Understanding SEO (search engine optimization) means to understand how visitors find your site. While the basics of SEO are rooted in clean code, optimized fonts, images, and links, knowing how to use tools like Google Search Console and AHREFS can give you an edge when it comes to landing the #1 spot on Google.
In this episode, I chat with Kenny Kline, co-founder of JAKK Media in Brooklyn, New York about the fundamentals of SEO. In this episode we discuss:
- SEO basics for 2021
- How to keep up with Google’s ever-changing SEO algorithm
- Top SEO content strategies for link building
- When to use AHREFS vs. Google Search Console
Chris: Welcome to the show.
Kenny: Good to be back.
Kenny: Feels like coming home.
What is SEO, and what are the basics of SEO
Chris: Yeah. Today I want to talk specifically about SEO – search engine optimization. The way I would describe SEO is, the things that you can do to your website to help it rank higher in Google.
Chris: How would you describe it? Anything you want to add to that?
Kenny: I would say that is true and Google being the dominant search engine, I mean there are other search engines out there that sometimes drive traffic.
Chris: Okay. We’re talking other search engines like Bing, I can’t even name any others.
Kenny: DuckDuckGo had a nice surge recently for some reason, but if you get Google right, I think you’re probably fine on all the others as well.
Chris: That makes sense.
Kenny: Yes, generally I’d say Google more than anything.
Chris: It’s not just Google optimization, it’s search engine optimization.
Kenny: Right, right.
Chris: With all the search engines still.
Kenny: Yes, yes.
Chris: But beyond just getting started, there are some things that we can do to optimize. What’s your number one fundamental SEO advice?
Kenny: WordPress is great because it’s out of the box, it has a lot of good SEO stuff set up that you won’t mess up. So that’s useful for someone that’s just starting out. But for installing a plugin that’s SEO specific, I always use Yoast SEO personally. There are other options out there as well, but WordPress pretty much lets you install Yoast SEO, and you’re really set up to go.
Chris: Yes, we use Yoast as well. What do you like about Yoast?
Kenny: One, it’s the biggest one as far as I know. You have all the basics in there, and there is some paid stuff that I occasionally use. But it has all that basic stuff set up for you, and honestly, it was the first one I used when I installed WordPress eight years ago, and I have never had a problem with it, and I just keep using it.
They have a great blog, and they have a great product, and a great team as far as I can see as well, so far so good.
Chris: I think the plugin is free, at least kind of there’s a free tier. To get started, it’s free.
Kenny: I don’t know their business, but probably 95% of people use the free version. It’s more than adequate.
Chris: Do you pay for it?
Kenny: I do. I pay for a version of it, but mostly because we do a lot of news and they have a News Sitemap plugin. Which may be beyond the scope of this talk, but that feature I really like. So that’s what I pay for, but otherwise, I use the free version.
Chris: Okay cool. You go into WordPress, you click plugins, and new plugin, you install Yoast. Just in short, why would you use Yoast? What does it actually do? Is it enough to just have it on in the background, does it just magically kind of make your site better or is it doing specific things that you should know about?
Kenny: You should know that if you’re learning about SEO, you’ll eventually hear these things like, ‘Oh, you need this.’ Yoast will often provide that for you, at least a basic form. It’s like, ‘Oh, you need a sitemap,’ which is just this page on your site that highlights all of the content on your website so Google can just show up and visit this sitemap, and see your site really easily.
Yoast automatically creates that for you, and you won’t see it, you won’t really know it unless you’re looking for it, but Yoast does that for you.
Chris: Oh, I love that.
Kenny: They also put a lot of stuff like title tags, what else do they do, title tags are a big one. They’ll set up all your images in a certain way. It’s not to say they do everything for you, but it’s like they provide the infrastructure for you to fill in the rest of the stuff that’s important for SEO, and give you little placeholders.
You install Yoast SEO, and then every post you go to you’ll see this little SEO tab, and it will show you the stuff that you should fill in. If you just fill it in as a new blogger or whatever, it will take care of a lot of the SEO work for you, and definitely all the essential stuff. It will get you 90% of the way there by itself, I would say.
Chris: That’s awesome. You’re saying when you’re in WordPress, and you’re making a new post, it will be like, hey here is some SEO things that you should keep in mind.
