Making SEO Work in Your Neighborhood

John Vuong, owner, Local SEO Search (Toronto, Canada)

John Vuong started his Toronto-based agency, Local SEO Search, in 2013 with the goal of helping small- to medium-sized businesses in North America, UK, and Australia improve digital presence in their local communities.  

John had ten years in advertising and sales for print media directories with their online performance-based networks and then worked for 5 years at Yellow Pages. Through this experience, he honed his understanding of how to dig out a business’s gaps, opportunities and challenges, its potential customers, where those customers were located, what those customers wanted . . . and what businesses themselves were looking for in an agency. John explains that product characteristics, physical proximity, convenience, and/or services are only the beginning of the variables to consider in “positioning” a company. Whatever it is that a company’s customers want needs to be prominent on its website. John says, “Make it easy for people to realize what you offer.”

John believes “Google My Business” is “the biggest asset piece for the local space” – it is what sets local apart from traditional organic traffic. This link between Google search and maps is critical. Small business owners need to understand how people “shop, navigate, and search for information.” Websites at the local level need to be simple for Google to easily crawl and index user-relevant information. 

Typical clients for this agency are professional service businesses (dentists, lawyers, physio/chiro, massage, and anything medical spa-ish), trades (e.g.; plumbers or roofers) and B2B businesses (e.g.; manufacturing, distribution, and e-com) – businesses that more competitive in nature, have higher revenue expectations, and have a higher lifetime customer value. John says the process of building a business takes time and work – that there are no shortcuts for things that are worthwhile.

Local SEO Search has specialists that develop SEO strategy, build links, create content, and manage social media. The agency employs web developers and graphic designers. But even with that variety of services, the agency’s focus is totally and simply on the attributes and signals Google uses to rank websites.

John’ strength is sales. Yellow Pages taught him a lot about business. He met business owners where the businesses had been in existence, not just for years, but for lifetimes. How? “They took care of their customers. They relied on word-of-mouth, referral business. They understood how to run a really good business – service, pricing, competitors, unique selling proposition, understanding all their products and services. Inside out, they knew how to run it.” John sees the internet as the “new Yellow Pages.”

When he started his agency, John had to learn how to deliver, how to hire and manage people, how to provide customer service. “There’s so much more to running a business than just sales,” he admits. John values honesty and hard work and admits that he “went door-knocking at the beginning to get clients, and it worked.” Today, he says, he’s “just looking for good people to connect with. Good, honest, real businesses that not just need and acknowledge that they need help, but they’re good people” who “have business experience and knowledge and insights on what real business ownership means.” Those are the people he feels he can best help.

John can be reached on his agency’s website at: www.localseosearch.ca

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by John Vuong, owner of Local SEO Search based in Toronto, Canada. Welcome to the podcast, John.

JOHN: Thanks a lot for having me, Rob. I’m excited to be on your show today.

ROB: Super exciting to have you here. Why don’t you start off and tell us about Local SEO Search? I think we might know what your superpower is, but why don’t you tell us about it? 

JOHN: Yeah, definitely. I started this agency 8 years ago, back in 2013. My sole purpose is really to help the small to medium size businesses service their local community and really help them for their digital presence, so make them appear more visibly on search, in particular Google.

ROB: Interesting. We’ve talked to some different SEO firms, but a lot of times they’re more on that “trying to rank for a keyword,” that B2B software client. How does that work differently with local? How do the tactics and mindsets differ when you’re trying to be the pizza place somebody finds when they look locally?

JOHN: There’s a lot of different nuances. In my background – and maybe I’ll take a step back before I even start with starting the agency. I actually worked 10 years prior in advertising/sales, and I dabbled in traditional advertising/sales and print media directories, some online affiliate performance-based networks, and then I resided and worked for 5 years at Yellow Pages.

For me, I really learned a lot about local businesses, understood what gaps, opportunities, and challenges they had, and what they wanted to look for or to in an agency, or someone that they wanted to build their trust and relationship with. When I started this company, it was all about understanding them, asking the right questions, and understanding what they really, really cared about in terms of staying connected and harvesting a good relationship long term.

For me, that’s all I needed to get into this agency world without knowing how to run an agency. Working at Yellow Pages is not your traditional digital agency. It was more traditional channel print media, telephone book. But I learned a lot from a big company, how to run a real company.

In terms of local, the big thing for me was understanding who their customers were, understanding their challenges/problems, and ultimately the customers that were consuming their product or service. Fast forward to now Google and how local sets themselves apart from the traditional organic traffic, Google My Business is the biggest asset piece for the local space. How you understand and claim and verify and rank for a lot of terms to be on that prominent proximity or relevant map is so critical for a lot of these small business owners because that’s how people shop, navigate, search for information.

