Jason Berkowitz, Digital Marketer, and CEO of Break The Web (New York), explains the trap of old-school search engine optimization, the difficulty in capturing and analyzing SEO ROI, and the continuing evolution of SEO and its follow-on, conversion rate optimization (which measures post-search user engagement.)
Rob: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership podcast. I’m your host Rob Kischuk and I’m excited to be joined today by Jason Berkowitz, CEO of Break The Web. Welcome Jason.
Jason: Hi. Thank you, Rob. Thanks for having me.
Rob: Yeah, great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Break The Web and what the agency is great at?
Jason: So, our company, Break The Web, is primarily good at SEO; that’s my personal expertise, Search Engine Optimization. We actually have another label called SEO Services New York which ranks very well organically on Google. But Break The Web is a full service marketing agency. We do a lot of paid advertising, like Adwords and PPC, our social media marketing, whether on Facebook or Instagram, we do some PR and also some conversion rate optimization; that’s really some of the big dives that we have taken towards end of 2017 and as we’re starting 2018.
Rob: That makes sense and what led you to start Break The Web.
Jason: To be honest with you, I was looking for a way out; back—back when, probably around 10 years ago, I was in the grind as a personal trainer and the hustle was a little bit too much. I was looking for new ways to market online and get my business out there. I needed a good influx of leads or clients coming to me because people in the gym—I was working a commercial gym and it wasn’t the easiest way to get clients.
I started researching online how to get new clients and then, what began as a promotion for my PT business ended up turning into a passion for SEO. And I kind of grew from there. As a freelancer. I launched an SEO website, seoservicesnewyork.org, and it just started killing it in the Google search results. It started appearing for all different New York SEO terms and since then I have been able to go from a one-man operation to the pretty formidable team that we have now.
Rob: That’s fantastic. And it’s not just New York anymore either; is it?
Jason: We’re primarily based out of New York; we’re more a virtual agency. Most of our team is here in New York, but we service all areas. We actually have a lot of international clients as well; UK, Canada, and Australia. But primarily, we hit a lot of local and national businesses in the US.
Rob: That’s great. And I think it would be really easy for someone casually to look at your domain and your business; SEO Services New York, that you started and say, “Oh, of course, it was really easy to get that to rank.” But I suspect that’s not actually true and I suspect there are a lot of other people with similar domains who are not ranking the way you rank. So, tell me a little bit about what you did to kill it in the rankings there and maybe what some other people were missing that our audience can think about.
Jason: Yeah, it’s weird because at the time where I launched that website, seoservicesnewyork.org, Google was beginning to introduce a lot of different algorithmic changes that really caused a lot of disruption in our industry.
So, yes, I had the advantage of ranking for SEO Services New York as a primary term; that doesn’t help me so much with some of the more broad terms like SEO Company or even just simply New York SEO. But we were able to rank that primarily just by a lot of hard work. It took us probably about 6 months of daily grind just to get the website out there. Otherwise, it was just sending up a lot of authority and trust signals that Google likes.
And at the time a lot of the other websites, some big, big, top-notch agencies, which are world renowned, were my main competition. Now, there’s dozens upon dozens of “New York SEO agencies,” But, at the time I was going up against the big, big players. The problem was they were doing really old school SEO. I would say this was around 2009-2010. They were doing 2007 style SEO, where it used to be so easy back in the day just by spamming—spamming like crazy—just automated backlink creators, etc.
But, I think what we did was we focused on quality. We did a lot of outreach. I personally did a lot of outreach and networked with relevant people in my industry, just in hopes of publishing a post on their website, so I can get a link back. That was something that was a big advantage for us and that helped us get ranked originally.
Rob: What are some of the other things people may have heard that have sort of become at this point very, very dated information in SEO; things they would be tempted to implement and would just turn out to be wrong if they tried to do them today. You mentioned that keyword stacking and that sort of thing.
Jason: Yeah. Obviously, we have on-page SEO and off-page SEO; on-page, everything taking place within the website and off-page, anything taking place outside the website.
I think there is a lot of misinformation in both regards. On-page SEO could pretty much be about just overstuffing those keywords, like you just mentioned; trying to get the keyword as many times as possible, as opposed to providing a good, natural experience for the search user.
