The evolution undergone by iAcquire, a Phoenix and NYC-based agency, in the last year trumps most digital marketing firms – let alone a business in any industry. When just under a year ago, the company hung its hat on link building (suffering a very public Google slap in the algorithm updates of 2012), now the agency has expanded to provide comprehensive SEO, in-house editorial and creative services, marketing strategy and research, and social media. In its nearly four years of existence, iAcquire has ridden the proverbial roller coaster of search engines and has come out on the other side raring to go.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with iAcquire’s founders and CEOs Jay Swansson and Joe Griffin to illuminate iAcquire’s journey throughout the last four years. They share everything from their beginnings as a SEO start-up, what excites them about organic SEO, why an integrative strategy is so important to big business, and where the industry is headed.
What drew you to pursuing a startup SEO firm?
Joe: We believe that search is the future of information seeking. We are marketers by trade, so naturally we are drawn to what we believe is the best medium for reaching customers.
We were drawn to launching a business in organic search because it’s an area where we believe we can do things differently and can have a strategic advantage. The other obvious answer is that we both have a deep web of connections cultivated over more than 25 years between the two of us, so we’ve got friends in the space, and we like working with our friends and colleagues.
Jay: Well, we first set out with one specific goal in mind — to be the best content marketing company in the world. A bit aggressive, probably, but we had and have lofty goals and expectations for our business and ourselves. Over the past four years we’ve probably worked on more than 1,000 unique, enterprise link campaigns and so, over time, we’ve collected a ton of data in different industries about what works and what doesn’t –in the end, what does it take to compete and win.
In the past two years our goals have expanded. We aspire to be a disruptive force not only in content and search marketing but also in digital marketing as a whole. Over the past two years we’ve developed a platform to connect best-in-class content creators with content curators and publishers. It’s our goal to help meaningfully connect brands with their audience through scalable, quality content marketing and resulting, improved organic visibility.
What excites you most about SEO?
Joe: SEO is constantly evolving. This year, SEOs are challenged by the mass exodus to mobile, hyper localization, and social media, and how those elements come together in a search result. Our industry is never at a standstill.
SEO is a big puzzle that ties together a brand’s marketing goals and vision…. It’s marrying marketing and technical, which creates an opportunity to continue to learn and be a part of something that is interesting and evolving.
Jay: Two things… One, the SEO industry is one of the most competitive in the world –the spending and earning power of organic search brings the smartest minds and that’s where we want to be. For us, it’s fun to reverse engineer a complex algorithm to find strategies to help brands compete and win.
Two, I am excited about where the future of SEO is headed. When Joe and I were first starting out in the industry it was a whole different game than it is now. It’s fun to see how SEO has become a respected marketing channel. In fact, more SEOs and technical marketers are getting promoted to C-level positions more than ever — SEO has become a more known commodity.
Brands are now, more than ever, allocating larger portions of their marketing budgets to earned media, and, specifically SEO and content marketing – this presents a huge opportunity for digital marketers.
Where do you think SEO is headed in the next year, five years, and 10 years?
Joe: In the next year, mobile SEO will be the fastest growing area in search – the flock to mobile is widespread, and it won’t stop anytime soon. In terms of local SEO, Google will hopefully get better at judging review sentiment. They’ve made progress on it, and hopefully will continue to do so. Reviews have become the new hot “spam” control button inside of Google. When Google can accurately predict reviews and user interest in a local company, those results rise to the top, so there is a lot of gaming going on there.
In the future, social proof will come into play much more in SEO – though it won’t be important than links. Facebook “Likes”, in my opinion, could be a stronger endorsement than a Retweet or a Tweet. Retweeting and Tweeting is not necessarily a positive thing; it can actually have a negative social sentiment. Search engines will be able to get their arms around Facebook “Likes” and other social signals. Meta tags, social cards, and the like are all part of the micro-data ecosystem which is likely still in its infancy. Google could easily implement a function that allows Facebook pages to share Like data in a way that is easy for them to understand, or on the other side, webmasters could code Like or Tweet buttons to share data with Google.
Manual considerations will also come into play more. As an example, it’s not always great to show off negative press for a company. It’s not always the best user experience to showcase negative reports as the highest ranked content. That doesn’t always constitute a good experience as a user. Search engines will be able to capture a better reflection of a brand in the future. They may also institute a manual review system for highly gamed keywords – so, keywords like “car insurance” don’t dynamically publish with the rest of the algorithm. They may first require “approval” at some point.
What advice would you give to young SEOs just starting out their careers?
Jay: I don’t know if I have any great advice – it just depends on what you want to accomplish. Do you want to be Internet famous? Do you want to make money? Do you want both? Do you want independence? Do you want to be part of a team? Do you want to lead a team?
