Interview with Jarod Spiewak from Blue Dog Media17 min read
Thank you for taking time to answer some questions from me for our readers.
I first saw you during a presentation in Chiang Mai during the time of the Chiang Mai SEO Conference. Seeing you younger guys fully immersed in SEO and scaling your businesses always makes me feel like an old dog!
And talking of dog, these most of your focus is on Blue Dog Media an agency you founded to provide SEO services to small and medium sized businesses.
A good friend of yours and someone who I have previously interviewed Jonathan Kiekbusch from SEObutler, recommended I reached out to you and see what you’re up to in the world of SEO.
So, thanks again Jarod and let’s jump straight in with some questions.
1. Can you give us a little background information on you? For example, where you’re from and when you first started to work online.
I’m not sure how familiar your audience is with me, so I’ll start at the beginning and give you the “quick” version. 🙂
I’ve lived in Manchester, New Hampshire (an hour north of Boston, MA) for most of my life.
I “started” working online in 2012, I was 14 at the time and a freshman in High School. To make part of this story short, I ended up attending college at 15 and graduating High School at 16, and whatever loans didn’t cover, I had to mostly come up with myself (with some help from my parents).
So, like a lot of people, I Googled “how to make money online”, which lead me to a site called HireWriters, where I wrote SEO content for less than $0.01/word. Hearing the terms “SEO” and “keywords” got me curious, but it wasn’t until I was hired to write a 500-word article on “the benefits of SEO” that I understand (to some extent) what SEO was.
It was foolish of me, but I actually didn’t pursue SEO for a couple of years after that. I ended up finishing college early (who would have guessed), and was working a corporate marketing job in 2015 when I started to look at SEO again, this time on a site called Upwork – where I started working for $5/hour.
That’s where I would officially say I “got my start online”.
2. I listened to one of your earlier podcasts and saw that at 20-years old you were making $20k per month from Upwork a few years ago. What sort of work were you doing, how did you attract clients, and how did you stand out from the hundreds of other freelancers on the platform?
I got my start on Upwork in 2015 and that interview took place in 2017, it was around mid-2017 that I decided to take Upwork seriously and try and grow using their platform.
At the start, I was taking on a lot of small, easy-to-do jobs. Working hourly most of time time or on fixed-rate projects, no retainers.
Eventually, I noticed that there were a lot of agencies on Upwork looking to hire people for all sorts of things. Full time, part time, white label, specialists, generalists, etc. Naturally, I started to do a lot of agency work.
By doing this, I was able to keep my expenses to near $0 as they had all the tools and sometimes other, more experienced, SEOs. I also got to work on a number of websites for a single client so I didn’t have to worry about acquisition.
This was sometimes hourly work for a couple hours a week, small retainers per website, and larger hourly projects. This led to me mostly just having two projects I was working on, a 30-hour a week agency that I worked for and another agency that paid me to work on each of their 5 clients.
I did this from early 2016 through most of 2017, with the odd additional project or two every once in a while.
Around mid-2017 I realized I wanted to do something on my own that didn’t have me working hourly, so that’s when I took Upwork seriously and was able to get to the point where it was generating me 100-200 leads a month and 3-4 phone calls a day.
The types of clients I was going after were link building only clients and “full SEO” clients. The link clients were 80% of the client base and maybe 40-50% of revenue.
I decided to reverse-engineer my competition by creating a client account and posting a job on Upwork looking to hire an SEO. I did this 2-3 times to see what kind of people applied and how they responded to cover letters, default questions, and custom questions.
It didn’t take long to realize that the competition was quite weak. Most of the “SEOs” were $3/hour with poor English comprehension and suggesting tactics like social bookmarks, almost none could answer the custom questions and either left them blank or copy and pasted their cover letter into every slot.
There weren’t a lot of bids from people in English speaking countries, so it honestly wasn’t hard to stand out back then, and what I do now is pretty much the same as what I did back then. I force people to get on the phone with me.
Back in 2017, I was always told that no one would offer a phone call and now it’s still rare that people do, but it’s one of the first things I mention, is that they need to schedule a time with me on the phone, I’ve also improved my copywriting a lot and get a lot of compliments on it.
Depending on when I gave their URL, I also send a video audit either before the call or after the call. This is also really powerful for getting people to trust you.
When we’re on the phone, I focus on education. A lot of prospective clients using Upwork have little to no knowledge of SEO and I think a lot of people take advantage of that by trying to pass off things like that Google Ads certification as being “SEO certified”. I focus on answering all their questions and educating them on the technical side of things using as simple language as possible.
