Context: This was a fun old-fashioned phone conversation between Carmen and Phil that Carmen then transcribed and 'massaged.' Enjoy!
Phil Rozek of Local Visibility System has been doing local search almost longer than local SEO has been a thing. In 2006 he began learning how to build and run Google AdWord campaigns.
By 2008 he'd begun working on his Local Visibility System Kit after publishing an article about Local Business Search in The Sun Chronicle of Attleboro, MA, a time when local search was still brand new and few people had heard of it yet.
Today, he's one of the most trusted local search consultants in the industry.
He's been a speaker at multiple conferences, has helped business owners in an incredible range of industries, and even offers Mastermind Sessions to other consultants looking to excel as local SEOs.
A Local SEO Interview between Phil Rozek and Carmen Rane Hudson
Phil was more than willing to sit down and have a chat with me. He provided tons of great insights for anyone who either wants to launch a new local search business or who wants to improve the one they already have. Here's our conversation.
Carmen: What's the best piece of advice you'd offer to someone starting out as a consultant or agency providing local SEO, local search and marketing services?
Phil: Become someone's low-paid apprentice or do local SEO for free before you try to make a career out of it. In that order.
In some cases, you're not going to be able to find someone who will take you on as a low-paid apprentice. If that happens, do local SEO for your church, or the local dog shelter, or the local library. Do it for your spouse's business.
This gives you a chance to try your hand at it. It also gives you a chance to back out if you end up saying, "This stuff sucks! I don't like it! I wouldn't even do it if you paid me for it!" Do it this way and you get one last opportunity not to move forward.
The alternative is sort of pointing your finger in the air and saying,
"Starting today, I'm going to become an SEO! I'm going to get paid good money for my time and expertise."
You'll look silly doing that. And then you'll end up having to offer pro bono services or steeply discounted services anyway.
If you're just starting out, especially these days, where SEO and local SEO have been around a little bit and there are other people who have been in the game longer than you have, you're not going to get paid much right away. You're not going to be worth that much when you start out. So you have to have a way to develop your chops.
It also helps if you can draw on skills you had from your previous life. You don't necessarily have to be a techie or a link-builder, but SEO should have some relationship to your current skill-set.
You shouldn't get into it just because you think it sounds like a good job description. It's more like a labor of love, and it takes a lot of work to turn it into a living.
Carmen: What was the biggest challenge for you when you first started helping other businesses with their online visibility?
Phil: I like to call these challenges my "unholy trinity."
First, early on I didn't have a deep reservoir of experience to draw on. If I encountered a difficult situation I couldn't tell my client, "Oh, I've seen this ten times before, I know what to do or not do."
Second, I wasn't very good at screening clients. These days, the preliminary questionnaire I have posted on my site isn't just icing on the cake. It's not even optional. I ask potential clients to fill out both pages, all 38 questions, before anything else happens. If they refuse to do that, if they want to just get me on the phone so they can describe what's going on, I say, "No, have a nice day, I'm not interested in working together."
This initial screening gives me the basic facts on whether a local SEO campaign is going to be a Yes, No, or Maybe. Without that you end up working with people who have unrealistic expectations. Or you're their 17th SEO company. And not all SEO companies are bad.
Some clients don't know what they're doing and might be locker-room poison! You've got to ask yourself:
"Are they spamming Google My Business? Do they have a link network? Are they on the straight and narrow?"
When I first got started, I'd say,
"Great, here's where you can mail the check, and here's what I can do next week."
Now I'd say it's better to have the facts before money changes hands, before you spend any time with these people or set any expectations.
Without that you get people who take up all your time, take up all your energy, people who ensure you can't do a good job for the better clients who are in a situation which allows you to help them.
So remember, any client list is only as good as the weakest link in the chain. Every SEO should develop his or her own pre-screening mechanism. That would be my biggest piece of advice to anyone starting out.
Carmen: And the third challenge?
Phil: It's very related to the second challenge and it's one reason people don't always have a way to screen clients. Early on, I didn't really have a lot of word-of-mouth mojo or other referrals coming my way. I had to get started somehow. I had various ways to drum up business.
