How I Got Here — This SEO Audit Life

Jacob Punton asked me this over on Facebook today:

“Alan, do you just work on audits? Or do you do implementation as well? I would love for you to set up a course on how you gain so many clients for audits 🙂 would be happy to pay too”

His questions arose after I posted on Facebook last night that I had delivered yet one more audit, and have two more to deliver this week.

Another audit delivered - two more to be completed this week

I went to reply in a comment to his question with a short answer.  20 minutes later, I had this long answer and realized it might be fun to post it to my site instead.

I started out in web development in 1995.  Didn’t get involved with SEO until around 2000.  After seven years of doing the work of SEO, where many of those were a mix of doing web development, web content writing, web project management, PPC and SEO, I started offering site audits because one client in particular – a law firm, had a very difficult situation where only an audit would suffice.
The success we got from that base allowed me to start doing audits on all the sites I had anything to do with regarding SEO – either hands-on or managing others in the work.  I did that for a couple years, while I built up my audit business.

Then, the audit work got to the point where it was so steady I went to semi-retired status five years ago this month.

The view from my home office.
The view from my home office.

So – how is it that my audit business has grown so much over the years?  To the point where I grossed over $170k in the first six months of 2017, working part-time, from home, living at the beach?

I don’t know if this is going to help anyone in particular — Jacob or otherwise, however it’s my story. It’s how I got here.

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1) I built my reputation in overall web marketing, web development and web project management over many years.

2) I became highly skilled in SEO by learning core SEO concepts and merging them with my knowledge of overall web marketing and development, then doing the work starting with small sites and building from there.

3) I shaped my personal brand around all of this, including my web site.

4) I have continually along the way looked for ways to be helpful to others not just in the paid work, but also in being a consistently serious participant in the online community, and speaking at conferences, shifting my energy to different places over the course of time, to increase my visibility as a truly helpful contributor.

5) In that effort, I have always sought to contribute more and gone above and beyond in that helpfulness where possible and reasonable.

6) I have built a strong list of agencies — web design, web development, search marketing, and PR agencies who outsource to me whenever they need to, and I offer them a 20% discount off my rates, where they can choose to charge less, the same, or more, or not at all, as they see fit, for that work I provide.

7) I’ve never been afraid to seek help and knowledge from others who have experience or more experience than I do for various situations.

8) I have built a reputation for being brutally honest in my audit work which is not what most site owners and managers typically get when they pay for SEO.  Clients appreciate that.

No Nonsense SEO
Email from a recent client

 

9) Because of my much broader experience and understanding of web in general, and business beyond marketing, I am able to help clients fit their SEO strategy into that bigger business reality.

10) Because of that experience, I am able to speak intelligently to and speak the same language as developers, designers, and content specialists, CEOs, CFOs, and CMOs, and can often cut through their potential initial misunderstanding, bias or resistance.

11) I have a prospective intake process that’s effortless.  Somebody reaches out to me asking about an audit. I take a quick look around the site and at some data from one of the more than forty-five tools I rely upon in my audit work.

I send them an email with two or three important things I find in that five or ten minute poking-around effort, explaining what I found, and why it’s important.

I then have a boilerplate set of audit process, pricing, expectation and caveat terms I paste below that customized response.

I send every prospect a list of several (not just three) previous client references.

My pricing is straight forward based on site scale. I offer two payment options – 50% up front, remainder on delivery, or all up-front for a 10% discount.  I do NOT offer or allow ANY other price / payment arrangements.

12) Most prospects after getting that, immediately ask for a formal contract proposal.  I have afew different proposal templates based on the type of contract (one site, multiple sites, or a “live site / rebuild/re-launch” scenario).  That proposal is SIMPLE – just a few pages. Yet crafted and refined over many years, with lawyer input for protection of the client and my business.

Most clients who get those sign right away, though some take months to respond because they have other things going on.  Yet once signed, and the contract is returned along with a payment (I accept check, wire transfer and credit card via PayPal), I send an intake form with several questions, and then the work begins.  It’s a methodical process I have done over and over for years.

13) A few times a year, I refine that process even more, or I refine the audit process even more.  I’ve gotten highly efficient in the full life cycle of audit work.

14) When I do an audit, I focus on what matters most, in a prioritized manner, and don’t bother throwing the kitchen sink of minor issues at them so my audits aren’t 500 pages long — they cut to the heart of the issues.

