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Ken Lyons Talks About SEO & Organic Traffic Growth [INTERVIEW]

It’s been a while since we’ve published an interview with an SEO expert. Today, I am glad to share with you the discussion I had with Ken Lyons. Without any further ado, here’s the interview.

1. Who are you and how did you start doing SEO?

I started doing SEO in 2004 as a side gig to supplement my full-time income. I’d read about SEO and it sounded cool, so I ran an ad in Craig’s List promoting my “service.” Miraculously, two small local businesses hired me to improve their rankings. I also worked with a buddy who’s a local Web designer. He offered SEO to his clients through me.
I was raw, inexperienced and didn’t really know what I was doing, but somehow I was able to get results for those early clients. That really intrigued me, so I decided to pursue SEO full time.
Then, in 2009, I got incredibly lucky and landed a job at WordStream under Larry Kim (who was head of marketing at the time). Working at WordStream in those early start-up days was a like a masterclass in SEO. Larry has a brilliant mind for search, and that’s really where I honed and advanced my SEO and marketing chops. That’s also where I met my business partner, Tom Demers.
Tom is a fantastic marketer and he and I worked really well together at WordStream. We generated some insanely good traffic and growth results in a really short time in a hypercompetitive niche, so we were pretty confident we could strike out on our own and have similar success in any industry.
So in 2011, we left WordStream and started Measured SEM, a boutique digital marketing agency that’s still going strong today. We also recently launched Cornerstone Content, a free content marketing educational site. And to diversify revenue, we manage a portfolio of our own affiliate sites, under RKT Publishing.

2. How do you see SEO 5 years from now? Will backlinks remain important?

Fundamentally, I think SEO will be the same in five years. Performing well in the organic SERPs will still rely on publishing exceptional content, generating strong trust and brand signals, and producing positive user engagement signals across your site. I don’t see that changing.
As for links, I think it will be really difficult for Google to abandon links altogether. Penguin is a prime indicator of how much Google still values links, good links that is.
People talk about Penguin as “the death of links” or as Google “moving away from links,” but if Google could abandon links altogether, why would they:

  • Invest time and money to develop an algorithmic filter like Penguin to root out link spam?
  • Go on crusade to topple link networks and high profile blog networks (sending FUD shock waves throughout the SEO community)?
  • Encourage SEOs and Webmasters to report TOS link violations and rat out competitors who are participating in link schemes?

Why do all this if links aren’t an important ranking signal any longer, or if Google intends to or even has the capability to move away from links as a primary ranking signal?
To me, those actions speak volumes about Google’s reliance on links.
I’d even go so far as to argue that with the decay of the link graph, links are even more important today than ever: quality links, that is.
In the past, you needed dozens or hundreds or thousands of links to rank well (depending on your niche and degree of competitiveness). With the decay of the link graph and factoring in Penguin link spam filters, we see documents rank really well with just a handful of solid, page-level links. That wasn’t always the case.

3. How do you prefer to do email outreach?

I’m not a huge fan of cold outreach. Success rates are just too low to make it worth the effort. In the past, you could automate and scale outreach with a “spray and pray” approach and have pretty good success. Not anymore. To really get traction with cold outreach, you need to be highly-targeted and personalized.
So when we create content assets, we always include some level of “built-in distribution.” That way, there’s a specific reason for conducting outreach to key individuals.
What I mean by “built-in distribution” is we include links to external resources, websites or articles; or we cite the writings, words of ideas of key influencers or thoughts leaders or bloggers in the space. By featuring those sites or by citing specific individuals, we have a reason to reach out to those folks and let them know we’re featuring and promoting them on our site/in our content. It’s much more effective, and those folks are incentivized to help us because promoting our content helps promote themselves.

4. How do you do link building in competitive niches? Link building or link earning?

Manual link building is far too risky these days. Not only is it futile (it no longer moves the needle), but manipulative link building will likely get you penalized. And doing it at scale just increases the speed at which you’ll get spanked.
So our approach is to earn links. Merit-based “link earning” is really the only way to future proof your SEO efforts, stay within Google’s TOS and minimize risk.
As for how we approach link building in competitive niches, it’s almost exclusively through content marketing. Publishing exceptional content that incorporate “built-in-distribution” elements, and promoting that content through social channels and conducting targeted email outreach.
We’re also wading back into the contributed content waters as well (i.e. guest posting), but it’s very strategic and we’re strict about where we publish (high authority, high relevancy pubs with high editorial standards only), as well as how we link within that content.
This means we “guest post” at a lower frequently (it’s about quality, not about scale and quantity), but the content and the pub it’s published on are both higher quality, which is yielding better results.

