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Natural Link Building VERSUS Link Outreach for Backlinks

An Interview with Lindsay Halsey

Matt Fraser interviewed Lindsay Halsey, co-founder of Pathfinder SEO, for this edition of Ecoffee with Experts. Along with discussing WordPress, her preferred SEO plugins, and her views on the relative merits of natural link building and link outreach for backlinks, Lindsay also offers some more insights. Watch right away to dominate the SERPs.

There are ones that link the small, seemingly insignificant steps together and all of a sudden they’ve built a web presence that focuses on sharing expertise.

Lindsay Halsey
Co-founder of Pathfinder SEO

Hello everyone. Welcome to this episode of Ecoffee with Experts. I’m your host, Matt Fraser. And on today’s show I have with me Lindsay Halsey. Lindsay is the co-founder of Pathfinder SEO, a search engine marketing agency headquartered in Pitkin County, Colorado. She has a degree in economics from Dartmouth College and has over ten years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. She focuses on teaching site owners, freelancers and agencies how to get found on Google via guided approach SEO when not working on marketing campaigns for clients. Lindsay enjoyed spending time with her family in the mountains. Lindsay, thank you so much for being here. Welcome to the show.

Thank you so much, Matt. Excited to be here.

You’ve got an interesting journey so far, who is Lindsay as a high school student?

I was a field hockey player and pretty dedicated student back in high school. I was kind of a joke; I might have worked the hardest of my life back in high school. And I was pretty into the school world. And then I really got into to climbing and mountain guiding. So, my journey from high school through college was pretty focused on guiding mountains around the world and I was based out of Mt. Rainier, Washington, and I worked to make a living walking uphill, essentially.

That’s pretty neat. And you’ve also started a nonprofit organization, have you not?

Along the way, I did start a nonprofit organization to return. It still operates in the Mount Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, and we support children’s education. So that was sort of an offshoot of that area of time I spent working as a mountain guide. And as I got a little bit older, though, things do change and I found myself wanting to spend a little more time at home and one winter when spending a little more time at home, I took a class at the local community college in how to Build a website, and it was actually trying to learn how to build a website for that nonprofit that I was trying to start. And I found myself spending more time enjoying building a website and studying HTML and CSS, ultimately SEO and skipping things like skiing on a powder day, which if you live in the Aspen area like I do, you realize makes you a pretty big outlier. And so it was that winter that caused me to essentially decide to give something new a try. Then I got lucky and got hired on as a SEO account manager for a local digital marketing agency and that’s kind of how I got my toe in the door into a very different career.

Yeah, because it’s very different from what you went to school for and there are so many people that I’ve talked to and I found that to be the case. What they end up trying to study like Karl Roof, if he started off as a lawyer and he told me he would rather chew glass than be a lawyer again and he just loves SEO. First of all, taking economics in school, as well as your experience in doing mountain guides and touring helped you to develop your skills in what you’re doing today?

Very much so, on the mountain guiding side of things, I learned a lot about how to communicate effectively and how to work with people and so a lot of our clients were successful business owners and entrepreneurs and I was a 20-year-old student who is then working as a mountain guide and helping them climb to the top of the mountain. So, I learned communication skills and how to interact with others and it was a great place to grow up. We kind of always, always joked about with fellow guides. And then as I moved into the SEO space, I did find my time at school and learning a lot about economics and having an undergrad degree in econ was also really helpful because it did two things for me. One is a lot of problem solving, which anyone who works in SEO knows that you need to be kind of a relentless solutions-oriented person because you’re constantly trying to solve problems large and small. It also helped me a lot with this idea of kind of the cost and benefit dynamic. And so, when I work with customers, I find a lot of business owners get kind of siloed or sucked into a rabbit hole with SEO, and they’re trying to fix some kind of technical debt or they’re going down kind of an avenue that sometimes isn’t what I think is going to be the most impactful use of their time and their limited budget. So, we work with a lot of small businesses and so we have to figure out how to invest in SEO in a way that’s going to have a positive return or are usually highly constrained with resources. And so, it’s about identifying what will be the most impactful use of 10 hours of time or a couple thousand dollars, and how do we really make that work, those are a some of the foundational elements of economics now.

