Digital publishing is a tough business. But one brand that’s thriving is Digital Trends, the largest independent tech publisher in the US. Based in Portland, Oregon, the site receives over 30 million visitors a month. Digital Trends has also grown to include a popular Spanish language version of the site and a men’s lifestyle brand, The Manual. What sets Digital Trends apart from the competition is the unique approach of co-founders Dan Gaul and Ian Bell to content, revenue, and cultivating their audience. On this episode number 188, Digital Trends co-founder and CTO Dan Gaul is joining me to discuss the rise of Digital Trends and some of the secrets to their success, and how these secrets can be applied to you and your business. Stay tuned for some of Dan’s insightful views on content, SEO, recruitment and much more.
Dan, it’s so great to have you on the show.
Thank you, Stephan. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Let’s start with how did you start the Digital Trends brand and this publishing giant with your colleagues? I know you’re a co-founder. You had some other founders that started this. How did this get off the ground? It’s a big company now.
My co-founder is Ian Bell. The long story is we met officially at a mutual friend’s wedding. In the line to get food, I heard him having a conversation about a new phone that wasn’t on the market yet that a merchandiser had. I heard him say, “Man, it would be so cool to get stuff like that. If I only had a website so that they would send me things,” and I leaned over and I said, “Hey, I’ll build the website if you could put stuff in.”
That’s how we started forming this idea around, literally back then, a hobby. We had no intentions of a business. All we wanted to do is get cool stuff in to play with and it grew from there. Once we realized we can start making money, making lots of mistakes – and hopefully not over and over again – we were able to grow a business and scaled it into what it is today.
Which is huge. Help our listeners get some idea of the scope of this because you have multiple offices, you have – how many employees? How big is this company?
We’re about 120 full-time employees, probably about 200–300 freelancing contract-style employees as well. We have our headquarters in Portland, Oregon, New York, LA, Chicago, Detroit, and Toronto.Marketing tools are just starting points on possible action. You have to understand what they do and be able to have knowledge around what to do. Click To Tweet
Amazing. How long has this business been going for?
Digital Trends itself has been going on since 2006. Before that, we’re experimenting and playing with a lot of different ideas from men’s lifestyle-like forum to streaming music and the precursor to Digital Trends, which is more of a horrible name. I’ll just leave it at that. Nobody knew how to say it or spell it.
That’s funny. Do you know the first name for Google before it was called Google? That was a horrible name.
I don’t remember. What was that?
BackRub. Horrible name.
That would have been a really bad name. That’s still a horrible name.
I remember back in the day there was a metasearch engine called Dogpile. That’s even worse.
Oh my gosh. That’s no foresight, I guess, and you don’t have that, honestly. When you go, “I have this cool idea. Let’s get something going,” and the name is one of the hardest things to come up with, right?
You don’t think through the repercussions like, how do you answer the phone with this name? Is it awkward? I remember hearing that there is a brand back in the dot-com days. It was called Accompany, like we accompany you on a journey, kind of like an eccentric sort of a consultancy. They’re no longer in existence. Can you imagine getting a call from, “Hey, this is Bill from Accompany.” “Which company?”
You don’t think about the multilingual aspects as well or just the thought of what people will think of when they first hear your brand, right?
Like the Nova brand name for the car, that in Spanish means ‘no go.’
Exactly. That’s a prime example. Then there’s also a comedy with band names. I forgot what movie it was but they had a band name that was absolutely horrible and nobody understood it. It’s really important to get that right as you move forward and start to grow.
Amazing how you’re just able to start from nothing, just from a conversation at a wedding. Very cool. Now you’ve got offices all over the place.
Honestly, we had backgrounds that complemented each other. I had an engineering background. I worked at Real Networks at the time but I was at Microsoft before. Ian was at Intel at the time doing marketing and recruiting. He had a marketing background. We complemented each other in terms of what we wanted to do.
How did you carve out a niche when there was already a huge player? I’m thinking specifically CNET. How did a minor create this brand back in the 90s? By the time you guys formed in 2006, CNET was already a powerhouse. They were already doing tons of electronics reviews, consumer products reviews and stuff. How did you differentiate yourselves from CNET and the other guys out there? I don’t know who else was a big player other than CNET back in those days, but tell us about that.
It goes back to being very naive and I was just having a hobby. Back when we started, everything was very tech-focus and very geeky. Everything was focused on the specs, video cards, sound cards, monitors, CPUs. While we found those things interesting, we were more interested in the lifestyle aspects of technology – TVs, receivers, music, things like that. We tried it for a little bit. Go like, “Oh yeah, we should do specs,” and so forth, but it really came down to like, “What does this really mean? What is our message?”
Without realizing it, we started building what our voice was, running through mistakes along the way and not knowing what we were doing, but realizing that what we wanted our voice to be more easy to understand. We wanted to provide technology and the coverage of technology that was not intimidating. It could be fun. You didn’t have to be a Geek or have a technology background to understand what it was.
