SEO in 2020 and beyond with Brian Dean of Backlinko


This episode is a discussion with Brian Dean – Founder of Backlinko (one of the leading SEO blogs on the planet) and Co-founder of Exploding Topics. We talk about what’s working today, how to rank a website from scratch, how big brands can leverage SEO, and where it’s going in the future (plus a lot more).


  • 00:00:50 Brian’s introduction to the Growth Manifesto Podcast
  • 00:02:39 What happened in the 5 years leading up to when you founded Backlinko?
  • 00:04:27 What hasn’t changed in SEO since you first started?
  • 00:06:23 What has changed in SEO in around the last three years?
  • 00:08:14 What do you attribute to your success in the SEO industry?
  • 00:11:05 The Skyscraper Technique
  • 00:13:20 How do you come up with SEO ideas and experiment them like placing animated GIFs in your blogs?
  • 00:15:52 Compete on a different dimension to rank your content higher
  • 00:19:34 Have experts write your content | “If you want an article on how to unclog a toilet, don’t hire a freelance writer. Hire a plumber.”
  • 00:24:32 If you’re willing to go that extra step and work a fraction harder than everyone else is, that’s where the best results are
  • 00:25:49 If you had to start again from scratch, what would your approach be to rank in the competitive space?
  • 00:28:46 What’s the first thing you would do to get links when you’re just starting?
  • 00:31:21 Does broken link-building still work?
  • 00:32:42 What would you advise bigger brands as a strategy to rank higher and increase overall traffic & sales?
  • 00:37:18 Have you ever seen a brand that had a “noindex” blog yet still rank high?
  • 00:39:20 Can you take down a website’s rankings with toxic links?
  • 00:41:23 Do blog networks still work?
  • 00:44:27 How do you see SEO changing in the next 3-5 years?
  • 00:46:49 What are your thoughts on Google’s Voice Search?
  • 00:48:16 Brian talks about Visual Search and Augmented Reality
  • 00:49:41 How did you figure out the video side of ranking on sites like YouTube?
  • 00:54:28 Would you prefer a top ranking on video or a top ranking on search?
  • 00:55:19 Brian talks about “Exploding Topics”
  • 00:59:51 Quickfire questions with Brian
  • 01:06:17 Ending the Interview with Brian


You’re listening to the 2020 Marketing Series on The Growth Manifesto Podcast, a Zoom video series brought to you by Webprofits where we talk about how to drive business and marketing success through the rest of 2020.

Hosted by Alex Cleanthous.


Brian Dean: I mean I have an expression that I like to say for this sort of discussion, should you hire a freelance writer, should you hire an expert, whatever, it’s if you want an article about how to unclog a toilet, don’t hire a freelance writer, hire a plumber. Because their article, even if they can’t write, is going to be way better than the freelance writer. We’ve all read this; I’m sure you can relate Alex, you go to a page, and you can just tell it’s just some freelance writer that has no idea what they’re talking about, they just opened eight tabs, regurgitated what they read, it’s already ranking. And it passes Copyscape, and that’s the article. You can create something truly original in the real original content sense of the word by hiring someone who has actually lived through the thing.

Alex: Today we’re talking with Brian Dean, the founder of Backlinko, the co-founder of Exploding Topics and creator of SEO that Works, is that still the case? Yeah. It’s still you?

Brian Dean: Yeah, that’s all true.

Alex: It’s still you, right? That’s all you. And that is by far the best SEO training program on the Internet. So if you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly recommend that’s something to check out. Yeah. So I think the first time I heard about you, Brian, was on the Okay Doc blog. I think it was something with Noah Kagan at the time. Yeah. So just quickly, let’s start by how did you get into SEO?

Brian Dean: So I got into SEO from basically trying to rank my own sites that I had back in the day. So I launched my first website ever in 2008. And I did everything backwards. Today, if you want to launch a site, or even back then, the smart play was to build an audience, build an email list, create a product based on what those people want, beta test it, get feedback, but I didn’t know what I was doing. So I did everything backwards. I created the product first. I had no idea if there was demand for the product, there wasn’t. I had no idea how to get people to actually go to the sales page or buy it, so I just created this huge sales page of product, upsells, everything except traffic, and I had no idea how to get traffic. So when I looked around, it was kind of like SEO was the thing to do, because basically back then, there was still social media, but it was more or less like pay per click and SEO were the big two things you could do. And I was like, “Well, I’m living in my parents’ basement, so pay per click is out. So let’s go with SEO. That seems a lot more accessible.” So that’s how I started getting into it.

Alex: And when was that? Was that back in 2008?

Brian Dean: That was 2008.

Alex: And then, according to your LinkedIn, because I was trying to think the first time I heard about you, but I was like, that’s not going to be helpful. So I checked out your LinkedIn, it says that you founded Backlinko back in 2013. Is that right?

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: So in the five years between that point and the starting, basically the founding of Backlinko, what happened in the five years?

Brian Dean: A lot of hard learning, a lot of…

Alex: Hard learning.

Brian Dean: … learning things the hard way, basically. Yeah. So after that product didn’t do well, I was like, from reading all this SEO stuff, I got sort of introduced to this subculture of niche sites and ranking sites that were designed to rank for one keyword, exact-match domains, AdSense—that whole world, and that appealed to me a lot because I had never built a business and I was like this, this just seems so easy Like a lot of people, that’s how I really started getting into SEO, was trying to rank these little niche sites, and I had some successes here and there, but for the most part, it was a struggle of, going up, going down. And in between these sort of low points, I was a freelance writer.

So I would do freelance writing, freelance copywriting to pay the bills, and then when things were good, I would stop doing that stuff, and I would just make money from AdSense, but it was very peak and valley. Until the summer of 2012 is when I finally sort of put the pieces together and launched a successful website of my own. And I was like, “Oh, this is cool.” I used white hat SEO for the first time. I was like, “Oh, that’s really cool. Let me learn more about this whole white hat SEO thing,” which I never paid attention to. But I couldn’t really find anything out there about it. And I realised that there was probably a gap in the market there, so I created Backlinko as the blog that I wanted to read.

Alex: Yeah, right. And so that was seven years and eight months ago, roughly, according to the LinkedIn…

Brian Dean: You seem like you’re no better than me.

Alex: Yeah, yeah, no…for sure, for sure. Well, I like to do my research, but quite a lot has changed since that time, but there’s also stuff that hasn’t changed. Right? So let’s start with, of course, what hasn’t changed? In that…

Brian Dean: What hasn’t changed?

Alex: Yeah, what hasn’t changed because obviously there are some core fundamentals, I think, that have been the same since I started, I mean, how long ago now? Yeah, but so yes, what hasn’t changed? Let’s start with that.

Brian Dean: The first thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of targeting one keyword, having a keyword on your page, having keywords on your page, like the traditional on-page stuff, the way Google evaluates a page. It’s more sophisticated now, but it’s very difficult to rank for anything competitive if you don’t have that exact keyword on your page. And I think that’ll probably always be the case, no matter how sophisticated Google gets. The other thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of backlinks. That Google still upranks pages and websites that have lots of backlinks.

