happen.
I was there for a couple of years, and then I did get bored. I was doing SEO, I was very successful at it. We grew our traffic from almost nothing. It was just branded traffic. And I was very successful at getting everything that we wanted to be visible, be visible. And I started looking around for other things to do. The first thing I started doing was more international, so I started doing international paid marketing. I ran all of our international paid marketing campaigns, started working with our international teams to expand our SEO into more international.
When you work at a large brand, you do get to see things happen.
That seemed like a very interesting path for me. I wanted to go deeper down international. I felt like the only way I’d get any credibility within an international space as an American is if I spent some time overseas. I actually looked to leave SurveyMonkey by getting a job at another company in another country. My wife and I landed on going to Asia. We wanted to go to either Singapore or Hong Kong because they were first world and they spoke English.
I actually found a job at an agency leading all of their APAC SEO based out of Singapore really across the entire region. I was set to leave SurveyMonkey. I had been there almost three years by that time. When I went to give notice at SurveyMonkey, my boss said I couldn’t leave. That’s a typical thing that managers will say, you can’t leave.
You’re an indentured servant. I have the contract right here.
Right. She did the things I expected her to do, like can we offer you more money? Can we give you a promotion? Actually, I expected her because of grandiose reasons, but I’m sure there are many times people give notice, and they’re like, see you, we’re glad you were here.
We’ll get the door for you.
But she did. She made those offers to me. Then she said, “Well, you know what, this is not acceptable, I’m going to tell Dave,” and Dave was the CEO of the company. It was at the time a small company, and I had quite many interactions with Dave Goldberg. I’ve been in meetings with him. I’d see him in the elevator. I’ve done a decent job at driving traffic towards some things he wanted to, and he offered me his floor tickets to the Warriors on a couple of occasions. But she said, “I’m going to go tell Dave and Dave’s not going to be happy that you’re leaving.”
So I wished her luck with that because the CEO is not going to stop me from leaving. But 20 minutes later, I get a message from Dave’s EA saying, “Dave would like to meet with you.” We’re talking to the CEO of a busy company, and he was ready to meet with me in 20 minutes. So I showed up as defensive as I can be because the CEO is going to ask me why I’m leaving, and I need to walk out of that conversation with my dignity.
He begins the conversation saying that he’s offended. He’s offended that I had this dream that I wanted to live overseas. I wanted to do this, and I hadn’t told him. In my mind, it was like, why would I? Why would I tell him? My job is doing SEO at this company and some other things. SurveyMonkey does not have an office in Singapore. They don’t have an office in Hong Kong. They don’t have an office anywhere in Asia. They don’t have an office anywhere I wanted to be. I told him that.
He said, “You should have told me this was a dream of yours, then we can have the conversation.” We go back and forth. He starts telling me that I shouldn’t be leaving the company, I shouldn’t be going overseas. And then he settles with, I can go overseas, but he’s willing to send me only to a place SurveyMonkey has an office, which was São Paulo, London, and there’s one other place. He was willing to send me to Tokyo, which I did not want to go to.
We resolved that we were at an impasse. I was going to leave, and I was going to Singapore. He also asked me to stay a couple of more months. I said I couldn’t stay anymore because my kids were registered in school in Singapore, my house was already rented, and my stuff was in boxes. So that was no longer an option. He said, that’s just money. We could solve all of that with money.
I left that evening with an impasse. He wanted me to stay. I was dead set on going, continued my plans, and continued my packing. I get an email that evening from Dave and he said, “I’ve settled it. You’re going to be going to Singapore and you’re going to be working at our investor’s office.
Without even waiting for a response, he emailed the investor. Tiger Global—very, very large private equity firm—had a sizable stake in SurveyMonkey, emailed the CEO of the company, CEO of Tiger, and he said, “You have an office in Singapore, and Eli—copied on this email—is going to be sitting at a desk in your office, please connect him with whoever you need to to make that happen.” I never even answered.
I come to work the next day. Human Resources and Legal wanted to meet with me because Dave had decided he was doing this, but he hadn’t actually checked what was necessary. Part of what was necessary was for me to get a 25% raise in order to meet the minimum to be the sole director of SurveyMonkey Singapore, which is a company that he had decided he had to start because he was sending me to Singapore.Here is a basic rule around SEO. Find out who the user is, determine how the user searches for answers, and present the best solution. Click To Tweet
One of the reasons that he had to start this company (SurveyMonkey Singapore) was because he insisted that if I go to Singapore on his behalf, I would be an employee and not a contractor. As an employee, I get to keep my stock. Everything keeps vesting, and I have full benefits. Therefore, SurveyMonkey needed a subsidiary for me to be an employee of that company. I ended up being a director of that company because that was also required.