That really was our guiding light of best what differentiates us. That’s our core purpose. Our mission is to provide technology, to make technology fun, not intimidating, and to provide what it does for you and how it makes your life better. Instead of like, “This cellphone has this processor and this one has this processor, so this one must be better because it’s faster.” Nobody really cares about that.
Did you not see CNET as a competitor but more like a potential co-opetition, I guess, or potential collaboration partner?
CNET is always the big dog. It’s the gorilla in the room. It can just push everybody around but they don’t. Maybe they do more on the back-end when they’re dealing with these larger companies when they work with Samsung or Sony or whoever. For us, they were an inspiration.
I wouldn’t necessarily say they were competition because we couldn’t compete at that level, especially back then. What we could do was use them as motivation on how we could make our site and our content better, even though it was a different voice. We used them as inspiration on end, as examples of what we should be doing that might work versus the other sites that were maybe a little bit bigger than us, but they’re just figuring out as well.SEO is always mysterious. You don’t really know what hard things you need to be doing other than what you feel is right along with guidelines. Click To Tweet
There’s plenty of sites out there that don’t exist today or maybe never grew. They were content on tying to carve their own path and we always want to be this big media company. We want to learn from what everybody else was doing. It wasn’t just CNET. We have PCMag and all those older school publishers.
You have that aspiration that was larger than life and you didn’t see them as the competition. In fact, it reminds me of how we ended up working together with CNET. We have CNET to thank because they were a former client of mine and the head of the SEO Department was the one who turned you to me. That’s how you ended up giving me a call.
Yeah. A friend of ours that used to be the Head of SEO at CNET, he hasn’t been there for a while. He was a consultant of ours for a long time, and then he’s moved on. He started his own business and when I needed some help, I reached out to him and he referred me to you.
Yes. We both have CNET to thank for our multiple year-long working relationship. Pretty cool.
Very cool. Let’s talk about SEO and how you scale SEO across a really big website, multiple websites. It’s not just digitaltrends.com. It’s also DT Español and The Manual. But the big dog is digitaltrends.com, which has how many pages?
I think it’s hundreds of thousands. I would say it’s at least 100,000 pages for sure.
But it was much bigger than that. Then you culled it down based on my advice. I think you probably were many hundreds of thousands of pages before that culling. How do you scale SEO across a really large website? Do you need to have an SEO team like CNET with dozens of staff? Do you need to have an agency? Do you need to have dedicated SEO resources? What’s required? What’s the secret to success for good SEO across a large-scale website?
As you know, especially back in the day, SEO was mysterious just like how it is now. You don’t really know what hard things you need to be doing other than what you feel is right along with guidelines. If somebody wanted to create content nowadays, I think it’s much easier to come up with a guideline and a strategy around, “This is how we’re going to do it. We’re going to make sure we’re writing it for the reader, first and foremost, and we’re going to provide quality, in-depth content of answering questions.” So you can build out this whole guideline around how you’re going to create content. It’s much harder if you have existing content that didn’t follow those guidelines. Especially if you have a lot of it because you have to make harder decisions around what to do.
I do think that today, I don’t necessarily think that if you’re starting now, you need a whole SEO team. I think you just need to have a good SEO strategy, follow it, and make sure that you have a team following it. As you grow, you definitely need somebody full-time to watch what’s happening in the news, in the forums and around the changes that are happening to the algorithm and different philosophies. Somebody who will look for data around trends, searches and topics; and will also monitor your own content to make sure that people are following it and things aren’t breaking on the site. As you grow, that definitely becomes a much harder thing to do with nobody and somebody have time doing it.
For us, I would say we would need a team larger than what we needed right now. We’re definitely not at that stage where people can relax a little bit and take a breather. We still need to grow and I think as the content continues to grow and the editorial teams continue to grow, we need to grow the SEO team as well.
Part of the success comes from not just spending money on great SEO tools but having the skilled practitioners who are operating those tools. An expensive tool doesn’t pay for itself. It’s only when you utilize it that you get actionable insights from all that data that you get an ROI.
100%. You need people that can think. You can’t just rely on something that gives you a list and tells you, “You need to fix this.” A prime example is like Lighthouse or any of those tools on page optimization. If you just read it and go, “Oh, we need to optimize our images because it’s got a low score of 30 out of 100. Here are all the images we need to optimize.” You got to actually look at that and go, “Why is it complaining about these images? Are they hosted somewhere else? Are they hosted on our site? Are they lazy loaded?”
There are just all these other things that you need to take a look at. I would say that any tool is just a starting point on possible action but you have to be able to understand what they’re trying to tell you to do and be able to think and have foresight and knowledge around what to do.
