An Interview with Jill Whalen

Prior to working on the web, what did you do for a living?
Before I had my first child, I was a department coordinator at Prime Computer. Mostly I did Word Processing and that sort of thing. I stopped working outside the home in 1987, right before my oldest daughter, Corie, was born. From 1987 to about 1994, I was your basic mom-at-home, which is what I always wanted to be when I "grew up!"

When did you first begin working out of your home and what did you do?
During some of the years when I was *just* a mom-at-home, I babysat a few neighborhood kids during the day in order to make a few extra bucks. So that would be my first experience with working at home. I also tried selling Discovery Toys for a few months, but that really wasn't for me as I'm not a very good salesperson. Getting the toys for my kids was fun, but I never made any money at it. I have to say that I never really set out to make any real money at home. My husband and I waited to have children until we knew we could afford to live on his salary alone.

How did your career as a search engine optimization consultant begin? Back in the early 90's we got a computer because my husband was going to law school at the time and needed one. He also needed a modem (2600 baud!) in order to access the Lexus law database. I read in the local newspaper about an online bulletin board system (BBS) that you could access with a computer and modem, and as soon my kids were napping (or at preschool) I figured out how to access it. I've been hooked (okay addicted) to online communication ever since!

Once the BBS started offering Internet access, I began talking online using the IRC system (Internet Relay C h a t). My main interest in those days was parenting, and there were no channels about parenting, so I created one! (On IRC anyone could create a new one at any time.) Most days I'd be in the channel by myself, but eventually others started to find it and we eventually had a nice core group of parents who talked there daily. By that time, I had already created a personal Website, and decided to make one for the "Parentsoom" channel.

After developing the site, it became a very comprehensive parenting resource, because I spent most of my free time working on it. Since there was so much good information contained within the site, I wanted other parents to be able to find it. At the time, there weren't many parenting sites...only ParentsSoup and ParentsPlace, so I started looking into how to get a site found in the search engines. I found a tiny bit of information on it (there wasn't much!), but mostly just looked at other sites that ranked highly and figured out why.

It was obvious to me even way back then (1994 I think) that it was the text you use on your pages that was the greatest factor in getting a site to rank highly in the search engines. I easily got my Parentsroom site showing up for keyword phrases such as "parenting resource" and other relevant words. In fact, for many years the site was receiving over 1000 unique visitors a day, which was a ton for the 90's.

At that point, I also started designing Websites for others who I met online and for a few local business, and of course included search engine optimization in the designs. One of my first "real jobs" from someone who actually found my site in the search engines was for a company that sold a lotion to stop premature ejaculation! I wasn't sure if I really wanted to take that client or if I could even get rankings, but I did it, and got it great rankings everywhere. I learned a ton because of that site since the keyword phrase was such a competitive one.

For those that do not know, what is search engine optimization?
Basically, as I touched upon above, search engine optimization is simply the art of making a Website "search-engine-friendly." Which means creating it (or revising it) in such a way that every page is naturally using keyword phrases that are relevant to it, within it's page text and it's HTML code, and that the pages can all be found by the search engine "spiders."

Today, you are known as one of the most knowledgeable persons in your field and often speak at both national and international conferences. That's a huge accomplishment. Would you mind sharing a brief overview of how you reached such high acclaim? (For others who want to follow in your footsteps, but perhaps in another field.)
Well thank you! I'm sure it looks like a huge accomplishment to those on the outside, I really believe that anyone who's fairly intelligent and who has the time to spend, can make themselves well known on the Internet. Even today, it's still doable if you work hard at it. For me, I was simply playing on my computer all day. Instead of wasting time talking, I was learning and doing search engine optimization. But it was just as fun! To me, getting to play on the computer all day long and actually make money at it, is a dream come true.

Remember, I never really set out to become some big guru or anything like that. I was just having fun doing something I loved. As an aside, I have come to learn that when you *don't* need to make money, you're able to take risks and make certain decisions that you might not otherwise make if you need to make money to be able to eat or pay your mortgage. And in making those decisions, you have the potential to make more money than you ever dreamed possible. It may sound weird, but I really believe that it's true.

Anyway, back to your question and the overview of some things I did to get where I am today...

I was a regular participant in many email discussion groups for years, and I would always answer questions that came up about search engine optimization. If you do that enough, and sound halfway intelligent, eventually people think of you when they think of your topic. I got many new clients through those lists, and they really jump-started my business. Still, I didn't make very much money at it in those days, and really just did it as a hobby.

One time, someone on one of the discussion lists did a study of various SEOs (Search Engine Optimization consultants) and compared their rankings over time. My results ended up being the best out of all the companies that had submitted their information. That was a big credibility booster. Not long after that, Danny Sullivan (who's name is pretty much synonymous with search engines) started referring clients to me. That was another credibility booster.

The notoriety really picked up once I started my first newsletter, RankWrite in June of 2000. Soon after that I was invited to speak at one of Danny's Search Engine Strategies conferences and have been a regular speaker there ever since. Speaking at conferences is of course, another credibility booster. Writing my newsletter, faithfully each week and basically just being myself, is yet one more credibility booster. It's pretty obvious to anyone who reads my stuff that I just tell it like it is. I'm not afraid to tell people exactly how to optimize a site, and I do it for free. The funny thing is that it doesn't hurt my paying business at all. It just gives me more and more business.

