What I Learned In 2021
(This is a personal post so if that isn’t your thing then you should move on.)
This is the tenth year that I’ve done a year in review piece. You might benefit from and find yourself in prior year versions. Here are easy links to 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
The timing of this post, half way through the next year, should be a clue that 2021 was a difficult one.
Lack of Control
I didn’t escape the pandemic unscathed.
I, personally, didn’t find the isolation or different patterns of life to be that difficult. I’m an introvert. I had books and streaming services. I genuinely like hanging out with my family. And I Zoomed with a couple of amigos on the regular.
Sure, as things wore on it got a bit old. I missed restaurants and the easy patterns of life where you didn’t have to think about face masks. But, in general, I adapted.
But there were those that I loved who did find it hard. It wasn’t as easy for them to adapt. I won’t go into details here because it’s not my story to tell.
But for someone who always looks for ways to solve or fix things, the inability to do so for loved ones was frighteningly difficult. I worried. A lot.
I realized that I was less worried when I had cancer and was undergoing chemo than I was about my loved ones. I guess I was anxious?
Whatever it was, it made it extremely tough to concentrate for long periods of time or to just get up off my ass and get work done. There were a handful of jobs that I couldn’t even get started on. It was like an obstacle course wall that seemed too high.
I just stared at that wall, unable to even attempt or try to scale it. And I felt incredibly guilty about that.
Instead of giving those clients a heads up about what was going on I simply ghosted them. Not a great coping mechanism.
Worse, their email messages and Slack notifications haunted me every day. I left them there, a shining beacon, a challenge to myself to finally do something.
I fell down a familiar cycle of communication guilt, which translated into a need to make my next interaction epic. But without the ability to do so it was just a low-key form of torment.
After several months I finally emailed those clients. I explained as best I could and the response was largely positive. Don’t get me wrong. I lost those gigs and clients. But I preserved the relationships. That, I find, is far more meaningful.
Things are okay now. Maybe not perfect but the storm has passed.
I almost feel like I’m jinxing myself because there were fits and starts, where it felt like things were on the upswing only to come crashing down again.
I try to ward off that brand of magical thinking. Things are better. I’m able to concentrate again without my mind wandering into feverish and dark what-if scenarios.
Even better, the small things that life throws at you no longer seem as draining. I’d always been good at taking those things and just tackling them. Car tire has a leak? Take it to the place down the street to get patched. Done. Easy-peasy.
During the tail-end of the pandemic those things felt more onerous. It wasn’t that I didn’t get them done. I did. But it took more effort. It sapped my reserves.
One of the things I’ve taken to heart is that something like will power or, in this case resilience, is a finite resource. You might be able to resist something for a short time. But if you are continually exposed to something you’ll likely cave at some point.
It’s okay to fail.
Habits Are Hard
I am a big proponent of habits. You don’t get to where you want to go by trying to get there all at once or waiting to be inspired.
Want to write that next great American novel? You don’t just wake up with a great story and bang it out. No. You write every day, even when you feel like you don’t have it in you. Even when what you write that day isn’t very good.
Persistence is important. Even when you miss a day, get back to it. Don’t beat yourself up. Just get back to that habit.
Because it’s a bit like the story about the wolf you feed. If you’re not familiar, it’s a story attributed to the Cherokee that states that there are two wolves inside of you – one good and one evil. The one you feed is the one that wins.
Habits are like that – they’re binary. You do some form of exercise or you wind up laying on the couch watching old episodes of Castle. You log your food or you don’t. You respond to emails quickly or you let them pile up.
During this time of anxiety I fell back into many bad habits. The only two habits that survived were doing the crossword, mini and bee every morning and reading.
I’m slowly getting back on track with good habits. I’m far better with email and communicating in general. And the diet and exercise are starting to return, which is good since it’s shorts weather and the ones I wore last year aren’t fitting so well.
It’s painful to think about how I let all that progress get away, to think about all of those poor decisions. You want to have it back because it feels awful to retrace your steps. But you don’t get back there through wishes, guilt or regret.
Wake up and start again. Every day.
You would think that the business would have suffered through these tough times. But you’d be wrong.
The business continued to grow despite my missteps. Some of this was due to the type of engagements I have with clients. A number of years ago I moved to what I call expertise retainers, which have no hourly component.
Instead I provide insight and advice through periodic meetings and, at times, will document specific recommendations or produce product requirements documents.
So I was able to handle most of the work for clients because it didn’t require hours of concentration. I could talk and navigate them through the new search landscape and steer them to projects that delivered results.
And the other part of my business, a small and growing set of sites, continued to perform and grow. Together, it turns out that I paid more in taxes last year than I made 7 years ago.
I no longer feel embarrassed by or guilty of my success. I’m grateful and acknowledge both the hard work and luck that got me to where I am today.
One of the reasons for my success is pattern recognition. I took this for granted and long thought others had this ability. But I’ve come to learn that it’s not all that common.
Calling it a superpower might be a bit much, but sometimes it feels that way. When you see something so clearly and know it will work, it feels a bit like magic.
How can it not when you identify a new query class for a client; detail the page for them; launch it and see it become 60% of their total traffic?
How can it not when you scale a specific page type and see it deliver 80% year over year gains?
In prior years you may have read about my battle with confidence. I’ve won that battle. I’m not saying I’m always right. However, I’m confident that I’m going to be right way more than wrong and that what I recommend will lead to success.
Recognizing patterns for a specific query class helps but what keeps my clients ahead is seeing overall search patterns. In this regard, I see a number of interesting trends.