For you as a business owner, I feel you have to understand what your customers are looking for. The keyword gap analysis, great, but positioning so that you actually know exactly that pizza shop, what people are looking for, seeking out – is it the weekly specials? Is it the different toppings? The convenience factor, proximity, free pick-up, Uber, whatever? There’s so many different variables.

Understand that. Make it prominent on your website, and then make sure that Google recognizes that it’s inside your schema markup, your sitemap. Make it easy for people to realize what you offer that’s accessible and simple for your customers.

ROB: Dig in a little bit just for a moment on schema markup. That’s something I think some of the amateur SEOs like me out in the world might know less about.

JOHN: Schema markup is just the way you sort your information on your website so that Google can index things. It’s another way to add attributes within your website. The key about everything you do in terms of not just digital, but in your business, is to make it as efficient as possible for your customers. The more simplistic it is, easy it is – just like your sitemap on your website, making it so simple that Google can go in there and crawl it without trying to navigate five layers deep on the content piece that’s relevant for the user.

If you mark it up so it’s simple, so that Google doesn’t have a problem indexing your site, it allows you to then make it a clean transfer of information/content to the actual users and make it easy for Google to then crawl and index your site.

ROB: Thank you for digging into that. It’s an interesting through-line going back to your work with Yellow Pages. You’ve been helping businesses be found by people for longer than you’ve had a business. That’s pretty fascinating. I wonder what a typical customer looks like for you. I might’ve pulled you down a path with that pizza restaurant example, but who are we talking about for your customers, usually? Are we talking about doctors or lawyers, home professionals, retail businesses? What’s the meat and potatoes of who wants to be found locally and wants some help with that?

JOHN: Our typical persona/avatar type of client is the professional service-based type of business, whether it be dentists, lawyers, physio/chiro, massage, anything medical spa-ish, as well as trades, which are the plumbers, roofers, etc. And of course, the B2B kind of businesses – manufacturing, distribution, e-com, etc.

The reason for that is typically it’s more competitive in nature, and in a local marketplace – I live in Toronto, Canada, and it’s one of the larger metropolitan areas in all of Canada. There’s more competition in dentists than there are barbershops. Therefore, if you are in business for a higher ticket service type sale of your client – and the lifetime value of a dentist is 7 years – so the value of acquiring a customer, you want the good type of avatar, a good ideal lead nurture of a client.

Understanding that whole process, understanding who you want to cultivate, understanding how you want to portray your brand or yourself as a business cultivates the best lead source if you do SEO properly with the right company, yourself, or freelancer contractor. It doesn’t matter. If you do it properly, you should have an inbound lead flow of quality clients begging for you, for your service.

Those are typically my type of clients because of the price point, the value that they’re looking for, and how difficult it is to get new customers in any other form of media channels, from social to paid ads to traditional, tradeshows, print media, radio, television. There are so many different media sources, but I feel SEO still cultivates the best lead source of your ideal type client.

ROB: That makes sense. You started walking down a path I was interested to get into. Obviously, SEO is the name you hang on the front door of the business, but you mentioned other marketing channels. Have you engaged more deeply into paid and content and some other things? Or have you kept it pretty tight around SEO?

JOHN: My agency focuses on SEO only, but there’s pillars within SEO. We take care of the strategy; we have specialists. We also have link builders. We have content creators. We have web developers, graphic designers, social media management. But that is all attributes and signals of what Google is looking for to rank a website. Anything that is required to rank a website, that’s what we touch. Anything outside that, which is usually paid – like if you’re doing paid ads on social or Google Ads or behavioral networks, performance networks, email, that’s different. We only focus on being a full-service SEO agency that’s more of a boutique agency.

ROB: You must’ve had clients, though, ask you to manage their paid budget. How have you looked at that temptation, potentially, and said no to it?

JOHN: We have that daily, actually. A lot of clients know they need SEO, and I tell them there’s a ton of agencies that offer full-service from paid ads to SEO to content, and they break it up, and that’s fine, a la carte. I just want to be really good at one thing and do it right and be known for it. There’s different strategies, different agencies out there. I just feel there’s a big enough marketplace for being the best at one thing. If you’re known for doing it really well, that’s what people know you by, and that’s enough business to be had.

I could dabble into digital, like paid ads, and hire someone in-house and take it over, but I’m not a true believer in that. [laughs] I have to believe in it at a very high level to really be a big, strong proponent of selling it.

