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Confessions of an SEO Agency founder with Alex Cleanthous (NEWBIE)

Confessions of an SEO Agency founder with Alex Cleanthous (NEWBIE)

Getting the low-down on SEO service providers

 

In the world of digital marketing, there are oodles of people promoting their SEO services.

Some promise overnight, top-ranking results like a bad pimple-cream ad.
“One-time application, the results will shock you!”

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Some will tell you what you want to hear, with the hope that you won’t actually look into the results too closely.

So how do you find a solid, trustworthy SEO Agency?
How much SEO knowledge should you have before hiring one?

Today I’m going straight to the source to get the inside scoop from a real, live founder of an SEO agency.

 

Tune in to learn:

  • What services SEO agencies provide
  • How Alex went from an SEO newbie to founder of a digital growth consultancy
  • Common misconceptions about SEO agencies
  • How competitive the world of SEO Agencies is
  • What to look for in a reputable agency
  • Red flags to avoid in SEO services providers

 

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And big thanks to MSOH for their lovely review:

Kate has a refreshing and enthusiastic approach which makes this dry nerdy stuff really interesting. Thank you!”

 

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About Alex

 

Alex Cleanthous is an entrepreneur, writer, technologist, marketing leader, and podcaster.

With more than 20 years of experience in the digital space, Alex stays at the forefront of digital innovation, strategy, and execution identifying new markets, platforms, and tools to keep pace with the exponential expansion of technology.

Alex is co-founder of Webprofits, host of the Growth Manifesto Podcast, and author of “The Growth Manifesto”.

Alex also plays the piano.

 

Connect with Alex

 

Useful resources

 

 

Transcript

 

Kate Toon:
In the world of digital marketing, there are oodles of people promoting their SEO services. Some promise overnight top-ranking results like a bad pimple cream ad. “One-time application. The results will shock you!” If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Some will tell you what you want to hear with the hope that you won’t actually look into the results too closely. So how do you find a solid, trustworthy SEO agency? How much SEO knowledge should you have before hiring one? Today I’m going straight to the source to get the inside scoop from a real-life founder of an SEO agency. Hello, my name is Kate Toon, and I’m the head chef of the recipe for SEO success, an online teaching hub for all things related to search engine optimization and digital marketing. And today I’m talking to Alex Cleanthous. Hello, Alex.

Alex Cleanthous:
Hello Kate. How are you?

Kate Toon:
I’m very good. Are you a real-life founder of an SEO agency?

Alex Cleanthous:
Yeah, they exist.

Kate Toon:
They do exist in the wild.

Alex Cleanthous:
They’re not just an outreach email company.

Kate Toon:
Well, I know. Some people are actually real. So let me just awkwardly read out your bio. And I’m saying your name right, aren’t I?

Alex Cleanthous:
Cleanthous.

Kate Toon:
I know get me, I nearly got it right. Alex Cleanthous is an entrepreneur, writer, technologist, marketer leader, and podcaster. With more than 20 years’ experience in the digital space, Alex stays at the forefront of digital innovation, strategy and execution, identifying new platforms, markets, and tools to keep pace with the exponential… I don’t know how to say that word, expansion of technology. Alex is the co-founder of Webprofits, host of The Growth Manifesto Podcast, listen to my episode, it’s the best one ever. And author of The Growth Manifesto. He also plays the piano. How good are you at piano? My son is really good at piano.

Alex Cleanthous:
I approach playing the piano like I want to play that piece, and I go for a sound. And so I can play a few pieces, and I can practice. I like to get to the point where I don’t have to read the music, it’s just there. And I can just relax into it. That takes three-to-four months per song.

Kate Toon:
I’m the same, and it’s so not the right way to learn because I’ve watched my son learn since he was five. And they go through the whole process really slowly, which means that now he can download some Chopin music off the internet and just play it. And he’s 11. Whereas I will sit there for three months picking out Ebony and ivory with my four fingers, you know what I mean?

Alex Cleanthous:
Exactly. Yeah.

Kate Toon:
Because I don’t know. I haven’t learned the basics. Oh, gosh, this is such a good segue into SEO, isn’t it?

Alex Cleanthous:
Yes.

Kate Toon:
Because-

Alex Cleanthous:
It’s almost like you planned it that way.

Kate Toon:
I didn’t. I’m just so impressed with myself. So look, SEO agencies, you know it, they have a bad rep. So much so that some SEO agencies are repositioning themselves as outreach agencies and digital PR agencies, anything to not call them SEO agencies. We all know that we get these consistent and relentless emails from someone overseas, “Greetings of the day.”

Alex Cleanthous:
“Hi, there.”

Kate Toon:
“Hi, there, madam.”

Alex Cleanthous:
“Hi, comma madam.” It’s my favourite.

Kate Toon:
“Hi comma madam.” Yes. “I notice your rankings are bad. We guarantee number one ranking. Call us today.” And you think they can’t possibly work, but they must work otherwise why do they send them? So when was the last time you sent an email out like that, Alex?

Alex Cleanthous:
Never.

Kate Toon:
Never.

Alex Cleanthous:
I mean, we do send outreach emails, but not for SEO purposes, there’s more for sales purposes.

Kate Toon:
More for sales, and- 

Alex Cleanthous:
And not to sell SEO either, to be very clear.

