Today I wanted to share with you something personal, my journey into SEO.
In early 2019, I started to experiment with the practice of Search Engine Optimization, also known as SEO.
I was a complete beginner in SEO.
And one day I’ve decided to try generating organic traffic and attracting people to my site with a content marketing strategy. (I know I have nothing else to do.)
My journey in a nutshell,
- I read and learned the basic of SEO in a few months
- I built a website and a blog from scratch
- I developed a content strategy
- I wrote several articles
- And I crossed my fingers to get a consistent organic traffic
But why did I do this?
I wanted to see “how easy (or complicated) it is to be on Google’s first page.”
My goal was to generate 10’000 unique monthly visitors in 12 months.
Today, I will tell you everything:
- How did I learn SEO in a few months?
- What strategy and tactics did I implement to generate traffic for a brand new site?
- And if I succeed?
If you are an SEO beginner, you will find this article useful.
You might be starting your journey into SEO with a brand new website. Your goal is to grow your business online. What I came across in 2019 will help you a lot.
If you are an SEO expert, this article will make you smile – hopefully.
Indeed, you are in the SEO business for ten years or so, and the issues I came through will remind you of your beginning.
Overall, if you are in digital marketing, understanding the key concepts of SEO, and the different steps to build a website and generate your first 1’000 views will be beneficial for your day to day business.
And on top of this, the article will contain some sarcastic moments, and as a bonus some of the best SEO jokes of 2020.
- The article has not been written with SEO in mind (or just a little bit)
- I didn’t do any keyword research
- The article is not optimized for search engines but readers
Table of Contents
My first date with SEO
I remember exactly where I met SEO for the first time.
When I close my eyes, I can still feel this magical moment, this moment that has changed everything and forever.
It was right here, on the first page of the Google Search Result.
Here I saw my article.
Here I met SEO.
I Went From Zero to 500+ Views in 5 weeks
Everything has started with my first publications on Medium back in December 2018.
I wanted to challenge myself with the publication of five articles in five weeks.
At this time, I was reading a lot on Medium and especially stories about copywriters. So I decided to become a copywriter as well and to write about Marketing Automation.
If you follow me, and I’m sure you do. You know that I already wrote an article about this “5 weeks – 5 articles” copywriting challenge.
Google First Page
“Your Medium stories have been read 30 times this week.”
Thanks, Medium, I appreciate your sweet emails.
Indeed, when you start writing, you also enjoy that other people read you. Otherwise, writing a personal diary will be enough.
Being read flatters the ego.
And something bigger will soon flatter my ego.
One day, while doing some research on Google about the Landscape of Marketing Automation, I’ve found one article on Google’s first page.
And it was – drumroll – my article.
(By the way, it is this article. Well, it was the Medium version, but for internal link building purpose, I link to the one under my domain. Hope you understand)
How to drive traffic to my brand new website?
I was so excited: I’m on Google’s first page.
- How can it be so easy to be on Google’s first page?
- Can I rank other articles at the top of Google?
- Can I drive traffic to my website?
But the very question I ask myself was:
Am I Neo from the Matrix? And any of my content will end up at the first positions of Google search because I see thruuu the SERP.
Spoiler alert. I just realized later why I was ranking first, and I will share my assumption at the very end of this article.
Let’s go back to my SEO (success?) story and the next steps:
- Building a brand new website
- and starting to rank on Google’s first page to get organic traffic.
What is a backlink?
Believe me or not, back in January 2019, I had no clue about SEO.
I could not answer these questions:
- What is a backlink?
- What is the acronym SERP?
- Who is John Müller?
My knowledge of SEO was basic. Or let say it was average for a guy working in an IT / Digital Marketing / Digital Transformation kind of environment.
This is what I could have said about SEO back in 2018:
- You need a clean HTML code
- The same URL for mobile and desktop version
- Sitemap is important
- The URL of your site must be friendly (nobody likes mean URL)
- Your website must load fast
- And it should be in HTTPS
This is not wrong, but it represents a minimal view of SEO.
And then I discover the mighty world of SEOs and unicorns.
