Listen to the podcast episode here, or read the transcript below for “Corporate Digital Strategist Turned Entrepreneur on Voice Search, SEO,” with guest Steve Wiideman, founder of Wiideman Consulting Group.
We’re Talking Business Now with Steve Wiideman, the president and co-founder of Wiideman Consulting Group. Steve lives, breathes and—as he claims—eats SEO, SEM, and inbound marketing.
In this episode of Talking Business Now, Steve talks with us about his transition from the corporate world to entrepreneurship, and also about some of the trends that are taking place in digital marketing right now that every company, no matter how small, should understand. Welcome to the show today, Steve.
Thanks, Kelly. Thanks for having me.
I mentioned that you were in corporate America. In fact, you worked for IBM, for Disney and some of the really big companies that are known worldwide—global companies. You’d think that with all the benefits and all of the resources at your disposal in companies like that, you’d be content to stay there, but you decided to leave all that and embrace entrepreneurship. Why did you do that, Steve?
Well, I can tell you, it’s really exciting. When you get the opportunity to work for an amazing company like an IBM or Disney. It’s amazing for probably the first few months. As you start to really get comfortable and get really acclimated to what your job is, you start to realize that there’s caps on what you’re able to do. So, you know, even though I spent a good part of six years at IBM Global Services, there were still so many moments where I felt like, god, I could really do so much more, you know. It just became really limiting to me. And it was hard, because I’d get home and I felt unaccomplished. I felt like, yeah, I did a great job at my job at what I was supposed to do, but I know I could have done so much more.
Most entrepreneurs don’t start by just saying, “That’s it. I quit. I’m done.” You know, then they go home, they turn their computer on, they start working. They start doing it freelance. They start doing it in the evenings. They start getting up extra early, you know, and hitting the coffee at 5 a.m., you know, to try to start whatever it is that their vision is and what they want to do.
I actually had already started doing web design and development since the 90s. So, for me, it was a little bit easier, because I knew I already had a skill and a talent and something that I could do. And when I finally got my degree going to night school, I was working at IBM. Now having that degree and having that experience, I had enough confidence that hey, I could really make this work.
So, I supplemented enough of my income on my off hours that I could at least pay my bare expenses. And then I took that risk. I left the corporate world and said, “Hey, let’s see what we can do.” And I’ll be honest—I actually walked around my neighborhood and knocked on the local plaza businesses and said, “Hey, what are you doing for your digital marketing right now? I used to work for Disney and IBM. I’m right around the corner here and looking for some small businesses to work with.”
And I was just honest and gave some free advice and listens, see what their challenges are and what they’re doing for marketing. Gave, again, as much free advice I could, kind of pro bono, and eventually earn the trust of enough local businesses that by the end of the first month, I’d established a good 15-17K a month income for us.
Of course, then I had to do all that work, spending the whole first month doing sales and relationship building. So, it was a little bit of catch up for the second month. But it was worth it. It was worth the risk to do that. Because now I could do everything the way that I knew I could do it. I could really, I could test my words, call my own bluff, if you will, and it was fun, because when you do actually deliver and the client comes back and says, “Oh my god, I’m No. 1 for all these search terms. And, you know, this is working. The calls are coming in.”
One DJ actually told me to turn it off. He’s like “Turn it off. I’m a freelancing DJ, and I’ve got way too many calls coming in.” And I was like, “Well expand.” But it was exciting. And it was a testament to the fact that I could do it, you know. It was that I’d been practicing for so long, I could actually make this happen. So, I think that was that paradigm of hey, I can do it. But I’m not just going to cut the cord. I’m going to do a little bit of a hybrid of both the day job and work my way into that whole entrepreneur world.
Yeah. So you fall into the category of entrepreneurs who dip their toe in the water for just a bit and test out the waters until it warms up just enough, and then you take the plunge. You mentioned that you got off to a great start. Was it exponential growth after that? Because growth can kill a company, right, especially when they’re so new.
I hit my limit. I went over my limit. I oversold the first month.
I was gonna say. It sounded like you were all involved in sales—what time would you have left to actually, you know, do the client work? And so, talk to us about—you earned all those accounts—how did you replicate yourself? Did you start building out a team right away?