Kate Toon:
Yes, totally. And this is that you don’t get those kinds of emails from like eager copywriters or eager graphic designers. It just seems to be SEO, it’s very, very odd, but let’s backtrack a little bit. For all the SEO newbies out there. I mean, it sounds obvious, but what services do SEO agencies provide for small businesses and large scale enterprises?

Alex Cleanthous:
Well, what they should provide, I mean, is basically a service that can help you to drive some growth through your SEO investment. What a lot of them actually provide is a combination of, they will guarantee to rank at the top of search engines, but for what keyword? They will make some content, but how good is the content? And they will optimise your website, but what are they actually optimising? What SEO companies should offer is high-quality content, yeah? Create content, which you would put onto entrepreneur.com, that level of content. You need to build links, yeah? It’s so much about link building, but you need to understand link building to know when they’re not talking about the right kind of links. The kind of links that they should be building are the ones that are called editorial links, yeah? So they will be on the entrepreneur magazine website or whatever else it is. And then on-site SEO, there’s optimising the title tags, the schema, the mobile-friendliness, all the technical stuff that’s on the website. They’re the main things that a company should be offering, that is offering SEO.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. I wanted to get into that a little bit more, and I may stray from the questions that we said we’re going to talk about because I just like to stray from the questions.

Alex Cleanthous:
I love to stray as well. I love to go in every direction.

Kate Toon:
Well, let’s do it. So content on-site optimization, and backlink earning building. And yet the thing that I wanted to pick out from there, as you said, I mean your whole business is around the growth manifesto. So you said right at the beginning of there, they should be focusing on growth; growth in traffic, improvement in conversion, taking the same amount of traffic and improving the conversion rate, increasing the traffic, making the traffic more relevant, improving the time on page, improving the pages views, but not necessarily talking about ranking per se. So I find that most good SEO agencies are coming from the point of, “How much money are you making now? How much money do you want to make? What are your key products? Okay, let’s make you more money.” They’re not saying, “Oh, you’re in position five. Let’s get you to position one.” Is that your approach?

Alex Cleanthous:
Well, I think it depends, right? Because we work with insurance companies that want to rent number one for life insurance. The number one position for life insurance is worth hundreds of thousands per month compared to number five, which is less than that, right? And so some companies need you to rank for a keyword that they know through Google Ads. “We spend a lot of money on this keyword. So it’s worth us spending a lot of money on SEO to get that ranking.” Now, most companies aren’t like that, that they can’t afford to spend that much. And so then it’s all about having a strategy that, within your budget, will give you a return. So if you’re spending a thousand dollars a month, you’re making three grand because of the margins of your business and so on.

Alex Cleanthous:
That’s just more of the perspective, right? It’s what you’re going for. It’s not simple anymore because of the personalization of results and the localization of results and all that type of stuff. But if you ranked number one for life insurance, you’re going to get a tonne of traffic, and that traffic is going to convert, and it’s going to convert extremely well.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. I mean, I get that with the big-budget clients, it’s as simple as, “We want to rank for this particular keyword.” But I guess for the smaller budget clients and the people who will never rank number one, it’s about saying, “Well, look, you already rank in position three, and we might not be able to get you up to position one just because competition so stiff. But we could really optimise your SERP result, make it much more clickable. And then when you get to your site, your site’s got a bit slow so we can improve that. Then more people are going to stay. And also your calls to action on your homepage aren’t great. So we can improve those. And then with the position you’ve got, we can generate more sales even with keeping where you are.” I guess what I’m trying to move away from is you go in to a client and you straight away say, “Oh, we’ll get you to number one.” Because sometimes number one isn’t always possible.

Alex Cleanthous:
Yeah. Well, in fact, it’s never possible to get number one because it changes all the time, and it’s never just number one in one location. It changes all the time. It-

Kate Toon:
Exactly. Yeah. And I think people don’t get that as well.

Alex Cleanthous:
But there’s also the other thing, when you are starting out with SEO and you don’t have all the experience, you’re going to get… What’s it called? You’re going to get wooed into the beautiful sales-speak that SEOs have, right? And it all sounds so good. They’re going to rank you on the first page. They’re going to get that. It’s guaranteed. But then you look at the terms, what are the keywords they’re going to rank you for? Your brand name, okay. And what is the amount of traffic that they’re going to be looking at increasing? Well, they’re not talking about it. What kind of links are you going to get? Don’t worry about that question that they’re hard to get links. And so it is about trying to find the quickest way to improve organic search results or performance, right?

Alex Cleanthous:
A lot of it’s on-site, but a lot of the onsite stuff you can just do, that can just be done in the first month or the first… It’s only a couple of months, right? It gets hard with SEO when all that simple stuff’s done. You’ve done the on-site and you’ve improved some of the conversion stuff. Now it’s just ready to convert. Now you need more traffic of people that are going to buy, yeah? The kind of SEO that is important, right? Because you got past that first three months, all the on-site’s optimised. Once that’s all done, now you’re the same as everyone else in the search results. Now what’s going to make you actually compete is to do those other things better than everyone else.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. I love that. There’s so many other things I would’ve pulled out from that, but I think you’re so right. And I think this is often why people get confused with SEO agencies, why they say, “Look, we need you to sign with us for a certain period.” And it’s because a lot of the legwork goes into those first couple of months when you’re reviewing the site, you’re fixing tech issues on the site you’re doing your keyword research, reoptimizing pages, rewriting content and just getting the site SERP ready. And that’s a lot of the work, and more hours go into that. And then after that, it’s what we talked about, getting the site out there onto the interwebs, backlinks, citations… And I think people struggle with that. Because they’re like, “I don’t want to sign up. I don’t want to sign my life away. I don’t want to sign up to six-to-12 months.” But also it can take six-to-12 months to see a shift in the results. Things don’t happen overnight, right?

