Digital Marketer Interview Series with Steve Morgan
Hi, great to meet you! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you became to be involved with the SEO industry?
Certainly! My name’s Steve Morgan and I’ve been doing SEO (with a little bit of PPC on side) full-time for five and a half years.
Before that, I was a struggling musician* who was just accepting basic office/admin jobs on the side to get by.
In late 2008 I moved back to my hometown of Cardiff and my brother had just set up an SEO agency.
I was his first hire. At the time I had zero SEO experience but he taught me a bit to start off and I continued to learn on the job.
I’d been an avid Internet user since the mid-1990s, so I was fascinated to learn how SEO could affect Google results – before that I’d always just assumed that it was the words on a page and that was it!
You can follow my Twitter profile (@steviephil)
* Here’s my old Myspace Music page for anyone who’s interested / wants their ears to bleed…
How do you personally keep up to date with the latest in SEO? It’s an ever changing industry so SEO consultants by nature need to be on the ball – how do you achieve this?
Twitter, mostly. I follow a good bunch of people and I know that there’s something important going on if a fair few of them share it.
I also keep an eye on Inbound.org from time to time.
There have been a lot of algorithm changes from Google over the last year. I am sure that you’ve had many potential clients come to you with ranking issues due to past SEO practices they might have undertaken. Do you have any top-level advice for people who have seen their websites take a dramatic hit recently, or incurred a penalty?
I’ve dealt with a few clients who have come to me after seeing a drop in rankings and traffic.
The majority of them had been hit by Penguin or had an “unnatural links” manual action penalty in Webmaster Tools (or even both).
If you’ve taken a dramatic hit and you’ve conducted SEO before, check the type of work.
If it’s a lot of exact match anchor text combined with made-for-SEO directory submissions and spun articles, that’s probably the reason why.
Link removal and the disavow tool are the way to go – I’ve even done a bit of that for clients who haven’t necessarily been hit by a penalty, but I’m concerned that they’re dangling over the precipice. Better to be safe than sorry.
What sets your SEO practice apart from the competition? Are there any unique aspects to your consultancy that gives you a competitive advantage?
My approach is to try and work as closely with clients as possible. Gone are the days where the SEO team could work separately from the PR team and the content team.
SEO is a complementary effort based on your other activities – if you’re doing good PR, it’ll help your SEO; if you’re creating good content, it’ll benefit your SEO; and so on.
In a way I act as a business advisor and general all-around marketing consultant, advising businesses that if they do x, it’ll help their SEO and it might just give a whole bunch of other benefits, too.
Of course, it might be the case that they’re already doing a cracking job, but they’re not leverage and maximising the potential SEO benefit in what they’re doing, in which case they just need a bit of a steer.
If you were talking to client in your local area who was unsure about the benefits that local SEO can bring to a business, what would be the key components of your pitch to them in order to convince them?
I do a lot of Local SEO work (i.e. Google Maps results, Google Places, Google+ Local, Google My Business, whatever they’re bloody calling it now)… I usually show them Moz’s eye-tracking study (especially #5 on that post), making the point that the searcher’s eyeline is often drawn to the 7-set.
Ultimately it boils down to whether or not Map results show for their desired keywords – if it shows for all of them then it’s a no-brainer and they’d be silly not to focus on it.
For any beginners to SEO, what advice would you give them? It could be anything from how to set the business up, to winning business, or just some plain motivational advice.
Be careful what you read, take everything with a pinch of salt (even from the experts), test stuff out and – most importantly – learn by doing.
I always feel more confident recommending something to a client if I’ve previously done something first-hand rather than just reading about it or only knowing the theory behind it.
I personally feel that I became a much better SEO once I started blogging and got used to WordPress, the Yoast SEO plugin, etc. – i.e. trying stuff out on my own blog and learning from it that way.
I also recommend Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO for those who are brand new to SEO.
During your career as an SEO consultant what has been your favourite or most interesting project that you’ve worked on?
