What we mean when we talk about links when we talk about links. Wil Reynolds knows a thing or two about this line of thinking, which is why I wanted to ask him about the branding transition of SEER to holistic marketing from link-focused SEO agency in the last few years.
In today’s bonus video off our larger Content and Conversation series, Wil and I talk about the above, picking clients, creating change, and a whole lot more as it comes to links in agency life. Enjoy.
Ross: Hey, everybody. I’m excited to be welcoming Wil Reynolds of Seer Interactive. Wil is someone I have a lot of respect for.
Not everyone might know this, but in the infancy of Siege, Wil has been especially gracious and given me advice. In some of the hardest situations at Siege, he’s given me some guidance for. So if anything bad has happened to you, he probably gave me advice on it in some way.
So that’s very gracious. Obviously, I don’t think we’re directly competitive in any way, but that he would do that shows a lot about his character.
And most people who are watching this probably know Wil in some way, but Seer is an agency in Philadelphia and San Diego. What’s your current number now?
Wil: One hundred and forty-five.
Ross: One hundred and forty-five. Definitely a hugely respected agency that I have a lot of respect for. Today, we want to talk about just the state of links in 2018 as it comes to agencies. Wil’s agency, at least from my vantage point, in its infancy or earlier times was definitely known as the SEO agency with a focus in links.
And that was definitely your background, that was kind of my background as well. Obviously, the industry’s kind of changed. So I’m curious, just from your point of view, how has that conversation changed? How have you thought about that change? How has that conversation changed with clients and things like that?
Wil: It’s changed a lot, Ross. You know, I tend to be the kind of guy that always focuses on the money. I think SEO doesn’t get a seat at the table that it should and I think we all agree with that.
SEO and content doesn’t get a seat at the table. So that means that when I look at the CMOs of the world… This last week I’ve had two meetings with CMOs of very large companies. And I think when I used to go in talking about how my links were built, they were naturally curious.
You know, “Oh, tell me about that.” And I saw myself losing them because when you start talking about the value of a link, you immediately have to start talking about domain authority, you have to start talking about page rank, and things that never end up in their quarterly reports.
So it’s not in your 10-Q, so, therefore, their mind is on like, “I’ve got to hit these certain numbers.” So what I’m doing is I’m increasing a massive cognitive load for them to try to learn what domain authority is, learn what page rank is, learn how page rank flows through a site, and all that stuff.
And then the PPC team walks in and they’re like, “Yeah, we could just make you another like million dollars if you gave us another $500,000,” and they’re like, “Yeah, can you shut up about those links? I’m just going to give them $500 grand.”
And I’m out getting $10 grand to get a piece of content, but I was watching my paid search team walk out with half a million bucks, and I was going, “That must be something with me,” right? Because I understood the value. Obviously, when you understand the value of something that’s so clear to you and the people you’re talking to don’t get it, that’s your fault, not theirs.
So then we started realizing that we wanted to look at links as something that were either driving revenue or driving engagement in a way that they would understand. So it’s like, “All right. This link is driving traffic that typically does these types of things on the website that you see high value in,”is way different than trying to tell somebody what the domain authority is.
So as I’ve tried to get more contact with SVPs and CMOs, and our points of contact are becoming less and less, former SEO practitioners, they got it, but then when they went to go translate it, their bosses didn’t get it either. So I was like, “Well, let me get in front of these folks and talk their language.”
Ross: Okay. So how does that change in reporting? Are you saying like… Is your team exporting those 10 links showing they got 400 visits? I guess it’s just an analytic’s view of all recurring traffic.
Wil: An analytic’s view, yeah.
Ross: So are you reporting, obviously, like pointing to just the links that team generated or… I’m just curious how that works.
Wil: I don’t even worry about that shit anymore. I mean, because the idea of like… Remember like when you would build a link and then you would have to go out and find all the people who copied the link from us, and then you’d have to add that all of up, and be like, “Well, we got a link on this site, but all these other sites link to it,” and you… Oh, man. Nobody wants to hear that shit, you know? Like nobody that makes real decisions on a marketing level wants to hear that crap.
So I was watching myself stitching all this stuff together and investing all this energy and then being like, “Why don’t I just be like, you got a link from this website, it drove this much traffic, and a bunch of other sites picked you up at the same time. I’m just going to take credit for that.”
And you could just see, CMOs were like, “Okay. Like that makes sense. You got a link from this site, a bunch of other sites picked it up, so everything that kind of came in from traffic from those sites forever. You guys get credit for it.” It’s like, “Okay, I got it.”
