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This episode features Travis Bliffen, CEO Stellar SEO, an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Nashville, Tennessee. Watch the episode as Travis talks about his experiences from being an Army veteran, to running a successful agency with a spectacular client list.
Showing up for customers who are searching for your services is the best of marketing. This is a great benefit, because if they’re actively seeking it, their chances of purchasing it from you go up exponentially over outbound marketing.
Hello everyone, it’s Matt Fraser here with digital web solutions with this episode of E-coffee with experts. My name’s Matt Fraser. On the show today I have with me Travis Bliffen. Travis is the founder of Stellar SEO and an award-winning link-building agency located in Nashville, Tennessee. Stellar SEO specializes in building custom content marketing and link-building campaigns for growth-minded companies and delivers end-to-end SEO solutions for law firms. When not running his agency, Travis can be found spending time with his family doing sports shooting and leisure carding in the outdoors, and attending car shows. Travis, thank you so much for coming to the show today. Great to have you here.
Hey, man, thanks for having me. Excited to be here.
Fantastic. So, Travis, you’ve had an interesting journey so far. Who is Travis as a school kid?
Yeah, so it’s pretty funny. I wouldn’t say that if I went back in time, I could foreshadow where I would be today in terms of profession. I was a pretty shy, quiet kid in grade school. I had no real interest in business, technology, or computers. I played video games and did the normal stuff you would do in the 90s. I did nothing too overly exciting or nothing that pointed to a future in digital marketing that’s for sure.
Wow, what was your favorite subject?
Well, I didn’t have a lot of favorite subjects. But I’d say probably English would be one of the better ones. Math has always been a pain for me. I think somewhere about sixth grade, honestly, I missed something, and then the rest of the time forward after that I was trying to figure out what it was I missed along the way to fill that back in. I guess I made it out okay, but it was an interesting journey.
Okay. Right on. So in 2012, you founded Stellar SEO? How did that happen?
Yeah, so it was kind of a chance, happenstance that took place there. I graduated high school, I joined the Army, and I got out of the army after about four and a half years then I got a job with the Department of Corrections. The Illinois Department of Correction. I worked there and it was a pretty easy job. But after a little while, they closed some other facilities and the people from those facilities came to ours. Being one of the newer people there, I got bumped to the midnight shift and that was not for me. It was horrible and I felt like a zombie all the time. So one day on my way to work, I stopped to pick up a magazine. The magazine had a list of X number of best businesses to start in 2012 or 2011, whichever year that was and SEO was on that list. I had not heard of or been aware of it before that point. I did take a little bit of web design classes because I was curious about that and it made sense initially. But that’s where I got the idea to start getting into SEO. And that’s how things began as I pulled it off of the list and went for it.
Well, that’s pretty amazing. How did you learn about SEO then, the whole practice of doing it?
So, much of it was self-taught. Going back to my love of English, I got into SEO first by writing blog posts for people on Upwork back when it was Elance. I would write blog posts for websites. The first client I ever had was a tanning salon and they had a couple of locations in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park Florida. He hired me to write blog posts and after a while of doing that, I asked him; ” what are you guys trying to do with these”? He said the ultimate goal for the blog post was they were trying to rank better. And so they hired me to do SEO for their website. And in the time between when I first found out about it, and when they hired me as a blog writer to an SEO person, I just set up test websites. I was self-learning the entire time by testing out different stuff to see what would work and what didn’t work. I went through some courses as well to kind of get a sense of it. But the big thing was I just found a lot of information and tested it out to see if I could make anything work. And then what did work out I took that and I applied it and that’s how I kind of got going with SEO.
Well, that’s pretty amazing. So these test sites, what did they look like, for instance, were they just made up words that you were testing?
Yeah. So at that time, you could still get stuff to rank. You could use a GSA search engine ranker, you could set up web 2.0 blogs and get those to rank for stuff. So the blogs were some of the early tasks. I would try to get them to rank for different informational searches. And then from there, it evolved. I set up some test websites early on, and it would be something like St. Louis SEO Agency. I published an article in a website magazine several years ago. I set up a test website and use a GSA search engine ranker, and tiered link building. And I rank that in St. Louis, for St. Louis SEO and some other keywords. So it started with really simple searches, and then it evolved, so I wanted to see how much I could push it. I think this was about the same time Gotcha SEO was promoting their SEO services in St. Louis after they had gotten into training and stuff. And so there were some back and forth between his site ranking and mine. I published a cool article on it. This was already the time when people said that it wouldn’t work any longer. We stuck with that, not with the GSA search engine ranker. And we’ve stuck to testing the entire time since we started because early on, we figured out that what people tell you does or does not work is not the same as what actually will or will not. That’s where we are from.
That’s amazing. So your experience and doing testing proved the proof in the pudding was the testing in regards to knowing what was going to work and what would not work?
Yeah. The only thing was as you may already know, in 2012, one of the biggest Google updates ever came out 2011, 2012 timeline. So when we first started as an agency, a lot of the phone calls we got from clients were from people who had been penalized for whatever they’d been doing up to that point and they needed recovery. So the other part where the testing helped out was, that we had to go down a very custom route to figure out what the problems were because there wasn’t a ready-made turnkey solution to fix it at that time. So those things worked hand in hand. What started to shape how we would operate as an agency for years to come is what we went through in the initial learning stage and we decided to take it and make it a business. The timing of that wasn’t the best time to be an SEO agency but we figured out a good way to help people solve their problems. And so it turned out to be a great time to get started.
So that was the Google Penguin update that you were referring to right in 2012? That was a huge update for sure. How do you think that changed the game for SEO and how it was done?
One of the biggest things that came out of that is switching the entire approach to anchor text, link building, and making things look natural. And you have to remember before that time, if you wanted to rank for red shoes, you would get as many places to link to you as you possibly could, saying red shoes. And on your website, you would just keyword stuff, excessively red shoes, and all different variations of that. So that was really when it started to take the first big turn from just blatantly spammy repetition of certain things and you had to start being more strategic. So I think it was one of the early maturing points for the SEO industry.
How do you think it’s changed between before and after penguin? What are some of the things that you approached differently? Or that you helped clients change if they were coming to you for SEO at that time after penguin was released?