Absolutely. I could see how that would come in handy and enabling you to be a problem solver and the critical thinking and in solving those problems, like you said. Now, instead of helping people climb mountains, you climb the SERPs.

Exactly. Same idea. And, and we even call our platform at Pathfinder guided SEO and that is because in our software offering essentially you know, to kind of back the story up, I worked as a SEO account manager and then kind of the head of the department at a digital agency for a while and after a while I was soon to start a family and I needed a little bit more of a work life balance and flexibility. So, with a business partner, I started an SEO and SEM agency called webShine. It has been around for ten plus years and is a pretty traditional agency that offers SEO and SEM services to small to medium sized businesses. But a few years ago, I sort of felt like we were leaving a handful of our customers behind. There were business owners that still, even though we thought our pricing was pretty affordable, couldn’t afford to hire an agency. They were out there trying to take a DIY approach to SEO, trying to study and learn, and there’s obviously a ton of great resources, but a lot of those business owners basically would go and spend six months or a year fumbling around in SEO, learning a lot, but not necessarily taking a lot of actionable steps to drive traffic and they’d circle back around to us and say, “we tried our hand, we don’t know what to do here, we have to figure out how to afford this.” But the pricing dynamic was still the same. It was still outside of their budgets. And so, what we did was build our process that we followed at our SEO agency, along with a basic toolset for SEO keyword research rankings and monthly reports, and appeared in coaching and called it a guided SEO platform. It kind of creates a little bit of a bridge between the world of hiring an agency to help you grow your traffic and going it totally alone and sleeping in the middle.

Its pretty interesting, have you found that to be like successful for you? Has it narrowed that gap and filled that void?

It has. I mean, it has definitely created a dynamic for us where we can sell the SEO services at our agency. But if that model isn’t right for you, we can bring you over into the Pathfinder fold and work with business owners and marketers in that capacity. But obviously, when you’re launching a new product or SAAS, people talk a lot about product to market fit. And that is our initial market, with that site owner that we worked with. But we quickly discovered a new market and that was freelancers and agencies who are thinking about offering SEO services for the first time. They offer SEO to their clients and yet they need some help on the business side. They need SEO proposal templates and how to package their services and how to market and then some of them need help with the delivery. They don’t know SEO super well so they might need to be able to train some junior staff. We actually now at Pathfinder work more with that agency and freelancer kind of digital fellow digital providers and we do a lot of coaching there which has been extremely fulfilling to kind of turn my amazing experience into something to help other agencies grow.

How are you able to develop those processes over the years of what to do, like SOP. It’s one thing to do SEO, like when I was at the dealership, it’s one thing to do everything I did and there was another thing to take it in to prioritizing your service offering and putting it into a for example, one of the books I read is I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s a book on profitability and it was all about knowing your profits and all those things. It’s one thing to take what you know and put it into actionable items that are repeatable, knowing what your cost per action is, adding on your margins and then being able to sell it. What was that process like? Was that a journey over several years that you were able to do that? How did you develop that from the time you were starting your agency to now?

