We like to believe that we have plenty of things to learn from our customers due to cultural diversity. Nine years of building digital products showed us that there’s tremendous value in talking with them and hearing their experiences with an open mind and heart. It takes two to tango, right?
Although I’m not a big fan of Slack in the sense that it often kills any attempt at deep focus and performance, I particularly enjoy one of the internal channels we have there. We call it #community. Its primary goal is to gather outstanding websites made with our WordPress themes, feedback from both customers and contributors of the Upstairs community, snippets of e-mails we receive with ideas of improvement, and thoughtful reviews we get on the shop.
With Slack, things can be both loose and meaningful, as well as entertaining and exciting. However, I’m biased when I talk about this particular channel because it often provides fuel to continue my work as a community builder and storyteller.
#community is also where I discover a bunch of customers that I want to interview to highlight their stories. Joe makes no exception. He landed on our internal tool because of a beautiful website he created with Julia, one of my favorite products from our portfolio.
Joe runs a content and SEO company, but before drawing some harsh conclusions, please read our conversations. He’s one of those guys who cares about crafting meaningful content on the Internet and being aware of its impact on the audience and his clients.
If you read these lines, you most probably are interested in the power of content and how it creates ripples in the digital arena. I encourage you to take your time and go through our talk and discover a slightly different perspective on this hot topic.
Let’s dive in, buddy!
Who are you, and where you come from, what makes you-you?
My name is Joe Robison, and I run a content marketing and SEO consultancy called Green Flag Digital. It’s myself and a few others, and we’re a totally remote team, but I’m based in Los Angeles.
I grew up in coastal Southern California but spent the last few years living in other cities like Austin, TX, and Birmingham, AL. My dad-joke is that I was “studying abroad” in the American South. It was cool to see other parts of the U.S. and live in different regional subcultures, but it’s nice to be back home and surfing again and not sweltering in unbearable humidity!
You have a diverse background. What experience influenced you the most and why?
I’ve always had a fascination with business and websites. I remember sitting in Spanish class reading the magazine Business 2.0 rather than talking to the kids around me during our break. I also took copious notes watching business reality shows.
One of my friends built a website dedicated to a Japanese cartoon and was actually earning advertising money from it, which opened up my mind to the possibilities of making money through publishing online.
Those were early influences. But the biggest influence on what I currently do was starting a job at a marketing agency a year or so after college. Looking back now, I realize how much I didn’t know about the world of digital marketing (nor did much of our team), but it also broadened the realm of possibilities in my mind and that it was possible to create an agency and serve clients. That was where I learned the foundations of my main skillset, which is SEO.
What was the driving force of building a company?
Ever since I started working for companies, I had the urge to break out and work for myself. I think I had this overly-confident, young male perspective that I was smart enough and knew more than my bosses. Which in retrospect, being a bit more experienced now, I realize how naive I was and how much there is to learn at every age.
I had a full-time job at a travel tour company and had a few clients on the side. In about May 2015 I was referred a few new clients all at once, so I had the opportunity to choose between my full-time job and go independent. It was good timing because the travel company had just been acquired by another company and were looking to shed costs. I struck a deal with them where they became a client of mine, so the transition was really great overall.
Not everyone is that lucky with the timing, but I’d recommend to anyone else looking to go independent that they line up some opportunities on the side so they don’t make it a “go big or go home” decision, which adds a lot of stress if you don’t have a huge savings account or venture capital funding you.joe
The driving force was that I just really wanted to earn my pay based on my own production or lack thereof. The good thing about a full-time job, at your average company, is you get guaranteed money for doing average work. For some people, that’s great; for others, it’s not that motivating. I liked the concept of being motivated to learn and improve, and having that directly impact my take-home pay and impact on my career. It’s definitely not for everyone, but overall it’s been a good alignment for me.
What’s the mission of Green Flag Digital? What do you aim to accomplish?
Our primary mission is to make more beautiful and higher quality content on the internet. That’s quite grandiose, but we play a very small part in producing actually really cool content marketing pieces and not just another filler piece. We accomplish this by creating data-driven content marketing for internet company clients to earn placements in high-quality publications and increase traffic to their website.
One example that I’m particularly proud of (and took 100+ hours of work) was creating this world map of an epic 52-week vacation, visiting 52 cities around the world where the temperature was perfect the whole time. We defined perfect as the range of daily highs between 21-25 degrees Celsius, which is 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another example would be this computer science degree vs coding bootcamps infographic we created, which is actually quite relevant in 2020 with students deciding if college is worth paying for given remote classes are going to be the default for the foreseeable future.
What do you think makes a good business relationship (with a client of yours)?
This is definitely one of the hardest parts and easiest parts at the same time. It’s hard because every person is different. Different clients want different types of reporting, updates, and engagement levels. They all have different goals and expectations and judgments on value. So adjusting to their personalities, desires, goals, etc. is the hard part.
