Digital Marketing Institute Interview with SEO Expert

From my recent interview with the Digital Marketing Institute on trends and best practices in SEO for Small Business. Enjoy!

Interview with SEO Expert Keith Fleming


540 SEO

Keith Fleming, president of 540 SEO, draws upon years of SEO experience to offer his anwers to these frequently asked questions.

A lot of people believe SEO is unnecessary or doesn’t work; do you have any examples or success stories that SEO does work?

There’s no question: SEO does work if used properly, but you must have the site’s fundamentals in place first. A site with thin or duplicate content will have huge problems ranking, regardless of how well the site is optimized.

Now more than ever, it’s important to look at sites holistically when doing SEO – it’s not just page titles, but it’s also content, site navigation – the whole user experience.

I can think of numerous successful SEO stories, but my favorite is the Crossfit gym I attend here in Portland, OR. It was a new gym at the time, and I offered to help improve their rankings and site traffic by doing some basic SEO. Their local listing was buried on page 6 of Google Places, and the organic listing was at page 10 or worse.

By following the basics: careful keyword research, on-page optimization, optimizing the Google Places page, working with them to get more reviews and ratings – I now have them at #1 in the local listings and the top 5 for competitive national terms.

What’s been really fun is watching the clientele at the gym grow. I’ll ask some of the new people how they found it, and I love hearing “Oh, I just did a search on Google and found them that way.” It’s powerful stuff!

If you were implementing an SEO strategy on a website, what indicators would you look to improve?

It depends on the type of business, but traffic, SERP’s and conversion rates are usually at the top of my list for metrics to improve. Understanding the search engine picture and how the business stacks up against the competition is usually one of my first steps.

You hear over and over again “SEO isn’t about rankings, it’s about traffic” – well, that’s true to some extent, but without a decent SERP (by that, I mean page 1) the traffic will never follow. So it’s important to keep both metrics in mind.

If the business is using Analytics, I also spend time understanding traffic sources, and what content is drawing the most traffic. Depending on what you find there, you may uncover some secondary goals that need addressing (like a high bounce rate, or a popular content area you can leverage to drive more traffic).

I also like to look beyond the metrics at the bigger business picture. I think it’s critical as a good SEO to understand the business, its goals and its challenges. Asking questions like “Who is your typical customer,” “How do most people find you,” and “What are your biggest challenges right now?” gives me the background I need to really understand what the business is about, what they are trying to achieve, and how SEO can help them.

What are the key areas you see most webmasters miss out on when doing SEO?

Most webmasters aren’t spending enough time on keyword research in my opinion. That very basic step is the heart of SEO. It all comes down to 1) what keywords are relevant to the business, 2) what’s the volume of that keyword or phrase, and 3) how difficult it is to rank for that keyword.

Of course, if you’re doing local SEO, understanding which KW’s trigger local results, and what local KW volumes are (using Google Insights) is also critical. Sometimes it takes hours to find the right set of keywords, so you’ve got to be willing to invest the time.

The other key area I see webmasters missing out on is content. Especially in this post-Panda world, sites need to invest in creating fresh, well-written content. That’s why blogs work so well – you’ve got to produce that regular stream of new, original content that Google loves so much.

What was the Panda update and how has affected SEO?

The Panda update (also called Farmer) is a new Google algorithm that rolled out in February 2011. Iterations of Panda have been released throughout the year, first for the US, then most recently, to all English queries in the rest of the world.

You may have heard about the impact of Panda on “content farms” or sites with copied or shallow content. Once the Panda algorithm rolled out, content farms, as well as sites with copied, thin, or unoriginal content, saw immediate drops in ranking and traffic. I’ve read that 12% of sites were hit by the Panda algorithm, although others claim the rate is much higher.

So what does Panda mean for businesses and webmasters? A focus on extensive, original content that’s relevant to their niche. There has been a well-publicized list of questions Google (allegedly) used when deciding how to evaluate sites with Panda.

Here’s a sampling of those questions, and as you can see, the focus is on quality, trust and breadth of information. Keep these questions in mind when creating content for your own site, or evaluating the content of your clients’ sites:

  • Would you trust the information presented here?
  • Is the article written by an expert?
  • Does this site have obvious errors?
  • Would you expect to see this article in print?
  • Does this article provide original content or information?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis?
  • Would you give this site your credit card details?
  • Would you trust ‘medical information’ from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authority?
  • Would you share this site on a social site?
  • Would you email this site to a peer?
  • When was it last updated?

What role do you think video plays in effective search engine optimization?

What actions would you recommend to webmasters wanting to implement video on their site?

With Google’s Universal Search results showing a cross-section of Organic, Local, News, Real-time, Images, Video, etc. the name of the game is to lock up as many types of search results for a given domain as possible.

Often, it will be easier to rank highly for a Google image or video result than it will be to rank for the Organic result itself. For that reason alone, it makes a lot of sense to implement and optimize videos on your site.

Search engines are analyzing video titles and descriptions, so optimizing those fields with appropriate keywords is a must (go for readability over keyword stuffing to encourage click throughs).

Syndicating videos beyond just YouTube is also recommended as a way to increase Social sharing – another metric Google takes into account when analyzing how to rank and display video results.

