My Humble Beginnings in SEO

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I’m finally getting around to putting some actual content on the site. I’d like to start by giving some context into how I got into the SEO/Digital game.

My Humble Beginnings in SEO 1
My metaphorical long journey

College and the Move

We can trace it all the way back to right after my 4 year college stint ended , I was a 21 year old kid eager to get into the workforce, start my long career and prove to my parents I didn’t go to school simply to major in Crushing Beers. Being a marketing major, I figured I’d be starting out at the bottom of a company doing petty work for a while before earning my stripes and moving up the corporate ladder. It took me a couple months of sales jobs, low level marketing gigs, reflection, goal analyzing and thinking about my future before I decided I was going take the biggest risk of my life at the time – I was going to pack up all my shit and move from Chicago to Kansas City to live with my girlfriend. Ballsy.

Gates BBQ
Some of KC’s famous BBQ

Now, I understand this isn’t a monumental move to a different continent but it was huge for me. I was moving from a city where I knew everything and everyone to some place I had only visited twice. All of my family and friends were in Chicago and the only thing I knew in KC was my girlfriend (and great BBQ!). On top of that, we had been doing the long distance thing and hadn’t lived in the same city, let alone the same building, in a about 4 years. What does this have to do with SEO you ask? Not much really. Im just providing some background on why a Chitown kid earned his stripe in KC. But I digress…enough about my personal life. I packed up, moved down to Kansas City and prepared for a major life change. Within about 2 months of moving down, I scored a gig with a secondary ticket company which was relocating from Columbia, Missouri to Kansas City. The company and people were young, energetic and the job was everything related to sports and music. I signed up on the spot.

We sold some of these

Marketing and my intro to SEO

I was hired to do local marketing, company branding and purchase tickets. As with everything I do, I dove headfirst and tried to expand my role and show I could do more. I began researching and expanding the company into additional markets, other ticketing sectors and attempted to expand into a more travel and entertainment area as well (this was prior to TicketsNow, StubHub and Ticketmaster doing it). I proved myself to the owners, sold them on my vision and worked hard. The company then began creating ticket purchasing software and I took it upon myself to market and sell the product to other ticket companies. The product did really well, the company was doing well and the owners were happy. We weren’t complacent though, so we began researching ways for our company to show up higher in the Search Engines (SEO). This was in 2005, not the infancy of Search but still the Wild West. I again took this onto myself to do and began researching everything I could about SEO. While we were researching, we also hired an SEO company to help us out thinking they actually know how to rank and could do it faster than we could.

And so it begins

Well, that company charged us a lot of money and didn’t produce any results. Ownership was livid and soon after, brought SEO in house. This is where I got my start in SEO. We began the laborious process of competitive research, keyword analysis, content creation and link building. We started to get a pretty good hang of what needed to be done and how to do it. After some initial research, we were beginning to get frustrated as we learned many of the companies we were competing against had much larger teams, a larger budget and had been doing SEO for longer than we were. Our results were minimal but improving. We continued on this path and increased our content strategy and link building for about 2 years, all while constantly analyzing rankings, algorithm changes and our competitors. It was an exciting process and exciting times at the company but it began to wear on me. I was beginning to feel I was at the peak of my growth in the organization and there wasn’t really much more for me to do or prove.

self storage
A new business opportunity?

The Self Storage Opportunity

I was also starting to get irritated with two of the three owners. The other owner, Matt, and I had connected, had similar work styles, personalities and visions for the future. He had a couple other things in the works and let me in on one of his ideas. He had been to a self storage convention and identified the opportunity to help market local self storage facilities to the masses. At the time, there were only about three other players in the niche and none were doing SEO or if they were, were not doing it effectively. His passion and excitement about the opportunity had me hooked. I wanted to be a part of his vision and I pleaded with him for several months to take the chance on me and the self storage idea. He eventually agreed and I then had to convince my wife -formerly my girlfriend, Yay me! – the opportunity and vision I saw was best for me and our family at that time. She was apprehensive, as she should have been, but agreed it was a good opportunity as well. Matt and I began to build the company, essentially at the beginning, a lead generator for self storage facilities. Eventually, we transitioned the company into a self storage comparison engine (think of it as the of the self storage industry). We had a website built, contacted all of the self storage associations, began in depth competitive research and tried to find the major players and influencors in the industry. My job was essentially everything since Matt had another business to worry about. He said it was my responsibility to make the company profitable and keep it sustainable. Matt essentially wanted to use the self storage business as an investment and be nearly hands off. Since I had quit the ticket company to work solely on creating this start up, my only income was this new gig and if it wasn’t profitable, I wasn’t going to get paid. I loved that. It motivated, challenged and pushed me. I had the freedom to do what I want when I wanted but also had the responsibility to run the company and make it profitable. This was my first opportunity to do such a thing and I was very grateful Matt provided me with it. A completely different path than I had originally thought I’d be on.

