Saturday, June 3, 2017

Alex Stepman: How I Learned SEO

Early Career: Computer Repairs and Maintenance

In my early twenties, as a younger man working in the computer repair and maintenance industry, I solved a mind-boggling array of hardware and software problems for my clients. At the time, computers were not simply my job—they were my life. My friends and family complained: All I talked about was computers--and I often spent sixteen to eighteen hours every day repairing or studying computers.

I devoted most of this time to computer viruses and how to prevent a virus infection. At the time, only a few companies offered data recovery for new computers, yet I attempted to discover my own method, an exercise that taught me, among other things, the all-embracing importance of personal data--or, in today's parlance, "content," like Word and Excel documents, but also pictures, videos, and music.

So I worked--day after day, repairing files, saving data, and studying, sixteen to eighteen hours every day. For my friends and family the situation became untenable--until they discovered the usefulness of my obsession. I soon found myself fixing more and more friend’s and family’s computers.

I enjoyed this work. However, I worked for free, and I soon realized I could not spend so much time repairing computers without compensation. In January, 2006, I started my own little computer repair and maintenance company, Stepman's PC.

A grainy photo from the early 2000s: a rare moment of leisure at the lake.
From Computer Repairs to Website Development

At the beginning, most of my clients were individuals or small companies with no more than three workstations. To survive, I knew I needed to earn a reliable monthly income. So I offered subscription services, such as a monthly “Computer Clean-up.” For the length of the subscription, I promised customers that their computers would never be infected, and that their computer’s performance would exceed the performance of an out-of-the-box computer.

I kept my promise, and my clients praised my integrity. Promoting integrity, I sold myself to new clients.

One day, I received a phone call from one of my customers. “Alex,” he said. “We want to create a website, and we want you to do it.”

I was flattered—and shocked.

“I am really sorry,” I told my client, the owner of a local kitchen and bathroom remodeling company. “I’m not a web developer, let alone designer, and I’m not at all qualified to do that type of work.”

“But you are the best at solving computer problems!”

“Computers, yes,” I said.“But not development.”

I tried to explain that computer repair and web development require entirely different skill-sets, but my customer didn’t seem to care: “Alex,” he said. “We will wait until you create a website for us.”

It was hard to resist my customer’s persistence, but I experienced a moral dilemma—a dilemma that, in the past, had made me pause before I agreed to do work: I did not want payment for a job that did not satisfy my customer.

My solution was simple. I said to my customer: “I will create a website for myself, and if you like the website I will create something similar for your company.”

The customer agreed, and, in the end, I did create a website for them, a site I maintain to this day.

From Web Development to SEO 

Not long after we launched his website, my client called and asked: “Why is our website not found on Google?”

Like most web developers, I did not know the answer. The website was 100% functional but essentially invisible to search engines. Why?

At the time, SEO was a relatively new phenomena, not only to Internet browsers but to search engines themselves, so there was little one could learn about the practice. As search evolved, however, search engines like Google began to implement logic to many on-page elements which impacted website's visibility in search results.

I learned how to comply, to make my client's site visible, yet whenever a new logic was implemented, I noticed, my client's website vanished from search results. To make my client's website visible and viable, I had to track the various search engine's "logic," and make changes, when necessary.

Today this "logic" is known as search engine algorithms and the practice of tracking the algorithm and making changes to websites, when necessary, is known as search engine optimization, or SEO.

Like computer repair and web development, web development and SEO require different skill-sets. I tried my best to adapt to the new practice. Still, my client's website, although now visible to search engines, did not rank on the first search engine results page (SERP).

I felt bad: I had delivered a product that did not satisfy my customer! I did not see a solution, either, but I was intrigued by a question: How does one make a website appear on the first page of major search engines?

To my customer, I offered a compromise. I assumed the price for SEO was equal to the price of virus removal, so I would simply refund the cost for my customer to hire their own optimization specialist. Unfortunately, we soon learned that the cost for an optimization specialist could be ten times more than virus removal.

So I had no choice: I had to learn SEO in-and-out.

SEO: My Ongoing Journey

In those early days, it was relatively easy to learn SEO. After all, I had to learn only one piece of "logic" at a time. Today search engine algorithms contain at least 200 different ranking factors, some on-page and some off-page. So the learning process never ends.

Learning SEO, I eventually helped my client’s website appear on Google’s first page—but only for a short time. I have now maintained this website, and many other websites, for a decade or more, and I have confirmed this simple fact: SEO is an ongoing process.

Without ongoing optimization, even the best websites will inevitably slip in the rankings. In fact, a website can never be fully optimized because Google, and other search engines, constantly change their algorithms.

But I have learned the most crucial aspects of website optimization. Today, I am proud to say that all of my clients are visible on the first page of Google at most times. SEO has become my prime talent. I love helping clients optimize their websites. Unlike computer repair and maintenance, the world of SEO is dynamic, constantly evolving. The desire to confront the SEO challenge has transformed me. Each day, I wake inspired to develop new marketing strategies for my clients.

My Current Role in the SEO World

Recently, as Director of SEO for a local Philadelphia-area company, Renaissance, I have applied my techniques to numerous sites; I have also learned the value of sharing my knowledge with fellow team members.

I believe Renaissance is one of the best digital marketing firms in the entire country.

Today, my goal as an SEO is to help others understand the nuanced applications of website optimization. By sponsoring this blog, too, I hope to demystify SEO for beginners and advanced practitioners alike. I welcome all comments and questions here on this blog, or at the home offices of Stepman's PC. Give us a call: 215-900-9398.