Kenny: Right, ‘Hey, here is your title tag, hey put your keyword in, put a meta description in.’ All that stuff.
Chris: Let’s say I have a website, somebody listening has a website, and they’re wondering how do I know if my website has good SEO? Is there a way to find out, to know?
Kenny: There is, but honestly, it is kind of tough, because a lot of the tools that you use to look at it have a really high standard. You can run it through a Google site developer, which is Google’s own site that will analyze your SEO, and it will … I spend tons and tons of time myself as an expert doing this, and it scores you out of 100, and I get a 70.
If you’re just starting out don’t feel bad if you get a 30, it doesn’t mean you’re terrible, it probably means you’re like everyone else.
Chris: Is Google’s site developer, is that the same thing as the site speed tool they have?
Kenny: Separate from the site speed, but they incorporate those speed findings into the site tool.
Chris: I see.
Kenny: If you want in Chrome, this is something they added within the last six months or so, if you click on, there’s a developer tab, and then there’s an audit. You can look at each page on your site individually, and it’ll throw out all the things relative to SEO that it sees as right or wrong, and score you in several categories.
As I said, you’re going to get a terrible score. If you’re a beginner, don’t do it because you’re going to get so distraught, and it’s all this stuff that you really can’t fix or if you do fix it’s going to be so custom anyway.
Kenny: And I’m sure it would make the user experience .03% better, but for the person we just talked about installing WordPress, you should not pay attention to this stuff. I would use Yoast as your primary tool and just make sure you’re doing the right things in there before you go out and externally start using other tools to analyze your site.
Chris: Got it. In that tool, the inspector tool, I’m guessing you can just right-click in Google Chrome browser and click inspect, and then this window will show up where you can… is that how you get to what you’re talking about?
Chris: In case someone listening wants to pause and check that one out.
Chris: All right, cool. So we’re using Yoast, we are doing this analysis of our site using Google web tools you said it was called?
Kenny: Google developer tools.
Chris: Google developer tools. I have not used that, I use the Ahrefs tool, which is a paid tool that will break it down. But I guess Google is a free version of this?
Kenny: Yes. It’s free and in some ways not as good as Ahrefs tool. That’s an example of a site audit tool, which is kind of the same thing in Ahrefs where it’ll show you a lot of errors no matter what. And you’re like, ‘I can’t fix all these.’ But some of them you can fix, where it’s like, ‘Hey, here’s a bunch of links that are broken.’ Which mean they link out from your site, and it goes to nowhere.
Chris: When the Web was starting out, let’s say, I’m thinking late … Of course, the Web started in 1991, but I’m thinking like 99, 2000, 2001. Right around when people really started getting trafficked websites, and Google was coming online. There was a lot of hype around META descriptions, META keywords, META tags, where is the industry now with all of these?
And to be specific to anybody listening if you don’t know what those are, they’re literally just these HTML tags which you just write an HTML at the top of every single webpage, and it just says META description equals. They’re easy to make, and these were the most significant things that you needed to have optimized, blah, blah, blah. Is that still the case?
Kenny: Yes, definitely. I would say back then it was nice where if you just had them, you had a significant advantage, and now everyone has them, or enough people that you’re not going to stand out from the competition.
But I always say, “All this stuff on the side, the Yoast SEO stuff, getting it fast, getting it all great. In the code, it’s like putting on roller skates. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to go anywhere. But you have to have the roller skates on to be ready to play.”
Chris: Oh, okay. It’s like spring training, you’re getting ready or something.
Kenny: You’re getting ready, yes. You put the roller skates on and then you’re standing, and then the other aspect of SEO is getting links to the site. That’s when you get a push or go down a hill, and you actually start moving. So you’ve got to have the roller skates on to be ready to play, but it’s not going to just take care of everything by itself.
Chris: Got it. What are some challenges that you have, at your company, with SEO right now?
The always-changing SEO algorithm, and what to do about it
Kenny: SEO’s got a long strange history, where Google is always changing exactly how it’s ranking sites. I think that the last year interestingly has been really tumultuous in that they’ve changed a lot of stuff and nobody knows exactly why.
Chris: Nobody ever knows, right?
Kenny: No one ever knows… well, sometimes you know.