5. What’s your favorite method to build backlinks?

Like I said, we lean heavily on content marketing to build links these days. To be more specific, we create assets that are not only proven to earn links, but they also do well with other important growth KPIs, like social shares (for distribution, amplification), leads (these assets can convert at different stages of the funnel) and they drive qualified traffic because they rank for relevant keywords. Keyword research drives the majority of our topic selection for content assets.
So when we produce assets, we want them to fire on multiple cylinders. Links are a primary KPI, but they shouldn’t be the only one. If your content assets are only yielding links and don’t’ drive qualified traffic for the life of the asset or don’t convert at all, then to me they’re of very limited value.
One example of a “lower value” asset is infographics. This isn’t to disparage infographics as an asset class, it’s just that IGs that are effective for building links (and appeal to a linking audience) are generally not ones that will also drive high-intent traffic to your site, get users into the funnel, or drive conversions. So they tend to be a “one trick pony” content asset.
Examples of “high value” content assets that perform well across multiple growth KPIs include comprehensive industry guides, group interviews, massive resource lists and user-informative glossary pages.

6. What type of backlinks are working best for you? What links you recommend avoiding?

The best links for us are ones we earn with content marketing efforts. They’re the most natural in appearance and don’t look suspicious or manipulated or “SEO’d” in any way, which is ideal.
As for links to avoid, I’d recommend steering clear of any links that leave an obvious footprint, such as links that:

  • Use exact match anchor text
  • Use commercial keyword anchors
  • Are on completely off-topic sites or pages
  • Are on pages that don’t show up in the index or rank at all for topically relevant terms
  • Are on pages titled “links” “or “helpful links” or “industry links” that are a big list of links with no content on the page. Even more suspect is if most links on the “links” page point to off-topic sites with content built solely to get links from this page and similar link list pages.

You’ll notice that last bullet it pretty specific and referring to most links I’m seeing these days built via broken link building, which to me when done at scale leaves an obvious footprint. Point is, if I can review a page and in five seconds recognize that it’s the target of BLB campaigns, you can bet a spam engineer is able to figure it out too.
What’s more, these types of BLB targeted “big list of useful links” pages are ones we’ve seen singled out specifically during a manual re-inclusion request as examples of unnatural links that need to be cleaned up before the manual penalty gets lifted. So they’re on Google’s radar.
My recommendation is if you’re actively engaging in BLB and these types of “link page” links comprise a high percentage of your site’s link profile, you might want to reassess your strategy.

7. What’s your biggest SEO accomplishment?

Earning an editorial link from the New York Times really stands our as was one of my first major link building accomplishments. There have been others since, but you always remember your first ☺
These days, nothing beats the feeling of taking a new client site with little to no SERP presence, and helping them exponentially grow their organic traffic, fill their funnel with qualified leads and grow their business all because of SEO. That’s really gratifying.
However, it’s even more gratifying when the site we’re helping grow is one of our own affiliate sites and we’re exponentially increasing our own revenue ☺

8. Ever had a website penalized by Google? How did you recover?

We used to be very aggressive/greyish hat with our affiliate websites, largely because they’re ours. We’d never put a client site at risk, but our own sites are a different story. We have freedom to experiment and push the envelope and see what you can and can’t get away with.
As a result, our highest revenue site got hit with a manual action early in 2014. Traffic cratered and revenue crashed from close to $6K a month to a few hundred for that site. Cleaning up the link mess was super frustrating and laborious, which I’m positive is Google’s objective: make sure the SEO or Webmaster or site owner really feels the pain (emotionally and financially), so they’ll think twice about ever violating TOS again. It’s Google’s version of scared straight.
What happened is we went through multiple rounds of reclusion requests and ended up having to disavow almost everything. Even legit, earned links were nuked, which sucked. We flushed two years’ worth of link building down the drain. After about six months or work (largely on Tom’s part), we eventually got the manual action lifted.
The site has since rebounded to about half traffic and revenue, and we’re trying to rebuild it to its former glory but it may be a lost cause.
Anyway, Google won that round, we took a bath and we learned a valuable lesson. It’s why we’re squeaky clean with link building. Always have been with client sites, but now that philosophy carries over to our affiliate sites too.


1 Comment


Hey, Felix.

Thanks for the opportunity and the interview. The questions were great.


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