It can be easy if you realize that they’re just another human that wants to do their job well. If you provide a good service, with a good value, that makes them look good to their bosses, it’s a no brainer. And when communicating with them, you want to be honest and shoot it straight with them, telling them like it is and how to be better, within reason.
Companies hire outside consultants and agencies because they want a 3rd party to objectively tell them what’s the best path forward and not be mired by internal company politics. Usually, your point of contact appreciates you telling them both the good and the bad.
There’s no use in covering up a poor-performing month. If your contact realizes you’re trying to sugarcoat everything, they’ll trust you less.joe
Did your attitude towards doing business change over the years?
Yes, it’s ever-evolving. Like most people, when starting out their career they may think the business world and doing business may be pretty cut and dry. But as you progress, you realize the amount of complexity and how many different markets and industries there are.
A broad approach that I’ve been trying to adapt more and more in my attitude towards business is focusing on the results and principles that are working and doing that over and over. I have been guilty of chasing the next shiny object, learning new things, trying new stuff all the time.
My new mantra is to simplify and double-down on what works and shed what doesn’t work. For example, I have been able to get some decent traffic on a few of the blog posts I’ve written on my blog, such as this one on above-the-fold SEO, yet on average, I’ve only published a blog post like every four months. In a way, that’s a lack of discipline and not doing what I know works, and I think that can broadly be applied to many areas of business.
To get specific in my day-today, one big change for me that has been ever-evolving has been the transition between looking at websites and businesses from the lens of a very analytical, numbers-driven SEO approach to a more holistic approach where numbers, traditional marketing, humanity, and psychology all merge together in a beautiful cocktail.
Instead of looking at search volume and links on a numbers-driven basis, I’ve changed my approach to incorporate better copywriting, UX understanding, psychographics, and just generally think about what the user really wants and what they’re trying to accomplish.
The SEO game is quite barbaric these days. How does your system of values resonate with Google’s greed in terms of ranking?
Google can be quite greedy for sure in some verticals, as the recent anti-trust hearings and other lawsuits have tried to bring to light more. The fact is in some industries like hotel and flight booking and mortgages, Google pushes down all traditional listings and promotes their own properties.
At the same time, Google has done the public a generally really good service. It gives everyone free access to the world’s knowledge and makes revenue on only a small percentage of overall searches. Search engine users click on organic listings 94% of the time, and ads only 6%. So it really is a freemium model where we use the utility completely for free, and only the advertisers are paying Google.
Google gets a lot of criticism (and they should), and they’ve moved away from their “don’t be evil” mantra, but I do agree that at the end of the day, we have free and easy alternatives to not use Google at any moment of the day.joe
And with every algorithm update, it seems that Google is more and more rewarding site builders who are making constant improvements to serve the end-user better. It’s not apparent in every search result, but the quality is no doubt better now than in 2010 when it was much easier to game the rankings.
All of this ties into the practice of SEO. It’s true it can be barbaric in some verticals like casinos, CBD, mail-order pharmacies, and other “vices”, but in most industries I wouldn’t call it barbaric. There was a period back in the 2000s when negative SEO practices worked, and there are whispers that they can still work today, but by and large, the SEO industry and practices have matured and evolved away from their Wild West days.
My latest philosophy and value system is that the high-quality, long-term approach will be the most sustainable and win in the long run.
For example, you can create an average blog post with an infographic and spend 20 hours manually emailing people to get placements, but as soon you’re done with outreach, the traffic flatlines, and you don’t get any more links.
Or you can spend twice as long creating a super-beautiful, interactive post that has a specific target market in mind, and then spend 10 hours doing outreach, get placements, and then that momentum surfaces it to other journalists who love it and write about it on their own without any additional work from you, and you get new placements every month for the next two years.
Obviously, the second approach is much more ideal and sustainable. And this is generally the approach that should be taken when creating and promoting content for the web, within your budget.
At the same time, we have to balance this idealistic approach with what’s working today. For example, Google has said over and over to “just focus on the user.” But it’s not that simple. In many searches and industries, the websites that create keyword-focused, long-form content with lots of backlinks will run circles over their competitors that just sit back and “focus on the user”.
So like real life and any business, you have to mesh the long-term, sustainable vision with what’s practical and working today. If you only focus on the long term but can’t make a profit for the next 12 months, you won’t get to the “long term” future for your vision to be realized.
How large is the playground for small companies in getting themselves heard through SEO and content?
When you’re small and starting out you generally want to go for what’s called “long-tail keywords”. Essentially the monthly search volume for these is lower, but there are less established websites competing for these keywords.
