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Decoding Insider SEO Strategies: Insights & Tips from a Former Google Search Team Member

In Conversation with Kaspar Szymanski

For this episode of E-COFFEE with Experts, Ranmay Rath interviewed Kaspar Szymanski, SEO Consultant & Co-Founder of Search Brothers. Kaspar shares insights from his illustrious journey, spanning from fighting web spam at Google to founding a data-driven SEO agency. Discover the evolution of SEO strategies, the importance of data in SEO consulting, and valuable tips on backlink management. Gain a unique perspective on brand building, content strategies, and navigating the ever-changing landscape of SEO.

Watch the episode now for more insights!

Plan long-term and conduct a technical SEO audit before migration. It’s crucial to understand what liabilities are present and make informed decisions.

Kaspar Szymanski
SEO Consultant & Co-Founder of Search Brothers

Hey, hi, everyone. Welcome to your show, E-Coffee with the Experts. This is Ranmay, your host for today’s episode. Today we have Kaspar who is the SEO Consultant and Co-Founder at Search Brothers with us. Welcome, Kaspar to our show.

Ranmay, thank you for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be on the show.

Great. Kaspar, before we move forward and pick your brains, we would like to understand more about your journey and what about Search Brothers, what you guys do, and we’ll take it forward from there on.

Allow me to share a little bit from my journey, from my personal experience, and maybe share from the insights gained over my tenure, especially at Google with the audience down the line. My journey started in 2006 when I joined the Google Search team, Google Search Quality at the time. And of course, over the period and over the years that I was spending working on Google Search on behalf of Google, that was quite a tremendous journey, a tremendous adventure, but also an opportunity to gain insights that are otherwise very rare. It’s a huge advantage, something I enjoyed tremendously. I not only did fight spam, but I not only did investigate spam signals on behalf of Google. I not only issue penalties or remove penalties, matter of fact, speaking, for those websites that repented and intended to get back into Google’s good grace. I also had a chance to talk on behalf of Google as part of the outreach operations. That was again a fantastic experience. Going out there, meeting publishers, speaking in public, publishing it on behalf of Google, all of which I have done, and I’m tremendously grateful for that opportunity and the time spent there.

One of the greatest assets and the greatest advantages, if you want, from my time working at Google is meeting on the very first day, another employee, Phili Visa, a gentleman I had worked with for years at Google before we became business partners and before we founded search brothers. Com, which is a data-driven SEO agency. Nowadays, we apply what we’ve both learned at Google and the experience gained thereafter. We apply that to the benefit of our clients. These are mostly large websites, large commercial websites that are meant to be more visible and to sell more. I want to say what we do is, again, greatly rewarding. I mentioned to you that when we had the opportunity to chat a little bit this morning, I loved my job. It’s just so much fun. You have the chance to work with tremendously motivated people and you have a chance to make a huge difference. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I still go to conferences and share in public now and then. I try to go to as many as possible, but of course, there are some limitations to that. It’s going to be probably around 10 conferences in 2024.

I’m looking forward to that. On top of that, there is a handful of publications I do as well. But of course, the main objective of our operation is to help our clients to be more visible than their competitors. I think you’re on the right track.

Wonderful. Quite a journey, I must say. You have had an illustrative career, a fantastic one, from being a member of the Google Search Quality team to now being a founding member of Search Brothers. We would all want to know more about your journey and how it is a few insights, a few lessons that you have learned during this fantastic journey of yours that have shaped your career, or your approach to SEO and web spam.

I think how did it shape my approach? I think I learned very early on to appreciate the value of data. I still believe firmly that conducting SEO and especially SEO consulting, is both an art and a science. The art part is where the experience comes in. It makes a tremendous difference working on a new platform, understanding a new platform, and identifying how it can grow. It makes a tremendous difference if you have worked in that vertical prior, if you have worked on 10 50, or 100 comparable websites, you’ll develop for the Marvel fans out there, a spider’s head. You develop a sixth sense where you understand, This is what I should be looking for. But that sense, that instinct, that intuition, that is only second to data. Because it is a scientific field where you can only make actionable advice. It was a firm pronouncement. You can only tell clients what needs to be changed and how to change it in which order to change those things, if you have the critical volume of data and the critical volume of data pertains, of course, to the on-page part. The websites have to be crawled and crawled repeatedly and utilize several different crawlers to verify data.

