A Partial Guide to Modern Marketing

In the past month, I’ve gone from not having any idea what keyword research is to being able to name four different keyword research tools off the top of my head and have a coherent discussion comparing their benefits and drawbacks. Because trying to keep it all in my head is really not the sort of thing I do, I wrote up a little guide detailing the organic SEO process as I currently understand it, after a full month of Intense Marketing Startup.

There are two types of SEO: on-page and off-page. On-page SEO happens on the website and thus in your direct control as the webmaster; off-page SEO must involve other people. They must always be done in that order, since you can’t get others to interact with content that doesn’t exist.

Fundamentally, on-page optimization involves creating popular content. To do that, you need to know what your audience wants to see. This is both an exercise in knowing what topics your audience is interested in and knowing what format they’d like to consume that content in. Since you’ve presumably niched down enough to know the former, and since the latter is more up to each person’s personal preference, you begin with the former and experiment with different types of the latter until you have something that works.

In order to start creating content that your audience will enjoy, start by figuring out in significant detail what they want. Your best way of finding out what they want is finding what they search for: the process of doing this is commonly called “keyword research”, since the phrases input to search engines like Google are called keywords.

To do keyword research, start with some stuff that you presently think your audience would search for, and search in a tool such as KW Finder. Scroll down their list of results, checking any boxes for results with high “search volume”: average number of monthly searches for that particular keyword. Then export those results, pick a few that seem particularly good, and search for those terms. Keep at this until your fingers bleed. You’ll thank me later.

After this, organize your newly-made master keyword list by topics. I find it easiest to do this by cutting and pasting Excel, visually formatting things into lists until I have a set of topics. Each topic becomes a page or, if there are a decent number of high-volume keywords in that set, a cluster of pages. The largest cluster of highest volume keywords that you most care about ranking for, you reserve for your homepage. These are the keywords that are central to your product: not only the ones your audience would search for any reason, but the ones your audience would search for with the express intent to buy your product. (Or watch your video or read your article or download your whitepaper or whatever it is you want them to do. In the industry we call this action a “conversion”.)

Once the keyword list is organized by topics, use that to create your website organization. More central pages, containing content whose keywords are more relevant to rank for, should go closer to the root directory than more tangential pages. This is because Google gives more search weight to pages closer to the root. While you’re at this, make sure all your URLs are intelligible, not long strings of letters and numbers. Rule of thumb: a human should be able to look at the URL and know what the page is about.

This brings us nicely into the other miscellaneous bits of head-tag trivia which matter significantly for SEO. Search engine “spiders” (probably called that because they “crawl” the “web”, ha ha ha) are still robots, so there is a decent amount of techie trivia you’ll need to understand and fix in order to make your site perform well for SEO.

Head over to ahrefs.com and do a quick site audit, noting down the 3XX pages (page redirects), 4XX pages (missing pages), meta description tag problems (too short or nonexistent; too long is not a problem since their definition of “too long” is incorrect), title tag problems (too long, too short, nonexistent), and h1 tag problems (too many, nonexistent). Some of these things will be seen by end-users (they’ll notice missing pages, or a title tag that’s too long, since the title tag is the actual clickable text of the search result when it comes up), some of them won’t (depending on the page style, end users can’t tell the difference between an h1 and an h2), but they all matter for SEO. Fix as many of them as possible.

A momentary note on creating content: Make sure your content includes words. This may seem obvious, and yet it’s fashionable at the moment to create text-minimalistic pages with tons of images and fancy graphics. This is an SEO nightmare. Google isn’t great at interpreting images yet, so without alt attributes, all those fancy graphics are useless for a search spider, and while they might wow a human audience, good luck finding one when you’re stuck in the deserted wasteland that is page 2 of Google.

Once you have good pages with relevant verbal content arranged in a sensible organization that’s easy for search spiders to crawl, you can move on to off-page SEO. This takes many forms, the most prevalent of which is standard link building.

Because an outbound link can take a user off a page, Google counts outbound links on pages as sort of “votes” for the pages they link to. Having a significant number of inbound links to your site from reputable, relevant sources is akin to having a significant number of votes from influential people in your field. And likewise, bribing for either votes or links is bad, but asking for them nicely can prove useful.

