In this episode, Alex Melen, founder of SmartSites, shares us some insights on scaling businesses, building company culture, and hiring and management processes. You also don’t want to miss his SEO tips on making your website rank better.
Alex Melen is an award-winning entrepreneur best known for his first free web hosting company, T35 Hosting, founded in 1997. He has been featured in Business Week’s Top 25 Entrepreneurs Under 25, Bloomberg, Forbes, NPR, and more. Today, he is the Co-Founder of SmartSites, an advertising agency which was featured in the INC5000 as one of the fastest-growing agencies in the world.
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SKIP TO THE GOOD PARTS:
00:55 – 05:18 – Humble beginnings of Alex Melen in the Digital Space.
05:35 – 08:52 – SmartSites in numbers: business model, employees, and revenue
09:03 – 11:00 – Monopolizing digital marketing services for almost every single auto brand.
11:00 – 14:20 – Secrets of scaling: Focus on small medium-sized business
17:55 – 20:05 – Cons of scaling too quick
20:35 – 23:18 – What’s managing and building a company culture like?
26:03 – 30:01 – Alex’s insights in hiring and management processes and challenges
33:08 – 37:34 – Three pillars of SEO: Optimizing your website to rank better.
37:34 – 43:11 – Thoughts on paying for backlinks and getting penalized by Google
43:32 – 45:29 – Dealing with the thought of ‘growing too fast and growing not fast enough’
Michael Bereslavsky 0:12Hi Alex, thanks for joining. So where are you calling from?
Alex Melen 0:17 I am calling from Paramus, New Jersey. So, we’re right outside of New York City.
Michael Bereslavsky 0:23 Nice. So, we first met last year and we’re both speaking at that conference and Spain. Had a really nice chat and turns out we have quite a few things in common. So, I’m really glad to finally catch up.
Alex Melen 0:37 Yeah definitely.
Michael Bereslavsky 0:40 And you’ve been actually involved in the digital space for much longer than I have. Could you give us a quick background story about how you got you started, how you start your first company and how it evolved to the current business?
Alex Melen 0:54 Yeah definitely. I started my first company way back in 1997. It was a web hosting company called T35 Hosting. For those who were involved back then in the space, there was around the same time GeoCities started Tripod, Hypermart, I think I actually started a couple of months before GeoCities.
1:15 So that was the space that was started and the original idea for T35 Hosting which actually rings even true today, was to allow people to freely and instantly post something on the internet, have the access all over the world. So right now, it seems silly to even say something like that because almost everything we do is like that. But back then it was a whole different world. So back then if you wanted to start a website you would have to go to your internet providers like AT&T, Horizons of the world. Horizon didn’t even exist the way it does now back then. And they would have to provide it for you and you would have to wait six to nine months. Spend like 50 grand and that’s how you would have a website accessible on the internet. So, the idea with T35 Hosting and similarly to a lot of the other free web hosts that cropped up at the time is to allow someone freely to publish content that’s accessible all over the Internet and really allow anyone to do it not just the bigger company.
2:13 So that was started in 1997, a long time ago. Well if I try to come back many years of what it is now, it’s a little scary. So, I started back in ’97. I grew that to a little bit over a million customers before running.
2:30 So, a lot of roadblocks and challenges and funny enough the T35 Hosting still exists and no longer providing free web hosting and focusing more on the business side of what hosting but still same philosophy to allow anyone to host anything worldwide and make it affordable and stable and reliable. But at a certain point, it’s just the free hosting model for web hosting stop working because of the amount of abuse that came up on a lot of other issues. So, all the competitors I had back then actually don’t exist at all now.
3:01 GeoCities, Hypermarkets, Tripods of the world. So, it was definitely an interesting time. I sometimes say the internet’s still the wild wild west back then it was like the real wild wild west like no one knew what they were doing. Everything was like all over the place, very experimental.
3:17 So, as the first company, after that, I worked in a lot of different roles, digital related. I work in a lot of the digital marketing roles and I wound up at places where I did digital for Samsung for almost a year and then Walmart for a couple of years after. And around that time my brother was graduating from Cornell and he also he was running a SEO company. So, he was running one of the first like the old school like link building SEO companies. Like the ones, like the companies, we gain trouble for. If you remember, if you Google late 2011 like J.C. Penney. J.C. Penney got in trouble for hiring an SEO company that had some sketchy fees.
4:03 That was the world he lived and he lives in all those like SEO consulting and everything. And he was graduating college and he really pushed me to, well I think he pushed himself not to get a corporate job. I think that was a point that was from his end but he pushed me to leave my role at Walmart and open SmartSites which we run today.
