Clutch interviewed Bruce Clay, founder and president of internet marketing company Bruce Clay, Inc. as part of a series of interviews on how to hire an SEO company.
Please begin by introducing Bruce Clay, Inc. and your role there.
My name is Bruce Clay. Bruce Clay, Inc. has been doing internet marketing, predominantly search engine ranking and optimization, since January 1996. We are fairly well known in the industry. We speak at and sponsor a lot of conferences, and we’ve written several books on the subject of search engine optimization. We do SEO, PPC, social media, content design — things that are fundamental to internet marketing. My role is founder and president.
What should a company do before looking to hire a SEO partner?
Define realistic goals
From the standpoint of goals, a business needs to understand what is realistic. And realistic requires that you understand the balance between, “What am I going to accomplish either locally or by keywords, or by niche, or by persona? How much time is it going to take?” All of those have to be boiled into a goal.
I think that in the selection process, the person doing the searching has to be able to balance out their budget, their reasonable return, and how long they have before they can see that return. All of those things have to be balanced. Generally, that requires that they speak to an agency and ask questions.
Have a substantial budget
One of the problems that we find as an agency when we get an inquiry is that they almost never have a realistic expectation of budget.
When we started way back, we could get a site to rank in a week, maybe less. It was really, really simple. The search engines weren’t very exotic in their algorithms, and it was pretty straightforward — once you fixed the page, you could get some rankings.
Three years after we started, Google started. Then, things started to get really complex. There were links on-page, and now it’s expanded to be the complexity of on-page, the complexity of appropriate links, but not off-target, inorganic links, the extension of all sorts of penalties and spam filters, the inclusion now of whether you’re mobile-friendly and the performance of your site and how quickly it loads — these have made the job of SEO far more complex.
I think a lot of people are approaching SEO with no real understanding of what it takes to succeed, and therefore they will often have an unrealistic expectation of budget. We still find people contacting us that think for $500 a month they can be number one against ten million competitors. That is just not the way it works.
After self-education, start talking to agencies
I think the initial goal for the hiring party should be education, and then you get into qualification.
The initial step is an educational process. They should speak to agencies about their approach, their dedication to quality, whether they can achieve anything, how much time it’s going to take, and what it’s going to cost. Many times you can start the project where you focus, and then broaden the project from there.
The qualification process is very much like the job interview. A big part of it is communication style, frequency, how readily available they are, and whether they have a dedicated person that you can speak to most of the time. There are going to be a lot of kinds of questions that are very specific to the personality of the company doing the hiring, and they have to be a match with the company they’re hiring.
So again, there are the two parts: there’s the education piece and then there’s the qualification process. Those are the things that you have to be able to do. Disqualification is always easy. Qualification is what takes time. If an agency is not able to explain the complexities of the project to you in a way that you’d understand them, I would think the initial step is a fail.
We recommend that people speak to agencies, or at they at least go visit websites. If the website of the agency does not give you information sufficient to establish themselves as an authority, chances are they aren’t.
In your opinion, what factors are most important to consider when hiring an SEO company?
Google has distilled what they’re looking for when ranking websites into three simple ideas: Expertness. Authority. Trust.
These same three qualities can guide businesses in their search for any partner or vendor, including an SEO company.
Are they an expert? How are they themselves ranked in search?
Are they an authority? Are they acknowledged as an expert by their colleagues? Have they authored books, and do they speak and educate?
Are they trusted? How long has the company and its employees been in the industry? Do they have a clean record of never causing penalties for their clients?
Just as Google looks to expertness, authority and trust, anyone can use those three factors in the hiring process to find the top of the field.
What are some red flags to watch out for when evaluating a SEO company?
History of penalties
First, the obvious first thing to look for is a history of penalties. You may also want to see if they regularly attend conferences; if they don’t, they’re not going to be well-educated. They’re not staying up enough on industry trends and changes in the Google landscape, so I’d watch out for that.