So one of the first things that we did was we scrapped best practices, because if you remember, up until then best practices were you use these keywords as much as you can, and that’s how you’re going to rank the site because that was the standard best practice across the industry, but that blew up when the update came out. So at that point, the first thing we did was to scrap whatever we thought we knew about best practices and look at it on a case-by-case basis, asking What’s ranking right now in your industry? And what is it that they have done differently than you? Yeah, and what can we do to replicate that. And so as far as diversifying anchor text, as far as on-page optimization, all of those things had changed. Today we still don’t follow many general practices, but instead, we look at any particular search result and figure out exactly what’s working. And of course, we then check that against what we know to be good practice or not. But the real answers are generally in what’s already ranking. It started then and it’s something that’s continued through to now even people with the most recent update in December, were having issues within a few weeks, but we figured out how to help them reverse those and regain traffic that they lost and get things back up. In the same process, we started looking at what happened, and what changed in the December update. We figured out pretty quickly, all of a sudden, these 5, 6, 7 thousand word guides that a lot of people had, dropped to page two, and were replaced by articles that were half the length in a lot of searches. And so that’s something that we picked up on really quickly, shorter content. Fast forward a month later, and Google said, we’re trying to figure out a way to surface more concise answers to content. That’s something we started then and we still do it now and it works just as well. I say we’re a very process-driven company. So we take particular processes and we apply those to everything; Link Building, anchor text selection, on-page SEO, and troubleshooting. If you take the same process, you apply it with different inputs, and you’re going to figure out a different answer, but it’s repeatable. So that’s how we approach things now and that started way back then because of those changes.
Wow, that’s pretty amazing. So you’re saying that the change that just came out this last December, like it’s March now, so three months ago? That’s pretty interesting. So how would you explain SEO to a beginner?
Yeah, so we went through all kinds of variations and we finally settled on a form of marketing in which you’re showing up for people who are searching for what you offer. And obviously, the benefit of that is, if they’re searching for it actively, the likelihood of them buying it from you goes up exponentially over outbound or other types of marketing that you don’t necessarily know. SEO is just a combination of things that we do to make sure that they have a much better chance of finding you when they are searching for something. At its most basic SEO is just another marketing channel and there are 100 different ways you can market a business. This just happens to be the one that we chose. And it turns out that it works pretty darn well.
So you mentioned some tools, like the GSA search engine ranker. Are there other tools that you regularly use for on-page SEO?
We stopped using GSA about six years ago but there might be people still using it. Yeah, but some tools that we liked now are, h-refs, and we use to be a fan of SEM rush. And after a few years, though, they seem like they started rolling out so many features, that the quality of those new features dropped off. And so we switched to H-refs at that point. Link Research Tools is an excellent tool if you’re going to do link penalty recoveries. For on-page SEO, and Surfer SEO, we tested a ton of different tools, Page Optimizer Pro or Budget Tool Surfer SEO is the one we settled on for on the page. It’s got a great balance of efficiency and user-friendliness. But it gives you good information as well as long as you make the right inputs. So that’s a great tool that we use as well. Google, Google Drive, Sheets, Docs, all those things because of the screens you can make. You can make automation. And that can help you sort and share and do a lot with data manipulation that saves a ton of time.
Oh, wow. Are those things you’ve developed in-house?
Yep. Several years ago, we went through the blueprint training from Ryan Stewart Webers. And so we’re still a member of that training and they developed some tools and things as well that you can use if you’re a member of that blueprint training. But way back then they built the first version of a link-building spreadsheet. We took that and we pulled it in-house, we added a lot of additional stuff to it. And so that’s what we built as the framework for link building service and we still do everything with Google Sheets for a lot of that data because through the scripts and automation, you can essentially move the information around and assign it to a different person based on status.? So if you mark it as live, for example, it can go from your sheet to a client report. If you mark it as revision needed, it can auto-populate in a writers tab. There is a lot of really cool stuff you could do.
Oh, wow. And you learned some of that stuff from the blueprint training?
Yeah, so we got the general concept from that, then we use a web developer, who is a PHP specialist. And he more or less said, the scripts in Google Sheets are a simplified version of PHP and he was able to build for us a lot of really cool stuff and automation. And we’ve been using those for a long time. Google Sheets tend to break if you get too much data in them. But as long as you don’t want to scrape up 500,000 Page eCommerce website into a Google Sheet, it’ll probably break. But if you use it, and you segment the data into different things, it will work great.
All right on. So instead of using a project management tool, like click up, or something like Asana, you’re using the Google Sheets to handle those SEO processes?
Yeah and it works out extremely well because it’s real-time collaboration. Whereas with some of the other programs, you have to first set it up, which we already had set up. And then sometimes you have to manually move things around or as you change, but in this case, depending on what status we might assign to a particular line, it’s going to go where we need it to go. And so it saves so much time, and it increases the efficiency of what we do. And it cuts down a lot of back and forth. I mean, you imagine it’s a link-building company we have we have a ton of writers. So you could spend hours, you could have multiple full-time jobs, just communicating and sharing documents back and forth with writers. But in this case, using Google Sheet cuts it down to a very fast process. And so we spend a lot of our time collectively as a company on the things that drive results versus spending them on things like project management and stuff like that because it’s just very streamlined. That’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.
Wow. So besides H refs, and a surfer SEO for on-page, are there any other Off Page tools that you regularly use for off-page SEO?
Yeah, so we keep it kind of simple. Our total toolbox that we use, we use hunter.io for email, and pitch box, that’s our preferred link outreach software, Link Research Tools, H refs, surfer SEO, Google Sheets, we have a CRM, and a couple of other things. But as far as SEO-specific software, there are only a handful of things that we use for those and of course Screaming Frog for crawling website stuff. That’s almost a given that you’ll have that in your toolbox. We use agency analytics on the reporting side. It’s a great tool, you can pull everything into it and you can customize the reports. Yeah, we’re very big on trying to simplify stuff for our clients as well. Sometimes you can make reports and you can generate reports, and they have so much stuff in there and so it’s really difficult to figure out if there’s any value in any of it, especially as the client you’re looking at, and you’re like; “are things going good or bad? I have no clue”. So we try to do the opposite of that, and just simplify it so that, so let’s focus on what matters, and let’s talk about that and not be distracted by all the other shiny objects that do or don’t amount to anything of value.
