Jill Whalen Interviewed at SES San Jose

    August 18, 2006

This is Jill Whalen’s fifth or sixth interview of the day, a fact I am critically conscious of before sitting down to speak with her at 2pm on the second day of last week’s SES conference.

A few hours earlier, I breezed through the pressroom to check my emails and sort of eavesdropped on one of them. Watching Jill stir patiently while answering age-old questions is making me nervous. Obviously I needed to come up with some better questions.

By this time, most of the conference participants are safely tucked way into one of five sessions and the pressroom I work out of is almost deserted. That’s a good thing because at any other time the pressroom is likely to be filled with the noise of a dozen writers hacking away against their deadlines, arguing with their editors, conducting interviews with sources or simply debating the finer points of where to find lunch.

What do you ask the Grande Dame of search engine optimization? To someone like Jill, what exactly constitutes an original question, one she hasn’t heard a million times before? As one of the originals in the business, Jill has been around so long her writing techniques and ideas on website marketing have served to define SEO practices.

Over the past twelve years, Jill has established two search marketing companies, HighRankings.com and Search Creative, maintained one of the most subscribed to newsletters in the business, HighRankings Advisor, and managed to maintain one of the busiest SEO/SEM forums. She is also a staple speaker at Search Engine Strategies Conferences and runs a series High Ranking SEM Seminars. In short, Jill Whalen is a busier person than most, except for today.

On this day she only has to do a bunch of interviews, sit in on a session, meet a few friends for supper and go to the Google Dance later that evening so she can add to her collection of Googlesque Tshirts. This time she is only around for a day and a half before heading to Hawaii to hang with family for the rest of the week. As a featured speaker at several Search Engine Strategies conferences, Jill has had a first hand look at how the industry has changed over the years.

"There are more media covering these shows", she says in the face of what I think is a good wolf-in-sheepish clothing grin. "There are also not as many geeks as there were before. There are more marketing people here this year."

The San Jose show is the largest annual search related conference in the world, growing larger and more diverse every year. "One of the things I like about this conference is the number of new topics being covered, more specialized niches."

Bigger shows mean bigger crowds but bigger crowds don’t necessarily make for better experiences. "This conference has grown hugely," she said, "but I really like the smaller ones like London or Toronto where it can be more of a social."

Jill suggests the rapid growth of SES conferences is indicative of overall growth in the search marketing sector and as the sector grows, she sees a realignment happening within it. "There is a greater focus on organic search at this conference," she says, "part of the fun for me is helping teach SEO through leading by example."

She is referring to the tremendous growth of her High Ranking Advisor newsletter and the High Ranking Forums she started about four years ago. "HR Forums just passed the 10,000 member mark, boasting over 200,000 posts. As for the newsletter, I honestly don’t know how many readers receive it. There are over 24,000 subscribers and 100-200 people signing up for it each week."

The maturation of the industry brings new talents and techniques to the table but, for the most part, Jill’s approach for achieving high rankings has not been radically altered or overhauled, mainly because they work. "My methods haven’t changed all that much. It still comes down to great writing and educating the client. When clients sign up with Search Creative, they know what they are going to get."

While Jill’s methods might not have changed, she sees a shift in the way larger companies are handling their own search marketing needs. "There is a bigger focus on in-house SEO." she says in measured words. "I think that in-house SEO is smart and cost effective but the job needs to be a focused one. Often SEO is treated as an additional job for someone in the IT or marketing departments. Good search marketing requires dedicated people with a large enough budget to get the job done properly."

There are also a greater number of women in the industry than ever before, a signal to Jill that the focus of the search sector is leaning towards mainstream marketing. I note there is about a 40/60 split between females and males at this conference, a figure Jill agrees with. "There aren’t as many geeks here this year," she says again. "We are seeing a 50/50 gender split at the High Rankings seminars. To me, this is great because it shows that business is starting to see search as a legitimate form of overall marketing, not just something to be dealt with by the IT department."

The growth of women in the search sector also indicates a higher standard of education in the industry as knowledge and talent now extend beyond the IT departments. "SEO is truly maturing. The education level is higher, and there is more of long-term planning involved."

Asked what clients can expect of Search Creative, Jill says a typical account is established for a one year term. Most of her clients are medium to large scale businesses, all of which require a full site audit before her staff begins its work. "I guess our clients can expect to be educated," she says, "we do a lot of long-term planning before starting any optimization work. Along with technical issues, we focus on writing great copy and site usability. We also make our recommendations on site architecture, a process that could take up to six weeks."

Like all SEO contractors, Jill has her frustrations with clients too. "It is very frustrating to see your recommendations not be implemented but that often comes when working with very large companies." She does note that as the mainstream world becomes more informed about search marketing, her clients are increasingly paying attention to the little details that make the difference in campaigns. "Our in-house seminars are working very well to help boost our clients’ overall knowledge and provide them with realistic expectations."

Generally, Jill’s clients can expect six to eight weeks of research leading to a six to twelve month campaign. "We prefer clients sign up for a full year," she says, referring to the challenges of getting newer sites recognized by Google. "A big part of our service is communicating with and educating our clients."

Educating clients, webmasters and other search marketers is high on Jill’s priority list. It can also be the most rewarding part of her job. As the organizer of the High Ranking Search Seminars, Jill holds two mini-conferences in large US cities each year, leading a touring company comprised of some of the most well known names in the business.

"A typical HR Seminar is fun," she says before listing the names of speakers. "I cover the SEO portions, Christine Churchill takes PPC, Scottie Claiborne covers Site Usability, Debra Mastaler handles Links, Karon Thackston covers Copywriting and Matt Bailey covers Analytics."

I note that Matt Bailey is the only male on the HR Seminar roster. "Matt has been traveling with us for so long, we just think of him as one of the girls", Jill says, smiling because she knows I have no option but to run with the quote. "Matt is a great guy and I love working with."

The next High Rankings Seminar will take place on October 19 and 20 at the American Airlines Training Center, midway between Dallas and Fort Worth Texas.


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Jim Hedger is the SEO Manager of StepForth Search Engine Placement Inc. Based in Victoria, BC, Canada, StepForth is the result of the consolidation of BraveArt Website Management, Promotion Experts, and Phoenix Creative Works, and has provided professional search engine placement and management services since 1997. http://www.stepforth.com/ Tel – 250-385-1190 Toll Free – 877-385-5526 Fax – 250-385-1198