Dale Bertrand is President and Founder of Fire&Spark, a marketing agency focused on ecommerce, and especially ecommerce SEO: product page optimization, ecommerce site link-building, and delivering technical SEO and site speed solutions on a variety of ecommerce platforms. Deep technical skillset.
People today may avoid link-building because Google has a history of penalizing dubious link-building practices in. However, link-building is more valuable than ever is because Google depends on links to rank content.
Dale recommends earning links through posting remarkable content, being/doing/saying something remarkable, or using targeted outreach or targeted syndication. He notes that email does not work as well as in the past because of the low open rate.
What he has found to work the best is to build relationships and then leverage those relationships for links. Lead a movement, he says. Take a position on a current issue in your market, interview people, and use those interviews (and the relationship that comes from the interview process) to build links.
Dale presented “Link-building Isn’t Dead: The Most Important SEO Strategy in 2019 That You Can’t Ignore” at HubSpot’s Inbound 2019 in Boston, MA.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined live and in person by Dale Bertrand. Dale is the President and Founder of Fire&Spark, based in Boston, Massachusetts. Welcome to the podcast, Dale.
DALE: Thank you for having me. It should be fun.
ROB: Glad to have you here. I’m looking forward to it. Why don’t you tell us about Fire&Spark and what Fire&Spark is excellent at doing for people?
DALE: We’re a marketing agency. We’re really focused on ecommerce. The vast majority of what we do is ecommerce SEO.
In terms of what we’re excellent at, we’re definitely good at ecommerce SEO, optimizing product pages, doing link building for ecommerce sites. But we’re also good at technical SEO, so international SEO for global brands or highly technical SEO on large websites. A lot of clients will come to us because they’ve got speed issues with their website, so we can get pretty technical into server configuration and that sort of thing.
ROB: What do those two things have in common? Is ecommerce SEO also a very technical form of SEO and they’re adjacent in that way?
DALE: They have me in common.
ROB: Okay, you. [laughs]
DALE: I know in this conversation you and I are going to get into how we got here, why we started the agency, all that good stuff. But my background is technical, so I studied electrical engineering in college and AI in grad school. After school I ended up working as a software developer, worked on some large machines – one for the NSA.
ROB: Which you can’t tell me about. Or you can?
DALE: I’ll tell you about it; you’re just not going to live through the experience. [laughter] So in terms of what does ecommerce have to do with tech-heavy SEO, it really has to do with my technical experience, and that’s why we get so deep when it comes to optimizing websites.
Then also, my interest in SEO. I love working with the larger brands and being involved in that conversation and product launches. We’ve spent a lot of time going deep into the ecommerce world and building up our skillset and capabilities there.
ROB: Got it. We’ll get into what’s going on inside your head, but when I think about ecommerce SEO, I can imagine – I mean, there’s probably a couple of different ends of the spectrum, but I can picture stuff with four SKUs, four items on the website, and then I can picture sites with 4,000 SKUs. Those are different problems to solve. Is there an end of the spectrum that you tend to focus into?
DALE: Then there’s 20,000 SKUs and 100,000 SKUs.
ROB: And 100 million, yeah.
DALE: Yeah. But just as an example, we signed a contract today with a new client we’re going to be working with – they’re in the jewelry space, and they have 4,500 products on their site. That’s not huge, but also not a handful.
ROB: There’s lots of SKUs in limited inventory, probably, which is an interesting problem.
DALE: Yeah. We have some clients with no inventory, but that’s another end of the spectrum.
ROB: Like on-demand type of products or digital products and that sort of thing?
DALE: Exactly. I’m going off-topic here, but we have one client that will introduce 12 new products a day because they have no inventory. That’s a different story. But when it comes to this client I was talking about with the 4,500 SKUs, we’re going to optimize 4,500 product pages; it’s just going to take a while.
ROB: Are you having to touch each one of those product pages?
ROB: And are you typically within a particular – ecommerce platforms, there’s plenty of those. Does it matter which ecommerce platforms? Are there ones that are strengths? Are we talking about Magento or Shopify or . . . ?
