Meg Clarke is an expert in cutting edge SEO techniques, including Google’s increasing emphasis on voice search, and she shares the inside skinny on how entrepreneurs can make their businesses more easily found by potential customers online. Founder and president of Clapping Dog Media, Meg also shares her own entrepreneurial journey and how dogs have inspired her success.
Melinda Wittstock: Meg, welcome to Wings.
Meg Clarke: Hi, thank you. It’s a great delight to be here.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, goodness, it’s so great to talk to you as well. Anyone who has the word “dog” in the name of their company is all right by me because I’m a big dog lover.
Meg Clarke: Oh, me too. Yeah, well if you don’t mind, I’ll tell you the quick story of how my business, Clapping Dog Media, came to be known as Clapping Dog Media, because it’s just a fun part of my story and everybody asks.
I started out my business doing design and web design and graphic design. I was an entrepreneur working out of my house as most of us, as a lot of us started out. Even though I’m a huge people person, I was like alone, but at the time, I had a yellow Lab named Stella and she was like my best friend. She would sleep; she would hang out with me underneath my desk. As I was working and I was creating things … When something happened that I really liked, I would get really excited and clap and be like, “Yay!” Look at that beautiful logo or font or whatever that I would do. When I would clap, Stella would assume that something great would happen, and she would get a treat, or something fun would happen. She would get up from out of her desk and wag her tail and get excited with me.
She was like my partner in crime in my office and so together, we were Clapping Dog Media, because I clapped and she got excited. Unfortunately, Stella has died. She was literally the best yellow Lab that has ever lived. When it was time, when our family was ready to get another dog, I wasn’t able to get another yellow Lab because Stella was actually the best one. We ended up getting a Golden Doodle. His name is Vader because my three young boys named him.
He is now the maSEOt of our business. He is super-cute, but not nearly as smart as old Stella was. He is just a big, goofy clown. Anyway, my business is called Clapping Dog Media, after my dog Stella who got, who would be enthusiastic with me as good things would happen in the business.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh gosh, that’s funny. Because a previous business of mine, the holding company was named after my previous Golden Retriever, who was named Pundit because he was incredibly smart. I got him in 1999 back when I thought, “Wow, it would be really refreshing to have a blonde pundit that didn’t speak.” Pundit Productions was like the holding company for my media company back then, and so he was completely my sensei. Now I have another one: Josie’s getting up there, she’s 11 years old now.
Meg Clarke: Aw.
Melinda Wittstock: Josie is just lovely. It’s interesting with dogs. Dogs and business owners, because they help us stay in the moment, right? Not in the past, not in the future. Just kind of connected and a little more grounded. In fact, I have my best ideas in business when I’m out walking with her.
Meg Clarke: Absolutely. I feel the same way. I also love how he pokes his little nose in and reminds me, “Hey, it’s time to take a break. Let’s go for a walk.”
Melinda Wittstock: Right, right.
Meg Clarke: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, and you get the kind of editorializing like, “You’re staring at that box.” Like, “I don’t know what that thing is. It doesn’t look very interesting. It doesn’t smell good.”
Meg Clarke: “We could go outside and play with the ball, and that is so much more fun, mom.” Like, “What are you doing?”
Melinda Wittstock: Much more fun, absolutely. Oh my goodness. Well, I’m glad we bonded over dogs. I think they’re … I just have this feeling that all companies should just have lots of dogs roaming around in the offices. They’re so, so, good for us.
Meg Clarke: I totally agree. I like dogs much more than I like most people; because they are just so pure for your soul. I totally agree.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s wonderful. Okay, so now we’re going to do this kind of interesting like round about to get into this topic of SEO, search engine optimization. I love to geek out about all this stuff, so just a warning to everyone listening, when you finish this episode, you’re going to know a lot about SEO.
Meg Clarke: Yes- [crosstalk 00:18:52.
Melinda Wittstock: Right? Why it’s really, really important to know. I just want to start at the beginning, Meg, with you. Like what was it that first of all got you so interested in cracking the code of SEO and all those algorithms and all the complexity and overwhelm about all of it?
