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An SEO Interview with David Leonhardt

Today we are launching a series of interviews with SEO experts. Our guest today is David Leonhardt, President of The Happy Guy Marketing. You can find him on Twitter or Pinterest.

I’m excited to share with you the answers David gave me for some questions I had about SEO and online marketing.

Could you introduce yourself? How did you start doing SEO and what do you do now?

I started doing SEO by accident. I was ranking quite high for a number of semi-competitive terms in the personal development niche and really enjoying talking SEO. I wrote a thought-leadership article that appeared in WebProNews predicting what Google would do next. The article still shows up in Google’s search results, although it has long ago been removed from the site. But I do maintain a copy of that article . That was back before anybody was looking forward, back in 2003 before anybody was even thinking of asking a question like “How do you see SEO 5 years from now?” Before I knew it, I had my first three SEO clients.

David Leonhardt first article

I have really gone back to my roots now, which is writing and public relations. I have always tried to tell clients over the years that public relations is the biggest part of SEO, but most of them didn’t want to listen. They generally wanted quick, cheap and technical fixes. Now PR is what everybody is doing, at least to some degree – influencer marketing, content marketing, guest posting, creating news, etc. So I generally don’t do SEO anymore; what I do now is more content marketing with SEO as one of several goals.

Oh, and I seem to be writing books, too. That keeps a guy pretty busy.

How do you see SEO 5 years from now? Do you think backlinks will remain to be the most important ranking factor?

I don’t think SEO will be all that different 5 years from now.  I think the search engines have figured out how to rank websites for relevance and importance, which is now usually called “authority”, to a large degree.  The details will change, of course.  As computing devices change, the algorithms will adjust accordingly.  As people find ways to automate things, the algorithms will adjust accordingly.

I do think that user experience will become more important, though.  Search engines want happy customers who keep coming back, and that means sending users to websites the users like.  Metrics like bounce rates, time spent on site, re-searching and similar measures will become more important over time.

There are also two new frontiers that might change things up a bit.  The web is becoming more visual.  If any search engine can find a scalable and automated way to work with visual content, the SEO game will change forever.  I don’t think that will happen in the next 5 years, but I certainly have no expertise on which to base my assumption.

The other frontier is bypassing websites altogether.  We know that Google is drooling to provide users with all the answers right there on Google, so that they never have to click through.  Look at searches like this:

knowledge graph 1

or this:
kwnoledge graph 2

to see how Google is already tip-toeing into this field.  These previews will distract people looking for a quick answer, so it can hurt certain niches like time, weather, currency conversions, etc.  But for most questions, people will want more details and will click through.  But if the search engines find a way to legally provide more in-depth answers, it could decimate many niches and certainly many informational searches.

What’s your favorite technique to do email outreach? 

That all depends on outreach for what.  For guest posting, I do a pitch similar to what I would do to mainstream media, which is no surprise, since I come from the world of PR.  It shows respect and professionalism.  I focus on what my story or my client’s story can bring the blog or online publication. In most cases, I approach only bloggers I already know, and it is usually not by email.

If I am just looking for a link in a list of resources, I will use email and I will point out how my resource complements what they already have.  Again, I focus on how useful it can be is to them and their visitors.  I really don’t have a formula, although I do create a template for such campaigns, and I am not shy to modify the template or throw it out altogether as needed to be properly personalized for each website.

What I do NOT do is throw in a lot of obviously false flattery, such as “I love your posts; they are always so well-written and on the money.”  Seriously?  Did the guy who wrote that form letter even read any of my posts? What I do, if I am not already known to a blogger, is I read her posts.  Yes, I read them.  I find something of mutual interest and I will mention that in the email.  “Hi Gloria.  I just left a comment on your post about how kittens are like marketers; I could not resist, since we have seven kittens hanging out around our door these days.  I also have a topic that I think would be a great follow-up to that post…”  No B.S. form letter flattery that anybody who is still contemplating their lobotomy can easily see through.

Link building in competitive niches, how would you do it? Do you believe in link building or link earning?

I won’t go so far as to say I do not believe in link-building, but I much prefer link earning.  And I have always believed in link earning, long before most folks were even thinking that way.  That’s my PR background, but it’s also because I was looking forward already more than a decade ago.  When you look forward, the future is clear: any link-building tactic is just one algorithm tweak away from becoming a penalty-building tactic.  All people have to do is find a way to scale it, and the search engines have no choice but to stomp on it.  That’s what got me to looking forward, because as soon as everybody knew a tactic worked, it was doomed.