Once you have a great practitioner to operate the tools, then the tools come in and play an important role. A lot of times there are tools out there that you just didn’t know existed. You don’t know what you don’t know and it’s up to your SEO consultant or expert to say, “Hey, you should get this tool.” What would be some of the tools that maybe I gave you the heads-up on or that you heard about from other means that became an important part of your toolset?
There are so many and they come and go. Obviously, some of the big ones are SEMrush, Ahrefs, DeepCrawl, ones like that. We’ve experimented with small ones, specifically ones that integrate into like Google Sheets that maybe pull data out of Google Analytics. We’re using Snowplow as a data platform because we don’t pay for Google 360 right now. It’s just too big of a cost for us. We have so much data that the sampling of it through normal analytics doesn’t help us so much so. We have some advanced stuff that we’re doing around that.
Searchmetrics is another one that we use. We did a lot of testing of some other tools around the same as Searchmetrics and that work best for us in terms of not just looking at content and how we might be able to optimize it from the editorial side but also getting ideas around topics that might be good for us to cover within that content.
I think I called in a favor with Searchmetrics to get you a special pricing if I recall correctly. They’re such a great toolset, great company, and great people.
Totally agree. It was a great experience actually working with them with the onboarding because they were willing to go above and beyond what a normal pay skill or grade for their subscription. They helped us especially during the time when we were having problems. They were really eager to help us. Really beneficial.
They’ve got some really amazing unique tools as part of their content experience suite. They’ve got the topic explorer, the content editor, they’re really unique and very powerful. You will not be able to replicate that same functionality other ways.
You had that tool, too, for the toxic links one? I think we stressed their app beyond belief.
You have so many links, it’s insane.
But I think it was super beneficial to go through that exercise, even though the pathway to getting to whatever that list was a little bit painful, but I was happy to provide a stress test for them.
That was Link Detox. That’s part of the linkresearchtools.com suite. They’re great over there as well. I’ve had Christoph Cemper on this podcast talking about link building and link analysis. That was really a great couple of episodes. We did a two-parter. He went so in-depth. Linkresearchtools.com was another great tool that I introduced you to.
I think every brand, every company should be doing a regular link detox analysis, whether they use Link Detox or another tool. I think Link Detox is probably the best tool out there for this. But if you just make it part of your regular health check-ups, to do a quarterly minimum length, at least a quarterly link detox analysis, make sure you don’t have toxic links because you could end up getting targeted by a competitor, a rogue affiliate, a hater or somebody who wants to see you suffer in the search results. They can target you with a negative SEO attack.
I would also say, I don’t think a lot of people think about this, if you’re looking at buying a domain or starting a new site, you should be looking at that before you purchase a domain as well. Because there might be a lot of work in terms of clean-up on a domain that you didn’t own before.We got to be able to find ways to get in front of people. Click To Tweet
That’s a great point. I remember my previous company, Netconcepts was a key part in the decision-influencing process of CNET acquiring mp3.com. We did a full SEO audit of the mp3.com site before the acquisition to make sure that they wanted to buy the site because you could be buying a lot of skeletons in the closet inadvertently if you don’t do your due diligence properly.
Even if you have a domain that’s kind of dead, just has a landing page up and has been that way for years, you never know who might be linking to it in nefarious ways along the way where you’re like, “Oh, it’s fine when I put just a static landing page up so it’s probably still fine now.” It’s just not true.
So, that’s tools. What about bringing on a team member or a staff person to do SEO? That can be challenging. I know that I got involved in helping and you were throwing a curveball when your Head of SEO person on staff decided that he is going to take another opportunity. We had to go back to the well and find somebody else who could take the reins there.
There’s a whole process of screening candidates, the job adverts and all that needs to be optimized so you don’t waste your time with a lot of low-quality candidates. The screening process, the onboarding process, there’s a lot to it. You know what they say, a bad hire is supposedly more than a year’s worth of salary and cost if you make a bad choice. I think it was like a year-and-a-half or something, but with SEO it could be disastrous because a bad hire could mean you get into Google’s penalty box.
Yeah. SEO in itself is again, one of those mysterious schools of thought. It is a long time in terms of training, especially for different industries because what’s important for SEO for publishing is completely different for someone who’s doing commerce or something else. The skill sets needed for that and the likelihood of somebody will have that especially on the publishing side, is so much lower.
That’s what made it so difficult for us. I know you experience this when helping us look for people but we use something called the CVI—Core Value Index—through erep.com, and that allowed us to filter based off of what we do at Top Performer Profile. We build what this candidate’s responsibilities would be, in what they would be doing in terms of responsibilities. We figure out, is this a detail-oriented person? Is this somebody that is a high innovator? Somebody that’s an extrovert? We figure out what those core values are and allows us to filter people out based on that.
