The Woman Who Saved SEO -- Rhea Drysdale

January 21, 2014: Rhea Drysdale has been helping clients achieve organic visibility for nearly a decade. She is sometimes referred to as “the woman who saved the SEO industry,” an allusion to her expensive, but ultimately successful 2010 battle to keep the term from being trademarked.

Today Rhea is CEO of her own agency, Outspoken Media, based in Troy, New York. As part of our continuing series of interviews with industry experts, Didit reached out to Rhea for commentary on critical issues affecting the SEO industry today.

Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part article; please click here for  Part 2.

Didit: You recently surveyed the backgrounds of people working in SEO and reported the findings on your blog. Were you surprised by any of the findings? I was struck by the fact that only 9 percent of people reported any formal institutional training in the field – does this indicate that academia is dropping the ball?

Rhea Drysdale: The same statistic was most interesting to me. It is difficult for academia to create an SEO syllabus. You can teach the foundation of SEO, but our industry changes weekly, which makes it impossible to teach in absolutes. Also, a lot of the methods and techniques we use are debatable – ranging from high-risk to low-risk, and we are not a regulated industry, so how do you responsibly teach that? Given that the vast majority of SEO practitioners do not have an educational background in search marketing, it’s more important that you get hands-on experience and independent study. Mentorship is another opportunity that breaks the mold of traditional education. It’s not up to academia; it’s up to you and your company to educate yourself.

Didit: I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot about this issue, but how do you feel about the entire ‘Not Provided” issue?’ How would you advise SEOs to deal with it? How important is the entire keyword data thing to how you do your day to day work?

Rhea Drysdale: I’m so over “not provided.” SEOs should have seen the writing on the wall. The bulk of us have already adjusted our expectations and reporting methods. I’ve been speaking for a while now about the importance of performance metrics. SEOs need to have a stronger grasp of business objectives to inform SEO strategy by defining KPIs and setting up reliable analytics. I still stand by what I wrote years ago: “not provided” is the best advertisement for Google Webmaster Tools.

Just last week, GWT released stronger, more accurate click data, but they still have a long way to go when it comes to filtering and archived data. Keyword data is incredibly important to how we track SERPs, develop content strategy, and understand user behavior. There are workarounds to “not provided” that can still accomplish these vital tasks for SEOs, but I really wish Google would give us a lot more in GWT.

For anyone who that wants to use the argument that Google is free and owes you nothing, you’re right, but when Google decides to take their toys and go home, I’m entitled to a tantrum.

Didit: Let’s talk careers – it’s tempting for an SEO to go out and try to hang out his/her own shingle as opposed to working to advance at an agency. You’ve obviously chosen the former course. What challenges face an SEO professional as he or she works to build a client base and a brand for their agency?

Rhea Drysdale: Wow – way to give me an easy question! After five years, there are so many challenges, it’s difficult to narrow them down. At the moment, we’re focusing on overhauling our business development, proposal, and in-take process. We have an amazing set of clients who continue to grow their budgets with us, we have no sales team, and yet we still get a ton of leads. That’s a great situation, but we’re still faced with the problem that it’s tough to find qualified clients through this inbound sales approach. We’re a boutique SEO consulting and reputation management agency, which means that we’re selective about who we work with. We want a partner (regardless of budget) who is going to do the work, communicate effectively, trust us, be transparent about their SEO practices (past and current), etc.

Anyone with a web presence could possibly benefit from some form of SEO, but there’s a wide range of knowledge, misconceptions, and experiences that clients face in selecting a partner. It’s why I wrote a post on how to choose the best SEO companies. I want a client that’s going to do their homework, not simply choose an SEO based on their rankings for an arbitrary keyword. It seems like a good indication (and we rank well), but it’s a sign that we have to invest a lot in educating the client.

The challenges I face as a business owner in branding Outspoken Media are also unique to our agency. Early when Outspoken Media was formed, we made a decision to promote the founder’s individual brands. That’s a great strategy, assuming that all founders continue to stay with the company. After two partner buyouts, and now as the sole owner who took maternity leave this past year, I understand that my role is to be the primary source of marketing, branding, and client development for the agency. This is a LOT when I’m so entrenched in client strategy, team development, operations, and trying to figure out life as a new mom. Branding myself is also an uncomfortable role for me. I excel at business development, but I don’t personally enjoy it. When you don’t enjoy something, you’re less likely to be productive at it. This is my biggest challenge in 2014–to fully embrace my role as a public figure and continue to build business for the agency that will support our objectives.

While owning an SEO agency has its challenges, I love constantly learning, growing as a manager and leader, and building a business that will thrive long after I’m no longer needed in it.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part article; please click here for  Part 2.