The Three Legs to Better Search Visibility – Damon Burton
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If you want your website or business to reach its full potential, optimizing for search engines (SEO) is essential. Crafting content that speaks directly to the needs of your target audience and incorporates key phrases, links, and metadata can significantly boost rankings in searches – bringing more visitors and prospects right to your virtual door! SEO expert Damon Burton is here to help us lay the groundwork for creating content that ranks, converts, and is easily repurposed.
Rich: Nearly 20 years ago, my guest today beat a billion-dollar company by outranking their website on Google. Since then, he knew he was onto something, and went on to build an international search engine marketing company that’s worked with NBA teams, Inc. 5,000 companies, and Shark Tank featured businesses.
Since founding his company, SEO National in 2007, he has been featured in publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes, Buzzfeed, and USA Weekly, and has helped high profile clients make more in a month than they used to make in a year.
Not only does he bring an easy-to-follow approach to increasing your revenue and online visibility, he’s a trusted educator on the subject, and has literally written the book on how to outrank your competition. Today we’re going to be diving into SEO with Damon Burton. Damon, welcome to the podcast.
Damon: Rich, thanks for having me. I just updated that from a decade and a half to two decades. That sounds old. I’m starting to sound old.
Rich: You’re the second podcast guest I’ve interviewed today that was complaining about how old they are. And meanwhile, I’m on the other side of the screen going, you don’t even understand what it’s like. I have employees who are younger than my company at this point, which I’m sure you will get to at some point.
Damon: Yeah, I’m creeping up on it. That’s funny.
Rich: It is funny though. You’re just starting out, and then you become a slightly more mature company, and then all of a sudden, you’re looking back on it and telling stories about back in the old days. It happens in a flash, brother.
Damon: It is, yeah. I guess I have another child. Yeah. Yeah. I appreciate you having me. All right. Let’s jump into it.
Rich: Let’s jump into it, but before we get started, I noticed in your background that you’ve got a couple of guitars hanging. Do you play guitar, and if so, what kind of music do you like making?
Damon: No, this is just such a great conversational piece. So I do not play guitar, but there’s a story behind it, so I’ll give you the abbreviated answer. I’ve wanted to play guitar. I followed music into radio. I worked on air in radio for about seven years. And I just didn’t start because in my mind, playing guitar or learning an instrument, it’s almost like running a marathon. Like the practice takes longer than actually the marathon, and so I knew what I’d be signing up for and I wouldn’t be able to commit to it. So I just never started.
But then what happened was when Covid happened, I thought, okay, maybe if things slow down, now’s my time or all the time. And that window was about four days before things exploded, and those guitars have sat there for about two and a half years. But I did start, just start learning about a month ago. I got my little tuner here in front of me to remind me, so I’m in progress.
Rich: Nice. All right. We’ll have to have you back on the show in a year or so and you can play something for us. When it comes to paid search and organic search, or paid search versus organic search, I think that there’s a lot of people who are agnostic. Maybe one preferred one over the other. You fall squarely into the organic or SEO side of things. Why?
Damon: I don’t throw rocks at the other side, but I perform exclusively within the one side. So I fell into it through a little bit of passion website. I was a car enthusiast years ago, and it was free traffic, and it was fun, and I enjoyed the process. And so that kind of evolved into me doing it on the side. And I began to appreciate it more, and almost like the art and science behind of it.
And when I decided to commit to it, I committed very early on, to not be a jack of all trades, master of none kind of thing. And so when I started leaning towards doing this as a career and then eventually building out an agency, I decided very early on to just pick a focus and stay in that lane. And it’s served me well.
Rich: Now you’ve been doing SEO for a couple of decades, as we mentioned, and you even wrote the book, which is called Outrank, all about SEO. Obviously, tactics must have evolved over that time. What’s working today when it comes to SEO?
Damon: Yeah, this is a fun question to answer because in my opinion, things have not changed dramatically. Now the input/output, maybe the mechanisms have changed, but the fundamentals are still the same, which are simplistically three things.
So one is how well your website is built. Search engines will look at does it load quickly? Is it mobile friendly? Is it easy to navigate?
Two is content. You can only show off on search engines for what search engines can read. So do you communicate your value propositions and your expertise?
And then three is external credibility. Do other websites talk about you? Do they link to you? Do they mention your brand? Now, the way things trigger those, there’s been new things such as voice and mobile, but there’s still the same three fundamentals. So I actually take the other stance, and a lot of SEOs will disagree with me, that I don’t think it’s changed dramatically.
Rich: I’m sure people who have seen their rankings drop overnight would disagree with you. But perhaps if they had been doing things right from the beginning, that wouldn’t have happened.
So I was going to ask, what tactics then do you feel are evergreen? But I’m wondering if you just feel like it’s all evergreen.
