Brian Dean, as he says himself, is “living the dream”: his SEO expertise enables him to “work as a digital nomad and travel in countries like Thailand, Japan, Spain, and Turkey” (and currently, Germany). He is also a popular blogger: his SEO blog, Backlinko, has fantastic resources and advice about SEO.
We ask him about how he got to where he is, and get him to share tips about SEO and blogging.
My questions and comments are italicized.
1. Your profile is intriguing: tell us how you got here. You make the shift from freelance writer to SEO sound so easy: was it actually as easy as that?
It actually wasn’t that easy…mostly because it was something that I was kind of forced into.
In 2010, I was living in Pnomh Penh, Cambodia. At this point in my freelance writing career I was writing almost exclusively for one client: Demand Studios (owner of Livestrong.com, Ehow and a few other massive web properties).
I’d been making and ranking sites on the side, but with mixed results. I always wanted to start an SEO agency, but freelance writing was giving me the money and flexibility I needed to travel. So I never pulled the trigger…
Then one day Demand Studios basically laid off their entire freelance writing staff without any warning. It turns out that they were one of the chief victims of Google Panda: an update that targeted the type of “content mill” sites that Demand Studios specialized in.
My income went from $6,000 per month to less than $500 overnight. Although Cambodia is cheap, it’s hard to get by with Western standards on $25 per day.
That’s when I decided to start a little agency from Cambodia. Amazingly, I landed two clients within a few weeks and was able to grow my business to where it is today :-)
2. Your blog doesn’t mention this, but I assume you freelance?
Actually, no. I have a few clients that I consult for (mostly digital marketing agencies), but that’s it. I’m focused on growing my authority site and Backlinko.
3. I know why you being in SEO – you’re good at what you do, you like having a nomadic lifestyle. But is there anything that you don’t like – about working in SEO or about being an entrepreneur? Is there anything you hate doing but still have to force yourself to do?
This is a great question. When I tell most people I work from the road/from home they usually say: “Dude, that’s awesome!”.
And it is awesome.
But there are some downsides, like:
Reliable Workspace/Internet Connection: The internet is definitely everywhere. But good internet is a different story. I sometimes have trouble finding a quiet place with fast internet overseas.
Being the Responsible Person: I outsource all I can, but the responsibility of everything eventually boils down to me. That’s usually fine, but some days I feel like passing the buck to someone else for just a day or two.
Working 100% Solo: I really like having my own projects, but I don’t collaborate very often with people (and when I do, it’s usually over Skype or email). I miss working as part of a team (although as a entrepreneur to the bone, I’d have to be the leader of that team).
That being said, I love SEO and being an entrepreneur. In general, I wouldn’t change much about my life or my business.
4. What are your favorite online tools – SEO, social media, productivity, or anything else?
I’m honestly not a big tool guy. I try to keep everything in my business VERY simple and straightforward: which means I don’t need as many tools.
Here are the tools I use regularly:
Ahrefs: For backlink analysis and competition reverse engineering.
Excel and Google Docs: For managing and tracking outreach campaigns and anything else I outsource.
Skype: I do all of my consulting via Skype (something when I travel I don’t ever bother having a phone number).
Mention.net: I LOVE this tool. It tracks mentions of brands or keywords and gives you one place to find all of the mentions.
5. My partner Nilesh wants to know: are there tools that tell you what keywords you are ranking for in search results?
Nilesh will be pleased to know that there are several tools that can do just that :-)
The best free tool that I’ve used is SERPFox.com.
I personally use AuthorityLabs.com because they have a few more features and track your rankings over time.
6. What do you think is the most meaningful website metric?
No doubt: net income. That’s what it ultimately comes down to. Traffic, links and social media followers are worthless if they can’t be converted into revenue.
A close second would be email list subscribers because that’s an asset that can be VERY valuable when leveraged the right way.
7. For a small business that’s short of time and resources: what’s the one activity they should be focusing on to improve their SEO?
Good question. They should focus on creating ultimate guides and pillar content that they can leverage for links, social shares and brand awareness.
You only literally need to publish and promote a few of these every year to see serious results. Obviously more is better, but for a resource-strapped small business, a few outstanding pieces of content (with promotion) can make a massive difference.
8. As a blogger, you believe in creating fewer, quality pieces of content rather than updating often. Do you think that would work for everyone? Or are there some cases where frequent is better?
I think that it’s a good rule of thumb. But I really emphasize that approach because the conventional wisdom that you need to blog 3 times a week to be successful is dead wrong.
Because most people that “blog about blogging” promote that awful piece of advice, a lot of bloggers follow it. And it’s one of the main reasons that most blogs fail.
Of course, if you have great content you can publish twice a week, then definitely go for it (for example, if you run a company blog where you have several people contributing). But you should only publish when you have something outstanding to add…not because it’s Thursday.
9. Should every business blog? Or would that just result in too much content that no one would read?
It would result in too much content that would wind up unread and ignored.
In fact, I was consulting yesterday for a site that’s in the web design business. They didn’t have a blog.
Instead of saying “you need a blog!”, I just told them to produce a few epic pieces and publish them as pages in WordPress. For them, that makes more sense than pumping out “5 tips for increasing conversions” type of blog posts.
I’d say that most businesses should have a blog. But it depends on the industry and how much epic stuff you can produce.
10. What social media platform do you like best? How many do you use regularly?
I’m honestly not a social media expert. I pretty much only use Twitter and Google+ on a regular basis. I use Twitter most often, but I think I like Google+ the best. It’s like a microblogging platform combined with the best parts of Twitter and Facebook.
11. Are there any sites you would recommend for small-business marketing advice?
Here are a few that I’d recommend:
KaisertheSage: SEO-focused. Jason always publishes great stuff.
Duct Tape Marketing Blog: Fantastic practical advice for offline and online small business marketing.
Kikolani: Kristi never disappoints with her real life case studies and insights.
QuickSprout: Neil’s blog might be the best marketing blog on the internet. Nothing but practical insights from a real entrepreneur.
Traffic Generation Cafe: Ana Hoffman is one of the internet marketers that I respect most. Great practical strategies (notice a pattern?).
12. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?
Probably getting started. My first several ventures failed (before I got into freelance writing). So the hardest thing was actually getting some success and momentum to build on.
Once I did, things actually went pretty smoothly.
13. What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give a small-business entrepreneur?
It may sound kind of strange, but I’d recommend that they invest more money into their marketing. A lot of small business owners fail because they bootstrap their marketing efforts.
There’s nothing wrong with being smart with your money, but if you want to compete in today’s competitive online world, you need to spend serious money to stand out. Crucial elements of your online presence like your site design, content and customer service/outreach need money behind them to perform.
Thanks so much, Brian, for sharing your time and expertise. There’s a lot here that our readers should find useful — and I do too!