Yeah. Was it a game-changer using something like ancient C analytics to communicate the value of what you’re doing to the clients? Was it like, wow, why didn’t we start using this first or a long time ago?
I don’t know if it was a game-changer, because, before that, you could get similar information with dashboards and Google Analytics. But the setup of that was a little more time-intensive. And the user-friendliness was good. But a level of confusion could be there. Whereas agency analytics, it’s super simple to set up. You can integrate it with a ton of outside data sources. So you get a very holistic view of everything. And I think that does help people. And of course, it’s real-time. So once we set a client up, we can give them login information. And they’re able to log into the dashboard. Check rankings, check stats and, look at any information they want in the dashboard. And so for some of our clients, they’re using it to look at other data as well, besides what we’re doing. They also have their email marketing, paid ads, and social media, they have everything integrated, so they can log in and check in real-time. And so for them, I think it probably is a great convenience and time saver over what they’ve done before. So for our part of it, you can do it either way and it is much more user-friendly. It’s been a great program overall.
Oh, that’s awesome. So what are some of the common SEO Mistakes you’ve seen people make or other agencies make that you’ve had to fix?
You could have like a 12, part series on SEO common fix.
Well maybe the top three?
I think the biggest mistake that we see in general is people will just blindly follow a practice. Like somebody says you should have mostly branded anchor text. And that’s open to interpretation and what people do with it. I’ve seen it go on both ends of the spectrum. And sometimes it just doesn’t work at all. And the reason why is if you looked at the industry, there are certain industries where you have to use a higher amount of exact match or partial match anchor text than you would for any other industry. So if you go to an industry like that, you start building a bunch of branded anchors, you are not going to get anywhere, and you won’t understand why. Because if you’re looking at best practices, you’re going to say, I’m doing what I’m supposed to, why isn’t this working? And then you look at all the top 10 sites, and you say, Okay, I see. So mistake number one is just following the general practice. Number two, I think is unrealistic expectations. And that comes on both sides. Sometimes it’s the client-side and sometimes it’s the other side. But we found that most projects that fell or were unsuccessful, it’s an issue where they were doomed from the start. So if somebody contacts you and you know in this industry, you need to be investing $25,000 a month in SEO minimum, to compete with everybody else. And you go and you sell them a gold plan, and it’s $2,500 per month, it’s not going to work that well because you’re not competing. SEO is very much a production game, producing leads producing content, producing momentum. And if you’re not doing that at the right level, then you’re not going to have success. And so I’d say mistake number two is unrealistic expectations or planning from the start. Number three, a big one, is missing issues that are going to hold you back like penalties, pre-existing problems, and technical issues. You start a campaign and you’ve left something unchecked or unfixed, and it’s going to affect everything you do from working. We’ve had so many cases where we’ve had people come to us and found out, all the new stuff they paid for was all good work that the company did, but there was a huge glaring issue that they missed, so they weren’t seeing any benefit from what they did. So I’d say that that rounds out the top three, not making sure you’re on a good starting ground before you start doing new stuff.
So that may have probably been a lack of experience and expertise from the other company that was doing all that work and I can only speculate they’re following a boilerplate SEO work, instead of digging into the details for that particular client.
Yeah, that’s 100%. what it was. We’ve seen enough of it to know that there’s generally, as you see extremely large SEO agencies, the likelihood of that becoming problematic goes up in a lot of cases, because you’ll have senior management, they’ll produce a boilerplate template. And then they’ll hire a bunch of extremely junior-level people who don’t have any SEO experience. And they just teach them how to follow the steps. So people follow the steps, but they don’t even know why they’re following them. So they can’t troubleshoot. They can’t figure out what it is. They just know that follow the steps. And so if it works, 80% of the time agencies that have that model are happy with it because they’re focused on scaling. They’re focused on sales and new client intake. And so they follow that process. We’re very focused on client retention, so we want to retain clients way more than we want to bring on new clients. And so like each year that we’ve been in business, the number of clients that we have from previous years go up and up and up. So the amount of new clients that we need to take on goes down because people stick around for a long time. And so it’s two different models. But that is a big one and we’ve been specifically hired to go and clean up those kinds of issues where people were using very big companies that specialize in different industries, and they were unable to solve the problem because there’s no troubleshooting.
That’s amazing. So how do you take the approach then to doing keyword research?
So with keyword research, I think there are a couple of really important things. Everybody talks about keyword difficulty and search volume and in every training, they tell you to look at those. But the intent is what I think matters. It’s both the search intent, what’s going to show up? But also, what’s the intent of the person who’s searching for that? And how does it match what you’re doing? What is the value overall of what you’re offering? Because if you have a low volume, high difficulty, keyword, but it has tremendous value whenever there’s a transaction, that’s a great keyword to target. People don’t sometimes because they don’t know how to or they’re afraid to, or they can’t rank for this. So we look at it from the opposite. We’re not trying to find high volume, low difficulty, but less likely to convert keywords, what we’re looking for, are the keywords that make money, big money, because if they do on the other side of that, when you go back to pairing your investment, with your goals, and having the right plan, you can pick a keyword that’s extremely difficult and has a tremendous value. And as long as you go into it knowing that you have to invest X amount, then you can be successful. We’ve helped websites rank for keywords like mesothelioma. Yeah, that’s a pretty big keyword. And it wasn’t a small feat to do that. And we’ve ranked a lot of stuff in the personal injury space, big keywords, huge cost per click. And it’s not a matter of can you rank for a keyword or not, it’s, of course, you can as long as you invest what you need to to do it. And the decision to do that has to be dependent upon what’s the actual value of ranking for this keyword. And so when we look at keyword research, we’re trying to figure out where’s the money coming from, careless in a lot of cases about high volume keywords that have very low conversion intent, and more so about valuable keywords. If you look at our website, you’ll see that there is a ton of long tale very well converting very specific keywords there, versus a whole lot of big informational stuff. And so that’s the approach that we take because at the end of the day SEO should have a return on what you’re investing. And so as long as you have a good return, you can invest a lot. I mean, we have people that will spend a little bit, and on the other end people that spend a million dollars or more on an SEO campaign. And both of them are happy because we figured out how to make it worthwhile to do that. And that’s, all the guru talk aside that’s what keyword research is, it’s how am I going to make more money from SEO, and that’s where I’m going to start. And from there, you can always branch out because informational keywords, you can do those like statistics, facts, things like that, those will never require links. And there are other things that you can do. But the starting point is about finding where the value is and capturing that.
