AJ Kohn talks Hummingbird, social, authority, writing and MUCH more!

AJ KohnYou do a bazillion things! You’re a husband and father, owner of digital marketing firm Blind Five Year Old, digital marketing correspondent for Search Engine Land and advisor to video-conferencing service Vidtel. How do you manage your time to fit everything in and still do an awesome job?

Well some of those things I don’t do anymore because time management does become a huge issue. At the end of the day I try to prioritize what’s important to me and strive for excellence.

I decided to do what I do, in large part, because I wanted to be home with my family. I wanted to see my daughter grow up and be there for those small moments – picking her up at school and hearing her talking to new friends or sitting on the floor and building with Legos for an hour until my crossed legs cramped up.

I also knew I wanted to stay up on a variety of subjects and that meant reading a lot. So that’s what I do. I spend 2-3 hours each day reading, getting up at about 6 a.m. and going through my feeds. Though I can’t call it all “reading” since some of it comes from Tumblr blogs or photography, art and humor that might seem unrelated to search. I often find patterns or connections when I do this that I wouldn’t find otherwise.

Then it’s just about organization and doing. I’m good at the former but haven’t solved all of the latter. I find that getting something done in the physical world can help me get off the dime to finish something in the digital realm. So, checking a few things off my honey-do list can help me get back to the computer and be more productive.

My mantra is to do it instead of thinking about doing it. If I catch myself doing the latter I just switch to doing instead of thinking. Easier said than done for me, but I’ve gotten better at that.

But there aren’t enough hours in the day. Or not if you’re also going to stay healthy and be a part of your family and not get burnt out. So things fall off the table, even more so if you’re hell bent on creating really great work. Yet, I find that quality is what wins at the end of the day and that solves a lot of other problems.

Conversely, I’m also helping more start-ups as a marketing advisor, which allows me to have a larger impact on those companies from a strategic perspective rather than a tactical one. That means more thinking and less doing, which helps balance me out. It’s also gratifying to see so many of the clients I work with obtain another round of funding or have a healthy exit.

What do you see coming in the near future of search that freelance and in-house SEO copywriters alike should prepare for now? How about long term?

I think the key is going to be about creating memorable content and that means really understanding how people select and review content on a multitude of devices.

Writers still concentrate too much on the text and not enough on formatting and presentation. Making the content you create readable, portable and memorable is what will gain success.

I think this is a hard thing to swallow for a lot of writers. They want the words, the thing they sweat over the most, to be the only thing that matters. But it just doesn’t work that way. People scan and don’t read, so you have to format your content to meet that reality.

The funny thing is, when you do that, people wind up reading more of your content because they have more access points. And if they share it, you gain greater readership. So I encourage writers to think of the entire canvas when creating content. Think about the headers in your piece and about the images you’ll use to enrich the story.

Readability, readability, readability. Seriously. Don’t make me work at liking your content.

Many online writers aspire to reach your level of authority. What has helped you succeed at this the most and what do you recommend to others?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I made sure to demonstrate my expertise through my content. And I was authentic about my opinions.

I’m not saying I tried to be controversial. I didn’t try to do that. But I was also happy to speak my mind about what I thought about an issue. Maybe I didn’t always get it right. I thought Google would low-ball Mozilla under a new search contract (http://www.blindfiveyearold.com/mozilla-search-showdown) but that didn’t happen. Mozilla got a huge payday.

I still think the analysis and research was solid, but I happened to get it wrong. And that’s okay. No one is ever right 100% of the time. The best hitter in baseball was arguably Ted Williams with a lifetime batting average of .344. That means one of the best in the business failed way more often than he succeeded.

I also figured out over time how to make my content more readable and portable. Go back to my early work on Blind Five Year Old and you’ll see that it isn’t nearly as easy to read or compelling. So, some of it is just experiential learning.

The other thing that I think was important was commenting (with links) on other content. I’m a huge fan of this and am in the process of writing a blog post about it.

I believe in 90-9-1 participation inequality. Comments are the area on a piece of content where the 9 (contributors) and the 1 (creators) are most frequently found. Those are the people I wanted to connect with because I had a better chance of them carrying my content to other places. And they did.

