0 to 1 Million Organics/Month with Steve Toth @ SEO Notebook
You know how much we love fat graphs.
So, we set out to bring all the fat graph makers to our Facebook group and pick their brains.
This time, it’s Steve Toth. Seen that graph? It’s crazy, I know.
He took Freshbooks dot com to well over a MILLION monthly organic visits (probably way more in Google Analytics).
He also runs the best SEO newsletter — SEO Notebook. If you still haven’t signed up… You’re missing out.
Q: Which part of your job do you enjoy doing the most (writing SEO notes excluded)?
A: It’s definitely constructing a strategy and the planning that goes with. I don’t do the execution (by choice), but I love being able to spot an opportunity and create a full set of recommendations, then guide the implementation. It’s very satisfying to build a new set of pages that brings in business that wasn’t there before.
Q: If you had just one piece of advice for a young person starting to do SEO, what would it be?
A: Go work at an agency for a few years, it’s a great way to learn.
Q: What was the greatest challenge(s) for you in managing a platform with 1million+ organic visitors?
A: Getting the content produced and live. You need systems for every stage of the process and the first few times it’s a lot of trial and error.
Q: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during periods of big changes on your professional path?
A: You can be a great SEO philosopher, but if you’re not actively making a lot of decisions to affect the site, you’re going to get stuck. I was guilty of this when I worked agency side and so strapped for time.
You’re not going to make the right decision 100% of the time, but the important thing is to make a lot of them based on experience, logic and testing.
Q: Freshbooks SEO strategy in a nutshell? What did you do with content, and what about link building strategy?
A: We wrote a ton of content based on People Aslo Ask questions around accounting these generate a lot of traffic. We also built many hub and spoke MoFu and Bofu hub and spoke clusters which are responsible for generating free trials.
Q: I am seeing you will be doing more video content. Can you share come details of your content plan?
A:The goal is to do one video for each new note. I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to with older notes. TBD.
Q: One of the things I admire is your consulting trajectory. Most SEO consultants have to grind out solopreneurs and small businesses, but you went straight to the top. Is this a good summary of the steps you took?
- Work at a company with name recognition (FreshBooks)
- Absolutely crush it (1mm/month)
- Start building an audience of people who are qualified to hire you before you leave (SEO Notebook)
- Hit the ground running and into some major enterprise contracts
Is there anything you’d clarify, add or do differently?
A: That’s pretty much it. I was fortunate to land the job at FreshBooks. Even before the SEO Notebook I changed my LinkedIn headline to “SEO @FreshBooks / Freelance Consultant” and people would contact me for work. FreshBooks knew I freelanced. This really opened my eyes and made me want to do more. So SEO Notebook just kind of came naturally, especially after we ranked #1 for a 300k money keyword (which held for 1.5 years). The other thing was being at a company like that allowed me to do a lot of networking. I got to know a lot of people. Some helped me for free and others, I hired to work on narrow aspects of our campaigns.
Q: Can you share a link to your favorite SEO Note Book note and explain why, out of hundreds of notes, it’s your favorite?
A: Hard to say, but I like this recent one where I wrote a featured snippet using Google Smart Compose. Here’s the video How to get featured snippets using Google Docs.
Q: Brian Dean says there are 250 ranking factors. What do you think people learning SEO should focus on developing a strong skill set first?
A: Decision making. Focus on what’s attainable for your site and your resources. Don’t go too big, you’ll probably end up wasting time. Spend a good amount of your time deciding what to go after and make sure you are being realistic. The make up of the SERP, the authority of your site and your own ability to produce content and links need to be carefully considered.
Q: What do you think the differences are in SEO at:
– 100k / month
– 1mm / month
– 10mm / month
A: Probably quality assurance. The higher your output, the more scrutiny you’re under and with large sites, there’s more that can go wrong. I’ve seen developers make big mistakes. The bigger the site, the more work that’s being done inside SEO and out. So proactively monitoring the health of the site is really important and also challenging. Have learned some lessons the hard way in my career.
Q: What are some of the biggest things that you have seen go wrong with large sites?
A: noindex tags being accidentally implemented sitewide 🙂 pages you worked on being reverted to much older versions. Those are two big ones. Felt the SEO impact for sure..
Q: What are the top mistakes you see from SEO consultants in terms of sales / marketing?
