The Link Building & SEO Rule Book for 2020

An Interview with David Wilson

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 catches up with David Wilson, EVP of Digital Performance & Analytics at Zozimus Agency. He is also the owner of a boutique agency, Braveheart Digital Marketing.

David takes us through his SEO process, the metrics, the conceptualization of ad copies, and how the businesses have adapted their messaging for COVID 19. He also walks us through his thoughts on link building and how to succeed at it.

Talking about three main things that should be the focus areas of all the SEOs out there – First, you have to be comfortable working with data. Second, you have to be curious enough to know what’s going on because SEO and Digital Marketing are constantly changing. Third, you have to have a willingness to experiment.

David Wilson, EVP of Digital Performance & Analytics
Zozimus Agency
Hello, everyone. I hope you're doing well. Today, we have with us David Wilson, EVP of Digital Performance & Analytics at Zozimus Agency. He also owns a boutique agency, Braveheart Digital Marketing. Welcome, David, and thank you for taking out time. Before we start our discussion, please introduce yourself and tell us about your role at Zozimus.

Thank you for having me.

I am the EVP of Performance Marketing & Analytics. What that means is I oversee paid media; PPC, SEO, analytics, and social media groups within our agency. And on a day to day basis, I work with clients on their media plans, try to help them meet their goals, and especially navigate through such uncertain times.

David, you look at the overall marketing, whether it's SEO, paid media. Right? So considering the situation we are in today, what have you experienced lately with clients and the campaigns that are going on?

So we see two things are happening at the moment. We have a series of clients who are pulling back. They’re really worried about whether they’re going to be in business in 90 days or 180 days, and they have paused all of their marketing campaigns. That’s something that we’re seeing globally.

We see another subset, though, who have the cash and are seeing an opportunity to gain market share; to go out into the market, and to run and launch new campaigns.

It’s interesting to see how different companies even sometimes within the same verticals are making those decisions. Are they going to pause and sort of pullback? Or are they going to be aggressive and go forward? And then there are the ones in the middle, who are still doing what they were doing before, but the focus has changed. For example, they aren’t focusing on in-person meetings that they’re advertising. It’s virtual meetings. They’re adjusting their Ad copy to what the new world looks like.

Talking about Ad copies, what are the main setbacks or changes you have realized as far as the paid campaigns are concerned?

For a paid campaign, it’s just going back and looking at each of the pieces of Ad copy that we put together, whether it’s a PPC Ad or a display Ad, and see if that resonates today.

If it’s a college, you can’t say, “ Come visit our college or university.”
It was a great copy eight weeks ago but not anymore. So you need to update that to make that a virtual tour.

If you are selling sports goods, it’s not to play as a team. It could be something you can use in your backyard. So you have to be able to look at all of those different types of messages and think, “Is this message on target now?”

We’ve probably updated 15-20% of our Ad copies. We continually go through it and audit it to make sure that the message we have is now on point. And for the Coronavirus, we know that that’s not going to go away anytime soon, so we constantly make sure that the Ad copies speak to today’s situation. And the new ones that we put out, again, are focused on the circumstances today.

Have you realized any major change in any particular metric, like cost per clicks for some industries?

We’re seeing an increase in virtual keywords in the US. We saw that in the first five or six days of April, the number of searches for virtual-related keywords was more than what we saw in all of March. So there’s certainly a change in user behavior.

And in some markets, we’re going to see a decrease in CPC. And because a lot of companies are pulling back, so for the companies who want to be aggressive, this presents an opportunity within certain markets. Now, if you’re in this space for work from home or remote workforce, the cost of those keywords has skyrocketed over the last six to seven weeks just because that’s the hot space to be at the moment. But in other parts of the PPC universe, there’s certainly a downfall in our PPC feeds.

Yeah. Look at zoom; what we are using today for our call. But like you said, it's still a perfect time to do SEO because, at the end of the day, it's about organic rankings and results. You have been doing marketing since 2001, and with so much experience under your belt, I would like you to tell us if there is a formula to calculate the ROI from your SEO efforts?

Almost every client that we do SEO for, there’s a KPI that we’re trying to hit. Right? It’s not website traffic. It’s not rankings. It’s not the website’s traffic. What we want to get down to is leads which turn into sales, and ultimately sales revenue. Because that’s where we can show the value of SEO.

