SMX East 2014 Speaker Series: What a Winning SEO Agency Looks Like According to Rhea Drysdale

When Rhea Drysdale, the CEO and co-founder of Outspoken Media, takes the SMX East stage on Oct. 2, I have a feeling it’s going to be a packed house. The award-winning New Yorker has a keen understanding of SEO, online reputation management and social media — all of which she’s going to share in “Long-Term SEO: How to Win for Years, Not Days,” alongside Internet marketing VIPs from Trulia, Intel and Ogilvy & Mather.

rhea-drysdale-headshotToday, the SMX East 2014 Speaker Series continues as Drysdale shares her insights on building an SEO team and agency that thrives, staying ahead of the ever-shifting SEO target, what the wins and risks of SEO look like and much more. DISCLAIMER: FURTHER READING MIGHT RESULT IN INCREASED MOTIVATION. CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK.

BCI: Your baby turns one, your business turns six and you recently won top 40 under 40. You are a mom-preneur and SEO aficionado, and you have caught a wave or two in your life. What are some lessons you have learned?

RD: Starting a business and growing one are two very different beasts. Some entrepreneurs live for ideas and don’t stick around for growth. Others like the challenge of having to build complex systems and procedures to scale.

Since founding Outspoken Media, I’ve learned that I’m a strategist — I live to solve problems, but I don’t possess much patience for details. Owning and operating an agency gives me the best of both worlds because I get to problem solve SEO and reputation management solutions daily without having to personally manage a sometimes tedious in-house implementation process. I’m happy to build a process, but once it’s built, don’t ask me to live in it, I’m onto the next challenge.

Thankfully, we have a team of incredible marketers at Outspoken Media who do much better with process and they leave me to the mad scientist work.

SEO is also an industry that changes often enough that I’m constantly pushing the limits of my capabilities. I thrive in an environment where I’m forced to innovate daily, communicate constantly, and build creative solutions to challenging business problems. Accepting these truths and learning to work productively in them has been key to surviving a lonely CEO road.

I’ve also learned we do so much more than SEO. This was difficult to grasp after spending years performing tactical SEO services. I recently hired one of my mentors, Al Bellenchia, who joined the team with decades of reputation and crisis communications experience. While sitting in on client presentations he was floored by the value, strategy, and management we give to our clients. We weren’t just providing SEO services, we were strategically improving their business by shaping brands and growth strategies.

I’m proud that we’ve unlocked a new area in SEO that only a few other agencies and consultants have achieved — trusted business advisers. Now we have to communicate that message — fortunately, we’re marketers!

rheaOn the subject of babies… there is nothing to compare the experience to. Nothing. I wrote one post (what to put on your baby registry) if any readers are expecting. Maybe I’ll post again. Maybe.

On the subject of waves… to be fair, I’ve literally only caught two waves. For years my world was entrenched in the northeast Florida surf community though and I was the chairman of our local Surfrider Foundation chapter, an international non-profit whose mission is to protect and enjoy our oceans.

What is your secret to success as a woman business owner in a male-dominated industry?

Getting pissed off.

I’m Scots-Irish and a redhead, so I was born angry. I let that fuel a lot of my decisions and persistence. I’ve had a lot of really horrible situations as a woman, but if I was a man those might have happened anyways. Whatever the reason, when I feel like something is unfair, unjust, or just immoral, I push hard to make something better. I push to be louder than the noise. Louder than the sexist remarks. Louder than bigotry. Louder than someone’s preconceived notions or bias.

It helps that I was raised not to take crap from anyone. My brother was ten years older than me and I quickly learned how to get the better of him in a fight. My father put me in karate class with adults. He also taught me how to do dishes by the time I was three and said I’d always have a job if I knew how to scrub a pot. It didn’t matter that I was a woman or that my grandmother put me in etiquette classes or that I only wore pink for a year — I was always the kind of kid who walked up to a group, sat down, and took charge.

I didn’t see gender as a hurdle until I was old enough to recognize or be affected by sexism in the workplace (or sexual advances), and I used that anger to fuel me further. I didn’t pursue legal actions, I just accepted that the world has a lot of jerks and I’m not going to be one of them. I surround myself with incredible people I trust and we get to work.

Thoughts on building today’s SEO team … what does it look like?

