Clutch spoke with Ian Stevenson, vice president of sales at Straight North, as part of a series of interviews on how to hire an SEO company.
Please begin by introducing your company and your role there.
Straight North is an internet marketing agency that specializes in helping growth-oriented organizations generate revenue directly through e-commerce sales or indirectly through lead generation. We do that by reaching those individuals who are out on the internet raising their hand and self-identifying through the keywords that they search on, that they have a need for what our clients sell. We channel that demand to our client and in turn get those folks to convert into a lead or a sale.
I am Ian Stevenson, vice president of sales. My role is to explore new business relationships and how we can add value and generate growth for potential clients, as well as how we can add even more value to the clients that we already serve.
What goals should a business define before looking to hire a SEO partner?
One of the goals that is important to define would be to understand what success looks like. What does success look like in six months, and then in twelve months? We encourage businesses to try to quantify things like traffic, leads, and sales gained. For example, from engaging an SEO firm, I will have an increase of X in terms of revenue, or I will have another 250 leads for my sales team in that timeframe. It’s critical to quantify these expectations before making an investment in SEO.
Another metric or goal that we try to gather from our prospects is an understanding of what a dollar of revenue or what a cost-per-lead should look like. What does a lead need to cost to make economic sense? What does a dollar revenue need to cost to make economic sense? These are really good goals to be cemented or understood before engaging with an SEO firm.
In your opinion, which factors should be the weighted most heavily when hiring a SEO company?
In my opinion, focus, proven performance and the price/value ratio are the most important things to consider.
The focus of, ‘can you check the boxes off that you understand best practice of SEO,’ is definitely important. Somebody that doesn’t have a solid footing around best practices should probably be disqualified without question.
In terms of proven performance, does this company walk the walk? Do they have a plethora of clients that would be willing to talk to you about them? Do they have great reviews online? Can you show me case studies that quantify performance? Without question, that definitely weeds out the amateurs from the pros.
Then, the price/value ratio is absolutely going to be a part of the decision for any buyer of these services. They need to weigh what they are going to receive and what that’s going to cost. In the SEO world, people can sell their service as packages, as a flat hourly rate, or as a flat retainer. I’ve seen it sliced and diced every way under the sun on how companies price these services, but at the end of the day, no matter what the price is, the value needs to be there. That’s a critical component.
The one thing I would add is overall fit, in terms of the company’s culture and communication style, but most importantly, in terms of the types of businesses that they work with.
Do you really want to be the smallest fish in the ocean? Let’s say most of their clients invest $20,000 a month and up, and you’re investing $3,000. They took you on as a customer, and it feels good to be in that boat because of the caliber of clients they serve, but you’re going to get their junior level people working on your account. Is that really what you want? I would argue that’s probably not a good fit.
There are agencies out there that all have a place in the ecosystem, and matching up well with one will lead to a successful long-term relationship.
What are some of the warning signs or red flags to watch out for when they’re talking to some of these companies?
There are many red flags to watch out for when evaluating an SEO company.
The first one, which should be no surprise, is that any SEO firm that uses the word ‘guarantee’ or ‘promise’, you need to hang up on and run away from them as fast as possible. Guarantees and promises are not true and are very misleading. Unfortunately, people still sometimes buy that way. It gets some people to buy because they feel good and they are hearing what they want to hear.
The reality of the situation is that Google’s algorithm is being updated literally every day and the rules are changing. The competition isn’t sitting back saying, “Take my top spot. I had that position, I reached the top of the mountain and it wasn’t that great.” That’s not reality. Everybody’s working every day to stay at the top or to get to the top, and Google, by the way, is changing the rules. So to use the terms ‘guarantees’ and ‘promises’ is not a good thing; it’s a huge red flag, and you should stay away.
Price packages and low-cost services
A second red flag to look out for would be companies that pre-package SEO services, where they have a gold, silver and bronze package. It seems easy to buy that way, but the reality of it is, are any of those packages going to be exactly what you need? No chance. Packages are not custom-fit to your exact needs. Buying SEO services isn’t buying a commodity. This is buying a team of experts to help you advance your company online and grow your business. More attention is needed to determine your exact needs.
