1. Home
  2. /
  3. My Origin Story

My Origin Story

Carla dos Santos - The SEO Coach

Carla dos Santos – The SEO Coach

Hello human / bot / crawler / spider / AI &  Aliens (Mars will need SEOs one day also)

I should start with the image of me on the right, original photo taken by incredibly talented Tamara Wilson (creative genius), and then augmented as you see it by the equally talented Kate Kuilman (paid media genius). When Kate who is not a designer sent me her version titled “my greatest masterpiece ever” I had to agree.

What Kate did not know, is this is exactly depicts how I feel when I work – eyes closed, travelling through space and time with Dog, pondering what is Google is cooking-up.

Google & SEOs – Yes, its complicated!

The relationship between SEOs and Google was not always easy especially in the early 2000’s. We did things to game the system (Gray Hat SEO), and then they responded with updated algorithms which now exceed 500 updates a year.

In 2012 it happened – Penguin (backlinks), Panda (onsite) and Humming Bird (content) set the SEO community of fire. Those 3 algorithms de-indexed websites; no SEO agency was left unscathed. As a community we understood that we could no longer “game” Google, and that going forward we had to change our WAY of working. That is for me the poetry in SEO – its constantly changing, and you as an SEO need to learn to adapt quickly.

My Short Story:

I have been so privileged in my career to work with exceptional talent. As much as my C-suite career was built with my business mentors, my skills have been strengthened by the talented teams I have been fortunate enough to lead. I still have relationships with a lot of my former team members, many who are absoloute specialists today. I still learn form them every time we catch up to mentor each other in this every changing digital world.

  1. 3 incredible mentors guided me through the building of my career
  2. 20+ years digital production professional – full stack / full service / full-on
  3. 7 career pivots in building my own career
  4. Dominant skills SEO, Tech PM, Career Mentoring Coaching and career Pivots
  5. I have a deep love of technical and strategy document writing (I <3 excel)
  6. Multi industry and country SEO experienced
  7. Full c-suite career experience including my own pivot strategies
  8. I have had no less than 125 direct reports across my career
  9. I have been a mentor for the vast majority of my digital studio team members
  10. Full digital career (all disciplines) with 3 specialisations being my always growth focus
  11. I am a proficient in Agile, Waterfall, Prince2 and “Carla, its on fire” methodologies as a tech PM
  12. 3 years Freelance in all my skills and it has been the best time of my career
  13. Hobbies and Interests – astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, chess, puzzling, cross-words (good for SEO brain), walking (a lot), hiking, running, gardening and wood-work.
  14. Media interests – anything Marvels, all creature features, anything dinosaur, the Art of War, Cosmos – a personal voyage (Carl Sagan), The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – this is the Stanford paper of Larry and Sergey that was the start of google – to understand this paper is to understand the search engines algorithm.

My Long Story: (Grab a coffee)

SEO chose me.

Sometimes I wish it had been paleontology, but dinosaurs don’t need websites…

I am the product of 3 incredible mentors. I have always been my own career coach. I have been a mentor for my whole career. I am a natural teacher. I am a critical thinker. I am constantly upskilling my dominant skill set.

I have been an intern, a staff member, a manager, a senior manager, a team lead, head of search, head of digital, head of production, ops director, dev-ops and on 2 excos – this was the trajectory of my “c-suite” life. I managed client services, clients, productions teams, biz dev, pitches and held all ops in place with process to solve Agencies biggest challenge – delivering work OTIF *on time and in full*.

Through my entire career I have had no less than 125 direct repartees and many became my mentees. The mentees have always been an organic thing. As my career grew so did this part. I was even an official LinkedIn mentor for 2 years. I I knew I was good at mentoring when my Mentors came to me to help solve their business puzzles. They value my business experience, and my Mar-Tech capabilities. These ad-hoc collaborations are to this day surreal for me. I imagine this is how Spiderman feels every time the Avengers call him up.

I have supported and guided a lot of career pivot and advancement strategies, using my own successful pivot strategy as a blue print. I have worked in Cooperate, SMES, Agencies, and now I work for myself – this also happened organically – it is all meant to be.

My career back story – tourism meets the internet

I started my career in backpacker tourism in Cape Town, on Long Street selling overland safaris. 3 years into my career (1998 ish), online tourism began. I was fortunate enough to work for the first 2 online companies in. I those days there was no online competition, google had no rules, and technology was built in house. In those days things like Info Architectures existed, but SEO didn’t have a name yet, so it just formed part of dev. This was the start of my deep love of tech, structure, hierarchies  basically bring order to chaos online for users.

I understood then already that humans search, and search engines answer, and that if we had a page with the answer we would get the booking. At this stage there were no tools, but we built a LIVE CHAT interface (Gen 1 chat bot) and I used the questions from tourists to optimise pages. At this point believed I was going to be a digital sales person in tourism forever – I was wrong, unbeknownst to me, SEO had already chosen me.

