Few weeks ago I cam across Matthew Egan and his SEO company Image Freedom on Twitter. Image Freedom is a 6 person SEO team from San Antonio, Texas. Matt and Image Freedom definitely raise the bar as it goes for the perception of the SEO industry. With an emphasis on ROI, results-driven SEO I knew I wanted to speak with him, learn, and share it with you.
What was supposed to be 20 minutes easily turned into 40 minutes. Matt is someone definitely worth learning from. Follow him on Twitter. He talked about everything from business, hiring, fees, tools, analytics… so here’s the largely unedited interview… enjoy!
The Perceived Value of SEO
Dan: Hi Matt, you came across my radar because Tom Critchlow tweeted about you a few weeks ago and I saw Image Freedom’s site and I was very impressed by it, so I thought I’d call you up to ask you few questions!
Matt: Sure. Tom is an amazing guy. I had the pleasure of reaching out to him on some business recently, how to approach something from an SEO standpoint. The conversation that we had led to a YouMoz blog that I wrote that’s scheduled to be released but hasn’t been released yet. I would say he’s definitely 1 of the top 5 SEOs on the planet and I’m very fortunate to be able to pick his brain.
We had a conversation about some local folks who we caught buying links and it was very blatant how they were purchasing these links. They were actually able to convince some local TV station to sell exact match anchor text links on their homepage. I know that one of these guys has connections with the local TV station but at the same time the TV stations probably were not told that they’re violating Google’s webmasters guidelines and they could run the risk of having their news content downgraded. If they get flagged for that (which obviously we had to submit a report saying that they were selling links, that is what our clients needed us to do) because they are competing against black hat tactics. I reached out to Tom and I reached out to other folks. I talked to Ian Laurie and Wil Reynolds and to a couple of other people that I very much look up to and Ian said reporting paid links thru Google’s tool only works 15% of the time.
Dan: How did things resolve with that situation?
Matt: It’s still very recent. I wound up writing that YouMoz blog post about it. The post actually didn’t address the black hat topic but we wound up talking about added value in SEO. The perceived value of SEO versus the actual value that we know it has. How do you express the perceived value? And that’s why we spent a lot of money on re-branding to get our logo and website updated. The printed materials that we hand out, we now have spiral bound documents that we give for audits and so forth.
So when you get a document from anybody on our team it follows a certain brand standard and it looks important when it’s printed on bright white solid thick good nice paper. We’re following all the presentation standards so that everything that you get from Image Freedom closer resembles the value of what you paid for versus what we see from a lot of other SEO companies where you’re getting a document with a logo slapped on somewhere just so that you know where it is or not even any other kind of brand recognition whatsoever. We went that route just to make sure that what people are getting really shows that we know what we’re doing. We needed to make sure that our documents and so forth represented that.
The New Image Freedom Website / Building a Brand
Dan: One of the things that prompted me to call you was your new web design. It looks amazing.
Matt: I really appreciate that. It was definitely a team effort. We worked with the Blue Clover who we partner with when we need web design and so forth. There’s definitely some things that I’m finding that I want to change about it. But from a navigational standpoint its doing really well for us, I think the website now matches the quality of the service that we do, where before I didn’t feel like our site was up to the task.
Dan: That’s a great way that you put it. To match your website with the quality of your service. How long has that new website design been up?
Matt: I don’t think it’s been up 6 months so I want to say 4 or 5, maybe it’s been 6. I don’t know, we’ve been so frantic and there’s so much going on that I’ve lost all sense of what month it is. I don’t think I comprehended a minute of August that’s just gone. But I would say it is 5 or 6 months.
Dan: Have you noticed any impact that it’s had your business or has got you more work or more comments on your blog?
Matt: From a ranking standpoint, we were already holding the number 1 position in town for ‘San Antonio SEO’. We primarily work with local businesses. We have a few national names but for the most part our target audience is San Antonio businesses. We like the face to face approach. We like being able to sit down with folks and determine what their goals are, and San Antonio has been very good to us. When you look at the conversion rate of being number 1 it doesn’t just stop at getting to that number 1 position. Ultimately, you need a good website with effective calls to action, so that when somebody visits the website they like who you appear to be and are more likely to take action.
