Wil Reynolds is a thought leader in SEO, period. I respect the heck out of his opinion and had the chance to hear him speak at SEOMoz’s Pro Seminar, and not only is he a good SEO, he’s damn at speaking as well. His SEO company, SEER Interactive, is one of the most prominent in the industry, both in respect – and it’s impressive size. Wil has also been a “white hat” voice in the industry, and his company is somewhat off the main tech zones in Philadelphia – so that, combined with my aforementioned amazement for the size of his company, meant that many of my questions were focused in that area. Overall, Wil answered as he always does – intelligently, with candor, and with depth – which makes this one hell of an interview. (At least in my opinion). Check out SEER and follow him on Twitter – that is, if you like ranking well.
1. I’d like to know the growth path of SEER Interactive. The website says you were founded in 2002 – I’m guessing with just you doing consulting work – but what brought your company to Philadelphia? Is the following definition for SEER (A clairvoyant, prophet, oracle, or divine), the proper representation of what those four letters are suppposed to mean? Or is it something else?
My niece brought my to Philly! My sister just had a baby, and my whole family and all my friends are from the area, so I knew I wanted to be close to family and friends. I was still working remote for my full time job when I transferred to Philly. After the dot bomb crash, I decided to work for a fortune 500 in 2001 doing an SEO/Analytics for their businesses all over the world. I had a fear of flying at the time (still do) and thought this job would help me get over that fear. I worked there for 3.5 years before I got sick of not being able to get a job at any of the local online agencies – after not being able to get a job and not being able to fulfill my desire to do more volunteer work, I quit and started SEER. I hired my first team member in 2004/2005. Most of what has happened to SEER has been accidental, I’m not some kind of great entrepreneur, I just do what I like and try to treat people right.
Your definition for SEER is accurate. One of our first clients was a PR company here in Philly called AgileCat. Peter Madden the founder was like, dude your name sucks (at the time we were “the new equation” and he came up with SEER, saying that I was someone, who like a prophet saw that search would be so important. He also liked the other meaning which can also be a mystic, which fit with the belief that SEO is a bit of a black box, it has an air of mystery. It worked for me, so we went with it.
SEER was never started to be what it became. I never thought we’d get over 5 employees. So location didn’t factor into my decision, I wanted to be near friends and family and do something I really enjoyed.
2. Speaking of Philadelpha, one of the most intriguing things to be about the company is that it’s based there, and not one of the “big four” (New York, LA, Seattle, and Silicon Valley). Am I just being ignorant? Google search says you’re 2 hours away from the heart of New York, New York, so maybe I just don’t know my geography. Do you find yourself close enough to New York to land a huge client but far enough to take any one-off web presences that host themselves in Philadelphia? Is there room for more SEO firms there, or is there a limited market that you effectively dominate?
As for clients in NYC we have a few, surprisingly we have more clients in San Francisco than NYC, despite the fact that we are about a 1 hour and 20 minute train ride.
I definitely believe there’s always room for more SEO companies in Philly. I cannot control who springs up to compete with us, I can control how I treat my clients and my team. So I tend to focus more on those things. We have built up a very strong name in Philly and I’ll never take that for granted! I wouldn’t say that we dominate the market, so much as I think people here know that if you want SERIOUS, HARDCORE, UN-RELENTING SEO/SEM that SEER is the company. Then the fact that we are so entrenched in Philly helps people to get multiple referrals over and over again when they are seeking search firms. So by the time someone lands on our doorstep, they have usually been referred to us by two or three colleagues.
3. There are seemingly two SEO company models. One is the grey hat model, where a majority of spend goes into acquiring paid links. The other seems to be what your company bases itself off – the white hat, tons of man labor model. Have you found this managable? It seems like it would be way easier to find four talented SEOs to manage a really good company and go grey than it would to find 10 people in a non-tech focused city that can do the job. You’ve been stated as saying “a lot of people haven’t worked out”. How have you managed this talent acquistion process? What’s the SEO/SEM talent like in Philadelphia? (I won’t tell your employees if you say it’s terrible.)
As for SEO company models, I have seen the grey hat model, and it works for a lot of folks. I challenge myself to look at the grey hat approaches others may take and try to get those same links in a more white hat way. I see it as our job to build search rankings as an asset our clients can depend on being around for the long haul. Sometimes the search engines push my patience and even I’ll get more aggressive, but I look at the most crap-tactic links our competitors are getting and do everything I can to come up with the most legit way to fight them.
Sinking this much time into building quality link is very difficult to manage, and that’s part of the reason why we just hired a senior SEO John Carcutt, to help me spend more time on linkbuilding. This is an extremely human resource intensive approach, but at the end of the day we are profitable and I guess we are billing enough to allow our team to be well fed and to be able to provide over the top service to our clients. I think our clients appreciate knowing that we are trying to help them build long term assets that they can bank on for years versus trying to take the quick fix and get them a spike today, but 2 years from now they might lose it all.
At one point, we hired a consultant to come in and look at our business, he instantly found that our SEM division was losing money even though we were adding customers like mad, and our existing clients were increasing budgets. I found that telling my team to go kick butt for our clients does have a downside if you are not charging accurately for that kind of hardcore dedicated work. We fixed that, but what I learned from that experience was that we need to watch the business more closely to make sure that we can be around for the long haul. I am watching the time we are pouring into link building the same way.