I did go. I went to Singapore. One of the things Dave said was that while I’m there, I need to report to him. So I’m reporting three levels below him, but he changed that. He said, “I’m now going to be dotted line and we’re going to be having frequent one-on-one meetings,” and he wants to know about all the things I’m doing and what I’m accomplishing there. This is his personal project.
Unfortunately, he passed away just a few months after I got there. So I felt like I never got to show him that his bet was worthwhile. I dedicated my book to him because the bet he took on me—like no one ever took a bet on me like that—that bet changed my career. It actually changed my life. I am a consultant now because of that bet he took on me. I wrote the book because of that bet he took me. That’s why I dedicated the book to him.
I came back from Singapore after a couple of years. I went back into international marketing. I went back into SEO, and I was actually looking for some other roles in SEO. What I discovered was that there aren’t very many senior roles within companies. There are very few roles like the kind of role I had at SurveyMonkey where I had a lot of latitude. I had a big team. I had the ability to tell engineers what to do. I had the ability to really build a strategy and go after.
SEO in many companies is a manager role. And if it’s a director role, it still almost functions like a manager role. The compensation wasn’t what I had expected, the roles weren’t what I expected. It seemed almost inevitable that the only way I was going to be able to do SEO at the level I was doing was to go out on my own as a consultant.
The other piece there was that while I was at SurveyMonkey, many companies reached out to me asking me for guidance on how they could do SEO the way I’d done it at SurveyMonkey. How could they build a product around SEO? How could they direct their teams? How could they get around the fact that agencies had maybe given them bad ideas?
Obviously, I took all this as consulting, but I realized there was quite a bit of demand. I was willing to take that bet on myself that I could leave SurveyMonkey, I would have enough clients, and there’d be enough business to support myself.
How long were you in Singapore?
Almost two years.
What changed when the leader of SurveyMonkey—your dotted line boss—passed away, for you? And also, I get curious about what happened with regards to the company, because that’s a very important role in the business. He was a very important leader, and to have that void in the business that needed to be filled. So I’m curious what happened on both fronts.
What’s interesting is that nothing happened right away. It really took a very long time to happen. The leadership was all there when he passed away. The leadership stayed for many, many months after he passed away. But it slowly started to erode, where there was less direction at the top. They were looking for a CEO. They found a CEO, and that CEO didn’t last. They had to bring in the chairman of the board to be CEO (who is currently the CEO).
All of that leadership erosion, the way things changed and the direction the company took about a year to happen. It’s very interesting because you would think that that would happen almost suddenly, but Dave had built a great company. He built a great culture, and it wasn’t until the wheels started falling off because he wasn’t there anymore that things really started to change.
Initially, my job stayed the same. I reported to the same person. My day-to-day functions stayed the same. Everything that happened in the company stayed the same. But once you had different voices about the direction of the company and the way things wanted to go, and you didn’t have a voice at the top when things started to change. So it is quite tragic.
One of the things I would say is Dave built the company for himself. I don’t know if he ever wants to take the company public. He built a company that he wanted to work at. The company changed because it was no longer his company. I think many of the people that worked at that company were working at the company because it was Dave’s company. Obviously, that couldn’t last.
A horribly tragic thing to happen. You’ve seen other leaders pass away, and things have fallen apart much quicker. But I think it’s a testament to his leadership that they didn’t fall apart. For a very long time, it didn’t fall apart until other people came in with other voices. They really never did fall apart.If there is no organic product to create, market, and sell, there's no need to invest in SEO. Click To Tweet
That was (I guess) a silver lining in some respect. Tragic, of course, but the challenge for us humans is to see the hand of God in absolutely everything—including this pandemic, economic upheaval, people passing away, and all that. Seeing that there’s the hand of God involved in this tragic passing, unexpected passing of Dave, I’m curious what you see as silver linings or as the hand of God, making things actually better in terms of our soul’s evolution, our highest and best possible outcome, coming from this particular situation for you and for others.
I’d say at a very base level, Dave made this investment in me, and he’s not there to see the outcome of that investment. So I feel a responsibility to do things on his behalf when I make decisions. If he were still alive, I could reach out to him and talk to him about it, but he’s not. I feel this responsibility to make the right decisions because he made an investment in me, and I want that investment to pay off.
There’s a famous article that Dave had written. Sheryl Sandberg did a TED talk. Dave was Sheryl Sandberg’s husband. Sheryl Sandberg did a TED talk many, many years ago about what it was like in her leadership role and being a mother, how she would leave work and how she had to sneak out of work. After she did that Ted Talk, Dave wrote an article which was in BusinessWeek, now called Bloomberg Businessweek—I’d encourage all the listeners to google it.
How he also leaves work at five o’clock, and the way he built a company for the kind of company he’d want to work at. I read that article right while I was interviewing at SurveyMonkey, and I realized that was the kind of company I want to work at. He wrote this article about how he created LAUNCH Media, which (I think) Yahoo bought and was Yahoo Music. He had this moment where he was at an airport on a Friday night, and he realized all he was doing was working. That was his life. From that moment on, he changed that life was really not about work. That’s all in that article there. He made that company for a company he’d want to work at. He did all the things for a company he’d want to be around. It’s not about money, it’s about people.