Teams in general require a special balance of attributes and skills wrapped in a culture burrito, so put anything I say into that context. The future of SEO demands that we evolve as marketers — that we better understand users, their experience, their technology, their needs, how they communicate, their expectations, their behaviors, etc. All of this looks like a combination of well-rounded marketers and specialists.

At Outspoken Media specifically, our needs change with the industry, our vision, and the demands of our clients. Today, we’re actively seeking individuals to fill many different roles. Interested? Contact us. :)

What does the right culture look like for today’s SEO team?

I can speak to an agency model — fast-paced, drama-free, flexible, work/life balance, education-centered, creative, and accountable to each other.

What advice do you give entrepreneurs and startups about SEO and building a site from the ground up?

SEO is just one channel in a more robust marketing strategy that has to support your brand and business objectives. If you aren’t clear on your brand and haven’t defined business goals, you’re not going to be able to structure a great content strategy that can support earned links and content that fits the need states of your target audience.

Many businesses lack clarity around their brand, value proposition, point of differentiation, values, and other core areas that any great business needs a stronger handle on to succeed. When these aren’t well-defined, marketers (which SEOs are!) are expected to operate blind and guess.

I don’t like to guess. I want data. I want to know who you are, which will fuel creativity and alignment for enterprise-wide campaigns and processes that are needed for successful marketing and reputation management strategies.

How do you keep yourself ahead of the SEO moving target?

I’ve seen enough to know that a reactionary approach is rarely a recipe for long-term SEO success. I’m not in this industry to ride ripples, I will wait for the right waves and enjoy them, feeling relatively calm and prepared.

We’ve seen this with our clients at Outspoken Media. Those who establish long-term relationships with us don’t get hit by updates. Not to say that they will never experience a negative drop, but they aren’t receiving manual actions or massive algorithmic changes to their positioning. We do still take on industry innovators, who accept great risk for a high reward, but they’re strategic and thoughtful in their approach and we only work together if we feel it’s something we can reasonably put our name to. They know they have a business to run and jobs that depend on measured, incremental success, not risky behavior.

Staying ahead is relatively simple — diversify your marketing strategy, stay informed (find a few sources you trust and can bounce ideas off of), set up your own barometers, and pay attention to trends.

How often should a business evaluate SEO and what’s the best way to go about it?

Businesses should always be evaluating SEO, just like any other major marketing channel. This doesn’t mean that it’s a daily task for some businesses, but certainly it needs to be a monthly consideration with good data to help you make informed decisions.

What exactly does it look like, in your opinion, to “win” at SEO?

Minimal/calculated risk to no risk (based on business needs) and steady growth in metrics that matter. Investment in quality assurance/monitoring and accountability to leadership. The latter requires enterprise-wide education. An SEO shouldn’t be left alone on an island with what is often one of the most important revenue drivers for a business. It is essential that leadership, boards and managers understand what you are doing, so that they can grasp the big picture and strategize long-term.

Can you share some obvious mistakes that brands make when it comes to SEO that are the easiest to fix?

  • SEO is positioned under the wrong department or put on an island.
  • Poorly defined metrics and KPIs.
  • No internal education.
  • No communication across an organization.
  • No understanding of brand.
  • No understanding of audience.
  • No feedback loop/monitoring/quality assurance.

These might not be quick, tactical SEO tips, but they are among the most important problems brands face when it comes to SEO.

What are some of the biggest risks in SEO today?

Everything mentioned in the last question:

  • Cutting corners.
  • Cheap content.
  • Duplicate content.
  • Being overly reactive.
  • Investing in a strategy without really understanding it (I know Kate Morris, our Director of Client Strategy, sees this often with international SEO strategies).
  • Doing something because someone heard from that one guy at a thing to create a unique page for every country, state, region, ZIP code, city, and city-block.

What are some of the pitfalls that are practically impossible and most damaging to recover from when it comes to SEO?

Years of cutting corners with poor content and aggressive link development, paired with poor customer service (lack of proactive or reactive reputation management), and no broader marketing strategy or investment in other channels.

The lack of diversity in marketing, poor business reputation, and high-risk SEO often produces a combination of problems that a business can’t come back from. I’ve seen established companies work with multiple agencies and consultants for years and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars simply to conclude that they need to start over with their entire business and/or brand. It’s heartbreaking to witness.