You have, of course, to dig in the code yourself, so you have to have some level of technical acumen. But there is, of course, the other factor, which is off-page, and that very much includes backlinks, how backlinks and how off-page signals interact with on-page content and technical signals, understanding these fine changes that have an effect on each other and how these translate down the line to Google algorithms, to calculations, and to rankings down the line, that’s the scientific part. To answer your question in a nutshell, what was the main thing that I learned early on while working at Google is the fact that data is key to Google search success.

As someone who has been on both sides of the SEO spectrum, Kaspar, what do you feel are some of the common misconceptions that you’ve encountered in the industry once you got to the other side of the table? How do you feel that businesses and website owners can avoid falling into these traps?

This is a question I’m particularly fond of because even while working at Google Search, I always felt like I was part of the industry. There is, of course, a slightly different perspective, and I give you a doubt, but I never saw—in mere terms of us and them—I never saw it in mere terms of us and them. I never saw it in terms of their being a fan. In the end, we share a common goal. The goal is to rank for relevant queries for relevant and converting traffic. In that sense, Google’s objective isn’t in opposition to the SEO consultant’s objective or publisher’s objectives. From a very early beginning, when I started going on behalf of Google to talk about their experiences and to speak on behalf of Google, I mingled, joined, and interacted greatly and from a very high-level perspective with peers, SEO consultants at the time. I met a lot of people back then who became not just future peers and colleagues, but really friends. I want to say that as well. Then when I left Google as a company to create our brand, SearchBrothers and create our agency, it didn’t feel like changing the site so much as changing the brand and still interacting with the very same people.

I didn’t think of this situation to be one where there is an awful lot of conflict. It might be perceived at some forums, I give you that, where there are disgruntled publishers. These are, of course, most vocal when the websites fail to be quite as visible as people would like them to be. But this is rather the exception than the norm. I always thought that the perspective that we are striving to attain a shared goal is the one that I embrace, and that’s the correct one, meaning you can rank within Google for anything that you, as a publisher, have content, really. There is no glass ceiling. Google doesn’t mind how much traffic is coming your way. Micro-effectively speaking, if you have the content, if you can live up to user expectations with your platform, with your landing pages, Google will shove huge amounts of traffic and it will never be capped in any way. There will be no bottleneck. The only bottleneck is making sure that Google bots and Google algorithms understand our content, and that they understand our technical signals. That’s where we come in. I never thought that this was a conflicting situation.

I always thought we were pulling in the same direction. That inclusive approach served me well. I made a lot of friends and as our industry is very small, it is good to be in good grace with a small, I almost want to say elite group of people who enjoy doing what we are doing.

Absolutely. Talking about your background with Web Spam Fighting, we would love to understand a few sophisticated techniques that you encountered during your time in the industry. How do you feel that these tactics have evolved over the years?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve been discussing this with Philly lately because we have quite a perspective looking back on all the years. Of course, even nowadays, we encounter clients who either have legacy issues to deal with or clients who have been doing things unintentionally that may be in violation now because policies changed so far and so forth. I’m surprised from the individual perspective, from a rather limited perspective, when we work with a couple of hundred clients over a year, I’m rather surprised to say that old-school methods are still out there. I know one of your questions is about backlinks. I want to pre-empt that. We do see sites that have been building that past patron that have been out there for not a year, not two years, but more like for five years or a decade or even longer than that. They have, and I want to say from a Google vantage point, they have been getting away with it. I still think anybody should be building their website the way they please. Anybody should be building their backlinks as they consider right for themselves, as long as they are familiar and fully aware of the risks that this link building entails.

But to answer your question, there are websites out there that are successful, cutting corners and going outside Google Webmaster guidelines. Now, do I think this is the most promising way? I do not believe so. For several reasons, I think it’s a huge business risk to violate Google Webmaster Guideline Google search essentials nowadays. The reason for me saying that is because the moment that the website or the websites are being penalized, the waiting period starts. You not only have to clean up the site, clean up your act, and apply for reconsideration but there is also no confirmation or turnaround time for the reconsideration request to be processed on Google’s ad, meaning while your website or websites are under penalty, you have to wait. You cannot do new releases. You’re essentially not making any money. Your visibility is impaired. It’s not great, right? Now, achieving the same goal of high visibility is often possible. In this instance, I’ve been talking about that at a couple of conferences. In that instance, backlinks are a very good example because every operation has a rather limited budget at some point. You can cost the budget that you have at link building.