So it’s something that is probably a little less important than it was seven years and eight months ago, but it’s still super important, and we ran a big ranking factor study earlier this year, where we analysed in 11 million Google search results, and we found that links still correlate with rankings really highly and that links to a page correlate the whole domain authority of a site. So all the links that point to the site, that stuff hasn’t changed one bit, I would say. Except for the fact that links are probably a little bit less important and you don’t need to go crazy with the exact keyword on your page as many times, but those fundamentals as you call them, which is absolutely correct, Alex, haven’t really changed at all.

Alex: That’s great. That’s great. And you just mentioned, we’ll come back to backlinks for a second yeah, but what has changed. Let’s say in the last three years, right? Because obviously the things have changed. I think you just kind of spoke about you don’t need to get as many links anymore, is that the one thing? But yes, what has changed in the last three years?

Brian Dean: The biggest thing is probably Google’s ability to measure search intent, and whether or not the results are giving people what they want, and moving things around accordingly. Like back in the day, it was, you could search for a competitive keyword, and the top 10 results would be more or less the same for months, you see one go from four to three, one go from one to two, there’d be some shuffling around, but because it was based on links, there weren’t these dramatic changes, like ones that would get like 1000 links in a day, and it would change. But now Google can measure whether or not the search results are giving people what they want, and the results are moving accordingly. So even in real-time, if you search for something that just happened, like on TV, Google will shuffle the results based on how people are interacting with the results.

So like the last Game of Thrones, for example, you search for Game of Thrones a day before the end, it would be a certain set of results and the next day, it would be a completely different set. And part of it is because new pages are coming out, but a lot of it’s because people aren’t clicking as much on Wikipedia or HBO, they’re clicking on the dead spin article about it, their clicking on all the people that were poo-pooing on the episode. Google is measuring that, and they’re matching results accordingly. So they’re really good at figuring out, are these results making people happy? And if they aren’t, they’re perfectly happy completely rearranging the results until they have something that makes people happy.

Alex: Yeah, right. And so you have had some pretty awesome success in the SEO space, right? Not only have you been able to rank our website and get a bunch of traffic from SEO, but you ranked it for the keyword SEO, which is probably the hardest keyword to rank across any of them, right? Because there are so many people trying to do this, right? But then there’s you, in the basement of your parents, can’t afford PPC, trying the niche sites and the AdSense, I mean, I did that stuff too, right? Trying to kind of arbitrage AdWords, trying to kind of just do the make-money-fast stuff, right?

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: But what do you think it was with your approach that kind of worked? Because something which you’ve done has led you to become the foremost expert in an extremely competitive industry.

Brian Dean: Yeah, I mean, it’s a combination of things, looking back now and reflecting on it, it’s a combination of things. But I think the number one thing that helped me was that I did something different in the industry that a lot of people weren’t doing at the time, which was giving people really tactical actionable advice on a blog. And the reason I say that’s so important is because that’s one of the reasons that people link to Backlinko, considering links are so important, the way you get those links is a big reason of why a site succeeds or fails. And in my case, at the time, most SEO blogs were like vague advice, a lot of high-level crap, don’t build links, build relationships with people, and it not like they were wrong, but it was like you’d read it, you would be like, “Okay. No, I still don’t really know what to do now.” And I was like, let me do the complete opposite and just get rid of all the fluff and all the high-level advice and just give people really tactical stuff you could do right now to get higher rankings.

Now, if you just did the tactical stuff, it’s probably going to get you certain results, but like you found SEO that works, it is helpful to have a whole plan and a program and all that stuff. But for the sake of the blog, I focused on the tactical stuff, and it seemed to resonate with people. And I would say it’s the number one thing because it did double duty, it helped me stand out in the space like you said, that’s super competitive, but also those things rank really well on Google because of the things I mentioned before with the search intent. If you’re searching for like SEO strategies, or SEO techniques or keyword like that, and you land on the page, and it’s like build relationships, create great content, all this fluff, you’re going to bounce back to the search results, and then you’re going to land on one that has actual information, you’re going to stick to it. And Google is going to measure it and across the entire website, if all your content is like that, then it’s going to have all the good engagement signals that Google wants and your traffic’s going to go up.

Alex: Yeah, right. But I remember your first article that was the pilot; it was like 100 packed… I forget what it was exactly, but it was some huge, big piece, it was the biggest piece of content out there around the topic of SEO. And I think that was the advice which you were providing at the time is to create a piece of content that’s so good, that it’s far superior compared to anything else out there. Yeah, is that right? Is that what…

Brian Dean: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s still very much the strategy.

Alex: Still, now.

Brian Dean: But yeah, at the time, that was kind of my claim to fame thing was this skyscraper technique…

Alex: That was your claim….yeah! The skyscraper technique. That’s the one, I think…yeah, that’s the one…

Brian Dean: Yeah, I mean, there’s a case where creating something totally original, but there’s also a case for seeing the landscape, seeing what’s out there and just improving on it. And that was the approach that I recommended that people take and branding in that way also helped because it was something people could reference and link to and talk about. And that was one of the reasons that strategy ended up getting some spread. But yeah, that’s still, I mean, it’s not exactly that strategy anymore, but there’s a 2.0 version that’s on my blog, the skyscraper technique 2.0. But yeah, the same 1.0 still 100% applies.

Alex: So high level, what’s the difference between the 1.0 and the 2.0?

Brian Dean: So the 1.0 is all about creating content to get links. So the idea is that you find content that’s ranking well, but also, more importantly, has a lot of backlinks. And then you create something better. So then those people in the future who would have linked to the first piece of content will now link to yours. The problem was with that approach, or the part that was missing was that user experience stuff we’re talking about where, yeah, if you have a lot of links, it can help you get to the first page, but to stay there, you need to have content that’s going to have people stick to your site and stick to your page and not bounce back to the search results. And the 2.0 is about applying the same philosophy, but to making your content sticky for people that are searching for that keyword, so they stay on your page, and Google sees that as the best result for that search.

Alex: Yeah, right. So I was having a look at the advanced SEO factors, the 17 advanced SEO factors, which are awesome by the way, so anyone that’s listening, you should go check that out on the Backlinko blog, but you talked about actually including stuff like animated GIFs, because it keeps people kind of engaged. Right? It keeps people there because it’s so interesting. How did you come up with stuff like that? Because I mean, this is interesting stuff that you’re experimenting with. Right? But you’re doing it on a site that if you get it wrong, you lose a lot of traffic.

Brian Dean: Yeah, that’s a good point. Luckily, I don’t think of it that way, but you’re right. That, honestly…

Alex: I’m sorry to do that. So never think about that, please—experimenting.

Brian Dean: Now I’m paranoid; now I’m not going to do anything; now I’m not going to try anything new. The animated images thing actually came from something completely unrelated to SEO; it was just something we wanted to try for the sake of creating cool stuff. So what we were doing before was for any sort of step-by-step process, we’d either have a bunch of screenshots or a Wistia video, that was a couple minutes long. And we were finding that the problem with the screenshots is that you have so many that the page just gets enormous. And it’s kind of almost hard to follow in a way, and then having the Wistia video was like people would never click on it. So there was this new format called SVG, it’s kind of an animated GIF but more sharp because animated GIFs tend to be kind of blurry.