I know a lot of people are in the “keep is simple and don’t talk details” camp, but that’s why a lot of the people I talk to love talking to me, they didn’t feel confident in anyone else because they didn’t talk details at all, so everyone sounded similar. I also get people asking me what others meant when they said certain things or even if I feel as though the other people they’re talking to know what they’re talking about!
3. Whilst working as a lead SEO strategist you discovered many SEO strategies applied by agencies whilst repeatable didn’t provide the best and optimum results. You took a different approach from the “templatised” strategies often used by implementing custom strategies. Can reveal a couple of ways in which you do this?
Of course, what you’re referencing is what I call the “Blueprint” (name change pending, as it’s not at all creative) and is what I worked on heavily for the first half of 2018.
I know what you mean in terms of naming stuff, look I have a Supplement Blueprint LOL – Adam
The theory behind this was that when I was freelancing, I only worked on a couple websites at a time and knew each of them like the back of my hand, as I was the only one working on them. I also didn’t need to follow SOPs as I knew how to do everything the way I wanted it to be done.
I would also, typically, encounter at least one unique situation with every client, something I hadn’t had to do before – sometimes it was small like removing a hard-coded title tag from a WordPress theme or a large undertaking.
Comparing that perspective to the one I had whilst working at an agency and being a strategist, meaning I helped create and adjust strategies as well as audit accounts that needed extra love; I noticed just how many times things would be missed simply because an issue or situation was unique to that particular client and our SOPs missed it or even created a problem.
There were also other problems, such as clients coming on board with budgets too small to fix their problems in reasonable time-frames due to specific issues to their website that weren’t initially noticed, and the priority for websites to have onsite, links, content, etc. wasn’t always the same.
At the time, I didn’t have a solution other than to point things out and have them taken care of by the SEOs or the developers. Once I left this position, I spent 3-months figuring out how to solve the problem (problem solving is the only thing I’d say I’m actually good at) and my solution was the Blueprint.
My way of creating custom strategies at scale.
The Blueprint is a one-time engagement we have with clients that is a required step before we take on retainers and it serves a lot of purposes.
To give a high level overview:
For us, what it does is it allows us to find most of the nuances for each website so that we can create a strategy based on the needs of the website and suggest a much more accurate investment to the client rather than taking a guess using just things like their industry, competition, and website size.
For the client, this gives them a chance to work with us for only a short period of time, see our expertise and receive a more detailed action plan than anyone else could offer unless they did something similar.
The strategy created has two phases, the “clean up” phase and the “growth” phase. The clean up phase focuses on taking care of a lot of the nuances, this essentially puts the website in the position it should be if everything was done correctly up to this point. The growth phase is pretty much everything after that, we’re focusing on growing the website.
As of right now, only one client has ever decided to not move forward with a retainer after going through the Blueprint process, granted – we only allow certain prospects to move forward with the Blueprint in the first place.
For some specifics (this is going to get technical):
For most themes, WordPress adds the page title to the page as your “h1” tag. This is often in the hero section. For a particular legal client, this look aesthetically great but their “h1” only mentioned the practice area, such as “car accident”.
Based on how the theme was, we couldn’t add more words to the “h1” without the text breaking onto multiple lines at the 50pt-font that it was. We also didn’t want to hurt the aesthetics of the site by changing the font-size to match our SEO-intents.
So, the plan of action for this particular site was to adjust the theme file to make the current “h1” a non-header tag and to change the first “h2” on each practice area (service) page to an “h1” in the WordPress page editor. This site had already been optimized by another agency, so a lot of things were in place – but this simple change got us some quick wins right out of the gate.
For another site, we identified that Google considered 3 municipalities as 1, so we scrapped our plan of creating city pages for each municipality, and used a single page to target all three.
And on another, we identified a ton of content issues. Duplicate content, content about topic A on a page about topic B, thin content, and the list goes on. There were thousands of dollars worth of content issues with that site that had to take priority.
For those wondering, the Blueprint could be done during the first month of a retainer and you could adjust your plans or create your plans after that initial month, and this is how it was initially done. But, there were just too many positives (mostly what I mentioned above) to doing is as a separate engagement.
4. You set up Blue Dog Media an SEO agency and know from friends you’re doing very well. Can you describe your set up and what your USP is?
Our primary focus is SEO, but we also offer Google Ads management and marketing consulting services.
Right now, everything is done remotely with as few people, freelancers, and vendors as possible. My plan is to hire someone locally as I’ve found there to be more benefits to in-person than remote work and going forward we’ll probably be mainly in-house with a small off-shore team to help with things like data aggregation and data parsing.