With link earning, those links are there because you have produced something somebody wants to read (or view), and that is where the search engines want to send their searchers.

What’s your favorite method to build backlinks?

My favorite way is to create news.  To do this properly, you usually need some highly creative minds and some money.  You also need to be fearless.  I don’t get to do this often.  There are two ways to create news.  One is to create your own news.  For instance, you can do something really wild like give free lessons in a public park.  Or you can do a survey and release the results.  That creates original news.  Here is an example done by a travel booking website, which got picked up here and all over the place:

The other way to create news is to piggyback on somebody else’s news, and add to the story.  When the Canadian government was publicly musing about getting rid of the penny, I had a credit card comparison website for a client.  We created a lobby campaign supporting the move.  We did a brief to government, news releases, guest post, etc., all aimed at putting an end to the penny.

What type of backlinks are working best for you now? What links everyone should avoid?

Authority links from major publications are working well. Domain Authority is the metric of the hour.  So round-up posts and interviews and collaboration are all working well.  Will these still work a year from now?  Probably some of them will, but only those on authority websites.  And only those that are on-topic.  Marketers and SaaS websites are heavy on these, but most niches are oblivious to them.

My answer to “What links should everyone avoid?“ is the same as I was answering 3 years ago and 6 years ago.  Anything automated, and anything that looks like it can be automated.  If it can be scaled, people will scale it.  And when it is scaled, anybody can do it.  If anybody can do it, everybody will.  If everybody does it, it will mess up the SERPs.  And if the SERPs get messed up, the search engines have to squash it.

What’s your biggest SEO accomplishment? How did you do it? 

I have to admit that it was a few years back, when I got a client to outrank Autotrader at for a couple years.  Autotrader is, and has been as long as I can remember, the name brand in used car classified.  Long before there was an Internet, there was Autotrader.  It was monolithic.  How does one rank #1 for the term “used cars”, as well as a gazillion variants of that term?  Well, I didn’t track many of the variants, and I can’t tell you how exactly we outranked Autotrader.  We did all the standard things, including link exchanges and directory listings, which were still working back then.  We did a lot of articles.  And of course, we were constantly tweaking the site architecture and internal linking, as well as the text on the pages.  We did create a free ebook on clever tips to keep your car young, and that garnered a lot of earned links, and we did a lot of buzz-type link-bait articles that are so popular now.

In the end, I think we simply were more active online than everybody else in the niche at the time.  There were a couple of competitors who tried some fancy tricks with “SEO contests” (remember those?), and that often frustrated my client.  But in the end, we got to the top spot.  But being “more active online” on a very tight budget did mean that a lot of what we did was very gray hat – my biggest SEO accomplishment, but not necessarily my proudest moment, if you know what I mean.  And it did not last when Google decided to shake things up a few years ago.

Has any of your websites ever been penalized? Did you recovered? How?

Yes.  I haven’t recovered completely.  I have one website was hit for “unnatural inbound links”.  I did a massive cleanup, and it recovered partially.  I have come to accept that it will never rank for a couple of the most competitive terms again, but it continues to bring in customers for less competitive terms.  So it is still profitable at a lower plateau.  But there is some sort of filter on certain terms, a hush-hush that Google won’t talk about.



Norman Risner

I agree link earning is a better terminology and the best way I’ve found to implement this is by writing informative engaging articles and posting them on some of the top social media sites such as Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr, Blogger, LinkedIn, Facebook, WordPress, etc. Also include anchor text backlinks within these blog articles back to different pages on your website gives them page authority.

As you mentioned, the internet is becoming more visual and Youtube, which is owned by Google, provides another method of getting your videos on SERP along with backlinks from your video if it’s optimized correctly when posted on Youtube.

SEO is not something you do until you get an excellent SERP; it’s an ongoing process and we all know Google loves original fresh content on a regular basis.

Philip Verghese Ariel

Hi Felix and Deve,

What an informative post!

David did justice to your questions and indeed that brought out a lot of wonderful information too!

Dave, I am really ignorant about those link building and link earning things!!

That’s really an in-depth study in itself, I believe. Thanks for opening a way through!

Thanks Felix for bringing such a lot of valuable information to the net world through our friend David.
David, Keep going

I am sharing this page thru my social sites.

Good one
~ Philip

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