For example, for SEO, you need somebody who’s very detail-oriented, that pays attention to the numbers and the data but also can act on it and not just look at it and be paralyzed. We use those as ways to filter. There’s actually a lot of people who applied that didn’t have that skill set and it’s pretty important for us to figure that out.
The other thing is again, the pool of candidates is pretty low. Most of them are coming from agencies, which is great for agency work and people that are doing marketing, but from a publisher’s standpoint, a lot of them don’t have the depth of experience and toolsets that we were really looking for. So it’s really hard. Typically, what we end up having to do is go after somebody that’s already in the same industry, in the publishing industry, and see if you can entice them over.
You ended up with somebody good but it took a lot of work to do it. I remember when I was reviewing the first drafts of the job adverts and like, “I wouldn’t do it this way,” or, “I would tweak this and that,” we did some back-and-forth on that. That was a good experience.
You had some great ideas which I would never have thought of. Also, I don’t do SEO on a daily basis. I don’t consider myself an SEO expert, although I would say I probably know a lot more about SEO than the average person in publishing. But for me to write that type of job description on my own, I wasn’t doing it justice for what I really needed. So, that’s a big help.
And then, there are things that you can do to sneak in little things that, I wouldn’t call tricks, but things that will separate the wheat from the chaff, like the problem-solving riddle into the job advert that they have to answer in order to apply for the job, I think it’s brilliant. I’ve been doing this for years.
In addition to the CVI, which I hadn’t heard of before working with you, by the way, I’ve been using for years the DISC profile. I’ve been using the Sally Hogshead Fascinate Index, that’s really great, Fascinate is more how the world sees you versus how you see the world. I’ve played with Predictive Index (PI) as well, and Myers-Briggs, but I’m not as much a fan of those as I am DISC.
I have team members who come on board do the Values Determination Hierarchy, that’s from Dr. John DeMartini. That’s another free one that you can do on their website. That gives you a sense for the highest values of the candidates or the new hire and you can then map their roles and responsibilities to those highest values.
If you’re hiring somebody whose highest value is traveling the world and there’s nothing in their job that is going to help them with that highest value, there’s a mismatch there. Let’s say I bring on a virtual assistant and that person gets to learn some of my ninja techniques for getting the best travel deals anywhere. I know all sorts of hacks for getting great deals on Priceline, for example, that you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. Working that into the job description be hugely valuable for somebody who’s all about travel as one of their highest values. You’ve got to think through all this stuff as you’re figuring out who you’re going to bring on board.
Another thing is defining the roles, responsibilities, success metrics, and hand-offs for the person that you’re trying to hire. Roles and responsibilities are pretty easy but most people are not thinking these are the success metrics. They’re quantitative and they are very straightforward. It allows everybody to know if you’ve crossed the finish line or not. And then the hand-offs, too, where, “This is where my job ends and this is where the other person’s job starts,” so that you can not have this fuzzy, amorphous, forever increasing job function.
That sounds almost identical to the CVI and the Top Performer Profile because it’s all those things you mentioned. Roles, responsibilities, what are these success metrics? How do they know that they’ve have been successful? And how do we measure success in that role?
The hand-off part typically isn’t part of that but you can make it part of it. The whole goal of that is really key as you learn as an entrepreneur, a business owner, as a leader, that you want people in those positions. Their core strengths, like you’re mentioning whether they like to travel or whether they like people, or something like that data, that you want them to be able to utilize that core strength in a way that they actually feel they’re happy doing it.
One of the best examples for me is the guy who owns erep.com. He was a CPA by trade and went to school for finance. He was really good at it but was miserable every single day. When he ran across the CVI and started building that business, he realized his core values don’t align with being a finance guy or a numbers guy. They align more around being an entrepreneur, he was more extroverted, he only needed 30% of the information to make a decision. He wasn’t really data-driven. What he’s doing now he absolutely loves and he can never go back to into accounting and finance, even though he’s really good at it.
It’s true for anybody to be able to find their true calling. It’s like what you say, you wake up and your job is something you enjoy doing everyday. It’s really hard for people to find that. If you get aligned with that job to an employer through the CVI where they know you will be successful based on those core values, it’s a win-win. You accelerate and we get the benefit of that.
Does CVI include identifying your top strengths? Not how you think, because that’s cognitive, but the conative part of your brain, that’s what’s addressed with Kolbe Assessment. Do you see a lot of overlap between those two tools and CVI or not so much?
Off the top of my head, I would say no. The Core Value Index is who you are as a person. Another example is when you’re driving down the freeway and then 20 minutes later go, “I don’t remember the last 20 minutes. How did I get here?” and your subconscious mind took over, that’s what the CVI is all about. You could take it now and then take it five years from now and you’re going to score at a 98% the exact same score, where Myers-Briggs, Kolbe, and all those things can be influenced based on what you work on personally, et cetera. This is who you are as a person.
