Fresh Takes on Link Building and SEO – Jason White

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Fresh Takes on Link Building and SEO – Jason White

Taking a human-centric approach to SEO and digital marketing will go a long way to getting you in front of your most ideal audience, versus just pushing out ad impressions to the masses. That’s exactly the approach that Jason White and his team at PMG are taking to help some of the biggest brands out there. The key is to use your analytics and data – combined with creativity and technology – to drive your marketing efforts on multiple channels.

Rich: Recognized as one of the top minds in SEO, my next guest leads PMG’s team in crafting strategy for and developing against modern SEO objectives. With over a decade of digital experience focused on mastering the art and science of SEO, he brings deep knowledge of best practices, and is uniquely able to help brands navigate challenges since he’s been on both the agency and client sides of the business.

Get ready for some great new strategies and tactics around SEO from Jason White. Jason, welcome to the show.

Jason: Thank you for having me.

Rich: Now, you’ve got an interesting story of how you got started in all this online business with a bike store in Boston. Would you share that story with us?

Jason: For sure. As you can imagine, in the winter time Boston is a little snowy, a little cold, and there’s not a whole lot of sales to be had. So I was looking for opportunities to increase or reach my quota, and I realized that there’s all this excess inventory that we had laying around the shop, and a lot of that stuff could be sold on eBay. And this is probably like 2003, 2004 when eBay was still a pretty big site – I mean it’s still a pretty big site – but it was a bit more popular than it is now, or the perception of it is now. But basically I started optimizing these pages.

I didn’t even really realize what I was doing, but I was able to sell a lot of the inventory very, very quickly. So I went from getting in trouble for “playing around on the computer” to actually showing sales for my efforts and getting dedicated time. So after selling out a lot of the inventory that we could sell, I kind of pivoted and start playing in the local space and trying to get ourselves to outrank the other bike shops within the Boston community.

Rich: So you started going head-to-head with them on SEO. What did that experience teach you about demographic marketing?

Jason: Well, it taught me that there was a whole industry behind a lot of the stuff that I was doing. Some of the activities that I was doing are a little shady and black hat, with I had no idea at the time. There wasn’t really like a dedicated resource to SEO, a lot of the stuff was found in forums, so I was reading through forums about what other people were doing and teaching myself how to do all the stuff.

The demographic aspect I think came in more of like my second or third job that I was doing digital marketing. At one point I sold patches – embroidered patches like what you’d find on a police uniform or a motorcycle enthusiast would wear – and we also sold to Boy Scouts. So a lot of different people would consume these products, and what I could do with the Boy Scouts would not work at all with bikers, and what I could do marketing wise with the bikers would not be good to show the Boy Scouts. So it really taught me about different demographics and how I can use keywords to reach each of these demographics.

Rich: Even if you were selling similar products to each group.

Jason: Exactly. It expands your reach when you target specific key words that are unique to each of these audiences, but it also gives you additional application opportunities if you’re understanding where these, I call them watering holes, but if you understand where these watering holes are and where users congregate, you can push content to those places.

Rich: Now like a lot of people who were doing SEO in that time period, you kind of just started to figure it out on your own as you said, but you ultimately were able to land a job doing just SEO. Tell me about how you got that job.

Jason: When I was at the patch company I was a little bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and it really enabled me to build myself as a t-shaped marketer. I did the email marketing, I did the paid aspect, I did SEO, I did a little bit of social media marketing, I think we called it community management back in the day, I did all the blogging. Basically just the one man show. I did some media bios and stuff like that too.

So at the time, I thought SEO was snake oil, it still kind of has that perception unfortunately, but I really wanted to be on the paid side. So I kept playing the lead at a local agency, I lived in upstate New York at the time, and I wasn’t able to secure an interview. And I realized that I could follow the Sia CEO on Twitter and I could set up a bunch of alerts so that whenever he was online, I would get alerts or notifications about what he was tweeting about, or what he was posting on different social networks. And it enabled me to develop an organic relationship with him. I could communicate with the CEO on topics that I had authority to discuss, and ignore the stuff that I might not have authority to discuss.

