Growth Hacking Interview Series #24: Jec Gonzales

Jec Gonzales is a seasoned content and SEO manager based in Manila.

He first dipped his toes into online marketing in 2006, as a content writer and editor to QuickJump Network, one of the biggest gaming websites then, ranking on top of competitive keywords related to gaming portables and consoles.

He has then moved on to various projects working with many influential SEOs like Floyd Buenavente, Glen Dimaandal, JJ Pike, etc.

Today he works on multiple offshore projects. One of them is currently one of the biggest online advertising networks on the web, with over 30,000 advertisers and publishers.

Hi Jec, great to meet you! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you became to be involved with the SEO industry?

I first started as a content writer for the QuickJump network, where I worked with Glen Dimaandal of GDI.

After that I took on a larger SEO management role with MicroSourcing, where I was mentored by you.

Since then I have been involved in numerous content, link building, and general SEO projects.

One of the biggest was my stint with a local link building company. We built a link building “machine” so powerful that at one point, we have over 100 people working with us.

My interest with SEO got deeper when I was sent to an in-house SEO convention in London, back in 2012.

Meeting some of the biggest names in the “Europe SEO” scene opened my eyes to its potential to become a self-sustaining industry.

How do you personally keep up to date with the latest in SEO?  It’s an ever changing industry so SEO consultants by nature need to be on the ball – how do you achieve this?

I read. A. LOT.

On top of this, I practice a lot of what I call “Google watching”. Basically, I spend about 30mins to an hour every other day just running various queries on Google.

I try to identify trends, changes that concern not just the sites I work on, but the general “SERPs picture”.

One thing I’ve learned: It’s all well and good that we’re able to stay on top of the latest techniques and trends.

However, what CAN and WILL set you apart is the ability to identify these trends as they happen.

Parang basketball, kahit 90% shooter ka sa free throw line, that means squat if you’ve got 10 other people shooting with you. Pero pag mag-isa ka lang nagshu-shoot?

Even if you’re shooting 50% from the line, you’re still going to be more successful.

If you can identify trends on your own, then you’re able to make adjustments your competitors haven’t even considered yet.

There have been a lot of algorithm changes from Google over the last year.  I am sure that you’ve had many potential clients come to you with ranking issues due to past SEO practices they might have undertaken.  Do you have any top-level advice for people who have seen their websites take a dramatic hit recently, or incurred a penalty?

Bird’s Eye View Advice: Nothing and everything has changed. Google’s end goal has been the same from the start – provide the most accurate indexed list to the user – BUT they have gotten a lot better at it.

At the end of the day, nothing has really changed. The approach has to be user-focused. As long as your “shit” has value, you will generate activity.

Personal Advice: Document everything. I’ve seen so many projects with big plans go to waste just because they ignored historical data and failed to document the changes they’re doing.

Search engines have become very smart. 5 years ago, one good campaign can cover for 10 other questionable tactics; today, one bad campaign can ruin 10 of your best tactics.

So how can we effectively channel these waters?

There’s no one “fool-proof” campaign anymore. One thing that’s sure: you will make mistakes. So document everything.

I am a data junkie – I look at it as my ball of yarn every time I go deep in the maze that is Google. Magkamali man ako at maligaw, at least alam ko kung pano bumalik.

What sets your SEO practice apart from the competition?  Are there any unique aspects to your consultancy that gives you a competitive advantage?

This sounds cheesy, but I don’t work on projects/services that I don’t believe in. At the end of the day, we’re marketers.

You can make me sell any kind of pen, but no way in hell will I even touch a pen that I know for a fact has no ink, let alone try to sell it.

Since I have a core belief in the products I work with, it’s easier for me to establish our sites as “authority” or an “expert” within their niche.

People downplay this part too much, but you really have to have to solid understanding of the clients you want to represent, before you start representing them.

This goes back to what I said above. Search engines put users on top of their priorities.

