The Beal Deal Interview Channel

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The Beal Deal with Jill Whalen (@JillWhalen)




Spring is in the air! Can you feel it?

Jill WhalenSpring is the picture of new life and growth, so let’s ask a few questions of someone that practically gave birth to the concept of SEO copywriting.

(How’s that for a cheesy segue?)

Today’s guest is one of the matriarchs of search engine optimization–none other than Jill Whalen. Jill has been in this business for almost 20 years and has been consistent in her messaging about the importance of great copywriting in SEO. And, it’s not an exaggeration to say that she practically invented the niche.

Let’s ask her how she got her start, who hires her, which up-and-comer she respects the most, and how she’s developed a thick skin. Onwards!

Q1. You started your SEO career in 1995. Tell us how you got into this industry?

There was no information on SEO at the time so I had to figure things out for myself.

The short version is that I was a mom at home with a parenting website trying to figure out how to get it found in the search engines of the day. There was no information on SEO at the time (nor was there even a name for it) so I had to figure things out for myself. It became apparent very quickly that what you said on the pages of your site was being used as a major relevance determining factor. So I just made sure to use the words I wanted my site to be found for within the page content itself and it worked like a charm. I started helping other sites do the same thing and explained the concept to others within forums and email lists, and basically invented the discipline of “SEO copywriting.”  I was probably the first SEO to hire professional copywriters for my client work rather than trying to do it myself. I’ve always found there to be a difference between one who’s good at understanding SEO and one who’s a great copywriter (although there are definitely overlaps). It’s cool to now see so many focusing on what’s now known as content marketing, which sprung from a lot of the seeds I sowed back in the day.

Q2. You’ve been in this space for almost 20 years Jill, how have you not burned yourself out by now?

I was sick of incompetent and sometimes unethical SEOs running rampant in our industry

Right before Panda and Penguin I was definitely burned out. I was sick of Google making me look foolish and I was sick of incompetent and sometimes unethical SEOs running rampant in our industry. I was seriously trying to decide what other areas of marketing I might want to get into (personal branding was one idea). But once Google put their money where their mouth was and started enforcing their guidelines, it breathed new life into me. SEO again became what I had always claimed it was: making your site the best it can be for your users and the search engines. While the incompetent and unethical SEOs are still peddling their snake oil, their methods rarely provide positive long-term results now. In many ways, they keep me in business as so many companies need help cleaning up their messes.

That said, I’ve never tired of trying to figure out what might be keeping any given website from reaching its potential. I’ve always found it to be like solving a puzzle. Even more so now with all the Google Panda and Penguin penalties. My focus lately is reviewing sites that have been penalized and getting to the bottom of why. I seem to have a pretty good instinctual knack for understanding what Google wants in a site and what they don’t. Even back in the old days my methods always involved “thinking like a search engine.” I also still love teaching others about SEO, especially in smaller groups such as in-house training days within a company or small seminars that I occasionally put on.

Q3. Who hires Jill Whalen? What does a typical client look like for you?

Right now I only offer site audit reviews and training. So a typical client is one that either wants to take their site to the next level in terms of their organic search engine traffic or one that has been losing organic traffic and wants to know why. The businesses who hire me range in size from solo professionals and other small businesses to major universities and hospitals. As you can imagine, in 18 years of business I’ve worked with companies in pretty much every industry there is! The key for a client being a good fit for my services is that they need to have the resources to implement my SEO recommendations, as I don’t offer implementation. Often that means I work with a lot of businesses who have their own IT and Marketing teams. But I do also often work with highly motivated do-it-yourself business owners who are willing to spend the time and money to make the recommendations themselves. They’re usually the most satisfying clients to work with as I get to see how well my recommendations play out in the real world. It’s especially rewarding to see the traffic to a previously penalized site improve.

Q4. Who’s come on to the SEO scene in the past few years that has impressed you the most, and why?

I’m likely not familiar with many of the fresh new SEO faces of the last few years. But in terms of the younger generation of SEOs, even though she’s been around for a long time now, for the past few years I’ve been most impressed with your very first interviewee, Lisa Barone. She tends to have a similar take on SEO as I do in terms having to have a great website if you want to get anywhere with it. Plus she’s one of the very few people in the space whose articles I can read (and like), because she is a great writer. Too many in our industry (and all over the Internet in general) are not very good writers. And yet they write about SEO anyway. While they may have interesting information to share, if I can’t get through the first paragraph then I’m not interested.

Q5. Social networks seem to get all of the buzz, yet your High Rankings forum continues to flourish. What’s the secret to its success?

I’m not sure that “flourish” would actually describe the High Rankings Forum. It does get a good amount of traffic every day, but interaction is fairly low as compared to some other forums. But I can say that HRF is the most spam free forum in the world! Unfortunately, that is also why interaction is low because I don’t allow people to post just for the sake of posting. Every post from new users has to be approved by a moderator (often me) and I disapprove 10 times more than I approve.

I think my success in this area has been due to my consistency

That said, what is still flourishing is my High Rankings Advisor Newsletter. It still has over 20k subscribers and according to my open rates a good 4000+ of them open and read each issue! And that doesn’t count those who just the articles on the blog. I think my success in this area has been due to my consistency  (publishing every other week since 2002) and also my ability to boil SEO down to its very essence. People come to High Rankings confused about SEO and leave having a much better understanding of it. The same can be said for my clients and those who attend my classes. When they read my stuff or hear me talk about it, they realize it’s really not scary. And they’re even happier when they learn that it’s not about tricking the search engines but simply about making sure your site is technically spiderable as well as relevant and worthwhile to their target audience.

Q6. You’re not afraid to poke fun at yourself, what’s the craziest stunt you’ve pulled?

…when Danny S. still owned the Search Engine Watch Forums he came about an inch away from banning me…

I actually am uncomfortable tricking people so even if I think of a funny joke I want to play on someone, I just can’t do it.  I have to tell them right away that I’m just kidding or I feel bad!

But to your point of me not being afraid to poke fun at myself, that’s definitely true. I think I learned at a very young age that if you make fun of your own self then nobody else can. Well they can try, but you don’t care because it’s nothing you haven’t said about yourself already anyway. Basically it takes their power away. (Man I must have been teased a lot as a kid!)  But you know, that’s what gives you a thick skin. And that has certainly come in handy in this business over the years, especially in the old days when I was online picking fights all the time. (As an aside, many years ago when Danny S. still owned the Search Engine Watch Forums he came about an inch away from banning me at one point.) I’ve finally matured (at age 51!) where I don’t feel the need to pick fights or even to answer back others who try to pick fights, but it was a long time coming! When I see bad SEO info now (and I still see it every day) I no longer feel the need to correct it. I just move on.

Thanks Jill. We may have to ask Danny about that incident sometime. ;-)

  • Matt McGee

    I totally want to hear more about the almost-banned story. :-) Good stuff, Jill/Andy!

    • http://www.trackur.com/ Andy Beal

      Me too! ;-)

    • Jill Whalen

      You’ll have to ask Danny. All I was doing was disagreeing with some moderators :)

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    Nice Interview. Jill Whalen is the real deal. I started learning SEO in 2002 and High Rankings is definitely where I started. I was living in Milford, Massachusetts and was so surprised that she was also in Massachusetts. Her and Danny Sullivan were certainly how I got started in this industry and have never looked back. I owe them both.

  • http://www.diannahuff.com/ Dianna Huff

    Nice interview. I’m with Corey – I taught myself SEO starting in 2001 and Jill has always been my goto person for factual information you can trust.