Entering the world of SEOs
As you can see, I had no clue about SEO.
My only belief was: if I want to become better, I have to understand what the SEO experts are doing.
The best SEO blogs and Youtube channels for beginners
And what do you do when you don’t know something?
You go on Google and search for an answer.
It was my very first step: Between January and March 2019 I looked for the best blogs and articles about SEO and read them all.
I’ve subscribed to several blogs and got my daily dose of SEO.
If you want to start learning SEO, let me share the resources that helped me.
The following blogs produce great articles as well have regular videos on their Youtube channels
- backlinko has a lot of excellent and very complete guides about SEO. The focus is more on content marketing and on creating content that will rank first.
- Ahrefs is one of the most popular SEO tools, and their blog will share essential tactics to outreach and get backlinks to your site
- Neil Patel is an entrepreneur and founder of many companies. With his blog, Neil is teaching to small and medium businesses how to grow online with actionable tactics. And he also offers a free SEO tool.
By looking at these three knowledge sources, you will have a comprehensive view of what means generating traffic to your website and growing your business.
There are thousands of other blogs and SEO experts sharing their knowledge.
I’ve recently discovered another great blog from Fraser McCulloch, and he is also offering video material to learn SEO.
If you plan to start digging in SEO, I can only advise a six months cure of all the resources above. You will see your expertise skyrocketing.
John Mu and the Force
Besides the blogs, I also discovered an active community of SEO passionates, a.k.a SEO nerds.
You have to understand one thing about the SEOs.
They have one common cause: they are all “fighting” against the algorithm of Google Search.
They have to beat Google, use the SEO force to rank at the top of the search result page.
Finally, the fascinating aspect is that nobody knows really how Google Search is working. (And I’m pretty sure that nobody knows even at Google.)
Like the romantics at their time, for the SEO experts, imagination, rather than reason, is the most important creative faculty.
The SEO practices are based on experimentations and assumptions. The search formula is kept secret by Google, and regular changes in the search algorithm are messing up previous experimentations.
Therefore, all the “scientists of the search” are sharing and speaking about their recent tests or ideas. All these discussions create a lot of emulsions and often end up in intense disputes on SEO best practices.
Fortunately, the SEO community has his master Yoda – his name is John Müller, and he is indicating to the SEO crowd the way to go.
John is working at Google and helps webmasters and SEOs. He gives them some indications of what to do with their websites and content.
I’m not sure that John Muller knows the secret search formula. However, it doesn’t matter as he is very influential within the SEO space.
To share an example, if tomorrow John says that having a red background on your website is a ranking factor, you will observe a sudden change of 50% of the worldwide websites’ background color.
You can follow him on Twitter, he is from Google Zurich, Switzerland and seems to be also a bit sarcastic, and to like cheese. He cannot be a bad guy.
Another essential character from the SEO mythology is Barry Schwartz.
Barry is doing an incredible job for the community by collecting daily news about any SEO related information.
If something happens in the SEO space, or if Google updates its algorithm (or if John Müller shares another oracle), be sure it will be caught by Barry and compiled on his daily update about the Search industry.
I cannot mention everybody from the community, because it is so huge. You can find them on Twitter and follow their intense conversations.
Or just drop one none sense about SEO on Twitter, and you will be caught in an intensive argument.
Private SEO groups on Facebook
After almost one year beeing fed by blogs and Youtube videos about search engine optimization, I feel a bit saturated.
Now I spend less time reading news about SEO.
Not because I’m not interested anymore. But let’s face it. There is no new critical information about SEO daily. Often the same topics are coming again and again. (But SEOs like this.)
If you want to read about real-(SEO)-life problems, and connect with people sharing their expertise about their daily job with SEO, I can recommend a Facebook group.
SEO Signal Labs is a Facebook Group with more than 50’000 members is the place to go.
You will discover things that are not discussed on SEO blogs or Youtube videos. Have a look.
Beginner’s Guide to SEO
After spending several months studying and reading about SEO, I felt ready.
