SEO Success Story: A Web Designer Spills His Secrets to Successful SEO

tom-nguyen, atlanta web designerJenny’s Note: I am beyond thrilled to bring to you today this SEO Success Stories interview with Tom Nguyen. The awesomeness of this interview – namely the fact that he is so candid about what is working for him in addition to the high-quality info – cannot be overstated.

I met Tom in the parking lot elevator on our way to WordCamp Atlanta. Upon introductions he immediately recognized me as a “competitor” who ranks on Page 1 for the same keyword he does. Juicy, right? We clicked (pun intended), stayed in touch, and when he mentioned the other day that he gets tons of leads from SEO, I asked him to spill his secrets. Luckily for us he, graciously accepted. Without further ado, I introduce Tom and all the SEO goodness he unveils. Enjoy!

Word around town is that you’ve had some success with SEO generating leads. Tell me about that.

First off, thanks for interviewing me, Jenny.  The leads are definitely coming in.  I’m in a good spot, and I can’t complain.  A few months ago, I was averaging about 1-2 inquiries per day.  I was teetering between the bottom of the first page and the top of the second page of Google for “web design in Atlanta, GA”, “Atlanta web designer”, and similar search terms.

I know for many freelance web designers, 1-2 inquiries per day would be something to be happy about, but I remembered that I had written down a goal on a sheet of paper back in 2007 that I was going to appear at #1 on Google for the keyphrase “web design in Atlanta, GA”, and I wanted to follow through on my statement.

Feeling inspired, I started to blog about my quest to be #1 on Google for “web design in Atlanta, GA”.  In those blog posts, I gave my readers the steps that I took to go from page 7 for “web design in Atlanta, GA” to page 1.  I haven’t been able to blog anymore about my success because I’ve been swamped with work from my existing clients, and I’ve been working on the new edition of my website which I’m banking on to get me to #1 in Google.

Since my last blog post, the number of visits to my website have doubled.  I’m now in the middle of the first page on Google, and I’m getting 4-5 inquiries a day now.  It’s not only my ranking that I care about though.  I really do try to provide quality content and give my visitors some advice on getting more leads.  

What are the critical steps you’ve done to help get you the results?

Well the first step that I took was to move to the Atlanta area.  When I wrote that goal down in 2007, I was living 50 miles south of Atlanta in the boondocks.  I noticed around 2009-2010 that the Google Places results (the ones with the addresses and phone numbers on them) started showing up above many of the organic search results.  Living south of Atlanta was not where I wanted to be (for personal and professional reasons), so in 2010, I moved to Smyrna which was much closer to Atlanta.  Then in 2011, I moved to Atlanta which allowed me to have an Atlanta address.

Having an Atlanta address wasn’t the only thing that contributed to my higher rankings, and I wouldn’t say there is any one thing that is the be all and end all for my higher rankings.  It was an accumulation of different tasks such as:

  • Improving the copy, title tags, and meta descriptions on my website to include relevant keywords while still being appealing to readers
  • Submitting my website to relevant directories (Jenny’s Note: be careful about this unless you know what you’re doing)
  • Commenting on industry news websites
  • Being active on my social networking website pages (Google Plus, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Facebook)

Was it tough to get started?

Yes, it was.  At the time, I was just a web designer who coded mostly static websites, and I knew very little about SEO.  Plus I wasn’t even located near Atlanta, so I definitely had my work cut out for me. 

As I mentioned earlier, I moved to Atlanta, so I took care of the location issue.  Next, I started optimizing my website for less competitive search terms that would still produce inquiries like “freelance web designer in Atlanta, GA” and “Atlanta freelance web designer”.  I was able to get to number one fairly quickly for those search terms. 

As I learned more about SEO, I started to optimize my website for the more competitive keyphrase, “web design in Atlanta, GA”.

What ongoing activities do you do to help you with SEO? Blogging, social media marketing, linkbuilding, etc.  I’d love to hear how you’ve maintained your good results.

I definitely do all of those, and all of these methods work together to provide a synergistic effect. 

I blog regularly, but I’ve had to put that on hold for the last few months because I’ve been swamped with work from existing clients, and I’ve been working on the newest version of my website which I’m planning on releasing at the end of May.  Blogging is extremely important because you’re adding pages to your website.  When your visitors see that your website has a regularly updated blog, you give them a reason to come to your website.  You also let the search engines know that your website is updated constantly.