Being the jack-of-all-trades, after about two months of doing this and organically building that relationship, he posted something about SEO and having a job opening and so I jumped at that. I really just wanted to build relationships with different brands and kind of have that as a part of my career. I thought the agency would give me a lot more visibility, a lot more data, a lot more experiences in that regard. So when he posted this, I asked how much experience they were looking for, and was able to secure an interview that way. And I actually shared how I targeted them during the interview and they offered me a position right on the spot.

Rich: Yeah, you definitely showed some unique skills in doing that, that’s pretty cool. You mentioned that this kind of taught you a little about two triggers, which then led into some of your link building strategies. Now for me, link building is like the least exciting part of SEO. Even though I know it’s critical. I hate doing it, I have to admit.

Talk to me a little bit about how you moved from one to the other, and then how you’re using these kind of triggers to do link building.

Jason: I had a client, they had different franchises all around the country, and I was trying to get my client placed in a local newspaper, I think I was like North Carolina or something like that. So this local newspaper had an editor, and the editor wrote the majority of the articles, and so he had this whole online presence. So I was following him trying to understand what excited this guy, so that I could get him to respond and hopefully get my article placed.

The outreach was not effective until I found his Foursquare profile. And it sounds super creepy but the guy was checking in to a coffee shop almost daily, and he was ordering Chai from what I could tell with some of the messages that he posted on the check ins. So I actually called that coffee shop up and bought him a Chai, and said it was from Jason. And the next day, he returned the previous email communications that I’d sent and said “Okay, let’s get your client in, let’s get this interest story going.”

Through the frustration of trying to get him to respond, I realized that I could do some digital sleuthing, or stalking, and set up some alerts and build organic. And I was able to find my loophole that way. Is that a strategy that’s super effective at scale? I can’t track a thousand people, but I look at links as being vital. And in this case it was more about the publicity that being in a local newspaper would have. I wasn’t so concerned about having a .com link back to our domain. I really just wanted to get that publicity and the reach. And so the KPIs were a little bit different.

Rich: But if you’re using the same tactic today…are you are using the same tactic today? And if so, is that helping you get more inbound links?

Jason: Yes, absolutely. It’s something that I’m still actively doing today, and I do it for professional life. There’s certainly speaking engagements that I would love to be a participant in, and so I have some alerts set up where when those individuals are online, I can communicate with them. But it also is a strategy that when we have a really targeted high value link, it’s something that we want to, as an agency, value that relationship.

So when we’re talking and stalking somebody, I should probably come up with a different phrase than digital stalking.

Rich: I do like talking and stalking, but I agree that the stalking term in this day and age maybe has a little bit of a cloud over it. I like sleuthing, though.

Jason: So the digital sleuthing aspect of it, it’s valuable in establishing that initial relationship with whoever it is that we’re targeting.

Rich: And is it because you feel that link building – although this like you said, it doesn’t scale necessarily – but this particular tactic can be very effective in terms of getting some very key specific inbound links from somebody else’s website to yours.

Jason: Yeah, I mean you’re acting when the opportunity is available, rather than hoping that somebody takes action on something that you’ve reached out to them on. And it kind of changes the dynamic a little bit.

Rich: Absolutely, because the number of emails I get daily about linking from my site to somebody else’s or a guest blog post is just overwhelming and they immediately go in the trash. So you’re taking a little bit more time to develop relationships with some key partners.

Jason: Right. And naturally you’re going to develop those relationships with those key partners, like you said, because the relationship is going to be valuable over the long term. It’s not just, “Hey, can you put me in my blog roll on the side bar and link to me?” It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that we’re trying to achieve.

Rich: Now you mentioned Foursquare and Twitter, and obviously the number of people using Foursquare these days is much, much smaller than it used to be. And even Twitter is a place that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have the same reach for mere mortals. It’s different if you’re a Kardashian or the President of the United States. What are the platforms these days? And what are the tools you’re using in 2019 and beyond to sleuth these people and also to connect with them while they are online?

Jason: Foursquare, I think, is pretty underrated by the community. I think the amount of data they’re actually able to pull in is pretty impressive to this day. They had a split a couple years ago where they spun off the check in feature to like Spawn or Swarm or something like that, and actually their data powers a lot of technology that’s around us. It’s pretty surprising to most people how relevant Foursquare continues to be.