Meg Clarke: Oh, that’s great. As I had mentioned, I started, I went to school to be a designer and web designer. My first several jobs were in Washington, D.C., at ad agencies. Then my husband and I adopted some kiddos from Uganda and when they came home, when we brought them home from Uganda, I needed to stay home. I quit my agency work and started freelancing at home. When I first started my business at home, I was pretty nervous about starting too quickly. I started taking clients from friends and friends of friends because I was like, “Hey, my family is first but I would like to do some creative work to make some extra money on the side.” One of the jobs that I ended up taking was for a really, really good friend who was actually pretty desperate to start a business. Her family was in such a way that she really needed to make some money off of this side hustle. She was an extremely talented, world … I’m going to say world famous … but she had been to several Olympics to do long distance running, and she wanted to turn that experience into being an online running coach. But, as I had mentioned, her family was in such a way that she needed to make this business work, and so she came to me and was like: “I’m going to give you all the money that I have to make me a website.”
I was like: “Awesome, we’re going to do this together, girl. We’re going to make you a successful business because you have all of the experience and all of the knowledge.” Honestly, she has a really big name in the long distance women’s running world. So, I did what I did, and I created her a really lovely site. It was beautiful. It worked really well. It was really perfect for her industry. So, here she was; she has the great experience, great services, they were priced really well, and she had a beautiful website, but she had no clients.
I was really sad for her because here she was; she was a friend of mine, I knew she was in kind of dire straits, she had put all of this hope and money into me for a design of a website, and I had delivered that, but it didn’t deliver her clients and money, which was what she really needed. I had put all of this … I had believed that if she just had a great website, she would get what she needed, clients and money, and we had realized that that really just wasn’t it.
It was at that point that I dug in, and I got into her analytics. I didn’t really understand a lot of it at the time, but that’s when I just Googled, and I asked a lot of questions, and I jumped into all of the forums, and I dug into SEO. I really, just really tried to understand her traffic because I had such a heart for her and her business and her family and I really just wanted to make it work for her.
Eventually, I mean, we got a lot of Google penalties, but we eventually worked it out. It was a magical combination of marketing and getting her name out there and opening up her website to Google and optimizing it properly and doing all the things that we needed to do, that it started working.
It certainly wasn’t overnight, but I started to crack the code of SEO and analytics, and I realized I was so passionate about this. And I realized that my initial belief of just having a good website, and a beautiful design is probably a limiting belief that other people had, and I wanted to educate and help people understand that there’s more to it; that you kind of need a little bit of everything. You need good services that are well priced. You need talent. You need a beautiful site, and then you also need to be found by Google because everybody’s on Google.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, Gosh, it really is, and it’s so easy though with Facebook, and Instagram, and Pinterest, and all these other social networks, to think that: “Oh, Google, that’s old stuff. Like, we had to do SEO before, but now everything is on social.”
I know that’s certainly happened in the paid ad space, that so many people switched from doing Google ads to doing, say, Facebook ads, and now, really, the money is moving more and more into Instagram, but you still have to … You can’t forget about SEO. Google is Google.
Meg Clarke: Right. That’s a question that I get a lot, is: “Well, do I really need to be found by Google because I have a lot of followers on social media, and I get a lot of clients from referrals. Is this something that I really need to be spending my time on?”
I think that’s a really valid question, and my answer is: “Well, yes, because your website, when you invest in SEO … You have to pardon me because I say Google as like a blanket statement for all search engines … but when you invest in search engine optimization, you’re really investing in your voice, on your website, that you own. Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest and Snapchat, all of those things can come and go, but when you can give your community your value, you can put your heart, and your expertize, and your knowledge on your site, that is an investment that is long-term, that will people will continually learn from and gain value from.
