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Career Day: Lessons on fierce marketing entrepreneurship from SEO Kelsey Jones

Episode Overview

A leader in the SEO space, Kelsey Jones, founder of Six Stories shares her unique path to marketing entrepreneurship and owning her own successful agency. In this episode of the Searchmetrics Voices of Search podcast series, Kelsey shows how her spirit of adventure and independence, thirst for learning, and resiliency led to a rewarding career in SEO.

Kelsey reflects on:

  • What are her suggestions for moving from freelancing to consulting to running your own business?
  • Why is listening to your intuition so important when you don’t have a lot of experience?
  • When failure isn’t an option, how was being “hungry” a powerful motivator?
  • What were the practical aspects of SEO that served as a foundation for her work?
  • What was the dark side of SEO that she witnessed during its early days?

GUESTS & RESOURCES:

Episode Transcript

Ben:                             Welcome to career day on the Voices of Search podcast. Today we’re going to learn about the skills accumulated and lessons learned from a great SEO throughout the various stops on her career day. Joining us for career day is an SEO and content strategist who runs her own agency. Kelsey Jones is the founder and senior consult at Six Stories, which is an online media agency specializing in content-driven strategy that can increase engagement and traffic through content, SEO, and social media services.

Ben:                             But, before we hear from Kelsey, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complementary digital diagnostic where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content, and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.

Ben:                             Okay. Here is our interview with founder and senior consult at Six Stories, Kelsey Jones. Kelsey, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Kelsey:                         Hi, Ben. Thanks for having me.

Ben:                             Wonderful to have you on the show. Always great to connect with a leader in the SEO space. And you’re an agency owner as well, so, excited to hear your story. Let’s talk about how you got into SEO.

Kelsey:                         So, I originally was coming from a journalism background. I wrote this super, I guess controversial at the time, liberal opinion column for my college’s newspaper. And I really have always liked writing. So, I kind of wanted to evolve my love of writing into something that I could actually make money on that wasn’t teaching or being a reporter. So, I kind of got into marketing from there. And then one of my first jobs out of college, I worked at an agency, and I had great mentor there, Jeremy and he taught me basically SEO and paid search from scratch. And so, from there it just kind of grew. And, I think, what I really loved about SEO at the time is that there were so many new technologies and strategies and things coming out to help you be better at SEO and learn more about your search presence and how you could write content to improve that search presence.

Kelsey:                         So, I think, from there that was kind of my start, and it’s always been something that I have loved to do, and I really love being able to help customers see real traction in their website and online presence through SEO and content as well.

Ben:                             So, it sounds like early on in your career you realized that writing for the liberal media was probably not something that was going to pay the bills and you decided to go into marketing, and SEO specifically, as a practical way to build a career. What is it that you liked about the practice of SEO? Then I’ll preface this with when I think about people that are coming from a journalism background, and mostly one that is as specific as politics, it seems like there is a pretty dynamic shift from the people that get into SEO from the technical background. Why did you feel like it was a fit for you in the early days of your career?

Kelsey:                         So, even back in middle school and high school, I learned how to do HTML and how to build my own websites. I am kind of embarrassed to say that the first website I ever built was a fan site for NSYNC.

Ben:                             Love it.

Kelsey:                         So embarrassing that I was a huge NSYNC fan. And so, from there I taught myself HTML. So, I had already known that going into college and writing the political columns. And, I think, I knew that SEO had the power, once I learned more about it, to really make a difference with small businesses and get their message across. And so, I think coming at SEO that way, from a writer, was really interesting to me, because I had some of the technical background in the HTML space, but I also, like I’ve said, was a writer. And so, I think meshing those two interests and passions of mine together, building websites and writing content, really at the intersection of that, I think, is SEO. And so, having a background in that and continuing to practice that has really helped me kind of combine the two interests that I had.

Ben:                             I want you know while you’re talking I’m looking up all sorts of NSYNC lyrics, trying to figure out how I can work them into the show, and I just have to say it’s tearing up my heart to wait to get all of these out there.

Kelsey:                         Oh man.

Ben:                             It’s going to get uglier before it gets pretty. Keep it together, Ben. So, you mentioned that you had a mentor that was walking you through the basics of SEO early on in your career, what were some of the things that they taught you early on?