Credibility really seems to be the key to having a successful business. Plus, you just have to use all different avenues to get your name out there. When people call or email me these days, they generally tell me that they found me through 3 or 4 different sources. Everywhere they looked for info about SEO, my name kept coming up, so they couldn't help but contact me. This is why it's so very important not to put your eggs all in one basket. You can't just count on the search engines for all your business, nor can you just count on a newsletter, or word of mouth. You need to do everything!

I understand you used to design Websites. Do you feel a web designer should know search engine optimization techniques and optimize sites him/herself, or hire someone who specializes in that field to work with him/her and include the cost in the design of the website?
It depends on the designer and who their clients are. I think every designer should know at least a little bit about SEO. It's silly to design a site that won't ever be found in the search engines, since that's where most people go to look for sites. Yet there are a good percentage of designers out there who know absolutely nothing about it. They believe it's impossible to achieve high rankings (because they think it has something to do with Meta tags) and so they don't bother to really learn what it's about. But any Web designer who focuses on small businesses in a local market, should be able to learn enough to optimize their clients' sites, without hiring an expert.

Designers who work with clients who have bigger sites and bigger budgets may very well want to align themselves with an SEO company so that the site will get built properly the first time out. Most clients that come to me these days have spent tens of thousands of dollars (or more) on cutting edge designs, only to find that they're invisible to the search engines. Many times we have to start over from scratch in those cases. If their designers knew even a little bit about SEO, they could avoid costly mistakes like that.

Why did you stop designing Websites and start specializing in Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
With all that one needs to know about designing a site, and with all that one needs to know about SEO, it would be very hard to become an expert in both of them. That's why I got out of the designing biz back in 1997. I knew that I'd never be able to keep up with the trends and also know everything there was to know about SEO. (And I couldn't, in all good conscience, call my very lame designs "professional" for much longer!)

Yes, you can certainly concentrate on both design and SEO to a certain extent, but if you want to become an expert in either one, you should specialize. I'm a big believer in finding your "niche" for whatever you do. The more you specialize, the better you will become at what you do.

When you first became a Search Engine Optimization Consultant, what was the hardest part about your job?
At first it was figuring out exactly what the search engines were looking for. Once I got that down pat, the hardest part was waiting for the search engines to index the newly optimized pages. There were times back in the "old days" when engines like Excite and Lycos (which were important back then) were not adding new pages for 3 - 6 months. Hard to explain this to clients who are paying you to get their site listed, and yet -- it's totally out of your control.

Now that you are an expert in your field, what is the hardest part?
The hardest part now still has to do with making sure that the client understands that rankings don't come over night. SEO, when performed correctly, is a long-term proposition and most definitely not a quick-fix. There's a lot of up front work that needs to be done, and then there's a lot of waiting after it's done before high rankings will show up and stick. Generally, just dealing with clients is probably the hardest part! Optimizing is still a breeze when I have a great client who lets me run the show. I'm lucky enough now to get to pick and choose my clients, so I try to only work with companies that are a good fit with mine. But of course, even some dream clients can get a bit cranky when they've paid big bucks and their rankings are taking a bit longer to show up than they anticipated.

You've been optimizing content and Websites since the early 90's, how have things changed?
Surprisingly enough, with the way that I optimize sites, things haven't changed all that much. For those SEOs that based their efforts on trying to trick the search engines, they've had to make major changes or even get out of the business. Since my methods have always depended upon making your site the most relevant for the keyword phrases that best describe it, I haven't had to do too much adjusting. I do place more emphasis on usability and on helping a site convert it's traffic to sales, but the methods for achieving high rankings has only changed a little bit. Google has been a huge factor in moving all SEOs towards doing things without tricks, which is great!

Things in the search engine marketing world, in general, have changed a lot due to the addition of paid ad programs such as Google AdWords. There was no such thing as "PPC" (pay-per-click) when I first started. Many companies who don't understand how to optimize their site for high rankings in the "regular" listings often turn to PPC ads instead. It's not an area that I've gotten into, however. Again, it's that niche specialization thing. I'd rather concentrate on keeping up with the one thing I know and do best.

Many brick 'n mortar businesses believe they do not need to optimize their Websites because they use their sites as online brochures and do all their advertising offline. What do you have to say about this?
For some businesses that may be all they need. If they advertise their website in the Yellow Pages, for instance, that might be fine for a site that is just local in nature. For many local businesses, the easiest and fastest way to find them is often through the phonebook.

A business may need to use some SEO techniques if their competition is using them. There are many Web savvy people out there who will look first on the Internet to try to find local companies. Do you want those people to ONLY find your competitor's site and not yours? Why not make it the other way around? Make it so they can ONLY find YOUR site and not your competitor's!

Any site can benefit from at least some rudimentary SEO work. It will *never* hurt a site, unless it's done in a way that attempts to trick the search engines. And it's so darn easy, it's kind of criminal not to do it!

