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In this episode, Matt chats with Jonti Bolles, CEO of White-Hat Ops. Jonti shares experiences of her entrepreneurial journey, her unmatched love for SEO, and the sure-shot way to acquire talent while working remotely. Dive in as Jonti divulges her favorite SEO tools, success stories, and her take on the use of AI in SEO practices.
It’s important to say no to some potential clients and prospects when we’re not ready or when we’re looking to hire people and move too quickly since what will get us one place won’t get us the next.
Matt, thank you so much for having me. This is gonna be fun. I can’t wait.
Well, I set up my agency as a remote agency about six years ago, maybe longer now that I think about it. But I was in Houston, Texas, and we realized that I needed to differentiate myself to be competitive as a news agency. And I set us up as a remote agency back then. So my people didn’t have to fight Houston traffic. Yeah, about two years into that, I realized that we were remote. And I didn’t have to spend another hot hurricane mosquitoes Summer in Texas if I didn’t want to. So we sold things in Houston, bought an RV, and we became remote about four or five years before it was cool. I have been working remote ever since.
Yes, we were?
So we’ve always been remote. We’ve worked only with onshore people. So we did figure that out and I had the luxury of doing that in Houston for a year or two before we left. So it gave us a chance to kind of test those things. Then as we took them on the road, it was kind of fun. We had to learn to navigate being connected. And so at one point, I think we had four hotspots, which were from several different carriers just to make sure we could stay connected and have data no matter where we were.
It would. We were remote but we weren’t entirely off-grid. And then the nice thing was, when the pandemic started to interrupt some businesses, we had been through that, and we knew it and our clients, that some of them were having some challenges, we were able to be stable and be the calm. Okay, this is how you do this. And so we were there for a moment there, we transferred from just being an SEO or digital agency to being in a business process and helping our clients and it was nice to be able to give that back.
Exactly. And now we’ve all seen that the experiment has been working, and everybody is enjoying that for the most part. And the funny part is we’re doing remote, but we’re now more of what I would call digital nomads. We enjoyed RV traveling and seeing the United States and most of the southwest from Texas to California all the way up to Vermont. So back and forth. But right now we’re back in Texas, and we’re, we’ve learned that we’d like to stay in one place a little bit longer, but we’re not tethered to any one place.
Not at all. I’ve gone through several careers and from architecture to finance to teaching as a professor for architecture. And when I was teaching architecture, I was very involved in technology. And as we were transitioning from Pencil Paper ink pens to computers, I realized at that time how important impactful technology was going to be to all businesses. I stepped out of teaching and architecture and started working with some companies. Learning educational pieces, developing software. Still not an entrepreneur. But I did work go to work for a couple of small nonprofits that were very entrepreneur-based, even though they were nonprofits. And I saw the many hats that you had to wear. And I was like, Oh, would you? This is fun, you never get bored. You never do the same thing more than once. And then I realized that that was where I started understanding an entrepreneurial spirit. That I needed that engagement because I used to tease that I had a seven-year itch for careers, I would stay about seven years in finance, or seven years in architecture. And now I’ve been an SEO for well over 16,17 years. And I say that I can stay in it because it keeps changing around me. And also the same thing with entrepreneurship, there are so many hats that you wear. So I think I thrive and need that little bit of; I want to solve problems but I don’t want to do the same thing every day.
I do enjoy the most having the ups and downs and the pitfalls. So I love the control of my destiny, you might say. And that’s kind of such a false narrative, too, because it relies on my people, my clients, everybody else. But I do love that those choices are in our minds, to whether to succeed or fail. And that autonomy is something that has had the advantage of learning from some amazing business mentors. So I wasn’t making all these decisions on my own, I have a lot of background to rely upon from different areas. But still being able to go and test those yourself, I think is the thing I love the most about entrepreneurship. I get to steer the ship, but I also have to take into account that the ship is maybe saying the direction, but everybody else is the one that makes the ship run.