Alex Cleanthous:
Yeah. This is the part, and this is why I think SEOs have such a bad rap, and they should have a bad rap. I mean, there’s so many SEO companies. I mean, I started in the SEO game, this is just to show you my age, in 2001 from this guy called Brad Fallon Anyway, the hackiest stuff ever would just work at that time. And over the years, SEO became super popular. And so we launched WebProfits in 2006, and we’re focusing on SEO. And we thought that we had missed the wave. We were like, “Oh, but we miss Google. It’s too late already.” This is 2006. We didn’t know, obviously, it’s still early on now, right? But over that time we saw so many… What was the word? Charlatans, right? And I remember speaking with this one person once who was so proud that he was getting all these people on contract and not doing anything.

Alex Cleanthous:
And then just using all this stuff. You’re the problem. Stop doing that. Do work. Yes, they pay you, just do some work. Just do the hard work. Anyway, so what’s hard is that you don’t know if the company that you’re talking with can do it for you. And just because say, for example, they’ve ranked on the first of Google does not mean they’re going to do the same for you, right? And so this whole industry is really hard to know or to trust. And everyone wants a contract because it takes six-to-12 months. And so it’s just extremely difficult for a lot of business owners that have to choose somebody because it is hard. It is hard, and it is hard to find the people that are good.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. And I want to talk about that a little bit more, what people need to do to be prepared to work with an SEO agency. Because obviously, my whole business, my whole ethos is education DIY. And in all my courses, especially the big course, they’ll get you to the point where you’re doing SEO at the level of an okay SEO consultant. But then, once you get to that fancy-schmancy bit, so if you are in a highly competitive industry, and that doesn’t necessarily mean insurance, it could mean you’re a plumber in Sydney, super difficult verticals to rank. So I think that it’s so important that people learn the language of SEO. So they can’t be bamboozled when people start talking about Schema or robots TXTs or domain authority, and that they understand the core metrics that we just talked about, that it’s not just about ranking.

Kate Toon:
It’s about traffic, new versus old, it’s about conversion, time on site, blah, blah, blah. So once you’ve got that language, then you can see through the gobbledy goop, when someone’s trying to confuse you with jargon. Other things that SEO agencies do is they will say “We have our own secret methodology that we can’t possibly tell you because it’s magic. And we can’t tell you.” And I’ve worked with so many different SEO agencies and none of them really do. They have a strategy, they have a process, and they have some very smart people, but there is no secret as such. And I think that’s a big myth that needs to be busted. It’s not like you have some special glitter that you sprinkle on to sites that makes them suddenly rank. You do the work, right?

Alex Cleanthous:
I’ll tell you who’s got a secret, a secret sauce, a secret strategy. It’s Google. It’s the algorithm. That’s the only secret, right?

Kate Toon:
Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:
Everything else is just hard work. And so if anyone says they can’t tell you what it is, run, run fast.

Kate Toon:
I love that.

Alex Cleanthous:
Run. Because the good SEO, and there’s a lot of good SEOs out there, but there’s a lot more that aren’t as good. But the good ones will do the work because that’s where it is. You need to understand, and you need to have a strategy, but it’s a tonne of work. And where the good SEO companies can help. And this is the stuff that we do is that they’ve got scale, right? Because they have a lot of clients, they can create processes to get these editorial links at scale, create content that’s like a book. Just because of SEO, not just because of SEO, but to rank for a keyword. And so then we make a piece of content that’s like 10,000 words because that’s the best piece of content for that topic. It’s work. It’s a tonne of work. Now, obviously they’re smart. And so knowing about it, super important. But yeah, that’s what you’re paying for. You’re paying for the expertise to spend hours on your campaigns.

Kate Toon:
Yeah.
I mean, I think you’re paying for the expertise, you’re paying for the fact that the SEO company is really up on all the latest stuff, which can be hard for average human to keep on top of when you’re running a business. And the scale thing I agree with, also the relationships you built, maybe you already have a relationship with some publications with thinking about backlink building and digital PR. And also just efficacy, speed, it’d take you two minutes to go in and check someone’s robots TXT and see the block. It might take someone else half an hour to work that out, work out how to fix it, put it back. And is that the best use of your time? Just like for me, I hate accounting. So I have an accountant. Of course, I could learn tax law. It’s all freely available on the internet, and I could learn how to do it.

Kate Toon:
Is it something I want to do? Is it something I have time to do? Is it the best use of my time? Do I want to spend money on it? Now another thing that I wanted to talk about there in terms of the trust factor is, again, when SEO agencies talk about backlinks. So backlinks is a muddy area and-

Alex Cleanthous:
The muddiest.

Kate Toon:
Muddiest. So one of the things that SEO agencies talk about is PBNs. Can you take us through what a PBN is and the good and the bad of it?