4:24 So, we opened 2011 and the idea was to bring together a lot of digital components that we had expertise in. The web hosting, SEO, the pay-per-click site which I spent a long time on and form really a 360 digital marketing agency that would provide the full 360 of services. And really focus on small businesses.
4:50 The roofers, the contractors, the guys out there that still don’t have a website, still don’t do marketing really, today I would call them the final holdouts right. But in 2011 there was almost everyone in this small business space really wasn’t doing too much on the digital side so that was the idea. And we’ve been growing ever since. We’re up to almost a hundred employees now and six offices.
Michael Bereslavsky 5:18 Right. So, you just hit one hundred employees and how big is SmartSites right now and in numbers like, revenue profits or any other figures that you mostly focus on.
Alex Melen 5:32 So it’s funny. A lot of companies are very shy about sharing these and not a lot, we’re actually in a lot of lists like five thousand and everything where it gets published publicly so I don’t necessarily have an issue sharing with it. In today’s world, so many things are public a lot more than people realize.
5:53 So, the revenue that we work, so we work a little bit different than a lot of traditional media companies. So, the revenue might seem a little bit off but the way we work for managing media or marketing, well the traditional way is that a company would pay their entire marketing budget to us and then we would decide how to spend it.
6:13 That’s the traditional way. The way we do adjust for transparency and to better work with small businesses, we only charge a management fee.
6:23 So, they’re actually marketing they pay for themselves and we just charge management. So, because of that revenue and everything might seem out of whack. But last year our revenue was 5 million. This year will probably land that 7 forecasted for 10 for next year.
Michael Bereslavsky 6:39 And I know you provide a wide range of services. Design, development, SEO, PPC, what’s the main one by revenue or you know a number of employees involved in?
Alex Melen 6:51 Yes, so it’s really a good question. So, I think it’s pretty evenly split. Even looking at different ways, I think it’s split between website design, SEO and pay-per-click. I think those are the three branches that probably represent 90% of what we do. We do some very high-level development that’s also a very small piece. We do some of some small things like branding, like brochures like all small pieces but I think that the big pillars would be SEO, pay-per-click and website design. In terms of I think a number of clients, in terms of revenue, in terms of employees, the website design component probably has more staff, looking from that standpoint. But I think in almost all ways to look at it it’s split pretty evenly. A third, a third, a third.
Michael Bereslavsky 7:39 Nice. So, you have quite a few clients and I know you’ll have some big brands as well. So, can you mention some of the biggest companies that are your clients?
Alex Melen 7:51 Some of the bigger companies are the ones that we usually have NDAs with, but what I like about what we do is that we’re not industry-specific. So, no industry represents more than 10 percent of our business and we’re literally in every single industry. And through that, I think we just work with a lot of projects.
8:13 So, we’re finishing up a website for Harvard right now. Harvard University on the automotive side. We work with a lot of both regular car brands and we work with Lamborghini, Bentley, Rolls Royce. So, I think we’re pretty diversified across the board. Our focus is mostly like the small, medium-sized businesses but I think over the last couple of years as we’ve become more well-known, we’ve got pulled into a lot of bigger companies. We’re GSA certified now so we could work on, we can work on literally anything for the government. So, we’ve really widened our scope.
Michael Bereslavsky 8:52 So you have really quite a collection of car companies. Like people collect cars and you collect car companies as clients.
Alex Melen 9:01 Yes. So, it’s fine. So, the automotive worlds are all in the shoes are very different. And it’s just interesting going from one to the other because each one just operates so differently. So in the automotive space a lot of the people involved, having grown up with digital, so a lot of like the general managers or like the true auto professionals that have given their like the last 40 years in the industry just haven’t had the advantage of growing up with digital. And because of that, I feel like they get taken advantage of a lot of times. We work with brands where literally their marketing is being done by their cousin or something and they don’t know what’s going on or some company they’ve been doing for 10 years but they don’t have access, they don’t have any data, they don’t know what’s happening, digital. There’s a lot of data but it’s still very tricky to track down all the way down to like the car sale and things like that.
10:03 So, there’s a lot of disconnect then a lot of these brands and dealerships really, I feel like have been taken advantage over the last couple of years by people and companies. So, we’ve recently got involved in the auto space and just been growing, our side of it’s been growing a lot just because we’re not doing anything different but we’re doing the same thing we’re doing for other clients with other space and it just seems revolutionary because we’re literally giving them access.