So it was like you could just take a video clip, put it on a page, and it would automatically play. And it’s great because it’s like an animated GIF, but it looks really nice. So we started using those for our little tutorial steps. And as it turned out, people really liked them. And I noticed that pages that had those, people would stick to the page a little bit longer, which just makes sense because as you’re scrolling down, it catches your eye, you’re more likely to stop, watch it, and then not hit your back button, which is what you want as few people to do as possible.

Alex: Yeah, because I can attest that, like as I was scrolling through the advanced SEO tactics, I saw some animated GIFs and I lingered on them, I was like, “This is interesting. I haven’t seen it before,” right? And so there’s a whole thing of if something’s fresh, it gives you an advantage, right? But if everybody starts to do it, then you got to find the next thing. But just quickly, just coming back to the content, right? Is to find the content that’s already out there that has a bunch of links and make something better.

Now, that was the skyscraper technique. That is still the skyscraper technique, but since you started talking about the skyscraper technique, what was that? Like six, seven years ago, or eight years ago, even, the size of content has just gone out of control. There’s some pieces of content that are just like 30,000 to 40,000 words long, right? And so it’s getting harder to compete in some spaces, right? So how would you compete in something like that when there’s awesome content already out there, but you have to make it work somehow. Right? Say, for example, it’s like a bet. Right? It’s a bet, and the goal is to rank above that specific…so how would you do it?

Brian Dean: Yeah, it’s a good point. You’re right. And as the technique has become popular, yeah, the bar just keeps getting higher and higher. So what I’d recommend if you find yourself in that situation where you’re like, “I want to create something better, but everything’s already so long, so thorough, how can I do it?” And I would recommend trying to compete on a different dimension than that. Because content length is one way to compete if you’re like, “Okay, this one’s not that thorough, and I’m going to make it thorough.” But there are other dimensions you can compete on besides just making it more thorough, like for example, design; you can make your content just look better than what’s out there. And for me, that’s an easier one because so few people invest in their content design, that they’ll have this huge long wall of text that has no animations, or no visuals, or no charts, no screenshots and it’s just kind of dry. And you can create something that’s really nice looking, really nice design, helps people with different…with videos and things of that nature, infographics. And that’s one way you can compete.

Another way to compete is to make your content, write your content, or as you say, have your content written by someone who has done the thing they’re writing about. And that sounds like an obvious thing, but you’d be surprised how many keywords you search for, and nine out of 10 of the articles, the person has no idea what they’re talking about. They’ve never actually done the thing. So just by having someone who has real-life experience, your content’s going to stand out. We’ve all read this; I’m sure you can relate, Alex, you go to a page, and you can just tell it’s just some freelance writer who has no idea what they’re talking about, they just opened eight tabs, regurgitated what they read, it’s already ranking. And that…it passes Copyscape, that’s the article. You can create something truly original in the real original content sense of the word by hiring someone who’s actually lived through the thing.

So let’s say you’re writing an article about the keto diet. Well, you should hire someone who’s done it or a dietitian who believes in it or someone who’s a scientist in the space, that’s going to have a lot more pop than a piece of content written by a freelance writer who’s never dieted, has no idea what it is, just learned about it today when they got the . So that’s another dimension you can compete on. So I would look out, if someone has 10,000 words, I wouldn’t be like, “Well, now I need to do 20,000 words.” Because at some point, it gets ridiculous. And it also doesn’t help with search intent, because if I’m searching for something, I probably don’t want 20,000 words. So there are other dimensions you can compete on besides just writing a big long piece of content.

Alex: Yeah, right. And so you just mentioned something super interesting. You mentioned actually just going and hiring experts, and so not hiring people who write but kind of hiring people that are experts who can write, right? And so is that a part of your workflows, but say for example, if you had to rank a website in a specific niche for example, is it to find the expert to help you to create that content first, then create the content after that, is that how you would approach it?

Brian Dean: Yeah, for sure, man. Absolutely. I mean, I have an expression that I like to say for this sort of discussion, should you hire freelance writer, should you hire an expert, whatever. It’s if you want to an article about how to unclog a toilet, don’t hire a freelance writer, hire a plumber. Because their article, even if they can’t write, is going to be way better than the freelance writer, because they have the real-life experience they can draw on. They know how it actually works between the lines, they know the detail, they can even say, “Oh, one time there was this clogged toilet, and I used this thing and got it unclogged.”

Alex: Yeah, that’s…

Brian Dean: That stuff is gold. That’s content gold, and you can’t get that from someone who has eight tabs open, is putting it into their head, regurgitating it and then putting it into slightly different words. So yeah, I have had a couple projects that I have worked on since Backlinko. I write everything for Backlinko myself, but for other projects, and I always look for bloggers in the space that are writing about it, because those people are usually living it, like for nutrition stuff, there are tons of mommy blogs where the moms are feeding their kids different diets, or they’re eating this diet and that diet, and they’re perfect for that sort of thing, arts and crafts, people that write about the arts and crafts and sell their stuff on Etsy, that’s going to be a lot better than a freelance writer, it’s a little less convenient because you can just go on Upwork and just be like, “Freelance writer for 500 words,” and look through all of them, find the best deal, their reviews and all this stuff.

So it’s a lot more back and forth. But if you really care about creating something special, and you’re like, “Oh, man, we’re in this competitive space, how are we going to compete?” The number one thing I would recommend is have experts write your content. And they don’t even have to necessarily write the final draft. If they suck at writing, that’s okay. Let them provide the details. You can even do an interview like this, extract just the knowledge from their mind, and then you can clean it up later with an editor to make it read well.

Alex: Yeah, right. And so would you outreach to the blogger? Or would you call up, like the local plumber, for example, if you can’t find a plumber blogger, say for example, how far would you go to get that content? How far would you go?

Brian Dean: Yeah, I mean it, I would do whatever. I basically wouldn’t publish content if it wasn’t written by someone who knows what they’re talking about. Now, there are exceptions to this rule, I should say, like if you’re writing about the news, then you’re not going to find an expert on every single topic under the sun. Or like for Exploding Topics, we have a blog there. And we write about the fitness industry trends, we write about the SaaS industry trends, we write about streaming service industry trends.

For that, we do a more journalistic approach. We look at different stuff, and we cite other people, other experts work, we don’t have a fitness industry expert for one because then it’s just unwieldy. But for most sites, they have one niche, like this. That’s a weird case because we cover all different niches, but most sites cover one thing, like plumbing, or home decor, or DIY, or marketing or health, or nutrition, they cover one niche. So then you only really need to find really one or two experts, and you’re good to go. So I would go whatever length it takes. And the key is really like…

Alex: And so what do you say to them? I’m sorry, yeah…

Brian Dean: Yeah, I just say, yeah, I want to hire you.

Alex: No, the key is really what? Then let’s talk that point. The key is really…?

Brian Dean: Well, the key is really just to have them involved. How the relationship works will be different depending on how it goes. If you want to hire a plumber, maybe they don’t have a lot of writing experience or writing online. So in that case, you may just want to do a phone call, extract as much… If you are writing an article about this plumbing situation, what would you tell people? Or someone in real life is searching for this plumbing solution, what five things would you give them? And then have them explain it, transcribe it, and then you can turn that into something.