Whereas, ads, they’re short-term. There’s certainly a place for them, they have a lot of value in the short-term when you’re launching something, but when you can invest in your voice and your passion and your expertise, and you put that in your content marketing plan, that pays dividends in your long-term search engine strategy.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, gosh, this is really true. I spoke at a really interesting event in the summer called Voice. It was put on by Alexa and there were a lot of people there talking about how voice is completely upending search; that Google is putting a lot more emphasis, I guess, on people who ask questions with voice.
I’m curious about what that means for marketers, and particularly, given the fact we’re talking on a podcast right now, that podcasting is emerging as a wonderful way to market your business, or your products, or service, or get your message, or your cause, or whatever out there, but it’s going to be increasingly a great way to be diSEOvered by Google. But what are the Google search engine spiders looking for in a podcast? Is the audio going to have to be indexed in a different way? How do see that all playing out?
Meg Clarke: Well, that’s a great question. A number of years ago, I don’t even know, maybe one or two, three, years ago, the heart of SEO was keywords; keyword research. If you don’t have keywords, you don’t have SEO. The goal of an SEO would be to rank very specific pages for very specific keywords. If you want to be known for strategic communication, you’d have a very specific page on your website, and you use the word “strategic communications” so that page could rank.
Now, when you switch over to voice, we’re learning that the way people type, and the way people type into Google, and the way people talk into an Alexa or they talk to Siri is completely different. They may be looking for the same thing, but the way they type for it and the way they talk is different. So, as a content creator, you have to be really cognizant of that. You have to capture those related words, those things that people would be asking for in all kinds of different ways.
A good way to say that is you have to understand what the searchers intent would be, and then lace that into your content that you’re creating. So, if you’re doing a podcast, one thing that I recommend, that I have all of my clients and anybody that I’m talking to, I recommend that when you put your podcast up you think about how somebody would search for that. What would somebody use to search, how would they look for that podcast?
So, instead of saying: “Well, this podcast is specifically a how-to on search engine optimization.” I would try to open my mind a little bit and think about other intentions or related keywords, and use those in descriptions, and use those in headlines when I’m describing those; when I’m inputting that podcast on either iTunes or on your own website.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. It’s interesting hacks and things you can do to go back in Google and see what people are actually searching for.
Meg Clarke: And that’s really eye-opening; that self-awareness of how we think we are being perceived as a business, and actually how we are being perceived and searched for as a business are oftentimes two different things.
Melinda Wittstock: Right. Oh, gosh, that’s really true, right? So, there’s what we think, and then there’s what our customers actually want, okay?
Meg Clarke: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: So, as entrepreneurs, I mean, this is a really, really interesting one, and when I mentor and coach people this always comes up, and certainly in the tech industry where I’m from, where there’s a lot of, kind of; “We’re going to build it and then they’re going to come.”
No, no, no, no. You’re going to build it with your customers. You’ve got to co-create with them. You’ve got to figure out what they actually want, like what problem they actually want solved. Okay, if you’re Steve Jobs and you’re building the iPhone, yeah, nobody in a focus group would have conceived of the iPhone, so fair enough, like, totally … But most people are not necessarily building the iPhone, and that’s kind of awesome if you are, so by all means innovate, but what’s great … And speaking of Google. If you think of Google X and how they do their rapid prototyping, what they do is they, like seriously, with chicken wire and with paperclips and Post-it notes, they involve their customer right at the very beginning, so you’re not just building something that you don’t really know.
So this is an interesting thing about how we can use search, or reverse-engineer search even, to figure out what our customers actually want. What are they searching for, and in what number? What’s your market size? This is fascinating to me; how do you use all this data, not just to market, but actually as a form of business intelligence.
Meg Clarke: That is SEO. There is one part of SEO that is all the technical stuff; just to make sure that your site in indexable and crawlable, and it’s efficient for Google so that Google, the spiders, are not wasting time crawling unnecessary things on your site. But yes, using business intelligence and strategy to figure out how to best serve your audience that currently have and the audience that you want with your unique gifts and talents and where you want to go as a business. And then using the data that’s out there, the trends that people are searching for, the words that people … The pages on your site that are most found.