In retrospect they were enough, because I lived to SEO another day, but I didn't have other SEOs, other marketers, or other agency owners recommending me to people, and in some cases to their own clients, like I do now.
And even now, not all those people are good fits for me. I like leads that have been in my "tribe" a long time. They read my posts. I get their emails regularly in my inbox. They feel like they know me even if they've never talked to me and I feel like I know them.
My best clients are people who like me.
The point here being, not even all warm referrals are great, but early on I didn't have any. I wish I did. It would have been better than not having any leads at all!
And the reason these two challenges are linked is if you don't have a lot of leads coming your way you're less likely to screen out the leads you do get. You think, "I'd better use every lead I've got!"
That's a really tough thing to tell someone who is just getting started. Telling them they should say "no" even when they feel like they really should say "yes" all the time.
It's better than taking on a bunch of clients you shouldn't have taken on and find you're unable to do your best work for those clients.
Carmen: How do you find and acquire clients for your business? What's been your most effective channel, networking event, or strategy?
Phil: You know, I think in general you can only have about 3 marketing channels you really do well on. For me the big 3 are the blog, my email newsletter, and then referrals.
This varies from person to person obviously, but for me my blog has been the heart and lungs of it. It wasn't always that way, because before I had a half-decent blog my email newsletter was my saving grace. Without that, a crappy site connected to a half-decent email newsletter, I wouldn't have been able to stay in business.
Today, the blog gets most people to my site directly or indirectly. It gets people on my newsletter. It helps other local SEOs learn about me. In many cases, these other marketers and SEO drive word-of-mouth advertising for me, referring people to me.
Carmen: What's the best value proposition or selling point for agencies pitching local search and marketing services?
Phil: An agency's pitch should clarify what unglamorous work they're going to be doing for the client. It should talk about stuff that's not easily scalable, stuff the 24-year-old cubicle intern kid can't do, that a higher-up or more experienced person needs to do.
Agencies need to talk about steps that might not work out well. Steps that might only have a long-term payoff. And this is true whether you're doing it for the client or are just helping the client do it.
Most agencies make local SEO sound like a clean, paint-by-numbers approach.
Just write the check and click the button!
They'll parachute in, your rankings will go up, and it will all happen fast. But oh, if you stop with them, your rankings will go poof, and you'll have nothing to show for your months or years of working together.
In reality, the local SEO process is a slog. It involves a lot of tough work. So tell the client about that tough work, and tell them how you're uniquely suited to help with that.
It could be something like:
"we're great photographers, and we can leverage great photography to give you visibility you didn't have before."
Or, "we're SEO people, but we're also damned good writers, look at some of our work."
Or, "we're good at rustling up links, and we do a lot more than buy low-value links on Fiverr or oDesk."
Do this right and you'll attract better clients. Clients with the right expectations, who aren't as difficult to work with. Then, agencies find themselves with fewer ethical quandaries.
Carmen: What sorts of ethical quandaries?
Phil: As in,
"We promised X results to Y client with Z unrealistic expectations. We want to keep this client, but the client wants us to spam, or crank out fake GMB pages, or write fake reviews, or buy a bunch of links."
Agencies with clear value propositions won't appeal to everyone, but they don't get into trouble either. They're only going to appeal to a certain type of client, but the clients will be better. This all ties in to my earlier points about screening your clients.
What you say on your site really influences who you end up working for, what you do for those clients, how much you charge, and how long you work together.
And if what you say on your site matches what your clients are saying about you in online reviews and testimonials, you're in a pretty good position.
Carmen: Otherwise, you've got a problem!
Phil: Yeah. It's what I see with a lot of agencies.
They talk a good game, but they have no case studies, testimonials, or reviews on sites that come up when you search for that agency or person by name.
It creates cognitive dissonance. Sometimes it's not even clear they've ever worked with a client. It's not clear they have happy clients.
Who are these people?
Carmen: What are the most important metrics you track?
Phil: I only track two. What Google Analytics says, just in general, and the answer to the question I routinely ask my clients, which is, "How's business?"
I don't track rankings. I pay very little attention to GMB insights. If I'm doing AdWords I will worry about AdWords KPI, but I don't do that for all my clients.
