Eric Enge, CEO at Stone Temple Consulting, spent 15 to 20 years providing SEO, content marketing, and social media for large enterprise clients, including several Fortune 50 clients. The company distinguishes itself with a strong commitment to solving actual problems, rather than pitching generic formulas and “hoping they stick.” Stone Temple Consulting became part of Perficient Digital, a $500 million public consulting firm, in July 2018, after a 3-month courtship. Today, Eric serves as General Manager of Perficient Digital.
Lead co-author of The Art of SEO, the 900+ page “bible of SEO,” contributing author (Forbes, Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, Search Engine Watch, Copyblogger and Social Media Today), host of 2 live video broadcasts a week (The Digital Marketing Excellence Show and The Digital Marketing Answers Show) and a Coursera Instructor, Eric spent the first 10 years of his career at Phoenix Technologies, manufacturer of BIOS, a software piece that “boots” most of the world’s computers, and then 5 years running his own business development consulting firm.
He took a right turn when a friend asked him to build business development strategies for a DVD e-tail site. Eric researched ways to use search engines to drive traffic the company’s page. A year later, organic searches had generated $3 million in annual sales. Eric became the SEO digital marketing expert. Approaching problems from unconventional angles is characteristic of his work.
A global Fortune 200 e-commerce site that requested that Stone Temple audit their site, check the SEO, and add some content marketing to overall increase organic search traffic and sales from that traffic. Stone Temple discovered 95 percent of the company’s business came from the US site, but Google spent 70% of its crawling time going to the international versions of the site. In a bold move, Stone Temple blocked Google’s access to the international versions of the site. The result? Total aggregate site traffic increased 30% in 60 days.
In this interview, Eric provides a wealth of information on:
1) the goal and impact of Google’s 2018 updates (how to make query responses relevant to users—by looking at not only the content that answers user’s question, but also the content that would answer the related questions that would tend to follow),
2) the role of “featured snippets” and “speakable markup.” (A featured snippet includes an answer that has been extracted from a webpage, a link to the page, the page title and the URL. Because the featured snippet block appears above the organic search results and below the AdWords block, it sits, not in position 1 of the Google search results, but in what is referred to as “position 0.”), and
3) the future of conversational interfaces. He asks what a good conversational interface looks like and what it will take to build it. “People will shift to voice experience,” he says, “once it becomes a better option for them than their keyboard experience.”
Finally, Eric talks about “who to hire” and why and how he sold his company as he approaches his retirement
Eric can be reached on Twitter at @stonetemple or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericenge/.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. As you can hear by the beeping in the background, I am live at the tail end of SMX East here in New York City, and I am joined right now by Eric Enge, the CEO and Founder of Stone Temple Consulting, now a part of Perficient Digital. They are based in Framingham, Massachusetts. Welcome to the podcast, Eric.
ERIC: Thanks for having me, Rob. I’m looking forward to talking with you today.
ROB: It’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure to meet you as well. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Stone Temple Consulting and what Stone Temple is great at?
ERIC: Sure, happy to do that. Been doing SEO and content marketing and social media for, depending on how you count it, 15 to 20 years. I think doing it for a lot of large enterprise clients, ranging from Fortune 50 companies, for which we have a number of clients, to of course somewhat smaller clients – one thing I noticed very quickly is the Fortune 50 only has 50 prospects, so I can do the math really easily that way.
ROB: [laughs] Right. And to have a few of them is pretty good.
ERIC: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. But I think if I were to say what I think we’re really good at, I think we’re really good at having a really strong commitment to solving the actual problem. What happens with a lot of agencies, they come in and say “Here’s our formula. We’re going to apply our formula, and if the formula works, you’re in great shape.”
But in digital marketing today, so often the problem you’re facing or the real issue you’re trying to solve, the formula isn’t quite right. It might help some, but you’ve got to be able to have some dynamic range of movement and move over to a revised angle of things.
Boy, we’re going to enjoy the noise going by here in just a second. Oh, they’re turning. [laughs]
So just really getting a focus on the specifics of each situation I think is so important when you work as an agency.
ROB: Sure. What’s maybe an example of that disconnect? Especially – we all kind of misdiagnose our problems, so the sort of thing that somebody comes to you with versus what the underlying problem turns out to be when you dig in a little deeper.