One of the things he did was that when people were let go of SurveyMonkey before their first year—everyone got equity in a year cliff before that equity is invested—he quietly quickly vested their stock. They could leave the company with dignity, leave the company with a piece of stock. To him it wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about him needing to be a CEO of a big company. It was about being a good person. That’s what I took from him. There was so much more to life than that.
The investment he put into me, into sending me to Singapore, like I said, he gave me a 25% raise. He had to set up a company called SurveyMonkey Singapore. When I came back I talked to the head of Legal and found out what all of that costs, many, many times my salary. Like creating a company, putting up bank accounts, and leaving capital on those bank accounts.
It was a real company. That’s an investment into just me personally, as the only employee in Singapore. And he did that for me. He had no intention of having an office in Singapore. They have no intention of really expanding into Asia that way, but he did because I wanted to. He enabled my dream. That’s the thing that I took from it.
I do have another book in me. The other book I want to write is about people like Dave. I think there are many people who, to them, their power and their position in life is about how they can help other people, not how they can use that position in life to better their own lives, make more money, and be more powerful, but to use that power to give back to other people and to just be kind because that’s what people need.
He did all the things for a company he’d want to be around. So it’s not about money; it’s about people.
To people like Dave and you, I would say that there’s a long game, it’s well beyond this lifetime. That’s how long a long game should be, I think. There are a lot of people who are rising to the occasion, especially as things are getting dicey and difficult. Socially, economically, with health and climate change, and everything else that’s happening to our planet, we have to show up in ways that we never have before in this life. I see a lot of people doing that. It’s really wonderful to see, it’s inspiring. Thank you for being part of that and for continuing Dave’s legacy in the way that you’re doing it.
Let’s talk about your consultancy and working with companies like Blue Nile, Zendesk, Coinbase, and Shutterstock. These are very well-known big brands. There’s this concept of Product-Led is not just a cute phrase. It’s not just an idea. It is a way of injecting or incorporating SEO into a business in a way that is sustainable, and part of the culture. It could be as important as the idea of a lean startup. Let’s talk about that some more.
This is what I found and the reason I decided to go off on my own. Part of the reason I wrote the book is because I would talk to potential clients. I’ll talk to marketing leaders or product leaders about how they should think about SEO. And they’d say, that’s very interesting. That’s not anything I’ve heard or read before. Where can I read more? And I didn’t really have anywhere to send them.
Obviously, if I wanted to send them to learn more about SEO tactics, I always send them to The Art of SEO (and I have that in my book). But when I’m talking to a CMO, CEO, or a Chief Product Officer, they don’t want to know what a keyword is. They don’t want to know what a canonical is. They don’t even want to know what the acronym SERP is. They’re not going to check a rank-checking software.
They’re certainly not going to read a thousand-page book on SEO. Absolutely.
Right. They’re hiring someone that will do that for them. But they want to know who they should hire, how they should think about it, and how they should invest. Let’s say it’s a new founder, and they’re interviewing a CTO or Chief Technology Officer. What should they expect that CTO to think about as they build their marketing? That’s why I wrote my book to really think about how do you make SEO just a regular channel and not this mysterious channel?
Part of the reason I wrote the book is that I would talk to potential clients.
I think these SEO managers do this wrong. They show up at an executive meeting, and the executives ask regular questions like, how much money are you spending and what will be my ROI on that investment? And they start throwing things out like Google’s algorithm and black box, and maybe, and it depends, and all that. That doesn’t do them any favors.
I really think SEO is a regular channel. The same way there are rules around how you’re going to do paid marketing, there are rules around how you’re going to do email marketing and social media marketing, I think there are rules around SEO. This is what the user is, this is how the user is going to search, and this is what we need to create for the user. It’s not about SEO is different, therefore I’m going to go to a keyword research tool and forget that I even have a user here. I’m going to find a keyword, I’m going to create content around that keyword, expect that some sort of magic happens both on the Google side and the user side, and that’s SEO. I think that is fundamentally wrong.
That’s what our product is. The example I used in my book is Zillow wanted to build an SEO channel. So they created their product, which is what everyone looks for, the addresses and the valuations of their house and their neighbor’s house. That’s a product. That’s an SEO product. There’s no other way to drive traffic to that page other than through search. You’re not going to do paid traffic on someone’s individual address. You’re unlikely going to do social media traffic on someone to show off how much their house is worth. It’s organic. There is an organic use case, so they built an organic product to be found on search.
I think everyone should be doing that. They should think about what is the organic product that they need to create. If there is not an organic product to create, maybe they shouldn’t be investing in SEO. If there’s not something that someone is really going to search and latch into from search, it might not be a good investment.