ROB: Right. Super-duper interesting to keep that sort of focus. You mentioned your journey, you mentioned coming through that Yellow Pages background. It almost seems like there might’ve been a journey for you within that previous role before starting the company where you started to see something shift. What was your journey from “Hey, I’m working at Yellow Pages, I’m working with these businesses” to “I’m going to go start my own business”? Because it’s a big difference between having someone who pays your bills and figuring out how to pay your own bills.

JOHN: The journey definitely is something that I feel is a mindset journey for a lot of people. When I was at Yellow Pages, I was there for 5 years. I learned a ton about sales. I had the privilege to meet with thousands of business owners, and I was being mentored by them on what it takes to a business owner. And that’s something that was invaluable at that time, for me to then pick their brain on what really mattered in not just business ownership, but in life. These people were so grateful to be ultra-curious about how they ran their business, what really made them happy, and what ultimately they wanted to do for their community, for their family, to have a good lifestyle.

That’s what resonated with me, along with, of course, selling ad space in a more dated format like the print directory, which allowed me to know that there was a gap in opportunity in the marketplace. People wanted to go with someone they trusted, or a company, but they didn’t know how to do it and what was involved. So I wanted to be that transition piece.

As you know, paid ads in the Yellow Pages was a diminishing return on investment. People were spending more than ever, getting fewer people transacting. The return on investment was lower, and people like myself were spending more time on Google to do search results. I knew there was an opportunity digitally. I didn’t know anything about SEO at that time. I just knew there was a gap in the marketplace to add an idea, and I knew there were people willing to pay for someone or something to help them. That’s all I really needed to get my foot in the door.

But it was all timing as well. I did extremely well at Yellow Pages and ads, so I was doing well in sales. My wife gave me the go-ahead, because she had a stable job opportunity. For me, it was more, look, I can go get another job, maybe work at Google, work at another ad agency or whatever – or I can try something. Basically, she said, “Go for it.”

The first couple years it was a struggle to learn how to run a business. [laughs] More so than the SEO thing at all. My strength was sales, so I was out there selling from Day 1. The first two months, I already had 10 clients. So, the sales aspect wasn’t the challenge; it was more about now I had to figure out how to deliver and hire people and manage, customer service. I realized there’s so much more to running a business than just sales.

ROB: For sure, that is an interesting part of the journey. I wonder a little bit – I don’t know if Yellow Pages ever tried this, but I know a lot of the TV and radio stations and the conglomerates around them that used to sell to local businesses tried to make this transition. They’ve been selling TV ads, radio ads, billboards to these local businesses for forever.

A lot of them tried to make the jump into selling digital advertising and selling SEO, but it just doesn’t seem like that transition worked for them. What is it that made it hard for those organizations to turn the corner where they already had the client relationship and build up that new line of business?

JOHN: I think the biggest barrier for them was they were so comfortable with the margins they had. With a big company like Yellow Pages, they were so comfortable with a directory that they billed monthly for ads where they printed an ad, and the cost was less than one-quarter of a month. I knew the cost and the margin of retaining a customer and getting them to buy ads in their asset, which was the printed book.

Now you go digital and the margins are a lot less; to get into that and then not know what expectations and profitability is, it’s going to be bad on their shareholders because ultimately it’s all about big business. For me, that’s where this was a huge gap. I’m realizing, now that I’ve been doing this for 8 years, why do these business owners gravitate towards smaller boutique companies? Because the big guys will try to cut corners for cost – not deliver on the actual results. They’re trying to do as little as possible and earn as much money as possible.

ROB: And they’re not used to doing the execution at all. You put something in a book and you’re done versus managing a relationship, actually having to do execution, having to apologize. I’m sure something goes wrong sometimes in the Yellow Pages, but not the same way – I know of an ecommerce site that stood up their ecommerce site and WordPress had a setting that said “Don’t Index Me.” That was kind of a problem for their SEO on a site migration. It doesn’t usually happen that way in print.

JOHN: Exactly. Again, digital is so multi-touchpoint and so many people need to be involved. With traditional media, like newspaper, flyer, tradeshow, radio, television, they already own their asset piece. It’s a sunk cost. So, for them, it’s all about ad spend and people. When you look at what is required for digital to perform, you invest a ton of money. For these companies that were so reluctant to spend and invest, and so comfortable with that profit margin, very difficult to get that mindset. Especially when they’re older in terms of the older generation. They’re okay with the status quo. They don’t really forward-think like what we see today. As digital agencies, we have to look ahead. We have to stay ahead of the curve.