A commercial intent of the searcher. That’s awesome. That’s awesome. So how do you manage clients’ expectations with results? For instance, you mentioned a keyword and it probably wasn’t easy to rank for, how do you manage your team and your marketing budget and spend to get the work done for that client in a reasonable amount of time which you as an agent make money and they also make money?
Yeah, so the first thing that you have to be willing to accept is to turn away clients and to tell clients no, whenever what needs to happen and what they’re willing to make happen don’t match. That’s the big thing. A lot of agencies are afraid to say no to clients. And you have to get past that because success comes from the right client, the right budget, the right strategy, all those things need to come together and that’s when you have success. And so the first thing that we want to do is set expectations, and help them understand what it takes. We do that by benchmarking certain things. Just as a very simplified example, let’s say that you want to rank for a keyword, and everybody on the first page has a hundred referring domains to their page and your website has five. You are likely going to have to get close to that hundred mark before you show up. Now there are obvious examples where this is not the case example after mass domains if the competitors have a lot of low-quality links, no-follow links, and stuff like that. And so we did go through and we filter those out. But at the end of the day if you figure out they have fifty-five good quality do-follow referring domains and that is the average and you have five, well you know you can close that gap. You know it may not take fifty but we are going to have to close it up. And so if you repeat that across multiple things you will start to see the big picture-wise, ok here is what we need to do on the link building side. if you take that same approach and you apply it to content if you look at the top five or ten for keywords and they all have a twelve thousand word guide has chapters and custom design graphics they went out of their way to make something awesome and you have a six hundred word blog post .you will have to invest some time and effort into your post to make it show up. You can do that with micro measurements as well. Think about things like links or text, what do you have to do there? You may have a similar anonymous link but your ink or text profile is way off from everybody else ranking You now have to figure out mathematically how do I close the gap? If you lean heavily towards branded and need to come in the other direction, there are a certain number of links you will have to acquire to change those numbers in your favor. And how we set expectations is by looking at the specific differences between you and everybody who has accomplished what you hope to accomplish and here is the plan that we need to follow to close that up, followed by a plan to excel past them once we do close the gap. That helps with the timeline and with the budget. Here is the great thing about this approach; If you know I have to do X Y and Z to be able to rank and to be successful and you know it costs this many dollars to do that then the timeline becomes more of a matter of your comfortable budget than it does a retainer. Instead of saying we can pass a retainer for 12 months and we will do X Y and Z, we say, here is what needs to happen, and here is the total cost to make all of this happen. How fast can you make all of this happen on your side, within the budget you have? And that is one of the final checks as well. If it is going to take them three years to close the gaps. we know the gap will still be there in three years because the other sides are going to grow faster. So we have to find someone aware of the gap, has the budget to close it up, and is willing to use it over a timeline that makes sense. You also have to figure in what is the typical growth of these other websites over the past twelve months so you can add a buffer of your own. If you do all those things then we set the expectations, of here is what has to happen, here is what is missing, and then we backfill. From my time in the military, we call that end state planning. Does this mean that you figure out what mission success looks like? What is the goal to be accomplished? And from there you work backward and the only things you work into your plans are things that help you accomplish your end goal. This keeps you from wasting a lot of time and resources. It keeps you from going down rabbit holes and it keeps you very focus on getting to the end goal. That is the same reason why we use a limited amount of tools and very specific things. Because we have an end goal, and here is how we want to operate and these are the things we need to do and we don’t need any of the other stuff because it doesn’t help us get to that very specific end goal. That is the approach that we take and it works well for us and it cuts out a lot of waste.
You take the time involved and know what is going to work for a client and you know your cost to achieve that result in regards to labor and man-hours and cost per link, and content. I am sure you have that all figured out and then you know exactly how much it is going to cost you. We can do that for you in one month. Do you want to spend that amount right now or we can do it for you over 6 months. But there is also a buffer regarding how much these other websites are building every month that you also have to take into the risk to close up that gap. That is how much that is going to cost for a buffer for you to close the gap and get going. Then it becomes a matter of not just a monthly retainer and we do this work, but this is what the result is going to be depending on how quickly you want it. That makes so much sense. To me, that is a total game-changer to pitch SEO services that way. That is just brilliant.
It is and it makes the most sense. The only reason why people don’t do it a lot of times is that the cost tends to turn clients away. If you give someone the reality of the situation, they are going to be turned away, whereas if you tell them I’ll do X Y Z retainer per month then we’ll get great results and you are very abstract about it then you can sign those people up. That is when it comes back to what your agency model is, trying to sign for client retention or you are trying to turn and burn and get them to sign up for one engagement and then replace them. So that is why not everyone does it with the approach that we are taking and we do it that way because it makes the most sense. Clients stick around because by the time we get to the point we said it is very similar to what we said would happen in terms of result. And so then when we talk about here is what we can do at phase two for additional growth, they have more confidence. It is a good strategy.
So there are only certain clients that that business model would make sense with. For instance, a local plumber would not be an ideal client.
We don’t do many local clients at all. We do more national clients. The exception would be personal injury attorneys. Generally, those would be the ones in the top fifties cities in the US. Top hundreds of cities, bigger locations because the math checks out for them in terms of personal investment and stuff like that. We don’t have any local service companies. We do more franchise enterprises, medium to larger businesses, or people that have big-ticket items like Injury attorneys.
Did you have to grow into that niche? Did you offer to smaller local clients and then grew into what you are today?