We definitely noticed an increase in phone calls and we’ll get those little contact forms that are on the side of the page, we get those quite a bit. There are certain types of clients that we’ll get through the leads generated on the website and they tend to be on the medium to small side and then it feels like the big, larger clients and law firms and financial institutions and things like that, those tend to come from relationships that we’ve built. But ultimately when your company is under scrutiny, you may build a relationship with somebody in the company but if the website doesn’t look good then you’re not going to pass that scrutiny when they see, “ok you’re all talk and this website’s garbage so why are we going to listen to him about what we should do with ours?”
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]When you look at the conversion rate of being number 1 it doesn’t just stop at getting to that number 1 position. Ultimately, you need a good website with effective calls to action, so that when somebody visits the website they like who you appear to be and are more likely to take action[/quote]
Writing The Copy
Dan: The website really substantiates your value. Another thing that struck me very positively was the copy. Did you write that or was it a group effort as well?
Matt: I’m all about saving money. I’m a follower of Dave Ramsey. We’ve never had any kind of credit lines and we’ve never borrowed money for the business. Unless we earn it, we don’t spend it. So I wanted to keep the copywriting expenses very approachable. I’m a decent writer. I have a journalistic background but I still went to TextBroker and I think I opted in for a 3 or 4 star writer and I just needed that person to create the foundation of the text. Once the foundation was there I probably completely rewrote the pages but getting the foundation and getting the core message and so forth in place gave me an outline to follow. I can’t say, maybe 50% of the text that’s on there is from the TextBroker copywriter. I rewrote the rest but if I hadn’t had the foundation, it wouldn’t have given me the place to grow from. I think I spent $109 on copy for the entire website.
We see other websites that write copy for hundreds to thousands of dollars. It wasn’t a good use of our budget at that time because ultimately the back and forth from a more quality copywriter would’ve taken more time to just having somebody do a basic path and then I go in and I flesh it out. We definitely kept some of the pieces there but I did it on the cheap and I’m still glad that I did. I think the quote that we had was something like $1,500 to $1,800 dollars or something like that to do the majority of those pages. Every dollar you invest when you’re in a growing company counts. So I decided to put that towards staff to make sure that we were doing the right quality of work for our clients. I knew that ultimately the website and the copy was to a major extent about me and something like if the website looked good it made me look good, it made us look good. That’s definitely good for the business but at the same time what really works for us is having clients who sing our praises and that’s worth more than any web design could ever be. It’s just happy customers who love talking about us.
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]Every dollar you invest when you’re in a growing company counts. So I decided to put that towards staff to make sure that we were doing the right work for our clients.[/quote]
Starting a Company
Dan: You have an exact date on your website that you started the business on July 28, 2009. What’s significant about that exact date?
Matt: This Sunday is September the 11th and definitely not the best day to start a business. September the 11th was the day that our LLC came back from the state of Texas. So from the perspective of when we were finalized or when we were officially a business, officially licensed and so forth then that date would be September 11. But the night that I purchased the domain name, which as a web guy, to me it’s when the website came to be. I purchased the website and I designed that original website all on that same night and so the conception, the creation, the name was born on the 28th of July. So we celebrate internally on that day. They actually sprung it on me with a cake and some balloons this year. I didn’t see that coming but we had a little birthday party for the company. I’m blessed with the best team in the industry.
Dan: Then I was reading a little bit more about your story and you were living in a room for $200, working out of a coffee shop?
Matt: Yes, by choice, I rented the smallest accommodation that I could find in order to take every dollar that we brought in and reinvest that into the business. It was very much about “if I’m working from the wi-fi of the coffee shop I’m not paying overhead for an office space”. That allowed me to reinvest every dollar and again it goes back to the Dave Ramsey concept. I’ve seen companies invest through VC money. I’ve seen companies invest through credit card debt or through personal investments or whatever.
Ultimately, if you borrow money and you spend someone else’s money and Jason Fried’s (of 37 Signals) ‘Rework’ talks about this a little bit too. If you’re spending someone else’s money, you’re taking on an extra partner. You’re taking on somebody who ultimately has this sway and has the piece of your company to tell you what to do. For me, I wasn’t comfortable sharing any kind of equity of the company and I didn’t want to be in a position where if somebody had invested in us or somebody had co-signed in a line of credit, that they were trying to push us to make as much money as we could as fast as we could.