So one of the mentors that I had, that was probably the hugest impact on my business understanding as an entrepreneur was a gentleman that, actually, because of him, I probably have this company. So I worked at an agency called Shippo, a web marketing company, for many years. And we went from, or they went from five to about 20 people. And then I joined them and we went from 20 to about 50 people. So there was some significant growth over several years there. But seeing that lesson of what got you to one place won’t get you to the next. And also learning way back then there were some guiding principles, which failed fast. And bad news has to travel faster than good news. So we brought people into the company and learning how he approached training and education just really set the stage for me to understand that tactical is not the only way to grow people. You have to give people business ideas and strategies and let them explore all the things they’re not even related to your business. We had a book budget where we could order books that had nothing to do with our career path. But if we were learning something, then it was valuable. So seeing the idea of education and training, and then make some choices. And sometimes they didn’t all turn out well for that company and sometimes they did. But we always were able to pivot because we had the right people. That as a mentor was invaluable. That company is both a software company and an agency. And they decided to be just a software company. And I had worked with him as both manager of the SEM department and also at operations at one point. And working with operations and finance and people, I loved it because we were growing, but I missed search engine optimization. You never quite get over your first love. And as they were going to become a software company and not an agency, I realized that they needed to transfer their clients to someplace that was safe and trustworthy. And I made a business decision at that point to become an entrepreneur and took that book of business and that’s how I started White Hat Ops. So we split off from that company and all of a sudden I was an entrepreneur and never looked back.
Yes, it’s called Tendenci, they do a CMS system specifically for nonprofits.
I think some of the hardest choices have been when to bring on people and grow and not. Everybody talks about, you should grow, you should bring on more clients, you should do the right things, if you’re not growing and growing fast that means you’re not succeeding. For the last year, I think, like many agencies, we have had the possibility of some exponential growth in the pandemic because all of a sudden, the world became digital and everybody wanted to be found online. And so we could have grown fast. And we did grow some, but actually, the hardest choice was to say no, to some potential prospects and clients because we weren’t ready or not to hire people and move too fast. Because again, what will get you to one place won’t get you to the next. And I knew I didn’t have those processes in place at that point. I do now, but we’re gonna continue to grow slow.
Yes. SEO has so many different aspects to it. And I think the lesson I’m still learning is that I’m supposed to niche down. If you talk to anybody they’ll say, oh, you should niche down, you should focus your positioning on who your target market and your client is. And we’ve done that to some aspect. And if I was doing it, right, I would pick an industry and do just SEO for a certain size company. But I have been unable to do that. And we still manage SEO Pay Per Click analytics for our clients. So no, that’s probably not the way I should be doing it. But it’s the way I love it. Because I find that inextricably linked. I’ve turned away eCommerce clients, I’ve turned away social media advertising clients. I’ve turned away some clients that I didn’t agree with their business processes, because I didn’t think we could be successful.
Yes. We focus on b2b, nonprofit associations or organizations. And I’ve fortunately been able to find enough other trustworthy clients out there that we can refer work back and forth. So when I find something that’s just not a good fit, or if it’s even probably the hardest, worst case is somebody that you start working with, and then realize it’s not a good fit. That’s been probably the hardest decision to let that kind of client go.
With grace, as it’s not you, it’s me. It’s not working for, this is our hopes and we’re not seeing that, or are people don’t have the right skill set to meet your needs or your timeline, and then find an exit that’s graceful for them. Is it that they need something different than what you’re able to provide? And if you’re interested, I don’t want to run your business for you, but here’s one, two, or three options that we can connect you with that might be a good fit.
You know, there are no magic beans. I wish there were. So I’ll start with that. But I would say it’s no different than what I used to do in the office. As I said, I also had the advantage of working as an operations manager for two years in an agency and it gave me a really good skill set there to understand and ask the right questions of people and you still never get it right. And there are people that I wish we would have hired that we didn’t, that I didn’t think was the right fit at the time and they’ve gone on to do amazing things. And some people that I hired that didn’t work out and we’ve had to part ways. What I’ve found is that I have some great questions that I will ask. And it’s not just the questions, but it’s more the spirit of what do you do to keep yourself knowledgeable and invest in yourself for training? So one of my questions for someone, every person I talked to is, what is the last real money that you invested in yourself, that your employer didn’t pay or require? I don’t care if it’s going to a gym if it’s going to a conference if it’s some course you took on your own, but when did you last spend money on yourself and put your skin in the game? And if they can’t answer that, then they’re not developing themself, and they’re not probably going to be a good fit for the motivation you need to continue in this business that keeps changing and learning and the accountability to yourself to do the work.