DALE: Those are the CMS’s that we’re on for ecommerce. We tend to do a lot of work in the Shopify space. Shopify has been very good to us in terms of partnering with us to help our agency grow. But we have clients on BigCommerce, Magento, all over the map.
ROB: That’s a big area. I don’t think people really realize how much of a world unto its own the ecommerce world is. Earlier, when I started this company, we had a season where we had a product that was focused into the ecommerce space on social publishing, so we went to the IRCE Conference and those sorts of things.
DALE: Yes, been there.
ROB: It’s amazing. You have people selling boxes and foam packaging for shipping and third party logistics and ecommerce platforms.
DALE: There’s a lot of money changing hands in ecommerce. That’s what matters. And like you’re saying, there’s so many vendors doing so many things, like software businesses that are just built up around fraud detection, and everything you can think of.
ROB: Absolutely, and it’s all “how can I plug this in so I can solve the smallest problem possible just for my products?” It’s all pretty interesting in that world.
Let’s dial back a little bit on your story. What led you to start Fire&Spark? How did this happen?
DALE: I’ll need to think about that a little bit, but actually going way back to when I graduated from school – this is like 20 years ago, so I’m dating myself just by a little bit. But back then I was working a day job as a software developer, but I had an evenings and weekends business that I was working on that was online. We were doing lead generation for wedding vendors – photographers and caterers, that sort of thing.
I really enjoyed anything related to web technology. I always wanted to be building a website or writing code that generated HTML or something like that and hacking WordPress back when it came out. So, I really enjoyed web technology, and when I got into it and built this business, money started flowing. So, it was a really crazy thing when I had a bunch of websites where I was literally making more with the websites I was working on nights and weekends than I was at my day job.
That was a turning point to me, where I understood the power of digital marketing and the fact that I should leave my day job. [laughs]
ROB: And that’s a day job with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and a graduate degree in AI.
DALE: Yes. [laughs]
ROB: That’s not just like “my day job was sorting mail, and then I found that SEO was more lucrative.” This is like you have a real white collar job and a lot of education behind it.
DALE: Yeah. I got into the six figures with just my nights and weekends business.
ROB: The side hustle becomes meaningful.
DALE: Yes. I actually sold those off when I started the agency because I wanted to focus on doing consulting, and the reason why I started doing consulting was because I wanted to learn more. I wanted to learn email marketing, more about SEO, and paid advertising. I wanted to learn everything. I don’t know if, during the course of this conversation, we’re going to get into some of the bigger mistakes that I’ve made –
ROB: [laughs] You’ve made mistakes?
DALE: Well, I’m not perfect. I’m sorry. I thought maybe I was going to get through the whole conversation without –
ROB: This is the Perfect Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m very disappointed. We’ll sort it out. We’ll change the name.
DALE: [laughs] Okay, good. But originally when I started doing consulting, it was because I wanted to learn everything there was to learn about digital marketing. That didn’t make a lot of sense when it came to positioning my agency, but it was what I was going after for my own personal learning objectives.
ROB: So, your first few customers. How do you go from software developer job to having some customers on the ecommerce side? You said you sold off what you’d been doing – the lucrative side hustle. You burned that too.
DALE: You have to remember I was a software developer for a long time, so even when I was running my nights and weekends businesses, I was working at home, in front of my computer, not necessarily talking to people on a daily basis.
I had a friend who had attended some web-related meetups in Boston, and he took me to one, and that’s where I discovered the power of networking. That’s how I got my first client. I was basically in a hotel ballroom at a meetup with 50 other people in the room in Boston. I had the guts to shake everybody’s hand, even though networking was not my thing, and I remember I met a woman who ended up liking my background – because my background was highly technical, but I was interested in marketing – and she thought that she could use somebody like that on a part-time basis to do consulting for her startup. That’s how I got started.
ROB: Very cool. It’s one of those skills, I think, especially once you get into SEO for ecommerce – because the transaction is so attached and the search rankings are so relatively indisputable, people know when they need it, and they know if it’s not working, if they’re using somebody who snowed them and couldn’t actually do the job. Have you found that people self-identify when they have this need that you can help with?