And what I look at in Google Analytics depends on the client. Goal conversions aren't applicable to all local businesses. You can't always track that. I don't even watch Analytics very hawkishly. I don't pull customer reports and send them to my clients every month. I ask them,
"How's business, where are your customers coming from, and are there any new patterns you'd like me to know about?"
Obviously as an SEO I care about rankings and traffic, but those don't pay the bills.
Carmen: Why do you do it differently? That's the exact opposite of what I see others do.
Phil: The way I see it, I can spend a bunch of time reporting, or I can spend a bunch of time doing work.
If I do my job, typically clients know. They get more emails, or they get more calls, or they get more customers. Or it's some combination thereof.
I've had clients whose traffic is on a downward slope, but who get more customers and are doing better than ever. I've had clients whose traffic and rankings went up but got fewer customers. I've seen every situation in between.
I have many clients and I try to get my services surgical. I try to keep it lean and mean. I'm not charging for three hours of consultations every month. I cut the fluff. At the end of the month I send my ongoing clients a report detailing the work I did in the previous month.
I don't even have a contract. I rely on them to say,
"This looks good, I like what Phil is doing, I want this to continue."
If they want me to spend more time reporting or digging into KPIs I do that, but my default is to spend less time measuring and more time working.
The main thing is not to get caught up in a bunch of SEO naval-gazing. The main thing is keeping open communication with my clients so we can troubleshoot and figure out how to make their business better. If I spend all my time reporting, instead of relying on what the business owner tells me, ultimately I'm still flying blind.
Carmen: What aspect of your service do clients typically respond to the most? Is it seeing themselves on search? Getting in the local pack? Improving their online review performance? Seeing a revenue increase to their bottom line?
Phil: To that, I would say, "All of the above!"
But there are some additional things I think they like about me specifically.
One is, I don't do "easy-come, easy-go" work.
I don't ever claim local SEO will be easy.
I don't claim I can help them quickly.
I also don't claim there's one solution to any given problem they have.
Instead, I look for all the problems that might be holding them back. All the opportunities they may be missing out on. Either for links, or for getting better reviews, or for getting more or better content on the site.
If you do that, as opposed to chasing algorithm updates and bouncing between penalties, looking for hacks and shortcuts, then whatever visibility you get in search results is going to last. That visibility is more likely to bring customers rather than rankings.
Rankings are great, but if nobody's calling who cares?
They also seem to appreciate how I try to make myself unnecessary in the long term. The ideal situation is,
"I don't need Phil to manage my local SEO, I know what he does, I know his process, other people in my organization can do it if Phil gets hit by a bus...but why on Earth would I ever want to be without Phil?"
I don't want them to feel afraid they'll just drop off the map if I ever stop working. I want them to work with me first out of necessity because they have a hunger to improve, but then I want it to feel real optional.
I really try to open the kimono and explain everything I'm doing. I tell them why I suggest what I suggest. When there's something I don't know I might say, "I don't know why this seems to work, but in my experience it seems to. Here's why I think that is."
Clients don't have to learn from me as they go, but they always can.
Finally, it's very clear who is accountable for their results or lack thereof. I'm the opposite of the agency. I do have helpers who help me do things, and they do a great job, but they do their work according to my specifications. If it's not good I never say, "That's terrible, I'll chew them out for that, let me make it up to you." It's always clear the buck stops with me.
Carmen: For someone who is starting out as a local search consultant or agency, would you recommend they become industry specific when service clients or industry agnostic?
Phil: I would say industry agnostic by a country mile! If I had to provide one reason only for that I'd say it's because you see many more situations and get to draw ideas from different types of businesses and business models. Then you can apply them to whatever type of client you happen to be working on it.
You can read more about this in a post I wrote called: "Should You Hire an Industry-Specialist Local SEO?"
Carmen: What role do online reviews play in your services, and how important are they to local search?
Phil: They're a big part of my services in that I can help clients put together a solid review strategy if they don't have one, or I can help them refine or troubleshoot a strategy that just hasn't been working.
Although I have a bent towards in-house home-brew manual methods this is where I tend to recommend services like Grade.us. Third-party tools often (but don't always) have a place in the strategy.
To local search in general: it's do or die.
