Rob Woods was one of the winners of the PDXPipeline SearchFest ticket contest. I’ve known Rob for several years, seeing him frequently at SMX Advanced, and he’s both a great guy and extremely talented at SEO. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for our blog.

seo canada1)        Please give me your background and let us know what you do for a living.

I’ve worked in all facets of online marketing (SEO, PPC, social, PR, etc.) and merchandizing (product selection, IA, UX, etc.) for almost 13 years. I spent the first ten years at BuildDirect focusing in my last few years in SEO and Content Marketing. For the next couple of years I was with Reinvent, which is the web property incubator arm of one of the larger domainers in the world, Kevin Ham. I worked on several properties there including a now defunct Groupon-like site, a social network for teens and early 20-somethings, and the very highly seasonal and highly trafficked BlackFriday.com. I have done SEO and marketing consulting for several years as a side business, and as of Feb. 15, I am now on my own as an independent consultant.

2)        In 2013, how valuable is an exact-match domain for SEO purposes?

Certainly less than it was a few years ago. True exact-match (and I mean exact, not partial) domains still carry a reasonable amount of weight, even after the Google updates affecting the domain-matching component of the algorithm. Most of the site owners who complained of being hit by the “EMD” update really weren’t EMDs; they were PMDs with domains with hyphens or terms like “cheap” or “best” appended to the true “exact” keyword match.

I fully expect Google to continue to tweak and devalue the direct search value originating from keywords in the domain. Domainers may not like to hear that, but in the grand scheme of all the quality signals Google has access to, keywords in the domain just aren’t that big an indicator of a quality site. I do think, though, that they may not take a ton of action in the near future unless there is another outcry against EMDs. They simply have other things to focus on.

Many SEOs and site owners who didn’t have an EMD or PMD caused a stink saying (and I think rightly) that keywords in the domain had too much influence. Google made a couple of tweaks, some sites got hit, the controversy died down, and I think they have moved on for now.

Where I find that an EMD still has great value that assists with driving rankings and organic traffic is in the brandability and trust implicit in the domain. It also doesn’t hurt to drive some more focused anchor text in links without it looking too obvious. Take my most recent project, Blackfriday.com, for example.

Writers, bloggers, journalists, customers, users, and potential business partners all make an assumption that you must be the authoritative site in the space because after all, blackfriday.com must be experts at information surrounding Black Friday. That helped us immensely in gaining social followers and press interviews (links, citations, and social shares). We never asked for a link or asked for certain anchor text, but with the site name and domain both including “black Friday,” naturally people tend to link to you with that phrase in the anchor text.

3)        Currently, how important are social media signals to natural search rankings?

I think the jury is still out on this one. Almost weekly you see studies “proving” both sides of the argument that they do or don’t affect rankings. Personally, I have never been able to prove a direct correlation between more tweets, likes, and shares driving a higher ranking. That doesn’t mean that social signals don’t have a secondary effect, however.

I think it’s clear that if a page gets a ton of tweets or likes it’s more likely to get in front of someone who is either going to link to the piece directly, or be inspired to write a related article and use the original as a reference. A large active social following also kind of has the same effect as an EMD in giving the perception that a site is an authority. If a piece of content is shared by a company or individual with tens of thousands of Twitter followers or millions of Facebook fans, they are more likely to be quoted as an expert (links and citations).

4)        What is content marketing, and why is it important?

To me, “content marketing” is really the production of content for the purposes of marketing something else. So if you are a publisher, your content is really your product. You aren’t doing content marketing, you’re just doing your thing. If you make purple fuzzy widgets, the content you produce that isn’t directly tied to explaining your widgets or your company is “content marketing.”

Why is content marketing important? Because the search engines say so! Seriously though, search engines ultimately still rank web pages. The engines are trying to get away from the page itself being the only important entity (with things like author profiles), but ultimately the web is still based on pages (at least until apps take over the world).

