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Matt Hepburn: My Journey With SEO

In this episode, Matt Hepburn provides his background and journey from a college dropout to a successful enterprise-level SEO marketer.

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Your Host:

Matt Hepburn

I have always had the willingness to learn and grow.  The change will happen to us regardless of whether we like it. Rather than be upset about the change, I embrace it and stay agile for its opportunities.

Topics I cover

  • You are in the right place
  • The goal of the EMJ podcast
  • Episode Publishing frequency and day
  • College drop-out to blue-collar work
  • My transition from blue-collar work to the mortgage industry
  • My background in marketing:
  • Direct Mail for the mortgage industry
  • Recession and transition to SEO
  • Working as an SEO Consultant (freelancing)
  • Working in SEO agencies (both large and small)
  • Transitioning to enterprise-level SEO, in a corporate environment
  • My heart attack, where my heart was blocked 99.99% – where my current inspiration comes from.
  • Providing robust web copy and user experiences on your website.

Episode # 1 Transcript

[00:10] Matt Hepburn: Are you frustrated with how your website is performing? In Google's organic search results, know that you're not alone. It's common to see rankings change or shift once we feel that we finally reach the keyword rankings that we desire.

And all it takes is a competitor within Google search engine results to come up with more comprehensive copy, a better off page SEO strategy, or possibly a content promotion strategy. Or maybe, just maybe, it's a Google algorithm shift. And that's it.

Our page and its keywords are knocked out of the ranking positions, and sometimes it's pushed into the oblivion of the second page search results and beyond.

Honestly, this is the stuff that fascinates me.

My quest to understand SEO has been a 13-year journey. I've worked as a consultant in marketing agencies both large and small, and for enterprise level companies.

I've worked on local SEO campaigns, on regional, national, and international SEO projects. If I learned anything, it's to stay agile. Because as soon as you think you have an SEO strategy figured out, it can all change.

And if you're wondering who this podcast is for, it's for beginners those who want to learn the core competencies of SEO within three to six months and then apply to work as a junior SEO professional or work on their own SEO side hustle.

You may all but so be wondering, how will this podcast help you?

This show highlights SEO tips that currently work that won't get your website penalized and are used by innovative SEOs and marketing professionals.

This podcast provides weekly episodes, so some of these episodes are guest interviews and those are with experienced entrepreneurs or business leaders, while other episodes I will talk directly about SEO strategies.

We publish a new episode every Wednesday.

This is episode one of The EMJ SEO Podcast, and I'm your host, Matt Hepburn.

In this episode, I go into my background and how it's helped me to have perspective in Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short.

You see, I was not always an SEO manager for Manual Life managing all SEO for Canada. I was an SEO beginner, just like you.

We all have to start somewhere. But it's in this constant quest for SEO knowledge that moves us further along our marketing journey.

Here's where I started on my journey towards being an SEO manager.

Before I started work, I went to college at Western State College in Colorado, which is very far from northern New Jersey, where I grew up in Montclair. I didn't realize when I started classes just how much of a party school this place that I enrolled in was.

I heard later, after I left, that it was within the top ten party schools of the US. Now, I don't know if that's accurate. It's probably just a rumor, but let's just say I ended up partying more than studying.

By the end of that first semester, I came to the realization that it was a waste of time and my parents’ money. I left after the first semester to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

I wasn't sure whether I was going to go back to college later or if I did, maybe it would be a local college or a community college. I just wasn't sure. I didn't have any plan. But I knew that I was wasting time and money. So, I went home and I started working right away.

I started working in a blue-collar job as a subcontractor for a painter, and I did that for several years. I also went to the Wallpapering Institute of New Jersey to learn how to hang wallpaper. I thought this might actually be something I'd be doing for the rest of my life. I ended up doing this for my twenties and until the first Gulf War.

As soon as this first Gulf War hit, there weren't a lot of people that wanted their houses painted. So I took a job at Maryland Casualty Insurance Company in Parsippany, New Jersey as a file clerk. I wasn't making a lot of money. I think I was making somewhere in between $17,000 to $19,000 at the time. And this was the early nineties. And then shortly after that I did a little bit more painting, and I got introduced to my future wife. And I was working outside. I was holding onto a ladder. It was probably late fall, starting to get into winter. I was still painting and I think it was about 35 degrees out. I was holding this aluminum ladder and I was saying to myself, something's got to change. I don't want to do this. I want a better life. I don't want to be working outside in the cold.