Kelsey:                         Oh man. I mean, so something that I had never done before and I didn’t even know was a thing was keyword research. And so, we spent so much time with him showing me why that’s so important, how to find long tail keywords, what tools you can use, and because I was learning paid search at the same time, I think, that helped me with SEO too, because the way you do keyword research is slightly different in between the two, but, the crucial knowledge, and background, and the thinking behind it is very similar. And so, because I also was learning paid search, I think, the keywords and focusing on the importance of that and thinking of all the content that you do, you need to think about the keywords and what users are looking for and what they’re finding. And so, that was probably the most important thing he taught me.

Ben:                             So, the connection between not only the content, but also the user intent to make it searchable and findable was something that resonated with you early on. As you moved on from your agency experience early in your career, which direction did you head? Did you find another agency, or did you decide to go in house?

Kelsey:                         So, next I went to an agency that only did marketing for car dealerships, so we did websites, paid search. I launched their social media program there. I mean, this was like 2010-ish, so a lot of agencies didn’t even have social media yet, unsurprisingly. And from there, I would say the car dealership marketing wasn’t my ideal place, it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I mean, I’ve always resonated more with core teams and small businesses that are really trying to market themselves. And so, from there at that company I was in charge of all the social media accounts and all the paid search accounts as well as SEO. So, a lot of the stuff we did there was just kind of day to day routine like updating meta descriptions, creating site maps, building paid campaigns on Google AdWords for customers.

Kelsey:                         So, I think it was really a chance for me to kind of get more experience in the every-day SEO of the actual implementing meta tags and doing the keyword research, and so I think that helped me. And while I was doing all that, I was also freelancing. So, after that is when I kind of jumped into doing my own business full time.

Ben:                             So, it sounds like in your experience working for the marketing agency that was focused on car dealerships, you were taking advantage of the knowledge that you would gain from your SEO-focused agency and applying it more broadly to other marketing channels. How did what you know about search and what you knew about search at the time help you understand and evaluate other marketing channels?

Kelsey:                         That’s a good question. I think I always have been a big reader, and so, I think, as I’m implementing projects and campaigns in my everyday work, I’m also reading a ton. And I’ve always been a hustler, trying to find out new things to do, really curious about what else we could be doing different. And so, I think, just the excitement of SEO kind of broadened my horizons a little bit and forced me to learn more. And, I think, always being a learner is really important in this profession. Especially in this industry as a whole, because things are always changing, and there’s always more stuff to learn, and what worked for one company might not work for another. And during that time as well, I had just cold emailed Search Engine Land and asked them if they would let me write a column for Search Engine Land, and they did.

Kelsey:                         So, I started writing on the side just about marketing and SEO in my experience with campaigns and what’s been working. And they moved me from Search Engine Land to Marketing Land, and I was, I guess, a columnist there for a few years before I went to Search Engine Journal. But I think writing about marketing and SEO was really helpful for me, because it kind of forced me to keep learning and stay sharp, because I always had to have something interesting to say. And so, I think, I don’t know, focusing on the learning and the writing aspect helped me be better in my day job.

Ben:                             So, it seems like you were able to basically continue your education and as you learned one marketing channel, you had the foundation, and you’re hungry for knowledge, so you’re able to do research. And in part because of the writing work you were doing, you were forced to learn other marketing channels and apply it into your work. Are you ready for your next NSYNC quote?

Kelsey:                         No.

Ben:                             As you were thinking about your career and decided that you were working in an area that wasn’t of interest you, working for the car dealerships, my guess is the thought going through your head is when you’re thinking about what direction to head, the focus has to be it’s going to be me. There it is, got it out.

Kelsey:                         I think they’re getting worse as we go along.

Ben:                             The last one’s going to be the worst. NSYNC jokes aside. You mentioned that you started to freelance, and you were taking on projects outside of your role at VinSolutions. You’re now writing a column for Search Engine Journal and eventually Marketing Land. Did you start to do that full time, or did you find another full time role and continue to write and consult on the side?