That’s a great point. I remember having a potential key staff person—I say potential because I actually did hire her but it didn’t work out—I had her take the Kolbe Assessment and a lot of the data that came back was, “Because you’re in transition…” I was couching all of the answers and assessments around, “You’re in the transition time right now,” so a lot of the stuff isn’t probably in your core nature. I was like, “Well, what’s the use of that?” I need to know in her core what she gravitates towards.
Anyway, it didn’t end up working out, it was not a fit, so several months later she moved on. But I’m definitely wanting to know what is their core nature and is it a fit for my organization? That’s a real core. I’m going to have to check out CVI.
Now, let’s say that you are interviewing candidates and these candidates seem to know their stuff about SEO but you’re not sure because you’re not an SEO expert. Do you bring in an SEO expert to do a second interview perhaps?
I did that with you. I had you interview them as well. But I also, at least for me and maybe I’m unique in the sense, I have no other people in the space as well, either run agencies that are doing SEM and so forth so I can pull them in to help me as well.
Honestly, if you are hiring somebody, you need to have a base knowledge and also try to have that BS filter around you and be able to actually, especially with SEO, again really quiz them. You can’t take answers from the top level and not dig in and try to explore why or throwing this scenario that maybe unique that they don’t know and see how they tackle it.
Always ask for specific examples. That’s one thing I learned a long time ago as one of the keys to interviewing. To be a good interviewer, you need to be inquisitive, curious, and never just take the short answer and move on. You’ve got to ask for specific examples. Once you’re developing an opinion about the person, recognize that you’re doing that and then ask for contrary evidence.
Let’s say, you’re formulating an opinion that this person is kind of fast and loose, kind of a renegade, so when you ask a question, “Give me a specific example where you are a team player, you just dotted all the I’s, crossed all the T’s, and because of that, you had a big success.” You’re asking for the opposite of what you’re thinking this person is like, to see if you’re misguided in this initial opinion. We were meaning-making machines and so much of what we hear we just been then the whole story around and it’s not even true.
I’m glad you mentioned that. I don’t mean to keep pounding the CVI drum, but one of the valuable things about the CVI is when you get a candidate and they filled out the CVI, they basically give you some questions to ask them around the negative scenario, the areas that they are weak, that they don’t like, but probably going to have to come up with and deal with on a regular basis with the job.
For example, they’re an introvert instead of an extrovert, how do you deal with the time when maybe you had to present in front of your management team or something like that, an issue that was critical that you felt with or something like that. Those are really critical questions to ask them not just to see how people deal with stress and changes in the environment they may not be able to have control of or may not be very good at, but also to see how they would fit in with the culture. Whatever culture you’re building in your company or around your team that you might be hiring for, you want to make sure they fit in with it. Instead of disrupting it, they can actually support and enhance it.
If you’re looking for open communication, no-blame-no-shame type of culture where people are going to share and disseminate information as quickly as possible, not hold onto it and try to fix everything themselves, whatever like that, you want to make sure they also fit into those values.A bad hire is more than a year’s worth of salary and cost. Click To Tweet
For sure. Another thing that I think is important to circle back on, you mentioned having that good BS filter. That can be hard for somebody who doesn’t really get, whether it’s SEO or it’s some other aspect of marketing you’re not an expert on and you’re trying to make sure that you’re not getting snookered, it’s very, very helpful to have some trick questions in your back pocket that you just slip into the interview, so you’re kind of quizzing that candidate but in a non-threatening way, you’re not letting on that you have the right answer, you’re just asking them simple questions.
I actually created a BS detector which I put on stephanspencer.com as a free download. Listeners, if you’re interested in that, it’s on the resources tab on the stephanspencer.com under guides and white papers. The idea here is if you had, let’s say a handful of trick questions that may not sound like trick questions, but have things like, “Tell me the process that you use for optimizing meta keywords.” That’s a trick question because there’s no other right answer other than, “What? Why would you ever optimize or even think about meta keywords? They’re never counted.” If they said something to the effect of, “Well, they’re not as important as they used to be. I wouldn’t really focus a lot of time on them now, but back in the early days, they counted more with Google.” All those are wrong answers because Google never counted them.
That’s an example of a trick question. You can have all these trick questions that you insert into the interview process and you only know the right answer. Even though your not an SEO expert, you’ve got the answers right there for you and then you can kick them to the curb if they’re not a fit, if they’re snookering you.
If you bring in somebody like myself to do a second interview with the candidates, then we can go in even deeper and you don’t need to rely on a few trick questions. You could just ask open-ended questions like, “Tell me what your favorite SEO tools are and why?” and see what they say.
I remember interviewing a candidate. I don’t know if it was for you or it was another client but I was flabbergasted with the response, not by what he said initially because he said, “Majestic was his favorite tool,” actually he said, “Majestic SEO.” So, I thought, “Hmm, maybe something’s up here because that was the old brand before they rebranded to just Majestic.”