10:31 We’re sharing the data. It’s really having a conversation. Here’s the data. You have access to all of this, let’s read this, let’s read this. And it just seems like a very new way of doing things for them. And I think at the same time, a lot of these brands are getting more educated on digital. So, I think we’re there at the right time doing the right things. But yeah, we’re involved in almost every single auto brand.
Michael Bereslavsky 11:00 Nice. So, here’s a question I actually really wanted to ask you. I feel that when it comes to a service-based business, it’s kind of, you get some clients and then you get more clients and then you grow. But I feel that in order to really grow and get to the next level you have to get the big clients. And that seems like the most challenging thing. So, is that, would you agree with that and like how did you get your first big brand or first big client?
Alex Melen 11:30: Yeah. So a good question. I think there are almost two really good questions within that one question. I think one is about growth. And I’ll go to the big client one first. And I think for how do you get the big client.
11:48 I think it’s a lot different than the small medium guys. So, we still don’t focus on big clients. So, we have, I know other people run agencies that have like a 100-person company and they are like one client, right. Back when I worked at a Google assist, the team that worked on the Walmart account was over 100 people. Literally for one client.
12:06 So, there’s definitely a lot of companies that that’s their model more so than it’s our model. Our focus is still small medium-sized businesses. But I think that the clients are important and I think the way to get them is a lot different. So that’s something we’ve been playing around with and trying to figure out ourselves.
12:26 The small medium-sized businesses are a lot more huge by literally the same advertising we do for them just like paid search. So, for example, the small medium size business, if they want a new website or they want pay-per-click or they want SEO, most likely they’re going to go on Google and they’re going to search, I need a website, I need pay-per-click management, I need SEO. And we spend money on our own marketing and that’s how we acquire, that’s the core of our business and that’s how we acquire all the small medium-sized businesses. The enterprise space as they call it is completely different.
13:01 Like if IBM wants a new website, they’re not going to go on Google and type, I want web site design right or like website design company. So, it’s definitely, its enterprise level hasn’t been a huge focus for us but it’s always been very interesting to me because the whole journey for the enterprise client is completely different.
13:22 A lot of it’s still very traditional. And what I mean by that it’s still driven by face to face meetings and networking events and conferences and things like that. And I think the big clients that we’ve gotten has mostly been from word of mouth. But I think there’s definitely an opportunity there. But just a lot different from what we’ve been doing so I can’t necessarily advise people on how to do it.
13:48 But from my experience dealing with it over the last couple years, it’s definitely a lot more personal connections than anything and it’s a much more difficult process to even be considered for enterprise clients. It’s just a very very long journey that they go through to make a decision. Obviously like, if IBM wants a new web site, they’re not going to call up an agency and then next week sign the contract and say we’re ready to go. So, it’s definitely a different process.
Michael Bereslavsky 14:20 Yeah it makes sense because I see many digital agencies get to a point of maybe half a million in annual revenue maybe like a million and get stuck there because it’s difficult for them to go and get bigger clients or go and expand further. So, the advice is then to you know, to try to network, try to get some word of mouth going.
Alex Melen 14:47 Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t tell an agency that that’s a half a million and trying to grow. To that your key is to go network and to get big clients because it’s a very long, long, long tail process.
15:01 Ultimately, I think you’ll get them connections and bigger clients but definitely a long long time. We have some bigger clients that it took them two years to make a decision of what agency to go to. We have some that have five- or 10-year contracts with their agencies and about two- three years before the contract start is when they start doing research. So definitely for a small agency that’s trying to grow, it’s going to be, I mean if you could get lucky, right. You could go to like a hotel bar and meet someone there and get it off and get new clients. But I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it as the main strategy.
15:40 What’s interesting is a couple of people that I’ve known, that are salespersons, a couple of people I’ve known they’re in the sales space, like salespeople, like hard work salespeople, they always tell me stories about making amazing sales, make amazing connections literally like in hotel lobbies.
15:58 Like I know I know someone that specifically goes, he would go to like a Ritz Carlton Hotel lobby for drinks to meet people. Even if he doesn’t stay at the hotel that’s what he’ll do. Or for example always book first class flights because other than it being more comfortable, the other people you wind up with sitting next to you in that area are more likely to be business contacts or things like that. So, there’s definitely I think tips and tricks of the sales profession. I don’t think I’m enough of a salesperson to be handing those off. Well I really like the fancy hotel lobbies and first class scenario but I think my advice for the small business for the small agencies or medium agency if they’re at a half a million sales trying to grow, I don’t think you necessarily need to, all of a sudden start getting bigger clients.