You can do that. But you can also take the very same money and frequently, I want to say that link building is link renting because the moment you stop paying, those links tend to disappear. Another topic, another facet. You can take the very same budget and rather than building links, you can make your website just faster than your competitors. Now, every other factor aside, roughly similar, let’s say for a moment. If you have several websites, Google always picks and chooses the fastest website. The reason for me saying that is very simple. Google considers user experience critically important and the faster websites tend to be favored by users. The faster website will rank higher than the competitor websites. While it is possible to build links and get away with it, it entails a risk. Making your website faster is something that serves your users well. It’s something that serves you in terms of Google visibility and rankings very well. Why not invest in something that is very long-term? Performance is just one fact. Performance is just one aspect. There are so many more technical aspects that can be improved. What I’m trying to say is it’s possible to embrace gray hat and black hat techniques and be successful with them.

But from a business risk perspective, it is probably not the most prudent course of action and there are much bigger fish to fry out there if you want to be long-term successful in SEO in competitive environments.

Absolutely. And then talking about website and content, moving a website or content to a new domain can itself be a very daunting process. Let’s take an example of rebranding for that matter. What best practices that one should follow, Kaspar as per you? And then potential pitfalls to consider when undergoing such a transition? How can you minimize the impact on SEO while going through that phase?

I’m glad you’re asking because it’s a huge topic and often underestimated up until the point in time when it may be rather late or too late. It’s not just the rebranding that is being considered a migration. You can have a migration while you’re changing your domain, and your brands, that’s true. But you may be changing your content management system, and that’s a migration as well. You might be acquiring a competitor and converging those two sites. A migration of two sites together would be migration as well. The one thing that has to be done in advance and long-term planning is your friend here, is conducting the audit. What do we have? We need to understand what we have here, to begin with. As a side note, 9 out of 10 of our listeners do not save and preserve their server logs. Now, I hope after listening to our show, they will, because if you save and preserve your server log, you’re in a much better position. When you are preparing a migration, the first thing to do is to do an audit, technical audit of the existing website, including your server logs to understand what liabilities are looking at and do you want to transition those to the new platform.

Because at the point in time when the new platform comes into existence, let’s say for a moment it’s a brand new domain, never seen before by Google when that domain is being then crawled from a Google perspective, that’s a brand new site. There will be three or more redirects. Of course, you can transition some signals, of course, but you want to make sure you put your best foot forward. Not transitioning any of the old liabilities to the new system is a very good recommendation. It is much more a complex topic and there are very different scenarios depending on what is supposed to be happening. If I may suggest two things to any of the listeners contemplating migrating, plan long term. If you come to us or any other service provider and say, We have a migration in two weeks, can you help us? We would love to, but it’s already too late. In two weeks there is not much that can be done. Plan long term. Conduct a technical SEO audit of the platform before the migration and preferably one thereafter, if you can, if that’s possible if that’s within the budget.

If you can only do one, do it before. You will not be sorry to transition all the stuff that’s been holding the old website back to the new site after the release.

Brin, I love to pitch midway into your answer.

Yeah, it is still an opportunity, isn’t it? You have to try.

Absolutely. We all should keep trying. Lovely. Kaspar, in the field of content and brand building, as per you, what innovative content strategies have you found to be most effective in today’s so much of competitive digital landscape, especially regarding brand visibility?

This is a twofold question, but I want to talk about the brand first because the brand is not a direct SEO factor. We have to acknowledge that. Just because I have an awesome brand, I will not rank higher. Absolutely. However, the brand has a huge impact on user signals. We all imagine a situation for a moment where we type in a query for whatever it is that we’re looking for, I’m a bookworm, and I’m going to type in a query for a particular book I want to buy. I’m confronted with the results. The one I would click on as an average user is the brand that offers this very same book and it’s all the same brands. But I’m going to click on the site that I’m familiar with because I know the brand, right? This is something that translates to CTR. First, we have the impressions, and impressions are an important factor. And towards that purpose, Google Search Console is fantastic, right? But it’s not just that. The CTR, the click-through rate when it’s high, indicates to Google that the user believed that particular lending page lives up to their expectation that it is what they’re been looking for.

Now, this is one isolated user signal. It is not to be taken lightly. Just high CTR will not save us because we also have to live up to expectations. The landing page that the user clicks on has to load fast so they don’t return. We, of course, have to provide what they’ve been looking for. We have to meet or exceed their expectations. Otherwise, they would go back. They would refine the query and look for something else. When the latter part happens, that’s bad because Google would understand that this was not a good result for the user. If it happens on the scale, then the website will plummet. But if we are a brand, we already have done the job halfway through because we will be most likely to be clicked on. Building a brand, a consistent brand is very important. That is aside from the content. The brand is something that people recognize. Brand recognition is extremely important in a long-term SEO strategy. It will not make you wreck. It will improve your user signals. This is what will in the end make or break the website’s visibility. Content is a different story altogether because content very much depends on what website you’re operating.

