Conversations in Search: Daniel K. Cheung

Daniel K. Cheung is an SEO specialist and artist

Daniel K. Cheung describes himself as ‘the nerd behind the scenes’, and is Founder of HARO Liaison, a site focused on pitching journalists and earning links for content marketers.

Operating out of the sun-soaked climes of Sydney, Australia, Daniel lives with his wife, Jihyo, and has a passion for SEO, photography and is a published artist.

With a brilliant, self-effacing sense of humour and a background in human behaviour studies, Daniel also leads a crack team of digital marketers at Prosperity Media.

This post is part of a series called ‘Conversations in Search’. I discuss the current state of SEO practice with other SEO experts and discover their views on the future of SEO.

Damien: How’s it going? Daniel? How’s Sydney?

Daniel: Oh man, I wish I could answer on Sydney’s behalf, but we seem to be doing okay. I am in Sydney, but that’s like saying I’m in London. I am about 20 clicks away from the central business district. 

Damien: Oh, so you’re in the bush ;-)

Daniel: Yeah, so I ride my kangaroo to work, you know.

Damien: How’s everything with you and your family and friends, is everything okay? 

Daniel: Yes, we are well, thanks for asking. It’s pretty cushioned here, in general in Australia. Everything seems to be okay so far.

Damien: You’re an advocate for mental wellbeing, and I think that is an important message you have to share. Finding your ground and having mental health is so important. Daniel, I wonder if you’d share with us your background, of what your journey has been like to get to where you are now?

Daniel: It’s a long story. I don’t even know where to start. I don’t know if you can tell from my name that I am Chinese. Being a first-generation immigrant child, actually, the second child, so not as much pressure. There was an expectation, never stated, that tertiary education was the goal.

So I got into Uni somehow, faffed around and got a bachelors somehow in Speech therapy. Graduated that, took the scenic route, but I failed a lot of subjects. So I took double the amount of time that I was supposed to, and then ended up not even practising, but got a job with The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and worked there for three years.

I was a wedding photographer for ten years that’s where I kind of learnt a lot of the digital marketing stuff, paid or organic, and it’s where I learnt a lot about SEO. The thing about me is I’ve never had a career trajectory. Still, I enjoy anything that involves the application of human behaviour to understand why someone does something and make some money from it.

Wedding photography has a low barrier to entry. It’s just a self-appointed job, and that was my foray into learning business. That’s what I’ve enjoyed, and what’s carried me through to consulting, or SEO working at an agency or whatever it is I do these days. 

I guess that’s the long way of explaining how I got to where I am really; I like understanding people as much as I can. I don’t think I’ll ever unravel that mystery, but it has very valid applications. And if you spend the time to understand people, you can make money.

Damien: So you went to Uni, for your first degree, what was the idea behind doing speech therapy?

Daniel: I went to an all-boys school for six years, and speech therapy is 98% female, so that’s precisely why I went there. I then tried to do the same thing but as a Master’s, don’t ask me why. I did that for I think 12 months and that has added to my student debt, which hasn’t helped me. That was the last of formal education. 

Damien: Have your human behaviour studies helped you in your SEO career, if so, how?

Daniel: Yes, immensely. Because that’s what we’re trying to achieve, clear communication, visibility on the search results page helps with this. But how do you get there? Aside from technical SEO, which has nothing to do with that is more the content and understanding or instead pairing search intent with the content. That’s kind of helped me a lot in my SEO journey. I was always a good writer. I don’t know why. Maybe I used to read a lot.

Writing has always been my forte, and then that’s translated to SEO quite well. When writing, you can communicate in various ways. You can write robotically, you can write engagingly and for SEO somewhere in between is a sweet spot for me. It’s finding the mix and then knowing what type of content you want to rank for and what content you just want to run paid ads.

Damien: So you advocate not just to use organic search, but to leverage the extent of the marketing channels available?

Daniel: Yes, when marketing for businesses, I would say, do whatever is necessary to get that customer. I’m not into one type of thing because as companies and the platforms that we rely on whether that’s organic or paid, we don’t own the goalposts and they shift all the time. 

You’ve got to know what you can use at your disposal right now to get wins for tomorrow. 

Organic is always going to be there. I don’t think organic takes time, it just takes money. Limited budgets mean that there’s a stretched timeline. If everyone had unlimited budgets, we would all just smash links hard. Thinking about links, it’s not necessarily the time that it takes, it’s more do you have money to outsource that, and if you do, what type of outsourcing, or level of quality are you getting?

You could do it risk-averse, which you get the results as quickly, possibly not. It’s always dependent on what vertical you’re considering. Some verticals, you’ve got to be as black-hat as they come as what everyone is doing. For most small to medium businesses, who are kind of safe, the usual stuff is good enough. You don’t have to be too risky, although, unfortunately, if they hire agencies or freelancers, they don’t know what they’re getting.