We grew at the pace that we did from being just myself back then to now being a team of 5 and on the 26th of September, we’re actually going to bring on our 6th full-time staff member. We couldn’t have done that if we had sacrificed on the quality to run, run, run, got to be a big company. I rented that room so that every dollar wasn’t going into some fancy downtown apartment but instead was going into taking care of our clients. I knew that by taking care of our clients they would sing our praises and we’d be able to grow our business.
Dan: Makes total sense.
Matt: It was a great time. I rented a room with some really great guys and I’m a big video game fan and there are lot of nights where it was easy to find a distraction. But I was a bit of a hermit just hiding in the room and working on different websites and access and so forth for the business. I think we had like six different logos that 1st year. I mean it was pretty bad. We jumped to a lot of different color schemes and different things kind of finding our own. We settled on our final branding style and partnered with Prologue Branding and they took that design further taking it to the point where now we’ve got PMS colors and very specific brand standards set up for everything. The business cards have been printed on that fancy offset standard so we’ve got a very set solid brand.
It took a while to get here, but just comparing our July numbers to our August, we had about a 115% growth just comparing one month to another. Literally, I don’t owe that money to anybody. I don’t have to share, that doesn’t have to go out to investors or whatever. It’s all ours to reinvest in doing what we do, we’ve used some of the money to buy tickets to Distilled’s SearchLove conference in New York to learn even more about SEO. I started a business to not have a boss so I’m not going to go into business and then all of a sudden bring on a bunch of partners who invested money and then your decisions are influenced by these external forces that are not there with you everyday seeing what the clients need. I didn’t want to let dollars influence what we provide to the clients.
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]For me, I wasn’t comfortable sharing any kind of equity of the company and I didn’t want to be in a position where if somebody had invested in us or somebody, had co-signed in a line of credit, that they were trying to push us to make as much money as we could as fast as we could.[/quote]
SEO Companies: When To Hire
Dan: At what point as a business owner in the SEO industry did you decide to hire extra help? Image Freedom started just as yourself but eventually you needed extra help. How did you made that decision?
Matt: I will be completely honest, I hired too soon. Looking back we came across some really healthy early clients and we had a pretty healthy stream of income and I was capable, if not from an organizational standpoint, at least from an SEO standpoint providing every piece of the service that we provided. I invested in staff that really didn’t have a clear job description. This is a year and a half ago and those folks are no longer with us. So we slowly added new people and eventually they found other opportunities and I am eternally grateful to them for being my “starter staff”, but I had all my opportunity to make all mistakes with those folks. You know that was ultimately the issue. I needed another me and it’s really hard to find that in a city that tends to be a little slower technologically.
We were just listening too much to what some folks have been saying recently, we’re hiring for SEO consultants and the response to our job posting has been huge and it’s really difficult to go through these applications because these folks are hungry for this opportunity. There is no Tom Critchlow of San Antonio and to say that that would be me would be ridiculously overstating it because as talented as I am and as much quality work as I’m doing here in San Antonio, I still go to events that Distilled or SEOmoz puts on, places that Tom speaks or Wil Reynolds and so forth and Ian Lurie and I feel like it’s my 1st day all over again. I hate it when people call themselves an SEO expert because I might be the best SEO in town but that’s not saying much once you get into that room in Seattle or once you get to that room at SearchLove in New York and you’re listening to people like Tom who truly grasp SEO on another level.
On the staffing issue it’s difficult to find what you’re looking for when really SEO is undefined in so many places. How do you define a job description of a consultant or linkbuilder or an AE for SEO? Or how do you have somebody tell us when they don’t understand it? Ultimately, those tasks should have remained in my hands. I was looking for support. I was looking to add the right people and I hired before I really understood what those needs were and had I not I wouldn’t have made those mistakes.
Dave Ramsey calls it the “stupid tax”, and like all businesses I paid literally tens of thousands of dollars in stupid tax to learn those lessons but that said, I am still very glad that I did. We grew and the folks that have been with us now, have been with us quite a while. Ultimately, we had to go through those growing pains and pay that stupid tax in order to get where we are now.