16:49 I think you keep growing with the way you’ve been growing before and that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been in the Inc 5000, they measure three-year growth, we’ve been at 100% three year-growth for three consecutive years now. So, every three years our company doubles in size and none of it’s been from any big clients. I think it’s been literally just doing a good job at what we do. I think with that comes to a lot of challenges as well. I think like you were saying, I think that half a million mark is a very big challenge to jump over. I’ve attended a lot of events like Google events because we’re a Google channel partner and a lot of we work with a lot of companies at that events because there’s a lot of other agencies there. And I hear all the time people are stuck at about like the half-million, million-dollar mark and it’s just a big jump. And the reason it’s a big jump is that at 500,000 in revenue, you’re managing the team completely yourself and you could be involved in everything yourself. The next jump after that is you really can’t be.
17:55 You could touch almost every part of your business at the next job but you’re not going to be involved and be able to be the salesperson, the project manager, the quality assurance, and the developer. So I think that’s a big jump for people in general to take. To go from like having the three-person company, five-person company and be able to control everything, be involved in everything to literally start creating levels of management and processes that allow the company to operate without them being involved. That’s next, I think that’s a big jump. I think the level we’re heading out right now is the next big one. As I’ve been attending some events with bigger agencies, I heard a lot of people telling me that the jump we’re about to make is the next big one going from 90 something employees now. Let’s say we keep, let’s say if we double again in three years to go to two hundred, right. People say that’s also very big jump even bigger than the first one.
18:51 There is a guy from Australia. So, he runs, I won’t disclose it just not to embarrass him but he runs in the domain space a very big company there in Australia. They have five hundred employees, six hundred employees. He was telling me a story that they grew very quickly from 50 to 100 and then 200 plus company very quickly. And there was one point where he came in on the weekends to go to his office to check something at the office building and the security guard outside didn’t know who he was and called the police officer. And he didn’t know the police security guy either and it was like literally an employee of the company the security person. And he just grew so quickly, it’s so scary that he obviously when you have 200 employees, you’re not going to know all the employees and they’re not going to know you either.
19:41 So, I think that that’s after the jump to creating layers and processes and putting managers in place and good staff in place. The jump we’re about to make, I think is also scary where if we double in size it’s definitely going to be very hard for me to be involved in a thing let alone know what everyone’s doing and know who everyone is and hopefully, I don’t get arrested. I mean coming to the office on weekends.
Michael Bereslavsky 20:05 Yeah, I remember I saw a video. I think it was an advertising video that you did for a company or even mentioned that you were considering doing a TV show about your company at some point?
Alex Melen 20:19 Yeah.
Michael Bereslavsky 20:22 So there is a video there. Your team is playing pool in the office and then you come in angry and take the ball and throw it away and just tell everyone to go back to work. Is that what management is like or was like?
Alex Melen 20:35 I think that’s definitely what management is and was like. So, when we just started the company in 2011, I started with me and my brother but a lot of the people came in, he knew from Cornell. So, it was a lot of like recent grads.
20:53 So, it was definitely a different atmosphere and it took us a while to actually make it so work is both fun and we do good work. If clients come in, they’re not scared that people are drinking, playing poker which was in the video. But definitely in the beginning they could imagine although I’m six and a half years younger than my brother and a lot of people came in from his great sake. I imagine all the younger college grads coming in, they’re like, they really loved being there. They really loved what we were doing.
21:26 But maybe a little bit too much. It became literally there were work all the time and people that would sleep there. People slept in the office. But it was very fun atmosphere and before we start creating like processes that really, everything that we’ve put in place over the last year or the last couple of years to really tighten up the process and allow us to grow. We were like that with 100 employees that obviously went up.
21:50 I think we had like 12 people at the time but the video is really cool. It is funny. I should probably take it down. But while I happen if you Google it around, I think it’s still on YouTube. But it was 2011. So, it was before all that kind of culture was more popular. I haven’t seen it but people told me it’s somewhere to Silicon Valley TV show but it was it was literally like very techie young people and fun atmosphere. But I like I like your metaphor of being a boss, I think. I think that that is what it’s like taking a bowl away after you after they’re having too much fun. unfortunately. So, I’ve been doing for less the eight years here but I think I think running the company definitely out to balance the fun you know, if you’re if your employees are not happy coming to work, there is no way you get produced any kind of product. Just no way. No matter what business you’re in, products you could get away with a little bit but a service business, right. Everyone in our office, everyone behind me interacts with customers. If everyone like coming into pissed off each day and miserable to be here, it’s going to be terrible for our company. So that painting a fun culture of people to love coming to work, love being here and at the same time not going as extreme as when we just started the company and it was like a giant frat party.
