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Interview with Jill Whalen of High Rankings

Posted on Mar 9th, 2006
Written by Lee Odden
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    Spotlight on Search – Interview with Jill Whalen of High Rankings

    One of the long-standing and popular voices on search engine optimization is without question, Jill Whalen. From back in the day, you might remember the Rank Write Roundtable that she published along with Heather Lloyd-Martin. Today, Jill is a regular speaker at Search Engine Strategies, writes many articles, publishes the High Rankings Advisor newsletter, runs her SEO consulting practice High Rankings and has another company called Search Creative.

    Jill’s High Rankings Forum has been a source of information for newbies and old hands alike for many years. I don’t get to visit the forum as much, but when I do, I always find some useful insights.

    Jill has been a positive influence on many people. Just read Jim Boykin’s recent post where he calls her, “the Queen of SEO“.

    As opinionated and SEO-famous as Jill is, meeting her in person is another matter. She is a very mellow and friendly person who is not keen on spending a lot of time in crowds. I’ve been threatening to do an interview with Jill since SES San Jose in 2005 and now here it is:

    Jill, you’re probably one of the most often interviewed SEO experts in our industry, but I’m going to ask this question anyway: Please describe your background and how did you get involved with search marketing?

    You’re right, this one does get asked a lot, so I’ll give you the condensed version. Basically, back in ’93 and ’94 as a mom at home I did a lot of chatting on line and designed a personal website as well as parenting website for my IRC channel, “The Parentsroom.” I learned how to get it found in the engines for relevant keyword phrases by looking at what sites would show up in certain search queries. I also started doing some web design for small businesses, and included the “getting found in the search engines” stuff in the packages. Once I started posting in email newsletters and the like a few years later, business really grew and I gave up the design part (cuz I pretty much sucked at it) and concentrated on the SEO aspect. And the rest, as they say, is history!

    I would have you know that it was because of reading your posts on Kim’s forum and subsequently joining your High Rankings Forum way back when that I really started to get interested in SEO as a business. The cooperitive sharing of information I noticed on your forum was a very new concept I had not experienced in other industries. How has your stance on SEO tactics changed over the years?

    This is a tricky question because to me it feels like the tactics haven’t changed at all. But, then when I really think about how I worked years ago I do realize that there were incremental changes along the way that I just never noticed I was making. Still, the same basic fundamental methods I used for SEO in the early years are the same I use now. I pretty much came up with the idea of writing your copy with your keyword phrases in mind, and now of course it’s common knowledge. That’s still the basis of all my client’s SEO campaigns. Of course, in the early years we didn’t have keyword research software, so we simply guessed at what to optimize for. I do remember a few clients wondering why they were ranking so well but not really getting additional traffic or sales. At the time, that wasn’t really our problem. Now, with keyword research at our fingertips, there’s no excuse for a failed SEO campaign, and that’s the major tactical change in SEO as I see.

    Your site has very enviable rankings for many SEO related phrases. That must bring a lot of traffic. Do you find high rankings on broad terms invites more tire kickers and information suckers than qualified SEO inquiries? What in the world do you do with all those leads?

    SEO phrases and SEO in general has never been my major source of business. Very early on, I remember when the phrase search engine optimization was in its infancy, and I ranked very highly in Infoseek (one of the more popular engines of its day). But at the time, that ranking brought very few visitors because nobody besides those in the industry knew the phrase. It actually took years and years before I started getting real traffic for that phrase. And even then, it was often just other SEO companies checking out the competition. I certainly don’t count on search engine traffic for leads for my business. What is good for leads are my newsletter, my forum and sometimes my seminar. The reason for this is those seeking out search engine optimization on Google, for instance, usually have a bassackwards idea of what SEO actually is. They come to me and tell me what they want me to do and I usually end up telling them, “No, you really don’t want me to do that as it would be a waste of money.” I’ve found that the best clients are the educated clients. Even better are those who are educated by me through years of having read my newsletter. When those people are finally in the position to hire an SEO rather than just reading about SEO, you can imagine that the first person they think of is me. They’re great prospects because they feel like they already know me, and they already know my methods of working. Search engine leads are rarely worth the trouble, although I’m sure I’ve gotten a few okay clients out of those through the years.

    High Rankings Forum is a very popular SEO forum and there’s a lot of information that gets passed around. What advice would you give to a newbie SEO about getting information from forums? What are some good ways to filter the “noise” from the good stuff?

