Exploring SEO and Digital Marketing with Ann Smarty | GlaspTalk #8

Exploring SEO and Digital Marketing with Ann Smarty | GlaspTalk #8

This is the eighth session of Glasp Talk!

Glasp Talk delves deep into intimate interviews with luminaries from various fields, unraveling their genuine emotions, experiences, and the stories behind them.

Today's guest is Ann Smarty, the co-founder of Smarty Marketing, a boutique SEO agency and former Editor-in-Chief of Search Engine Journal.

In this interview, Ann shares her extensive experience in the digital marketing landscape, discusses the evolution of SEO, and offers valuable insights into branding and content strategies. She also emphasizes the importance of community engagement and building professional relationships in the SEO industry. Ann advises startups and small businesses on leveraging AI for SEO, crafting unique content, and overcoming challenges in the ever-changing digital landscape. Don't miss this inspiring and informative conversation!


Host: Welcome back to GlaspTalk. Today we have Ann Smarty, co-founder of Smarty Marketing, a boutique SEO agency based in New York. She has over two decades of experience in the digital marketing landscape and is a former Chief at Search Engine Journal, one of the top resources for SEO insights. If you are in this industry, you might have read an article or two by her at least. She does many things, and today we'd like to ask her all about SEO, marketing, branding, and more. We are so excited to have you on. Welcome to GlaspTalk!

Ann: Thank you, thank you so much for having me. A quick fun fact about me is that I come from Ukraine. I moved to the United States about 11 years ago now, and I've always lived in New York during my time here. But I’ve been traveling a lot around the world and the United States. So, I have a lot going on in my life and career too. It will be a nice discussion. Thank you for having me again.

Host: Thank you. You introduced yourself a little bit, but could you, for some of our audience who might not know you yet, introduce yourself a bit more?

Ann: Absolutely. I’m not as good at talking about myself because it always feels a little bit weird. When it comes to my SEO background, I started back when I was in college in Ukraine. I’ve worked for a lot of brands at this point. It’s been 20 years, so I’ve changed a lot of roles from SEO analyst to blogger to editor in chief to community manager, again SEO analyst, link builder, guest blogging expert. I’ve had a lot of projects that I launched and sold. I’ve worked in-house for an agency, and now I have my own agency, which we treat very carefully with our strategies. We do not believe in templated reports or the same strategy for every client, so we take every client very uniquely, and that’s our selling point. You can search Ann Smarty on Google and find a lot of content that I’ve written. You can also follow me on Twitter as @seosmarty and on LinkedIn as Ann Smarty. I send weekly newsletters covering all kinds of SEO, search, AI trends, news, updates, anything that has been going on with Google and its algorithm updates and how they work. So, I’m doing my best to keep on top of everything that’s going on, especially now that search is being so impacted by generative AI and the algorithm changes a lot. It’s been a fun ride, and I think this year has been the most dramatic in our industry. A lot of small business owners and small publications have been impacted by all kinds of search changes, and that’s what we are doing – trying to help them and keep on top of everything that’s going on.

Host: Thank you so much. That’s a good point. You have a good series point with your username SEO Smarty. That’s good.

Ann: Yes, it’s my Twitter profile, Smarty. It has my last name and smart, so it’s easy to remember. And my agency is Smarty Marketing, so it’s a lot of smarty.

Host: Yeah, easy to remember, and people understand what you’re doing. In the beginning, you mentioned that you have touched a lot of things, a lot of projects like community manager or something else. But what made you think SEO is what you want to do?

Ann: I’m going to get more focused on AI in the future. That’s my initial plan for this year. I’m not sure where my life and career will take me. Anything that I’ve been doing has been somehow connected with SEO. Even when I was a community manager, I was the manager of SEO forums and communities, so it was still SEO. It was still my opportunity to learn SEO. Anything I’ve been doing mostly has been somehow SEO, so I’ve been learning SEO with all of those roles. It’s been my focus, just different angles of SEO. Sometimes I had to speak to SEO experts when I was their community manager at the forum, or sometimes I had to write for blogs, and I was still writing about SEO. So, anything I was doing has been pretty much SEO, and it’s going to stay that way. It’s just SEO is changing so fast, so I’m glad to have such diverse experience. It’s helpful now that everything is changing.

