Kevin Roy, Co-founder of GreenBananaSEO based in Beverly, Massachusetts
Kevin Roy is the Co-founder of GreenBananaSEO, a full-stack digital ad agency, best known for search engine optimization but also providing paid media, Google AdWords, Facebook, and programmatic display services. Over the years the team has developed a number of internal systems to keep up with the work, including a 24×7 online ordering system that funnels agency orders to his team and creates a workflow. Kevin says the agency always has more web development work than it can “keep up with” but over the past 15 years, it has always been a “loss leader.”
The agency’s motto is “Page 1 or you don’t pay.” Kevin explains that the agency does not guarantee the agency’s services will get a client on Page 1. It’s about whether the client pays.
Unless we get our clients on Page 1 for the keywords that they pick, they don’t pay us. If we don’t get them ranked, they don’t pay us. If we get them ranked and lose their rankings, they don’t pay us. We have to get them ranked and keep them ranked
Part of the “secret sauce” of the agency’s success is a comprehensive understanding of Google’s webmaster tools and its ever-changing rules. Websites are optimized “based on a few very important factors.” The agency has an 80-step process, which is frequently updated to adapt to Google’s policy changes. As a recent example of a new Google requirement, Kevin cites desktop viewability. The agency has integrated this requirement into the websites it manages and tested the sites to ensure they meet “all those metrics.”
Kevin warns against using “tricks” to “game the system” to get a site ranked. He says, “Google is always going to be bigger and have more resources” and will eventually figure out the “game.” “That’s not a position you want to put your client in,” he says. He believes it is more important to “just try to provide quality and relevance” and then adds, “It does take people a little longer to get ranked when you follow the rules, but it also is harder to lose your ranking when you do.”
When Kevin decided to start his agency, he offered to build websites and run SEO for three successful businesspeople on two conditions: that they not tell anyone that he “did it for free” and that, if they were happy with his work, they would recommend him. The strategy worked. Today, the agency is 100% referral and “business just keeps coming in.”
At the beginning of client engagement, GreenBananaSEO provides a free website audit and recommendations based on what it perceives to be a client’s problem. Kevin says the agency is a “digital executioner” with an SEO division and a paid media division (focused on key performance indexes/conversions). He says the agency does “almost everything on a screen that’s paid” including OTT (over-the-top) television, programmatic, geofencing, geotargeting, and addressable media. No billboards. No direct mail. “It’s all paid media,” he explains, and the agency is “hired by people to make their messaging and their branding work.”
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and my guest today is Kevin Roy, Co-founder of GreenBananaSEO based in Beverly, Massachusetts. Welcome to the podcast, Kevin.
KEVIN: Hey, thanks for having me.
ROB: Great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about GreenBanana and what you specialize in?
KEVIN: We don’t sell bananas. GreenBananaSEO is a full-stack digital ad agency, and we’re primarily known for our search engine optimization, but we also have a significant portion of our clients run paid media, Google AdWords, Facebook, programmatic display.
One of the reasons that a lot of people know us for search engine optimization is our mottol, which is “Page 1 or you don’t pay.” So unless we get our clients on Page 1 for the keywords that they pick, they don’t pay us. If we don’t get them ranked, they don’t pay us. If we get them ranked and lose their rankings, they don’t pay us. We have to get them ranked and keep them ranked.
And the big secret is there’s no secret. You just do what you’re supposed to do. Google publishes their webmaster tools. They’re not fun to read. [laughs] We read them and we optimize people’s sites based on a few very important factors that I could always touch on later. But you don’t try to game the system. You just try to provide quality and relevance, and you magically rank.
ROB: How do you think about socializing that knowledge across your team? Some people who are there might have an intrinsic knowledge of what it takes, they’ve digested the notes on what Google likes, what Google doesn’t like. But somebody new comes in or somebody’s new to the industry – how do you think about putting them on the path of not looking for tricks and of doing the right thing?
