An Interview With SEO Specialist Dorit Sasson: How to Reach Wider Audiences
A talented writer and skilled SEO specialist, Dorit Sasson spends much of the day thinking about the words we use. Whether it’s another article for HuffPost or her next memoir (Dorit is the author of Accidental Soldier and has a new memoir, Sand and Steel, due for release in April 2021), her writing is consistently impactful. Her careful attention to language serves her well in her perch as an SEO specialist, a position she uses to help fellow authors and business leaders reach a wider audience.
I recently caught up with Dorit to pick her brain on SEO best practices for small and medium businesses.
Interview With SEO Specialist Dorit Sasson
Patrick Schober: How would you describe what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Dorit Sasson: I work as an SEO specialist and branding consultant at one company, where I work with authors, and then I also work on SEO with non-author clients.
Both groups are focused on optimization, but one is very focused on getting their book out there to reach the right audience, build an author platform around it, and sell their book. SEO is a very niche focus area that many authors don't even know about until we walk them through it. It's a unique approach to building your author platform. That’s one of the hats I wear.
The other type of SEO hat that I wear is really the optimization hat. And that falls into the category of companies, small businesses, and entrepreneurs who really have the same common pain point: Can I increase my optimization? Can I increase traffic? Can I increase visibility? Can I get more conversions?
Patrick Schober: It’s interesting that you mentioned small businesses in there. For a long time, SEO was an afterthought. It was a service for large companies that had extra money to spend. The industry has shifted to the point where SEO is important for everyone. If I’m a small or medium business with a limited marketing budget, why should I worry about SEO?
Dorit Sasson: Because of the pandemic, SEO is more competitive than ever. Everything has been transferred online. There is no brick and mortar anymore. Service-based businesses have had to pivot and create (or build) their online presence.
Money is a sticking point, and it always will be. “Woe is me! I can’t afford it!” I think one thing to keep in mind for small businesses that are contemplating whether or not SEO is worth their time is that there are tools. They’re not always free, but you can sign up for a free trial with Semrush or try Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest. There’s Google’s Search Console, which isn’t super friendly, but there are ways to conduct research within the console.
What I’ve found business owners need help understanding is that SEO is just one piece of the digital marketing puzzle. When they typically hear “SEO,” they get intimidated and walk the other way, or they think that it’s too time-consuming or too intimidating, and they don’t want to be bothered.
I recommend a different approach. I say, “Don’t go cold turkey in the keyword research.” Try to run down keyphrases and keywords, then create a content marketing strategy. I just want them to become more adept at connecting with their target audience. That’s really what it’s all about. SEO is not just about bringing out the right keyphrases. It's about targeted connection, not just targeted marketing. You want those connections to come alive.
So, I recommend they up their social media and see what they can get people to pay attention to, versus what they’re trying to capture. What resonates with your audience? What are they liking? Are they commenting on it?
To hit it on the head, business owners just need to slow down a little bit and see what people are actually excited about because that will help them profile a target audience.
Patrick Schober: To clarify, you’re talking about using social media as a tool to test what resonates with your audience, then using that to inform content decisions on your website.
Dorit Sasson: Right. That’s what social media is—it’s another piece of your marketing puzzle. It’s not just for saying, “Buy my service!” or “We’re open!” or “Here are some new deals.” For example, many successful business owners are spending a lot of time on Instagram, if they’re visual, to demonstrate their product. They’re tapping into special days, like Valentine’s Day. They’re killing it, in their own small business way. I think sometimes that's even smarter than pursuing SEO. If that's creating your return on investment, and you're getting clients and you're getting revenue, then sometimes you want to celebrate those successes and really ride that wave.
But then you want to say, “Okay, well, I want to see where all my other traffic is coming from. Is there another way I can kind of accelerate or tap into other content streams?” It’s really about deciding how important SEO is for your business.
Patrick Schober: Social media has proven useful for businesses during the pandemic, especially for businesses like restaurants or others that have defined geographic service areas. Let’s say I serve a defined geographical region—I might install garage doors or deliver flowers. Besides the Google My Business profile, which can be incredibly helpful, what can I do that may be beneficial from an SEO perspective but won’t be overwhelming right out of the gate?
Dorit Sasson: I'm working on this with several local clients. My approach has always been to start with long-tail keyphrases.
Say we’re looking at a website. Typically, I will push or optimize the company name. Usually, they’ll have some SEO brand juice, and I’ll push the professional’s name with the company name—something that creates a little more brand juice. Or I’ll push it with “Pittsburgh” and whatever their business is about—maybe “Thai massage.”