No, it was all me.
All you. Tell us about how you managed.
Well, I worked a lot of hours. So, I did mostly sales and relationship-building during the day, and in the evening, I tried to spend time with my family for a few minutes. And when everyone was in bed, I jumped back online and started to get as much of the work done as I could. I communicated. That was the trick. I communicated with all the clients: “As a reminder, I literally just left the corporate world and just starting out my first month, so I’m going to catch up. I’m going to get this stuff done. I’s just going to be a few days longer. And within the next few weeks, we’ll be on a normal pace.” But communicating was the most important thing.
Then because I did sort of, you know, overbook myself a bit, I did work some pretty crazy hours by myself, but I wasn’t really a business owner per se, right? I consider myself kind of a freelancer, a sole proprietor, I’m like, hey, I can, I can do all this on my own. I can do the billing and the finance and, you know, all my legal stuff, and paperwork and contracts and fulfillment work and reporting—I can do all of it myself. I can do this. And then you get, you know, six months in and your eyes are bloodshot. And you’re like, what am I doing?
Right. That’s when and that managing expectations isn’t working as well, six months in. Customers want it now. We gave you a little leeway at the beginning.
I was lucky because I’m in a world of organic search. Organic search, you know, takes several months to kick in, where paid advertising or buying ads in Google is pretty instantaneous. So, I set that expectation in the beginning. I told them it took me six months to get to the top of the page for SEO experts. It’s probably going to take you about the same to get to the top for photography studio Anaheim, right? Or car dealership in Claremont. Right? So, I think that was, that was part of it.
I think when I had that realization that I’m going to need some help, and I knew that was going to cost me, you know, a big part of this new income. It was exciting to have all that income—more than we’d ever had was really exciting. But I was just exhausted.
Fortunately, an old friend of mine came in for some website advice of his own. He brought in a couple $100 bills, and he sat down and he’s like, “Help me with my website.” And first he starts asking me how I’m doing. And he could tell I was really tired. And he says, “You know, I’d come in and work with you.” I’m like, “Really?” and he sure did. He came in, he volunteered for, you know, a couple of weeks. Then he came in part-time for a month on a paid arrangement.
And then right at the time, I’d moved into a new place. We converted the garage into an office space, put some drywall up. And it was he and I, and he was like an assistant. And he handled some of the easier, newer tasks. I handled a little bit more of the analytical and technical SEO tasks. And it became a great team. And you know, he and I, really, we started the business out of a garage, eventually moving to offices here in La Mirada. And in 2015, we incorporated and now we’re, you know, now we’re doing pretty well.
But, yeah, it’s a classic startup in a garage story, essentially, because that first six months of learning, if I hadn’t brought him in, I might have said, “You know what, it’s not worth the money. I’m going to go back to corporate,” where at least it was stable. And 2021 now, we have a full team of nine team members, and we are doing well beyond what I ever imagined we would be.
Again, you specialize in digital marketing, and I say digital marketing, because so many people think of that as SEO, but it’s so much broader than that. So, tell us about what even small businesses should consider when it comes to digital marketing?
Well, I think it’s, I think everybody knows that they have to be online. Nobody really uses a phonebook anymore, unless they need an extra booster seat for their kid on the dinner table. Right? So, I think it’s sort of paramount that everybody who runs a business at least have their eye on it.
And I know, it feels technical. It feels like hey there’s a keyboard attached, I don’t want to do it. I want to do, you know, what my passion is. But the reality is, users are going to the internet to find you. And there are many ways that you can be there for them. You can be there while they’re looking. Or you can figure out an advertising model that gets in front of them before they’re looking, when they’re in the right target, in the right state of mind to want your product or service but haven’t actually started their active searches for it.
So, there’s a lot of different ways that you can approach customers. There’s that broader digital marketing scope, right, of I need to address and be there for my customers, wherever they happen to be. If they’re on Twitter, I want to make sure that I’ve got a voice and a presence there. If they’re on TikTok, right, do we have something there for them that that we can be front and center and help them with questions they have about the type of product or service or issue they’re having? If they’re on Google, of course, right, do we have an ad there for them or natural listing in the maps or in the organic results? If they’re on emails and checking their emails every day, is there an opportunity there for us to partner up with vertical brands that already send emails to those customers so that they can recommend us?
