For small business owners SEO is a mine field. You know you need it, but what does it involve and can you afford it? For those with bigger budgets how do you go about choosing an SEO company that you can trust with your online business?
Last week I published an article that highlighted the most helpful SEO blogs on the internet. If you missed it you can read it here. As a follow up I got in touch with Brian Dean and Matthew Woodward, two of the most outspoken and prolific international SEO experts, whose blogs both featured in last week’s article, to ask if they would be willing to give some SEO advice specifically for small business owners.
I’m very pleased they agreed to an interview! Their credentials are indisputable and they give a very candid insights into the SEO industry as well as how to make your business successful online.
1. What SEO experience do you have that makes it important for small businesses to pay attention to your advice?
Brian Dean: I’ve been doing SEO full-time for the last 3-years. In that time I’ve done SEO for enterprise clients from around the world and personally ranked for keywords that bring in 5-figures per month for my business.
I also consult for SEO agencies to help make the SEO that they do for their clients more effective.
Matthew Woodward: I was formally head of online marketing for a major distributor in Europe. I have led online marketing campaigns with great success for a range of international brands including Orange, Tesco, Asda/Walmart & Samsung. In just a matter of months I was able to take profits from mid-4 figures to mid-5 figures with next to no investment. Since then I have built a top 100 business blog in just 12 months.
2. We meet a lot of small businesses and sole traders that desperately need SEO services but have a very limited budget. What short term / long term options do these people have?
Brian Dean: There’s no two ways about it- good SEO is expensive. The only way to succeed in today’s SEO world is to put serious resources behind site design, outreach, content marketing etc.
I usually recommend that small business people learn SEO themselves (long-term) or put more money behind hiring a quality SEO provider (short-term).
I should also point out that cutting corners on SEO can seriously damage your site (and your business). So instead of trying to bootstrap SEO, save money elsewhere and put it into SEO. It’s almost impossible to beat the ROI you’ll get from SEO anyway. And in general, better firms charge more for their work. So you’ll be safer as well.
Matthew Woodward: Whoever you hire to do SEO has more control over the success of your business online than you do. They have the power to deliver great rankings & traffic but more often than not inexperienced SEO’s do long lasting damage.
In my experience a large budget doesn’t mean quality. I have reviewed the work of many £5k-£10k per month agencies and it is absolutely disgusting what they produce for that kind of money. It is very easy to get ripped off when engaging SEO services and the only way you can protect yourself from that is by building your basic knowledge of how things work & using due diligence where possible.
If an SEO service says they ‘guarantee results’ avoid them. There is not a single SEO on the planet that can guarantee results when it comes to SEO.
3. What’s the fastest way to rank a page without breaking Google’s Webmaster Guidelines?
Brian Dean: Create an awesome linkable asset on that page and then hustle to get the word out with email outreach.
I’ve ranked pages for insanely competitive keywords in just a few weeks by creating a mind-blowing piece of content and getting it in front of the right people.
So the first step would be to see what’s already ranking for that keyword, beating that content on one or multiple levels, and then reaching out to site owners to get them to link to your content.
It takes a lot of work, but it works VERY quickly.
Matthew Woodward: It’s all about the social signals! We are currently undergoing the biggest fundamental shift in how Google ranks websites since backlinks were introduced in 1998.
Social signals now have a bigger impact on rankings than backlinks. Which makes sense when you think about it; backlinks are just one website voting for another. A social signal is a real person voting for a website.
What I do:
1. Create a page that I want to rank
2. The content must be engaging & helpful based on my target audiences problems
3. I deliver the solution within the content
4. I will then create a set of bonus resources that are relevant to the tutorial
5. In order to get access to the bonus resources, users have to share the page socially. Not only does this approach build trust & engagement with your brand, it also allows you to extract additional value from traffic in the form of social signals. These will bring more traffic from social networks but more importantly help you secure higher rankings in Google.
How I Built A Top 100 Blog – With this tutorial I made a PDF version of the post that people could share & download.
How To Start A Blog – I put together a pack of plugins, a copy of the video in HD & a bonus tutorial.
How To Analyse Your Backlink Profile – I just shared my personal spreadsheet. This approach is as low risk as you can get in terms of SEO and offers a number of benefits beyond SEO. There are lots of ways to get penalised for link building – but none for social signals!