Chris: Sometimes. Matt Cutts is really famous, he works at Google, and he brings out all these videos over the years now, where he’ll say, “Here’s how to make things work well in Google.” But aside from that, is there anything else?
Kenny: Google doesn’t really tell you what to do, they say they do, and it’s very general, but then it’s so open for interpretation, and the algorithm is so complex. They’ll say things like, “You should make really good content.”
And you’re like, “Okay, great. Hey, I’ve been doing that, where are all my rankings?” Or, “You should have a great page experience for your users.” And you’re like, “Okay, it seems good to me.”
Kenny: How are they measuring these things, and what are their factors in play, and all that stuff. This last year the talk has been this thing called EAT, which is Expertise, Authority, and Trust. We operate in a lot of health niches, so Google’s like, “Oh, we want people with expertise, authority, and trust that are associated with the content.”
Right, sounds easy, but what does that mean? How do you establish that your authors or your site have these qualities? And nobody really knows, Google doesn’t tell you how they determine those things. So you try a lot of stuff, and you hope.
Kenny: The big thing that’s tricky too is that you can try a lot of stuff, but it’s not like I try this new tactic, and three hours later my rankings go way up. You do all this stuff, and then six months later, Google will somehow give you credit and then your rankings will go up.
But you don’t even know if it was that one thing, or by then you’ve done 30 different things, and you don’t know which one actually mattered. So you need to keep a really high level and just consistently do good stuff, and hopefully, you’re rewarded over the long term.
We have been, and that’s because we always keep doing a lot of good stuff, but even now I couldn’t be like, “These 10 things are the only things you need to do, and ignore those 500 other things I did.” Because I don’t know which is having an impact on our rankings success myself.
Chris: So it’s like a hard experiment to run because you’re doing so many things that it’s hard to say, ‘This one thing, is the thing.’ Because you also have to wait, you’re saying, six months even to see the results.
Kenny: Right, and it wasn’t always like that. I had a site a couple of years ago that got mentioned by the New York Times, and two weeks later every ranking went up like five spots.
Chris: When you say every ranking went up, what are you look at to see that the rankings went up?
Ideally, that happens for a lot of keywords, and that’s when you’ll see a big traffic spike because you suddenly went from seven to two on a ton of keywords.
Chris: I was so blown away when I started using Ahrefs, and this isn’t meant to be a commercial for Ahrefs, but I really did.
Kenny: Are they sponsoring this podcast?
Chris: Sponsored by… No, but that’s what this podcast is about. People are starting with a website, and they need to know, in that first month, what are the skills you need to know to be successful in SEO. And we’re not going to withhold that information in this episode.
Ahrefs costs money, so it’s hard to say that you should do it if your site’s super small, but I think they have a free trial. All I’m saying is it really opened my eyes to what’s possible with SEO because they do this audit for you.
And they will tell you; like we were saying a second ago, they will show you all the things that are wrong with your site. As well as your ranking, as well as keywords that you’re really good at, keywords that you’re really bad at, but you think you’re good at.
Chris: It’s a pretty good smack in the face, it’s an awakening, and it has really actionable steps too that it gives you.
Kenny: Yes, it’s a fantastic tool, really good tool. What’s cool is you can do that for yourself, you can also do it for your competitors, and you can see, ‘Alright, well big competitor to one month. What are they up to?’
Type in their site into Ahrefs, and you can see what they good at, ‘Oh, they have this one page that everyone loves are. This one article is getting thousands of links to it that I haven’t written.’
Chris: So you can see all their traffic is coming from this one blog post that’s just killing it?
Kenny: Yes, and I haven’t written that post, so I’m going to go do it. Or I’m going to see who links to it, and reach out to those people, and tell them about my blog-post that I’ve just made way better.
There’s a lot of strategic things you can do for SEO, around it, both on your own site and by looking at what everyone else is doing in your space.
Chris: That makes sense. I’ve learned a lot from you, shadowing some of the tools that you used over the years with SEO. Another one that you showed me that I still use is the Google Search Console.
Kenny: Similarly, that will show you words that you are ranking for on your blog, but maybe not as strong as you could be. A specific example for us would be, people were finding our Python course via a post that we hadn’t even written. People were searching for Python versus C++ or something like that, and our Python course, which has nothing to do with C++, was showing up.