If you show a client that you have the number one ranking, but they don’t get any more leads. Does that number one ranking mean anything to them? Honestly, No.

I always go back to working with a small client. And many years ago, I ran an SEO campaign for a small client and I’m like, how are you going to measure success? And his reply was, “When the phone rings more, I will know that this is working.”

So when we do SEO or any digital campaign, we want to drive it down to, “Can we measure success from a lead standpoint, or a revenue standpoint?” And if we can do that, then not only can we show you the value of the SEO work that we’re doing, but we can also show you revenue per SEO visitor. Which means we know how much every SEO visitor is. If we make these changes to the website, improve your rankings and get you more traffic, now we can put dollars and cents around how much that additional traffic is worth. And for most businesses, that starts to become eye-opening, because the conversation then isn’t that we’re going to improve the rankings, it’s we’re going to drive another hundred thousand visitors to your website, and that’s going to generate $500,000 in revenue. Then as a business owner, they look at it and say, “Well, why would we not do that?” And so if you can measure everything down to revenue, it allows you to change the focus from rankings to move the business in a better direction. And if I find that business owners & CMOs & VP of Marketing are much more receptive to that conversation than to a conversation that states, “We’re going to increase your page one rankings, or we’re going to add backlinks to your website.”

Because then it gives them a value to look at, right?

Exactly. Now, from an SEO standpoint, we are talking to clients from business to business standpoint. We’re coming and saying, “We understand your business. We’re going to help you grow your business with the metrics that you use internally, which should normally write leads and opportunities and then lost, closed and won. So now we’re going to tie SEO into that and we can show you that value. And I think it takes some of the mystique out of SEO because I still find a lot of companies have a hard time understanding what SEO really is. We bring this down to telling our clients, “We’re going to increase your revenue by this.”

This becomes a much better conversation, and I find it as an easier conversation with business owners.

Absolutely. So David, what does your SEO process look like? Can you provide us with a step by step explanation?

Our SEO process starts with a technical audit. We look at the issues on the website that are causing Google to not index and rank the pages on the website. So, that’s always the first thing that we do.

Then, we’ll start to look at what the competitors are doing from an SEO standpoint. Where are they strong? Where are they weak? What are the important keywords for them? We take that information and then we do a content audit. We look and tell our clients that these are the areas of opportunity for you, and these are the keywords that you need to workaround. And then we lay out a plan for the next nine months for the clients and we are like, “Okay, these are the technical issues on the website — PageSpeed, canonicals, whatever that happens to be, we’re going to fix that. And then we’re going to need new content across the website. This is what those content buckets are going to look like, and we’re going to develop it.” So the first three months for us lay out the roadmap for the rest of the year.

Right. So when you do the competition analysis, do you look at the links to see from where they're getting the juice from? And what about the keywords? Do you look at common extract keywords like across competitors? How do you go about doing the actual competition analysis? Because tools like Ahref, SEMrush, give an automated report, but what factors do you actually work on when doing the competition audit?

Let me start with the links, and then we’ll go into the keyword.

So part of the analysis is looking at the competitor’s most valuable links. Where are those links coming from? And what are the pages that they go into?

And then, we also look and see who’s linking to multiple competitors, that’s not linking to the client. And because they’re normally the easiest ones to go after. So we take those three, four, or five competitors, and we say, “Okay, these websites are linked into these four, but not to the client.” So now we also get a link in there. That dilutes the power that all the other competitors got because we have the same link as they do now. They don’t have that over top of us. So, we use that.

And then by utilizing it and looking at what that link data is, we look and say, “Okay, here are some opportunities for us. Here are some places that we feel we can get high-value links that our competitors do not, because of their background.” This allows us, from a backlink standpoint, to create that roadmap and say, “These are the easy links that we can get, and this is where we can start to build momentum. And start to push our clients ahead of the competitors by going off and targeting these websites.”

It is a similar thing for keywords. When we talk about keywords, one thing we look at is the growth in terms of rankings. So if you use SEMrush, you can go back over two years, and you can get a sense of how the competitors get hit with a Google penalty? And are they actively in an up to the right trend in keywords that they’re ranking for? This probably indicates they’ve got an SEO consultant in-house or a high-end agency to do it. So just by looking at historical rankings, you get a really good sense about how involved the competitor is from an SEO standpoint. And that obviously plays into our plans because it’s easy then to go to the client and say, “Here are your top three competitors. They are all actively increasing their keywords and rankings. Here’s the chart from that. This is why you need us, and this is what you need to do in order to keep track.”