ROB: You mentioned those first couple of years where you were learning a lot about running a business. You mentioned that you had some customers pretty early. Was there a point where it felt like you had turned a corner and you said, “Okay, we’re not just trying this, we’re doing this” and hit escape velocity where you’d built up a team now where you saw that ahead of you?

JOHN: My goal to do this was either commit, do it properly, or not do it at all. For me, my intention was spend less time in the business eventually and learn as much as I can, early days. Because I did have a family but I didn’t have children yet, I had time. I didn’t have a lot of money because I bootstrapped everything. It was like, I’ve got to figure this out. I’ve got to make this happen. I’ve got to make this work.

I didn’t really have a digital background. No technical skills, no SEO skills. I had to learn it. I had to figure it out. My background was always just sales, but then I had to learn how to manage and operations and bookkeeping and all that other stuff that I needed to run a business. But that’s the challenge of business ownership and entrepreneurship. You should always try to grow. You should always try to learn. And there are going to be tons of mistakes along the way. You have to acknowledge it, move ahead, and get better every single day, every hour.

Challenge yourself. Figure out, what are the gaps? Where are the opportunities? Talk to people and get out there and learn. There’s so much to it, and we only have a 30-minute podcast, so I don’t even know where to start because there’s so much I’ve learned over the last 8 years.

ROB: It’s such a big journey. I think you came into SEO at a pretty interesting time. SEO has an early baggage of being a gimmick business rather than a discipline business, or at least some people were very much in the gimmick business for a while. Were there any gimmicks or tactical short-term wins that you had to look at early on and either steer away from or get bit by once or twice to learn – I feel like what I would say is the best way to be found is to be worth finding, but it took us a while to get there in the SEO industry.

JOHN: Yeah. There’s so many hacks, fast ways. This is life in general, I feel. I was very fortunate working at Yellow Pages, where I met these business owners that were generationally in business – not just 5, 10, 20 years, but think about different lifetimes – 50, 100, 150 years. How did they survive without the internet? Internet’s only been around for 15-20 years, right? Google has only really taken off in 10-15 years. It’s transitioned and transformed the way we shop and our behaviors.

Imagine these businesses. What did they do so well to keep them sustained? They took care of their customers. They relied on word-of-mouth, referral business. They understood how to run a really good business – service, pricing, competitors, unique selling proposition, understanding all their products and services. Inside out, they knew how to run it.

If you take that foundation and you put it now digitally, people don’t put that much effort in the foundation of a business online. They’re looking for shortcuts. And in life, typically there’s no shortcuts. Just like any profession – not just in business and entrepreneurship, but profession as in if you’re a dentist or a lawyer or a doctor or a plumber, is there a shortcut to become one of them? Probably not. You probably have to go to school. You probably have to apprentice. You probably have to work as an associate. You’ve got to put your years in, training in, learning in. By the time you put in your 10, 15, 20 years, then maybe you have enough savings to start your own business.

But now, with internet and with a lot of social media and videos and podcasts and everything, people find that it’s easier for knowledge and information to be transferred. You can access information at your fingertips. There’s so much information and intel at your disposal. However, there’s not a lot of experience at your disposal. A lot of people think there’s easier ways, faster ways to earn a living, and they get bitten by these videos or ways to do it.

Just like a sports athlete, I’m all about mindset. I’m all about habits. If you look at one of the top basketball players – Michael Jordan, LeBron James – or Tiger Woods – how many years of training did they have to harvest? How many hours, how many years of dedication from help, practice, failures, to actually become that? People forget that in terms of business, and that’s why in the first couple years of business ownership, a lot of people fail. They watch a video, they read a book, they listen to a podcast, and they purchase something on Wix or Squarespace or Shopify and build a site thinking, “Now I have a business.” But they don’t have business experience and knowledge and insights on what real business ownership means.

That’s the gap that I’m saying. In terms of what I’ve seen over the years, I’m more a mature business now because I’ve learned from the type of clients I want to work with versus the type of clients that are not even real business owners yet because they’re not profitable or they don’t know how to run a business. I don’t want to train someone how to run a business to be working with them, if that makes sense. People that are starting off or have an idea aren’t my clients.

ROB: Right. Those clients tend to go away. It’s a great point about the athletes and about the experience. I think I heard you mention before “I didn’t have kids yet,” which makes me suspect you may have them now? 

JOHN: Yeah.