It was basically suggesting, ‘Hey, if you write this post on Python versus C++, you’re going to get even more people because we think that you are likely to be associated in authority. You become EAT, an authority on this. ‘We think you are, you don’t know it yet.’ And you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I need to be writing about that. I didn’t even know that.’
Chris: That’s the number one thing I can tell any SEO person. If you can access an established site, people are kind of ringing for a lot of stuff. Where they haven’t written the right article. If you just write the right piece, you’re going to… Did you rank number one after that?
Kenny: I don’t think I’m going to answer that one. It’s all lies.
Chris: No, no, no, I mean we didn’t write it yet. We haven’t written it again, that’s because there was another one that we didn’t have, which was Python versus SQL, that we didn’t have. Which we were also ranking for, that was even higher, and we did write that, and it just went out this week. So we’ll see how it does.
Kenny: It’s going to go very high, I think.
Chris: I think so.
Kenny: It’s not always intuitive, I would never consider learning either Python or SQL myself.
Chris: Well, I wouldn’t think about comparing the two because they’re different, but people are searching for it.
We have courses in it, so of course, we’d be ranking as an authority in it, but I was just like, “Oh, why would you compare those two? Oh, yes.” So we did just write that, that was the bigger finding.
Kenny: That’s super, super useful.
Chris: I was just using Google Search Console, which is free, it’s a great tool.
Kenny: It’s my favorite SEO tool for sure, I spend a lot of time in there.
Chris: How much time do you spend thinking about SEO? Which percentage of your job? You have a lot of roles, you run a company, and 30 people are working for you, and you’re doing a lot of other things. But what percentage is SEO, either now or when you were getting started? What kind of role does that play in your success?
Kenny: It is a massive role, I would say it’s our biggest acquisition channel, for sure.
Chris: We’re talking about Google, right?
Kenny: Google, yes. We spend a lot of time on email and YouTube as well, but a lot of how we use both of those also, is how we can make our SEO better? Everything else we do where it’s, ‘Hey, do we want to do this content syndication or this marketing deal, or should we do a Facebook thing?’
A lot of it ties into, will it make our SEO better? Facebook by itself doesn’t matter to me, but if we have all these social signals to a bunch of our posts, maybe that helps with SEO, and it’s worth doing.
Kenny: So it’s not to say that we’re only sitting here, looking at Yoast SEO, and Webmaster Tools. Rather our whole strategy goes around SEO, and Email and YouTube as well. Everything ties back to those three in some way, and if it doesn’t benefit those, and it doesn’t have this massive plus on its own, then we’re not going to do it.
Chris: Are you saying that every time you write an article for your blog, you do research to try to figure out what a good topic is going to be?
SEO content strategies and link building
Kenny: I would say we have two types of content, one is evergreen content, and the other one is news. Evergreen, yes, it’s always keyword driven. Where in a year, I want someone to be still looking for this content. A lot of it’s geared, too, where you have to see what people are looking for.
My nutrition writer for BarBend recently wanted to write about the keto diet, which is very popular, and he’s just an expert on it. He’s like, “I’m going to interview all these experts, I’ll make the ultimate experts guide.” But if you type in the keto diet, people are just trying to figure out what it is. So Keto Diet for Beginners or Keto Diet 101 is what he ended up writing.
Not because he couldn’t write a more authoritative article, or he would actually enjoy writing a more authoritative article because he loves it, but people want the beginner guide. At least for that search.
SEO really informs our strategy that way, in that we want to give people what they are looking for and make sure that people are whatever we’re talking about.
Kenny: Another aspect is the news, and we do a lot of news. By news, I mean, ‘Hey, this is happening now, it’s relevant now. In a year, you probably won’t care.’ But we use news because we’re using it as a linking strategy, where it’s an interesting perspective. Where, I think this is one thing that’s really separated us, where people like news because it gets them a lot of traffic, generally.
BarBend has over two million visitors a month, and a decent bit of that is from the news. But traffic is just a vanity metric, really, because how are you going to use that traffic to make your site better. And how are you going to get to three million, or five million visitors if you’re at two?