Kelsey:                         So, I, with taking on freelance projects on the side, one of my first freelance clients ever was Yelp, and they were launching Kansas City, they hadn’t had a presence there, so I helped them with reviews and photos. And I kind of got the freelancing bug from there. I really liked having different clients, because it helped me learn new industries and always kept things interesting. So, from the side I was doing some writing projects, some SEO projects. And I did… I mean back then, of course, this is 10 years ago, but that is like 100 years in SEO timeline, because everything moves so fast. But, back then, I mean, there was some shady things going on. Because I’ve been in SEO for over 10 years. It’s so cool to me to see how it’s changed and how there’s more of a focus on providing value and transparency rather than the things that we used to do back in the day.

Ben:                             You got to spill the beans here. Tell me about what you were doing that probably now is considered black hat, but I’m guessing back then it was a little gray. What was actually happening that you thought was a tactic that no longer would be acceptable?

Kelsey:                         Okay. Well, I have two shady things that I thought of when you asked me. The first one is there was a company that they did a secure messaging platform and I was doing their social media and what I called SEO, but it was not really, because a big part of it was blog commenting. So, we would find relevant articles that were in their industry and then leave blog posts with their URL in the comment fields… or, in the URL field of the comment. And that actually got them some traffic, but now, I mean, you would never do that, because that’s just considered so spammy. One really shady thing that I eventually just quit was I freelanced… I mean, this was while I was still working full time, I freelanced for this company that called themselves Reputation Management.

Kelsey:                         And so, what they did is we all had individual blogs that we created on our own and we would write blog posts about their clients and say good things about their clients. We wouldn’t be making up things like I knew them personally, but it would just be information about the client, or we’d write content about their industry or topic and then include a link to them. And the whole idea behind that was to manipulate the search results and get our content that we’re creating above the bad search results that they were having. And so, I always… Most of the time it wasn’t that bad, because a lot of the clients’ the top search results were bad reviews, but you could also tell that they had just had some bad luck or maybe they weren’t all bad. But this is me justifying 10 years ago, but… Well, I have a story.

Ben:                             It doesn’t sound as bad as what I thought it was going to be, to be honest with you, where you’re trying to put a company’s best foot forward, and instead of harvesting user generated reviews, you’re manufacturing them, but you’re trying to place content about your customers’ brands where it would be appropriate. You mentioned you have a story, go ahead.

Kelsey:                         Yes. So, this is where you might see that it’s shady. And this is what made me quit that company and say, “I’m not going to do this.” So, I got a request and it was for this guy, he owned a taxi company. And so, I would always search either the company name or the person’s name when I got their brief, just out of curiosity, to see the bad thing they did. And so, the guy’s name, he actually had gotten indicted for sexual assault of a minor family member.

Ben:                             Yikes.

Kelsey:                         Yeah. I don’t know if he was guilty, I don’t know, but, I mean, that alone I just… That’s when I said I can’t do this, because it’s obvious… I get he’s trying to save his business, but it’s obvious he’s trying to hide something that he, judging from the information I could find, probably did. And so, that was the one that I thought I can’t do this, because number one: I’m creating fluff content that isn’t really useful to anyone, and then number two: it’s possibly helping this person, who is more than likely a terrible person, continue to succeed with his business and not have any consequences for what he did.

Ben:                             So, the interesting thing to me about the stories that you’re telling is that as a freelancer, you’re working in SEO and you’re able to manipulate search results. That is really what all SEOs are trying to do is push their content to the top of Google. But you’re faced with somewhat of a moral conundrum. For the other freelancers or people that are interested in freelancing, how did you, A, feel about being faced with that situation and what did you do to sort of rectify it and find the balance between what you thought was morally acceptable and then what is going to pay the bills?

Kelsey:                         Yeah, I mean, and that’s a really good point, because there were times in my career when I was in between jobs, the jobs we’ve talked about or other jobs, where I had no money. I mean, there were days when making $75 a day, or I remember my goal was a $100 a day if I can… And this was when I was in between jobs, and I was freelancing, when I was in between that agency job and then the car dealership agency job. I remember thinking if I could just make a $100 a day picking up freelance work, I could survive and pay all my bills. And so, when you’re that desperate and faced with trying to completely provide for yourself and your family, you really do have to think about what you are willing to do versus what you have to do and all of that.