On the other hand, you might be in a niche where there’s bloggers that write about it. In that case, you can just go directly to them and be like, “I want to hire you for a project. How much would you charge for a blog post like this one that’s already published in their blog?” And it’s kind of ghetto Upwork, you can reach out to like eight people and see which ones reply, how good they are, and then choose one based on a combination of their writing style, their price, and all that stuff.

Alex: Yeah, the thing I like about that, and this is kind of the approach which I’ve always seen succeed, it’s the approach I’ve taken anyway, but the approach I’ve seen across the board is if you prepare to go that extra step a bit and to work a fraction harder than everyone else is, that’s where the best results are. And it seems like what people are thinking is, that extra step is just more words, but it’s not, it’s improved quality. It’s improved kind of stuff on the page, right? And so, it could be a shorter…it could be a piece of content that is basically shorter, but that’s better. Right? And it’s kind of to do the harder things, right? To take those steps first, right?

Brian Dean: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It’s more about content density, right? The plumber is going to just cut right through the BS because the plumber doesn’t even know the right flow, he would be like, “Why would I do that? I’m just going to give you the shortest stuff,” right? It’s only freelance writer and SEO people who are so jaded, and we have this bizarre outlook. We’re like, “Oh, we need to write like 2000 words,” the plumber would just be like, “Boom, boom, here’s exactly what you need to do.”

Alex: Here’s what you need to do. Exactly. Okay, cool. So next question. So if you had to start again from scratch, and you had no personal brand, so what would your approach…could you talk about the approach that you would use to rank in a competitive space?

Brian Dean: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so the number one thing I would do is that a lot of people skip over, I would create a brand from my blog. And the reason I say that is because everyone’s going to jump right into content and keywords. And one of the things that helped me with Backlinko, and I’ve seen it happen in other niches too where people enter competitive niches really late, is they create a little niche for themselves that help them stand out. So let’s say you have a services company, your services company is going to have a brand. And your blog can just be an extension of that, as opposed to just a collection of articles. And it sounds like a minor difference, but it’s actually really important because if you think about Moz, for example, their software, their company has its whole mission and blog and their mission, their staff, product, all that stuff. Their blog also has its own personality, its own USP.

And people visit it for that reason; they link to it for that reason. So I would do something like that, I’ll look at your blog like a product or like a marketing campaign, and do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Everyone’s writing long stuff, write short stuff, everybody’s writing short stuff, write long stuff. If everyone is doing text, do video, if everyone’s doing videos, do a podcast. And, of course, you still want the foundation of any SEO campaign is going to be text-based guides and articles in that nature, but outside of that, what else can you do? And one of the things that probably not as many people are doing are videos and podcasts like you’re doing Alex. You’re probably finding it’s competitive but much less competitive than the SEO world. And in your niche, it’s going to be different, what people are doing and not doing but that’s going to be the key to standing out, is figuring out a platform or something that’s going to help you stand out. And it could also be a niche. You could just write about one tiny niche for a while like when I started Backlinko, I only wrote about link building for a year.

And that helped me stand out from the other SEO blogs because the other ones were talking about on-page SEO and keyword research and all that stuff. And I pretty much stuck to link building for a year, that helped me stand out. And then from there, you can expand out into more stuff. That way you’re known, this can help your brand. That’s the blog about whatever, B2B SaaS, that’s the blog about keto-diet desserts. If you have that little niche, it helps it stick in people’s mind. It’s like the 22 immutable laws of marketing that talk about that; people want to have space for like one or two brands in a category. So if you can be in that category, you can get some mind share, as opposed to being in the hundredth blog about marketing, or the hundredth blog about weight loss.

Alex: Cool. So that’s fantastic advice. And so now I’ve got the brand, I’ve got the blog, I’m doing topics around a niche. How do I get those fantastic links that everyone keeps talking about? You know what I mean? Like, cool, but I’ve just started out now, right? And so I don’t have relationships, I don’t have all these people that I know that have the articles and blogs, how would you start? So what’s the first thing…

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: …that you would do in that scenario?

Brian Dean: Well, it’s funny, I was in that situation a few months ago, because when I started exploring topics with my co-founder, Josh, he had no audience, no one knew who he was. And I really wanted to use that as a way to answer this exact question without me being involved. So I didn’t do any outreach for that site, I didn’t do any link building for that site. I had him really handle it using my strategies to really put them to the test with a new site, with no anything, zero, starting from absolute scratch. So one of the things that he did that worked really well was going on podcasts actually for building links, because he reached out to podcast, targeted a podcast, and he gave them a great pitch about why he would be a great fit for that specific audience. And even though no one knew this guy, it was like these emails are coming, Josh, they had no idea who this guy was, and he had like a 20% conversion rate on his outreach. Because what he did was he really focused, he made each pitch tailored for each podcast.

So if there was a podcast about how to create a software, a piece of software, he would really focus on that part of the thing, how I created this software from scratch. If he had another podcast about acquisitions, he would be like how I got Brian Dean to buy my product. If it was a different podcast about marketing, he’d be like how I got on the front page of The Hacker News. And he would tailor that story for everyone, and he would go on, he would be like, “I’ll tell the story to your listeners.”

And because no one knows Josh, was almost even better, because you’re going to be the only guy who has a story versus if you have me on other than 150 podcasts, so it’s good, but it’s not like having this guy, even though he’s not well known, he has a unique story to tell. So people were surprisingly receptive to him. And those are great links, because they usually go on pretty authority sites, and you get a link in the show notes. So that’s something that really worked well. Another thing we did that worked well was broken link building, where we found broken links, and then pitched the Exploding Topics tool as a replacement for the dead link.

Alex: So does that still work? Because I’ve seen so many of those things just done poorly. What’s involved in doing it well then? Because geez, it’s just being done, again, with a shortcut way. Right?

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: It’s all just not quality. So what’s the strategy there? Just quickly, the super-high level.

Brian Dean: The key is to really find places where your link would replace the dead one because what a lot of people do, the mistake they make, is you have a dead link on this page, can you link to me from this totally other page, it doesn’t make sense. What you really want to do is add value with your broken link building outreach, you want to make it actually make their site better at the end. So what you do is you say, “This is a broken link to this thing, here is something that’s very similar.” That way, they don’t have to find a replacement, you’re actually making their life easier. The mistake a lot of people make is they use it as a way to get their foot in the door like, “Oh, you have a broken link, can you also link to me from this other random page?” So that person still has to find a replacement for the dead link and then find a place where your link makes sense. So the key is to send fewer emails, but make sure that wherever that broken link is, you can just slide right in there. And that is going to work a lot better. And that worked really well for us. Those are the two things that worked with us.

Alex: That’s great. That’s great. Thanks for sharing that as well. Cool, so the completely other end of it, right? The big brands, right? That already have tons and tons and tons of links, if you step in and now to advise them on their SEO, right? Because they want to rank for the top keyphrase say, for example, it’s a home loans company, and they want to rank for home loans, and they’re not ranking for home loans, but they’ve got all these backlinks, and they’ve got all this authority, but what would you advise them as a strategy to kind of increase overall traffic and sales—and all the parts?