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]There is no Tom Critchlow of San Antonio…[/quote]
SEO and Pricing
Dan: How do you calculate what to charge? Are you thinking in terms of man hours? Or the projected ROI for a specific client?
Matt: It’s two questions.
One, is how much is an hour of your time worth? And to start at that point, we bill out at a hundred dollars an hour. That’s flat rate. Now if I were to go into say a full day strategy session just by myself, the value to the client is worth more than $100 an hour because what we come up with in that session is worth quite a bit more than that. So my own time would typically be billed, if I billed separately, at $100-$200 an hour, something in that range. I know David Mihm and some of these guys who you or I would look up to, they typically charge $200-$300 an hour. I saw that on David’s website. He had his prices. But then there’s members of the staff who I get a break on from a payroll perspective so even though we’re all being paid at totally different rates, my spending time on a client makes more sense at $100 an hour because then I make up for some of that in having other members of the team working on that project as well. So my cost might be $50 an hour. In that way, that 1 hour I was working was allowing for my rate to go up. But then their rate is low, so it balances out in the end and keeps it simple for our clients and billing purposes.
Now, there are projects where (we’re working on a major financial institution right now) and it’s a ton of my time and we’re doing it at $100/hour. It almost doesn’t make sense. I mean like I’m talking about $40,000 over 90 days. It almost doesn’t makes sense to take on the client because it’s too much of my time away from everybody else. And your value from an hourly standpoint is an amount based on what that time can do for somebody else.
So to answer the secondary point of that question is how much do you charge individual clients? I cannot stand seeing companies who have a pricing structure that is $500 a month, $750 a month, $1000 a month. Where it’s broken down as If it’s that easy. Because it’s not that easy. We have packages but we don’t advertise with those prices because it’s up to us to recommend which option we feel is necessary. We have a package at $800 and we’ve got some clients at $6800 on a monthly basis and the range is based on: how large is the website? How difficult is it going to be to rank for the specific keywords? How many competitors are there? Are these competitors actually doing SEO? Remember, especially if you’re dealing with a business that hasn’t done any SEO at all, you have quite a bit of lead up time to catch up. So just catching up, meaning that whatever they’re doing, you have to do a little bit more, a little bit smarter to at least be where you could’ve been if you had done SEO sooner. Not only that, but now you have to compete with them when they’re doing SEO same as you. So if they’ve got smarter link builders, they’re going to win. You have to price that according to how many hours it’s going to take you to compete from a link building perspective from a local social media perspective, from a local reviews perspective.
It varies by client. Local clients tend to be different from national clients but price based on how difficult it would be to deliver on what we are here to do. What we’re here to do is put them in a no 1 position for enough different keywords that’s going to bring in enough business to grow their business by a factor of 10. For us, anything less than a 300% ROI we don’t even bother. It’s just not a good idea for that business owner or us. That said, we sent out a report today with an ROI of over 3,000%. Those are the documents that we like to send out for sure. SEO is a great way of turning on that ROI machine for folks.
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]Your value from an hourly standpoint is an amount based on what that time can do for somebody else.[/quote]
Calculating The ROI of SEO
Dan: Can you briefly explain how you would calculate the ROI? The purpose of this information is not only for other SEO’s but to educate the public about how this all works for SEO. So how would you calculate ROI when you’re investing with SEO?
Matt: It depends on the client because if we have no ability to track a sale, what we’ll measure is non-branded searches to the website. If the keywords are correct, let’s say that your company is Lion Properties and you know that if anyone searches for the company with the word ‘lion’, they’re looking for that company by name. But if they search for them by, say ‘rental properties’ or something like that, then that’s the keyword that must be bringing them business. So we take that branded term out and that gives us an understanding of how much non-branded search traffic we’re bringing into the website. I would say maybe it’s a little more than half are only able to measure the non-branded search traffic.
We try to work with the websites to ensure that they have a conversion tracking system. We use tracking phone numbers so that if you have a certain landing page that you land on it will track that call and you can say this phone number was accessed via a PayPerClick ad, this phone number was accessed via an organic SEO search, etc. It really depends on the client. The client that I was talking about, when they have somebody come in to their business, they have about 12 categories of ‘how did you hear about us?’ And there’s nothing crazy scientific about that. There’s bound to be a margin of error and that somebody might have found it via PayPerClick ad and they said they found it via Google.
