An Interview with Ian Lurie of Portent, Inc.

Ian Lurie

It’s been a while I haven’t updated my blog and that is because I was engaged in a small consultancy project lately. But there are a lot of things I had done meanwhile. I interviewed one of the best minds in SEO industry Julie Joyce and Ian Lurie.

It wasn’t just fun to interview one of the top-notch internet marketing agency’s Chairman but it was a pleasure to have him share his thoughts with us!

Ian has been in marketing business for around 2 decades now and helping clients to excel in search marketing sphere along with his excellent team. I came to know about Portent when they launched a tool called Content Idea generator and it has become a must have tool of my blogging journey.

I won’t hold it off long and let you read the interview. Feel free to post your questions in comments below.

Question 1: How did you start with SEO and what made you to launch your own agency?

I actually launched my agency first, in 1995. I started out as a copywriter, and my agency, The Written Word, Inc, focused on marketing and technical writing.

In 1997, search engines really started to show some potential, and the internet was starting to factor into business in a bigger way. We moved into that space pretty quickly. I have been hooked ever since where else can you write, design, build cool things, learn about new products and people  AND play on a computer every day? Only in digital marketing. So I am all over it :)

Question 2: What are some of your ideal SEO tactics (On-site & off-site) and why do you think they are safe & effective?

I am afraid I’m not going to provide a terribly helpful answer here. We have two tactics at Portent:

Build great infrastructure: Make sure your site works, has minimal errors, runs fast and presents no challenges for crawlers. That means no duplicate content, no un-crawlable content, no spiraling URLs or spider traps, and no silly, over complicated site structure.

Do smart marketing: What will excite the hell out of your audience? Do that. A lot. That gets you great onsite engagement, lots of sharing and yes, links.

That’s it. That’s what we have done since the 1990s. Its hard all marketing is hard, and SEO within Googles terms of service is particularly challenging. But its future-proof. And, if you do this stuff, you’re not just helping SEO. You could do it for 5 years and never move up a single position, and still see benefits from it.

Question 3: What is your ideology of creating content that goes viral? Does it have to be entertaining all the time like buzzfeed?

It doesn’t all have to be dancing kittens :)

Content can go viral (I don’t really like the phrase goes viral, because it implies some kind of miraculous event. Plus, I don’t like the flu) for a few reasons:

Its entertaining. Yes, this is one way. But entertainment content may not directly contribute to your business goals. It’ll get attention, but will it get attention, links, citations and viewers from relevant sites/authorities/people? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I love creating this kind of stuff, but use it with caution, and don’t fall into the trap of always trying to get 4,000,000 shares on Instagram.

Its useful. This is fantastic content that’s so useful people refer to it again and again. It answers questions, guides strategy, etc. This content has the best chance of being evergreen, too. Think of the best SEO guides the ones you refer to again and again. That stuff gets the ideal audience and citations.

Its compelling. Sometimes, you simply tell a fantastic, timeless story. This is the rarest stuff. Its typically done by publishers like the New York Times. Stories like this will always be compelling.

Most content is a mix of 2 out of 3 of the above. If you can hit all 3, you’ve got it made.

There are some other attributes of truly viral content:

High production value. Unless its really a video of a kitten cuddling with a polar bear, the best-produced, best-designed stuff will win every time.

Narrow, or completely unfocused, appeal. The big, internet-wide hits driven by utterly broad appeal are very rare. They happen, but don’t depend on it. Focus on a narrow audience you know will be compelled to engage if they see what you created.

Its seen. Obviously, if no one knows about it, it cant really go anywhere. Don’t just publish and wait.

Question 4: Did any of your clients were hit by Google? Let it be manual or Algorithmic! If yes, what steps did you take to revoke it?

No existing client was hit by any Google penalty, either algorithmically or manually (Ian knocks on wood). We have helped many companies with re-inclusion requests and algorithmic penalties, though.

To fix manual penalties, we really slash-and-burn their link profile. Owners have a tendency to go through a list, trying to separate good artificially-acquired links from bad ones. That wont work. You have to find and remove anything remotely smelly. We often have to eliminate 70-80% of someones link profile. Then we file a request.

That may sound extreme. We tried being more surgical it rarely works, and then the client has to spend another 3-6 weeks filing another request and waiting. You don’t have to do it our way, but if you want back in pretty fast, you have to demonstrate a real change in behavior, and being super-selective doesn’t do that.

Algorithmic gets more complicated. We have some tools in-house that let us find suspicious link patterns, so well use those. We do deep cuts in the areas where the clients been hit. Then we do some basic cleanup in all other areas. We also do as much onsite cleanup of basic SEO issues as we can. Sometimes an algorithmic penalty is as much a Panda site quality issue as a Penguin penalty.

Finally, for both manual and algorithmic, we try to give the client guidelines around how to build authority without running afoul of Googles TOS. As I said above, staying within those guidelines is doing SEO the hard way. But it also tends to work, and last, a lot longer.

Question 5: What channels have worked best for you to attract new clients? Any mistakes you made as a CEO that you think others should avoid?