Brian Dean: Well, the first thing I do with a big site that is to look at how many pages they have and see if we can trim that down a little bit. And especially redirect some old pages to higher priority ones. That’s usually the best first move because what happens is when you take on a new site, you’re usually dealing with…it’s almost like a patient in a hospital, they’ve had a history of problems. You got to go back to the whole medical history to get to today. So what I recommend doing is looking at all the pages on their site, and seeing which ones don’t bring in any traffic, and especially those that have links, but don’t bring in any traffic.

Those are gold because those pages are basically collecting dust not really doing anything. And you can redirect them to relevant pages on the site that you’re actually trying to rank. You’re also going to have tons of pages that don’t have links and don’t bring in traffic; I call them zombie pages. You can delete those, and just by deleting those, you can increase your site’s rankings because you’re going to condense your page rank across your site. And also, Google has even said that just they prefer to rank sites that have fewer higher-quality pages, it’s not to say you need a tiny site with ten pages, but if you have a lot of other pages, they’re dead weight that’s holding you down. That’s always the first move that I make with sort of a big brand that I work with.

Alex: And what’s the second move? Cool. So that’s now cleaned up, and now it’s time to get kind of proactive on creating stuff, right? So that’s kind of shrinking or reducing, what’s the next part? So what would you create then? Is it going to be a link building strategy, a content strategy? What’s the strategy you would…

Brian Dean: It’s kind of hard to say because it depends a little bit on the site. But in general…

Alex: General rules.

Brian Dean: …I still wouldn’t even to get it to the creation yet, honestly. I will look at those home loan landing pages that you’re talking about and be like, why aren’t they ranking? What’s wrong with the actual page? Is it not optimised well? Is it slow? Should it have some functionality that other pages have? Like if you look at the top 10 results, do they all have a calculator, and you don’t have a calculator? You just have a forum for people to submit, stuff like that. I would basically look at the search intent for the keyword and be like, why isn’t this page ranking? If the site has all the links, and it’s trimmed up, this page has a good chance to rank but what is it about the page? And I would look at each of those pages individually and figure out what they’re missing or what they have extra, maybe they’re too long, but what is that missing variable? I’ve worked with a lot of brands, and you go through the top 10 results, the pages are almost identical across all the brands, and then they have one that’s like an odd man out, it doesn’t really fit.

Now, and just by tweaking it and making it match a little bit, it can do a lot better. I’ve seen this happen, time and time again. And usually, for a lot of loans, that kind of loan, personal finance industry, it’s a calculator, it’s a function of some kind, because the landing page, the person that did the landing page is a conversion guy usually. And they’re like, “Oh, what we need to do is put a form above the fold, and then people will land on this form.” But that’s not how actually people get a loan. They calculate it first, they see the rate, and then they might reach out. And the other brands that do this best, they’re going to rank, and you’re going to have a great conversion rate, but you’re not going to have any visitors. So that’s the next thing I would do.

Alex: So it’s kind of easier and kind of harder. It’s easier because you don’t have to create as much stuff, but it’s harder because you need to diagnose what is the problem and it’s like a doctor. It’s like the more experience, the easier it is to diagnose, but if you’re a beginner, you’re not going to know what the issue is. Right? So it seems to be easier, but it’s also got its own separate challenges, right? Especially with the site size and everything else that could be happening on it. I saw this interesting thing the other day because I conducted an analysis of a website, and I’d seen that the whole blog was no index. Yeah, it wasn’t like no follow, it was just like no index, but they were ranking at the top just for these extremely valuable words. But all of the content was that… But it was created, I’d say a couple of years ago, and it was all the thin content, right? But they basically provide more business loans, right?

Brian Dean: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alex: And their content was like, “Cool. So how do you do LinkedIn marketing?” And it was extremely short. They had all this stuff, and I was like, but they had no indexed it. And that was the first time I’d seen a company put that across the whole blog and still have ranked so highly. So have you seen that before? This whole thing of to not actually index it, but it still passes authority, as far as I could tell, to the main page.

Brian Dean: Yeah, no, I’ve seen not that, but I’ve seen people no index content as an alternative to deleting it when they don’t want it around.

Alex: Right.

Brian Dean: And that way, it still exists, people can read it, but it’s not…

Alex: But does it have value?

Brian Dean: …helping with SEO that’s sort of the idea. Not really.

Alex: So it doesn’t have value?

Brian Dean: Not really.

Alex: It’s still followed though, it’s just no indexed, right? I don’t know. It was like…

Brian Dean: Yeah, I mean, Google will crawl it, but then they’re going to see it’s no index, so then they’re not going to index it.

Alex: Okay.

Brian Dean: So I would say it’s not really unless because another thing that can happen is all the pages were indexed before, the no index was added recently, so it hasn’t kicked in yet. It could take weeks for that to actually kick in because Google has to crawl the page and see the no index and all that stuff.

Alex: Yeah, right. Hey…

… yeah, look, that was something I saw and…

… I was like, “Look, I was going to ask,” yeah, I’m going to speak to Brian and said, “I’m going to ask him on it.”

Brian Dean: Yeah, that’s weird.

Alex: A few more questions around SEO, just because that’s basically your specialty. Can you take down a website’s rankings with toxic links, do you think?

Brian Dean: I mean, probably…

Alex: In your opinion.

Brian Dean: …probably, but it’s really hard. It’s really hard to do. It’s really hard to do. It used to be a real problem. And negative SEO, as it’s called, but…

Alex: Negative SEO.

Brian Dean: …Google has over time become more chill about paid links and shady links. And the reason for that is because their algorithm before was how to tell…deciding whether a link was legit or fake. And when in doubt, they would consider it legit. Because they had no way, I mean, they were able to filter a lot of it, but they weren’t that good at it. So what they did was when they found a site that was definitely spamming, they would penalise them. And that was what the Google Penguin update was all about. And they would penalise them, and that would send a message to everyone else that don’t do this, and it actually worked. People spammed a lot less after that.

But what happened was, people were like, “This is great,” now I can just spam my competitor who’s ahead of me, and then they’ll get knocked down, and they’re going to go from one to 10, and I’m going to replace them, which was happening, it was a real issue. Google, over time, has been able to just ignore bad links. And I’ve said several times in the record now that bad links, and unless you’re doing a paid link campaign, they’ll bust you with that, and they’ll give you an unnatural links penalty. But if you’re doing kind of general spammy stuff, it’s very rare; you’re going to get an algorithmic penalty because Google is really going to have a hard time saying it was actually you or one of your competitors trying to do it. How could they ever even know that? So lately they’ve just been ignoring bad links. So it’s probably possible if you’re good at it, but I don’t even know enough about it. But in general, it’s very rare you see a site that gets penalised from that.

Alex: Cool. So blog networks, they used to be a thing and do they still work? Or is that just something…

Brian Dean: I don’t know.

Alex: … it’s like toxic, it could be fake, could be helpful. Is it something that still works?

Brian Dean: Probably to a certain extent, but it also depends a lot on the blog network. If you have a friend who runs his own private blog network of 10 sites that he’s run for years, they’re all on separate hosts and all that stuff, and you pay him one to one for a link, that’s probably going to help you. I wouldn’t recommend it necessarily, but it’s probably going to help you. A blog network that’s public, and anyone can buy a link on it, that’s just going to get busted eventually. And I’ve seen it happen time and time again because they’re just footprints that you have, it’s all the big blog networks always say, “We have no footprint, we have no footprint.” Google was able to figure that out. And those links usually get removed because the sites get de-indexed, and sometimes the sites who participate in that work get penalised, who got links from it. So I would say it’s not something I would recommend doing because the risk-reward ratio just isn’t there.

