Women in Tech: Jill Whalen

Jill Whalen is a leading expert in the field of search engine optimization (SEO) and the head of High Rankings. Meet Jill Whalen.

Q: Tell us a little about your background and training before you became the woman behind High Rankings.

A: Since I started online in the early 90’s I didn’t have much background or training to prepare me for SEO. There weren’t articles or books on the subject, heck, it wasn’t even called SEO back then! I started with a BA from UMASS Amherst and a love of computers and the Internet.

Q: What sparked your interest in search engine optimization (SEO) and how long have you been in the SEO business?

A: I was a mom at home playing around on the Internet whenever I had a chance. There weren’t many parenting websites back in the early 90’s and I had created one to complement my parenting chat channel on IRC. I wanted parents to easily be able to find the website online so I studied what made certain sites appear in the search engines and others not, then made changes to my site accordingly. From the very beginning it was clear to me that the information you put on your pages was one of the most important factors, just like it is today. I was also dabbling in website design for small businesses and would include optimization in my packages. Since SEO was such a new subject, I quickly became the go-to person on web email discussion lists when the topic would come up. Eventually, business started booming as more companies became interested in SEO; so much so that by 1997 I made it my core service offering.

Q: You have so many irons in the fire: you do consulting, website audits, teach classes, publish a newsletter, respond to questions in the forums. And you have to keep up with the antics of the search engines and be ready to help people react appropriately when something like Google changing its algorithm happens suddenly. Describe what your typical work day is like.

A: You do make it sound tiring! Thankfully these days I have some help. Over the past few years High Rankings has grown from being just me working at home to having a office and a few additional team members. A typical day for me consists of getting to the office, then checking the High Rankings forum posts that came in overnight and answering any that weren’t already answered by one of our top-notch moderators. I’ll also review and answer any emails that may have come in, and perhaps make one morning tweet on Twitter to start the day. By 9:00 or so I try to settle in for some “real work” which could be anything from reviewing a site audit report that was prepared for a client, writing one of my SEO columns or creating a presentation for one of our SEO classes or a conference. Throughout the day I’ll also be answering questions and working with the others on my team on various client action items.

The best part is that most every day is different. Newsletter days get mostly taken up with that, and training class days are solely focused on that. I try to organize my week so that I am focusing on only one major project per day, be it the newsletter, writing an article, or some sort of client project. That way when I need a break from it, I’ll check out Twitter or the forum, or answer newsletter email questions. Thankfully, none of it feels like actual work as SEO is still fun and interesting to me.

Q: High Rankings was an early success story in terms of online business models. You sell books and videos in addition to the training and consulting. You provide free information with your newsletter. Talk about how you developed the various pieces that went into making the business a success.

A: Yes, I was one of the first in the SEO biz to tell everyone else exactly how it was done — all for free! I’m pretty sure I annoyed many of my competitors back in the day when I did this. Partially because I was constantly spilling the beans on how to do SEO, but also because I would bust the myths and scare tactics that other companies would use on their clients. In my early days, I was even giving out free site audit reports. Providing the free info became yet another avenue for establishing myself as an expert. While learning SEO isn’t rocket science, there can be a steep learning curve. So even with all the free info provided by High Rankings, the average site owner or business doesn’t have the time or inclination to become an SEO expert. Like most professional services, it’s often cheaper in the long run to hire an expert than to spend the long hours figuring it all out for yourself.

I’ve always felt passionate about ensuring that businesses understand that SEO can and should be done without having to do anything sleazy or tricky or spammy to the search engines. That’s been the biggest reason why SEO education had become such a large part of what we offer. Along with our public classes, we spend a good chunk of time educating clients so that they can eventually take their SEO in house and maintain the SEO work themselves. Clients appreciate not feeling locked into anything, and secure that their targeted search engine traffic won’t suddenly disappear when they stop paying us for services.

Q: How does the use of social media tie in with search engine optimization? Or does it?

