In this episode Daniel openly discusses how he deals with imposter syndrome, how it affects his life and career, how he gets comfortable with being uncomfortable and how he became the successful SEO that he is today. Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.
Who is Daniel Cheung
Daniel is a coffee-loving SEO nerd who landed in SEO by accident. Three and a half years later, he is amazed that he can earn a 6-figure salary that would usually require a university degree and 5+ years of experience. Starting as a junior and working his way up to SEO team lead at Prosperity Media, Daniel is testament that you don't need to be the smartest person in the room. Outside of work, Daniel walks his dog (Mungchi) and produces a podcast called Make SEO Simple Again.
🧡 Many thanks to Daniel for sharing his story with us.
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Getting in touch with our podcast guest, Daniel Cheung
Follow Daniel on Twitter:
Listen to Daniel’s new podcast - he is a podcast host - Dreading Sundays: https://www.danielkcheung.com.au/dreading-sundays/
#WorkinSEOPodcast full transcript with Ellie Ferrari
Thank you to Ahrefs for sponsoring the Season 2 of the WorkinSEOPodcast!
Isaline: Hello, everyone. Welcome to a new episode of the WorkInSEO Podcast. I am Isaline Muelhauser, SEO consultant and founder of WorkInSEO job board and podcast. Today, we welcome Daniel K. Cheung, SEO consultant based in Australia. We'll discuss all things related to imposter syndrome. Hey. Hi, Danielle. How are you doing today?
Daniel: Hi, Isaline. I am great, and I'm excited to be on here to talk about all things imposter syndrome. Feeling nervous already.
Isaline: Yeah. You are more used to be on the other side of the broadcast, right?
Daniel: That is true. It's like, asking questions is easy. Now, I have to sound smart now. I'm terrified. Instant imposter syndrome.
Isaline: Yeah, I'll have easy questions. Just say, what comes to mind, and I'm sure it's going to be great. Actually, it's a really good moment to say that you also have a podcast and that it's a great one. I totally recommend people to listen. Do you want to do a small intro of your podcast while you're here?
Daniel: Sure. Thank you for the ability to plug. It's called, "Make SEO Simple Again," and similar to WorkInSEO, it's less about the actual doing of SEO, but exploring the personal journeys and stories of people such as you, and the person who's listening right now. It's all about how we come to do this strange thing in search, and we've all taken weird pathways. That's really make SEO simple again.
Isaline: Great. I'll make sure to share a link to your podcast for our audience. Let's talk with you. How did you get into SEO? How did you start?
Daniel: I think for anyone who works in search, no one grew up thinking, "I'm going to work in SEO," or "I'm going to work in search." That career path was never a really thing. In fact, I kind of stumbled upon SEO because I was a wedding photographer for nine years. Being a business owner, I had to understand marketing. Organic traffic was one of the things, and that's how I came to be aware of it, but that's not how I knew or learned it. I formally learned SEO when I quit being a wedding photographer and decided I needed a career change. Or rather, I wanted a salary job. I wanted some job security.
I reached out to James Norquay, who is the founder of Prosperity Media. I had zero experience. I was like, "Hey, are you hiring?" Then, for some reason, they said yes. I went for an interview. I remember at the time, the senior SEO consultant asked me, "Oh, what's your understanding of links?" I had no idea. I said, "I don't know." Somehow, I guess being honest and being willing to learn, they saw something in me. That's how my journey really started. I've been at the agency for already three years and has been a lot of fun. Just learning how much what I don't know. I think that's what's been interesting about SEO, and that's really weird.
You can't see me right now because this is the podcast, obviously. I'm obviously Chinese. Being Asian, not knowing the answer is not typically how you were brought up, especially through formal education either. You either had to know the answer or had to find out. With SEO, it's always changing.
I feel as though the fundamentals don't really change: understand search intent, produce great value, and the rest kind of takes care of itself. There's no real right or wrong answer. There's no textbook. That's what makes it fun.
Isaline: That's awesome. You already answered part of my following question, which was, what do you like about SEO? From what you said, I understand that you have a widely curious mind. Just like things changing -- or is there something else that attracts you to the industry?
Daniel: Yeah. I think there's a few things. You hit the nail on the head, and that is I think I am quite curious. Although growing up, I didn't really think I was. But, definitely, when it comes to trying to understand why things rank and why things don't rank, it definitely helps to be curious. Otherwise, you will hate search. But also, there's kind of no formal way to enter into search. There's no regulated body that says, "You have to complete this degree. You must have this type of experience." I entered into search when I was -- how old was I? 26, 27, 28? Not that young. But I had a lot of life experience and that curiosity and having to have to solve so many different problems in life, that has helped a lot because it allows you to think critically.
