466: How to Respond to the Recent Google Updates with Ann Smarty

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This episode is sponsored by Clariti and Raptive.

Welcome to episode 466 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Ann Smarty from Smarty Marketing.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Jen Matichuk. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

How to Respond to the Recent Google Updates

Ann Smarty has been working in the SEO industry for over 20 years, and she has lots of expertise to share with us in this interview! Bjork and Ann chat about the current state of SEO, including a deep dive into the impact of the recent Google Helpful Content Updates.

They also discuss the history of backlinks with SEO and how to approach link-building as a content creator (and why it’s more about community than you might think).

Ann has a really great perspective on the importance of developing a holistic SEO strategy and why diversifying your income and traffic sources matters now, more than ever. Don’t miss this episode!

A photograph of a woman typing on a laptop with some clementines next to the laptop and a quote from Ann Smarty's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast that reads: "Organic traffic is not something you own. You gain some, you lose some."

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • About the current state of SEO (is it as bad as it feels?!).
  • Who was most impacted by the recent Helpful Content Updates.
  • Why backlinks seem to have protected sites during these Google updates.
  • More about the ‘backlink controversy’ in the SEO industry.
  • How to approach link-building as a content creator.
  • Why building a community and saying “yes” is so important in this SEO environment.
  • What you should do to strategically take advantage of traffic when you have it (to prepare for when you lose it).
  • The importance of diversifying your traffic and income sources.


Thank you to our sponsors!

This episode is sponsored by Clariti and Raptive.

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Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this episode!

Sign up for Clariti today to easily organize your blog content for maximum growth and receive access to their limited-time $45 Forever pricing, 50% off your first month, optimization ideas for your site content, and more!

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Thanks to Raptive for sponsoring this episode!

Become a Raptive creator today to start generating ad revenue on your blog and get access to industry-leading resources on HR and recruiting, SEO, email marketing, ad layout testing, and more. You can also get access to access a FREE email series to help you increase your traffic if you’re not yet at the minimum 100k pageviews to apply to Raptive.

Interested in working with us too? Learn more about our sponsorship opportunities and how to get started here.

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

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Transcript (click to expand):

Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Clariti. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could figure out how you can optimize the existing posts on your blog without needing to comb through each and every post one by one? With Clariti, you can discover optimization opportunities with just a few clicks. Thanks to Clariti’s robust filtering options, you can figure out which posts have broken links, missing alt text, broken images, no internal links, and other insights so you can confidently take action to make your blog posts even better.

We know that food blogging is a competitive industry, so anything you can do to level up your content can really give you an edge. By fixing content issues and filling content gaps, you’re making your good content even better. And that’s why we created Clariti. It’s a way for bloggers and website owners to feel confident in the quality of their content. Listeners to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast get 50% off of their first month of Clariti after signing up. To sign up, simply go to clariti.com/food. That’s Clariti, C-L-A-R-I-T-I.com/food. Thanks again to Clariti for sponsoring this episode.

Emily Walker: Hey there. This is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team and you are listening to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. This week on the podcast, Bjork is interviewing Ann Smarty from Smarty Marketing. Ann has been in the SEO world and working as an SEO professional for almost 20 years and has a ton of expertise that she brings to share with us today.

In this conversation, Ann and Bjork talk more about why SEO is about more than building traffic and how to think more holistically about your SEO strategy. They also discuss the importance of backlinks and community building and how you should strategically take advantage of traffic when your traffic is on the rise. They round out the interview by talking about how important it is to diversify your traffic and income sources, which is something we talk about a lot on the podcast, but we really do believe it so you can’t say it enough.

With all of the recent Google helpful content updates and algorithm updates, we know that this will be a really helpful episode for a lot of you and we hope you enjoy it. If you do, please share the episode with your community. It helps our podcast so much and it means a ton to us. Without further ado, I’ll let Bjork take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Ann, welcome to the podcast.

Ann Smarty: Thank you so much for having me.

Bjork Ostrom: We’re going to be talking about something that I think a lot of people are interested in, which is search engine optimization. And the world of search is, it feels like I was talking with some friends recently, we were all laughing about how one of the scariest things, when you’re a kid, was like quicksand, it felt like quicksand was like everybody would talk about how do you escape quicksand if you ever get caught in it, but it kind of feels like that’s the foundation for the world of search right now. It feels really not very stable. Is that what you’re seeing with the clients that you with? And you’ve been at this for a long time, since 2010. How would you compare this current state of things to where it’s currently been?