I regularly post on Google Plus, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest just to name a few social media websites.  I comment on Manta which is a B2B social media website/directory.  All my social media pages contain a link back to my website.  If you’re not using social media to promote your business, then you’re really handicapping yourself.  By using social media, you’re able to give yourself backlinks from reputable websites, keep your clients/customers informed about your business, make new connections with people in your industry, and establish yourself as an industry expert among other things.   

Building quality backlinks is an ongoing process that can’t be done in one day.  I’ve built up quite a few backlinks by giving my two cents on industry blogs and news sites, submitting my website to reputable directories, posting a link to my latest blog posts on social media websites, and last but not least, writing quality content. 

I can’t stress enough the importance of writing quality content.  A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on some paid reputable SEO directories, and then I responded to a discussion topic on Manta regarding directories.  In my response, I added a link to that blog post, and my website ended up receiving 300+ visits in ONE day!  I also had someone inquire about web design work through my contact form, and I got an email from somebody asking me if they could link to that blog post.

Also, because of my website content, I’ve had interviews from which gave me a backlink to my website and who featured my company as one of the top 50 web design agencies in Atlanta, GA.  Please keep in mind that I didn’t have to pay these websites for a backlink.  They just wanted to mention me because I provided valuable content.  If you write valuable content, other reputable websites will link to you for free.

Did you do any offpage/linkbuilding work, or only onpage optimization? If you did do any linkbuilding, what did you do? 

Absolutely.  See the answer to the question above 😉

Why do you think you’ve had so much success with SEO?

Probably because I have a willingness to learn.  I subscribe to the newsletters from the SEO websites (SEOMoz and WebProNews) and industry groups on Google Plus and LinkedIn.

Although I learned a good bit through reading, I also learned a good bit on my own.  I found out that I could use the * operator in Google to find backlinks to competitors which I talk about in one of my blog posts.  On some of those websites, I was able to get a backlink myself. 

I’m definitely a firm believer that if you can conceive it, you can achieve it.  

What advice would you give other people who would like to generate more leads with SEO?

If you want to generate leads with SEO, you need to be able provide valuable content.  If you can’t say more than two paragraphs about your field of expertise, then you can forget top search engine rankings.  The more competitive the phrase that you are trying to rank for, the more you need to say. 

Also, speak to your visitors and not just the search engines.  Rankings are important, but it’s important that your content is appealing to your visitors.  Your visitors are the ones who are going to be asking about your services, and they’re the ones who are going to write you a check.

If you don’t know anything about SEO and you want to start doing it yourself, start following industry experts’ blogs (like Jenny Munn’s).  If you prefer not to even fool with it and just want to hire a SEO consultant, you have to be able to talk extensively about your field of expertise with your SEO consultant. 

I have a plastic surgeon client who gets around 6000 to 7000 visits a month and is at the top of Google, Bing, and Yahoo for some competitive keywords because he was willing to open up and tell me about his expertise.  

Last but not least, give your website a personality and put some thought into your About page.  Most of your visitors won’t know you, and your website’s About page is your chance to let your readers know what you and your company are about.  It has nothing to do with SEO (unless you throw in alt tags which is actually recommended), but throw in pictures of yourself and your staff.  People want to put a face with a name.

Tell us a bit about your background and how you help clients?

I was actually born in Atlanta, GA (surprise, surprise), and I graduated from Georgia State University at the end of 1998.  A few years after graduation, I found a job working as a sales rep for my buddy’s web development firm.  It was there where I started to learn about web design.  In 2002, I created the Mr. Technique website and started doing web design on a part-time basis.  In my spare time, I would learn more about web design by reading books and online tutorials.

In 2005, I acquired enough clients to start designing websites full-time.  The entrepreneur’s road isn’t an easy one, and I had to go get a regular 9 to 5 job at a mortgage broker’s office at the end of 2010 to help me get back on my feet.  I had clients but I wasn’t bringing in enough revenue to pay my bills, and I actually thought about giving up web design altogether and starting over with something new.  I felt defeated.