I mean, one of the things that I love about my job is when I get to dig into clients sites and say: “Hey, here are the pages that are most found on your website. Here is how people are clicking on them. Here are the pages that people are spending the most time on.” It’s typically mind-blowing for clients because they’re spending all their time doing all of the other things to run their business. So, when we say, “Here is the data. Here is what people really love about your business, now let’s give them more of that. Let’s find a way to take the data that people already love, and map it to where you want to go as a business.”
We create content, then we look at what other people, what the internet as a whole is searching for, and we map it all together so that it’s data-driven, it’s strategic, and it makes everybody feel really empowered that the plan that’s in place is going to work because we have data. We have data that says, “Hey, this is going to work because this is what people are looking for. This is what you’re really great at writing. This is what you’re passionate about creating, business owner, awesome lady, and people want to read about it because they’re spending a lot of time on these pages.”
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, gosh, yes. This is so, so, so, so important. Oh, my goodness. I geek out about this because-
Meg Clarke: Me too.
Melinda Wittstock: … this is so much what I do with my company, Verifeed. For years, we were licensing the entire Twitter Firehose to actually see what people were talking about. This gets super-sophisticated, but when you’re using things like natural language processing so you can do unstructured data search, so looking for patterns, like words that people are repeating. Not just keywords though, but being able to contextualize some of this in terms of the sentiment or the … and you can get very, very sophisticated, very, very fast.
But what I found in everything that I do and have done with Verifeed, is the marketplace didn’t necessarily easily understand it or understand why they needed it. To me, I couldn’t understand why you didn’t. Like, why would you not want to know? You could know, or you could guess.
Meg Clarke: Right. Right.
Melinda Wittstock: So, knowing, surely, was going to be more profitable because it was going to save you money, it was going to save you time, and it was going to maximize your ability to money. Who wouldn’t want that?
Meg Clarke: Why wouldn’t you want to know? Right.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, but it was still a really, really hard sell. Do you find that same dynamic with the more sophisticated end of what you do at Clapping Dog?
Meg Clarke: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, one of the biggest challenges that I have is demystifying search engine optimization. I think a lot of people think that it’s just all of this technical stuff and the algorithm changes all the time, and it’s an impossibility; it’s impossible to keep up with. There’s truth in all of that; the algorithm does change all the time, and there are some technical aspects of it, but the heart and soul of SEO is the strategic understanding of giving people what they want to hear and aligning it with where you want to go as a business, and there’s data behind all of it.
The core fundamentals of Google really don’t change. Like the factors; some of the ranking factors that Google love and they are very upfront about, are time spent on your page. Like, are people spending a lot of time on your website? Another one is, are they clicking around; pages per session? And bounce rate; are they coming to your site and then leaving? These are ranking factors that have been around for a long time, and they’re not going to change too quickly. And this goes back to the messages you’re giving your client, your reader. Are you giving them information that they find valuable? Are you making it easy for them to find more and more content that they also find valuable? Is it easy to navigate your site?
That’s what I like to tell people. It’s like: “Man, there are technical stuff, that’s part of SEO; it is kind of complicated and annoying. That’s why you hire an SEO person.” You don’t have to be a master of that by any means, but you do need to be a master of who you are and the voice that you’re trying to say, and being authentic, and then tapping into what the world is searching for.
I hate to use the word “hack,” but hacking it to your advantage, because people are not doing it. People honestly sit down and say: “Hmm, what are we going to write about today? Thanksgiving’s coming up; maybe we should talk about giving back or being thankful?” It’s like, “No, man, you can really know what people are searching for, and we can get an edge on them because we have data that supports it.”
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, this is just … This is awesome.
Meg Clarke: Thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: Give me a sense, Meg, kind of the before and after and who some of your clients are. They kind of come to you and … You know, where are they, and where do they get, and how long does it take?
Meg Clarke: Ah, that’s a great question. I have a lot of clients in the health and wellness space. Some of them who do health and food blogging or online magazines that spend a lot of time speaking to people who are trying to get healthy in a mindfulness manner. Also, food, exercise realm, and I also have … And kind of related to that, I work with a lot of people who have products, like an e-commerce line, but they also talk a lot about, in addition to selling a physical product, they talk about their health and wellness as a lifestyle.