Kelsey:                         In terms of freelancing in SEO today, I think, as you go along, you get a gut reaction to things that you know if it’s not going to work out or not. And I would say to anyone out there who’s freelancing or want to eventually build their own business, you should listen to your gut and your intuition, because even if you don’t have a lot of experience, that doesn’t mean that what your intuition is telling you is wrong. So, there’s been, I mean, dozens of potential clients. I can’t even tell you how many that we have a phone call, and I would be so desperate for money and think about how am I going to pay my rent this month? And we’d get on a call, and I could just tell that it wasn’t going to work out, they were going to try to have me do something that I didn’t want to do in terms of just what I… the boundaries I was going to take in SEO.

Kelsey:                         And I always would turn those down. And I know it’s reasonable to be scared, but you also have to preserve your own integrity, because, I think, especially now, in SEO that kind of stuff could come back to haunt you. I tell a lot of potential clients now that even if we don’t decide to work together, if you ever, and this may be controversial, I don’t know, if you ever get contacted by an SEO company that promises they’ll get you on the first page of Google results in a month, or a really fast turnaround, you need to be doubtful of that, because they’re probably using tactics that eventually are going to come back and decrease your traffic, or penalize you, or something like that.

Kelsey:                         And I think if you are on the side where you’re providing the service, and you’re making… you feel like you have to make these crazy promises or somebody that you’re working for, that’s all they think about is these crazy promises, it’s not, in my opinion, going to work out in the long run.

Ben:                             Yeah, I hear you. And having worked as a consultant and working for a consultant for Searchmetrics, you can always tell the good relationships, right? They just feel right. And then you have this instinct, as a freelancer, as a consultant, to want to take on as many projects as you can to, to make sure that you can pay your rent and your bills. And that’s the whole purpose of running your business is that you get all the upside. The challenge of sort of understanding your instinct about when you’re nervous and then what truly just doesn’t feel right is something that you cultivate over time, and you have to go through the bad experiences to be able to understand who the clients that you don’t want are.

Ben:                             Eventually, you mentioned that you were struggling to sort of make ends meet as a search consultant, and since then your career has started to take off. Talk to me about what happened that led you out of the I’m trying to make a $100 a day into running a successful agency. How did you connect the dots between what you were doing then as a freelancer and what you’re doing today?

Kelsey:                         I think, the big leap, and when I decided to quit the dealership job, because I’d been doing everything else on the side, is I had just enough freelance work where I could barely pay my bills, but I needed the room to grow my business and not also be working full time. And so, all the freelancing or start your own business articles, they all say have a nest egg, save up three months of living expenses. And you know what? I’m going to disagree with that, which I know is going to sound crazy, but I think if you’re not a little desperate, it’s actually harder to make it work. So, when I quit my full time job to go in, all in, on a business for myself, I mean, by this time I was married and we had a house. We actually signed on a house, and I quit my job the next day.

Ben:                             What were you thinking?

Kelsey:                         Because, we needed my proof of employment for the mortgage, and we got that and I was like, “Okay.” And, luckily, I have a great husband that supports me. I mean, he probably thinks I’m crazy half the time, but I was… I liked the sense of desperation. I think, that actually helped me, and the hunger, because I was like I have to make this work, we have a mortgage now. I have a partner that is relying on me to pay half the bills, and I had a good base of freelance clients, and I had… I probably had a couple thousand in savings, but that’s it. Either I sink or swim. And I think the desperation… Maybe desperation isn’t the right word, but the hunger and the drive to make it work actually is helpful, because if you have a huge savings account or you think you could always not contribute to your retirement for a few months to make you think you have a big cushion.

Kelsey:                         I think that actually kind of prevents you from moving forward for a lot of people, because they have this fear to actually a 100 percent go for it. And I think when your only choice is to go for it, for me, personally, that’s what helped me kind of succeed and actually get all these clients and grow.

Ben:                             So, you found that putting pressure on yourself and making it the… Basically, failure was not an option, you needed to succeed to be able to pay your bills, pay your rent. Once you signed in on the house, it was time to go figure out a way to make it work. What did you do to start building your business and go from oh my god I have a house payment, and I just left my job, to running a successful agency that you’ve been running over the last 10 years?

