The SEO plan to increase rankings

An Interview with Robert Stoubos

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business.

In this episode, Dawood speaks with an SEO expert, Robert Stoubos, founder and CEO of Odyssey New Media
Robert shares his opinions about the SEO process, the latest in the world of SEO like predictive marketing and how to ace it, and link building techniques. He also talks about building successful cross channel marketing campaigns for the clients.

Watch this insightful conversation and stay tuned for the next steaming cup of E-Coffee.

The most efficient way to get a Google review from your customers is to make it easy for them to access the review location. Even better would be to incentivize the process with an offer or voucher code that they can use next time. This would help in two ways, getting reviews and ensuring a stream of returning customers.

Robert Stoubos, CEO
Odyssey New Media
Hello everyone, how are you guys doing? Today, we have with us Robert Stoubos, founder and CEO of Odyssey New Media, an award-winning digital agency in Birmingham. Hi, Rob. How are you? Well, we appreciate you taking out time. I want to dive deep into it. But before we do that, it would be great if you could introduce yourself and all the cool stuff you're doing at your agency.

Hi Dawood, I’m very well. Thank you. I appreciate you having me for your interview.

So, I’ve been in digital marketing and the web development arena for about 15 years, since I graduated here in Birmingham, England. And over that time, I’ve gone from being an employee working in an in-house agency to running my own agency for the last eight to 10 years. And we’ve grown organically.

We work with a whole range of customers helping them with their website developments and digital strategies in relation to digital marketing. We’re very performance-driven in that space, so we help people outline digital strategies that will mean a return as quickly as possible. And we utilize core digital channels to enable them to do that.

Largely, our main focuses would include search marketing, social media marketing, content marketing, email, and paid display placements. Those are some core areas, but we’re not limited to anything. It’s very much a tailored approach. And trying to bring that in line with clients managing their expectations and budgets.

Everybody is not used to or was not used to working with remote teams. And you said that you were very busy initially trying to get all of that setup. How are you managing efficiency, are you using any tools?

So from our perspective, Zoom is a software we were using already for several years before for remote sessions with our customers. So that’s been really useful obviously. I think zoom has been one of the main providers right now for a lot of businesses.

We were already invested primarily as a company in using Microsoft Office 365, and I think it was in the last year or two they rolled out Microsoft Teams. During the first week or so, we opted to use that rather than using Skype. WhatsApp or overly using Zoom, because that resulted in people using their phones more. So we thought we’d give Teams a try. We had the software for a long time, but we hadn’t had to use it. SoI said, let’s try that and it’s actually proved really good. I see it as a merger between Skype and WhatsApp.

Our primary cloud storage preference has been Dropbox. But we’re so impressed with Teams that were even considering moving a lot of our files over to OneDrive, which would be even more integrated within the Microsoft platform and makes everything more seamless. So I’m just waiting for Microsoft Teams to enable stable large group calls and then we may not even need Zoom in the future. We may just
use Teams for conferencing as well. So it’s a very good tool.
And obviously, we’re all on our mobile devices instead of the landlines, and we have a voice system in the office. So that enables different numbers to be routed through to people even when they’re at home. From our side, we’re really utilizing the technology via the web, and voice technology. We have that in place and weren’t scrambling around trying to get these systems set up. It was just a case of getting into a flow of using them.

It can minimize meetings and things like that. And obviously, there’s talk about reducing CO2 emissions. I still believe that a face to face meeting is good, but maybe just the frequency can be lowered. And that will help the environment and help people save their time physically traveling to different places. So, overall, I think there are some good things to come out of this experience.

Rob, let's start discussing marketing. You are an expert in creating cross-channel marketing campaigns. So when you're planning a marketing strategy, how do you plan the budget across platforms like SEO versus PPC?

Some clients will come to us for multiple channels and that’s their initial requirement. Some may only be focused on just one channel like PPC or SEO or social media. For those clients especially, we will show them the spectrum of channels available and give them our thoughts on which channels they could be utilizing. In addition, because we are in this multi-channel world and the customer attention is very often spread across multiple channels when they’re deciding which products to buy, or which supplier to use or service providers to use.