I would also stay away from companies that offer up quotes or proposals without doing any analysis on your behalf as a potential buyer of these services. Legitimate SEO companies ask a lot of questions. They gather inputs and do some initial analysis, and then they come back to you and share their findings. They really get into the nuts and bolts about what you need, and make a strategic recommendation of the time required to be successful and the investment they need to be able to deliver on what you actually want.
Companies that are just going to throw proposals over two hours after somebody gives them a budget, we both know that’s not strategic. That’s not what you need. A lot of people out there sell it that way, and there are people who buy it that way. That’s a big red flag to look out for.
Companies that are selling SEO for $300 a month is sort of a joke in our industry for any professional SEO organization, but they are a dime a dozen out there. I mean, what can you get for $300? To put that into context, to get a really good article written and published on a really good, reputable publication costs more than $500. And that’s just one SEO tactic, that’s not SEO by itself. We have to do lots of these activities for clients. So, we’ve gotten one great article created and published for a customer, and we’re already gone over budget. How is $300 a month going to get you anything? It’s really not. If it’s too good to be true, it definitely is.
Another point to look out for is under-staffed organizations. If a firm has six people, and each person is a salesman and also manages clients and does the work, and then you find out they’ve got 125 clients, that should start your head-scratching. How much time is really being spent on my account, if that’s the math that’s presented to me? That’s not going to be a good fit.
That goes back to that fit. If you’re a one-man consultant and you’re going to hire a two-man band SEO firm, that might be a good fit; budget-wise and personality-wise you’re going to get that high-touch value out of that small firm, assuming they have very few accounts that they’re managing. For the Coca-Colas of the world, they’re going to want to work with a giant digital agency that has thousands of employees and knows how to serve gigantic clients. Staff size is something to look for when evaluating an SEO firm. What’s the ratio of employees to clients? What is each person’s role? Are they doing too much, are they a jack-of-all-trades? That might be a warning sign.
Visibility in search
Are they good at what they do? Can you find them when you’re searching online for SEO services? If they are hard to find, that should tell you something. If they can’t do it for themselves, how are they going to do it for you? I think that’s a pretty fair question to ask, and something that should throw some warning signs as a buyer.
My last point would be positive reviews. Does the company have rip-off reports all over the place? Or is there a general consensus of, “This company is good to work with. They do what they say they’re going to do, and they provide great performance, great value. They’re easy to work with, they’re smart people.” It’s important to see a consistent display of positive performance reviews across various sites. I think this is something that seems kind of obvious, but a lot of people don’t do their homework. They should dig deeper into the company’s brand and identity online to see what they can dig up because sometimes what they find is not very pretty.
Does Straight North have any specific requirements for a potential client, such as a minimum budget or project length?
Yes. We have an initial term contract of six months, which goes month-to-month after that. Then, we have an incentive that we’ll over-deliver to a client if they opt in to an initial twelve-month contract, which also goes month-to-month after that initial twelve months.
The reason we have a standard six-month runway period is that SEO takes time. It is not immediate cause and effect where you hire Straight North today and at the end of the month you’re seeing great results. It doesn’t work that way.
We’re planting seeds, and those seeds will grow up and bear fruit in due time, but it does take time. We know from experience - we’ve been doing this for a very long time - that if the client gives us six months to work to together, and we put forth the recommendation of a budget of X, and they agree to X or somewhere close to X so that we feel good that the budget is going to meet the client’s expectations, we know that within six months we’re going to be able to have demonstrated considerable quantifiable value to that customer. It’s increases in traffic, it’s increases in sales, it’s increases in leads that we’ll be able to definitively quantify and showcase to that customer.
If a client wants to opt in for twelve months, that’s better for Straight North because we know that after twelve months there’s no doubt we’ll be able to demonstrate value. We incentivize them by basically over-delivering the service by about 20% for opting into that longer-term contract.
In terms of minimum budgets, we do have clients that we service for as little as $1,000 a month. Those are almost always hyper-local businesses.