I keep the personnel as small as possible by focusing on automation, without automation I would need at least 1-2 full-time virtual assistants and another SEO right now. This helps in both the long-term and the short-term.
There are a couple of things that we do that I think helps us attract the right clients.
No Sales People or Account Managers
I handle all sales and account management. This comes from my experience of being a customer, going through sales processes, and working with agencies that had sales people and account managers.
These aren’t roles I’ll do forever, but these won’t be roles filled by sales people or AMs when I’m not in them. Neither takes up a lot of my time, but for most companies when you’re going through the sales process or when you’re a customer, your point of contact has limited knowledge about the implementation, strategy, etc.
This creates a lot of frustration, back and forth internally, and makes it easier for things to get misinterpreted or fall between the cracks. In my opinion, these roles are best for someone who’s a Sr. level person or a strategist. You can teach people sales and account management a lot faster than you can teach a sales person SEO.
I make a lot of effort to educate clients & prospective clients as to what we’re doing and how things work. This solves a lot of problems, makes acquiring clients easier, and account management less time consuming.
It’s not just a matter of explaining things in the moment, but doing things like attaching explanations to our work documents on what stuff means and why it matters goes a long way.
I talked about this at length above.
5. Do you work mostly on agency SEO work or are you into affiliate SEO too? What niches do you like, or tend to work in?
The agency is what takes up 90% of my time, I occasionally find some time on the weekends to work on my affiliate sites.
On the client side of things, B2C service businesses. I have the most experience with law firms and contractors.
For me, niche doesn’t matter as much as business acumen of the company does.
On the affiliate side of things, each of my sites is in a different niche.
6. I have been eagerly reading your case studies on your blog where you are doing case studies on flipping sites. What’s been you most profitable site you have flipped and what made this so successful?
My flip project is something I started a couple months ago to kind of document my “journey” with affiliate sites since I’ve just gotten into it recently.
As of right now, I haven’t sold any sites, I started one in 2018 and acquired four so far in 2019. The first sale probably won’t be until 2020. My goal is to grow each site until I get bored of it and then sell it off. I’m also looking into doing some short-sales (3-6 month turnarounds) to see if I prefer long-term growing and selling or quicker “fix it and ditch it” sites.
7. You’re getting a reputation for taking “automation to the next level”. Can you give us some examples of how you use automation in your business?
I like to think that I’m “efficiently lazy” in that I try to automate anything and everything. There’s not much you can’t automate. It’s just a matter of whether that automation is practical in time, money, and application.
For some of the things I’ve automated fully or partially:
We have a Google Sheet for disavowing links where we can input link files from Ahrefs, Search Console, Majestic, Moz, and OpenLinkProfiler. The data gets parsed and all duplicate links are removed. This leaves us all all the unique links from each source.
Then, on another sheet we indicate if we want to disavow this link and if so, if we want to disavow the domain or the URL. This gets sent to another sheet that’s formatted so we can copy & paste into the text document for Google.
We have another sheet that can be used for many reasons, but we mainly use it for citations. Basically, when we get citation links back from a vendor, the report doesn’t always have all the information we need and we have to verify each link to see the anchor, what page it’s linking to, etc.
Instead, we crawl each citation URL and then export all external links. This export then gets imported to our sheet. Our sheet then removes all links not pointing to our clients website and for any citation website Screaming Frog couldn’t find a link to our client on, the URL gets added to a sheet for us to manually review.
Finally, we do everything in Google Drive and we have a template folder which contains templates to our Google sheets, onboarding files, notes documents, folder structure for clients, etc.
Duplicating this for new clients is a massive pain, so we have a script that duplicates the folder, each files, and the folder structure within the parent folder. By the time I get up to make a cup of tea, we have all ~50 documents and folders duplicated for the new client.
I also have a Trello board with dozens of script, software, plugins, and tool ideas for us to automate way more than we do today.
8. What’s next for you and Blue Dog Media? You got your eyes on growing the agency or looking into new venture?
To be completely honest, I’m terrible at knowing what I want long-term (me too – Adam). I’m a very go-with-the-flow person. Which has a lot of perks, but also a lot of pitfalls.
What sounds good to me today sounds terrible tomorrow. I’ve spent a lot of time pacing around trying to figure out what my “long-term” goal is so I can work towards it effectively, but… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I have plenty of ventures that I’ve put some thought into, and would love to start, but right now my focus is the agency, and figuring out what my focus should be for the agency.
This was by far one of most interesting and informative interviews I have done. It’s hard not to be impressed by Jarod!
So, I wanted to thank Jarod again for awesome knowledge he has given here and look forward to catching up with him in Chiang Mai for the SEO conference.