News is a tough way to do that, you can’t just write more news necessarily, and put it out. But we try to break the news or write it very soon after it happens for our specific industry. Thus people will use our news article as a source, so when everyone else writes news articles, they’ll link back to our site.
Chris: How do they find you? Do you reach out to them and say, “Hey, we have news on this topic.” Or do they just organically find you through Google?
Kenny: We’ll hit our newsletter with it, we’ll show up on Google News maybe, or sometimes we’ll get drawn into a Flipboard, or an Apple News or stuff like that.
Chris: Does Google News know something is news versus evergreen content, how does it?
Kenny: They do, yes.
Kenny: There are little signs you can tell them about it, and Google’s very smart about that stuff. They can tell when something is news-worthy, just by other articles that are coming in as well.
Kenny: And they’ll just do testing. You might show up as news for 100 people, and then they’re like, “Oh, this doesn’t seem like it’s news.”. And they push it off, Google is always doing that type of stuff.
Chris: If you make news about an event that’s this week, I imagine that in six months from now you’re not going to be ranking for that. If it’s a blockchain event and…
Kenny: Yes, it’s over.
Chris: It’s over, you’re just getting buried at that point, nobody… Isn’t that like a treadmill, where you just always have to be making the news? Seems very exhausting.
Kenny: It is exhausting, and so if your strategy is, ‘I’m a news organization, and I just want people to read my news and get a lot of visitors.’ There’s no end to this. There’s no end to our news either, but we use the news as a way to attract links to the site.
So when other authoritative places are linking to our articles, then the whole sites’ authority is boosted, and then we’ll rank better for the evergreen articles.
Chris: That comes back to that thing about the authority that Google is looking for? People that are looking for you?
Kenny: Right, exactly. We get incredible links to our news, my favorite link building strategy you have to really be good at it, but we get crazy links all the time. Links I would never ever get if I were just doing outreach, just because we’re a news article.
For example, we wrote about this Crossfitter who did something on a rowing machine, like a really good workout, kind of a basic thing like, ‘Who cares?’. Well, Row2k, which is an incredibly powerful rowing site, took it and put it on their homepage, and linked to it and they were like, “Check our BarBend’s awesome article.” It was just the most powerful link we’ve ever gotten because we wrote this news piece about it and it was about rowing.
Kenny: News is an excellent way to crossover between different worlds. Hafþór Björnsson is The Mountain on Game of Thrones, you know this guy?
Chris: I saw The Mountain in real life, holy crap.
Kenny: He’s massive, he’s six-nine or six-eight, and just huge. But he’s also an incredible Strongman, he wins every year.
Chris: Not to mention that he has, you haven’t seen the show… you don’t know this, but anyway, I think he has the most horrific scene of the way he kills somebody ever. Anyone watching it’s around the end of season three, no spoilers here, but I would just cover my eyes.
Kenny: So we’ll write about his feats, strength; and then weird Game of Throne enthusiasts will link to it because they’re like, “Look at this guy.” And it gets piled with links.
Chris: I think Google likes you to be focused on specific keywords. You know we have our blog, it’s all about learning to code if all of a sudden we started writing about food. Wouldn’t we just confuse Google? Does the Game of Thrones links help you, or does it just confuse your brand?
Kenny: It does help us. The article’s all about him deadlifting right, so it makes sense. But to say that we get tons of links, that day we got Games of Thrones links, and the other day we got Row2k links, and then we got a bunch of news links from other places.
It’s a bunch of random links; essentially, they build up into a general authority thing where Google’s like, “Oh, this site is trusted by many, many people.” But all of our content is about weightlifting, and we get a lot of weightlifting links too from bloggers and gyms that are sharing our stories. It’s not just totally random stuff, most of the links we get are very relevant.
Kenny: It suffices to say if we were only getting super random links, that probably wouldn’t be the best thing, but as part of our strategy, I think it’s very useful.
Chris: If you were making an SEO course, and you had to say, “These are the top five things I think that people should do when they’re making new content.” What are some of the basics that you think that somebody should do?
Kenny: The best thing, and I think we’ve kind of covered this is that every piece of content that you make should be really intentional. Back in the day, people would just start blogging, and blogging has this air of you write about whatever you want that day, and you don’t have any strategy around it.