Once online businesses begin search engine optimization practices, many small businesses drop their traditional marketing strategies with the belief that SEO will do all the work for them. I disagree. If a client came to you with this belief system in place, what would you say?
No business should count on the search engines' "free" listings as their sole form of marketing. The search engines are very fickle, and they don't owe anyone a listing. At any time, your position can be up or down or even non-existent, even when using best practice SEO techniques. Don't ever let your bread and butter be based on your positions in the search engines. You should always have an alternate plan in case something happens to them. Ideally, you should be doing lots of different kinds of marketing for your business, even when your rankings are high.

That said, you can often slack off on certain marketing practices once your search engine rankings take hold. For instance, my sister used to do a lot of cold calling to bring in potential customers to her business. Once I helped her optimize her site for high rankings, she started getting most of her business through the search engines and no longer has to do cold calling. However, if necessary, she could always start it back up, so there's really nothing lost there.

In your e-book, The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines, you mention the importance of using < h1> tags to let search engines know that certain keyword phrases are important. Why couldn't one simply use a larger font size to do the same thing?
According to the people who study these things (and I really don't study them much any more), words within the H tags (doesn't have to be H1, can be H2 or H3) are given more weight in the search engine algorithms. I haven't seen any recent tests that prove this to be a fact, however. I do have someone researching it for me, and he will write an article for my newsletter once his facts are all in.

Personally, I feel that if your page doesn't lend itself to using header tags, it's not necessarily going to kill it's rankings. Very often, I don't use them at all. For some reason, many SEOs out there seem to think that header tags are the magic pill to getting high rankings. With SEO, every little step you take adds up to help with your high rankings. You can skip some steps if they're not doable for your site, and not see any adverse effects as long as you've done many of the things you need to do. And if you find you're not getting high rankings, then you might want to revisit those things you skipped the first time around. (But wait at least 3-months before changing anything to be sure that you really need to change or add things.)

In your e-book, The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines, you emphasize the importance of keyword rich content. How does one know when they've included too many keywords in a 500 or 1000 word article?
It's easy to know when you've included the keyword phrases (not keywords...we work only with keyword phrases) too many times. If it sounds stupid or contrived when you read the copy -- because you've stuck the phrase in there so many times -- then you've gone over board. You should be able to read the copy and know right away which keyword phrases it's optimized for, but not think that it sounds dumb. It's all a matter of common sense. I like to say that if it makes sense to a real person, it will make sense to a search engine (and vice-versa).

I've heard a lot of talk about Wordtracker and Web Position Gold, what are these programs and how do they work?
Wordtracker is basically a database of words that real people have actually searched upon in the search engines. (Generally they obtain their data from a few Meta crawler engines.) So instead of having to guess at the way people might describe a certain product or service when they're looking for it in a search engine, we can now plug the words into Wordtracker and learn *exactly* the forms of the words they use. Wordtracker has definitely made our work as SEOs more precise. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of things. I couldn't do my job properly without Wordtracker, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is optimizing a site for high rankings. It's well worth the subscription fees they charge.

Web Position Gold is very different from Wordtracker. Web Position Gold has a number of functions to help people optimize their sites. I use Web Position Gold, but only for it's reporting feature. It allows me to check rankings in various search engines, and show reports to my clients. This is not as important as it used to be, however. Many clients are only interested in their Google rankings, and you're not technically allowed to run automated querying programs such as Web Position Gold on Google. Plus, it's not so much the rankings that are important as the sales that they bring. I'm hoping to move away from ranking reports in the future, and move more towards running tracking and conversion reports.

No matter how hard an SEO consultant works at optimizing a website's content, the owner will and often does, go into the site and rework the content. What kind of clause do you suggest an SEO consultant put into his/her contract, to protect him/herself from Websites that do not perform as promised, because of such changes?
My contract states that during the time frame of the contract, any changes made to the pages of the Website that I optimized *must* be run by me before it goes live on the site. If it's not approved by me, then my contract is no longer valid, and they're on their own.

In closing, what steps should a budding SEO consultant take to optimize his/her knowledge and begin a profitable career as an SEO consultant?
They should take a few weeks to read all the articles on my site, along with skimming through the past newsletters. They may also want to browse through some of the past issues of my old RankWrite newsletter. Then basically, they will need to practice, practice, practice! Test out their methods on their own sites and see what works and what doesn't. I would suggest not charging extra or only charging a small amount for the SEO work until you have proven results that you can show your potential clients.

And I'm not talking about high rankings on keyword phrases that nobody is actually searching for. Make sure that you can actually obtain high rankings on keyword phrases that people really use. Anyone can optimize for words that nobody's searching for, but those high rankings are useless to the client. (If you're a potential client, don't get tricked by seeing a bunch of rankings that sound really good on the surface, but aren't all they're cut out to be.)

About the Guest Author:
Alyice Edrich lives in Wisconsin with her two children and husband of 13 years. She is a freelance writer, web designer, and Editor-in-Chief for The Dabbling - - An Online Magazine for BUSY Parents.

June 30, 2003

Search Engine Marketing Columnist

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