Alex Cleanthous:
Private blog network. So we talked about before that links are really, really important, right? This is where SEOs have got pretty much all their bad name, right? Is because we’ve known for years, and it’s still the case, that you need a lot of links to point to your website to rank highly, yeah? And in the beginning of SEO, back in 2001, you could put any link, you could pay for links, you could get spammy links. It kept going on till Panda and Penguin started to penalise these low quality sites. And so the quality of that link has increased. So if you get a quality link from something like The Sydney Morning Herald, for example, or entrepreneur.com or whatever else it is, that’s worth a lot more than xyzplumbingnet.co, right? But with the private blog networks is this… How can I put it? It’s one SEO company that owns a network of sites of blogs, yeah?

Alex Cleanthous:
They oftentimes have purchased expired domains, which have some domain authority and a bunch of links that checkup a blog. And they just start to chuck up this really low quality spammy content, right? They then have these sites. They’re hosted on separate hosts with separate… They do a lot of effort to hide the connection from Google, because if Google found it, which they have in the past, they’ll penalise everybody that’s been linking from that specific network, right? And so what these SEO companies do is they sell SEO, and they sell link-building, but they have their own private blog network. So they pay some writers overseas five bucks per article. They charge you $2,000 a month. You’re probably going to get five links from that per month, which is about $25 in cost to them, right?

Alex Cleanthous:
And then if you ever get caught or the worst of it is sometimes if you leave, they take down all your links. That’s the bad ones. If Google finds them, it stops all the rankings. And what’s interesting is that some companies are still using it. They’re still using it out there and you should, again, be very careful. I personally think that if you don’t have a lot of budget and your risk tolerance is high, a PBN could be good for you because you’re going to get quick results, probably. That might be enough to get you started, but it may not last, right?

Kate Toon:
Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:
And from my experience, the worst thing in the world, well, maybe not the worst thing in the world-

Kate Toon:
The worst thing in SEO world.

Alex Cleanthous:
The worst thing in SEO world, is that you get your top ranking through some shady tactics. It lasts for a year. You grow and hire 10 people. Then you lose all your rankings and then you lose your business, essentially, overnight. I’ve seen it happen so many times.

Kate Toon:
I mean, this is it, isn’t it? Nothing comes quickly. It’s a slow game and fast results. As quick as they arrive, as quickly they can disappear. Thank you so much for explaining that. And I think that’s another thing that SEO agencies aren’t transparent on. How and where are you building links? It’s not that you necessarily need to approve every link that they build, but it doesn’t take five minutes for somebody to learn, especially if you’ve done my course, how to do a backlink audit. And to see all these weird links coming up from Russian and Chinese sites and weird little… And go, “Hey, hang on. This doesn’t look like my ideal audience, this looks dodgy.” And the SEO agencies like, “Don’t worry about it. Sh. Don’t look at that. Sh.” I see two things, which I think you’ve mentioned there.

Kate Toon:
Number one, it starts to fail. And this has definitely happened with people. Maybe if you’re working with an SEO agency overseas who don’t have a reputation to protect, it starts to fail. And suddenly you can’t get the SEO agency or the consultant on the phone, and they ghost you. And there’s nothing you can do. Or you get a penalty and then they ghost you or whatever. Or you choose to leave, and I love that you mentioned this, you choose to leave the agency, you sever your contracts, and suddenly they remove all your links. And even worse, What I’ve seen happen is then they do some negative SEO in which we’re not sure how much- 

Alex Cleanthous:
That’s just mean though. That’s just mean at that point.

Kate Toon:
Oh, man. I’ve seen it happen. You wouldn’t believe. I mean, I’ve had over a thousand people through my course, one guy, he came in, he’d been working with an SEO agency for two years. And he looked at his backlink profile. And they’d only built about 11 backlinks and they were all PBMs. But they’d also been serving Google AdWords off his site. So they’d put their own pixel into that. It was just weird. There was weird shady stuff going in. So he cancelled it. And then suddenly he was getting loads of links coming from nowhere. All of a sudden hundreds and hundreds of links today. And I reckon they did a negative SEO campaign on him. The other thing that SEO agencies do, which I think is really cruel, is they fight amongst each other. So like you are trying to win number X brand off this company, not you, but- 

Alex Cleanthous:
Won it.

Kate Toon:
Yes, won. And so you start negative SEO-ing that site. So they lose faith in the SEO company. And then you come in on your white charger. I don’t know. I’ve heard some dodgy stuff going but…

Alex Cleanthous:
Well, yeah.

Kate Toon:
So this leads me to my next question, which actually was on our list. We know that the world of SEO agencies is competitive, but it’s also can be a little bit dark as well. I’ve never come into an industry that is quite so catfighty as SEO. What are your thoughts on that? And you can be diplomatic.

Alex Cleanthous:
I think I’ll have to be diplomatic. Yeah. It’s interesting, right? People who start off in SEO, well, this is back in the day when I started off in SEO, all these entrepreneurial type trying to make money quickly, right? And they’re like, “I don’t have any money. Hmm, SEO. What’s that? Okay. I can do these things.” And so that perspective, that ‘how to make money quick’ psychology, which isn’t the right psychology for a proper business, is across a lot of the industry, right? “Oh, there’s a way I can make money. I can sell SEO. If I can just get people to pay me, I can say I’m doing SEO. I can do some stuff. If I could get five people pay me 500 bucks a month each, that’s a good start.” You know what I mean? And now all of a sudden I’ve got like a little business. But the industry itself is difficult because there’s no authority, there’s no qualification, there’s no official training except for Kate Toon, you should totally subscribe-

Kate Toon:
Thank you very much.