link building
My linking strategy

We began our Off-Page SEO process with a competitive analysis. (Our On-Page SEO was all on point from day 1. Our webmaster was/is a genius and set us up properly with great site structure, internal links, sitemaps, H tags, etc.) We looked at keywords, links and content, though a majority of what I was focused on was link analysis and link building. This was 2007 and Google was still relying heavily on links and anchor text. I spent a good amount of time contacting webmasters, site owners and self storage owners asking them for links. My strategy was to reach out to similar websites (apartments, real estate, moving, self storage, boxes, etc) and offer them content or other things for links. We knew this strategy would not last forever and knew it was not exactly white hat but also knew it would work. I had a great amount of success doing so and within a few months we had top ranking geo-targeted keywords. I also focused on pumping out a good amount of content. Since it was only me pushing content, I was mainly interested in creating content in quantity. The quality was low though the quantity was high. I was producing exactly the kind of stuff the Panda algorithm was going to be looking for. I tired it all in order to get as much content in front of bloggers and storage owners as I could in a minimal amount of time. I was linkstruck and I wanted them all. I was using article spinning techniques, pumping low quality content and contacting low quality blogs. I figured the links might bite us in the long run but I didnt even have low quality content on my radar at the time. I thought Google could discount some of the links but I didnt think it would be a huge deal. Little did I know……

always be closing
Selling like a boss

While I was spending most of my SEO time link building, I was also a selling machine – getting thousands of self storage facilities to sign up on our website so they would have more exposure, increased traffic and phone calls and ultimately more rentals. Networking within the industry was huge and we always had a huge crowd around our booth at the conventions. We were starting to gain some traction in the industry and people were taking us seriously. It was fantastic and I was excited.

We shouldve done this sooner

The issue we feared was always in the back of my mind though. We heavily relied on Google traffic and did very little to attain traffic from other sources. I was attempting to leverage partnerships to diversify our traffic but was not having much luck in locking anything major down. Our company was growing, our traffic was increasing but what if….. We knew we needed to diversify and fast. In 2009 and 2010 the algorithm changes were coming faster and hitting heavier than ever before. We began diversifying by hiring an employee to take care of our Social Media and create additional content.

Playing Google’s Game

Our SEO efforts were still paying off and it was showing. Our clients were extremely happy, their traffic was up, phones were ringing and storage units were staying full. And then….. We got caught in the Google dance for nearly 6 months. Why? We were still adding links though we were adding less quantity and less frequently than we had been in the past. In our stupidity, we added thousands of links from one domain and although Google didn’t completely crush us, our rankings fluctuated drastically for a long period of time. That was the last straw for us. We decided it was time to go strictly white hat. Matt and I began discussing new SEO strategies and other items of business….and then it really happened.

google panda
We played the game and got caught

My linking and content strategy that served us so well for 3 years fell apart. Our website was full of bland, generic content which did not differentiate us from other websites, nor did it give a great user experience to potential storage renters. Not only was our content bland, I spent a good amount of time reaching out and guest blogging and that content was also short, bland and low quality.Our website got slapped and HARDWe got hit by Panda.  We continued to get hit by Panda each and every time it was updated. Our traffic plummeted. Our clients began to get worry and we were terrified. Everything we worked so hard to build was crumbling. Luckily we were fortunate enough to partner with a larger, up and coming player in the industry just prior to our traffic drop. The deal we have in place with them was for them to fill our back end system – optimize the visitors coming into our website by getting them to convert into real renters rather than website visitors who bounce quickly. Our job was to keep the traffic coming in. As we entered the partnership, our traffic took a dive. We continued to fight the algorithms for three years, mostly getting beaten along the way. Matt and I agreed that our SEO strategy needed to change from being purely about acquiring links, to a content driven system and the link earning as a added bonus. In July of 2013 we made the decision to hire an SEO company to help us out of the hole. They refined our social strategy, aided our content development and re-worked some On-Page stuff. We made many changes within our website (internal links, canonical tags, etc) and finally came out of Google’s wrath with Panda 4.0. A real recovery story you ask? But of course. Our traffic suffered a large hit, we lost 50-75% of our regular traffic during our Panda death, and recovered nearly 100% of it back so far. (My next post will detail what we did to recover.)

time for a change
It was time to move on

A new chapter

In January 2014, I decided I needed a change from running Self Storage Finders and began looking for a new gig. SSF was fun, challenging and helped me grow both personally and professionally. It was simply time to move on. After a few months of job searching, I landed in corporate America doing SEO for a Fortune 100 company. The job has had its challenges already but my team is on the right track and the atmosphere is startupesque. I’m enjoying the ride and looking forward to righting this SEO ship. I dont know if any of this makes me an authority on SEO or digital but I feel my experience can be beneficial. If you stayed patient, read all my rambling and liked what you saw…Thanks. Come back again and we can rap about SEO some more. I’d appreciate any and all feedback you have. Recovery story yourself? Hate my writing? Think I’m full of shit? Leave it in the comments.

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