    My advice would be to choose one forum where the advice rings true to you, and stick to that one. You get yourself in trouble when you go back and forth between forums that have completely different SEO methods, and it will only confuse you. There are definitely many ways to skin the SEO cat, so choose the way that’s most comfortable for you and don’t bother to mix and match! Personally, I can tell you with 100% certainty that you will get no better advice anywhere than at my forum. The moderators are all true professionals who’ve been in the business for ages and know what works. And even better is how free they are with their time and advice. If you’re new to forums, I’d have to say that at first to only trust the moderators for advice. Once you get to know some of the other folks who post a lot, you’ll get a good feel for how believable they are. At our forum, no bad advice goes unchallenged though, so you can be pretty sure you’re reading accurate information. I can’t say the same for other forums, as I see a lot of just plain bad/wrong things being said. I’ve stopped reading at most of the others now because it’s too tempting for me to post to try to correct what I perceive to be wrong, and once I got started I’d never be able to stop!

    After having been in the SEO business so long, what SEO fundamentals do you find are still true today as they were in 1996. In 2001? What has changed the most?

    Like I said earlier, it really doesn’t feel like much has changed in all those years. Title tags have always been important, and I imagine always will be. The copy on the page, same thing. Links certainly got more popular over the years, but I have to say that I was offering linking campaigns way back in ’96 and ’97 as well. I just called them “custom submittals.” We did it for the traffic, not the link pop. though, and really that’s still the only reason I’d request or buy a link today. Link pop is a nice bonus though!

    You started offering SEO seminars a few years back and you have one coming up in San Francisco later this month. You’ve been a speaker with Search Engine Strategies for as long as I can remember. What made you decide to start offering your own seminars? Are they more fun and profitable than doing SEO consulting?

    I had been thinking of doing my own seminars for quite some time before I ever actually did any. But like most things I think about, nothing ever comes of it! This time, however, I was approached by an old friend of mine, Lee Laughlin, who had been helping plan some big conferences for an organization she belonged to. She mentioned that with all my knowledge to share, I should really offer seminars and I told her that I’d love to, but it’s just way too much work to try to pull it off. Apparently, that’s what she was hoping I would say as she then began her spiel about how she would handle all the logistics, pick a venue, make all the calls, set up registration, everything — all I had to do was put together my presentation and show up! Well, this was of course an offer I couldn’t refuse.

    The first one we did was local to us in the Boston area and was only a half day. We actually had the most attendance at that one than any other since. (Probably because it was shorter and cheaper!) It was such a huge success for all of us though that we decided to do another. When we went to Atlanta, we were still doing just a half day. A bunch of my online friends, Christine Churchill, Scottie Claiborne, Karon Thackston and Debra Mastaler all told me they were going to come visit me while in Atlanta. It was the strangest thing because none of them actually lived in Atlanta, and none of them were friends with each other at the time (other than Chris and Deb who did know each other from a previous conference). Well, they all came as my guests to the seminar, and we had a blast seeing some of Atlanta! I realized at that time that it was so much fun to be out with a bunch of friends, so I invited them to speak at the next seminar. We of course had to expand to a full day at that point. Now we’re doing 2 days as there’s just so much to talk about to really cover it all.

    From the very start of the seminars, Lee and I always said we’d be happy to just break even because it was basically a free trip. We were both happy to get out of the house, and I am always happy just spreading the good word about SEO! We do actually make a small profit on each one as well, which is a nice bonus.

    As to whether they’re more fun and profitable than doing SEO consulting, they’re definitely more fun, but not necessarily more profitable. I suppose if you figure it’s just a day’s work, it’s not bad, but I personally have no interest in taking the show on the road and doing more than a couple a year. I like to get out now and then, but between the SES conference schedule and my 2 seminars, that’s definitely enough travel for me.

    You also have the Search Creative business. How did that come about? What kind of work do you do and how does it fit in with High Rankings?

    Well, this is a long story, but I’ll see if I can condense it for you. I was working solo for years through High Rankings, although I never did all the work myself. I am not a copywriter and always partnered with professionals for that aspect. I often subbed out linking stuff to trusted colleagues as well. But for the most part, I was running the show and doing a good chunk of the work. Because of my high profile in the SEO world, I’ve never lacked for leads. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t service as many companies who would have liked to become my clients. I was literally turning down work every single day. It got to the point where I decided I would just do consulting services, like site analysis reports and phone consultations as opposed to full service SEO. (Although I would do some full SEO if they first were a consulting client.) As my profile rose even further, larger clients with larger sites started coming to me wondering if I could help them. Now, turning down Fortune 500 companies who want to work with you is really kinda dumb, so something had to change. Most of the time, a simple doubling of my prices when I got too busy would handle things for awhile, but even that didn’t work anymore as it seemed that big companies were willing to pay just about anything if they felt I could help them bring more targeted search engine traffic to their site. (It’s always hard to remember just how valuable our services are to our clients!)