Alex Cleanthous:
… that’s her course, highly recommend it.

Kate Toon:
Love that.

Alex Cleanthous:
But there’s no official-

Kate Toon:
No.

Alex Cleanthous:
… central body to-

Kate Toon:
Regulate.

Alex Cleanthous:
… to regulate.

Kate Toon:
There’s no certification and you can’t be a member of anything. So it can feel a bit Wild Westy. And that’s a really important thing to raise because another thing that dodgy SEO agencies do, is they say they’re a Google partner and they imply that they therefore have a special relationship with Google, even though of course, most people realise now that Google partner just means you’ve done Google AdWords certification. But again, they go, “Oh no. I’ve got an in. I’ve got an in with a dude at Google. And he gives me the lowdown.” I had John Mueller in the I Love SEO group the other day, and even he wasn’t… He works at Google. He works on a certain part of the algorithm, but he didn’t know lots of stuff. Of course, nobody knows all of it because if they did, they could take over the world. They’d be like Lex Luther in Superman.

Kate Toon:
So this idea that some SEOs have a special relationship with Google is nonsense as well. Some SEO agencies are very much cozied up with some of the SEO software platforms. So you’ll see them being endorsed by SEMrush, Ahrefs or Moz. But again, we need to understand that the reason they’re doing that is they’re affiliates, and they’re getting backhanders. So it’s not that they’re the best SEO’s, it’s just that they have a relationship, and other agencies don’t. And I think that can be a bit… if you see the SEMrush stamp on an agency. “Oh, well they must be amazing.” Well, no, they’re probably farming a lot of business, SEMrush. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think they’re always necessarily 100% transparent about that.

Alex Cleanthous:
It’s also how the award industry works. Like you need to pay to enter, and then you submit the entry, and they’re not going to go investigate all your backlinks, this is a promotional thing for the awards company, right? And so I think that’s an important part. I can’t believe still that that type of stuff still happens Kate. Because I haven’t been involved in that level for quite a while now, the companies that we compare to these days, they’re very good because well, they’re enterprise-level companies and they have to do good work because enterprise is very vicious and they’ve got really smart people who know enough to know when someone is full of S… I don’t know if this is a swearing podcast on not.

Kate Toon:
But this is it. Yeah. I mean, one of the good things about awards is it does show you some of the larger agencies who have a bigger reputation to protect, and reputation is everything, really. We talk about reputation in terms of Google and E-A-T and expertise, authority, and trust for SEOs. We were talking about how do you find a trustworthy SEO agency? Most of the time it is going to come from recommendation, but equally, you have to be careful about who’s recommending. Are they affiliated? And also, do they understand what they’re talking about? Because I could go, “Oh no, this company is amazing. They did a great job.” But I don’t know anything about SEO. So I don’t actually know if they did do a great job. So it can be really hard to get recommendations as well.

Alex Cleanthous:
What I would say is that, look, there’s good SEO companies that are smaller, there’s good SEO companies that are big. You just won’t know unless you know enough about SEO to be confident enough to ask the right questions, to get them to show you what they’ve done and then to check it, and then to do it enough times that you’d get a good feeling about them. The next step after that is speak to someone who you know very well, who’s achieved fantastic results. And it’s not just their friend. They’ve invested themselves, and they got some amazing results, and you’ve seen their results, and you can ask them every question, right? I think, if you’re looking at hiring a smaller SEO agency, you need to be asking a lot of questions. You need to not feel like, “Ah, maybe that’s not a smart question or whatever. Who cares?” It’s your hard earned money. And there’s someone that could be taking it and not performing, don’t be shy. And if they make you feel like you’re stupid or something, run.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. I love that.

Alex Cleanthous:
Run.

Kate Toon:
I think the-

Alex Cleanthous:
The good companies will educate. Will be there. Will take the time. Will show you their work. Will explain every part of it. Because they know how much work it is. They’re proud of that work.

Kate Toon:
And they’ve got nothing to hide. I mean, I think the ick factor is so important. For anyone listening, if you’re thinking about hiring SEO company, check out the SEO Nibbles course at the end. I’ve got a list of questions you can ask your SEO agency, but more importantly, the way to analyse their answers. Because you could ask the question, but again, unless you know anything about SEO, you’re not going to be able to understand their answers. But I think ick factor is really important as well. If someone’s being shifty, they’re not directly answering their question, they’re being shady about how they do things or where they get links from. That’s really important, and also be aware, and this is totally fine, but be aware that sometimes the person that you’re talking to will not ultimately end up being your contact.

Kate Toon:
Once you’ve had your shiny sales person, that’s got all the jargon, you’ll be put in touch with somebody else. And I think it’s also important to ask to speak to the person who’s actually going to be doing the work and see if you have a good relationship with them because they’re going to be doing the reporting. They’re probably the ones that are going to be on the phone. And I just think that’s really, really important. And we were going to come down to talking about money. And money is a hard one because obviously, when we go to an SEO agency, I think, it’s a sweeping generalisation, but I just not sure that any SEO agency can do much for under a thousand dollars a month. And the way that I try and explain that to people in my course, is if you hire a mid-level copywriter, you’ll be looking at like 120, 130 Aussie dollars an hour.