While working for the mortgage broker, I started to get my entrepreneurial spirit back.  I picked myself up off the ground, and started taking on new clients.  I started to believe again.  And you know what they say happens when you believe, right?  Things happen.  Somebody else that I did a totally free website for a couple of years back contacted me and asked me if they could outsource me for his web design projects, and I agreed to do it. 

The mortgage broker company that I was working for decided to let me go towards the end of 2011 because they were downsizing, but by no means was I depressed about it because I felt like the stage was set for me.  I was now living in Atlanta, and I told my wife (who was my girlfriend back then) that I wanted to make a run at being a top web designer in Atlanta.  She thought I was crazy for not trying to get another job, but I truly believed that I could make it happen.

It was do or die for me.  I didn’t want to go back to working for a 9 to 5 job for a corporate company, so I started improving my search engine rankings by applying what I learned from industry websites plus what I learned on my own.  At that time, although I was on the first page for the phrase “freelance web designer in Atlanta, GA”, I was on page 7 for “web design in Atlanta, GA”.

Now, I’m on page 1 for “web design in Atlanta, GA” on Google, and I’m gunning for number 1.  95% of my leads come from Google organic search results, and I get them every day.  Needless to say, business is booming!  I’m getting 4 to 5 leads per day, and I turn away more business than I take in.  I truly am lucky to be where I am at now.

My business thrives off existing clients business.  Less clients more attention.  I like to call it the “Jerry Maguire Approach”.  I discuss this in my mission statement on my website, and people read it because they constantly tell me that they contact me because they like what I have to say.

These days, I provide more than just web design.  I actually offer a variety of services (web design, web hosting, search engine optimization, print ad design, and social media marketing).

Once again, I’d like to thank you for giving me this interview, Jenny.  I truly am flattered that a SEO expert in Atlanta, GA such as yourself wanted to interview me.  For the readers out there, I met Jenny when I was walking in to the 2014 WordCamp Conference, but I first learned about Jenny when I did a search for “freelance SEO in Atlanta, GA”, and she popped up at #1.  Rightfully so.  Jenny knows her stuff.  I attended her SEO talk and picked up valuable keyword research tips. 

About Tom Nguyen

Tom Nguyen is a web designer in Atlanta, GA who also offers SEO, Social Media Marketing, and Web Hosting services.  The majority of his clients are located in the Metro Atlanta area.  To visit his website, check out

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Jenny Munn

Jenny is an independent Digital Marketer and SEO Consultant with more than 10 years of experience helping companies and content creators generate brand awareness, traffic, and conversions with SEO. She is a frequent speaker and is on the faculty for the AMA (American Marketing Association) and has taught SEO to thousands of marketers over the past 10 years.
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  • Tom Nguyen says:

    I definitely agree with Jenny’s comment regarding SEO directories. Stay away from the directories that will accept any website and will allow you to write any description that you want. Those directories can actually hurt your search engine rankings.

    • Jenny Munn says:

      Tom – thanks for the clarification! I still talk to unknowing business owners who think it’s ok to submit to hundreds of directories just for the sake of quick backlinking. Yikes!

  • Don Sadleer says:

    Great stuff, Jenny and Tom! Tom, I’m wondering how you deal with 5-6 inquiries a day? Actually processing/analyzing and responding to this many inquiries could easily consume half of your day or more, leaving little time for real client work. Are you able to quickly filter out the bad leads from the good ones? Also, is most of your work one-off, necessitating a steady stream of new clients, or do you have a solid base of clients that give you ongoing work?

  • Tom Nguyen says:

    Don, in the past when I wasn’t getting so many leads, I would call them on the same day. These days, I can’t call them back until the next business day.

    As far as the dealing with the leads, I chat with them for a few minutes to get a feel for what they are needing. Most of the time, I’m referring my leads out to other web developers or SEO people that I know, but occasionally I will take one if I feel we are a fit.

    Most of my work is ongoing work with clients. I do occasionally have the one-off project, but that’s the exception rather than rule.

    Sometimes, I am wrong about whether somebody is going to be a bad lead, but I usually can tell. If they’re really vague about something and not willing to go into more detail, then I just quit responding.

    I’m lucky and thankful to be swamped with work from existing clients as they make up most of my revenue.