Ann Smarty: Well, practically, if you talk about the realistic state of things, it’s not as dramatic as we talk about. So we’ve been losing Google traffic for about 10 years now. Google has been sending less and less clicks based on their changes with search engine result pages. So it’s been an ongoing trend, so we don’t see anything like this and then this, so it’s-

Bjork Ostrom: Like a major drop-off?

Ann Smarty: No, it’s still really mild for most of the brands. I know there are different cases with independent publishers, bloggers, and helpful content update and all of that but the overall trend is not as dramatic. We still expect it to be something huge, but from what I’ve seen, it’s really mild. Everything that’s going on, it’s a more buzz than really in practice, a lot of changes.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Well, it’s interesting. I feel like it’s, and what you’re speaking to is on a macro level, there’s been this continued slow progression towards Google sending less traffic to sites. So I think of the previous founder of Moz, Rand Fishkin, he’s gone on to start a new site. I’m trying to remember what the name of that is.

Ann Smarty: SparkToro.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, SparkToro, thank you. Where he talks a lot about this idea of search and the changing landscape around search and this kind of slow progression of Google capturing more of the results on the page. And what you’re saying is if you look at it incrementally over the last decade, it’s kind of consistently been happening, Google’s just keeping more of the traffic. But, there has been some really significant drop-off for independent individual publishers. Like, on a micro scale, I think a lot of people would look at it and say like, oh, actually there is that cliff for me based on helpful content.

Ann Smarty: That’s exactly why I made that note that independent publishers, personal bloggers did see a lot of jobs. It’s just we as SEO agencies and professionals do not necessarily deal with that because our clients are a little bit more developed budget-wise. So we don’t deal with as many independent bloggers, publishers, and that. But, I know that a lot of people who come to me with help, I used to have 100 K traffic and now it’s down to 10 visits a day.

So I’ve seen that and there is no way to explain to them what has been going on. And I think that’s the opposite of what Google was trying to accomplish as well. I still think that it’s something went wrong with how they try to adjust their algorithm to not depend so much on backlink, the main authority or site authority, the official Google’s name at this point.

So they’re trying, and I still feel optimistic to Google achieving that goal of surfacing everything that’s not popular, not so much linked to, but really authentically great. I think this is what Google users need as well. For example, if I want to go to a place, I don’t want necessarily Forbes or CNN reviews of that place, I need actual people who went there and found some great things to do and give me ideas that is driven from personal experience.

And from what Google told us, that’s their goal as well. It’s just in practice, it’s still not there, and possibly they’re still trying to get there because that’s exactly what their success relies on. At this point, there are other solutions to giving quick answers. All AI, generative AI platforms can give you exactly, Hey, you go to New York City, you see, I don’t know, all the obvious sites that are there, but most travelers do not need this. They need personal experience with that place, with that destination, and that’s what real small publications give you.

And Google has been saying that their goal is to somehow find the way to highlight and surface those personal experience-driven articles. So far we’ve been seeing the opposite. Sadly, a lot of independent publishers and bloggers have been impacted in a dramatic way by helpful content update that happened in September, then next in March, and Google is promising to fix this with the next call update. So we shall see.

Bjork Ostrom: Hmm. When you say Google, where is Google talking about that? Is that their search liaison, Twitter account, or where are you seeing them talk about that? Because I would assume some people would feel pretty hopeful about that, that have been impacted.

Ann Smarty: But there are a few public-facing representatives from Google that we are talking to and we are sharing our feedback to. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it gets no response at all. Yes, there is an official Twitter account… on X, sorry, not Twitter, X, that represents Google public speaking license. That gives us some updates on what’s coming. And back I think in February or even January, that account told us await the new Google update and see what happens. Nothing happened that could be positive.

So we’re still listening to that feedback, listening to those updates with a lot of grain of salt because it’s not the way it’s predicted to happen in many ways, but there is no other way for us to know what’s going to happen unless the public representatives from Google tell us, this is something you should expect and analyze. And unless that happens, we don’t really know what’s going to happen to Google’s algorithm.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Ann Smarty: But, the recent update from that official Google account on X, was that the core update usually they happen every quarter, so probably June, July something we can expect something to happen. That should fix a lot of helpful content damages that happened in September and March.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Fingers crossed, potentially or not. That’s the hard thing is you don’t know.

Ann Smarty: Yeah. It’s still very optimistic. In September, a lot of great publishers and bloggers were hit that did not deserve this, and there are so many Twitter accounts and discussions sharing those unfortunate stories. Some of them were even Google success stories. The Google has that success stories public blog that shares publishers that did exceptionally well on some topics and they highlighted. Even those people were hit by that update in September.

