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There are few people as well known in SEO/SEM circles as Jill Whalen. She founded High Rankings LLC in 1995 and has grown this since to be a leading brand in the industry. Their Search Marketing Newsletter and SEO forums are well known to many. Her conference record speaks for itself.

I first met Jill during the days of ThreadWatch when, as Graywolf writes, “website owners had cajones”. It’s a pleasure to be interviewing someone I respect both as a marketer and a friend. Enjoy.

Ethics has become a hot subject again. What can you tell us about your ethics or methods as a marketer and how/if that perspective has changed over the years?

My feeling is that ethics are a personal thing. It’s something you can’t really fake, at least not for very long. It doesn’t just apply to one part of your life, but permeates into every part — from your personal life to your business life. To me, being ethical and having integrity, whether it has to do with search marketing or not cheating on a spouse, or any other thing that may come up in your life — simply means doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

What effect has Google moving the goal posts had on you, as a first generation online marketer?

Google has moved the goal posts? :D See, the beauty of the type of search marketing that I’ve always tried to practice and teach is that it makes your website fairly impervious to routine algo changes. Google changes their algorithm in order to close loopholes that search engine spammers exploit. So if you’re making your site the best it can be for your users as well as the search engines, you’re pretty safe!

As the philosopher George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Based on your experience in the industry, what mistakes have online marketers made in the past and what should we have learned from these?

Well, it really goes along with both of the previous questions. I’d say the biggest mistake is in trying to trick the search engines rather than just fixing your site. I compare that to putting a band aid on a broken arm! Now, that said, I only work with existing, legitimate companies. I do believe there may be different rules at play when you work with affiliate sites and the like, but that’s not where my area of expertise lies.

That said, it really is great to see that so many people have indeed learned from the past and are working to create great websites these days, rather than chase their tail with spammy tricks.

Many of the old-school marketers are keeping out of the limelight these days. Are they just too busy with work or are there other reasons?

I imagine the reasons vary between the people. Those who have been in the business for a long time have an easier time gaining clients, so yes, they may certainly be too busy to be in the limelight. And it may not be a necessary piece of their marketing plan. After all, being in the limelight is just a form of marketing and PR. Other search marketers are growing their companies, and have let some of their newer employees have the spotlight for awhile.

For me and High Rankings, being involved in the SEO conversation has always been an important marketing component, as well as the part I love the most, so it’s unlikely that you’ll see me disappearing anytime soon!

With the arrival of social media it sometimes seems to me that presentation has become more important than content. The loudest voices can drown out the more experienced ones. Past or present, which three online marketers do you wish we could hear more from and why?

One of my early online mentors was John Audette who ran the i-Sales newsletters (among other things). He was always someone worth listening to, which he proved often as he sold a number of companies. He’s basically retired from online marketing, but interestingly enough, his son (Adam Audette) is carrying the torch and continues to put out the LED newsletter and is becoming a voice in search marketing in his own right.

I also miss hearing the smart and witty common sense online marketing advice from my old pal, Scottie Claiborne. She’s still in the biz to a certain extent, but is focusing on her job as the Webmaster for her local library. She occasionally pops into our forum now and then and when that happens she still provides the same great advice as always!

I believe anyone else that I’ve paid attention to over the years such as Jennifer Laycock, Debra Mastaler and Kim Krause Berg, are still out there fighting the good fight. I can’t think of anyone else at the moment that I’d like to hear more from.

You’ve always worked hard to dispel SEO myths. What do you think are the biggest myths about social media and SMO?

For starters, the biggest myth is that social media is something new! Social media is just a fancy name for online communities, and they have been around since the Internet’s infancy. In fact, I got my start online using social media. First, on a BBS playing an online game (generally with teenage boys!) where you could leave messages for the others playing. Then through the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) where I created a parenting chat room.

That was not only social, but a way to gain business. My first clients were parents/friends that I met through our chat room. I think even old-fashioned email discussion lists would be considered social media. It was through those that I was able to establish myself as an SEO “expert” of sorts, way back in the late ’90’s. I also met other search marketers like Danny Sullivan, Marshall Simmonds, Shari Thurow and Detlev Johnson through those lists (and then later through in-person conferences).

So for anyone who thinks that social media or the use of it for business purposes is new, please think again! The thing about social media that seems to escape many people, is that it works best as a lead generator or a way to get links only when it’s used first and foremost for true social purposes. If you are using it because you think you have to, or as a duty, you’ll never discover its full impact. You really need to love it and be a real part of the conversation to get the most out of it. I would recommend choosing just a few social media sites that have the sort of community you are interested in, and stick with those, rather than trying to take part in all of them.

For instance, while many people seem to like Digg, that’s one I’ve never had much interest in because the discussions there are simply too nasty. I prefer to hang in communities that have some heavy-handed moderation which keeps the discussion on topic.

Currently, I’m finding Twitter to be one of the more interesting communities as you get to pick and choose whose information you see. If someone says stuff you’re not interested in or don’t like, you simply unfollow them! It’s a totally customized chatroom or forum discussion. I’ve discovered interesting websites through Twitter, as well as gained new subscribers to the High Rankings Advisor newsletter, and new members to the High Rankings Forum. I don’t use Twitter for that purpose, however, and really only participate because it’s fun!