When I talk to business partners, it is frequently something they bring to the table. Of course, I’m not going to talk about AI solutions for a moment, because I think this is maybe a deeper conversation. We can have that later if you want. But they frequently say, There is only so much we can generate in terms of in-depth content, in terms of really high-quality content. While they are saying that, they are often thinking about editorial content, which can be fantastic. But what about data-driven content? The travel industry is one of our favorite verticals. You don’t have to just describe. I’m going to take the travel. My next trip is, I believe, to Bologna. I’m going to take Bologna, for example, as a city travel destination. You don’t only say, This is the landing page about Bologna. Bologna is a beautiful place to go to, and so forth. You can also include data. You can have the weather, you can have popularity, you can have any other thing. You can see how many people have booked that trip recently. You can utilize proprietary data available only to you based on years and years of data recording to demonstrate data that is critical for the user in their journey.

It is decision-critical for them to say, Okay, I want to go to Bologna in December, but the weather seems to be in Bologna, maybe not so good. Let me check. Oh, no, it’s good enough. Okay, I want to go. You can provide that. Now, the initial investment is, of course, larger if you want to print great graphs, and decision-relevant graphs on your landing pages using data. But it is not something that can be easily replicated by your competitors. Once you have it, you magnify your unique selling proposition so much more. I always say when you’re thinking about your data or rather your content strategy, on-page content strategy, try not to think in editorial terms only. Try to embrace data because data is your friend. In the long term, it’s much more cost-efficient, and it will be most likely data that you have, not somebody else has. It’s only yours. It is not easily replicable. It will make you stand out. Absolutely.

You also touched upon backlinks during the earlier question, Casper. Just taking a cue from that, how do you feel? How has this landscape of backlinks or link-building strategies evolved over the years? And what should businesses be focusing on in terms of backlinks in today’s SEO environment?

I like the question because I get that a lot at conferences. On the one hand, I want to say the vast majority of businesses are probably really well advised to prioritize another aspect of their websites above backlinks. I do believe a backlink-prioritized strategy is something more of the past than of the future. Essentially, you have to pour always more money on that fire, that dumpster fire that’s burning there, which is your backlink profile. The moment you stop, you may drop. It’s not a perspective that can be scaled up indefinitely. If, however, you wish to make backlinks as part of a comprehensive, rounded strategy, a rounded SEO strategy, then by all means, go ahead, do build links for converting traffic. I’m referring specifically to backlinks that do not pass patrons. If you’re building links, it will get you eventually in trouble with Google search and with Google search, Google Webmaster guideline violations if you continuously build that past patron. Now, if you build links only for converting traffic, those can be no follow-up. If we think about it, the reason for building links, to begin with, is so that we have more visibility, so that we have more converting traffic.

How about skipping the middleman and building for links that get or start traffic directly? Those links tend to be much fewer and they tend to be very expensive in some verticals. They can pay over time. This is something that you can directly correlate. If that link is really expensive and that link doesn’t cost 1,000 euros, but maybe 10,000 euros or even more per month, but it’s a very prominent link on top of the main platform in your vertical, why not test it and see if it’s working? However, backlinks are just one facet of the DCO industry. I also want to say that the vast majority of websites out there have very few or even no backlinks and they’re still doing fine. While it is something that to be considered and maybe contemplated for the point of an opportunity or a risk, it is not something that should be preoccupying us every day.

Absolutely. Also, link building is a prominent area where manual spam actions occur. What techniques and tools do you recommend, Kaspar, for identifying and disarming problematic backlinks? Also on top of that, I’d understand to take your point on guest posts versus initiatives.

When we talk about mitigating backlink risks, I think this is a very important topic for a majority of grown sites out there because even websites that have not been building links, will attract some questionable links over time. When you do that, you want to try to get a backlink profile mirrored as closely as possible. The way we go about it, and you may be surprised about a Google fanboy saying that we tap into a vast majority of data sources, including Google search console, but we also tap into bing Webmaster tools. It’s free data, why not take it? We tap into that large volume of backlink samples. That’s what it is. It’s samples. You want to normalize those, you want to collect those over an extended period. I would tap into any tool that you have access to. Some of them will be paid tools, but the more data, the better. Now, subsequently, you have to be able to review it. For small sites that are relatively small site, I would say, that backlink profiles can consist of a couple of thousands of backlinks. We have backlink profiles that do have not a billion backlinks, but 30, 40, and 50 billion backlinks with a B rather than an M.

