Conversations in Search: Julie Joyce

Julie Joyce

Julie Joyce is the Director at Link Fish Media

Julie Joyce speaks in a deliberate and sing-song Southern US accent. Julie has helped countless businesses build their link profiles, for free, or by paying if needed.

Julie works with her husband, Jay, who started their business back in 2006 and together they’ve been building and buying links the last 13 years. Away from work, Julie is into horror movies and is obsessed with the series Real Housewives (and yes, she says it is a guilty pleasure).

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: Hey, Julie, before we get stuck into questions, how are you at the moment?

Julie: I’m good. Today is my birthday. I got some AirPods, and I was just listening to some ‘Blue Oyster Cult’, they’re amazing. I haven’t had any problems from this virus personally or professionally. And everybody seems healthy around me, all my friends are good, so I don’t have anything to complain about.

Damien: Happy birthday! Is it a special birthday, no don’t answer that they’re all special. I wonder if you can share with us some of your history of before you got into SEO, what were you doing?

Julie: Well, I studied at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and I still live about a block away from it. I was a school student there. I got an English degree and an Anthropology degree and a gap year because I had no idea what to do and I couldn’t do much without a more advanced degree. 

Then I ended up going back to school to get a Social Work degree because I’d always done a lot of volunteer work and I liked that, and I thought that might be a good career, but after doing it for a year and a half, I was just so tired of it. Volunteer work is great because you’re not doing anything with money, so when you get in the situation where they say things like we need to figure out what to cut with this programme or who can get services, I couldn’t stomach it. 

I ended up going into computer programming. I went back to school again, and I became a programmer. I wanted to programme things for people with disabilities to help them. I ended up getting a job as a programmer, not doing anything like that, but just programming website coding, and I was doing that for a couple of years.

They needed somebody on the SEO team because one of the guys on it, who had started it was leaving, so they thought ‘Well, Julie can programme, and she’s got an English degree’. I got dragged into it, and I didn’t want to at first, at the time we did everything, so it wasn’t as compartmentalised as it is now. I was doing PPC and writing code and doing content and just doing everything.

Damien: So you’re at University and doing your first degree, what did you want to do with it, what was your aspiration at the time, Julie?

Julie: My main degree was Anthropology. I wanted to go into physical anthropology. I wanted to do something with forensics or anything with biology, but it did require going to graduate school. My husband, Jay, and I got married right after college, and we went to Crete in Greece on an archaeological dig for the summer. I liked it, but I didn’t want to go further on anthropology.

Damien: Did I see correctly on Twitter you’ve got a big kid called Tony, who is also an SEO?

Julie: Haha, oh no, he is not my real child. I was talking to Tony years ago, and he said ‘I’m gonna put it on Twitter that Julie Joyce and my mom’, I was like okay, and we just love it because it has so many people thinking about it. He does some crazy stuff on Twitter, and I just love thinking that people are like ‘Oh my god, that’s Julie child’.

Damien: You spent six years at Beacon Technologies, focused on all sorts of digital marketing, how was the split between content and technical?

Julie: I did lots of programming because I did some cloaking. I didn’t introduce the cloaking to the whole thing, but I did end up stopping it because I got a site banned from Google. The funniest part about it was that when they got banned from Google, nobody noticed, because they didn’t do any business from Google. I’ve experienced SEO from the dark side. 

The best thing I did, I had a loop in the cloaking script so you can tell it was not a very good programmer at the time. It was saying if you go here and then go back here and it ran for about two hours, and it took down every single website that we were hosting in that company.

Damien: I am crying laughing, was it at that point you decided to start your own thing with Link Fish Media?

Julie: My husband is the one that started Link Fish. He was a system admin guy working at Beacon, and we just happened to work together, and he also got pulled into the SEO team when another person left. We work together doing SEO, and then he met some people at Pubcon, and they offered him a remote job working for a company in London. It is such luck. I worked at Beacon for another year because I was scared to leave. After all, it was so stable, and I didn’t want to go into something crazy. 