My career pivot story – Carla meets her career/s

Over the next decade I worked in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and travelled this continent as much as I could. Wherever I worked I also did SEO / rebuilt sites . My career of specialising in Africa Travel gave me the opportunity to live in some amazing places, with a 3 years in the Okavango Delta. As the sales manager there, I was sent to WTM in London, where I was approached by a Dutch Tour Operator to bring a series of country specific websites online. In that exact moment I realized my career was evolving, and I leaned into it because this was my first true hybrid moment. I accepted the offer, and came back to South Africa to start the project in .NET (Windows).

I got in touch with a .NET dev. I was the project manager. Bringing order to chaos it turned out was something I was really efficient at. My brain is built for multi-tasking and Project Managing from budget to deploy. When I stepped back from that project, I knew that it was time to pivot fully into being what we would today call a Mar-Tech (Marketing Technologist). I knew at this stage that I wanted to do SEO for life. So I birthed my pivot strategy, set goals and got pivoting.

I also came to understand that in Digital Marketing, SEO is all things Genesis. The question I had to answer was “how can I pivot into this career with nothing but unofficial experience in something that is not an official career. I learned through my own pivot how much hard work a pivot career is under such circumstance. SEO is an evergreen career with shoots into every other digital discipline. I realize today that my career success has been based on this foundation – especially as part of SEO Generation 1.

My new Pivoted Career(s) – My Mentors, SEO, TECH PM, and Mentorship

SEO – Tourism – SME

I knew the only way to pivot was to plan. This plan had to take into account that I needed to stay in tourism, but needed to find the right employer – someone who understood where online was going. So I decided on that day, that even if it meant 2 minute noodles for a while, I was going to get the right job. I began selectively sending out my CV, and boom – the exact thing I wanted happened. This came in the shape form a well known car hire operator who wanted to spring board into selling tours through Africa, using a custom technology. I grabbed this opportunity with both hands.

This is where I met my first mentor. One of the smartest people I have ever worked with, he trained me in all things on-site and technical SEO (much like Mr. Miyagi trained Daniel-san) for the new series of tourism websites we built. This included hiring and training the new sales teams and all ops around this. I trained under him for 3 years, and mastered my learnings. When I consistently delivered results that got a high 5 form him, I knew it was time to move on – this time I wanted an SEO job only to expand my industries that I was optimising.

Agency – Head Of SEO – SMEs

A friend of mines husband who worked in recruitment was the catalyst – he had an agency that needed an SEO ops manager, and I wanted to be it. He kindly put my CV forward. I studied hard for the interview, and got the job. I was in charge of a team of 12 SEOs, and it was game on. It was here I met Mentor 2.

This man is the epitome of genius with a PHD In search algorithms. He taught me everything about the algorithm, technical and off-site. This added another layer to my SEO and my tech skill set. My hours were insanely long and I was working on average 6 days a week, this was not because of workload, but because I was learning, and also doing the job of running the agency studio end to end. We must always pay our dues.

SEO in those days was all about tech and backlinks (and still is), and “gaming” the system using black hat techniques. This is a fools errand in todays SEO world – there are no more things like page rank which was at time the holy grail of SEO backlink building, and the sole metric of SEO success – now there are metrics, signals and the web asset is now about speed and mobile up (back in those it was all desktop) many businesses who have not evolved struggle with lead generation due to not keeping up with SERPs.

I was in this job also for 3 years, set up systems, built an amazing studio of talented SEOs, and trained my teams regularly to ensure no resting on laurels. I mastered tech and off-site SEO myself and also studied like everyday was the day before my matric finals.

The fundamentals I learned here also set me up for the rest of my career and have given me a solid foundation allowing me to easily adapt my strategies based on algorithm changes, but always staying true to my best practice foundations. Having learned all I could, It was time to leave this SEO agency, and the last part of my pivot was to understand web dev end to end – server stack to GITs and deploy.

Agency – Head of Digital Production & Dev-Ops

As with the previous pivot it was 2 minutes noodles VS the right employer. One of my friends who is an account manager was friends with the man who was to become my 3rd Mentor. He needed someone to fix and streamline his full service agency, and specifically the dev department. Believe it or not, there are not a lot of full service agencies with inhouse dev, most of them outsource. Dev is probably the hardest thing to OTIF.

I studied hard, and went for the interview and got the job. I knew my learning curve here would be tremendous. As with previous, days and hours were extremely long between trying to bring order to agency chaos and I became fluent in dev and technical project management. This skill is by far the one that I rely on the most when it comes to tech SEO and project management.

My 3rd Mentor epitomized the word Entrepreneur – this man blazed like a comet. My learnings from him were the ultimate layer on top of what I had already built. I had 40 – 50 direct reports across all digital and dev, I was studio ops, dev ops, team lead, SEO lead, client services, new biz developer, head of production and of course traffic. This was my second exco at this point. I was in this job for 4 years, and I achieved the objective set out to turn the “ship around”.