That's one way to go about it and why, because they’re long-tail keyphrases, they're transactional. Each part of the phrase has its own SEO juice. Push them together, they become very specific to that location, to that brand, to that person. Alone, each of those words might be too competitive. A phrase like “business coaching” might return thousands and thousands of hits, but “business coaching in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County” may return significantly fewer. When you get a transactional keyphrase that is very specific, you’re more likely to get a conversion.
Patrick Schober: And how would you define “transactional” in this context?
Dorit Sasson: If we look at the buyer’s cycle, we have the consumer at the very beginning, who’s in that awareness stage. They are researching a certain product or service that brought them to the website.
They’re getting to know the professional or the company, and they’re looking at the content. That content is building trust, establishing credibility. Then, after some time, they might become a buyer. And that's where those “transactional” keyphrases could be really important. For example, “business coaching services in Pittsburgh” might be extremely transactional because the searcher is likely ready to buy now.
In fact, that’s how I optimize many websites, because I’m always looking for long-tail keyphrases that lend themselves to transactional behavior. And then you want to include a call to action, like a “call now” or an opportunity to download something to get them more involved.
Patrick Schober: To illustrate this in the real world, one example would be the difference between “running shoes” and “men’s running shoe size nine.”
Dorit Sasson: Right, “running shoes” is highly competitive. That’s what so many people have misconceptions about. They think, “Well, it has so much search volume, I’m going to get so much traffic from it!” Then I have to explain it to them, and then this light bulb goes off in their brains. They think that high search numbers means there’s room for them at the table for the keyphrase.
Patrick Schober: One of the challenges of committing to an SEO strategy is really deciding who to listen to. HubSpot has that stat out there that says if you blog 16 times a month, you’ll generate 400% more traffic than your competitors who are blogging maybe a handful of times a month. Hearing a stat like that is simultaneously inspiring and overwhelming because on the surface it seems like a strategy for success, but it’s also a lot of work. If I’m a business owner, how do I use that information to make a decision for my overall marketing strategy? I know I want to tackle SEO, and I know blogging and creating content can be part of that, so how do I come up with a reasonable content cadence that will benefit me over time, improve my rankings, and bring in more qualified traffic?
Dorit Sasson: It comes back to two questions:
Who am I trying to market to?
Why should they choose me?
Before jumping into the weeds and trying to figure out which content strategy to stick to and which keywords to use, it’s really important to define your Google user and define who you are marketing to and why you’re marketing to them. This is really important because it helps you understand your market, your audience, and your business. Those are incredibly important things right now because people are under pressure. They’re working in desperation, and they’re not thinking logically.
There was a wonderful story about HP (Hewlett-Packard) that I wrote about last year. When the Great Depression hit, all of these jobs vanished. People were walking out, but HP saw an opportunity. They decided to think logically, and that’s how they became so big. There's something to be said for taking the time to do the research and think through your audience.
That’s what I do when I work with a client. I say, “Tell me about your audience. Who are you trying to reach?” I don’t start anything until that is clear. I need to be able to profile the client to actually see them and visualize them with their pain points. What keeps them up? What is constantly nagging at them?
We can take these pain points and translate them into really good keyphrases. Sometimes those good ones don't have to be the 3,000-searches-a-month-type keyphrases. Sometimes they can be 30 a month. We need to be able to find the keyphrases that really stick and really resonate. And that takes time.
So, to answer your question, you first want to decide on your target audience. Get to know them. You can get to know them by hanging out on social media and seeing what they're talking about. That's an obvious one. Interview them. That’s another. Ideally, you'd want to have a face-to-face conversation online or Zoom and get to know them. Because that's really what it's all about. It's really about connection.
When you are clear about the target audience, then you can make decisions around a strategy. And I think it’s more important to have a grip on the target audience than it is to figure out the strategy because the strategy will happen no matter what. But what people don't want to take the time to do is to build the human connection around how they're doing it.
Patrick Schober: Compared to ads, SEO is a long play. If you want results now, you run ads. If you want results in six months that cost less, you go with SEO. How long do I need to wait before I can see any measurable results?
Dorit Sasson: It depends—on a lot of things. Is this a new site? Does it have any site authority? Generally, the rule of thumb is that if a site doesn’t have any decisive authority, it will take a few months for it to build up. If we’re talking about competing for new or less competitive keyphrases, then it’s a case-by-case basis. If you’re competing for “money” phrases—highly competitive phrases with big value—then we might need to trial and error a few different strategies. It could take three months or it could take much less time. How much time? It really depends on Google and its algorithms, and sometimes even Google doesn’t know that.
