Getting inbound links to your e-commerce website—or any website for that matter—can often be a time consuming, soul sucking grind. But by aligning your marketing with something you and your community care about, you can attract links from businesses and organizations that rarely link out, improving your SEO and driving more qualified traffic to your website. Dale Bertrand of Fire and Spark shares his purpose-driven SEO approach in this week’s interview.
Rich: My guest today has been an SEO specialist to Fortune 500 companies and venture back startups around the world for two decades. His clients include global brands such as Citizen Watch, Nestle, Raymond Weil, and Bulova. He applies his graduate school work in artificial intelligence to search engine marketing.
He speaks at industry conferences like The Agents of Change and leads corporate training events. Today we’re gonna be looking into the SEO needs of e-commerce sites with the man himself, Dale Bertrand. Dale, welcome back to the podcast.
Dale: Awesome. Well, thank you for having me.
Rich: So you’re back here on the podcast. I feel like I need to get alumni jackets or something for people who impressed me enough that I asked them to come back on the show for a second or a third time. It’s been just over three years, I looked it up since the last time you were on the podcast. What’s changed in eCommerce SEO since then? Not to put you on the spot or anything.
Dale: Well, I mean, there hasn’t been a world changing pandemic or anything like that. But what I think is really interesting is search behavior has changed where people are searching more online for goods that they would buy normally in the store. And also, like the background, today happens to be the day of the big Shopify layoffs. So that’s another interesting aspect of this. It’s one eCommerce company that has not really capitalized from the eCommerce boom. But during the last few years, Google’s gotten smarter. I mean, Google’s AI has been tuned to really find brands that resonate, like brands that are building momentum online with consumers.
So a lot of what’s changed when it comes to SEO, optimizing for Google, is really the way we think about SEO. I call it top-down SEO strategy versus bottom-up SEO strategy. That’s something we can talk about.
Rich: Yeah. What does that mean, exactly? I’m curious.
Dale: So I got into SEO because I have a technical background. So I was building websites, I was a software developer, all of that. So when I got into it, I had an advantage because of my technical background and the way that we practiced SEO was bottom up. So basically trying to identify the signals that Google’s looking for, back links, optimized meta titles, the keywords on the page, like a whole long list, 200 of them, if you look at the surveys online. But nowadays, Google’s AI is really solving for what Google really cares about, which is brands that treat their customers well, or being able to find the exact content that answers a question online. And like I said before, highlighting and really surfacing brands that are building momentum, that are resonating with consumers online.
So now that Google’s AI is getting better at finding those types of brands, it has more to do with top-down SEO strategy. Which is, what is your marketing strategy? How does SEO fit into it? How are we coordinating SEO with PR, with content, and our paid channels in order to generate the signals that Google’s gonna see and give you rankings and all that good stuff? But it starts with that top-down marketing strategy for SEO versus the bottom up, which is looking at those signals and how we’re going to sometimes like artificially or generate those signal.
Rich: So, I wanna get into all that, but you said something that I think is going to send chills down certain people’s spines. Which is, Google is basically rewarding brands that treat their customers well. Before we get into how Google would even know those sorts of things, let’s say that I’m a brand-new company. I’m sure you work with companies like this. They’re bringing something new to market, they don’t have any customers who can say good things about them. What words would you tell them that would calm them down and get them to listen to the rest of this episode?
Dale: Well, I would tell them to build a business. Build a business with a following, go for word-of-mouth advertising and marketing, and start building Google reviews and mentions and content partners, all that kind of stuff. Influencers that love your brand organically and aren’t asking for money, that’s a big thing.
A lot of times when people talk about influencers, they’re like, yeah, what’s your influencer budget? It’s no, I’m talking about organic influencers, which is still a thing. We forget what it was like early in the internet, when you could get influencers to amplify your brand without having to actually pay them.
