A lively sense of humor and a commitment to telling it like it is makes Jenny Halasz an extremely fun person to talk to. She's the president and founder of JLH Marketing, a former writer over at Search Engine Land and a current writer for Search Engine Journal. She's also a regular conference speaker.
Or, to put it another way, as she says over at JLH Marketing, Jenny has street cred.
And while she will (and did) happily chat about SEO tools, meta data, and strategy, she's also a passionate advocate for the people in our industry, specifically other women, people of color, and those who tend to struggle for visibility and recognition.
The result? A wide lens view of the industry as a whole that you won't want to miss.
On getting started in SEO and perspective on the SEO industry
Carmen: How did you get into SEO?
Jenny: Oh, gosh, by accident! A really long time ago. I graduated from North Carolina State University in 2000, and I thought I was gonna go and work for an ad agency somewhere, except it was right after the .com bust and there were no jobs.
So I took a job working with a .com doing their affiliate program and also helping them with some paid search. And from there it just kind of snowballed. I learned about paid, I learned about copywriting, and then I started learning about SEO as well. And so when that job ended in a layoff, I found a job with a local agency and started working.
First as an account manager. And then pretty soon they said, "Ok, you're giving away too much information. We gotta put you over on the SEO team!"
Carmen: What's your perspective on the current landscape of the industry?
Jenny: It's pretty interesting right now. There's so many things going on. Everything from the voice search revolution and voice assistants to machine learning and figuring out how to provide the results that people want, Google's goal of becoming a prediction engine as opposed to a search engine.
It's all really interesting and lots of things going on, but I don't really know that we're at the point where anything fundamental is changing yet. What I really find interesting about what's happening with Google in particular is that I've seen some less-than-stellar results sets from them in the last few months.
And I think that maybe the machine is driving more than it should. In terms of how they're choosing what sites to rank. On a personal level, I'm just not totally satisfied with Google's results lately.
And I've heard the same from a lot of other people.
So it's something they'll work out eventually, but right now it can be a little frustrating.
On the current effectiveness and performance of search engines
Carmen: What would the difference be in terms of how it performed and what it looked like between Google acting as a search engine vs. a prediction engine?
Jenny: Well, I think it's...they had some really good examples at their most recent IO conference.
But...I think the biggest thing is like, you go to search for, let's just say a used car. And in the old standard, you would come up with just a whole bunch of sites that would tell you about used cars they had for sale. I think Google is trying to predict even more to the point where now you'll get not only cars for sale, but you'll also get like parts that you might need for that car, and you'll get loan opportunities, like car loan opportunities.
They're trying to get ahead of you in terms of things you're likely to need when you search something like a used car.
Carmen: Huh. I'm not sure that would be better.
Jenny: Yeah, I mean, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Like I said, I've been very frustrated with the results lately.
When I go to search for something I generally have a pretty good idea of what it is that I want to see. And Google thinks that they're helping by telling me where I can get a car loan for example, but that's not really helpful to me because right now I just want to see a listing of all the used cars you have available. I'm not really that far down that path that I'm thinking about that next step yet.
On flaws of the SEO industry
Carmen: What would you say is the biggest flaw in the SEO industry?
Jenny: Oh, that's actually a pretty easy one. And that's misinformation.
There are just so many people out there doing correlation studies and then declaring that such and such is a ranking factor, or this thing is not, and it becomes a little bit of...there's like this rush to publish first, and not a lot of brain power that goes behind it.
An example I'll give. Google recently announced they were no longer using rel="next" and "rel=prev" tags.
For anybody who doesn't know, that's where you basically just tell Google that pages are part of a paginated series. So if you have, you know, 100 products and you've broken them into 5 pages of 20 products each, that would be an indication to whomever is looking at the site (whatever computer) that there's multiple pages and not just one.
That has a lot of good use beyond just Google. That standard existed before Google adopted it. And it existed for things like screen readers, accessibility requirements, that sort of thing.
And so Google came out with this announcement, I guess I'd say about two months ago now. And they said, "hey, we're not using rel="next/prev" tags any longer, and guess what, we haven't used them for like a year. And we just didn't even realize the algorithm wasn't using them."