Referral is our best channel, by far. I have a theory that for every 5 happy clients at one size level, you’ll get 1 more at the next size up. That means you must always thrill customers at every level.

After referral, its thought leadership. In fact, online interviews don’t hurt :)

After that, search, paid and unpaid.

And then, after that, targeted/direct marketing.

I haven’t said inbound because all except targeted/direct are forms of inbound. But we almost never do outbound marketing outside of direct, so inbound goes without saying.

Question 6: What 3 strategies can you recommend for a lead generation business model? Let it be education or healthcare!

Provide high return on time invested doesn’t matter what the industry is. If you’re a lead-supported business, you need to provide a really high return on time invested the moment someone lands on your site. That person just made their first purchase. They exchanged their time for whatever it is you’re about to provide. So provide high return on time invested, by answering questions relevant to their place in the sales cycle.

Offer more.

Draw the viewer in deeper, if they want to go deeper. Show them related stuff. If they’re already ready to buy, provide links to related products and/or customer support. If they’re in earlier research phases, show them additional information they might need.

Provide a clear way to respond.

Don’t muddle things!!!! Show the viewer they can share/respond/contact you. Make that call to action crystal clear.

Question 7: How many people do you think are necessary to carry on a SEO project in today’s competitive Search landscape? Knowing the fact it is totally devastated from SE guidelines perspective!

That totally depends on the size and type of the site. If its a one-million-page e-commerce site, you need a complete technical team and a creative team. If its a small business site with 10 pages, you need one person and whoever you hire to build your web site. Don’t think about what you need for SEO. Think about what you need to support ideal infrastructure and do some great marketing.

Question 8: Name 5 tools (free or paid) other than MOZ that an agency must have in order to get the best out of their campaigns and why?

I’ve made a promise to myself to stop endorsing tools, unless they’re utterly unique. Fewer flaming e-mails that way :)

But the types of tools include:

Basic rank tracking. Don’t expect a whole lot of accuracy, but tracking rankings can tell you if something just went wrong. Google Webmaster Tools may be enough.

A good content management infrastructure. If you cant edit a title tag or add a page without contacting the IT department or your developer, you’re utterly screwed. You will not succeed. Period. So make sure you have a content management system that lets you edit stuff without technical intervention.

Authority tracking. You need something that tells you the number and quality of links and linking domains, as well as social shares and attention. This may actually be two tools in some cases.

A log file analysis tool. If you’re going to go deep, you need to be able to analyze the actual logs your server generates.

A desire to learn. If you aren’t a relentless learner, you wont keep up. The four tools I listed may be completely irrelevant in 5 years. So your most important tool is your desire to learn. It cant be a grudging, Oh, OK, I guess I have to do this kind of thing. You have to really enjoy digging in to new stuff.

Question 9: What characteristics do you look into before hiring a digital marketer? Can you share some insights of the entire interview process?

I cant share too much. I might get arrested

Kidding. We look for five traits:

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • High emotional intelligence
  • Superior communications skills
  • A sense of accountability to clients, ourselves and the world
  • A desire to teach

We have the team leader interview a candidate, first. Then the team itself gets a chance to ask questions. Then they’re on board, typically for a 30 day try out, so that both we and the candidate can decide if its a good fit.

Question 10: As a CEO of one of the best Digital Marketing agencies out there, are you a believer of client satisfaction or you are more into finding new clients? Would be great if you can share any past story where you lost a client and why?

Wow. Thanks :)

I am actually not CEO any more. I am Chairman (the owner of the company) and Principal Consultant (teacher/troubleshooter/tools designer for clients and for us). But the question still holds.

You have to balance client satisfaction with your pipeline. Some clients will leave no matter what. Your key contact at the client may leave. The client may take the work in-house. Or you may screw up. But client churn is inevitable, so you have to be bringing in new business.

I don’t want to tell any specific stories, because who knows who’s reading this, but I can give to generic stories I’ve seen again and again:

We screw up. We do a lousy job, or we miss something important. Ill be the first to admit that this happens. We take responsibility for it. I am heartbroken when this happens. I know, I have seen a lot of clients come and go, and I don’t work directly with many of them, I shouldn’t take it personally, blah blah blah. Its my company. If were providing a bad product, I do take it personally.

These losses are very disappointing. But they are the least scary. You know what happened. You learn from it, you teach your team about it, you apologize profusely to the (ex) client, you feel like crap, and then you get back to work.

The falling anvil. We lose a client for utterly random reasons: Our contact there leaves, and a new head of marketing comes in who wants to make their mark right away. A client ignores the expectations we set and fires us after 1 month of SEO because they don’t rank #1. The economy goes to hell.

These losses scare the crap out of me, even after 19 years. They’re not rational. You cant necessarily fix anything. You have almost no control over the factors that cause them. Its hard to stand in front of your team and say oh well when you’ve lost a client because the economy crashed. But its part of the business.

I hope you enjoyed it and I am open to take any questions in comments below. I am sure Ian is going to answer those too!

About Nabeel

Nabeel has over 8 years of web marketing experience & is the founder of Search Engine Lead, a blog covering search news and web marketing tips including SEO, PPC and conversion rate optimization strategies.

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