I can say that the best advantage an SEO practitioner can have over his competitors is a genuine empathy for his projects and its users. Everything else is secondary.

If you were talking to client in your local area who was unsure about the benefits that local SEO can bring to a business, what would be the key components of your pitch to them in order to convince them?

Local area as in here in the Philippines? It’s both an easier and tougher sell for us because the online market here is still very young.

Easy because there’s virtually zero competition in 90% of the local industries in my area.

Hard because entrepreneurs don’t recognize this as a profitable venture. Yet.

Case study: Type any “buy X-product in Y-local area” in Google. You won’t find any page that includes SM, Robinsons, or Glorietta in the first page results, unless you include their name in the query.

For instance, a “buy lee jeans in manila” query gives me:

  1. a US-based Lee online shop
  2. Lee’s Philippine Facebook page
  3. A compilation of OLX search results

How can I sell the concept of “local online market” to them? I won’t.

But I can buy domains relevant to their brand, optimize it for every query imaginable, and let them come to me 3-5 years down the road when it’s a recognized market in the Philippines.

If you’ve got an affiliate system that pours in X amount in their revenue? Cut that and believe me, they will notice!

End point: It’s hard to “hard-sell” an idea to businesses that aren’t ready for it yet. No amount of metrics will make them consider it, since they are still making a killing today.

But if you build results-generating projects and let it bloom? They will try to convince you to help them. Not the other way around.

For any beginners to SEO, what advice would you give them?  It could be anything from how to set the business up, to winning business, or just some plain motivational advice.

Learn one of the core skills in becoming a good SEO: communication, both written and oral.

There is a holistic approach to SEO today.

Before, you can be a good SEO if you have a decent level of technical skills. Today, on top of having technical savviness, you need to be able to:

1) have the ability to digest boatloads of info

2) be able to analyze data and plot strategies around it

3) communicate these campaigns to both the clients and the people you work with

It’s very hard to be good at all three without a strong foundation in communication.

During your career as an SEO consultant what has been your favourite or most interesting project that you’ve worked on?

Favourite: When I was still with a local link building company here. I wasn’t necessarily a consultant (I was just one of the team managers), but the social dynamic of that company is special.

I met a lot of people, good and bad, and have learned many core skills that still help me today.

Most Interesting: My biggest, current project – we are trying to go up against the biggest real estate websites in my client’s country. These are companies that collectively generate billions each year.

We haven’t beaten them (yet!), but we are competing. We have generated over 50% growth in both 2013 and this year (translating to over $75m revenue in two years).

Since our website is individually owned (she doesn’t have to share any of these $$$ with any mother real estate sites and advertisers), she’s probably even earning more than the top execs of our competitors.

Why is it interesting? Because it’s a microcosm of how search engines (primarily Google) have grown in determining popularity vs authority.

Authority is vastly different from popularity, especially when trying to use it as a marketing engine.

Your site can be the most popular, the most visited. But it isn’t exactly the biggest authority in its field. The popular ones attract the masses.

But those with authority can carve their niche among the buying elite, which is where the biggest $$$ are.

The website is not necessarily the most popular. But we have made it an authority. And we have devised ways to make the most out of it.

What is the fastest way to generate backlinks?

There are fast ways, definitely. But SEOs should go more for sustainable link building schemes versus “get rich quick” campaigns.

All effective, sustainable link building campaigns start with great content. And great content requires a loooot of work.

A good website with great content should be good enough to promote itself organically. You get traction from social media with great content. You get attention from news aggregates like Reddit with great content.

It’s just a LOT easier to get “manufactured” links with great content: more Wiki edits gets approved; more website owners accept your requests to add your link to their pages; AND it’s easier to get away with “quick tricks” because all the organic links cloak it (I’m not saying that’s what people should do, my point is: great content not only helps make link building easier, it also corrects a lot of mistakes from the link building side).

What is the best quick fix way in optimizing your website for SEO?

This can cover so many topics. I also don’t believe in optimizing purely for SEOs or search engines anymore.