A: Saying yes to projects where it’s very hard to make an impact. Not pricing your work accordingly (underestimating a company’s budget). was chatting with a friend tonight and I mentioned how I always look at a company’s employee growth on LinkedIn. Then i also check out their marketing stack. As an example if they’re using a premium chat bot like Intercom I know they probably have a bigger budget.
Conversion of work level
Q: How do you transition from an employee to freelancer?
A: Build a brand by giving away your knowledge at scale (this was my path, read The Go Giver if you want to learn more about this).
Q: How do you show your worth to new clients?
A: I explain the strategy so that they understand it and buy into. Highlight past successes.
Q: How do you constantly uplevel your skill?
A: I don’t consciously think about it, but I spend a lot of time talking to my friends in the industry and we share a lot with each other. So it’s also important to test things so that you have a lot of value to share.
Q: What is your suggestion for intermediate SEOs?
A: Pick something you want to specialize in. Move away from being an SEO generalist after a few years. Go deep on one aspect and find people who are better than you in other areas to do the rest. Only do this once you have built up enough competency to speak the language of different specialties, link building, technical SEO, UX, copywriting, web development, etc.
Q: How do you stay focused while working, I get distracted all the time?
A: As soon as I feel like I’m going down a hole, I just close the browser window. Simply as that. Then look at the to do list.
Q: What’s your favorite todo list software?
A: I’m just using Google Tasks. The reason I like it is because adding stuff to it is super fast. I don’t love that you can only access it from within Google products and that there is no site for it.
Q: What does it actually take to generate 1 ORGANIC MILLION VISITORS PER MONTH. What does the team structure look like and how are roles delegated? Is content, SEO, link building, etc all separate? Are content writers responsible for any level of SEO or optimizations?
A: We had a small team at FreshBooks. 2 people, 1 person (just me for a long while). I chose my vendors carefully. I was an SEO Manager. Not a doer. It was my job to decide what to do and how to do it. There were a handful money pages that only I worked on, but for rest we had some great freelance writers, a web development and design agency, content uploaders and multiple link builders. I loved this, because it was a great way to get shit done fast. Much faster than if we had a large in-house team.
At the beginning, we had one agency doing everything. We fired them and I took the approach of hiring specialists. They taught me and I taught them. They were very symbiotic relationships and I became a better SEO as a result.
Evaluation while hiring
Q: How did you find/qualify/hire the content uploaders? We need to hire some ASAP.
A: The one I use works for me full-time now. They’re someone I’ve worked with at the same company years ago. I would maybe try upwork, sorry I can’t be of too much help on this one.
Q: When I think about admirable SEOs, you’re at the top of the list. Which SEOs do you look up to?
A: Kyle Roof, Steven Kang, Matt Diggity, Nathan Gotch. I like that the guys have made a name for themselves without having to write for SEJ or SEL and basically do a bunch of work for free to piggy back off of their popularity. I admire the fact that they have charted their own course. There are many others.
Q: How do you know now is the time you leave the job and start freelancing?
A: When you have so much business waiting that it’s costing you money to stay in your job.
Q: whose SEO brain would you like to pick?
A: Lots of people. Lately it’s been Jason Dolman.
Q: Any advice on avoiding paying Google $150k/year when traffic gets too big?
A: I don’t think many growth-focused companies have a choice but to pay Google tbh.
Q: Have you had the chance to implement some really special things for EAT / Medical / Financial websites? Any quick wins for EAT? Maybe a weekly note I missed?
A: I don’t work on any medical sites, but I think “article review by *a nurse or a doctor* is a good workaround vs. having a doctor write your article.
Multiple ways to contact the site are also good along with GMB, but hey, I’ve worked on large projects where the articles didn’t even have an author, so I don’t feel like this is something Google looks for algorithmically. Though they make look more user behavior as a proxy for trust, e.g. how the page satisfies the query.
Q: If you have to start a new affiliate site, what is the first thing you should start with (Given that we have decided the niche)?
A: Content strategy. What are some keywords topics you can win and what type of supporting content can you create that will help Google understand that you’re trustworthy expert in that area. I would spend a lot of time planning the content strategy and looking at what other sites have done.
Q: What do you think are the most important on-page SEO ranking factors? I noticed that SEMRush lists direct website visis (or referral traffic) as they’re number one ranking factor. I’ve found this to definitely be a factor on our own website. In light of this, do you think it’s worth combining a paid traffic strategy with your organic SEO strategy?
A:I wouldn’t solely buy Google Ads for the purposes of helping you rank. It should still make sense from a CAC / CPA standpoint.