Rankings without reviews are not worth that much. The rankings are much less likely to stay good over time and they're typically less likely to yield customers. There are many other benefits.
I did another post on this one if your readers want to see more, called: "The Ridiculous Hidden Power of Local Reviews: Umpteen Ways to Use Them to Get More Business."
Carmen: What's your best piece of advice to consultants or agencies who want to offer review management services?
Phil: Don't hide behind the tool. Grade.us and similar tools are great. If they're part of your review strategy, great. If they are your review strategy you may need to make adjustments.
For example, your customers have to know to expect a review. Ideally, someone should ask them in person so an email request doesn't happen out of the review. Someone should also respond to the reviews personally, and in a non-boilerplate fashion, to make it clear the business owner actually listens, reads, or cares.
Keep in mind if a tool works really well, even if it's white labeled, the client's going to catch on eventually. If you're not careful they'll ask, "Why do I need you? I could just use Grade.us myself, I can use it better than you can, and I can avoid paying your markup. Why don't you worry about links, listings, and my website and I'll worry about reviews?"
That's where the agency has to do more with reviews than just setting up an ORM solution for the client. That should be part of it, but it shouldn't stop there.
Carmen: Once an agency sets up an ORM solution, where do they go next?
Phil: I don't have a clean answer. It totally depends on the client, what work you've done so far with them, and how well it's worked. In some cases the ORM is all the client needs.
But if your client's customers are on the older side, for example, then they might not be in the habit of writing a lot of reviews. They may need someone to walk them through the steps, or point them in the right direction. They may need a more high-touch approach.
Your client may need someone, a dedicated reviews czar, to walk customers through the steps, or point them in the right direction. They may need more of a high-touch approach. An ORM solution can do a lot of that, but the people in your client's organization have to know what to do.
You have to have a strategy for people who don't want to use their full names in a review. If you're any kind of an attorney, or doctor, for example, some people are willing to review you, but they don't want to have their name splattered across the web. You need a strategy for getting them to speak up and to make them comfortable with it.
In either case, either the local SEO company needs to do some of the hand-holding or they need to show the client how to do the hand-holding.
Carmen: Anything else?
Phil: One thing the SEO company can always do is monitor which sites seem to matter. They can also analyze which sites the client does not have any reviews on. Those sites could include BBB, Angie's List...a lot of people overlook Facebook reviews (now recommendations). They don't have quite the same value as Google reviews or Yelp reviews, but you still want review on Facebook.
A lot of clients tend to overlook industry-specific or niche directories, where it is very much worth having reviews but for whatever reason they don't have any there. One big valuable ongoing activity is to bird dog review sites and to identify the gaps in the reputation.
Carmen: How would you recommend pricing review management services? Bundled with other marketing and local search services? Different models for different industries? Different models for different sized businesses?
Phil: Bake it into your consultation time. It's very hard to know even what the next steps are for a given client on the review strategy because they're all in such different situations.
Some clients will ask, "What's a review?"
Others have been buying reviews.
Others have only good spontaneous reviews.
Others are wracked with negative reviews and haven't done anything to get good reviews.
Some are doing great, and could be doing better. Some have reviews on one site, but not the half-dozen other sites where they could have great reviews.
I would go so far as to say if you start working with a client who doesn't seem to have a good review strategy, think how much time you need to spend consulting with that client every month, then double it. That's what you're going to need to put together a good review strategy.
Carmen: What are the biggest value-adds agencies would get by signing up for a Mastermind Session with you? What types of discussions do they typically end up being?
Phil: You can ask me anything. You can ask abstract questions. You can ask me about your processes. You can ask me to teach you my approach so you can adapt it and you want to cherry-pick my best advice.
You can even call and say,
"Phil, I have one location that's giving me headaches, or I have one client that's giving me a headache, and I need to do some troubleshooting. Can we work at this case together?"
As for why you'd want to?
Well, I've typically made more mistakes than the person on the other end of the line. I've been doing local SEO for some time, and I've had many clients, many successes, and many flops. I'm willing to share what I've learned!
Carmen: You certainly are, and we've seen it here today! Whew! Thanks for sharing all this information with me and our readers, Phil. You've been a trooper!
Phil: Thanks for having me!