Alex: And it’s also that shortcut that we’ve just been speaking about, you shouldn’t be taking because if you put in a bit more effort, and if you do it the right way, it’s going to be long term because the part which I think everyone that hasn’t achieved SEO rankings yet, should kind of understand is that once you get them and you get hooked on that traffic, it’s one of the only ways where you can get so much free traffic and money without spending money. And so once that happens, now all of a sudden, you’re really scared about what if it goes down? This is my whole lifestyle, I pay for my family and my kid’s school or my sports or my holidays, and now all of a sudden you got bills that are now relying on those SEO rankings, right? And now, every time there’s an algorithm update, you’re sweating, you’re sweating big time. And because I’ve been around now, in this game for around 20 years, right? So I’ve been through Florida and Panda and Penguin and all of the animals, right? And I’ve seen people come and go, right? It’s an extremely big business, that was, what’s the word? Extremely, reliant on the search traffic, and then when that goes, they don’t have a business anymore, you know?

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: So that’s just kind of the word of warning to people out there that are thinking about doing the shortcuts because they work, and then they work too well sometimes, and then all of a sudden, you become reliant on it, and it just hurts. That’s bad.

Brian Dean: Yeah, I’ve been there.

Alex: Yeah. You’ve been there. I think we’ve all been there. Right? If you’ve been in this space, and you’ve experimented with this for a while. In terms of SEO in the future, how do you see it changing in the next three to five years, let’s say?

Brian Dean: Yeah, I would say that the number one thing that’s going to change is that Google is going to get even more invested into user experience stuff—outside of the things they are already doing. For example, they have a new set of ranking factors that are going to go live in 2021 called core web vitals. And this is like the logical progression of where Google has been going the last couple of years because, for the most part, how they used to operate was passively, they would be like, “Okay, we’ll index the web, and then whoever has the most links and the best stuff on the page we’ll rank them.” But then they sort of started realising they could just dictate what happens online. So, for example, they gave sites that were SSL secured a boost in the rankings. And guess what happened? Millions of sites all of a sudden finally got around to doing it. They had an update for page speed. That sites that were slow got a downranking, guess what happened, everyone started improving the speed of their site.

They had another update that targeted sites that weren’t optimised for mobile devices, guess what? Every site started switching to mobile devices. So they’re dictating the next move that millions of sites are going to take, and the reason for that is because, from their point of view, they want to rank sites that give people a good user experience. So the next thing they’re doing is the core web vitals, which are three, kind of mini ranking factors that are more or less how fast the page loads and how quickly you can interact with it. And that is going to go live in 2021.

And I think that whole core web vitals brand, will be multiple things in the future. It’s only three now, but I could see it being ten or even 20 things in the future, that whatever Google cooks up as important, they’re going to put it under that umbrella, and then everyone’s going to start doing it. But all of them will ultimately revolve around having a site that’s easy to read, easy to access, loads quickly, optimised for different devices. It’s not anything crazy, but they’re moving more towards that and away from some of the traditional stuff.

Alex: Yeah, right. Yeah, right. That’s really interesting. And what about, what was it called? The voice search thing, what was it? Like six, seven years ago, it was going to be the future, it was going to be the number one spot because all of the search results were going to happen on the series and in the Google homes and all that, but that never really happened, right?

Brian Dean: No.

Alex: It didn’t really become that thing.

Brian Dean: No.

Alex: People still like to search on their phones and on computers, right?

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: That didn’t change. Is that going to change, you reckon, or not?

Brian Dean: Yeah. Well, I think, dude, have you done a voice search on your phone?

Alex: Not really, no. I just kind of ask what’s the weather? What’s the time? What’s the time here? You know?

Brian Dean: Yeah, it’s…I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on because I actually think it’s much better than typing for a lot of keywords. Like you said, it hasn’t caught on at all. But if you use it for certain searches, it’s so much faster than typing, and it’s more accurate than typing because that’s the other sneaky bit about typing is that you make tons of mistakes, at least I do. I just rely on autocorrect. But the voice recognition technology that Google has is ridiculous; it’s so good. Like 99 point…it’s way better than Apple’s if you try to do the…composing a text message in iMessage is terrible, Google’s is really good.

So another thing that I think is going to get big though is visual search. Google is already talking about how they have something called Google Lens that is basically searching with a picture. And people are doing that more and more, they already have a billion searches on it, and it just started. So if you open the Google app on your phone, there’s a little square thing, and that’s Google Lens. They haven’t done any promotion, but it’s already sort of taken off. And the reason for that is because it’s really good at image recognition now, so you could take a picture of almost anything in your room and Google will be able to search for similar things, identify what it is and then search for similar things. So I see that being big for like… It’s basically like baby AR; baby augmented reality. I can see that being a real thing, and that’s more in the five-year thing where we’re wearing a Google Glass, but a 2.0 version that just augments stuff you’re looking at.

Alex: Yeah, because…

Brian Dean: I don’t think that’s far off because if you use Google Lens, you’re going to be like, “This is the future.”

Alex: Yeah, like Google Lens, they launched Google Lens like, must have been ten years ago or something, everyone freaked out because it was extremely invasive on everyone’s privacy. I think we’ve come quite a long way since then, and I think everyone’s going to be okay with it now, especially if it’s $100, which is I think…it was like 500 bucks at the time, 700 bucks at the time. That’s interesting. YouTube, a couple years ago, you started to go into YouTube as well as and said, “All right, I’m going to try to figure out the video ranking algorithm.” It’s like, “Cool. So I figured out the search results, and now I’m going to go into video,” and you figured it out. And I’ve done your course, I’ve got your course with all that stuff. It’s a highly recommended course, is available for sale still, that course?

Brian Dean: Yeah, but we only launch it about once a year.

Alex: Once a year. Okay, well, you should subscribe, and…

Brian Dean: Yeah, we have a waiting list…

Alex: …you could pay for it, but if you’re into video stuff, but how did you figure out that side of it? Because obviously, it’s very different to search, right? They have completely different kind of things which they look at. And so why the transition? And how did you figure that out?

Brian Dean: Well, the why was because we’re talking about before like, you got to do the opposite of what everyone’s doing. And no one was doing video in the SEO space at the time. If you search for SEO stuff on YouTube, it was all marketing gurus talking about niche sites and ranking and make money online; there was no legit SEO stuff on YouTube. Now there’s tons of them since I started it, but back then there was none, so I did it more as just a way to stand out from the other blogs in the space. I started in 2014, when… I started in 2013, I think when I put up my first video, but I really got into it late 2014, early 2015.

So it took me a while to really get into it, but once I did, I was addicted because I noticed how many views you could get and how valuable these views were, people are watching you on video, your brand, you’re sticking in their mind, it’s such a powerful medium compared to text. It’s kind of like podcasts; you’re in their ear, you’re kind of with them as they go through their day, super-powerful media. So I was sold on it from that point of view. And then in terms of figuring it out, I mean, it took a long time. My first few videos didn’t do well at all, and they looked bad; actually, I took a couple of them off YouTube because I was just embarrassed to even have them, they were so bad.