Kate Toon:
A thousand dollars a month, that’s, I don’t know, six or so hours, what could you do in six hours? How many pages could you optimise? How many blogs could you write? How many links could you build? Then you also have to do a report, and you also have to talk on the phone. And most agencies won’t give you that complete breakdown and nor should they, but I think it’s the realism of going, “It takes a long time.” And people don’t realise that, that’s why when people do my course and they DIY… I think a lot of SEO agencies are like, “Oh, DIY is bad. It’s going to give away our secrets.” But no, what they become is the best clients to the good SEO agency because they get how much effort goes in. And you don’t have to give away pricing. But how do you go around explaining your pricing to new clients and breaking that down for them?

Alex Cleanthous:
Yeah, sure. I mean, so we have some minimum prices now. But we normally now work with the larger companies and it’s… Well, number one, it’s based on what they’re trying to achieve, what are they trying to rank for? Or what are the goals that they’re trying to achieve? But number two, it’s how much work are we going to have to do? How many links a month are we going to have to acquire? These editorial level links, how much content do we need to create? How much support is going to be required with their tech team or whatever else it is, right? And then account management and reporting, right? Our clients need reporting because they have other stakeholders, and they can’t explain it. So they need a report to explain it to someone else that’s asking them, “Why are we spending this much money on SEO for? I didn’t get it.”

Alex Cleanthous:
They’re saying, “Well, we don’t have a contract.” But it’s going to take six-to-12 months, and it’s a hard six-to-12 months. But from a pricing perspective, yeah, it is a lot about what you’re trying to achieve. If you just want a couple of grand a month. Yeah, maybe a grand is okay at that point, depending on where you’re starting from. Maybe it’s not. And also how long can you spend it for? Because 1 year, it’s got to be a year minimum This one client, he’d been spending so much on Search Ads. I was like, “There’s this one keyword that I think would do really well for you for search.” Anyway, so he said yes.

Alex Cleanthous:
He spent four grand a month for about a year asking every month, “What’s going on? What’s going on? What’s going on? How come I’m spending it?” Luckily we had other channels because that just ensured that he had some performance there. The second year, it did this… I’m not quite sure which way it’s pointing on the screen. Exponential-

Kate Toon:
He’s doing hand movements people. He’s going up.

Alex Cleanthous:
Up.

Kate Toon:
This is a podcast.

Alex Cleanthous:
But it was an exponential thing, right?

Kate Toon:
Yeah.

 

Alex Cleanthous:
And so, it just went so much in the second year. But just because he went with the right company, right? The wrong company could be the most expensive, but even though they’re the cheapest because of the opportunity costs that you’ve wasted a year, and they haven’t done anything. And that’s the most expensive thing. So don’t worry about how much it costs. Can they do the work? That’s the first step. Try and find people that can do the work, then ask them how much it costs.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. It’s really challenging. One of the things I compare it to sometimes is a bit like PR. PR, it’s not like you write one media release, you send it out and suddenly you have PR. It can take months to build up relationships, to work out what are the right stories that are going to hit home. And obviously PR plays into digital PR. And you can spend a year doing PR and not get the results. Like, “I want to…” The equivalent of ranking on page one, “I want to be on the cover of The Sydney Morning Herald.” That could take years to achieve. It couldn’t be achievable. And the return could be huge. I think it’s really hard. One thing I like about your agency and some of the others that are good is they really will ask you some tough questions to begin with, and they will turn away clients. The classic example, the plumber Sidney, you look at that, you look at who’s already out there competing. You look at the local pack.

Kate Toon:
You look at the ads and you say to them, “Well, look, the best we’re going to be able to get you is below the four ads and the three local packs, unless you want to do AdWords. So you’re actually really going to be in position eight. And therefore you’re probably going to get about this much traffic. And your click through rate, we can improve. Therefore, this is worth this much to you, and it’s going to cost you this much to achieve it.” And sometimes the maths doesn’t work, and SEO is not going to work for you in the way that you think it is. The best SEO agency, all right, they’re turning away 50% of the people that come to you because they’re just not going to be able to deliver. It’s just impossible. And they’re going to say to them, “You know what, you’d be better off spending your money on ads.” Or “You’d be better off spending your money on community PR” Or “You’d be better off spending your money on a flyer through people’s letterbox.” So let’s be honest, SEO isn’t the answer for everybody. What do you think to that?

Alex Cleanthous:
:
Yeah. I agree with that wholeheartedly. There’s this big conversation which I like to have, which is around like, “Well, how much are you going to spend per month on the SEO service?” “This much.” “How much are you spending on Google ads?” “Less than that.” “Why don’t you just spend on Google ads, and then if you can make money from that, take the insight which you’re going to get absolute accuracy because you’re spending on it, right? Focus that on SEO.” I think if people are first starting out, I think they should just do SEO themselves for a bit, just so that they get it. It’s not too much, but just enough. Try to write some content. Try to optimise other keywords on the site. Try to do some keyword research. Try to understand it so that you can buy better and so that you understand better. But is SEO for everyone? No, it’s not. It’s absolutely not.