And so there was this big rush to publish! And all these SEO sites and blogs said, "Guess what! You don't need your rel="next/prev" tags anymore! You can just take them off! You don't even need them, Google doesn't even look at them, they haven't looked at them for a long time, so just go ahead and take them all out of your requirements."
And I said, along with some of my colleagues, "Wait a minute. Just stop! Why would you do this? Just because Google said? There's other reasons to use these tags."
And I see it sometimes too when people say, "Oh, don't use keywords meta tags." Right?
No, there's no search relevance for using keyword tags, but a lot of internal search tools use them. So you don't want to just go and decimate all your keyword tags because you might break your internal search!
So, it's stuff like that. Where there are things that exist for a reason, and just because Google says, "Hey we're not using them anymore," doesn't necessarily mean everyone needs to take them off their site.
On writing content about SEO and self-promotion
Carmen: So, how did you get involved with the "Ask an SEO" series on The Search Engine Journal?
Jenny: I actually am friends with Danny Goodwin. We know each other from speaking and being in the industry for a long time. Danny Goodwin is the executive editor at The Search Engine Journal.
So when he thought he might want to do a series like that, he approached me and asked me would I like to do it. Because I had been writing for Search Engine Land for a time. And I had kind of taken a break. And I wasn't writing for anything.
I believe it was around that time too I put out a Facebook message saying, "Hey guys I'm looking to get back into writing, where should I write?"
And he sort of pinged me and said, "Have I got a project for you!"
Carmen: Good timing!
Jenny: A lot of this industry is just good timing.
Carmen: What types of promotion do you think is most successful for a marketing agency that's trying to grow and find business?
Jenny: That's a tough one.
I work as a consultant, and I try to separate myself from 'agency.' Because I have a lot more ebb and flow in my work.
I'm not always full up to the max I can handle. Sometimes I'm overfull. It's a little different from the agency because I don't have to worry about anyone's paycheck except my own.
But I think in terms of the promotions that I've seen work the best, the ones that get the agency in the community.
Search people all sort of know each other. And we refer business to each other all the time, some of us speak, some write, some just hang out. Lots on Twitter. Anything you can kind of do to get involved in the community is going to make the difference.
A lot of agencies do it by having like an ambassador that goes out and speaks at the events, and wines and dines potential customers and that sort of things. And then others do sponsorships, those seem to work really well, and definitely just putting out information. Whether it's writing or podcasting or YouTube or whatever it might be.
Any kind of useful information that people are really going to engage with is where you're going to find your clients.
So I guess in that way it's not that much different from a regular business trying to market themselves.
On the genesis of the KICC method
Carmen: Fair enough! So, tell me about the KICC method? How did you develop it, and how effective has it been for you and your clients?
Jenny (starts laughing): Funny enough, I actually developed it on an airplane!
I was on a cross-country flight to speak at an event in Las Vegas. And I'm from North Carolina. So I had like 5 hours on the plane. And I was just trying to refine my presentation thinking I'd just make some little changes to it, clean up some formatting and that sort of thing, and it just hit me that the way I was advocating doing keyword research and doing optimization was backwards.
I realized that you could make a lot more impact if you looked at the results and then figured out, based on the results, what you needed to create.
So, kind of turned everything on its head.
So instead of doing research for all the possible things out there you could rank for, why not think about the match you have or don't have between the keywords and pages that are ranking already. And by kind of shifting into that mindset, and thinking about it as "how can we repurpose the content we have" or put together a plan to create new content based on what's missing...that kind of gap analysis?
I've been a lot more successful with my clients.
I think that's kind of what the search engines are looking for too. Is to see, "Where can sites offer something that the existing results set just doesn't have."
Had a lot of success with things like comparison charts, question and answer format information, or even just creating a quick video. It doesn't have to be super-produced, it can just be on your phone and create a video to address a question or to walk around the inside of a warehouse, or whatever it might be.
There's certain things people are just looking to see. And the results are almost crying out for. And if you can just meet those needs then you see a much better result.
On recommended MarTech tools and other marketing/SEO resources
Carmen: When it comes to MarTech what are the key tools you really rely on and like?
Jenny: I'm kind of old-school on this. Probably the tool I spend more time in than anything is Excel! Because I'm real data-oriented, so I'm constantly downloading spreadsheets and cross-referencing things. So that's really where I probably spend most of my time.