It’s April 2019, spring is back. It’s time to put everything into practice and
- Write articles with SEO in mind
- Get backlinks by doing outreach campaigns
- Optimizing my website with technical or so-called on-page SEO
- And start generating traffic
To be at the top of the Google SERP, I need absolutely:
- A website that I can fully manage and customize to my need
- Content, and great if possible
Let see how I achieved this.
Starting my blog
On April 24, 2019, my website samuelschmitt.com went life.
For the CMS, I’ve decided to use WordPress.
WordPress is perfect if you want to start a blog for small business or if you have a small marketing team in a larger organization.
For the content, I’ve re-used the articles from Medium. Indeed, it is better to start a new website with a few pages already.
In a couple of days, WordPress was set up, and the blog had already a few (old) posts.
What will be my next topic?
I didn’t know what to write. I didn’t have a clear content strategy.
I just knew that I will write about things that passionates me, such as marketing technologies, or anything else related to digital marketing.
Maybe this is my strategy, write about the things I like.
One thing I learned over time:
- Write about something you love
- Write with passion
And this tip is accurate as well with your own company. It’s not because you are running a business that your content must lame and soulless.
If you start writing about a topic you don’t like or where you have no real expertise, just don’t do it.
Your audience will see that you fake something, and you won’t earn his trust.
Another second point I knew was my editorial style. I’ve got fascinated by Brian Dean and his skyscraper technique.
Brian coined this term and explained that you have to produce content that is “ten times better” than any other webpages for a similar topic.
With the skyscraper technique, he believes that you can write something more complete and appealing to your audience.
And even more, you could increase your chance to be mentioned by other websites (get backlinks) because your content is awesome.
I’ve decided to follow this approach and write mainly complete (and often very long) articles.
What is a complete article?
Let’s take a simple example of the Pizza Menu.
In this example, I want to write a complete article about Pizza Menu and rank number #1 when people are searching about “pizza menu” or “list of pizzas.”
This article will list all the pizzas you can find on a restaurant menu. I already know three pizzas (because I’m smart):
- The Marguerita
- The Calzone
- and the Quattro Stagioni.
When I search on Google, I can find that
- The first result mentions the pizzas Tonno, Emiliana, Carbonara, and Frutti di Mare.
- And that the second result mentions the pizzas Marguerita, Quattro Stagioni and Napoli
My approach is to list any pizza already covered by other pages and improve the list with additional pizzas – the one nobody speaks about.
Finally, my article will speak about the pizzas:
- Quattro Stagioni
- Frutti di Mare
- and Napoli
And on top of this, I will add extra content about the origin of the pizza, how to make great pizza dough and where to buy ingredients to make the best homemade pizza.
As you can see, my article about Pizza will cover everything already covered by the first two results and add additional information.
And this is my editorial line: writing about pizzas. No sorry, writing complete article.
And to be clear, we don’t speak about plagiarism. The content must be unique for any topic.
You love complete lists of Pizzas so does Google
Keep in mind that Google is looking for one thing: Offering the best experience when you search for something.
If you are searching for a list of pizzas, my article must popup at the top of the search as it is offering the most comprehensive view on the researched topic – the pizza list.
So you got the idea, my approach was and is still to make articles covering a topic in detail.
It is also the kind of articles I prefer to read. So I do what I love to read.
A complete guide about what?
Great. I have a website. Already some content in my blog. And a kind of content strategy.
But I didn’t have any idea of what to write next.
(Also, I don’t have any copywriting skills, and cannot write on-demand about anything. )
Should I write about pizza?
While browsing the internet looking for inspiration, I found an article about the AMP Stories format.
And then, I stopped all my activities and started to build my very first AMP story. (I often start something and end up doing something else.)
While crafting this very first story, I realized the lack of meaningful and complete content on this topic.
The pages at the top of Google were not so up-to-date and didn’t tell me a lot about this new story format.
Eureka. I will write the “most” complete article about AMP Stories.
As I’ve accumulated enough expertise just by trying this new thing, I could quickly write a complete guide on the AMP Stories technology.
I was so excited to find this niche topic and a gap in the Google search.
