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A comprehensive SEO guide to outrank your website with Damon Burton

An Interview with Damon Burton

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business.

In this episode, Dawood chats with Damon Burton, President at SEO National.

Damon talks about his journey from a Web designer to an SEO expert and about his book ‘Outrank’ which is an in-depth SEO guide.

He also shared his interesting opinions on cloud-based and desktop-based SEO tools, SEO for large websites, schema etc. He also shares his thoughts on the duplication of content on e-commerce websites and strategies to overcome it.

Tune into this insightful conversation and stay tuned for the next cup of E -coffee with Experts!

If you think about all the ways that algorithms have changed over the years, it’s always the same thing. It’s always either good user experience, good content, or good external credibility. There’s nothing outside of that.

Damon Burton
President, SEO National
SEO
Hello, everyone. How's it going? Today we have with us Damon Burton, President at SEO National. We're going to talk about some cool SEO. Before we dive in, it would be great if you could introduce yourself and your company for our viewers.

My name is Damon Burton and I started a company called SEO National in 2007. I’ve been doing SEO for 14 years now. My background before that was originally web design. I’ve just kind of stayed in our lane of SEO. I have a team of 30 now. I wrote a book about SEO last year and it’s an Amazon bestseller. I also write for Forbes. I’ve worked with billion-dollar companies all the way down to small businesses. We still have our first dozen clients from over 14 years ago with us still from day one. We have worked on a lot of cool projects, big and small, met a lot of people and built a lot of good relationships.

So, you started with web design and moved to SEO. How did that happen?

I think that one of my unique abilities is to have the left brain and right brain. That really helps me owning an agency now. You’re right. Most people, if they’re technical, they’re technical. If they’re creative, they’re creative. In the beginning, when it was the first year or two, I was just myself.

I think that’s what interested me. There were so many parts to it that always kept me entertained and satisfied. Before we hit record, we briefly talked about the importance of documenting processes. But that’s been a really important part.

It’s really hard to find that magical unicorn of somebody that can do it all, and that’s why processes are so important. You can have the designer do the design, but you also need to understand the bigger part of the picture that they’re contributing to. When the copywriters do their copywriting, are they just writing SEO crap? Or are they writing something that will actually solve a problem and contribute to the greater solution?

I actually had a design client and he said, “What do you know about Google? ” I said, “I know enough that I think we can try and figure something out, but I don’t know enough that I feel comfortable charging you. I also don’t want to work for free.” I worked out an arrangement and said, “I will start for free and we’ll agree upon these goals. If we hit these goals, then you call me retroactively and we start a retainer.” I think it was like a three month call, we ended up hitting the goal in a couple of weeks. So I enjoyed that process and learning more about SEO, and we had really good results quickly. I said, “let’s see, if we can repeat this and can do this to another design client. I took it to another design client and I said, “We just accomplished this for the other guys that you know. You want to give it a try?” You have nothing to lose. I also have nothing to lose. I am incentivized to make this work, but you guys don’t have to pay anything upfront. It ended up working out really well and both of those two people are still clients 14 or 15 years later. So that’s how I got into it and stayed in it.

We have 30 employees and we only stay in SEO. We do a lot of design, because that comes with the territory of SEO, you have to have the right design. I think why I stayed in SEO is I didn’t want to be the agency that says they did at all and is mediocre at all of it. The nice thing about SEO is that it’s both stable and always changing. There’s a level of comfort when you come into it, where you know what you’re doing every day and then there are also new things that come into play that keep it exciting and keep your interest over the year.

I totally agree with you. When I started off, I did get into that zone where some of my partners were Okay, like we want this service. We want that. I had to actually add a lot of services as well. Ultimately I realized it didn't make sense. We stayed in, where we thought we were more capable of. Absolutely, you are right. I have seen some of the work you've done. I think one reason you have been able to succeed is because people like you, don't look at SEO just like a service where there are a fixed set of keywords and you have to rank them. It's the overall process of organically increasing all the metrics, and making sure the person is actually getting conversions in business. SEO has evolved so much that you can't just talk about a fixed set of keywords and getting them ranked.

You’re right. It’s interesting because I just had a call with a new client yesterday.
We’re pretty fortunate now that we’ve built up a reputation where clients reach out to us, they know what they’re getting into. They know the type of results we drive. They already have an understanding of how we operate and what to expect. That’s nice, because then we can say, “Okay, here’s how we’re going to do things.” We’re going to ask you a whole bunch of questions at the beginning.

