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Carl Lewis: Welcome to The Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host, and my guest is Brian Saemann of GoBeyond SEO. Brian, welcome to the podcast.

Brian Saemann: Thank you, Carl. I'm glad to be here.

Carl Lewis: Please tell us about yourself, your journey, and GoBeyond SEO.

Brian Saemann: I started GoBeyond SEO with my wife in 2010. SEO wasn’t in its infancy, but it was only a toddler. I’d been building websites and getting them ranked. We had eCommerce and informational websites, and I taught myself SEO. My wife was in advertising sales for radio stations, and more businesses were asking about ranking on Google. So, we started offering that service, particularly after the 2008-2009 bubble burst. People opened businesses and wanted to rank on Google, so we expanded and created our own agency.

Brian Saemann: We were just SEO when we started, but an SEO trend is that it never stops growing. It used to be a real technical niche specialty, and if you're doing it right, you’re also thinking about marketing strategy, content, optimization, and conversions. As SEO got bigger, our services got bigger. Now we focus primarily on lead generation. Other agencies focus on web design, branding, etc., but we've succeeded in lead generation. We do a lot of SEO and advertising to help our clients get leads.

Carl Lewis: You’ve been in business since 2008, so that makes sense.

Brian Saemann: Kind of. In '08, we were building websites for ourselves. We had some eCommerce stuff. We didn’t do it for clients until 2010. So, I’ve been doing SEO since '08, but only for other folks since ‘10.

Carl Lewis: You had an up-and-coming business expanding into new things. How did you weather the pandemic?

Brian Saemann: The pandemic was interesting. April 2020 was probably the worst month we've ever had. Uncertainty isn’t good. When business owners are uncertain, they pull back. They curl up in the fetal position—which I think we all wanted to do in April 2020.

Brian Saemann: But businesses quickly realized, "We're not going back to the real world anytime soon, so I need to be digital. I need an online presence." Clients who paused in April came back in May, saying, "I need to accelerate." So, the pandemic helped us grow. Businesses that weren't doing anything online realized they needed to, and the businesses that were wanted to do more. 

Carl Lewis: How did it affect you from an employee/remote work standpoint?

Brian Saemann: We went remote two years before the pandemic, but the pandemic made it more acceptable. People used to want to meet in person, but now Zoom calls are normal. It was interesting—even clients who’d had scheduled phone calls for years suddenly wanted Zoom. There’s Zoom fatigue now, though, and many have returned to phone calls.

Brian Saemann: Since we were already remote, we had that resiliency. It was hard on folks whose kids were home from school, etc., so we had to be flexible. Some people had their kids during the days and did more work at night, stuff like that. We made it work, and it didn't affect us too much.

Carl Lewis: You're the uncommon business that didn’t have to scramble.

Brian Saemann: Exactly. We're lucky our business is digital. Our brick-and-mortar retail clients had a tough time. Some already had eCommerce on their websites, like a chain of jewelry stores we work with. It wasn’t their main business method, but we pivoted and pushed the online experience more. And they had 10 or 15 times more online revenue in 2020 than in 2019.

Carl Lewis: Has this changed your perspective on the future of work? For your company or in general.

Brian Saemann: Absolutely. This trend was happening. We weren’t the only remote business before the pandemic. The pandemic just accelerated it. Now, the companies that are back in the office are often hybrid. Some will keep that, but many will stay fully remote and maybe have all-team meetings once or twice a month. So yes, it's changed work as we know it.

Carl Lewis: There are still reluctant folks, though. Elon Musk told his employees, "Come back to work, or you don’t work here anymore.” 

Brian Saemann: Oh, wow. That's an interesting take. I guess we'll see how that plays out.

Carl Lewis: He believes he has a bunch of folks who aren't working.

Brian Saemann: There are bosses like that. They need to see people doing their thing. But many who felt that way in 2019 have realized remote can work. And in some businesses, remote may even be more efficient.

Carl Lewis: Yeah. I may miss the water cooler, but I probably spent too much time at it, right?

Brian Saemann: Exactly. Take out water cooler time, commute time, etc. Much more efficient.

Carl Lewis: And add hours to your personal life.

Brian Saemann: So many people—apparently Elon Musk's employees included—don't want to go back. They like how it’s worked out.

Carl Lewis: Brian, you mentioned that businesses realized SEO is critical because of the pandemic, and your business surged. Has that surge sustained?

Brian Saemann: So far. Many of our clients are professional services firms, and they do their lead generation through networking events and maybe speaking gigs. The pandemic shut that down. They had to find new ways to get in front of prospects. The benefit of SEO is that if you put the time and effort in, you can get to the top of the search results and have some traction. But it won’t be immediate.

Brian Saemann: Some people said, “I wasn't expecting this to take so long. I need faster results." We got them into Google Ads, which you can build relatively quickly and get some traffic fast. For advertising, you hit “go” on the campaign, and it appears on Google minutes later. There are pros and cons to SEO and Google Ads. They serve each other well, and if you do both, they inform each other better. You can use what’s happening on Google Ads to find new keywords. The sum is greater than the two parts.

Carl Lewis: People get into SEO and say, "I want to increase my exposure." But if you don't have strong content, you have nothing to work with.

Brian Saemann: One hundred percent. In 2010, you didn’t need new content to rank for terms. You could optimize your site, put the right things in the right places, and get links to see traction. Now, you need content—good content. That’s not easy. Blogging is critical. An absurd number of websites are WordPress-based—I think 60%—and WordPress started as a blogging platform.

Brian Saemann: Those businesses have access to a blog and can publish content by clicking a few buttons. And if you're not publishing content consistently, Google won’t reward you. Google only rewards businesses that produce content often and well.