KEVIN: That’s a great question. We have a process. We have an 80-step process and we teach our members to follow that process. But we also have a hierarchy of SEO director-level knowledge that are always going and looking for the latest changes that Google has published that they made and how we have to adapt our process to that.
Something that just came out recently was desktop viewability. It’s something that Google is amping people for if they don’t have the right desktop viewability, so we have to make that part of it, go in and test that, make sure their site is hitting all those metrics and adapting the site to that.
ROB: That makes sense. SEO has a long history, and it’s been through – you’re making reference to tips and tricks, and there were all these conversations about “secrets.” There were tools people would provide that would tell you these secrets. Did you always come at it from the non-secrets angle, or was that an evolution and there were some tricks that once were kind of helpful, but have really attenuated as Google has evolved its algorithm?
KEVIN: The thing that’s always stuck in the back of my mind is how massive Google is. There are tricks and things that you can do to game the system and try to get the site ranked, but Google is always going to be bigger and have more resources, and they are ultimately going to figure that out, and that’s not a position you want to put your client in. I always say, it’s not if you get caught, it’s when you get caught. So if you decide that’s the game you want to play, then buckle up. Maybe that’s something you want to do, but that’s not what we do.
It does take people a little longer to get ranked when you follow the rules, but it also is harder to lose your ranking when you do. It’s a lot more beneficial. And our clients are real businesses that are really trying to promote their work, and they can’t afford to get caught for something we did.
ROB: Page 1, that’s a great target. Are there ever keywords I would want to target where you would look at me as a client and say, “You know, I get it, but that’s a no. We can’t guarantee that”? Is there a target that’s too high?
KEVIN: There are two parts to that answer. Number one, we don’t guarantee ranking. We guarantee that if we can’t get you there, you don’t pay us. So when people call and say, “Hey, GreenBanana, we need to get on Page 1 in a month for these keyword phrases,” I’m like, “Great. We have an AdWords campaign for that. I can guarantee you’ll get on Page 1 with a Google AdWords campaign because we’re going to bid higher than your competitors for that.”
But there are certain things Google takes into consideration, like domain authority, how long the site has been living, how much content is on the site, and that a lot plays into how successful we think we’re going to be before we start the campaign. So if you started a brand new dating website today and said, “I want to get on Page 1 for dating,” I would say, “Okay, it’s going to take us about 18 months to get you ranked. This is what it’s going to cost when we do get you ranked. Sign this contract.” And you’ll probably say, “I can’t afford this.” [laughs] Because eHarmony and Match.com and Plenty of Fish and those people have teams and teams of SEO people.
So yes, we can do it, but a lot of times if it’s a super broad term that is hyper, hyper-competitive, like – everyone calls us for mesothelioma. SEOs have been working on that for 15 years, so we have 14½ years of catch-up to do. It’s going to be expensive.
ROB: That all makes sense. Where did this whole thing come from, Kevin? What made you decide to start GreenBanana?
KEVIN: I used to be the web director for a company called eRoom Technology that ended up getting bought by EMC. It’s a workspace collaboration, kind of like – I don’t know if you use Basecamp or Teams.
ROB: I know all the stuff. ClickUp and so many things now.
KEVIN: Yeah, all those collaboration spaces. The company got bought out, and I had a team of people under me, and next thing you know I was doing about two hours’ worth of work doing web edit updates and going to the gym for the rest of the time and realizing my job was not going to last long. When my boss got let go, I went off and decided to start my own company.
I got a good severance package, and I went around and found three people in the area that were really good, that I thought were successful businesspeople, and I said, “I’m going to build you a website for free. I’m going to do your SEO. You’re not going to tell anybody that I did it for free, and if you’re happy with it, you can recommend me.” That’s legitimately how the business started.
