Starting an SEO agency used to be a pretty easy game. Agree on 5-10 keywords with client > Create 5-10 generic, keyword heavy articles every month > Syndicate those articles to as many article directories as possible > Send out monthly invoice for £500 > Hope that rankings improved.
Today, it’s a whole different ball game. Links that make the difference are becoming harder and harder to come by. Lots of people have had bad experiences with agencies in the past, and due to the recession, budgets are even more stretched than ever.
There’s no two ways about it, SEO is a tough racket, and I have a lot of admiration for anyone who is brave enough to start an agency right now.
I caught up with Alan Gregory of MonkeyFace SEO, I asked him about the trials and tribulations of setting up an SEO agency in the current climate.
Q) Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background, how did you get into SEO?
A) To be honest, I started doing SEO before I even knew what it was. I started out developing, marketing and selling products such as Ebooks and trading software about 6 years ago. I worked from a customer base and affiliate marketing, rather than generating traffic through Google and other search engines. However once the launch period had passed, I noticed the drop in traffic which ultimately led to a drop in sales.
My involvement with it came a bit later on, when I was pondering about where the sites come up on Google and the potential reasons why Google and other search engines lay the results out in accordance with what you type into them.
At the time, driving sales through search engines was not the main focus or regarded as a valuable use of time, as I had a large customer base and received assistance from affiliate marketers. My team and I honed in on putting time into a product launch rather than keeping a product selling in the market for a long period of time. Without realising the field I had stepped into, I was analysing traffic and studying ways in which to improve it.
When a product launch is over, you find that the sale statistics slowly begin to decrease and after roughly a month, sales drop to the point where they are almost non-existent.
Therefore, I looked into ways in which to improve the Google ranking of the product in order to promote and maintain sales, which is how I discovered that I have a flare and passion for SEO.
Q) Why did you decide to go it alone?
A) Initially, I worked for an in-house SEO team which I enjoyed very much. I learned a lot there but after leaving, I moved to an agency because I wanted to gain a wider understanding of different industries and how their SEO and marketing needs differ from one another and also to improve my skills and knowledge.
I came to the realisation that agencies work in different ways. I felt that clients were not getting a lot of value for their money and had to do a lot of the footwork on their own with only the directional advice of an SEO consultant. In my opinion, this is where an SEO should be doing things for the client. My clients don’t have to implement anything unless they want to because the work is done for them. I encourage them to do their own things but, I’d like to think I’m there if they want to get my opinion on something which they are unsure about.
I made the decision to set up my own SEO agency because I had a lot of suggestions and ideas for the agency which I was working for but they were not exactly enthusiastic about making changes to their methods, despite the constant evolution in SEO.
I thought that it would be an exciting but gruelling challenge for me to try and make it on my own. I appreciate the helping hands here and there, but it can be a bit of a juggling match sometimes.
Q) What sacrifices have you had to make to start your business?
A) Setting up a business takes a lot of time, money and energy so I’ll start with that. My evenings and weekends also suffer from time to time as I often have a large workload.
My dream always was to run my own business but I’ve had to turn down offers of working with some exciting agencies and global companies. It’s a tough call to make sometimes although, there is something about taking the plunge which brings about new challenges and comes with a lot of reward.
Q) What has been the biggest challenge to you in getting started?
A) I would have to say the most difficult things for me have been getting organised and staying motivated. When there are a million and one things to do, you don’t know where to start but it all needs doing and you care so much about each thing that it can be tough to prioritise tasks.
The first 3-4 months sprung up bad news after bad news in my personal life too, which made it all the more difficult. After a year in business, it’s certainly no easier, however my advice for anybody out there thinking about giving up is to just keep going. You never know who will be on the other end of your ringing phone.
Q) Where have your clients come from?
A) I have gained clients through my website, word of mouth, referrals and LinkedIn so far. Building new and strong relationships, whilst utilising existing relationships like your friends and family really makes a difference in the beginning. Just don’t expect all your friends to like, share or promote things for you all the time but don’t be afraid to ask them to mention you.
Q) Where did the name Monkey Face come from? Did you use our Silly Agency Name generator?
