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Sebastian: Welcome to the SEO show. This episode we have Corey Northcutt. Corey, welcome to the show.
Corey: Hey, thanks for having me.
Sebastian: Corey, so you’re the CEO of Northcutt, which appears to be in an agency focused on SEO for e-Commerce and SaaS companies. Is that right so far?
Corey: That is right.
Sebastian: So, how did you come about finding that niche for those kind of clients to work with? Was that a lot of trial and error or you knew that these are the kinds of websites that you want to work for?
Corey: Well, I’m laughing because it was a complete accident. My first company was not in SEO. For about seven years, I ran a web hosting company called Ubiquity. In 2010, I ended up leaving that company and a little bit later, it sold to a company called Leaseweb out of Amsterdam. But, that left me with a big pool of old industry contacts that for better or worse, I was nice to my competition and they sought me out. They got used to seeing us above them on Google for a lot of the time and just more and more people started approaching me for SEO. I had to hire help to keep up with that. It’s a weird industry, it’s been getting gobbled up by just a couple of really big companies up on small ones. And that’s the cloud piece and because it’s in such an odd space of “hey, I can’t keep up with Microsoft, AWS, and Azure”, I get a lot of requests like “can you save my company with SEO?”, and the answer is “no, I obviously can’t. There are other problems there”. So ecommerce was sort of a natural next step. We had done the SEO for a company called Nexcess who is the largest Magento web host and they had been really generous referring clients and leads our way. So it just became a natural progression.
Sebastian: And is this something you’d recommend for all SEO agencies that they want to first branch out and try as many things as they can, and then fall into something that they like, or do you think there’s a better approach to that?
Corey: It definitely important to be differentiated one way or another. And what I found actually, in each of my companies is well, yes, it’s nice to have a niche. What’s especially important when you have potentially an international market of millions of people — how do those people find each other? How do you end up with one client who is going to hype up another potential client who might have heard your name two or three times? That’s hard. So, anything that kind of puts up these invisible walls as I’ve called them for a while of, “hey, you know what, I just hang out with this professional’s organization”, or maybe we only do work with like old osCommerce sites that no one has updated. There’s a million natural ways that you people kind of find their own tribal communities. I think it’s more about that than it is necessarily like, you have to just work with lawyers or you have to just work with accountants or whatever.
Sebastian: Well, let’s switch to tactics. As SEOs, we love to work with WordPress but specifically with the niches that you work with, is there an ideal CMS of choice for you?
Corey: Yes, I guess it’s your definition of ideal. We’ve got a lot of CMS’s that are just a nightmare and they can be patched together. It’s bad for the client. Your advice should be to get them off of that CMS. WordPress is great. It still does a lot of things wrong out of the box but it’s really easy to fix. It’s the easiest thing to work with. It’s the easiest thing for them to find developers themselves that are going to be hopefully reliable and affordable.
Sebastian: So if a client approached you and they’re like hey, we’re on Magento, but SEO wise, should we move to a Woocommerce or something else? What would you say to them in that scenario?
Corey: Yes, well if Magento is working that’s great. Ecommerce is always fun. It seems like the big three that we see right now are Shopify, Magento and BigCommerce. BigCommerce is one that we really like and we sought out. They gobbled up a lot of the Magento 1.0 market when they didn’t make that backwards compatible with Magento 2.0. Shopify is a disaster for SEO. It does everything wrong and you can’t change anything. That may be the one case — maybe Shopify and Wix where you’ve got to move if you want a competitive business long term. And BigCommerce fell in between the two. Magento, it can do everything but nothing is easy. It’s impressive how difficult everything is in Magento. So, BigCommerce is usually our happy medium.
Sebastian: Okay. So when and if you have to conduct an audit, do you go with a tool like ContentKing and ScreamingFrog or do you guys have your own proprietary method?
Corey: Well, we have our own methods but we use a ton of tools. So, something we preach a lot is the difference between tools and systems. A lot of people mix these up and it’s really easy to do. Like most tools like Moz, Screaming Frog we love, we use it. But they’re just tools, they’re vague. There’s a lot of things you can do with them. Moz can be applied to a million different types of business and it’s OK. It’s not the perfect solution for anybody but they maximize their own revenue by trying to get as many people on the platform as they could which makes sense. Whereas, a system, I think of it as rigid. For our business, this is the best workflow when we go in and audit an ecommerce site. I think about the Apple store experience. They pull up the iPad, they’ve got three things they can click on instead of like 3000 features at any moment. You’ve got a fork in a row that’s a to b and that’s it. And we’ve put a ton of effort into devising our own audit system. It rounds 1200 steps, its 28 modules, it’s really intense. We use a ton of software. So, we use Screaming Frog, we like Sitebulb a lot. We use SEMrush, we use Ahrefs situationally to play to each of their strengths. But yeah, it’s not a one be-all like, “I ran the report, I got a PDF, here you go”. I think that actually worked with some clients, really small businesses, sure. Like, give me something dead simple that is not custom to my business because I’ve got like $200. Okay. But again, we work with national and international brands, so we had to do our own thing.