KEVIN: Two of them worked out. One of them, that company either moved – I can’t even remember what happened. But two of them recommended me, and that started the spiral. To this day, I spend my time – we don’t have an outreach program. We don’t even do our own SEO. If you look at our SEO, it could be a lot better. I know the audience can’t see this, but the left-hand side of this sheet, there’s 30 RFPs that I had to write last week, and we’re 100% referral.
We just try to help people. We’ll do free audits for people and say, “This is what we think you should do. Your problem may not be able to be solved by SEO” – for example, if it’s a product that no one’s ever heard of before, SEO Is not what you want. It’s going to be programmatic or social to get in front of people that might like your product. So we spend our days doing that, and miraculously, business just keeps coming in. It’s been like that for 15 years.
ROB: When you mention RFP, is that an expression of interest from a client who needs a proposal, or more of a formal RFP, competitive…?
KEVIN: That’s a good question. I don’t write RFPs. Actually, I did. I wrote two and spent weeks doing them and no one ever called me back, so I don’t write RFPs. [laughs] People calling us and asking for quotes, that’s what I call RFPs.
ROB: Understood. So, you’re turning around a proposal, someone says, “What does this look like?”, you do a little bit of discovery, “I want to rank for this, I want to rank for that,” you turn it around and tell them, “This is what it looks like.”
KEVIN: Yeah. We do an audit and then come and tell them, “Hey, is SEO the right thing for you? If it is, we’ll help you pick some keyword phrases.” Then we send it to them, there’s usually a little back and forth, and then we decide if we want to move forward or not.
ROB: You just mentioned programmatic. I know earlier you mentioned not just SEO, but paid search, and then you mentioned social, which I didn’t hear you mention earlier. Scope of services is always an interesting conversation. Where do you draw the line? Are you doing paid social? Do you do organic social? Where do you say yes, where do you say no?
KEVIN: It’s all paid media. We do almost everything on a screen that’s paid, like OTT, which is connected to television, programmatic, geofencing, geotargeting, addressable. What we don’t do is anything print. We don’t do billboards. We don’t do direct mail. People hire us because we’re digital executioners. We don’t even do – if someone calls and says, “I want the sexiest branding of anybody,” that’s not what we do. We’re hired by people to make their messaging and their branding work.
We have an SEO division and we have a paid media division. The paid media team is solely focused on KPI or key performance indexes or conversions. When someone comes to work for GreenBanana as our paid media side, especially if they’re from another agency, I tell them, if you’re really, really good at this job, you can sell reporting for maybe two to three months. But you can sell conversions and leads forever. So everything that you’re doing, you should absolutely figure out in the very beginning. We don’t start a campaign until we figure out what the goal of the client is, and then you take the media that you’re serving and drive it to that goal and try to maximize it.
Sometimes social, like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, will outperform Google AdWords, or programmatic will outperform Twitter. A lot of our clients will come to us with, “Hey, I want to spend $5,000 in social and $2,500 in AdWords,” and we find out after running a campaign for 30 to 60 days, “You know what? AdWords is getting you double the amount of leads for the budget. We recommend you switch and pull your money from social into that.” And they always say yes, because the client doesn’t care who we’re giving money to; they just care about the success of the company.
So that’s how we do that. Our account execs are really well-versed in every single medium, and they’re medium agnostic. They don’t care if budget gets pulled from one medium to another, even if it affects our margin at GreenBanana, because our job is to get the campaigns to be most successful. Those are the clients that increase budget, that stay with us forever.
We have a plumber that has been with us for 13 of our 15 years, and they went from spending $750 a month to $40,000 a month over that long period of time because the campaigns that we’re working on are producing results.
ROB: Right. It’s an engine for their business now and would be a fairly terrifying thing to switch out, I think. Also hard to get too different – even if they wanted to test out a competitive firm, it’s a little hard because then you’re bidding on some of the same stuff, I would think.