For me, it’s you do it all or nothing. It’s not just a fixed list of SEO tasks, and that’s why we don’t do packages. I don’t want to do a package where I say, “Do you want to price my A, B, or C?” I don’t want them being forced to choose C just to try and sell them more. I also don’t want them choosing A when I know that may mean that we don’t drive them the proper return. Basically the way we price things out is as I go for three things. One, what industry are they in and how competitive is it? Two, are there geographical qualifiers? Are we doing this in just a city or a little bit broader? Is it a state or province? Or is it national versus international? Then see how good or bad the website is built? Does it run on something that’s really user friendly and can we optimize quickly. We can optimize anything, but what might take 10 minutes on one platform may take two hours on another to make that update. That creates a lot of different problems to solve different combinations.

So the call yesterday was with a new client who came to us because he had seen what we had done and he wanted the processes. The group he was with before was the opposite. They were the checklist people. It was like, we did these 10 things and he’s like, “Okay, well, we’re not moving anywhere, so what’s next? It was basically like, well, let’s do those 10 things again. It was interesting that he came to me. We were about a week into the campaign and I asked him some follow up questions. He said, “Well, I already sent you that. I said, “Well, the keyword is kind of because that’s not exactly what I asked for.” I understand that this is kind of repetitive, but we are making sure we do all or nothing. We are going to audit the entire site. I know that you think you know what words you can monetize, but we’re going to qualify and disqualify them and tell you if you’re right or wrong. I told him straight up, “I’m happy to refund your money. We’re only on the weekend to this. If you want the guy that just does a half assed job on this, I’m not your guy.

You have to understand what the long-term goals are and really become part of your client strategy and not just provide a checklist. That checklist may need to be dramatically different depending on what the client product or services and what areas they serve.

Absolutely. Damon, tell us a little bit more about your book.

I published a book last year called Outrank. It’s really an in-depth guide on SEO. It’s 135 pages and it’s a legitimate book. It’s not just a short PDF or anything. So when I wrote it, I wrote it with two types of readers in mind. One was the big agencies so they can understand who is the right type of agency to hire. There’s information in there about what types of questions to ask and what type of red flags to watch out for. I also wanted to service the little guys and give them a fighting chance.

Doing SEO the right way has become expensive. There’s a lot of things you do, that take a lot of time and that time intensity has a cost. It doesn’t always financially make sense for small business owners to. The thought of SEO is a good idea, but financially, they may not be able to afford it. So I wanted to be able to provide a very clear outline for the smaller guys, if they had more time than money. They could take the same processes that we roll out for big businesses and implement themselves.

I have no problem giving away all the SEO answers. There’s a couple types of content consumers that I’ve determined. One is the people that can take your advice and run, that’s fine with me. A lot of people say the same thing, when you see the content, I post online on social media. I will take a very specific question and give a very specific answer. I do not send people to a landing page. I don’t send them to a funnel, I don’t send them to an opt-in list. The type of people that can take that information and go execute it are not my clients anyway. So if I can help them, then that’s great.

Then the second type of content consumer is the client that says, “Well, I now trust him, and he has the solutions I need, I just don’t need them right now. Maybe I’ll come back later, or I have a referral that I can send him now.” Then the third type of content consumer is the person that needs what you offer right now. The book has been a valuable tool to help other people. It’s a good networking opportunity. I have a lot of pride in it, being able to help other people. I mailed it to two individuals actually out in India. I’ve sent it all over the world. Last month, they sent it to Greece, Spain, Australia, and Ireland. It’s really cool to be able to know that there’s a little something of you out in different parts of the world. But the goal was to just help other people.

When you are trying to crawl large websites, it's a task in itself. How do you do it? What tools do you use and what is the process you follow?

I usually overlap results from different sets of data. I don’t use a lot of the tools that other people use. It’s not that the other tools are bad, they are great. An example is SEMrush and Ahrefs. Those are great tools, but I don’t use them.

I use a combination of other ones because SEMrush and Ahrefs are cloud based, which has its advantages and disadvantages. I use a combination of a cloud based solution, and then also a local desktop solution. We use a combination of AWR (Advanced Web Ranking). And then LinkAssistant has a tool called SEO power suite. The SEO power suite tool is an installed software and then the AWS is cloud-based.

There’s billions of websites and pages that are out there. No matter how good any of these are, they’re still going to miss like 1 to 10% of the data that’s out there. I’d recommend overlapping the data from different sets to paint a more complete picture.

I also like running cloud based and desktop based, especially when you’re running ranking reports. When you do monthly audits or quarterly audits just to make sure the structure is still explained. The client or the website owner didn’t accidentally break something. It’s nice to be able to have recurring scheduled reports and on a cloud-based platform. If you’re doing monthly or quarterly audits, when your task management system comes up and says hey, “Go check the audit,” then it’s already there. So that’s nice to have on a scheduled frequency.

