WARNING – READ THIS INTERVIEW:
– If you are the owner of a medium to large business with an important online presence.
– If you work for the company described above and can share this interview with your boss (Brownie Points).
– If you are a serious Internet Entrepreneur who lives and dies by your SEO.
Everyone Else… coffee and cookies are in the lobby.
What the heck is SEO anyways?
Let’s cut straight to the point with this interview. Business owners with a serious to critical online presence cannot afford to hire the neighbor’s son to do SEO optimization on their summer break. Right? You already know this though and yet we are all laughing because all too often this is what you hear going around the valley. You quietly nod your head and walk away because you know that starting a conversation on SEO could lead to hours of in-depth cross comparison leading into heavy debate that could go on for hours. Besides… those who need to know… know… and those who don’t, well… anyhow.
Introducing SEAN SMITH of IKUSA.
A small SEO and Marketing Strategy Firm located here in Ashland. Mr. Smith, who brings over 17 years of seriously engaged and large scale SEO and online marketing experience, founded IKUSA two years ago. With a client list ranging from CitiGroup to Guitar Center, he has personally been responsible for managing multi-million dollar marketing budgets as well as delivering aggressive ROI goals year-over-year, to deliver more than double their investment in revenue.
Sean approached us here at LocalsGuide to introduce his company to YOU the individual who has been looking far and wide for someone who not only takes the time to care, but who understands the value of online marketing how much all the small details really count.
Sean, thanks for talking with us today. Who hires you to work for them and why?
Hi! Thanks for taking the time to talk! My clients generally fall into two broad categories, established businesses that need help growing their online brand marketing and presence, and new businesses that are ready to focus on building a new brand online. I work with these companies and organizations to help them achieve these goals through research, competitive intelligence, marketing coaching, and mostly staying focused on that area of their business – reporting back to them regularly on our progress. If someone owns a business and perhaps isn’t too up-to-date on trends in SEO, social marketing, and such, I work with them so that they can focus on other areas and rely on Ikusa to act as their own marketing manager online.
What are the unique skills and experience you bring to the table?
Having begun my career working for large corporations, I gained access to a knowledgebase and skillset that many medium to smaller companies can’t afford. In the retail industry, delivery on monthly and yearly financial goals meant focusing on the complete customer experience; from engagement with the brand to completion of their purchase. I like to think I bring a bigger picture view to most of what I do. While it is easy to take care of the minutiae of SEO tactics, connecting the dots and how things relate to the business at large is something with which I have a great deal of experience. I know I can take any size business and help it achieve its goals online and with that comes a perspective not a lot of marketing consultants can offer; assuming that business is willing to invest in working with me to get them there.
I was fortunate early in my career to cut my teeth helping one of the largest corporations in the world. Originally hired as the Art Director for their nascent online web department, I eventually built their SEO, SEM, and Social channels in the early 2000s. After a number of years as their VP of Marketing, I dove headfirst into one of the largest retail companies, the Musician’s Friend/Guitar Center family of brands. Here was an amazing company that sold musical instruments. What a great product to get to market! The challenge was managing SEO, SEM, and Social marketing for them for hundreds of thousands of products online, with inventory rotation, across ten separate and competing brands. It was as high-pressure an environment as one could imagine and yet year-over-year we beat our revenue projections. I built my marketing channels into the lowest cost and highest return-on-investment channels in our organization. It was a heady time. I was speaking at search conferences, hiring teams of people to handle the volume, working with some of the smartest and savviest folks ever, and traveling all over the world.
You now work exclusively with medium to large businesses here in the valley and around the country. Say More.
I’ve always been the type of person that enjoys a challenge. While working for large multi-brand corporations was fun, they do encourage specialization as they grow. I’d much rather work with a few different medium and small businesses for the wider variety of challenges it provides. Moreover though, I think there is some ethical value in offering smaller businesses the same competitive edge that large businesses can afford. This is why I tend to focus on SEO and social tactics; they deliver the most return for the most minimal investment. It is important to me that everyone has the same access to success on the internet (it is, after all, the entire point of the technology) and not find themselves limited due to lack of knowledge, skillsets, or the ability to spend millions on advertising. There are important best practices that apply to all businesses online and I find it very motivating to give my clients an edge in that battle.
This is an area of much discussion in the industry. If a company already is doing SEO, they shouldn’t have any question of its value if it is being done correctly. In my opinion, a client shouldn’t have to question the value of my work if it is coming through in everything we focus on together. Strong analytics, frequent reporting, collaborative strategic planning, and good task management all ought to reflect back the clear message that work is being done well. Often I find a lack of on going and detailed analytics reporting is often the first sign that something is wrong. There is an enormous amount of insight into your competition sitting in a company’s data tools that can and should drive your online strategy. How sad that a company may miss out on this valuable cache of data because their reporting is simply insufficient. If you don’t know if you are being helped already in SEO, then chances are, you aren’t being helped.