On multiple occasions in my consulting, I’ve worked with companies that had thought they’d done a good job of investing in SEO. They built a blog with hundreds of pieces of content, which cost them thousands of dollars per piece of content. And after analyzing the ROI, they found none. They were not able to prove that anybody had ever landed on their blog—and I’m talking some of these blogs have millions of users—and actually turned into a KPI for that business. Whatever that is, whether that’s a dollar conversion or download, it never happened. They generated a lot of pages, but that SEO was not worthwhile for them.
I worked with another company that had actually intended to build a blog and they spent a couple million dollars on a blog. They wrote all the content, but they never actually published the blog because this was a marketing team, and they didn’t have the ability to launch it. They didn’t have a CMS. They didn’t have engineers that were attached to marketing. When I joined as a consultant, I asked them to go through all their past SEO efforts. And they said, “We have a blog.” I asked them where it was, and they sent me a Google Drive link with all of the blog posts that had never been published. They spent a couple of million dollars.
Oh, my goodness.
Because someone had convinced them that’s SEO. You need to write content towards these keywords, and they did. They put it in Google Docs, it was in a Google Drive folder, and that was it. But that’s not SEO. You need to think about making that investment, where you’re going to publish it, and how is it going to look, how it’s going to convert. How do you measure it? If it doesn’t, you kill it.
At a high level, that’s Product-Led SEO. SEO is just like everything else. This is a channel that you need to invest in. You need to build a product around it. If it doesn’t work, you move on. You build another product.
What would you say to somebody who’s thinking in terms of these blog posts that either have one or two audiences? The audience that’s obvious is the core customer base, the ideal customer avatar. But then, there’s this other audience. I remind my clients that there’s this other audience because a lot of times they don’t even realize it or they forget about it, and that’s the Linkerati.
Those are the influencers as far as Google sees. Google determines who the influencers are—the site owners that have a high amount of domain authority or link equity. We’re trying to get them to be interested enough in this piece of content that they will then link to it from their site, from their blog.
A lot of folks don’t think about that. They’re just writing content for their core customers. Let’s say their core customers are not very internet-savvy. They don’t have websites. They certainly don’t have domain authority on those websites, if they do have them. So that doesn’t really yield any SEO benefit, or not much.
You need to think about making that investment, where you’re going to publish it, how it will look, how it’s going to convert.
Yeah, there’s more content, more opportunities to rank, every page has a song to sing to the search engines. I think Danny Sullivan was the one who said that many, many, many years ago, and wanted to make each page sing to the search engines for whatever its song is. The more pages the better. But with the caveat that there needs to be keyword focus, or there needs to be some sort of link worthiness, or both, ideally, to the piece of content.
What do you say to that about creating content, blog posts that are meant for the Linkerati, either in addition to the customers, or just in lieu of the customers because the customers may not be interested in this topic?
I think that when it comes to links, my personal view is that companies should think about links as PR, which is don’t try to go after domain authority. Think about why people would want to talk about your company or your product. Don’t overreach. Don’t specifically say this is not a success unless I get this particular media to link to, because I think that links are a lot more complex than anyone out there makes them out to be.
As an example, the White House (whitehouse.gov) might be the holy grail of links. I think it has a domain authority of 99 or 100 or whatever the highest domain authority you can have. On three occasions, while I was at SurveyMonkey, I got links from whitehouse.gov. And on all three occasions, I see virtually no impact. I’ve seen impact from links that had very low domain authority that I would never have gone after, but they worked.
SurveyMonkey, as a whole, had links from pretty much every single government in the world, every educational institution in the world, and a lot of those links didn’t really matter because contextually they were linked into a survey, which to Google, maybe they consider that UGC. So even though I was able to flow that link back from the survey over to a better marketing page, it didn’t really matter.
I think that links are a lot more complex than anyone out there makes them out to be.
If you think about what I said earlier, that part of my SEO job was buying lots of links prior to Panda. I had a huge budget. It was almost like a paid marketer’s budget just buying links. At the time it worked, and that was 15 years ago. You have to think that Google has made many, many advances in how they understand links, AI and all the things that Google’s really good at doing.
An example I love to use is—I used to live in the Bay Area—Google had Waymo, which are self-driving cars. They drive around not hitting anybody and they make intelligent decisions. As a search geek, I always love to see those intelligent decisions. I’m sorry, Waymo, in advance for this, but I would cut off a Waymo car, and then slow down as slow as I could, to see at what point the AI was going to be like, oh, this car in front of me is intentionally going slow. Time to change lanes. And they did.
It can make intelligent decisions. They can make decisions about whether they’re allowed to make a right on red, or whether they’re not allowed to make a right on red. Just think about it like that. You’re reading a sign—no right on red—the light is red. Is it safe to go? That’s a very complicated decision.