KEVIN: Oh yeah, that’s a great point. You can’t run two Google campaigns because if you have two firms running two Google campaigns, Google’s only going to show one, and the one that’s showing is going to actually be more expensive than the one that isn’t. You just outbid yourself. So if you’re a company ever trying to pit one agency against the other, don’t have them run the same medium. Don’t have them both run Facebook or both run AdWords. It’s a terrible idea.
ROB: That sounds like a good way to spend $80,000 a month instead.
KEVIN: It’s a good way to blow a lot of money, yeah.
ROB: You mentioned you had this initial flywheel in the firm, three test subjects and some referrals, and still growing and spinning it by referrals. What was the moment – your title is co-founder, so where else did this start, and when did it start to expand beyond the co-founder territory?
KEVIN: It got to a point where I was – we do web development in-house. We never talk about it because we have more than we can keep up with, and for some reason, in 15 years it’s never been profitable. It’s always this loss leader. So I was doing a lot of web development, and I was outsourcing the stuff that I couldn’t keep up with. The outsource company that was local called me and said, “We can’t keep up with the demand that you’re sending us. Here’s a guy we recommend you send some of this stuff to.” His name is Mark, and he’s my business partner now. He and I really hit it off, and I said, “Let’s just get in this together because we have complementary skillsets.” So that was the co-founder piece.
When it went beyond it, we didn’t have any money when we started. We didn’t have any private equity. No angel investors. We would save a little and then hire an employee, and save a little and hire an employee. If you look at the trajectory of GreenBanana, we’ve always grown, but it’s been a slow, steady organic growth to where we are right now. There are companies that have surpassed us that haven’t done that, and you could argue that’s a great way to do it, just got a big influx of cash and hired a team. But we said, no, we’re just going to keep reinvesting the money we make and build and grow and learn.
As we grow, we build. We have internal systems that we’ve built because we have a lot of other agencies that are clients of ours. We built an online ordering system so at midnight, an agency can put in all the orders and have it funnel to my team and create a workflow. But that didn’t happen overnight. It took us a year and a half to build it.
ROB: Right. You mentioned this commitment to steady growth. It can be tempting to push the fast-forward button. How, over this time, have you resisted the temptation to – whether it’s to take a buyout and take some growth there, whether it’s to take in some money and boost some hires – how have you been thinking about that as you proceed and stuck to the path of building growth organically?
KEVIN: That’s a great question. In the beginning, no one was coming and asking us, “Here’s a bunch of money to go do something.” So that was easy. We did have some periods that we got a lot more customers than we could handle and we made mistakes. So that also made us nervous, and making sure that if someone just handed us a blank check, we probably wouldn’t know what to do with it. If the opportunity came where someone said, “Here’s a bunch of money and here’s the 10 agencies that we’ve grown exactly like yours,” that would be a lot more attractive.
Now that we’re at the revenue that we’re at, we’re actually getting people that are asking us for that. But we haven’t gotten anything attractive enough to have us say, “We’ll give up half the business for that.” That’s actually the answer. The answer is nothing’s been attractive enough.
ROB: That seems to be the case in services in general. I hear, at least, quite often that you’re measuring the value of the business based on EBITDA, based on your actual earnings, and maybe you can back out some expenses that have been loaded onto the business, that kind of thing. But really, if you’re healthy on EBITDA, then the business needs some cash to grow and some cash to distribute, and what’s the hurry on the sale? The terms aren’t usually enough to make you say, “I couldn’t make that much profit in three years.”
KEVIN: Right. Exactly. That seems to be what’s happening. Also, I don’t think digital’s going away. I do think that certain mediums may come and go, but we’re medium agnostic, so if Facebook blows up next month, it’s going to stink, but we can shuffle.
ROB: As you reflect on this journey so far – I guess you’re about 12 to 13 years in – what are some things you’ve learned on this journey that you wish you could go back and tell yourself to do differently? It sounds like you wouldn’t tell yourself to go take a check and get bought out, but I imagine there are some things you would consider doing differently along the way.