Host: Yeah, exciting. I’m curious, you know, like SEO, Google is changing algorithms, and many search engines are changing their search algorithms. How do you keep up with the new updates, and also, as we mentioned, AI is kind of eating software nowadays. How do you keep up with this, and what’s your strategy in SEO?

Ann: SEO, just in case there are some people who are not that familiar with this term, is search engine optimization. It has always been about helping search engines find, crawl, and rank your content. It’s not about faking anything or manipulating anything. It’s about making it easier for search engines to access your site, your content, your product pages, and all of that. With regards to how it’s changing, the algorithm is changing, but the fundamentals of SEO remain the same. Even though tactically we approach them differently, fundamentally, we need to make sure that there is relevant content on the site that solves the problems of the user. The site is structured in a way that makes it easy to crawl for Google and access all the important pages. We need external signals like backlinks because Google uses backlinks and other signals to understand how authoritative and trustworthy this content is. These fundamentals haven’t changed, and going forward, when AI is taking over more and more of the search share, which is probably going to happen, especially with new generations using generative AI to find answers, discover products, brands, and all of that, these fundamentals will still remain the same. We need to have relevant content that is user-centric and solves their problems within the context of the products you create or anything like that. We still need brand visibility that comes with backlinks because unless we talk about a brand, generative AI is not going to know about it. We need an easy, usable website for people and search and AI bots to crawl it. This is all going to change. What is changing is how we measure results. Previously, we had clicks, Google Analytics, Search Console, and SEO tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush, which are also helpful. Now, with AI, it’s bringing more dynamics. Every answer that AI is giving is probably different from what you see or what your customers see. It’s a lot of unpredictability. This is the part we’re going to try and solve, and that’s why I’m so interested in discovering new tools and how they approach brand reputation management, monitoring using AI tools, and even AI overviews that Google launched last week or maybe the previous week. They are still very dynamic. Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes they include certain backlinks, and sometimes the links are different references. All of that is going to be an interesting trial for us as an industry to figure out how we make the strategies more predictable because the fundamentals remain the same. How to measure results and success is going to change a lot, and we haven’t figured it out yet. I’m doing my best to stay on top of everything that is going on and new tools that come up and solve those problems. On Twitter and LinkedIn, I usually follow people who share news, results, case studies, and tools, and that’s how I find out about them. So just being part of the SEO community is very effective in terms of staying up to date with what’s going on.

Host: I see, and as you mentioned, Google is experimenting with many things now, including AI, which is really interesting. At the same time, I see people’s behavior is changing, meaning from searching to more like asking language models. For example, ChatGPT has over 100 million users. How do you think that behavior change impacts SEO?

Ann: It looks like a recent change in behavior, but in reality, Google has been trying to become an answer engine rather than a search engine for about six years now. If you remember, ten years ago when you searched on Google, you would get just organic results, and you would decide which of them gives you a better answer. It hasn't been like that for many years. Google now has featured snippets and quick answers. Anytime you search, you see the quick answer right on top of everything. Voice search has been around for many years when people would just talk queries to a mobile device, and Google would give answers. People also ask all those related questions, helping people find more about the topic and make more informed decisions. Knowledge Graph is what you see when you search for any brand, quick information about this brand, its history, its founders, and all of that. It has been the evolution of Google for many years. It’s just more obvious now. Asking questions and giving answers isn’t a new thing. It’s something we’ve been dealing with for many years. We’ve been optimizing for featured snippets for about ten years now, and that’s exactly about giving quick answers to questions because you want to be featured, so you want this question to be very concise so that Google could pick it up and show it to people. In that respect, it has been a trend for a while, and it’s not like we are not ready for it. We now know how to optimize content for it to give good, concise, quick answers to people so that when they ask a question, they get exactly what they need, and it’s right there. AI is just making it a little bit more dynamic because previously, we would get our site featured for some queries, and then we would see exactly how people click on it, how they interact with pages, if they are satisfied with that answer, or if they search for more answers. It’s been trackable and measurable. Now, when all those questions are asked to AI bots or AI platforms, it’s very dynamic, so it’s not exactly trackable anymore. It will be harder for us to understand which questions, which answers satisfy those questions better and which are more discoverable and answerable. We will see. We have a long history of being able to give good answers and optimize for Google, so we will use that experience to optimize for AI platforms going forward. Yes, it’s a challenge to be discovered by generative AI platforms like ChatGPT and all of that, but I’m pretty sure that we have all the needed experience that we’ve been accumulating for many years now, optimizing for bots. It’s just a little bit smarter, more dynamic bot, but it’s still a bot, and we can definitely give answers to that. Also, in terms of people losing interest in search, it’s too early to say. There is no statistic that would prove that people really switch from search to ChatGPT or other generative AI platforms. They may be using both at some point, but I don’t think one replaces the other. I search when I need in-depth information about products I want to buy, brands I want to deal with, or information I need to write about. It’s still a more in-depth process than going to ChatGPT for a quick answer like "Create me this code" or "Who is the president of some country." Those are not as in-depth as the search right now. Yes, the expectations and behaviors are changing, but it’s too early to say how exactly they will change in five years. Right now, people are just using both for different tasks.