4. Is it naive for businesses who want results in medium to competitive niches to think quick results can be achieved without breaking Google’s Webmaster Guidelines?
Brian Dean: Not necessarily. It depends on how much money they’re putting into SEO.
For example, if you had a 6-figure monthly SEO budget (and people that knew how to spend it), you could rank for tough terms pretty quickly.
But if you’re building a few links per month here and there – and don’t have the money for a high quality infographic – it’s going to take years to rank for anything remotely competitive.
Matthew Woodward: Quick results are achievable at the cost of increased risk. It really depends on the goals and objectives of the business.
In competitive niches like finance & gambling people are happy to build out 10 sites, spam them to the top & cream the profits for a few weeks before getting penalised.
When that happens, well there’s another 10 sites already on the way! This churn & burn strategy is effective but it’s a lot of hands on work and isn’t sustainable long term.
However, only a handful of SEO’s have actually clicked onto the shift in how Google is ranking websites at the moment – and for years to come people will still be obsessed by backlinks.
This change to a stronger reliance on social signals is a huge opportunity for those that aren’t terrified by change & evolve their SEO efforts now.
I’m looking at it like a global reset button in terms of competition.
5. Is tiered link building in 2013 just for churn and burn niche sites or could this still be a safe strategy to use for your own branded site or even client work?
Brian Dean: Like anything in SEO, it depends on your approach. If your tiers consist of garbage web 2.0 properties and blog comments, then that’s definitely something you want to avoid for branded or client sites.
But if you do it white hat style- linking to your other links from your guest posts or during email outreach – then you can safely do that for any site.
Matthew Woodward: Yes, it is still highly effective and will be for the foreseeable future. It takes advantage of how Google fundamentally spiders and structures the web. However it’s not really what strategy you choose to do with link building that matters – it’s how you do it.
In my tiered link building tutorial series I am very specific about the need for scraping your own list of target sites and manually hand spinning the content. Even though I stress the importance of it & how fundamental doing those things are to the success of the campaign, most people can’t be bothered & only a handful actually try.
Tiered link building done right can rank sites very well in highly competitive niches. When it’s done wrong though the site will burn to the ground. As Google’s algorithms get better at detecting spam then the tiered link building approach will need to evolve as well. But for the here and now my tiered link building tutorial series is still relevant.
As a general rule of thumb you should have control of any link you build to your site. No one knows what Google will change next week, so if they make a change that hurts your site- you need to have control of the links. So as long as you do that & take care with what you are doing, any strategy is ‘safe’ (reduced risk).
6. How would you advise a business goes about searching for a person or agency to do SEO for them?
Brian Dean: The first thing I’d recommend is to get someone in your business to learn the basics of SEO. They don’t need to be experts, but they should at least know about anchor text, domain authority, contextual links etc.
Without that knowledge, it’s REALLY easy to get ripped off. I’d say that 90%+ of all SEO providers are either incompetent or build shady links. So you have to know how to spot a shady provider.
And the only way to protect yourself is by knowing SEO. In my experience most businesses that get burned by an SEO provider could have prevented it by learning a bit about SEO. Obviously, you have a million and one things on your plate. But a foundation of SEO knowledge is the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
If you are trying to rank a niche site, ask them for specific examples. I had a client who was in the pet niche so I was able to demonstrate I had ranked websites in that particular vertical
Matthew Woodward: Well this is a bit of a problem for a number of reasons. Firstly, the really skilled guys with great technical knowledge, rarely do SEO for anyone else.
Secondly, I hate SEO agencies with a passion. For the most part they just outsource to cheap Indian based services and get stumped on the most basic of questions. I’m yet to engage one I would hand my money over to. You would be disgusted by the amount of agencies that contact me for help. I will be naming & shaming them all in due time.
Thirdly, The SEO industry is a cowboy trade – plain & simple. It has a bad reputation for a reason, its full of scammers & false claims. And don’t forget – whoever you hire to do SEO for you has more control over the success of your business online than you do. So what can you do to help protect yourself? Improve Your SEO Knowledge. It’s easy to get taken advantage of if you’re easily perplexed by SEO jargon. Spend time improving your general wordpress SEO knowledge over a beer or two one evening.