End of April 2019, I started to write the only Complete guide about AMP Stories.
The Excel below shows my very first approach to write a complete guide.
I extracted manually headlines of the other articles to understand the topics covered, and be sure to beat them and improve what is already available on the subject.
Where is my page on Google search?
- Search for AMP Stories.
- Next page, next page, next page, next page, next page.
- Found my article on page 10.
Once my article was out, I was so excited. Finally, I have something significant to share on the internet.
Every day, I was searching on Google to see at what position my article was ranking.
I was so happy to see my article on page 10 of Google after a couple of days.
(And today I will be annoyed if this happens.)
And after only one week, the article was navigating between pages 3 and 5 of the search engine.
(Am I Neo?)
If you never try SEO, you don’t know what means this feeling of seeing your article climbing the SERP.
But then it stays between page 3 and 5.
Why Google hates me?
My article is better than the others, and it should be on the first page.
Outreaching to bloggers
You need backlinks, man.
Well, you don’t need backlinks, but a website with high authority. And a backlink is proof of your authority in the eyes of Google.
You need backlinks, sorry for the confusion.
My website was new; nobody ever linked to me.
Will it be easy to get a backlink?
Every SEO experts say that it is a crucial step and that you can get great results by starting building links.
And that you should spend 80% of your time on building links.
Ok, get it. I will contact bloggers and ask for a link. Easy!
I looked at every website linking to articles about AMP Stories, and I told them the following: “Hey you, my article about AMP Stories is far better than the one from Neil Patel, would you mind to link to my blog?”
It was not exactly what I said, but you got the idea of cold emailing.
You can be smart as you want, you won’t get any backlinks with a new website, and for two reasons:
- You are nobody
- and if you want a backlink, you have to pay for it.
Yes, I’m nobody, and why someone would like to link to my website?
But the second point is more interesting, there is a massive business around backlinks, and people are selling them – a kind of black(hat) market.
Even “la crème de la crème” of the SEO experts spend a lot of money in buying backlinks, but they will never tell you this in their blog. Sneaky.
Here my advice:
- Stop outreaching people and begging for a link. It is not going to work.
- Start producing great content and offer an added value, the rest will follow.
Organic backlinks and the JohnMu ranking factor
Getting backlinks “organically” is the only way to go when you have a new website.
After one week of cold emailing random people, I changed my strategy.
To promote the AMP Stories Guide, I searched for people on Twitter experimenting with this new format. And then I offered them to have a look at my guide.
I didn’t ask them for a link, but just to have a look.
Firstly, my article will help them as it is more than complete, and no other resource like mine is available.
And secondly, If they like it, they might share it on social networks or even better, add a link in their blog.
I believe offering value it’s the strategy that outperforms anything else. Whatever you do, offer an added value.
And while promoting my content on Twitter, I got a lucky shot. John Muller ( Master Yoda) was in one thread about AMP Stories and checked my article.
He liked it. He shared it.
What happened next?
Barry spoke about it in the following Daily SEO news. And other people mentioned my article on their blog as well.
The wheel was spinning.
This is how I got my first backlinks, and then I saw my content jumping on pages 1 and 2 of Google.
And you can imagine how excited I was…
Stay patient, consistent and experiment
SEO is a long game, and if you are like me – impatient – and expect results fast, you might get disappointed and frustrated.
So breath, and keep cool.
Since the first article published in May 2019, I regularly – every month or so – posted something new.
After a few months, my blog was generating 500 users monthly. The primary source of traffic was the AMP Stories Guide.
Another reading changed my approach to SEO, and it was the book Hacking Growth.
This book is not about SEO, but explain a scientific approach to digital marketing, or how to generate growth with a systematic approach.
I decided to follow the same experimental approach with my blog. My North Star (or key metric) was and is still the volume of organic traffic.
How did I run my experiments?
Each time I was tweaking my website, I listed each experiment as follow:
- Why I’m doing this change
- What it should improve
- How long the test will run
- What is the expected final result
Everything was tracked in an Excel file and a Trello board.
And I’ve run a dozen experiments such as
- Update article title to increase CTR
- Making a PDF version of the article to get more subscriber
- Redirecting traffic from Medium to my website
I highly recommend following an experimental approach and log everything. It helps you to understand what works and what you should focus on.
The more you experiment, the more experience you get.
My last experiment with a free SEO tool
In September 2019, I released a free SEO tool on my website.
I assumed that a free tool would generate more backlinks, traffic, and increase my branding.
Neil Patel was a great source of inspiration for this experiment with his tool Ubersuggest (even though I cannot stand his “Hey I’m Neil Patel” anymore ).
He has a scarce entrepreneur mindset and is not afraid to try new things. Overall he is not scared to fail.
One of his mottoes is: Offer a free tool, get traffic, and grow your business.
I was inquisitive about this approach and did some research about product-led growth strategy.
Businesses using a free tool to generate growth got impressive results. In this article, I’ve compiled my research about product-led growth strategy.
And you will see how it works well for Neil Patel.
But will it work for me?
In August 2019, I used my summer vacation to develop a tool – while sipping cocktails at the pool.
I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to create something that could help me first.
Indeed, while doing my complete article, I was always scraping the SERP to get the list of headlines of other articles.
And I had to do the process for multiple articles, and it was time-consuming. I didn’t find any free tool scraping the SERP in one click.
Awesome SERP Analyser
It is why I created thruuu, a free SEO tool.
thruuu is scraping the SERP for you without any coding or complex configuration. It shows you essential information, and you can as well download everything in an Excel file.
And it is 100% free. I even don’t ask for your email address.
You can have a look at the features here.
The tool is part of one of my experiments.
I wanted to see if I can increase my traffic and organic search by offering something for free.
And indeed it works. And pretty well.
With a free tool approach, I got the following results
- In November 2019, the website reached 6000 unique monthly visitors
- The exponential growth of more than 1100% of traffic in almost three months
- And some cool articles about my tools, and backlinks
And here is the statistic of active users between April 2019 and December 2019.
Now, thruuu is true…
I won’t give it up, especially since it has recurrent and daily users. But I will keep this for another story.
What I’ve learned
In 2019, I learned a lot about SEO strategies and tactics. I’m far from being a hero, but I’m happy about the progress made.
Indeed, from a brand new website, after 9 months I’m generating 6’000 monthly users and I also offer a free tool. Not so bad for a beginner.
I learned a lot and I will continue to publish monthly articles in 2020. My goal is still to reach 10’000 unique visitors every month
SEO is a never-ending story.
I understand now why many people are passionate about this practice of digital marketing.
- Every day you can experiment with new things
- You are at the top of the funnel and generate growth for a business
But what I learned does not only apply to SEO. If you want to be successful in something:
- Be patient
- Stay consistent
- Don’t be afraid to try and fail
- Learn something new every day
- And experiment it
And finally, I will start to dig into other topics in 2020. Because the digital marketing space is big enough, and there are plenty of things to explore.
So see you in 2021 for another story about my journey.
And now some bonus content!
Bonus 1: Why I was ranking first with an article on Medium?
As I said previously, my first article ranking first on Google was a content I created on Medium.
I didn’t do anything special at this time, no keyword research, no SEO. I just wrote a long article about the Marketing Automation Landscape.
So why my article ended up at the first positions of Google?
And here, my assumption (because with SEO, you never know exactly why you rank first, you only assume).
- The keyword “Marketing Automation Landscape” has few competitions, and the search volume is as well low.
- It means it is easier to rank for such keyword.
- Also, Medium has a high Domain Authority; articles published from on this platform are more likely to perform well on Google search engine.
- And my article is very long and covered many aspect of the topic.
In other words, if you pick a not too competitive keyword and write something interesting and well documented, thanks to Medium authority, you have a good chance to rank on the first page of Google.
The issue with Medium is that you don’t own the traffic and so your audience. This is another reason why I decided to move away from it and start my website.
Bonus 2: the best SEO Jokes in 2020
After one year of experimenting with SEO, I can now also understand SEO jokes.