Absolutely. So, when we first started our agency, we were a two woman show and I was working on the SEOs side, my business partner on the Google ads, and every project we sold was totally custom. You would come to us with the problem, we’d present a solution, and create kind of the roadmap on how to get there. I wouldn’t say quickly, it took us a couple of years to figure out that that wasn’t a scalable model. We couldn’t hire anybody else to come in and do that work because there was no SOP or kind of standard process. We also kind of noticed something that even though we were customizing things for each client, at the end of the day, what we worked on was sort of the same, and that was what helped websites do well in the search engines, whether they were small or large, was starting with a really good foundation, making sure they had good design and technical infrastructure, then layering in the content piece, making sure the client was sharing their expertise online and layering in the offsite side of making sure that their Google Maps listing is up to date. They’ve got great reviews, they have solid backlinks, and so we’re always moving through the same trajectory with clients. And so, we started saying, I guess maybe we can sort of productize or standardize this in a way that will allow us to scale. What we find with SEO, with customers is, we’ve kind of a three phased services framework. It starts with what we call an assessment that’s not an audit. It’s much more high level and kind of 360-degree view and it’s all about where are you today, where are you trying to go and how are you going to get there? That’s kind of project number one and because we stay high level, we can deliver that at scale and we can deliver that across content management systems, industries, etc. Then we move into what we call an SEO setup and that’s where we start to take action and really build some of the SEO Foundation items into a site. So, we go through and dial in things like title tags, admitted descriptions, we create a content strategy, we create an offside SEO strategy and we kind of tackle some of the low hanging fruit, that’s like standing in as an SEO, just stares right at you. Then we move in to SEO kind of monthly or ongoing services. Essentially every month what we’re doing for our client is sending a monthly report and communicating and looking at the data and then what we call action items. Those action items are where things the road kind of splits for different clients. Some clients need more help with content development, others with off-site SEO, somewhat technical SEO and each month we’re sort of laying out what are the next steps for the next two or three things we need to go do to keep driving growth and moving the needle. So those first two projects, they’re very standardized and have a process. Then when we move in a monthly, the offering is very standardized, but the strategy differs for each client and by then you do know the client well and you know where to invest my time for impact kind of piece of it.

Do you think that the technical side of things, like the on-page SEO and the backlink building, the SOP of those things are very similar, but the things that change are the type of content you’re going to create in regards to that particular niche or industry or client or keyword. Did you find that to be the case?

Those are the variables that change. So yeah, for us, it’s taking a step back as experts in a field, you look at something and you can go X, Y and Z and put the connection together really quickly and spit out the answer. But when you were learning, like if we go back to when we were all learning SEO in the very beginning, you two had to come up with a way of figuring out how did you get to this place you are today. And for us, it’s usually it’s taking a step back and in our SOP documents and in the content that’s in Pathfinder that coaches others how to do this, giving them frameworks, checklists. The rubric of how do you put together a content strategy for a client that’s SEO friendly? How do you think about link building for a client? Being able to break that down so that it can be applied across different industries and competitive sets, different goals, etc.

What are your thoughts on like quote-unquote natural link building versus link outreach for backlinks?

We coach all of our clients to really focus on the natural side of things. Most of our customers are small to medium sized businesses and the kind of model we teach, in the very beginning is that they should really focus on kind of trying to model the real world online for Google. So, when we talk to small business owners and we ask them, who are your partners like who are in adjacencies, you talk to an interior designer and they say, “well, I get referrals from these different general contractors, I work with some landscape architects, I work with this local furniture store. You’re like, okay, and what kind of community involvement do you have? “ I’m on the board of directors for my kids’ school, and I’m really active in in the local chamber or whatever.” And then what do you do over in your professional world? “I’m part of this International Certification Agency, and I’m really involved at my university.” Like this you get to know their real world, and that’s how that person is an expert. Those are some of the validating sources that of them expertise as well. When we go and we look to see does Google understand any of those relationships between that business and kind of the world around them and explain to a client that Google gets to know that via backlinks that your websites need to have some kind of a connection online. They usually look at us like, “No, of course not”. We can go through and check to see have those businesses kind of picked up on that low hanging fruit of of getting links from places where they have established relationships. Most of the time the answer is no, they haven’t done that type of work, we can add a lot of value and that’s one of those where we can have quick impact because we’re reaching out to partners. We’re not cold calling, cold emailing, etc. That’s where we start with clients, with link building is that natural side, then we like to move the ones that need to invest more, maybe are in more competitive markets, into things like guest blogging and webinars and joining people’s podcasts and getting out there in that space. To me, that’s pretty natural. That’s a lot of people being generous with their time and their expertise and it keeps us kind of out of the, the gray area, link building tactics and having to go do a lot of kind of cold call outreach, where you swing a lot and you don’t hit it a lot. The value of the back-link is generally not super high.