And if it doesn’t, your money is the big tail there. But we’re not even talking about coaching or anything like that. But like I said, even if it’s a gym membership, that’s something that you’re spending on yourself to improve yourself. And it doesn’t always have to be money. But if it is just a book or a conference, or a course, then that’s huge.
Well, I’ll say one, it’s not for everybody, there are people that are comfortable doing the same thing, and in a comfortable role and safe role and they can become the best at that. And I respect that just as much. So that’s my first caveat. So not everybody has to take the same path. But if you’re on the path of going to industry or personal development that you want to keep growing career-wise, then I’ll talk just about your career. And I do think it’s hugely important. And we used to say about, you hear phrases tossed around, a continuous learner or polymath or things like that. Not everybody is that, but when you are, if you’re not investing in yourself that I think it’s equivalent to stagnation. You’re going to be so unfulfilled and unhappy. So I think you have to become your best self. On a scale of one to 10 for the right person, 10.
That’s why I said it doesn’t have to cost money. There are so many places now that we can learn and I also will often say, back to hiring, if I can find someone that knows what cold soup or soggy cereal tastes like, you’re also a candidate for hire because they sat down at lunch to watch something and get so engrossed that the soup got cold or the cereal got soggy.
It’s a great question. Thank you for asking. So I was working for nonprofits and the nonprofit was kind of working with at-risk youth and education and trying to support and change some things in our education system. And since it was a startup, they had some heavy hitters that they were trying to compete against. So scrappy entrepreneurs were trying everything they could to find their place in the market and grow. And so back then it was titled tags that made a difference. We were trying to figure out and since it was a digital tool that they were selling, the website was then was a really big deal. And the owners of that nonprofit were digital and tech-savvy. We became tasked and enamoured with the idea that SEO can help us win against some of these larger brands. And someone pointed out to me that while your homepage title tag says home and your other title tags aren’t different, either. And I’m like, Well, what do you mean, this was back in 2005? And I started digging in, like you said, watching videos, I’m pretty sure there was cold soup involved. And they allowed me to go down that rabbit hole. And as a nonprofit, we started developing and learning about SEO on it. I saw it move the needle for them, it made a difference. The phone rang a little bit more. I was like, Oh, well, this is amazing. And all my friends at that time used to call me anyway, middle of the day, middle of the night, interrupt me at work. Hey, I’m trying to find something on the internet. I need my web monkey. Can you help me find this? And I would just tell them the search phrases. And so apparently, part of my Ninja skill at the time was my brain thought like a search engine.
At that point, I didn’t know you could make money on it. I was looking at all these other ways of project management and all these other things I could do to help with the nonprofit. And then I discovered SEO, and I was like, oh, there’s this thing, and you can get paid for it. And that’s what I love to do. Oh, my goodness. So I dove in. And I guess when you find something that clicks, then that’s when you do excel at it. And that’s how I got started in digital marketing.
I do. And I think I probably spent more time in the last year in analytics and digital strategy than anything. But that’s all because we have to understand the impact of SEO. So I think what I love the most is, that we mentioned that I had a background in architecture and teaching. So I think the thing that I learned from architecture is that architecture is built to lift the human spirit at its best. We walk into a building or museum and the building showcases what’s there, and it’s a creative design aspect. But what most people don’t realize that is in architecture there’s a life safety issue. There’s a very technical piece of architecture: that building has to stand up, not fall down and not kill people, or withstand storms. So there’s this creative and technical side to it. And I loved that piece. And that’s a whole nother story about why I left architecture. But I find that there is an art and science in SEO. There’s the technical, it’s got to be found by search crawlers, it has to, have all the technical pieces to it. And it has to have a good user experience. It has to at its best, deliver a marketing message and uplift and change a business for the good or support it. So being able not to be pigeonholed that I have to be just technical or just creative. I think is the thing I love about SEO, so content and technical.
It’s much more data-driven. It was a little bit of Wild West cowboy. When it first started there were way more search engines than just Google. So now I think are finally realizing, I call it a little bit of our mistake is, we talk about kids, when we teach kids, we teach them to the test. Well, I think for a while now, we’ve been doing SEO for Google, even though we say we’re doing the best SEO for the user for the content. And we know that but there’s a part of us that also does SEO for the search engine. I don’t think that will change drastically. But I think we are seeing a little bit of a rubber band snap back now that we’re understanding, that search is not just Google searches across all these different platforms. We talked about search with maybe with a capital S, right? People look for things now across so many different channels, and understanding that intent and that topic and understanding it, there’s so much data available now, I don’t have to be as creative as I used to be, we don’t have to guess as much. Yes, there’s still a marketing test. There’s still on it depends. But I think the what I’ve seen changes, we have the tools and the data-driven opportunities to make decisions now based on really high-quality assumptions.