Think of an HVAC company in a not so densely populated area. They might be in a suburb 40 miles outside of Chicago. Their service area might be a 20-mile radius around that suburb. We can get away with doing SEO for as little as $1,000 a month, and add a lot of value to that customer. When we look at national companies, regional businesses, or ecommerce businesses, $1,000 is never going to be enough to be able to add real value to that customer.
We have clients that invest north of $30,000 a month on search engine optimization. They’re in hyper-competitive marketplaces and the results speak for themselves. These are companies that started much more modestly, but over time we’ve demonstrated the value and they’ve continued to reinvest, and reinvest, and reinvest. Now they’re investing $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 a month in SEO, and they need to. These are companies that are in really competitive marketplaces, tons of demand online, lots of competition, and the competitors are fierce. They are big brands, they’re investing a lot of money on their digital programs, and that’s just the cost to compete.
On average, our clients spend around $5,000 a month -- that’s our sweet spot, the median number.
What unique value does Straight North provide compared to others?
We take a lot of pride in the performance that we deliver. Everybody’s going to talk about performance, and everybody who’s been in the business long enough has some case studies to say, ‘We’re reputable, we can provide these results.’
We’ve invested in our own technology. A couple of years ago, we were frustrated with the current ideas around delivering reports to clients, especially lead-generation clients, because most of our clients are lead-gen, they are not ecommerce-based companies. They’re looking for inbound phone call and email form leads for their salespeople to react to.
We were unsatisfied with the status-quo at the time, which was reporting to customers on how many ‘leads’ were being generated from the SEO investment. We knew that when we tracked calls and we tracked form submissions that some portion of those inquiries were junk. They were spam. They were misdials, they were hang-ups, they were solicitation calls, or people looking for jobs, or current customers following up. We knew there was some portion - and we didn’t know how small or large - but we knew some of that data was false. At that time, every internet marketing company was doing the same thing, and some weren’t even tracking calls, which is crazy, but they weren’t.
We wanted to change, we wanted to evolve and pioneer better transparency into lead generation. What we’ve built - what we call the Go North Leads Dashboard - is an online portal that our clients log into anytime and can view a lot of really interesting data, the least of which is the validation of actual bona fide leads from their investments.
We do that through recording conversations. If somebody goes to Google, they type a keyword phrase and hit enter, they find our customer because of our SEO efforts, they click through to that website, and instantaneously, unbeknownst to that visitor, wherever the phone number appears on our client’s website, it’s dynamically swapped out to a tracked phone number. Before that call connected, it stated that this may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. Then, the conversation takes place between our customer and this caller and it’s recorded. When it ends, that mp3 file gets uploaded into our Go North Leads Dashboard.
The salesperson can go back and reference that conversation, if they missed the phone number or some important piece of information in that conversation they wanted to reference, they can do that. But the reason we built this technology is it allows our team of Lead Validators to go into the system and listen to that recording long enough to understand whether it was truly a lead or not.
So, we’re not only generating, but validating leads to our customers in near real-time.
We do the same thing with emails. We get carbon-copied on the form submissions. Then, we have human beings here that read these emails to validate whether this is a legitimate business opportunity or it’s something else.
What we deliver, that to my knowledge nobody else in our industry is doing yet, is in near real-time validated leads. Our clients are never in this ‘la la land’ of false reality that their cost-per-lead is $25 dollars in SEO. Maybe it is, but more times than not when we take that customer over, we show them a different reality, and it’s going to be higher. It’s actually $45, because it takes into account misdials, and hang-ups, and solicitation calls, and people looking for jobs – You used to call those leads.
Now they’re on the same page. Now they understand what reality looks like, and that’s really helpful. Big business decisions are made on this data, and before, the data was wrong. What we see is nearly 50% - we have over two years of this data - of all inquiries that we generate through the phone and the form for our lead generation clients, are not leads. That’s a big deal, and we wanted to change that, and we have changed it.
To my knowledge, none of our competitors are doing that. It’s really sticky, our clients love it, and there are a lot of ancillary benefits to our Go North Dashboard in understanding what reality really looks like and what your true cost per lead is. That’s a big differentiator that separates Straight North from the pack.