I’m more focused on creating WOW words; more focused on creating good topic relevancy for a specific page, as opposed to just trying to stuff keywords in there as much as possible. Stuffing and over-optimizing the meta-information and titles, and super long titles—that’s a bit old school. And even from an off-page SEO standpoint, even old-school things like Web 2.0, which are like free websites like Weebly or WordPress.com. That was something that’s very big and used to work very well; block comments, link Wheels, all these different methods don’t really work as well as they used to. Social bookmarks; that was what I was thinking of; that was a big one. Yeah, and a lot of semi-article type social bookmarks, you know.
Rob: Right. And then how do you handle it now? I’m sure every once in a while, you probably have enough metrics to coach a client when they bring you a very old tactic, but I’m sure from time to time, there are also new spikes of tactics that maybe work for a moment. How do you talk to clients when they kind of want you to execute on a fad and you know that they’re going to do a lot better sticking to quality and playing the long game?
Jason: Well, our favorite clients are ones that come in without any education at all in regards to SEO. The thing is, there’s a lot of free information about SEO out there and it’s a lot of misinformation too; where people can be reading old school tactics or just tactics that don’t have data to back it up. That’s when we inform our clients in regard to the data they need to look at what they need to do. We pretty much try to myth bust, that’s what I call it, kind of disprove why their logic isn’t working and why what we’re doing is going to work. And if they want to go really into it, I’m a collector of Google Patents, so I don’t read them very much; I can’t handle that, but I know people that have and if they want to say that, “No, that’s not how it works” I’ll just say, “Well, according to the Google Patent that they issued in 2014, that’s the way it is.” So, that’s the thing. Really you want to get technical.
Usually, the understanding is,-you know-you’re reaching out to us because we’re the experts. A lot of our clients are referrals but also a lot of us found us just by searching the New York SEO company. And that’s the biggest testament of what works and what doesn’t, right there. So, you come to us looking for a solution: We’re the experts, we would hope that you would come to us and take our advice as the authority.
Rob: And I think a challenge with any marketing channel can typically be expectation setting. It seems to me that SEO maybe one of the more challenging channels to set those expectations on. How do you handle that process? Because someone comes to you wanting results and they’ll get them, but the magnitude and timeline; how do you approach that?
Jason: There’s just so many different variables that come into the expectations of when they can see results. What we tell our clients is that they’ll see some great positive movements within three months. Things do take time, but as the exact time frame of when they’re going to hit their desired results, there’s just too many different variables. You know, there’s the level of competition, there’s the way Google is currently treating their website, there’s so many things.
What we usually say is once we begin the campaign and we see how the website reacts over the course of a few months, we’ll be able to better gauge how long it might take to hit top five for example. But, another thing a lot of people tend to forget are two primary things; one that their competition is also doing SEO. It’s almost guaranteed and they think that they’re the only ones who’s about to employ an SEO campaign, that is should be a breeze once they begin. That definitely doesn’t happen. As well as the closer you are to page 1, the harder it is to break page 1. It’s a lot easier to get from page 7 to Page 3 than it is to get from page 2 to page 1. It’s a whole different playing field.
Rob: Where do you recommend that clients and agencies look as their source of truth for their SEO results? Is it within search console? Is it a vendor? What are your thoughts on that?
Jason: I would say traffic. It’s really hard because we use a lot of third party rank tracking softwares, and they’re never going to be 100 percent accurate. And as long as the client understands that they’re not going to be accurate, but they’ll give a basic guideline of where they’re ranking, that’s great.
Google search console, my personal experience, has been that it’s been really inaccurate; even with both national and local terms. That’s my opinion. It could be different than what others agree with, but it’s really hard. Our KPI’s that we set at our agency are traffic increases from organic search. We have our targeted search terms that we’re going after, but making sure that they’re receiving traffic. At times, we might set up different Google Analytic goals and events for different things coming in from organic search and that allows them to see pretty much the difference and what they’re getting with better rankings. And if they’re improving their traffic overall from organic search and all the keywords and LSI’s—summerush.com is a really good website for seeing where your ranking. And if they see that’s increasing overall, then they know that we’re on the right track.