I decided to dig a little deeper and I asked him what the key metric is in Majestic. And then I knew that he was full of hot air because he answered AC Rank, which had been deprecated by then several years ago and replaced by two metrics, Trust Flow and Citation Flow. He didn’t know that. So, clearly he hadn’t been in the tool for years and that was his very favorite SEO tool. The first on his list. We wrapped up the interview pretty quickly because he was clearly full of something other than value.
Somebody like me wouldn’t know that, honestly. That’s where having somebody that you can maybe lean on to ask those types of questions is really important. Again, I think you’re invaluable then. Obviously, not everybody will have access to somebody like you. Here’s a question back to you, Stephan, where can people find other SEO experts that are willing to provide a service like that, that won’t also be poaching or looking into maybe like, “Oh, it’s an opportunity for me to find people that could consult for me.”
That’s the big risk when you’re dealing with an SEO agency or a bigger consultancy. They’re always looking for staff and they’re going to want that person that they’re talking to. If they’re already part of your funnel, though, if they’re already in the consideration set, hopefully, they’re not going to poach your candidate. But if you give them the job of finding candidates, they’re probably going to pick the best ones for themselves. I would imagine if they’re looking to bring on more staff.
I would go with an individual SEO consultant and not somebody who’s part of an agency. That’s a benefit of working with me because I don’t have a big team now. I didn’t reinvent another agency once I sold Netconcepts. It’s a very small boutique company which has its drawbacks because I can only take on a small number of clients at a time.
But where would you go to find a really good SEO consultant other than working with me? There’s the Moz Recommended List, so that’s at moz.com. They have some good folks in there, but there are agencies and individual consultants on that. Let’s say you have to do your due diligence there as well and have your criteria set up.
My daughter is an SEO expert as well, trained her myself. She’s 27 years old, she’s been doing it since she was 14. She started doing SEO back then. She’s been on MSNBC as an expert talking about SEO. That was really cool, very proud dad. I’ll include the link in the show notes for that episode. There are some different places where you could go. Her name is Chloe. Of course, you’re not working directly with me. If you work with another consultant, recognize that there’s a gradiation or there’s a spectrum of skills, experience, and so forth.
Back when I was starting in the SEO space, I had to create a name for myself back in the late 90s. I started the agency in 1995, but we were a web design and development firm more than an SEO firm. SEO didn’t really exist back in 1995. One way that I put myself on the map in those early days is I did a free SEO audit for Target in exchange for a testimonial and the use of their logo. That ended up being kind of a secret weapon for me to be able to have them on my client list in exchange for doing a free audit which was huge, comprehensive, and super valuable to them.
If you are getting started in an industry and you’re looking for a quick shortcut that is very powerful, that’s a good one. I don’t know if I told you that before.
No. That is a great way. For me, just dealing with the different tech services that were utilized in our platforms. One of my tools is we’re willing to be participants in a white paper or something like that that will benefit them like, “This is where we’re at, once we came on board and we work with you, this is where we went,” and that’s how we got there. It benefits them and we usually get a benefit somehow, too.
That reminds me of another idea that is similar to the white paper angle is a lot of people will have heard of this idea called a press kit, but what about a reverse press kit? I think I got this idea from the Podcast Movement Conference. I think it might have been Josh or somebody, but anyway, this is a really cool idea. I have to dig up who I’ve heard it from so I can put it in the show notes. A reverse press kit.
I think I shared this idea with you, Dan. Imagine going to, let’s say CES. Instead of a press kit like, “Hey, this is my electronics company. Here’s all the cool consumer electronics that we sell, here are all the stats, specs, and so forth.” Imagine if you are a website that publishes content like Digital Trends or whatever and you do the opposite of a press kit where it’s like, “These are the kinds of brands that we want to talk to, that we want to feature, and here’s why you would want to talk to us and not just CNET.” Or some other brand or publisher that they would have already heard of – New York Times or whatever. “Here’s the niche that we occupy, here’s what makes us different and important for you to spend time with us maybe getting on a podcast or doing a live stream with us and so forth.” Did I end up sharing that idea with you before?
I don’t think so, but our media kit is very similar to that idea because we have to battle for brand equity against the CNETs of the world. We had to constantly show why we were better and offer more than somebody like CNET. I think that’s a great angle. One of the famous phrases that I’ve heard in the past on the sell side is, “Nobody’s ever been fired for buying on CNET,” right?
Yeah. The original expression is, “Nobody’s been fired by hiring IBM,” but yes, exactly.
It’s the same thing. You have to prove your worth. It’s like, “This is the type of clients we are very successful with and this is why we are successful. These are the things that we offer and all those things are much better.” The other key is you have to be able to present that, pitch it, and not expect people to read your reverse press kit. We got to be able to find ways to get in front of people.