But I do have a quick story. There was a company, I’m not gonna out them, I’m not gonna say who they are. But they contacted me, and they said, “Dale, we’ve been doing everything right for SEO, where doing on page optimization, off page everything, and our organic numbers have been going up for a long time. But for some reason we got slammed. And we need you to help us get that organic traffic back.” So when I looked into it, and I’ll also say that they sold phone cases, trying really hard not to out them, but when I looked into it, I realized the reason why they gotten slammed is because Google’s algorithm got better at basically demoting brands that were not treating their customers well. So when you looked online, there were numerous complaints, like horrible Better Business Bureau rating – which is hard to do because you can pay them to get a decent rating. And then the reviews, like their Google reviews were awful. Either the wrong product would show up, or no product would show up at all, or they would sneak in a delivery fee when the website says free delivery. And it was just clear why they’d gotten slammed because they were doing everything else well from a technical perspective on page, off page, SEO. And I basically declined to work with them. I said, you need to build a better business. And if you can’t get Google to recognize your business as a decent business worthy of rankings, then you’re gonna need to shut down this business and start a new one because you really screwed yourself.
But Google is able to measure the sentiment of mentions online, and even more directly look at your Google reviews. Their products had horrible reviews in Google. So how canyou tell me Google’s not gonna notice that. Of course they’re gonna notice that.
Rich: So I think in the old days we just assumed that Google and other search engines were tools that we could manipulate a little bit by doing all the things they asked of us so that we basically, it was like trying to figure out the teacher’s edition book, just trying to get everything in place. But what I’m hearing now is that Google is becoming, for lack of a better phrase, more nuanced, and they’re taking a look at different things. And what they’re trying to do is almost be more human and understand, I’m only gonna recommend this brand by putting it at the top of the search engines if it actually is something I want to refer business to. And in the case of this company, they didn’t want to, even though they were doing the SEO things, they were doing so many other things terribly, that Google now in its algorithm is saying, you’re not gonna get to the top of page one, or maybe you’re not gonna get to page one at all.
Dale: Exactly. And this is really the difference between the old school page rank algorithm, which is a rules-based algorithm, based on the link structure of the web and keyword targeting and all that good stuff. Back then, if you wanna do SEO and get rankings in traffic, you had to understand the rules. These are the SEO best practices that we talk about and follow those rules.
Nowadays Google’s algorithm is AI based. So what we need to understand is how the AI is trained. And the AI is trained by humans who are looking at websites and deciding whether they would trust the information or whether they have the expertise to write on these topics, or whether a real human would do business with that company. And if you think about it, like everybody alive or everybody listening to this podcast uses the web uses Google, and we’ve all had the experience of going to a website that we’d rather not do business with for whatever reason, or we don’t trust the contents, we kind of press the back button and go somewhere else. So what Google’s trying to do is build an AI that can make those types of decisions.
Rich: So if I bought that company that you’re talking about, I took it over and didn’t realize it had all the problems that it did. And I’m like, Dale, what do I do to fix this? And I’m saying this story because maybe somebody’s listening and they’re like, okay, we didn’t take the best care of our customers in the past. So it’s a new day. I wanna fix things and I wanna fix things, not just for my customers, but I also wanna train Google’s AI that I deserve to get back onto page one. What advice might you give a business like that?
Dale: So that’s really tough because there’s two directions. One is starting over with certain aspects of the of their online presence. And then the other one would be well, just fix the business and keep chugging along. Eventually you’ll get so many good reviews and positive mentions that you can basically outweigh all the bad sentiment that’s out there.
This is a business that had been doing what they do for 10 years. Yeah. And what I personally would do is build a new site, build a new brand, and then move some content over, redirect some back links to the new site so that you can take advantage of some of that authority. But what they really needed was to disassociate like the mentions online. Because there’s just so many where it’s like X company is a scam, it was horrible. And then also they need to disassociate themselves with the Google reviews.
Rich: Okay. Interesting. I have a friend of mine who years ago bought a business from somebody, thought it was legit, and when he took ownership of it, he realized that person had really burnt a lot of bridges. And I’m just thinking about a situation like that, that you might come into and you may have to start thinking about prioritizing it. I mean, in that case, maybe you do think about changing the name. Maybe you do think about getting a new domain name, basically burning the ships and just moving on. It’s an interesting issue.
