Best SEO Practices: Interview With SEO Growth Expert Eli Schwartz
Eli Schwartz is an SEO consultant, growth expert, and author of Product-Led SEO: The Why Behind Building Your Organic Growth Strategy. He’s helped countless B2B and B2C companies learn how to understand their customers and fine-tune their SEO strategies — companies like WordPress, Shutterstock, Quora, Mixpanel, Zendesk, and many more — and his insight has been featured on leading platforms like TechCrunch and HubSpot. Previously, he worked as the director of SEO and growth at SurveyMonkey, where he built their successful organic growth strategy from the ground up.
Today, Eli is joining Mentorcam's Head of Operations and co-founder of Wag! Jason Meltzer to chat about the many facets of search engine optimization and how businesses can leverage SEO for growth. Let’s dive right in.
Part 1: The Basics of Comprehensive SEO
First, Jason and Eli discuss some of the fundamentals of SEO, how to build an effective SEO strategy, and how to make the right optimization decisions for your website.
What got you interested in SEO?
I built SEO at SurveyMonkey from essentially nothing — [from getting the site] found for the word “survey” and “SurveyMonkey” to [becoming] a $200-million-a-year business. Over the last five years, I've been working with teams to do exactly what I did with SurveyMonkey. And in the process, I've worked with some really cool companies in building out their strategic approach towards SEO.
What got me most interested in SEO, and [what] keeps me interested in SEO, is the behavioral aspect of it. I remember the first time I launched a website and saw the keywords that people were typing in, I [was] like, “why? What made them type in those keywords? What do I need to build for it?”
I still feel the same. It's really the keywords, the queries, and things people type in — the experience on the site is a look inside their brains and a look inside what their intentions are. How do you satisfy that intent?
The same goes [for] what you do at Mentorcam. Someone's not looking for me on the Mentorcam platform; they're looking for the answer to a problem they have, and they find me, and hopefully, I can solve that problem. I still love that aspect of it. I still love understanding the user and building to satisfy a user.
What does a comprehensive SEO strategy entail, and how is it different from simply following SEO best practices?
There [are] no SEO best practices. “SEO best practices” is something that Google might say — like, “Make sure your content is visible.” Great. What is the content? “Make sure that you don't hide links.” What are the links?
A comprehensive SEO strategy really begins with: who is that user? What motivates that user to type something into the search engine? What are they looking for? They might type [something] like “best hotel in Miami” — what's the best hotel for? Do they want to go on a honeymoon? Do they want to go to a bachelor party? [Prioritize] really understanding that user, and then you’ll understand what you need to build for that user.
The comprehensive part is: I need to understand the technology, the website itself; I need to understand the layout of the site and know the individuals who contribute to that. It's really the holistic approach towards SEO. Who are the designers? What's the content?
Again, way too many people approach SEO from a tactical standpoint. [They might say,] “Well, the keyword is ‘best hotel Miami.’ Let's use that in the title and let's write a thousand words.” I don't think a thousand words towards that keyword is the right way to satisfy the intent of many people who might search that keyword on Google.
What are some impactful SEO best practices that often get overlooked?
I think the most impactful technique is really doing research about the user. I think that most people don't do that. They go to a keyword research tool, and then from the keyword research tool, they bring it into their content roadmap — and then they really never think about it again.
I work with companies [that have] done that. Then they say, “well, we have a million clicks a month, a million users a month.” And when it doesn't convert, that's because they never did that research. They didn't understand: “who is the user?” [For example,] it will be a B2B SaaS company and they'll want to know: “why is no one converting?” Well, no one uses that channel to find things. You've created a lot of great content which educates and informs, but doesn't convert.
So, I think that's the technique that gets most overlooked — which is research. It's not a technique that many people incorporate into SEO processes.
What are your top tips for optimizing a website for search engines?
Really building around the user. It's buzzy to say you're building content around users, and doing SEO for users, but I really incorporate that into my processes. When you understand the user, then you can understand: “is it a mobile website — which most sites are — or is it a desktop site?” If you're building a B2B SaaS tool, maybe it can be on desktop, since not many people use B2B SaaS tools only on mobile devices. Once you incorporate all the things you know about the users, then you're doing that all the way through. How much content do you need to have? Do you need video content? Well, does the video content help inform?
One of the things that I've done with many companies I've worked for that has generated the most revenue is just building content around their brand name — brand name plus feature; brand name plus price; brand name plus competitor. Those are the things that many SEO teams might overlook because it's not so sexy to go to your boss or your point of contact and say, “hey, I want to build Mentorcam price. That's my target for this month or this quarter. I'm going to write content about your pricing.”