My 3rd Mentor who I used to see often to talk about “building spaceships” passed away in 2019. A personal loss that I still feel deeply, both as his friend and as a member of the digital community. The agency was subsequently bough out by a larger group. I resigned in year 4, my tool belt stuffed with everything I had learned and taught.

Teacher – Mentorship & Coaching

I knew one thing –  I could do anything I set my mind to. I did not want to continue running agencies, I wanted to produce. Having direct reportees is full time job its own, and I could not longer produce and manage at the same level of quality. I had to make a choice – chase title based career or chase production based career. I chose production and brought my c-suite aspirations to an end. To continue would remove me from production, and not doing SEO / Tech Specs and not having people to upskill an coach were not an option for me. I need to create, produce and teach, and so began The SEO Coach, although I did not know it at the time it was a defining moment of my natural digital evolution.

The coaching was 2 fold at that stage – my teams in my studios, and digital people who through referrals contacted me to coach / train and career mentor. The approach in the former was career advancement, and the latter group were mostly pivots into their new careers + support. I also have a large network of my own clients / colleagues who are always looking for talent, so assisting with placing these ‘students” was a natural thing.

My favourite moments are when they offer me jobs, because their training under me only had 1 endgame – and that was to “take my chair”. Offering me a job  is how they show me they have arrived. One of them was my AdWords intern, and today he is head of paid media for one of the biggest international agencies. Another was a marketing manager with massive ambitions to be an agency GM – mission accomplished. One of my pivots was out of child care into digital, and today she is a category product manager specialising in e-commerce categories. One of my favourite coaching experiences was an account manager who I coached and into technical project manager. Today she is the head of marketing of a massive SA corporation.

The determination, discipline and motivation for their success is evident in their title and career trajectory. I instill as many good habits into students as possible, along with a daily dose of ambition. Supporting driven people on their path to success is a humbling experience as a mentor, and one of my favourite things to do.

My Corporate Career

From the world of agency, excos and production teams, I moved into corporate – which coming from agency was like semi-retirement. I was head-hunted for both opportunities from former agency clients, and that was a really nice feeling. It is sometimes nice to be validated, and the best form of that in in my career was for my skill set to be recognised as good, and being head hunted cements that. I learned a lot in corporate about corporates and that Digital implementation is different “client side”. I embraced the learning curve.

The beautiful things about the 2 corporates was the freedom to create from scratch digital assets and strategies allowing me to really showcase my skills and to learn all corporate IT and Infrastructure – my dev-ops career, and agency experience turned out to be my sharpest tool in corporate.

I am fluent in tech / dev – so IT teams working with me understood that Marketing in corporate could less rigid without cyber security being exploited. I built my mar-tech stack adjacent to the ring fence. This was the first time I had strategised this way and it worked to the point where I even built 3D environment to showcase product using pure open source tech. Through these experiences, I learned and still practice how to best work with corporate IT structures as an open source practitioner.

My Freelance Career

I have prided myself throughout my career on never accepting freelance work whilst employed. I don’t have an issue with it in principle, but in all things I am a purist, and work is no exception. I also pride myself on the quality of work I produce, and spreading myself too thin would be a disservice to my job, the freelance client and my career.

COVID! Living through the pandemic changed me fundamentally. Through the experience I realized, that I could have still been in tourism and I too could have been losing my livelihood. I watched the world’s urgent need to come online, and my phone lit up like crazy. This included several big businesses that wanted to strengthen their online presence, and this evolved into “cooperate SEO training”.

At this point I felt I could be of more service as a freelancer and teacher, and I resigned from my last corporate job. In this moment, I knew my purpose – to teach digital and assist with internship placements and actual jobs where I could, so I did. Doing this changed me fundamentally as a human, understanding that I could help sustainably and change someone’s life by teaching them how to fish to earn their own living.

My freelance career for the last 3 years has been incredible. My clients are my friends, my colleagues are my clients, my mentees are my support specialists. My clients in particular have been incredible, these businesses have allowed me to be the very best unconstrained Mar-Tech I can be. Telling them about “TheSEOCoach” has been met by a wall of support, introductions to their clients (b2b and b2c), and an increase in project work and coaching requests.

When I floated this idea past my circle of digital partners, mentees, and mentors, the response was just as positive, and shouts of “its about time” were like a chorus line. I think my imposter syndrome finally left me at this point.

The SEO Coach

And finally we are here, and today I am The SEO Coach. Here is where I meant to be. I do not know what my future holds. The only thing I do know is that I am so into my craft, that the drive to take the Individual, the SME and the Corporation on my SEO journey through space and time is exactly what I am supposed to be doing. It is time for to fulfil my life’s purpose and teach my favourite thing to spend time on – SEO and everything it impacts.