Jill Whalen
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From “The Jon Rognerud Elite SEO Interview Series”: Jill Whalen. In this post, learn more about SEO as compared with “common” knowledge. You might be surprised to hear . . .

Jill Whalen has been in the business of search engine optimization for more than 13 years, and certainly for many years more than most of us. The breadth of experience, knowledge and real-world application has been witnessed and run “up close and personal” by Jill herself. I was pleasantly surprised to hear her intriguing answers about SEO and search in general, simpler than that of most notaries in the field, and a very personal approach too. Super refreshing, I’d say–and it’s very easy to understand for non-techie folks.

She really believes there is no magic bullet, but a set of SEO best practices combined with always testing, tracking and staying on top of your work and the (competitive) marketplaces.

She has a deep wealth of knowledge and a true passion. No wonder people quickly sign up for her SEO training classes. She keeps very busy at her High Rankings office outside Boston.

I was really interested to hear more about SEO, training issues, myths and more. What follows is our interview recently.

(Ed.Note: I have organized this interview into three sections: 1. beginners/training, 2. industry standards  and 3. SEO myths. You’ll see a BONUS resource section at the end).

Hi Jill. Before we begin, can you tell me a bit about yourself, how you got started and about your company, High Rankings?

Sure, Jon. I started with a parenting website back in 1993. I was trying to figure out how to make sure my site was found on Lycos, Excite, Infoseek. I looked at the search engines’ results for parenting keywords, realized it was the words on the page that was making them show up. I was also doing some web design work for small businesses, and used what I had learned on those sites. By ’97 I decided to concentrate on SEO, as it was more specialized and I had gained knowledge that nobody else had. By 2000 I started my e-mail newsletter, which helped me to be further known in the industry.


1. So much information on the net–what can a person trust? How to get the “right” information–and what are good training institutions?

Yes, there is so much info. SEO education is a large part of my business. That’s why I originally started our newsletter (The High Rankings Advisor): to provide free, good advice. And the same with our High Rankings SEO Forum. It’s also why we’ve offered SEO seminars since 2002 and now SEO training classes on a monthly basis.

Part of the problem with knowing whose information to trust is that there are so many ways to do SEO. It doesn’t mean that one way is right and another wrong. That’s why I would recommend reading a variety of stuff and see what makes sense to you. Perhaps one SEO method connects more with you than another. Once you find a method or person that you connect with, stick with [it] and don’t go reading everyone else’s stuff. Too many opposing views can be confusing. Some SEOs play a numbers game and others (like me) use common sense. I don’t look at putting any specific number of words on a page or how much keyword density a page should have or how long a title tag should be. There is no best answer for those things, as every page and every site is different.

Attending industry conferences such as SMX and SES is also a good idea, once you have already established your SEO methods. You can often get some great nuggets of info from the panelists, as well as during the networking events.

2. How do you get buy-off from management to go to SEO training and what works best (off-site, or weekly calls/webinars, etc)?

Every company has different SEO training needs. It really depends on what they’ve already been doing and their current knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, a lot of top management doesn’t understand the value that SEO can bring to the table. They may have tried it in the past and not received any results, so they believe it doesn’t work. Companies that may have their own in-house SEO can also benefit from working with an outside consultant or attending a training class. For larger companies, it often makes sense for them to have someone come in and consult in order to get all the departments on board with the program. Sometimes just bringing IT and marketing together on the same page can help get buy-in from the higher-ups. These folks don’t always understand how much work is involved with SEO. The messaging, content and structure will change, so it is critical to involve everyone who might touch the website.

In the end, the easiest way to sell upper management on SEO is to explain to them that if people (clients) cannot find their website, they’re leaving dollars on the table, and that money is likely going to their competitors. It’s as simple as that.

3. What’s the best way to learn SEO? Reading? By doing? And how to keep current with the constant changes (Google algorithm, for example)?

The best way to learn SEO is, as Nike likes to say, “just do it.”   Sure, there are a million conferences, books and classes being pitched everywhere. You can sign up for them all, but if at the end of the day you don’t simply roll up your sleeves and see what works for your site and what doesn’t, then what’s the point?

There are always new things to learn, of course, but once your site is in relatively good shape, there’s no need to sit and tweak it every day. Sure, continue to build / get links, provide good info for your users, but no need to make drastic changes just because you think the search engines might like it.