I don’t see many people talking about long-tail search. That might be because I don’t read a lot of industry sites and blogs. (If you have one you think I should be reading, please let me know.)
Because I really don’t care to read anything about E-A-T ever again. Instead, I want to see chatter about how much traffic is hiding behind queries that are 5, 6 and 7 words long.
Few seem interested in figuring out how much traffic you can get from terms that Google says get just 10 queries a month.
For instance, Google says a large set of terms gets about 20,000 queries per month. In reality, I’m getting about 35,000 in traffic per month targeting those terms.
Think about that, I’m seeing more traffic than Google is showing query volume!
Google doesn’t aggregate long-tail queries well so many times what looks like a small amount of traffic is actually quite large when you take into account all of the various syntaxes.
Simply put, queries are getting longer. One of my favorite ways to show the shift to longer queries is the trend around Halloween costumes.
Are people just not into Halloween any more? Or are they searching for more specific types of Halloween costumes. Spoiler alert: it’s the latter.
I know many have Post Traumatic Panda Syndrome and continue to invest in long form content but I’m seeing huge gains as clients churn out short form, precise content that satisfies intent.
Over the last year or so I’ve noticed that search results are changing at a faster rate. Not only that, there is more variation by vertical and even by query class.
There’s more algorithmic testing going on each week in the past year or so than ever before. The patterns are crystal clear to me.
I have rank indices for a number of clients, and what used to be a relatively smooth line up or down has turned into jagged crocodile teeth. Up one week, down the next, up the week after, down the next.
Believe me, I’ve learned not to trumpet a victory or ring the alarm bell based on a week’s worth of ranking data. Because it’s increasingly not about a specific week but the trend over the last few months.
Are your rank indices slowly getting better or slowly getting worse? Is it two steps forward and one step back or one step forward and two steps back?
I can even see when an algorithmic test has come to a conclusion because it creates what I call a dichotomous week. This happens when one set of metrics improves while another declines. For example, you may gain a number of top rankings but have fewer terms ranking on the first page.
Sometimes there are massive changes to a specific vertical or query class that go unnoticed by the industry at large because it is only a handful of sites in that niche that are impacted. And we’re not out there blabbing about it.
In addition, sometimes the changes are about SERP features like the Local Pack or People Also Ask units. Together, these weekly changes have been far more impactful than core updates. Perhaps the increase in weekly updates is the reason we’ve had so few core updates lately.
By far the biggest threat to SEO is lack of throughput. A fair bit of my time lately is convincing organizations to go faster and do more.
The continuous questions about how much traffic this or that change will drive are unproductive. SEO is not like hunting werewolves. There are no silver bullets.
Instead it’s a lot like a jigsaw puzzle.
Only doing a few ‘important’ SEO projects is a lot like putting three more pieces into a half-done 2000 piece puzzle.
One of the more interesting examples was work I did for a client back in 2018. They didn’t get around to executing on it until late 2020.
Now, imagine if they’d been able to do that work when I first made the recommendations. Heck, they waited so long that they’ve since pivoted and aren’t very interested in this traffic anymore.
Those who do more work and understand that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts will find SEO success. If you’re interested in learning more you can take a gander at my Compound SEO presentation.
Am I motivated enough? Am I making enough progress? Shouldn’t I be writing more? Shouldn’t I be maintaining my personal brand?
I often use these yearly updates as a way to take inventory; to stop doing some things and start doing others. These course corrections also create a subtle expectation for measurement the following year.
While I believe this practice helped in the past I’m no longer sure it’s serving a good purpose. I’m a pretty introspective person by nature and while I’m sure I still have some personal growth ahead of me I think I’ve largely figured out what makes me tick.
It’s like I’m picking at a scab. Just stop. Do something else. Particularly since things are changing so fast. I often say that many people are unhappy because the picture in their head of how they thought things would be doesn’t match the reality.
I have a great life but it is nothing like I pictured 20 years ago. I remember thinking California would look like it did on TV; sun-drenched palm lined streets and big wide sandy beaches everywhere. The reality is different but still pretty awesome.
It’s the reason I always hated the ‘where do you see yourself in five years’ interview question. Any prediction I make would be wrong. So my only expectation this year is to keep going.
If you go back through the years and check out specific blog posts you’ll find that I make a lot of music references.
Some of that is purposeful as I’ve explained. (You’ll remember my content better if it attaches itself to a song.) But I also take quite a bit of inspiration from musicians or any artist really.
I’m in awe of their ability to change the way you feel, to alter the chemistry you have with your surroundings. That is a superpower.
While I generally keep a pretty positive spin on things, the music I’ve been listening to has been a bit like an exorcism. It’s driving, angry and malevolent.
Because my deep reservoir of anger needs a voice and outlet. There’s a lot to be angry about.
The pandemic, misinformation, bigotry, stupidity, willful ignorance, racism, misogyny, gun violence, climate change all the way down to people who don’t use their turn signals.
So I listen, headphones on, volume turned up high, arms often flailing to punctuate the beats.
The Prodigy, Curve, Moby, Peter Gabriel, Jane’s Addiction, New Order, The Chemical Brothers, Live, Public Image Ltd, Midnight Oil and Depeche Mode.
What many of these songs have in common, at least to my ears, is this sense of being on the brink. Like the way you look up sometimes and see your neighborhood differently than before. Your surroundings didn’t change but something in you did.
In writing, there’s a general philosophy that you are compelled to invest and read when the character is deciding between two actions. A recent example would be the character Sato on Tokyo Vice.
Yes, it’s been a shitty time in a lot of ways. But past performance is not indicative of future results. It feels like I’m on the cusp of something.
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