Damien: You’ve been doing SEO for more than a decade, what was it like taking on your first agency SEO role?

Daniel: It’s the role I’m in now, working for an agency called Prosperity Media. It came about because I was ultimately over my wedding photography business. After ten years, the market had shifted, in the sense that the value just wasn’t there anymore, so I was just banging my head against the wall trying to extract value out of customers who didn’t want to give it. 

I knew of the director of Prosperity Media from Facebook. I knew that he is a respected person in the SEO space, and I had been thinking of hitting him up for a few times he had job postings. 

Being a wedding photographer is just impossible. You don’t own your calendar, your clients own you, and so you couldn’t say, in six months I can be available. It just made sense that the wedding photography business was winding down whether there was my choice or not; it was a mixture of both. 

I also wanted to contribute more financially to my family, and sitting around not doing anything was not helping. So I’d hit him up on email. I know you’re not looking for anyone, but here I am. Then that’s how I landed that role and quickly realised everything I knew about SEO was mostly wrong. I’ve been here for 18 months or so. 

Damien: What was the catalyst for your passion for SEO?

Daniel: The real catalyst was I just wanted a salary. I was sick of being an entrepreneur. I wanted to get paid regularly. I was sick of not knowing when the next pay-cheque would come in, and I knew I had transferable skills. 

That’s why there was an idea on what I can apply what I know about the business of digital marketing and content and SEO kind of just made sense. I never thought that it would be the pathway, but it’s worked out well. 

Because I ran my business for so long, I knew that to get maximum organic visibility, you had to do this thing called SEO. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that it existed. Now in the agency, there are things which I would fix in three minutes, but you can’t just touch because it’s a liability. So now I write up a process for that third party, and tell them ‘this is what you need to do’.

Damien: Thinking about the process and of getting things done in SEO, it can be tough, what’s your experience?

Daniel: I have two types of clients. One is the agency side, and there are the ones that I have for my private consulting, which I’m winding down, so I’ll answer both. 

On the agency side, it depends on the relationship that I have with that client and the relationship that they have with the agency and what they purchased. My first six months, in all honesty, I didn’t know what my role was at the agency. It took time to find my position. 

I learnt as much as I could through resources at the agency, and by talking to colleagues. I just had my eyes open on who to trust for at least some form of valid information. Then I had that ground to then dare to talk to clients and not feel like a complete imposter.

For private consulting clients, it depends on that level of trust they have in you, but it comes down to communication. I think that’s the hardest bits, there is no universal truth with SEO. You’ve got to test and find what works for your client given their situation. I think that seeds a reluctance to be more forthcoming because the answer is ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It depends’. I felt the pressure not to say that to clients in my early days, but now, I say this directly because I’ve become comfortable with it.

Damien: When you became comfortable with less certainty, did you then start to think about SEO strategy and tactics in a different light?

Daniel: For sure. One of the clients that I looked after on the agency side we were just building guest post links and some other ‘social fortress’ stuff for at least six months. When I’d made a bit of rapport with the client, I was able to say ‘I think we’ve done enough link building. In the back of my head, I was like, these aren’t fantastic links, but they’re good enough. Let’s look at your on-page, and you know, having that conversation is difficult because then the client might wonder what have you been doing these last six months. I needed to understand what was required so that I was comfortable to have that conversation.

Leading the conversation is a lot better than them asking. When it comes down to it, everything that we do should be measurable instead of just doing five things at once and hoping something works, but not knowing what’s working.

Damien: There’s something about getting to a level of comfort and confidence. You can be more ambitious with strategy. For those conversations, did you have to flex your communication?

Daniel: Nope, I would say the fundamental communication remained the same, and that is to be as transparent as possible when to communicate and as frequently as possible. The format of the conversation didn’t change, perhaps the topics did, and the level of depth that we went into and the substance shifted. It shifted from reporting to being more proactive.

Damien: What are your thoughts, Daniel, on the current state of SEO practises and its application?

Daniel: SEO is becoming more mainstream, which is good. I think removing the veil of mystery which has surrounded SEO is a good thing. I am a massive fan of clarity. Where there was a complete lack of transparency, because the tactics were riskier, I don’t like the terms black hat and white hat. 

We weren’t communicating the risks of what we’re doing, but more so we wanted to keep our clients in the dark so that we held power. I feel as though with the internet and YouTube and more people sharing the information and knowledge whether that’s accurate or not, the general understanding of SEO has broadened, which is probably a good thing. 

SEO has two parts, just like any creative business, there’s the sales side, and there’s delivering, and you’ve got to be good at both. Those that were very good at talking and sales, they’re the ones who now despise the SEOs who’re sharing knowledge.

We’re still massively under-utilised. It might not be an issue of SEO; it’s more as legacy and red tape or management that means we’re not always able to touch things because of that legacy. I feel as though a lot of businesses that are already doing well, again pre Coronavirus, could do a lot better. 