I guess it was 2006 that I quit Beacon and I started working remotely for the same company as Jay. We worked for them a couple of years, and Jay did their links. I did more of the technical SEO management. The link thing got bigger and bigger, and they needed so many links that we thought we’d just hire some people where we are for Jay to train them. 

Somehow word got out, and we started getting new clients contacting us asking us to work for them too. So we created a company, that’s how Link Fish started. I hadn’t worked there for a year, and I didn’t do much when I first came on board because it was kind of Jay’s baby, but he’s mostly stepped back from it.

Julie and Jay Joyce in Prague
Julie and Jay Joyce in Prague

Damien: You introduced Jay to SEO at Beacon, and he spotted an opportunity and ran with it to start your business. Then you join the company, and its success went from strength to strength. 

Julie: Oh yeah, Jay still comes up with excellent ideas, and he does the taxes too.

Damien: It’s a fascinating point of differentiation that your business has been to focus on links since 2006. Why is it harder to rank in search without links?

Julie: Google mainly built its algorithms to reward links. I think a lot of what we hear about links when people say they don’t work or they’re not necessary, it’s just misinformation. I have seen sites that might rank when they don’t have a lot of links, but I haven’t seen them stick, there is no consistency. If you see them ranking it might just be because of luck, who knows what it is, but I don’t see people consistently ranking highly without links. 

Damien: There’s a lot of discussion going on that Google is moving away from links, leveraging artificial intelligence to understand relationships of things on the web. What do you think about that?

Julie: I think it’s a great goal and I think it’s tough to do something like that because search is a notoriously hard problem. When links are the main thing in the algorithm, in the way it was first built, moving away from that to something different isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The whole concept of ranking based on people referencing an entity is great. I do think that even if Google moves away from links, SEOs will find a way to manipulate it as usual. When anything works in SEO, we abuse it completely. 

Damien: Is there a way to decouple it. The idea of rank consistency versus going overboard on tactics which manipulate the path to rank?

Julie: Some people do things well; they have great clients with lots of money and excellent content. They can do things differently than a lot of other people. If you don’t have that much money and your product isn’t great, then people will resort to whatever tactic works. Especially if the content is by its nature not interesting enough to naturally attract links because it’s the only way they’re going to get anything, nobody is going to link to a boring niche website organically.

Damien: How would you approach improving rank for a client who was in a boring industry?

Julie: I would buy links, it’s what I mostly do right now. We have clients, not boring at all, but they have contracted us to kind of flesh out their link profiles. Their site link profile is vast, with tonnes of links coming in but they want this one thing to stand out right now. When we buy them, we buy them in the same way that we would build them.

I think Garrett French once said he begs for links and I buy links, but we qualify sites the same way. We try to find useful websites that would be a perfect fit. We’re not just out there throwing money at people for ridiculous links.

Damien: You’re saying for some industries you need to buy links to get results. If you’re not prepared to do that, then, should you just expect not to compete?

Julie: Exactly. I have turned down a lot of clients that are in that situation where they don’t want to buy links, and that makes me sad because I think they probably will have to, but as long as I have plenty of work to do I don’t want to be the person that does that, that does the thing they don’t want to have to do.

Damien: What do you think is the most valuable thing in terms of the service that you provide for your clients?

Julie: Well, we get a lot of work from SEO teams and agencies who want to outsource their link work because our service makes pages rank, we give clients what they want. We stopped looking at rankings and traffic. Occasionally I’ll monitor stuff and look at it, but I feel like I got caught up in rankings, a long time ago where things would change, and it just made me crazy.

Right now, we just build the links and send the links over, and the clients do the rest. If anything changes and they’re unhappy, we’re going to hear from them. They do all the analysis, and we’ve had a client that just re-upped for another year, it’ll be our ninth year with them. I feel like as long as my clients are doing well, we must be doing something right.