So, it’s to give them food for thought, and sometimes that can change their mindset or they may open it up to the idea of utilizing multiple channels. It’s not just recommending everything or multiple channels for our own sake, it’s trying to help them cherry-pick the best channels that will be most suited for high impact from day one. If they’re already doing a good job on certain channels themselves, like, for example, a lot of companies hire somebody to focus on their social media. We’re honest enough to tell them if they’re doing a good job. It’s about being constructive and capitalizing on opportunities on various channels.

Also, some channels aren’t always relevant to some industries. So if you’re mainly B2B then Instagram, for example, may not be a valid channel to go for as a priority. You may want to focus on LinkedIn because that’s obviously a ready-made audience. So it’s also about understanding where their customer base attention is. And really focusing channel selection and strategy there.

Talking about that as an agency, do you use any sales strategy or hooks that get clients on board and then try cross-selling anything which has worked the best for you?

Yeah, we have a circular diagram that will show them the pieces of the puzzle, so they can see how the different channels interlink. I also think, showing them Google has quite a good visualization of attribution pathways. If I’m able to get access to their analytics or show them our analytics, where I can show them the journey a customer takes. It helps open people’s minds and perspectives to the multi-channel world, where before they may just have been focused on one channel.

The other thing is to show them the case study based approaches where we’ve used multiple channels. And also showing them any data that can suggest the return they’re likely to get from opting for a multi-channel approach.

So obviously, you can use tools like Google Keyword Tool, SEMrush for keyword research data, Google Trends data, which is free. You can build example audiences for a proposal using Facebook and Instagram. You can help them flesh out the view of how the number of audience or searches translates in the longer term or short and long term to a visible ROI based on their average shopping baskets or their on-site conversion rates. So again, if we can get access to data that makes it more of a tangible proposition for them as well.

What factors do you look at when you're trying to gauge cross-channel performance?

When we’re gaging cross-channel performance, the bottom line is how much revenue or conversion increased and working that back to showing how each channel has contributed. But also using some visualization tools like Google’s attribution pathways showing the pathways of the attribution that each channel has actually contributed towards another channel in the whole multi-channel approach.

And also putting values so, putting an overall multi-channel spend versus an overall return on ad spend. Because sometimes it’s difficult if they’re receiving phone calls and things like and they don’t want to invest in proper call tracking, it can be a bit tricky to gauge that return. But in that instance, if we can’t accurately see the value of a sale on a phone call, we could add value to receiving that phone call in the first place, versus them having to go and pay a sales guy to know how many.

It’s a very good conversation with the client about putting monetary values against different types of conversions, especially in the sort of lead generation area. Obviously, for e-commerce, it’s a lot easier because it’s all funneled as most of it comes through the website. You can set up e-commerce tracking to push actual revenue values back and then you can work out average profit margins against revenue values. So, say someone made £100,000 in revenue and their average profit margins 50%. Out of that £50,000, if they’ve only had to spend £1000-2000 on cross-channel marketing every month, they know that they’re still getting a massive ROI for their real profit.

I think putting a standard model is quite difficult. It needs discussion and the client needs to agree with what those targets are, what’s realistic, and what returns look like. And I think from a customer perspective, they feel more comfortable going forward with that because we’ve taken time to understand their business and what matters to them and what they’re shooting for. Rather than saying, I’m just going to get you the traffic and I don’t care, our approach says let’s agree what you need to be making as a return. And if we can get to a realistic agreement, then let’s start spending money on those channels.

So it can be longer and can sometimes take several hours or several weeks of conversations to get to that point. But the investment we’ve made before we’ve even started working makes the client feel more comfortable because they know that we’ve got their best interests at heart.

No, absolutely. And I think that investment with the client also pays off. If you are showing them that you have contributed to their revenue, you need to take credit for that. But even in some areas where we have not been able to generate the ROI, but we have tracked it well so that we know where we went wrong and where we actually got the value. So even showing that to the customer gives them that confidence that, hey, they actually care, they're going to the tee to track what's working, what's not working, and ultimately, you end up having them as long-term customers.

Yeah, totally agree. I think a-one-size-fits-all can work but in practice, we find that the more tailored approach and consultative approach works a lot better and you get more longevity and trust with clients.