Damon: The weights of things have changed over the years, so it’s still those three things. But to give an example, prior to 2011 and 2012, there was huge algorithms back then. And one was called Pando and one was called Penguin. And those focused on content credibility and external backlink credibility.
So the Pando algorithm was largely, hey, don’t steal other people’s content, don’t shuffle it around. And what’s called spinning, where you basically just shuffle around your paragraphs and sentences. So before that, you could get away with content at scale that was largely not unique. And then that came in and said, knock it off, provide value. But in its simplicity, in its simplest form, it’s still just a content-based algorithm.
And then the same thing with the Penguin algorithm. So every time you have another website link to yours, that’s called a backlink. And each of those links counts as a vote in the search engine popularity contest. So prior to that algorithm update, it was also quantity before quality. And then Google came along and said, hey, quit manipulating things. But you still need those. So the way of those three areas of structure connect credibility has changed, but the fundamentals are still the same.
Rich: So you talked about these three areas, how well the site is built, the content that’s on the site and then external credibility. Different people have different names for them, but those do seem to be like the holy triumvirate of what makes for good SEO. If we are starting our SEO journey or when you’re working with clients, is there one that you always go after first, and if so, which one? Or does it really depend on where that company is and the context that it finds itself in?
Damon: Yeah, great question. We always go structure first. So the reason why is no matter how well you do the other items, content and credibility, those are only going to be effective as the structure that they bounce off of. So the other nice thing is the structure is largely one and done, unless you go in and redesign it or tinker with it and break it. Get that out of the way, because then that’s going to lay the foundation for all the other things to be built on.
Rich: When you’re talking about site structure, what are the some of the common mistakes that people are making that you’re going in and fixing, or what are some of the things that we should be paying attention to as we take a look at our own websites?
Damon: First thing we always look at is page speed. There are some free tools. One of my favorites is GTMetrics.com. You go in there, you type in your website, and it’ll actually tell you your page speed, but it’ll tell you why it’s good or bad. So this is kind of like a technical thing, but it’s actually very black and white. You can look at those types of reports and there’s very specific things. Usually it’s something as simple as an oversized image.
So if you look at the structure update first, that’s where I would start. And then if you’re DIY or starting this on your own journey, then once you get that out of the way, you offer product or service for a reason, you’re an expert at something or you’re passionate about something. So then I’d lean into content and clearly communicating why you have an appreciation for the thing that you offer.
Rich: When you’re talking about site structure, how the site is built, or I guess when you’re talking about how the site is built, are we also talking about site structure? Does it matter that all of our blog posts end up in the blog folder? Does it matter how we structure the website and how those links are? What are some of the things that we can control ourselves to make sure that we’re not tripping Google up when it comes to visit our site?
Damon: This is a good question, how you asked that. Because when we look at links, a long time ago there used to be more value in how the URL was structured. And the theory was the longer and deeper the hierarchy of the URL is nested. So every time there’s a slash, that means a different folder. But that was when folders were literal, when you had FTP and load files. And so there was a depth to that that said the further you go, the deeper you go.
But now our where websites are built dynamically. Those slashes don’t literally mean folders and depths to content anymore. They’re more like an administrative way to organize content on the backend. So what I look at is when we look at those URLs, unless there’s a technical necessity to change the URLs, don’t change them. Because there’s value in having those established URLs. Because if you go in and change everything because you think you need a longer or shorter URL, now you changed everything. And now all your URLs are different. And Google’s going to come back and say, page A used to be over here, now I can’t find it. So then you get into this big mess of going, okay, crap, now I have to tell Google page A now redirects to page B. So on the URL comment specifically, leave them as is. There’s very little benefit to changing things, and more often than not, there’s value in keeping the historical URL.
Now, some other things that people get caught up in is really simple SEO things like title tags and meta descriptions. If you’re not familiar with what these are little variables that signal the search engines of how the tech should show up in the results and how you present yourself. Do touch those. Don’t expect magical results. Why? Because marketers like to abuse things. So over the years, we’ve just stuffed the crap out of those, and so now Google looks at those less as value in shoving keywords in them. The way that I look at them is an opportunity to communicate your value propositions and a call to action.
So if you show up in these titles and metas, you should clearly communicate what you offer. And then in your meta description, I recommend a two-sentence format. Sentence number one is, this page is awesome because X, Y, Z. Sentence number two is a call to action, click now to solve that problem. So focus more on a compelling call to action than just cramming in keywords.
Rich: All right. That’s good advice. On the content side of things, what kind of recommendations do you make for your clients there? Is it just about making sure that you’ve got content topic clusters? Is it about length? What are some of the things that are as good advice for anybody looking to move up the ranks of Google search?
Damon: First, I would say is focus on buyer intent. There’s a lot of different paths we could go down on this, but even before you start mapping out or creating your content, map out the strategy and the intent. So when we look at a new account, the first thing we do is go, where’s the money for Rich? Where’s the money for this client?
