The question stops here

Philip Morgan

Jim Thornton is on fire right now.

(You can listen to me read this email out loud here: /the-consulting-pipeline-podcast-all-episodes/cpp-135-the-question-stops-here)

You don't need to call 911. I just mean some of his recent posts are on fire.

And they're personally for me, I don't know if they'll hit you the same way. But if you publish a lot and see yourself as cultivating self-made expertise by doing so, you'll probably find his recent posts as useful as I have.

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Vickie Thompson ignored me so hard it hurt in the 7th grade. I've done the same with Google and SEO in general, except I don't think I've caused Google any pain at all by doing this.

At the same time, I'm committed to understanding how self-made experts can best earn visibility and trust. So if there's something out there that can be of use to a self-made expert business, then I have to understand it.

My effort to have this kind of objective understanding of search engine optimization has been clouded by a stereotype.

This stereotype is well-described by almost any article online that talks about the so-called "skyscraper technique". One such example (the top-ranking one in the search I just did!):

An excerpt:

Here's how it works: You start by researching popular trends, topics, and already well-received pieces of existing content across the topic areas your business typically covers. Then, you look for new and unique ways to create content that communicates a similar message -- with a twist. This might mean that you leverage a new, more engaging medium, update the statistics, or employ a better design.

Once you've created a new and improved piece of content, reach out to the folks that have already linked out to similar content to put your piece on their radar ... and hopefully earn a link.

There's a lot of ways expertise works, and all of them ain't that.

There's not just one way self-made expertise operates, but in general, one or more of the following are true:

  • The expert seeks the overlap between risk and business impact
  • The expert shapes a market rather than chasing the market
  • The expert explores a focused topic more deeply or rigorously than others have
  • The expert knits together an assortment of ideas more interestingly or usefully than others have

None of those approaches to expertise remind me of the skyscraper technique, which I tend to think of as the tail wagging the dog. That's fine, but the problem is that I have let the skyscraper technique -- and my negative feelings about it -- start to serve as a proxy for SEO in general. That's a stereotype.

One of the ways Jim's thinking has been so helpful for me is by breaking this stereotype.

Here's an example, from a recent email Jim sent his list:

You want to help your audience transform. You seek to elevate a client’s status to the peak of their desired outcome.

But today, they are focused on reworking their twitter bio. And so they run a Google search, “how to write a twitter bio.” You see that you are getting traffic for related terms on a “best twitter bios” post.

For you, the easy thing to do is to turn your nose up at that. Go back to focusing on deep insights.

If you instead you asked: what is true about these people right now? Where is their mind? you could better bridge that divide.

The user needs help with their… twitter bio?

That agitation is like the neck pain from your hip flexors being too tight.

The underlying intent of those users is wanting to portray themselves effectively and appropriately in public.

The underlying issue? Maybe its a communication problem, a positioning problem, a confidence problem, or maybe they just want to be done with it.

Go deeper and it’s because they don’t know themselves. At least not in that context.

But you can’t write a post on how to know yourself to solve for people looking for twitter bio help.

Google won’t get it. Even if Google connects those 5 dots, the user certainly won’t get it so they aren’t clicking that result. They aren’t ready.

They just want their to do list to show new twitter bio done for the day.

Jim is very helpfuly and effectively reframing things here.

I'll paraphrase what he's saying here, and has said in other recent emails: Google can do two things for experts. 1) Provide hints about the questions their audience is seeking answers to and 2) Route audience members from to your answers to those questions, if you will get off your damn high horse and make it possible for Google to do so.

I still see the skyscraper technique as the tail wagging the dog. I see it as ineffectively crowdsourcing the leadership that experts should be handling on their own.

To paraphrase the sign that sat on President Truman's desk: "The question stops here." That's the mindset self-made experts should bring to their area of focus. This mindset combined with disciplined execution over the course of years leads to real authority in the marketplace.

I still see Google as a business with a lot of power. Just like I probably accidentally kill a few insects every time I go on a hike or drive in the car, Google accidentally kills businesses all the time, just from making small adjustments to how they handle search. So I still see heavy reliance on Google -- or any other Super Aggregator -- as a liability to be avoided.

But thanks to Jim, I no longer see the skyscraper technique as a good representation of what SEO is.

Instead, I now think of SEO as, first, noticing the hints Google provides -- hints about the questions my audience is asking -- and then combining those hints with my own insight into my audience. Google's firsthand knowledge of search behavior combined with my firsthand knowledge of actual people.

  • I think of those questions as ones that some audience members would like a quick transactional answer to.
  • Other audience members intend to take self-directed action on the answer to the question, and for them I'd like that action to be effective.
  • Yet other audience members are happy to work with a guide; perhaps by joining an email list, or perhaps by paying for that guide's services.

After I've noticed those hints, there's the task of making my answers to my audience's questions accessible. The more I make them accessible to audience members in a simple, easy-to-discover way, the more likely Google is to route potential audience members from to my answers to those questions.

This idea of accessibility is the other big reframe that Jim has effected in my thinking.

I'm grateful for it.

Read more of Jim's writing at

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REMINDER: I'm running an 8-week online workshop on specialization, starting May 15. The price is $700 per seat, and attendance is capped at 20 (4 seats are available on a reduced price scholarship basis). My workshops teach you what you need to know, and then push you to take action. Most of the learning comes from the action you take in those 8 weeks and beyond: