In my list of 10 lessons from a decade of SEO I tried to focus on the positive aspects of the last ten years. Sadly there were many mistakes I made I wish I hadn’t.
I’d like to tell you about them so that you don’t repeat my stupid blunders. Learning from mistakes is not limited to your own ones, you can learn from mine too. So what are the additional lessons?
1. Getting Solely Generic Rankings
In the early years of SEO it was all about generic rankings. I ranked for things like [search engine optimizer] or [seo berlin] in German quite quickly and had lots of potential clients calling me up or mailing me. Perfect, isn’t it? Sadly most of these people had no clue who I was or often even how SEO works. They weren’t looking for me specifically or even some of the things I would offer them like keyword research, link building etc.
The prospects simply didn’t know what they needed exactly and had no reason to prefer me over someone else. So I wasted countless hours on sending out offers to people who never really got back to me. They were sometimes shocked that I wouldn’t employ some magic tricks and that they have to fix their site for example. Others would ask several different vendors for an offer just to choose the most flashy and least reliable one.
Even the ones who worked with me had too high expectations and also a too low level of education on how SEO works. So I wasted even more hours by explaining SEO over and over. The clients I got through recommendations were far better equipped for a successful SEO strategy. I worked with some for several years in a row on a variety of tasks.
2. Relying on Google
When you go after generic rankings you usually make yourself dependent on Google search and organic traffic. Of course Google tweaks its algorithm and changes the look and feel of search results all the time. You can be the best SEO in the world but sooner or later your rankings will be gone for one reason or the other. Maybe Google decides to show ads above the fold instead or hide your site behind local results.
I had several such wake up calls. Once Google decided to merge the main keyword I was rankling for with a a broader synonym and then displayed Wikipedia and some huge brands on top. One day Google decided that my highly popular and quite authoritative SEO blog has become spam over night and downgraded it almost completely in search results. I had another blog being banned on Adsense over night for no apparent reason. Of course Google kept the money.
Of course search engine optimization is about getting traffic from search but it’s only the first step. When you can’t capitalize on it as long as the traffic flows you won’t survive in the long run. Putting all your eggs in the Google basket is a recipe for disaster. As long as you rank on Google make sure to convert the one time search visitors to your faithful subscribers. Le them remember your brand and return directly or via other channels. Acquire several revenue sources so that Google ads are on a nice to have. Stay independent from “free” Google tools like Google Analytics or Gmail. You pay with your data and trade secrets in the worst case.
3. Working Too Much on Client Projects
It’s funny how SEO success backfires. When I started out I thought that you just need enough client projects to fare well. In reality I got too many clients too fast so that I neglected my own sites and projects and in the end was left with almost nothing after the clients moved on happily ever after.
What you really need in SEO is balance. It applies to traffic, revenue sources and your work in general. At least a third of your time should be dedicated to your own projects. Client work is great and often rewarding but starting afresh with every new clients is a bit boring and repetitive after a while too. Fixing the same issues again and again is tedious after a 12 times. You feel in in the Groundhog Day movie sooner or later.
Only your won projects guarantee independence and progress. You need to explain clients the same things again and again but you grasp them yourself once and for all times. By definition your clients will be usually behind your skill level. After all they wouldn’t need you otherwise. To develop yourself you need challenges you find for yourself. Don’t just go for the easy money of client work. It makes you lazy and complacent.
4. Not Charging Enough
Strangely enough charging low rates or selling yourself for cheap does not make other people let alone yourself happy. The worst thing you can do is working for free. In a money-driven capitalists world what’s free is worthless. People who pay you just tiny amounts assume that your work is low quality or otherwise flawed.
Clients will treat you accordingly. You will also notice that your work quality dwindles indeed as you get stressed out to get by on the money you earn. It’s better than have one client that pays you 100$ that 5 clients who pay you 20$. This way you can take the time needed to accomplish the task with due diligence.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and Catch 22. The less you charge the more people expect you to be low level and the more low level you become. Charge more and soon you will deserve more. I have also been pretty modest so I was afraid to be rude by charging appropriate rates. As a friend of mine once said: modesty is for poor people, the rich are rather bold.
5. Focusing Just on Services Not Products
Either you think like a worker or like an entrepreneur. A worker will want to sell time and get paid for that by the hour or monthly. An entrepreneur wants to create a product and establish a process where as many items as possible get manufactured at the highest quality and the lowest cost possible. In real life there are many shades of grey but you hopefully get the point. When you offer services you will always stay a worker to some extent and have to trade time for money.
When you work for yourself you will soon realize that the day has only 24 hours and you have a finite amount of energy.