Well, that's actually where you drive the most. Mentorcam has competitors — whether it's competitors that are similar to MentorCam or [just picking] up a phone and [calling] someone. Why is MentorCam better from a pricing standpoint? You write that content. (I actually have no idea whether you rank for that content or not.) But, [for the purpose of this example,] you write that content. That's high-converting content.
Again, not so sexy to be like, “Hey Jason, my goal for this month is I'm going to write content about your own brand name plus the word ‘price.’ Isn't that creative?” Well, it's not creative, but it works. That has been my most effective way.
When I work with companies, I'm judged not by keyword rankings — which I think is an awful way to judge SEO — I'm judged by the revenue I bring in. And it happens that [focusing] on something that is related to the brand name or related to the features that people are looking for [is] where the most revenue is to be found.
Is it possible to significantly improve SEO without a big budget?
Of course — I've seen many sites that are able to have a tremendous amount of SEO traffic without any content, or very little content, and with very few links. If you have a user, then you can monetize that user in a creative way. If you don't, then you can spend millions and millions of dollars without any impact whatsoever.
What's your golden rule for effective search engine optimization?
I don't know if I have to reiterate it again, but know your user. If you know your user, you can build around your user. If you don't know your user, you can build everything that you want, and you can follow every best practice that you want, and you may get lucky and hit some sort of magic strategy — but you can't replicate it because you don't know why it works.
Part Two: Mastering Product-Led SEO
Next, Eli goes into a bit more detail about what he means by “product-led SEO” and how you can apply it to your own marketing strategy.
You talk a lot about 'Product-Led SEO' in your book. How does this innovative approach integrate with or modify traditional SEO practices?
It doesn't — it's completely different. By product-led SEO, I essentially mean building an entire SEO product (which is the website, the content, the imagery, etc.) around the user. In my book, Product-Led SEO, I use examples from TripAdvisor. The entire SEO product is built around the user. That is the product. The product is something you search for and find on search engines. Zillow is another great example of “the entire product is designed for SEO.” It's not that they went and created this product and then did SEO after the fact.
Amazon itself is a great example of product-led SEO. [Amazon acted] contrary to what some of their competitors did. Let's say eBay was a competitor — I don't think anybody puts eBay and Amazon in the same columns right now, but initially, eBay did sort of compete with Amazon. eBay built SEO content — a lot of guides and a lot of things that you might Google and then end up on eBay — and Amazon just made the best damn product and category page they [could]. The product itself was built for SEO.
That's what I call “product-led SEO.” That really does not incorporate general SEO practice, which is to build a website and do SEO after the fact. I say: build SEO if there is an SEO user, meaning someone is searching. Build it around that very user.
How should businesses approach SEO? Is it more of a proactive or reactive strategy?
It's both. It's really proactive if you're starting from scratch, if you're looking for traffic, if you're looking for users. Again, it's not a given that there are SEO search users, but if there are SEO search users, you build your SEO efforts around those users. [It’s] reactive [when] you've done something, and now you've seen your traffic drop.
A big thing that's going to be happening is generative AI. Everyone's aware of generative AI, but they may not be aware that Google is actually launching generative AI in search results. That's something that you can test right now. You can join Google's beta — they call it SGE: search generative experience. They're going to bring generative AI directly into search results. It ranges — sometimes I'll see it on 80% of my queries, sometimes I'll see it on 40% of my queries — but in many queries, there is generative AI that takes up the entire top of the fold or the entire device screen on a mobile device.
So, inevitably, a lot of clicks will be lost from websites. Ultimately, I don't think conversion will change. If I'm looking to book a hotel room, I might see some different content on Google, [but] I still want to book a hotel room. I just arrived at the hotel room booking page a different way. However, if you're measuring your traffic and your SEO performance based on rankings or clicks, all of that is about to change.
I have a newsletter where I try to predict these things for anyone who wants to subscribe. But my best prediction for when this happens is early next year. And when this happens, many people will be surprised because they're not in tune with what's happening on the search page. They're too focused on what's happening on their rankings, too focused on their content, and not really focused on the general search results and what Google is trying to do.
Part 3: Upcoming SEO Trends
Next, Eli gives his thoughts on the current state of SEO, SERPs, and generative AI in search engines. He also shares his advice on how SEO marketers can keep up with future trends.
What other upcoming trends do you foresee that will define SEO best practices in 2023?
SEO is more of the same. There were a couple of algorithm updates that happened very recently. I don't think anything's really new with Google.