Michael Bereslavsky 23:18 So do all these people in the video still love the company?
Alex Melen 23:24 A lot of them do. I would say a little more than half to a couple people. Actually, there was a period where a couple of people ran off and started their own agencies just because they saw the success we were having and they thought that that they’ll go and do it on their own. Not to name any names, not to go into details but unfortunately it didn’t really work out for them. I think three different people tried at different times.
23:51 And the reason is because it takes a lot of work to run an agency and I think a lot more than people realize. There’s so many, so many small things that go into it, from literally from the financial stuff to the bureaucracy really. So, there’s government forms to do, and dealing with customers and operations, it’s very hard for one person to really do it. From the inside it might seem like it’s easy but there’s so many things that go on behind the scenes and it’s one of the reasons that we’ve been doing so well with our customers, our customers are so happy because a lot of times the option, the option of a small business, right. So, you’re a small business you have employees who want to do website, who want to do marketing, who want to do these things so what are your options. So, you can hire someone internally which is what a lot of people do.
24:45 The problem becomes you’re hiring one person and you want them to do design development, SEO, pay-per-click, right. There’s no one person that could do all that well. And where we come in as we have all these different teams that do these things and we really are able to provide all the services. So, it’s, I think I went off very far tangent but at least half of the people are still with the company. We have a lot of those original people moved on to executive positions and are now managing teams here so for people who were excited to stay here and worked on the company and helped it succeed they’re done here. People who pursued other opportunities or tried things on their own they’re obviously not.
25:33And we’ve always wished the best to anyone in that scenario.
Michael Bereslavsky 25:37 So I’d love to talk about your hiring and management processes. You mentioned that you’ve now kind of improving them. Are you using any management systems or any hiring processes, specific books or methodologies that you can recommend? That’s something I’m very much interested right now as well for my company.
Alex Melen 26:02 Great question. So, I’m personally, both me and my brother are probably not very into processes. And because of that, I think it took us a while to get to that level. We have other people on the executive team that helps really push for that. So, in terms of processes, we literally have now a handbook for every position. So, every position, project manager, PPC, SEO person, salesperson, every position has a full handbook. Like over a hundred pages of literal information of what to do with that scenario. So that itself has really helped tremendously in everything from new hiring and letting them review this to people really knowing what the expectations are and what they’re supposed to do. So, I think that was a very big step.
26:55 Starting training and internally train all the employees in different things was a very big step, I think. I don’t think we follow any specific like rule book or methodology or anything like that, I think it’s, we’ve had the opportunity to kind of develop it internally over time. We’ve been lucky enough to grow at a level where we’re growing.
27:20 So, we have these opportunities to make all of this for all the new employees and everything, but at the same time, we’re not tripling in size every week. And we’re not super growing. So, we’ve been growing at a comfortable organic pace that has allowed us to develop all this. Hiring side has been very tricky also and I don’t think we don’t have an official process in place that I think could really say this is it.
27:50 This is what you have to do. But we really, we try to let each department kind of manage itself in limiting micromanagement and really letting people succeed. So, each department really does hiring on their own with guidance from management and everything but hiring has been tricky because, at the end of the day, we don’t make a product, we don’t make like a shoe behind the scenes in a factory.
28:19 We’re literally, we sell the people at the company so the boys are like the most valuable asset and it’s very important to have not only people who are knowledgeable or really can talk to a customer or talk to clients and help our clients but also fit in culturally. So, it’s unfortunate, I’ve been on a lot of interviews and we’ve had to interview a lot and a lot of people and at the same time over the last two years, it’s gotten a lot more competitive.
28:50 A lot of good people we’ve made offers to have told us that they have like three, four, or five other offers which weren’t like that five years ago. Wasn’t like that six years ago. So, it’s definitely been challenging. We’ve literally just been the hours of interviewing lots and lots and lots of people fighting the good fight.
Michael Bereslavsky 29:10 Is it all in the US or do you also have some offices and employees abroad?
Alex Melen 29:15 We have five offices internationally and those are all their own unique challenges. My main visibility is the office here. My brother heads up overseas offices so I don’t have as much insight but I know there’s also hiring challenges and every country has its own challenges.