Alex: I’ve done that too, by the way, I took down all my old videos, I was like, “Oh, wow,” because it got so much better recently. So yeah, I hear you.

Brian Dean: Yeah, even if they get views, I’m like, “I don’t want them to get views.” I literally don’t want people to see them. So took them off YouTube. And just in terms of how to figure it out, it was just trial and error. It was just like with SEO for Google; it was just trying a bunch of stuff. And I discovered that there’s a lot of YouTube ranking factors like you had mentioned, Alex, it’s a totally different algorithm. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s the opposite of Google, because Google wants you to get a quick answer and then go about your day. That’s a win for Google. With YouTube, they want you to stay on YouTube as long as possible, right? Watch more videos, watch more ads; they make more money. So the better your video can keep people engaged on the video and on YouTube in general, the better they’re going to do. And yeah, there’s, of course, keyword optimisation and things of that nature are important, but at the end of the day, your video needs to keep people on YouTube and keep people on your video. And once I figured that out, it was just a matter of figuring out how to do that. Then I was like, “Okay, if that’s the key, how do you keep people on your videos for as long as possible?” And that’s what I invested most of my time and energy into.

Alex: And that’s like in the structure of the video, right? So there’s kind of…

Brian Dean: Yeah, exactly.

Alex: …the quick intro, and then hey, this thing’s coming up soon, and at the end of the video, I’m going to share some awesome stuff, blah, blah, that kind of stuff was more like you’re keeping them there. So that’s kind of the part which kind of… Is that the part? Like…

Brian Dean: Yeah, exactly. It’s…

Alex: …keeping them there. There’s a bunch of stuff around that, doesn’t matter what the topic is, what are the keywords, what’s the length and all the other stuff, but that’s at the core, right? Is just create something that’s super interesting to people, right?

Brian Dean: Exactly. Yeah. And structure, like you, said, the right way, and how this structure that is proven that people are going to continue watching. And you already mentioned a couple of things that can work well, like mentioning things that happen later in the video, the short intro or the compelling intro, and getting right into it. Those, they’re kind of simple, but they work really well, especially if you follow the structure. It also makes videos a lot easier to make, because when I first started making videos, I didn’t really have a structure, I just knew what I wanted to talk about, and I would just fire up the camera and just start blabbing on, it was frustrating, the videos came out terrible. And then now that I have a structure, it’s so much easier to actually make the videos plus they come out a lot better.

Alex: Yeah, sure. And so if you had to choose between, what’s the word, a top ranking on search or a top-ranking with a video, what would you prefer?

Brian Dean: Oh, search, like 1000 times. It’s not even close.

Alex: Why is search so much better for you than video?

Brian Dean: Well, because they land on your website. You know what I mean? So it’s like, that you can get their email, they can buy something from you.

Alex: Got it.

Brian Dean: They can link to you. They can share it. There’s tons of possibilities. On YouTube, there’s basically one possibility; they watch your video. Now, a lot of them will click over to your website and will search for you in Google. There’s a lot of benefits to getting views on YouTube, but in terms of just dollars and cents, man, I would definitely choose getting someone on my site from Google.

Alex: Okay, yeah, great. Cool. Just quick, let’s jump to Exploding Topics. Can you just explain what that is? Because I’ve seen it, but I would just like to hear the high level…quick intro.

Brian Dean: It’s a tool and newsletter for finding Exploding Topics before they take off.

Alex: And what’s the purpose of it? Why this business? So why did you do this business of all the next businesses to do, right? Why this one?

Brian Dean: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t really planned to be honest. I wanted to build a trend tracking tool myself because I had seen firsthand how helpful it is to find topics that are trending and getting in on them early, whether it’s for a product, whether it’s for a piece of content, whatever. But there wasn’t a resource for finding these. So there is Google Trends, which is good for confirming things you already know. So if you want to know if ramen is increasing, you can go search. But if you’ve never heard of ramen, it’s not going to help you because there’s no discovery element in Google Trends, it’s just confirming stuff you know. So I wanted to create something that could help people discover things they didn’t even know about yet that are trending. And I started building something in the back, and I hired a developer to work on it.

And while this was sort of going through the beta testing, alpha testing, I came across this site called And I was like, “Oh, man, this is like ten times better than anything I imagined.” It’s way better than I was building, way better than I could even picture and I reached out to the founder of that, who was Josh Howarth, and ended up acquiring it from him. So since then, we’ve been working on it together, and about six months ago, we took on another co-founder, Kyle Byers, from Growth Badger, he’s our head of growth.

So it was sort of an accident, and then once we partnered up, he was already doing great with it, and then once we partnered up, it started doing a lot better, because I was able to give him resources and things like that. We rebranded it, it was called Trend, now it’s called Exploding Topics, so it was a lot easier for people to share and talk about. And it started doing well. So I was like, “Well, this seems like a good thing to keep going with.” But yeah, at the time, it was definitely not planned. It was, my next thing is going to be this. It was more like, “I’m building something on the side, sort of a side project.” And then when I saw Trend, I was like, “This is exactly what a trend-spotting tool needs to look like.”

Alex: And how should people actually be using it? Yeah, could you explain how they should be used? Because I’m assuming it’s for SEO.

Brian Dean: It’s not really for SEO; people use it for all different reasons. So our biggest use cases are from investors and people in the VC world because they want to see what’s coming next, the next trend, the next big thing, because then they can invest in that space. So if they got a company that comes to them with three kids with hoodies, and they say they’re in this space that they’ve never heard of, they might not take them seriously, and they saw an opportunity, but if they read an Exploding Topics that this space is blowing up, and these people are in it, they’re like, “Perfect.” So the main way people use it is actually from the email newsletter. We have like 70,000 subscribers, including Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired, people from Apple, Slack, Andreessen Horowitz are all subscribed.

And basically what we do is every week we send people kind of a collection of some of the best trends, and then how you use those is up to you. Yeah, a lot of people do use them, Alex, for SEO and content, and finding trends, I’ve used it myself for that, I’ve ranked for tons of keywords that I found from there that were so early, but we’re trending up and create a piece of content and ranked instantly. And at the time it was getting much traffic, but every day, they’re getting more and more. So that’s definitely one way to use it, and it’s one way that I personally use it. But there’s all different use cases, we have people from E-commerce, or like I want to create a Shopify store, I want to get a new product category. So air fryers might be blowing up, I want to create air fryers category on the E-commerce site. So kind of a lot of different use cases for the product, but they all have one thing in common, that people want to see what’s next before it becomes mainstream.

Alex: Yeah, right. Yeah, right. Well, I’ve subscribed, so 70,001 subscribers.

Brian Dean: Yeah, so welcome.

Alex: Because you could add Webprofits into that list of awesome companies…

Brian Dean: Yeah, next time I’ll mention all the people that are Kevin Kelly…

Alex: Andreessen Horowitz.

Brian Dean: … Slack, Webprofits.

Alex: That’s perfect, man. Cool, so just some big five questions I like to ask at the very end, yeah? So this is going to be a simple question, it’s the first thing that comes into mind. Yeah? So let’s start. It’s going to be really, really standard questions.