ERIC: I’ll give you a really quick case study. I have to keep it anonymous, but the data is real. We had a very large – actually, this was a Fortune 200 ecommerce site. They came to us looking for us to audit their site and look at the SEO for the site and put some content marketing in. The goal was to grow overall organic search traffic and sales from that traffic.
Fine, that’s all straightforward so far, and that was very much our focus. But there were some presumptions about how we would go about that, and those presumptions involve certain ways of conducting the audit, and “most of the traffic goes to the U.S. site, so focus on that and improve the U.S. site,” etc., etc. All sounds like good motherhood and apple pie stuff for an SEO agency.
But what happened when we dug into it is we figured out that they were getting 95% of their traffic to their U.S. site, and 70% of Google’s crawling time was going to the international versions of their site because it’s a global company. So, 70% of the crawling going to the international versions of the site, and only 5% of the traffic.
So, here’s where we came with a very controversial recommendation. We said, “Let’s go ahead and block all crawling to the international versions of the site and see what happens.” Within 60 days, total aggregate site traffic was up 30% just from that one recommendation.
That’s just a little bit of dynamic, lateral thinking that doesn’t necessarily fit the standard recipe.
ROB: For sure. Maybe it’s orthodox, maybe it’s unorthodox, but it sounds unorthodox for the problem that you were trying to solve.
So where did you get into the agency business? What led you to start Stone Temple Consulting? What were you doing before?
ERIC: I’ll take it in order. Before, I worked at a company called Phoenix Technologies for 10 years. It’s a company that makes a piece of software called the BIOS that boots nearly all of the world’s PCs, and a really big player in that space. The dominant player in that space, actually.
But I left there and I started a consulting agency. Did biz dev consulting for 5 years. That’s not very relevant here. And then a friend of mine came to me with a site that he wanted me to do business development consulting for. It was a DVD e-tail site.
About 30 days into working with him on this, I said to him, “Hey Steve, we really ought to try to figure out how to get traffic from search engines.” And, like a good CEO who has a problem brought to him by some enterprising employee or contractor, Steve looked at me and said, “Great idea, Eric. You go figure it out.”
A year later we were doing $3 million a year in sales from search, from organic search. It was like, light bulb goes flashing in my head – “Well damn, maybe I ought to do more of this!” So that’s how I got focused on SEO and getting into digital marketing for real.
I actually did a lot of publishing of my own websites and did that for a while. Stone Temple wasn’t even my main concern until 2012, when I made it a full-time pursuit. I had partnered up with someone to help me grow it, but kind of as a lifestyle business. They started around 2007. For 5 years it grew slowly, but in 2012 it started to really grow and make an agency out of it.
ROB: Wow. Talk about the trajectory from there. What did the path over 6 years hold? What did growth look like? Who were key additions to the team over that time?
ERIC: In 2012 we were 10 or 12 people or something like that. We grew, by the time that we were acquired on July 16th of this year, to 65 people. So a little more than 5x in growth.
The person who joined me back in 2007 had since left, actually for health reasons – which very sorry to see him have left, but he did. My wife actually came on and became the COO, and she’s extremely capable. Brilliant COO, actually. We grew it together from there.
But the other thing we did – and this is what’s so important in these kinds of companies – what’s the right management team? How do you bring in the right people? You really have to have a focus – whatever you do, especially when you’re hiring your senior people, make sure all your senior people are smarter than you in at least some things because if they’re all getting direction from you on everything, then you’re not getting pushed to grow, and the company won’t grow.
ROB: And they’ll drive you crazy. [laughs]
ERIC: That too. Just had a very, very good run of hiring some really good, strong senior managers. That’s really what helped the company continue to grow.
ROB: Got it. Of course, we said at the top that you are now a part of Perficient.
ROB: Talk about how that came to pass. Had you considered joining up with someone else before? What is that thought process as you’re considering no longer being the king of your entire domain?
ERIC: It’s an interesting one. First, I’ll actually explain what made it attractive when we finally got around to thinking about it.
Here I am – at the time, I was 61 years of age. I’m now 62. I knew that I wasn’t going to be continuing to do this work at 70. I also knew that A) an exit would be nice, and B) having the organization live on and all the great people that have made it up and have something to continue to work and grow with was also very motivating.