There’s so many different ways that we can get in front of potential customers to, you know, to draw them in and make them customers. But like you mentioned, it feels overwhelming to a business owner. So, it’s really on the business owner to take, you know, maybe a few minutes every day and just get educated on what the things are—not necessarily how to do them. But at least understanding what they are enables them to be able to communicate when those opportunities come up. Because I know every day, everyone’s getting a phone call from an SEO person that says they can get them to No. 1 in Google.
I think part of the problem is, though, most business owners are still non-technical business owners. So, when it comes to working with someone like you, Steve, or someone else in our community, whoever it might be, they don’t know what they don’t know. And sometimes that just causes them not to trust the entire strategy, the entire industry. Some people that I’ve talked to have actually been taken for a ride, so to speak, with some of there, putting out dollars for some of these services. And so how does a business owner evaluate resources like this?
I think there’s two ways business owners can really protect themselves. When they’re in that mode of, hey, I need to get a digital marketing team to, you know, to really have my presence online, there’s the method of I’m going to get with a consultant who is going to lay everything out for me. You spend an hour or two, and they basically give you a little bit of a roadmap. Here are the things that to focus on. Here are some companies. Here’s some tools. And here’s some things you should be looking for in reporting.
The second way is making sure that you have, that you’re equipped with, the tools and the knowledge to be able to have those conversations yourself. We did create a guide for that just to try to help small businesses. And it’s basically a checklist and it asks all the questions that a consultant might to an agency that wants to work with them.
Questions such as how are they addressing security and privacy and accessibility. Questions around key performance indicators and how we’re measuring results. Are we measuring it strictly based on our rankings in search results? Are we measuring it based on revenue? Are we calculating our return on investment from search, even though search is a little bit of a slower vehicle for marketing? We could look at the previous quarter and measure. OK, in the previous quarter we invested X dollars. How much did we get back from the SEO experts from that last quarter?
Those are the kinds of questions I think that help business owners at least feel like they’re asking the right questions to protect themselves. They’ll also want to ask questions such as are you my wingman working with the assets that I own? Or are you taking ownership of those assets and then extortioning me when I try to leave? I think asking those questions are important.
Is this checklist available on your website?
We actually have it on a site called SEOVerified.com. We kind of wanted to put it up somewhere where there wasn’t a lot of us trying to sell ourselves. So, it’s more of a free resource now for business owners to basically just grab the checklist and roll through it. Or, if they want, they can grab someone from my team to liaison for them, and basically run through those questions on their behalf.
Yeah, so SEOVerify.com. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the trends that we’re seeing. I mean, so many exciting innovations that are occurring in this field
How is Voice Search going to impact SEO? And I mean, right here, this podcast that we’re doing, for example. How is voice search, the whole idea of audio, impacting SEO?
It’s coming in. It’s a slow growth. But over—it said over 180 voice devices are being shipped every minute. That means people are buying Alexas and they’re buying Google Assistants and Google Homes and Nests. You know, they’re investing in these technologies and just kind of getting their foot in the door with them. They’re learning the basic invocations. “Call” or “get me the phone number” to “get me directions” to “play the song.”
Eventually, as business owners get a little bit more savvy, and they start really listening to some of the programmers that are working on their Alexa skills and their Google Assistant actions, they’re going to teach their customers how to set an invocation to actually talk to their business. When you say, “Hey, talk to and business name,” you can actually have that application do whatever you want it to do. It can help you with booking reservations with your customers. It can answer customer questions.” But it takes them off that default world of what’s created in the system, and it pulls them into your world that you create in the Google Actions console and in the Alexa skills lists.
I think right now it’s still very young. Very few people are using voice to make purchases online. In fact, I’m teaching at two universities right now, and every term, I ask the question in the beginning, “Do you use voice assistants?” And everyone says, “Yes.” “Have you purchased anything just using your voice, where you don’t touch your phone?” And not a single student yet has done that.
