Growth Hacking Interview Series #22: Grant Merriel
Everyone who’s gone to any SEO conference in the Philippines would be very much familiar with Grant Merriel, a consistent speaker and presenter on SEO and online business processes.
The self proclaimed Cebuano is a fountain of knowledge to everyone eager to learn SEO, as such that people will congregate around him and ask unlimited questions after conferences and he will literally hold nothing back.
In this interview Grant will dissect Google as a business entity and a service provider and its repercussions for future SEO providers.
There has been reports of Google not being moral see: seroundtable.com for penalizing webmasters what is your view on this?
As a business owner, I can see both sides of the story on this one.
- Google’s side is that they are not a ‘public service’, they are a business and a business that needs to make money for their shareholders. In any business, the company can choose that a client or customer is not doing something they want to be part of and choose to go separate ways with them.
People forget that Google is just a business, they have done the best marketing to get to where they are and so, any action that they undertake is their own choice.
- The public / webmasters side is that Google has moved from being a business, to being a public service. Businesses do act like Google owe’s something to them, similar to how they view that Government’s owe them something.
This is partially supported by Google’s ability to literally turn a business from being worth millions to a couple of cents by dumping all of their search rankings.
And by this almost every business owner (including me) feels that this does mean that there is some accountability that Google needs to take for protecting peoples jobs, their lively hood, etc.
So, the business part of me says Larry and Sergey took all the risks and worked thousands of hours to build a business for people and they can do with it as they please, as it is a business at the end of the day.
But my webmaster / public side of me says that for any manual action taken (as outlined in the article), they should prior notify a business about their mishaps and give them a timeframe for fixing ‘x’ items – then, if the request was ignored / not fixed, a penalty is justified.
If you were given the chance to create a search engine like Google how would you approach it?
It would be built on mixing a couple of great aspects of search that work ‘some’ times but not all the time.
There would be 2 parts to the search engine:
(NOTE: You would still search for keywords)
– The “Main Search” (main window) would show results based on content, relevance, referencing, authority circles, influence, etc (similar to what Google does now)
– The other aspect of the same search engine would be: “Suggested Search” (a text link under the search box or somewhere practical) once clicked, this loads results based on websites / businesses that your friends have ‘liked’, ‘reviewed’, ‘shared’, etc, from social media (it would filter out results that revolved around ‘NEGATIVE reviews’ based on simple language algorithm and this is perfect for service or product based searches and assisting with recommendations – let the user choose when it would be useful and not AI).
The engine itself would be similar to an app where you can integrate all your social media accounts, add-ons, etc to pull the data from and make easy logins but be simple in its execution.
It would seem that nowadays businesses that has a bigger budget has more chances of ranking in Google based on the recent linkbuilding survey of Skyrocket in Moz. How do you think businesses with very small budgets approach this dillema?
In every stage of life, big businesses are the ones who are big for a reason.
They have the biggest budget to hire the best people to implement the best strategies and on a huge scale.
The key approach for small businesses / small budgets is to do what big businesses cannot do – “Guerrilla Tactics” and refining your target market / niche.
Eg, Big Businesses can never hit a set / small segment of the marketing because of their size (they cannot adapt as quick to changes as small business, due to their corporate responsibilities and hierarchy).
So, big businesses need to try and offer a product (or products) that appeal to the widest audience possible to cover the most amount of revenue and market share.
However, we have seen it time and time again, small / start-up businesses that are demolishing these big brands by understanding their segment of the market and taking that small part of the market right from underneath the big brands.
Examples of this are: The ‘Dollar Shave Club’ and ‘Gillette’ in the US, ‘Xiaomi’ over ‘Samsung’ in market share for the smartphone industry in China, ‘Kickstarter’ over ‘Venture Capital’ firms around the world, etc.
This is the same with SEO, if you have a niche website that proves it is ran by an EXPERT in a targeted segment / niche, Google will recognise this and provide rankings based on your ability to prove more expertise than your competitors.
Just remember, the key focus for ‘big business’ is around highly competitive industries that if there was no internet (or Google), it would be just as hard (if not harder) to break into the market as a small business.