So we were expecting March update to fix a lot of what happened in September, but it didn’t happen. On the opposite, most of those blogs that were hit in September saw even more declines in March. So we’re still optimistic because that’s the only thing that we can do for those people who really share personal experiences and travel tips and cooking tips or whatnot. But so far it hasn’t been really good for them and I really feel sad about that.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so your point, just to kind of recap here, let me know if this feels accurate. So you have your agency, Smarty Marketing, and you’ve been doing that for decade-plus now. What you’re saying is a lot of the companies that you work with are maybe it’s like a company of a hundred people and they have e-commerce maybe or all of these different components versus in our world, a lot of times it’s a small team, it’s an independent publisher, it’s one person, it’s a team of five.

Ann Smarty: Yeah, that’s all true. I actually have been in SEO for about 20 years, but I’m the founder of an SEO agency for about six months now, so it’s still a new territory for me. I’ve been the founder of projects, but never an agency. But to your point, that’s the most unfair thing. All the previous updates from Google hit most commercial queries and sites that were really, really expensive. Like, huge budgets. They could afford to change things and they could afford to get out of that or even start new sites or even there some… of course, there was some layovers. So Google Analytics has always been a problem.

But it’s always been about high commercial queries. So it’s loans, something that makes a lot of money and companies could afford to recover. This helpful content update, which will never happen again, it’s now part of the core algorithm for some reason that happened in September and March, hit the most insecure, the most vulnerable part of the internet, personal bloggers, small publications that somehow, yes, they started depending on Google traffic because they were getting a lot of it, but they did not deserve this for sure.

And in the history, and like I said, I’ve been in the SEO industry for two decades, this one is the most unfair update that ever happened because it impacted the most vulnerable part of the internet community. And that’s why we do not have clients that were impacted by it because clients who can afford SEO services are like medium to large-sized companies.

Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm. In those cases, what are those companies doing? I think that would be the key that a lot of people would be interested in. It’s like, oh, if they can afford it, there’s got to be action that’s being taken. From what I’ve heard, there’s a lot of people who have gone through this and it’s like there is no way that you can identifiably recover from it. So what are those companies that are kind of mid-sized that do have the budget doing to recover?

Ann Smarty: That’s a great question and after months and months of looking at impacted sites, I have the answer. We have clients who have one major site and a lot of smaller sites that we’re using to touch different angles or informational intent and all of that. One huge trend that we’ve been seeing, and I know that’s not a popular opinion because Google is saying that links are not top three ranking factor right now, but one huge trend that we’ve been seeing is that sites with a lot of backlinks with a huge and ongoing and always fresh backlink profile, they have not been impacted by helpful content.

What I see in this is that imagine Google’s algorithm, all those always moving parts of it with different scores, with different aspects of it. Sometimes it’s usability, sometimes it’s content, sometimes it’s relevance, sometimes it’s, I don’t know, EEAT, which is not exactly the signal, but that’s how we call it. Sometimes backlinks. They are all trying to overbalance one another and backlinks seem to have a huge role in overbalancing, other factors.

So if your content is not even considered helpful, if you have a huge backlink profile with a lot of fresh authoritative backlinks going to it, that will overbalance other factors. And guess who has most backlinks? People who can afford this, brands who can afford this. So that’s why bigger brands were not as much impacted by helpful content update because their backlink profile, just overweight everything else that… or any other negative signals that could have been implied to them.

Bjork Ostrom: So lots of theories out there around how do things play out, what is the impact. What is causing a drop? What’s preserving a site that doesn’t drop? People talk about the importance of brand and brand being an important one. In your case, what you’re saying is, you have a theory around one of the things that preserved some of these sites being backlinks.

So maybe as an example, there was a site that was really good at creating quality content. That content ranked well, but maybe it didn’t have a strong backlink profile. Your theory as it relates to helpful content update is that backlinks is a variable that played into that and you see that as kind of a waiting mechanism and the more you have quality backlinks, the better your traffic was preserved. Is that kind of your theory?

Ann Smarty: It is a little bit the oversimplification of my theory. I think backlinks contribute to more ranking signals than just direct backlink profile. If you have a lot of backlinks, that could imply that you have a great site authority. If you have a lot of mentions that are linked to your site, that means that you have a brand power. So it could be more complicated than that, but definitely, I saw a very clear correlation between backlink profile and impact from helpful content update.

And that was even the screenshot going around the SEO community when for something like mattress reviews or something like that, all the top 10 ranking brands, ranking sites after the helpful content updates were Forbes, CNN, CNET, all of those very well known brands all dominating the top 10 of Google search results, which is the opposite what Google wanted to achieve with helpful content.