A: It ties in nicely these days as a means of gaining links. The days of putting up a links page on your site and trading links with others are gone. While you can still do that, there’s so much competition that you have to really set yourself apart from the others. The best way to do that is to have something truly unique, creative and useful and then get the word out about it. Social media is often the best way of getting the word out.

Q: You speak at conferences. What sort of conferences do you like to attend? At BlogHer a constant topic is the visibility of women in tech and in the conference world. Are you the lone female SEO expert, or are there quite a few women in evidence at conferences and in the SEO world?

A: I typically speak at most of the search marketing related conferences. When I first started speaking (in 2000) there was definitely less women in the industry than there are today. This has changed a lot over the past few years, especially as people began to recognize that SEO is actually marketing as much (or more) than it is tech. Still, some of the conferences that focus more on the tech side do have more men than women in attendance even today. I was just at PubCon in Vegas and it seemed to have a lot more men than women as compared to say Search Engine Strategies or SMX.

Q: You spoke at BlogHer Business 08 in New York and posted the video of your session on your site. What are the benefits of sharing sessions like this free to anyone who wants to watch?

A: Since BlogHer had already made the session publicly available, I embedded it on our site in our “past speaking events” section. Doing that is another means of adding credibility and providing more education to our site visitors. It’s also helpful to point others to who might be looking for a speaker or moderator for their conference or seminar.

Q: I looked at one of your training sessions. You limited the enrollment to 6! That’s unusual. Trainers usually try to get as many bodies as possible into sessions. I’m sure you have a good reason for doing it that way, and I’d love to know what it is.

A: Years ago we were offering larger search marketing seminars in various parts of the country two times a year. However, as the search marketing conference/training market expanded, it became difficult to fill the seminars with enough people to make it profitable so we stopped offering them. That was a tough decision for me because I felt that what we were offering was so valuable to those who attended. Plus, there was nothing else out there at the time that was comparable enough to recommend when people would ask about SEO training. So that’s how the small classes came about. We are able to do them in our own office, thus eliminating travel, hotel and room rental expenses. Filling up 6 seats is fairly easy with just a bit of promotion through our email lists, and we can typically fill up 1 class a month. The attendees get personal attention as we review their websites in advance, but they don’t have to pay high consulting fees since they’re within a classroom setting. They get to learn from each others’ websites which we’ve found is also valuable. It’s been a win-win situation all around.

That said, we had so many requests from our attendees to offer some more in-depth and advanced classes that we’ve just added four web marketing workshops to the training that we offer. These are 1/2 day sessions offered over the course of 2 days (Apr. 2-3, 2009) covering keyword research, copywriting, social media marketing and web analytics. We are allowing more than 6 people to sign-up for these, but will still keep them fairly small. Budding search marketers can sign up for just one-workshop, an entire day or the full 2-days.

Q: What’s your advice for someone who wants to do a redesign of their website?

A: When you’re redesigning an existing website, it’s the best time to review your existing SEO strategies and/or to begin a new SEO campaign. The worst thing you can do is develop your new site first and THEN think about SEO (unfortunately, we see this happen all the time). If you’ve already done some SEO and are getting good search engine traffic, you’ll also need to make sure that you don’t mess that up during your redesign process. That’s another thing we see happen all too often. I can’t stress enough how important it is to consult with your SEO agency during your redesign if you don’t want to be in for nasty surprises somewhere down the road!

Q: If you could only give a blogger one tip for SEO, what would it be?

A: This isn’t necessarily directly related to SEO, but my tip for bloggers would be to only post when you truly have something interesting to say. While not every post has to be exceptional, every post should have a reason for existing. The worst thing a blogger can do is just post for posting’s sake. Sometimes bloggers and others are so frenzied about creating as much content as possible that they post a lot of useless or repetitive junk that nobody really wants to read. When given the choice, choose quality over quantity. It will be better for your users and whatever is better for users is also better for search engines!

My thanks to Jill for agreeing to the interview so we could get to know her better. Equally important, thanks to Jill for all the great advice about SEO that she’s provided to us over the years.

Cross-posted at BlogHer.

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