I also like to have a desktop based solution, it’s on demand. We took on a new client about two months ago and then over the last two months. We’ve also been working on redesigning their site, which goes back to one of the items we talked about earlier, where I said, it’s all or nothing. A lot of times, we don’t come in and redesign the site. I don’t want to come in and say, “Hey, pay us more money for this other thing.” If their website is good, then we can use that. We just clean it up. But in this case, it made more sense to clean up the website and rebuild it. This website had around 360 or something pages. It was a pretty large website.

We audited the website, cleaned it up, and then we went to stage launching it. Everything was good. We launched it yesterday, goes live, and then we pulled an audit. So that’s what’s nice is by having desktop software, because if I scheduled it in a cloud base software, It was going to take a day or two. But in that situation, there’s an important necessity to get that data quicker. So it depends. I like to layer it from a cloud based solution, and then also a desktop solution.

Following up on that, normally, when you're doing SEO for a small website, it's easier to do. But, when you talk about large websites where the manual element is also required, it's time consuming. It requires a lot of investment of time and money. How do you suggest doing that for large websites? Do you follow a process where you do it every quarter or you do it six monthly?

No. I take a little bit of a different approach. We do the quarterly audits just as a safety check. We don’t do them to make potential changes. It’s just to make sure everything that we did before is still there. Because what happens is when you work on small-centered sites, you have the business owners who like to be involved with everything, which is good. But, sometimes they go in and touch things that they shouldn’t. On the big sites, you have a lot of people that are involved and you don’t know who’s touching things. We just run it as a safety check.

Now, the reason why we don’t revisit it frequently on the structure is because back to what we were saying earlier about all or nothing. We spent a ton of time in the beginning. We’re gonna make this perfect. Instead of going, “Okay, we’ll check it again in a month or three months, and then make a couple more tweaks. We just spent a ton of time in the beginning, making everything perfect. Like the new design that we launched yesterday.

The last couple of weeks of the designs are the easy part, making something look nice is the easy part. It’s the structure, and the proper indexing and the content that takes a lot of time. We spent a ton of time on how we make this perfect not just on the homepage and the top navigation pages, but a good user experience site wide. How do we improve the page suites? Site-wide. How can we ensure that the website is responsive and mobile friendly? Site-wide. What types of schema does this website need? Is it only a business schema? Are there products we need? Product schema. Are they in a specific industry? Is there a schema for that industry? So we spend a ton of time going to look at every possible variation of variable that we can identify, and then what is the best way to configure that for this client in their industry. That opens up a little bit of another discussion where you said when Google’s algorithms change, do you revisit that? Usually, no. I know it’s going to be surprising for a lot of people but I talked about this in my book, where there’s a chapter where I say what is the future of SEO?

Two easy examples of how I can communicate that I don’t get paranoid about algorithm changes is because I don’t get into the games. I don’t get into trying to do the shortcut wins. If you think about all the ways that algorithms have changed over the years, it’s always the same thing. It’s always either good user experience, good content, or good external credibility. There’s nothing outside of that.

If you look at 2016, it was okay. Everything needs to be mobile-first. What do we do? “Okay, well mobile get in is just saying”. Have a quick loading website, with good user experience and that looks good, nothing new. Then you go into, “what about voice Damon? Nothing. You know what voice is, I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not me, or anybody else recording voice drops on the other side. What’s happening is you may input the query through a voice, but the way that it returns results is just regular SEO. It’s just making an audible. What it’s doing is, we received a query, what websites do we trust, which ones can we access the quickest and show one has the best answer. It’s the same thing. It’s good content, good structure, and good page speed.

There might be something in 5 to 10 years. A whole new technology that we can’t identify now. But anything that you can think about so far, and anything that’s happened in the past, has always just been related to the same thing. If you don’t screw those things up, and try to game the system, just do a good design that loads quickly and has good content that actually solves a problem, then you don’t have to worry about any of these algorithm changes. I’ve never had a client get a penalty in the 15 years that I’ve been doing this. When algorithms come out, when new updates come out? I don’t get worried. Usually what happens is there’s either no change or positive change, but it’s never a negative change.

Makes sense. The recent changes or algorithm changes are about how quick your page is loading or how fast your website is, and one point which talks about the user experience. So, when you're working on big websites, how do you handle schemas? What's your approach, automated or manual?

I would say systematic more than automated. Anything we talk about SEO doesn’t matter if it’s for a big or small site, because we’re gonna put in the same effort and do the same quality control checks.