Everybody has social networks that they gravitate towards, and they have different workflows. Like when I’m getting my kids to bed and I’m in a dark room or something like that, I’m going to gravitate towards Twitter, I’m going to gravitate towards the news, try to catch up on some of the stuff that I missed during the day. And I’m sure that every individual has these workflows. When you wake up in the morning the phone is probably the first thing that everybody reaches for. And so what is the first thing they’re opening, what is it they’re consuming?

There are times of day that are relevant and important. You can see with Pinterest traffic, it starts to spike at 6am. So if you want to be trending on Pinterest, you have to be posting before that. And so I think there’s areas of opportunity depending on where each one of your targets or digital sleuthing targets lives or congregates, and you have to kind of adjust strategy for that. Which is why I like that alerting aspect, because I don’t have to be up at 4am waiting for somebody who goes running at 5am to be online and check in to something.

Rich: Right. I know very often I’ll see, when I’m on my desktop and also on my smartphone, when somebody is “active” on Facebook or LinkedIn, to platforms I tend spend more time on than I’d like to admit. Are you saying that you have triggers that would work for those platforms that would let you know “Rich Brooks is currently on LinkedIn, now might be a good time to reach out to him on messenger?”

Jason: A lot of my triggers are based on people posting. So it’s not as creepy as knowing where you are, what device you’re on, how long you’re spending. Although I suppose I could take it that far, but I have limits, I want to do good marketing. That’s the goal behind everything that I do. I want to make sure that it’s got awareness, it’s getting out there. So I am aware that not everybody wants to be contacted online, and I definitely had as many fails as I’ve had successes. But the successes are so great, that it continues to pay dividends for me, even when it burns me in the short term.

Rich: So, let’s just walk through this. Let’s say that we have somebody that we really want to connect with, they haven’t been easy to get ahold of, and they’re on LinkedIn. How do we set up a tool or a trigger that’s going to let us know that they recently posted on LinkedIn, and then what might you do next to gain their attention, whether it’s commenting on their post or whatever it may be?

Jason: The first thing that I do is understand the landscape, I want to understand where all their profiles are and how active they are on each of their profiles. And then I will create strategies based on the profile because they all give us different things, or give us different abilities to have alerts or not have alerts.

I think that Twitter is probably the easiest because you can have an alert set up when someone tweets, but for all the other channels, largely I have to push it through “if this, then that” (IFTTT) or Zapier. And what those programs are is applications that allow us to make connections, and it will say ‘okay, there’s a trigger of something that happened at A, so I will then do B’, and B is actually what’s telling us that the person has posted.

When I’m doing that initial sleuthing as well, I want to understand demographically where that person falls, what are some of the interests they have, what are some of the likes that they have, do we share any commonalities? For athletes, there’s a social network called Strava, and it allows runners to upload activity, it allows bikers to upload activity. I’m active on Strava, I like to cycle, and I ride to work every day and ride home. So if I can find some commonality and I can connect with those individuals on some of those lesser known social media places, that is another way that I can be seen or be found out about a little bit more.

And then it’s really just organic. I want to be commenting, I want to be liking, I want to be loving on some of the things that they’re posting and doing, trying to build that relationship in the most organic way possible.

Rich: So you mentioned Zapier, I was just kind of curious if you could explain what that is to everybody, and then literally how you might connect it to something.

Jason: Zapier makes those connections between different platforms and programs, and it enables SaaS based products to be a little more effective. There’s thousands of different connecters depending on what it is that you’re trying to do, which is why I like to start with that research phase of understanding where that person lives online. But Zapier is an incredibly powerful tool. You can do just about anything it is that you want to set up. Zapier is paid, although I think you can have a couple of free ‘zaps’ they call them. But it’s impactful just going through and digging and seeing what other people have had set up, because that can give you some ideas based on your workflows and how you go about your day to day life on how to make it effective for you.

Rich: And Zapier and If This Then That are very similar type tools, correct?

Jason: Yes. I think that if you’re just getting started, If This Then That is probably a better one to start with. It is not as code based, although Zapier gives you the option to kind of mess with the code a little bit, but not as much as If This Then That.

Rich: Now, you also use Zapier in connection with Google Analytics and some other tools related to SEO. Can you share with me what exactly you’re doing on that forefront, and what information or benefits you’re getting from setting up these analytic tools and some of these recording tools with Zapier?

