Welcome to the second edition of "Real people, real SEO." If you missed the first edition where I interviewed SEOmoz's CEO Rand Fishkin, be sure to catch it! Today, I have a special guest of whom I have the privilege of knowing personally. It's merely an act of chance that this individual who has been steeped in SEO since its early days would just so happen to live in the same city as me and be one of the most approachable, level-headed SEOs -- never mind people-- you could ever hope to meet. He has played a large role in helping SEO business concepts gel for me and could easily reside in the superstar tier of SEOs if he so chose. So, without further ado, I will start with his bio/credentials and then follow with the interview. You don't want to miss this one!
Jon Payne is the President and Founder of Ephricon Web Marketing, an ROI-focused SEO agency with locations in Charlotte, NC and Baltimore, MD. Jon holds an MBA with a concentration in Marketing and frequently lectures on topics such as SEO and Internet marketing strategy at local colleges and universities. Follow him on Twitter via @jonpayne and @ephricon.
With SEO as an industry inching its way closer-and-closer to the 20-year mark, how have you personally seen the SEO landscape change over the years?
Well in one way, SEO is much harder now than it used to be, but in another way it's much easier. How’s that for taking a stand? Let me explain, though… On one hand, there’s just so much more competition today. Around 2003 or 2004, we’d have some clients who were the only ones really actively “trying” to rank in their particular space. Their competitors were either larger brands who ranked almost accidentally but just from their sheer link juice, or informational sites that were non-commercial. Today, it's totally different. In 2003, maybe 1 out of 20 local plumbing companies were doing SEO. Now, 15 out of 20 are and the other 5 are considering it. On the other hand, the tools today are so much better than even a few years ago. Most CMS's are pretty search-friendly out of the box, and setting up a site in WordPress or Drupal is easy and inexpensive. Flash has died down too, and CSS and XHTML have made it possible to have “cool effects” while still being search-friendly. Plus, we’ve got tools like Open Site Explorer which enables us to quantify and sort data that before was just in one big list in Yahoo Site Explorer. Google Analytics is free, and is 5 times better (and easier) to use than most any web stats application was five years ago or so.
What do you find to be some of the most key factors for running a successful SEO agency?
Well, I guess I’ve been “learning as I go” for eight years running our SEO agency, so the best I can offer is my opinion as it exists right now. First, I think clear, cordial, consistent communication with clients (lots of C’s there) is critical. We’ve only lost a handful of clients over the years, and just about every time, the root of the issue was communication more so than actual results. It's one thing to produce great results for a client. It's another thing for them to know you are producing the results and understand how it contributes directly to their bottom line. Many SEO agencies stop at rankings, and don’t show how the SEO efforts produce true business results. We’ve found that when the client truly understands the value the SEO campaign is bringing to them, they are more willing to contribute and facilitate things on their end, thus making the campaign more effective. The second factor to me is all about the results. It’s a lot easier to communicate effectively and in a positive manner when traffic and conversions are up 100% every month. While communication is key, at the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to produce the results too. In an agency setting, I think the key to results is all about how you organize your people and processes. I believe that most agencies that offer SEO know how to optimize a site and build links. But why do they often fail to produce results? Most of the projects we take on nowadays are situations where we are the second or third SEO agency the company has hired. The firms they worked with previously understood SEO, but they didn’t understand how to manage projects, set up systems and weigh costs vs. benefits. On a more general note, I think having a network of trusted advisers is huge. Naturally, this applies much more broadly than just SEO though. As the owner of an SEO agency though, there are only a limited number of people I can speak with who are in the same boat I’m in. There just aren’t that many agencies out there that focus just on search marketing. I’ve tried to make a point over the years to build relationships with other agencies, and periodically I’ll give them a call or send them an email asking for their opinion, advice, etc. I can’t express how valuable this is. Guys like Wil Reynolds from Seer Interactive, Dave Conklin and Jonathan Bentz from ProspectMX have helped me quite a bit over the years. I also get similar value out of attending Meetups and local networking events, as well as building strong relationships with our clients. I have several clients who I think of as trusted business advisers, not just clients.
