Going From Zero to SEO-G
A few years ago, all I knew about SEO was what it stood for, that it sounded boring, and that it was a line of work I certainly would never get into.
Over the last few months, two of my clients at OG Marketing saw organic growth so crazy it made me want to write a blog about it.
So not only am I now working in SEO, but I’m actually writing about it. Lord help me...
If you’re reading this hoping to get some expert tips on Search Engine Optimization, stop now. I’m not sharing any secret insights on how to dominate search, and this isn’t going to be an X Steps To Becoming an SEO Guru article.
This is simply my story of how I went from knowing nothing about SEO, to helping scale a team of bad-ass SEOs who are driving some seriously impressive growth for some really cool companies you might have heard of.
Getting married, a masters, and humbled
In 2017 I was neck deep in planning my wedding, scrambling to finish a masters in Nonprofit Leadership and Management, and doing everything in my power to not have to work a normal job.
It was one thing to convince my future in-laws that I wasn’t a lazy ‘self-employed’ schmuck, but it was another thing to convince myself.
After a short stint in the corporate world of cubicles and flickering fluorescent lights, I was all-in trying my hand doing any freelance work I could for Nonprofits.
In other words, I was unemployed and broke. While I was privileged enough to have a strong support system around me, the struggle still felt very real. Both emotionally and financially.
Every other day I’d wake up wondering if I should bite the bullet and settle for a job that I knew wouldn’t bring me happiness, just to have some financial security. I was, afterall, on the verge of being a technically unemployed married man with a mountain of student loans to pay off.
And thank sweet baby Jesus I didn’t settle.
I’ll never be interested in SEO…
While I was busy failing to get my shit together in suburban Southern California, my close friend from college was doing the opposite.
Nigel Stevens was seemingly living the dream in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he was having a much more successful go at the freelance life. He had quit his job at a startup in Silicon Valley to become a not-so-stereotypical expat, and was not-so-accidentally doing fairly well as an SEO consultant.
Knowing I wasn’t doing much else, he called me one evening to gauge my interest in learning SEO in order to help him turn his SEO freelancing into a full blown agency. Being no fool, I obliged - but not without a caveat.
“I’m only interested in the business development side of things, and I have NO interest in SEO.”
This was something I found myself reminding him with defiance many times in the early months of working together. Looking back, I think I was holding onto some misguided notion that any for-profit work had to be inherently purposeless, and by telling myself I only cared about the business growth side of things, it was ok for me to put a pause on my Nonprofit career.
My goal was to use what I would inevitably learn helping grow an agency to leverage future leadership roles in Nonprofits.
SEO is actually pretty cool
It didn’t take long for me to realize I was wrong. The biggest gripe I had with my previous work in the corporate world was that I was simply a cog in a wheel. Nothing I did really mattered, and my work rarely had any impact on real outcomes.
To be completely honest, I really wasn’t doing much of anything. I twiddled my fingers in a Herman Miller chair, often not really working more than 1-2 hours in a day. My disdain for any for-profit work was actually a hatred for not being challenged. I quickly found out that my association between for-profit work and not being challenged was comically ill conceived.
And this is why I eventually ate my own words and succumbed to my passion for SEO.
SEO is challenging, to say the least. As many have said, it’s a fine balance between art and science. It’s a place where creativity gets to intersect with problem solving. And most importantly for me, it’s a place where you sometimes get to see the results of your hard work pay off.
SEO is also never stagnant. In the relatively short time I’ve been doing it, I’ve seen sure fire methods of growth come and go as fast as my Nonprofit pay checks. It’s a field where you’ll never be able to know everything, and where anyone trying to say otherwise is full of shit.
And that is what excites me.
What I’ve learned along the way
I’d be ungrateful and ignorant if I didn’t acknowledge that I am not special, and that I could not have gotten to where I am without a lot of help, and even more luck.
First and foremost, I have a great friend, leader, and mentor in our founder, Nigel Stevens. Without his guidance, I’d never have overcome the impostor syndrome that plagued my earlier days of SEO work, let alone be in a position to drive large scale growth for some really cool companies. (If you’re reading this, Nigel, you still ain’t shit though.)
I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with some incredibly talented people, both on my team and on the teams within the companies we partner with.
As we perpetually eye the future of our agency, I find it helpful to reflect back on some of my more important learnings.
My hope is that the following insights can help both SEO agencies and startups alike.
1) An SEO agency is only as good as the team that hires them
The single greatest challenge an agency faces is trying to navigate the internal structure of their clients in order to get things done. No two companies are the same, and each brings its own set of challenges.
Far too often, companies view hiring an SEO agency as a box to check in order to complete a well rounded marketing stack. This flawed view makes it nearly impossible to get stuff done from an agency's perspective.
While we work with companies of various stages and sizes, the most successful teams share the following attributes:
Non siloed structures, where marketing, sales, and engineering can easily interface with one another without friction.
Nigel likes to say that SEO doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In other words, SEO isn’t something that gets sprinkled onto your website after the fact.
It takes the consistent and combined effort of content writers, web developers, designers, sales, and whoever else has their hand in the pot. Our ideal partners are companies who understand and embody this.