Even in case you’d like to work longer to earn more you can’t on your own. There are two solutions: hiring others and exploit their time for your profit to create something that will replicate itself automatically without additional effort invested. Of course here again these are two extremes but you don’t have to hire others, you can create a digital product by yourself and spread it.
On the Web there is no original or copy, there are only originals. You only need to duplicate your digital product to “manufacture” it. It doesn’t yet earn money by itself but when you come up with a meaningful business model it will make money while you sleep. I didn’t create any such products despite knowing it. I always needed money “for yesterday” so that I was stuck with offering services and thus selling my time for years.
6. Blogging Without a Business Model
Not only digital products need a business model. A business blog as the name already suggests needs a business model too. In other words, how will the blog earn money? I tried several business model halfheartedly, even mixed them but I never consciously sat down and chose a business model. I just did whatever somewhat worked.
I tried affiliate marketing, display advertising, paid content with meager results so in the end I went for offering services and spreading the word about them via the blog.
As noted above this works to some extent, it’s even pretty easy in some cases but who said that the easiest path is the best one? I could argue that I had no choice, as some private matters prevented me from investing a lot of time and money into some endeavors that would have paid off in the long run instead of going after the easy money day to day. In the end It was a missed opportunity.
7. Ignoring Audience Building by Mail
I don’t remember when I started using the term “audience building” originally but I realized pretty fast that blogging is about building an audience of regular visitors and foremost subscribers. Around 2007 we were still pretty enthusiastic about feeds or RSS as we nerds called them back then. Feedburner was still pretty young and Google didn’t yet let it rot for years. So the number one goal was to get feed subscribers.
Mail seemed to be only second rate medium of the past, full of spam and an overload of messages in general.
Cool email marketing tools like Mailchimp wasn’t free for starters back then as far as I remember and Aweber looked pretty bland at that point. So my motivation to become an email marketer and contribute to the overkill of messages spilling from the inbox was around zero. Over the years Google has tried to sabotage the open feed format and later even killed their feed reader. Feeds are again cool ever since because the new competition on the market brought a lot of innovation but mail is the only channel that can truly reach a mainstream audience nonetheless.
Instead I’ve build audiences on social media where I have to share their attention with son many others that barely single digit percentages of subscribers notice my updates. 5,000 followers on Twitter are nothing like 5,000 mail subscribers. Even with a typically low open rate you are far better off than tiny social media CTR.
8. Providing Content Solely to Others
I’ve spend four years writing for a blog of a British SEO agency that grew rapidly because of the blog success I achieved. I tested many of my most successful techniques there that subsequently would bring stellar results and become common practice. The owner begged me to work for them for student rates because they couldn’t afford more and I just kept going happy to earn a living mostly from creative writing. The low rates meant that I had to spend a lot of time writing for them so after a while I wasn’t able to write for my own blog anymore. Instead many people only knew me a third party blogger and didn’t even realize I had my own blog at all.
That was a big mistake. The “award winning” blog became huge due to my work but I didn’t profit from it at all. Afterwards I learned that giving away content can only be non-exclusive approach. Also now I get proper credits for the work with links not only to my social media accounts but to my own blog as well. Last but not least I get paid twice or three times the rates now so that I can work on my own content as well in the meantime. I’m not only blogging for myself I also am finishing my first ebook.
9. Charging by The Hour, Not Results
Selling services only is one problem. As mentioned above you have only a limited amount of hours you can sell. Additionally you get punished for performing well. When you finish your work faster you get paid less. Also when your work is a big success and earns a lot you still get the same money. Payment by results in contrast is about a fair share of what you really earn.
When your client earns a million dollars because of the two hour long consultation you gave them why should you just get your regular hourly rate and not like 1% of the revenue (10,000$)?
In reality you would be paid not solely by results, after all you don’t always succeed but by combining an hourly rate with a success bonus. This is of course more difficult to explain and charge but it’s a win to win situation for both the client and you. After all who cares for 1%? Even in case it’s 10, 20 or 50% as long as you share the revenue and the client gets favorable results it’s still better than just mediocre performance and no real impact.
10. Being Vocal about SEO
Instead of doing my thing and earning money like other people I always want to be proud of what I do and who I am. Over the years I had to face lots of bizarre reactions to my SEO moniker. People considered me a spammer, didn’t want to rent me office space, sent me death threats.
In recent years the ongoing identity crisis got worse and with it all the “SEO is dead” crap you have to deal with for a decade.
All that was such a waste of time. I wish I had adopted something easily understandable without the negative connotations and misunderstandings. Something like website optimization, findability, online visibility or whatever would have been better probably. Now it’s too late. I’m an SEO forever no matter how I will deal with the changing tides it seems.