And even if you are listening now and you’re feeling like, well, that hasn’t happened to me, we all have some reviews. and it’s natural to have some bad reviews. But if you think that maybe that’s part of the problem holding you back, it might be time to start focusing on different aspects of your business and the SEO will follow.
One of the things I know that you really like talking about is purpose driven SEO, and I was wondering how that works and what you mean by ‘purpose driven SEO’.
Dale: Yeah. So, yes, I love talking about it. So this is really mostly an authority building strategy, but what it has to do with is what I’m calling the ‘top-down SEO strategy’. So what type of marketing strategy could we create that would benefit SEO, content marketing, paid channels, everything that you’re doing, in a way that one plus one equals three with all of those activities.
So when we’re thinking about SEO, instead of thinking about how are we gonna manufacture back links, how are we going to put the keywords in the right places on the page, we’re thinking about coming up with a marketing strategy where we’re aligning our brand with something that the influencers in our space care about.
And I’ll give you an example. We worked with a healthcare company, and they were doing online addiction treatment. And what we did was we basically wrote a lot about how the 12-step program that works well for Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t work at all for opioid addiction, but it’s still the most recommended treatment approach. So we were calling out people who were trying to help but actually hurting with this approach that doesn’t work. And what that allowed us to do was to align with clinics that agree with our philosophy, align with some big research institutions that were looking at this and realize that this was the right way to do it. And so we ended up getting content, partnership, back links, associating the brand with these authoritative institutions in the space. And that’s how we were able to get rankings for their content.
So the purpose for that brand was really promoting a medication-based strategy for helping people, relieving people of opioid addiction, I think is the best way for me to say it. But that’s in the healthcare space.
So there was another one, a company we worked with. They are a boring manufacturer where it’s basically two founders, they make these Velcro straps that you would use to basically make wires tidy. So imagine you’re installing networking cable or something in a huge building. And so all this company does is make these Velcro straps. So the two founders are manufacturing engineers to the core. When I met them and talked to them a little bit, I realized that one of the founders volunteers at a local trade school, and because he wants to help young people get into the trades. These are not sexy jobs, but they’re good jobs for a lot of people. Young people just don’t know about it.
So what we did, and this is the purpose driven SEO campaign, was we put together a campaign that we called the campaign to recruit the next generation of electricians. And what that allowed us to do was to interview some folks who had just graduated that are getting into the trades and how well they’re doing. We put up one campaign page that like-minded influencers could promote if they agreed with us. And what we were able to do with a campaign like that – and remember, this is an SEO campaign at the end of the day – we’re trying to build authority with back links, positive mentions, associating their brand with authoritative individuals in the space. But when we’re getting back links from a campaign like that, we’re getting back links from electricians, unions, or carpenter unions, or even frontline worker unions. And then also we partnered with an advocacy group that helps previously incarcerated youth to find jobs.
So when you think about it from an SEO perspective, normally when you’re working with an SEO agency, you’re getting back links and maybe they help, maybe they don’t, but they’re coming from these low tier publishers. Because a lot of those links can be bought with either money or a good piece of content. But we’re able to get the types of links that on Google gives more credit because you don’t normally see these types of links in an SEO campaign. And that’s how we’re getting it with this purpose driven SEO camp.
Rich: So that sounds great. And I love, especially the second example where you kind of pulled out of them that there was this opportunity to create purpose driven SEO campaign. But does that mean that you have to have a social mission if you’re a business, and what if you don’t have one? What if nothing seems like a natural fit that’s in alignment with your mission or values?
Dale: I love that you asked that question, because when I do this, I’m doing this in person at 20 conferences this year, I’m talking about purpose driven SEO. And I always, at some point during the talk, I ask the audience who here cares about feeding hungry children? And a few people nervously raise their hand. And I’m like, okay, that’s good. We’ve got 200 people in the room, three or four of you don’t wanna let hungry children die. So, we’ve got some goodwill in the room, at least. The rest of you probably should be ashamed of yourself. But I’m not gonna say that out loud. And so basically the reason why I say that is leading into the fact that it absolutely does not need to be a social mission.
