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Interviewing Melanie Phung

Date: 05/05/2021

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Melanie Phung
. Based in Washington DC, Melanie is an SEO and content strategist, who runs a boutique consulting agency called Orange Spark Digital. She has been active in the search engine optimization industry since 2005 and is a regular speaker and workshop leader on subjects such as analytics, content strategy and, of course, SEO.

We asked her everything from how she first got into SEO to what empowers her to be the brilliant woman she is 💪🏽

How did you get into SEO?

I was extremely fortunate to get my start in this field over 15 years ago when I was hired into a dedicated SEO role without any previous SEO experience. Right place, right time, right mentor who believed in me! I had applied for a product position at an ecommerce company and, using LinkedIn, I reached out to a few people who I thought might be the hiring manager in order to follow up on my application. It turned out the hiring manager had passed on my application, but I ended up connecting with the head of marketing, who admired my tenacity and invited me in for an interview. We chatted for a bit and he said he was creating a new role, and even though I didn't have any experience in this relatively new thing called "search engine optimization", he was convinced I had the right combination of writing skills, technical chops, and persistence to learn on the job. And that's what I did.

To this day, I believe effective SEO requires a balanced mix of creative communication skills, technical and analytical skills, and a thirst for learning and trying new things every day.

What is your favourite SEO task?

My favorite SEO tasks always involve using data to drive insights and decision-making! For example, I love mashing different inputs together using VLOOKUP or coming up with ways to present information in a pivot table, and using these tools to turn simple data into "lightbulb moment" insights for clients.

What is your go-to tool or resource that you can't live without?

Screaming Frog is a fantastic tool. It does so much more than a lot of people realize. Reading through the Screaming Frog documentation reveals not just a ton of features, but can really get you thinking about things to look for that you might not have included in a basic audit. I've also noticed that clients don't pay nearly enough attention to what Google Search Console tells them.

I'm constantly downloading data from Screaming Frog, Google Search Console, and Google Analytics to manipulate it in spreadsheets to try to identify useful data stories. (Psst, the Google Sheets add-on "Search Analytics for Sheets" is a small but mighty tool to help pull more layered insight from GSC into a spreadsheet.)

What is something you learned in SEO that made you have an 'AHA' moment?

Oh, there are so many things! One big thing that those new to the industry may not understand is that, for bigger organizations especially, SEO is such an interdisciplinary practice, requiring a lot of cross-departmental cooperation. Being "good at SEO" isn't simply knowing best practices or being able to execute on a few tactics; instead, a good SEO needs to be able to communicate benefits, gain trust, build consensus, and convince others to act on recommendations in a coordinated way. Often, getting other stakeholders on board *is* the work, not the thing standing in the way of the work.

Another "aha" moment I have over and over again is that it can be exceptionally hard to teach others how to do keyword research if they don't have an instinct for it. It's not that keyword research tools are hard to use, but this type of work requires a kind of user empathy that can't easily be taught. No matter how many different ways I say, "Put yourself in the user's shoes. What are they trying to do and what are they thinking?", a lot of people struggle to wrap their heads around how to identify good search terms. So even though keyword research doesn't feel like a technically difficult thing to those of us who are experienced with it, it's harder than it seems! I find that it's much more effective if I always plan to do this phase of work for my clients rather than assume they will be able to do it on their own.

What is your proudest industry achievement?

Before I launched my own business, I would've said my proudest industry moment was speaking in front of an audience of close to 500 attendees at a conference, sharing the stage with a speaker from a major search engine.

Now, as a full-time consultant, what I'm proudest of is gaining and maintaining the trust of my clients. Even when I'm doing work that I wouldn't consider particularly cutting edge, if I can get consistent results for my clients, help them understand SEO so that they can start scaling the work on their own, and have them enthusiastically refer my services to other organizations, that's what gives me the most satisfaction at the end of the day.

What advice would you give women who are starting out in SEO?

Don't fall victim to Imposter Syndrome. If you maintain your intellectual curiosity, put in the work, and have a history of getting results, then you can trust that you know what you're talking about. Don't start doubting your expertise in the face of pushback.

Give a shout out to a woman in the industry who inspires you and tell us why

I've been in the industry a long time, and one of the first women to inspire me was Annie Cushing. Her focus is more on the analytics side, but I've always admired not only her technical acumen but also her authenticity and passion.

And a huge shout out to Areej and the rest of Women in Tech SEO who are doing the important work of building this positive, inclusive and uplifting community. It's so wonderful to have a place to connect with peers who are genuinely excited to help each other.

Finally, what empowers you to be the brilliant woman you are?

I find that I bring my best self to the world and do my best work when I'm surrounded by positive and supportive people -- both in my personal life and my professional life.

Furthermore, I know that I get a lot of satisfaction out of teaching and helping others, so I make sure to align my work with my values. When those elements are in place, that's when I thrive.


Thanks Melanie for a truly insightful interview, you can check out Melanie's website and connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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to share your story with the world! Simply fill this form here, we welcome brilliant SEOs from all walks of life! 🙌🏽