29:39 For example, there are certain countries where if you fire someone you have to give them a certain amount of notice and they still work for you while you do that, right. I don’t know that sounds weird to you in the US. It sounds a little weird. In the US it’s called at-will employment. So, in the US in most cases anyone could quit any time and you could fire them anytime. If anyone really does like a really bad job, you could fire them. We don’t do it often. I think we do a very good job at hiring the right people.
30:11 Internationally, it’s a lot more challenging but there’s literally countries where the rule is to hire on the spot. So, I think every country has its own challenges with the hiring.
Michael Bereslavsky 30:22 So I’d love to get a little bit more into the advanced details of things that you guys do and talk about SEO and PPC and some current trends that you are seeing in digital marketing. I know that you have a close relationship with Google and you guys organize events together and you have a pretty solid budget that you are managing AdWords.
Alex Melen 30:48 Yeah.
Michael Bereslavsky 30:50 So in terms of SEO, what kind of things are you doing? Like obviously you cannot do any black hat stuff.
Alex Melen 30:56 Yes.
Michael Bereslavsky 30:59 But what are the things that you do and you can recommend people to do when they’re kind of on a more advanced level beyond the basics of just writing good content?
Alex Melen 31:08 Yes, it’s a great question. So, we have a very good relationship with Google. We’re in a special program with them where we get a lot of support from them, a lot of insight from them, at the same time like you said definitely can’t, either way, I would not recommend doing black hat stuff but more so for us than anyone else. I wouldn’t jeopardize the relationship with Google and all the information they give us to try to circumvent anything.
31:34 On the SEO side, what we do, so I think in general and in our business, everything we do is really centered around transparency. Just because in most cases in our world it’s not especially in the SEO, there are very few SEO companies maybe more so now. But let’s say five, six years ago that you would go to, you would pay them and then you would say, tell me exactly what are your doing, right.
32:01 The big sales pitch from like all these SEO companies used to be like, you pay me this and then your rankings will magically go up and what are you going to do with that money? Oh, I can’t tell you. That’s like a mystery box. Like I’ve no idea. If I pay twice more will I get twice tomorrow? Oh, I can’t tell you that, just pay me twice more and we’ll see what happens. So, the way we operate is literally the complete opposite and we have since the day we started. And the reason I’ll go into it is that I think I’ll help answer your question of what people could be doing whether themselves or with an agency.
32:33 So, SEO and I won’t claim to be an expert in this. I live in the pay-per-click world more than the SEO world and we have SEO experts that could tell the story better and salespeople who could sell the story better. But I’ll tell you the way we do it from a business perspective. So, we sell hours. So literally if you think about doing SEO the core is literally putting the hours in. You’re not doing black hat, right. I won’t talk about it like getting it like software and hitting submit and submitting to like spam blog posts.
33:08 Like if you want to do real SEO it’s about hours you put in. If you’re not putting in the hours, you’re not getting the results. So that’s literally the way we sell it. So, people buy hours from us. So, they would buy 50 hours per month and we would spend 50 hours per month doing SEO work. And what we usually break it up into three pillars. So, number one is the technical onsite. So that’s usually front loaded. So that’s it. Won’t even be the monthly hours we usually go in certain hours at the start to really go through their site.
33:38 Do a technical audit, takes all that matters, fix anything that’s literally stopping their website from ranking better. That itself is a whole science. We have an employee whose job is literally his job is to follow all the latest best practices on technical things on the web site that Google wants you to have.
34:01 Once you have this way, it was this way. How to improve mobile page on site speed and all that. So that itself is a very important pillar that similarly to the way we do it I think other businesses should also should be very front loaded. You should do that first before doing anything else. Right. Because if your site, we’ve had clients come to us that literally they have robots at 60 files that blocks Google, right. They just don’t know. They had a developer make a website on the death space they block Google which makes sense. And then they launch it live and they forgot to change. So, their web site block Google. So, if you won’t fix the technical things no matter what you do for SEO, if you’re blocking Google you’re not going to get through. So, the first big pillar is the technical stuff which we do front loaded. After that we literally split the hours between two things. So, we do content writing and link-building.
34:53 Literally, those are the pillars of what we do and the pillars of SEO and the pillars of what will make your website rank higher. So, for content writing, we have the entire content team. Their job is to create content. Literally, people come into the office and they just love to write and they write content. And every month we come up with a content schedule and post on the web site similar to how we do it. Any business can really do it themselves. And that’s the reason to do this and the reason we tell our clients exactly what we do because there’s no there’s really no secret sauce to Google.