Specifically ask the SEO company about:
Current Results- Clients ask to see current results from current clients. Use something like Alexa (scroll down for search traffic) or SEMRush to see if search traffic has actually increased for these clients.
Speak With Current Clients Directly- One of the oldest tricks in the SEO agency book is claiming they ranked a certain site. When in reality the site owner has never heard of the agency. Don’t be scared to pick up the phone and speak with a few of their current clients- this will tell you everything you need to know.
Recent Algorithm Updates- Any SEO worth hiring will know anything & everything there is to know about the latest Google Algorithm updates. They will be able to tell you exactly what changed, when it changed and how their strategy evolved to cater for that change. SEO’s that have their finger on the pulse will be aware of every single algorithm update and will have sites that got penalised, site that increased in traffic & sites that stayed the same. Having that data available is the only way to stay ahead of the curve. SEO is a cat and mouse game, some mice are smarter than others.
Client Penalties– Ask them if they have ever got a client penalised and what they did to recover the site. Ask them to name the client and get in touch with them directly. If they claim they have never got a site penalised avoid them. This means 1 of 2 things-
1. They are lying
2. They suck at SEO. No one knows what Google will do next. Experienced SEO’s are constantly trying to get their own test sites penalised to measure what is ‘safe’ and what is not. Until you get sites penalised and successfully recover them your nothing but an amateur. If they do admit to getting a client penalised and the solution was moving to a new domain – that’s another alarm bell that they are inexperienced.
Guaranteed Results- If they guarantee results do not hire them. No one can guarantee results, we are not in control of what Google does or how it ranks websites making it impossible to guarantee any kind of result. A track record of delivering results is not a guarantee. There are no guarantees when it comes to SEO plain & simple.
How Will You Protect Me. Ask them how they will protect your site from future Google Algorithm updates. A smart SEO will understand that SEO is nothing more than risk management – so what do they do to reduce that risk?
What Do You Do For The Money? Find out what you actually get for your money. What will they actually be doing to increase your chances of ranking? You want a detailed answer to this question.
What Happens At The End Of The Relationship- One of the dirty tactics that SEO agencies use to keep you locked into a monthly contract with them is they often ‘own’ the links they create for you. So when you terminate the contact, they remove the links which in turns damages your rankings. Find out exactly what happens at the end of the relationship – if the above is the case, avoid.
7. Most SEO agencies business models are based on recurring monthly fees. Should businesses really have to pay indefinitely to keep their rankings?
Brian Dean: If the business is only interested in ranking for 10 keywords – and any more than that doesn’t make sense for their business – then they definitely shouldn’t pay indefinitely to maintain their rankings.
But if a business wants to continually expand their presence online, then they’ll need to keep a monthly SEO budget forever.
The only time that you’d need to pay to maintain rankings is when the SEO provider owns a blog network and only keeps the links pointing to your site as long as you keep paying (this is common). If that’s the case I recommend temporarily paying the SEO extortion fee while building real, permanent links. Once you have enough quality links, get rid of that shady SEO firm.
Matthew Woodward: This is a tough question and again really depends on the goals of the business.
If an SEO agency is entirely responsible for the management of the site from an SEO perspective and actively working on it, then it isn’t unreasonable to pay a monthly fee for that service.
On the other hand if they have done a bunch of work and ranked the site but no longer work on it actively, then they shouldn’t be still taking your money.
You should find out exactly how this works with the agency before you hire them. Avoid those that remove links when your relationship ends with them. They are purely in it for the money and do not have your best interests at heart.
To use Brian’s example, if your in a low competition niche, long term SEO work should not be necessary to rank say a cockapoo dog training site
8. What steps can a business take to maximise their return on investment (ROI)?
Brian Dean: The first thing I’d recommend they do is invest in a linkable asset on their site here’s a great resource on that. Linkable assets have an amazing ROI because you can leverage to get links for years. Then I’d invest some money into getting a process down for email outreach link building. Email outreach is a bit tricky, but it’s hands down the best way to build the type of quality links that Google’s looking for.
Matthew Woodward: First of all ROI doesn’t necessarily come in the form of bottom line profits. It comes in the form of relationships, trust, social signals & brand awareness – which leads to increases in bottom line profits.
So if your focus with SEO is to increase profits, chances are – you won’t increase profits.
Most businesses seem obsessed by backlinks, higher rankings and getting more traffic but have failed to actually build anything worth visiting in the first place.