    • Don Sadleer says:

      Tom, I’ve also had some SEO success, though I don’t get 5-6 leads a day! But I have gotten enough at times that responding can become time-consuming and cumbersome, esp when they require some thought and strategy. So I’ve also developed a pretty good eye for “tire-kickers” and low-ballers so not to spend too much time or energy on them.

      It looks to me like you might have actually reached a point of diminishing returns on your SEO if you get this many leads and refer most of them to other people. A good problem to have, for sure!

  • Tom, you mentioned blogging. We’ve learned that we can optimize individual pages/posts for search, but we don’t really ‘optimize’ the site as a whole. So when we’re continually adding blog posts with specific keywords, we’re putting more out there that could get found; but is there any residual SEO benefit for the overall site? In other words, if Google notices a growing volume of blog content on a site, what exactly is it that gets the SEO boost? Is it just that the site gets crawled more regularly?

    • Jenny Munn says:

      Tom T – to chime in here and summarize what you both said (and add to it a bit), blogs are perfect opportunities for targeting more keywords and more variations, internal linking to your core website pages, getting indexed more regularly, and also, for ATTRACTING links. While I do naturally get people who link to my homepage, many of my blog posts have gotten linked to because I try to write high quality, helpful info that other bloggers find and link to. Websites with good blogging best practices have much higher backlinks overall. Lastly, your readers and community help promote blog posts on social media, which give your site more social media signals.

      Thanks for chiming in here, guys!

  • Tom Nguyen says:

    Tom, I believe Google tends to index websites that get updated more frequently. Imagine if you were a search engine. And you had two websites that were about the same subject. Website A rarely gets updated, but Website B gets updated every few days. Which would you check up on more often?

    If you throw in links in your blog post copy to other internal pages of your website, you tell the search engines which pages/posts are popular. Internal linking and on-site SEO are important, but you need the backlinks as well.

    I don’t work for Google, Bing, Ask, or Yahoo, so all of what I am saying is theory, but I’ve been happy with my results so far. I hope this answers your questions.

    I keep hearing that Google won’t be using backlinks in their algorithms in the future, but I’m not buying it.

  • Crystal Foth says:

    Great SEO info! Thanks for sharing such good nuggets and tips! I found Tom on the Elegant Themes blog and ended finding this interview. I’m new to blogging/online, so I appreciate all the info I can get!

    • Jenny Munn says:

      Crystal, thanks so much for your comment! Apologies that I found out it so late. Tom is great! If you need any help or advice just give a shout. Love your site by the way!

  • Crystal Foth says:

    Thanks for the reply Jenny and for visiting my site! It’s a new work in progress but I hope to see it grow!

  • Tom Nguyen says:

    Crystal, I just saw your site. You’re off to a great start. I see that you’re using Divi. Keep on blogging to keep your website fresh. That’s what WordPress was initially made for.

    • Crystal Foth says:

      Hi Tom – thanks for comment! Yes – I really need to update regularly – that is my downfall right now. It’s in my game plan to change that. I love Divi so far!

  • Tom Nguyen says:

    Crystal, if you haven’t done so yet, I would install the Yoast SEO Plugin. It’s great! It allows you to update your title tags and meta descriptions on pages and posts.

  • Hi Tom,

    First let me say, reading this interview was inspirational to me for our marketing business. We are a full-service ad agency that began in 1999 and do mostly broadcast TV and Radio. We have slowly moved into web design & SEO in recent years and want to grow more in that arena in Birmingham. Curious what your take is regarding video blogging. Are video blogs more effective or less effective with regard to SEO than a traditional blog? A lady in the mid West I spoke with recently told me what they do is create a video blog, then transcribe it so they can post a visual and written version for the web.

    • Jenny Munn says:

      Hi Alan,

      Jenny here! Wasn’t Tom’s post amazing? I was grateful he decided to share with my audience. Video blogging is awesome for many reasons, especially if videos resonate with your target market over written text. Correct that you should transcribe your video and have at least 350 words of text at the bottom of each video, which is for Google as well as people who want to skim/scan. Thanks again for commenting!

  • Tom Nguyen says:

    I agree with Jenny on the transcribing. Google and other search engines read text not images or videos. I plan at next year’s Wordcamp on how I reached the top of the first page for relevant keyword phrases.

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