Humans make the wrong decision all the time, and they have that AI. Not to say that Google puts Waymo’s AI on search, but the company that has AI on one side of the building like that, pretty sure they made advances in AI to say, link from whitehouse.gov.
Actually, one of the times we got linked was the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross. He ripped off a blog post. They straight up ripped off a blog post from SurveyMonkey that said something good about President Trump, and they published it on their site. So Google can say, well, that’s duplicate content. This is deep in the blog. No one reads the Secretary of Commerce’s blog on whitehouse.gov. Link doesn’t count for anything.
That’s the way I would approach links. We really don’t know, so then don’t go chasing after these metrics of like, I need this high domain authority link because you’re bending over way too far to try to get that and it doesn’t work.
I just like to think about PR in general, which is how you’re going to get people to talk about your products and your brands, because even if the links themselves don’t matter, they’re talking about your products and brands. People are hearing that and they’re going to organically search for you, organically navigate your website.
Even if some of that PR is just social media shares, it will translate into better word of mouth and hopefully links that Google accounts.
So yes, absolutely. The audience of your content is PR. You want to tell the right message to have people talk about you naturally. Even if some of that PR is just social media shares, it will translate into better word of mouth, and hopefully links that Google accounts.
I do think very highly of PR as a method of achieving link equity, but I also see other venues as ways to boost link equity and rankings. For example, I’ve helped some nonprofits out—some pretty big ones—over the years and have gotten links out of it. Not that that was my main reason for doing it. I did it to be a good person and help nonprofits that I believed in, but that made a huge impact.
Now if we’re talking about a survey link to SurveyMonkey—that’s a pretty big company, there are other companies that compete with SurveyMonkey that are in a similar business—I would imagine that there is an exception in the algorithm that says those kinds of links shouldn’t pass link equity.
That’s not the type of link where one company is vouching for another company. It’s just they’re using a tool, like in the footer where a website designed by XYZ Corporation. That should not pass any link equity or certainly not trust. Maybe a little bit of importance, but it shouldn’t be the kind of value that a link that was earned by merit should get. They’re pretty sophisticated in that regard.
As you say, with AI being core to Google’s business—they did acquire DeepMind—they’ve got AI throughout every part of Google and Alphabet, in general. I’d love to hear what you think of other types of link marketing for a medium- to large-sized business. Are they worthwhile or not worthwhile?
Let’s take a quick example. You mentioned getting a mention and a PR piece in an article, that may not even be a link. Those are called link mentions by some SEO. You can have a strategy or tactic to go after those unlinked mentions, and ask for those to be turned into links. You’ll get some hit rate, which might be pretty low because there’s not a lot of incentive for people to do that. But some will say sure because they like the company and they’re happy to help them out. Is that a total waste of time? Or is that moderately valuable? Or is that something that should be part of every business’ link-building toolbox?
I think there’s a higher-level question here, which is, could you rank on this at all? Do you have any ability to rank on this? As an example, I was just looking at this the other day when Google’s changing title tags. I started going down this rabbit hole around spam.
SurveyMonkey used to rank for the keyword ‘Viagra’. It’s actually very funny. Whenever these SEO tools would pitch SurveyMonkey on what to use for their SEO tool, they’d always use their visibility score and say, hey, here’s a keyword you can rank higher on and these ‘Viagra’ keywords would always show up because there are a lot of searches for them. They would say, well, if you move from position nine to position seven, here’s all this traffic.
Look at your report. Does Viagra help SurveyMonkey’s business? Don’t send out these blanket reports. The reason SurveyMonkey ranked on the keyword Viagra is because Pfizer ran a Viagra survey on SurveyMonkey, and Google thought that to be relevant. The last time I saw that was five years ago, and if you search that right now it is not there anymore. I think what’s important to really look at when it comes to rankings is could you show up for this keyword?
A couple of years ago, I was working with a car insurance business startup that had a new way of buying car insurance. They want to rank on car insurance. I encouraged them to go through all the first three pages of Google and ask themselves if they legitimately thought they could ever rank, like only GEICO is number one (let’s say) and Progressive and State Farm. All these businesses have been around as long as Google. Do they really think that any amount of links or any amount of good content is going to show up in the first three pages? Like Progressive is (let’s say) on page two or Prudential’s on page two. They really like to shop page one and they can’t, so this startup is not going to.
So I think that’s what’s important. Are links going to put you over the top, or do you just not have a chance at all? Going back to your question, is it a good effort to go and chase links? If this is a piece of content, and if this is something that you think will be beneficial regardless for you, then you should always go after that link. If there is an innovative product you’ve created but you’re not visible yet on it, then you might want to get every single link. If it’s a super competitive keyword, then maybe it’s not the best effort.
I think everything you’re doing in SEO should be weighted on effort versus the returns.