The helpful content update is named because Google wanted to surface helpful content, not content from big brands. But I think what went wrong is that these whatever signals come from backlinks, like I said, it could be direct signal. If there’s a vote that’s a vote, but I think it’s more complicated than that, there are more signals that are based on backlink profiles. Whatever happens wrong with that, somehow with the helpful content, that’s huge accumulation of signals based on links, overweight, everything else, and that’s why we only have those huge sites ranking for just about any query these days.

Bjork Ostrom: Hmm. And like you said, obviously lots of literally thousands of variables going into the algorithm and this debate in the SEO world, how much do backlinks matter? And what you’re saying is one of the correlations that you see in some of the data you look at… they talk about correlation, causation. One of the correlations is like, hey, maybe there’s a strong backlink profile or certain results. In the case that you shared the mattress results, mattress reviews, suddenly you’re seeing like CNN review site ranking well, whereas there might’ve been five years ago, five months ago or a year ago, somebody who’s a mattress expert, like an individual who knows mattresses really well and has spent the last 10 years building up a site about mattresses, suddenly it goes away and then some CNN reviews article is ranking.

So it’s interesting to see that shift and some of the theories around it. Can you talk more about backlinks? What is the controversy there if there is one in the world of SEO? And I heard you kind of allude a little bit to this idea that like Google’s saying, Hey, actually maybe these aren’t as important as they used to be, but then you’re kind of saying, actually they are pretty important when you look at some of the data. What’s the controversy in the world of SEO around backlinks?

Ann Smarty: There is not one controversy when it comes to backlinks. There are dozens of them.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, okay.

Ann Smarty: The whole history of Google using backlinks in their algorithm has been filled with controversy. And when I started, and it was many years ago, Google’s guidelines actually said, get other website linked to you. This has been the only part of the guidelines about backlinks. So we could actually do whatever we could, whatever it took to get those backlinks. So of course where there is an opportunity, there is a manipulation. So people started doing all kinds of backlinks, backlink strategies, including paying full links, donating full links, spamming comments full links, spamming forums, full links, dozens and dozens of questionable backlink acquisition strategies that Google one by one started penalizing. So at some point, Google told us, no, don’t get backlinks from other sites. Other sites need to want to link back to you. That’s the only-

Bjork Ostrom: It has to be organic, like-

Ann Smarty: Yeah, so they need to-

Bjork Ostrom: And as much as you try and manipulate it, Google’s going to try and stay a step ahead and say like, okay, yeah.

Ann Smarty: Exactly. So your site needs to be so great and so outstanding that other people would want to link back to you, and that’s the only way to get backlinks. Well, the problem here is that with that history of getting backlinks, any experienced website owner, if he or she has been around for five years, at least, know the value of the backlinks. At this point, a lot of people are just afraid of linking to anyone because they know that could be considered paid or manipulation, or penalization. It’s been quite a ride. So it’s both sides.

And I’m not even saying that Google is in the habit of retrospectively penalizing sites for things that were good and allowed five years ago, but now Google decides, no, you’re not doing this. So it’s a very complicated question in terms of controversy. There are too many controversies in building links. So what happened now, and from my point of view, and again that’s my personal perspective, Google keeps telling us that links are no longer important, not as important than they were, let’s say 10 years ago.

I agree with that. Not in terms of just backlinks, it’s just Google has been adding more factors. So 15 years ago, that was pretty much keywords on the page and backlinks to it. That’s it. Two signals. You could see the real correlation between changing your title tag, changing your copy, and then getting backlinks to the page and it boom, it starts ranking. Right now, it’s much more complicated in terms of how many signals Google is using to evaluate the page, to understand what it is about if it’s solving the problem if it matches search intent. So it’s much more complicated.

But, saying that backlinks are not the top-ranking factor at this point, I think that’s semantics, just like they were telling us there was no domain authority, but now we know there is site authority, so it’s the same thing just named differently. So I think that backlinks are core for the algorithm in many ways, not just one. It’s not just direct signal. Like I said, there are other signals that are fueled from that data as well. And I also think that Google telling us backlinks are not important is just the PR move from Google to discourage us from being-

Bjork Ostrom: From trying to artificially inflate rankings using backlinks.

Ann Smarty: Exactly. And I get it. Well, sure, I have been in this industry for many years. I know how many companies are making money from small businesses who don’t know better and they invest money in low-quality backlinks just because they know they’re important for rankings. So it’s not like I blame Google for lying to our faces. I do think that it’s semantics. They’re trying to just discourage businesses from wasting money on backlinks that do not necessarily make any impact. So it’s not like I’m putting any blame on anyone.