There are multiple approaches here. You can create many, many small posts focusing on each of these long-tail keywords, or you can create what I call a “long-tail stack” where you address a lot of these queries in one larger blog post. Ahrefs has a great explanation on long-tail keywords in their post here.
Another approach, that’s more natural and less keyword-research heavy is to look at the common questions your prospective and current customers have asked, and answer them via blog posts, or in a case of a site like Pixelgrade, the theme documentation.
If we’re thinking of the average small business that’s not a theme company or a digital marketer, they may say “I don’t want to blog.” Instead of thinking of it as blogging, think of it as repurposing existing content that’s locked away in emails.
I recently looked at the sales emails of one of my clients that’s a printing company, and there was a treasure-trove of information in there. Answers to tons and tons of questions regarding pricing, artwork, shipping, invoicing, installation, almost everything. I realized by digging through these emails I could vastly improve the product pages of the site and reduce my own questions I have as their marketer that’s not in the product details on a day-to-day basis.
Do you have any piece of advice for them to get going in this area in a sustainable manner?
The sustainable way to do it is to chip away at it in a consistent manner. For most small businesses with 100 other things to do, that means setting aside 4 hours every Friday, for example, and writing a new blog post or sales page for your site. Or reaching out and doing your own PR to get interviewed by an industry magazine, or write a guest post for a publication.
Once the small business begins to see traffic and results from the long-tail approach mentioned above, they can start to write bigger content for more competitive keywords. Continue to level up and build on your lessons from watching your Google Analytics. Make it a practice to create, analyze, learn, iterate, and repeat.
The approach that works best is a kaizen approach of constant improvement. Don’t expect quick results, and don’t base your small business only on SEO, or you’ll go crazy.joe
At the end of the day, SEO is a long-term game. You’ll see nothing at first, then a trickle, then a compounding effect if you stick with it and keep publishing weekly, learning and iterating as you go.
It’s just like the old Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
What do you think makes a good piece of content or story?
A good piece of content has a specific audience in mind and is not written generically. Generic news writing is pertinent for a general news outlet like Reuters, but not for businesses. You should already know who your audience and customers are, and even then, each content piece should have a specific segment of them in mind.
It reminds me of this quote:
“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”―Kurt Vonnegut
If you write for everyone, you write for no one, if you write for one person, you connect with a lot of people who feel similarly. You won’t connect with everyone, but a distinct segment that feels like your writing is just for them.
This approach has recently become apparent to me, as I’ve become jaded by non-authentic content that, sadly, has been pushed by content marketers and SEOs just to get more traffic.
I agree with what I’m picking up in your question, that stories are more powerful and impactful. Stories are built into our DNA, and I think those who can tell compelling stories on the internet will truly stand out and win over the hearts of their audience.
It’s not always practical to write a story when you’re talking about “how to install plugin X in WordPress”, but it should be something that is always front of mind for content creators.
As we’ve seen with the rise of social networks like Instagram, individual influencers who connect with their audiences on a personal level can get a massive following. People follow people, and the more that the human story and connection can make its way into a brand’s content strategy, the better.
Keywords or meaning, headlines or essence, humanity or algorithms? What’s your call?
These days it’s not black and white. Both sides of each of those are important, and the blend of the two depends on the context. For example, a non-profit can have a lot of meaning (most do), but if it makes no attempt at keyword research and therefore is seen by only 1% of those who want to be involved, it’s not fully fulfilling its mission.
Algorithms, at least Google’s stated goal with their algorithm, is to best understand what humans truly want in a search query and serve that to users. It’s not possible to have an in-house librarian at Google hand curating a list of the best search results for every query in the world, so the algorithm combined with human feedback is the best way to serve the largest amount of people around the world.
Of course, we need limits and safeguards to prevent algorithms or headlines run away and cause chaos, as we’ve seen before in many scenarios. For example, Upworthy and Viral Nova had a moment for a year or two where they were the masters of clickbait headlines, which seemed to work but was ultimately unrewarding to readers.
Eventually Facebook adjusted their algorithm to deemphasize those types of over-the-top clickbait headlines, so that may be an example of dialing back headlines in favor of essence.
What made you choose Julia, our product, for building The Design Home website?
I knew I wanted to use a Pixelgrade theme after experimenting with it on less established sites such as Optimal Pad (using Hive). What I love most about Pixelgrade themes is just how easy the transition is, and once the theme is set up with your onboarding process, it just works. So I ended up choosing Julia because it features the images very prominently from the home page and blog page.
I love how Julia has amazing typography overall and can stand on its own even without large photos.joe
But the coolest part is the algorithmic header photo positioning on this theme and others—where a portrait photo will show up in an interesting way in the header and a landscape photo looks great as well.
How would you define the experience of working with this WordPress theme?
When I switched to Julia from an older theme I was actually shocked that all the content and photos transitioned seamlessly and just worked.