15) After audit delivery, I include hours for follow-up consulting to help guide clients and their teams during the implementation process, at no additional charge. They know they can count on me based on my availability, to be there to help them through that work and beyond.

16) I rely heavily on my part-time assistant, Sharon, who gathers much of the core data I need in my audits, and puts it into spreadsheet tabs – it’s what I consider the most tedious aspect of the work, yet she loves doing it.

17) I pay her the same rate I get – which varies by audit – around $300 to $500 an hour on average even though she’s “only” doing data gathering and organizing. Why? Because if she wasn’t doing it, I would. And since that’s how much I get per hour, why would I NOT pay her that rate?  I make so much money doing what I love that it makes sense as part of my “working smart” model.  She is so happy for that, and so loyal to participating in the business, it’s a no-brainer for me.

18) My audits educate and guide. The more I can help client teams learn as they go, the more empowered they are to not need someone at my level in the future.

19) ANY time I end up being too late in my deliverables due to the reality of business, I ALWAYS seek to compensate my clients without hesitation by offering partial refunds. This happens once or twice a year, and it goes a long way to showing I respect the relationship.

20) Fate, God, Luck, Intuition — whatever you call it, all along the way, over the entire course of my career, I’ve been guided to know where to shift, when to shift, and to what degree.

21) I pick and choose projects I work on where each year, I’ve focused more on what I want to be doing and less on what I don’t.

22) I do my best to refer out work to others I trust and respect as often as possible.

23) I have a strict no-compensation policy whether I refer work out to others, or others refer work to me, to keep the integrity line clear.

24) I know when to cut ties with a client who turns out to be overly needy. Yet even then, I do my best to hand them off to someone else where the relationship might be better aligned.

25) I never take ANY of this for granted. The last time I got truly arrogant in my life’s work, I lost it all – ended up relapsing after many years drug/alcohol free.  It took me many years after that to rebuild my life – I’ve been drug free since 2004 and I don’t plan on, nor do I have any desire to jeopardize that again. Even with that, life is delicate, and happens in ways we can’t always control, so my gratitude is insanely off the scale big.  So every single day, I express gratitude within myself, with God, and to others.  Every. Single. Day.  Did so long before I had anything to “show” for it.  Long before I was making 1/10th what I make now.  Long before living at the beach.  Gratitude is so important.

26 (Bonus factor) — many clients appreciate my work so much, they refer me to others.  Once in a while, clients like David Sinick, owner of PaleoHacks, are a gold mine for referrals, without me asking. Since doing my first few audits for David last fall, he’s sent me no less than a dozen other site owners who have also hired me for audits.

Well there you have it – a “brief” overview of how I got to this point.

Industry Interview — Jeremy Knauff — Spartan Media

If you don’t know Jeremy Knauff, or his company Spartan Media, I thought it would be a good thing to interview him and share that here.  Jeremy is someone I admire both because he really cares about the work he and his agency do, and because of his experience in the Marines.  He is a true American patriot, and veteran.  The fact that he ended up in this industry was something I wanted to know more about, so here, for your reading pleasure, I present my interview with Jeremy…

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Jeremy - Spartan Media1.  So – how does a U.S. Marine, who (thank you very much!) was willing to (and  did) put his own life on the line in the service of this country, end up in the marketing industry?

The short version of that story is that during the last year in the Marine Corps, I spent all of my spare time (and in the infantry, we don’t have much spare time) putting the pieces together for a company I wanted to start with a partner. Everything fell apart before the company even got off the ground, but through that process, I taught myself graphic design.

After I got out and applied for a few design jobs, I realized I had become pretty damn good. When I explained my thought process behind some of my designs during an interview, the founder of a particular design firm told me that I knew things that most people he has interviewed with an MFA didn’t know.

As time went on, I added to my skill set by learning web design, which eventually led to search engine optimization and PHP programming. Each new skill was self-taught by pouring through gigantic books—the 4″ thick kind that you’re old enough to remember, online tutorials, which weren’t anywhere near as plentiful or easy to find as they are today, and lots of old-fashioned trial and error.

Along the way, I had some great mentors who generously helped me in their area of expertise when I got stuck. That being said, I’d like to thank  Donna Cavalier (Fontenot), John Carcutt, and Gillian Muessig for taking the time to help me get to the next level.
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2.  Your company, Spartan Media, offers a range of services – from web design to SEO, social media, and beyond.  Do you find these days that clients want the entire range, or they’re more likely to want/need one or only a couple services?

