George is owner of The Search Ninjas an SEO company based out of Baltimore, MD.
An avid football player, coach, and SEO consultant, George uses his passion for marketing and entrepreneurship to help business owners improve their online visibility.
Growing up with parents who both ran small businesses, George understands the importance of providing an ROI for his clients; and he’s a heck of a good guy.
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: George, how’s it going, mate? I’ve got a ton of questions for you, but first, how are you doing?
George: Doing well Damien. Thanks for having me. I am doing alright. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and I think everybody’s just kind of, you know, coping with everything going on with COVID and trying to keep it together as much as they can I was already working virtually for a few years and it’s been interesting to watch my friends forced to work from home and how they’ve been adjusting. It’s been different for them, not having a routine to get dressed up business casual and going into an office.
So it’s been interesting watching how everyone has been adjusting, and putting up with the stress and anxiety of it all. But I am doing okay, work helps to keep my mind off of things, so that’s always nice.
I’m not sure what you’re thinking about the US after this latest debate, but luckily the whole world doesn’t have to put up with Donald Trump. I know you guys have Boris Johnson who isn’t doing that great of a job, but at least the rest of the world is making an effort to contain the Covid problem and not just sweep it under the rug.
Damien: True that! Don’t get me started on politics. George. Tell us about your company, what do you do for your clients?
George: We focus on local search for businesses who aren’t in a position to manage local SEO efforts in-house. Not just basic on-page SEO, but some additional advanced metrics like indexing, link analysis, citation building, Google My Business profile optimisation and on-page schema implementation.
Most of my experience has been with WordPress, so we do a lot of WordPress optimisations and some occasional WordPress development. Long story short, we manage local SEO and focus on everything involved: on-page, off-page, technical, etc.
We do this for businesses like law firms, CPA offices, plumbers so that we can take some responsibility off of the plates of their internal marketing managers, or from the business owner themselves. We want to help them be more visible on search engines for their local target audience.
Damien: I was talking to Bill Slawski about his views on SEO, and he spoke about misdirection and sometimes misinformation, and it feels like the idea extends to politics too. Back to SEO though, you sent me over a link before the interview, touching on misdirection, and how Google says that links are no longer the most important SEO factor. What do you think about that?
George: I can’t believe that John Mueller from Google said that. I’ve been doing SEO for a long time, since 2005, and links have always been the ‘unknown factor’ for many, but I would say they are still one of the most important ranking factors.
Before I was doing SEO, back when I was in college and high school, I ran a website that sold designer fabric. I would import fabric by the yard, and sell it on a website. So consumers would buy it, put it on like their shoes, car upholstery shops would buy in bulk and use it for their clients’ car upholstery and things like that.
It was back in the days of Alta Vista, really early on. I did study SEO, and I wanted to get higher rankings and I started getting number one results for fabric queries on Yahoo and things like that.
That taught me the importance of SEO, in terms of if someone wants to use the ‘World Wide Web’ as it was called back in 1998 and 1999, where was the starting point? I decided it was almost always going to be a search engine, in terms of where users will turn to search for products or information. A few years later in 2005 I started doing SEO consulting part-time and I cut my teeth in the link building world, really getting into the trenches, for a few agencies outsourcing link building projects.
I probably would be looked at as a little bit of a blackhat SEO these days, but back then, I was creating Wikipedia entries or Web 2.0 pages, social bookmarking blasts and spinning blog content. I was looking for whatever do-follow links I could get. Everything that you can do back in those days, because back then that’s what got results and got the rankings.
I wouldn’t say I was a full-on spammer, but I’d go and figure out where you could get links from relevant resources which offered SEO value. And it almost always worked, when we talk about improving rankings or organic search traffic it was literally all about links from, I’d say, the early 90’s to around 2012.
Just build as many links as you can, make sure they were ‘dofollow’ [not nofollow] and had great anchor text so we could focus on improving rankings for certain keywords, real SEO 1.0 type of stuff early on.
Then Google Penguin launched in 2012. This started to really limit the link ‘building’ methods you could use, and tell clients you were using, to improve rankings.
Once the first 2012 Penguin update launched, everything changed. No more press release blasts or Ezine articles, no more blog commenting with anchor text. Google’s algorithm evolved, and publicly Matt Cutts kept saying it was ‘all about writing good content and earning links’ but if you’re been doing SEO since 2012 you’re not stupid.
No matter what Google says, links are still uber important in 2020. Some of the rules may have changed, and necessarily so, to cut back on all of the spammers setting up 100 WordPress blogs just to have more link ‘authority’. But to say links aren’t the most important factor?
They may not be #1, but they’re top 3. There are just more things to be aware of in 2020, in terms of which types of links are acceptable and adding value, and which might be hurting more than helping.
