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Red-Headed SEO Stranger: My Interview With Matthew Brown

Published: November 28, 2011

Author: Todd Mintz

Matthew Brown is one of the top SEO’s in the business, specializing in Enterprise SEO.  He’s also a high-level foodie, loves the Portland Trailblazers almost as much as I do, and prefers Ginger to Mary Ann. :.)
1)       Please tell me your background and what you do for a living.
From 2005-2010, I was Director of Search Strategy for the NYTimes company.  This involved management of the SEO program of NYTimes.com as well as The Boston Globe website. In addition, I was Co-Founder/COO of Define Search Strategies, a small consulting branch of the New York Times that worked with companies on all types of enterprise-scale inbound marketing programs. Between those two roles, I’ve worked in most of the competitive web niches: News, travel, e-commerce, health, sports media, retail and mobile. I never messed with the gambling niche but Tim Resnik, my business partner at AudienceWise, made his bones in that market.
This year, Tim and I started AudienceWise here in Portland, OR.  We’ve chosen to take campaigns that are broader in nature, encompassing all aspects of inbound or organic marketing. I think now more than ever, it doesn’t make sense to execute on SEO in a vacuum given how intricately it’s tied to and feeds into other marketing channels. There are exceptions, but we rarely take on clients who have six different agencies managing different channels of their inbound marketing. Too often it’s a waste of time and money, because there aren’t any strategic relationships between the efforts. I’d rather oversee a smaller handful of clients in a larger strategic capacity.

2)       Please complete the phrase “PPC to SEO as _____ is to ______.” (And please explain your answer.)

As Gunnar is to Matthew. (If you didn’t get that, maybe you successfully avoided Nelson during the 90s). PPC and SEO really aren’t that different at the end of the day, especially in 2011. You’re paying for that spot in the SERP real estate one way or the other. It’s just a matter of whether it takes you $200K in development, link/brand building and PR for the organic spot, or $200K in PPC spend. I might end up recommending either or both of those, depending on the business case. One of the biggest myths passed around over the last 10 years of SEO is that it is ‘free traffic’. That’s right around 0% true in 2011. We’re increasingly likely to advise a potential client that full-scale SEO will be more expensive over the long haul and less effective than an optimized PPC campaign. As I alluded to above, I think a great deal of the ROI left in SEO campaigns lies in tying them up with other marketing efforts.

3)       If businesses are raking in money via paid search, why should they care about SEO? 
Well, if you’re killing it in paid search, you may have most of the onsite SEO blocking and tackling already in place on your site. If you don’t, you should probably reconsider that effort ASAP. Experienced SEOs would probably agree that there aren’t any real onsite magic bullets left, but I’ve always been a firm believer in the ‘every little bit counts’ school of competitive SEO. Maybe it’s those last few pages you get indexed and linked to that push your link popularity to the next level, or the link equity pushed by slightly better anchors in your crosslinking that puts you one step up in the SERPs. It’s a jungle out there, so sloppy onsite SEO is really missing out on the easy stuff within your control.
Back to your question, I think SEO is important in that case because searcher intent and behavior is still poorly understood across different markets and keyword sets. It’s often unclear why users will click on the paid listing across some keyword sets (especially outside e-commerce) and opt for the organic result across others. Branding can be established across both PPC and SEO, so doubling up on the real estate via SEO is strong validation for users. Usually I’d rather take my chances in SEO across the long tail and save my PPC spend for the head terms I know will convert.
4)      Many objections to SEO revolve around the indefinite, unpredictable nature of the results (which contrasts to the highly precise ROI from PPC). How would you answer that?  
Two years ago I would’ve confidently asserted that I could fairly accurately predict the ROI on a well-executed SEO campaign, and that said ROI would often crush big, expensive PPC over the long run. Google has really changed the SEO game at a rapid pace this year, so modeling is considerably more difficult on organic campaigns. We’ve spent a great deal of time in 2011 fine-tuning our ROI models, and in some cases we’ve advised potential clients that spending big bucks on top-flight SEO consulting and the development resources required to implement the campaign just doesn’t pencil out. Although campaign proposals are more labor-intensive than they used to be, most enterprise sites have likely been around the SEO block a few times by now. They don’t want to drop well into six figures on consulting and implementing if there’s not a very strong ROI potential.
I’m intrigued by the concepts in this piece: http://www.coconutheadphones.com/introducting-the-controversial-theory-of-peak-seo/ – I think Google has essentially picked winners or losers across some verticals, especially through Panda. Pumping big dollars into SEO across some of these verticals is likely wasting money. I also think one of the big lessons of Panda is that Google is definitively moving away from the link graph in some of the more competitive markets. I’d guess this is because they’ve given up trying to find clean signal in the spammy link graph for those SERPs. So manual quality raters may be playing a bigger role in your market than you think. This piece is a must-read: http://www.potpiegirl.com/2011/11/google-raters-who-are-they/ – I’m extremely bullish on PR for SEO purposes, and I’ve seen some impressive results from PR firms who are executing with SEO fundamentals in mind. My prediction is that link building is soon to enter a throwback era where it looks more like PR from the golden age than what we’ve been doing the last few years.
I think there’s still a lot of exponential value to the bottom line of businesses who have established market position and brand, and those are the kind of campaigns where a good SEO/inbound firm like ours is worth bringing in to gain competitive footholds. For small- and medium-sized businesses, I’d often recommend spending on PR or PPC and use sweat equity for the organic SEO side. You can learn enough on SEOBook and SEOMoz to not completely drop the ball.
5)      How can an SEO client determine whether a prospective SEO provider is knowledgeable and capable of achieving excellent results for them?
This is actually pretty easy, so it’s disheartening to still think we’re in a market for lemons. Any worthwhile SEO provider is going to have a roster of past and current clients who can speak to his/her abilities in great detail. I’d recommend asking a potential vendor for references that are specific to the agency employee who will actually be doing the work. Ask the reference, “Did you get your money’s worth on the campaign?” I’d also echo what Jonah said here: You can tell if a consultant has a solid understanding of your business objectives and can contribute, even based on the first call. If they’ve got experience in your market and the right skills, you’ll get the right signals from them in the first 30 minutes.
Truly capable SEOs are actually digital strategists who provide overall web expertise that makes them worth the spend. We always end up assisting on monetization strategies, social media campaigns tied to inbound traffic, A/B testing, branding, competitive research and link-building, etc. All part of the cafeteria of things that are required to get big ROI from not just organic search traffic, but audience development overall. I think SEO would have a much better reputation if SEO clients hired  for broader audience development, instead of just paying to “fix our SEO.” That’s how you end up getting an Excel spreadsheet with title tags, a template newsletter email, and not much else to show for your money. My advice to SEO clients: Pay the premium for talented web strategists, and then enjoy your big new audience 12 months later instead of hiring yet another SEO consultant.
6)      What is a typical SEO engagement for you?
Two to six months of labor-intensive strategy, planning, and development followed by keeping us on retainer to handle inbound marketing and help manage implementation. Once things are humming along and we’re making refinements based on data feedback, it’s usually a good value for both us and the client to keep us onboard to maintain progress. There’s really no substitute for a roll-up-your-sleeves site audit to start an engagement. They’re expensive and time-consuming, but we usually find dozens of onsite issues and market opportunities that eclipse the cost. If you’re spending six figures a month on PPC, you shouldn’t blink at spending that on an annual campaign that dials in your inbound marketing strategy. If you execute on it, it’ll be a dividend that keeps paying off long after the campaign is concluded.
Todd Mintz, Senior Account Manager
– Questions? Comments? Email us at blog at ppcassociates dot com.

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