A lot of my SEO learning came in 2011 when the company I was working for got hit by a massive Google update. It was one of the largest Google updates to date — it hit 11% of all search results. There were a lot of complaints and opinion editorials, and “let's sue Google,” and class actions against Google, which is why I think that what's going to happen in the next few months [is] it'll be even bigger than what I saw in 2011 12 years ago.
That algorithm update was called the Google Panda update, and that was when Google flushed out a lot of low-quality content. Since that point in 2011, Google's been tweaking that very same algorithm. Every time Google updates an algorithm, it's not a fundamental seismic shift in what they're looking for. They're always looking for the same thing: good content that satisfies users.
Google's a product like every other product we experience. Your iPhone updates once a year. Your pixel device or Android device updates once a month. Google's updating its algorithm based on new findings. Sometimes they update it on a daily basis, and sometimes they update it on a monthly or quarterly basis.
That's all an algorithm update is: really going back to basics, which should always be the case. Create good content and good experiences for users that don't break rules. And I think the rules are fairly obvious. Google spells them out — [for example], don't be manipulative, and don't be spammy.
From an SEO perspective, what elements are crucial for a website to perform well in search engine rankings?
The second reason you don't want to have anything client-side rendered is because Google can't trust what they see. Google renders the page and then says, “Oh, this page is offering great deals on vacations.” They may not want to show you for great deals on vacations as a concept, a topic, or a keyword because for all they know, the next time they come to render the page, you're selling Viagra from Canada. That's a second reason they may downweight that page.
So, the number one thing you really have to do is be visible. The best SEO websites in the world are Craigslist and Wikipedia. Very, very, very simple websites of just text in HTML. That's the ideal for SEO. Obviously, you don't want to make your website look like Craigslist. From that ideal, you can add on features — don't go all the way to the extreme of just having a script.
Can you share a success story where SEO implementation led to remarkable business outcomes?
It's interesting — [Craigslist] is much less successful in search right now. It used to be that if you searched for things to buy, you would see a lot of Craigslist. I'd say they're less successful [now] — and this is a holistic SEO thing; there's tactics, and then there's the holistic approach.
Tactically, Craigslist is great. It's a highly linked website; it's very simple text. However, on a general scale, on a global scale, they have a lot of spam. That's where Google might say, “Well [Craigslist] follow[s] all the best practices, but [they’re] kind of dirty.” So I don't know that when someone searches [something like] “bikes for sale near me,” [Google] really wants to send them [to Craigslist].
What should be the starting point for someone implementing SEO for the first time in 2023?
I don't know if I can beat this anymore, but go talk to some users. If your website is in the business of helping connect people with mentors, do what you're doing — go talk to users and say, “hey, when you want to find out how to do some pro forma accounting, how do you do that? Where do you seek answers for that? If you want to know what it's like to fundraise from VCs, where do you seek answers for that?”
You talk to the users, and inevitably you're going to find that search [engines] are a part of that, [so] you want to know: “When is it a part of that? At what point in time do you query something, and what do you query, and how do you query?” Those become the insights that you can build off of.
Now, you can do this in two ways. You can do this quantitatively — you send a survey, get a bunch of quantitative answers, [for example]: “Hey, you want to find out how to do some VC fundraising, where do you go? Do you go to Google? Do you go to Meta? Do you go to Instagram?” That's quantitative.
Or do you have a qualitative interview like you and I are having right now, and discover insights, and write notes, and say, “Well, they keep mentioning that, like after they went on Google, they went on Slack. How do I get into Slack?” And maybe Slack becomes more important of a strategy for you initially than Google — than SEO. And that's okay.
How crucial is the role of strategically chosen keywords in current SEO practices?
I don't think you really need to worry that much about keywords. I'd say if you're having conversations with users and recording it — like you and I are recording right now — you look at the transcript, and you might say, “Hey, in this recording, the word ‘Google’ came up 16 times. That might be an important word that we should talk about,” or, “the words “product-led” came up four times, that might be something to incorporate.”
But then, if you go to a keyword research tool, those [words] might not come up at all. I would lean into the things you hear from users rather than the things you discover in your keyword research.
Part 4: The Role of Technical SEO
Last, but not least, Jason and Eli touch on the roles that technical SEO aspects like backlinks and page speed play in a business’s strategy.
How do meta descriptions, core web vitals, keyword research, alt text, and link building contribute to SEO success?
They're all different pieces. Too often, SEO agencies, SEO consultants, SEO gurus — they put too much stock in a single [piece]. I don't think anything really moves the needle on its own. It's [all] part of a holistic strategy.