Rob: And you said LSI. Remind me.
Jason: LSI means Latent Semantic Indexing. It’s kind of like synonyms or variations of certain words; kind of like Google knows that Manhattan is the same as New York City—in their eyes.
Rob: That makes sense.
Jason: Yes. So, that’s what it means—Latent Semantic indexing.
Rob: I think that’s a really neat approach to measurement: understanding that everybody knows you want more traffic; you want traffic to come to your site for the reasons that are very related to the product and brand. And it’s indisputable. I think that’s pretty cool.
Jason: Yeah. The goals that we set in events tracking is something that I don’t really see many SEO agencies doing. It’s just something that you can do to differentiate yourself. You know, it’s hard to really show an ROI with SEO; especially because we can’t see which key words are bringing in which visitors. So, it’s another deliverable to the client that we can give them to show that they’re getting much value out of our SEO Campaign.
Rob: So, you’re setting up goals in Google Analytics; is that it?
Jason: Yeah, with Google Tag Manager—just seeing how people interact with their site. At times, we may even put on heat maps on the client’s website just to see how people are interacting with their site and then, that just dives into conversion rate optimization, which again has a slight kick back into SEO. You know, the user experience: Is somebody going on your website and then immediately going back to the search results? Or are they going on your website, scrolling up and down, clicking on some inner links? It’s all about the engagement.
Rob: Makes sense; time on site. Yep. What are a couple of things you’ve learned from your experience building SEO Services New York and then Break The Web that you would do a little bit differently next time around?
Jason: I think it’s managing expectations of clients; that’s a really big one. Clients that aren’t properly managed in terms of what they think they’re going to get is going to lead to trouble in the future, angry e-mails and micromanagement. You know, one thing that I wish I did—well I don’t say I wish I did differently because, at the time, when I was a freelancer, I just wanted to have clients. You know, I didn’t care if they wanted to micromanage me; I would just ignore them. But I just wanted clients, I wanted to practice SEO. I just wanted to gain data.
So, that and also definitely or probably once things really start kicking up, is bringing up my first employee a lot sooner. You know, I was managing everything; whether it was the entire SEO campaign, whether it was a sales, managing the client relationship—answering emails could take hours upon end just answering questions for certain clients.
Rob: Who was that first employee; what role?
Jason: Account manager. So, that took the stress off managing the client and speaking with them, so I could focus on the SEO and sales. But shortly after getting the first account manager, we brought in somebody to assist with the SEO process. And that’s a learning curve in itself. So, we trained them on SEO; how we go about it. And then they got a VA, a virtual assistant, to help them. And that pretty much got 100 percent off my back. So I was able to focus more on the agency growth and sales and then ended up getting salespeople after. I still sometimes do sales. I find it a lot more personal to talk to our clients.
But I was able to focus more once we started getting employees in on the growth of the agency as opposed to spending my day performing these SEO methods and responding to really annoying—sometimes annoying—questions, but necessary questions from clients.
Rob: That makes sense and letting you play into your strengths there. Have you found the nature of client that you pursue and might even accept has changed?
Jason: Oh, yeah. We’re a lot stricter on the clients that we take in. At the smallest hint of micromanagement, we’re not interested. At the smallest hint of lack of professionalism or that they come with an attitude that we work for them as opposed to we work with them or that we’re partners, then we’ll probably kick them out. As well I would say budget, which really comes down to: Do they have a healthy investment budget? You know, are they scraping the barrel just to have one last saving grace of their business or are they ready to invest in their business and see what SEO can do for them?
We’ve had clients say, “Okay, I need a SEO and our business is really struggling and I don’t know how we’re going to make our payments next year if we don’t kick it up with SEO.”
While I feel for the client, unfortunately, it puts a lot of pressure on our back. And let’s say, something does happen. SEO campaigns at times are beyond our control because we’re relying on Google’s algorithm. So, I don’t know how I’d personally be able to handle that, maybe emotionally, if something does happen because of us.
So, those are usually the prerequisites that our clients and obviously, being here in New York City, you’d be surprised how many illegal-type inquiries we get. Primarily escorts.