Google does have reasons to tell us that, but we do need to perceive it with some grain of salt and also because we are in the front end of helping businesses to rank, we know that still once you start a good link-building campaign, that’s when you see rankings going up. There is no other way to explain that. And it’s been the best for every client that we are dealing with. Unless you start building links actively, you do not see any moves in rankings. Whatever you do with the site, you can optimize it, you can make it faster, you can make it more user-friendly. Whatever you do, you move the needle only when you start building links to that site and it’s still the reality that we deal with.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. So we have our Food Blogger Pro, we do the podcast, we do the content of Food Blogger Pro. It’s a membership site. We don’t really think too much about SEO a little bit. But we have our food site, we have Pinch of Yum, which is a food and recipe site that we do. We’ve never done active link-building on it. It’s never something that we’ve done intentionally, but we’ve created content for a long time, almost 15 years. We get plenty of traffic to Pinch of Yum without ever having done active link-building, but there are a lot of links that we have just from creating content over a long period of time.

My guess is there’s a class of creators who are like that similarly who have never done active link-building. So is part of it in the world that we are in right now, you kind of have to think strategically about doing active link-building or is there a world where you can create compelling good content and not go out and try and get links? You just try and create good content and know that people will link to you.

Ann Smarty: I love this question. You know what? Community building is one of the link-building strategies.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, that’s awesome. I love that. Yip.

Ann Smarty: That’s how I’ve been building links since day one in the SEO community, in industry, but that’s also the link-building strategy. That’s how you get backlinks, just getting out there, building your own community, being part of someone else’s community, or doing both. That’s how you get backlinks. So it’s not like you’re sitting in your small cell and creating your food blog. You just said, you had the community, so you talk people about what you do, you share your content, you do all of that, and that’s one of the best link-building strategies out there and that’s what I’ve been doing all the time. So it’s not like you haven’t been doing link-building, you just haven’t been-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great.

Ann Smarty: Asking. You haven’t been asking for backlinks, but it’s fine. It’s also one of the SEO of the link-building strategies and the best one in the world is being part of the community. It’s just not many businesses can afford the time to do this, so they have to look for options. But this is absolutely the best way to build links, just being the part of the community of that niche that you are in.

Bjork Ostrom: I love that. One of the things that I think is great about that, similar to starting a business and you think like, oh, I want to make money, and if you’re just like, I want to make money, I want to make money, it’s kind of the equivalent of I want to get links. But, the best way to have a successful business isn’t to think just about making money. It’s like how do you create a really compelling product or service or helpful thing, and from that then you can be strategic about charging for it or having a fee associated with it.

Similarly, in the world of content, I think of as an example, a super basic example, when we were really early on, I sent an email to the local paper that Lindsay and I grew up in a small town and we’re like, Hey, we’re both from this small town in Minnesota and we have a site that we’re working on together, would you write an article on it? And they’re like, yeah, we’d love to. They sent a reporter out and did an interview.

But to your point, that’s a link, you’re building links. But it’s less of the tactics around it and more around the analysis of how do people naturally share things in the world and it’s community, it’s compelling product. It’s an interesting thing. Before we continue, let’s take a moment to hear from our sponsors.

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What does that look like in practice to actually be out there and to have the symptom of your actions being people linking to your site, but what does the actual action look like? How do you start doing that and be intentional with it?

Ann Smarty: I will tell the story how I started in the SEO world. I never asked for a link to my site ever in my whole career. What I did, I was like, I will start the blog that will promote my services and will tell the story of how I’m doing SEO or learning. At that point, I was still learning SEO. And so I started the site and then I was like, you know what? I’m lonely here, so I’ll go discover other communities that people have blogs or even solve SEO problems. Maybe I will be able to help them. Maybe I will ask the question so they could help me.

And I tried different communities. It’s also a learning curve. I was banned at some SEO forums because I don’t remember many details, but I remember that feeling when I was like, you are banned because you said things, so maybe you added a link somewhere that you couldn’t do this. So it’s a learning curve. Sometimes you will have success in some micro-communities, sometimes you will be rejected in some of them.

But, the huge thing here is just don’t stop. There is a great term, I think it’s serendipity when you create your own mark by just being open to all kinds of opportunities. So when I started my SEO blog, I didn’t know that I will become an SEO name or SEO brand. I was trying to learn stuff and maybe make some money. Yes, that was one of the reasons. But my big motivation was to learn things and to meet other people. And at some point, I found my home. That was Moz Community that we have articles, UMoz, I was writing for it, that’s it. After that, it was all smooth.