KEVIN: I think a lot of it is psychological for me. If I could go back and say to 12 or 13 years ago Kevin, I’d say part of being an entrepreneur is there’s a lot of times where you’re taking three steps forward and two steps back. But the two steps back are never that bad. I’ve spent countless sleepless nights thinking of the worst thing that could possibly happen, and it’s never happened. Not even kind of happened. It’s legitimately never happened.
So, if I could go back, I’d say stop worrying about that and focus on all the positive things because that thing’s never going to happen. And if it repeatedly hasn’t happened in 13 years, it’s not a coincidence. So I think that’s something I wish I knew a long time ago. But it’s also something that I continue to wrestle with because it’s kind of burned in the back of your brain.
ROB: Absolutely. I needed that reminder from some other entrepreneurs yesterday. You have that moment, you have that day, where something small bad does happen. We had a job offer out that I was really excited about, and the last eight offers we put out were all accepted, and this person said no. I was like, oh man, that was not the answer I wanted.
But same thing – you lose a client, but along the way, you’ve planted those seeds so that six months from now, you’re going to say, “That was a speedbump. That was not the end of the world.” We grew from there. A lot of folks said their experience has been they hired somebody better right after they got a no. It’s that long perspective, and I think planting the seeds and knowing you’ve done the work along the way.
KEVIN: Right. There’s a great quote – I don’t even know who said it, but you don’t find a way to go around the problem; you find a way to go through it. It seems to work out. We had an employee that stole almost a quarter of our business, left with that, and we made it back in a year. It’s honestly the best thing that’s ever happened. So things like that, at the time, horrible. And then I wouldn’t change a thing now.
ROB: [laughs] You might give them 50 cents to go do it.
KEVIN: Seriously, yeah.
ROB: They took maybe some customers that were more challenging to manage or maybe more loyal to a person than to the process. There’s a lot to think about there.
KEVIN: Yeah, and it makes you sit and evaluate and say, “What things do I have to do and what do I need and what are the things that are necessary?”, and you end up becoming better. That’s what entrepreneurs do. People that aren’t entrepreneurs don’t understand it because those people are the ones that won’t take that risk and say, “I’ve got to go. I can’t do this. I can’t handle this stress.” The entrepreneurs say, “I’ve got to figure out how to deal with it, because this is it.”
ROB: Right. Kevin, as you look ahead to GreenBanana, the future of GreenBanana and the practice areas you’re in – you mentioned maybe some channels go away, maybe there are some ways you’re thinking about shifting the practice – what does the future look like? What are you excited about?
KEVIN: I’m excited about – technology is increasing. Whether you find this good or bad, creepy or not, the amount of data you have on client behavior is only getting better and enabling us to be more accurate in helping our clients hit their conversions. So that evolution is really exciting.
With the products that we have, like Google launching GA4 – they already launched it, but GA4 is better than Universal Analytics in how you can see data. Those things inside the products are great, and there’s also all these other new products that are really exciting.
I’m personally really excited about decentralized finance and crypto. We’re trying to figure out a way to accept crypto payments. It’s a pain in the butt to figure it out, but little things like that are fun for me, and I think as long as you’re excited about learning about new tech, there’s always going to be a business for a digital agency.
ROB: That’s interesting on the accepting crypto side. Even for existing financial applications – we had a client who wanted to pay us their discovery budget on I think Venmo, and getting a business account up and running on these services from a KYC perspective, instead of a personal account – half the time it’s like they never even thought about it. There’s a lot ahead of us on that front, I think.
KEVIN: Yeah. That’s the part we’re having trouble with. If you want to send me crypto to my crypto personal wallet, it’s easy. We can do it literally right now. But getting it into the business, getting it into QuickBooks, getting it to my accountants – I was like, whatever. Future Kevin will work on that. [laughs]
ROB: Is there any particular business that you’re seeing, some type of business that is perhaps most open to paying in crypto? What’s that look like?