DALE: Yes, absolutely. In the B2B space, it’s a little bit harder because you might be doing lead gen, and, to a lot of clients, it’s not clear how much a lead is worth to them, or they don’t know how to measure the quality of leads that they’re getting. But in ecommerce, where I live most of the time nowadays, it all comes down to sales. Are my organic sales going up or are they going down? So yeah, everybody knows whether it’s working or not.
ROB: Has there been a pull towards also doing paid, towards doing pay-per-click, towards doing paid video, towards doing paid social? And is that something you’ve decided not to do or decided not to do yet?
DALE: I spent a good amount of time doing Google Ads, Facebook Ads personally. I taught a workshop on AdWords back in the day. So, it’s definitely something that I was interested in learning. Nowadays, I have partners, so I refer that work out. Google Ads has gotten to the point that you really want somebody running your Google Ads campaigns who’s doing that all day, every day. For me, what I’m doing all day, every day is really organic SEO campaigns. That’s my bread and butter.
ROB: It’s one of those things where – it’s almost because you’re able to keep the profile of what you do a little bit thinner, you’re not scaring away as many potential partners. If you were taking some of those paid budgets, then some of your partners might not want to be your friend as much because they might be worried. They’re like, “Dale might want to take this client.”
It’s also interesting because the paid budgets can make your top line of your business look really amazing, even if it doesn’t really do much for the bottom line because most of the money just passes through and goes right to the ad.
DALE: Absolutely. We have partner agencies we work with who do the work on the paid side, and they’re getting a percentage of spend which is not something that we get to enjoy in the organic SEO world. We used to do that. I used to do that. We’ve benefited a lot from changing our positioning and really focusing on SEO only for our services.
One of the ways you were mentioning, partnering with other agencies, yeah, absolutely. Back when we were pretending to be a full service digital agency, it was – I mean, everybody pretends to be a full service digital agency. We have people listening to this podcast, who I’m going to try really hard not to alienate, who are full service digital agencies.
When I meet an agency owner, when we go out for beers, I ask people, “What are you guys actually good at? What are you really good at?” Then we partner on that basis. But we gave up on the full service thing a while ago, and have benefited greatly.
ROB: It would be probably a lot of distraction, because you already have to keep current with what’s going on and what’s changing in the SEO world.
I think it’s probably good to dig into the talk that you’re here at this conference to give on Friday. The title of this talk is “Link-building Isn’t Dead: The Most Important SEO Strategy in 2019 That You Can’t Ignore.” It sounds like we need to know something from this talk, so what do we need to know?
DALE: When it comes to organic traffic, link-building has become a taboo subject. The reason why is a lot of people – I might be one of them, back in the day – were running campaigns that were risky or black hat, as we would say in the SEO world. Doing things to trick Google, buying links, posting content that’s really a paid ad but it looks like content. Stuff like that. Google’s been pretty heavy-handed in terms of handing out penalties for stuff like that. Really, what they’re doing nowadays is trying to ignore links that are unnatural as opposed to handing out penalties, but they are still handing out penalties.
Because of the risk when it comes to link-building, a lot of SEO people are just not doing it. But it turns out, at the same time that people aren’t doing it, it’s more valuable than ever. The reason why link-building is more valuable than ever is because Google still depends on links when it comes to ranking your content.
DALE: Yeah, and determining how frequently they’re going to crawl your site, how deeply they’re going to crawl it, how many pages they’re going to index, and then what your rankings are going to be at the end of the day. So links do matter to Google.
Then the other thing is the white hat strategies that people like me have been doing for a long time, and these are the ones that are in line with what Google recommends. They’re just getting harder and harder, because the white hat strategies are things like creating awesome content in your market for your customers and doing email outreach promotion. Email outreach just does not work as well as it did several years ago. We all know that open rates are low, people don’t read those pitches. It just doesn’t work.
So, at the same time that link-building is getting harder, it’s also getting more valuable. This is why I’ve been advocating doing link-building – doing it the right way, earning links, so you’re earning links through content or being remarkable, doing something remarkable, saying something remarkable – or targeted outreach or targeted syndication.
