The internet has come a long way in the last ten years and, as a result, so has SEO. Gone are the days of logging on to the dial up and using search engines as glorified encyclopaedias – these days, the world wide web is a much more sophisticated beast, meaning SEO has had to become one as well. Learning to play its game is crucial for businesses to master, as they become increasingly aware of the need to be at the top of the search pile when potential customers come calling.
For Kevin Gibbons this is nothing new, having first been introduced to SEO back in 2003 whilst working as a web developer, when it was little more than a piece of technical jargon. He became increasingly interested in its place in business marketing and, after learning the ropes, began his own SEO business on the side. Before long, he was earning as much in affiliate revenue as he was in his day job so decided to quit, setting up his first company, SEOptimise, in 2006.
“Back then, SEO was thought of as this dark art where people didn’t really know what you were doing but were happy to pay for results,” he remarks of that first foray.
Fast forward 16 years and he’s now the CEO and Co- Founder of Re:Signal, an SEO and content marketing agency that helps companies launch and manage large-scale SEO and marketing campaigns.
During the intervening years, he noticed the purpose of SEO begin to shift. “Getting a number one ranking used to about making companies look like they were the best, whereas now it’s about helping them get to the point where they actually deserve to be.” It’s this focus on quality that remains the driving force for Kevin, whose choice to stand by his principles has not always worked in his favour. “I’ve lost clients in the past because I’ve refused to use quick-fix tactics,” he notes, “but we need to make sure we’re adding value beyond what people already have.”
This, he explains, isn’t always the easiest task, as clients often come to him with preconceived ideas about SEO and what they think it can help them achieve. “Often, businesses will have read about SEO but don’t actually need what they think they do. So we have to respect the brief whilst also challenging it and exposing the client to what they really need. SEOmonitor helps us identify those challenges and monitor the progress of our actions.”
The Business Case Builder feature has proved particularly useful, helping Re:Signal build a forecast for campaigns that considers historical trends and search volume for keywords and realistically predicts how rank changes will increase session time and conversions. Other useful add-ons incldude a comparison tool that shows how much it would cost the client to use Google Ads versus a targeted SEO campaign.
In the same way that Google’s algorithms (and therefore SEO) are always shifting, Kevin has found that his understanding and experience of business is constantly changing. As he puts it, there’s a need to “adapt or die” – something David Goggins – the ultramarathon runner and author of the book Kevin is currently reading – also understood. Goggins talks about “callusing the mind” - toughening it up by learning from experience – which is a principal that has helped Kevin to grow Re:Signal to the multi-million-pound business it is today.
As a CEO, learning lessons is something you have to get comfortable with and for Kevin, “all of them were learnt through doing things wrong.” It’s this removal of the ego that allows space and objectivity to focus on what is most important.
"Now our number one priority isn’t our marketing campaigns or bringing in new business, it's doing great work for our clients, which, in turn, helps us retain them – and this is the best marketing tool of all.”
A good example of this was a moment a few years ago when Kevin looked at his own company and didn’t like what he saw. “We went through a phase where we looked great from the outside but we weren’t putting enough energy into our clients. What I realised is that the results have to come first, so we’ve switched our mindset and now our number one priority isn’t our marketing campaigns or bringing in new business, its doing great work for our clients, which, in turn, helps us retain them – and this is the best marketing tool of all.”
It’s this focus on quality that has allowed the company to grow. Kevin found that if he delivered high quality work for a small number of clients, they’d come back to him in the future and recommend his company to others looking for the same kind of marketing.
In the same way that Google did when it first emerged as a simple search tool, Kevin realised the power of doing only one thing, but doing it better than everyone else: “We’ve grown much quicker by understanding what it is we’re great at and not just saying yes to everything because we can. It’s impossible to be good at everything but you can be great at one thing if you have a narrow focus. We used to have an 80/20 rule to our client base, where 80% of the revenue came from 20% of our clients. Once realising this, we focused on working with a more select group (typically mid to enterprise level brands) and started to turn down the lower budget/longer-tail of clients - hiring a leaner / more experienced team in order to place our efforts behind best servicing our sweet-spot.” That Re:Signal has achieved this is undeniable. The multiple national and international business awards the company has won speak for themselves. But Kevin continues to raise the bar, encouraging his team to persistently “push through barriers.”
“At different stages of that journey you need different people who can challenge you and help you think bigger.”
Kevin himself turns to the wisdom and expertise of others, citing mentorship as the key to his own development: “At different stages of that journey you need different people who can challenge you and help you think bigger.” This includes passive mentorship through books and talks, such as Gary Vaynerchuk, and active, such as the The Supper Club - a monthly meet up with like-minded fellow businesses owners that allows them space to share stories and valuable lessons.
Thinking bigger seems to be the aim of the game with SEO, which is quickly entering an uncertain future involving voice search and virtual assistants. As Kevin says, “a lot of it is unknown,” and the way people consume content and interact with their devices is constantly evolving.
“Everything is a test and learn process. Often what we’re doing isn’t 100 per cent perfect but as long as it’s better than what we did before, we’re heading in the right direction.”
Evolving, as Charles Darwin taught us, is the key to survival – something Kevin learnt long ago when he first ventured into the world of digital marketing and SEO and that he still carries today in his day-to-day running of Re:Signal. “Everything,” he points out as we wrap up our conversation, “is a test and learn process. Often what we’re doing isn’t 100 per cent perfect but as long as it’s better than what we did before, we’re heading in the right direction.”
Regardless of the client list and awards won, it is, perhaps, this attitude – this acknowledgment of the need to “adapt or die” as he so succinctly put it – that has kept Kevin Gibbons’ company at the very top of its game.
This article is part of a series highlighting the ups and downs of building a successful business in the world of SEO.
If you are thinking about building your own SEO agency or you are just starting up, we would want to lend a hand. The Spark programme gives digital marketing agencies that are under 3 years old £5.000 grants that can be used to track a year's worth of 18.500 daily keyword rankings, tracked on mobile and desktop, full access to "Business Case Builder" and "Signals".