So for the 190 people in that room who don’t care about feeding hungry children, there’s hope for them too, when it comes to creating a marketing campaign. Because we could do something like push back on a regulatory issue that’s affecting your customers or your business, or we could align your brand with influencers that promote veteran run businesses or made in America products, or the first responder community is really ripe. If you can make that connection somehow, help first responders, because then you’re getting some pretty juicy links, even like .gov links. And that is just really hard to do that nowadays. So absolutely it doesn’t need… and I’ll give you one more example.
I used to run a baby product review site a long time ago. So this is one of the first purpose driven campaigns that I did. What was going on there was we promoted a lot of handmade children’s products where we would review them. And we just really liked those relationships with those sellers, because they were awesome, like awesome makers. And what happened was there was a law that was about to be passed. It was regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Administration saying that any product that is sold for children needed to do $100,000 worth of lead testing before you could sell the first product. And what that meant for handmade makers if they were just making one, they’re out of business because they’re not gonna do $100,000 of lead testing on one product.
So what we did for an SEO campaign was we led the charge against that regulation where we interviewed makers who were afraid that they were going to lose their livelihood. We interviewed people who were consumers of these products and didn’t want them to disappear. And so we partnered with a law firm, and some advocacy groups, some Etsy sellers, and we were able to make some noise. We had a badge that we put on everybody’s page that everybody’s site that obviously linked back to our site. And we were basically able to do an SEO authority driven campaign that was centered around leading the charge against that new regulation.
Rich: All right, great story. And what I want to go now is maybe just a little bit deeper. And so if you’re doing something like this, you find your purpose driven content. What do you do next? Like in this case, it sounded like you were hosting content on your website and getting other people to link over to. Is that the best way to do it? Is it the only way to do it? Is it part of the bigger picture? Like, just lay out what a campaign might look like?
Dale: Yeah. Well, I’m an engineer, so I’ve got this process down, and we do it a bunch of times a year obviously, since we do client work. But really what it start the way I start the process is looking at looking for the partners that we wanna partner with. So we’re looking at, and it really depends on the industry that you’re in, because it could be like a B2B company that sells water filters. Now all of a sudden, we know that we want to partner with the water filtration engineers of an America society. A bunch of conferences out there around water filtration and that sort of thing.
So first thing we’re doing is looking at who are those partners? Then we want to understand what they care about. Because we’re trying to find something that is authentic to us, that we can align with our brand, that these specific partners that we want to partner with in our space that they would be willing to promote.
And they’re not gonna ask for money. That’s the important thing that they promote it. So we’re trying to choose something, and just using this example of like water filters, we want to choose something that we know the American Water Filtration Association is excited about. So we’re looking at their blog, we’re looking at their tweets. We’re just trying to figure out what that might be.
Then we choose something, and it needs to be authentic. We’re going to align it with our brand. It has to be something we can put our names behind because it’s going to be out there. It’s from a marketing perspective. Then from there, we’re building content, but we’re building what I call ‘citable content’. And if you think about it, the reason why I call it ‘citable content’ is because it needs to be content that an advocacy group or a first responder union would link to as a part of the message they’re trying to get at. And that’s why it gets links in authority. So if we care about, so this recruiting the next generation of electricians that’s what we care about, then we would build citable content which could be interviews of kids out of school that have done really well. Or maybe people who have been in the industry for a long time who can talk about the benefits of pursuing that career path.
And then we publish that content on our site, and then we reach out to organizations. Because we’ll reach out to them and say, “Hey, I see you have this campaign. You’re trying to help previously incarcerated youth find jobs. This is something we care about, too. Look what we’re doing in this space. This is a really good opportunity for them. We wanted to let you know about it.” And then they’ll link to the interview and say, see what we’re saying? Like, there are opportunities out there or whatever it is.
