An Interview with Brian Dean – Founder of

We continue our new interview series with Brian Dean, the founder of Backlinko. William talks to Brian about actionable SEO, content marketing, and his online course, SEO That Works (Run time: 24:55).

Interviewer/William: So, today we have Brian Dean from Backlinko on with us. Thank you, Brian, for coming on the program.

Brian Dean: Hey, thanks for having me, William. It’s good to be here.

William: I appreciate it.

So again, everybody, a quick background, you run Backlinko. And Backlinko is SEO training shop. I ran across Backlinko because I was doing some researching. I’m in SEO, I do that all the time. And really, what struck me about was just the amount of actionable really kind of just how-you-get-stuff-done intelligence that was there. And I thought it was awesome and I wanted to interview you because of that.

So, I really appreciate you coming on.

Brian Dean: Sure. Well, thanks for having me. I do try to work hard to make sure that the content isn’t this theoretical approach mentality type of stuff. It’s really actionable stuff, so it’s really good to hear that you’re getting that off of it.

William: Yeah, I very much find we are a society of ‘magic bullets’.

Brian Dean: OK, yeah.

William: And we often are looking for this one quick thing that’s going to get us there. And I think that your stuff was very kind of focused and practical about brass tacks of how you do stuff and get stuff done. It’s [01:16 going to mean] long term versus short quick win.

Brian Dean: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there’s something to be said for things that can help you. As you said, the magic bullet is… There is no magic bullet.

And I consult for a lot of SEO agencies and when I first started, I have my own Web properties and I was doing for them and that’s how I was able to get in with these SEO agencies. And I assumed that they’re going to be teaching me stuff because they have all these secret [01:43 laugh-ins] and secret strategies and sources. And I was amazed that they were going to ask me. Me, what could I ever tell them? They have all the secrets in this locked box somewhere.

And then, when I talked to them, it turned out that there is no same stuff I’m doing or the same stuff that everyone else is doing and the advise I was giving them was basically some stuff they hadn’t even heard of. So, the concept that these, what, agencies or anyone has some magic bullet. It’s not the case. Which is good news because that means that with the right process, you can do well and you don’t need some secret.

William: Yeah, that’s great. So, obviously, it sounds like you started working, doing your own stuff for yourself. How did you get really started doing Backlinko?

Brian Dean: I guess I started the site about a year ago. So it’s like December of last year. And the year before that, I really kind of figure-it-out SEO, as much as you can ever figure it out. Because a couple of years before then, I was doing freelance writing. I was doing some SEO on the side and basically failing over and over again with SEO. But I was determined to succeed with it because I always get really close. I feel like I just needed to go over the edge and then I would be at the point where I can get consistent results from SEO.

But it took a good maybe a year and a half of failing to do that while I was freelance writing on the side. And part of the reason that it took so long is because I didn’t focused on it and I didn’t fail fast enough. And as you know, as an entrepreneur, one of the best things you can do is just keep trying stuff and failing and messing up and learning lessons. And it was really hard to pay the bills, so the speak, with the freelance writing so I didn’t put that energy into SEO.

And about two and half years ago — yeah, maybe two years ago now — the freelance writing totally dried up and I really had to focus on SEO. And that’s when I started failing fast, fast, fast, fast, fast. And about few months after that, I finally kind of figured it out. And over time, I figure it out more and more.

About a year ago, I had the idea I’d like to start an SEO site because I saw what was out there and there are some great SEO blogs online, but there’s so few and there’s so much stuff about SEO that I knew there’s an opportunity out there for someone who will come out and help people who are trying to get more search engine [04:03 shopping] by giving them actionable advice they can use as opposed to some theories. That was my unique sign of proposition, so I decided to start it.


William: Yeah, that’s cool.

It’s interesting. So you’ve tested a lot of stuff and you’re writing this blog and you’re kind of focused on the industry. I’m curious, right now, kind of a prevailing thing is this whole (not provided) and Google updates, changing not only the frequent algorithm chips but also the tools. The tool set’s changing, right? And the way we gather information is changing.

So, I’m just curious what your thoughts are on what that mean, like those two things kind of combine the Analytics (not provided) change plus Hummingbird and other changes like that. What’s your take on that and what means for people who were trying to do SEO today? 