Talking about multi-channels, I know you still love SEO. So, what does your SEO process look like?

Okay, so I’ll try and describe the general process because obviously there are many factors involved. But in a nutshell this is how I explain SEO to the clients. I think it was the CEO or the CTO of Google, he was under investigation in the States about search results. And he was actually quoted as saying that there are over 200 factors involved in SEO, maybe more. And on any given month, and there are different weightings towards different factors. So there are a lot of elements involved and some factors have a higher weighting.

So what if I had to break that down? Simply, I would say, I break it into four constituents of the pie. You’ve got on-site, which is everything involved with the server, the website, the content, everything that you see that constitutes the web experience for the user.

And then you’ve got two parts to our site, you’ve got link building, or inbound links, which are ideally focused on links that are relevant, authoritative. The relevancy, authority, quality, low-level links- Google’s too wise to that these days. And we’ve always done things white hat anyway, we’ve always focused on quality, quantity, relevancy over quantity of links. And you really want a diverse profile as well. So that’s part two.

Part three, I think there is some impact of social media. It’s debatable how much because I do think that Google is clever enough to understand popular brands and it wants to rank brands that are perceived online through indicators as being popular and authoritative. And it uses social media metrics like followers, engagements, click-throughs. If you’re plugged into analytics, it can see what traffic you’re spending and receiving as well.

And, then the final part, which I think a lot of agencies maybe don’t get involved with when they’re tasked with traffic generation is Usability Metrics. So actually trying to actively analyze bounce rate, average time on site, the user experience.

And obviously, that relates because although I’m an SEO guy at heart, I also do pay per click. I think a lot of what Google recommends for SEO is for usability, which in turn is geared towards a better AdWords experience, especially on-site. So, why wouldn’t Google want a fast website or mobile responsiveness, if it pushes you to do that for SEO, and then later you do AdWords? Google knows that. They know, a fast mobile responsive site is not going to turn off mobile users. Therefore, you’re going to potentially convert higher and you’re going to carry on spending on AdWords.

I suppose that the cynical part of me thinks a lot of what Google wants for SEO actually ties back to AdWords and getting people’s site performing better by doing X, Y, and Z, which it knows will appeal to the end-user. But I think overall, a lot of the changes Google has brought in around those four areas. They usually do result in the best brands or the best sites having top positions.

So when we explain this to our customers, I always say, Google doesn’t have a real-world sense of view. So if you had 200 physical stores, and you launched a site tomorrow, Google doesn’t know that unless you have all the indicators in place to show it you’re a big brand. But equally a small brand with only one store could actually rank very well and do very well online. Because Google only has this digital world view and doesn’t have the real world view of how big, big, or small you are.

So we’ve been able to get clients to meet those criteria. And actually they’ve ranked substantially higher than some really big established businesses in the real world, or traditional big businesses. Some clients that are only turning over tens or hundreds of thousands are overtaking other companies’ websites that are turning over millions. So I think it’s a great opportunity.

And just to add to the process side of it, we tend to tell the customers that it’s really a 12-month minimum investment if you’re serious about it. Months one and two are where we’re going to do the keyword research really thoroughly and we’re going to try and implement a lot on-site because that’s a quicker win.

And then once you get into from months three to 12, that’s when you do a lot of your recurring work like content marketing, blog, content generation, content on key phrase density adjustments, and link building.

So a lot of the ongoing work falls under content and link building largely. Because if you can do a lot of the technical groundwork in month one and two and you’ve got the foundations, which means you can just spend a solid 10 months on the stuff that needs to be recurring, rather than trying to do everything all at once in one in one go. Because sometimes you just don’t have the physical time. You’ve got to partition the technical part. It works well to get that out of the way first in month one or two, and then going to the regular SEO for the remaining year.

That approach also from our side, if the client gives us 12 months. As you know, the changes that you make in months one on two sometimes don’t come into fruition until months six to 12. Because of the algorithm, Google isn’t always quick to reward, it’s a slow burn process. So we almost need a year to be able to show the metrics and traction shifting in a positive direction. Sometimes if they’re in a really competitive industry, we’ve actually said to people that you need to look at this as a two or three-year strategy to get rankings for some of these big terms. We try to do a benchmark ranking check early on, so we can see where they’re already positioned and where. And if they’re on page two, for some big terms, those are potentially quick wins and we don’t have to work as hard for it.