Sebastian: And your keyword research process, does it follow a similar system where you use a few of those tools or like standalone tools like KWFinder and Keyword Revealer?
Corey: Yes, I think we’ve got eight main different types of keyword study. They each use a different tool. Some of them are interchangeable too. SEMrush is great — there used to be SEO digger. Their Analytics API I guess where they pull all of the keywords from every website. I recently learned Moz has a feature like that but they have no API so they’re off the table. And it’s just dumping all that and then you’ve got other tools that are like we just brute force the auto suggest engine. So Moz has one of those, SEMrush has one, AnswerThePublic is kind of a fun version on that. Any of those could work for the same workflow.
Sebastian: And how do you feel about content writing optimization tools like Ryte and Clearscope? Do you think that it’s necessary especially for SaaS or eCommerce companies in particular?
Corey: Yes. We’re experimenting with Clearscope right now. A couple of members of our team – Zach who is joining us from SpyFu is a big believer in a Clearscope. I don’t know. It seems like a good idea on the surface. Every time I start playing with one, I’m like, well, 60% of the ideas are good. I feel like if I prime the writers the right way, sure. Because I’m not going to be able to make everybody 20 year SEO judgment calls on everything. I like what Brightedge has done there, even though it’s ridiculous. You basically have a $10,000 a month keyword tool at that point. I don’t know, I think that someone’s going to get it right. They’re going to bring all the data from all these other sources and put it in the right context for non SEOs but I think it has yet to be done based on what I’ve seen.
Sebastian: To wrap up tactics, is there a particular web host that you would recommend for SEO?
Corey: There’s so many people I could make mad right now. Not particularly. I there’s points that I would make that kind of decision on. At the top of the industry, one thing that it’s actually a pet peeve of mine. You get a lot of SEO bloggers say, “Hey, go check out Bluehost. I use them.” And there’s a company called Endurance International Group that anyone in our space is very familiar with. So just absurd amounts of money, buying up everything they could get their hands on. I think now they have 80 published acquisitions that we know about. I think there’s hundreds of hosting companies that they bought. They own HostGator, Bluehost, Host9 — actually used to be an old Ubiquity client of mine, a bunch of guys that I knew. They’ve got all these hosts on the roster that are always who you hear recommended. And it’s the same sort of meat grinder process of offering hosting on all of them. And every time I see somebody call out that it’s like, yes, guys, they offer the biggest affiliate commissions. I know why you’re recommending them. They’re on every affiliate site. And I actually called out Yoast for this years back. He had this big epic thing like “well, I’m the SEO expert and as the expert you need Hostgator”. I was like dude, I see what you’re doing, that’s an affiliate link. It’s completely shameless, you don’t need to be doing this and he got pretty upset with me. I think anybody who actually puts in the care now — because there are a lot of hosts. WP Engine is one that we don’t work with, but I’m really impressed with their stuff. Nexcess has been a client of ours for a long time, I’m really impressed with their stuff where they just do more on the backend, especially if the platform is catered to your CMS. WP Engine with WordPress, it’s great. They have tuned the server and you can do that and it even goes beyond like the caching and all the sexy stuff that you always hear bloggers talking about. You just go into my SQL and you tune it. It’s called SQL tuning. So the server performs really well with this application. You can do the same thing with Apache and PHP, and all the applications that are on the server to make sure they actually get along well with what you’re using as opposed to if you go to the $5 web host. It’s just going to be the same settings for every website. It’s not going to be faster. It’s because they’re just churning out as much as they can as fast as they can.
Sebastian: And do you follow any marketing books or blogs or podcasts?
Corey: So many. I’m not that big on podcasts to be honest even though I’m on one. I feel like I show up on them often. But on Twitter, there’s a ton of people that I really like following. I really like what Nick Eubanks has been doing with Traffic Think Tank. I’m active on there. John Henry is a good follow on there. A lot of really old school people, AJ Cone, Blind Five Year Old is one that I really like. Cyrus Shepherd — I could give you a list of like a 100 people today. I may not agree with them on everything but they’re entertaining and there’s just too much bad blood in this industry I feel like have just butthurt about each other’s success on all sides of the equation. It seems like a lot of the SEO bloggers aren’t even doing as well as they let on. And it’s like guys, let’s just all have fun and do some websites.
Sebastian: Yes exactly. And you mentioned Twitter, is that where you’re most active on or is there somewhere else where people could reach you on and get a discussion going?
Corey: Yes, Twitter is good. I’m not an influencer so to speak. I’m fairly casual on there, but I will respond to anything I see on Twitter.
Sebastian: Bonus question — if SEO was to go away tomorrow, what would you find yourself doing?
Corey: Oh, man. Well, my background is as a developer so I’m a systems analyst. So that can apply to anything. I love applying it to SEO but I’d build something. After my first company, I said I’d just built AdSense sites and little calculators and things and that’s probably where I’d go.
Sebastian: Nice. Awesome. Well hey Corey, thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it man.
Corey: Yes, I appreciate it Sebastian. Take care.