In my view the most important ranking factor for on-page is how different pages work together on your site. Do they internally link to each other to create a journey for users? If they do, I think that helps you hit a lot of the user behavior signals mentioned in the study. Do all your supporting pages rank for their respective keywords? i.e. does Google think you’re an expert in the niche. That’s what I have done successfully and what I continue to do for my clients.
Referral visits are interesting. I’m in the midst of building a tool that will help me test it at scale. Give me a couple of months and I will hopefully have some results (still undergoing some development).
Q: May I ask if which tool you would use to have a graphical view of how each pages are linked together?
A: thanks, you can try sitebulb.com for this.
Q: How many keywords a small team of SEOs (1 link builder, 2 content writers, 1 strategist and help from dev team for onsite work) should focus on?
A: “it depends” study your niche and ask yourself if you can keep pace with what the leading sites are publishing. This note may help you.
Q: How do you plan and manage your content? What are your top 3 business books that had the biggest impact on you? Any advice on how to run and manage a successful small team?
A: I do most of my research using Google then fully brief the headings and internal linking.
Books, The Go Giver and Million Dollar Consulting are two that had a big impact on me over the last year. A third might be one of Malcom Gladwell’s books.
Hire people you know from past work experience when possible. It you don’t have those people, start of our with small projects and do everything you can to build rapport. People want work for someone they like.
Q: Future of SEO according to you?
A: Lots of money to be made, but you need resources and the ability to make smart decisions so that you don’t waste your resources.
Q: What’s your stance on Link Building? I have absorbed meaningful content from you on On-page, Tech SEO, Entities too but what according to you works in Link Building in 2021 and moving forward? P.S. Do you feel Link Building is not as necessary as it once was in terms of frequency at which one had to do
A: I still build links. I’m just very careful about the sites. There’s too much crap out there. Too many sites just designed to sell links. I also abide by this note.
Q: How have you managed / dealt with burnout in your career?
A: I’ve always had a lot of energy for SEO, so I haven’t gotten close to a breaking point or anything. I’m a huge music fan, I have a lot of headphone gear, so that’s one way I can de-stress, the other is spending time with friends and family. I have a 5 year old daughter and she is amazing.
Q: For the People also ask FAQ based strategy, do you write an entire article to target 1 question, or multiple similar questions? What is the avg length for such low volume target keyword articles?
A: I typically group 2-3 questions together of similar intent. I like 1200 as a standard if I have to do a lot.
Q: I used to work for a tech company selling Fleet Management Systems. One of my big struggles back then was hiring someone whom I needed to pay more than the company could pay me. So you think as a manager, that’s a norm? And also, were you given a budget to manage your resources or you proposed how much you need to implement your strategies? Like, could you share more specifically how the budget was given, justified etc? Especially given that SEO is nothing you see overnight unlike PPC traffic etc. Did Freshbooks try to justify the budget joy haha spent monthly, or so?
A: the budgets are more than the manager’s salary in most cases. That’s normal.
My first year I was given a budget. Second we had to pitch for it. Actually we pitched for an increase halfway through the year. I made a t-shirt that read “$EO” gold letters. I got the increase. I wore it like it was no big deal.
When we pitched for the increase we showed the execs how many money keywords we were ranking in the 4-10 spots. We said if we got the increase we could improve the pages and build enough links to get half of them into the top 3, which amounted to an X% increase in free trials. It was pretty simple math and that’s exactly what we did.
We looked at our overall CAC over the long-term. It was weird sitting in finance meetings where everyone is reporting their monthly CAC and some months you spent a fortune and some months you spent nothing, yet it could have been your best month.
Hope this helps.
Q: Where do you learn all those hacks? I have a client now and they have a very limited budget with content and outreach. What’s your approach with projects with less than $3K/mo budget for content and outreach? Say you use a writer for 6 cents/word, that leaves you only 20K words to produce monthly.
A: There’s stuff I come up with while I’m working on clients. I’m naturally very curious and I don’t let much go by without making note of it. Sometimes people send me stuff. So it varies, but I honestly think an SEO Notebook would suck if I weren’t still doing SEO on a daily basis. That’s where most of the inspiration comes from.
Q: What’s your approach with projects that have less than $3K/mo budget on content?
A: I would focus on building out content in the beginning. Once you get some rankings, shift some budget to link building.
Q: Any tips for choosing a niche.. I am following the AuthorityHacker guys for the niche hunting process. Do you have any other resources to look at?
A: This might help you.
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