I recently did some work for a musical instrument supplier who only sell a particular type of woodwind instrument.
I’m a bit of a music fanatic so it was a great project to work on and it was a lot fun to research and to come up with a strategy.
They were also really on-board with conducting link building themselves, i.e. with me advising on opportunities and them carrying them out – they just “got” it.
It’s rare that you get a client like that (but an absolute pleasure when you do)!
I’m working on an exciting project for my parents’ company. They started their company back in January 1990, meaning that January 2015 will mark their 25th birthday.
We’re going to publish 25 posts that month – a mix of our own posts and guest posts from their network.
I’m really excited as I think that it’ll generate a lot of buzz and – ultimately – rocket launch their SEO a notch or two (or five).
It’s a tricky one… It’s easy to say “create content as if SEO didn’t exist and treat the SEO as an added bonus,” but let’s not kid ourselves… If I tell a client to create content, it’s usually for the SEO value that it’ll give.
Oh and truth be told, I still use MBG – you just need to be sensible and careful of who you accept as a guest blogger and/or vice versa.
But that’s the point – just like with anything, use your head and be sensible and you’ll be fine.
It’s if you’re publishing stuff for the heck of it that could land yourself in trouble.
In fact, on the subject of guest blogging, I wrote this post in response to Matt Cutts’ infamous “stick a fork in it” statement and – 6 months on – I think that it still rings very true.
What do you think of Google’s approach to SEO? Are they being helpful by launching the disavow tool or do you think that this only gives more credence to negative SEO?
That’s a brilliant question.
I think that the disavow tool was a necessary measure (as things were simply getting out of hand and a bit ridiculous), but you’re right to say that it opens the doors to negative SEO.
Fortunately, I’ve only ever seen the disavow tool used for good (genuine recovery of bad links that a site has gotten themselves) and not for evil (cleaning up negative SEO), but perhaps I don’t work in fierce enough verticals… I think Google should not only speak to more SEOs but also to more business owners – of businesses big and small.
They could learn a hell of a lot about the everyday struggles, fears and goals of an individual business and what ranking well in Google means to them.
And especially those who are trying to fight the good fight (i.e. only doing white-hat SEO) yet who are losing out to spammer competitors…
I always get antsy at the word “fastest” in relation to links, haha! Acquisition speed is unfortunately not a good focus anymore.
A lot of the work that I do focuses on stuff that takes a while.
In my experience, fast links = weak (even low-quality) links, while slow links = stronger links, the latter being things like (proper) guest blogging, HARO requests, finding industry-specific sites, creating linkable assets such as continually updated content, etc.
What is the best quick fix way in optimizing your website for SEO?
It depends on whether it’s applicable or not, but I took on a client that had 100+ 404 pages (bearing in mind that they only had about 150 live pages)!
Basically they kept tweaking and fiddling around with their URLs without redirecting them, not knowing the consequences of their actions.
Sorting them all out – redirecting them to their closest counterpart or ‘new’ destination – gave them a massive SEO boost almost instantly.
In fact, I have another new client who has a fair few 404s, so I’m going to make that a priority.
How do you measure your SEO success for a particular campaign?
Call me old school, but I still give a lot of emphasis on rankings, especially in these (not provided) times.
That said, setting good ol’ Google Analytics to show Organic Traffic only is also an obvious indicator of progress.
Oh and I always make sure to ask clients to ask new customers/clients how they found them – if lots of them say “we found you on Google” then that makes me happy.
What project that you’ve handled that gave you a hard time in optimizing yet you came out successful afterwards?
I had a recent Local SEO client who I really, really struggled to get into the 7-set.
It got to the point where they had the strongest on-site SEO, the strongest Google My Business listing and the second-strongest DA and yet they still weren’t appearing in the Map.
It got pretty embarrassing as my client was investing more than his competitors (some of whom weren’t even investing in SEO at all!) so it became very frustrating for him (and for me as well)!
Thankfully a few weeks ago we finally saw a result, which I put down to a Google Maps error, although I like to think that the on-site optimisation, citation building, etc. was still also necessary in the meantime.