Kate Toon:
We don’t want to admit that, but it’s true. I mean, that’s the thing I say like, “You can get quite a long way on your own, so you could be turning up to WebProfits with a site that’s running at under three seconds that’s fully optimised, has focus keywords, no crawl issues. It’s responsive. Your schema is sorted. Then you bring in the big guys to do that hard bit that you talked about. The ongoing brand awareness link-building, which is tougher, and you need the relationships for, and you need to be able to craft gateway content. But optimising your images, you can do that yourself in half an hour. You don’t need to be paying someone else to do that. So I love that thought. I feel- 

Alex Cleanthous:
I’ll tell you there’s one more thing on that point too. I mean, in terms of the tactical thing that somebody can do, just create the best piece of content on your topic. Just have a look around, and look at all the content out there. And can you write a how-to guide on the keyword which you’re trying to rank for? Because if you can write the best piece of content, that can often be the head-start because you start to publish that, you can get some search results in, maybe get some links in, maybe you can leverage it to get links, but all it is is to construct some content, which you should know because it’s your business.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. I mean, look, I think everyone thinks they can write and you might have all the knowledge in the world about your topic, but you find it really hard to articulate. So then maybe an SEO agency isn’t right. Maybe you want to go with an SEO copywriter for them to produce. There’s different things. I think the fundamental that we’re coming back for is you have to know a little to be able to hire someone. Just as you wouldn’t hire an accountant that was recommended in a Facebook group, or go to that dodgy garage down the road without reading a few Google reviews. You have to do your research, your due diligence. Your website is probably your most important business asset, other than your warehouse and your team and whatever.

Kate Toon:
So you need to put it in the hands of people you can trust. What I want to do is, We’ve covered a lot here and we’ve gone through all our questions in a different way, but I just want to summarise some red flags. So you’ve been running your… How long have you been running your agency for again?

Alex Cleanthous:
Since 2006.

Kate Toon:
God, that’s a long time.

Alex Cleanthous:
That’s a long time.

Kate Toon:
A long time.

Alex Cleanthous:
That’s a long time.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. And so over the years-

Alex Cleanthous:
It’s no longer an SEO agency by the way. So we-

Kate Toon:
You do full service now, don’t you?

Alex Cleanthous:
Yeah. I’ll have diversified about eight years ago, nine years ago.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. So what other things do you do now?

Alex Cleanthous:
We do Search Ads. We do Facebook Ads. We do email marketing. We do the website, but we have a singular focus to drive growth for the clients. So we have a goal. The goal is sales or leads oftentimes, and we do everything we can across the internet that will give them the results

Kate Toon:
Yeah. Use your bag of tricks to deliver the result. Yeah, I get it.

Alex Cleanthous:
Exactly.

Kate Toon:
eah. But again, another kind of SEO agency that’s moved away from just being an SEO agency is being full service. So that’s another really important thing to talk about. God, we could talk all day. SEO can’t be viewed in a vacuum. It’s not in isolation because SEO’s everything. It’s everything you do. It’s conversion optimization. It’s your email funnel. It’s your lead magnet. It’s your social media. It’s your PR. And again, people would just go, “I want to rank for this keyword. Make it happen.” You got to think of the whole big picture, especially with branding. And anyway, we can talk about that stuff in another episode. And let’s just run through some of the red flags that we’ve talked about today. I’m going out to hire an SEO agency today. What are some things, again just to recap, that I should be thinking about?

Alex Cleanthous:
Number one, links.

Kate Toon:
Links.

Alex Cleanthous:
Links. So make sure they show you their links, and stay away from blog networks if you can. Make sure those links are from quality websites, with quality content.

Kate Toon:
I love that. Number two, I think is the ick factor. Is the person trying to bamboozle you with complex technical language and making you feel stupid, or are they fully aware and able to explain what they do in a good way? Because to explain something complicated, you have to know it very, very well. So that’s proof of the pudding. Okay. That’s my number two. What’s your number three?

Alex Cleanthous:
Number three. Look, I think those first two are really, really good-

Kate Toon:
Oh, come on, I’ve got a number three. The secret sauce.

Alex Cleanthous:
There’s no secret sauces, yeah? I mean-

Kate Toon:
I’m just going to give my own red flags.

Alex Cleanthous:
You give your own red flag. You get what you pay for, yeah? So if something’s too cheap, red flag straight away. It’s red flag, yeah? Also you want to see case studies of companies like you. Don’t look at their website, look at companies like you about your size, about your thing. If they’re showing you all their top case studies, because every SEO company has got their top 10, right? Doesn’t mean that’s going to be the same for you. So that’s a red flag, well, something to watch out for. You want to get examples of something that they’ve done for you.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. I love that. And also the willingness to let you talk to previous clients and existing clients as well. And I think another one we’ve talked about is the Google Partner program that there is no certification. No one has a special relationship with Google. Yeah, I think that’s a good red flag. So there was another one.. Oh my brain’s going doolally. I think we’ve covered it all off. I think the price thing is important. There’s something almost reassuring about a decent, chunky price that they can justify and explain. And that transparency of their methodology I think is really key as well. So the final thing I would say is that most decent SEO agencies or through-the-line agencies, whatever one you call them, holistic agencies, don’t send emails that start with greetings of the day. Most people do this scattergun approach and hope that one of those emails hits the mark. Most SEO agencies that do well are busy working, servicing their clients. And they’re getting work through referral and recommendation. They don’t need to just spam people. Would you agree?