At Outspoken Media, we find our recommendations often speak to much larger inefficiencies within a company and it’s our job to delicately uncover those and provide our clients with the resources, education, and data they need to change course.

How much should SEO pros know about social media and how much should social media know about SEO?

SEO and social media are both just individual channels in a much broader marketing bucket. SEOs, like any digital marketer, should be well-versed in both areas as well as other critical areas of marketing.

Just because I don’t technically know how to structure and run a PPC account, doesn’t mean I don’t understand industry best practices, how to structure a content strategy that can be effective for both SEO and PPC needs, and rely on the information we can share.

Social media is the same. We’re able to tap into some great information through social media, but this doesn’t mean the audience is the same as on-site. We should understand all channels, how they work together, and the data that’s available to us. We should be aware of trends and how users are receiving/sharing information. If we can’t intelligently speak to this, I don’t believe we’ve done our job well.

I will add a caveat to this that you will always need very technical SEOs who can implement broader digital marketing strategies. This doesn’t mean they have to be the person who defines the strategy, but communication should still be happening, so that they’re aware of the reasoning behind certain decisions.

The Lightning Round

Who are the top five people to follow on Twitter?

That’s a super broad question — there are so many reasons to follow someone. Let’s go with people who inspire me or folks I feel positively competitive with:

What’s your favorite blog?

I have difficulty sticking to a single blog — just like books, ideas, and people. I’m very utilitarian — I’m reading something for a very specific purpose and I have no use for it after that point. I now realize this is because I’m an ENTP personality type according the MBTI.

I’ve been on a big self-discovery kick the past few days. The research led me to a blog that’s now inactive, but for 16 glorious posts, it perfectly encapsulated what it’s like to live inside of my brain: Scary stuff, but everything single one of those is spot on.

This blog won’t give a lot of great industry insight to your readers, but the point is to be aware of what makes you tick and how you work best. Don’t fight your natural tendencies, learn to embrace and work with them.

Oh wait, there’s Greg Hoy’s blog over here that I’ve really been enjoying: :)

What’s the last book you read?

“Champion: A Legend Novel” by Marie Lu. I like dystopian young adult literature. I mainly read YA and business books. It’s an interesting mix.

If I spend a lot of time thinking about why, it’s because YA seems to really embrace bada** heroines. Not like Bella in “Twilight.” That’s just a shame.

One of my favorite quotes is, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” So many girls don’t see strong women in their everyday life. When I was a kid She-Ra was my everything. She wasn’t a supporting character and her hair was 10 times better than He-Man’s bob.

I like continually reading literature where women save the world. It’s a small goal I have before I die — I want to leave a positive dent in the universe at the very least (a la Steve Jobs). That’s a lofty goal, but we all need dreams and I’d rather dream big.

What’s your goal for 2015?

Continued, responsible company growth; team development; best-of-industry benefits; and launch of our new reputation management offering.

Get more insights straight out of SMX East 2014 — check out interviews with Jason White, director of SEO at DragonSearch, and Jim Yu, CEO and founder of BrightEdge. Next week, the SMX East 2014 Speaker Series continues with Joanna Lord, VP of Consumer Marketing at The SMX East 2014 Speaker Series continues all this month. Follow Bruce Clay, Inc. and Kristi Kellogg on Twitter and be the first to know when the next interview is up.

Kristi Kellogg is a journalist, news hound, professional copywriter, and social (media) butterfly. Currently, she is a senior SEO content writer for Conde Nast. Her articles appear in newspapers, magazines, across the Internet and in books such as "Content Marketing Strategies for Professionals" and "The Media Relations Guidebook." Formerly, she was the social media editor at Bruce Clay Inc.

See Kristi's author page for links to connect on social media.

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3 Replies to “SMX East 2014 Speaker Series: What a Winning SEO Agency Looks Like According to Rhea Drysdale”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement: “The future of SEO demands that we evolve as marketers ”

If we all do good marketing and leverage that for SEO then we won’t need to chase after the latest algo update.

As a SEO Consultant and Agency owner in London, this article is a very helpful one. Thanks for sharing.

You are right about SEO being a long term strategy of a total marketing plan. The old days of building thousands of links and buying high pagerank anchor text links are long gone. Some people are still using these methods, sometimes with short term success but they won’t work in the long haul.


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