When I think back to why did my parents really want me to go to school, and complete a college degree, and go into debt? Well, I guess you're supposed to be able to think critically. That is, to my understanding of my experience anyway, one of the secrets to understanding search intent. What was I talking about? I don't know.
Isaline: That's fine. I wonder, you started in an agency like age 24, 26. You started like a real junior or even more than a junior.
Daniel: No, it was junior. I was at the bottom for the six to nine months.
Isaline: How was it like?
Daniel: I had no idea what I was doing. For the first six to nine months, I did not understand what I was doing and why at the time. In three short years, I've tripled my salary and become team lead. I guess that also speaks to just being curious as well. But at the time, we were doing some things that I didn't understand. As I started to read more and try to learn more about SEO, I started questioning my boss.
I was like, "Hey, why are we doing this? This doesn't seem right." Like, "Why are we correlating citations link-building with. Let's not do that. It sounds a bit dodgy, so maybe let's stop that." Through that process, my boss started to trust me and take on this outside or this new side or person's opinion. We've been changing how we take client work and how we do certain things. Of course, it all comes down to usually to be exposed to it. You don't know what you don't know. When it came to whether it's on-site, off page, or technical SEO, there is so much to learn and you'll never know it all.
The good thing about starting with agencies, you just get a lot of exposure because different clients have different things. You just start running into the same problems, recognizing them, and trying to find the same or different ways to solve that same problem. That's kind of fun, I guess. That's how you find the depth of how much you don't know. It's up to you to decide, do you want to cover those gaps or not?
Isaline: Can you remember the type of tasks you were doing at the first beginning? Keyword research or keyword gathering, this kind of thing?
Daniel: Yes. Again, back at the time, there was no real process of doing stuff. We've definitely, in the last three years, improved upon that a lot. Keyword research was kind of logging in to so much. Logging into Ahrefs, and using the tools without really putting in your own type of critical thinking as to what the search intent mean.
I mean even three years ago, the understanding and adoption of search intent has evolved a lot and has become a little bit more mainstream in SEO anyway. Before, it was just, "Use this tool. Oh, it has a high search volume. Let's go for that. Let's ignore what people actually mean when they search for it."
But that was running a lot of content for onsite based on search volume. It was buying links. Let's just be honest. Links always bought a lot of links these days, and continue to be done this way. We did a little bit of technical. But, again, let's be honest here. I didn't start getting comfortable with even talking about technical SEO until 18 months ago. Up until then, it was just too hard thing for me because I was scared. I can't read code. I can't write code. I still can't. But, thankfully, I kind of understand what technical SEO is about. So, that's less scary.
Back in the day, when I first started, it was the first six, nine months, no idea what I was doing or why. After a while, when you start doing certain things and then seeing either change or no change, then you develop your own sense of, "Is this working? Is it not working? If so, why?" That, I feel as though has been why I enjoy it so much at least.
Isaline: To discuss our subject of the day, imposter syndrome. Did you feel imposter syndrome when you started as an SEO, or was it already before in your previous career as photographer? Did you have like imposter syndrome moments already?
Daniel: Oh, I think I've always had imposter syndrome. However, the funny thing is when I first started, I didn't know what I didn't know. It didn't have as much. I feel as though it's been the last one to two years where I've developed more experience and more understanding that then the imposter syndrome really kicks in. Especially, when you're meeting with people, pre-COVID, or nowadays on Twitter. Sometimes, you're afraid to push out some things, some findings, some opinions because I'm afraid. I'm afraid that someone else may disagree with me. Even though from my data, it might be true.
If I look back at imposter syndrome when I was a photographer, yes and no. Photography is a little bit different from search. In the sense that as long as it's in focus and you know how to color, it's going to be okay. Well, that's my opinion anyway. Again, I was a wedding photographer, so very different from other types of photography.
Imposter syndrome was more rocking up to a particular wedding and having a predetermined idea of what I want to achieve, but not being able to do so. And then, what's up? But, in terms of SEO, imposter syndrome really is when you do the same things, follow the same process. Let's say, it worked before, it may not work for that site. You start questioning yourself, "Is it me? Is it my understanding? Is it my execution? Was it my strategy? Or, was it something totally beyond my control?" As I gained experience, I became more comfortable with accepting, "Maybe it's beyond my control."
