2021 Review

This is my unfiltered, personal reflection on 2021, SEO, and Growth.

2021 Review

On top of my 2022 predictions, I want to share my personal reflection on my year, SEO, and Growth. I pride myself on sharing objective observations and data-driven analyses. But today, I’m sharing more of my unfiltered thoughts.

Reflecting on SEO

At the core of my SEO philosophy is to treat and build it like a product: user research, user experience, user value. Most SEOs don’t look beyond search volume, Core Web Vitals, and user intent. Seeing SEO as a product means building a vision, narrative, assumptions, and experiment pipeline. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an aggregator, integrator, or platform.

In 2021, SEO feels less predictable. Ranks drop and in 20% of the time, you have no clue why. Of course, nobody wants to admit that. 80% of the time, you can still spot a gap in links, content, title optimization, technical issues, or SERP landscape changes. But more and more, there is no apparent reason. Google might just test your snippet in a different spot or measure your site’s relevance in a way you cannot reverse engineer. The 20% used to be 10% and might soon become 30%.

SERP features draw clicks like bug zappers. When Google moved most PPAs (people also asked boxes) to the top of the SERP, many sites saw a negative impact on CTR. Image thumbnails are now coming to Desktop as well and draw tons of clicks.

After announcing visual changes at Search On, Google turned the search pages into Pinterest for product searches and inspirational intent queries. Search for a query like “tattoo inspiration” or “mens sneakers” and you see where Search is going. It’s the final nail in the coffin for 10 blue links.

This isn’t bad by default - even though the net impact on organic traffic overall is negative in my mind - but it changes the dynamics. Organic and paid increasingly blend into each other with new shopping ads, interesting products, local packs, and other SERP Features. Companies need to lean in by investing in organic, paid, and multimodal content, meaning text, video, and images. Not new but increasingly more important and few companies do this well.

Reflecting on Growth Memo & Tech Bound

In 2021, Growth memo (my free newsletter) grew from 3,800 subscribers in January to 5,600 in December. A solid +70% increase! Publishing once a week really helps with subscriber growth and refining ideas. Altogether, I wrote 46 articles in 2021. Some were longer than 3,000 words, others only 800.

I attribute a big part of the success to not writing about what everyone else writes and instead covering practical examples, real problems, and not obsessing over keywords. Now, if I had something to sell and wanted to drive more organic traffic to my blog, I would certainly write more keyword-focused content. But Growth Memo is … a memo! It’s not an SEO play.

I often write about problems I encounter in my work but sometimes explore and unpack larger threads over time. One example is User Intent, for which I first wrote about what user intent is, then content tuning and finally using the search console API for content tuning at scale. Another example is content-marketing fit, which I expanded to building content moats, how integrators vs aggregator use content, commodity content, and the ephemerality of content. These ideas build on each other.

I still run other side projects on Wordpress but migrated this blog from Wordpress to Ghost in 2021. After spending a lot of money and time on optimizing my Wordpress setup and design, I got tired of the bloat, bugs, and slowness. I wanted something lean, suited for blogs, and with email functionality. Ghost provides exactly that and not more.

The top 10 growth memo articles by pageviews:

  1. Why I left Substack
  2. Internal linking guide
  3. 10 lessons from working at Atlassian
  4. Creating an SEO strategy from scratch
  5. What is User Intent
  6. A modern understanding of SEO
  7. An early impression of Neeva
  8. Early adopter marketing
  9. Maximizing every click with search journeys
  10. Content tuning at scale

I didn’t give Tech Bound, my podcast, as much love as I wanted to in 2021 even though I had some amazing conversations. When time got short, recording new episodes was the first thing I deprioritized.

Top Tech Bound by views/plays:

  1. Guillaume Cabane
  2. Eli Schwartz
  3. April AMA
  4. Nigel Stevens
  5. Will Critchlow
  6. Eddie Shleyner
  7. July AMA
  8. Bill King
  9. User Intent
  10. Britney Mueller

I’m aiming to get back at it in 2022. But, I’m going to be honest, I don’t want to create just another interview podcast. Don’t get me wrong, I’m blessed with amazing guests on the show, but the format doesn’t stand out. I want to do something more… unique, and I haven’t found out what that’s going to be. I’m planning to test different formats next year and see which one lands the best.

Twitter is by far my favorite social network. I aimed for 20,000 Twitter followers by the end of 2021 but only made it to 18,800. I get about 20 followers per day and should hit 20,000 around March of next year, depending on how much I can publish.

Threads work pretty well but also take a lot of time to write. I overestimated how much time for that I really have but aim to push my account more next year and write interesting mini-blog articles for Twitter.

Reflecting on myself

Since the pandemic broke out in 2020, the world has been spinning really fast: social unrest, inflation, supply shortage, The Great Resignation. There is a lot going on.

After the initial shock in March 2020, I found my footing and developed a very productive routine. Apart from struggling with the distance to my family in Germany, I did fairly well during the pandemic. But I’m reminding myself of my privilege every day. I’m young, have a tech job and no kids (yet). Most people are not in that situation and struggle much more with the lockdowns and mandates.

The second half of 2021 challenged me. I joined Shopify as Director of SEO in December 2020 and stepped into a larger role in July with responsibilities beyond SEO: email, conversion, building growth loops. I started leading engineering, data science, design, research, growth programs, and product management teams. It’s been fun, challenging, and rewarding.

Two things help me when pushing through challenges: appreciation and core values. One of my life values is growth. As long as I’m growing, I feel in sync with myself and wholesome. Growth isn’t linear - neither in business nor in life - and you can’t always control the pace. Rapid growth feels like chaos but appreciation and presencing help you take a step back and look at the journey from an outsider perspective.

I’m still working out about 6x per week. Two of those are cardio-focused and mostly consist of 30 min cardio and some arm work. 4 sessions are dedicated to strength, whereas I’ve been doing more bodybuilding over the last few months than powerlifting. I still squat and bench 2x a week but don’t deadlift at the moment. I focus on time-under-tension and volume for medium-heavy loads.

Working out also helps me cope with the work stress. I don’t think I’d be nearly as productive without it. It’s a non-negotiable for me.

Lastly, 2021 is the year I started making a series of angel investments:

I’m planning to make more targeted investments in the future, but am still early in this journey. I’ve been developing my investment theses.

Best of

Let’s finish with some Best Ofs for the year:

Best book in 2021: The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt (thanks for the recommendation, Casey Winters)

Best podcast: Ray Dalio on Conversations with Tyler (link)

Best blog article: Marc Andreessen on The Observer Effect (link)

Worst habit: overscheduling my days

Best habit: working out 6x a week

Read you again in 2022!