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Winning big with Enterprise SEO

An interview with John McAlpin

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business. This episode features John McAlpin, SEO Director at Cardinal Digital Marketing. The conversation revolves around Enterprise SEO and how agencies can strategize for scaling operations.

Content is King, but Link Building is the queen, and we all know who calls the shots

John McAlpin
SEO Director, Cardinal Digital Marketing
Hello, everyone. Today we have with us, John McAlpin. John leads the SEO strategy for Cardinal Digital Marketing, an Atlanta SEO agency that focuses on serving enterprises in health care companies across the US. Currently located in Dallas, John is deeply engaged in both the local and national community and has a strong background in technical SEO, web development, and digital marketing strategy. John also provides freelance web development services for WordPress-hosted sites and he is also a VIP contributor at SEJ. John, welcome to the show and we are excited to have you.

Hey, I am so happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Well, I was doing some research on you and your journey and one thing that I wanted to know is how did the interest in SEO happen?

I majored in advertising in school and immediately after I started working for this huge tech company, Active Network which had just moved to Dallas. I started as a holistic digital marketer there. I did a lot of web development stuff, not just on building websites but also landing pages and email marketing. So communication and driving conversions were huge parts of my early journey. From there, I moved into in-house health care where I was doing everything for web management. Then I started getting more into SEO, PPC and paid social, and then I got my hands on the full suite of digital services. I realized that I resonated most with the SEO side, it was the most fun, most interesting, seemed to be the most comprehensive, and honestly the most challenging. From there, I went into agency life to get my hands on several different industries.

And you seem to be loving your agency life.

Oh, yeah, agency life was way more fit for my work-life balance, I love the atmosphere more and I like the variety

You work with some large clients and you work on large websites. Now one question which a lot of SEOs often ask is how do you crawl large websites? So what is your process for crawling large websites?

I don’t stick to one type of crawler. I use a couple of different crawlers, but one of the biggest issues that I run into especially with large sites is connecting with their  IT teams ahead of time.  There is nothing more frustrating when you run a crawl overnight and then their firewalls block you and you only get three to 10 percent of the way through and realised you just wasted a whole night. You should connect with their IT teams and make sure they can allow you through. The other thing is, I create a custom user agent for my computer, which you can do with any crawling tool and the IT teams whitelist my IP and my user data. And so I do it on downtimes and do it overnight and try to set reasonable crawl delays so that I  don’t take down their site. It doesn’t have a whole lot, but sometimes, especially with larger agencies, IT teams can set up very sensitive firewalls

I have come across instances where we were trying to crawl a website and we ended up crawling it for more than a week and then suddenly the crawl stopped. I know there have been such instances, so I understand.

You have to make sure your computer is set up for it as well.

Yep. Any tips for auditing large websites?

Sometimes you can do a simple process, sort of a template that I go through, but sometimes when you stick to the template too much, you lose track of some of the bigger issues. And sometimes what I do is before I even start on it or while it’s running, I’ll go get performance data and look at jobs on certain pages and ask the client what are the big things you want me to focus on? Because sometimes you’ll realize you’ll be looking at this holistic stuff and be like; oh, well, that’s one page you should drive a lot of traffic to and then make some changes. And you’ll find weird things in there that are crawling towards my eye pick up. So it could be everyone looks to redirect. And I think about canonical to redirect chain loops, anything like that, that you may not have to look for. Because if you have a hint of where to go, sometimes that’s good. So I always talk to the client first and get some ideas of past performance.

All right that makes sense. What are your go-to tools?

 It depends what we’re doing. My all-in-one SEO suite for general research is SEM rush they have the best all-in-one for multi-location keyword tracking and I’m talking about your local mid-market and your enterprise level. So I have clients with hundreds of locations and I like advanced collaborating for the sake of integrating with the studio and it has the best pricing model and features for tracking multiple locations. For auditing, I like a combination of screaming frog and light bulb. I think Crawl and Deep Web are both very good. I’m just not a fan of their pricing model, but they’re both very good, very similar. I also like chrome dev tools and looking through things there and seeing how things are run there.

Screaming frog and light bulb works well for us as well especially when you're trying to crawl large websites.

Yeah, when you get into the millions of pages, I do like the cloud-based crawlers though.

You’re right when you are talking about millions of pages and everybody knows that all internal links are very important. What is your strategy for adding internal links to a website that has millions of pages?