Alex Cleanthous:
Yeah, I agree. It’s hard to market an SEO company because of all the stuff out there. It is really hard. And so there are going to be people out there that are more aggressive than others. But they should have your first name. They should know your company. They should know some information about you. If it’s fully personalised. Great. Okay. I saw that this website is fantastic, blah, blah, blah. Maybe.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. Maybe.

Alex Cleanthous:
That’s still a maybe. That’s not a yes, still. I’m just saying. It’s a little bit.

Kate Toon:
Yeah. And this is it as well. You’ll get emails that say that there’s loads of problems with your site. Nine times out of 10, that’s a generic email. They haven’t even-

Alex Cleanthous:
Of course.

Kate Toon:
… your site because if they did, they wouldn’t have time to send all these emails out. And another thing I would say, just one final tip is some agents-

Alex Cleanthous:
They are so many by the way.

Kate Toon:
There are. But often SEO people will say, “Oh, we’ll give you a free audit and a free discussion.” Yes, of course, there’s an onboarding chat, but if you’re getting free services offered, then you are the product. There is an exchange there. Oh, and finally-

Alex Cleanthous:
I’ve got one more too after you-

Kate Toon:
I’ve got another one as well. The stamp of being associated with a certain SEO software does not necessarily mean that they are an amazing SEO company. They’re probably an affiliate, nothing wrong with that, but there’s some transparency there. So that’s another one. Got one more-

Alex Cleanthous:
Well, they might just put that logo on their website because they use it, right? They might not even have any affiliation at all. They just use it.

Kate Toon:
I once used Moz, so I’m putting the logo on.

Alex Cleanthous:
Yeah. I think the biggest one, I can’t believe I didn’t think about this before, a guaranteed top ranking.

Kate Toon:
Oh, boom. Mike drop. Yeah. I love that.

Alex Cleanthous:
Because you don’t know what they’re ranking for, or how long, or what they’re going to be doing to your website, or how they’re going to get you that ranking. I’ve seen terms and conditions. You should read the terms if that’s what you’re talking to right now. And just look what that actually means because it’s probably some word that no one’s searching for.

Kate Toon:
That no one’s ever typed into Google-

Alex Cleanthous:
Ever.

Kate Toon:
… ever. Yeah. Boom. And Yeah, I think that’s so true. It’s hilarious, isn’t it? It’s like the Amazon bestseller, all these entrepreneurs who say “I was an Amazon bestseller.” In some sub, sub, sub, sub category for one second, and he took a screen grab. And now you’re an Amazon bestseller. No you’re not. So look, Alex, thank you so much for chatting with us today. I will include links to all your bits and bobs in the episode notes, but where can people find out more about you?

Alex Cleanthous:
Well they should check out webprofits.com.au. That’s the agency. They should check out thegrowthmanifesto.com. That’s the site that’s got all of the content that we produce around SEO and marketing and growth and all that. And alexcleanthous.com has my own personal musings of things I want to share, which I can’t put corporate side or on the content side. So there’re the three places.

Kate Toon:
And the podcast, of course, remind us what the name of the podcast is again.

Alex Cleanthous:
The Growth Manifesto Podcast, which they can find on search on Google or on YouTube.

Kate Toon:
Yep. On iTunes, Spotify, wherever you find- 

Alex Cleanthous:
Check out the podcast with Kate. It was very vibrant, pumped-

Kate Toon:
Thank you.

Alex Cleanthous:
… very great podcast. No. It was great. A few of the people at the office said how enjoyable it was to listen to.

Kate Toon:
I know, I got emails from them. Isn’t that great?

Alex Cleanthous:

I know. They are like, “We want to hire you for stuff. Or let your people or your community. Who can we hire? Please, we need people that are awesome like you.”

Kate Toon:
I’ll just come into your office and be vibrant. And just sit there doing –

Alex Cleanthous:
Yeah exactly.

Kate Toon:
Thank you so much, Alex-

Alex Cleanthous:
Pleasure.

Kate Toon:
… that you’re coming on the show.

Alex Cleanthous:
So glad to chat again with you Kate.

Kate Toon:
Oh, he’s such a lovely man. If you want to also check out who Alex is, you can head to his social media, and we’ll have a little screenshot of our chats in the episode notes. I’m going to be sharing a few little videos from the call as well. So just to finish off, we’ll do what we always do at the end of the podcast. And I will thank a listener to the show. And the listener is Kerri Bennett from Yellow Door Digital. Is it the… Oh no. These were questions that I forgot to ask. Oh my God, I’m such an idiot. I forgot to ask these questions. I apologise to Kerri and Crystal, but I think we covered off an awful lot in the episode. So forgive me. Maybe we can get Alex back on again and ask those questions.

Kate Toon:
Anyway, that’s the end of this week’s show. If you have any questions about SEO agencies, head to my I Love SEO group on Facebook. We have a testimonial it’s from Msoh and they write, “Kate has a refreshing and enthusiastic approach, which makes this dry nerdy stuff really interesting.” Thank you, MSOH and thank you for listening. If you would like to leave a five-star rating, not a four star or review, I’d be super grateful. We’re actually running out of reviews to read out. Because I think we’re up to like a hundredth episode. I don’t know. You can also check out the show notes for this episode at therecipeforseosuccess.com. You can find out more about Alex and, yeah, get some useful links and read the transcripts. If you’ve had trouble understanding my appalling accent, but that’s it for this week until next time, happy SEO-ing.