If you’re going to work in the corporate world – identify the people that you want to work with and learn from, and assess the environment you thrive in. There are big agencies that will provide a very mature career path where you climb the corporate ladder and have a clearly defined path, but not all SEOs thrive in a structured corporate environment.
There’s a lot of value, however, in staying on your own. Get your hands dirty and learn by doing. There’s a ton of talent at the top agencies, but the smartest people that I’ve learned from keep a pretty low profile and kill it running their own sites. Again, it just depends on your goals and style.
Joe: For any employee, regardless of where you are in your career, it’s important that there’s a mutual employee-employer investment. If you are not ready to invest into your employer, you’re considering the wrong employer and vice versa. The ideal relationship is an equally heavy investment. Think about: “How can your employer make you better?” and “What expectation do they have of you, and are prepared to provide that?” Those types of questions will help you evaluate that balance.
You are advocates of practicing integrative SEO – search, social, content marketing, PR – Can you tell us a little more about this and why you think it’s the path other marketers should pursue?
Joe: In order to have a digital share of voice, you need to become a content brand. To do this, you need to create remarkable content that lives on your site and update it on a regular basis. Having a defined on-page content strategy and a clear strategy to promote it (off-page) is what defines a well-oiled content brand. SEO is just the process of making sure that this content is optimized on and off your site.
Jay: We want to be everywhere a consumer is, whenever they are collecting information and making decisions. If it’s a “how to” keyword we want to have a piece of content – maybe a data visualization, infographic, or video – to satisfy the consumer at that early stage. If it’s a “review-type” keyword we want to share the value of our client. If it’s short-tail keyword with intent to purchase, we want to lead them directly to the product or service. If it’s after the purchase, and they are on social media, we want to connect with them. You get the picture.
By connecting content marketing and social with the on-page user experience we start seeing the multiplier effect in organic rankings and conversions.
What have you seen is the biggest SEO knowledge gap in enterprises?
Joe: I think the biggest problem is that leadership does not understand SEO and what it takes to be a content brand andare not willing get educated in that area. It’s a lot easier to spend $1 million dollars on pay-per-click than it is to spend that same amount on SEO. It takes a lot more time, energy, focus, communication, and collaboration. It’s real easy to throw $1 million at Google AdWords, but you won’t get the same ROI as you would with inbound marketing.
A lot of these SEO-averse brands are going to end up like Blockbuster and just get rolled over by more disruptive, agile companies that are willing to educate themselves and execute smart digital marketing strategy.
Push advertising still works but it’s a really bad way to spend money. Dollar for dollar it pales in comparison to inbound. Big companies need to learn how to be disruptive and that starts with the CEO. The CEO’s advisors need to do their job too, and make sure her vision is being executed across the company.
iAcquire was briefly de-indexed by Google in May 2012. Can you discuss that experience and the outcome?
Joe: iAcquire did not set out to be a paid link company – we set out to be an agile and intelligent digital marketing agency. Paid links became a part of our business because it was an effective way to drive results for our customers.
Google took a very aggressive stance against link building in the end of 2011 and early 2012 and we unfortunately took a hit before we had the chance to fully transition to earned media, which is the model we have fully adopted today.
Ultimately we were the subjects of an article written by a journalist that talked about our paid linking practices. As soon as the article came out we realized how fast we had to move and within a week we stopped building paid links. From there we created a plan to quickly transition our clients away from this model. Within one month, we developed a strategy that was centered on content marketing and holistic SEO. We expanded our in-house editorial and creative team. We brought on market research, on-page, and social media experts. Within three months we hired more than 50 employees to fulfill these new areas of our business. The business has evolved rapidly and efficiently. It’s exciting.
Jay: We have always been a competitive company working with competitive brands. In the past, our strategies were strictly cost effective, efficient, and scalable with a quick ROI for our clients. To evolve from that singular focused link building, we ultimately wanted to expand our offerings, which we did at an expedited rate given the turn of events. It was where we were headed anyways, and because of our team’s agility, creativity, we were able to make the transition in a matter of months.
Last year, we added a full in-house editorial staff to support our content marketing offerings. We bolstered our market research component including audience analysis, on-page SEO, social media, community management, reputation management, designers, outreach, and digital PR capabilities.
From a business perspective we have the ability to work with brands in a variety of ways. Our strategy team focuses on enterprise brands to lead the solution start to finish –from market analysis, to on-page experience, to off-page content marketing. As we certainly have a focus on innovation, quality, and timeliness for the enterprise brand –we’ve removed barriers to entry so we can also help SMB brands connect with their audience via content marketing.
Our new enterprise website, iAcquire.com, is re-launching soon. We feel that the new site more accurately represents our team, agency, and, most importantly, our clients. Through 2013 we will continue to evolve and expand the digital footprint of our clients.
Image: Past & Future by Shutterstock