Host: Yes, totally. Thank you. You mentioned you have helped many companies and projects before, and your advice is based on what they do, their branding, and their service. But also, you mentioned that AI is impacting small companies too. How can startups or small companies deal with AI in terms of SEO? Should we use AI to create content?

Ann: Yes, you should, but not for content creation. I’m not saying that because of the ethical approach or because it may someday be penalized. My biggest point here is that you want your content to be unique, and unfortunately, generative AI is just repurposing other people's content. There’s nothing new that would let you stand out or build your customer base based on how good your content is and how unique it is. When I say unique, it’s not just about passing a plagiarism check. It’s based on your experience in the niche, your unique expertise in that topic, the problems your specific products are solving, and the unique way they are doing that. Your value proposition, all of these are very important to be reflected in your content strategy. It’s not just writing how to cook something again and again. There are all kinds of recipes available, but they should be different for Google to be able to surface you or for AI platforms to use your content to bring it forward to people. I don’t use generative AI for creating content in that way because there’s nothing unique in that content that could be claimed yours. There’s no firsthand experience with the topic, no value proposition. All of that is very important for the content to work because people will be tired of generative AI-generated content because it’s just quick answers. There is no depth, no personal experience in it. You will be losing people even if you manage to attract them to your site because there will be nothing new that they find there. No, we do not recommend creating content using generative AI. There are some very strong use cases for using generative AI in SEO. If you have product specifications, generative AI can create descriptions of those products, and they can be very good. They don’t have to have real unique experience, and it doesn’t have to be the only content on the page. But if you want your raw, boring product specifications to sound well, generative AI can help there. You can also ask ChatGPT about keywords people might be searching for related to your product. It’s more like ideation, not your final point. After that, you do keyword research, find out the demand for those keywords, the search volume, and see if they are really relevant for you. It’s a starting point, more brainstorming for keywords. You can ask ChatGPT to make your meta descriptions better or suggest some title variations for an article or product page. You can copy and paste your article to ChatGPT and ask how you can make it better, more helpful, or suggest some more topics to cover. If I review some tools, I would copy-paste it to Gemini and ask for a comparison table with pricing, pros and cons, and examples. It would be a very helpful comparison table that summarizes everything I wrote and my personal experience and research. There would be a comparison table for people to make it easier to make a choice. You can also ask generative AI to create takeaways from your content to put it on top of your article to make it easier for people to understand what the article is about. Everything you do in terms of content summarization using generative AI should be reviewed, double-checked, and edited because they hallucinate sometimes. They might invent something that wasn’t in your article, so keep that in mind. Generative AI can make your content creation more productive, giving you more ideas and helping you come up with a better way to say something, especially with headlines or titles because I’m terrible at making those very engaging and clickable. It’s helpful but not in a direct way. I don’t see it ever being useful for creating actual content because it repurposes other people’s thoughts. Your content needs to have your or your team’s thoughts, expertise, and uniqueness.

Host: Yeah, it should be unique.

Ann: Absolutely unique in a way that it brings something new. It’s not just unique in the word way but also adding something new to the topic. It’s usually easy when it’s your writer or you creating the content if you have firsthand experience. If I’m reviewing a tool, I make sure I use it, know my tasks, and know exactly where it’s lacking and where it’s helpful. That’s the unique experience that no other tool will have unless they repurpose someone else’s experience.

Host: That makes sense. You have worked with many clients before. Do you have any examples of big success that made you proud or any failed projects?

