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Search Engine Marketing - The What, Why & How with Bill Sebald

This E Coffee episode features Bill Sebald. A true blue legend of the SEO game, Bill is the Founder and Managing Partner of Greenlane Search Marketing LLC. Bill has been involved with digital marketing since its early days in 1996. He has literally seen Search Engines Marketing develop into its present form and knows its inner workings like none other. Watch as Bill unravels the SERPs and explains his approach to search engine marketing.

A lot of us SEOs think about displacing the ocean. How do we make the ocean rise? You have to create a buzz, you have to drop an island right in the middle of the ocean, Google will notice that

Bill Sebald
Founder and Managing Partner of Greenlane Search Marketing LLC
Hello everyone, today we have with us Bill Sebald, Founder and Managing Partner of Greenlane. Bill is a speaker, writer, and podcast host. Bill, thank you for taking the time out. And welcome to the show.

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Bill I have already done a brief introduction about you. But it would be great if you could introduce yourself. And you know what you do.

 I am so bad at explaining or talking about myself. Alright, well, I’ve been doing SEO, I started doing SEO in 1996. My first site was an E-commerce site. And I always like to make the joke that it was before there were even shopping carts or any kind of catalog managers, we were just taking credit cards over the phone. So that’s how early it’s been. For me, I got into SEO, because I love the aspect of its detective work, it’s trying to figure out an algorithm that is supposed to be uncrackable, but figured out enough to be able to build marketing campaigns around the signals that work. So that fascinated me right away. Google popped in and took over the market share. There were a lot of search engines out when I started and it was really fun to watch Google grow, and then grab on to Google. And now it’s like you have one thing you have to sort of keep working on. So it’s always been this cat and mouse game of Google getting bigger, getting smarter. And SEO is trying to keep up, the best SEOs are the ones that keep up with it all. So I was proud to be with a great group of SEOs growing into this and creating this industry. And it’s just been so much fun. So at some point, about 10 years ago, I said, I’m ready to do this full time, and no one accompanies, because I was always working for other agencies or clients. So Greenlink came about that way. And here we are, we’re 10 years later, and we’re still in business and doing well.

1996; And at that time, because people change a lot of things in their career before they know, okay, fine, this is it. I mean, from day one did you have that feeling that okay, fine. This is what I'm going to do long-term or even not sure. I mean, how did it happen?

The way that I felt it was something I could do forever is when I bumped into a group of people, and they were calling it SEO. And I went SEO search engine optimization. I said, all this has a name. All this hacking of the search engine has a name now. Once I felt like there was a real industry, and there was a need for expertise in it, that is when I was hooked. In the beginning, I was just again hacking search engines. I was doing that in every other way to bring traffic to the website. The only thing alive back then was eBay. And eBay was still pretty new. So I didn’t want to just keep on kind of grinding through eBay. I wanted to figure out a way to bring my traffic in.  That is what I fell in love with.

Who was Bill as a school kid?

Oh, he was a shy kid.  I was a dork, way into TV and cartoons and movies and all that. Yeah, I was a big playful kid. I started into the music world for about 5-6-7 years. I was the kid who wanted to be a rock star. Then the rock star thing got close but didn’t happen. Then I became a businessman.

And that's the connection with you and the podcast, you do Delux Edition right?

 So Deluxe Edition is a new podcast I  started about two years ago. It’s funny that you found it, it’s not SEO-related at all. I felt like there are enough SEO podcasts that are doing a better job like yours and  I was like, what else could I do? And Deluxe Edition is a kind of interview show. We talk to people like Tommy Chong, Tom Scerett from Top Gun, and a million other movies and we just asked him about the insides of real moviemaking not so much about like, hey, what was it like to be in that movie?  It’s what’s the business like? Because I’m always fascinated by different businesses. It’s deluxeedition.show if anybody wants to check it out.

I will mention the links once we post the interview live.

 I couldn’t help that I am a marketer I had to do some Promoting.

Talking about podcasts, aggregators normally rank higher versus individual players. How do you go about choosing the podcast topics?

 Podcast topics on our show are based more on what we want to do. But when we’re doing work with clients, we’re trying to use podcast marketing as a way to grow. There are two ways that I think about it. You can take a look and this is honestly the way that I do conference talks too. Let me see what people are covering. Let me hear how they covered it. And do I think that can be done better?  I’m going to take a stab at doing it better. I’m a big believer in the Tenex concept. But you know, Google Trends has been something I’ve used forever. Google Trends is amazing, it will tell you what kind of keywords are coming up and starting to show some interest. I always like to be a step ahead of that. A lot of people who listen to a podcast, when they hear something, they’re introduced to it for the first time, I want to be an introducer. I don’t want to bring up something that’s already three years old. I want to try to get there before. So Google Trends is a great tool for stuff like that.