Thankfully, others have shared that same type of opinion where you can do all the things. You can follow all the on-page recommendations, get that right. Get the crawling and rendering, right. Sometimes, Google or Bing, or whatever search engine, they just don't respond, or you haven't waited long enough.
Sometimes, I feel as though imposter syndrome is mostly just us comparing ourselves to other people and their success, or their perceived success, when quite often it's just, when I look at myself as just me, being too hard on myself. When it comes down to when I'm working for clients it's, "Am I doing my best for them? If so, great! Don't worry about it. If not, then fix that." That's kind of how I've tackled imposter syndrome. I guess a spinoff of that of imposter syndrome is more important than me talking about vulnerability. Because growing up, when I was a wedding photographer, I was much younger. I was like 20, 23, 24. So, very arrogant.
It was a very gung-ho-type attitude. "Oh, I'm going to be the best! You know what? I'm going to be the best wedding photographer in Sydney." Yeah, mate. Good luck. Like, what is best? It wasn't until I was 27 at that stage, I was listening to one particular podcast. It was called, "Entrepreneur on Fire." I was driving home from the studio. This particular podcast was just saying, "You're enough."
When I was driving, I literally broke down in tears. Because for all 27 years, I was telling myself I wasn't good enough. That could be an amalgamation of many things. It could be just what's happening in the society. It could be just when you're comparing yourself because of school, "Oh, I'm ranked 10th." I was never ranked 10th at all. Kind of like 60 or 70. It's just that growing up, that's how you're conditioned to think. Social media didn't help that either. It was like everyone's showing their highlight reels. Whereas, you're just living your normal, dull life.
I remember that time, I realized, "You know what? I am enough." That was then my catalyst for learning about this concept of vulnerability. Especially, as a male, we don't really embrace that much. We're very macho. We have to be strong, that kind of rubbish. That's when I got into Brené Brown. I started reading this book called, "Daring Greatly." Oh, within the first two chapters, I was like, "This is me."
I understand everything that is about being Chinese, and having Chinese parents, about shame, shame triggers. I was like, "O.M.G.!" Now, I understand why I project so much aggression and fear. It's because of all this addressing that took a time. It took some time. But, it's been a wonderful journey. Accepting who I am, with all the faults or the positives. It's allowed me to become much better at search. Because I no longer care if I'm right or wrong. I'm just testing. I'm just trying stuff out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and that's okay.
Isaline: You said something interesting. Well, as far as I understand, you had a chunk of time where you felt the syndrome, but you didn't know what it is. It took some time to be aware of what is actually happening. Can you tell us more about what you feel? You mentioned that you have thoughts about self-doubts, but do you also feel something in your body? Like, what happens when you're hit with the wave?
Daniel: It's like before. Literally, 15 minutes before this recording, I looked at my calendar. I was like, "Should I cancel?" Because I was like, "Oh, I haven't prepared my story." No one would want to listen to me. What have I got to share? I started sweating and getting hot. Physiologically, I want to give up; but physically, there was a reaction. That was the sweats, it was feeling, "Maybe I'm not good enough. Why did I sign up to this? Can I back out now?"
Sometimes, you just have to push through, and it still happens. Maybe less so in search. But, sometimes, I still feel it when I'm in a pitch, about to pitch, or when it's time to explain why you haven't hit those KPIs. Ultimately, I guess you just need to find your own way of dealing with your self-doubt and understand. For me, personally anyway, from my experiences, just knowing I've done my best, and therefore, it's okay. Whether the results came or they didn't, I'm pretty sure -- whether it's my boss or other stakeholders or the client itself, they are aware of that. They're not judging me based on that. It's more how much effort I put into it and communicated that to them.
I feel as though if you're starting out in SEO, it's all about the results. Everyone's showing all these hockey graphs. "Oh, I got like all these links!" "I got all these placements." "Oh, my traffic skyrocketed!" Yeah. "Have you seen the Y-axis kicked?" Actually, I won't go down that rabbit hole. But again, it's like social. Everyone's sharing their highlight reels. They're not showing the failures. They're not showing the tests that didn't work. Because that's not sexy, it's not fun. Everyone just want to see this upward trajectory. But search isn't always like that, and it's okay.
Isaline: Have you already turned down opportunities? Would you have canceled on me a couple of years ago when you had this feeling?
Daniel: Oh, for sure. Yeah.
Daniel: I would have. I've said yes. I'll go to so many events when I was younger. Then, last minute, I would have driven there, park there. I'm about to get out, it's like, "No, don't want to do it." I don't know what it is! It is definitely a feeling of self-doubt, and it's insecurity, and not being comfortable with who I am.