I found people who gave me work, who created opportunities for me to meet other people. I became editor-in-chief for Search Engine Journal after being months in SEO just because I was active. And then I became director of SEO at another agency. All of that happened when I was overseas across the globe back in Ukraine. I came to the United States seven years ago. But all of that things happen without me even meeting those people. But all those opportunities were found just being part of the community.

And yes, that’s how they were all linking to me because I was talking to them. They knew my site, they checked it, they subscribed to it. I describe it as if it’s easy to become part of the community, it is not. It does take a lot of trial and errors. Sometimes you get disappointed, annoyed by other people. I had a lot of bad incidents arguing with people, and then it backfired on my personal brand as well. So this happens just in real world, when you get to know more people, you get to know more bad people.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, yeah. I think anybody who has any significant following can relate to that. It’s like-

Ann Smarty: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: 1 in a 100, 1 in a 1000, whatever the number is, we’re all going to bump into people who maybe aren’t the friendliest people.

Ann Smarty: Yes, that is the way I built not just backlinks, but all the opportunities in my career and that went all from there, from just being part of that community. Or creating my own. At some point, my biggest win was to create my own community for bloggers to meet and exchange guest articles. It was back in 2012, I think. But, creating your own community and being able to be the leader there that people look up to, is the biggest win for me.

But, it didn’t happen right away, so I took four more years to just being part of the community before I created my own. But community building or being part of the community is the best way to do any business, especially with small businesses who cannot invest active budgets in getting backlinks. This is still the biggest opportunity because it is not just for SEO, it is not just for ranking. And I’ve been always saying that. That has always been my piece of advice for anyone, build links like you’re not building them.

Forget about Google or whether it’s no following or where it’s coming from or whatnot, just pursue any opportunity that you can find time for. Like, right now because I have my own agency, I’ve never done this before. I’ve always been doing other things in SEO, but now I’m like, I don’t care how many subscribers a YouTube channel has. They invite me to a podcast and I go there if I can afford time, of course, because it’s a busy life, but I try to pursue any opportunity because you never know.

Some people, you can just have one podcast and never see those people again. Some people will be your advocates. They will send you clients, friends, they will advertise you. They would talk about you on social media. So you never know. You just take any opportunity that comes your way and that is the biggest, the most effective way to build both your career, your success, and backlinks as well.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s great. And I think that comes back to that idea of the links become a symptom of the behavior as opposed to the behavior itself. One of the things that I think is so great, and I think it’s worth talking about a little bit is this idea that you talked about of community and intentionally engaging within the communities for which you want to be connected with, or maybe that your potential clients would be a part of.

I think one of the interesting things as people maybe try and translate that advice to what they’re doing, a lot of which people who are listening to this are food creators is one of the roadblocks potentially is a lot of people who listen to this podcast are trying to think just about traffic. All they want is traffic that then correlates to sponsor content or advertising deals. And one of the things we’ve been trying to or advertising with display ads for Raptive or Mediavine, one of the things we’ve been trying to encourage people to think about is what is the unique thing that you are offering in the world and how do you create a service around that or a product around that.

And that changes the value of a page view, of a visitor, of a user. If you can have something that is compelling, that is helpful, that is unique, and it also gives you the opportunity to embed within some of these communities like you initially did or then to create a community like you also talked about. I think of in a parallel world, there’s a podcast that I listen to which is for some people it’s probably like watching paint dry. It’s called Tax Smart Real Estate Investors, and it’s all-around tax strategies for real estate. But the founder of that company’s name is Brandon Hall.

He talked about getting into the bigger pockets community, which is a real estate community. And then from there, he launched his career by helping people in the forums. And it sounds a lot like you are his and I looked up on Moz in the forums 10 years ago. For you being a part of the Moz community, you get clients from that, you get people who want to work with you. Eventually, you launch your own community, you can then from that if you want to build an agency.

And so for anybody listening, if you’re interested in building a community or building a business, I would encourage you to think strategically about what is the service, what is the product, what is the thing that you can offer. Not that just advertising or working with brands and sponsored content capacity as a bad thing, but I think you’ll be able to fast-track the success of what you’re doing by following what you’re talking about Ann, which is kind of this playbook for embedding within a community and then having something that you’re an expert on that you can help them with.

And it could still be within the food world. Maybe you are a dietitian or nutritionist or you have an expertise on meal planning or whatever it might be. But to think strategically about that. Does that resonate when you kind of think back to your story and kind of the arc of what it looked like as you built your agency?