Rob: Okay, yeah. I have not thought of SEO for escorts before, but I believe it’s a thing.
Jason: I’ve seen-you know-how these marketers will sometimes pick a specific industry. They actually have escort marketers. They’ll build their websites; not that I’ve been on their websites. They actually do exist. If an inquiry comes in I’m going to glance at the website.
Surprisingly, some of the websites are pretty high end and I give them credit for that. But just the resources and tools that we have—it’s just we don’t want to really mix them with that specific industry as it’s kind of, not blacklisted in Google’s eyes, but it’s kind of frowned upon from their algorithms. So, to mix resources in that sense with some of our clients that are local or national e-commerce websites. It’s not something we’re very interested in.
Rob: Sure and I can see that being touchy with some employees. I like that you highlight the professionalism of your clients as well. Because that’s another way to just protect your own team, right? Hostile clients can make for unpleasant work experiences and that can take a toll. I mean, it’s not easy to get somebody trained up to do SEO right and then have that sacrifice by a client who’s just not professional.
Jason: One thing I tell my account managers is that, if we have a client that’s going to be a burden to you, we’re going to fix that. We’re going to do something; whether it’s having a nice conversation with the client, reexamining our relationship, or not accepting them from the beginning.
Rob: What did it take to start building and growing that that sort of courage to say no to a client, either before or after you’ve taken them on?
Jason: It’s really not easy at all. About a year ago, I took a big risk and I restructured my entire agency’s business model. And with that came a drop of a lot of our clients. And it wasn’t because maybe they were bad kinds or they were annoying, it was just, simply, that they didn’t fit in with our growth plans.
And it does take courage and it is risky to do at times, but, you have to look at whether your sanities are worth it, whether your employees sanity’s are worth it. If employees are unhappy then it’s going to relate on the work and I don’t want my employees not being happy.
I think also a lot of it depends on where you’re at. If you have a successful agency, then most successful agencies should have no problem re-examining examining the relationship with the client. If you’re starting out and you just want to get your foot in the door and gain some experiences, you may be willing to take it a little bit. But once you grow, then it’s time to definitely have a nice conversation by however means possible; whether it’s face to face, whether it’s on the phone, whether it’s e-mail. It definitely needs to happen.
Rob: Do have folks you refer those clients out to when you say, “Hey this isn’t the fit anymore, but I recommend” do you have like agencies you partner back and forth with on that sometimes?
Jason: A few; depending on the services. SEO agencies, we don’t really refer out to because it’s such a hard game to play with SEO and there’s a lot of stigma behind it. When we’re referring out, we’re also putting our reputation on the line. So, let’s say something happens with an SEO campaign and the SEO company that we refer them to is just doing straight black hat or really bad spamming techniques; that’s our reputation on the line.
But other things, like we do web design and UI, UX, and development, but if there’s something that might be a little bit beyond the scope of what we can handle at this moment, we have partner clients that are big digital marketing agencies out here in New York City that we’ll happily refer them to and it’s a two way street; they will refer us clients, whether it’s for SEO or a small PPC campaign, for example, we’ll take that on. Yeah, we’ll send them out to them.
Rob: And in some cases, some of those larger agencies even, they may not have an SEO capability; right?
Jason: They’ll advertise for it, but they don’t have it. You’ll see a lot of them having SEO as one of their service offerings, and they might have somebody in-house, but they know themselves that it’s not their primary service offering and they’re not very good at it. Other times, they just won’t offer it at all and that’s something that we do is partner with a lot of them. You know, I reached out to some agencies, big and small out here in New York City and see how we can help each other. We have media referral fees or even if they white label, we have incentives for everyone.
Rob: Right. That’s very sensible.
Rob: What’s coming up for Break The Web that you’re excited about in 2018 and beyond?
Jason: For me, really? Growth. Growth and expansion of services and being able to take on a lot more than we were previously able to handle; whether it’s we do a lot of SEO so we get more SEO clients. We have a lot in the pipeline right now. Getting our social media marketing out there a lot more thoroughly. We just introduced PR; so that’s something that’s pretty cool. We’re doing a lot of online public relations. So, those are really the things I’m excited for; just expanding as a business will grow . . . normally.