Jason: Sure. Marketing automation is a concept that’s been around for quite a while, and I kind of look at it as pushing out and giving you like an omnichannel view, or ability to do omnichannel with very little time. The alerting and the data collection, I feel, is kind of marketing automation on the front end, it’s for the data.

And I’m a big believer in these things called OODA loops. There was this military strategist back in the 50s or 60s I think, his name was Boyd. These OODA loops give you the ability to orient yourself to what the issue is, and take action on them or decide not to take action. And the whole goal, the strategy was put in place so that pilots that were in a dogfight had a framework in which they could think and try to get ahead of or gain an advantage of their competitor in this dogfight. And I think that this applies to digital marketing.

A lot of the tools that we rely on are reporting on things that happened in the past. When we leverage alerting, we’re able to act on things that are currently happening. So with the analytics piece, we set up a lot of connectors through APIs, through our assess feeds, through some of the Zapier integrations, into basically a data lake. We call it ALI. ALI allows us to do the heavy numbers crunching, and allows us to add layers of reporting to each of our clients.

You can do the same thing using Zapier and Google Sheets. There’s a great website called sheetsformarketers.com and it gives you the templates that you’d need – and it’s almost a plug and play in a lot of ways – to set up some of this automated reporting and some of the alerting. So the biggest benefit is it gives us the ability to action, it gives us the ability to reduce the total amount of time with data collection, so that we’re actually able to have impactful analysis that results in strategy change, or get ahead of really big issues before they’re reported to Google.

Rich: Jason, can you give me an example – just anchor this with an example – something maybe you worked on with a client or with your own company recently?

Jason: Sure. So we do a lot with server log analysis, and every time a website is pinged from a browser or pinged from any bot really, this log is saved on the server. And so by analyzing these we’re able to get ahead of any issues. My previous employer – I was at Hertz – we had an issue with Bing indexation, and through the bot analysis and the alerting that we had set up there, we were able to understand that Bing bot was having issues crawling our website before it had an effect on performance.

Rich: Okay. This sounds really technical, quite honestly. You’re talking about some bigger companies, Hertz, this sort of stuff. For the average small business owner or marketer is this too much, or where should they get started so they can kind of get their feet wet?

Jason: I would get started with Google Analytics and Search Console. I don’t think it’s too much. I think that if you were to ask the average listener when the last time that they looked at their Google Analytics or their Google Search Console accounts, a lot of them would probably say that it’s been a while, or maybe they would lie to me. So having that automation in place and just delivering regular reports to yourself. Now granted you have to act on it, you have to open the report, you have to view the report for it to be effective. But I think that’s a great starting point, and it at least gets you more comfortable with your data, and gets you a little more comfortable with what’s happening with your website.

I think little by little, and setting up these alerts, and setting up workflows that matter to you is a good way to do it. Don’t do it all at once. You got to really put some thought into it, and I think it’s an effective strategy, especially for small business owners.

Rich: Awesome, baby steps, just getting started. So there are things we can do on our own, but obviously you work for a company that does a lot of these things. Can you just briefly explain what you do for your clients?

Jason: Sure. I run the SEO team at PMG, we optimize all the things. We go from technical SEO and content marketing into app store optimization. We have a podcast, YouTube. Basically get more visibility for websites and get them to rank higher than their competitors.

Rich: And you’re setting up a lot of these triggers for them using that ALI?

Jason: Yes.

Rich: Awesome. This has been great, Jason. Definitely very eye opening in terms of how we can make connections online, get those links built, and then also some of the Zapier and If This Then That tools to get a better picture of what’s going on in real time, so we can act on it sooner. Tell us where we can find out more about you and your company online.

Jason: Sure, you can find me on LinkedIn, it’s like /jaylwhite. You can also find me on Twitter @sonray. You can also find me at pmg.com.

Rich: Alright, we’ll have all those links in the show notes. Jason, thank you very much, I appreciate you sharing all your digital sleuthing tips with us.

Jason: It was a great time thanks for having me on, and I hope to hear from some of your listeners on overcoming some of their challenges and stuff. I’m here to help.

Rich: Fantastic.

Show Notes:  

Jason White blends creativity and technology with SEO to help his clients drive their digital marketing plans. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter. 

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