For some keywords, would you tell the client that this is the maximum they can expect? Let's say for a keyword, Wikipedia is taking the first position. So would you talk to the client about such keywords? Would you include those in your strategy and tell them that we can get up to two for this keyword? Do such discussions happen or do you just talk about finalizing the keywords and then talking about the end goal, which is revenue and numbers?

Yeah, we don’t get into this conversation where we tell our clients that we can get you to position 2 on Google, and that’s as good as we can get because Wikipedia is on number 1. Our goal is definitely to get you on page one of Google. Hopefully, to get you above the fold. We use the click-through rate numbers to ballpark out from the traffic standpoint. And the idea behind them is to drive traffic. So, I can be okay being at position 4 if my click-through rate is higher than yours at position 2. And I can get that advantage if I’m position 2 but your meta tags are way better than mine. And you have some rich snippets in there that you get a higher click-through rate than mine. And so for us, it’s traffic that converts into leads and sales is the part that we focus on.

When it comes to analyzing links, it's easier to look at those backlinks which the competition has. But how do you go about deciding or choosing the next set of links that a client has to target? Also, what parameters would you look at while deciding whether the link is worth it or not?

Whether the link is worth it or not. This is based on a manual check. There are a lot of third party data, third-party tools that you can look at. Whether you use the Moz data or whether you use an M link research tools data, at the end of the day, we look at the site and ask ourselves, “Is this where we want our client to be?”

It’s almost as if you’re doing PPC advertising or display advertising, and you are like, “Do we want our clients’ ad to be on this page?” And for me, it’s the same from an SEO standpoint. So the first thing that we’re going to do is put together the list that we want to target. And then we go in there and manually check it. It’s easy to throw a whole bunch of links that, in title or URL equals keyword, but most of them are junk. And so manually, we’ll get rid of the low ranking ones, the low score ones.

The ones that seem okay from a score, we will manually check them and cancel out the ones which just don’t meet our criteria.

What about a good website that has some decent DA and DR but very less traffic? Would you include such websites as well in the backlink profile?

Yes. Because there are some high-quality websites that have little traffic. An example of that would be College Library websites or local town and city library websites. They don’t get a ton of traffic but are highly authoritative because all manually checked by a librarian before they’re going to put that link on the website. So high authority, low traffic, extremely valuable.

When you do the content audit or create a content outline, are there any useful tools that you use to compare the content of the top 10 pages, for a particular keyword? And based on that when you plan the content for a page, are there any useful or your go-to tools for that?

Yeah, my favorite tool is MarketMuse. It’s a machine learning and AI sort of algorithm that allows you to look at a page, compare your content with the top 10 pages in Google, and tells you what you need to do to get this page ranking higher. Now it will tell you if you need more words. It will tell you, these are synonyms you can use, these are the types of questions that you should be answering on the page, these are some resources that you can link out to. So I think that’s the best tool out there that allows me to put together a content map that I can hand over to our people or go back to the client and say, “Okay, you need to update this page, and this is how. Or you need to develop new content, and here’s the content brief that you can hand off to your writers.”

Once you do the audit, and then you start working on the content and links, how often do you go back and do the basic audit of checking the keywords or adding the keywords or doing the technical audit, again?

It depends on clients, and how long implementation is because there are some clients that you give the technical audit & the recommendations and it is six months, but they still haven’t implemented them yet. And, then there are some that get it done within 30 days.

So sometime between six and nine months, after we’ve had things implemented, or we’ve started down this process, and we’ve started to do something more in-depth, what we’ll try to do on a quarterly basis is to do a quick competitive audit. Just to get a sense of what are the top 10 important keywords that we have. Has anything changed in the SERPs or around these keywords?

We try to see if there’s a new competitor that wasn’t there when we did the audit 90 days ago. So we try to recycle it on a quarterly basis, just for the most important terms of the client so that we’re aware if anybody new came into the market.

I remember reading somewhere about you managing some sports websites and suddenly, you stopped doing links to it for some time. And you realized that you lost a lot of revenue. Could you tell us something more about it?