Rob: That makes a lot of sense and I think it’s exciting. I feel like I’m seeing an opportunity lately where very savvy SEO and SEM agencies have been able to bridge into social because social is increasingly also about paid media. Is that something you’ve been noticing along the way?
Jason: Yeah. And they kind of intertwined them both, I just mentioned paid advertising. They both primarily rely on cost per click and impressions and a quality or relevancy score. You know, Google AdWords has Quality Score, Facebook has Relevancy Score and they’re all internal. Yeah, they definitely tie in and especially as social media is growing now. We do a lot of Facebook stuff and it kind of grew more than we thought it would when we first launched it as a service. It’s for us a 50-50 split between paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram with Google Adwords. And sometimes Bing.
Rob: Sometimes Bing. Not a lot of—shall we say—not a lot of LinkedIn even?
Jason: We have dabbled in LinkedIn. We’re not very big LinkedIn, just because, a lot of our businesses, even local businesses for example, are the more brick and mortar, so LinkedIn won’t be their target audience. We have dabbled in the past, but I don’t believe we’re currently doing any LinkedIn campaigns.
Rob: Got it. And in general, kind of more industry wide, what are you seeing as exciting for marketing in general that we should be thinking about this year?
Jason: Well, a lot of changes are happening now. For example, WeWork acquired an SEO platform, as we were discussing just before this call. So, a lot is happening in our industry, from an SEO standpoint. Marketing in general is always evolving. Things are always changing: New fads are coming up, new trends are coming up, new methodologies and philosophies are always coming up.
I think staying and staying up to date with what’s working and what’s going to happen in the future is really good. Again, there are a lot of agencies that don’t and they were stuck in their ways and they’re stubborn. A lot of the older old-school marketing agencies that were really big around the millennium era, they’re kind of still stuck in their ways, but a lot of changes are happening.
You know, Snapchat just dropped a hundred of their engineers. You know, everyone thought Snapchat was the biggest thing. They still have a pretty good valuation, but-you know-their entire business is changing. Social media is always changing; up and down with different businesses, different trends. SEO is definitely always changing. Google is always trying to show more AdWords when they can; just to get more money. So, I think staying on top of it is probably the most important thing.
Rob: On a random side, have you done very many of the Gmail ads with Google? Have you looked at those?
Jason: We actually have not. I think the reason is because I switched to the old school inbox years ago. So, I don’t see any of those ads; I really don’t. Maybe it’s because I have an ad blocker, I’m not too sure.
Something about me is weird. People are telling me that they see Facebook ads in videos; I don’t see any of those at all. I don’t see any Gmail ads. I know which Gmail ads you’re talking about in regards to specific categories. They have the promotions tab and the socials tab. For all our Gmail inboxes, I had to switch back to the old school style years back, so I don’t see them. But we’re not currently doing Gmail.
I think it depends whether it’d work or not. If you’re hitting an industry that’s heavily spammed. I’m assuming you get the same as well. I used to just get tons of spam emails per day; probably close to 100 to 200 spam emails per day, people saying, “Give us your clients, we’ll rank them number one.” You know, just things like that. If I’m overrun by spam e-mails and I see an advertisement e-mail, I personally don’t think I would. But if it’s somebody else; maybe a marketing manager or another employee that may see something like that in the business and it might not be bad.
Rob: Got it. And I think one easy way to find you is to google search for Break The Web, but if people want to find you and Break The Web online, how should they best find you where should they look?
Jason: They could find me at breaktheweb.org, seoservicesnewyork.org and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you were going on a plugin spree, I’ll just say jasonberkowitz.com for some consulting that we do as well.
Rob: Absolutely, you can go on plugin spree. That’s what we’ll do at the tail end, so we can find you and keep the conversation going.
Jason: Yeah, I’ll stop there. That’s pretty good.
Rob: Well thank you, Jason. You have dropped a lot of knowledge. I’m excited that you are finding growth, that you rank so well for New York SEO, but also that you’ve gone well beyond that as well. It sounds like you’ve got a really effective full-service offering rolling.
Jason: Yeah, yeah. Thank you. I appreciate that.
Rob: All right, thank you. Have a great one.