We had a campaign we did similar to that, where we were interviewing immigrants in the U.S. And this was for a client of ours in the financial space that it was basically like Western Union, but it wasn’t Western, send money overseas. So we were interviewing immigrants in the U.S., and we were telling positive stories and negative stories. Some of them were really positive and some of them were just not so great in terms of their experience coming to the U.S. But based on publishing those interviews, we were able to reach out to groups and organizations that advocate on behalf of immigrants and say, “Hey, we got some first-hand accounts that could really bolster the advocacy that you’re doing. Link to it, promote it”, that sort of thing. And then that’s how we get the back links.
Rich: There’s definitely a certain amount of PR and outreach involved in these campaigns, it sounds like.
Dale: For sure. That’s the digital PR aspect.
Rich: So do you ever feel that, as I’m thinking about the website and we’ve got this mission or this purpose driven SEO content up there, how do we keep it from being a distraction to what we’re doing? I’m thinking of a client of mine that actually manufacturers furniture, but they also have this mission, and it actually was the beginning of the company. They developed something that had an integrated workforce with quote unquote “able minded individuals”, as well as those suffering from some sort of disabilities. So from an eCommerce standpoint, how do you balance telling the story of this really amazing thing with this integrated workforce, but at the same time promoting the fact that we’ve got amazing furniture here as well the ones that the integrated workforce just put together, how would you recommend that they find that balance?
Dale: So it can be tough, but what I call that is the dual content strategy. Where you have pages on your site that are money pages, that are keyword optimized. And on an eCommerce site, those are the product pages, collection pages. We want people to land on those pages for the right keywords and click the buy up.
But then the other side of the dual content strategy is authority building pages. This is content that we’re publishing for whatever reason to build authority. So it might be a content partnership with an authoritative organization in your space. It might be link building content. It might be one of these types of campaigns that I’m talking about, like the campaign to recruit the next generation of electricians.
And the example I’ll give, the best example is a website called IFIXIT. I love this website because if you look at the content on the website, half of it are e-commerce product pages. What they sell is they sell the parts and kits that you would need if you’re into electronics like me and you wanna fix your own iPhone, like if you’ve got an iPhone spare and you wanna try to fix it yourself. So it’s an e-commerce site, that’s how they make their money. But the other half of their site is advocacy on behalf of an issue that they care about, which is the right repair. In the automotive space. It means that the auto car manufacturers release enough information about the hardware and software in their cars that you can have it fixed at an independent repair shop, you don’t have to bring it to the dealership. And in the electronic space, it’s like every time I walk into the Apple store, I just surrender my wallet on the way in, because they’re probably gonna need every card in there so you might as well just give it to them.
But so they’re doing advocacy on half of their site, and they have the eCommerce money pages that are making money on the other half of the site. When I did a little bit of research into that particular company for the SEO workshops that I do, and when you look at the back links to their website, the deep links – not the links to their homepage, but deep links to their website – 95% of the advocacy content, not to product pages in terms of authority building, but the traffic that they’re generating is landing on product pages and presumably some, a healthy percentage of that is converting. So that’s how they set up their site. And what I love about that is if I personally were to build e-commerce site, that’s exactly the way I would build it.
Rich: So even though I just wanna make sure I understand this point. So even though all of those great links that you’ve kind of naturally accumulated from really respectable organizations are all pointing to the advocacy pages on the website, it’s kind of in all boats rise with the tide. And so even though we’ve got this section about what we’re doing, our mission, our advocacy, our purpose, it’s actually the money pages – as you put it – that gain the most or at least gain equally benefit.
Dale: Yeah. We need to be careful here because yes, it would be better to have those links pointing to the product pages, because those are the pages that we want to rank. But anybody who’s built out of an e-commerce site or done the SEO for an e-commerce site knows that’s really hard when you got a thousand products on your site and somehow you’re supposed to build links. The way that’s done in practice is SEO firms will pay for those links. They will buy those lines and point ’em to your product pages.
Instead, what IFIXIT is doing is they’re getting much more powerful links because they’re not paying for it. They’re real. They’re from organizations that don’t normally link to an e-commerce site. In fact, a lot of those organizations probably have never linked to an e-commerce site before. The tradeoff is like you say, they’re linking to the advocacy content on the domain. So the strategies we use is, those links are increasing the authority of the entire domain, which is a good thing. And then also with some interlinking you can spread that link juice around.