Brian Dean: Well, my take’s a bit different. I don’t see these things as massive fundamental shifts. I see them as just changes. And I am a big nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy. I just have my head down and I just do my thing and every time I look up, I’m getting more traffic. Every time I look up, I’m getting more subscribers. Every time I look up, I’m making more money. And that’s because I have my nose to the grindstone, just focusing on getting things done.

And I don’t let these changes that I have zero control over impact how I run my business, and the SEO part of my business was obviously a huge part of it. Because the one thing you have to understand about these changes that Google is making, whether it’s an update or it’s (not provided) or whatever, is that there are tons of SEO sites out there.

And no one talks about this but there are hundreds of SEO blogs and sites like Search Engine Watch or Search Engine Land that they’re publishing on a daily basis. And they need fodder, they need something to write about. So when Google comes out with Hummingbird, something like that, that only affects a tiny percentage of searches significantly, they’ll write 50 articles about Hummingbird.

And then, when (not provided) comes out and people can’t see their data, which is obviously a huge loss — I’m not going to say it’s no big deal but it shouldn’t impact how you move forward — they’ll write a 100 articles about how this is a shame and how Google is doing this and all about the NSA. And they did it because they didn’t want the NSA. Who cares what this do with my business? I don’t care.

William: Right.

Brian Dean: So my whole… I have sort of an apathy towards any change that doesn’t impact the traffic that actually comes to my site and the number of visitors that I’m trying to lead to sales. So, once that, if that happens, then I’ll start paying attention. But until that it’s just noise for all the bloggers having something to write about.

William: Interesting. So, apply that to content marketing. I’m curious about your thoughts. So a lot of people talk about content marketing and inbound marketing. And so, this may be a curve ball question, I apologize.

Brian Dean: No, I’m cool. Say what you… Ask whatever.

William: Yes. So the thing I find about contact marketing is this idea that plays into a larger theme about attracting links. I’ll just create great content and everything will magically happen, right? SEO is dead.

Brian Dean: Right.

William: It’s all social. And all these algorithm changes, it’s impossible to keep up. So you shouldn’t and you should just write great content and let everything magically happen. My guess is that your take on that is that that’s puppy talk, I guess.

Brian Dean: Yeah, that’s one way of putting it, yeah. I would. For a couple of reasons and first is that SEO and content marketing are two totally different things.

So, SEO is basically the goal of getting more search engine traffic to your website — optimizing your site for search engines. Now, there’s many ways to do that where you have on-page SEO. You have things that impact the technical functionality of your site, URL structure, keywords that you choose, how many pages you have in your site, how does it interlink. And that really hasn’t anything to do with content at all. So, that’s all not content-related.

And then, on the other side, you have the contents on your sites, obviously super important for SEO. And it’s important for tracking links, tracking social shares and basically getting people to pay attention to your site and link to it.

So, I see them as two different things, and trying to replace SEO with content marketing is really silly because they have nothing to do with each other. Because, for example, you could do a content marketing campaign on TV, right? Just get tons of people that type in your URL directly into their browser and get a ton of traffic from that content marketing campaign but that will impact your search engine ranking zero percent.

So, they’re two different things. And content marketing is great. The problem is like you said, William, that people think content marketing equals publishing great content. And they forget the marketing part of content marketing.

William: Right.

Brian Dean: And I was guilty of that when I first started. Actually it’s funny, because when I first got started in SEO — this was like three years ago — and I made my first authority site, and the idea was OK. And this is back before the big update, this was before Panda, before Penguin, before (not provided), before Hummingbird. This was when things were relatively quiet. But even back then, I saw a lot of people get slapped from results. They’re still making some updates back then. And so, you know, I’ll forget that. All I’m going to do is make a great site and publish great content and I know I will [09:45 acquire] the links that I deserve.

And it never happened. It never happened. And that’s when I started to do more black hat stuff like buying links and things like that. Because I realized that there’s no way you can just publish content and get results. And now, the [09:59 XX] you can promote your content in a way that you can get results. And I can go over on how to do in the interview if you want, but just the idea of publishing content as a replacement for SEO is [10:11 insane].