What are some of the most common issues that new clients have when they first approach you for SEO services?
Hmm, there are lots to choose from here. I’ll just speak to the first few that come to mind. For one, you’d be surprised how many companies have Google Analytics installed, but how few of them have Goals set up and tracking, or are correctly tagging their PPC traffic to report as “paid” instead of “non-paid”. Fixing those types of issues is literally the first thing we do. We also still get lots of projects where the company is afraid of putting text on their homepage. This is not as bad as it was years ago, but its still pretty common. The most fundamental aspect of search (even today) is that search engines match words. If you want to rank for XYZ, it’s a good idea to at least discuss that general topic on your homepage. Lastly, we’re seeing more and more issues with redesigns and losing traffic when pages are moved around. We get lots of inquiries from firms about 3-4 months after they’ve redesigned their website, when they are wondering why their search traffic fell off a cliff. The first thing I do is go to the “top pages” tab for their site in Open Site Explorer and within 5 minutes, I’ll typically have identified a dozen or two-dozen pages that have lots of inbound link juice but are throwing 404 errors, or issuing 302 (not 301) redirects.
I typically find that good SEO always comes back around to basics, no matter how much the search engine landscape changes. How often would you say you read an SEO tip that actually affects your approach to SEO? Maybe not necessarily in some paradigm-shifting way, but perhaps a new way to build links, etc?
I couldn’t agree more. At the end of the day, good SEO is about understanding what both people (via keywords, intentions) and what search engines (via algorithms) are looking for. At a high-level, that really doesn’t change very much. The nuts and bolts change, only as people evolve in their experience and as habits change, or as search engines seek to improve their mathematical computation of what is really a subjective result – the best page for your chosen keyword search. So to that extent, I’d say most of what people read, write and discuss when it comes to SEO is really more about new and different tactics than it is about strategies. As per how often we actually shift paradigm’s at a significant level… hmmm… Maybe one or two times in about ten years of doing SEO for me. The example that comes to mind is the day I really embraced the idea of “earning” links and building them passively through viral, social or buzz marketing efforts – rather than just proactively trying to “build” them one by one. Granted, there is a place for both methods here, but “link bait” was not the same thing years ago that it is today.
Name a couple of activities that you think provide the best ROI in terms of benefit/impact on rankings and traffic per unit of time spent.
Title Tags: This goes back to the intent here; the title tag is supposed to be the one part of the page that summarizes what its all about. Requesting Links from Partners, Vendors, Associations: Most companies have at least a few close partners, vendors, or associations they are associated with, who are more than happy to spend 5 minutes putting a link on their site. Especially with vendors, you are paying them $X per month; adding a link to your site is an easy way for them to keep you happy.
What types of SEO activities are best done in-house vs. through an agency?
Content creation. This is probably our toughest challenge. Our clients are very busy, and it's hard for them to find time to create copy. In many cases, we can help them by finding copywriters to create a draft or get the process started. But at the end of the day, we (as an SEO agency) and our copywriters (as writers) are typically not the subject matter experts in our clients’ fields.
When should you get an SEO involved in a new site or redesign?
I’m obligated to say “as early as possible” to this. Ideally, the SEO would be involved from the start, weighing in on content, messaging, site maps, etc, and then reviewing wire frames, mock-ups and the actual code and draft versions of the site. At a bare minimum, if you wait until the last minute and get them involved just prior to going live, they can at least help make the transition more smooth by ensuring any necessary 301 redirects are set up correctly, tracking is installed correctly and the key target pages are tagged and optimized appropriately.
What's your opinion of SEO's reputation these days? With the mainstream media hammering SEO lately, do you feel like it hinders the industry or helps create awareness?
I think the term “SEO” certainly has some negative connotations associated with it, outside of the industry anyhow. I’ve also found that a lot of people come into this industry through some of the darker areas as well. Part of what makes SEO fun is that it's competitive, and there is a clear scoreboard. Those same things also foster an environment where some people will take risks or pursue a strategy that others don’t like. However, I think there are also a lot of areas where SEO has a very positive image. While it may be viewed as a bit shady, I think it’s also generally viewed as highly-effective. So that’s certainly a positive. There isn’t too much sketchy about print advertising… except that it’s a waste of money! :)
Do you foresee any real competition for Google in the land of search engines?