Is that in the form of guest post then for instance, you mentioned like let’s say it’s a contractor is an interior designer doing a guest post on a renovation website and the related connected relationships that they have in order to have a link back versus just having a page that says links we like and having value behind the linking strategy.

Ideally, that is the case. Once we have the client tell us all about the places where they do business, essentially not their customers, but everything else surrounding it. We go and we look at those websites, do they already have a high-quality link from them or not? If the answer is no, then we talk about how are we going to pick that up? like what’s our proposition here? Is it you have a friend’s page and we want to get listed on your partners or your friend’s page? Do you have a blog where we can offer to write a guest blog post? That would be great for an overlapping audience. What is the connection? How are we going to actually build that backlink? Obviously, there are higher value ways than others, but usually, again, we’re looking for where can we have success. If we’re talking to a contractor and they have a two-page website and there’s no blog. There are times where you’re like, this just isn’t going to work. They haven’t updated their website since 1990. We’re probably not going to convince them to add a link to our site. But on the other hand, there are now a lot of pretty modern websites out there and people blogging and wanting to promote their partners and wanting to kind of make that exchange happen.

Yeah. How do you think WordPress has impacted the ability for small businesses to be able to do sophisticated marketing, like you just mentioned in the time you’ve been online?

WordPress has been hugely influential in that space in making sort of more advanced marketing techniques available and tactics available to small to medium sized businesses. WordPress is my favorite content management system and I am just getting ready next week to go to Word Camp US in San Diego and as I know in your history to, I am a huge fan of WordPress and what it can do for businesses. That being said, we also work with a lot of small business website owners who are a little overwhelmed by WordPress and we really need to work with a freelancer, an agency, to help them capitalize on all that WordPress can do for them. When we look at small business owners that hire an outside agency, then WordPress is great for them, if they’re going to try to build it themselves and manage everything in-house for their business. We see a lot of those businesses going over to the Squarespace world, which is a little more plug and play, drag and drop a few less choices to make. Ultimately, we can work in SEO, either of those platforms and many more. We do see some of that small business space moving over into Squarespace more and a lot of WordPress websites kind of being in the little bit larger scale sites that we’re working on now.

Do you think there’s an opportunity then for a version, like you’ve done with Pathfinder SEO for WordPress in regards to a niche specific solution for business owners. Kind of like turning instead of leaving WordPress so open ended. For instance, you can choose whatever form plugin you want, whether it’s gravity forms or WP forms or whatever. You can choose the SEO, you can choose rank math, you can choose whatever there is out there, all in one SEO. But instead building a platform that solves those problems and makes it easier to use. Rather than them migrating over to switch or Squarespace, which doesn’t have as much.

Which has a lot of limitation.

Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to say, we both know that, although most business owners don’t.

Like everything there’s pluses and minuses to different platforms and people do get moved over into something like a Squarespace or a Wix, and then they’re too locked in. I think that ecosystem in WordPress really already exists. So, you can check out like Extendify, for example, which is probably what comes to mind right away when I think about kind of that interim solution that gives you the power of WordPress with some of the simplicity and usability that would come from something more like a Squarespace.

Interesting. I hadn’t heard of it before. Thanks so much for sharing that. That’s awesome. What is your preferred WordPress SEO plugin, just out of curiosity?