We’ve turned off the PayPerClick ads for that specific client and what we found was that the organic optimization was returning over 3,000% in new profit. I think it was like 4,150% in ROI based on a $4,200 monthly retainer. We’re looking at $120,000+ dollars in sales where their sales were something in the $17,000 a month prior. When you look at SEO and you’re able to take $17,000 a month in business and grow that into $40,000 $60,000 and then $120,000 of business it’s hard to deny the value of search and the power of SEO.
Unfortunately, they have really heavy competitors, so we cannot build a case study around that but I would love to. They don’t want us to because they know the value of that information to these competitors if they found out what we were doing. There is that secrecy in search because if I admit that I was working on a certain project then my competitors can go look at it and see what I’m doing and blah, blah, blah. I’m not worried about that even if you looked at what I’ve done it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to know how to do it. It’s up to each individual client to decide if we’re allowed to talk about them or not. That particular case, as beautiful as it is we have to kind of keep it under raps.
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]We’ve turned off the PayPerClick ads for a specific client and we found the organic optimization was returning over 3,000% in ROI. And it was based on a $4,200 monthly retainer. We’re really looking at $120,000+ in sales where their sales were something in the $17,000 a month prior. When you look at SEO and you’re able to take $17,000 a month in business and grow that into $40,000 $60,000 and then $120,000 of business it’s hard to deny the value of search and the power of SEO.[/quote]
“Analytics is Music”
Dan: I came across one of your videos on YouTube. I’m a former professional musician and I absolutely loved your video when you said ‘analytics is music’. Can you explain a little bit what you meant about that?
Matt: Hah! That’s an old video. It actually fits in to what I’m doing right now. We’re hiring an SEO consultant to be a mini-me and to help us take on more business and allow me to focus on some of these more consulting intensive projects. If you don’t have somebody either in your in-house team or working for you on your SEO who understands the flow and the music and the randomness: analytics and the math and the numbers and all these things. They can’t be measured by, in my opinion any standard practice. SEO is not like PR. It’s not like advertising, or marketing or whatever. The value of a single visitor for a prime keyword or the value of that same visitor but they came in from a different keyword, all of these different measurable items are what makes, in my opinion, good SEO’s so hard to come by.
And when we’re hiring the biggest hurdle that I’ve had is that I haven’t been able to find people who can hear the music or see the music behind an analytics report. Where I can look at these things and after years of doing this, I’ve been monitoring analytics reports since 2000 or 2001. And when I look at these things now, I can see the bad in a good report, and I can see the good in a bad report. I can identify things that look great but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to move this particular thing in this other direction. I’d love to be able to give you specifics but it’s just so much, there are so many variables that it really comes in to that range of music, that range of motion where it’s not something that you use to wrap your head around quickly.
We’ve been talking to folks we’ve been considering hiring and they said “well I’m signed up to get a certification from this company. I’m going to go to this marketing course” or whatever. I’m like ‘cool!’ but you’ve got to learn the stuff by doing it and feel it and just be a part of it and not necessarily just do it by the numbers. It’s not something that can be explained it’s something that has to be felt. I know that it sounds abstract but I study Zen and what we learn in Zen is that the beginner’s mind and taking every day as if it’s your first day with that same enthusiasm, same curiosity. And when we’re talking about how to build links, how to reach new audiences, how to think outside the box. As soon as we decided that we know it all, as soon as we declare ourselves “I’m a guru”, we’re deciding that we’re no longer a beginner. We’re no longer curious. We’re no longer open to possibilities. We close our ears to that music. I think folks who do that, it’s a major mistake and it unfortunately shows in the works that they do. It shows in the work that SEO’s provide for their clients.
Dan: I agree a thousand percent. Just to throw my 2 cents into that it definitely reminds me of what you learn being a jazz musician. What separates the good from the great? The good they play the right notes and things like that but the great, they approach it every time like they’re beginner with that curiosity and they know how to balance their technique with the spiritual side of things and with thinking abstractly and putting all their feeling and emotion into it at the same time. Technique is their servant, not their master. That’s why I love that quote from that video. “Analytics is music.”