I think everything you’re doing in SEO should be weighted on effort versus the returns, like if the whitehouse.gov had a link mention, is it worth sending an email a day to the White House? They’ll probably never respond to the email. So don’t do it. If there’s someone’s blog, and they’re very active on Twitter, is it worth tweeting at them and asking them to update that mention? Very possible because they will. Everything you do in SEO should be weighed against the effort you’re going to put in and what the outcome might end up being.
I refer to that as outcome-focused SEO. I learned years ago in a Tony Robbins seminar about being outcome-focused versus activity-focused. I thought wow, this should totally apply to SEO because if you’re activity-focused, you’re going to be working on every “best practice” there is in the thousand-page book. You’ll be spending time on optimizing the meta description across every single page of a bazillion-page website. And yet, that’s not going to move the needle much in comparison to optimizing (let’s say) the title tags or many other activities. So the activity itself isn’t where the juice is, it’s in the outcome.
This is just best practice, or I’d say common sense in regards to delegating stuff to staff or contractors, agencies, anybody, is to delegate an outcome. Don’t delegate a task. Learned that from Trivinia Barber. I interviewed her on my other podcast on Get Yourself Optimized.
This is so important. To delegate an outcome, think about the outcome, plan for the outcome, and don’t waste your time on the activities that aren’t going to really move you closer to the outcome. As you’re saying, be not activity-focused, but outcome-focused in your SEO.
Related to that, I want to talk more with you about how a business can see SEO as just another aspect of the business, another department, another channel, just like paid media, just like PR, or whatever else, however else they’re slicing and dicing all their marketing and business units up.
This is really difficult for many SEOs because the predictability is very hard. You cannot really guarantee that you’re going to get a result. In fact, on Google’s website they even say to turn and run from an SEO who’s going to guarantee results in the form of things like particular rankings.
What is the answer here so that there’s some predictability, there’s some certainty for the business owner and for the executive team in regards to SEO? It’s not seen as a black box, it’s not seen as like, we’re just throwing good money and hoping we get an outcome here. We have no real sense that this is going to work. It’s not like paid media where you can put a dollar in and get $5 out quite reliably and predictably. This is kind of a crapshoot. What do you say to that?SEO is just like everything else. This is a channel that you need to invest in. You need to build a product around it. If it doesn't work, you move on. You create another product. Click To Tweet
I think this is something that SEOs always get caught at. They approach it the wrong way. They approach it using keyword research and saying, here’s how many people a month search for this. Here’s what I estimate I’m going to rank on this, which completely is wrong. You can’t really ever figure that out. Then based on where I rank, this is how many people are going to click, and this is what my conversion rate is going to be. I think it’s flawed from the second they do keyword research.
A better way of approaching this is to really understand what is the total addressable market? And then what is the narrow market that you’re going to address with your innovation? Think about how you’re going to reach that. This almost starts sounding like brand. Brand is just as hard to predict and just as hard to decide what’s going to be the outcome of that.
We’re walking through a little scenario here as we talked about car insurance. The total addressable market of car insurance in the United States is everyone with a driver’s license. Now, let’s say you have an innovation that is specific—let’s do something horrible here—for people that have been arrested for drunk driving in the past but now are sober for multiple years, and they deserve insurance but they can’t. So now, we’ve shrunk our addressable market.
Now, this market is potentially not being addressed by any of the other insurance companies because it’s highly risky. So you can say here’s that number. We just need these people to know about who we are. We conservatively think we can get 30% of that market by creating all this content. That is your build. That is you saying that within 18 months of creating all this content, I think we’re going to be visible for these people. They’re going to find us, and at least we’ll have leads from them.
That makes more sense to me than (let’s say) that is our narrow market. What keywords are even going to be found for like, ‘past DUI, now sober, looking for car insurance that doesn’t exist’? You would have started with car insurance and then tried to narrow that down. Let’s say you would rank on car insurance, those aren’t even the customers you want.
A better way of approaching SEO is to understand what is the total addressable market.
I think you want to do something like a total addressable market and try to model it that way. Is it true? Is it accurate? Well, many other forecasts aren’t necessarily accurate either. A brand forecast isn’t necessarily accurate. A display forecast on TV isn’t necessarily accurate, but it’s an attempt to go towards something.
If you say, in 18 months I’ll have 30% of the market, but in 12 months you have none of the market, then you need to pivot and do something else. You want to wait, you want to take a forecast.
The other thing is you want to accurately ask for the right investment, just like paid marketing, just like brand marketing, just like email marketing, and say, well, this is what I’m going to need for my SEO, and I think my outcome is going to be this.
Hopefully, if you’ve done this right, your outcome on SEO will be 10 to 20 to 30 times the amount of new investment. Whereas on paid marketing, I’ve seen many paid teams say, I need $2 million but I expect to make $2,000,001 back, and they get it. That’s a logical thing to do.
But you’re doing this SEO investment and you make it sound like everyone else is doing it. I need $2 million to invest in SEO and I expect to return to you $20 million. It’s going to take 18 months to grab 30% of this market.