I actually just had a lead this morning who had a great content outline, tons of really interesting articles, no intent behind them though. And so I asked them, “Why is your team writing this? Is there a strategy or are they writing it just to write?” And fortunately, he was candid and said, “I think they’re just writing just to write.” So that’s a missed opportunity because you are spending so much time writing this content, but it’s not aligning with buyer intent. So before you actually start writing content, it starts with your keyword research. Because what you want to do is find out where the money is. Like why are you doing SEO? You’re doing it for a reason. It’s either exposure or money. So find out where the target is, and then from there build out a content calendar that aligns with that buyer intent. So intent is really important.
And maybe the last comment I’d make on this is, you had mentioned length, right? So length does have potential value. Generally speaking, longer form performs better than shorter. But I tell my copywriting team, don’t get obsessed with keyword count. Because the problem that happens is a lot of times people do copywriting and they think, I just need to write really long or write a lot, is you write diluted content. So just like we said, focus on buyer intent. Focus on that. What’s the intention in the content piece? If you can solve a problem in 800 words, but in your mind, you’re thinking you need to hit a 1,500-word minimum, now you’re going to dilute that by 700 words. Which ends up negatively affecting the bounce rate and all these other things. So I would focus just in general on intent.
Rich: Okay. How about, I hear from some other SEOs that you want people to be spending more time on the page. That it sends a virtuous signal to Google, and so they’re using more photos, more infographics, and especially more videos. Is that part of your SEO plan when you’re working with clients?
Damon: Yeah. There is some value in diversifying the content. The theory is that if your content has different types of media, then you’ve spent more time on it and you’re more of an authority and an expert. And so the diversification helps. And then the other theory is, as you pointed out, time on page. And that’s also part of why longer form content does generally perform better, but do it with intent.
Now the other cool thing that you can get into when you repurpose content – and so yes, this is part of the strategy that we roll out – is because we’ve spent all this time going, where’s the money for the client? And then write content based on intent. Why don’t you maximize that content you’ve created? So then from there, you actually pointed out two of my favorites, infographics and videos.
So what’s cool is when you leverage those other media pieces, here’s how we do it. We do the text at the top of the post so it loads quicker and can be indexed faster. And then you put the heavier assets at the bottom, so the infographic and the video. Now what that does is now your article, your blog, has text, video, and graphics while your competition has just text. So in theory, it’s more valuable. But then also, Google can index that and you can have your text show up as a blog result, your videos show up in the video carousel, and your images show up in the image carousel. So now you have three touchpoints on page one, increasing your exposure while also suppressing your competition.
Rich: Awesome. And again, just your whole point is, but you’re doing this for a purpose. You’re doing this to solve a problem. It’s not just that you’re throwing a video up at the bottom or creating an infographic. It’s that everything needs to be serving that customer.
Damon: Yeah. So we don’t create content until we know what the intent behind the topic is.
Rich: Okay. So the third thing that you mentioned was the external credibility, which some people have called, offsite or off page links, anything like that. So do you work with your clients on getting more inbound links or getting that those signs of external credibility? And if not, what are you telling them that they should be doing on their own?
Damon: This one is an interesting one. This is another one that a lot of SEOs will probably either disagree with me on or be surprised in my answer. So the majority of our clients, we do not have a direct effort towards acquiring back links. So when I say external credibility, it’s kind of saying SEM is encompassing of paid and organic and other things. So external credibility for me is encompassing of links and citations and different types of mentions.
So the majority of our clients when we look at those three categories, structure, content, credibility, if you do really well on two out of those three, you can get a good return. Now, that’s not to say that you don’t have to do links. They’re still part of the algorithm. They do have value, but they’re the gray area of SEO. And a really easy way to compare them is like doing your taxes.
So there are ways to be more aggressive on your taxes, to put more money in your pocket, but if you were too aggressive, you catch attention of the governing bodies and get a penalty. It’s the same thing with backlinks, right? So you can do them, you can have short term wins, but if you push too aggressively, you can actually do more harm than good.
So what we usually like to do is go, okay, let’s look at this. So let’s look at the obvious opportunities in structure and content, and take those as far as we can over six to twelve months. 80% of our clients kill it after that. The other 20% we go, okay, they’ve either plateaued or they’re not as far as we would like. Then in that case, we’ll pursue backlinks. And the only other time we pursue backlinks is if the client comes to us and they understand the risk reward, they may say, “Hey, here’s a budget just for backlinks. Apply it to that.”
Rich: Okay. And what are your recommendations for whether you do it yourself or whether people are going to do it at home? Like what are some of the low hanging fruit that won’t necessarily upset Google, that we should be going after when it comes to those inbound links?