It comes down to categorical pages. So when you have let’s say a blog and you have it broken out in the category, it is fairly structured and relates to different sections of the sites and I focus on health care because it’s easy for me to do examples in health care that make sense. In almost every health care site they have two big sections that are almost universally of the services or treatments that you offer and then the conditions that you treat. Oftentimes in our resources or blog section, we talk about both of those things and so on. In the resources section, you can have related blogs that follow that tags. Those are natural internal links that you can add. There are dynamics when we’re talking about things that are more nuanced and not so universal in the sidebar. While in content links,  I’m a big fan of the tool In links by Dickson Jones. Have you used that one before? So it’s relatively new, but it works on semantic SEO. And so you put in all your pages, you assign categories to them based on Google’s Knowledge Graph and their topics, right? Automatically in search links, their JavaScript, their HTML links, but it’s basically a single line of JavaScript you add to your site and it injects all of the links, and you can review and modify them and also add schema. And I’m sure we’ll talk about that tool later. But that’s one of the best ones for automated link building.

Well, thank you so much for sharing that. How do you handle keyword cannibalization in large websites?

So luckily in health care, it’s a lot easier. When you get to like e-commerce and things like that, it becomes much more challenging. But I tried to work it, and it’s a little bit of an old-school tactic, I guess, but content silos and making sure that things are organized. I also look at many of my friends’ websites and I do a general content audit to see which pages are too similar and do some content printing technique trying to merge pages. I also look at rankings and see which pages frequently show up for the same keywords and see if we can combine them. Obviously, for location pages that tend to happen sometimes, and there’s only so much you can do there. But really, it’s content for me.

You talked about e-commerce and also I think sometimes you have so many content formats, you have a blog, you'll have a video, you'll have these guides, I mean, how do you allocate content to these different formats without cannibalizing them? Is there any strategy you follow?

 I like multimedia sometimes too, especially when you’re mixing it in not just video, but other engagement.  In things like online tools on health care sites, logos, symptom checkers, and things like that. And certain elements I think you can repurpose as long as it adds value. So if even if it’s the same image that’s somewhat related, or if it’s a video that talks about what patients can expect in your healthcare setting and what’s different here in the about you video. If it’s relevant on your about page and your location pages or something you can reuse I don’t think we’d consider it cannibalization, but I also like having dedicated areas as well as over the video library, if it’s like resources for patients versus providers, things like that. So really organization is key there.

I talked about schemas earlier, how do you work on schemas for big websites? I'm sure you're a fan of automation, but what would you suggest?

So there’s one thing I do, and I’m fortunate that a lot of my websites are WordPress based and a lot of my higher paying clients do custom sites and they use something called advanced custom fields, so I’m able to automate location schema. I’m able to separate the various lines that we need for the local schema and I automate it so all location pages call in certain bits of information to make it custom. So that’s one of the first things I do, but also semantic SEO is a big one for me and that’s where In Link comes into play and I make sure all of my core pages and all my blog are just semantic schema.

For international websites, when you have to implement your plan, what are the prerequisites, and what is the right way of doing it?

The biggest one I always come into is, can we just use a plug-in for the translation? And I’m like, Sure you can. It’s not going to be as obvious as good quality as you have the resources to do real translations and it comes down to a spreadsheet and mapping out to make sure that we have one-to-one versions of each one. And then adding in every variation of flag and tag. I even have a blog on my website that shows you exactly how to implement them, and I created the visualization that shows every variation that you need for each page which makes it easier to understand. But honestly, I do spreadsheets to make sure that I’m not going to quickly filter to see which pages are missing the hf link tags. And I usually double-check with whatever your crawler is, whether it’s screaming frog or light bulb. But I bring it down the spreadsheet to make sure I have covered everything.

How does one recover from a penalty and what should be the immediate next steps?