This is why every small business or start-up needs to start of focusing on their niche and work that to their fullest advantage both via online and offline marketing.
If you were given the chance to head the spam team of Google what would you change or improve upon?
Wow, great question. A key improvement that I would make is around more testing by ‘alternating’ ranking results (this comes from a concept utilised in conversion optimisation).
For example, imagine the “dog walker” keyword gets searched 10,000 times a day.
You have the results that would ‘best suit’ the first page and deliver that to 90% of the traffic across the day, however, the other 10% of traffic making the search has a random result from page 2 or page 3.
This is to test the relevancy of that page with lower rankings to see if it is of good enough value to be on the home page.
Over a 6 month period, you would get data that shows the ‘Google return rate’ of all the top 30 sites, the ‘Google return time’ as well as the results that are skipped over by users due to no real compelling offer.
This then means that Google’s machine learning can find out the best websites based on quantifiable data and ones that people are engaging with most.
Which in turn, probably gives the results to the user that they were originally looking for.
Note: This is a quick outline of one strategy that I believe Google might / should already be doing.
What is the fastest way to earn in SEO that works 100% all the time? (ex: affiliate marketing, CPA, Service provider)
Every business model can earn money by ranking websites in Google, especially if your SEO abilities always places you at the top of the results.
But it is best to do what appeals most to you as a business, if you are great with SEO but horrible at sales / management, etc: do NOT become a service provider.
But if you have a good understanding of SEO but can empower a team of SEO’s, do sales and manage people: DO become a service provider.
The best business is the business that compliments your personal strengths.
How do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I personally do not see myself as heavily focused on SEO as I am now, in the next 10 years but instead being more focused about the entire marketing area and strategies.
Such as expanding on what I am doing now: conversion, SEO, paid ads, etc and incorporating a lot of the approaches that we are testing now, around building: partnerships, sponsorships, mail placements, etc.
This is so that our strategies go outside of being reliant on other businesses (such as Bing, Google, etc) and focus on a business still being able to make great profits, even with smaller budgets.
(Outside of the SEO / digital space, I see myself being a lot more ‘outside’ of the business and taking more of a strategic / advisory role for businesses, which the transition has already begun for me too.)
What is the major flaw of SEO’s nowadays?
Too many agencies believing that they can represent any of their clients as ‘experts’ (to both the customer and Google) with content that was put together in 1 – 2 hours.
There is a reason I did a 3 year course in Entrepreneurship, it was to become an expert at business / start-ups and know more than any of my competitors.
So, how / why would Google rank you high for the keyword ‘plumber’ if it was written by someone who was talking about ‘Telephone outsourcing’ 30 minutes prior and will be writing about ‘dog walking’ 30 minutes later.
Speed learning is definitely possible and you can learn a lot about a specific niche, area or subject within a couple of hours but you do need to focus on quality, rather than quantity.
So, our best approach to this is to let the research guide the writing and on-page SEO / keywords, instead of making the on-page SEO / keywords guide the research, like many people are doing.
If you weren’t an SEO what would you be today?
I get asked this question all the time, I would have say Property Development.
I did 6 months with a large property developer in Melbourne, Australia about 7 years ago and loved every second of it.
However, the idea and reality of being able to own multiple businesses and take advantage of the digital arena, won me over in the end.
Google is leaning more towards Mobile SEO with the disappearance of author photos in searches, how should SEO’s nowadays approach SEO given its more competitive nature to begin with?
Always make sure your systems and processes to SEO is dynamic, agile and easily reactive.
The best approach for mobile (and all other areas of SEO) is to never have just that one ever relied on strategy.
For mobile, SEO will be all about showing your content in a short, fast, simple and concise manner (with the support of being able to read more if the user deems they want to).
Think about how you use a phone when browsing the web, social media, apps, etc and how any question you might have, you want to answer almost instantly.
It’s annoying to have hard to press with a thumb navigation, no responsiveness to the layout and slow load speed when viewing via 3G or 4G and it just makes sense for Google to penalised mobile results based on this.