Or the strategy that’s really been working for us is really more along the lines of leading a movement. So you choose a position on an issue, a trending conversation in your market, do some interviews – interview content works really well for link-building – and then build relationships that way. So at the end of the day, these white hat link-building strategies are all about building relationships and then leveraging those relationships for links.
ROB: You did mention targeted outreach, and targeted outreach used to be a really big thing in the link-building world. What’s the difference between if someone has a bad taste in their mouth from the old link-building they used to do and what’s actually effective now?
DALE: I’m doing air quotes here, for people who can’t see – when I was doing “targeted outreach,” I was sending thousands of link-building emails a month. We had an emailer who was doing that for us who was paid on commission based on how many links she would get. Those are the types of strategies that don’t work anymore.
When we say targeted nowadays, you’re building a piece of content specifically for five or six sites that you think might want to link to it, and then rinse and repeat. Then you move on to another piece of content. We won’t write content until we’ve done the outreach and we’ve found that there is some interest in either syndicating it or linking to it. But it’s a much more targeted approach, on the order of dozens of outreach emails to dozens of contacts as opposed to thousands, which was what we were doing several years ago.
ROB: When you talk about syndication, are you talking about Outbrain, Taboola, those sorts of networks? Oath, Yahoo, Verizon? Or are you talking about something else?
DALE: Those would be considered ads as far as Google is concerned. If you were to put a link in an Outbrain article, then you’re supposed to nofollow it and you’re not supposed to get any –
ROB: I thought that was probably the case.
DALE: Yeah. The type of content we’re talking about – I can give you an example. For my agency, we write articles about diagnosing issues with organic traffic or traffic drops, and then we’ll publish them on various websites in the marketing space. It’s very targeted syndication. It’s not a paid guest posting strategy, which is incentivized, risky, and will get you penalized eventually.
ROB: How do they track that down?
DALE: There’s a lot of ways. When you get penalized, you go through what I call a confessional process with Google to get reinstated.
ROB: Oh wow, you’ve triggered some people there.
DALE: Basically you’re outing the people that you bought the links from, and that’s one way that Google can use that information. Another thing is that in SEO, I spend a lot of time looking at competitor websites and looking at their backlink profiles. If I see something shady, there is a form on Google’s website where I can report it. And there are times where that makes sense to help a client.
ROB: There’s a little healthy competition, shall we say, when it comes to links that shouldn’t have been made? [laughs]
DALE: Yes. There was a time when we would send a pizza to student groups and ask them, “Happy to send you guys a large pizza for your next meeting, but we’d love a link on your university website.”
ROB: Interesting. That’s some dimension of it. What else should we be thinking about link-building or SEO in 2019? Where is it changing, where is it going? If someone’s skeptical.
DALE: Organic traffic is still very valuable. Google is sending free traffic to somewhere, so obviously if you can position yourself to get some of that traffic, that’s going to definitely benefit your business.
The real issue is just it’s gotten so competitive. I think the bar has risen in terms of minimum budget to actually see effectiveness. There are SEO agencies out there – there’s some on Fiverr. There’s some like “$500 a month and we’ll tweak your website for some keywords” or something like that. The bar really is higher. You have to have more resources to compete. But the traffic is still valuable, and it always will be.
A lot of people in our space are talking about voice search.
ROB: I just wanted to go there.
DALE: Oh yeah. People aren’t sitting down in front of a desktop computer and typing in a keyword; they’re talking to their Alexa device or Siri or something like that, and we’re still trying to figure out the answer when it comes to how to take advantage of voice search.
ROB: It’s an interesting question there, because when you think about people’s ability to buy quickly, that’s just Amazon. You can say “buy me this thing” from your device who I will not name so as to leave people’s Homes alone – but you say “buy some toilet paper,” whatever, they’re going to send you something that ranks at Amazon. Do they use the same ranking for voice as they do in the web interface? Do you know?
DALE: It’s complicated because they’re all different. Google’s version is using Google’s index, but they’re returning one answer, not ten. So it’s really different. They have their own filters in terms of what types of content – and they’re very restrictive because they don’t want a kid to be talking in the kitchen and have something obscene show up on their Google Home device or something like that.