So I’ve moved to maybe a bit different. I’m starting to see it bubble up in the SEO world. We’ve moved to a sprint-based model. So, where we are doing projects, six or eight-week sprints. I don’t do a recurring fee anymore. I’ve always been low-contract agnostic. Don’t feel like we have to get tied into big contracts. But the sprint-based model seems to work well because depending on a company’s growth, that may need a marketing team. They might need some really deep dive expertise for a while, then they go off and can do that and execute. Or we can do it with them or do it for them, or when they might come back. But just trying to figure out some of those months in between, sometimes it was nice to avoid those awkward conversations if they weren’t ready to implement, and we’re waiting on them to implement. So sprint-based model for us looks like we usually start with an audit that is a content audit and a technical audit. We looked at every URL on their existing website and evaluate it to; is it getting impressions? Is it getting sessions? Is it converting? Technically, does it need to be indexed? Does it not need to be indexed? Does redirect? Should it be merged with something else? Then we look at it as a content strategy. Is it need just a little on-page refresh? Or what does every URL need? It’s huge. And it just sets our foundation for everything. Then we understand, I think, topic analysis. I’m a big fan these days of looking at the forest before the trees. And making sure we’ve got the topics right and matching what those pages are, or should be. And then we move down into maybe some of those trees and look at what key phrases and questions need to be answered? Is it eligible for frequently asked questions or schema? Then we move into a sprint that is more of a gap analysis, looking at four or five competitors. If three or four of your competitors are writing for this thing and are all ranking for certain topics and you’re not, you may have to decide. Is that an area you need to be writing and competing on and doing better? Or is it one you need to pivot away from? So kind of going through those steps. And then wash, rinse repeat. You can add new content, we can continue looking at gaps, and we can refresh what’s there. And then setting up Analytics to measure all that from the very beginning.
I think I spend more money on tools than education.
We have subscriptions to SEM Rush, HRefs, and SE Ranking. Don’t do Majestic. I am moving to some content things like market news and phrase and harmony. There are just so many things that we spend money on. And those are just the ones off the top of my head.
The best code I have seen so far for AI that solidified it for me was that as bad as AI is today, that is the worst it will ever be. It’s only going to get smarter and better.
When I look at a content gap analysis that I mentioned earlier, the forest goes before the trees. I think SEO and understanding user journey and helping companies with strategies. We do all this in PPC as well. What are the areas you want to promote in a cross-foot channel? Clients don’t have time to figure that out. Should this be an Organic page? Should this be a plain page? Is it both? And then deciding what the value is there? Again we have so much data that we pay for with tools. We can understand the addressable market for them and where they can compete? AI can’t figure that out yet because they don’t know that person’s business model or objectives or the decisions they have within their quarterly budget. So I think as SEO, as Digital Marketers, we have to level up our game because AI is another tool that provides data that just moves content around as data. But we still have to direct it and understand how to implement that tool and to put strategies it serves. It doesn’t scare me and I think that’s what I hear a lot from colleagues that may not be as aware. They’re cautious, they’re using it. They are already saying, is google using AI, or is Google saying you can’t use AI? I think all that is, again, you are down on the tactical aspect of it. We all have to elevate ourselves a little bit and use our years of experience for strategy. That’s where the clients are also suffering.
Oh, it will be used. Is it any different than links? People use links for good or bad. You’ll talk about its against the rules to buy links, and some agencies do that. Our agency has always shied away from buying links and focuses on the more upfront. But it’s a tool, and there are times that it works, and it can be a PR drive and so many other things. AI is another tool. It will be used by SEOs. We have a subscription to Jarvis, and we tested it. We tested it with headlines and with different things. We have to know what these things are. They are out there, and we have to figure out where they fit into our program. I think it is good as a training tool. It’s a training tool for the AI itself and our people. I didn’t think the headline would ever work because it doesn’t match our customer journey and you split tested it and I’m wrong.
So I think AI has its place and we need to use it as a tool because there is something there and as bad as it is that’s the worse it will ever be. So we will keep testing it and use it in cases where it makes sense. We will find out what that is.