Ha! Yes, most clients want everything, but it’s a lot like those real estate shows where their wish list almost never seems to align with their budget.

I don’t think most clients need everything, especially all at once. I usually recommend that they start on the smaller side of a realistic budget so that they can afford to maintain it until it starts to deliver the kind of results that make it sustainable. It’s almost always a good idea to take one aspect of the bigger online marketing picture, and invest the time and money to do it right.

In most cases, the website should come first since that’s like a home base where you can drive customers to from other sources like social media or PPC, as well as using it to build your mailing list. (You have started a mailing list, right?)

Since the website and list go hand in hand, you should generally tackle them together, then move on to one social network and build up a solid, engaged following before moving on to another. SEO, PPC, online advertising—each element should all be launched one at a time.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you spend your time jumping around, you’ll never get the traction you can by focusing. Think of it like compounding interest; eventually your money invested in one account will generate so much interest that you’ll have a much greater ability to invest in additional funds, but if you spread it around from the beginning, it takes much longer.

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3.  If there was one thing (yeah, there’s never just ONE) you think business owners need to understand most when hiring an agency to provide their online marketing services that they might not understand before you work with them?

That they are hiring an agency for a reason.

I don’t tell my doctor how to do her job, but way too often, new clients try to tell agencies how to do theirs. Fortunately, data proves us right pretty quickly.

We had a client who insisted on having us develop content about how they were the best, they were the only company who offered their service, they were the biggest, they were “nationally accredited,” whatever that means—none of which were true. I don’t have to explain to you that the only person interested in that kind of content was the owner.

After we showed him the traffic and share stats of the ego-fluff he wanted us to write compared to the content that we recommended from the beginning, the difference was mind-blowing. In fact, one of the articles we developed  had achieved more traffic per day for about one week than the entire site usually received.

The bottom line is that if you’re going to invest your money to hire a professional, you need to let them do their job—otherwise you’re wasting your money.

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4.  What do you think the biggest challenge is to running an agency these days?

I think there are three big challenges:

  • Keeping employees inspired and happy so they will do the best job possible for clients. It’s not just about the money—work environment goes a long way!
  • Setting realistic expectations for clients and communicating effectively so they feel cared for.
  • Staying up to date on industry trends and technology.

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5.  How does your experience in the Marines translate in regard to running an agency or serving clients?

Improvise, adapt, and overcome.

I wrote an entire article on the subject, titled 14 Things the Marine Corps Taught Me About Running a Business.

Distilled down to a single sentence, Have a plan, have a plan for your first plan to fall apart, work hard, always improve, never give up, and take care of your team along the way.

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6.  I know a little from interacting with you in social media that you’re a family man – tell us a little, if you would, about your family – where and how you met your wife, how many children you have…

We’re just your typical family trying to build a better life than we had for our kids.

My wife hates when I tell people this, but we met online. I don’t know why… I think it’s pretty common today. In any case, it worked out well for us and led to two of the most beautiful kids and more than I could have ever asked for. One boy and one girl, polar opposites from each other.

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7.  One final, yet important question.  You care about helping and supporting our brother and sister veterans – I know that care is genuine, I’ve gotten to know you enough as a human to recognize that.  What is your message for others who might not know about the needs our veterans have these days – the biggest issue(s), for example. And what can my readers do to help?

There are a lot of organizations out there, so if you want to donate money to help, please do your homework first. There are some great ones, but there are also some really bad ones, and it can be hard to tell the difference on the surface. One that I can personally vouch for is 22 Until None.

It’s a totally volunteer organization founded by a Marine, and they’re doing big things all over the country for veterans to fight the veteran suicide epidemic.

I think an awesome approach is as simple as picking up the phone.

Everyone knows at least one veteran, and a lot of them are struggling—often with invisible issues. These are the kind of men and women who signed that blank check and put their life on the line for every American out there. They are warriors and protectors who aren’t used to asking for help no matter how badly they may need it, and that’s why we’re currently losing 22 veterans every single day to suicide.

Pick up the phone and check in on them from time to time. Sometimes, all it takes to stop them from making that fatal choice is knowing that someone gives a damn.

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Well there you go — Jeremy went from ground pounding life-on-the-line selfless service to running a marketing agency — not unlike others in our industry, yet unique in what I find to be a fascinating way.  And his understanding of client thinking, as well as how to help them achieve their goals, is something I appreciate.  So I encourage you to follow Spartan media over on Twitter, and if you think you or someone you know could use their services, visit their site and reach out.