But I’d been getting people contacting me for years – investment bankers and other kinds of people trying to talk me into various ways of selling the company, etc. I just sloughed them all off. But a little earlier this year, I looked at and considered a couple of situations that didn’t pan out. Didn’t really look very deeply; just started to think about it a little bit.
And then in April, I had an initial conversation with the folks from Perficient. I hadn’t realized it coming onto the call at the time, but the guy who showed up on the call was Jeff Davis, the CEO of Perficient – which is a $500 million consulting firm, public company, pretty good share price. So that was kind of interesting, to have your introductory conversation with him.
It went well, but then we didn’t hear anything for 30 days or so. At the end of that 30 days, they started asking some questions. The dialogue started in earnest. Think of it this way: first conversation in April; deal closed on July 16th.
ROB: Wow. A public company moved that fast, which is quite something.
ERIC: Yeah, start to finish in lightning time.
ROB: Wow. What is it that you think made it interesting for them? You mentioned they were a consulting firm. You actually have a consulting background, you mentioned, right?
ROB: There is this trend where consulting companies are getting into the agency business. Is this on trend with that for them as well? They’re looking at the Deloittes of the world, getting in deep?
ERIC: Absolutely. There’s definitely an interesting growth in the digital marketing practice within Perficient. It’s a very small piece of the company right now. We added significantly to that, and they’re definitely investing and wanting to grow that area.
I do think that they’ll be able to do that. The company has a lot of great assets that will make that possible, and a lot of great leverage that we’ll be able to take advantage of. I’m very excited about the opportunity there.
ROB: It’s a pretty exciting thing. I think it’s one of those things a lot of entrepreneurs would like to put on their résumé at some point, that they made something attractive enough for someone else to want to buy it for a meaningful price. That’s really, really exciting.
Now, you have been everywhere at this conference. You are a very prevalent sponsor, and you have also been speaking on a variety of topics. Everything from what looked like an ad hoc site review session and just shooting from the hip to some prepared thoughts. One thing that you mentioned you are really prepared with thoughts on is Google’s 2018 updates.
ROB: What do we need to be thinking about with what Google is doing?
ERIC: First of all, the updates happened in March, April, August, September, and October. Each of those months had pretty significant updates that occurred, and that’s a lot for Google in a given year.
But if I were to summarize them all, a little bit simplistically but really to get the key lessons of all of them and boil it down very simply, Google has very much dialed up its tests around understanding user relevance related to a query.
For example, if someone searches on the phrase “digital cameras,” do they want ecommerce experiences? Do they want digital camera review sites? Do they want Wikipedia and that kind of information? What kind of information do you want?
So that was one major area. Just to highlight that with a little bit of an example, in February of 2018 if you searched “digital cameras,” results 1 and 3 were for digital camera review sites, and results 2 and 4 were for ecommerce sites. If you do it today, it’s four ecommerce sites.
So, the digital camera review sites get booted, and that’s because Google has now decided – after probably a decade of that being the case, where digital camera review sites were big – “Oh, that’s actually not what users want.” So that was really interesting.
The other part is a lot more focus on the content side of things. What I see Google doing is they’re really beginning to understand which sites or which content answers not just the immediate question the user asked, but also all the follow-on questions that probably come with that.
Just to give you an example to help the listeners understand where I’m coming from on this, let’s say a user is searching “oil filters,” and they land on your oil filters page on your site. I think it’s fair to say that a good percentage of them actually want oil filters, but some of them want the manual to make sure they’re buying the right one. They might want a video or an instructional to tell them how to change one. Some of them might want oil. That usually comes with oil filters, right?
And then, because they’re working on their car on Saturday, that might not be the only thing they’re doing. They might need windshield wipers or a carburetor kit or something else for more parts of their overall Saturday working on the car.
Really good sites understand that depth and breadth of experience. I saw some sites that do this extremely well, that more than doubled their traffic just through the course of this year because of the depth and breadth of their content.
ROB: Got it. And Google can tell from your time on the site, by how many pages you look at and things like that, how happy you are with what you found – or at least, how deep down that rabbit hole you went.
That said, some people who criticize Google would say that sometimes search results – they’re largely optimizing for users, but sometimes the results are compromised for the sake of their business, and that also still creates these weird edge cases for SEO opportunities. Are there still vestiges of that that you can see in 2018? How does that look?