When we launch a new account, we touch on the importance of documenting processes. When we launch a new account, we have a checklist of things that we go through. We do that for every client big or small. When it comes to schema, we try to systematize it. It’s for the listeners that are familiar with what schema is. It’s called structured markup. It’s basically a way you format information. What happens when search engines go to a website, it makes a lot of educated guesses. Like, I think this is the business. I think this is the phone number. I think this is the product. But when you do schema, it doesn’t necessarily have to change how it works but on the back end in the source code, it tells Google, “Hey, you don’t have to guess. I’m telling you very specifically that this is the business saying.” This is the phone number, this is the product name, the product description, the product price.

There’s an unlimited list of different types of schema. You can have business schema, local business schema, product schema, review schema, FAQ schema. There’s even an attorney schema. There are some of them that you always check for. Most websites are business related. Usually on the home or the contact page, add a business schema that you only need to do once. So that’s, that’s manual. Now, if it’s a product, then you systematize that. Most content management systems have that built in. If you’re using WooCommerce or WordPress, they have product schema built in. If you’re using Shopify, they have a product schema built-in. So you don’t have to do that.

What we’ve done a lot lately is clients have podcasts. So there’s a podcast schema. What you can do with that is you can do the transcript. Here’s a good SEO strategy. If you have a client, or if you’re doing a podcast yourself, then use either Rev.com or Dscript.com. You drop in the audio file, it’ll convert it to text. What is the value in that? Google can read the text. It can make some educated guesses on the audio sounds. It’s a lot more clear by putting it in text. If you put that text and wrap it in schema, for transcript schema, then you’re going to tell Google, “H bhv cey, you don’t have to just guess that this is just a wall of text”. That’s related to a podcast. Here’s the podcast name, here’s a podcast episode, here’s the podcast date. So you’re helping better communicate to search engines what the content is about. When they need to show that content that somebody is wanting to know, for that type of thing, they’re going to trust your website more. On the podcast schema, we’ve been structuring the template. It’s dynamic.

A lot of these are in WordPress websites. if the post is in a category that we’ve named podcast, then display the schema before and after the post body. In that way, anytime the client has a post that’s marked in that category, it’ll automatically add the schema. What you want to do is you want to balance time and quality control. If you can figure out a way to template it, and systematize it, then you can do it at scale while maintaining quality control. What I don’t want to happen is the client emailing me every two days and go, I have a new podcast, can you change it again? Have any podcasts you told me how to do and I broke it. If you can systematize it, then you guarantee the quality control, you guarantee the consistency. We do a lot of FAQ schema, there’s a lot of plugins for that. It’s kind of automated.

So it depends on the type of scheme. If you’re doing it at scale, figure out the best solution to guarantee the quality control.

Absolutely. When you're working on an e-commerce website, a lot of duplicate content gets created because of filters and other parameters. What is the best strategy to handle that?

It drives me nuts. Shopify still has a problem with that, which is really surprising. They have problems with their collections. So the reason why this is a problem is because when a search engine comes to your website, it sees if you have 10 products, but some of those products can be in different categories. The same product can have multiple categories. When you have these filters on these collections, then it has the product in category one, and then again in category seven and category nine and so on. You look like you’re repeating yourself.

Where this became a problem is from the old SEO days. In old SEO days people would duplicate their content, because the theory was, if I say more of the same thing a lot of times and Google will think I’m an expert. So this was a problem way before for different reasons and it’s still a problem now. What’s interesting about Shopify is they do canonical links. A canonical link tells search engines like, “Hey, I understand that this page is either duplicate or shows up in other places, or is very similar to another piece of content. So give all the credit to whatever URL I define here.” So that way, if the product shows up in multiple categories, it basically tells search engines to ignore the categories and just give all the value to the main product page, which is what you want. You want all the value to go to whatever the product is, or whatever the post is. Not the list page that it shows up on multiple times over.

What’s interesting about Shopify is that on their collections, they have the URL that might be like Damon’s website.com/collections/computer supplies. Then they also have the same thing that said instead of /collection/computer spies, it’s /collections/all products/computer_supplies.
It’s something like, and it is the same list. I have no idea why Shopify does that. They don’t canonicalize it either. They do really well everywhere else. They canonicalize their products, but it’s just on their collections page. It is important to make sure you don’t have duplicate content and categorize things. Well. If you use WordPress and WooCommerce, it does properly canonicalize things. I guess the one last thing that’s weird about canonical URLs on Shopify is, it doesn’t give you the opportunity to customize them. So whatever it canonicalises, you are stuck with it. It doesn’t give you the opportunity to override or add a new one or anything.