Damien: Every SEO wants to understand more about how Google’s algorithms work. We are all consciously or subconsciously manipulating that understanding to affect ranking.
George: Yeah, well, back then we were probably more manipulating, for lack of a better term, and now it’s much more complicated.
Fast forward to 2020 and people are like ‘Oh, well the problem with old school SEO was you had all these spammers’. The first Google Penguin update was to cut back on spam, and I always thought it was necessary.
But it put a limit, from an agency standpoint, on client retention and client services standpoint. Somebody would come to me and say, ‘Well, what are you going to do for me every month?’. Back then I’d say I’m going to try to build some links, create and optimise internal content to improve rankings. The Google Penguin updates limited the link building methods that were previously acceptable, and now the emphasis is more on quality content and outreach
It’s easy to say now, ‘Oh, you built these crappy links, you’re a blackhat spammer’, but back then that’s how it was. As you said, sometimes we’re in the game of reverse engineering where we need to do for our clients what we think is acceptable to Google’s algorithm. It’s not just about how many links you can build in 2020. Links from more referring domains does help.
The current theory, if I had to summarize link building in 2020 vs in the early 2000’s, is that if you write quality content, you can get some useful links from journalists and newspaper sites and other sites which might think it’s useful to link to your website. But that’s not always how it works in the real world, especially for small businesses. Sometimes you need someone to take the time and identify local websites, or directories, or other websites relevant to your profession.
I’m specialising in the legal field, and work with a lot of law firms. It’s common knowledge that if you have links from authoritative traditional sites and directories, those are very valuable. Legal SEO’s can say ‘Well those don’t help with SEO’, but if you’ve done a competitive analysis on top law firms who are ranking, you’re very likely going to see a number of paid legal directory listings in their link profile.
Some of these links cost thousands of dollars per month. There are several different accepted sites and directories that people know they need to invest in that are important. So for Google to say that links aren’t the most important factor, meanwhile it’s generally accepted across the industry that a personal injury firm in a competitive market has almost no chance of competing for competitive terms without having an annual budget for paid directories, I mean come on…
Damien: So you’re looking at the link analysis when you’re doing an audit for a client, you’re looking at the competition, to see what is working for them?
George: Yeah. So you look at their competitors, and you say ‘Well why are they ranking in the top three of the local snack pack, why are they outranking us for this term?’ Using any of those SEO tools, nine times out of 10, those competitors have some ‘high authority’, paid legal directory links that they’re benefitting from.
Damien: It’s interesting, almost like a double-play in baseball. Google first launched its Panda algorithm changes to quash thin content in 2011. Then Penguin algorithm changes lineup in 2012, turning both problems into one of measuring the sprint speed of SEOs to meet these new requirements.
George: Very true. So then sometimes it’s hard, because instead of focusing 80% of our attention on link building, as SEO’s we have to evolve along with Google. So taking the time to perform a 3 or 4 hour competitor analysis where we identify potential links we can obtain, vs spending 4 hours building links and commenting on whatever dofollow blog posts we can find. It’s not ‘work smarter, not harder’, it’s more like ‘evolve or die’.
The data and overall strategy, along with some more advanced technical on-page aspects like Schema and Mobile Pagespeed, become more important in 2020. I understand the ‘keep writing content and you will get links’ concept, and the value of outreach. Like I said, in reality, small businesses and local businesses don’t always fit into that category.
Damien: It raises a question about priorities for businesses when it comes to SEO success. Site owners need to produce great content, think about the user experience, delving into the technicalities of how their site presents to users and search engines. Let’s loop links in as well. What is the priority here?
George: I always tell clients we’re not going to spend time every month just building links. It’s not a natural link profile. Links are important, but it’s on-page aspects and the basic ones that get overlooked.
As an industry, we’re always looking for that new shiny red ball so that we can prove that we can show that we’re advanced and are experts that it would help if you focused on this E-A-T or BERT and then your client website is inaccessible or has no meta descriptions.
The images take forever to load, your mobile pagespeed insights show 30 critical issues that need to be fixed, or you have duplicate content or indexing issues. Even in 2020, one of the problems is that we’re just overlooking a lot of the basics.
We’re trying to prove that we’re smarter than each other. Trying to prove to clients that ‘I know what I’m talking about, I have this new method that will make the difference, and you should sign up with us’.
I do think we make it more complicated at times. When I started, there wasn’t an SEO industry on a social media site like Twitter, you had like two blogs you can read, and three message boards, but now it’s like everybody’s an SEO expert saying you need to do this you need to do that, and ‘OMG there were search fluctuations today’. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what is real, and what info is being put out there just as part of SEO’s doing their own marketing, and trying to establish themselves as the experts.
Damien: The fundamentals of SEO do not change often. It’s been about relevance and reliability for search engine visitors. The fragmentation in the industry adds to the distraction for clients; they come to think that great SEO is rare and that it’s expensive.