So, it’s also understanding benchmarking and where the land lies. We try not to look too much at competitors in terms of where they rank because it’s almost irrelevant where your competitors are ranking. You need to focus on what you’re doing and doing that consistently right.

The only part we will look at competitors is for backlinks. We have paid licensed tools that understand the link relationships between websites. And we could compare their website with, say, 10 other competitors and see where the matches are where they don’t have a link already. Those are some highlights they need to be trying to go after.

So for example, you’re at a site selling mobile phones, and five of your competitors have got a link off a leading mobile phone blog. We need to do some outreach there. And we need to try and go after that blog because there’s a reason why they’re top-five and you’re not. And so that that’s kind of a general approach. That’s one side of the coin, to look at where are the gaps compared to the leading guys and where do we need to engineer some links quickly to try and plug those gaps.

Google is moving towards predictive search results. How do you optimize for that?

I think predictive search is based on some main factors. So you’ve got popularity and search frequency of keywords, the geographical location of where the user is searching, and also search history of users because I think a lot of people don’t clear their browser cache for long periods of time on their devices and they’re signed in very often.

Gmail is kind of overtaking Hotmail. These days, a lot of people have Gmail accounts. And that’s collecting their search history over long periods, even if they clear their browser history very often.

If it’s a new search, it will base that on the user’s data. So we can try and ensure the content, at least, is optimized for the right keywords, make sure that we’re focusing it on popular trending keywords. And in relation to the location, we can try and localize certain pages or sometimes develop more localized landing pages in addition to your main service. So, you can trigger indicators for the predictive search algorithm in line with quality keyword research.

Right. One more thing I like to do apart from the normal tools and numbers is getting a survey done from your ideal audience. This survey has questions like, What do you understand? Or what do you see from the page? And what are the things that are not answered there? And then use that while you're planning the content, because ultimately, that's the user who is going to come there.

Yes, that’s true. I think, with SEO, it’s a balance, it’s always got to be the end-user in mind first. So when we write content or if our customers want to write or adjust the content, we write with the end-user in mind first and then optimize.

So even when we’re writing in house, we will write a piece of content with no SEO, and then there’ll be a second layer where we’ll just try and refine things. But if you were to read that content, it just reads normal and it wouldn’t be obvious unless you’re really experienced at SEO. We’re trying to make it very subtle and not take away from the usefulness and the engaging factor of that content. We’re not writing content for SEO sake, we’re ultimately writing it to be engaging for the end-user.

Now talking about local, what are the key elements that you look at for optimizing the Google My Business Page?

I did quite a bit of research on this. Obviously, for Google My Business profile, you want to fill out all the fields that Google makes available. It’s good practice to have a review strategy alongside it. Clients want them to be real reviews.

So the main factors that decide on rankings on the map, I call it the map pack that appears after the search results, sometimes for localized rankings. That appears with usually three listed businesses, from the centrality of the location. So we’re in Birmingham, and we’re probably about six miles from the central points. If we were closer to the center, then arguably we’d have even more rankings but we do quite well because we’ve optimized the other elements, but the centrality of your physical location helps.

For reviews, make time to maintain an average of between four to five stars, and try to have a flow of regular reviews, like one or two a month. If you’re a service-based company and maybe more if you’re a restaurant or a hairdresser or somewhere where people are visiting a lot. I think Android has helped a lot because if people are using Google Maps to go to the places, it sort of prompts them to leave a review. But I also say to customers that don’t just rely on your customer and why don’t you incentivize them? Why don’t you email them and offer them a voucher anyway and say if you get a chance, please click on this link and leave us a Google review or a Facebook review.

So those are the sort of two primary free platforms. I think a lot of people have got a Google review, you’ve just gotta make it really easy for them to go straight to that review location. And if you can incentivize it with an offer or a voucher code that they can use next time, then it’s not like you’re paying them for the review. You’re incentivizing them to come back.