Damien: Some services promise you can just pay $199 a month and get a fantastic link profile and SEO results, are they to be believed.

Julie: No, that is not believable at all. So many people tell me they’re amazed that we are so honest on the costs and the risks. I do want to be honest about what we’re doing. Every client we work with knows what we do, and they know it’s risky, and they sign off on it. We’re not sugarcoating anything.

Honesty is critical to me because we have had people, SEOs, who have wanted to have us do their links, but they weren’t planning on telling their clients that they were buying links. I do like doing something that helps businesses, and I love it that everybody knows what’s going on, even if it’s a little on the dark side, we all know it is going on.

Damien: What is the question that SEOs are not asking you as a link specialist that they should be asking?

Julie: They should probably be asking for ideas on what is going to get webmasters to link. Instead of thinking about what the client wants. People who are building the links know a lot more than anybody else. Any SEO should talk to the people promoting the content to get the links, and we know what’s going to be link-worthy. Lots of times, we don’t have clients that listen. Our smaller clients will listen to us. It’d be good if we could be more involved in creating content ideas.

Damien: As you work on the link profiles for your clients, how much do you think about the future of SEO and what it will be?

Julie: I think there’s a shallow barrier to entry in our industry, and I see people in some of these Facebook groups that are charging outrageous amounts of money. 

I’ve been doing the same thing for 13 years in terms of link building, and I’m just going to keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing because it seems to work. I will also test things out and change up my tactics in time. When Google says something or John Mueller says something, and he is a saint honestly to answer everybody’s questions, we need to think for ourselves and not do exactly what Google says is going to work.

You can do exactly what Google says, and it’s not going to work. On the flip side, you can do everything that violates Google guidelines and do amazingly well. SEO as an industry I think it’s just going to keep getting bigger and bigger. I don’t see any decline in it.

There are lots of problems with local reviews. We had an experience recently with someone, a vet, she was allegedly doing awful things to animals, and in her local reviews, you would not be able to tell. When people would criticise her in a review, she would respond by saying, ‘I don’t have a record of you being a client’. That was like her go-to response. It made me think about all the stuff that you can just manipulate everything.

Damien: It’s worrying that a business mistreating their customers can effectively manipulate the search results if they pay for links. Do you fear that your work can aid and abet clients who don’t pay attention to their customers?

Julie: I have had that happen, one of the only people we’ve ever had get hit with a manual penalty, was that kind of person. They were doing all kinds of stuff. I thought what we were doing is excellent and that’s how they were ranking because I wasn’t paying enough attention. 

All of a sudden they’re like ‘We got a penalty’, and I said ‘Are you working with anybody else?’, and they’re like, yeah we’re working with four-link building companies involved, and nobody knew anybody else doing anything.

Damien: What has been the most fun you’ve had building links up for a customer?

Julie: I had a campaign on growing different vegetables. I liked it because I got to look at a lot of recipe sites and food sites and things like that. It was just fun because people love the content, and in that case, we did not have to buy most of those links, because the content was great. They had great videos and tutorials, and loads of people just wanted to link to it. It was easy in that way. I love the discovery in looking at all these websites to see if we can get a link there and I just get lost in them.

Damien: The situation now with the travel sector, hard hit by COVID, and lockdowns across the world. Do you think that the link profiles they’ve built will enable them to bounce back as people start searching or they’re going to have to think a little differently?

Julie: It will be fascinating to see because I’m sure people still are doing things. I don’t know a lot who can afford to build new things and build links right now, so if nobody has the money to do anything new, they’ll be in the same boat. I had a great travel client that had to leave in March when all this started. Interestingly, I took a look at my last three travel clients and they seem to have pretty stable rankings compared to what I saw when we last worked together so hopefully they’ll be ok.

Damien: Julie, who do you find thought-provoking or providing you with new ways of thinking?