The art of asking nicely for links from reputable, relevant sources is called “link building”, and the standard method is to get on Ahrefs, search for a domain that’s related to yours – it could be a competitor, or an expert in your field – and click on “backlinks”. Make sure links are “dofollow”, as a “nofollow” link gives no “vote”; in English, unless your site exists in multiple languages; and one link per domain, to prevent duplicates. If there are still several thousand results and you need to narrow further, use criteria like filtering for a certain type of website (blogs, ecommerce sites, forums, etc), or filtering the results to include the first word of your most important keyword.

When you’ve exported these lists for a number of comptitors or domain experts, stick them all in a spreadsheet and start systematically going through them. To do that, click on the link, but before you read the content, try to find the author’s contact info. Since the end goal is to send them an email, if you don’t have their email (or contact form or whatever kind of personal contact), the whole exercise is moot. Once you have their email address, then you can read the article to see if you’re likely to get a link from them for your client. If so, draft up a nice email that gets straight to the point, containing these four things and nothing else save some nice-sounding phrasing:

  1. Exactly what you want them to add. I’m talking act as if you could directly push your changes live to their site right now, what would you change? Leave nothing at all up to them; spoonfeed it all right to them. Rule 1 of getting people to do what you want is making it as easy as possible.
  2. How adding this link will help them. If you’re also proposing copy additions, make sure you note that too. Don’t be long-winded about it, just imply that their readers will appreciate the additional info.
  3. The exact links, to both their page which you are referencing and the page you want them to link to. When you do this, don’t do links with anchor text: when receiving emails from people they don’t know, nobody wants to click a link they can’t see, since it could be malware or something. Instead, put the entire link, even if it’s long, in parentheses. Being able to see the link content will put people more at ease.
  4. A signature with your full name, job title, company, and email address. This is another way to put people at ease. By knowing who you are and who you work for, and having your contact information, they trust you more.

A common pitfall that you’ll need to avoid with SEO is running down rabbit holes. You will always have more data than you need, and if you try to incorporate all of it, or be anything less than optimally efficient with it, you will spend your entire damn life on one project. This is the reason that you should find the contact info before you read the article: if you spend all that time reading thousands of articles that may or may not actually get you links, you waste a ton of time. Thus is the peril working with the internet.

And as a final note: there are many, many things you can do with a website where it is crucial that you implement SEO processes as you do them. One of these is a site migration: one of my clients (Seal Software) is working on one now. Here, you must be even more discriminating with which data you use – since some pages are not going to exist on the new site so optimizing them will be useless – and even more careful to implement the precise processes you need, to transfer as much traffic from the old site to the new one as possible.

Too Much To Do, Not Enough Time: Week 3 at Upgrow, Inc.

I was sick half of this week, which makes it a bit difficult to pass any significant judgement, but it seems to me that I’ve done pretty well at doing what I wanted to do last week, both in and out of work. I feel like I’m steadily reconciling with my boss, figuring out how he wants me to work for him and working that way. I’m still working on it, but it seems he dislikes me less now, and our weekly 1:1 exclusively contained discussions of projects, instead of its previous status quo of being mostly about the behaviors of mine that he disliked.

I’m also improving at my proper job description. I’m learning how to do a number of things, including link building and SEO article writing, with decent efficiency and correctness of technique. The biggest thing I’ve learned about SEO is that you always have way more data than you can or should try to make sense of, so you absolutely need to winnow it down before trying to work with it, since otherwise you end up going down time-consuming rabbit holes doing things which are not optimally efficient.

The most notable out-of-work things I’ve done this week are completing the move into my permanent residence, signing an Official Adult Lease™, and purchasing a bed, which isn’t that big a deal in the scheme of things but just feels like an Adult thing to do. Staying in a community center for a month was incredibly fun, but it also made me feel a bit like I didn’t have a home. Now, I feel more like I live in California.