Another important thing is transparency and accountability. If your SEO manager or vendor ever fails to answer a question, teach an employee “how to do it,” or acts as if there is a secret “trick” to anything, it’s a strong signal something is amiss. A company’s brand online is their single greatest asset and anyone managing that brand online needs to be open and willing to back up everything they say with evidence and data. Any good marketing manager should be willing to educate and explain everything they are doing as often as any client desires. There are no secrets to online marketing; it takes hard work.
That’s correct, I often refuse to work for clients looking for short-term or temporary marketing help. Online marketing, and particularly SEO and social marketing, are on-going disciplines and not finite-length projects. This is why I only work on retainer and not by the hour. If a company wants to be successful in the online space, I need to integrate with their marketing process or help establish one for them. Sales and Advertising are not customer-acquisition efforts that any business only does for 3-6 months. Marketing is the same way; like accounting and inventory costs and so forth, it is a permanent part of any successful organization. I prefer, therefore, to work with companies willing to invest and commit over the long term for coaching, providing direction and recommendations every other week or so, so they can watch how over time their brand recognition and inbound marketing traffic grows.
I love the slogan on the front cover you used… but I want you to say more about it: “If you think hiring an expert is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.”
This is a problem I see so frequently I tend to laugh about it now. Many people managing small businesses don’t know enough about marketing or SEO or website technology to assess the expertise in someone else. This naturally causes them to reach out to the most knowledgeable person they know, often a younger relative with more Internet “experience.” It is easy to empathize with this situation, as Internet Marketing is a semi-new industry and for a while there, we were all amateurs.
But a company’s brand is important and therefore there is some truth to the adage, “You get what you pay for.” Risking your online reputation on someone without the experience means you are more a brand guinea pig than a brand that knows which pitfalls to dodge and meets its customer’s expectations. We wouldn’t trust our teeth to an inexperienced dentist or our beautiful car to an auto mechanic hobbyist; and yet 80% of site traffic often comes from a search engine, so why trust someone inexperienced to manage all that? If a company understands the value of a strong brand reputation, they should work with someone who has the experience their brand requires and deserves. The costs to your brand if something goes wrong are often too terrifying to postulate.
What are some red flag alerts to watch for in regards to SEO health?
Google looks at over 200 different factors when deciding if and how to rank your site for each and every possible keyword phrase. SEO problems tend to fall into three areas: site infrastructure/information architecture, on-page content issues, and your link network. Any one of these three areas has hundreds of possible issues that fall within them if you have problems ranking for a keyword phrase. Also, in any of these three areas, you could be missing out on opportunities to better leverage what you have already done. We look over these in order of priority regularly; assessing what is best for us to focus on, and then work to always move the brand forward.
SEO is not something you can pay for and forget; it requires hard work and a great deal of technical experience. Too often companies are sold the easy pitch of “Pay X and Get Y Number of Ranks and Links.” Sadly, these are companies that use tactics to “fool” search engines; invariably this comes back to bite them with lower rankings or a total site ban. Instead, good, long-lasting SEO works WITH the search engines to ensure you are relevant for the right searches. This is a philosophy lacking in far too many high-turnover SEO vendors. Many of my clients have watched helpless as their brands took a turn for the worse and approached me begging for a way to save their reputation. Trust is therefore an important commodity when managing online marketing.
Break that down a bit. What are some specific things to look for?
We look at site traffic and demographics. We monitor your social network, your existing link network, and your competition’s link network. We track your keyword rankings across all major search rankings as well as your competition’s rankings on thousands of keyword phrases. We help you monitor your social engagement, shares, likes, traffic, etc. We crawl your site weekly to uncover coding errors, broken links, and any structural problems that could cause Google to down rank your site. We watch the entire Internet for occurrences of your brand name(s) and your competition’s brand name(s) and provide you opportunities to get listed where your competition is or where they haven’t yet discovered. We review your customer engagement path with you, pointing out problematic areas that could be preventing your customers from reaching their goals (and yours).
And believe it or not, this is only a sample of the strategies and tools I provide to my clients. I roll all of this up into high-level reporting that I provide to my clients and then offer ad-hoc deep-dive reporting when we are focusing on certain areas. I then provide direction and advice on what to improve and how to improve it, lending a hand when the client needs me to handle the improvement myself. You tell me what your goals are and I will take the wheel and get you there. I’ll even help plan the route and suggest goals if you want.