For sure. Speaking of getting in front of people, if your doing podcasts, or live streams, or whatever, you’re doing a lot of videos and/or audios, what would be some of the lessons that you’ve learned because your company has done a ton of live streaming, a lot of video production, a lot of unboxing videos, review videos and so forth? What have been some of your hard-earned lessons?
I think the most recent ones, really. They’re not historical lessons, the more ones that you have to deal with the reality of how people consume content nowadays is that you cannot expect people to come to your site to consume video. There’s no reason for them. The thing for me is you need to make sure your content is where people are consuming it and then optimize around those places.
For example, YouTube, OTT, Roku, Apple News, all those things. Obviously, we still publish onto our own site and broadcast from our own site, but that’s just one spot and we really have to make sure that we understand not everybody’s going to discover us or consume us on our dot-com.
What do you do to get more visibility on a big social/search site like YouTube? YouTube is the number two search engine and it’s also a huge social network. A lot of people don’t think of it as a social network and a lot of people don’t think of it as a search engine, either, but it gets more search volume than Bing or Yahoo! So, what are some of your secrets to success with YouTube?
I think it’s very complex, specifically YouTube because it not just optimize the content and then hope that you rank well. You have to actually participate in the community. You need some type of community manager or you need to be in there subscribing to the comments and responding back to people, interacting with whoever’s watching your videos. A great thing is to post questions to that audience, actually cut your video specifically for those platforms.
The video that we publish up on YouTube is going to be totally different than the video that we put on the DT because we’re editing it specifically for those platforms, and obviously optimizing them but optimizing them for YouTube. YouTube begins as its own piece. If you’re up on the Roku Channel or something like that, but you need to look at what people are searching for, make sure the proper tags are in place, the proper title, that you have links in the description to maybe whatever you happen to talking about, all those best practices for YouTube. I think the key differentiator is making sure you’re interacting with your audience and giving them a reason to subscribe and come back.
Yeah. I recently had a discussion with Derral Eves who’s the founder of VidSummit. Some of his clients have been really huge viral success stories like the Squatty Potty and the Unicorn is really awesome.
40 billion views on YouTube, I think, across his own stuff and his client’s stuff that he’s been responsible for. What he’s been touting is the future for YouTube is AI, really leveraging YouTube’s recommendation engine, and not just doing the tweaks to get a better set of tags, or better titles, or better thumbnails and whatever. That’s all good, but the future for YouTube is all about the recommendation engine and is a good suggestion based on the AI’s opinion of where should that viewer go next.
What are you doing in that regard to be the next viral sensation on YouTube or be the obvious next recommendation that YouTube AI’s going to make?
That’s a great question and I don’t have an answer to that because I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of figuring that out. We’re so focused on producing the content and trying to get distribution out of that, people coming directly to our channel or on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. I haven’t even thought about the AI side of it and the recommendation engine. That’s a good point.
We can talk about that later. Got some ideas for you. Google News is a key part of your strategy because Google News is important for publishers still. It’s not just about Google Web Search. What are the important nuances for our listeners to understand about Google News?
First off, don’t push stuff that is not news. For example, we do reviews, guides, and things like that. We have to make sure that that stuff is not getting pushed to Google News. It doesn’t serve the same purpose, I think it will hurt you, and that stuff definitely will not rank. But the main thing with Google News being timely, making sure that whatever you’re writing about is actually happening at that moment instead of a day, or two days, or three days later. It has to be relevant and it has to be quality. Pushing things actually are trending and meaningful for people. Those are the core things. Quality, timely, and relevant.
Right. How do you find the stuff that’s going to be trending or the hot new thing before everybody else already covered it? Do you use certain tools like BuzzSumo? Do you just go to the trending tab in YouTube or do you look at trending hashtags on Twitter? How do you know what’s hot?
It’s a really hard thing to do. Honestly, we have to make that decision. Are we somebody that covers breaking news? Or are we somebody that covers things that are already out there, that we can get our hands on, and have a more meaningful conversation, or editorial around it, or video?
We choose specifically to not really focus on breaking news because it’s just a lot of work. But there are things that we do. We do look at trending topics. We have the live graph happening about how many searches are happening on whatever in technology and if something’s really spiking then we’ll make sure that we cover it as soon as possible, but we’re not in that race. We’re not in that race to basically be the first to it.
There are opportunities where we get that which is mainly because of our relationship with manufacturers and other people that are creating what we’re writing about, where they might give us first peek or an embargoed piece on something like that, but usually, those are not the things that are breaking news. They’re not the things that are exciting and relevant. A good example is maybe the dragon capsule blowing up the other day. We’re not trying to be the first person to write about that, but we will cover it.
Got it. How big, would you say, newsjacking is to your overall editorial strategy, like finding the stuff that’s trending fast, up, and to the right, and then riding on that train as quickly as possible? Is that 5%? Is it 50% of what your editorial team is up to?