Good question. I use Yoast a lot. I’ve been in SEO for a long time and Yoast was built by SEO, so the SEO agency turned WordPress plug in and they’ve created a ton of great education resources out there too. I use Yoast nine times out of ten, in part because I’m a creature of habit and in part because I really like the plug in and I trust the team behind it. But of late, in the last couple of years, there have been some other really great multifunction SEO plugins that have evolved considerably. They may have been around for a long time, so all in one SEO rank math and SEO pressor are all in my mind’s eye at the same level of Yoast, in terms of functionality and all of the different plug ins are starting to kind of have some outside integrations, things like integrating with the Google search console, integrating with rank tracking over winter, kind of going out of just being right in the WordPress ecosystem to having some of these great integrations that make them powerful. At the end of the day, when you look at those 4 top plug ins, there are pluses and minuses and reasons to choose different ones for different projects. But at the end of the day are there are tools and it’s more about what you do with them and then actually which tool. So, we see people get stuck in that choice. The key is to research a little, make a decision, commit, configure the plug in to make best practices, but then get going with content marketing, link building and real-world marketing work because that’s what is your traffic not fiddling around with three on redirects all day and things like that.

Yeah, exactly. It’s amazing how rank math, just came out of nowhere and has really become a player. I remember when Matthew Woodward wrote a blog post about how he was switching to rank math. That kind of really impacted me in regards to my decision of what to use.

What Plugin are you preferring these days?

Rank math. Reasons being, number one, because of the affordability of it and the features of it. It’s not to take anything away from Yoast because, I don’t know if it’s still number one but there was a time it was number one SEO plug in for forward press that everybody was using. And as you said, everybody’s up their game. They’ve had two all-in-one SEO. Syed Balkhi, he bought all-in-one. That really upped the profile of that plug in, that’s for sure and SEO Pressor, I remember it launched on the warrior form and I was one of the first purchasers of it. It’s amazing to see how they’ve all up their game. What about themes, I’ve seen some one theme framework I used to use all the time die and I had to find a new theme. To this day I don’t understand why the theme developer allowed it to die, but that’s another story that I don’t even need to talk about. But well, what’s your thoughts on which themes to choose and which themes do you recommend if a small business owner were to come to you in that regard?

Ultimately from a usability or SEO standpoint, a lot of what we’re looking for is speed. Choosing a theme that isn’t too heavy. I like Astra quite a bit. I should say I’m not a web developer. We don’t offer web design and development services. When customers come to us and they ask us for advice, I throw Astra and things like that, but then we usually refer them over to a great web designer and developer. In that sort of vetted list, we work with. They all have their way of building sites. They like Gutenberg in this theme and that’s how they go. Other people are building an element or beaver banner, etc. So yeah, ultimately, you know, as long as the site stays reasonably performance oriented, then we’re good to go. As Google kind of rolled out and said, hey, speed matters more and more and more and built. We definitely pushed our clients to invest, especially the ones on WordPress to invest pretty heavily on speed optimization and performance. That’s obviously great for users and that’s what matters at the end of the day. But I will say that in that era where that was a big theme of what we worked with our clients on, we didn’t see the returns from that work as much as I would have anticipated. We kind of felt. In terms of rankings and things like that. We didn’t see that, when we went and made significant improvements to a website’s performance and speed that all of a sudden week, months later, their traffic and their rankings and things really picked up from Google. Obviously their usability and their user experience improved quite a bit, which is enough right there. But we don’t currently experience the algorithms as being super sensitive to speed, even though Google says how important it is and has a million tools built around measuring your speed and performance.

