Agency 101

10 Things I’ve Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

When I began working at Webspec Design as the SEO Strategist, it was up to me and a coworker to determine the initial pathway we would take running SEO campaigns.

I dove in head first, trying to learn everything I could about SEO and how to do it. I talked to my coworker, who had just about as much experience as I did, I delved into Search Engine Journal and a couple of other blogs, and, at first, I just had to act like I knew what I was doing.

Since then I have researched daily, explored where Google was headed with their search algorithm and worked through the major changes that came with the Hummingbird and Panda Updates. We’ve built up a solid base of satisfied clients who see major results from the ongoing work we do.

Over the last 18 months, I have learned quite a bit about SEO and what is important, what works, what doesn’t, and when to say no to taking on a new client.

SEO Should be Done at Your Agency

At Webspec Design, we get calls almost every day asking us if we would like to outsource our SEO services to them for just $1 and hour. Tempting, right? While these offers can seem attractive to the companies who are in the business just for the money, this isn’t a good option for a company that wants to maintain a level of transparency with their clients.

Our SEO department thrives and continues to grow our business based on the fact that we make the changes to the site, we keep our clients informed, and we meet with our clients in person on a monthly basis to learn more about what is going on currently in their company.

We genuinely care about where they want to grow, and these monthly meetings help build solid relationships with our clients and reassures them their website and digital marketing efforts are in safe hands.

Do Your Research

In SEO, it is imperative to keep up with what is happening in search. What updates are being made to algorithms? What are new techniques industry leaders have found helpful in running their own campaigns? What tactics are your clients’ competitors using on their sites?

These are important things to pay attention to so you can stay ahead of the next update and show your clients you have the experience and knowledge to run their campaign.

SEO Title Tags, Descriptions, Keywords, and Alt Tags Still Matter

While we all know Google considers page titles important and uses well-constructed descriptions to learn about the page, but many believe keywords don’t matter. Based upon in-house testing, I can tell you they do indeed matter, at least a little bit. I have had campaigns where I changed the page keywords to what is currently being searched most according to Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool and the rankings increase dramatically the next week without us touching anything else on the site. Content matters, but keywords are still in the equation for Google.

We have also found keyword / key phrase focused image alt tags and title tags have increased our clients’ rankings in Google Images greatly. Having 10 images ranked in the first three lines of images for their focus keywords has not only improved the traffic to their site, but also the amount of contact requests made.

Also, despite the fact that Google doesn’t put as much emphasis on the description and keywords, both Bing and Yahoo still seem to rely fairly heavily on them as part of their algorithm. Any good SEO agency shouldn’t ignore the other search engines just because Google has a more advanced algorithm.

Homepage Content is Extremely Important

You’ve probably heard time and time again that content is king, but homepage content rules over all. I had a law firm client whose site was having a hard time ranking for their practice areas because there was no content on their homepage. There was an image and that was it. After working with them to formulate the perfect paragraphs and keyword focused h1 and h2 tags to highlight specific areas and services, they saw their rankings jump from beyond the fifth page to the first page in a little less than two weeks.

Google reads the homepage to learn about your company, so be sure to include lots of quality information about the service or product you offer on the homepage of your site. A good way to incorporate more content on a homepage without disrupting the design is to create a content slider much like a photo rotator. All of the content in the slider is read by Google as residing on the homepage, so this is a great feature for when you are tight on space. Another way to save space on a page but still incorporate a lot of content is to use expandable “read more” links.

Both of these help you place great homepage content while keeping the current user experience intact.

Navigation Matters—A Lot

Where your menu is located on the page isn’t nearly as important as how it is set up. The order of the menu items, their labels and the pages contained in them are supposed to help your users – not confuse them. Besides helping your users, Google is reading these tabs too to learn about who you are as a company and what you do.

Recently, I had a client who wasn’t using the top menu on their site in the best way possible and I had an idea that their rankings and contact requests were poor because of it. The old tabs looked something like this:

navigation before 10 Things Ive Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

I sat down with my team and we went through each tab and developed a much easier way to filter users to where they want to go. We looked at the site as if we were trying to figure out how they could accommodate our dining needs as well as our catering needs. To make the site more user and search engine friendly, we created new tabs and new pages to fill the menu and the result was amazing. Our clients went from not even ranking in the top 50 for catering words in our area to being in the top 3 or top 10 for many of them. The new menu looked more like this:

navigation after 10 Things Ive Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

We moved the Gallery section to a side menu that appears a little lower on the page where the user can read the latest newsletter, see photos, and read reviews and FAQs. This new structure has increased rankings, traffic and contact requests simply because it is more user-friendly and it has better keywords.

Quality Content Really Does Make a Difference

The SEO industry seems like it can’t decide how it feels about content and its effect on search rankings. Some SEOs will tell you content isn’t as important as backlinks, but any content marketing specialists will tell you that content is king. My team has combined content marketing with SEO in our approach, so what have I learned to be true?