ERIC: First of all, let’s just talk briefly about Google’s motives. They’re a business, so they are looking to maximize their revenue. But even with the current circumstances, in the current environment they have with all those ads that they have up top, data which I’ve received from BrightEdge tells me that 74% of the clicks still go to organic. Even with all the ads up top.
That puts a little bit of pressure on them to not push it too much further. The users have spoken. They know what they want, right? They recognize the ads – and by the way, the ones who recognize the ads, they want the immediate commercial experience. It’s actually good for them. And the ones who don’t, they’re going down and finding it. There’s some limits to how far Google can push these kind of things.
But to the second part of your question, I think the big opportunity right now is an area of featured snippets. Today, if you rank #5 for a particular search query in the Google search results, it’s probably easier for you to figure out how to get to what Pete Meyers calls “position zero” for that featured snippet position than it is to figure out how to get to position 1. It’s probably less work to get to position zero than position 1, and position zero is above position 1.
It’s really interesting to think that just by tuning your content in certain ways – don’t have to worry about authority or any of that other crap – I just tune my content and hop above everybody.
ROB: Right. The featured snippets are pretty interesting. A lot of them, I believe, are targeted at particular content verticals, if you will.
For example, as I understand it, there is a certain markup you can put on your site for recipes that makes your recipe show up formatted at the top. It makes Google like your site for that. Is that true? What are maybe emergent areas where people should be thinking about their ability to rank as a featured snippet?
ERIC: Fun fact: based on the studies that we’ve done where we look at approximately 1.5 million search queries, there’s no correlation whatsoever in using schema and getting a featured snippet today. I think this will matter more going forward, but for Google to build out the program, they couldn’t be dependent on webmasters doing a good job with schema because too many don’t use it at all, and many who do use it, use it improperly.
Having said that, you’re right – the recipe markup certainly gives you an improved user interface for your search result in the regular search results, so that’s beneficial.
There is a new kind of schema markup called speakable markup which allows you to mark parts of your posts as something that you’re encouraging Google to “feature” – using feature in a different sense now – in responses given to a voice query. Featured snippets can be a driver of responses to voice queries, and the speakable markup now, in theory, will be used for that.
I believe that’s only available currently – or operational, I should say – in a couple of market segments which I don’t remember off the top of my head right now. It’s not broadly available, but it’s cheap and easy to put on. So, get on your site and next time you’re opening a page in a given area, start putting the speakable markup on your site, and that way when Google’s ready to take on that area, you’ve got it done.
ROB: I would like some enterprising Wikipedia editors to get to that sooner rather than later, because some voice search responses we get at home trying to help our kids answer questions are answered very poorly with Wikipedia results. I imagine the right part could be highlighted with the speakable markup to give me a good answer instead of a mediocre answer.
ROB: If we look at your time building Stone Temple Consulting, what are some things if you – not that you want to start over right now, per our previous discussion about your motives for partnering up with Perficient – but if you were, what are some things you would consider doing differently?
ERIC: That’s actually a great question, because any time you’ve been through the experience, there’s unquestionably a ton of things that you learn along the way, right?
No matter how much discipline you have as an entrepreneur, it’s hard not to be caught up in the moment and react and take the opportunities to be reactive to things. It’s in everybody’s nature to do what’s urgent and not what’s important. The balance between important and urgent is a really important one to control.
Just to make this a little more digestible for people, important might be some critical client deliverable. You should almost always attend to those. But as you’re dealing with those urgent things like a client deliverable, you can’t forget important things like improving your organization’s capability to deliver this kind of service, or to put together that thought leadership piece that helps you build the business.
I think we actually did quite well at that overall, but there’s definitely situations I saw in the past where I should’ve spent more time on this, and if I had, it would’ve been that much better.
ROB: Interesting. I think an interesting dimension of what you shared was having your wife join the company. Had you worked with her prior to bringing her in to Stone Temple Consulting?
ERIC: No, other than worked at raising three kids. That was a job, too. No, she came in, she was fully my business partner in every aspect of what that means. Definitely did bring some challenges because there was a lot of work discussed at home, and it got tedious and tiresome at times for both of us. So, it definitely does bring its own challenges, but on the other hand she was awesome at what she did.
ROB: Absolutely. There are many people in very healthy and loving relationships who would still not do well perhaps working with their spouse. What did you see that made you think it was probably going to work?