You actually talked about Shopify so much because we all SEOs who have worked with Shopify understand the problem. There are a lot of things where if you don't have somebody who can actually do custom code on Shopify, then you do face a lot of these problems from the way it is. Now they have collaborated with Google. If you don't have a big team, and you can actually customize it, then it's okay. There are templates and systems and technology available, where you can actually customize it for the person as well.

One thing that will be interesting to see is that WooCommerce was bought by Automatic, the company that owns WordPress. It’ll be really interesting to see how they grow. Right now WordPress is massive. Last time I checked, it was, like 35% or 36% of every website in the whole world. What’s crazy about that, is there’s a huge part of that statistics that is missing e commerce, because the main commerce plugin for WordPress is WooCommerce. So prior to a year or two ago before WordPress bought it, it was like a separate thing. Even though most people use it, it was separate. As you were saying, Google is now involved with Shopify, I wonder what’s going to happen. I’m really curious to see what WordPress does when they come out. I have to imagine that they make WooCommerce, a default feature that you can turn on. It’s just built in. That’s going to give WordPress even more of a massive market share.

I do want to give one other tip on Shopify. One of the interesting things about Shopify is
their app market. So the reason why WordPress is so massive is because of their plugin market, which is the same as apps. It is huge as well, but so many more of them are free.

One example is image alt. If you want to put an alt tag on an image on a big site at scale, that sucks. You have to go through hundreds of pages, and change that tag. WordPress has some really cool plugins that are free. If you’ve got 20,000 images to do like, that’s probably not your biggest priority. Sometimes you want to automate that a little bit. What’s interesting about Shopify is, I’ve only been able to find one plugin that can do it. It’s $1.99 a month, which drives me crazy. So if you are comfortable in editing the templates, you can identify the product page that loads the images, or the category page that loads the images. You don’t have to know all the code. If you know enough to understand where a line starts and stops and when a quotation opens and closes a variable, then you can usually identify when it says title, page title, and things like that. You can dynamically add that to the template of Shopify to automatically add image outs based on page names. So you aren’t missing that or aren’t paying the $2 a month. If you can get into the Shopify templates, you can do some cool stuff.

That's a really cool tip on alt tags. E-commerce websites have so many categories and pages can go to four or five, six levels. So do you have a thumb rule where how deep a page should be?

Yes and No. The more layers you add, the less valuable the content becomes. Search engines will basically say that the farther I have to dig, the more work I have to give means it must not be that important, which means it must not be that valuable. So the more top level you can keep content, the better

When we work on menus, navigations, things like that, we try not to go past three levels. I’m gonna have to have a discussion with the client if they’re wanting to go four levels deeper. It’s not only just because of search engines, but it’s not a good use experience for customers to hover over a thing and then have to click over another thing. It just feels like a lot of work. That’s my yes answer.

The no answer is usually when you get into an e-commerce site that has many levels of product inventory, usually they do not own the product. They are a reseller, or a wholesaler, or an affiliate site. Those are the types of clients that I don’t usually work with. The reason is because If you don’t own the product, then you have limited creative abilities on how you can talk about the product. If you were a sporting goods store, you don’t own Nike, and you don’t own Adidas. Those are big brands that are very specific about what you can say. That’s fair and understandable. It’s their product, they have the right to determine what can and can’t be said. That limits your SEO ability. If you’re selling a Nike running shoe and there’s 50,000 other websites on Nike running shoes and if you can’t say anything uniquely, you are not going to rank uniquely. I tend to decline e-commerce retail clients that have huge inventory, because that means they don’t own the product.

Any tips you would give to people working on large websites?

I would say the take the all or nothing mentality. We have a new big tech client. The reason why we got the account is because the last agency did the checklist. They didn’t become part of the campaign. They didn’t ask questions, they didn’t understand what types of connection the company was trying to build with their audience. They have huge gaps in their SEO because the company did only the checklist last time. There were broken links everywhere. They were missing basics, title tags, and meta. Even though they don’t do as much SEO value as they used to, you still freaking do them. As long as the things are there, and Google says they are there, then they carry some value.

So what you have to understand about SEO is, it’s not this magic thing that is going to get you to the top. It’s who can juggle 100 little things the longest and most consistently. You have to do everything. So take your time, strategize, do a full audit, figure out every single problem and then prioritize them. You are the expert, and you should be fixing all these problems. You should not be choosing this problem is not that big of a deal, so I don’t care. Instead, you should say this problem is not as big of a deal. So I’ll do that at step five, but it doesn’t mean you ignore it. So don’t let the scale of a website overwhelm you. You should be doing everything. Just prioritize it.

Absolutely. Well Damond, thank you so much for your time. It was lovely having you and hopefully we will talk to you soon.

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