ROB: So I think because you have experience, you don’t have the time you used to have. Tiger Woods isn’t as young as he used to be, and at one point he had to retool his entire swing to stay competitive, and there are still things he changes in his game now. Because he’s not as young as he used to be, now he has to heal two broken legs, I think. That’s what I think I saw, I don’t know. But he’s going to figure out and adapt, and experience is going to be the thing that gives him what maybe having raw energy and pure physical prowess gave him early on. We still have to work all those muscles. But it’s a great point, a great analogy.

JOHN: Yeah, ultimately it’s mindset, right? What you feel will be what you want to do for a very long time. A lot of business owners are in it for the wrong reasons. They’re chasing money or chasing fame and glory or trying to be the best, but they don’t put in the work to become it. Business ownership is the same way. SEO is the same way. Digital ad agencies are the same way.

I’m not selling a fake promise. I’m being authentic in terms of the journey. I want people to realize how long it takes, what’s involved, and let them make an informed decision. The more you’re up front with any transaction or interaction you have with your customers, the more likelihood they’re going to stay with you for the long term.

ROB: You’re still doing it. You have more people, you have in some ways more opportunities, but also more problems. So, what is it at this point that makes it worth it to you?

JOHN: I’m really just looking for good people to connect with. Good, honest, real businesses that not just need and acknowledge that they need help, but they’re good people. The challenge with digital agencies – and again, I’m not your traditional agency coming from the ad world. I come from Yellow Pages, and that’s all I built my business around. Long-term trust in clients that have a problem, fixing the problem and answering it. It’s not rocket science, but it’s very simple.

People overcomplicate things with funnels and landing pages and different ways to try to cultivate new clients. I’m the type of guy that just went door-knocking at the beginning to get clients, and it worked. These things that really foundationally set these business owners apart when they first started still apply. People are always looking for shortcuts; there’s no shortcuts.

ROB: And it turns into – generically, not speaking specifically to the business – saying you’re in the business of helping good people achieve what they want in their business in a way that you’re skilled and enjoy. Isn’t that what I think most people want from their work?

JOHN: Not only will I give it all my best effort and my team will do what we possibly can for all clients, I’m trying to cultivate good, ideal customers that you want coming to you and positioning yourself as a thought leader. So, for me, I think a lot of business owners need to realize why they’re in business, who they want to go after as their ideal type of client, and then focus heavily on that versus trying to take anything they can.

Yes, maybe when they’re first starting, you’re doing that because it’s like survival mode. But then you realize as you mature in your business what you really want to be known as. Who do you want to cultivate as an ideal customer? Just have fun. A lot of people forget about why they started the business in the first place.

ROB: That’s great advice, John. You’ve shared a lot of good lessons along your journey. Is there anything else you can think of – a key moment, a key decision you want a do-over on if you could? Obviously, we can only move forward, but if you could change something on the journey?

JOHN: For me, I wouldn’t, actually. Even though I made a ton of mistakes – I mean, I still make mistakes every day. I’m learning. I’m constantly eager and I’m hungry to want to be better. I don’t have to be the best, and that’s okay too. I’m always trying to get better. I know there’s gaps in the agency. I know there’s gaps in client expectations, and we can do more. I’m all about generating more value for my customers, taking care of my clients, taking care of my staff, and being a better human and living a better life of joy and happiness. If I’m enjoying that entire journey and process, that’s what being a business owner should be about.

ROB: That’s fantastic, John. When people want to find you and Local SEO Search, where should they go to find you?

JOHN: They can check out my website. It’s www.localseosearch.ca. We’re located in Toronto, Canada, but we service clients all across North America, UK, and Australia.

For us, it’s all about helping good people and informing them with decisions and letting them decide. I equip people with insight and knowledge, and they make their own decisions of who they want to work with and what they want to do. But just be informed. I think that’s the biggest thing about SEO. Know what you want and go out there and be realistic, because there’s experts or a lot of information out there; you just don’t know who to trust and what that really means.

ROB: When one goes to Google and types in “local SEO search,” I can affirm that you’re proving your craft. You are the number one organic result for “local SEO search.” Not only that, there’s like four or five ads above you, which means people really want that spot. It seems like there’s some evidence here that you can do your job, John.

JOHN: Thank you, Rob.

ROB: It’s pretty cool. And you’re above people like BrightLocal and folks who would really like that slot. That’s pretty impressive.

JOHN: Yeah, Whitespark, BrightLocal. All of them have their own business. I feel just stay the course. It’s a long game. Have fun, enjoy it.

ROB: Sounds good, and we shall. John, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It’s been great to hear your own journey and wisdom from it.

JOHN: Thank you, Rob.

ROB: Bye.

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 info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.