4. Loaded question: What is the true secret to search engine rankings?

Easy! The secret is to think about what search engines actually want. And that is: the best, most relevant pages to show up for their users–the searchers. They want to show their users pages that answer the searchers’ questions. So if you can figure out what the searchers are asking Google, and then answer those questions on your website, that’s it.

It’s unfortunate when people are only wrapped up in one keyword phrase and ignore the thousands of other phrases that are being typed into the search engines, which may be relevant to their website. Since most websites are more than just one page, it’s important to remember that each page is a gateway to other pages. You should be optimizing for the thousands of phrases that relate to what you offer, not just one or two. But this doesn’t mean you have to shoot for just long tail keywords. You’ll get those naturally by just having good content. My approach involves optimizing for three to five keywords per page, which all have varying degrees of competitiveness.

5. The best way to find quality links? And are directories really useful? For example, submitting to 100 directories?

Finding quality links is always tricky. If you’re dealing with a brand new site, then sure, starting with directory submissions may at least get you started. But don’t expect much traffic from those links. My feeling is that the only good links are those that bring visitors to your site.  But those take time to get. You have to have something worth linking to in order to get quality links and, unfortunately, most sites don’t have anything worth linking to. They’re simply the same as every other site selling the same or similar products/services. If you provide unique information on your site and also get the word out about it–you will get natural links that will bring you traffic and help your rankings. Like with my High Rankings site, I have never asked for links; they just come to me because people like what they see. As with everything in SEO, it’s critical to take a long-term approach to gaining links. If you have a great site but don’t have the time to deal with this aspect, then outsourcing to a good linking company is probably a smart idea. People like Debra Mastaler always come up with creative linking strategies for their clients. It’s quite a specialized skill.

6. Starting a new website: What are the top ways to start the traffic (thinking SEO, PPC, e-mail marketing, and more)?

Traditional marketing, advertising and public relations. You must be out there and get the word out about your awesome site. Social media can play a big part these days if you truly participate in the communities that target your audience. Look for relevant blogs and forums where you can become a participating member. Twitter is another possibility for getting the word out if that’s somewhere your target market hangs out. (To me, Twitter is really nothing more than an online chat room–only you get to choose those whom you want to listen to.)  Just remember that a new website will not be generating traffic overnight–unless you are backed by a huge marketing budget. So keep participating, and have perseverance and patience. Stick true to your original goals. Unfortunately, too many people give up too soon. They want it now, but it doesn’t work that way.

7. Fastest ways to get to first page of Google (within 24 hours) for a brand new site?

There is no way unless you’re talking about some completely obscure keyword phrase. So your best bet would be to do Google AdWords, if 24 hours is your goal.  For organic SEO, you first need to get indexed (get your pages into their database), which means you need links–because that’s how Google finds sites. So make sure that someone somewhere is linking to you. But even then, I think there’s still a bit of an aging delay for new domains, so just don’t count on getting to the first page of Google until your site has matured a bit.

8. To outrank the competition, what are the three steps one should take?

I don’t look at how to outrank the competition. I prefer to look at our own website traffic and which phrases convert, and then I try to gain more targeted traffic and convert more of it. You can drive yourself nuts looking too closely at the competition. For one thing, just because they’re ranking well doesn’t mean they’re doing things correctly. I’ve seen people who will just copy what their competition is doing, no matter how dumb it seems or how much it actually ruins their website.  There are far better ways to optimize. For example, look at other opportunities, other keyword phrases that you hadn’t previously thought about and optimize for those. Then work on increasing your conversions. Do some conversion testing using tools like GWO (Google Website Optimizer). Just remember that a conversion is not always a sale. It could be folks signing up to your newsletter, someone commenting on your blog, someone filling out a request form, or someone emailing or calling you. Try to measure and test as much as you can, but only after you’ve got your SEO basics in order.

9. Do free press-release services work for rankings?
(Examples: prfree.com, prleap.com, 24-7pressrelease.com, free-press-release.com, etc.)

Are there free ones still around? I think most have gone to paid–only because they were getting so much spam submitted by SEOs who thought keyword-rich releases would be their key to search engine rankings. I don’t personally believe they’re useful for that at all anymore. Press releases should be used for what they were intended to be used for–showcasing important news about your company.

10. Should a company set up a blog? If so, why?
Certainly blogs are a good way to add content to a website, as well as to gain a following and build up some sort of community. If the blog actually provides unique info that nobody else provides, it can generate links. But as with everything else, blogs are no magic bullet. You must create a strategy and post on a regular basis, with a long-term commitment. Otherwise, you won’t see any benefit from it.