Kelsey:                         Man. I mean, there’s so many little and big things that you do. I always wrote content for my own blog, and I had started a little blog that’s closed now, but I just would cover trends in marketing and SEO. And I think building up that portfolio is always really important. So even if you’re not necessarily a great writer and you’re just an SEO, you could recap news that is happening in the industry, or talk about a conference you went to, or review a book that you read. To me, I think having that content kind of helped me build my portfolio, so then when I would pitch to clients or I would see job openings, you know: “We need a consultant to work five hours a week on this project,” blah, blah, blah. I think having that portfolio of content was really beneficial, because it allowed them to see my thought process and my expertise.

Kelsey:                         Because, I think in today’s market it’s not enough to just say, “Oh, I’ve worked for these brands,” but you also kind of have to be a thought leader, you know: “Here is where I’ve been,” maybe, “Here is a webinar I did,” or, a podcast, or, “Here is some articles that I wrote.” I think that kind of stuff is helping people stand out more in this market as more and more people move towards freelancing, and consulting, and wanting to own their own business.

Ben:                             So, you focused on producing content and building a reputation for yourself to show credibility for your business. As you’ve expanded your area of focus, how has your agency developed over the year, and what are some of the SEO tactics that you’ve used that are consistent, and what are some of the ones that you’ve added to your bag of tricks?

Kelsey:                         It’s a good question. I think, as we’ve kind of evolved, having more of a set social media strategy for our clients has gotten more important and figuring out how all areas of marketing work together. I think, before a lot of times areas of digital marketing were really siloed, so, thinking, “Oh, we only do SEO.” Or, if you were in house, saying, “I only write content, nothing else.” And that’s just not of benefit to anyone anymore. I think, if you do social media, you should still know a little bit about SEO, and vice versa. And I think, if you’re a technical SEO, you should still kind of know the basics of content marketing and the best practices in social media, because I think they all work together and they’re all important to learn. And we can’t really be siloed anymore

Kelsey:                         Of course, it’s always good to specialize in things, but, I think, more and more what I’m seeing, just talking to potential clients or agencies that ask me to white label for them, they’re looking for someone who has a varied background as well.

Ben:                             So, you found that taking your experience as a content marketer and SEO strategist has been a base to run your agency. As you look back on your career, what advice do you have for people that are interested in starting their own agencies, specifically in SEO? What should people do, that are interested in going from freelance to agency owner?

Kelsey:                         I would say only hire for what you need at the time, because, I think, a lot of people get overexcited and they feel like hiring an employee is going to make them legitimate, and that’s not always the smartest business decision. So, a lot of my employees that have worked for me have actually been contractors, and we’ve used them for a set number of hours or maybe it’s been fluid and we need them a ton one month and then the next month we only need half the work. And so, I think, creating a company that is flexible and agile as possible is really important at the beginning, and then as you grow and get those stable clients, then you can start adding on full time people as you need them. But I wouldn’t say to just hire full time people that won’t necessarily have things to do, because that’s a really quick way to put your income and health of your business in jeopardy.

Ben:                             I think that’s great advice: remaining agile, keeping your expenses down. And people expenses can be the biggest way to grow your overhead, so trying to manage those and have some flexibility in terms of your bench strength is a very important tip for running a freelance or a consulting business. I appreciate you coming on to the show, and there’s really only one more thing that I have to say to you. And do you know what that is?

Kelsey:                         Oh, oh.

Ben:                             Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye.

Kelsey:                         Oh man, that is the worst.

Ben:                             That is absolutely terrible, that’s about the extent of my knowledge of NSYNC and… But, kidding aside, I really do appreciate you making the time to come talk about your experiences to the SEO community. So, thanks for being a guest on our show.

Kelsey:                         Yeah. Thank you for having me, it was fun.

Ben:                             Okay. And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thank you for listening to my conversation with Kelsey Jones, founder and senior consultant at Six Stories. If you’d like to learn more about Kelsey, you can find a link to her LinkedIn profile on our show notes. You can send her a tweet @wonderwall7. The number 7. Or, you could visit her company’s website, which is sixstories.com.

Ben:                             If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk about this podcast, you could find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a tweet @Benjshap.

Ben:                             And if you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team. And if you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed next week.

Ben:                             Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed the show, and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the Apple iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Ben:                             Okay. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember the answers are always in the data.