Julie: Great question, I have to say, Alan Alda. He was an actor in Mash which is an old US TV show. I saw him speak about a year and a half ago at my college, and he was just amazing. He has Parkinson’s now, I believe and does a lot of work with communication and science. He’s big on phrasing within the conversation. It just applies to everything from going to the doctor to doing research and telling people what you do. 

It was just a very inspirational speech when he would just say how to phrase things differently, and I think it applies to so much because even with SEO if I’m talking to a new client I don’t know how much they know, and I might be slinging around these terms, they don’t understand. I need to remember that they might not understand that and try to get it to a level where I’m not talking to them like their child, but I’m not confusing them and making them nervous. They don’t want to ask me what that is because I think they should.

In SEO, I would have to say, Debra Mastaler, she completely took me under her wing when I started writing for Search Engine Land. She reached out to me, and I’ve stayed in touch with her, I’ve done webinars with her, and she has excellent advice. She’s also just the most fantastic link builder ever, and listening to her whenever I would do a webinar with her I would come out of it with a billion notes, and just madly inspired. 

She has a great perspective on looking at what you have and then turning it into something else. She was my editor at Search Engine Land for a while too, and just generally she’s one person that if you know her, then when you need advice, that’s who you go to.

I have a large, coffee table size book on my desk called The Life & Love of Trees by Lewis Blackwell. Julie sent it to me years ago after I gushed to her about my love of trees. That’s typical of Julie, she listens and then goes out of her way to do something thoughtful like send you a book about trees. Julie Joyce is nice. She is also very smart, funny and the best listener. Her business is a success because she works hard and gives back. She is that rare person in life who makes you better just by knowing her.

Debra Mastaler

Damien: If a client is thinking about building links, how would you suggest they compete on brand and non-brand phrases?

Julie: When I first started doing personal branding, I kept trying to get higher. For brand search, people have to know who you are? There’s a band that I liked called ‘Wire’. Anytime I look up anything for them I think about this because you get all kinds of things. There was like the TV show ‘The Wire’ there’s actual wire, there are some kinds of software called ‘Wire’, and then you get local results for where you can buy wire and the band ‘Wire’ is way down, at least they get on the first page of Google for me. 

Maybe some of the machine learning stuff does work, and based on what you’ve searched for and looked at previously, you see different results. Someone very famous or a huge brand is going to outrank a smaller site, that is a tough one.

For non-brand phrases it can be easier or harder. Easier if it’s not a competitive phrase. You can build a couple of links for a non-competitive phrase and rank something pretty easily. Harder if it’s a non-brand phrase like ‘dog treats’ it’s going to take a lot more links to compete. 

Damien: Have you helped ‘Wire’ with their link profile?

Julie: No, I wish, my god if they reached out I would die, I’d be the happiest person in the world.

Damien: SEOs have a bad name at times. What do you think we could do to improve?

Julie: I think we could stop being shady and lying about what we do to get results for the main thing and stop telling people what is going to happen because you don’t always know. 

I see people guaranteeing SEO results, spend this money, and you’re going to get this, and that doesn’t always work. We need to be better at saying, ‘We hope this is going to work, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t’, but let people know. We don’t know exactly what is going to happen. 

Something can be entirely out of your control, so promising people specific results based only on what you can do is just not a great idea. It’s hard to get clients without selling the ambition, obviously, but would stick on the side of honesty. I would like to be more honest about what people are doing. They talk about ethics, blackhat and whitehat SEO, but they don’t want to admit what they do.

Damien: There seem to be some corners of online marketing who are militant and don’t agree with that sort of thinking. Why do you think that is?

Julie: It makes me very sad for people who are new to the industry to see that. Because if you say something or you ask a question that somebody thinks is stupid, there’s going to be somebody on you immediately saying ‘What a stupid idea’ and just making you feel like crap, and SEOs they’re really, really good at that. There’s a couple of them in particular that will get you every time because their shtick is just to be abrasive and it gets them some attention.

Damien: Let’s say that links matter equally to content. Others say to rank well just create high-quality content, whatever that is. What’s dividing us on this issue of success?