Yes. We did and suddenly we are getting that first client that I mentioned. He paid me $400 per month and I was just laying out all the SEO stuff I could think of at the time to try to get his website to rank. And it ended up working out. He didn’t pay me too much and I did a ton of work and if you figure out what the rate was at that time it would probably be pretty… he got some results. For me, the most important part was that $400 wasn’t going to do a lot but having a successful campaign would do a lot for me.
So if someone is just starting out offering SEO they should bite the bullet and if not low cost then free work to prove that they can provide the results?
Yes and that makes it a lot easier going forward because if you can prove here is what we have done, it will help you go up that ladder faster. If you are talking to a larger client then you will be asking for a much larger investment. But if you cant show that you have had any success, it is going to be hard. And so over the first few years, we went through different phases figuring out what to offer. Do we target a particular industry? Do we target a particular service? Do we take everyone who wants to come onboard? And so we went through the normal growth phase that you would expect. Then over time, we started to figure out where are the people we like to work with the most, and here are the Industries we like. Here is the type of services we want to offer. Then you stop looking at people that don’t fit into that criteria and over time you make the transition to the people you want.
How effective do you think your military training has contributed to your effectiveness as a CEO of seller SEO?
A lot of people think, do you wake up at 5 am and make your bed, just like the standard military person. I don’t do any of those things. I wake up at seven and I may or may not make my bed. What has been most helpful from that is the end-state planning approach, where here is what success looks like, here are the only things I need to get to what is the state of success and for me forget about anything else. Because the whole SEO industry is just rife with shiny objects. It either goes down a million rabbit holes or spends time and money. I have over the years invested in stuff too, like ok they have piqued my interest so now I am going to check this thing out. At the end that doesn’t necessarily get you where you are trying to go and so you go back to doing what you need to do. And I think that has probably been the most impactful thing and taking that kind of approach to it. The second thing is confidence. If the military does anything it gives people a lot of confidence in their ability to do things that you may or may not think you can do. So if you apply that to SEO then you just approach it with a completely different mindset, because when you say you are going to do something then you are very confident that you are going to do it and you are fully committed to it and it’s easier to see it through and make it happen. If you are uncertain of yourself then you have one foot out the door at all times. You are looking for what is my excuse? What is my escape plan? What am I going to do? Instead of figuring out what am I going to do regardless of what obstacles I face? Those are things I think that has been the most helpful to me, which is probably a little different from the typical answer. I am self-disciplined to do things and I have always been that way it was not something that came from the military. I think keeping a narrow focus on what you want to accomplish and being confident in your ability to deliver. Those are the things that have impacted my ability to be successful over time with various things.
That is awesome. What qualities do you think are required to be effective in an SEO role in your opinion? What do you look for when you bring on a staff member or partner with someone?
I am looking for people that are curious and want to know why something works or how it works versus just learning to do A B and C to maybe get a result. That is one of the biggest things. If somebody wants to get down into the nitty-gritty of how everything works and why it works as it does. When you have that level of understanding or that mindset, it makes it easier to pivot and approach new problems. If you are facing a new problem that does not have a ready-made solution then you are in trouble if you are counting on steps A B and C. On the other hand, if you are the type of person that understands how everything works you can use that to troubleshoot problems that you have never seen before. I place a lot of value on people that are on time, meet deadlines and do what they say they are going to do. The reality is with the modern workforce, it is very difficult to find people that have those values. There is a growing disconnect between the workforce and things that are of value, which has gotten worst over the past two years with covid and the work from home. You also have to be more flexible. Like they want to work more flexible hours and all these different things that are expectations now. That is not always the best but I think it is just the reality of how things are shifting. If you have those core fundamental skills or that mindset then that is good and you have to be prepared to work with people that have a completely different perception of what the workday is like because it is rapidly changing. It use to be the thing where I would show up fifteen minutes early somewhere and I would work until I was done. To me, all these things are important values and I think everyone should think this way but the more people we interview, especially the younger ones, it seems like only one out of ten people have that mindset. And so it has changed. I don’t know if it is a change for the better but that is the reality that we are facing and so you have to be adaptable. You also have to figure out how to make everything work without relying on some of those things that don’t happen as much anymore.
So on that note do you think it is better to hire in-house or to outsource?
I think it is better to hire in-house because then you have quality control over everything. We have been doing a lot of testing and experimenting with this, so writers; for a long time, we had exclusively in-house writers only. As we went through 2020 and 2021 when we went through that whole thing, we figured out that there were now a ton of writers, they don’t want a full-time job, they don’t want a structured position, they just want to write a certain amount of articles per week. Sometimes it is full-time, sometimes it is part-time, and sometimes it is just a handful. We have noticed this and have been more flexible by hiring independent contractors as writers. We get some good content from them, but just differently. There is one writer who does a very good job but only writes a few articles per week and is happy with that amount of work. So we ended up with way more writers just to get the same output. For other roles you know you can’t do that, like the strategic, the planning and other things that are critical to the overall success, I wouldn’t be comfortable with people that are not full time, because you wouldn’t be sure how much time and effort is going into it. But for roles like writers, there have been benefits of looking for people who don’t want to be full-time employees but still want to write. We have found some really good writers and we have gotten some really good content produced so we shifted to that. The other thing that we have intentionally done, is in 2020 we hit a peak in terms of our agency and customer size and we got to a threshold where we decided that we were becoming a larger company and we were operating differently. In 2020 and covid helped us, because people were making the request during covid and we used that as an opportunity to get rid of clients, who we had kept on, they were happy with us but they did not fit the core of what we wanted. From 2020 to 2021 we have been downsizing our client base and are much more selective in who we work with. We were selective even up until then in our clients from about 2015, the first three years we were open and that is during the time that we were growing. In 2020 we decided we were going to be more selective in who we work with, and what projects we were going to take on. We would not renew clients that did not fit with what we want. With that, we also use the opportunity to purge some underperforming staff members. I have been extremely happy with the change that we took because now we have both a better pool of employees and writers that are independent contractors and we have a handpicked pool of clients. So we got rid of some of the fluff around the edges that had started to accrue. Something that we are going to be extremely mindful of going forward is not to increase the quantity and increase quality. We are going to cap staff size and clients. And instead of just growing endlessly we are going to replace that with clients of better quality, better projects for us, and better fit. It was spurned by how the workforce has evolved. We do not want to go down that route, because there are so many companies that have scaled exponentially and quality goes out the window. It is a ticking time bomb or they sell it and someone else takes over and continues. We don’t want to go that way. All those things came together and 2020 made it a perfect storm where we said let us refocus and let us be very intentional about both sides. Who was going to work for us and what clients would work with us. That I think has been a profound change. This was one of the biggest changes we made since 2015 when we started being very selective in the clients that we take on. It is another phase of growth but not in the traditional sense where you think we are going to scale something exponentially instead we grew in the other direction of sorts.