35:26 If you fix technical things on your website, you have unique content and you have authoritative web sites linking to you, you will rank higher. If anyone says there’s like some secret sauce, they pay me 50 grand, I’ll pour in your website it’ll be better. It’s just it’s literally putting in the work. And the reason that the reason I tell people this and the reason people still come to me even after I tell them that you need to do content link-building is because of the hours of work. Someone running a business they have to decide themselves whether internally they’re going to hire someone to do all this work or they’re going to hire an agency to do the work.
35:59 But either way it’s literally like manpower to create the content and then on the link-building side, it’s all average. So, we do an analysis of which web sites link to your competitors. Those are usually the lowest hanging fruit. And then we do outreach. We email all those other web sites and say, hey you’re linking for this guy once you link to this guy.
36:20 For example, we had a limo company. Their biggest competitor was linked from JFK’s website like the airport. Contacted the airport people while bugging them. Finally found like the person in charge. It’s funny how a lot of these organizations no one knows who’s in charge of the website. I could do it but I have no idea who has access to this. And we got them a link from JFK’s web site, right. So, it’s things like that and can’t anyone do it? Definitely, anyone could do it. But it’s literally the hours of work. We certainly have advantages from our content team is just bring about everything, very knowledgeable or link building team who knows exactly how to contact people. We have a process where they follow-up in certain circles. We have already lists of websites in place that have added links.
37:06 So, if we get JFK, for example, to add a link for us, we keep that in our own internal lists in the future if there’s another limo company or whatever it is. We know that these guys, we know who to contact pretty much. So, there’s a small advantage doing it for sure, but I think those are the pillars to SEO and anyone could really be doing it. Just a lot of hours. There is really outside for black hat which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. It’s literally putting in the hours.
Michael Bereslavsky 37:34 So in terms of some outreach it’s a main white hat technique right now as well. And that’s what we do as well. Quite a lot. But these days it’s kind of difficult to get a link for free and a lot of people ask you to pay. So, is that still a white hat? Can you pay them a little bit to link to a website? Or it is not?
Alex Melen 37:56 Google says no.
Michael Bereslavsky 38:01 No never? So, then you reach out to clients well not JFK but let’s say someone who has a website about airplanes or limos and you know and they say, well we can list you but you got to pay us like two hundred dollars. You can just say no, right?
Alex Melen 38:16 No, we don’t. So, we never because of that it takes. So yes, you could do that. So, there are two things you could do it. (a) You could be reciprocal, right. I’ll link you, you link me (b) I’ll pay two hundred bucks and you link me. Both practices Google frowns upon and both processes go both ways. We do not do. I won’t say they can’t do it. I don’t think Google will go and penalize you.
38:41 They’re not going to find out that you send someone like twenty dollars of bitcoins right. And I see that transaction in the ledger. So, you certainly could. We just don’t do it as a practice because it’s against Google’s policies and it’s not that the best way to be doing things but because of that it takes us a lot longer to acquire the link.
Michael Bereslavsky 39:02 That makes sense. And if you ask someone, would you publish our article like can you give him a long really nice article and then you ask him to publish your article and link to your web site from that article and then you don’t pay them but you kind of give them that content for free. So, is that white hat? Is it okay to do nowadays?
Alex Melen 39:22 So yeah, it’s a great question. So, I think the way I interpret Google’s policies I think that’s OK to do. We haven’t been doing it often. We’ve been testing it out a little bit here and there just because it’s really in the gray area. And at any point Google could come out and say, hey guys you’re not allowed to do this.
39:45 So, we’ve recently, as far as I know, we’ve been experimenting with it but we haven’t rolled it out to each of our customers. But it’s certainly I think the way I interpreted Google’s rules, that that is OK to do. But of course, you could also interpret it saying that you’re giving them, you’re paying them whether it’s not the money you’re paying them in the content right. It’s still paying them. So, it’s in a gray area. But I know that’s been very popular just from the fact that for the last five years, every day I get like 50 emails of people sending me content to publish. So like spam coming in. So, I know it’s done. I know it’s pretty popular. I would not make that like your sole source of generating links.
Michael Bereslavsky 40:27 Yeah, make sense. And I’m curious if you have many clients that come to you after they have a Google penalty and algorithmic penalty or a manual penalty, is that something you deal with often?