My biggest current problem is optimization of time. Now that I’m no longer spending most of my non-working time hyper-analyzing past interactions with my boss to figure out what I’m doing wrong, I have time to do other stuff, but I need to understand what that other stuff should be. Possible candidates for top priority slots include, but are not limited to, resuming work on my tech projects, updating the websites I’ve made using what I now know about SEO, documenting some of the cool and important stuff I’ve learned about SEO from the standpoint of a beginner getting started, doing research on our current clients and learning tons of stuff about especially the tech-focused ones so I open avenues to potentially transition into working for them after I’m done working here, continuing to work on marketing certifications, re-starting work on tech certifications, reading books on business, and going to the community center I used to live at for purposes of networking.

Still, I’m optimistic. It’s very nice that we’ve made good enough financial choices that we don’t have to worry too much about money, even though we’re effectively paying twice the usual rent because we needed to put down a security deposit. I forgot to eat breakfast before I left this morning and I was able to buy myself pancakes at a cafe near work. It’s nice to have a place to call home, though I’m still working on thinking of it that way. (A definition of “home” that’s heretofore been static for thirteen years kinda does that.) And as with every week here, I’ve been meeting and hanging out with tons of interesting people.

The Importance of Perseverance and Umbrellas: Week 2 at Upgrow, Inc.

This job is getting very difficult, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, marketing is itself hard, but it’s actually been harder acclimating to the work environment. Not just the startup environment, though that definitely contributes, but my interactions with the people there. I made a few stupid social mistakes early on, and I have a few personality clashes with my direct supervisor which I need to work on.

Some of the most important things I’ve learned from this job so far, then, have actually been about how to work through such problems. I am learning a ton about marketing, because my supervisor is ridiculously good at what he does. But I could have learned marketing from any expert marketer: having an expert marketer that I don’t naturally get along with very well is an additional level of challenge, and I’m learning a lot about the social rules of the white-collar workplace as a result.

I would be lying to say it’s all sunshine and roses: actually, I seem to have brought a rare rainstorm to sunny San Francisco. But like the umbrella that snapped in half on the first day after I moved here and left me to walk soaking wet for miles, these difficulties are teaching me perseverance, as well as the importance of having a good umbrella.

As to the actual marketing work, it’s incredibly interesting. I never realized SEO could be so complicated: the last time I checked, keyword stuffing and cloaking were frequently-used tactics. Now, it’s all about knowing your audience and getting voluntary backlinks from reputable sites.

One of my recent projects I’ve been working on for a handful of clients is that latter, we call it “link building”. This encompasses many things, from posting useful answers on forums to giving helpful information to reporters, but what I’m currently working on is getting links from individual peoples’ blogs. Basically, the process is that I figure out some people who blog about the thing our client does, and I see if there’s a place on their blog where they’d improve their content by linking to our client. Then, I send an outreach email, asking for the link.

Outside of work, my life is less difficult and more surreal. Living with rationalists, I keep having very interesting conversations. Interesting, both in the sense of intriguing and strange. People here regularly use phrases like “terminal value”, “cached thought”, “operational definition”, and “cognitive dissonance”. Everyone knows the ANI/AGI/ASI distinction. I have only met one other person who is not currently working as a programmer. And yet, we have these discussions laying about on couches, playing stupid card games, and drinking wine out of boxes. I went for cheap Chinese with some dude who works for Google.

Since I’m living in a community center until I can move into my permanent residence, there are all sorts of people and events which come through here. I’ve learned about the YIMBY movement, about animal rights activism and the clinically proven benefits of meditation. It’s so interesting learning about so many different points of view and political movements that I’d never heard of in any great detail before.

California has, in general, been a healing force for me, mostly due to one of the first friends I made here. No later than two hours after landing in CA, I met an absolute ray of sunshine who helped me through the rain, and continues to do so. He’s made awesome, healthy food that I’ve been able to take in for lunch sometimes, led some of the best meditation sessions I’ve ever attended, and generically made the whole environment and experience very positive. We’re both moving out of the community center soon, but I very much hope we can stay in touch after we’re no longer housemates. This friend, along with my fiancé and my mom, have been my umbrella.

I dearly hope this metaphor made sense.