William: Yeah. I agree with that and I think… I’m trying to think, there was a quote that I read and I’ve got it in something I did way back when. It was an industrialist — I can’t come up with his name — but basically he said that next to doing the right thing, the most important thing to do is let everybody know you’re doing the right thing. Right?

Brian Dean: Right.

William: Getting out there, promoting is at least half of it.

Brian Dean: I would say it’s 80% when you’re first starting out. So, if you don’t have anyone that already goes to your site to potentially share your content. If you are doing a blog and you’re not seen as an industry leader, you’re going to have to do maybe 80% of the time promoting your content, 20% creating it. And it’s how most people almost do no promotion at all for their content. Maybe they tweet it out, share it on Facebook, maybe email a couple of people. But they don’t really do a lot of crazy stuff.

Like every time I publish a blog post, I email 200 people to let them know about it. I don’t ask them to share. I just send the link to it. I just find people who would be interested in it, who own websites and put that in front of them. And that’s something that’s really simple and that’s a good example of just nose-in-the-grindstone.

So I know I want to email 200 people, I don’t know about (not provided) or updates. All I know is that I get more traffic because that’s what people would share on my content with other people as long as I do it in this way that’s not pushy, just kind of get to the front of them.

William: That’s interesting.

So, if you were talking to people and you had suggestions about the top two or three things that they should do, if they believe in that great content. They spent all this time producing it. They think it’s awesome, they think it’s sticky, they think it’s relevant for their audience but then, they’re not getting what they thought because they’re not really doing anything to promote it.

If there was just a couple of things you would recommend, what would you recommend to people to finally get started?

Brian Dean: Sure.

So the first thing I would do is validate whether or not it is really great. Because a huge mistake I see people make is that they’ll email me and go on emails like, “I created this great piece of content. And I’m not getting any results from it. How should I promote it?”

And before you promote it, you do want to make 100% sure that what you’re promoting is a 9 out 10 or a 10 out of 10. So a great quote from [12:36 XX] a couple of months ago and he basically said, “When you publish something, a 7 out of 10 is the same as a 1 out of 10.” Just because there’s so much content out there that good stuff might as well be bad stuff. There’s no distinction anymore between good and bad. It’s only a distinction between good, bad and amazing.

So before you promote, make sure you really have something absolutely incredible on your hands before you do it or else you’re not going to get a lot of traction from it. So, if you have like a “Top Ten Ways to Lose Weight,” even if it’s good and very well done and well researched and all that, I would make sure that when you look in weight loss in Google or weight loss tips in Google that someone hasn’t produced 50 or a 100 ways to do it yesterday that was really well done.

William: Right.

Brian Dean: Because how are you going to compete with that?

So, the first thing you want to do is look at the competitive landscape and make sure you have something amazing. Because outreach and promoting content is a lot of work. One of the reasons people don’t do it that much is because it’s much easier to press publish and there’s no rejection at all. So people are very afraid of outreach. But if you want to succeed and get the most out that time, I would first look at your content and make sure that’s absolutely mind-blowing, nothing less than amazing.

So, once you have that established out, your next step is to get it in front of people have the ability to share it. Okay?

William: Right.

Brian Dean: A mistake a lot of people make is that they’ll promote it to random people on social media. But unless your target audience are other site owners who have influential social media accounts, they’re not going to be able to share with anyone. They might email their friends to like it on Facebook, but you really want to get it in front of what are called the ‘linkerati’, which are the people in the world who own websites and have the ability to link to you and to share their content with social media.

So you want to get it directly in front of those people because they have the ability to spread the word a lot more. They go in one by one by one. It’s almost like being a door-to-door salesman when you start to do that. So you don’t want to go door-to-door because it’s very time-consuming and not very effective. So you want to get in front of these influencers who have the ability to spread your message around.

Those are the two things that I would do.

William: Interesting. Yeah, to me, one of the things that we do in our platform is for keywords, we monitor the mention stream.

Brian Dean: OK.

William: If possible, search and social channels, right? And we build and influencer list of all the people who have reach and authority for those individual topics. So that when you produce a piece of content, you’ve got a list to go to of people…

Brian Dean: Yeah, sure.

William: And who are exactly that. And what we find is that often it’s the blogs that have the most influence, right? They have the most reach. Somebody’s Twitter account may be effective for a blip and they come out of the box to come to your site. But if somebody mentions it on their blog and links to it and talks about it…

Brian Dean: Yeah. Converts a lot better, too. Right?