You talked about a couple of things.- I guess you would have had to get to a certain level of success before you started turning clients away?
Yes I did, That is something I have always been baffled by as you see Facebook groups training programs. There are all the quote-unquote SEO agencies but they hit like six figures maybe and they never go further. I can’t figure out how it happens to them. We went from zero to six-figure in approximately 24 months of starting. Then to get to the seven-figure mark it only took us a couple more years and then there we were. I am shocked by people doing interviews with us who had their SEO agencies. And the agency made about $80,000 annually, I am baffled by how some agencies don’t get past that point. I guess we got lucky or people liked our approach and we excelled past those pinpoints very quickly. We were able to be selectively sooner than later. Now I do see how agencies are stuck in the low six-figure and cant be selective at this point. Then the other thing is there is all of this advice where people say if you cant grow you have to settle down. I believe that works for people and I think it’s a great approach. But if you are unable to get past a certain point by covering everybody I don’t know if that is a magic ticket. If you have taken on anyone as a client and your agency makes $100,000 annually and now you decide I am only going to take on one-third of this group, you are not going to skyrocket and excel in most cases and I think that is why most people fail. There are success stories and there are SEO agencies that cover every industry that is just as successful. And so they use that as a basis for it. You have to take what you can get, and then as you have more and more success you can be more selective. To other agencies, I just say you have to stop listening to the guru’s advice. There is so much nonsense in it. If you cant sell anything to anybody trying to sell things to fewer people is not going to make you more money because you can’t sell anything. That is the problem. I think we got lost from the original question.
That’s ok. It is still very interesting though. The original question was what qualities the person has in their roles. It doesn’t matter now because you did the follow-up of it and your thought process is just very interesting, so it’s fine that we strayed from the original question. It all makes sense. You mentioned you had writers in-house. I find this very surprising because we have so many websites out there where you can get content written. I would like to find out now since you have shared your approach for that, for the in-house side of strategy I can see how you would want to keep that in-house. Do you think there are rules for agencies? Do you do any kind of outsourcing? That is the whole thing nowadays, especially with covid, everyone is talking about outsourcing. Toyota has a company to which they outsource everything in the manufacturing of their vehicles. I think BMW makes one of their models. Do you think there is a place in your agencies and what are your thoughts on that?
I think outsourcing can be done well. It breaks down for most people when they outsource things that they do not quite understand so they do not know if they are getting what they should. On the other side of that, we have tested a lot of content writings services to see what would come out on the other side and what we figured out is if we hired writers directly, the cost of the content is lower and the quality is generally better. The content agencies most times try to mark up the lowest cost whenever they canto pad their profit margins because that is their only source of income. If you do not know what kind of content you should expect and the price, then you can overpay and be getting low-tier content. It is the same thing with link building, we do some white label link building for other people and our cost for that is higher than they pay to other services that do the same thing. But if they know what they are looking for they will understand why it makes sense to pay us more for the links that they are getting. And so outsourcing can be extremely effective and I think it can work well in a lot of cases when you understand what should be happening on the other side of it. Because if you don’t, you won’t know what quality you are getting and you could run into scenarios where you are just buying something with the sole purpose of the other company marking it up as much as they can and the quality is as low as they can. I don’t think the problem is with outsourcing itself or having strategic partners. It is in understanding and having realistic expectations of quality deliverables and all those things, If you know those things you can outsource and be successful. As with everything else a lack of knowledge is what makes it break down in the process itself. For Hundreds of years, major corporations have been outsourcing things. In pre-business time you can look at the outsourcing of one type of item coming from someone of a particular skillset and goes into the production of something else. The process itself is not flawed as long as you understand what you are getting into. New agencies pop up all the time with varying levels of experience and they don’t know enough about SEO to know whether or not they are doing what they should. So that’s where it’s at.
That is amazing. What do you think is the future of SEO?
So I think the quality will have to continue going up and this goes back to what Google say and what they do. You can still find articles ranking better that are nonsense more or less and they are not ranking the well-written stuff because Google is not at the point that they say they are. But they would love to be and so I think quality will be more important in the future because there will be more competition, with the same amount of spots or fewer. Because if you think back several years ago, there use to be more spots on the Mat Pack Rankings. There were fewer featured snippets on the first page. There is going to be less Real Estate with more competition. It will also need to evolve to be more realistic marketing. SEOs will still be able to do quick wins or hacks and other things. It is shifting more and more, especially with eCommerce where the bigger companies are starting to win more and smaller companies competing on that scale are not having much success and that is almost as you saw with other marketing channels of the past. Certain companies have started to dominate and so I think in certain industries and verticals you are going to see companies that fall below a certain thresh-hold closing. And that is where local SEOs are going to be very important. Right now they are still relying on organic Rankings, but they are going to have to take a more localized strategy and you are going to see more dominance by bigger brands and bigger companies, especially in Beet, for which I have my own opinion. If you are in those fields then it makes a ton of sense why you would want to have known and credible in these eg; giving medical advice. If they can figure a way to skew into that then it would make a lot of sense and it would be safer for people searching for drug interaction and things like that. I think if they can figure out how to do that in certain industries then they can push in favor of that. There will still be a part, as far as industries niches where SEOs are still wide open and it is going to become a matter of quality. It use to write longer and longer content, where quality was equated to having more words on the page. And now they are going for results that are more concise over the long counterparts. Now you can’t just write a longer article to outrank someone so they must be using a method to figure out who to rank the best. That is how we got into this whole content link babble with the thinking that longer is better. It has to go back to links, they are going to be more important than they are right now and they are very important now. But their importance will continue to go up because there are going to be some from the services as the tiebreaker. The quality of links is going to be very important also. It will not matter if you have one hundred links and everyone else have fifty, you better have some heavy hitter links in there as well, because they will need to figure out the better weight impact that the link has based on its quality, how difficult it is to earn that link, how many people have it. They will already have things in the background to look at this stuff from some of the previous updates and changes they have made. I think you will begin to see that get supercharged as content will be on a more level playing field, you can’t just write 10 times longer guide and expect it to perform much better because that is the opposite of where they are going.