I think when you start that way, it becomes more familiar to executives because they’ve heard it from everyone else. Again, it doesn’t necessarily need to be perfectly right, but I do think there’s a more right way of doing it than when you start with keyword research.
That sounds very logical and certainly fits more of a strategic standpoint, and it sounds like something that you might put into a business plan. Whereas if you start with keyword search volumes, difficulty scores, you’re going to lose the person who’s reading that business plan. You’re like, yeah, just get to the bottom line here. We’ll cut to the chase.
I do like this approach. I’m not a naysayer on that. I do want to know how you get to the point where you justify that $20 million that you’re going to get? Do you come up with keywords? Do you come up with a number of blog posts or pieces of content that are going to need to be written, amount of digital PR spend to get links, et cetera? How do you then bridge that gap between the ‘I expect to make $20 million in 18 months’ to actually showing how you get those numbers?
A brand is just as hard to predict and just as hard to decide what will be the outcome of that.
I don’t do a lot of content planning because most of my consulting is based on product planning, so working with companies and saying this is the potential for organic. For example, there’s a company I was working with. They generated (let’s call it) $10 billion a year in revenue. They believe that 20% of their annual revenue should be coming from organic or from SEO, so that’s $2 billion.
For them, spending $20 million a year on potentially $2 billion was an easy pitch. But with them, it was really about like, here are all the opportunities of what we need to build to go after that $2 billion dollars. We have 30 different products we can build, and it was really around aligning on the product that we could do the fastest.
Digital PR for them wasn’t a big deal. Obviously, anybody that’s doing $10 billion a year in revenue, they are popular and they get a lot of links. It could be really around streamlining that process, but that wasn’t something we needed to invest in. It was an intangible investment because they were allocating engineers that were coming from somewhere else. It was the salaries of the engineers who were building something else who are now going to be building this. It was the consulting I was charging them, which was an actual cost. It was the content we were going to contract that was an actual cost. So that’s where that investment came in.
For them, they already had that belief that 20% of their business should come from organic, and it’s about making that happen in what timeframe that happened. I can say with that one, they’re well on their way. They’ve already justified that investment. I’d say for many, many businesses, if they believe there’s an organic user out there, the business planners to finance planners can say, here’s what that is, here’s what we need to go after. Then they can work with an SEO consultant or an SEO team to say here’s how we’re going to go attack this, and here’s what investment will be. I can tell you, for a $20 million to return a $2 billion investment, to get that on paid, they need to spend $2 billion to get $2 billion, so this is an almost a no-brainer channel.
Got it. If you could give me an example of maybe somebody who’s read your book and written to you, or just spoken to you at a conference or something and said, your book has been amazing. I got this kind of result from it. Do you have any quick case examples like that you can share?
Yeah. I wrote my book, I reached out to you, I was just starting this process, and you were so helpful with advice on writing books and setting down to write. I think I even talked to you before I even thought of writing a book and you encouraged me to write a book, so thank you so much for that.
I know we talked about this. My hope with the book was that I was going to have—as you called it—a business card that was going to be for my consulting. I was going to have this business card. When I talk to a potential client, I could say I’m different from other consultants you’re talking to because I have a book. My best hope was that I would sell 100 to maybe a few hundred books if my family was very generous.Companies should think about links as PR. Think about why people would want to talk about your company or your product. Click To Tweet
I think you’ve done better than that.
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve sold thousands and thousands of books. I checked my Amazon stats daily and I can’t believe people are still buying the book. People are still reaching out and still sharing it on social media. Many people reached out. I’d say the most common feedback I’ve gotten is that there are SEO teams that are desperate to have their managers think about SEO in a different way. Their managers are coming in saying, why are you not ranking on these keywords? Or, here’s my investment and I want content. The SEO person and the SEO team want to do something else. Now, they have something to point to, and they have a way for their leaders to think about it a different way. Now, there are consultants that can do the exact same thing, so that’s been the primary feedback.
The other feedback I’ve gotten is from leaders who are like, wow, you’ve really demystified this for me because I was being ripped off by my SEO team as they focused on these keywords and failed at it. I even had a CFO reach out—he’s at a public company—and said, can you just gut-check this for me? I think my SEO team is BSing me. Can you clarify? He’s like, I read the book and I think they’re doing something wrong. My VP of Marketing is lying to me. I didn’t weigh into that. I was not a consulting gig I wanted to go anywhere near, but that was interesting to me.
It was highly. I had one where I joined a call. The CMO had the director of SEO on the call. He said, we need to do something else because she has no idea what she’s doing. I was horrified just to be on that. I did my best to stand up and I said, she’s doing a great job, and this is what I recommend, but just because you’ve read my book does not give you the right to do that to your employee. The overwhelming feedback is, it’s helpful to have something to point to because I already felt like this.