George: A lot of businesses have been taken advantage by SEO’s and marketing agencies offering SEO as another line item, and that hurts everyone. My parents were both small business owners growing up, my father had a commercial flooring company his entire life, and my mother, Leslie, owned a gym for years in Clinton, MD.
I knew that they were never in a position where they had a huge marketing or advertising budget, let alone a few grand sitting around every month to spend on something like SEO. Their marketing was literally my brother and I printing fliers and putting them on cars every other weekend.
So take a niche industry like personal injury, which a lot of marketing, web design, and SEO agencies look at as a lucrative niche to be in. The thought process when I started my business was ‘I need to get my client X number of auto accident cases every month or year to justify the ROI, and I only need to manage Y number of clients each month since they’ll be paying me more’.
Then things became so saturated. Everyone with a garage and an internet connection is an SEO expert, or every marketing agency knows how to do SEO.
So if you’re a small business, no matter how lucrative your business is, or how little your marketing budget is, if you have spent $500/month or $10,000/month on SEO for 5 years, and you’ve been screwed over or taken advantage of by 3 different agencies because they were unable to provide the ROI, you now have a bad taste in your mouth. This has happened a lot when it comes to SEO.
Small businesses need to see an ROI. They’re not just going to pay you money every month for Google rankings, they need to see more calls and more business.
Damien: How do we fix that?
George: I don’t know, because there are so many people out there who look at SEO as a cash grab, and they looked at higher ticket items, and there are so many marketing agencies that want to offer SEO because it’s a new way for them to generate revenue. I think the industry, to an extent, is really out of control right now for that same issue, they see the dollar signs, and they’re using SEO as a way to get more business in the door.
I also hear ‘old school SEO people are the ones that mess everything up’ when it’s the people coming in with beautiful proposals and marketing buzzwords to get their clients signed up, they outsource it to someone either overseas. Those people aren’t equipped to provide updates and results every month, and they are screwing it all up for those of us actually doing the work, and who have done this for a while. They’re making false promises, setting the wrong expectations, and not even doing the work.
Damien: Absolutely, seen many agencies promote using specialist outsourcing and virtual assistants to do much of the SEO heavy lifting. So let’s rewind. I’ve got loads of questions. I want to find out more about you as a person. So you grew up in Baltimore?
George: I grew up closer to the DC area, Prince George’s County. I went to a high school called Dematha Catholic High School, a real prominent athletic school and I grew up playing soccer.
Damien: Football, you mean?
George: Yeah, yeah! I went on to Frostburg State University in Western Maryland, and I studied computer science there for a few years. I wasn’t great at school, so I got into work, got into the cell phone repair and cell phone sales industry. I was in that market for a few years before I started SEO.
I bought a house in Baltimore, and I was commuting to DC every day on a train. It was an hour and a half each way, fixing people’s cell phones and I got really tired of it. Customer service and dealing with the general public, when they needed you to fix their cell phones, it got old quick. But it paid bills and let me buy a house.
I always knew what SEO was, but never considered it as a profession. Around 2003 I read my first SEO book, like literally, it was called ‘The SEO Book’, it was like a PDF download I got. I read it on the train to work one morning, and I started learning more about it. Like I said, I had already known a little about it from when I ran my fabric website.
I eventually took on a few projects from a web development agency that outsourced some of their SEO projects to me. I was doing that on the side, in addition to renovating my house and going back and forth to DC, putting up with people’s crap every day.
One day I just decided to quit my job. I had enough agency work to get by, and just got started. I started doing freelance SEO full-time in 2006. I was a freelancer on my own for two years, and during those two years I was going to different meetup groups, I was doing a lot of networking and meeting people in the SEO industry.
Then I took a job at a company called Foster Web Marketing in 2008 as their Director of SEO. Foster web marketing is one of the many prominent legal website design providers. They had never offered SEO before I got there.
One night I was desperate for work, agency projects dried up and I just sent out a bunch of emails to different agencies, with a link to my blog, to show them I knew what I was talking about.
I guess I stood out to them because I met with the owner, Tom Foster, and he brought me on when they had like 200+ clients, and they wanted me to help them to build their SEO department. Tom and I got along well because he’s an entrepreneur, we were way too like minded to be honest. I got really excited about the business.
He was like ‘Look, come on, help us with our clients. We can build out this SEO department, I’ll make you my go-to guy’, so I was going to all these different legal seminars and doing presentations, and I was the face of their SEO.
I set up their SEO offering from the ground up, and was there for almost three years until 2011. I really enjoyed my time at FWM, but I was having a hard time working with competitors of clients, so I started my own company and focused on offering exclusivity.
Damien: Tell us about the time leading up to making that choice to start and build The Search Ninjas, how did you arrive at that decision?