Do you mean my hundred thousand dollar backlink mistake? I think it was $90,000.

So we went to a prop, we got hit with a Google penalty on one of our sites, which means our revenue dropped. I think it was one of the panda penalties or something like that. Instead of saying, “Okay, let’s figure out what’s wrong with this. And let’s rebuild the content around this. Since there was a big decrease in revenue, we let three full-time link builders working for us go. Well, what that meant was, we weren’t adding any new links to the website. Some of the research I’ve done in the past about link decay is that something in the ballpark of 25% of the websites on the internet that are here today will not be there or pages will not be there in 12 months’ time. So not only were we not adding new links to the website, we were actually losing links because of this decay. And when we looked back over 12 months later, because we hadn’t added any fresh links, we calculated it was a $90,000 decrease in revenue. We did not have a consistent link building program, and that cost us a lot.

You know, link building is definitely one of those things that you just have to do every day, every week, every month, It’s consistent. You can’t say, “Okay, I did my link building for three months, I’m good. Let me cross that off my checklist and move on to something else.” If you don’t continually add links to the website, you’re actually going to go backward and not forward.

No, absolutely. And it's not a number you can just calculate. Let's say if the competition has 1000 links, which means I just need to do a thousand divided by 12 links in a month’s time. But there is constantly a link erosion happening; competition is doing more links. But still, as an agency, if I still have to kind of calculate the average number of links I should do in a month, how should I go about it? How do I calculate the number?

That’s a really hard question because you’re not doing it in a vacuum, right? A lot of times, we’re adding links to the existing content that’s on the website that we’ve updated and refreshed. We’ve fixed the technical issues on the site. The site is more crawlable, indexable, and loads faster. And so it’s not like if we don’t do anything else, and we add 10 links a month to this page, then that’s why our rankings went up. So I always find that a really difficult question.

I think that part of it is working with the client and understanding them, and what have they historically done to the backlink standpoint. If you’ve been in business for three years, and you have 70 domains linking to you. So you have averaged about two domains a month linking to you.

I think if you start to add 20 domains linking to you per month, you’d trigger an alert somewhere that someone’s going to look at and say, “That seems unnatural.” So I think you have to look at the historical data and say, “Okay, maybe we want to get to 20. And maybe that’s 12 months till we get to that point. Now we’re doing two, and now three, then four and five, and slowly build our way up to it so it looks natural.”

But If it flows from zero to 20 to 50 to 100 links in a month, that’s where a lot of websites get themselves in trouble when they try to expand their backlink profile too quickly.

Absolutely, absolutely. I was doing a search last month and I came across a website. They had done like thousands of links in around two months’ time and I was like, “What are they doing?” But yeah, you're right. Also, one more thing when it comes to links is that when you're choosing the anchor text (even if it’s a long tail), it has to look very natural, rather than just having a direct anchor as the money keyword. But does it differ when I say I'm doing 10 links, out of which nine have a longtail keyword and just one has the direct exact match keyword? Would it make a difference if I had all 10 direct money keywords as the anchor text?

Yeah, I definitely think you need to mix it up. So whether it’s a combination, there has to be the money keyword, the long term keyword. You should also throw in some occasional ones that just say “click here” and “website names” because that’s natural.

Like I just said, if you look at links across the net, they are not all money keywords or long term keywords. A lot of them are just, “Click here, website here or website name, and other links of that nature. So, you look at that and say, “That’s a normal mixture, and that’s where I’m gonna get.” So it’s a mixture of all three sorts — money, long term, and occasional keywords. And in essence, it’s just a good link, even if it’s not a good anchor text; but that’s okay because that’s a normal link profile that you would expect to get. And I find that the combination and being able to play with the ratio between those three groups vary from industry to industry and sector to sector. And so understanding what’s a good ratio within something that might be affiliate marketing versus something that’s b2b marketing. The ratios between the three of them are going to be very different and unique in each niche.

Also, David, when we talk about the evolution of content, we have infographics videos, audio blogs. So, how do you go about choosing the right kind of content for a particular page?