So I’m going to quote one of my friends, Christine Jacander,  if you haven’t had her on your podcast yet, she’s great too. See, all she does is penalty recovery, that’s her specialty. And she gave me one of the best pieces of advice a long time ago, which was over 90 percent of penalty issues are technical related. So if there’s not a penalty in the search console specifically, and it’s a client says I got hit by an algorithm update or something then it’s a technical issue. If it is a true penalty, then obviously you want to clean it up and set the expectation with the client that once that’s cleaned up, don’t expect an immediate bounce back because oftentimes it takes time to recover. If it’s a link penalty, it can take quite a bit of time. Is it something like malware injection, like they got hacked or something like that and they come under social engineering or one of those types of penalties, those can be a little bit quicker, but when it’s a hack, really the penalty kill a lot of precautions and we have to do a lot of security audits and make sure that’s not going to happen again. And usually, the biggest issue comes from plug-ins, which is unfortunate. But set that expectation with the client, the clean-up is the easy part and the recovery is the hard part. It’s a lot of trying to put more good out there. So it’s good content trying to link building really to trying to earn more naturally, maybe slow down on the link acquisition on your what they call the link velocity and maybe slow down a little bit.

Right makes sense. Does spending time on branded make sense for every business?

To a certain amount, like when it comes to your organizations’ schema on your about page, you focus on getting your brand out there. But when it comes to branded search, I like to mix that in with my link-building efforts. So not just focus on your money keywords but try to mix it up with some of your branded searches as well. So I think where it fits the most SEO is link building.

Right, I agree with you. We do a lot of link building ourselves and I completely agree with you, it makes sense. What are the three trends that you've seen in Enterprise SEO?

One trend that I’ve seen start disappearing right now is the demand for voice search. I remember a few years ago I’d always get on these sales calls and they are like, What are you doing for voice search? I’m like, What is your desired outcome for voice search? How do you think your patients are going to make a transaction?  How are you going to make money from voice search? And it’s always like the crickets. And recently, that’s a trend that I’ve seen declining, thankfully, because it’s people trying to realize, Oh, you can’t or you can only do so much now. You can build apps and integrations to make an appointment, but users just aren’t doing that like we thought they were. So that’s one trend that I’ve seen down.

For voice search I think it also depends on the business, right? I mean, somebody wants to see a doctor or a lawyer he would want to do all the research, right? Why would he just do a voice search and whatever comes up? Wouldn’t he want to do the research?

Mm. Exactly. And when you have the homocysteine to have the display, it’s important to know where they’re pulling that information from because each device pulls from a different source, like some small firm from Yelp sample, or Google my business. And then you want to focus on your review generation on all of those platforms. And so what comes out is it’s very little to do with content because they pull from featured snippets a lot. But I mean, really focusing any revision there. Another big trend that I’m seeing is that e-commerce is trying to find ways to automate their review churn and trying to make it as easy as possible. And one of my favorite tools, and it is pretty cool, is the company podium. They have this way they can scan your phones like cookies and things like that and automatically sign you in. And I think that’s so cool from a user perspective because that’s one of the big things that’s mobile. Say I don’t remember my log-in on my browser, they can pull that in and make it easier for users. It’s way better response rates.

You just talked about link building as well, what does your link building strategy look like, especially for large websites?

So this is pretty funny especially when you get to niche health care. We’ve had a lot of success with forum link building. And so that’s not specifically to earn links, but it does two things; one, keyword research only takes you so far, and remember keyword research is always a historical thing, but in forums, we’re seeing what patients are talking about. And we’re learning a lot more about the struggles that they’re going through, the roadblocks, and the real issues. And so we bring that information back to providers to get answers, to try to close that loop, to provide content for them, and then continue that conversation in the forums that answer that question. Because a lot of times these forums are showing up in search results and especially for the mid-funnel level queries where they know they need somebody to try and figure it out. If you can provide that information, that’s driving more traffic back to the site and spreading brand awareness.

There you are driving the relevant traffic. But would you still do the traditional link building for your normal authority on your normal stuff?

Yeah. And that’s something that we’ve also seen enterprise health care focused on the diverse strategy. I am interested in forum link building not as a DL  builder or a lead authority builder but just for patient research and to drive traffic from referral traffic. But I don’t see a huge trend in health care organizations to invest in link building, because we’ve built a few case studies where we had a client drop twenty-five thousand dollars a month on link building to go in and we were able to be so diverse, we did. So whether it’s guest post link insertion, providing new resources, a small mix of forums, you should have had that balance of different types of links, different anchor text, different pages you’re pointing to and then their traffic just skyrocketed. Their ranking went up like crazy for a few months. And then when people start seeing those studies and they start investing and seeing the results, it’s that trickle effect. They tell their other friends at other companies. And so the investment in link building is increasing. Even though I’m seeing a lot of other SEOs say link building is not as is important, that’s never going to be the case.