When you're starting, what is a good strategy in podcasts? Like how many podcasts and how often?

I think you get as many as you can.  I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time on a podcast that doesn’t look like it has any audience or any chance of getting an audience because, unfortunately, just like all things, there are a lot of spammy podcasts starting to pop up, as I’ve noticed. Look, at the end of the day, if you’re using podcasting, to not only help promote your brand, build a little bit of brand awareness but improve your SEO, it’s the same as link building. You want to create buzz and you want Google to see that buzz. I wrote something yesterday on LinkedIn that I was pretty proud of. A lot of us SEOs we think about like displacing the ocean. How do we make the ocean rise? We throw a bunch of seashells in it and then eventually it rises. We play with a bunch of Title Tag, tweaks, and things like that, and eventually, it rises. I’m not going to live long enough for the little stuff. So you have to create a buzz, you have to drop an island right in the middle of the ocean, Google will notice that and that’s when Google says, Okay, let’s start paying a little bit more attention. So, yeah, go for it with podcasts, not only will you get some SEO out of it but if these guys link back to you, and as Google grows and gets better, and maybe becomes a machine that can read these podcasts, I’m sorry, here but and translate these podcasts, like, who knows, even some of the smaller ones might turn out to be a big link signal and a big factor for you in the future.

You have worked with a lot of great brands, is there any favorite client story that you would like to share with us?

 Oh, I have stories. Many I can tell.

I just have time for one today.

 My favorite one has been, I can’t tell you who they are big, big company.  They have many pages, millions, and millions of pages and they just got stuck. They were like we can’t figure out why we are not getting the traffic. Look, this is what we used to get. We’re well known what happened? Again, I love SEO, because it’s detective work and it wasn’t like, well, let’s just throw some title tags, it was I love this job. Give me the chance to be a detective. So I sat down with it. And I said, All right, what could the problems be? We eventually figured out I pulled a, I convinced them to send me server logs. And it was easy to see that Google was looking at this giant web of pages. But it was like a, it was like a spider web covered in dust and dead bugs. And like it was just a mess of a web. So when you see the way that Google goes around a website, and it’s not going to the main pages, it’s not going to the pages that are like core Hub Pages, you can tell Google’s having trouble understanding the site. So going in doing things with internal links,  killing some pages that don’t need to be alive, optimizing ones that needed to be more visible, doing all this together, putting that plan together, in about two months, unlocked every issue they had. So they went from millions of visits to like, couple 100,000 Back to millions, it was probably the biggest immediate growth I’ve ever seen from a website and one SEO campaign. So that’s pretty cool.

What are three trends that you see in enterprises?

Enterprise SEO, three trends. I can tell you that the trend of scaling is still the biggest. I don’t know that I can name three trends in enterprise. But there are trends in SEO, that I think enterprise would use. My problem with enterprise is it’s real tough, right? I came from that e-com world that’s enterprise too. Those sites get complex new sites, those kinds of sites are big and messy. And the problem that I see is a lot of people want to scale. We got to get as much of this on the web as we can, and the right and with dynamic pages and all the things that we started doing in the 2000s. Yeah, it’s great. You can scale this, but you’re also creating a lot of junk. You’re just throwing pictures of products out there. You’re not explaining, you’re not giving any context, you’re not explaining to Google why this even exists. So Google is looking at that and saying, Okay, I’ll put it in my supplemental. And I’ll rank it one day, maybe. So I think there are a lot of times where people try to scale on a scale too hard.  I’ve had big retailers say to me; You want me to rewrite all this product copy and have it be original? Yeah. Oh, my God, I’m gonna have to bring in like a fleet of people. I said, Yeah, go get them. What do you mean, go get them? No, go get them. SEO is hard. If you want to do it, right, go get them? Yeah. So scaling has its place, I think people try to scale too hard and expect Google to pick them as the favorite, when you’re just doing robotic things are not doing the customer things, they’re not doing the things that Google wants to be serving you for.

When you talk about e-com, and scale, one more problem, which, we find, sometimes where it's difficult to explain is; okay, fine, we understand there are product pages, you are creating product catalogs, but there is still some content that we need. And there are ways of smartly putting, like content blocks in the bottom and, things like that. But, they like they don't want to do that effort of, like, creating those changes in the pages and creating that content. And I mean, how can you get that page to run just by adding a lot of products and catalogs to the website?