I think at the end of the day, the pages tell us a story. And so it’s looking and saying, “What’s the best way for me to tell the story?” We can transcribe this video. And so it will be a useful blog, and it’s going to be thousands of words. But if the people really want to understand how our conversation went, the best medium for that is going to be a video. And that’s why this is a video conversation and not a Q&A via email. For example, if it’s data. Are we talking about data that we can pull in an infographic and it tells the story much better than if we just write it into a copy? Is this a page about something people are asking a lot of questions on Google, that we can create an FAQ-style page and mock it up well from a content standpoint? Is this interview primarily going to be a video and that we’ll put the transcript underneath? So it all boils down to, ‘What’s the best way to tell the story on that page?’ And once you understand that, then think, “What tactic within content can I use to tell the story best?”

If we keep that in mind, it ends up making the page better. It means that people are going to stay on the page longer, which ultimately is going to help us from an SEO and rankings perspective because that engagement number is definitely part of Google’s algorithm.

I hate infographics that are made just for the sake of an infographic. Because five years ago, they were a good way to embed them and get links. And some of them are done really well and are great. And people love to share them. So it all boils down to how your content can add more value to the visitor’s life.

Talking about using infographics as “Link magnets,” what we also call “Power Pages.” So you have a very good infographic page on your website, which is telling the story; it has relevant data; you're using that page to get multiple backlinks. But also, if the infographic is providing data, there might come a time where that data stands obsolete. In that scenario, would you suggest refreshing the same infographic because the existing page, the existing URL, already has a lot of value, or would you suggest creating a new page with fresh data?

I would definitely refresh on the existing page. I am a huge fan of evergreen content. So being in Boston, being a sports fan, I would just go down a sports analogy to answer this. Let’s say, I am doing a web page for the New England Patriots, an NFL team. If I am doing the ticket page for them, I would have two options, I can do New England Patriots 2020-21 tickets, and then next year, I can change the URL. Or I can just do “New England Patriots Tickets.” Now, that just becomes evergreen and all those links that build up over time.

It’s the same with infographics. It’s like if you have an infographic that has a page and backlinks to it, it’s already ranking. Now by swapping out the infographic on it, you can add more links to that page than what you already have. So you’ve maintained the links that the page had, and created another opportunity to go out and get more links. Versus if you create a new page, you take out link equity and divide it amongst two pages. And I would much rather keep it on one page and allow those links on the infographic build up over time because that page will then slowly move up the rankings and solidify itself at that top spot.

Before wrapping up, I have one last question for you. David, you are one of those people who have always known what they wanted to do. You graduated in Economics so you had that analytical mind, and you have been doing marketing since 2001. You come across a lot of people who switched to marketing from various different fields. You have all these years of experience, and since the start, a lot of things have changed in SEO and overall marketing. So what according to you, would be the top three main things that should be the main focus areas of all the SEOs out there.

I think data has become more and more important across everything. So you have to be comfortable working with data; traffic data. I think that that’s the first part. And you have to be curious because SEO and digital marketing are constantly changing and we’re going through one of those changes right now. So you have to be curious enough to be able to see what’s going on outside my sphere of influence that I can take back to SEO. For example, if I’m running a paid campaign, I want to know what are the keywords on the paid side that are converting. I also want to make sure that we ranked number one for those keywords. Because A, I know that I should target that keyword because if I rank highly for it, I’m going to drive leads and sales. B, if I’m number one, organically then maybe I can take that paid money and put that somewhere else. So you have to be curious about what’s going on in the other areas as well.

And I think that the third thing is you have to have a willingness to experiment. There’s this old joke, “You become an SEO when you get your first Google penalty because you realize that you did something that you shouldn’t have done. You went too far, and now you have to figure that out.” And so you need to be able to experiment and try different things on your own. There have been a number of times in my career when I’ve sat down with a client and said, “We’re going to change your title tags, or we’re going to change this on your website. Because I’ve been doing this on my own and it works.” That’s the sort of data that clients are looking for, because SEO to them, is still unclear. They’re not quite sure what they get on with it. But when you can bring in stories to say, like, “When we update title tags for clients, we see a 40% increase in search impressions. That’s what we’re currently seeing right now.” And the clients are like, “ Oh, okay, so that’s what I’m going to get.” Right? So you have to be curious, be able to look at data, and pull that together. And I think these are the traits that super successful SEOs have.

Thank you so much for all the information you've shared with us. It was nice interacting with you. My pleasure. It has been a great conversation. Thank you for having me.

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