So, one of my wife's friends owned a mortgage company, her family did. And so, I talked to them, and they agreed to hire me on and teach me how to write mortgage loans. So that's what I did. And this was in 1998 I believe at this point. And this was an entirely new direction for me and completely different from what I had been doing before.

And as part of my job, I had to go solicit Realtors across all central New Jersey for mortgage deals. And I did this for about two and a half years. And I realized that I didn't want to be beholden to the realtors for their business because they had these long-term relationships with other lenders, and they would really only talk to me when they had a deal that fell outside of what that other lender could do. And that meant that my business was not consistent.

So, I started looking for other methods where I could consistently bring in mortgage deals and revenue. I purchased a direct bulk mail course that was mailed to me in a very large white binder. And I started to implement direct mail strategies.

I purchased title data that was public information on who had a mortgage, at what rate, and the mortgage amount and their address. And I started mailing people, about 500 people at first. And I moved up to mailing about 10,000 pieces of mail per month that I mailed it out biweekly.

Mortgage deals were coming in consistently and closing. I built up a pipeline of deals, so there were always new deals coming in and deals closing. On average, I had about 20 deals in the pipeline. My monthly average of closed deals was about 86%, which was pretty high.

I finally had consistent income and I was a 100% commission employee. I split these deals 50% with a mortgage company that I worked for, and life looked pretty good, got to say.

And then the sub-prime mortgage bubble hit in 2008 and overnight people lost large amounts of value in their homes, as well as 350 to 400 National mortgage lenders and banks went out of business.

To deal with this, President Obama changed many laws around mortgage lending somewhere in between 2008 to 2010. I stayed in the mortgage industry until 2010.

And what ended up happening was I didn't have time to run my business and at the same time learn these new laws. Additionally, most people who wanted a mortgage were underwater in their home's value because the market had totally tanked. So even if you found somebody who wanted a mortgage, you couldn't necessarily give them that because there was no value in the home.

This also made my bulk mail have a decreasing return on value to the point where I had to stop it because it no longer made financial sense. There was no ROI on it at that time. I think I had to close about two to three deals before I started making profits. So that just told you how many deals I was closing on a monthly basis at that point.

So here I'm in my forties at this point saying, what am I going to do when I grow up and I got to figure out what I got to do for work.

But here's the deal. I loved the marketing that I've been doing with direct mail. I love the direct response that I got from the clients to my letters. I always had people that said to me on the phone, I get these types of letters all the time, but there was something about your letter, so I held onto it, and I'm calling you now, even though I received it a few weeks ago, or maybe it was a month ago.

So I said, well, how do I do this online? And what does that mean? How do I transition to an online experience? You know, the old sales adage, which was my principle back then, is the more people you get your message in front of, the higher the conversion rate you will get.

So I started looking into this thing called search engine optimization, or SEO, as it's known in shorter form. And I started studying everything that I could read online. At this point in 2010, I think there were very few official courses online. Maybe Bruce Clay was out, but everything else were blog posts and strategies of pages that seemed to be out of date. So, I started working on my own site, on some clients. I worked for a bunch of lawyers at this time, and small companies, insurance companies, and I either worked as a contractor or as a direct employee for a while. And this was my attempt at doing some consulting.

So, I did that for about two and a half years, and I started to find some success. And within those first two years, I was really trying to get around Google, and I got tired of that, trying to get around Google, spending tons of money on software that people promised, on how it was going to get around Google for this hack.

And finally, I said to myself, I don't care about getting around Google. What does Google want? And that became my obsession. That's all I cared about was figuring out what Google wanted.

And it ended up being that it all revolved around relevant topical content on people's websites. So fast forward several years, and I'm working for a larger agency at this time that handled about 500 or 600 different clients, and I was one of 15 different SEO analysts.

This agency had a lot of different subject matter, content writers on staff, so you had pretty relevant content. And I realized at the time that I was starting to get burnt out. The first thing is, when you're working of an agency of that size is you have no idea what they've promised their clients, what the results are going to be. However, you can only work in that element. You can only work on a client for a few hours monthly, and then you're onto the next one, because you're given such a large number of clients that you have to manage.

At one point, I was managing 67 clients for on page SEO, and about 50 local SEO clients with a Google places product called local Boost that I helped create. Now understand, my workload wasn't any different than the other SEO strategists. They all had 67 or 70 plus clients as well that they were managing. But I got tired of managing multiple clients while not having a huge amount of success for them, because you can't, you're not given enough time to work on them, and you're not given the resources. It was inevitable.