Yeah, when I, when I worked at a big eCommerce platform, the UX team would always say, people don’t like words, on pages, they want pictures. And we would do eye-tracking studies. And we would do tests on the SEO team. And we found out that was wrong, people love information on these pages, people will take information on category pages, one that comes to mind, I remember, Zappos a few years ago, like they were creating these great pages full of information about one product or a set of products a brand, maybe it was a brand that would make more sense. And it would go into the value of the product, why this is special? Why do you want these over some other one? And guess

Creating pillar pages? If you have a good product, where you can, for a particular category even create, like a big pillar page around, surely good content, good infographics, actual value add, like information, there's a chance of that infographic and that pillar page going viral, you generate so many feelings out of it. Yeah, we'll give that juice to the page. And but yeah, I mean, again, it's all about the content. It's just how you look at it, and how smartly, from the user experience point of view, you kind of, put it in the website as well.

You were asking the question about trends, here’s another trend that you just inspired that’s not a good trend. I’m seeing a lot more people in digital marketing positions, look at SEO and say; We can’t do this task, because there’s no guaranteed ROI. Don’t do SEO, if you’re in it for guaranteed ROI. This is not a guaranteed ROI channel. Paid search is there for you.  I think that kind of thing, like building out those infographics, you got to take some chances, you got to experiment. Experimenting is SEO and I want to keep on seeing companies who foster a healthy SEO sort of environment take on experimenting as part of what they do, create a test budget. SEO is still the most underfunded digital channel I’ve ever seen. But pick up that funding a bit. Right, just because the traffic is free doesn’t mean you didn’t have to fight to get that free traffic, and Tynecastle takes money. So proper budgets, I think are something I’m not seeing set, and to be honest with you I haven’t ever seen a proper budget set for SEO, it’s pretty rare when you see the right budget.

Also, there are so few people who actually can explain it properly to the client, where you explain it in a way that they understand how much budget is required, and what they will get out of it. Not now, but maybe one or two years down the line. I was working with an agency, six months back where they had a good team, they were doing well, but all of their maximum SEO campaigns they were closing were not closing at the value which they required. And, I found out that they were having a hard time explaining it to the client. So, we went on a few calls with them, and if you do it the right way like you said you also have to see whether that client is a good fit for SEO or not. If he wants quick ROI, just don't do it, do PPC for him, don't do SEO.

My company it’s not my first agency, but it is going to be my final agency and we are choosing who we pick. And when I hear people say, this is exactly what I want. I expect this and this. I’m just like, somebody miss explained SEO to you. I spend my time trying to get it right. But you can tell some people are just like, Nope, not going to play by the rules. I’m going to make it work my way. I don’t think it ever works that way.

You spoke about experiments. What was the last SEO experiment you did?

 I’m doing one now on YouTube, trying to figure out why that algorithm isn’t anywhere near as smart as main google.com. I’m always tinkering with things, website things, on-the-page things, link-building things. I don’t have anything exciting to say I’m doing this now. But I am trying to figure out YouTube it just doesn’t make sense. YouTube is like some of Google’s other search engines, their other verticals where it’s like;  Why is this so dumb when Google has already proven how smart they can be? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll crack it.

We are doing some tests on YouTube as well, because with this podcast and these YouTube videos for us as well. So we're doing some tests on video and YouTube and I'll try sharing what the team is doing with us.

  I’d love it. I know that with some of these social platforms engagement is everything, but engagement can be faked. So I’m surprised that they’re putting so much weight on engagement, but that’s what they want to do their business.

You're talking about ecom. This holds for general SEO as well, but we talked about mainly e-Com. You do a Site Audit initially when you're starting and you're doing an SEO campaign. But as per your recommendation, like after the initial audit is done, and those things are kind of taken care of, how often do you recommend doing site audits, because for E-commerce sites, site audits can be like very lengthy and, they can take a lot of time, but how often do you normally suggest doing audits after the first one?

