Taking Some of My Own Interview Medicine: What Were My Big Bets

In interviews I often ask people, what is the one thing you believe where people almost always disagree with you, but you are making a big bet that you are right? I ask that question, but recently finally thought to would I answer that question? What big bet did I make where I thought others were completely off?

Well, I made 2 big bets in building SEER that set us apart from the status quo at the time, and were risky, but today I think paying off.

Big Bet #1 - ALL SEO people must be client facing

Risk - Recruiting people who can balance SEO and account management is tough as the two skills don't always go hand in hand. I would potentially stunt our growth. Upside - I was that account manager who didn't know SEO early in my career and I realized that my inability to talk business and SEO (I could talk business, but not SEO) made me less of an asset to my clients.

I decided early on that SEO people won't be "back room" people but instead SEO people at SEER would be marketers first and SEOs second. I bet on the fact that marketers would respect the larger goals of an organization and understand that SEO is a part of that but is not everything. They would not let themselves get pigeon holed into thinking that increasing rankings, gaining links, or decreasing download times were the goals by themselves. They would get it, that increasing pages indexed or decreasing 404 errors without making a business case for why would be good housekeeping, but not a business driver. 

Those kinds of things to me are micro goals but should never be confused with macro goals, and how you get things done is by explaining to clients why the micro goals achieve the macro goals.  I feel people who think about the macro goals review client 10k's, or want to sit in on marketing meetings once in a while that are not about SEO, they get that sitting in on a sales call for 30 minutes will provide a wealth of information about the client and the customer. Understanding your clients goals at the CEO level helps you as an SEO never get consumed by the micro SEO goals without connecting them to the larger corporate goals, that is a consultant mindset over a purely SEO mindset. Even I have to fight it at times.

The risk for SEER was that back in 2005-2006 most people doing SEO were tech folks, most SEO companies at that time were probably 75-90% technical guys and gals who knew SEO. At SEER we combined that role, opting for people who knew marketing first and could be taught SEO. So we never had "back room" people, every person had to be able to talk SEO and talk business. This meant we trimmed our pool of applicants significantly, as several applicants would approach us with great SEO skills but couldn't or didn't want to be a client advocate.

I am not saying we do this 100% of the time, but we are constantly working on building a team of people who get this balance and can manage both.

If I was wrong, SEER would have had to re-staff almost all our team.

Leading with tech over marketing. If I was right, we would have been staffed with marketers who had to learn SEO, but understood the dynamics of marketing and connecting with people (connecting with people and being persuasive are GREAT skills in any form of marketing). I think it's a harder road to get a tech person to learn a bit more about persuasion, regular marketing, and connecting with people. I will say this, today I do not want to be a company staffed too much on the tech side, with everything about scraping and tech tricks (which we need some of) vs being as company staffed on the marketing side to present ideas that have marketing value. I think its an ongoing pendulum of balance, too many marketers who can't pick up on SEO quick enough and you get no success, too many tech folks and you risk not having the creative marketing chops that also drive success for the clients.

Big bet #2 - Doing real marketing before Google rewarded it

Risk - Be labeled as snake oil salesman who didn't get results.  I could see it already "SEER had us do all this marketing stuff to drive quality links, and we got beat by our competitors who did low quality bought links only...SEER is snake oil" Upside - We would not have to re-tool our team when Google figured it out. Our clients would also not have ever been hit by penalties, thus causing them to leave us, hurting our rep and our revenue.

The second bet is part of the first... In 2005-2010 we were doing a decent amount of directory link building, but even then I had the belief that there was no way that the long term way to succeed was based on who had a less crappy list of directories. So for 5-6 years we were preaching to our clients to do higher level marketing even though we knew they were not getting rewarded by Google for it today, we just didn't know when that day was coming. We bet that some day it would come.

Someday it HAD to come!

I think I sounded the bell way too early. We asked our clients to wait, we asked them to hold on, we asked them to believe in us that someday that low quality stuff that their competitors were doing to win wouldn't last. Luckily my thinking was that even if RCS doesn't help rankings, it could actually end up driving brand engagement, leads, and sales on its own merits, that was my "backup" plan - to say "hey, your rnakings might not have increased but the other metrics by which your company actually earns revenue are improving."

Then I wrote this.

Then came panda and penguin and now our clients see SEER as a company who saw this coming, a company that hired the right staff to be ready for where Google was headed (marketers) and most importantly our clients saw us as a company who was protecting their long term investments. If I was wrong we probably would have been added to the list of snake oil salesmen, if I was right and could find a team SEOs who wanted to do the good work (vs finding SEOs who wanted to do nothing but take shortcuts) we'd be early winners. This risk has paid off!

So what's my next big risk?

Its funny almost all come back to hiring and finding the right people, but lately I've infused a lot of people who used to be journalism majors, college newspaper editors, journalists, etc.

Why Journalists, Editors, and PR people? My thinking is this... those folks know how to create real stories and headlines already, its all they've done, so for them, the concept behind RCS is a JOKE!"

Writing outreach that connects with the end user is not a new idea, creating a value proposition is just part of the work. My RCS presentation while big in SEO, would make every other type of marketing yawn, why? Because that is what Advertising, PR, Branding folks have done their whole lives.

The other thing I love about journalists, they respect deadlines and handle pressure well.

Something I hear from clients time and time again that they really don't like about SEO firms is their inability to hit deadlines and do things on time, and I see it all the time, missing deadlines, meetings, etc are unfortunately par for the course in a lot of SEO circles.

Dare I say, most clients I have seen would rather get a 35% increase with a company that understands marketing and hits deadlines, than to get a 45% increase and NOT. Why?  Because the company that doesn't is a DRAIN, you have to follow up with them all the time, you have to prod, poke, and bug them to make sure they will follow through.

SEER once had an e-commerce client who did not renew with us after we increased their search revenue by 120%, YoY, I did a lot of soul searching on why and I am still not sure, but I did learn that the numbers aren't everything, its also how you manage a project, that influences success.

I am thinking of making this a series, where I may ask 3-4 basic questions on big bets that others have made in other industries, so keep an eye out.

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Wil Reynolds
Wil Reynolds
CEO & Vice President