Medium to long length, quality content is king. Google is getting better and better at being able to serve up quick information about everything from restaurants to definitions to movie times. Google has even begun to select relevant information on a webpage and display it as a snippet in the search results.

google search result 10 Things Ive Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

With Google reacting more like a human reading a page, our content has to be in-depth, relevant information about the topics we are discussing on a page. I’ve found that when your site is more of a resource it has better user engagement.

I have a client that hired us to create several resources sites for them. We filled each site with about 20+ pages of content explaining terms and procedures and their importance. When a user visits these sites, which rank very well for all of their target terms, they spend a good amount of time on the site and visit five or more pages on average.

It is time to start focusing on producing resources.

Backlinks are Something, But They Aren’t Everything

The members of our SEO team, myself included, don’t follow the edict that backlinks are the supreme to rank in Google. In fact, they are not even on our initial hit list for our clients. We have seen the items above seem to impact our client’s rankings a lot more than backlinks to their site.

A few quality backlinks are much more beneficial for a website than 50,000 spammy ones. I have actually seen several sites fall out of the top 50 because of their poor backlinks.

When we begin the backlink stage of the campaign for a site we go after the highest quality backlinks we can get. These include backlinks that pertain to the subject matter our client is in, have a higher page rank than our client’s site, and don’t have links out to poor quality and unrelated sites on them.

You Don’t Have to Say Yes to Every Potential Client

Turning down money can be difficult, but if you say yes to the wrong client it can cost you a whole lot more than money. There have been a few situations when we should have said no to a prospective SEO client, but since we were just starting out we didn’t know better yet. Here is what we have learned.

It is important to have a few meetings with your potential client before you take them on. This will give you time to see if there are any red flags and evaluate if they are a good fit for your SEO service.

If the answer is no, then politely let them know that you are unable to help them because it just wouldn’t be a good fit. Thank them for their interest and maybe point them in the direction of another agency who might be a better fit for their needs.

The last thing you want to do is get into a relationship with an unbearable client: not only does this negatively affect the productivity of your team, it also brings down the mood in your office which can effect all the work your team does. You also don’t want to enter into a relationship with a client that has unreasonable expectations for their campaign, such as first page results for all their keyword phrases within a month when they are currently not even in the top 50.

Keep in mind, just because you aren’t a good fit for a particular client isn’t an implication that they are terrible people. Sometimes differences in approach can make agencies and clients a poor match. Perhaps they focus on producing fast, affordable services and you focus on in depth services for an industry niche. There is a market for both, but you would make a poor professional match. Save yourself the headache and say no when you need to – you and the client will both be better off.

Make Sure Your Client Has Realistic Expectations

Every client who comes to you for SEO is looking for the same thing, first page rankings. They want to be in the coveted top thre and many expect you can make that happen quickly. It is important to explain first page rankings take time and money to achieve.

When you meet about beginning a campaign, make sure you have done your research. Ask yourself and your team some basic questions before the meeting. Who is ahead of them in the rankings? What basic SEO and content criteria are they going to have to fulfill in order to begin to move in search rankings? How much time do you realistically think it will take for them to get to the top, based on your experience with similar sites? What geographic areas are they targeting? What can they expect from your services in the first six months?

Remember – don’t make promises because we can’t control the search algorithms or what competitors are doing, but they should be fairly good estimates. Give them your best guess, barring any major algorithm updates. Don’t put your estimates anywhere in a contract, but if you have had success in the past with SEO projects like theirs you can use those as examples of what you can do for them.

Most clients understand that SEO takes time once you begin to give them an overview of everything involved.

The majority of clients are happy with gradual upward movement as long as you are transparent with what you are doing. They just want to know all the money they are spending on your services is resulting in leads. It is not unreasonable to tell a client that it is going to take a year or even two years to get the results they want – if you truly think that it will require that much time.

Transparency is Key

This is the biggest one. My team and I have learned that transparency is the key to every SEO campaign we run. A simple explanation of the process we use and a look at the areas we are focusing on during the month leads to a trusting relationship.

Rather than keeping our process under wraps and never contacting our clients after they start their campaign, we keep our clients as involved as they want to be. We keep clients in the loop and provide email updates every week, schedule monthly face-to-face meetings, and provide them with monthly ranking reports and Google Analytic reports. They know what is going on in their campaign every month and why it is important for their SEO.

As a result, our clients can see exactly what we are doing to their site and they see their rankings and site traffic increasing. Because of this, they trust us to run their campaigns, plus they tend to increase their campaign budgets over time, and implement suggested features on their site to improve user experience.

I have learned that when you are transparent, everyone wins.

Transparency allows for you and your client to have open, candid conversations when you need to discuss ideas and problems that inevitably will arise in their campaign. Moving your SEO process to a more transparent, open model will increase usability on your sites, improve client relationships, and gives your clients to a better return on their investment.



What do you find to be the most beneficial part of your campaign structure for your clients? What part of the formula results in the most upward movement? What is the most important thing you have learned since joining the SEO industry? Let me know your thoughts below!