Not often?  The way Greenlink approaches it is it’s not prescriptive, it’s prescriptive based on once we study you and understand what you need;  here’s your customer prescription.  99% of the time, we start with a tech audit and that’s because when you get everything done with a tech audit, and everything gets implemented, you don’t tend to have to go back to technical stuff. Content audits and all those other audits out there that we do backlinks a lot and going back to them makes some sense. I love a tool called site bulb, which basically, it’s a crawler, are you familiar? Oh, it’s so good and every month it can just go and do a lot of that checking for you and report back on all the changes. I don’t want to spend too much time doing my audits a second time and a third time. The first time you know you have to put that manual work into it and put human thought into it. Sitebulb gives you so much help there. But you still have to add the human component to it and as it goes on you let the tool do the rest of the work. So that’s the way that I approach it. If it’s a client who maybe has a bigger content issue then maybe you do a few more audits than you normally would. It all depends on what the data is telling you that you need to do.

Talking about content when you're planning the content on one of the main target pages, how do you decide the outline and what elements to include? Is there a proper process you follow?

Yes, I just look at the SERPs. I do the same thing I did 30 years ago. I look at the SERPs to see what’s ranking number one, write down all the characteristics of things that are doing well, like, oh, they seem to all have videos, you don’t just write down what you see. And then do your page 10 times better than what you saw. Takes a lot of work and it’s like, well, what do I want to do all this work for one page? Yeah, you do, it’s SEO and it takes a lot of work.

And I think that's the key, right? I mean, sometimes the client or even you think that you're fine for this particular keyword or this target phrase, or service you need to have a service page, explaining your product and service. But when you look at the SERPs, you realize that nine out of the top 10 are actually in some native pages. So this means that if you want to get in the top five or 10, you need to create an informative page, o actually get it ranked in the top 10. So you're right. I think that that's, that's the main key for that.

Yeah, it is.  Google with what they did with hummingbird and all the things that they have added to their algorithm, semantic search, all sorts of things, all sorts of different search models out there. Google’s gotten smarter, like don’t underestimate their ability to look at usability. Because they do, it makes a heck of a lot more sense to understand what your competitors are doing and what traits work for them. So going into the SERPs is still the most important thing to do.

Bill talking about link building; how have you seen link building change over the years?

 Well, link building, it’s the thing that helped Google stand out from everybody else. Google looked at the links as a big signal. Nobody else was doing that and then Google got huge, because the results were great, links matter. Google needs to use links. They tried to create an index without links and they didn’t like it, they still use links. So the change was, well, everybody started spamming links everywhere. And then Google said, Well, we create a little monster, we need to clean this up a little bit. Links still matter so much. Not all links matter the way they used to, some don’t matter at all. And the problem is, you don’t know. I always say this when clients will get like HRS and backlink reports or like look at all these links we have this must be helping us. But those tools don’t know when Google has decided to turn off the link value. That’s what penguin for does. Penguin for sees the things that look like spam to them and they just turn off the value. So if you went out and bought that link and it’s a bad link, Google could turn off that value and you wouldn’t know. So links matter so much but you to get the right links. I always say get links with traffic. If somebody is going to the website, look at CM rush or H refs. If somebody is going to that website, and the website looks alive, and it looks loved; Yeah, I want to link from that. If that link has a DA of nine, that might turn into a DA of 80 one day. I want a link from that because the site looks loved. It looks active. And it looks like something Google would be a lot more interested in than some of these other websites that are just built for link spam.

What is your go-to tool for finding internal linking opportunities on large websites, and any best practices?

 I use light bulb for that, too. We were talking about ecom earlier so let’s use the ecom example. Let’s say we have a client who wants to rank better for the word skirt. I’m gonna scan the entire website with a crawler for the keyword skirts. And I might find some blog posts, I’ve mentioned them that never linked to my skirts page, I might find some other pages that are related in a way, it’s a great tool to do that and then you just didn’t map it out and go to town creating the redirects that you just mapped down. That’s always been the way that I’ve done it.

Also do you consider a limit to how many internal links per page?

Not a limit but Just don’t make it look spammy. If somebody at Google takes a look at this and says, Oh, this was over-optimized, this is an SEO doing this, then you went too far. But it’s all part of creating that buzz.  Google’s looking at internal links to see what is voted on your website as the most important page. The powerful signal!

How do you work on schemas for large websites, automated versus manual?

Automated, I mean there’s an area where schema really, or scaling really can help. You know, one of the great things about these large sites is they’re all template-driven. So if you need to put schema on, a developer knows how to do it. Okay, I’ll take this code. I’ll put it in the template. I know how to use variables and it’ll work. Don’t manually do schema on enterprise sites is just too hard to do that, but on websites that are just built in HTML, you don’t see those much anymore, that is when you want to do it manually.

Trying to rank for range on Rich Answers has a lot of value. How do you strategize for it?