1. It’s much like a Wild West out there. What is a business to do in trying to find good, trusted SEOs?
2. What standards–if any–exist on the process and other business issues?

There are currently no standards for the industry, nor should there be. It’s fine for organizations such as SEMPO to have standards that their members must abide by, but broadly–as industry–standards are not the answer. Every company can and should have its code of ethics, and its own way of marketing its services, but only organizations can have standards, in my opinion.

3. Pricing for SEO services. How does pricing vs. quality vs. brand fit into this?
With SEO, higher prices don’t always mean better quality. There is no magic price point for SEO services, as every company is free to charge whatever the market will bear. That’s the beauty of a capitalistic society.  Charge whatever your customers are willing to pay. For those looking to purchase SEO services, they’ll want to look well beyond pricing. Look at years of experience and–even more so–results. Do they bring more targeted traffic to their clients’ websites? Be sure to get references from satisfied clients.

4. What places to get a membership from do you recommend?
I’m not big on memberships, although we did just rejoin SEMPO this year after many years away. Some companies use memberships as a way to increase their perceived credibility. That’s fine, but I think that those looking to hire companies should be looking well beyond how many member organizations the company belongs to. That doesn’t tell you anything other than it likes to purchase memberships. Local search marketing organizations are another matter. They often provide great networking opportunities that you don’t get with larger, national organizations. A few years ago I co-founded the Search Engine Marketing New England (SEMNE) organization.  It’s been a great way to get to know others in our area.  These types of organizations are starting to crop up in many different cities, and I highly recommend them to anyone in the business.

5. Why do search agencies/companies not get together to create a better level of communication on the topic of SEO?
Actually, I think our industry does a great job in getting together to share techniques. It’s one of the things that makes me proud to be part of it. (Jon: From my internet marketing company and general online marketing business, we see a lot of “black box”-type conversation, and I don’t believe that hiding what you are doing makes any sense. Keep the conversation open and transparent).

C. SEO MYTHS – JON’S “TOP 20” LIST (1-20)

1. Dynamic vs. static URLS? How important are usability and static, clean URLs vs. dynamic?
If your dynamic URLs are indexed, there’s usually no need to change them. There’s certainly some benefits in terms of the clickability for the friendlier URLs, but there’s not much benefit for rankings–certainly not enough to mess with your current system. Using the site: command at Google to see what URLs it has indexed and help you decide if it’s something worth doing.

2. Keyword density must be in the 3 percent to 5 percent range for good ranking.
No such thing as an optimal keyword density.  (Jon: Theme density or term weighting?) Jill: I don’t put stock in those things, and generally think many people overanalyze things.

3. TITLE tags cannot be optimized for more than one keyword.
(Jon: I checked to see how many allintitle:untitled documents there were in Google–more than 28 million. Don’t users recognize the power of unique, quality titles?)Titles not only can be optimized for more than one keyword phrase, but they almost always should be. Three phrases is great to shoot for in titles. They are definitely one of the most important factors in SEO, so use them to their fullest extent.

4. Having a google webmaster account will help rankings.
Hmmm . . . there are some cool things to learn by using the tool, such as discovering 404 errors and such. But when I review sites with it, I find that not everything is accurate. They’ll tell you that your site has duplicate titles when it doesn’t and things like that. So I take it with a grain of salt. In terms of rankings, using the tool won’t help you there.

5. Universal search is easier to rank (video, news, etc.) than standard text/page listings.
Wow, I’ve not heard that one. Universal search is still a work in progress. What works today may not work tomorrow; it’s in a constant flux. Experiment with different things to see what might work at any given time with it.

6. Black hat works, but you have to work it harder than ever.
(Jon: I heard somewhere that Google handles 1 million requests daily. How is this game played out in the real world?) I couldn’t tell ya–but for the average business, there is no need for it. Perhaps if you are in the Viagra or gambling space, but there’s no need for real companies with real websites to use black hat techniques–it’s just asking for trouble.

7. To rank, just get some links–natural and paid + article marketing. That’s it?
Yeah, if you only want long tail traffic that will work. But personally, I like to get my clients traffic from highly searched keyword phrases. So there’s much more to SEO than writing articles and getting a handful of links.

8. SEO in the future is not going to be so much about content, but social media and links. The best SEO of the future will be analysts, not copywriters.
No! SEO is not one thing or another. It’s a combo of content, links and site analysis. Also, nobody wants to link to a crappy site–that will always be true.