I have reviewed an awful lot of sites in the past year and I’m yet to see a single site that actually deserves to rank. Rarely is any thought put into the actual user experience and the different types of value a visitor can offer over and above a sale.
You wouldn’t open a retail store in the high street with no shop fittings and all the stock on the floor in the boxes it was delivered in – so why do it with a website?
I’m addicted to extracting as much value as possible from traffic and increasing conversion. A few simple changes to the user experience can double profits overnight with no increase in traffic.
Spend time perfecting that by building a conversion machine before rushing out to get more traffic. Otherwise you’re leaving money on the table every single minute of every single day and your marketing budget is going to waste.
9. Would businesses that want to strictly comply with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines be better off creating popular content on their website and promoting it rather than employing an SEO agency?
Brian Dean: It depends on their SEO budget. If they only have $500 per month to spend, they’re much better off creating and promoting a popular piece of content (because that’s basically what the agency should be doing anyway). And if you do it yourself, you’re cutting out the middleman.
That being said, there are a few agencies that are 100% white hat and comply with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. But they’re not cheap. So if you can find a firm like that, you’re probably better off hiring them. That way you can let them do the grunt workand take advantage of the expertise that they bring to the table.
Matthew Woodward: If you put together a good content strategy there is really no need to employ an SEO agency. As a small business you will have a better idea of the problems, fears and concerns of your target customer than anyone else.
You should sit down and think about the different types of people your business deals with and then list the different problems & fears they have. Once you know what they are you can create a content strategy around those that will not only help build trust & engagement, it will also allow you establish yourself as an expert in your field.
For example, every accountant’s website is exactly the same. Home page, who we are, what we do, how much, how to contact us. Yawnnn! So when you do a search for an accountant and have 10 websites in front of you that all say/do the same- how do you choose which one to go with?
To stand out from the crowd the smart accountant will have a content strategy that addresses the key questions every new client has such as-
1. How do you setup a company in the UK?
2. How much tax do I have to pay?
3. What happens if I don’t pay my tax on time?
4. What are the hidden costs of running a business?
As potential clients reads through that content a number of things are happening on complete auto pilot-
1. They build trust with you
2. They feel more confident/less worried
3. You have established yourself as the teacher (the teacher/student relationship is powerful)
4. They have forgotten about the other accountant’s useless websites
5. Next time they won’t search for an accountant, they’ll just come straight to your site. Essentially you are automating relationship building through content you only ever have to write once!
Having that content also allows you to directly engage people and community’s online, helping them resolve their issues while driving trust & social signals simultaneously.
10. Clients want quick results but they also want zero risk – are these things mutually exclusive or can they have both? If so how?
Brian Dean: You can definitely minimize your risk…but there’s no such thing as ZERO risk. Any SEO campaign carries a slight risk along with it. The only way to really play it safe is to literally just publish content and pray that the links come in.
They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s possible to get quick results with white hat SEO (but it’s a lot more expensive than black hat).
Matthew Woodward: SEO is nothing more than risk management. There is no such thing as zero risk or guaranteed results. Any SEO that tries to tell you otherwise is a liar.
There are things you can do to manage and reduce risk but this often comes at the cost of speed of results. There is certainly a sliding scale connecting speed of results with increased risk. Quick results are rarely sustainable.
11. If a business had 250 GBP a month to invest, would they get a better ROI through an SEO link building service or pay per click advertising?
Brian Dean: Definitely SEO. That 250 quid will vanish faster than you can say “quality score” unless you know PPC really, reallywell.
12. Some see the term SEO as outdated now (e.g.
SEOMOZ) How do you see SEO developing over the next two years?
Brian Dean: SEO won’t become out of date as long as there are search engines. Like any field, things change and evolve. But the reason people want to abandon SEO is because the field tends to have a bad reputation. So it’s easier to say: “I’m a content marketing consultant” than to convince people that you do quality SEO work.
So I see SEO changing and evolving over the next two years. But dying? Not a chance.
Matthew Woodward: As long as search engines exist we will be able to optimise them. However we are currently undergoing a fundamental shift in how Google ranks websites with the stronger reliance on social signals. This trend is going to grow over the coming years as we see less reliance on backlinks in the algorithm. Evolve or die.