An interview with Katherine Watier Ong

Katherine Watier Ong

Photo credit: Joe LeBlanc

We spoke to Katherine Watier Ong, SEO and Social Media Strategist, Data Geek, Digital Marketing Coach, Owner, WO Strategies.

I’ve always known what I wanted to do as a career – I’ve always known that I wanted to persuade people and possibly be in the marketing space. I planned my first conference when I was 13 (I put together a planning committee, got speakers, a hotel room block, etc, and had 200 young people out to the first Midcoast Maine 4-H teen conference). When I was 16, I started a nonprofit that (among other things) I got coverage for on the local NBC, NPR, and PBS affiliates. I also wrote a curriculum that I put online on my first website in 1994, as well as started my first mass email list and campaign back then. I didn’t “find” SEO until I was at 1-800-Volunteer.org as their Director of Marketing & Sales in my 20s and I realized it was what I would probably be doing for the rest of my life.

To get to where I am today, I worked at various nonprofits and proved that I could drive traffic to sites and drive conversions. Also, I took advantage of industry discounts for various training programs for nonprofit professionals. It’s a great place to get a wide range of experiences because of their restricted resources. My advice to those looking to break into the industry is to find a team that is willing to train you as an intern right out of college, that’s a great way to get started. I’ve trained about a dozen young people with no previous digital marketing background who now work in the industry or at Google, Twitter, etc.

I was drawn to SEO’s multidisciplinary nature because I get bored easily and the ‘always learning’ focus works well for me. Something I love about my field is that I get to pick clients that are focused on publishing great science and I get to ensure that those are discoverable in Google. The best part is that all of my clients also love to learn and want to learn SEO and integrate it into their organization’s content production and promotion processes.

My Recommendations

I have a variety of free resources on my site for those looking for useful information and tools: and I share them via my daily SEO tips. The guests on my Digital Marketing Victories podcast have also shared a great set of resources. My go-to resource at the moment is the Women in Tech SEO Slack and Facebook group, but you can’t go wrong with Moz’s resources if you are just getting started.

From a podcast perspective, I like Dan Shure’s Experts on the Wire, and I listen to quite a few focused on YouTube optimization:

  • YouTube Creators Hub
  • Video Creators
  • TubeTalk: Your YouTube How-To Guide

Trials and Tribulations

In terms of challenges and hurdles to jump in my career so far, working at Ketchum was particularly challenging because in the first year I was the only one in the entire global company who knew web analytics or digital marketing and I touched 65 clients in my first year. Even with a team of nine, we were still having trouble servicing all of the clients that had requests for digital marketing campaigns. 

I still find that thinking through how to persuade your client to pivot their processes to integrate SEO recommendations is the hardest part of my career, and it’s why I interview digital marketers who have had success in that area and have stories to share on my Digital Marketing Victories podcast. I’m always interested in picking up new ways of presenting and persuading.

Inspirations and SEO Community’s

I never really got great support from the SEO community in mixed-gender groups and I’m still 100% grateful and surprised by how genuinely helpful the Tech SEO Women’s community is. What’s more, I feel as though I can stretch and take on projects just out of my comfort zone because of the support from women in that community.

In particular, Dana Theus was the first marketing person I met who was running her own consultancy and she’s been a great mentor as I was setting up my own business.

The way COVID has affected my career

I lost one hotel industry-related client early on into the pandemic, but the biggest impact has been having little kids at home underfoot. Our oldest (a second grader) did virtual school and then we decided to homeschool, which has cut into the number of working hours that I have per week. The processes that I had in place which I already thought were well optimized for being time-efficient got even more so. And brain.fm has been a godsend when both kids are home and screaming and I need to focus. 

I miss working from coffee shops – partially because I’m always productive in them (I edited my undergrad thesis at a live mic coffee house, and worked on my master’s thesis in Georgetown’s very loud coffee house near its campus gift shop). – but also because I have met really interesting people while working there. I now use Lunchclub to see if I can meet interesting folks in our new COVID reality.

 Mental Health and Being a Woman in SEO

It’s really easy to blur the lines between work and life. I often read search updates during my downtime because the space is changing all of the time. I personally think it gets better when you specialize instead of trying to be good at all of the channels and all of the industries.

A misconception about my job is that people think you need to work overtime when you’re running your own business, but I keep my hours well controlled as I’m focused on running a lifestyle business. I still have demanding client projects, but I don’t often work overtime and I make as much or more than when I was a VP at Ketchum. This ensures a healthier approach to work and a work/life balance.

I’ve never really felt I need to prove myself more than my male counterparts in the industry. I’ve worked hard to build my portfolio of accomplishments throughout my career and I don’t hesitate to explain those previous successes in conversations where I explain my background. But I was a big 4-H’er and you need to complete a full project report every year for every project you’ve ever done (I started in 4-H when I was 7) and then you compile those successes when you want to compete for state awards and be sent to the national conferences. If you go to the National 4-H Conference (I attended both national conferences and then was on the planning committee for both), you learn what a SWOT analysis is and you are involved in building the strategic plan for 4-H (I was 16 at the time). So those experiences gave me a unique background and a unique set of confidence in my abilities that I still use today in my business.

The Future

I’ve been moving into supporting larger websites, so this year I’m interested in how to wrap my hands/mind around building a content plan for a 2M URL site with terms in an industry I am not an expert in and researching python and ML modelling tactics to group the topics and find content opportunities in that data set. Overall in the industry, I’m excited to add more accessibility audit features into my service offering over the next year, and I’m curious to see the impact of computer vision on video rankings and transcripts both in YouTube and Google search.

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