It’s really early days, but we do know that technologies like this are driven by consumer behavior, and it’s clear that the consumer behavior trend is voice search.
ROB: Right. I’ve had some people come on the podcast and essentially say that Google are optimizing either towards maximizing ad revenue or towards maximizing for user happiness, like did the user find what they wanted. Are either of those true, both true, neither true?
DALE: Yeah, both of those are true. At the end of the day, if the Google founders want to buy more private islands, they have to keep their searchers happy, full stop. But they are also willing to monetize that attention and monetize those results as much as possible.
We know that they’ve been coming up with new ad formats and really squeezing the organic rankings smaller and smaller for a lot of commercial queries, and I think that trend will continue where they’ll figure out how to maximize the amount of revenue that they can get from their inventory. But they’re going to figure out ways to do that while also making sure that they’re returning useful results to searchers.
ROB: What’s the role of even Position Zero these days? What kind of advice do you give to your clients when you’re trying to earn search results that may not actually send traffic to your site? If you google “what’s the recipe for a hard-boiled egg,” they’re going to give you some content that’s been marked up that sits atop the search results that someone will never go to that site.
DALE: Here’s the thing. In my world, the concern over Position Zero is grossly exaggerated, especially in the ecommerce space. What I would recommend is to really do the keyword research first. Figure out what your keyword strategy is – are you going to be going after competitive, high volume keywords or maybe a longtail strategy or a local strategy? Whatever it is, type your keywords into Google and see if the featured snippets are showing up, the Position Zero. If it’s not, then you probably don’t have to worry about it.
It’s showing up a lot for informational queries where Google can give you the answer. Like “what is that rash on my arm” or “is my toe about to fall off.” If they can find the answer, they’ll just show it to you. But in the ecommerce space, if somebody’s looking to buy a product, Google’s going to show a shopping ad and then some more ads.
ROB: Are they even doing the snippets on ecommerce? I don’t think I’ve seen it on a product.
DALE: I haven’t seen it either. I wouldn’t say never, but I haven’t seen it.
ROB: It’s interesting. It might almost be too valuable to give somebody. If you can actually earn a snippet on a product and still have it linkable in some way – they’re trying to sell some ads, right?
DALE: The real estate is too valuable, so they’re going to put shopping ads in those positions.
ROB: They’re going to make you figure out how to make another Carousel and another PLA or whatever else, crazy stuff ecommerce folks do.
ROB: Dale, if you look back a little bit since you started Fire & Ice…
ROB: Goodness gracious. I’m not the first person to do that, am I?
DALE: [laughs] No, no, not at all. There’s a Fire & Ice restaurant right down here.
ROB: Tell me about Fire&Spark, naming-wise.
DALE: Oh, because fireandspark.com was available for $10.
ROB: That’s good. And these are mostly positive things. So, since you started Fire&Spark, if you were starting over again today, what are some things you would do differently if you were starting today versus when you did start?
DALE: I think I would force myself to specialize sooner. I almost started the agency for the wrong reasons, because I was just trying to scratch my own itch in terms of curiosity-led learning. That curiosity led me mostly in the wrong direction for the first several years because we were working on case studies that we don’t even talk about now, because we don’t do that type of work.
So, if I were getting started now, I would choose a specialization and I would partner. I would partner with a platform – because all my agency owner friends that are doing better than I am ended up partnering with a platform, like HubSpot, Shopify, all the big platforms. So, I would really look for that opportunity, and maybe I’d build an agency around implementing a solution on a particular platform. Something like that.
ROB: It’s interesting. What kind of money have you heard of people – there’s probably direct and indirect benefits from partnering. You get commission – and people don’t always know this – you get commission when you recommend somebody to buy HubSpot and they buy HubSpot, right?
ROB: You keep getting paid while HubSpot keeps getting paid. There’s probably also some second order effects of HubSpot might talk at you and point your direction. In terms of even the commissions, do you have any ballpark on what somebody who’s really doing well can do in these partner programs?
DALE: We don’t talk about those numbers in polite conversation, so you really would have to get somebody drunk to get that out of them.