Ann Smarty: Absolutely. And one thing with, because I’m like in SEO background, I think, and I keep saying this, part of the SEO strategy is not just making immediate sales or immediate income from organic traffic, it’s figuring out what you do when you lose it. And we try to manage those expectations with clients, with just people we come across with because organic traffic is not something you own. You gain some, you lose some, you gain some. It’s been like this since day one.

So when you gain some, you don’t just make yourself happy with quick ads, you figure out how to utilize it to create something long-term. And that’s when we suggest develop a newsletter, develop a private membership site, start selling something, create a product, create something that you can survive with when you lose that traffic because this will happen and it happens for everyone.

I lost a lot of sites to manual penalties, updates, just changes in the algorithm. And you cannot just rely on Google traffic and be happy with the income that comes from it. You have to develop something long-term. And that’s something we always tell clients or in any conferences or meetups or we have monthly roundtables to meet with people who have SEO problems and things like that. And I always say that that’s the lifetime of organic traffic. I don’t know any site that has had Google organic traffic consistently for 20 years

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Ann Smarty: Or just even this never happens, never happens. You either lose one or you gain some. It’s always a struggle.

Bjork Ostrom: Up or down, yip.

Ann Smarty: So thinking strategically about how you utilize it while you have it so that… I went to a food blogger conference in Chicago this year and I’ve met a lot of food bloggers who were impacted by helpful content update, and many of them were saying, thanks God, I developed an active Facebook group. Now I have that traffic. Or somehow I manage to develop my Pinterest account, so now I can rely on that traffic. Or thanks God, I have an active newsletter right now and I can survive from that traffic while Google is nowhere.

So this is the goal. You have to think about what happens when you lose it because it’s never permanent, it has never been permanent. And this is the point, almost every SEO audit that I’m making is always like, okay, this is where you are growing, let’s think about what happens if you lose it. What you are trying to develop this time at this point while it’s growing because I don’t know our link-building campaigns or our PR campaigns or whatever, but let’s think about now while we are here, what we are going to do when it goes down because this will happen depending on many circumstances.

Google updates, Google search changes, AI overviews, whatever happens, it’s always going to go down at some point and then you work to go back up. Maybe you develop new content, maybe you find new angles, maybe you restructure your site, whatever it takes to go back up, it takes time. And you need to survive this in between going down and up, you have to have a plan of how you’re going to survive.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And your point being if you do have that traffic, that traffic is attention, and make sure that you then direct that attention to other places like an email signup or social account so that you capture some of that when you have it. And then you can communicate to those people in a different way. I think of a great example, I have a friend who has a finance site or somebody that I know, and the traffic, I don’t know what it is, but I would guess it’s pretty similar to what Pinch of Yum, our food site, would be. But as a site, as a company, it probably makes 20 times as much as we do because he’s been really strategic about building an email following, capturing that attention, putting it into email, and they make most of their money through their email newsletter. And it’s like tens of millions of dollars that they’re making.

And that is a really, really incredible thing because 10 years ago they would’ve just been monetizing the ads, that’s what it was. But, he did what you are talking about, which is capturing those people that were coming to a site and was really strategic with saying, I know that this email is one of the most controllable things that I can have, so I’m going to use that as the main thing as opposed to it just being traffic. So I think it’s really wise advice. Do you have any insights on how to do that well? How do you get people to even sign up for an email list other than a form on your page or a pop-up that encourages people to sign up?

Ann Smarty: I’ll be very honest, I haven’t been very successful with email signups. What I did well was building a community and I built quite a few of those throughout my career. So I would create a private space for people to sign up and get some free help, free advice, and just before you know it, they’re helping each other. And anytime your name is brought up elsewhere, somehow they are there to protect and advocate for you. So that is something I’m much better at than emailing marketing.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Ann Smarty: I feel like email marketing is much less time-consuming, so I would love to learn that trick. Maybe it’s just this is what I’m good at, connecting people, networking with people and getting them, being private communities. So that is just my way. There are other great ways to create long-term assets and traffic driving. I know a person who lost all organic traffic to their travel blog, but they managed to create Google Ads and have a huge profit margin between paying for Google Ads and making money from affiliates program. And they somehow managed to do this.

So, this is something where I try to manage my client’s expectations a lot of the time. No one wants to hear that, but organic traffic is not what we own. It’s not what we can really control. We can do our best, but even if we manage to increase it, there is still a huge chance you will lose it. So figuring out what you do if you lose it, in my opinion, the best way is to create something you own like an email list or the community.

Bjork Ostrom: Community, yip.