Damon: There’s no go-to. So if I had to put my finger on the closest go to, it’d be look at what your existing opportunities are within your network. Are there other vendors that you do business with that you can actually say, hey, we do service together and then link each other.
The problem that you run in with back links is it’s either time or it’s money. So it’s either your time or you’re paying for somebody else’s time, which means it’s your money and the types of links you can acquire are low quality and cheap, or high quality and super expensive. Like there’s no real middle ground easy go-to. So if you want to be really intentional about your back links, the first place to start is with your expectations. You’re probably going to have to spend a lot of time or pay somebody else for their time to get actual good quality links.
Rich: Okay. I’m sure you deal with a lot of companies that come in and are like, I need to be ranking better tomorrow. How long do you think that it takes for SEO to really take effect?
Damon: So I’m in a fortunate position, and I hope a lot of other entrepreneurs and businesses are in the position, where they don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everybody. So the people that are super needy and say, “I want it tomorrow”, are the people that I turn down the quickest. Because the problem is that neither of you are in a good position for that relationship to go anywhere, because they’re going to have unrealistic expectations. You’re going to end up taking the brunt of that.
Now, let’s ignore that for a moment. Now the way that you, the reason. The biggest problem that SEOs have when they communicate to a client that SEO takes a long time is they don’t explain why. And a really simple explanation is progress versus monetization. So you can have results in SEO in a month, in three months, in six months, but the difference is you’re probably not going to make money until a year.
Or even 18 months or two years in really competitive markets. So the difference between progress and monetization is you can have progress in a couple months, and what that means is you may be on page 10 or 15 of Google and then jump to page five. So now you just jumped 50 to 100 results. That’s progress. Zero monetization though, because nobody goes past page one. That’s the difference in SEO’s failing to communicate what’s going on.
So the expectations are you will see improvements on your rankings in your positions. You probably won’t see any traffic from that until maybe page two. You’ll see a trickle of it, but you really have to get to page one before you start monetizing it. So there is truth to it taking a year. And the reason why is you’re in it four to eight weeks. We talked about doing research and finding where the money is. It’s going to take that long just to figure out the direction you’re going in. Then you have to create, publish, distribute the content, and just the logistics behind what you have to do and how much time it takes is what puts you at the year mark.
Rich: You mentioned earlier that there are some new things in search, and one being voice. Just curious, do you do anything differently if you’re working with a client whose business might be impacted by voice search, or is it just by doing the best practices for SEO, you’re taking care of voice search?
Damon: Yeah. And for the most part, if you do the best practices, it takes care of voice. And I can explain why. Basically what voice is, it’s just an input/output mechanism. It’s not actually different algorithm. So what’s happening is there’s no webmasters or website owners on the other side recording anything specific for voice. What’s happening is you do an input and you say, “Hey Google, Hey Siri, here’s my question.” And then on the back end what’s happening is it’s going, okay, which website can I access the fastest?
So we talked about structure and page feed that has content and answers that are authoritative. So content that I trust. So external credibility. And then it finds the answers, and then it just outputs it in voice. But the mechanism behind the scenes, there’s still just those same three traditional elements of SEO.
Rich: All right. Makes sense. For people who are not able to do their own SEO, or they can’t do it in-house maybe because they lack the time or the interest, what questions should they be asking of an SEO agency to vet them?
Damon: The first thing you want to look for is just transparency. So I cringe anytime a lead shares a proposal with me or communication that they had with another agency where they say something is proprietary. The chances of another agency actually having something proprietary is pretty small. We all use the same half a dozen or dozen tools. It’s just who knows how to use them in the most efficient manner that’s going to have success.
So ask them questions that gives them the opportunity to communicate about the transparency of their fulfillment. So if you ask them, “What do you do on backlinks?” And they say, “Oh, we have a proprietary thing.” I would probably run. Or if they can’t communicate what backlinks are or what their strategy is.
And then the same goes for content. We talked largely about intent, so ask them what is your content strategy? And they should be able to communicate the intent, not just, “we’re going to write two blogs that are a thousand words long”, because that’s not going to get you anywhere.
So the number one thing, first and foremost, is just transparency. Understand their efficiency at what they do as their art and science of SEO.
Rich: Fantastic. Damon, I’m sure people have more questions that they’d like to ask. If somebody wants to learn more about you, if they want to learn more about your company, if they want to check out your book, where can we send them online?
Damon: All the above can be found at freeseobook.com. Free opt-in, doesn’t sell anything on a thank you page, and invites you to a Facebook group.
Rich: Awesome. Alright, we’ll make sure that those links are in the show notes. Damon, thank you so much for coming by and giving us some insight into the world of SEO.
Damon: Yeah, great questions. It’s been a pleasure, Rich.
Damon Burton is a true master of search engine marketing. Grab a free download of his book, and check out his blog.
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 25+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.