I think review strategies are important, completing the listing, so all the fields are fully padded out, the services, you can add service locations and tags to each listing description. You can even add like, menu information or service information and photographs. In Google My Business, they have a little area where you can maintain a post, you can do a post periodically. So I think it’s about 21 days, expiry and then Google tends to prompt anyway.

So all those factors collectively not loading new images and new posts will help your Google My Business listing rank, maintain its rankings and also rank higher than others. And we’ve seen it for ourselves because I think we’ve got 46+ plus five star Google reviews and it’s taken a while because I have to email clients and ask them for those reviews and sometimes I have to remind them, but it pays off. Because we’ve won work where people have said I’ve read your reviews, your reviews are good. And we’ve had a phone conversation sometimes. And it’s just been one phone conversation, and then people have made decisions. So it adds to the social proofing as well.

I really believe entities are the future of SEO. How do you leverage the entity concept in your SEO strategy?

I think entities are making advancements in language processing. And they will help train Google’s algorithm to better understand language and be processed by the machines. So for example, if you search for a celebrity on Google, it mostly presents information about them as a particular celebrity. But they don’t present information about someone else in the world who could have exactly the same name. So it’s obviously factoring in other elements that give a weighting for that particular individual. So we do have to think about SEO when it comes to entities. So that we’re appearing for the right keyword searches.

We spoke about link building earlier. So my next question would be how have you seen link building change over the years?

If I go all the way back to the early days, I call them happy days or the easier days. The key factor is quality over quantity, then relevancy.

So in the early 90’s and early 2005 probably up until about 2009 and 2010, you could post anywhere, really. It was more about the numbers of links that you had versus the quality. And you had a lot of gig services and companies offering 1000 links 10,000 links and it devalued link building. We were getting sites ranking that wasn’t necessarily the best site, it’s just they had the most links. Google kind of turned that on its head with the Google Penguin and they had a series of penguin updates. It triggered off this move towards quality, links relevancy of links over quantity of links. If I use the example of a company trying to resell mobile phones, and they want to be number one for mobile phone terms. It makes sense to have some directories, but you want a diverse link profile and you want it to be quality sites.

So, here in the UK, we’ve got a curated list of 25 directories, which you actually see the ranking in Google, they actually have their own traffic and they’re real companies.
And we may get clients some directory links there. But then there may be some very niche directories, blog sites, forums talking about reviewing those phones. So we look at it across the board and try to find link opportunities where people’s target audiences would potentially be looking as well because that’s usually a good indicator.

And I don’t discount paid links. Again, you have to work on a ratio scale. So you wouldn’t want 90% of your links to be paid. You probably want it to be on the lower side, you probably want to be more like 5-10%. Because you might want to pay for a banner on a site where they get tens of thousands of visitors and it’s a relevant magazine online, or an article site, whatever it might be. I don’t think Google will penalize someone for that, but it will penalize if they’re buying all their links and they don’t have any organic mentions on forums or any article contributions on blogs and if that link profile isn’t diverse. So, if you focus on having a diverse link profile with relevant quality links, that’s the best combination. And that’s where we see the best results.

The other side of the coin in relation to link building or what can hold it back is also existing, inherent link profiles. The client may have done something naughty in the past or they just seem to have been picked up and included in some bad link neighborhoods. So as part of our setup work, we will actually analyze all their existing links and produce a disavow file. It’s never the detriment, usually, we get an uplift from doing that in conjunction with disavowing some bad links from their entire profile. Sometimes it can be quite a significant percentage of their profile that needs to be disavowed. We want to try and replace anything that they’ve lost. Even though there are negative links, we want to replace them with quality links. And by disavowing those links, it’s like you’re cutting the dead weight that’s holding you back, from a link perspective. So that’s also a part of the link building we do and then we probably review that every six or 12 months. We’ll do another pass through just to disavow any additional bad links that may get picked up in that time period.

I remember you mentioning a long time back that you had done one of your biggest link analysis and disavow for one of your clients.