Ann: Not my clients because we use NDAs with them. I can talk about my own project, though. It’s been 10 years since I gave it up, but it’s an interesting story. It’s both a success and a failure. Back when I started, everyone wanted links because links were the only thing that worked. These days, it’s much more balanced because there are other signals in play. When I started, I didn’t know how to build my personal brand, so I started writing for other people who already had some community and leadership. I quickly realized that guest blogging is a great way to get your name out there in any industry, and it also brought links to your site. I started a project called MyBlogGuest, where people could come and exchange articles. Someone would host an article, and someone would write for someone else. There was no money involved; everyone was publishing content because they liked it. It was a beautiful thing. No one knew what guest blogging or guest posting was at that time, so I was ranking not for that term but for my brand name. People knew MyBlogGuest, but no one was searching for guest blogging. My brand name was huge. When people realized it was great for backlinks, they started guest blogging in bulk. They started paying money for it. At some point, Google was like, "You cannot guest blog anymore, stop it." Our platform was very clean; we didn’t allow any money exchange and ensured the quality of articles was high. But we were the biggest name in the industry, so Google penalized us and made a huge PR story out of it. Everyone was writing about it. They made an example of our brand to get that point across. My success story is that I built a brand big enough for Google to make an example of it, but the failure is that it got penalized. I had to give it up. It’s a success in how I built a brand and how it failed because Google penalized us. We were not coming up for our brand name, which was our only keyword that we cared about. We were not findable for our brand name. The moral of that story is that branding is important. You need to build a huge brand that is recognizable and that everyone knows about. But keep in mind, it can still blow up back on you. There could be reputation management issues when people start talking negatively about well-known brands, or like in our case, you can lose your brand because it was too well known in the industry. It’s an interesting case study. I’m still a huge fan of branding. I always say that because I was able to build not just that brand but also my personal brand, I can switch from project to project even if they fail. Branding is still very important, just keep in mind once it becomes too big, it’s not just yours anymore. You cannot control what people are saying about it or what Google does with it. Keep that in mind always.

Host: By the way, what’s the difference between blogging platforms like Medium, Substack, and guest posting? It seems like they allow guest posting.

Ann: It’s a little bit different. When you come to a big blog, there is already a huge number of people who read it on a daily basis, who are subscribed to it, and who visit it every day. You provide your content to an already established readership. You don’t have to promote it much because even if you’re no one, if you’re a good writer and your article is published on a big publication, you will get a lot of exposure. When you create an account on sites like Medium, LinkedIn, or Substack, you need to build up your account to have that kind of exposure. New accounts don’t have much recognition or exposure because you need to create and build your readership there individually. The more you write, the more your articles get discovered within the platform, but you need to build it up. This is the basic difference between guest blogging for a blog, guest writing for someone established, and creating content on Medium or platforms like that.

Host: Interesting, thank you. I read your article before, and you mentioned leveraging Reddit for branding and marketing. Could you elaborate on that?

Ann: Reddit is a very unique platform that you need to handle very carefully. We've been using Reddit for many years to reach link amplifiers. There are a lot of journalists and bloggers who use Reddit to track trends and news, especially local journalists looking for something new to write about. Reddit is a great way to put content in front of them if you do it right. If you get spammy, you will be penalized or blacklisted. We’ve created a very careful program where we do not necessarily promote anything like "Hey, look, this is a great tool or infographic," but we bring it up carefully. We know which subreddits are much milder and welcome that sort of content. Reddit is so important for SEO these days for two reasons. First, Google has an agreement with Reddit for using their content for analysis and improving their algorithm. Secondly, Reddit ranks very well. It’s dominating search, especially for brand-driven queries. Sometimes instead of seeing your well-curated Yelp or Trustpilot reviews, people see "This company sucks" on Reddit. Reddit is mostly negative when it comes to discussing products and their experiences with brands because if you’re a happy customer, there’s no reason to go to Reddit and start a thread saying you love a company. But if you’re an unhappy customer, you will talk about it. We understand why Reddit is mostly negative for discussing products and customer experiences. But it’s something we have to solve because those Reddit threads are ranking for important brand queries. We create brand-driven subreddits to rank instead of those threads. We carefully talk in those threads without being too promotional, because Reddit is such a tough community. There’s no one thing that we do. We do community management, content promotion, outreach, and ads on Reddit. Not all clients need all of that, so we approach every client differently. Sometimes there’s a Reddit reputation crisis that needs to be addressed first. Sometimes we provide content promotion services because the client needs more backlinks. We do branding on Reddit by creating communities. Reddit is very high priority because it can scare future customers from dealing with you. Reddit’s problem needs to be addressed by just about any business these days.