I believe content, links and authority will retain its value (even in mobile) but more emphasis will be placed on speed, responsiveness and any functionality that is deemed an important part for browsing on a phone.
Can you suggest any book, video, person, website that keeps you inspired in doing SEO?
We do focus on a couple of key blogs / people that are around 3 core areas: Conversion, Link Building and Content Writing (So I will share the top one from each category).
ConversionXL.com/blog/ (Peep Laja): Great insights into everything conversion, outside thinking for lead generation, focusing on getting those sales and ensuring all your decisions are backed up by data, instead of hunches.
Backlinko.com (Brian Dean): A great example of a simplistic way of putting together content and becoming a well known brand within only months of releasing a blog.
The content not only covers unique ways to get links but the comments section from industry experts really takes the cake for adding value and assisting us with ideas for our next tests.
(Really wanted to put QuickSprout.com/blog in here because it is a great reminder of how to focus in on simple wording, great structures and knowing your audience but Copy Blogger won out.)
CopyBlogger.com/blog: Darn well the best written, best structured and most well planned out blog around.
Not only is it great for our content team to understand structure, simplicity, co-referencing, supporting images, etc, but the content has a wealth of knowledge for strategies to use too.
Can you point us to the best SEO case studies that you ever encountered?
We do have a rule within the team and that is “If everybody is doing it, don’t do it” and because of this we never idolise Case Studies that others have executed but instead read them with an open mind for learning.
This comes back to our overall approach to SEO and how we really dive into a strategy / case study, see what people are doing, results they have received, evaluate how we can put our own twist on the approach, take the strategy to the next level and turn it into a systemised process.
And if Google focuses on penalising just that one tactic (eg, Guest Posting – still not proven but just an example) our system towards its execution will have a significant point of difference to not be taken down during their penalties.
(We have seen this time and time again with almost all of our strategies.)
With regards to Social Media just how much power do you think it has to replace traditional link-building techniques?
Social media is a great topic – I still have not seen any tests or peoples case studies be 100% conclusive.
And this is evident by hundreds of tests that are almost split down the middle with for and against results.
I believe that it does have some weight behind SEO rankings but at the moment, we treat it internally as more of a ‘booster’, as we are still unsure if it works.
But we do enjoy the referral traffic that social brings, the authority it creates around a brand and being able to bring a business to the front of someones mind when they think of that service or product they saw on their Facebook account.
Could you give me a list of SEO tools that you can’t live without?
We have actually started building our own tools that we use in-house which pull in a lot of data from big, such as Moz, Alexa, SEMRush, etc (currently the new one is on beta test with some of the developers) but we do use the usual ‘go to’ tools: ahrefs, xenu, screaming frog, Google Keyword Planner and our intuitive brains.
Can you tell me your biggest failure in an SEO project?
The biggest failure was probably around 5 or so years ago, when I personally invested into a couple of E-Commerce websites on the basis of doing SEO and reap the rewards.
I began doing the best approaches I know and did tactics that were ‘gaming’ Google’s algorithm at the time (but worked to get results), such as articles submissions, bulk directories, Xrummer, etc.
Naturally, we got some great rankings for some competitive keywords and for quite a while too.
However, over time, as Google updated their algorithm, our rankings dropped significantly.
It was a great learning curve because from that day forwards, I instantly started focused on bringing ‘offline marketing’ to the ‘online world’ and thinking about what strategies PR agencies and media companies would apply to build a strong brand for their clients and wondering how we can replicate that concept in the digital space.
Since then, we have never been penalised by a Google Update and improve or maintain rankings every time one is released (knock on wood that it will stay that way).
In what areas of SEO are you strongest? And In what areas of SEO are you weakest?
We have got a great content delivery team as well as an even stronger link outreach team behind us, we are great at building quality references (links) to websites and becoming very good with content marketing for blogs, etc.
However, our biggest weakness is our technical SEO (Which is not too bad because it is the part of SEO which is “you are either doing it right or not”).
At the moment, we just follow the guidelines and best practices for it to set it up right at the start but after that, it is a set and forget concept.
If there were more hours in a day, no need for sleep and nothing else important appearing, it would be the first approach I would work on.