Alex Melen 40:41 Yeah, it’s a great question. So, it was a lot, when we just started the company when my brother is running the SEO company he had. That was very popular. So, we had two things that were very popular that we don’t really do anymore. Number one is the SEO penalty. And I don’t know whether it’s just people don’t get penalized as much or maybe something else. But we really don’t even have that many people come to us where we’re used to. The other big thing was reputation management. So those are like the two like I would say like distant cousins of like traditional SEO. Like almost everything, we do on SEO side like traditional SEO. These are like distant cousins. So, we certainly have done it in the past. It’s very difficult, it’s very difficult to do and to sell. A lot of these people coming with Google penalties want us to say like, oh yeah just pay us this and we’ll get you unpenalized, right. But then, no one can make that guarantee for you.
Michael Bereslavsky 41:44 You do have that special relationship with Google.
Alex Melen 41:51 Absolutely. Think I could just like up the phone and call Mr. Google, and like undone this site. No, you know that even I can’t make you guarantee that a domain that’s penalized will get unpenalized. And some are for reputation management. People call up and we’ve had people, had high profile individuals, politicians call up and say, I have all this bad stuff about me when I search my name. Can you make it all go away?
42:21 And we just don’t work in that business. But I followed up with a couple of them after the fact because I know they’re working with other agencies. And we’ll have had bad experiences. At the end of the day, anyone that says they’ll make all this go away for this money or that they’ll get you unpenalized really can’t make that guarantee. Yes, sometimes they can. There’s a lot on the technical SEO side that you can do to figure out why that kind of thing happened. You could submit requests to Google.
42:52 There’s really a lot you can do. We just don’t deal with it anymore and haven’t for a long time just because it’s outside of our SMB focus. But I know there’s a lot of it. Every time every time you run up to a US election cycle, a lot of politicians are very worried about the negative press about them on the internet.
Michael Bereslavsky 43:13 Yeah, makes sense. So, you’ve had a 100 percent growth in the last three years and it seems like you are still growing. So, you mentioned that you’d like to get to 200 employees. And is that the current plan just to keep growing and get bigger and bigger?
Alex Melen 43:32 I think. Yes. I think that’s the plan. I think the plan is twofold. To keep growing but at the same time keep providing the same quality service. I’m very worried about growing too fast and the same time not growing fast enough. With my first business withT35 Hosting, it was not fast enough. I had a lot of opportunities to take on equity and investors to grow the business quicker and just I wasn’t, not something I was interested in. I didn’t want to give up the equity. I didn’t really want to rush the process, the business and because of that it really hurt the business.
44:10 And by that time, by time we were growing quicker you already had the GoDaddies of the world with millions and billions invested. So, I definitely in almost any industry you really don’t want to completely not grow. Like I have conversations with people who run agencies and run other things and sometimes I’m like, you know I’m fine where I am and just leave it leave it that way. I’m good. Let’s leave it here.
44:36 A lot of times it doesn’t end well because even if you’re okay where you are and you don’t want to grow or do anything new or anything different, your competitors won’t be. And eventually they’ll do something better. They’ll do something fast through the economies of scale. So, we definitely want to grow. I’m comfortable at the pace we’ve been growing which is about doubling every three years. Maybe a little bit faster than that but definitely want to keep growing at the same time delivering quality service.
45:03 So, we have five-star reviews online. We haven’t had anyone really that hasn’t benefited from and has not appreciated the service we provide and that’s the one thing I’m really very close to as we grow. If growing too fast means we sacrifice that then I don’t want to grow. So, the goal definitely three years from now is to double the employees probably even sooner at our current case.
Michael Bereslavsky 45:30 Well that’s a great goal to have and definitely business is like, business is a process. Business is dynamic. You cannot stay in one place. You either grow or you’ll just you know, become irrelevant.
Alex Melen 45:42 Yup.
Michael Bereslavsky 45:44 So, it’s been great talking to you and thanks for sharing. And finally, how can people learn more about your company and how can they get in touch?
Alex Melen 45:54 Yeah great question. So smartsites.com. You could go straight to the website. Better yet I would recommend people not to push Google even though I love Google.
46:03 They could go on Google and search about SmartSite that’s even better because there’s one thing of getting information that we’re showing to you about our websites about our company. But I think it’s a different perspective to see what other people are saying and the information that exists about us. So definitely Google around about SmartSites and to contact us pretty simple, [email protected] or you could fill out a form on the web site. I think the phone number is there as well.
Michael Bereslavsky 46:30 Well thank you Alex. Pleasure to talk to you. Looking forward to it next time in New York.
Alex Melen: Yeah, see you in New York.
Michael Bereslavsky: Bye.
Alex Melen: Bye
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