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]As soon as we decided that we know it all, as soon as we declare ourselves ‘I’m a guru’, we’re deciding that we’re no longer a beginner. We’re no longer curious. We’re no longer open to possibilities. We close our ears to that music.[/quote]
Dan: It’s been in my observation so far that the most SEO’s that I have met and had a chance to talk to are just very friendly, helpful, giving, very generous. I don’t picture that among a lot other professions. I don’t picture dentists hanging out like SEO’s and especially not being friendly with competitors! What do you think it is that makes SEO’s and the culture so friendly and generous?
Matt: I feel like SEOmoz and Distilled specifically have opened up this mindset that SEO is something that should be shared and not a secret that should be coveted. What you see in the community that we’re in is that if you are friendly, if you open yourself up and if you run the risk of sharing your secrets you will be rewarded in relationships and in other people’s secrets being shared with you in return. If you’re the guy up on the soap box talking about ‘hey here’s a bunch of great ways to do this’ you’ll be rewarded with folks wanting to hire you.
I could teach you everything I do on a daily basis but it doesn’t mean you have time to do it. Often times I might be teaching somebody how to do SEO but at the end of the day they’re still going to call us because once they get their head around it they say, “you know what that’s great but I’d rather have you do it for us because it sounds like you’ve been at it a lot longer why don’t we just hire you to do our SEO versus trying to do it in house?” It may be that they go in house and they try to do it and we’ve had clients that called us and said you know, we just don’t have the budget or whatever or they’ll hire a cheaper company. We’re fine with that because then they call us back a couple of months later and there they are saying hey we hired this guy we’re paying this amount and we’re just not seeing the result. And I’m like okay let’s get started but in that same space then sometimes I have to go reverse the crap that bad SEO’s did.
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]SEO is something that should be shared and not a secret that should be coveted[/quote]
Dan: One more quick question. Are there any great tools or tricks that you’ve been playing with lately?
Matt: One of the things that you don’t hear enough about in blogs and on SEOmoz and so forth is the number of C-blocks linking to a website. What that is, its the actual hosting environment. They all have specific addresses and if 50 websites are all linking to you but they are all coming from the same host, that tells Google that these websites might be related and they might be linking because they’re part of a link farm or they’re part of something unscrupulous and so we love the new addition to Open Site Explorer, because you can actually compare that this website has 10,000 links but they’re only from 10 domains. Is the link to root ratio out of whack? Is the domain to C-block ratio out of whack?
When I’m looking at a website to see if I’m worried about it, to see if I consider that competitor a threat or not, if the link to root ratio and the root to C-block ratio are not similar in numbers, if someone has 20 domains for everyone one C-block, what that says to me is those domains are hosted in the same spot, or are somehow closely related. They probably belong to the same person. Google’s algorithm is built to know that as well. They can tell where your website is hosted. They can tell who’s doing what and so forth so SEOmoz has done a great job of adding the C-block functionality to the comparison tool on Open Site Explorer. You can now compare I think 5 different websites and I mean what used to take me running a whole report in our campaign manager I now can do in 10 minutes and sit down with somebody and say look here is where you are and here’s where your competitors are and here’s what we need to do to make a change. Tools that exists that helped me help our clients rank better, it’s nearly impossible to put a price tag on that. That’s why we do pay $200 a month to SEOmoz (we’re a pro plus client) but without that tool we probably wouldn’t have a third of the clients that we do.
[quote cite="Matt Egan"]When I’m looking at a website to see if I consider that competitor or not, if the link to root ratio and the root to C-block ratio are not similar in numbers, if someone has 20 domains for everyone one C-block, what that says to me is those domains are hosted in the same spot, or are somehow closely related. They probably belong to the same person.[/quote]
Where to Find Matt
Dan: This has been great, I really appreciate it. Lastly are you speaking anywhere or are there any things that people can catch you at in the coming months?
Matt: We’re involved in the SXSW panel picker right now and it’s just recently closed or something like that but we’re shooting for a talk at SXSW Interactive up in Austin that talks about the combination of social media and SEO. Social media is a fantastic way of leveraging link building opportunities and building relationships and so forth and so I’ve had the opportunity and an invite from some of the best social media minds that I know and we’re trying to put on that talk. That’s what I’ve got coming up and we’ve got local things that we’ll jump into. Networking events and we’ll get little talks here and there but on the big frontier SXSWi is my next keynote.