William: Yes.

Brian Dean: So, the traffic from a mention on a blog converts much better than Twitter.

William: Yeah. And then, as you know, over time, that stuff builds up and eventually, you got better ranking in search engines.

Brian Dean: Right.

William: So, discoverability goes up. It’s an awesome thing.

Brian Dean: [15:50 XX] all that bunch of people which is not fun. It’s not as if everyone is like, “Ah, what’s the next big social media site,” and “What’s the next big tool or something like that?” And forgetting that email is actually far and away the most powerful marketing tool that you have.

William: Right.

Brian Dean: And it’s a skill of email outreach. It’s not something you can just do, because I have people emailing saying like, “I heard you said that you email 250 people after you publish something. I did the same thing. I only got like two tweets out of it.” And I’m like, “Oh, God. That’s not so right.”

I mean, how many hours they may had spent emailing those people. Many send me the script and it’s just very like self-promotional, doesn’t say anything about the person?

So whenever you do email outreach, it’s a skill that we could go over ten interviews over.

William: Possible.

Brian Dean: But basically, you want to make it about them. And make it about them.

And that’s why when I said I outreach, I said people who will be interested in it. Because if you get it in front of them, you’re actually doing them a favor. So imagine that you’re really interested in Civil War history, say, you love Civil War history, and a friend emails you an article they read about some battle that wasn’t recorded – I’ve already just kind of discover some evidence – you’ll thank that person that would be adding value to your life.

So when you do email outreach, that should be your goal – finding people who would actually read it and be like, “Wow, I’m really glad this person sent it to me,” as opposed to “Oh my God, who is this person, Bob?”

William: [Laughter]

Brian Dean: And that line is a very thin line and it’s really about how you approach the person. And you have to also keep in mind how influential that person is. Right? So you have to take a totally different approach if you’re going to email [17:33 Seth Godin] versus some [17:35 mommy] blogger. It’s totally different approach. And you have to warm up to him for months before you approach. And you might as well email the [17:41 mommy] blogger and get your order, link or mention or whatever you want out of it.

[17:46 It’s a lot] different but it’s worthwhile.

William: Yeah, it’s interesting. I didn’t expect that this conversation would go to email but that’s actually like one of our… When we did the agency before we built the software, that was our go-to technique, right? That was like our secret sauce, that we would go out and we would find everybody’s email and we would reach out to people via email.

Brian Dean: It’s great. I kind of discovered that it works by accident because when I, like I said, I had my first site where it was more like the inbound content marketing where I’ll just publish and they will come. [18:23 You go] and they will come and it didn’t work.

So then, I kind of went to the dark side and I started doing black hat stuff. And when I saw it taking on clients, I realized that they probably wouldn’t appreciate me doing all these black hat stuff, right?

So I knew I had to do some white hat things and I did an infographic in the early days of infographics for a client. And I remember like, “OK, published it, but how can I get the word out about this thing?” So I emailed like 50 people about it. And I remember every time I read an email saying, “We shared it,” I was like “What? This is not real.” And it was like surreal that these people would be receptive to my email.

Yeah, it was amazing to me. But it was a real eye-opener because email is just a secret weapon and if you look at how SEO agencies work – unless you’re working for Fortune 500 clients that they can just create like some amazing outreaching or they already have a ton of attention to their site – it’s basically a lot of email. They have software for email, things like Boomerang and [19:22 those were] the stream kind of process. And it’s basically create content and email to bunch of people. I mean that’s basically the format for SEO right now.

William: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s [19:33 essentially on top] which is what we use on top of that as well.

So, yeah, interesting. Like I said, not a place I thought this interview would go but that’s awesome.

Brian Dean: No. It’s hard to talk about content marketing or SEO without talking about emailing a bunch of people and even… Go ahead.

William: No, no. Go ahead, please.

Brian Dean: Well, I’ll tell you a good story about email outreach and this is one that should really drive the point home that you should be doing this if you want to get exposure for your content.

Do you know Neil Patel from Quick Sprout?

William: Yeah.

Brian Dean: So Neil Patel, three to six months ago, put out this guide called The Advance Guide to SEO. And it was just ridiculously detailed illustrated guide of many chapters, 50,000 words. It was like insane amount of value and his site gets 300,000 unique visitors a month.