I would say, most of the news stuff, we outsource. We’re not having our internal team work on and that’s probably under 10%. Most of our stuff is really about how we help people make purchasing decisions like what products are great, which ones aren’t, how to use certain things, what certain technologies all about like 4K versus 8K, things like that.
We don’t really focus on the newsjacking side, but it doesn’t mean every now and then we don’t have something that spikes up and we will have that. It’s just more of like, “Oh, this is awesome. I would love to do more of that,” but we can’t kid ourselves. It kind of goes back to CNET versus us or everybody else. We have to embrace who we are and what we know we do really well and let other people deal with that.
One thing you’ve been more doubling down on lately is the live video and where we’re videoing this episode, you have a whole studio with professional equipment, multiple camera angles, production team and everything. What’s the target destination usually for live stream video? Is it your live streaming onto Facebook? Is it Facebook Live? YouTube Live? Twitter has, what’s their platform called? It begins with a P.
I don’t know the name of the platform. All I know is it’s yes to all of them. Our whole thing is trying to make sure we’re live streaming everywhere we can that people will want to consume us.
Oh, Periscope. We actually are live streaming to Twitter. I don’t know if it’s Periscope or not, but it’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, our own site, Twitch, etc., We try to put it out. And then, after the live stream is done, we segment it out into different segments, basically, and we push that out on demand.
That’s cool. That’s really innovative. There are not a lot of companies doing what you are doing with regards to all the live streaming. Yes, if you’re live streaming to Twitter, that is Periscope. I think we’re out of time. Is there something that I should ask you but I didn’t?
We’ve learned a lot around optimizations. There’s always that stuff, especially with the new Lighthouse stuff coming out which is totally different than the old Google page feed. There’s a small conversation around that which is, for us, some of the things we’ve had to learn with are really around optimizing for the first bite and making sure that we are as light and only loading the critical things first and asynching everything else. Those are page feed and page load times are so critical for us.
And actually, the other thing, which is you kind of hit on it before but making sure that your old content that isn’t relevant or maybe it’s thin and breaking Google rules, making sure that you scrub that stuff on a regular basis because time and time again, we’ve been hurt by that. We get lazy, we’re like, “Yeah, we’re doing great,” and then wham, we get hit by something and usually it turns out due to the quality issue because of old content that we haven’t taken cared of.
Old content that’s become obsolete because it was ephemeral at the time, newsworthy at the moment, but nobody would ever go back and want to read that article a year later.
Exactly. Usually not in-depth because a lot of that stuff is like, “Yeah, 350–400 words.” Because it’s something that just happened and there’s more to come. Or an announcement of some kind or something like that.
Breaking news and then three paragraphs. That’s it.
Exactly. There’s a lot of things you can do with the data to look for that stuff and keep it on the rolling list of, “Okay, we need to clean this out. There’s received traffic. Are there any back leaks? What’s the quality score on it?” All these things that you can utilize to build that list and maybe every three months or on a regular basis you just always noindexing it, or redirecting it or 404ing it.
For sure. Now, you mentioned optimizing for faster load time. What about AMP, Accelerated Mobile Pages? The reason I ask about this isn’t just because I’m curious. I just interviewed Ben Morss who at Google is one of the key players with AMP. AMP is actually originally from Google. It’s an open source platform technology now but Google still very much steering that. From my understanding, Google’s really keen on everybody doing AMP. What’s your position on it?
AMP is a pain in our butt, honestly. The concept of it is so great and I think the valuable implementation of it. We’ve been a beta partner and maybe even an alpha partner on AMP, working directly with Google, and then, with Automatic in a partnership that Automatic had with Google. In fact, one of the lead devs is here in Portland that we’ve worked directly with and implemented some early versions of the plugin and, of course, our own implementation.
This has been a fabulous, really informative, exciting interview. Thank you so much, Dan, for taking the time to share your experiences, your expertise, your wisdom with my audience. If they wanted to follow you or learn more, where should we send them to? Maybe your Twitter or where would you like them to go?It’s essential to get your brand name right as you move forward and start to grow. Click To Tweet
Awesome. All right. Very cool. Dan’s been really a joy to work with. I think we worked together a couple of years? It’s been a fun ride. Thank you so much, Dan. Thank you, listeners. We’ll catch you on the next episode. In the meantime, have a fantastic week.
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About Dan Gaul
Dan Gaul is the co-founder and CTO of Digital Trends, the largest independent tech publisher with more than 30 million unique visitors per month; its Spanish-language companion, DT Español; and the men’s lifestyle brand, The Manual.
A sought-after speaker and industry thought leader, Gaul has spoken on behalf of such brands as Eventbrite, the Technology Association of Oregon, and TechFestNW. Gaul has been a member of the Forbes Technology Council, and has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc.