On SEO, B.S., Panda & Best Practices: Interview with Terry Van Horne

To refer to Terry Van Horne as an SEO expert is nearly redundant. An accomplished practitioner, sage and advocate of SEO best practices, Terry — well known in the SEO world as “Webmaster T”– is a partner in the SEO Training Dojo, the founder of SEOPros.org, and the director of the not-for-profit organization of Search Engine Optimization Professionals.

It’s a pleasure and honor to share this in-depth interview with Terry. — Heather

You’re a recognized SEO expert since back in the day, widely known at “Webmaster T.” So tell us: how did you get your start in SEO?

Pretty much how anybody does these days. I had a website and was looking for ways to promote it, only back then search engine optimization was just part of what you did to promote a website.

There were a lot of very bad search engines so most users were using directories like Yahoo!, which at that time had an even more dominant position than Google has now.

My passion for SEO started when one day I was trying to find Pegasus email software and noticed many engines were very challenged in finding the site. So I decided to see if I couldn’t figure out why.

What inspired your founding of SEOPros.org?

Founding SeoPros was a no-brainer. There were a lot of bad things being said about the industry and I felt there needed to be something done to start changing the image, or at the very least providing the other side of the story.

I was also a Telemarketer and definitely saw the potential for the industry to become regulated by government (think “do not call” list) in the same manner and for the same reasons, i.e., a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. I also hoped it would help the industry become a trade rather than just another Internet marketing business.

How would you describe the “mission” or philosophy of SEOPros.org?  How would you describe your role as Head of the Executive Committee on Standards?

Standards are tough because there is a stigma attached to them. IMO, most of that is more about people not being confident in what they do (i.e., afraid they wouldn’t pass the standards).

Mostly, I think many jump to conclusions about what standards can be applied to them. Anything using internet protocols, or are errors in Google Webmaster Tools, can be tested and standards applied because these do not change… or rather, very rarely change.

The second part of our “mission” is to provide free guidance and information to people looking to hire SEO’s. Quite frankly, it is absurd to think someone should have to learn about SEO to hire one.  Do I have to learn about the laws concerning my case before I choose a lawyer? Do you have to research your symptoms before choosing a doctor?

Considering I have over 16 years’ experience and am still learning something new every day, am I any less a professional than a doctor or lawyer?  No. But the industry holds itself back by clinging to “fight club” attitudes from the 90’s that are no longer valid or good for the industry.

SeoPros provides both an RFP generator and assistance in hiring an SEO. It is always good to have a third party opinion with no potential influences from a biased party.

There’s a plethora of SEO companies out there, all claiming to be the “best” or “absolute ‘expert’” provider of SEO services. How would you recommend weeding out the B.S. when searching for an SEO provider?

Always check out the linking techniques. That usually tells you a lot about the expertise and knowledge within an agency or of a consultant. Are they are providing all 3 types of links?

1. Foundational (directories, bookmarks and article marketing)

2. Promotional (begging for links from top sites, press releases)

3. Placed Content (guest posts, widgets, etc.)

Each website and business is unique! The best SEO’s and link builders will use a diverse strategy, using all three types of these techniques with variations according to the target audience.

Tell us a bit about the SEO Training Dojo.

The SEO Training Dojo was founded by David Harry, and I came on as Dave’s partner about 6 months in.  The Dojo is a unique community in that there is little if no hierarchy. Some may look from the outside and see Dave as the pinnacle, but that is an incorrect assumption in that all are on equal footing — which means the flow of information comes from many people, not just a few at the top of the hierarchy.

The networking aspects of the community have been its biggest asset, with members often preferring to work with others from the Dojo because there are a lot of synergies in what they do together. That has been a bit of a surprise for Dave and I, but it is something we are both very proud to be a part of and try to foster.

As “Webmaster T” with SEO Training Dojo, what do you enjoy most about this gig?

The people! They are outstanding individuals — not just as SEO’s, but as people. Getting a chance to interact with a lot of new and intermediate SEO’s in the Dojo has made me wonder how I worked on my own for so many years.

Google’s Panda update is still causing a fair amount of controversy. What is your take on the sites that got slapped by the Panda? And moving forward, what does Panda mean to SEO?

From the old SNL days, “Panda has been very, very good to me.” None of my or David’s clients have been hit, but we have had our newer SEO consulting biz take off like a shot from sites hit with Panda and something similar in Ecommerce that looks to have rolled out in January.

Sites that got hit by Panda in many cases deserved it! They followed bad advice like “build sites for search engines not users” (and the person who advocated that said almost the exact opposite after Panda). Following bad advice because someone is supposedly an “expert” is just silly.  Never, ever, ever believe anything you read on an SEO blog is the gospel according to Sergey.

Most of those who got hit did no future-proofing of their SEO. In other words, if they didn’t question the long-term value and see that directory submission, article marketing and comment spam were not long term solutions, then they were not thinking ahead and they will always be hit by new filters and dampening of link values.

Doing things because they work today is often a poor strategy in the long run… but keep it up folks, because those of us who do future-proof reap the benefits when you stumble. :-)

Mainly, if Panda means something to your SEO … you were doing it wrong and you’d best take a loooooonnnnnnnng look at everything you are doing! Panda is basically a return to the basics of REAL SEO. You know, before SEO’s became link whores and understood their job was to unlock visibility on sites that work!

Make your site search engine friendly with an optimized architecture and easy-to-understand navigation, and you’ll have happy users and enthusiastic crawlers. Keep thinking you can optimize through links and your SEO business will be struggling in a few years. There is definitely a trend away from link text/authority to more on-site relevance and personalization of authors and internet users.  Google now has the ability, using the Social Graph, to track reviewers, authors and other entities. Link authority will have some value…it will just be drastically reduced.

In your opinion, what are some of the “low-hanging fruit” SEO techniques that most businesses don’t leverage (or leverage well)?

A website that works! A website that is built to sell to people, not search engines — because, well, I’ve yet to have a crawler buy anything from a site. :-)

Fully optimized, on-page factors is a must. Building links into a poorly-optimized site is pouring link equity down the drain, and often means that link equity isn’t passed correctly down the link hierarchy.

Do you have any words of advice for copywriters who may be considering specializing in SEO?

Yes: don’t get too enamored with SEO! Learn as much as you can about keyword research! There is a lot more to it than just getting query data from a tool!

Keyword research and development of personas are keys to SEO Copywriting success in an age where Google is really developing its ability to know who you are and your status in your community.

Mostly, be careful not to change your writing style! The best SEO copywriting doesn’t look SEO’ed at all!