A) No, I didn’t use your silly name generator but if I had used it, my company would have been called Metal Frog Ltd, so it got the initials right! The name was given to me by one of the other directors when I was cheeky to her. It sort of stuck when we were thinking of a brand name.
Q) What does your team look like at the moment and what are your growth plans?
A) The team currently consists of just two of us, which means a consistently heavy work load so we are looking to expand as our number of clients continues to increase. My aim is to bring an additional three people into the team in 2014.
Q) Linkbuilding is a risky business today, how do you convey that risk to clients and how do you balance the risk/reward factor when deciding which links to build for which clients?
A) Each client is different so you have to treat their circumstances individually. Personally, I think that the word ‘risky’ is not an accurate word to use with regards to link building because if you do SEO honestly and properly, it serves a very useful and much wider purpose. Obviously, there is no longer room for spammy link building and paid links in the SEO world but it isn’t the end! You have to get creative and come up with new ways of doing things.
Just like the clients, every SEO consultant is different and we all have our ways of operating so link building could be risky for a client if it’s done by the wrong person.
Q) How much of what you do is internal, and how much is outsourced?
A) I very rarely pay for outsourced contractors because I like to be involved in projects and enjoy doing the work myself a lot of the time. I have found that outsourcing helps to relieve some of the workload and hours spent researching but the quality can suffer and I find that sometimes, by the time I’ve written a brief and waited for them to get back to me, I could have had it done myself to a standard I’d already be happy with.
I know of a fair few companies who obviously find outsourcing to be incredibly valuable to them and have regular freelancers with whom they work. My industry is rather competitive and outsourced work tends to eat into profits. I prefer to keep costs as low as possible in order to be able to offer the best value for my clients.
Q) Are you still guest-blogging?
A) I think there’s still use for guest-blogging when it’s done in the right way and there’s creativity injected into it but I don’t often have a lot of time for sitting down and writing passionately about things in the same way I used to.
I enjoy reading and commenting on blog posts and I like to help other people out when I get the opportunity to, I try to help people with issues I’ve had and leave feedback on comment feeds and Q&A websites such as Yahoo Answers. It’s fun to brainstorm ideas for articles in the office so I can be involved in the process and hopefully provide something witty and insightful.
Recently, I set up a food blogging website in my spare time with a good friend, John Leather, in order to raise the awareness of less visible food bloggers, who have some really wonderful recipes and ideas to share but weren’t previously being noticed by a very wide audience. So, even though I don’t personally come up with a lot of the content, I thrive in building relationships with the guest writers, and I sort out the proof-reading and publishing of the articles alongside co-founder, John, who has also worked really hard to make this work.
We are up against some tough competition but we welcome it. Good competition is healthy! Food Blogs UK is proving that quality guest-blogging is effective. The site is barely 6 months old and is already ranking well against some big fish. In my opinion it’s down to our guest blogger’s content and the marketing behind it.
Q) Lots of SEO agencies and professionals have been rebranding themselves recently; do you think that SEO is becoming a dirty word?
A) I think the word SEO has been tarnished over the years however, rebranding away from the (CompanyName + SEO = Brand) formula makes sense for larger companies looking to do more than clean up their name. Once you’re established with a large customer base, your voice becomes big enough to let people know about your new brand.
Rebranding can be a great way of facilitating a fresh marketing campaign although, in the interest of SEO, large companies can lose valuable organic search traffic through rebranding. The world of SEO is changing at a fast pace and the rebrands are possibly a strategic move in order to prevent the brand from narrowing its services or moving into other areas of expansion.
Q) Let’s say you have a client who operates in the most boring, uninspiring vertical imaginable. They are also completely unwilling to do anything creative, how do you do SEO for them?
A) I’ve had a few clients that operated within industries where flair and imagination weren’t always appropriate or desired. SEO can be very boring and tedious at times so, unfortunately, I’m used to things like that but I enjoy writing informative content so I still develop it in the most interesting way I can in order to inform, educate or instruct.
I love ‘did you know…’ info bubbles and quick tips so I would use one or two of those. Using interesting analogies and trying out a verbose word now and again can be a little bit of fun.