The game has evolved so much that it has devolved back to (GASP!) putting the user at the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of every SEO’s priority.

As long as you’re building a website that effectively understands or emphasises with the user, you’ll have a base that’s poised to be successful.

How do you measure your SEO success for a particular campaign? 

Most SEOs make the mistake of just basing off success by the number of visitors a website gets. This is too old-school.

We’d take one visit that stays on the site for 5 minutes over 1,000 that stays there for 3 seconds.

Google has metrics for site usability (Hummingbird says “HI!”) and I believe it’s a key factor whenever they release Panda and Penguin updates too.

So we measure success by the engagement ratio, which covers X (raw # of visits), Y (avg site duration + pages per session), Z (conversion = sign-ups, purchase, etc).

Case study: When Google started generating their own titles in SERPs, we went through 5 rounds of revisions before we get the optimal number.

Our optimal CTR isn’t exactly giving us the highest number of traffic. But it is giving us the best number of sign-ups.

Translation: the current titles, while pulling less people, are pulling in people that care for what the website is and have genuine interest in “digging deeper”.

6 mos later, the engagement has helped boost our raw traffic and sign-ups are nearly double than what we have before.

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?

My answer is similar to above: not everyone should shoot for popularity right away. It’s easier to develop a “niche authority” first (through great content and the organic links it generates) and let it grow on its own.

We can’t all be Google, Apple, and Microsoft. But we can be our own “Jerico”, “Floyd”, or “Juan Dela Cruz”.

Translation: Build content and optimize it with a specific set of “user wants and needs” in mind. Start small, then grow from there.

Which is more productive? Casting a net or line to catch a meal in a pond, or throwing spears randomly in the Pacific, hoping to nab a whale?

What is the fastest way to earn in SEO that works 100% all the time? (ex: affiliate marketing, CPA, Service provider)

Write awesome content.

It’s the core requirement in most SEO campaigns today, and it’s one element most SEO campaigns can’t do without (unless the good content is already in place).

What is the major flaw of SEO’s nowadays?

International SEO scene: I see two things: 1) Thinking that Google has changed and 2) That Google is the be-all, end-all root of SEO.

1) Google hasn’t changed. At all. Yes we have Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird updates. Yes these elements have “changed the game” and made it more challenging.

However it’s really just a product of Google’s mission since day one: provide genuine results that the users are looking for.

Google has become very smart with how they achieve this. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that things have changed.

2) Google is one small part of SEO. The goal is not always to “get as many people as possible on my websites”. I personally believe that metrics that point to a healthy user engagement is way more important.

Also, websites generate traffic and results from so many other sources.

For instance, if you’re running successful ad campaigns and targeted traffic-generating content from FaceBook, any sort of Google organic traffic you get is gravy.

Local SEO scene: That the SEO industry is ONLY for people who have failed to pursue “proper” professional careers.

The days of “bottom of the barrel” graduates or undergrad’s doing SEO cause they have no better option is long gone.

The industry is growing fast; the demand for people “with particular sets of skills” grows along with it.

SEO may not be an exact science, but that’s precisely why it’s becoming a competitive industry that requires competent practitioners.

With regards to Social Media just how much power do you think it has to replace traditional link-building techniques?

It’s very powerful, but no one campaign necessarily has to be a replacement for another.

What I mean is: link building should be a holistic approach. Again, this goes back to what I said earlier “a good base/content builds its own links/networks”.

SEO is NOT a linear process like this:

Write Content > Promote To Social Media > Submit To Aggregates > X, Y, Z Link Building Techniques

It should be a “Web”, with your content/site usability/site speed and other on-page factors right in the middle of it.

The promotional stuff just branches out from it. They go not just hand-in-hand, but as a network.

References:

Link Week / Link Building Tips & Techniques – Search Engine Land

Link Week looks at one of the most fundamental and yet challenging aspects of search marketing: Building and nurturing those all-important inbound links to your website.

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