Talent acquisition is the toughest part of my job. A lot of folks haven’t worked out because more than anything I work hard to keep our culture as I always wanted it to be. I think taking care of your existing team is the best strategy – and it is something I can control. If my senior people don’t leave to go from agency to agency, then we are in the position where we can hire more junior folks, let them work with us for 6 months or so and if they show promise we can start having them work with clients.
SEO/SEM talent in Philly is probably the same way it is elsewhere, difficult to find performers, easier to find mid range talent. Again, since we are often hiring at more junior levels, we are rarely in a pinch where we are hiring mid level folks on the SEOside, on the SEM side there is definitely a decent amount of talent in the Philly area. I will say that maybe its just part of the “Philly way”, but this is a blue collar town and I think people stick around to what they commit to, more than you might see in a SF of NYC where people jump. The other side of that might just be that we try to take REALLY good care of our team, and if more companies did that maybe they wouldn’t have tons of voluntary turnover, we still have not had 1 person leave to go to another agency to do search elsewhere.
4. I love that you go after conversion maximization and not conversion optimization on your site (low hanging fruit tastes best). You rank really well for lots of Philadelphia based KWs and similarly, it seems, lots of “service” keywords in general. Have you found that these have brought you any real *good* business, or are they just there because they can be? I’ve heard nothing but bad things about leads that come through organic search, but then again, I haven’t run an SEO agency since 2002 like you have.
Ranking well for some keywords ourselves is more of a credibility thing than a new business acquisition tool. I will say that we definitely get more leads from referral than anything, but if you think about it, even if we get one or two high quality leads per month from organic search and do what I know we can do, those people are likely to refer us business and grow with us in the future. I have gotten really good at reading the leads that come in via organic search, I can smell the price shopping / I’m contacting 20 SEO companies emails a mile away, and we just send them elsewhere.
We have had 9 projects (via referral) come from 1 person who found us through organic search – that is worth the 100 leads we got that were garbage.
5. It seems that everybody gets sick of clients, but somehow, you’ve persisted seemingly longer than any other SEO company I can think of off the top of my head. How have you managed this? Do you secretly go home and cry at night because you simply can’t bare stopping and letting a giant team go? Do you absolutely love it? Is SEER Interactive actually a two client shop that actually functions as Project Mayhem on the side?
When it comes to working with clients, I personally like being a part of helping others achieve their goals. It’s a lot like volunteering my time with an organization vs. cutting a check to an organization, when I spend my time I feel better because I am touching the people whom I help. It’s just how I tick. Its also challenging, each client bring new keywords, new challenges, and allows me to test myself and my team to see just how good we are. I love that challenge!
I guess most people get sick of clients because they don’t have the balls to fire them. People start “goin ta sizzler” with the checks from their clients, and then when they client starts acting like an ass, they can’t let them go b/c the expensive dinners and fancy car can’t get paid. then they sit around and whine about client work. I take a different approach. We don’t let any one company be more than 15% of our monthly revenue, as such we can (and have) fire a very large client and financially be fine.
We did just let our 2nd largest client go last week (I really liked them and our results were fantastic, but they had a board member who loved to bust my teams balls, so I said either he goes, or we do) 🙁
Obviously letting your second largest client go is not an easy decision and one that could hurt our bottom line, but I felt it was right and I did it. I also love showing our team that even with a LARGE client, we don’t waiver on our beliefs and values, not even for big money.
As for going home and crying, nah man. If I didn’t like the direction of SEER, I would change it.
I love the direction we’re heading, having a big team is not about ego for me. Its about helping out the people who come to us, the people who have been ripped off by other SEO firms. Its also a realization that this industry changes so fast that I don’t know how anyone can keep up with it with only 1-2 colleagues and stay on top of everything. Having 25+ search professionals under one roof is a major asset for us, and for our clients. Definitely one of those things that the sum of the parts is better than any one its own, like Voltron. The other thing I’ve always said, is that winning alone blows. At least for me it does. I like team sports, I like winning as a team. I know that I would be much sadder if this business only helped me achieve my goals and dreams in life. The beauty is that this company is helping 20+ people live out their dreams (I hope) by generously sharing in our profits, giving people time off to do the things that matter in life, and supporting their charities.
6. I see on your LinkedIn profile that you politely targeted the anchor text “Ethical SEO Firm”, and you’re pretty adament about that stance publicly. I hear Jill Whalen frequently complain that she is having trouble beating those people that would publicly be viewed as “non-ethical”. Do you find this to be the case? How would you quantify the disadvantage “ethical” SEOs have in comparison to “non-ethical”, if at all? How would you define an “ethical SEO firm”? Have you found a decent amount of clients who went strongly out of their way to find this kind of agency and came to you?
As for calling ourselves ethical…its just smart business. here’s why. Our keyword research shows us that people are searching for ethical SEO firms. To me this is someone who has already worked with another firm and is seeking a new firm to work with. That is a great target for us. So plain and simple we saw how people searched and made sure we included a bit of that in our site to try to rank for it. We are taking our own medicine, we do keyword research for clients and often show them how the keywords they use don’t entirely connect with their target audience, why wouldn’t we do the same for ourselves. As for us being ethical, I’d rather refer to us as “transparent” – but no one is searching for transparent SEO firms, so we choose to use the words that people are searching for.