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Two Sides of the Same Coin: My Interview with Jonah Stein

Published: October 11, 2011

Author: 3Q/DEPT

Jonah was present at the same small get-together hosted by John Andrews where I also met Dennis Goedegebuure.  Jonah is a wonderful friend of PPC Associates, and I’m grateful that he agreed to participate in this e-interview.
1)       Please tell me your background and what you do for a living.
Jonah Stein is the founder of ItsTheROI.com, a San Francisco Search Engine Marketing Company that specializes in ROI-driven SEO. It’s the ROI (stupid) recognizes that all marketing efforts need to produce return on investment. This simple philosophy focuses clients on conversion, an event that takes place at the intersection of search intent, content, and user experience.
During the first wave of internet business expansion, Jonah was a partner in adventmedia.com, with responsibilities for account management, search engine optimization, and conceptual lead for clients ranging from venture-funded start-ups to a division of Fortune 100 companies. In an era when venture capitalists were pouring money like chum into the feeding frenzy of the dotcom boom, adventmedia focused on functional websites with clear revenue models and measurable ROI from concept to completion.
When the bubble burst in 2001, Jonah joined one of his most profitable clients, PsPrint, where he spent the next five years as the Director of Online Marketing and Business Development. During his tenure, the company grew from $3 million in revenue in 2001 to $25 million in 2006 and was named by San Francisco Magazine as one of the 50 fastest-growing companies for three consecutive years. After leaving PsPrint, he became the managing director of Alchemist Media, a San Francisco-based SEO consulting firm. In March 2008, he parted company with Alchemist to focus on ItsTheROI inc.
Jonah is also co-founder of two early-stage start-ups: CodeGuard.com and HubKick.com. CodeGuard.com provides SMB customers with security and backup features generally only available to companies with full-time IT staff; HubKick.com makes it easier to turn important emails into action.
 2)       Please complete the phrase “PPC to SEO as _____ is to ______.” (And please explain your answer.)
Heads is to tails. They are completely different, yet they are two sides of the same coin. A one-sided coin can’t exist or at least it can’t survive a flip. Ultimately a company that tries to succeed without both approaches is going to fail. You can’t survive without SEO because ultimately the price of the click will reach the point where the ROI is gone; you can’t exist without PPC because you can’t ramp up quickly into new keywords, control traffic, and conduct experiments easily with SEO.
 3)       If businesses are raking in money via paid search, why should they care about SEO? 
a.  Brand and reputation control.
b.  The opportunity to control more of the consideration set.
c.  Long-tail keywords.
d.  Long-term viability as the price of clicks in each niche inevitably approaches or exceeds the break-even point.
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?  
The results are not unpredictable; they just take a long time and only work for companies who are able to execute a strategy that aligns with the evolution of search. It’s really hard to compete in SEO for head terms like mortgage or credit cards, so failure is predictable if you don’t have the link history, brand recognition, and resources of a Bank Rate or a CitiBank.  Likewise, it is probably not a good idea to build a strategy based on creating a directory or other content site that somehow arbitrages someone’s search intent and tries to intermediate between the search engine and the ultimate destination site. On the other hand, most of my clients rank in the top three for very competitive terms.
 5)      How can an SEO client determine whether a prospective SEO service provider is knowledgeable and capable of achieving excellent results for them?  
If someone makes promises about specific rankings or talks about SEO secrets they are going to use to get you results, run away. The job of the SEO expert used to be to trick search engines into delivering traffic to your site. Now my job is to use the tools available to me to discover what users are really looking for and to convince the client to develop content that is relevant to that query… and to make sure they are not technically shooting themselves in the foot somehow.
Beyond that, we aren’t going to all rank for the term SEO, or even try, so your best bet is to talk with potential providers, understand their approach, and make sure they understand your objectives. See whether you walk away from the conversation with a deeper understanding of what it will take to succeed and whether the consultant seemed to really understand what you are trying to do.
Make sure your risk tolerance matches theirs and that your expectations are in line with that tolerance. I mostly work with established brands and companies who are building for the long haul, so I am very risk-averse and my recommendations are built around future-proofing your site. Other SEOs may be more aggressive and better suited to you if you have short-term objectives. I am proud to say that every major Google update in the last eight years has actually helped my clients. While I did have two clients who were adversely affected by Panda, we managed to almost completely recover in one instance and we are working on implementing our recovery strategy in the other. A more aggressive approach may return short-term ROI, but generally at the expense of being burned to the ground in some future update.
6)      What is a typical SEO engagement for you?
I work with clients on a retainer basis with the typical engagement being either six months or a year. Every engagement begins with an audit to understand the current site and identify any technical issues that may be holding back rankings. Audits also include a review of existing keyword mapping and information architecture along with review of the existing site design, content management system, landing pages, analytics implementation, site content, and content strategy.
During that time we focus on delivering traffic and, more importantly, on making sure we get visitors to engage with the site and take the action we intend. I still sell “Search Engine Optimization” because that is what C-level executives are ready to write a check for, but effective SEO is not about search engines. Effective SEO is really “Website Optimization” that focuses on users. SEO has become a data-driven methodology for guiding marketing and web development decisions leveraging query frequency, search intent, semantics, and statistical co-occurrence. Our approach to Search Engine Optimization teaches organizations how to use data to learn about their customers — to listen to users and give them what they want.
After the first year, our role evolves into more of a strategic partner. In that role, I advise clients on technology and vendors, run conversion tests, provide a deep dive into analytics, and help shape the messaging. Half of my clients have been with me for more than three years.
– Todd Mintz, Senior Account Manager, PPC Associates
– Questions? Email bloggers at ppcassociates dot com

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