SEO fails when it’s an afterthought. It succeeds when it’s baked into the regular operations of cross-functional teams.
Leadership that trusts their teams to drive initiatives without unnecessary roadblocks.
In theory, everyone knows micromanagement is a sign of a poor leader. Yet we all still see it happening nearly everywhere we look.
If you enable your team to conceptualize, plan, and execute on big ideas, big things can happen. The more you try to oversee and control every aspect of your team's work, the less they’re going to do for you.
Do you want cogs in a wheel, or do you want innovators?
Strong copywriters who set impossibly high standards for their content.
SEO isn’t about ‘gaming’ the system. Our goal is to ensure a page includes the BEST, most relevant content online for a given topic.
There are plenty of extremely skilled writers working for companies who seem to be more concerned with hitting their quarterly goals than the actual quality of the content they produce. These teams might do fine, but they’ll struggle to achieve sustained organic growth.
The most successful teams have writers and editors who can’t fathom the idea of publishing sub-par content on their site.
2) Let the big picture inform the small decisions you make
One of my roles at OGM is developing and scaling our processes. In the earlier days, this involved being thrown head first and butt naked into something new with the goal of learning it as quickly as possible to develop processes around it.
For the first year or so, this put me in a position where I was pretty knowledgeable about certain areas of SEO, and completely oblivious to others. Not only did this drive a dirty case of imposter syndrome, but it prohibited me from truly excelling.
My biggest ‘aha’ moment came when the following truly clicked in my mind:
SEO is the process of ensuring a website is easily found, crawlable, and understood by search engines.
Having this fundamental grounding in the basics has allowed me to exponentially grow my own skills. It helps diagnose problems, conceptualize new initiatives, and make educated decisions.
Yet it’s something that often goes overlooked. You can read 50 articles on SEO and see little mention of what the point of the work is at its core. That’s not intended to be an oversimplification of what SEO is, but instead be a driving ethos behind all of it.
With that in mind, I challenge everyone doing SEO to take their work a step further.
3) True organic growth goes beyond SEO
SEO is great. It’s what pays my bills, and it’s the easiest way to describe what I do to semi-tech savvy folks who ask “what type?” when I say I’m in digital marketing.
But our goal isn’t just to optimize websites for search engines to understand. Our goal is to build long term revenue driving organic growth machines. If that sounds too buzz-wordy, re-read it until it sinks in.
The deeper I dive into the world of SEO, the more I see skilled and capable marketers limiting and undervaluing themselves by viewing SEO as just a small part of a company’s stack. An excellent SEO strategy might get your company to rank #1 for some high value keywords, but it can still fall short of turning Organic Traffic into your single largest driver of MQLs.
SEO shouldn’t be your goal. It should be a means to it. It’s one tool for becoming the go-to source for the solution to whatever problem your company solves.
If everything we did was taken out of the standard SEO playbook, our clients wouldn’t see the kind of growth they do. That doesn’t happen only from keyword research applied to well structured pages with clean code and optimized links. That happens from leveraging our unique position as agency partners to get our hands dirty by shaking every tree possible and seeing what falls out.
I’ve learned to never be satisfied with the growth we’re seeing, and to always be asking myself “what else can we do”. Like everything, this isn’t something that I learned on my own, but was driven into me time and time again.
4) Communicate with empathy
This is one of our team’s core values, and not without good reason.
Agencies have an innate handicap in that we’re not structurally built into the organizations we partner with. One of the greatest challenges is figuring out how to drive change from the outside, with limited or partial buy in.
We might only have the attention of a CEO or CMO for 1-2 hours per month, so we need to make that time count. That’s where communicating with empathy comes in.
Our internal values state that our job isn’t to just communicate information, but it’s to make that information easy to understand. We’re constantly pushing ourselves to keep the context in which the recipient receives the information in mind, and to identify all potential follow up questions beforehand.
If someone can’t understand a report or proposal within 30 seconds of looking at it, I’ve not done my job.
Where I’ll go from here
Building teams is as much an emotional endeavor as it is a strategic one. I have non-metaphorically spilled blood, sweat, and tears into helping grow our company. And just because those fluids all happened to be spilt on a football field in Montreal while getting my ass kicked in two-hand-touch football by Nigel, it doesn’t mean they don’t count.
The point is, I am as much emotionally invested into the success of our business as I am financially dependent upon it. Above all else, I believe our team’s shared emotional investment and passion is what allows us to drive large scale growth for our clients.
As Director of Operations, I’m challenged to figure out how to increase efficiency in our processes.
As an account manager for our clients, I’m driven by the goal of increasing organic leads.
As a human, I’m motivated to take care of those that I care about.
When challenges align with motivation and drive, exciting things can happen. For that reason alone, I’m enthusiastically excited about what the future holds for our team.
In a relatively short period of time we’ve gone from a few clients managed by Nigel alone, to a team of 7 remotely driving triple digit growth for well known SaaS companies on their way to IPO.
It’s hard to say where I’ll be two years from now, but I suspect I will be surrounded by the same people I am today, driving even bigger growth for more companies.