Now, you can’t just talk about yourself in those comments. You have to be authentic and add value to that content via your comments and link to your own as well as other sources. But in doing so, I think you create a dialog and engagement with those who have a higher propensity to generating content and referring to your work.

Perhaps you could lump it into influencer marketing but I think it’s even more focused since you’re reaching those who contribute and create – and over time your name or work might pop up and get mentioned by a number of authors. The perception users have of you then increases through this sort of social proof.

Of course, none of it works unless you use your brain to generate good ideas and work. I also work hard to double-check the assumptions in my work.

I’ve written over 1,000 words and then, in doing research, basically invalidated my thesis and thereby scrap the post. I don’t see that as time wasted. Writing becomes an act of exploration and learning. I’d rather know I’m putting my best foot forward than wind up with egg on my face.

Social media is a key factor in SEO and Internet marketing for businesses and individuals. You rock at social media, sharing across multiple platforms and gaining reach. Social media can be intimidating and time consuming. What advice do you have for managing individual as well as business social accounts?

Well you hit on the big issue; it’s time consuming and most people don’t want to invest that amount of time. So that’s the first thing. You can’t half-ass it and expect to do very well.

One of the things I try to do is make my content on these platforms consistent, readable and memorable. On Twitter I decided to use a convention for the vast majority of my tweets.

[Activity]: [Title] [URL] [Comment] [Hashtag]

It forces me to be pretty concise in my comments, but I think the pattern of my Tweets helps people identify them as mine. Combined with what I hope is only a stream of the best links and the goal is to be a valuable curated resource for industry colleagues.

On Google+ I do the same type of pattern but with a different format for that platform. I share pretty much everything I do on Google+ that I do on Twitter. The difference on Google+ is that I share a lot of other content, covering humor, travel, food, music and anything else that catches my attention.

It’s a far more visual platform so I use that there. But creating consistent patterns is still part of the idea. So each morning I share a photo from some destination tagged with #ididnotwakeupin. I’ll often share other content with the simple statement of “True story.”  I try to be authentic. I don’t want to say “real” because, while I share a lot of myself there, it’s clearly not all of me and I’m careful about not over-sharing.

I then take what I do on social and port it to clients. Use the right platforms in the right ways. Curate the best of your vertical. Be authentic. Be consistent. Make it readable. Create patterns. Engage with your fans.

One at a time they sound easy but doing it in practice is hard and as you astutely point out, time consuming. But getting your brand in front of more people is always important.

What advice do you have for in-house content marketers looking to start their own business?

If you’re really looking to start a business, I think you need to realize that in the beginning you should be spending as much time building the business as doing the work. For me, that meant consistently demonstrating my expertise via blogging and speaking. Don’t skimp on building your brand.

And the work you do? Make sure you over-deliver. Because truly great work gets you referrals and that makes your job a lot easier as you grow.

The last one is to not do work for free. Even if you’re giving a discount, always charge for your time and work. I just think it’s a bad precedent to give away your expertise and even if you’re thinking it opens doors and may lead to referrals you have to understand that the value that person is attributing to your work is influenced by the fact they got it for free. In other words, referrals from those you did free work for often lead to clients who expect the same or that they can low-ball you on price.

You share some great life and career advice in What I Learned in 2012. Maybe you’re preparing the 2013 version now, but can we have some new life lessons, updates on the 2012 advice or a preview of What I Learned in 2013?

I am actually writing this now and I do have a bunch of life and career … observations. I guess it’s advice but really it’s just a bit of a cathartic journal of my experience. Of course I hope people can take something from it so maybe advice fits the bill!

A fair amount of it will focus on time management and balancing the see-saw of done versus great. I talk about “doing” being important, but my experience leads me to believe that spending time to create something great produces better results.

Now, I might be at a point where I can get away with that more than I could early on in my career, but there is nothing more powerful than great work because it leads to referrals. And more often than not the clients you want to work for will find you through referrals.

As you discussed in Authorship is Dead, Long Live Authorship, something’s going on with Google authorship! Authorship search results are changing. What’s your take now? Any updates on this?

I think identity is of great importance to Google when it’s evaluating content. They know that certain people who are subject-matter experts should be returned higher in results for queries on those subjects. So the concept is still very important and active.