Towards that purpose, you, of course, have to have specialized tools to do that verification and filtering to understand what the risks may be. I want to recommend one thing because I think this is important. If you pick and choose the patterns that you consider a liability, go ahead and utilize this disavowalfile.com tool that is out there. This is a tool that Philly, my business partner, built, but it’s a free-of-charge tool. No data is being preserved. This is not a lead generation tool of any sort. This is a service to us as a community. One mistake people make quite a lot is when they build a backlink, they go ahead and analyze the backlink profile. They build a disavowal file, but the formatting isn’t right or patterns are malformed. Whenever that happens, unless you get a qualified third-party opinion, it isn’t working the way you’re intended to. For that reason, if you utilize the disavowalfile.com, you just upload the saveall file and it’s being tested against best practices. What you receive in return is a reformatted disavowal file which you can go ahead and submit or not your decision, but it doesn’t cost you anything.

It’s one of these free checks that people can be doing and they probably should be in many cases for the disavowal file to work as they intended to.

Lovely. Casper, it has been a brilliant conversation, but yeah, before we let you go, many of our listeners would be curious to know about your time at the Google Search Quality team. Give us a couple of experiences that you had, maybe a project experience or anything that you want to share on our podcast today.

Anything that wouldn’t violate the non-disclosure agreement? I will try hard to do just that. I think the one fact that is not very widely known, even though it is public fact by now and has been for quite a while, is the fact that the search team is very dispassionate and they don’t care which websites are affected by Google Webmaster guideline violations and penalties as long as they are, in fact, in violation. Some of these war stories that tend to be interesting and a good conversation topic for our industry when we come together, is the fact that Google, over the years, has time and again penalized their properties for violating Google Webmaster guidelines. It’s of course a large organization and not everybody is aware of the best practices to be applied. At times, one part of the website’s publication team or the editorial team would apply a technique that seemed like a good idea at the time, but it translates to a Google Webmaster Guideline violation, in effect, actually triggering a penalty. What’s funny, or what people don’t understand is that there were no double standards of sorts, and penalties were being issued in the very same way that they would have been issued to any other publisher.

They were lifted only at the same time, meaning some of our colleagues were not particularly keen at the time on the fact that they had been penalized and they had hoped for a slightly faster processing time. However, they never received it. To the best of my recollection, in my experience, during my entire tenure at Google, there was no double standard whatsoever. If you happen to be operating, say, the Google Adwords Help Center and it was found in violation and had to be removed for some time from Google search, that’s exactly what happened. I found that at the time particularly encouraging that there was no double standard whatsoever. By the way, there are also no double standards about clients, the paying clients, who were, of course, very disappointed if not receive any special treatment because they were clients. But I thought this represented an approach that I could very much identify with where this was probably the only situation where there was plain-level fear for everybody. If there was a violation, the site had to go for whatever the violation was. For those among us and among listeners who are keen on those war stories, some of those instances where Google penalized their websites or properties have been described over the years on Search Engine land.

I was never the author there back at the time. I do believe Barry Schwartz described some of those instances in quite some detail. For those among our listeners who are keen on reading up on those ancient war stories, go to Search Engine Land, look for Google penalizing themselves, and enjoy the reading.

Lovely. Kaspar, before we let you go, I would like to play a quick rapid-fire with you. I hope you’re game for it. All right, your last Google search.

Oh, my God, my last Google search. That would have been an event in Bukarest yesterday.

Let’s say if we were to make a movie on you, Kaspar, what genre would it be?

Say again.

Let’s say if we were to make a movie on you. What genre? Would it be?

What title?

Yeah.

I want to say Google Search, try to find it.

Lovely. Your celebrity crush.

Say again?

Your celebrity crush?

My celebrity crush, that would be Emily Blunt.

My Wife knows it’s not a secret.

All right. Okay, all right. Lovely. Your next vacation, Kaspar?

Our next vacation is going to be in Spain. My wife planned already everything. I am very blessed. I have to pack and get to the airport. From there on, it’s smooth sailing. I think it’s going to be Southern Spain with me and the family.

Lovely. Hope you have a great one there. Lovely, Kaspar. Thank you so much for taking your time and doing this with us. Appreciate it.

It’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks again for having me on the show. I hope our listeners enjoy our conversation. Thank you.

I’m sure they would have. Thank you, Kaspar.

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