And lastly can you suggest any book, video, person, website that keeps you inspired in doing SEO?
I don’t want to sound like a desperate fanboy, but it’s gotta be Moz.
I’ve been following them since I started in SEO back in 2009 and I think that they’re great – a great company and a great brand that has done a lot for the SEO industry.
How would you explain specifically what you do as an SEO?
I’m sort of a mix of a consultant (advising on strategy) as well as a doer (implementing campaigns and tweaks myself), cover all areas of SEO really – although my favourite areas are Local SEO, keyword research, coming up with bespoke link building strategies, and the whole link removal/disavow process.
What is your primary marketing goal when it comes to delivering results?
Enquiries and sales. I ask clients to keep me updated with how things are going at their end, and to ask their customers/clients how they found them – so if they say “Google,” we know that the SEO efforts are paying off.
Not all of my clients remember to do this, so I also go by the classics: rankings and traffic from search.
Which new skills are most important for SEO’s to learn in the next six months?
Ooh, that’s a tough one… There’s talk that structured data / rich snippets may be a focus of Google’s next year (more info on that in one of my answers below), so I guess it makes sense for SEOs to brush-up on that in preparation.
What do you find most rewarding about SEO?
A couple of businesses I’ve helped were in dire straits when I first started working with them. One of them in particular had to borrow money off family and friends to keep afloat.
A few months later, we got good results from SEO and he’s now not only debt-free, but growing the business and hiring staff.
I don’t want to sound soppy, but that gives me a really warm feeling – knowing that I’ve truly made a difference to his business.
How do you stay updated with the latest SEO industry news?
As an SEO, what is your favorite SEO hack?
I guess calling it a ‘hack’ is debatable, but I love using Screaming Frog to get an overview of everything (from an on-site SEO point of view) when I start a project. So, so handy.
Are there any particular SEO trends on the horizon that really excite you?
One of the Google folks (I think it was Gary Illyes?) recently hinted that Google was going to give more attention to structured data / rich snippets in 2016.
That really excites me, as – for some sectors – it’s a really good way of showing off your results beyond the traditional page title, meta description and URL.
It’d be good to see more options open up and perhaps an easier way for businesses to implement it, too.
What are some of the top tools and apps in your SEO stack?
Screaming Frog (see above)… I think Google Search Console is criminally underrated – I’ve found some great things for clients by using it.
How is your typical work day structured?
I mainly work from Welsh ICE, a co-working space based just outside where I live in Cardiff – it’s about a 15-minute commute.
I usually get there around 8:30am, try to max out my time with client work, head home around 5pm-ish, work some more, then spend some time with my 18-month-old boy before he goes to bed, then I usually chill in the evening with a TV show on Netflix and a glass of red wine – and I might blog, do some admin tasks, or read up about SEO while I’m at it.
Which one book/blog post would you recommend every SEO should read?
My usual go-to book is The Art of SEO, but I was recently criticised by someone for recommending that – however, I think that was because they thought you were meant to read it from cover to cover and therefore they considered it a boring read, when it should really be used as a textbook, looked at as-and-when needed for reference.
As for blog posts, I usually recommend Moz’s Beginners Guide to SEO for people who want to learn a bit about SEO or who are just starting out.
Get the hell off Twitter, haha! In all seriousness though, try to plan your day as best as possible from the start of the day.
I know that probably really seems like obvious advice, but at least that way you can crack on with tasks in mind rather than sitting not knowing what to do next.
Ironically, I find myself more productive the more work I have on and the busier I am – if I don’t have much work on, I find myself procrastinating during the gaps, rather than doing other tasks, learning, or trying to win more work.
Among the Google algorithm updates what is the most challenging one that you’ve encountered?
Penguin can be a fiddly little devil – I have one client who’s struggled for years with it, despite extensive disavowing and getting some really good links in the meantime. Fingers-crossed the next update/refresh will sort everything out.