Not as long as there is a final human user. For now, we may use it to set an outline structure. I love Market News. I love Content Harmony. They are using machine minds to help develop some of that. The machine is one step away from AI. So, no, I am not afraid to use it. As I said, we are testing. Are we a big content generation Agency? No! We have always done content briefs first and helped clients with those content briefs and subject matter experts, let them write it, and fill in the details. Then we may come back and run it through. We scan it with AI to see what matches and to see if there are things we can further suggest. I am not afraid.
We see already that Google is discovered but not indexed. So I think there will become a proliferation of content that Google may not be able to keep up with.
It becomes a; I am going back to technical SEO. Do you need to print content on your site? Is it valuable? Should Google index it? First, they ask can we elevate it? Then we start looking at EHE. Is this content valuable? If you sourced data, did you include your references and your sources? Is it well organized? First of all, should it be indexed? Two: is the rest of your site of value as well, so that you are putting the things there in a way that your structure is or how are you getting that content placed that Google should find it? Do they have to crawl through a lot of other crap to get to it? Everything has an intended consequence. With SEO, if you are generating a lot of content. Unethical agencies are generating way too much content than they should. And so, I think we all have to look at what that is doing to our intended consequences and then react so that we can serve our clients.
I hate hearing about the most that you have to be on page one to be successful. What we are hearing now is that search is more than just Google. We are seeing people migrate to other search engines. We see migration to other channels and resources. There is so much out there now. And I am still staying within the realm of search. I am not talking about other channels like social. There is so much information on a search that you don’t have to be on page one for your top terms.
You can submit your content on other sites. If you see the top sites have an aggregator for page one, then do you need to be on WebMD or another site. If you are never going to reach page one, where are people searching for that same information, and what else are they comparing for? Are they looking at podcasts? Are they looking at transcripts from Youtube? You have so many different places where people are trying to absorb information. Now it’s not just page one of Google.
All the different places we might look. Let us not forget Reddit. They are a small but passionate group as well. There are so many different places. The myth that I hear in SEO is that you have to rank on page one for your phrases. It’s not even a phrase anymore now, it is a topic. We need to move away from keywords and educate our clients about topics.
On multiple channels.
We have recovered a few. I have had clients come to me and you mentioned penguins back in the day. Yes, I have seen clients get penalized for too much heavy copy, unfortunate backlinks, and over-optimization. We had to maintain the domain, but we had to rebuild the site and resubmit most of the time. We have been successful with that I have tried it with the same site, same themes, I just requested some minor changes. By the time Google penalizes it, it needs a complete overall.
We were able to maintain the domain. It is still an investment. This is subjective, but it’s a small investment for many clients when you look at their scope of business.
It is way less expensive, and getting someone to go squeaky clean is easy and most of the time, the business owner does not understand why they are penalized because it is the agency that promised one thing but executed a different way. That is what I find most often happens. Our best clients usually report the agency and they will research to understand what digital marketing can and can’t do for them. What to expect in the work process. What to expect in the value of their investment. We love working with start-ups, but sometimes they have different expectations. And by the time they get to their third agency, they will stay with us for ten years, having come from the previous agency through to now. Then the days are tough but that is one of the reasons why we named the agency – White Hat Ops. We are in the middle of rebranding, but we have always been sustainable and ethical. We have always taken a white-hat approach to everything. It doesn’t mean I don’t study black or grey to understand what’s going on or working. But our clients and our business have an investment in their brand and they can’t afford anything less than a white hat.
We had a great campaign many years ago with one of the office supply companies and they had the easy-button. We always tell clients there is no easy button in SEO. To do it right, you have to put in the work, and there is a process. Sometimes it can be faster than others. How aggressive do you want to be? You can be aggressive and that doesn’t mean you have to do it in the black or the grey head. You can be aggressive even with white head strategies. It is a matter of how fast you need to go and what the investment looks like?
I would love to. This has been fun and obviously, I am passionate about Digital Marketing, where we are heading, and how entrepreneurs can make this a successful career. It has changed my life.
Thank you for asking. We are at – White Hats Ops, coming from a background of white hats to help our companies. White Hats-Ops.com.
Matt, I saw your eyes light up. I will definitely come back and I have a few questions for you.
Thank you so much.
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