[Let’s start with] link building. In my career, I've gotten some really good links. While I was at SurveyMonkey, I got links from whitehouse.gov on three occasions. Only the first time I got that link did it even matter — that first time was in 2012, maybe, and Google was less sophisticated. The other times I got links from the white house that didn't do anything, and I've gotten links from the UK parliament [that] didn’t do anything, and many governments and major corporations around the world [that] didn't do anything.
The reason is because they weren't contextually relevant. Google is a lot smarter in a world where Google can do generative AI. They can be pretty smart about what a link is, and it's not just, “Oh, that's a high-ranking link. We're just going to value that on its own.” The same goes with every other tactic, like technical SEO.
I think you do need to make sure that your site is server-side rendered, but how fast? I don't know if that really matters that much. Everything's a part of a more holistic strategy. Does your site need to be fast? Well, if you're competing with Amazon, you need to be pretty fast. If you're competing with a lot of GoDaddy or DreamHost-hosted sites, then maybe not, right? It really depends.
So, I'd say these all tie together, and you need more of a holistic strategy of: how many links? How fast? What kind of site? and all that — rather than individually, “You need this amount of links, and then you win.”
What tools would you recommend for SEO analysis and monitoring? Any thoughts on Google Search Console, SEMrush, or Ahrefs?
Google Search Console is my favorite. I don't think Google gives all the data to users that is available — and that's good because it's normalized. So the amount of data they give Mentorcam is the same amount of data they give every competitor, and whatever they're slicing off, they're slicing off evenly. Whereas, with a lot of SEO tools (and I'm a huge fan of SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Conductor, and a lot of different tools like that), they're doing a strict look at what the internet is based on their databases, and it's not necessarily accurate.
I would say Google Search Console is equally inaccurate across everything, so that's my go-to tool, [as well as] anything I can do to access Google Search Console data — like Looker Studio is something that I use on a regular basis. The other tools I find to be helpful, like Similarweb, are helpful for doing competitor research, but it's not the be-all and end-all.
How does page speed impact SEO, and do you have tips for improving it?
I don't think it impacts [SEO] at all. I'd say page speed is more of a binary metric — either you're fast enough or too slow. If you're too slow, then maybe it dings you on a few searches where everyone else is much, much faster than you. But if you're faster than fast, whatever the baseline is, you don't get any more points. It's a very small metric.
How does SEO serve as a tool for marketing, and why should businesses focus on it?
It's not a tool for marketing. It is a marketing channel. And businesses should not focus on SEO. I don't think Pepsi should focus on SEO. I don't think that Dove Soap should focus on SEO. I do think that if you are creating a new way to use Dove Soap and you're not Dove, and you're not Unilever yourself, then you should use SEO. It really comes down to: do you have an SEO user at all?
If you do have an SEO user, how important is that SEO user? I know that at Mentorcam, you do a lot of paid marketing. If I looked at all your marketing channels, I'd say paid marketing is the one that's going to work the fastest, but maybe [it’s going to be] more expensive. Social media is probably the easiest because you have a bunch of users that you can market with.
SEO, I might put lower on your priority list, because it's slower, more expensive, and in a different place in the funnel. Whereas, with social and with paid, it's a much closer-to-conversion place in the funnel. That's the way I'd look at it. SEO is a marketing channel, so how effective is that marketing channel? Should you prioritize it? How should you prioritize it?
Definitely find me on Mentorcam. I love talking to people about why they should not do SEO. I'm very passionate about people not spending money on SEO when it's not a fit — and passionate about people spending money on SEO when it is a fit too. But, I'd say the counter-narrative is the one that’s more surprising.
If SEO is a fit for you, hopefully [my advice] opens up your mind to a different way of approaching SEO that's not about: “get me content based on this keyword, buy a link to it, and [consider it] SEO success.” It's really about building a holistic SEO strategy.
The last thing I wanna leave everyone with is that SEO is forever changing; the rules are changing, the platforms are changing — no one could have predicted at the beginning of 2022 that at the end of 2022 we would have discovered a new search engine named ChatGPT.
However, if you're building SEO strategies around users who are seeking information, then you might have already had the right information for ChatGPT to discover. If you're building around users, you're always ahead of the curve. If you're building around search engine strategies, you're always chasing the curve.
Build around the user, and the user (and eventually, the search engines) will follow you. Whereas the other way around, you're always chasing your tail.
For more organic growth insights like these, check out Eli’s Newsletter on Substack, as well as his book, Product-Led SEO: The Why Behind Building Your Organic Growth Strategy. You can also book a meeting with Eli through Mentorcam to get his thoughts on how to personalize these growth tips for your specific circumstances.