When we think about networking and meeting new people, I haven't been doing that for a long time, so I don't remember. But, I remember when I was younger, I'm thinking back when I was 18, 19, 20, those years, I would go to these events, whether it's a party or whatnot. I would just stand in a corner all by myself, or I'll make an excuse and go outside to smoke because I didn't want to sound stupid. I didn't want people to judge me.
These days, I don't care if you judge me. I don't know you, you don't know me, whatever. I guess that could come with age. But, age? No wisdom doesn't come automatically with age either. I think it does just come down to acceptance of, "I'm okay." I guess you have to go through some valleys in order to reach that level of acceptance of who you are. Same with SEO. You've got to make those mistakes, even though they may not be mistakes.
Isaline: Have you already beaten yourself up after having turned down an opportunity? Like, "Oh, I wish I had said yes and had been brave enough because my life would be different."
Daniel: I haven't seen or looked at it that way. But then, I also haven't really opened myself up to a lot like you. I think you were one of the first that I've decided, "You know what? I'm going to." Instead of hiding behind the microphone and asking the questions, I'm going to put myself out there and see what it's like." And you know what? It's been 10, 15 minutes, and it's not terrible. Right?
Isaline: Hopefully, not. No.
Daniel: If you're listening to this and you are relatively new, just try some things. It's okay. Don't take everything that you come across as gospel. Just try. Test it for yourself, and that's what matters.
Isaline: How do you find the balance between deciding to do something you're afraid of? Thinking because you want to be healthy mentally and not going through too much to be able to go through it, obviously. Sometimes, you have to protect yourself and not do things, and it's a very difficult balance. How do you approach this?
Daniel: That's a really good question. I don't know if I'm qualified to answer that. Although, I'll try to pull from my own experience. I feel as though I don't ever say yes to things that I can't do. I feel as our limitations are self-imposed. Opportunities don't really come my way. I feel as though that person who's offered it believes that I can fulfill it in some way. I feel as though the mental health side of the pressure and the stress, again, is self-imposed. I'm a person who suffer from migraines. Sometimes, my body response to stress by giving me a crippling migraine. Thanks, brain.
I guess it's me going, "Oh, okay. I'm putting myself along the pressure. My body's trying to tell me, 'Yes, the next 12 hours are going to suck a bit as I try to get through this.'" But here's a very clear reminder that, "Hey, slow down," or reframe the type of narrative that's in my head. Instead of, "I need to get this done," it's more, "Okay. Let's see what we can do over the next, whatever the timeline is, so that I'm not putting too much pressure on myself." That's how I deal with it. Otherwise, I'm one of those weirdos who'd love stress. I wouldn't say I love stress, but I thrive on it. Without stress, life is a bit dull.
Isaline: I love what you said about if someone asks you to do something, it means that they really trust you to be able to do something. Yeah, I really liked this idea. I didn't see it the other way round. I hope everybody will remember that. People, that's one thing you should remember after this podcast is that lots of people trust your ability. Sometimes, probably, we don't trust ourselves. But lots of other people would say that we also made it. Can you tell us more about what you do when there is a challenge you've decided to do? Let's say this podcast, the pitch, or whatever else. You know that's it's within your ability to do it, but you still very much doubt in yourself and going through a rough moment. What do you do? Do you have you cognitive abilities? Because trust can be very, can make the brain fuzzy, like you're not able to think properly. What did you do to choose to be there 100%?
Daniel: Okay. Let's just take this recording again, for example. It was just turn up and breathe, and see where it goes. That's similar for many other experiences. For example, many years ago, I did a presentation. It was the first presentation I ever did. It was at a university photography club. I was there to show how awesome I was. I didn't feel I was awesome. I remember sitting in the car, again, didn't want to do it. I had a crippling migraine again, but I couldn't let these people down.
I just walked in. I breathe, and the rest took care of itself. I'm not really a very confident person. That's my perception of it anyway. But others tell me that I project myself, I communicate in a way that I do appear as though I know what I'm talking about. So, that's great. Again, you won't be offered something unless someone believes you can do it.
Most people want you to succeed. Therefore, just walk in and do it. Unfortunately, I don't have a process that I go through. I don't have a mental checklist. For me, it's just turn up. "Turn up, Daniel. Give it your best." If it doesn't go well, it doesn't go well. If it was because you didn't prepare, then, "That's your lesson, Daniel. Figure it out. Go fix it."