Right, right. And I think it also is you need to understand the client's current link profile, you need to understand what is he competing with? It's not always about just increasing the authority, but it's the overall link profile. Or does he just go off the guest post? Does he do a page and build a skyscraper to get multiple links to that? I think if you understand those things well you do proper research of the website and the competition. You definitely can't just win with on-page alone, you need a proper, genuine link-building strategy to get good results.

Yeah, content came. Link building is clean and we know who calls the shots, so we need that sense of authority. And I think it’s interesting what you said about the types of links in their current profile because I’m working with a startup right now in health care and they’re going to go public and things like that. So they have all these press releases. And so their link profile, when you look at what Google thinks is their category, they’re just in business at general business. They don’t even see health care yet because we’re just getting started earning some of those backlinks for that context.

You know when we look at Link building we do a domain comparison where we would see the exact link profile of the competition as well because that gives you an understanding of does he need, again depending on the niche, does he need like a dot ddo or does he need dot org or, what kind of links? And like I said, somebody in healthcare has a lot of PR but then is not being considered like in healthcare.

Exactly. And speaking of PR,  one of the strategies that I think have been super effective, especially for newer clients that are just getting started on link building, is the on-link brand mentions, especially if they’re established because they’re usually so easy to acquire, especially if it’s already established. Oh, no problem will drop quickly because it makes sense that conversation and so usually one of the early strategies we do  is just to get it out of the way, like the low hanging fruit before we start, while we’re building up the content to fill up the pages and things like that

What is your favorite client story?

 My favorite client story? One probably was, I think a link building one where we had this case that had this big; I told you so and then they stopped after a while because; oh, we’re don’t need it anymore. And then it just cut off a little bit and the growth rates just dropped and it trickled around. So I’m like; No, maybe you shouldn’t cut it. So that’s kind of a fun one. But I think one of the most interesting cases was when I had a client come to us and they had this chart that looks like they had their traffic. And then it goes up for a bit and it just dropped straight down, goes back up and drops and they’re like, it’s got to be an algorithm update, Google doesn’t like us. It’s an algorithm update. So before I do any crawls, I look at their performance to see which pages are driving the most traffic. And it was their main service page that was driving all the traffic that drive. And it had that trend, and I noticed that at some point they had switched the URL, and that’s when it dropped. And then they switched it back and so it went from like a complex service, large service name to a blog move to look like a blog post, and then they moved it back to the service stage and moved back to a blog post. It wasn’t an algorithm update but someone’s messing around with the URLs internally. And so I think that was a fun one to show, like, hey, you know, this is a quick recovery, and maybe we’ll get a quick boost from that.

Any tips that you would give the audience that they can use and benefit from?

When you’re looking at your SEO strategies, take a moment to step back from the weeds and look at where Google’s heading and what they’re trying to do. There’s a lot of mistrust with Google and what they say is a ranking factor. And when it is a ranking factor they’ll say one thing that someone will do something to prove another. And remember that Google is not perfect in what they say that their algorithm does one thing but what I think they’re trying to say is they want their algorithm to do this. So they say guest posts are not effective. Maybe they don’t want the guest post to be effective, but they still work. And so try to go for where Google is heading toward. So when we talk about, guest hosts as a strategy, like we said before,  we are not only doing them it’s a mix so we’re still doing them because they work. They probably won’t work for a while, especially when you do it in a white hat matter. But try to talk about diversifying your strategies and see where they’re headed. So right now, we’re seeing Google focus a lot on entities and their knowledge graph and so that’s why I’m focused on semantic search because even if Google one day says, Hey, you know what? We’re not focusing on topics anymore. We’re not focused on keywords or something else. At least the content we’ve built still makes sense for users and always keep your users in mind. So really focus on where Google is heading, not where they are right now.

Well, John, thank you so much for your time. But you know, before you go, I like playing a quick, rapid-fire game just for fun. Whatever comes to your mind just, do it, don't lose time answering,

OK, let’s do it, I’m ready.

What is your favorite meal of the day?

Breakfast.

Eating out or home food?

Eating out

Favorite superhero

Superman

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

Comedy

The Last Book you read.

Oh, Sandman.

Well, John, thank you so much for your time. You shared some good nuggets with us and I know the viewers will benefit from it and hopefully we will catch you again in some of the episodes.

I hope to be back. Thanks so much.

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