In my 10+ years of using WordPress themes, I’ve come to expect something to always break during a theme transition, but not this time. I was actually ecstatic, since I was preparing for the worst.
One of the best things about Pixelgrade is Pixelgrade Care built right into WordPress in the bottom right. It’s genius and super helpful. I’ve bought a handful of themes off the popular marketplaces and it’s always a pain to have to remember where the support URL is for that one theme, and then wait a few days for someone to respond, and the support depends on the theme creator— it could be really good, or it could be non-existant, it’s always a gamble.
If Julia would be a piece of furniture, what would it be?
I have the perfect furniture unit for Julia. Since the theme is generally recipe-based, modern, and also very flexible and modular, it’s perfectly represented by the Float Modular Kitchen by MUT Design.
It’s a beautiful looking modular series of pieces—with the cornerstone piece being this kitchen-island like unit with a sink, storage, and cooking range. It looks super modern and upscale, yet made of common materials including copper, marble, and natural wood.
I don’t own this piece, but would love to in the future.
Read a delightful story of a DIY company that created an outstanding blog with Julia, our WordPress gem. Discover how they write authentic content about their graffiti cans that grab people’s attention.
What’s your approach to creating meaningful articles for The Design Home website and avoid making useless noise?
My approach with The Design Home is always evolving. I actually bought this website from another owner after I noticed it was unused and uncared for. In the past, the site was following the model of other similar sites where they simply featured one product and a short description.
My plan moving forward is to hire expert writers in the field with a background in architecture and interior design to lend their expertise to the articles.
While costs are always a factor when producing content, and it’s not always in the budget, it’s truly better for the readers and search engine results if you can have true experts writing the content.
Not only will smart, experienced visitors tell the difference, but Google’s understanding of language has been advancing rapidly over the years, to the point where I believe they can understand writers’ expertise in a way they never could before.
You gave us an honest review for which we’re grateful. What made you take the time to share it with the world?
I felt that the value you guys give through your theme quality, support, and overall community you’re fostering is so great that I wanted to give back. It was kind of a value imbalance where I have received more value than I paid, so I wanted to return the favor in some way. (Hint, hint you should raise your prices.)
Since Julia was so easy to set up, use, and get support for, I just had to leave a review to let others know. I’ve been super frustrated in my search for WordPress themes—the market is so fragmented, and the 3rd party marketplace solution may work for designs, photos, and illustrations, but I don’t think it’s the way to go for complex products that need ongoing support, like WordPress themes. Based on your sales by channel transition away from 3rd party marketplaces to your own brand, it seems you guys have come to the same transition internally.
I also like the model of a team behind a theme creation company, putting their names and faces to the company like you guys do, going above and beyond with transparency reports and fostering a community like Upstairs.
I may sound like an over-zealous fan, but like I said in my review, you guys really stand out in your quality and care in a way that no-one else is doing.joe
Do you have any piece of advice for your fellow entrepreneurs?
Yes, one big thing I’ve been slowly learning, and it only came to a big realization this year, is the need to create much more than you consume. I tend to default towards over-reading books, blogs, and other sources of information before making decisions. I then over-plan to try to take the optimal approach before starting something. In reality, I’ve learned it’s best to learn a bit of information and take action implementing it in an iterative approach.
It’s very similar to taking the agile approach vs. waterfall approach in website development. That philosophy can be applied to almost any sphere in digital work. I can’t speak for other occupations like building a skyscraper or an airplane—of course; it’s a different set of rules for other professions. But when it comes to software work and creative work where we can rapidly create, edit, update, and delete, it’s a sound philosophy to live by.
This all ties into using Pixelgrade themes. In the past, I would try to over-engineer the page and content architecture for sites, try to get a totally custom design, and then get a WordPress developer to build it out.
But now my approach is to use a Pixelgrade theme to rapidly get the site up, focus on creating content and promoting the site, and then when it gets to a certain level of success, I can spend more time and money on additional upgrades.
Joe’s clarity regarding what kind of business he wants to keep building and the way he approaches content writing, and SEO practices is inspiring. It opens more human-centered gateways to grab attention through in-depth articles written by real people who have hands-on experience.
Nothing bothers me more than people who throw empty words packed in a manner that’s tailored to the algorithm’s requests rather than concrete needs. Within the WordPress ecosystem, we still face a significant challenge with how much poor content is out there, which misleads people and provides no value.
Media coverage in WordPress should take another route—it’s an article I wrote from a place of care to express my worries regarding how plenty of publishers from this community are contributing to a broken system.
In the end, we can all make decisions that bring us in a spot or another, for better or worse. I am beyond grateful that Joe chooses every single day to look for meaningful stories that are relevant in the long run and make the web a better place. I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to do so. Thank you!