There are two questions that I have then; What do you think makes up a high-quality backlink?
There are all that metrics that people use, Domain authority. Domain rating. They are all made up and Google has its own pilfering. And unfortunately, they no longer publish it in the toolbar. Actual authority to a page is very important as is relevancy. A quality backlink has authority, which we call the art of link building, authority, relevancy, and trust. With authority we do not mean domain authority or domain rating, we mean- Is this website actually in an authoritative source on the topic? Like if you are going to give a link to an article about a foot problem, who is in authority on the topic a doctor or a Podiatrist? That is an authoritative source of the link because he should know what he is talking about because that is a specialty. It is the same thing with relevancy and trust, if he is a foot doctor and or it could be a shoe that has some other kind of corrective benefit, and so you have a foot doctor linking to your pages about shoes, then that is going to be a very authoritative and relevant and trustworthy source for information on that. I think they are going to look at how did those things deliver and to some extent they already do. And you can find a lot of cases where a website will have poor metrics, low domain rating, and low domain authority but they have extremely good rankings. When you look into them more you will find that most of their links come from a very relevant and trustworthy website on the topic. It may not be an authority website, because the old thing was to let me 0ut and I’ll buy links from Forbes and Ink and any sites I can get from the list. But those don’t benefit you as much as if you go and get links from a super relevant website that maybe has half the authority of those major sites because the relevancy part is a huge sell. When you look at links people tend to focus on how did you get the link? Does the quality link mean it’s paid or does it mean if you paid for a link it can never be quality? what we are looking at with all this is why in the world would I care if website-A is vouching for website-B? If I don’t care at all what website A has to say about website B, the value of that link is not going to be as good. Today Google’s capability still allows you to manipulate that and rank and gain an advantage from that. If we are looking into the future still, as they get better and better you have to be more scrutinizing with what would be a worthwhile site to vouch for you. That is what makes a quality backlink and so it is a sliding scale. Right now if you have a medical website and you get a health website to link to you and they have decent metrics and they have organic traffic and rankings. Backlinks are helpful and they may get less helpful in the future depending on those criteria that do or don’t meet. That has evolved and I think it is much the same sliding scale where the same things are going to be important now and in the future of what makes a quality link. But a barrier to entry on that sliding scale is going to go up.
Yes. Absolutely. Do you think SEOs are going to get harder?
I think so. I don’t know if harder is the word.
I think there will be a higher failure rate among SEO agencies because they are not able to successfully deliver what needs to be done. Knowing what needs to be done will be easier than delivering it.
Wow. Do you think that people should still buy backlinks?
We have worked with campaigns that do buy backlinks and ones that are adamantly against it. We have had much success both ways. I can tell you some enterprises buy up backlinks as fast as possible. And they still do. A big part of link building right now is link exchanges, paid links, and editorial fees. Give it any name you want to, but there is something still to get a link in a lot of cases. I think it is more about risk management than it is about yes or no. If you are adamant against buying links, then that is fine. We can build links for you without you paying for them. There are ways to do that, but on the other hand, if you want to buy links you can do that safely by managing risk. What we are looking for is; Is there a huge footprint? Do they have the right to us? And then you go and it says to send $50 to this PayPal account and we will publish your article. I think that is pretty easy for Google to pick up on. But if you have to reach out to a site go back and forth with them a few times, start a conversation with somebody, and eventually you strike an agreement to pay them to be on the select published article on their website. As long as there are no signals on the website itself. it is really hard to pick that up on that algorithmically. My personal experience is you can buy backlinks successfully right now nad a lot of people do. People get in trouble when they get sloppy with it and load up a thousand websites into an email. They will send it out, and as soon as someone one reply to the first email with the price they publish. The links are easy to find and they end up on more people’s lists, but if you are a little more scrutinizing with it, you pick better sites and you look at what they are linking to you, you look at the content they publish, you look at relevancy. If you consider all these things and you minimize the risk as much as you can, then you can successfully buy links. Within the past five months we have taken on clients who bought links in the past, they had hired another agency that said “Paid links are the Devil, we have to get rid of them” They disavowed all these links and the client’s traffic plummeted even worse than it was before. They hired us, we undisavowed those links, bought some more links and boom traffic went up.
Wow. And that other company was taking a boilerplate regurgitating approach to SEO. Whereas I look at what works in that particular instance.
And it all comes back to this, looking at the particular instance as you mentioned and figuring out what will work in that case to be successful. Because there are websites where people say; “isn’t that an increased risk”? But in 2012 websites that followed best practices up to that point all got demolished because the best practices changed. If you look at all the chatter after the Google update some people said they never paid for any links, but their website still lost traffic. Their website was collateral damage. Some websites did all the things they weren’t to, they did it smartly and their traffic doubled during the same update. You have to know how to approach stuff and you have to use reasoning. Three years ago I wrote an article that said scholarship link building is dead. I don’t think it is a good tactic and I listed why in the article. Low and behold three years later Google sights a scholarship page in one of their manual link penalties and the surgeon general wrote an article about it.
This confirmed what you said.
Exactly. You could have seen that coming years ago. I remember in the article one of the scholarship pages I linked to they had the best diet pill scholarship, best matrasses for overweight people scholarship.
Oh my goodness. That’s ridiculous.
Just ridiculous links on the page. It is like, you cant see the writing on the wall here. This is going to be bad news for it. It just comes back to boilerplate here. Sometimes I am baffled by the things that go on and how long they continue. But a lot of times I feel like you can see the writing on the wall way in advance.
Yeah. So how do you stay current then as a Company and as an SEO with the changes? The algorithm changes and the Google changes in the Industry?