Host: That’s very interesting. As a startup founder building a product, where do you start with SEO if you have almost no traffic? How do you get brand awareness and traffic?

Ann: The very first thing to do is creating a content-driven PR campaign. That’s something we specialize in. It drives backlinks and brand awareness, so Google starts seeing your name. That’s the starting point for any SEO campaign. They need that initial brand awareness, initial clicks, and initial backlinks. We do them regularly so those fresh signals keep coming to the site. Those are data-driven, well-researched projects that we promote to journalists. We do journalistic outreach and Reddit promotion to attract coverage in media publications and on Reddit. Simultaneously, the fundamental part of getting traffic is solving your users’ problems in your content on your blog. That’s where we start working on understanding those problems, making sure you know how they are researched using Google, doing keyword research, and planning your editorial calendar. Every month, there should be a few articles on your site that solve people’s problems and give your product some non-promotional context. This sends internal backlinks to your landing pages or homepage. Those two processes never stop. That’s where you start and continue going forward. When your site grows, we start updating the content, restructuring the site to highlight more pages. But that’s not a problem for startups until the site grows too much. That’s what we do for startups of any size.

Host: Let’s say a company works in a specific industry or domain, and they run the company for several years, covering all the keywords. Should they move on to another domain to get more traffic or focus on important keywords?

Ann: I would focus on one site and one brand for as long as I can. I’ve never seen a site ranking for all the keywords they needed, so there’s always a lot of restructuring, reoptimizing, and improving. Competitors enter the scene, and you need to keep your site up. For two reasons: you don’t want brand dilution, and you want people to know your brand name. It takes time to build that. There’s a concept of site authority. The more signals you accumulate on one site, the more trustworthy all the pages are considered by Google. If you switch, that site will start losing signals and rankings. Keep everything within one site unless it’s a completely different project. Build up that brand, keep the identity, and focus on one domain.

Host: Since Glasp is a platform where people can leave their digital legacy for others, as an SEO analyst and consultant, what do you want to leave behind for the future? What’s your goal and impact you want to leave for others?

Ann: This is too deep. Many years ago, I thought I had an answer because I built a great community. But after that, I got into so many places, had kids, traveled the world, had many career changes and roles. At this point, I’m a bit lost on what I want to leave behind. Maybe I will know when I get more focused on one thing, like creating my agency. Right now, I don’t have an answer. I’m still searching for that thing I want to leave behind.

Host: But you love helping people, right?

Ann: Yes, I do. It’s a little bit vague. I would love to build something that’s there for generations. But I’m not sure yet. It’s been a lot going on, so I haven’t been focused or organized too much for many years now. It’s just life. But I’m sure I will find something. I’ve been thinking about what I want to do that will be my heritage.

Host: Do you have any favorite quotes that keep you motivated?

Ann: "Everything is going to be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end."

Host: I love it. Do you have any advice for our audience, aspiring writers, creators, bloggers?

Ann: I remember I started as a blogger, writing in the public SEO community. What motivated me was meeting other people who write on similar topics and being part of that community. A lot of writers and bloggers are too isolated, so they give up too early. Try to be part of the community you’re writing for or meet similar writers. You don’t have to meet them in person; online is enough. I hadn’t seen anyone in our industry until I came to this country, but when I came, everyone already knew me. Being part of the community shows you what you can achieve and gives you opportunities you never thought about. Opportunities come from meeting people. It’s called serendipity, making your own luck by doing a lot of things. Spend time helping people, meeting people, talking to them. Opportunities will come up, some one-time, some long-term partners or friends. That’s my advice, get out there and spend time with people, even if it’s just online. You can build a career defined by being an active part of a community.

Host: Beautiful, thank you so much for all the insights and advice. Thank you for joining today.

Ann: Thank you so much for having me. Let’s keep in touch and let me know when it’s published. I’ll make sure to share it around. Thank you.

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