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18 May 2011

Expert SEO Interview with Matt McGee

Expert Interviews

This week, to kick off the next few weeks of interviews focused on the topic of Search Engine Optimization I spoke candidly with Search Engine Land’s Executive News Editor and the editor of her sister site, Sphinn, Matt McGee. He writes the popular Small Business Search Marketing blog, and has been in the field of SEO since it’s infancy back in 1999. He weighed in on a number of topics from the recent infamous Google Panda update to using social media marketing for the purpose search engine marketing.

Elise Redlin-Cook: Google recently made massive change to their algorithm, called the Panda update. Would you like to discuss what this means to the average website seeking rankings.

Matt McGeeMatt McGee: I hope it means nothing to the average website! I say that because Panda seems to be targeted at sites that are pumping out low-quality content to with the goal of ranking well, not necessarily with the goal of providing value for site visitors.

And so I think part of the problem might actually be in the question you asked: “seeking rankings.” Rankings never have been, and never should be anyone’s goal. Google doesn’t send you a check each month based on how well your site ranks. But a lot of the sites targeted by Panda were doing exactly that — creating content for Google, not for users.

So I’d tell the average website to stop worrying about rankings. I’ve been saying this for four years now, and when I started my own SEO consulting business in 2008, I steadfastly refused to provide ranking reports to clients. It’s been a joy.

I’ve no doubt that some good sites were caught up in Panda accidentally. To those folks I’d say a few things:

  1. Rather than get angry at Google, step back and calmly try to figure out why. Examine your site as objectively as possible. What made Google lump your site in with the others?
  2. If you’re really doing things the right way — focusing on users, making sure that everything you do is about earning trust — then do more of it, do it better, and make it more obvious
  3. Lastly, this is good advice to everyone: Don’t put all your eggs in Google’s basket. Building a website (or a business) that relies on free traffic from a source that can stop sending that traffic whenever it wants is just asking for trouble.

Elise: When performing an SEO audit, what are the most common problems that you encounter?

Matt: Aside from an 18-month span a few years ago, I’ve worked exclusively with small businesses. So, when it comes to that kind of client/website, there are probably a half-dozen things that I’ve seem on a regular basis and most of them are pretty easy fixes.

  1. URL Canonicalization problems: the website resolves to both www.domain.com and just domain.com, or the home page resolves to www.domain.com/index.html and www.domain.com.
  2. Unoptimized page titles: especially true with small businesses that have no SEO knowledge. The home page title tag is usually just their business name or, God forbid, “home page.”
  3. Unoptimized internal links: too many “click here” links, or main navigation links that say “Products” or “Services” instead of “Red Widgets” or “Web Design Services.”
  4. Lack of content: A lot of small biz owners are really busy and don’t spend a lot of time online, so they mistakenly assume that their customers don’t have time/desire to spend time reading content, researching products and services, and so forth. Big mistake.
  5. Lack of links: Link building is a foreign concept to a lot of small business owners.
  6. No local optimization: A lot of small biz owners are still unaware of opportunities with Google Places, Bing Local Listings, etc.

Elise: What are the most important local search sites that a business should get listed on today?

Matt: Well, Google obviously. That’s where the vast majority of search happens. But I think Bing is also moving in the right direction, and Yahoo shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

After that, I think it depends to some degree on your industry and location. If you’re in the hospitality/travel space, TripAdvisor and Yelp are probably important sites for you. If you’re a restaurant, Yelp and Urbanspoon are probably very important. Lawyers (Avvo.com), Doctors/Dentists (Healthgrades.com and now Avvo.com, too), and other industries have important sites specifically for them.

But some of these don’t have as much activity in some smaller, rural areas. So, you also have to Click to Tweet This Quotebe aware of any important local sites where people might be looking for business information.

Elise: If a website has been hurt by poor SEO, how can a good SEO company help restore a site’s ranking and reputation? Does your company fix a lot of sites that have been harmed by bad SEO companies?

Matt: Not necessarily reputation issues, but I’ve been in situations before that involved cleaning up bad SEO. It’s tough. The SEO part isn’t always tough, but the client relation part usually is. You’re dealing with someone who’s already gone through a nightmare (worst case) or just has a bad taste in their mouths about SEO — like it’s now become a necessary evil for them, rather than something they really want to do to grow their business.

So you have extra trust obstacles to overcome in your relationship with the client. You have extra obstacles related to buy-in and follow-through, because the client may not want to bother with all the hard work again.

So, I tell clients and I tell audiences when I speak that everything you do should help you gain trust. Everything!

When I was in that kind of situation, I remember making sure that we did things in baby steps, and did a lot of communication with the client. You know, very actively saying … Here’s what we’re doing this week. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s what we hope to accomplish. Just trying to earn that trust. And then making sure to show results — even small wins — to let the client know that things are getting better.

Elise: What are some of the common obstacles with large retailer web sites when it comes to SEO?

Matt: Duplicate content and lack of content are the two biggest issues I’ve seen on the huge retail sites I’ve worked on. Seems contradictory, but it’s not.

Lack of content: I mean very thin pages with little more than the name of the product, available sizes and colors, and maybe 1-2 sentences describing the product. It’s tough to get any SEO wins in that situation.

Duplicate content: I mean things like using the same exact product description that can be found on 20 other sites selling the same thing, and in some cases, having multiple URLs for the same product where the only difference is the color or size.

I’ve written about how Amazon.com is setting the standard when it comes to optimizing product pages with great content, and for a small business example, I’d love to brag about one of my current clients. Check out Dr. Cynthia Bailey’s page about a sun protection skin care kit. All kinds of great, unique content there and on her other product pages. Lack of content does not have to be an SEO problem for small business owners.

Elise: What role does social media optimization play in an overall SEO program?

Matt: With one client, we’re using social media as our primary means of link building. We’re using Twitter to connect with thought leaders, journalists and bloggers in the industry. (Facebook, too, but that’s more for direct-to-consumer outreach.) Twitter helps us get the client seen by people who write, tweet and link to trusted resources. It takes some time to build up that trust and authority, but it’s been great for us. (Confession: I hate the monotony of link building and my client hates the hourly cost of it, so this has been a good match for us.)

Social media can play a lot of different roles. It can help sell products/services. It can help establish thought leadership. It can serve as a great customer service tool. All of those are related to SEO — or certainly to an overall business marketing plan.

Elise: SEO is such a broad topic. What do you think is the most important piece of SEO to discuss for the everyday business operating online today?

Matt: It’s all about trust. There’s nothing more important. As consumers, we all try to do business with companies that we trust.

So, I tell clients and I tell audiences when I speak that everything you do should help you gain trust. Everything!

SEO is all about trust. Click to Tweet This QuoteGoogle wants to put sites that it trusts at the top of the search results — sites that it can trust to give a good experience when someone clicks the search result. If Google doesn’t trust you, it won’t send you much traffic. If people don’t trust you, they won’t become customers.

If more businesses understood the value of trust and the need to get search engines and searchers to trust them, they’d probably go about their business in a different and better way.