NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Search engine optimization is a quickly changing industry. Some business owners hire SEO companies like ours to help them climb up the Google rankings for their desired keywords. Other business owners prefer to receive coaching or learn SEO themselves to increase their online exposure.
Melinda West is a business owner that’s doing it all. She started Swags Galore in 1999, and at that time she was one of the only online curtain retailers around. Things have changed, though, and other curtain retailers have made their way to the web.
Now Melinda and her husband Eugene compete with online behemoths like Amazon and big box stores like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond to bring beautiful, affordable curtains to the masses. I got to pick her brain to see how she and her husband optimize their site and grow their business all on their own.
Jessica: How difficult has it been to learn about the Google search algorithm?
Melinda: I can’t elaborate too much because I don’t want to give away any secrets. Let me say this: It doesn’t matter how much advice you get or how much you read, it’s about the case study. Say you optimize your website and implement SEO techniques and blog. My site’s ranking then isn’t relying on just one technique – it’s a combination of a million different things.
The only way you can tell if you’re successful is if your keywords rank higher on Google than they did before. It’s a case study, and you should look at it exactly like that if you do SEO for your own business. If you do something and slip down in the rankings, the change you made was probably not a good thing. If you do something else and your rank raises, then it’s a good thing.
We recently broke Page 1 for “valances,” which is a very competitive keyword, and we’re glad to have that deep and narrow focus to continue growing with that keyword. For “curtains” we were previously nonexistent, and now we’re on Page 2. We must have slipped a little.
Jessica: How often do you check your keywords?
Melinda: Multiple times a day. They bounce you around, and we want to understand how the algorithm really works, so we check often. Hummingbird, the recently released new Google algorithm, didn’t affect us negatively. Has all our SEO increased our page ranking? Yes, but we’re still ongoing, and it’s a process that will never end.
Jessica: Do you focus on organic search, or do you also pay for advertising?
Melinda: Right now I feel we’ve done pretty much all we can do on search. Now we’re going one step further to brand our business and build some press. There are a million different ways to market your business, including PPC campaigns, Facebook ads, etc.
One thing we’re doing is using retargeting campaigns. Say you’re shopping for shoes online, and a day later you open your email inbox, and there are shoe ads. You pay for that; it’s paid advertising. You have to tackle the market on every front, and how can we compete? Because we have a really narrow niche. I don’t put much effort into social media; none of my traffic comes from there.
Jessica: What benefits do you see from doing your own SEO as opposed to hiring an SEO specialist?
Melinda: I know SEO specialists have a lot of tips, tricks, and techniques that I can learn from. But I also think that once an SEO company uses all their methods, they have to reevaluate their strategies and they tap out their resources. They can do wonders for some clients, but I have a super competitive niche, and I can focus solely on growing my own business. I would rather write my own blog posts and press releases than hire freelancers who aren’t experts in the industry. I know my industry back and forth, so who better to do the work but me?
If you use only one method or use just one SEO person or freelancer to help your SEO efforts, it could appear to Google as spam. I’ve found that attacking SEO from many directions helps me move up for my keywords. You can’t discount Yahoo! and Bing, either. The process is all manual and very hands-on. That said, the average website owner doesn’t know what happens online. They really have to get in tune with things or they go away very quickly.
Jessica: Other than checking your keywords multiple times per day, what other barometers do you use to measure your SEO success?
Melinda: I use Google Analytics – you’d be crazy not to – and some other analytics and keyword tools. But I don’t use just one source. I know that if I double my sales from last July, then I’m on the right path. If my sales dip, something’s off, and I have to figure out what and why.
We use some tools, and using them helps us figure out exactly what our competitors are doing. We basically just watch the successful people rise to the top and follow what they do. We add in some stuff of our own, monitor our progress, and try to fit all the pieces together. It’s a lot of work, and it costs a lot of money to do SEO.
Jessica: What SEO resources do you use?
Melinda: I don’t have one go-to source. If something happens to my search position, I want to find out why, and then I research further. If I keep making gains, I’m not concerned with what Google is doing or how they’ve changed the algorithm. I’m running a business here, too, so I’m doing a lot more work than just SEO. My approach is certainly more reactive than proactive. For instance, I noticed that on a recent Penguin release, the bloggers got hit really badly and now they’re gun shy to do anything. I’ve talked to a lot of them, and they all had to change their businesses.
Jessica: You were way ahead of the online curtain selling game, but now the big box stores have caught on. What strategies do you implement to compete with much larger companies online?
Melinda: Well, I would say probably the one advantage I have against the competition is having a super narrow niche and a small handful of keywords. Because we’re so narrow, we can focus on those keywords and do them well. Staying narrow and focused is the key. A lot of my competitors in the curtain industry expanded into bed and bath, adding more and more products that weren’t curtains.
We went to a 100 percent stocked model, which means we keep very deep curtain stock as another advantage over the competition. The fully stocked model means we own all the curtains you see in our store, and we’re able to ship them faster and with less hassle than big box stores.
Another advantage we have over Amazon and big box stores is that they’re very fragmented. My store shows customers what they can do in a boutique shop and its not fragmented at all. We have deep, narrow stock, we ship 24-hours, we purposely pick products with great price points and we make the products unique.
Jessica: Thanks, Melinda! It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and learning from you.
Are there any other business owners out there who would like to share their SEO trials and successes? We’d really like to hear from you.