But a couple of other tools that I just love...any kind of crawling tool. Screaming Frog is my go-to for any kind of a fast crawl. But when I work for bigger clients that need more bandwidth I've tested a bunch of different ones. DeepCrawl and Oncrawl. All just really good tools.
I don't really have a favorite other than Screaming Frog, but it can't handle some of what I throw at it.
Carmen: Other than the ones you've worked for and with, what are some of your favorite blogs, podcasts, or books for SEOs and marketers?
Jenny: Oh, gosh, so many.
There's one I've been recommending for years that I still recommend. It's written by Vanessa Fox, who helped develop Webmaster Tools at Google. She's on her own now doing her own thing, but she wrote a book called Marketing in the Age of Google that I think is really terrific.
It talks about matching buying cycle to keyword research, to query definitions and just gets into a lot of detail about how to really match search's intentions with your own.
Another one I love...
I mean there's two on my bookshelf I would recommend to anybody who is interested in search. They're both O'Reilly books, but one on information architecture, and one on designing web navigation.
Both of those are excellent books.
There are so many!
And then for stuff online, I mean I love Search Engine Journal. I think they do a really great job. Search Engine Roundtable, I watch Barry's Friday recap as often as I possibly can. That one's excellent.
And I really try to follow anything Glenn Gabe posts. I think his company is G-squared. But he breaks down all the algorithm updates, does all kinds of testing and studies to find out what's going on.
Another one people should pay attention to, if they don't already, is Deep Crawl's Webmaster Hangouts emails. You can sign up for those and they send out an email each week with just any key things that came out of the webmaster hangout with Google. It's better if you can go to that webmaster hangout and not get things secondhand, but it's half an hour to an hour out of every week, so a lot of people can't, myself included, can't make it all the time.
On diversity in the SEO industry
Carmen: So switching gears a little bit...you're a strong advocate for women in SEO. If you could tell the industry one thing they're doing well and one thing they should be doing better, what would those things be?
Jenny: I think that the industry is doing a much better job of giving women a voice than they did when I first started.
I mean I started in the industry about 20 years ago. And at that time women were very, very much the minority. We still are now, but it's not as uncommon to walk into a conference and a boardroom and have there be other women in the room. And back then it was. If there was one it was surprising.
So that's something the industry is definitely doing better.
I still think the industry needs to do a better job of women...it's an age-old tale, right? Women speakers. It is tough, on both sides. The speaking opportunities for women are difficult on so many levels. I do think that conference organizers are making an effort to give women more opportunities to speak.
I don't think they should ever give an opportunity for a woman to speak if she's not the best person for the job, but that's a fallacy I don't believe in because there's always a woman who is just as capable as a man.
You just have to find her!
I think that's the hard part. Is finding the women.
And then the thing I really think the industry could do better is giving more people of color opportunities.
Especially women, but in general. The industry is very white. We need some more perspective and some more diversity in that way. And I'd like to see that happen more often.
On professional goals and legacy
Carmen: What, if any, is there a business goal you have yet to achieve but are working towards?
Jenny: There's so many! It's...I wanna do all of the things! And the time available to do any of the things is lacking!
I really wanna learn to program, I've got some automation ideas, I've got ideas for new forms of information retrieval, there are just so many things that I wish I had time to do.
As a business goal I would say I'm doing exactly what I want to do right now.
Which is working. I'm enjoying my work. I have a flexible schedule that allows me to spend a lot of time with my kids. I don't want to be the next big thing. I don't want to build a big huge agency and have someone acquire me or anything like that. It's more I hope I continue to love the work and I continue to have the luxury to choose who I get to work with.
Carmen: Fair enough! And finally, what do you want to be known for in the industry? What do you want your professional legacy to be. If anything! I mean, enjoying your life is reason enough! But if there is a legacy you want to leave, what would it be?
Jenny: I like that people see me as outspoken on issues of diversity. Another area I'm really passionate about is mental health. There are just so many things that we face every day in this industry and in others, but I think that search in particular has that "always on, always be killing it" type of attitude.
And that can be really really hard for people, especially when the reality is we're not all always killing it! And a lot of times we're just scraping by. So I think I'd like to be known for just being real, being honest, being open, encouraging other people to be the same.
Want to hear more of what Jenny has to say? Follow her on Twitter at @jennyhalasz.