Very new companies
If everybody in the company has one year or less experience, that’s a big red flag. I’d be concerned about how the company came to be. Is the whole company less than a year old, or has the company been around forever and is stable? One of the things that we share as a credibility statement is that this is our ninth consecutive year in the Inc. 5000. Are you financially stable? That should be an important question.
If they can’t prove success on keywords that matter
I would also ask, what is the likelihood of success? Have you had success for keywords that matter? By the way, a lot of SEO companies are able to get keyword rankings for keywords that nobody cares about, and are never searching for. So you have to make sure that they are keywords that matter. One of our best keyword success stories is the word “games”. We did SEO for Addicting Games, and they rank number one out of over two billion results. Who else is going to be doing that, and can they do it for you? If they cannot answer those kinds of questions, if they don’t have any success with any difficult keywords, they are probably not going to be able to move the needle for you very quickly.
You can go into Google and search for their company name followed by the word “reviews” and see if there are a lot of reviews about the company that are negative. If there are a lot of people criticizing the company or having bad things to say about the company — that might not be a good thing. Of course, you have to use intelligence and wisdom here, because in many cases, negative things are being said about a company by their competition, not by customers. You have to watch out for that.
Does Bruce Clay, Inc. have any specific requirements for a potential client, such as a minimum budget or project length?
Most people come to us and say, “How much to SEO my site?” without our knowing what’s wrong with it. We get a lot of that. We have to open the hood, look under there, find out what’s wrong, and determine what effort is required to move it to a high quality stature, so the pricing model almost always is hourly. You set it up as a retainer, with our giving you on average so many hours a month for a given fee. Some months it might be over, and some months it might be under and we make up the next month, but almost always our model is an hourly-based retainer system.
Our normal process is a one-year agreement, because we want long enough to get results. We can talk to anybody at a budget over $1,000, but most of our projects are $3,000-plus a month.
We do sell different kinds of services. You can have us do a basic audit of your site and not have services. Or, you can buy twenty hours of time, and that’s the only thing you’re buying — twenty hours of time so you can ask questions. We have different rates for different services. It really depends on what you need. Most of our clients are over $3,000 a month, and most of them are one- to two-year agreements. We have some projects that are significantly higher, such as $40,000 a month, but those are exceptions.
What unique value does Bruce Clay, Inc. provide compared to others?
We have the experience to identify problems and solve them faster than most companies. Many problems are more complex, so it’s difficult to prove that we can solve anything faster, but we have the expertise to rapidly diagnose and deploy. We have tools which are proprietary to us, that we’ve written, that help with rapid identification and deployment. Certainly, in my opinion, one hour of our time, at our wisdom level, is worth several hours of somebody else’s time, and theoretically that should be built into your value statement.
We are a knowledge-based, knowledge-transfer company. We always tell our clients what we’re doing and why. We educate them with our SEO training course, and then we educate them during the project, so that the client never has to sit there and guess why we’re doing what we’re doing. Knowledge transfer is critical.
This makes a particularly big difference when you are talking to a business that’s had an SEO partner before who has burned them. A lot of companies got penalized for buying links because they hired an SEO company, and that company went out and purchased links without telling them, or lied to them and said it was okay. You really need a company that is involved in making sure that the client is involved in their website. Our projects insist that it is that way. We insist that the client be educated and stay involved. We have frequent consultations, and phone calls, and e-mails. The client is part of the project, just like we are, and that is important to the success of the client.
SEO has evolved and expanded, and at Bruce Clay, Inc. we’ve grown to cover the full spectrum of internet marketing. We do content marketing, we do social media, because it’s all part of this umbrella of internet marketing. We specialize in every piece and draw upon experts in every field. When a company is bigger than just SEO, they will understand more about SEO by understanding more about internet marketing in general. For instance, we could do something in social media, and if we look at our analytics, our organic traffic could go up because the social media is an awareness tool that caused people to go to Google and do a search. All of these things play together, and you have to understand how they fit into internet marketing. You can’t just be an island.
To summarize: We teach. We mentor. We educate. We share. We don’t hide anything. We’re pure white hat. Those are our top concerns.