Ross: Okay. So, maybe we just find ourselves in this kind of chunky middle, but I don’t think we have small clients by any means. We definitely have public companies in our client base and things like that. There’s still a good percentage of those people that come to us and they have such clear “We see value of content,” and things like that, but…
Or they should see the value of content, but they’re just like, “Hey, we want high domain authority links.” So that sounds like… I don’t know if you are just leveled up to that point where that’s the majority of your client base, which it probably is, but what about that chunky middle that might represent the general agency population? Like how do you communicate and talk to them? Or do you?
Wil: We do. No, no, we do because I think one of the burdens, for lack of a better word, when you’re trying to change the perception of an industry, you can’t just be like, “Why don’t you people fucking get it?” You know? So we try to educate.
And think about it. When I talk to a client, I’m going, “So you want to walk into your boss and tell your boss, who doesn’t know anything about links, that I just got a link from The New York Times,” and if I don’t value that as the same way that a PR team would…
Right? I was watching PR teams get mentioned in The New York Times and talk about hundreds of thousands of dollars of value which somebody gets and I’m going and talking about their domain authority 98 and somebody’s like “What?” I was watching it, right? We would get a link from The New York Times and we’re like, “Yeah, yeah,” going, “What?” You know, that link.
So we do education, we try to reeducate, and if you don’t believe what we believe, that’s a great thing because it keeps us nice and narrow on the types of clients that we work with.
Because it sucks when you’re an agency and you’ve got your loud mouth CEO out there being like, “We don’t want to do this shit,” and then you’re closing deals where people are like, “Can you just do that like link building thing for me?”
So we don’t take like link-building-only clients. My team started being like, “Really? Like that’s not what you even want to do.So why are you taking on these projects? Why am I working on this shit? That’s not why I came here.”
And you’re like, “Okay, I got it. Yeah, you’re right.” So we really don’t… If a KPI for a client is links, we can’t take them on right now.
You know, we’re try to reeducate, but if they’re like, “No, still go get me the links…” Or they’ll say yes during the BD process, but then when they creep in, our team members start being like, now they’re asking about domain authorities like every month for all my links and I want 20 a month, and they know that that’s an immediate flag, and then we’ll have to either try to reeducate again or we’ll have to part ways.
Ross: And how often do you do that part ways process? That’s definitely a difficult thing that very rarely we’ve done as an agency. Occasionally, we have. It’s never fun, but just curious how that happens with you and how you deal with that.
Wil: We don’t do it too often. First of all, our BD team doesn’t get any commission, so there’s no pressure on their side to bring in clients who don’t fit our model, right? So if you’ve got to feed your family and you’re on a commission model, and then somebody comes and says, “I want links,” it’s actually in your best interest to kind of be like, “Yeah, sure. I got to put my kid through school or I got to put food on the table.”
So by not giving commissions to my BD team, it helps take away the incentive for them to close deals that aren’t necessarily the best match.
So we don’t have an incentive to bring those clients on, and because we’re a high referral shop, you know, whatever clients you have, they’ll refer you a lot to other kind of clients who believe the same thing.
So if I continue to take on link total, domain authority clients, well, who are they going to refer to me, right? Other people that want the same thing. “Oh, they’re great at link building. They’re great at getting you high domain authority juicy links.”
And if that’s not where I want to place my bets, then I don’t want to attract more of the kind of clients that I just have to say no to.
Ross: That makes sense. So how about the transition point? Maybe it just happened as a kind of natural inflection point, Penguin happened, and links kind of changed. I imagine that was how your agency was built. Was there some deliberate line in the sand moment or thing you just did to kind of change the ecosystem? For other agencies that I imagine are like that.
I think we are probably a 50/50 split of that 50 on the other side where we’re just reporting on organic growth and traffic, and yes, we’re generating some links for them. Those are the clients I love, and I love the other ones too.
Wil: Yeah, I know what you’re saying.
Ross: But definitely, we want those people to understand the other piece as well. So just curious about that timeline.
Wil: You know what’s really important is to communicate to your team. I’m always trying to be a little bit ahead, so I have to constantly communicate to my team that that’s a vision, not a current reality. Because I’ve said this to my team several times, “Oh, you guys all want us to just move right into like what I call search UX because that’s really cool. It’s fun to watch people go through search results and ask them questions and see what they like and don’t like.
Yeah, okay. Well, then 60% of you are laid off. Because not every client believes that. How many of you want to lose your jobs tomorrow, so the other 40% of us can work on clients who just fit this thing?”