The new search engine Cuil has been trumpeted this week as the next “Google Killer”. Do you see this attempt succeeding and if not, can you see anyone managing to dislodge Google from the top position?

It’s way to soon to know what will happen with Cuil. Their initial attempt left a lot to be desired, that’s for sure. I’ve been saying for many years that it’s really Google’s game to lose. Since they’ve permeated through the popular culture it will be extremely difficult for another company to dislodge them from the top position. They’d have to really start sucking big time, and another engine would have to be light-years better in terms of relevancy. While it’s not impossible, I don’t see either of those things happening anytime soon.

In the true tradition of the SMX “give it up” session, can you tell us one marketing tip you’ve managed to keep secret so far?

As I said as a panelist on the first give it up session, the biggest secret is that there are no secrets! There may be some new tricks out there that people keep to themselves, but since I believe that tricks are a silly way to optimize a website, I’ve got nothing for you in this respect. As with everything in life, there are no quick fixes. Search marketing is all about hard work, dedication and to a large extent, passion!

You can catch Jill Whalen speaking at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose in August or at PubCon Las Vegas in November. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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Lead SEO, Group Optimisation at Vodafone. Founder at E3 Business Incubator, a consultancy group helping enterprises and start-ups. Digital strategist and veteran SEO/SEM. Views are my own and not representative of my employer (more).

10 Responses to Google, Ethics and The Myths of Social Media: An Interview with Jill Whalen

  1. Jill is spot on in regard to social media and social networking being a dinosaur of the Internet. I too gained my foundation way back in the lat 90’s using forums and chat rooms.

    Social media is nothing new but it seems new because of all the shiny new tools popping up at an exponential rate these days.

  2. “See, the beauty of the type of search marketing that I’ve always tried to practice and teach is that it makes your website fairly impervious to routine algo changes.”

    This is so true. My first ever exposure to SEO was via the HIGH RANKINGS web site. I subscribed to Jill’s newsletter, studied the forum, and started applying what I learned from her.

    As a result of taking her advice, sites I have optimized have enjoyed the benefits of great positions in the search engines and a great flow of qualfied traffic to their sites. And that’s without serious link-building!

    Most of them are still maintaining their positions five years after my initial optimization efforts in spite of algo changes and the like.

    Good SEO practices really are timeless. I feel sorry for the folk who buy into quick fixes and ‘tricks’.

  3. Thanks very much to Jill for the kind mention. I’m flattered that she remembers from that far back. Jill was one of the few I-Salers who had a free pass – I published everything she posted.

    BTW, after several years of unemployment, I’m once again gainfully employed working with my son Adam at AudetteMedia. Going to try to stay in the background and hopefully out of trouble.

  4. @Charles

    Yep, I’ve been in this industry a much shorter time than Jill and I’m already seeing the circles. One that bugs me is social media’s obsession with traffic and lack of focus on conversion. It reminds me of the old arguments we used to have on ranking.


    I think the problem is a lot of SEOs get bored with the basics after a while and want to explore new avenues. Unfortunately they do this at the expense of the basics, instead of adding additional strings to their bow.

    In some cases though you are faced with very stiff competition, like the poker/casino SERPs, where you are forced to try new techniques to combat the BH sites. I do always try to keep an eye on the core SEO skills first.

    However both High Rankings Forums and Cre8asite Forums are excellent places to learn SEO. They are always the places I first point people to.

    @John Audette

    Thanks for commenting John. It’s a well earned accolade. I’m not sure about keeping out of trouble, the community seems to be quite capable of creating that itself at the moment. Maybe we need the veterans to come back in and take control? ;)

  5. Google will kill itself. Let them have as much rope as can be given.

    Ignore Google, and then you will see success. It is my job to be loathed by Google & their minion webmasters. :-)

    Hate me! Please………

  6. Yiks! Jill, wake up, lay down, tie an asprin on it – U have become a genuine DINOsaur. Sorry, girl, but you don’t know squat about social media. I started surfing in 92′ Probably way before you! Chat rooms were simply hormone hassled wrestling matches. These social networks have faces and names and RECOURSE. Yes, it’s social with big S…. I think your face is fading. NOW you bite the new, and say the ‘Past is better.’ For shame. Old Squat.

  7. @Mark

    Thanks for commenting but as someone who values “faces and names and RECOURSE”, it’s difficult to take your anonymous comment very seriously. No?

  8. Pingback: Basic Search Engine Optimisation That Lasts : Southern Content

  9. Jill’s right about good SEO leaving you impervious to algorithm changes. The first site I ever optimized was for my wife’s tutoring business in new Jersey. It hasn’t been touched in 8 years (that’s debatably positive or negative, I agree), but still enjoys top Google rankings for her most important keywords.

  10. Jill’s right about good SEO leaving you impervious to algorithm changes. The first site I ever optimized was for my wife’s tutoring business in new Jersey.
    Internet Marketing

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