Ann Smarty: Community, to me, has been more successful because in close touch and we have brand ambassadors, there are always a bunch of people. 5% of that community really comes every day to your site. For some reason, I could never figure this out how they are motivated to come to you. Maybe there is some term or concept to describe this, but for me, that’s why I like creating communities because it’s not just you. There are people who are willing to be there with you every day for some reason, they find you helpful, awesome, encouraging, funny, whatnot enough to come to you every day and support you. And that’s why I like community so much.

It could be a micro-community, you don’t have 100,000 people. It could be a thousand people, but if they are encouraged to be there and if they find value in being there, that can be priceless in terms when you have trouble, you can say, promote this, help me with this. And they will be all over the place and helping you get over anything.

Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm. That’s great.

Ann Smarty: Yeah. One other thing that I’ve been successful with is also building my personal brand. And it’s not for everyone, it’s not for every business owner, but that also helped me to survive many downs in my project so I could switch from project to project pretty smoothly because people knew me. So that’s another thing to consider.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. And you hear a lot of people talking about the importance of brand and personal brand in 2024 as a consideration, When you think of business building, think of brand building and those in some ways being synonymous. It’s a great tie-in, I think of Memberful, which is a sponsor of the podcast as a platform that allows you to build communities, one that we want to call out. But how have you built yours? Do you use a certain platform for it? I see that there’s, on your site, you can say Join a Roundtable. Is that the community portion of what you’re talking about or what does that actually look like for you?

Ann Smarty: Oh no, my community is more standalone. I had my bloggers at some point, and I have viral content, which is still my community. They’re all custom-built. I have the developers. It’s not just a forum or coaching community, it’s little functionality. So people were able to do something inside my blog. They could exchange guest posts with valuable content , they could share each other’s articles. So it’s connecting aspect of that community that they could always come in, get someone’s content on Twitter, X, Facebook, Pinterest, and then they could also add their own URL to have other people share that URL.

So it’s always something, not just talking or helping each other, my communities, but also action-driven with, you don’t have to have a huge following to get your content shared somewhere, this is your community to ask for some exposure on social media. So they were custom-built. I still plan, and that’s my plan for SEO to create some private community of independent SEO experts, so they’re not huge names to help them build their names, find gigs, maybe build their sites. So I’m planning to create that, something that is mostly motivational, inspirational, but not as action-driven as my previous communities. So I will look at that solution. What was it, Memberful?

Bjork Ostrom: Hmm. Yeah, Memberful. They’re a sponsor of the podcast.

Ann Smarty: I will look into that. I’m curious about all kinds. I hope I had more hours a day to check more things.

Bjork Ostrom: Look into those, yeah. I’ve also heard people mention, it’s almost like an education platform called SKOOL, S-K-O-O-L.

Ann Smarty: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I saw that, too.

Bjork Ostrom: There’s like you, we’ve custom-built our solution. I know people do groups, which is a little bit more of Facebook groups. Obviously, it’s more closed off than maybe some platforms if you’d want it to be a little bit more open. But the point is, and I think this is a really good takeaway from the conversation, to think more holistically around SEO and for SEO not to be this transactional thing where you put a token in the SEO machine and you get traffic out. But to think of it holistically as how are you building a community? How are you creating good content? How are you intentionally putting yourself out as an expert?

Getting interviewed, you talked about your willingness to go on podcasts and YouTube channels and the intentional effort around that, and a lot of it is slow work. Community building is slow work, but it’s impactful. And I think that’s a great takeaway or thesis almost for this world of SEO, which is kind of this holistic way of approaching it, which I think is really great.

My guess is, Ann, that people would be interested in following along with what you’re up to, maybe reading some of the content you’re producing. Where can people follow you on social media? Where can they get in touch with you, learn more about what you’re up to?

Ann Smarty: Yes, thank you. I’m Ann Smarty on LinkedIn and I’m very active there with weekly live videos, weekly newsletter. If you are not a LinkedIn person, I’m also on X as seosmarty, and on Twitter as Ann Smarty. And my site, my new agency is smarty.marketing. So check those out. Thank you so much.

Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Thanks so much for coming on Ann. Really appreciate it.

Emily Walker: Hey there, this is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team, and thank you so much for listening to that episode. We really appreciate it. If you liked this episode or enjoy the show, we would really appreciate you leaving a review or rating wherever you listen to your podcast episodes. Ratings and reviews help get the show in front of new listeners and help us grow our little show into something even bigger. We read each and every review and it makes us so happy to hear when you’re enjoying the podcast or what you would like us to improve or change in upcoming episodes.

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