It all comes back to analyzing particular search results and seeing what is different. If we have a client in a particular space we normally analyze the search data and this helps us figure out those micro changes. Like what changed, what happened, and what is different? But on the bigger scale of it what you have to also be on the lookout for is; What is being overdone in a particular case? Once this starts the likelihood of getting on Google Radar goes up. If you remember hosting broad scale, they had all those services where you could sign up and swap guest posting opportunities, and then it became so well known that it eventually blew up. If you think like Hoisington’s post, everybody was buying links on that website and it got to be so big they made them all no-follow. The next thing I think that will be problematic is people have these public databases of websites that you can buy links from. It is easy to amass a huge collection of these websites and figure out what they all have in common. I know for a fact that you have people who go around and collect these and report them. Along with the SEO who is on the white hack crusade. I can’t remember if it was in the SEO signal labs Facebook Group but there is one that Brian Dean has. Somebody was on there talking specifically about doing it, reporting these paid sites. I don’t think it is the people individually doing it, but if you look at what happened in the past, Private blog networks, Sitelinks, all these things that happen in the past and they eventually got in trouble. It was something you could feed a lot of data in, find patterns between them and publish.
Reverse engineer it and publish it.
Exactly. It feels like it will be very easy for them to figure something out with the published list of sites, because between people reporting links and disavowed files and all the public databases that you can scrape and it seems to be another that will get you into trouble. If you are buying links it comes back to risk management. Do your research and find sites. Even though the public listed sites are good, somebody is bounded and they published them. But there are other sites where I can open someone’s backroom profile and I can say 500 of these sites you bought and I know where, because I can pull up the list right now. If I can do that Google can too because they are much smarter than I am. Also, they have a lot more people and resources. You have to be careful and think of the big picture and what may leave a giant footprint that can be problematic. That is something that we always look at and there have been several instances of that happening, but I think that these paid sites lists that are publicly available are going to be one of the next things because that is what ultimately took down the public blog networks.
Do you think there is still a place for building your private blog networks, that are naturalized, so to speak?
I think you can do it and get away with it if you build them like actual websites. If you think about big brands, they have fifteen, twenty websites or more and they will interlink those websites to each other. They are all legitimate websites, but in essence, they have a network where they are linking to each other and powering up their new sites. I think if you do it with quality and each site has a real purpose, then you can do what you need and benefit from it. But it comes back to weighing the cost versus the reward. If you do link building for a particular industry and you want to set up and run a hundred very good blogs on plumbing and all your clients are plumbers, you may get your money back from that site because you already have the people you can link on it. Whereas if you do for several industries, you may spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars annually on site maintenance. You can spend up to seventy-five percent less by getting a link from an actual website and it will carry more value. So you always have to look at the return on your time and effort. If I am spending twenty-five hundred dollars, do I want to set up a little PBN with an expired domain or do I want to go find links from sites that have been growing steadily for years to see if I can make an arrangement to get published with them?
Wow. That is amazing. So it is dependent on the situation plus cost versus reward for return on investment of time and money. It has been so fascinating talking with you. You talk about things with such authority because you have a lot of experience. What is your favorite SEO resource then besides tools? Reading on SEO I guess?
There are a lot of good ones. I like the people that publish tests and case studies. On Facebook there is a group called SEO signals labs, they talk about a lot of pretty good and interesting stuff. So that’s a good one. Matt David has a couple of different companies, but on his blog, he publishes his actual studies which are always very interested to read because there is good information behind them. I am personally a fan of Brian Dee. Now he and Noel Patel tend to lean on the fictionalized version of reality with how stuff works. But when you look at the underlying information, messaging, and approaches, there is a lot of value in what he writes and the branding courses are some of the ones that we have purchased. And the blueprint training from Ryan Stewart. It is solid and walks you through a lot of different things. They also have some other stuff that they do of automation and audits. That is where I like to look for stuff. Also in groups and masterminds. Those are good places because you will get information and ideas that you may not otherwise see. You still have to be wary, if it is broadcast mainstream and can be seen by Google as manipulative, then that starts a countdown to where it does not work anymore. The best place to find information sometimes is by looking at websites and places where it is not so mainstream.
Are there private membership mastermind SEO sites that you would like to share?
Sure. There are some good ones. Some groups offer training. And we have several of these so I am sure you can find one to match your need because they offer different types of training. There is a Facebook group that works with the stuff from Brian Dean. What happens is you go through the training then you try different things, they bring up issues they have had, and they have discussions on the issues. Sometimes the value is not so much that you have found this super exclusive group that no one else knows about, its that you have found a group of like-minded people who are trying to do something similar and you now start to pull all of that knowledge together which they have real benefits. The best ones that I have seen are where you have that good back and forth between the members, versus the kind where it’s just a trainer and the majority of the content is coming from the person teaching. There are a lot of that but it is mostly cell information and disguised a lot of the time. So you have to be skeptical of the way they are trying to direct you because it may or may not make much sense.
It has been a pleasure talking to you. I have like twenty other questions I could ask but I think I will leave that for part 2 if we can ever connect again. I want to respect your time and I know we have gone over a little bit. I just have five rapid follow-up questions for you. What is your favorite movie?
Wolf Of Wall Street
Yes that is an awesome movie. Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Early Bird. Salty or sweet?
That is a tough one. Maybe sweet.
OK. What is your favorite meal in a day, breakfast, lunch, or dinner?
Probably dinner. Breakfast is a little early sometimes. I am maybe split between lunch and dinner.
OK. Do you learn by watching or doing?
Yeah I think most people are the same. Travis if people want to find out more about you, where would they go?
Just go to StellarSEO.com. There are a ton of great resources there. Check out the blogs. There are also a few guides. That is the best place to do it. We are not extremely active on Social Media but the website is a good place to go for a lot of new and good information.
Content. Fantastic Are you on LinkedIn?
We are on LinkedIn and Twitter but we don’t do too much with those. We don’t have a big need to do those.
ok. You are busy enough with client work. Well, Travis. Thank you very much for coming on the show. I appreciate having you here and you sharing what you share today. It’s been awesome.
Thanks for having me here. I appreciate it.
No problem, You have a great day.
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