For many companies, just having a great product, business model, or brand is not enough. If you want to get attention, links, social mentions, etc., you have to go beyond just your products. When people are not in the buying cycle, you need them to be talking about you and thinking about you. That used to be accomplished through traditional advertising. Now it’s becoming more and more through search and social.

To be successful in search and social, you can’t just throw money at an ad campaign; you have to have a piece of content, a “page,” that people are willing to care about enough to share with others. No one cares about your fuzzy purple widgets when they aren’t shopping for fuzzy purple widgets. You have to give them something to care about the rest of the time.

Is it possible to be successful without content marketing? Sure, if your product, buzz, story, and the timing are just right. Instagram was successful without content marketing, but to paraphrase Todd Malicoat, “You are not Instagram

5)        How can websites aggressively build links without risking penalties?

That depends on your definition of “aggressive” and the ultimate goals for the longevity of the site. Does link buying still work? Yep. But it doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t work forever. If you want more than a quick buck, anything more than very careful and selective buying is going to kill your site sooner or later.

The landscape has changed so much that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to build links that you need to get your site, your products, and your content in order FIRST, then link build. You not only have to not suck, you have to actually be really good first before you start reaching out for links. It takes a while; it’s a long-term investment and won’t solve your problems overnight.

I’m pretty white hat when it comes to links now. Believe me, in the past I’ve used just about every link-gaining tactic there is. The engines are just getting too good at sussing out artificial patterns in link building. Look at what just happened to Interflora as an example.

It may seem harsh, but first you have to do something great. Have the best site, the best prices, the most engaging content, the most outstanding customer service, something…. If you can’t do that, you’ll probably toil in mediocrity and languish in the SERPS because quite honestly, you deserve to.

We are approaching the day when SEO and link building will no longer make up for not being outstanding, but it will help those who are outstanding get the rankings and traffic they deserve.

6)        As an SEO practitioner, how do you see the value of PPC?

The data is awesome. All that data we wish we had on the organic side is there to be had from PPC. Given that Google seems to continue to obscure the keyword data we can get on the organic traffic side, PPC can allow us to not only find new keywords to focus on and give a more accurate picture of the true mix of queries driving traffic to a site, but its tight integration with conversion data can tell us WHAT keywords to focus on.

C-level execs and owners always seem to want to focus on the highest-volume “vanity” terms. The problem is those terms are usually not only the most competitive but often times much further up the purchase funnel than the two-, three-, or four-word terms. Tons of resources can be poured into ranking on those longer terms where resources would be better spent. PPC can show that a term gets on average, say, five times the conversion rate of a higher-volume term with perhaps a third of the traffic. The lower-volume term would probably be easier to rank for, and it would drive more total conversions. PPC allows you to access that data before you pour a ton of resources into trying to rank.

Another benefit SEOs can draw from PPC is in conversion optimization. With PPC you can essentially do anything you like with a landing page (within reason) to test for the best conversion rates from a term. Any SEOs worth their salt don’t just care about rankings and traffic, they actually care about the bottom-line margin dollars that organic traffic generates. If I can take the learnings from the PPC landing page testing and apply them to my organic pages without affecting traffic, I can generate more margin from organic traffic without even having to rank better.

Agencies tend to be judged less on margin from organic than in-house SEOs because too much is out of their control. When I was an in-houser, I did everything I could to measure and increase SEO’s margin and ROI, not just traffic. It gives you great ammunition to ask for additional budget and resources.

One more benefit I get from looking at PPC data is from the constant ad copy testing. If I can take highly optimized and tested ad copy and incorporate it into my meta descriptions to increase click-through rate on my organic listings, again for very little effort, I can drive more organic traffic without the heavier lifting of increasing rankings. Ideally you’d be using PPC data to: increase conversion rates + target the right keywords + increase CTR from the SERPs, all while working to increase your rankings at the same time.

- Todd Mintz, Sr. Account Manager

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