ROB: I was hoping you had and could tell us all about it.
DALE: I think it’s the affiliates that are making real money on software commissions. For us, the benefit is partnering with a software vendor or a platform to get clients. We make our money when we get introduced to a global brand that needs help with SEO or maybe something else as opposed to the software commissions. Those numbers aren’t big enough to be meaningful for an agency like us.
We work with 20 clients at any given time, and the way we grow is by working with bigger clients, not signing up more clients. So I don’t see those commissions being interesting.
ROB: I’ve seen the path of mostly pay-per-click ecommerce agencies who go an inch deep and a mile wide, and they’ve got 80 clients. Their retainers are like $3,500 bucks a month with the client, which adds up to a lot of money, but when you’re spending most of it on ads, there’s not much margin in the business.
DALE: Yeah. If that $3,500 includes the ad spend, then yeah, there’s not much gravy left over for dinner.
ROB: You’ve got your kid sister punching the button on the campaigns or something, I don’t know.
DALE: Yeah. Some agency owners that I’ve talked to in that type of situation will have a very strict limit in terms of the number of hours that they can spend monthly on each client account, and that’s how they make their money.
ROB: I don’t think we can reinforce enough – specialization is always so counterintuitive, and it’s scary, but in your case it lets more people be your friend.
ROB: They know you’re not going to hurt them. You’re not going to be like, “I’m doing YouTube videos for you and I am great at running your Instagram influencer account.” That’s not you.
DALE: Not to mention actually getting good at what you do as opposed to – the pressure for any agency is that you bring on clients, you do good work for them, and now they trust you. When they have a need – any need in the digital space related to their website or marketing or anything – they’re going to come to you and ask you your advice.
It’s so easy to say, “Oh, I could do that” or “I could learn that.” And that’s what I did for a long time. But the truth is, you end up in a situation where you’ve got a bunch of capabilities, but you’re a master of none.
ROB: If we’re back here next year at Inbound in 2020 and we’re talking about what has changed in SEO in the past year, what do you think we might be talking about?
DALE: Google’s algorithm is always getting better, so doing a better job of demoting websites or basically taking away their visibility if they fall outside of Google’s fence. What I mean by that is we’re already seeing sites that are outside the norm in the medical space. They might be anti-vaxxer sites or something like that. I don’t think anybody cried when the anti-vaxxers lost their Google rankings, but the thing is, all business owners have to realize, Google’s coming for you too. [laughs]
Google’s going to continue to shrink the size of this fence in terms of what information they’re willing to promote and what they’re not, and it’s actually a scary thing when you think about it that they have that ability. They have the ability to make information disappear so nobody can find it. And it’s because they’re making a value judgment about that information.
ROB: It’s interesting that to some extent, Google has almost avoided the current conversation around filtering of social newsfeeds and ads and whatnot. Google does all of that stuff, and they solved it for the same reason. You search for a couple of words and there are 25 million things on the web that use those words, so you have to filter.
That’s the Facebook problem. People are talking about their brother, their sister, their goat, their dog on Facebook, and now there’s too much in the newsfeed, so they have to filter it. But somehow, Google seems to have dodged this current wave of criticism, largely.
DALE: Yeah. They’ve had issues with YouTube, but I think on Google.com, people tend to be – it might be that people don’t know what they’re not seeing, and for the most part, Google’s doing a good job not showing – I mean, half of the web is garbage. It’s duplicate content or porn or Bitcoin casinos.
ROB: Or all of the above in one.
DALE: [laughs] On one page.
ROB: I don’t know what that would look like, and I don’t want to.
DALE: It’s there. But Google does a good job of not surfacing that type of content.
ROB: Yeah. Dale, when people want to find you and when they want to find Fire&Spark, where should they look for you?
DALE: I would start at fireandspark.com, all spelled out, “and” in the middle. But my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy to talk to anybody who has questions about running an agency or growing an agency. It’s always fun to talk shop.
ROB: Perfect. Dale, thank you for coming on the podcast. Good to meet you, and I hope you have a great rest of the show.
DALE: Awesome. Thanks for having me.
ROB: All right. Be well.
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