I ended up transitioning out of that agency and into the enterprise sector very shortly afterwards. I've been doing that now for about seven years. Enterprise level SEO websites can have thousands to millions of pages. They have a lot more traffic and these companies usually have multiple websites to handle their business needs and in international markets. This exposure in large corporations has changed my career's trajectory as well as its income.

And along the way, I've come to know a lot of different marketing co-workers in different disciplines and different channels. So, one of the things that happened to me in 2018, and this is kind of what motivated me to do this podcast, was that I had a major heart attack.

I was driving back from work in Holmdel, New Jersey, and the commute to my home was around 40 minutes. I called my wife and I said, I have this horrendous chest pain. Please stay on the phone with me, and I'm going to focus on your voice until I get home. And she told me, why don't you pull over?

And I'm a stubborn person, really. And I said, what am I going to do? I'm going to stop at a mile marker and call an ambulance to come pick me up at some mile marker. I said, I don't think so. I'm just coming home. So, I did. Later, once I got home, the pain had subsided during the trip home, and I'm sitting on the couch. My wife went out to the market because it was my daughter Rose's birthday. I think they were having hot dogs as a celebration, and we were out of hot dog buns.

So, my wife was gone for about 15 or 20 minutes, and by the time that she came back, my chest pain was much stronger than the car ride home. So, I'm getting pretty scared here. So, I told her to just call 911, and she was asking me, do you want me to drive you? And I said, no, just call 911. So, the first responders who showed up, actually the police officer, gave me oxygen first before the EMTs got there. And I eventually got a ride in an ambulance to the hospital where they kept me overnight for observation.

And in the morning, they brought me down to this room, called the Cath Lab to do some imaging to see what's going on. And once they did that, what they needed to do, they said, Mr. Hepburn, your heart is blocked 99.9. And I can tell you it's a very scary thing when the doctor is telling you that. They said, we can perform emergency surgery right now, or you can wait and get transferred to another hospital, which was about ten minutes away. And I told them, do whatever you need to do right now.

So here I am. I'm very scared. I'm on the operating table, and I'm awake while they're doing this surgery, and there's these huge monitors right in front of me, on top of me, that I can see everything that's going on.

So, I start praying to God. And pretty much what I prayed was I was saying at the time, I was like, Jesus, it's okay. I'm ready to go if you want to take me. But if I could stay, that would be great as well. It's all in your hands now. This episode is not about religion. I just wanted to let you know where my mind was and what happened. And after praying, I had this huge sense of peace that totally descended and enveloped me. And I knew everything was going to be okay no matter what happened.

Later, the surgery was a success. I now have four stents in my heart, but at the time, they put two stents in my heart. And after getting out of the hospital, I did 24 to 26 weeks of cardiac rehab.

And today, I live each day for the day. I live in the day. And I promised myself that I wanted to leave my mark on providing better information for SEO for people who are beginners. That I didn't have when I was starting. I wasn't sure how I was going to do that.

But early on, as I was transitioning into SEO, I saw there was a lack of courses teaching SEO. Now I see there is this lack of how to bring all these strategies together. How do you do this? Holistically? And there's also this large amount of information that's online that's out of date. You have people who are parroting other copy that might have been written in 2004. You have plenty of copy out there about SEO that if you followed that, you could be very dangerous, and your website could be banned by Google. Or there's information out there that may make your users feel that you're very spammy.

To me, it's important that in the end, we should want to give our users a robust, experience rich copy that provides them the right information that they're seeking. So, I really hope that these episodes, these breakthrough moments that I have from my guests, and their AHA, moments that contribute all these tactics, contribute towards SEO, provide you with insights into SEO strategies and tactics. And I'm going to be talking directly to you about SEO strategies that I use every day that work. So look out for my monologue episodes where I'm talking directly about strategy. And thank you so much for listening to this episode.

And with that, have a great day.

[18:01] Announcer: Are you ready to break through to accelerate how you learn SEO? Then please don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode. You can subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice, or join our email list at So, we can keep you up to date. This is The EMJ SEO Podcast with Matt Hepburn, and we'll see you next time.

Check out more episodes of our SEO podcast.


  • Matt Hepburn

    Matt is the founder of The Focus Visibility Podcast. Matt has over 14 years of experience in search engine optimization. Matt has worked with various enterprise businesses, including formerly (White Source Software), John Hancock USA, SEMrush, Commvault, and iCIMS. Matt has also worked in large and small agency environments, including Martindale Hubble, WebROI, and Search Interactions. Additionally, Matt brings 14 years of consulting on organic traffic issues that affect businesses.

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