Sean, in specific what problems are you solving for your clients?
For the most part, my clients want me to cover the entire online area of their business. They want to know they are growing in site traffic or engagement, they want to know why things happen, and they want a resource to rely upon to focus on the entire customer experience online. This frees them up to focus more on areas of the business in which they have more experience or perhaps interest. Then, they can rest easy knowing that not only and I looking at their performance every week, but that I provide them regular recommendations on next steps, updates on progress, and more. Like at the larger corporations at which I began my career, they expect me to be responsible and accountable for the health of their online business and be that subject-matter-expert on call that their competition may not have. How much I manage is often a result of how much the client wants to take on for themselves; I just make sure I cover everything else for them so nothing is hurting their brand nor are they missing key new business opportunities.
You had compared your services to that of a lawyer who is on retainer.
One of the reasons I work best on a monthly retainer is that like a lawyer, some of my value comes from being on-call for emergencies or priorities and also that I act as a knowledge resource for my area of expertise. Marketing work is never consistent month-to-month. Some months are spent more on digging into data, research, or watching the performance of previous marketing efforts. Other months are chaotic with new events, customer interactions, or even just some attention to tasks that would easily run an hourly fee way over a company’s budget. With a retainer, I can work as much as needed without hampering a company’s financials, company’s can plan out yearly budgets better, call me day to day with questions or ideas, and at no point would a client suffer from not getting enough attention.
And then there are the true emergencies. I had a client approach me recently about their site (designed by another vendor) that had been hacked by Russians and had their entire site content altered. The original designer hadn’t been updating the site security (which was a basic service), allowing the hackers to create havoc, and then charged this new client thousands of dollars just to fix the problem they caused. This was devastating to their business online; they suddenly appeared unprofessional and “spammy.” Instead, we worked to fix the problem without any extra cost to them (as they had hired me on retainer for SEO coaching). Payment plans shouldn’t penalize someone for issues that are beyond their control and so having someone on retainer helps prevent any sudden, debilitating hidden fees.
Here are two testimonials from current clients:
“Sean has done a wonderful job updating our web-site. Not only was it out-of-date and difficult to navigate, but also what was happening in the background was severely limited. He’s raised our profile on the Internet and moved us miles ahead in tapping the marketing potential of the Internet.”
Peter Foster, Owner of The Breadboard
“Plexis has worked with Sean Smith for many years now, and have been very impressed with Sean’s SEO/SEM knowledge, and his ability to keep up with this ever-changing technology and discipline, and his ability to counsel us on how best we can/should proceed with modifications to our site, its content and our electronic press releases, all for the purpose of enhancing and increasing the effectiveness of our SEO/SEM.”
Sean Garrett, COO Plexis
Talk to us about more enormous value and investments that are poured into online websites and marketing. Why in the world could a business not take this seriously?
As I said earlier, large companies pour millions of dollars both into their web presence and also their marketing budgets. Just one marketing channel for a Fortune 500 company can often have a 50-100 million dollar budget allocated to ensure they compete in a crowded and vibrant marketplace. It is therefore important that if a company wants to succeed online, they should invest some of their marketing budget and time into addressing their online brand reputation and presence. They should also expect to see that investment deliver returns! And since 3/4ths of our online business can often come from just Google, managing that reputation and presence (in SEO we call it Authority and Relevancy) is extremely vital. While SEO is technically a “free” marketing channel, it is very easy to fall victim to unethical business practices, trends in the search industry, or even just missed opportunities to capitalize on growth simply because a company is unwilling to invest.
A company that is willing and able to put the requisite attention to SEO and all Brand Marketing strategies will find the dividends come exponentially year-over-year. This takes time, commitment, and trust in someone who is essentially fighting for your business on a search results page with potentially millions of results. I focus on making my client’s business a leading authority online, giving the engines more reason to rank more of their site pages higher for more keyword terms (and thereby push down their competitors). It is a powerful and effective set of strategies that all too often companies deprioritize or overlook. Therefore, savvy companies know to hire a vendor like me as if they are hiring a business partner; a long term committed relationship that benefits both parties to build something greater than the sum of themselves.
Can you give us a break down of specific services?
- SEO Marketing and Consulting
- Social Media Marketing and Consulting
- Brand Marketing and Consulting
- Web Development and Administration
What’s the next step?
Reach out and contact me and let me know what kind of help you are looking for. We’ll discuss your goals, challenges, and see where you are. Then we will see if I am a good vendor for you or if not, I can provide some great recommendations of others who are. No matter what, I’ll do what I can to help solve your problems.