People who come to me have been probably in business for one to three years. They are profitable. They have a good sense of who they are online. They have a solid social media presence. They have a good number of followers, but they’ve kind of tapped out. They want to grow more, and they don’t want to keep tapping their social media networks. You know what I mean?
Melinda Wittstock: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Meg Clarke: So they come to me and are like: “We want to organize our archive of podcasts, blog posts/videos. We have two or three year’s worth of content that we’ve created. It’s not in alignment; it’s not necessarily … There’s lots of stuff we could probably delete. We need help creating a strategy behind that. So people come to me when they’re kind of in that space, like, what they’ve been doing works, but they need a new strategy moving forward.
What I typically see is after three to six months of really manipulating or massaging their content, so to speak, and getting them strategically in line, giving them core goals that they write about consistently and giving them depth in that archive and aligning their archive so that Google and their users can quickly understand who they are, what they’re about, and they are in expertise in these categories, we see a lot of growth.
Some of the things, the KPIs or the things that I measure very consistently are, of course, just overall traffic, organic growth, the percentage of organic traffic that’s traffic from search engines. Then I measure their authority, the search engine authority, like, how many keywords is Google associating with that website? The more keywords that Google is associating with the website, the more opportunities they have to be found by search and then the more opportunities they have for organic traffic. That, honestly, is a snowball effect. The more traffic that you get, the more keywords that you are associated with. So, those are the things that I look for and, in general, this is a broad statement, but I see about a 20 to 25% growth in organic traffic over three to six months.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, and does it help with conversion rates as well, for people who actually buy off a website?
Meg Clarke: Absolutely. That’s what matters. You can buy traffic all day long from shady websites, just like a couple years ago, people bought followers for social media. But it doesn’t matter if they’re not actually converting or buying from you, right? So that’s part of it, is we want to really refine your audience and refine your content and your strategy and your voice to be so succinct that when people search for you, they find you, they click and they buy.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes, so they know exactly what it is you’re doing. So, when you’re working with clients, are you just providing strategy, or are you actually doing ‘done for you’? Like, you’re saying, “Okay, this is your new website copy?”
Meg Clarke: That’s great. I do. Well, it’s kind of a combination. I do a ‘done for you.’ So, when we work together kind of the first step that I do is just a complete audit. I look at the technical aspect and then the onsite or the wording on the site. I do a complete audit and I come up with a list of priorities. Like, here’s what’s going great and here’s what’s not so great and the priorities in which we need to fix it.
Then my team takes care of other technical issues. The technical stuff is kind of overwhelming and, honestly, doesn’t need to be done as often as the content, so we just take care of that. Then we move in to aligning the content and doing the keywording and then the strategy behind that.
For a while, my team and I do the majority of the work and then, all the while, we’re educating our clients into it. Because what I want to do is I want to be able to empower my client to take it and run with it. I don’t have that belief that you hire an SEO and you have to pay them forever. You get great results in the beginning, but then 10 months, 12 months, 18 months into it, the rate of return is not as high as it was in the beginning because, in the beginning, there’s a lot to clean up. But as you work together month after month after month, you’re not going to get as many SEO gains the longer you are in the relationship because your site is going to be really well-optimized.
After a while, I found that clients are not as excited to work with you, or they’re not as excited to pay you a large chunk of money every month. They can certainly pay for you every month, but I want to take away that feeling of, “Man, wait a minute. I’m getting a lot of traffic, I’m getting a lot of clients, I’m getting all of this stuff” and, honestly, the clients can feel like, “Hey, I know how to do all of this because you’ve taught me how to do this along the way, you’ve really structured my thought process for how to create content.”