Julie: You can get links with great content, but it’s hard for people to find great content. That’s why I think it’s essential to promote it. There’s so much that I need somebody to point out to me because I can’t spend my whole life just searching. There will be some great stuff out there, but how are you going to promote it? 

I mean you can post it to Twitter and hope it goes viral, but I think you still need people outreaching and saying ‘Here, will you take a look at this, it might interest you?’ I don’t think just having a great piece of content letting it sit there with no outreach at all, that’s crazy.

Damien: Are there challenges that you’ve encountered in your career that are worth sharing?

Julie: Definitely. For a time, I lost control of the work we were doing a long time ago because we got so big so fast, and I just couldn’t handle it. I think we had 50 clients at once and it was impossible to look at everything that was going out the door for a client, and I hated it. 

I kind of withdrew and depended on other people to manage it. You know, I am my business, and I decided I did not want my name on something if I haven’t signed off on it. If you are like that you need to have managers that you can trust to do what you want, or you need just to stay small enough to do it yourself, and that’s what I’ve decided to do. I have no plans to grow, and I just don’t want it a large link shop.

I got surprised when clients would fuss, and they would complain about something we’ve done, and I would go look it up, and we were putting out 500 links in a month, and I just didn’t see them. It was not that the work was terrible, it was lots of times that clients needed to let us know to keep going. There were a few cases where clients got more than they expected.

Somebody else was in control, a lot of it was Jay. He’s brilliant, but his organisational skills at times are not the best, so he had more issues with clients getting upset. He’d pass it on to me, and I’d straighten it out. I like being in control of everything that goes on, and I’m a control freak because I know what works for the client.

Damien: Imagine a small business, out of COVID they’ve set up an online shop. It’s their first online venture, what are your top three recommendations to develop their link profile?

Julie: I would say for them to try to do all of the necessary local stuff like registering with their Chamber of Commerce. I’d get them to try to get their businesses listed on all things like that, and if it requires a membership to a group, I will pay it. That would be the first thing. Then I think you can get some excellent links to get a slot writing for a website in your industry. I’ve got tonnes of clients from writing for the different sites I write for. If you can do that, that’s always good, and lastly, I would not buy links if I were just starting in a small business because the risk is too high.

Damien: What do you think is most misunderstood about SEO, Julie?

Julie: Honestly, I think it’s link building, and I’m so pro link building, we get so much crap. A lot of people just love to talk junk about link builders like we are the scum of the earth. They think all we do is only spam people, that we don’t look at anything or try to do good work. Especially some of the people that do technical SEO say a lot of things about the link builders. I just wish they knew what we do and that we’re trying to do a good job. We’re not just out there, firing off 5,000 emails to people we don’t know every day.

The value I bring generally it’s that the links we build do make people rank higher. Sometimes they might just keep them ranking the same, but that’s still better than being overtaken by a competitor. I would love for them to understand that because I’ve never seen a link builder say ‘tech SEOs suck’. I would like them just to think we all need to work together because no link builders that I know think that it only links that matter. 

We think it’s a massive part of it, but we don’t believe all we need to do is build links. We’re hoping that all the technical SEO is great, everything’s mapped out well, internal linking looks good, the content is excellent, and we know that we are a part of things. I wish they would think of that. We’re a part of things just like they aren’t going to do it that way, not just think well screw them they just do crap work.

Damien: I am hearing you are not doing an SEO audit, but you have a deep awareness of complementary disciplines, and they help gain links and promote content.

Julie: Right. I specialise in links. I know people that specialise and all kinds of other things, and I love it that way because I don’t want everybody to do everything. I think it’s excellent that somebody is an expert in their industry, and they know what they’re talking about.

Damien: You’ve exemplified Southern charm in spending so much time chatting and shared some great insight on the value of working together, of finding common ground. I look forward to chatting again soon, thank you.

Follow Julie on Twitter @JulieJoyce and discover more about Link Fish Media.