Brian Dean: All right.

Alex: It’s nothing scary or anything like…

Brian Dean: The more you say that the less I’m thinking it’s going to be a standard question.

Alex: No, if you had to choose one channel or tactic to drive successful growth, aside from SEO, then what would it be?

Not SEO, you can’t say SEO.

Brian Dean: Well, I would say probably Google Ads then.

Alex: Okay, cool. Okay. Because that you love search still, right? Is that right?

Brian Dean: Yeah. But I mean, if not, it would be Facebook, it would be whatever scalable…

Alex: Scalable, got it.

Brian Dean: …pay per click strategy.

Alex: Of course, what book has had the biggest impact on your success?

Brian Dean: Probably the 4-Hour Workweek. Because even though I don’t use it on a day-to-day or any sort of practical level now, it was the first book to introduce me to entrepreneurship.

Alex: Okay, yeah, very cool. Yeah, because I read that book, I was like, “Oh my god, I get it. I can work for four hours per week now, and that’s it.” And it’s like I’ll have been working 100 hours a week ever since. So…

Brian Dean: Yeah.

That’s what I meant. That’s exactly what I meant when I said I didn’t use it practically.

Alex: Yeah. Exactly. Of course, which number one piece of advice to hire awesome people?

Brian Dean: Work with them first. As a Seth Godin quote, “I need to work with you before I can work with you.” So awesome people are relative, someone who’s awesome for you might not be awesome for me and vice versa. So I recommend going with the tiny trial project, even if they’re full time, you can hire them for 20 hours a week, temporarily, and just see how it goes on actually working with them, because I’ve found tons of people that I thought were great, and then when I actually work with them, they weren’t. I had people that I was kind of so-so with, but when we actually got into a project and actually had problems that came up, they were great at solving it. And the only way to find out is to work with them first.

Alex: Okay, that’s a fantastic one. I like that one. Cool, how do you relax after a crazy day at the office or at the home office or at the SEO ranking factory?

Brian Dean: Yeah. No, there’s a lot of stress at the old Backlinko headquarters. I actually play tennis a lot, so that helps because I usually schedule the sessions towards the end of the day. You just get outside, you’re with someone, you’re not in your home office like I am most of the day, and you’re hitting a ball, and you can’t even simultaneously play and think of problems, so it’s pretty therapeutic in that way.

Alex: Yeah, I had a game this evening actually…I got…

Brian Dean: Oh, nice.

Alex: …I got smashed so hardcore, but that was good because he’s so much better than me, and that’s how you get better, but…

Brian Dean: No, that’s how you get better, man. True.

Alex: …I didn’t check my phone once because I was just like, “Come on.” It’s basically, what’s it called? The winner psychology, “Come on, man. You can do it, man.” There’s a skill level required too.

Brian Dean: Sounds pretty intense…

Alex: There is a skill.

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: Because I had…I was losing

Brian Dean: Oh, okay. So you’re competitive then.

Alex: I’m competitive without the skill to win like I’m okay.

Brian Dean: Yeah, okay…tough combination.

Alex: This guy was way better.

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: I didn’t say that it was a rational thing.

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: What’s your best piece of advice in terms of productivity or time management?

Brian Dean: I would say having maker time and manager time. There’s this article by Paul Graham, who says you should split your time of day into maker time and manager time. Where you’re 100% focused on creating stuff and then 100% focused on managing stuff. And that’s helped me a lot because I used to get up and check email first thing or check social media and then I would be like, “Okay, now I need to write something,” and my brain is just fried. It was way past the point of no return. So now when I get up, I have maker time, and I write uninterrupted for hours. I mean, besides breaks, but I don’t check stuff. So I would say that’s the number one thing is having that set time for maker time and manager time.

Alex: Well, and that would take you some time to get into the habit of that, because how hard is it not to check your phone in the morning for an hour?

Brian Dean: It’s hard, man, the number one thing that I’ve struggled with this and what helps me whenever I get off the wagon, is five minutes, being like, “I’m just going to not check my phone, I’m going to write for five minutes,” because there’s really, no matter what happens in the internet world, it can wait five minutes, five minutes isn’t going to make a difference. So, and then what happens is, after five minutes, you’re like, “That was great. Why don’t I do this more often? Let me do 10 minutes.”

Alex: 10 minutes.

Brian Dean: You’re not going to even want to check your phone after five minutes. So that’s how I usually get into it, as opposed to being like, “Yeah, you need to schedule four hours for writing on day one.” That’s pretty overwhelming.

Alex: For sure. Second last question. So what’s the best piece of business advice that you’ve ever received?

Brian Dean: Double down on what works. That’s from my friend, Noah Kagan, that it’s really tempting and I’m tempted to this a lot too, is when something’s working, you have a business that’s doing well, is to go like, “Now this is working, let’s try something totally different. SEO is working; let’s go on Twitter. Google Ads are working; let’s do blogging.” And a lot of times, your best bet is just to double-down on what works. And if you look at companies that have grown really quickly, like Uber and Airbnb and Unicorns, it’s usually down to a couple of things they did over and over again, and they scaled that up, as opposed to doing a million things. So I’ll put that as number one.

Alex: Yeah, great. And I think that’s a really good one, because it’s easy to get bored as an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get bored when things are working, and it’s easy to just want more without having an expertise to get more. It’s like my tennis game like I want to win, but I ain’t got the skill to beat that guy.

Brian Dea: Yeah.

Alex: Anyway, cool. And what do you do for fun apart from tennis? Yes, that’s how you relax, but apart from that.

Brian Dean: I’m a big reader and cooker. So for me fun is cooking for the wife and reading a book while it’s on the stove, to be honest.

Alex: That’s nice.

Brian Dean: That’s a nice way to wind down on nights that I’m not playing tennis.

Alex: Oh, that’s awesome. That’s it, Brian. Hey, it’s done. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. This has been a super-enjoyable conversation. I got to ask all of the geekiest questions around SEO that I could possibly ask, and thank you for sharing across the board on the topics that we discussed because I know that we went into a lot of different areas. I appreciate actually how open that you’ve been. So thank you so much. So for anyone that’s listening, subscribe to Brian’s site at, and check out or .co? .com?

Brian Dean: .com.

Alex: .com, and I get excited, so this stutter comes out, especially when I’ve got the quickfire questions, I should call them the slow fire questions actually, so I can relax a little bit towards the end.

Brian Dean: Yeah, yeah.

Alex: Yeah, but…

Brian Dean: I always get nervous at those, because a lot of podcasts, you have no idea what’s coming. Usually, the beginning is normal, then they’re like, “Okay, we end with some rapid-fire.” Yours were totally normal, but sometimes people ask some wacky questions for those.

Alex: Well, maybe I should ask a couple of wacky ones in there, but that’s not my style. I just want the content, you know?

Brian Dean: Yeah.

Alex: The insight. So Brian, thanks so much for coming on the podcast, mate, and we’ll talk soon.

Brian Dean: Thanks for having me, Alex. Bye.

Alex: Thanks for listening to the Growth Manifesto Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please head on over to iTunes and give us a five-star rating. For more episodes, please visit


Adrian Clark

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