Patrick Schober: You’ve brought up an important point here. Let’s say Forbes runs a story and I run the same story on my site while using the same exact target keywords and content. The Forbes story is going to rank higher simply because of its domain authority.
Dorit Sasson: That’s true, Forbes does have huge site authority. But many of the sites that don’t rank well are very unoptimized. Their keyphrases are extremely general. I’ll run the site through Semrush’s Domain Analytics and I’ll get all of these words that are very difficult to compete for. A website like Forbes has a team to do the work and they probably get paid to conduct extra keyword research. Or maybe there are SEO people in the backend that optimize it once the post goes live correctly.
Patrick Schober: I’m going to ask you to touch on some of those problems you commonly find in a moment, but first I want to continue our discussion on why a site like Forbes performs better. Part of it comes from having years and years of content behind it, and it also has that brand recognition behind it. But let’s approach this from a technical perspective. Why is a website like Forbes typically going to perform better?
Dorit Sasson: I think it’s mostly name recognition. I mean, why do you buy Nike sneakers? You trust it. You know it. But even with big-name brand websites, they’re not always optimized. This isn’t a problem limited to small businesses without any resources. It’s the big giants, too.
Patrick Schober: Well, that’s exciting for small businesses. Everyone loves a David versus Goliath story.
Dorit Sasson: Big companies have their hands on a lot of different things. If you’re a big conglomerate, you tend to lose sight of the things that are very important for specific strategies. And they may lack that team approach, or maybe they don’t know what they don’t know yet.
Patrick Schober: If you spend enough time in this space, you start to notice more and more sites using the same exact content. There are a few different ways this happens, but the two most common are 1.) Someone plagiarized someone else’s content or 2.) They purchased the same articles from the same content library or content farm. Any sort of duplicate content can significantly impact your site’s SEO performance. Walk us through the pros and cons of purchasing this sort of “mass-produced” content.
Dorit Sasson: There’s a lot of duplicate content out there. It’s extremely common, and it’s even hard to weed out inside a single company or website. To put this into perspective, I have a client who thought, “I can just put my sales page on Amazon and reuse the same copy for my website!” I immediately advised him against that. There’s no guarantee that it’s absolutely going to hurt you, but it can interfere with your SEO performance.
Thinking about the client’s scenario, they could have their Amazon copy and their website copy, and they would have competing keywords and keyphrases. The simple solution is to tweak some of the copy. It doesn't have to be written from scratch, but at least don't use the same copy on each website.
Duplicate content is definitely something we shouldn’t be doing. If you're not a very highly ranked site, it might not be an issue, but it's not a chance you want to take because it's not a best practice to start entertaining.
Patrick Schober: Speaking of keyword cannibalization… You spend a lot of time in the weeds, analyzing websites. When you’re looking at a website for the first time, what are some of the biggest problems or mistakes you encounter?
Dorit Sasson: SEO problems happen everywhere you can imagine, from billion-dollar organizations to companies with zero revenue. It has nothing to do with how big you are. It just has to do with how big your brain is. Do you have an SEO team? Do you have an SEO specialist dedicated to this kind of work?
The biggest problem I see that doesn't work is that they're trying to optimize, as I mentioned before, for very general terms. You can tell from Google Analytics and Search Console that this typically doesn’t work.
It reminds me of the story of the hare and the tortoise. They embody the philosophy of the hare and say, “I’ve already established my brand. I have this old website with the same old content. I don’t need to do anything else.” But then they don’t move fast enough to continue competing.
Fixing the problem isn’t always as simple as you might think. They might go to a big SEO agency and pay a lot of money and get nothing because most SEO agencies don’t offer customized approaches.
The second thing I see is there is not enough call to action. Or there’s more explanation about the features of the product and not enough explanation of the benefits. And why is that important? Because you're helping the user understand how the product can help him or her, not just what it looks like or how good it feels.
Companies often miss the mark. This is a great opportunity to explain things through an FAQ. For example, I recently had a conversation where I said, “You have this amazing product. Why not convert the user and help them understand this amazing product by creating a mini FAQ page?” If someone is reading an FAQ, they are not wasting their time. A person who is on your FAQ page is seriously engaged with your company. Companies are missing these wonderful, juicy content opportunities and I want to scream to the heavens and say, “Why is there no FAQ page?”
FAQ pages are great tools for explaining more about your products and services, and you can link to other pages in the process. So you have this great backlink strategy, and you have more opportunities for a call to action while mixing in all of these great keyphrases.
Another thing to remember is not so much an SEO factor, but the UX and UI. If a page is poorly designed, you’ll see very high bounce rates. So the UX needs to be compatible with your SEO strategy.