    Anyway, my husband was always hearing me complain about turning clients away and one day he had a light bulb moment. The woman who had headed the marketing department at his work, Lorraine Marino, had started her own company. He knew that she had a lot of creative, talented people working for her, but also that they didn’t have enough work. They didn’t do SEO, but had been starting to get heavy into website design along with their traditional marketing services. He asked if I thought there might be some way I could train them in SEO and funnel off some of my work to them. I was skeptical at first because I’m terrible at delegating stuff, and have that “no one can do it as well as I can attitude,” but I met with her to see if there might be a good fit. We ended up hitting it off really well, and I was very impressed with the work they had been doing. I felt that I could easily teach a bunch of smart, creative people the SEO ropes, and Search Creative, LLC was born! I’ve been able to continue working at home, and just go into the Cambridge, MA office as necessary, but I still oversee all the SEO work we do. Clients who hire us are expecting to work with me, so it’s important for me to continue to stay involved. It’s been close to 2 years now, and we’ve certainly learned a lot along the way. I’m trying to do less consulting through High Rankings so that I can have more time to devote to Search Creative, but it’s always difficult to balance everything. I do think that things would work even better if I was at the office more, and we’re going to be looking for some larger space in the near future. I can’t imagine that I’ll be a regular ole 9-5er though as there’s no way I’m gonna fight Boston rush hour traffic. But even if I just come in part time hours, I think it will be good for all of us. Plus, it’s a shame to leave my Mini Cooper sitting in my driveway all day, anyway!

    Do people still send you chocolate?

    I stopped “begging” for it awhile ago when I actually started to get sick of it, and when my waistline started coincidently growing! Every now and then though, a long time subscriber will still send some. I just received some last week, in fact!

    What could search engines be doing better in terms of communicating with the SEO community? Are there tools for search marketers from the search engines (like Yahoo SiteExplorer) that you would like to see?

    You’ll find I differ from most SEOs on this question. I don’t think the search engines should be communicating with the SEO community at all. Why would they? Why would we need them to? Our job is to figure them out not to have them spoon feed us what to do. What fun is it for them to tell us the rules? Blech, how boring that would be! I’m probably one of the few SEOs who don’t read Matt Cutts’ blog (unless I’m specifically directed to a particular post for one reason or another). I really believe that the search engines don’t truly communicate anything worthwhile anyway. For the most part it’s just a whole lot of propaganda. But for those who are silly enough to believe what they say, it’s all the better for those of us who know the truth because we figure stuff out for ourselves!

    As to tools from the search engines, I certainly make use of certain search operators like the site: command and the allintitle: command, but I don’t need much more than that!

    Your newsletter must reach a million people these days 🙂 and quite a few of them rely on it as a resource. What are some of the resources you rely on for information on SEO/SEM? Best practices, news, industry information.

    Ah well‚Ķnot quite a million yet! At one point it was well over 30,000, but then I had to switch to double opt in and lost a huge chunk of subscribers. It was very depressing to be back down below 10,000 at that time. Now, I’m back up to around 22,000 so I feel good about that.

    For other SEO resources‚Ķhmm‚Ķthe only place I visit consistently besides my own forum would be Threadwatch. I can sometimes find stuff out there that I might not have heard about elsewhere. Plus, Google Alerts. Mostly there’s just junk articles and crappy press releases that show up, but now and then there’ll be a decent article of interest. But again, I get most of my knowledge by doing. I don’t believe anything anyone else says about SEO unless I have seen it with my own eyes. And I tell this to people at my seminars or those reading my newsletter. They should not believe anyone either, not even me. They should just roll up their sleeves and do stuff and check the results. If you think you figured something out, test it again and again to make sure you’re not just mixing up cause and effect. That’s the best way to really learn SEO if you ask me.

    What search engines do you use most often? Do you use different engines for different purposes? Are there any unique search engines that you use?

    I don’t search a whole lot as I have specific sites I visit already bookmarked. But, if I do want to look something up, I generally use Google. If I’m looking for something very specialized, I will sometimes check out Yahoo or Ask, as well. But really, Google pretty much has what I need, when I need it. You just have to know how to search properly in order to get the best results.

    Well said, Jill. Thanks!

    FYI, I you’d like to get SEO pearls of wisdom from Jill and friends in person, then check out the High Rankings Search Engine Marketing Seminar. Readers of Online Marketing Blog can get a 25% discount if you use the code TOPRANK when you register.

    Thursday March 30 and Friday March 31, 2006
    The Holiday Inn Walnut Creek, CA
    Registration before March 15th is $1195.
    After March 15th, it is $1395