If you really want to be successful, you have to be intentional about what you’re writing about. Intentional doesn’t mean it’s always super keyword focused, but it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m going to interview this person.’ And they might share on their social media, and I’ll get a ton of exposure that way. Or it is keyword focused, and it seems like no one has written this article, and so I’m going to write it so I can be the one that’s there writing it.
Or I think a lot of people will be interested in this for linking to, maybe there’s not a ton of search traffic around it, but I’ll get a lot of links. There are lots of different reasons you’ll write a piece of content, but I’ll say the number one thing is you have to have a reason for every piece.
Chris: So it’s kind of like having a sort of empathy toward what is the person looking for, what are they thinking, and then therefore who might link to it. Just thinking through other people’s eyes. For example, I can think about one that we did that was really bad that makes me think of what you’re talking about.
I had five things that product managers… reasons why they should learn the code. But I think I titled it, this was years ago, I titled it like, ‘Coding Dos and Don’ts in Brooklyn’. Something ridiculous. I looked back at this, years later, and I was like, “No one’s searching for Coding Do’s…” And that’s why nobody found it.
Then as soon as I changed it to ‘’Five Things that Product Managers’’… something specific, you focus it in and clean up some of the words around it. Then it became a really popular article, but at first, it was just me ranting about something.
Kenny: It could have made sense, a couple of years ago, Facebook was super huge for driving traffic, so you would see all these super weird headlines.
Chris: I think that’s probably where it came from.
Kenny: If you were like, ‘This is going to be an article that I want to be great on Facebook.’ Then maybe that makes sense, and you write it in that particular way. But if your intention was for Google search, no one’s going to be Googling anything relating to that, and they’ll just be confused.
It’s not to say one is right or wrong, but you have to know what you’re planning for it. What you did might end up being this grand strategy, where you have this Facebook-friendly title, put it on Facebook, maybe it did great. Then three months later you change the title, and then it’s SEO friendly, so you get the best of both worlds.
Chris: That makes a lot of sense. Well, I want to wrap up here, I just want to leave everybody with a few of your favorites… whether it’s like a site, or a newsletter, or a YouTube page. Where do you learn about this stuff, if you want to learn more about SEO? Where would you go?
Kenny: My favorite blogs, I would say, Ahrefs blog is quite good.
Chris: It really is.
Kenny: Brian Dean has a blog called Backlinko, which I think is really good. And I think he has some of the best courses out there on SEO, and why to have SEO. Neil Patel has great sites, a lot of content on there, and not just SEO but good stuff on there.
And he has an excellent tool actually, which is called UberSuggest, which I think every day he’s adding new things to it. So it’s kind of an Ahrefs competitor, kind of a BuzzSumo.
Chris: Is it free or?
Kenny: It’s free, yes.
Chris: Oh, it is free. Because I saw something came out where it was like, ‘That is going to take down Ahrefs.’ This free tool.
Kenny: I think that it’s, in my opinion, the best free tool out there by far. He’s always adding to it as well.
Chris: What’s it called? Uber-
Kenny: It’s called UberSuggest.
Chris: Sounds like another company. Uber.
Kenny: He’s got a blog post about it. It’s actually a fascinating thing where it was another company, and he bought it and put it on his website. Just so that he could get links to it.
Chris: Oh, that’s so funny.
Kenny: He details it in a blog post, where it costs him 100 grand a month to run this UberSuggest, this separate company. And he makes no money on it, but he generates so many links to his website, neilpatel.com that all of his other content ranks.
It’s like the most advanced SEO strategy I’ve ever heard of. So if you have 100 grand a month, then maybe even more now that the servers are probably running off the charts with all this stuff.
Chris: A month. Unbelievable.
Kenny: Most of his strategies are much more attainable for the average person, but that was kind of an interesting tidbit there.
Chris: That is interesting, yes.
Kenny: Those three places are great places to go, I still go to all those places to learn a little bit as well.
Chris: Excellent, and where can people listening find out more about you or the things that you’re working on?
Kenny: The first place I’d check out, the Media Mindset Podcast. We cover SEO there, but also just general media topics. As well as, my company’s name is Jakk Media, you can see some of my brands on Jakk Media. And I’m @thisbekenny on Twitter.
Chris: Sweet, well thanks for coming by Kenny.