KEVIN: None of the current businesses we’re working with – I won’t say none of them, but most of them wouldn’t consider it. It’s just something I’m personally interested in and I think it’s going to happen.
ROB: Absolutely. A lot of these things took some time, and then it’s daily happenings. Pulling a little deeper into the topic, what are you seeing in defi and crypto? What direction excites you the most? Sometimes we’re placing bets; sometimes we’re just thinking about placing emotional bets with where we place our attention. What’s drawing you as the most tangible next few things that are going to happen?
KEVIN: I’m invested in crypto. The things that have done the best for me are Bitcoin and Ethereum. I do read some other defi newsletters, but full disclosure, none of them have done great. But I haven’t really gone crazy into it. I spend most of my time on my company rather than researching that. I think the ease of transaction and the transparency of the transaction is so important, and I think that is what is going to – once people start to get more comfortable with decentralized finance, the ability to send money back and forth where there’s a trackable ledger of it, I think that is really going to change business.
I mean, for us to get a check from someone, for us to send money back and forth, for us to do an ETH transaction, it’s our billing department on a phone call with someone, it’s back and forth, it’s waiting for 24 hours. Wallet to wallet is a QR code and a button, and it’s there, and the ledger’s there. I really think that’s going to start to change the world if people can let go of the fact that they’re not comfortable with it.
ROB: There’s a lot there and there’s a lot to learn from all at the same time. Some of this stuff is kind of hard, some of the fees are kind of high, but you also see – I was just out at South by Southwest in Austin, and one of the most visible activations there was for an NFT collection called Doodles. They’d let you in the activation with your SXSW badge, but they’d let you in the VIP line if you could prove that you were a holder of a Doodles NFT. Which is about 12 ETH, so it’s…
KEVIN: Yeah, that’s a lot of money.
ROB: Absolutely. Looking at that, someone was like, “Could you just buy it and sell it?” I said, it depends on whether the thing’s been pumped by the conference. If it’s pumped by the conference, you’re going to lose 2 ETH just because you bought it at a spiky time. That’s bad news.
KEVIN: I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the value of an NFT because it’s a picture on a screen that everybody can take. I know you pay and it’s yours, but you and I could take screenshots of each other right now. It’s hard to tell who owns it.
ROB: In this case they actually were validating ownership against the blockchain. To get in, they were actually authenticating the ownership. But definitely hard right now.
KEVIN: Exactly. It’s a currency that’s validated, but it’s like, what’s the value of having that picture other than getting an entrance? I understand that piece of it, but sticking it on your computer and saying “I own this,” like the picture behind me – it’s not really worth anything. I’m still trying to wrap my head around NFTs, and that’s my fault because I know that they’re really taking off.
ROB: There’s a lot to go there. Even in the judgment of art. I can buy art at IKEA or I can buy art at Sotheby’s, and those are two very different things. But I can buy art at IKEA that probably looks like something I could buy at Sotheby’s. The value there is subjective, and where it lands, who knows?
KEVIN: Yeah, exactly. I heard this really interesting podcast about a guy that was spending – he’s a wine collector, and some of those bottles of wine are hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he said, “I drank one and it really wasn’t that good.” [laughs] “You can get a comparable wine for $28.”
ROB: Absolutely, or $3 at Trader Joe’s, right?
KEVIN: It’s like, is that $400,000 better than the $3 one? [laughs] Or is it 15 times better?
ROB: Kevin, when people want to find and connect with you and with GreenBanana, where should they go to find you?
KEVIN: I used to lose my business card all the time, so I bought ijustmetkevin.com.
KEVIN: That’ll take you to my page. Or you can just go to greenbananaseo.com
ROB: That is excellent. Kevin, thank you for coming on the podcast. Thank you for sharing your experience, your knowledge, things you’ve learned. I think we’re all better for it. Thank you very much.
KEVIN: I appreciate your time. This was wonderful. Thank you.
ROB: Best wishes to you and the team. Take care.
KEVIN: Thanks. Take care.
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.