Otherwise, I'm confident that I know enough about whatever it is that I'm supposed to be talking about, or presenting, or doing. Therefore, it's just taking that first step. The rest will, the brain, the body, will just take care of itself.
Isaline: You mentioned earlier that your parents brought you up to that there could be some impacts in your upbringing. Can you tell me more about that?
Daniel: Sure. My parents, lovely people. They did the best they could. But, as children, obviously, different opinions of how should do things. They were immigrants to Australia. They came here when I was very young. It was for a better opportunity. There was some pressure. Again, I don't think they gave me any direct pressure. It was self-imposed pressure that I must perform well, that I must do well at school. I don't think they ever explicitly told me this. It wasn't until like I was 19, something that I had finally an adult conversation with my dad.
I was like, "Oh, I felt all this pressure. I needed to do well. I have to go into uni." He actually, frankly, just told me, "Son, I don't care if you're like successful, rich, or whatever. I just want you to be a kind person." I never heard him say that to me. I wish he did it. I wish he had said that kind of stuff so that I wouldn't think that my worth, or my self-worth, was based on academics. Because when you're young, what else do you have to compare yourself with? If you're not good at sports, you're not good at school, then what are you good for?
That's why I love search. You don't have to be great at anything, except for just find solutions. That type of upbringing, again, I don't think it was their upbringing. It was just there wasn't that open communication of them letting me know that I was doing okay, and me thinking I wasn't doing okay because I didn't score above 60 at school. But then, that's on me. Maybe I should have tried a bit harder. Yeah.
Isaline: To wrap up this podcast, what are your advice, or how would you summarize what you said about the most important points for our audience who might be feeling something similar today?
Daniel: Most of the barriers that you'll come across in life are self-imposed. They're in your head. More often than not, you are very, very well-equipped. If not, better, to deal with any challenges that you come across. Whether that's in your personal life or professional life.
Take it from someone who has had a lot of self-doubts, who has had a lot of shame triggers around money, about performing. If I can do it, I'm pretty sure you can, too. Because you can. It all starts with taking that first step. Maybe you won't get it the first time, second time, or third time. But each time you try, then that will bring you closer to whatever goal that you have set for yourself.
Isaline: Oh, I love it. Thank you, Danielle. I think I need to add something. Also, what I hope you will remember while listening to this is that it's not you. You can do this. Most SEOs, we are nice people. Even though you see, as Daniel mentioned, awesome graph with fantastic going upwards line. It's not always that. Actually, most of the time, it's not. It's okay, and you're okay. You're going to be just fine. Also, just try the opportunities. Do your best. Because most of the people around you, they trust that you can do things, honestly.
Also, I'll make sure to share the link about Brené Brown. Because I listened to one of her conferences, too, with an audiobook. I find it pretty useful. Hopefully, it can help our audience, too. Is there any more link I should or a source about the subjects that I should share, you think?
Daniel: Well, anything related to Brené Brown. Whether it's her TED Talk, or to her books, or even the YouTube interviews that she's done. That's helped me immensely, and that I think will help your audience, too.
Isaline: Yeah, I will. You're right. There are free resources from Brené out there that I can easily share, too. Awesome recommendation. Thanks a lot. Thanks for sharing your story. That was awesome.
Daniel: It's been a pleasure, despite my thinking of canceling.
Isaline: Well, I'm really happy you didn't cancel. That was lovely of you.
Daniel: It just goes to show.
Isaline: Yeah, I think I wouldn't have let to cancel. I would have followed up and say, "Hey, what did you cancel? Do you want to book another meeting? What's happened?"
Isaline: Thanks a lot for being here. If people want to keep on discussing with you, where can they find you?
Daniel: Twitter is probably the best place. I'm @danielkcheung. I'm sure there'll be in the show notes, but that's where I hang out a lot. You can find me on LinkedIn, but I don't enjoy LinkedIn much.
Isaline: Yes, of course. I'd share the link to your Twitter handle. Also, you can follow WorkInSEO podcasts and Twitter. Please, if you have any insight, feedback, or suggestion, just reach out to me directly. Send tweets, send a message, anything. I'm here and I'm always happy to hear. Of course, I share a transcript of this conversation. In case you'd rather read again the conversation, it's there. I think that's it for the announcements.
Of course, like and share the podcast. I'm always happy to see that you've enjoyed it. Thank you for listening to us today. I'm looking forward to the next podcast and the next guest. We'll seeing you anywhere on social media, or at a conference maybe this year. Alright. Thanks a lot and goodbye.