Also, make sure to implement a video sitemap. One of the advantages of using a sitemap is the ability to add the video’s URL. That means that if you are using YouTube to host your video, but you’re embedding the video on your site, the sitemap will tell Google to send search result clicks to your page instead of YouTube. Sitemaps also allow you to add video transcriptions and that means you’ve got a nice block of unique content for the Search Engines to index and analyze – always a good SEO strategy.

What processes would you undertake if you were looking to get a website to rank higher?

Keyword research is very high on the list of things I’d do. I will spend hours trying to find the right target phrases for a website. There are some terrific tools, like SEOMoz’s “Keyword Difficulty Tool” that will not only tell you the search volume for a keyword phrase, but also the domain and page authority of the sites that are ranking for that phrase.

Once I’ve got my keywords, carefully allocating them to each page on the site is the next critical step. Optimize only one page for each target keyword! Otherwise, you’ll have multiple pages competing for the same words.

If I’m trying to get a business to rank in Google’s local results, I’ll also spend a lot of time reviewing the business citations in city directories like Yelp, CitySearch,, etc.

Google Places gathers citation information from several key directories, and if it finds conflicting data, the listing’s rank will suffer. Everything must be consistent across all the databases – down to “Street” vs. “St.,” as well as the basics like phone number and website address. It’s extremely labor-intensive but absolutely critical.

How important do you think domain age and reputation are in ranking well in the search engines and how do you increase your domain authority?

Because of multiple variables (number and strength of competitors, keywords you’re trying to rank for, etc.) it’s difficult to say how important these factors are individually. It’s my opinion that domain age enhances a site’s ability to rank, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a gating factor, as I have seen domains < 1 year old rank extremely well.

I do believe that obtaining links from authoritative, relevant sites is the best way to improve your own site’s domain authority and that’s probably why aged domains tend to have more domain authority – they’ve had more time to collect authoritative backlinks!

Do you think PageRank is outdated, and how do you improve your PageRank?

Like anything else in SEO, I don’t think it’s a good idea to focus on a single metric. PageRank for me is one measure I’ll use when evaluating a competitive site or one I want to secure a backlink from.

I’ll also review PR for client sites along with lots of other metrics like Domain and Page authority, MozRank, Alexa rank, links in Open Site Explorer and more.

I don’t think it’s useful to focus on improving PageRank, but I do think there’s value in 1) ensuring your on-page SEO is 100%, 2) continually improving and expanding your content, and 3) expanding your backlink profile with high authority and relevant links. Those activities will naturally improve your PageRank and Domain authority.

Is there any SEO strategy you have found particularly successful?

I’m a believer in the basics, so extensive keyword research, combined with good on-page SEO and link building, works very well for me.

Link building in particular leaves a lot of room for creativity, so that’s an area I expect to grow and change along with SEO. Infographics have become a popular way to naturally build backlinks, but as they’ve become more popular, it’s become much more competitive to get “pickup.”

Also, paying attention to trending topics and blogging on some aspect of them (if related to your site) can be a really effective way of capturing incremental traffic. The Web is dynamic; your site should be too.

Lastly, photo syndication through sites like Flickr remains an effective way to secure backlinks from high authority sites and build your image search traffic. Not a new tactic, but still a good one!

What are your top 10 tips for beginner SEOs?

  1. Evaluate and select an SEO toolkit. SEOMoz has one of the best, but whatever you choose, learn how to use it well.
  2. Set up your own websites and experiment. See what works, see what doesn’t. Try new things on your own site and extend those successful techniques to client sites.
  3. Learn Local SEO. Local SEO has its own unique aspects, and learning how to optimize a business for a local audience is critical for a professional SEO. Read David Mihm’s “Local Search Ranking Factors.” Offer to work with a Small Business owner for free once you learn the basics.
  4. Learn WordPress. It’s one of the most popular CMS platforms out there, and as a successful SEO, you’ll need to understand how to work with WordPress pages, posts, plug-ins and more. Learn on your own, or take a class. It’s worth it.
  5. Get comfortable reading and writing HTML. You don’t have to be a programmer, but you should learn some basic HTML and feel comfortable “viewing source” on a webpage and understanding what you see.
  6. Run an Adwords, Bing and Facebook ad campaign. Paid Search is just as important as non-paid. Get to know these advertising platforms (run campaigns for your own sites if you have to) because each has its own quirks.
  7. Learn how to do careful keyword research. Read up on the best techniques and practice, practice, practice. Keyword research is the foundation of SEO, so get good at it!
  8. Learn how to score a page. After optimizing a page with page titles, H1/H2, alt image tags, etc., use a scoring tool (like SEOMoz’s On-Page Keyword Optimization tool) to find out how well your page scores for your target term. You think you optimized the page well, but do the Search Engines agree?
  9. Dive into Google Analytics and Google Webmaster tools. Both have embarrassing riches of data. Learn what the available metrics are, what they mean, and how to use them.
  10. Be a student. SEO is ever-changing, and that means keeping up with the latest news, techniques and developments. Read, participate and ask questions. Stay current. Join your local professional or networking group for Search Engine Marketing if you have one. And have fun!

Keith Fleming is president of 540 SEO, a Portland, Oregon based SEO firm serving digital agencies and small businesses nationwide.

Keith has over 20 years of experience as a technology executive and digital marketer for both Fortune 50 corporations and Silicon Valley start-ups. His expertise includes Search Engine Optimization, Local Search Optimization, Adwords campaign management and digital marketing strategies for small businesses. Contact information:

One Comment

  1. Marden says:

    God, I feel like I sholud be takin notes! Great work