“No, no, no, no. I’m okay, not getting there yet.” I’m like, “Right.” I’m going to keep trumpeting this, I’m going to keep pushing it, so that we are in a position where we continue to get those kind of clients, but unless people are willing to be like, “Who wants to get laid off?” which I don’t want to play that game.
I live in fear of layoffs which is another reason why I don’t chase algorithms too much because if you’re slightly ahead, you start telling your clients I’m placing little bets.
So even back in the like RCS days of like, “Oh, you need to do real company shit,” I was still betting fucking directory links. Why? Because I’ve told my clients like that’s where we need to be and we need to have 10% of our work focused on that.
But right now, if I don’t do it, you’re going to call me a snake or else I’m never going to get your rankings. But then once Google started saying like, “Oh, we found a way to devalue that,” that was great for us because we had already had a 25%, 30% investment of our time doing other quality stuff.
So we’ve always avoided penalties that have made the industry pivot which has been great for our business. Because when all those people get hit, their SEOs have gone out there building more links and they’re like, “Oh, my God, the links aren’t working anymore. Get more directory links.”
Right? So yeah, that’s why we kind of always been a step ahead which is why now I’m focused on UX more than anything because it’s like eventually Google is going to know what content is solving people’s problem and not.
So just because it ranks, it’s not an indicator of whether or not your problem is solved. We click on a lot of bad number one results.
So I’ve seen that now four, five times in certain verticals where I’ve been shocked. People that have 10, 15, 20, 30 times the amount of links, then the other competitors who are sitting down at number 20 or 30 for a word that they’ve made and brought to market because their page doesn’t answer people’s questions.
Ross: It’s not good. That makes sense. So kind of enclosing on links, I’m just curious where do we go from here? What percentage of your effort is on that today? I know you’re… And I guess you could also clarify, Seers’ state today, I think you’ve kind of transitioned to more of a holistic full digital shop.
Maybe you could clarify that as well, but what percentage of the effort is on that from your team and how you think about that as it comes to search?
Wil: Yeah. You know what? I don’t know exactly. I mean, I’m not on the search team anymore. My focus is entirely on bringing multiple data sources together from various places and it’s the only thing I really spend my time on. Because every time I do it, I show clients things about their data that no one ever has.
So right now, my focus is 100% on Tableau, Power BI. I’m bringing in and married my PPC data. Yeah. Like I’m marrying my PPC data to Screaming Frog data, right? So I can show my clients like which pages are converting, which keywords are converting. You know, SEOs will be like, “Not provided.” I’m like, “It’s called PPC, dog.”
Like seriously, when “not provided” came out, SEO were, “Google took away the shit,” and I’m like, “Just go into fucking PPC and get a CSV. It’s called a Search Term Report.Pull it down, marry your search terms from paid to your organic rankings and now you’ve got a proxy for what words convert and don’t convert.” Like, “Shut up and go to work.”
So that’s my entire focus. I just sat with a company, no bullshit, I looked at 1.7 million keywords for them that they… search terms for my paid people. Now there’s a big difference. I looked at 1.7 million search terms over the last 12 months.
Then I could look at what’s the unique count of keywords that converted. One hundred and one thousand out of 1.7 million that ever got at least 1 conversion.
There was 107,000. Out of that 107,000 words that had converted at least once in the last 12 months, 101,000 converted once, twice, or three times. So when I go to build a content strategy, what I do is I look at what domains show up for all of those big words, and I go, “They’ve nailed content somehow to be able to rank in the top whatever I choose for all these words in this crazy ass long tail.”
And then I try to model after them and say that’s going to be our contract strategy. And because I’m overlaying to my client conversions, no matter what I say to them, I always know they’ve got at least a conversion on it. Right?
So when somebody goes, “That might be a high search term, but that’s not what we do.” I go, “Well, you’ve got 1,500 conversions on that last year. Are you sure you want to continue to rank number 33?” And then links and content and the tools that I use to get that ranking up are a by-product.
Ross: That makes sense. To me, the takeaway from this conversation is that I think transition from pure links for anyone who’s still doing that is kind of a constant ongoing conversation to make that happen.
It definitely starts in the sales process, but I think transitioning people slowly, you give them a hint of that, you do one thing that maybe generates some links and also creates those other conversions as well I think makes that happen.
So I want to give it up for Wil.
Wil: Thank you.
Ross: Thanks for coming. Check out Wil and Seer Interactive in Philadelphia and San Diego. Thanks for watching.