Yes, I think it was a price comparison site. If I remember rightly, we put it up as an article or a case study. That’s a good four or five years ago, but well done for spotting that. Yeah, there were a lot of links, in the thousands, and we had to physically analyze several thousand websites. It’s a manual job. I think you have got tools like SEMrush and link detox tools, but you wouldn’t just rely on a tool to do that because you could be disavowing genuine links sometimes. So, unfortunately, for us SEO guys, it’s a bit boring. But I enjoy it because you can just put some music on and just work your way through these sites. It’s a little bit of a manual task. I think. On average, you can probably analyze somewhere between 250 to 500 individual sites in a working day. So if you’ve got thousands, sometimes you’re talking a week or several weeks worth of work just to do that one piece. But it’s a really valuable exercise, especially as an initial activity. It can really save you a lot of hassle and difficulty later on, if you can do that. But obviously, it’s the time resource to do that as well.

There are tools available, which maybe help speed up the process. You have links and without changing browsers, you can just change the URLs and look at it. But at the end of the day, you're still having a look at the site manually.

Yes, that’s one area I wouldn’t recommend automating. It can be quite dangerous and it can actually cause ranking drops. And I think that sometimes even showing the client some samples of what we’ve got to do, they realize how long physically these activities take. But they also understand. So part of what we do is educating our customers. So they have a baseline understanding of SEO and why we’re doing these.I think it would be very different if we were to quote a client, let’s say it was a week’s worth of work, and we quote them a week. They might say, why is it a week? And if I’ve shown them and explained the value, then there is a lot less obstruction and there’s a greater appreciation for that.

You're talking about the diverse link profile. What are your thoughts on nofollow links? Should you have them just for that link profile or does that according to you actually helped the rankings?

This is an interesting question. I actually want to think I’ve won a May Superstar Award last year on the topic from rankwatch.com.

The nofollow attribute was introduced in 2005 primarily to fight comment link spam flagging paid links and also to disassociate responsibility if you’re linking to an external website. But I would say for the last five years or more, Google bots would still want to follow links that have nofollow tags, because it still wants to understand authority signals and links and it knows that a lot of sites deployed nofollow to stop their link weight being leaked out. So for example, if Google saw you have a link from Wikipedia, there’s still value to that and you will still be rewarded with value.

So, obviously dofollow is great because you inherit the link weight. But above link weight, there’s authority still to be gained from Google and the other search engines by having that link Association, regardless of whether there’s a nofollow or dofollow. So as an agency, we don’t get too tied up with nofollow dofollow. And we still see results coming off achieving nofollow links, as we do with dofollow links. I think because Google understood that people were using the nofollow links, my opinion is that the algorithm doesn’t discount nofollow links when it’s trying to attribute value and authority.

I want your comments on optimizing for Voice Search. What do you think about that?

I think it’s still relatively new. Obviously, we’re seeing an increase in smart home devices. like Amazon Alexa devices and mobile personal assistants are also growing. And there’s always an adoption time when it comes to consumer markets. I think there was a keynote with Sundar Pichai, who is the Google CEO, and he mentioned that one in five searches at the moment is being done with a voice search on Google. I mean, one in five is still a lot in the grand scheme of things compared to where it was. So it’s definitely becoming more important. So we need to write content for the end user if that grows.
I think voice searches are often longtail questions. So, for example, “what are the best SEO practices of 2020?” would be quite a long tail question compared to text searches like “best SEO practices 2020”, because people tend to write in shorthand and they don’t ask questions so much in search. When you’re writing content for a website, it’s important to consider the different types of questions that people might ask. And integrate the question in some paragraphs even on service pages or even on product pages, so you’ve got more chance of still being found, and people landing on those service and product pages as well. But also building guides content, FAQ content on websites for absorbing more of that type of traffic.

Obviously there are tools like keywordtool.io, which is quite good by helping discover those search questions searches or related searches, which tie into questions. And if someone out there can’t afford it, you can just type questions and Google suggested dropdown will often show you the most popular searches as well. So it’s a combination of brainstorming and using the tools or using Google’s search suggestions to find what those popular searches are.

Well before you go, one most-valuable super secret tip for quick SEO, which the audience can apply right away and gain benefits from?

I would still say, if you have a website, give your title and description tags a good refresh and make sure they’re tied in around a maximum of two or three primary or secondary key phrases.

Definitely. Well, Rob, thank you so much. It was fun chatting with you.

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