Carl Lewis: One of my jobs is creating new content—podcasts, web chats, etc. Then other people turn it into other stuff—blogs, social media posts, newsletter articles. If I write a book, they talk about it. People don’t understand that good SEO involves a serious investment in content.

Brian Saemann: I agree.

Carl Lewis: It's hard for executives of smaller companies. They have to be that guy. Because content needs to be valuable. It can't just be stuff.

Brian Saemann: It's interesting because many businesses use neutral language and are scared to offend people. But you need a personality. People aren't just going to give you attention. The entire world is battling for their attention, so you need a personality.

Carl Lewis: When you started, it wasn't very competitive, right? And when you were doing it, you were the exception, and you were exceptional. People were finding you with no competition. Now, everybody's screaming all the time. It’s harder to rise to the top. Is the future of SEO the same, or do you see that changing?

Brian Saemann: SEO's changing, and I agree that much more effort is required to get to the top. But it's not impossible. I don't want anyone to think it can't be done anymore, because it can. It’s just harder. It’s getting bigger. It used to be a specialized skill only a few self-taught people knew. There was nowhere to learn it, so it was trial and error, and there was a tight-knit community around it. Now, you can take SEO classes.

Brian Saemann: But you must include other things, like content. You need to start with a strategy. Ten years ago, folks said, "I want to rank for X, Y, Z keywords." I would do the research and respond, "There are literally no searches for this keyword. Why do you want to rank for it?"

Brian Saemann: It was an educational process to explain, "You don't need to rank for that one. Let's concentrate on other ones." Thankfully, I think we're beyond that. Businesses know what SEO is and that it benefits them. Now it’s educating about producing good content. The discipline has broadened, and we’re seeing tools that let us broaden it even further.

Brian Saemann: There are AI tools that will write content for you. It's not the best content, but it helps you get started. Staring at a blank page is tough! Plus, it will only improve. Other AI tools can find topics to write about and manage and optimize campaigns.

Carl Lewis: Are there tools other than AI?

Brian Saemann: Definitely. The biggest impact on SEO was easy content management systems. I mentioned WordPress, which is a content management system you can build a website with. HubSpot makes it easy to create, manage, and optimize content. When I started, those were HTML websites, so it wasn’t easy to adjust the title tags, meta descriptions, etc. Google looks at to rank websites. With these content management systems, it's so easy to change your website and produce new content.

Brian Saemann: But AI is currently the biggest impact. There are so many new tools. Some are better than others, and marketers who don't use AI will be behind the curve. And AI won’t take over—marketers who use AI might take over, but I'm not scared of AI taking over!

Carl Lewis: It's still in development in many places. It’s doing phenomenal things, but I don't think we've had our best thoughts yet about deploying AI.

Brian Saemann: Totally agree. It will be an exciting future if we pause to discuss the best way to use this stuff.

Carl Lewis: These new technologies are changing how we work on the web and helping us be part of a virtual world. What are the challenges for businesses getting started?

Brian Saemann: Producing content. Like you said, you and your company work to produce more content. You do a podcast, which probably goes on several platforms, the transcript gets published, and it gets repurposed into a blog. There are so many places you need to be that you need a plan. Every company has become a publishing/media company because they need this content. Brochures and whitepapers might have been enough before we were digital, but not now. And the tools are easy to learn, so they’re crazy if they don’t use them.

Carl Lewis: What would you tell the founders/CEOs/presidents of small businesses who know they need to be involved but don’t have much time? They can’t learn everything themselves, but if they want to be the voice for their company, what's a good way for them to start? What resources do they need?

Brian Saemann: There are two ways to go. One way of producing content is to listen to your customers. What questions are they asking? What problems are they running into? Because I guarantee if one or two are asking that question or having that problem, dozens of them are, and they're going online for the answer. I would have the sales team and customer service reps catalog all the questions people ask and produce content around those questions.

Brian Saemann: Sometimes, the CEO will play a big part in content production. They’d need to be disciplined and structured, but you're right—they don't have the time. They won’t write blogs. So, we prefer to get them out of the equation as much as possible because they become a bottleneck.

Brian Saemann: Instead, we interview them. We ask questions their customers might ask, questions about their business, and get them to spill the beans. We get audio, video, and transcripts, which helps us start content production. Many are reluctant, but when we do the interview and show them it isn’t just one piece of content, it’s six, it gets the ball rolling. And once the ball gets rolling, it rolls fast.

Carl Lewis: Collect those questions you mentioned, get the CEO in a room for a day, and get all the answers. You could put a lot of stuff together in a day.

Brian Saemann: Absolutely.

Carl Lewis: Many companies are what I call “marketing poor.” They don’t spend money on marketing or have a marketing-thoughtful person in their company. What's their first step?

Brian Saemann: If they’re thinking, "I want to build my digital presence. I want to get found and do lead generation online. I want to get customers online," the first step is keyword research. They need to see how much volume is out there. Is it worth it to produce this content? How worth it? Do they want to be super aggressive, or do they want to start small?

Brian Saemann: Keyword research says, "This is an untapped resource I should go after," or, "People don't search for me online." Not every business is a good fit. And if they're not, they shouldn’t waste money trying to get people online. There's no point. So, keyword research tells them what to concentrate on—or not.

Carl Lewis: That's a good suggestion. Brian, thanks for joining me. It was great. And maybe I’ll check back in a year or so to see what’s changed.

Brian Saemann: My pleasure. And the AI scene will be totally different in a year, so we’d have something new to talk about.

Carl Lewis: Thanks again, Brian, and thank you to everyone who's listening. We'll see you on the next episode of The Connected Enterprise. Until then, stay connected.