What I like to do is do all the work upfront, empower clients how to do it, show people how I think about things and kind of launch them off on their own. It’s really intensive for a while and then I like to launch clients off and then we do check-ins every three to six months. That’s how I work. Clients certainly have the opportunity to work with me on a monthly basis and many of my clients do. Anyway, that’s a long way to say that’s how I work with my clients.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s really cool. Was it Google only or do you also do things like, say, for me a podcaster and I’m always trying to figure out, “Okay, so how do I crack the code of being more diSEOverable within iTunes, Apple, within Google Music or Stitcher or any of these other things?” Do you go beyond Google? Do you work in some of the other ecosystems?
Meg Clarke: I sure do. One thing I say and I say this a lot, if you ever [inaudible 00:46:21 if you go to my website, you’ll see this all the time, that I say, “Good business is good SEO.” If you provide your audience with good content and high value, that is going to be good SEO, regardless which ecosystem you’re in.
But, yes, I do. We work with social medias regarding like Pinterest and Facebook and Instagram and we do dive into the podcast realm, Stitcher and iTunes. They’re all a little bit different, but we stress the core foundations of SEO across all of them. I would say that we are more of an expert in Google, but we do work with many of the other ecosystems because the clients that we tend to work with, they’re in all of them. They’re in Pinterest, in iTunes. They cross platforms so we have to be in it.
Melinda Wittstock: Gosh, this is amazing. I could talk to you forever. I did promise people we were going to geek out about all of this.
In the meantime, I want to know a little bit more about your story in terms of how you arrived at this. Did you know, Meg, that you’re an entrepreneur when you were a little girl? Did you have a sense that you were going to have your own business and do all of this, or how did that all come about?
Meg Clarke: You know, no, I didn’t. I really like design; I like being creative. My first job out of school, I was at a really cool boutique agency. We have pretty high-end clients and it was really fun. One of the things that I really loved about it was working with other people and so I’m a people person. I love to be surrounded with other creatives; I get inspired by other people … so I actually didn’t think that I was going to be an entrepreneur.
But what spurred me to this was adopting. We, my husband and I … Gosh, nine, 10 years ago, in 2010, so eight years ago, my goodness, my math, my husband and I adopted two boys from Uganda. As prepared as you think you are, you’re actually really never prepared. When my two little dudes came home, I realized that I was not able to go back to my agency job or my job at my little boutique.
I wanted to work because I love to work and my family actually needed it, but because of my family’s circumstances I needed to work from home. I didn’t actually even look for a job that allowed me to work from home. I just kind of started it. I started it myself, so I just became an entrepreneur because of the way our circumstances were at the time.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s funny how so many people are kind of accidental entrepreneurs and once the bug bites, it’s hard to go back.
Meg Clarke: I would never go back. Never.
Melinda Wittstock: I know, right?
Meg Clarke: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s impossible. There are all kinds of challenges along the way, the ups and the downs and all that kind of stuff. But, God, I’d take the downs any time because I feel really-
Meg Clarke: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: … in control of your own life and all of this. This is wonderful.
You are going to have to come back on this podcast again. We got to talk more and more and more about this.
So, Meg, how can people find you and work with you? We’ve learned a lot about SEO and there’s probably a lot of people listening to this [inaudible 00:50:29 like, “Wait, wait. Wait a minute, I’m missing something. I need that for my business.” How can they find you?
Meg Clarke: Oh. Well, that’s great. Well, first thing, head over to my website at clappingdogmedia.com and check out my services. Like I said, I like to work with people for three months at a time. I’ll get you up and running and I can explain everything. My services are all really customizable, so if that doesn’t work for you, we’ll figure it out. But also, I spend a lot of time on Instagram and that’s at clappingdogmedia.com.
This is silly, but if you want to follow the dog, my Vader dog, who is the maSEOt of our business, he is clappingdood and dood is D-O-O-D because he is a doodle, so you can follow along with him. He is really goofy and really funny.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, that’s awesome. Okay. We must get our dogs together for a walk because you’re pretty nearby. We live in almost the area.
Meg Clarke: Wow.
Melinda Wittstock: We just have this Washington Beltway in between us and Bethesda so we must do that. Thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with us today.
Meg Clarke: Thank you very much.