I love that you’re standing up for people who are lower in the totem pole in the organization, and they don’t have the kind of influence in the organization. The people above them don’t understand what they’re doing. Then somebody read something—maybe an entire book, or just a chapter of the book, or any book, not just yours—or they’ve just read a Medium article and they think they understand what’s going on, like I’m going to make some heads roll in this company.
That’s a terrible way of running a business, a terrible way of leading and inspiring. It’s the exact opposite. I’m glad that you stand up for the little person who doesn’t have as much of a voice.
In my book, I don’t tell people how to do things. It’s for them to think on their own.
I think in my book I don’t tell people how to do things. It’s for them to think on their own. I know one of the problems we have as an SEO industry is too many people think they can just do it because they have read it. I’ve had instances where engineers will say, well, you’re wrong. I’ve also read a blog post. I read The Art of SEO in my spare time. I’m a really good engineer, but now I’m a really good SEO because I’ve read The Art of SEO even though I don’t spend any time doing this.
I had one occasion at SurveyMonkey where I was advocating for something. The engineer insisted that I was completely wrong and said, “I read a blog post about it. This is what the blog post said and the blog post says you’re wrong.” I very gently had to nudge the engineer and say, “Would you mind telling me who wrote that blog post?” Because I’d written the blog post, and it was years before that I felt like I was entitled to change my opinion.
So you wrote the blog post that he was referencing.
I wrote the blog post. I think it was on Moz or HubSpot. This person said, “I read a blog post on Moz. They sent me the link and I looked at it.” I was like, “Looks very familiar. I think I wrote it.”
That’s hilarious. And they didn’t even realize that you had written it.
They hadn’t even realized, yeah. I think there’s a lot of us out there. They read a blog post and then they just know.
You know that there are no coincidences, right? So that was meant to happen. That’s awesome.
All right. I know we’re out of time here. I’m hoping that we can send our listeners to your book to learn from you, potentially work with you, so where should we send our listener or viewer?
First and foremost, do check out the book. Now, I know I can never work with all the people that are going to read the book, so if the book can help you please read it.
That’s why you need an agency, not just a consultancy. Just saying.
I’ll think about it. I think there are many, many companies that should never invest in SEO because there’s not really an ideal user there. If they buy my book, that could be the only investment they make in SEO, and that’ll be a massive savings over wasting any other time on it. First and foremost, check out the book, and then you can find me on LinkedIn, or my personal site, elischwartz.co. Eventually, I may make an agency on productledseo.com.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Eli. This was fun, inspiring, and thought-provoking. You’re clearly a very smart dude. You have put a lot of love into your book and not just technical acumen. It’s about making the world a better place. You’re doing it through SEO, and I thank you for that.
Thank you. Thank you for having me. Your podcast has been hugely inspirational to me on many fronts. I know I’ve told you this. I started running since I started listening to your podcast, and the longer the podcast is the more I run. So hopefully, this is a long podcast for anybody out there doing exercise.
I think we might have gotten close to an hour or so. I think it’s good. Thank you for being a listener, too. All right. Well, thank you, Eli. Thank you, listeners. Thank you, viewers. I really appreciate you. Please get out there and do some good in the world, and we’ll catch you in the next episode. I’m your host, Stephan Spencer, signing off.
Your Checklist of Actions to Take
Aim to be of service to others more than thinking about the profit I am making. Success has more substance when one is putting others before themselves.
Learn the fundamentals of SEO. If this isn’t my line of expertise, look for an expert who can best consult my business.
Conceptualize a product that people will love and support for an extended time. A huge factor in a successful SEO campaign lies in how excellently conceptualized the product is.
Research for the best keywords for my business. Utilize keyword research tools that will help give an overview of what people are searching for on the Internet.
Look out for credible influencers in my niche, aka the Linkerati. With the right message and campaign, these influential individuals have the power to draw a targeted crowd my way.
Invest in marketing and SEO and make sure I am constantly putting my efforts into them. Implementing the strategies will be an ongoing process, but the returns will be beyond satisfactory once I put in the work.
Visualize my goals so I can delegate outcomes and not tasks. SEO is very goal-oriented. It’s helpful for everyone to have a clear guide of what’s to be achieved.
Focus on improving the quality and quantity of my links. Treat these links as PR for my business. The more they point to my site, the more Google deems my website or business worthy of a high ranking.
Send out the right message to my audience. Conceptualize my content strategy. Make sure it is helpful, engaging, and shareworthy.
Check out Eli Schwartz’s personal and agency websites to learn more about product-led SEO.
About Eli Schwartz
Eli Schwartz is the author of Product Led SEO, and he is a growth consultant with more than a decade of experience driving successful SEO and growth programs for leading B2B and B2C companies. He helps clients like WordPress, Coinbase, Shutterstock, BlueNile, Quora, and Zendesk build and execute global SEO strategies that dramatically increase their organic visibility at scale.