Yeah. It’s interesting how it is sometimes. I still find he or she who has the most links still wins at the end of the day. And I’ve heard some SEOs say, I wish that wasn’t the case but I mean, when it’s a popularity contest and I’m not talking about like crappy links, I’m talking like, a quality link profile that, at the end of the day, all things being equal, that’s still the deciding factor and that moves the needle. It’s interesting that you talk about that because it’s important to have the fast website. Good UX, good UI experience and fast website. And I was talking to Darren Shore and he was talking about some of these things you’re talking about focusing on and some things that may surprise people in regards to local SEO. He provides this as a service and he’s shared this publicly. White Spark is a very big player in local series going back years. People think that name, address and phone number consistency is just the hugest thing. He goes, and I have a product that solves that problem of fixing it all. But to be quite frank with you, Google has become so smart at that level of consistency and hyperfocus on that no longer really matters all that much, he said, to focus on those things. So, it’s interesting. And I guess the only way I mean one of the ways that Karl, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Karl Rove, he was the lawyer turned CEO, they mentioned and he started doing SEO testing by creating fake words that were in Google that weren’t in Google’s index and then registering domain names and creating pages with more amid some text and seeing what moved the needle versus an in H1 and H2 figuring out what now 300 tests later or maybe even thousand tests later because it started doing this more than five years ago. You know he built page optimizer pro and out of there spurred surfer SEO which are two you know significant platforms that are teaching people how to do what are your thoughts on those things? Like do you recommend those tools to people or do you use those to surfer SEO? Those types of tools.

I don’t personally use Surfer SEO, and we really kind of coach people to create a toolset that’s simple and actionable and kind of meets client needs. When it comes to, on page optimization, content marketing and all those things, a solid keyword research tool. We still like rank tracking because our clients like that very kind of linear model of understanding performance and it can be a leading indicator for sure. We look at those types of tools and then we like tools that are in people’s websites directly. But then if you’re working kind of in the enterprise level layering and, you know, a high-level SEO tool, like an SEM rush or Hrefs. If you’re working with small to medium sized businesses, then at Pathfinder, we’ve built all the tools that we think you need right in you the platform. There’s a free little other tool out there that we all like you know, chrome extension, screaming, logging, etc., to get the job done. But most of those tools are on the free side and kind of round that out. But obviously different projects also require different tools. I know in our agency we might be going into kind of a specific project. We might need to subscribe to a very specific tool to help aid in that project for a short period of time to kind of get the job done. And it’s a very specific kind of niche setting or niche position.

I’m sorry. Hey, what’s one big takeaway you want listeners to get from this episode?

Awesome. Well, we haven’t talked about a lot about SEO strategy and practices, but I think for me, one of the parallels are things that I’ve really kind of discovered with SEO is that it can feel like climbing a big mountain and sometimes it even feels like the end, the ground is shifting underneath you, that it’s ever evolving. People get overwhelmed and in that overwhelmed, we get paralyzed and aren’t taking action. But in my ten years of experience, SEO is all about one step in front of the other and taking small actions that sort of snowball to road over time. And my tip is to take the first step, and that first step might be something strategic, like an SEO assessment, understanding where you are today, where you’re trying to go and how to get there. It could be writing that blog post that’s sitting in front of you on your to do list that you keep pushing aside. It could be going and asking a handful of customers to leave thoughtful reviews on your Google Maps page. It could be putting a pitch out there to be a guest on a podcast or a guest blog. There are a lot of things that one step could be, but it’s just linking those together that to me and when we see people that are successful with SEO, so ones that link these small, seemingly insignificant steps together and all of a sudden, they’ve built a web presence that focuses on sharing expertise and then kind of proving the trust and authority that comes behind them.

Absolutely. I totally agree with you. Now, we didn’t talk a lot about SEO strategy, if you wanted to come back on the show and talk about that a little bit more, I would love to have you.

That’d be great. Any time and thanks so much for having me here today.

How can our listeners connect with the online if they choose to do so?

You can find me at Lindsay@pathfinderSEO over email. I’m on Twitter as well and also check us out at our website Pathfinder SEO.

Are you on LinkedIn as well?

I’m on LinkedIn as well. But I never know my handles right off the bat, but I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter the most. You won’t find me much over in the Facebook and Instagram space. I’m not always that social on social, but I do really enjoy connecting with people over Twitter, email, etc.

Right on. Well, we’ll make sure to add those links to the show notes and I want to thank you very much for coming on the show today.

Awesome. Thanks so much, Matt, and hope everybody has a great day.

Yeah, you as well. Bye bye.



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