In practice, I think Authorship mark-up was less than successful. It needed wider adoption to be truly useful, because if important authors were missed then any reordering of results based on that lack of participation would be flawed.

I still think using Authorship mark-up is smart and obtaining the snippet alone is worthwhile from a branding and click-through rate perspective. But I believe Google is looking to attach identity at the entity level through the Knowledge Graph. Authorship mark-up could help to inform the Knowledge Graph but it’s a supporting role.

Extracting named entities from documents and building up a database of subject-matter experts is what I think Google envisions and … is doing when you look at Freebase. Entries there might reference social media accounts, websites and “known for” attributes among other things. Then you can use that information as another source of data to compute authority and relevance within the algorithm.

So the goal is still to produce and engage your community with your work to demonstrate your expertise. Show, don’t tell.

What do you recommend for a guest-posting and link strategy considering Google’s recent Penguin updates?

I’ve never been a big fan of guest posting (http://www.blindfiveyearold.com/i-dont-guest-blog). I’m a bit selfish about the content I create and find that few remember the brand when that content is read on another site. So you might remember the great piece on remarketing on Moz but do you remember who wrote it?

There’s certainly an element of getting exposure that can be helpful but I find it odd that I see so few case studies of productive traffic based on guest posting. Even if it helps you in the short-term, is it helping to establish your brand in the mind of your user? On a lot of these platforms, I think the exchange of value is tilted far in favor of the publisher and not the content creator.

But of course there’s a place for guest articles, I just think it’s a very limited scope. I encourage my clients to find places to contribute in adjacent verticals. I don’t want my clients to blend in with all the other content on a publisher’s site. I want them to stick out so that they’ll have a better chance of being remembered.

In addition, those adjacent verticals are an opportunity to find new audiences. I like to think that clients should be a destination site for their own vertical or that other creators should be referencing my clients in content on industry specific sites. But it’s finding audiences receptive to my client’s offering who might not be otherwise exposed to it that make guest posting valuable.

Guest posting should never have been about getting links but instead about introducing your brand to new audiences. And as for links overall, links are the result, not the goal of your efforts.

Which Internet marketing authority / expert has inspired you the most and why?

I remember sitting in the San Diego courthouse on jury duty underlining passages in Permission Marketing (in hardback) by Seth Godin. That was before I headed up to San Francisco to join Web 1.0, and that book probably helped to convince me that this Internet thing is where I needed to go.

I’m not much of a fan of his work now, but I’m very thankful for his early work. Who else? Well, Danny Sullivan certainly was an influence in the way he covered stories. He’s a journalist with deep knowledge of his subject matter and that’s certainly something to emulate.

Rand Fishkin has been an influence because of his presentations and in really pushing to make those presentations a story that is told with both words and images. He made me realize that I had to take what I do behind the keyboard and make that happen in front of an audience, and that the way you did that was going to be different because of the medium.

Nearly all of my other inspirations are from other media and verticals. I look at Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal and a number of musicians such as Adam Ant and Siouxsie Sioux. They create things that are authentic and memorable. It’s not just the message but how the message is communicated.

I try to adopt that artistic perspective, which also means that sometimes you evolve and do new things that might alienate some of your fans.

Any new thoughts on Hummingbird since your epic post, What Does the Hummingbird Say? (Seriously, folks – read it! But make sure you settle in.)

Well, I’m seeing more and more evidence of what I describe happening and believe that Knowledge Graph Optimization (KGO) is going to be more and more important moving forward.

I have some specific cases that I wish I could share but … can’t due to confidentiality agreements. But suffice to say that the connections between entities are being monitored and used as a way to create a better understanding of those entities. If Google knows that people search and find an entity in a certain way, and that entity is connected to another entity, some of that query syntax (perhaps based on topics) is transferred to the connected entity.

I was also outside in my yard the other day and a hummingbird zipped up to our feeder. I stood still and watched and remarked at just how fast they flew. That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked. Google is obsessed with speed and I think Hummingbird was clearly also about boosting algorithmic speed.

About AJ Kohn

AJ is Owner of Blind Five Year Old, a digital marketing agency specializing in search. A recognized thought leader and widely referenced expert in publications ranging from The Street to Forbes, he has presented at MozCon and SMX Advanced conferences and works with top 50 web properties and promising start-ups.

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