George: Like I mentioned, my parents really had an influence on what I wanted to do. I wanted to set myself up in the future where I had a more flexible schedule, and I was able to leave work and attend to something if I needed to. I saw that both of my parents ran their own businesses, worked really hard, but could make their own schedules.
I coach soccer in my free time, which is always nights and weekends, but if we have a 3-day tournament I can take a half day on Friday, answer emails from the road, or bring a laptop and work virtually on trips. This was very appealing, being able to work from wherever I wanted.
The flexible schedule is something I’ve really needed lately, to be completely honest, because my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in late August.
So my parents may need me to randomly drop everything and come home for help, or if I need to help them with something on last-minute notice, I’m able to drop everything and be there for them if they need me.
That has meant a lot to me, because my dad, Dan, always coached my soccer teams growing up, and was always able to take a few hours off from work to be there for me growing up. So having a schedule where I can be there for him whenever he needs help, that is important to me right now.
Damien: Who would you say has influenced you, from a business perspective?
George: My dad has taught me a lot about life, and being my own man, in terms of working hard and work ethic. Also, running your own business, there are peaks and valleys. I watched him go through good times and bad times, it’s the nature of the beast when you’re self employed. So I do feel like sometimes I’m better equipped to handle adversity when maybe things slow down from time to time, just from watching him go through it all of those years.
Professionally, in the legal sector, Tom Foster has had a significant influence on me. Tom is not just an SEO. Tom is a successful guy who puts his trust in other people and empowers them. He’s grown a great business, and I’ve always thought the way he’s done it has been interesting to me.
Tom gave me a lot of advice, he showed me a lot of direction, and I’ve always been able to reach out to him for advice if I need to. Also the leaders in the legal SEO field who I follow and see what they’re doing, they’re also a significant influence for me.
I’ve been lucky to meet and network with a number of great business leaders over the years, but maybe if there’s one thing I would change from what I learned from my dad, it would be to trust more of these people for advice instead of thinking I’m capable of doing everything on my own.
Damien: Sounds like you’ve learnt some great lessons. The world of SEO can be stressful, so how do you handle the stresses, George?
George: I get away from it from time to time. I’ve coached soccer for about six years, I’m able to do it after work hours, and it’s pretty high level, so I’ve coached kids that have gone on to play a lot of soccer in college, and I still coach.
One of the issues in the digital industry is that people don’t look after their physical health, or get enough exercise. It’s hard to have time budgeted to truly look after yourself, and getting to the gym. There are a lot of people glued to their computer monitors for 12 to 16 hours a day. So coaching soccer, working with kids, it helps both physically and mentally.
If I thought about SEO and Google for 16 hours straight I would lose my mind. So it’s nice to spend time helping the kids, doing what I can, and being around a sport that I’ve always loved. Coaching soccer is something I’ve always been passionate about.
Damien: George, what drives you?
George: I enjoy SEO. As much as I complain about how limited we are, I do enjoy it. I get real satisfaction out of helping small businesses improve their marketing efforts.
I sincerely believe that’s what drives me. Sometimes I’m kind of like the shoemaker walking around with holes in his shoes, because I spend my time doing SEO for other people and usually neglect my own marketing, because I’m passionate about helping my clients and seeing results.
Damien: What do you think the future of SEO is, where is it all headed?
George: I’ve read all of your other interviews, and I was trying to think of what that might be. I think it’s going to depend on what happens with ‘Pay to Play’ for Google My Business. Many of my clients are focused on getting into the Local snack pack. One of the biggest obstacles for the entire SEO industry is the amount of spam in local search. Google’s a big conglomerate, and their modus operandi is to make money.
If they’re going to start charging $50 bucks a month for everybody to ‘Pay to Play’ in Google My Business, I hope that weeds out a lot of the spammers, and a lot of the locations that aren’t truthfully locations. Don’t put all your eggs in the Google basket. That’s always been the case, but it’s kind of hard to invest time in Yahoo or Bing when you know that Google has such a large market share.
I hope a competitor of Google comes along and says, ‘Hey, we care more about providing information than making money at every chance we could get’ and at some point, maybe, we have a competitor for Google one day, versus always having to wonder when the next groundbreaking Google update will occur.
I think that, with the way things are shifting in 2020, online and virtual businesses clearly seem to be the way things are shifting. Yet Google, Amazon, Wal-Mart all seem to be at the heart of online business.
I’m not sure how we get there, but I hope one day we move away from the ‘pay-to-play’ model of having to be included in Google Adwords or Local Service Ads, or having to have a $2000/month paid legal directory budget, in order to compete. I would say that hopefully it’s more of an open system, versus Google generating revenue at every chance they have.
Damien: Thanks, George, for the chat. Excellent speaking with you and I look forward to chatting again with you soon.