A strategy for Rich Answers; I don’t know if it’s so much a strategy for it. I think Richie Answers is best when it’s part of an overall strategy because they’re hard to get. Going back to talking about how the YouTube algorithm makes no sense, how to Get Rich Snippets doesn’t make a ton of sense. But the belief we have is Google is getting better at learning how to read content, their comprehension is getting better. I think the website that ranks well already, that has the best comprehension, and gives Google the most confidence of what they’re going to be putting up is right, is the one that gets the rich snippets. I also believe and  I don’t know that a lot of SEO is believing this. But for my tests, I think links matter there too because Google wants to post something from websites that other people are endorsing with their links. So even though people don’t talk much about links, I think it’s another you should be trying to attract links to give Google a lot more faith in your content.

What are your thoughts on optimizing for Voice Search?

Well, it’s kind of disappointing. I thought voice search would be a little bit bigger in the SEO world right now. I don’t know if you use one of those assistants, but mine is getting dumber and dumber. I’d like to see that get better. But at some point, I mean, I do believe that SEO is going to fundamentally change from;  we just got to get those little blue links on google.com to we need to be able to get our brand mentioned anytime our assistant answers a question because you know how it answers it. The time.com says that’s going to be SEO now. You don’t get clicks from that you get branding, you get recognition, now people know time.com exists. I never would have thought of that as an SEO exercise. I think it’s going to become an SEO exercise. It should be now but as voice grows, I think it becomes a bigger concentration.

Any special tip or advice that you would like to give our audience that they could use and benefit from?

My favorite is the one about intent. I mean, when you’re looking at the SERPs, you did a great job of explaining it. The example I use is and I changed the name of the client and the keyword but pretend a client I had came to me and said we want to rank number one for the CRM. I bet you do. That sounds like a great keyword, a big moneymaker. But when you go to CRM, you see what are the best CRMs top 20 Best CRMs? This website, let’s say it was Salesforce, it wasn’t but let’s say Salesforce wanted Salesforce. Com on this search result. Yeah, I bet they do. But Google is saying no, salesforce.com is not an informational search that is a brand and maybe more transactional. So we have to say no, I’m sorry, you can’t get what you want to rank. We can’t get what you want. Google won’t let you it just isn’t going to happen. So that’s new. We never used to say that in SEO, everything was up for grabs. But now if you don’t have the right page with the right intent, or at least Google doesn’t think you have the right intent, you’re not going to rank. So again, pay attention to the SERPs. When I say SERPs, for anyone who doesn’t know its search engine result pages. Pay attention to the SERPs. Make sure you understand what Google thinks the intent of the pages and try to make sure that you’re in line with the queries.

Well, Bill I know we're short on time, but before I let you go, we play a quick rapid-fire round three to five questions in the end. So ready?

All right I’m ready.

Describe yourself in three words.

curious, passionate, scatterbrained.

If a movie was made on you know on you what genre would it be?

 No, God, is there a genre called boring?

Well, you're not boring.

I hope a comedy because I would like to see it make people laugh.

Last book you have read?

Oh, this is embarrassing. I don’t remember. I think it was words at work like Frank Letts.  I’m not a big reader. I’m way into the podcast space. audible.com You know, Blinkist, I’m usually listening to audiobooks.

Are you a morning person or a night person?

Oh, wow. I know that I’m an old man, like the last two years, I don’t know why I get up at 7 am. But I’ve always been a night person. 3 am was a bedtime for several decades.

I understand that. I mean, to be honest, after dinner when the kids go to sleep, that's the time when I'm most active. So I understand that.

Change for me. Now mornings are my time where I’m most alert. At 6 pm I’m like, I know what time I’m going to bed tonight.  Is seven too early? Just stay young. That’s my best advice.

Last one. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

 I love LA. I love Santa Monica. I probably live out there. Hang out with all the famous people and all the crazy people just like me, not famous but crazy.

Well, Bill, thank you so much for your time. It was fun having you and I wish you all the best.

Thanks. I hope I was helpful. I hope if anybody wants to. One of the things that I think is great about our industry is even though we’re competitors we’re also all in this together. And the industry is remarkable. You can reach out on Twitter to anybody and you’re gonna help you so I stand by that rule. If anybody ever has any SEO questions or needs anything answered, you can find me on LinkedIn. Bill Sebald, you can find me on Twitter Bill Sebald. I’m more than happy to answer anybody’s questions and I’d be honored to do it. So please reach out if anybody needs me.

Well, thank you so much, Bill. Alright, thank you.

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