9. Keyword research is easy: Just use free tools (Google, seobook) and don’t worry about wordtracker and others.
The free tools in the past were not so good, but they have been revamped. Google’s latest version of its keyword tool, however, is very good. The paid KW services may be in trouble.

10. You don’t need an XML sitemap to rank.
That is correct.

11. Duplicate content filtering is not a big issue anymore (Google) (consider onpage and offpage/syndication issues).
No duplicate content penalties exist for the average run-of-the mill duplicate content. Sure, there is filtering but not penalties; some versions of the content simply won’t show in the search results. You don’t have to worry too much about syndication. If you get traffic and credibility by syndicating your articles, then by all means, do it.

12. Fix canonical issues via Google webmaster central only, no need to worry about .htaccess file on the server?
Surprisingly, this is not the problem it used to be. The way I check this is to do a search of your page in Google using the non-www version. If Google shows at the top that it is the cached version of www.yoursite.com (as opposed to yoursite.com), then you’ll know they see the www and the non-www as the same. Every single site I’ve checked this way over the past six to nine months was fine. It doesn’t hurt to redirect the non-www version to your www version, however; it’s just not as necessary as it once was.

13. Pagerank is critical to good ranking.
Real PageRank is important–Google toolbar PageRank, not so much.  Don’t get tricked it into thinking that toolbar PageRank has any correlation to real PageRank. (Jon: yeah, I had a client that said success is if you “move me from PR4 to PR5” [I told the client no]). Which brings up a good point about increasing toolbar PageRank as not being the end goal of SEO campaign. I’m always amazed at how many people contact me with that as their goal . . . it’s so silly.

14. Since Google now can crawl and index Flash, you can start using this broadly on your sites?
I haven’t tested it yet, but they have been saying that for years, so I don’t really have much faith in how well they actually index it. Not to mention that there’s rarely any worthwhile info contained in Flash anyway. Plus, there are still many devices–for example the iPhone–where they don’t even show flash.  On the other hand, Flash used sparingly is fine. Just don’t put your entire site in it.

15. It is better to have many links rather than fewer, more quality links.
Quality, trusted links are better. They’re harder to get, which is why they count for so much and why people just go for quantity.

16. If you have international presence, just get the country-specific TLDs and you will rank higher.
I don’t do a lot of international work, but we have some great information in the international section of our forum.

17. If an existing site is a 10- to 15-page brochure-ware with lots of graphics and flash, the site cannot be ranked.
Big myth. Sure you can be ranked. Optimize pages as much as you can, and get enough links with the appropriate anchor text. It can be done, but may be an uphill battle if you don’t have any optimized content.

18. How deep is the penetration of SEO in the marketplace? A year ago, Gartner Group research papers didn’t even show the term “SEO.” It’s still under the radar?
I don’t have any specific data, but from my own experience with over 13 years in the business, more people and businesses understand what SEO is and that they need it. Plus, there are many more companies out there offering it as a service. I really wish more design companies would understand it more or partner with SEO companies because I see tons of new sites getting developed with absolutely no signs of SEO, which is sad for 2008.

19. You can rank in Google with no (incoming) links, for fairly competitive keywords as well.
Typically no, you can’t. There are always some crazy anomalies, though.

20. Google will rank a .com faster than a .org .info or .tv.
This is a myth.

Jill, what are some good blogs and other resources/links to review for a beginner?

The best resource for SEO beginners (if I do say so myself) is the stuff we put out at High Rankings. The SEO newsletter, the SEO forum, our SEO training, etc. It’s all very comprehensive, down-to-earth and easy to understand.

In addition, I also frequently visit Sphinn, as most decent articles and blog posts about SEO get posted there. You do have to filter out some of the noise, however.  Search Engine Guide, Search Engine Land and Search Engine Watch also have a lot of good articles.

Thanks for your time, Jill. See you at the next conference, perhaps either Pubcon (Las Vegas) or SES Chicago!

Cheers, Jon (oh, I also enjoyed the recent posting: SEOMOZ – Internet Marketing Handbook. Bookmark it.)


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Entrepreneur Magazine says Jon Rognerud is one of the most sought-after Digital Marketing Experts. His clients extend from high-end brands and middle-tier businesses in both B2B and B2C. His SEO website optimization book, "The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Website" from Entrepreneur Press is in bookstores now.