With just fundamental SEO, they could do a lot better. Big brands who already have the authority whose link profile you don’t need to do any more with technical SEO and with on-page they could easily add a multiplier on their revenue.

Damien: The exponential rise in shared SEO opinion and practice, has it been more helpful than harmful?

Daniel: It’s good that it’s gone mainstream, and people are more aware that SEO is not some Voodoo. There is a process for a science and methodology behind SEO. There are dangers to relying on opinions which are not well informed. So finding the voices in the SEO industry that you trust and take note of is essential.

Damien: What are you most proud of in your career today?

Daniel: I think it’s the relationships that I have with either my clients or the clients that are tasked to me in the agency. That gives me the most fulfilment and sense of accomplishment because they trust the agency and me to work hard for them. Having that relationship allows us to navigate any difficulties that arise. 

Clients are more collaborative in the process now, those clients that could have stopped their campaigns have not because their business is not a service business and they understand that SEO is something that is long term and they trust us. As Warren Buffett says ‘When everyone else is not doing it, you should do it.’ Now is the best time if you have the resources to go hard on SEO. Some clients who have the vision, understandably, have had to stop their campaigns because they’re in the service space.

Damien: Are you finding it easier to get your recommendations implemented by your clients, are there any common challenges that you find in getting stuff done in regular times?

Daniel: I think the only roadblock is because of internal resources. It’s usually development resources. Let’s say just technical SEO, we’d make recommendations for the five things that you need to do, and we don’t need to do anything else, and you’ll be sweet. But they just can’t do it because a) they don’t have the resources internally or b) they’re unwilling to pay a skilled developer to do it.

Damien: Who would you say has had the most considerable influence on you outside of your family?

Daniel: It’s someone who used to be my mentor, someone called Yummi. She gave me that awareness of how to rationalise things and not take things personally, and that was maybe six, seven years ago. She was more of a spiritual mentor, I was going through some shit back then, and she helped give me a framework, a way to process stuff, and I think that’s helped me care about the essential things. 

I think the first thing was just accepting things for what they are. It might not be a fault of your own, and it’s never really about you. Usually, something happened, and it’s more about that person. 

Let’s put it back into the framework of SEO. When something goes wrong, the client is angry, whatever, usually it’s because of something else, not because of what we’ve done. It’s more about accepting of things to be. 

One of the statements that she made that I didn’t agree with at the time was, she said, friends come and go, and ironically, we are no longer friends. At the time, I didn’t understand that, but now I fully understand it. 

There’s no point holding on to rubbish that isn’t yours. With business it’s the same, do whatever you can, and if it doesn’t work out, it sucks, yet move on, do the next thing, do whatever you can.

Damien: For sure. Shifting gear, sometimes data can only take you so far. What do you think motivates clients to take on recommendations where data are incomplete?

Daniel: I rarely find myself having to justify why we have to do great SEO. I am dealing with small business owners and marketing directors who have some sway to get things done. The way I get around lack of data is to show clients. 

Google’s already given us the answers. They’re right in front of us, and we just need to reverse engineer who they’re favouring. So I turn that on to my clients and say ‘Here is you, your competitors, you know, they’re doing this’. They’re having success and making a lot of money. I am kind of ego bait clients into doing things. 

When shown where they aren’t doing what is helping a competitor win, the conversation is more straightforward. Some people are unreceptive, some people will just no matter what you throw at them even if it’s the gospel they just won’t take it because it’s not their ideology. So, it’s finding a compromise that is real art.

Damien: Daniel, where is SEO headed in the future? How will practices need to change to remain relevant?

Daniel: Everything we do has to be about serving that user intent. Not just user intent, but also understanding what Google is understanding and reflecting in the results page content. 

What a user searches for may not necessarily be reflected in the search engine results page. Like me trying to outrank old Neil’s crap long-form content with something actionable, because of various factors, that stuff does not change for a while, so you need to kind of just follow the leader for a while until Google matures.

As for where SEO is going, everything that we do, whether it’s content, and the links that we’re building has to be relevant and solve that person’s query. That’s the whole intent for a user making use of a search engine, and they want the answer quick.

There are different types of searches, and informational searches rarely convert because they’re just looking for an answer. You have to be aware of what kind of content you’re addressing. The more specific it is, the better because you know there’s a high chance that they are looking for a solution to something bigger. 

Let’s say they’re looking at ‘how to fix a tap’. It could be DIY, and it could be the search users needs a plumber. I am using the search results to help inform tactics and choices in the marketing mix. There’s probably a map pack in the results and videos and images. Maybe we decide to target YouTube to optimise for that ‘how to’ query.

Damien: That’s excellent advice. We’ve covered a lot of ground, Daniel. Thanks so much for chatting, have a great day mate. Speak soon.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielKCheung and discover his photography at Daniel K. Cheung.