ERIC: I don’t know that I had much foresight or thought about it carefully enough before launching headlong into it, but I think the key to making it work is just a lot of communication. You’ve got to be able to be open and straightforward about things. That’s just absolutely key.
ROB: She’s still working in the new ecosystem with Perficient?
ERIC: She is still helping out with the transition, but she’s exiting the process.
ROB: Okay, interesting. Such an interesting journey. Now, with the timing of it all, was part of it also – I’d imagine, were your kids all out and away at the time that she joined the business, and that was part of the mix as well?
ERIC: No, let’s see… Now they’re all out of the house for the most part. One who’s graduating this May. But they were certainly into high school and somewhat more advanced. We weren’t dealing with four year olds or anything like that. Yeah, I don’t know that that would’ve been particularly feasible.
ROB: [laughs] For sure. You’ve talked a lot about – one of your other talks was about voice search, and we’ve talked about that a little bit. What are some other considerations that forward-looking marketers should be contemplating when it comes to voice search?
ERIC: The first thing is to realize that the volume of queries used in voice search is still small. It’s less than 5% of total search queries, for sure. But it’s growing. It’s growing rapidly, and the push for it is large. The use case for users is compelling and improving over time.
The biggest challenge to its growth, I think, is just how good are the conversational interfaces people put together. That’s an important concept for people to get into their minds. What does a good conversational interface look like and how do I build one? How do I make an experience? People are going to shift to your voice experience once it becomes a better option for them than their keyboard experience.
ROB: Right. It seems like we’re in this window where we are actually setting ourselves up, potentially, for a loss of trust in voice search that has to be repaired.
ROB: It’s almost like, when I’m calling a customer service line, I would rather have “Press 1 for this and 2 for that” than a voice menu at this point. It can get better.
ERIC: Yes. Also, that’s the thing – you’re alluding to interactive voice response systems, or IVR systems. Yeah, that’s not the path that works.
The big promise of voice is when you can get to the point where the user can go to their personal assistant, be it a Google Assistant, an Alexa Skills, or Cortana from Microsoft, and basically say, “Book me dinner for two tomorrow at Tomaso’s. Send me confirmation to my usual email address. I want 7:00. If that time doesn’t work, make it 7:30,” and their query will come out like that, and it will process it.
Now, contrast that with today. The way it happens is you go into a navigation menu, you pick the restaurant – that’s Step 1. Step 2 is you pick the time and the number of people. Step 3, you get some feedback on what’s available. It’s all very structured.
Conversational commands won’t be structured. Once you can parse to conversational commands and deal with the fact that they might just give the first tidbit of information and then the second and then the third, or they might give you the first and the third and then the second, and then the fourth, fifth, and sixth – they’ll do it all different ways, and some will give it to you all in one blurted-out sentence – now users will be able to get the experience exactly the way that it’s most natural for them. Far superior to navigating through an online menu.
ROB: For sure. That sounds like you can get to a point of very high trust.
ROB: You just wonder how many problems there are to solve until we get there.
ERIC: That’s the thing that people always forget. Fun fact: I released, when I was working at Phoenix Technologies, a piece of software in the late ’80s – sorry, early ’90s – that used speech recognition. It would enable you to call your computer from a regular phone and retrieve calendar and contact information.
This is the late ’80s, 30 years ago. At the time everybody in the speech recognition business was saying, “2 to 3 years, speech recognition is going to be pretty much perfect.” It ain’t there today.
ROB: [laughs] No.
ERIC: So, people underestimate how many layers there are to all this. And there are layers. It’ll take a while to unfold yet.
ROB: Absolutely. Eric, thank you so much for taking time to meet up as we audibly tear down this conference. We will try to get most of that filtered down pretty good in post-production, but I apologize to our audience for any beeping that you hear in your ears while we’re talking.
Eric, congratulations on building the business, on selling the business, I imagine, and on moving forward with Perficient – and also on all the wisdom you shared at the conference and with us here on the podcast.
ERIC: All right, thank you so much.
ROB: Thank you so much. Have a great trip.
ERIC: All right, I’ll do my best.
ROB: Bye bye.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.
Perficient is the leading digital transformation consulting firm serving Global 2000 and enterprise customers throughout North America. With unparalleled information technology, management consulting and creative capabilities, Perficient and its Perficient Digital agency deliver vision, execution and value with outstanding digital experience, business optimization and industry solutions.