Rich: Yeah. I was just wondering how crass you want to get with it. Do you wanna have products rotating at the bottom of those advocacy pages? Or maybe just put a link in there, or maybe just kind of keep it as subtle as possible, knowing that the overall SEO, the overall authority of the website has gone up.
Dale: Yeah. So there would be some benefit to that level of optimization rotating products on those authority building pages or something like that. But in practice, it’s just not necessary. Because if you think about it, like you’re like this co and take a look at the IFIXIT website, they’re competing with other sites with less authority. They’re doing a really good job based on this dual content strategy that they have, so it’s just not necessary.
Rich: One thing you’ve mentioned a couple times is you don’t want links from people or influencers where you’re trading money for links. Talk to me a little bit about why not, and how Google even knows that money has been exchanged.
Dale: So that is such a huge question. So what it really has to do with is like skating to where the puck is going. Google’s getting better and better at detecting those types of links, and those are just unnatural links is really the way to think about it. Like paying for links is one way that you can create unnatural links. And that doesn’t mean they don’t work. It’s a double negative. So they do sometimes work. So depending on how competitive your space is. Like I work with e-commerce sites where they feel like they have no choice but to pay for links because it’s working for their competitor, Google just hasn’t caught up yet, they just have to do what they have the budget for.
But we know that Google’s AI is getting a lot better at demoting certain types of links. So what’s really going on is that Google’s AI is looking at back links and deciding how much value they have. So how much authority should they convey to the target website and target content. And there’s so many factors there that we don’t understand, but we do know that Google’s trying to engineer this AI such that it will give the most credit to natural links that actually convey an endorsement of your company, of your brand, of your products, from an organization that has some relevant authority. The word ‘relevant’ is important there.
So that’s what I mean by skate to where the puck is going. Every year Google’s getting better at this. So a few years ago I had lunch at a conference with some Google engineers and they said, yeah, we’re probably not gonna do any manual linking penalties anymore if you’re paying for links or doing something bad that Google doesn’t like. And the reason why they’re probably gonna stop doing manual penalties is because the AI is getting so good at detecting them automatically and just not giving you credit. And if you’re doing crappy link building, they’re happy to let you just keep doing it and they’ll ignore it. That’s what they want. That’s the algorithm they’re building.
Rich: Not that they’re punishing you, but they’re certainly not gonna reward you. So you’re just wasting your time.
Dale: Exactly. So they’re happy to let you waste your time. So I’ll have people come to me and say, “Yeah, we’ve been doing this link building. It’s been working and we haven’t been penalized yet.” And I said, whoa, just wait. I mean, the traffic’s gonna drop off eventually because the algorithm’s getting better every day.
Rich: Yeah. I definitely run into situations like that. And sometimes it’s hard to tell a client like, listen, I know everybody else is getting away with it, but if you do it, especially if you do it now, chances are you’re going to get caught. And the bottom line is, they’re all gonna get caught, too. But sometimes when you see the future, when you see which way the puck is going, as you say, it’s hard to explain to somebody who’s still looking where the puck is. But that’s a challenge for every SEO agency owner, I guess.
Dale: Yeah, exactly. And I think you could really talk to them, just help them understand that Google literally has hundreds, maybe a thousand PhDs working on this algorithm to find what they’re doing and either penalize it or ignore it or whatever.
Rich: Yeah. And they’re smarter than you. And they’re smarter than me. Maybe not you Dale, I was talking to my imaginary client. But hey Dale, this has been great. If people wanna learn more about you, about your business, where can we send them?
Dale: So I’m at fireandspark.com and you can reach out to me directly, email@example.com, all spelled out. And I’m always happy to answer SEO questions and talk shop about SEO.
Rich: Great. And we’ll have those links as always in the show notes. Dale, an absolute pleasure. Thanks for coming by today.
Dale: Awesome. Thanks for having me again.
Dale Bertrand focuses exclusively on SEO to help give his clients an edge by looking beyond just ‘best practices’ and getting inside the mind of Google’s AI.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.