A lot of people tell me that I know tons of useless information and offer me other back-handed compliments so, I would still enjoy working with a client who diverted from anything creative however, given the option, I’d prefer to work on something with a bit of colour and action involved. I take a lot of pride in my client’s industry sectors and so the fun part for me is getting results and reporting about them.
Q) Having a bad experience with an SEO agency is a common tale from many SMEs, how do you convince those who are skeptical that you are different?
A) When I first started, I used to send out emails to companies, offering my services and asking them if they are interested in the services that I provide here. I soon realised that there were a lot of quite spammy emails being sent from terrible ‘SEO’ companies. After a few months, I started to get these emails almost daily. At first I checked them out but, I found it strange that an SEO company would contact my SEO company offering me their services. The more I ignored them, the more they came through and sometimes it was the same people and same names with the same old waffle.
As it is with many industries, we become awash with the same rubbish flying around and so I turned to the phones so I could get a short meeting with them over the phone. I had one secretary ask me to “send the director an email” and I said “I’m not going to do that because I offer SEO services and I’m sick of getting spammy emails about SEO so I’m sure he is too.” The point I was trying to make was that I seriously felt that they had a need for my services and I wanted to speak to a real human being, as I didn’t think he would bother to reply.
I’m lucky because my background in SEO is authentic and I like to tell prospects about myself and what it is that I do differently. I’ve set up MonkeyFace from my experience within a successful in-house team and a large agency in Manchester. I wanted to take the best of both worlds and create an agency which works on the campaign, rather than telling the client what to do. I find that people respect real SEO for its value and they will give you their time if you go to them with solutions to their problems as opposed to a generic ‘We’ll rank you number 1 on Google for everything’ email.
It’s important to sit down face to face and discuss their business and what’s happening with them so I can show them interest and find out information about their company with which to utilise and move forward. This way, I can explain things properly and they can query me about anything that they are unsure about.
Q) What are the KPIs that you work to? Are fees conditional on rankings or traffic?
A) A typical SEO campaign includes approximate figures of targeted keyword rankings, organic traffic expectations, agreed on-page SEO and other areas like social indicators; mentions, likes, follows and pins.
Our clients appreciate that a lot of work and planning has to be done before we even implement any optimisation and that fees can change over time depending on what is required once the campaign is in full swing.
Q) I’ve got a site I want to SEO, but I have literally no budget, what is your number one, free SEO tip?
A) Find a credible forum, blog or website related to your website’s niche where you can help others with your knowledge and fill out your profile so that people know where to find your site. It’s low-maintenance and good promotion for your expertise.
Be mindful to only contribute because you can and not because you want to rank well in Google’s SERPs.
Q) What are your favourite SEO tools?
A) Being a pro member of Moz gives me access to some great tools but of all the tools I have access to, Opensite Explorer is a must-have SEO tool for me.
Google Analytics offers a thorough insight into what’s happening on a website and I rely on it heavily. The larger an audience, the more you’re given to work with and it can be finely tuned. It can sometimes be like a can of worms as I found out when I came across a problem with multiple ‘not provided’ keywords listed, which were never solved. I even spoke with Avinash Kaushik, who is a bit of an expert in analytics, and still got nothing.
Another great tool is whereamiongoogle.co.uk. Type in your keyword and URL and it will tell you where your website can be found within the first 100 positions on Google.co.uk
Q) Who would be your dream SEO client and why?
A) N.A.S.A. because I think I would enjoy working on the alt tags for their space images and I’d hopefully be one of the first to know about their astonishing new findings.
Q) Who are your favourite SEOs?
A) Although I have never met him personally, I enjoy watching Whiteboard Friday with Moz’s Rand Fishkin. I like his approach to digital marketing and his passion for SEO.
Avinash Kaushik gave up his time to help me with a tough issue and does so for many others, so I like him.
When I worked at AO.com, I was lucky to have a good team around me. They deserve a mention as most don’t work there anymore and have all gone on to great things so Ben Fox, was my manager, David Ingram and the team are some of my favourites.