Good question. I don’t see anything on the immediate horizon, which I guess is pretty obvious. I almost feel like their biggest competitor right now is themselves, and spreading things too thin, losing focus, etc.
So long as there are search engines, there will be ways to optimize for them. With that said, do you ever fear that the bottom will fall out of the SEO industry one day due to SEO awareness being commonplace amongst most companies, too much competition, niche crowding, etc?
No. I think so long as there are search engines, then there is SEO. When I started my firm (circa 2002/2003) and we would start doing SEO for a particular site, it was pretty evident (or so we thought) that our client was the only one in given space that was actually proactively “doing SEO”. Today, that’s very different. It’s rare when we compete in a space where few firms are trying. It’s a lot more competitive nowadays. But so what? So is marketing. So is sales. Its harder to get your customer's attention. It’s harder to impress them. But there will always be a value associated with doing these things well. The same is true with SEO. In fact, I think more competition does nothing but make quality SEO services all that much more valuable. No doubt the tactics and techniques will change over time, but good SEOs aren’t just technicians. They’re strategists, too. SEO isn’t about link building. Link building and 301 redirects are just specific parts of it. SEO is about understanding your target market (people), understanding search engines, and then understanding the website or client you are working with – and intersecting all three of them. Today, “link building”, for instance, is an important element. I’d guess it will be for the foreseeable future too. But if Google decides to make social mentions “the new link building”, that doesn’t mean SEO is dead. It’s just means the tactics will have to adapt. So too will good SEOs.
SEO is an industry full of differing opinions. Because of that, it's not uncommon for an SEO to change their point of view on at least one thing at some point. Do you recall any such epiphanic moments where you thought to yourself that you had been flat-out just doing something wrong before? Likewise, what would you say your biggest mistake has been that taught you the most valuable lesson as an SEO?
No, not really. :) This is much less “sudden” than you’ve eluded to, but I can tell you that one of the valuable lessons I’ve learned gradually about SEO consulting over the past few years is that the “SEO” piece is only half of “SEO consulting”. The “consulting” piece is the other half, and is just as important. What I mean by this is that - at least in agency life - simply having solid SEO knowledge is not nearly enough. You need to understand people. You need to understand business. There have been times early on where I would deliver to a new client a list of 100 requests or revisions that I wanted them to handle. They thanked me kindly, and then didn’t implement a single thing. I’ve learned that how you manage the relationships, the customer life cycle, the project management components, etc. are key. Nowadays, when we start with a new client, I like to give them 1 or 2 easy things to change at first. Most of the time they are low-effort and low-impact items, but they are easy to do; they are easy to approve. It helps the relationship start off right. It gets things in motion. To the same effect, I’ll often easily yield minor SEO revisions that would have positive (albeit marginal) benefits for the sake of keeping things more simple and easy for our clients. I’m a big believer in “quick wins” and “low hanging fruit”. I think that having “buy-in” from your clients is essential. What other buzz words can I throw in here? Seriously though, it’s my opinion that most SEO firms that fail to achieve good results fail not because they don’t understand SEO, but rather because they don’t give enough importance to the more business-like elements: Relationship management, project management, etc. I know lots of really good, really competent SEOs who lose clients left and right because of things like this. As a consultant, simply knowing SEO inside and out isn’t good enough. You need to understand people, business, managing projects, managing relationships, etc. So there’s my epiphany, I guess. One day – probably six or seven years ago – I realized the SEO business is not just about SEO. It’s about people. It’s about marketing. It’s about business. SEO is just the prerequisite.
If you could do anything else for a living besides SEO, what would it be?
Well, I’m a business guy so I’d imagine I’d be running some sort of business, but not sure what it would be. Outside of that, teaching is something that I already do a bit of and something that I plan to do more consistently maybe ten years out. Perhaps the only thing I like doing more than marketing is talking about marketing.
I'd like to thank Jon for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer the aforementioned questions.