Image Credits:

Featured Image: Andrea Kroeger via Wordle

Image #1: Screenshot taken by Andrea Kroeger on 6/26/14

Image #2: Created by Andrea Kroeger

Image #3: Created by Andrea Kroeger


 10 Things Ive Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

Andrea Kroeger

SEO Strategist at Webspec Design
Andrea Kroeger is an SEO Strategist for Webspec Design in Des Moines, Iowa. She organizes and runs SEO campaigns for her clients while working in tandem with the Webspec team on new design, programming and content projects to improve user experience and boost rankings.
 10 Things Ive Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

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11 thoughts on “10 Things I’ve Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

  1. It’s amazing how changing image alt tags can have such a big impact on Google ranking! It can be a little time consuming, but it’s so simple and the results are huge. All you have to do is give your photo a proper name that describes what it is in a few words. If you have a photo of a car, instead of IMG382.jpg, try RedPorsheConvertible.jpg. Changing the ALT TEXT of the image to give it further relevance when people are searching. Back to the car example, have the ALT TEXT be: Porshe convertibles, [model of the] Porshe, Sports Cars, etc, whatever you deem appropriate. So easy right?

    1. It is quite amazing how Alt tags still make a huge difference in rankings, especially for Google Images. I have had several clients gain new business through their rankings in image searches. Thanks for taking the time to read my article!

  2. I don’t get this – “When I began working at Webspec Design as the SEO Strategist” and this “trying to learn everything I could about SEO and how to do it”. How can a company hire you as a SEO Strategist if you don’t know SEO ?!

    1. Alex,
      Thanks for taking the time to read my article. To be honest, I was surprised myself that I got the job. My background in web started in high school and continued in college through internships. I was actually a psych major with a large interest in web and web design. I began working for a woman that owned her own web design company an needed extra help getting all of the updates made on site and creating content for several of them.

      After I graduated I head about an opening for an SEO Strategist/Content Writer postion at Webspec. I figured it was a long shot to apply for a job that I had only a little relevant experience for but they told me that it was a new position at the company. Webspec was just beginning to offer SEO services when they hired me on. I had agreed that upon hire I would dive right into to learning as much as I could about SEO as quickly as possible. My background in HTML, content writing, website editing and eagerness to learn are what got me the job…

      1. Andrew, thanks for taking the time to read my article and for commenting. I am so glad you liked it! Psych has given me an interesting perspective on SEO and I am very glad to have a background in it. I use my degree everyday just not in the way the majority of my fellow psych majors do. Thanks again!

    2. …There are the basics that my coworker who had just a bit more knowledge about SEO than myself taught me. Aside from the basics (pre-Hummingbird) from that we both learned more every time a new post was made on blogs we followed and from reading up on the latest SEO publications as well as Google Algorithm updates. We made it our goal to try to figure out as much as we could about where the Google Algorithm is headed as well as the Bing Algorithm so that we were prepared for major updates like Hummingbird. I am happy to say that because of this philosophy of “Shoot for what Google wants tomorrow, not where they are today” every single one of our campaigns made it through the update without a hitch and many saw an immediate increase in rankings.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to read my article and if you have any more questions let me know! Have a great day!

  3. “Google reads the homepage to learn about your company” – this is interesting.

    And I totally agree with you the title and meta descriptions. They DO matter a lot because that’s how Google can determine what the web page is actually about. So working consciously on that area will greatly improve. Just like I’ve seen a great improvement in search rankings of certain pages where I just optimized the title and meta tags by doing a little of keyword research – no new links, nothing! So ya it works.

    Thanks for sharing the lessons you learned Andrea :)

    1. Jane,
      Thank you so much for reading about my experience! It is kind of scary how much the Googlebot is becoming like a human when it crawls your site. Having stellar headings that really convey what your site is about on the homepage will give you a nice boost in the rankings. My clients that I spoke about in that tip went from being nonexistent on the web aside from about 5 words that sometimes found themselves in the top ten to having more than 2/3 of the 60+ words we are targeting in the top 10 and almost every word we are targeting in the top 50.

      I have seen the same thing happen with just changing titles and descriptions. It is amazing how much the basics really do help your site when they are implemented correctly.
      I hope you found some of the other tips useful as well! Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  4. Andrea, thank you for the insightful article you’ve written. I especially liked the portion that explained that not all clients are going to be a good fit for my particular SEO services, and that it’s okay to say “no” and refer them elsewhere. So true, and saves time and hassle for all involved. Also, your thoughts on backlinks and their value was great to read – recently I’ve heard the praises of backlinks sung (in lieu of other forms of SEO, too) and I’ve maintained that other efforts are equally, if not more, important. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I am glad that you found the tips useful and I hope that they save you some trouble down the road especially in regards to difficult clients. I know how hard it is to turn down the promise of money from the start but go with your gut. When your gut says no go then don’t jump into a relationship thinking it is going to change in the future. I am glad that you are keeping up on the other components of SEO and not just going crazy over backlinks, From what I understand the camp we are in “Backlinks aren’t everything” is not the most popular one to be in but I have seen far better results from an overarching campaign than one that just focuses on backlinks, Thanks again for reading and commenting!