All right, so, he has the great content. He already has the audience. And what he did was he emailed 250 people to let them know about the piece of content just because he knew that works.

And then a few months later, he published the Advance Guide to Content Marketing. And to kind of how to control group more or less, he didn’t email 250 people and he noticed that the number of shares, the number of links, the number of traffic was way down. And then when he emailed the 250 people, he had them already in a list. Once he emailed them, they’re pretty much equal. But before then, it wasn’t.

So, the email was the difference maker and that was for him. He hardly has a huge, huge audience. So, if you don’t have that, you should be sending out a lot of emails literally every time you publish something and that’s one of the beautiful parts about not publishing very often, which is something that I recommend to a lot of people. They can put more time into this content promotion. That’s really important.

William: That’s great. And I think, obviously, I’m sure you can speak to this, but one of the keys that we found as well is that you got a very much [21:24 superior] when you do that outreach to the real and authentic and not spam and not formal, not a form letter. It’s got to reach out to the individual and resonate with them as individuals.

Brian Dean: Right. Even if it’s a form letter, right, it shouldn’t seem like one.

William: Well, it could be a template, right? I mean, you have a couple of…

Brian Dean: Yeah, it’s a better word for it. Right. There should be a template you can modify a lot. So, whenever you see… I have email templates that I usually get to client and it’s like half written already and the half is customized.

Because half of your form letter should be customized in some way. And that’s the beautiful part about tiers. So when you have multiple… When you say, I’m going to email 200 people, you shouldn’t have the same approach for all of them.

So for the higher-end ones, you can use templates that you can customize a lot, maybe not even use one at all. And then, for the mommy blogger and stuff like that who don’t get bombarded with messages, they’re happy to get any email that compliments their content, which every email already should do.

So, they’re usually much more receptive to a pitch that maybe a little more templated than someone who’s a bar and gets hundreds of pitches a day and yours is just another one.

Now, you would want to say something like, I saw an interview you did three years ago on the site. Really great stuff. I love what you said about whatever. And that’s where you’re going to stand out from other people like, Can I have a guest post or something? Whatever they’re asking for.

William: Right, right. Interesting. Cool. Well, that’s been valuable. So, what do you have coming up next on Backlinko?

Brian Dean: Well, that’s a trade secret, William. I can’t tell you that.

Well, I just released my course last week, SEO That Works. And it was great. It went really well. So, I’m going to release that again I think in 2014 sometime, not exactly sure when. I’m going to make some tweaks on it and add some content to it.

But I have a blog post coming out in November. That is a case study of someone who used a strategy that I call Guestographics which is basically a lot of email outreach. It’s where you have an infographic and then when you share it with other people, you offer to write the unique introduction that they usually have to write when they publish an infographic for them, to encourage them to share it.

And I have a lot of success with that strategy. And I published a post on the site about that. And an agency read the post, they tried it with one of their clients and they’re able to rank number one for a very competitive term. ‘Intern’ is the keyword. It went to rank number one for using that strategy.

So, I’m going to do I think barring… I don’t know how much information they’re going to give me because I need a lot to do a post. But I think that’s the next thing coming up, is the case study of how someone used that strategy.

William: That’s great. And your course is going to be opening sometime again in 2014?

Brian Dean: Yup.

William:  So, this is Evergreen, this should be out there for a while, I’m sure. Make sure you go to Backlinko, check it out, subscribe to the list.

Brian Dean: Definitely subscribe.

William: Definitely subscribe. That way, you can get updates when Brian puts up stuff. I will say I did a little looking – and I store all my notes in Evernote – so when I find an interesting post, I hit it and I store it and I had a lot of Backlinko stuff in there.

Brian Dean: That’s good.

William: Yeah, that’s awesome. It’s great stuff, highly valuable and very much worth keeping track of.

So, Brian, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Brian Dean: Sure. Thanks for having me.

William: All right. Have a great day.

Brian Dean: You, too.


William Flanagan

CEO & Founder, Audienti. Former VP-Cognio, Founder-sentitO/Verso, SALIX/Tellabs, PrimaryAccess/3Com, CompuServe. Expert in data-driven marketing.

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