So, I think it’s still very young. I think there’s still a lot of worry of “What if I get the wrong product? What if I pay too much? I want to be able to compare products and browse and view things on my phone still.” So, I think we’re still a few years away from getting to that place, but with the adoption of more VR coming into the picture and people using VR for gaming and other things, I think that comfort level is going to increase.
Amazon, as I said multiple times in different conversations, that the Amazon Pay folks anyway, that they believe in the next five to 10 years that we’re going to look back and laugh at ourselves walking around holding cell phones—that we’re going to eventually untether ourselves from these devices and be able to use voice more effectively. And it’s interesting.
So I think everybody has someone, knows somebody, or has a device at home that has internet—and it’s not a normal device—like a refrigerator or a washing machine. Like my cousin when he’s ordering and replenishing his refrigerator, he’s doing it from the internet on a screen on his refrigerator. This kind of technology didn’t exist years ago, you know. I’ve got smart plugs now in my house that I can activate while I’m away or traveling. “Oh, I forgot to turn off the coffee machine.” You can use your voice assistant to say “Turn off the schedule.”
So, I think the Internet of Things is making our ability to find what we need and use the internet without our hands more available. And there are ways that businesses need to really start thinking about that already. Like, is their website voice-ready? Or do I still have to use my keyboard to punch in something in a form on the website? Are my helpful “how to,” “where to,” “why to” pages on my website—do they include short summaries at the top that other people could share to help me maybe show up in that position zero of a web search, which is also used in 70% of Google Assistants’ voice answers when you say, “hey,” and ask a question. Seventy percent of the answers you’re gonna get back from that short answer, that featured summary, that you can have come up with your page on your website to introduce your brand and to build authority.
The third, of course, is that Google Action console and the Alexa skill set, I think, just dabbling in those things and exploring them or hiring a consultant or someone who’s experienced to start chipping away at those things. In a year from now, when your competitors are just figuring it out, you’ll already be acclimated to it. You’ll already understand and have gone through what works, what doesn’t work and be comfortable with it. But you have to start, and even if it’s just 30 minutes a week, it’s worth it. It will be worth it at least down the road.
When you talk about the user experience, the customer experience, and if they are too overwhelmed by pop-up ads—and I realize that what you were talking about is beyond that. But the reality is, is that these things still exist. If they’re overwhelmed by pop-up ads, or they’re concerned about the way their information is shared as they move from website to website, you know, the tracking that is put on websites.
OK, so a brand a business goes to all this time, effort, money to create a plan. And then there are blocks in place where the customer is gaining more and more control of their search and internet experience. How do we get a balance there to where brands can still gain information about their customers and really try to serve them well based on that, versus being intrusive?
I think that’s a really great point. And I think as business owners and as human beings, I think our character-building exercise here is showing, you know, our ability to adapt to those changes. It’s not to say, “Oh, well, forget it. I’m not gonna do it,” or “I give up.” I think it’s about “Okay, well, let’s look at ways that we can still be profitable. Let’s look at ways that we can still use those.”
And you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot of amazing brands out there like Apple, and we mentioned Disney earlier, that are paying attention to these things. So, you can follow the footsteps of the larger organizations and see how they’re handling cookies. You can see how they’re handling privacy. You can see how they’re handling trust signals. You mentioned worrying about payments. Google calls those, you know, expertise, authority trust signals or EAT signals.
So, I think as a business owner, the first thing to do is to ask your customers, “How can we make our site better for you?
If you’re going to have a pop-up, have that pop-up be something that says “Do you have a couple of minutes to help us to provide a better experience? Yes or no.” And if one person out of every 100 submits a form, that’s fantastic.
You could also use tools like UserTesting.com and get real people to go through and do transactions and ask them questions. Do you feel like this site is safe enough for you to put your credit card information into? Did you find the information you needed quickly? Or did you have to scroll or click around the website?
I think in doing those user testing exercises, you can learn a little bit more about what your customers are looking for. Get them what they need right away as quickly as you can.
You know, we did something really interesting last year during the pandemic, when IHOP was struggling a bit with this off-premises idea. They didn’t previously do delivery. They didn’t really have a lot of takeout. And, so, we have these local pages set up for every single location. And what was interesting is during the pandemic, we still had a button on the bottom of the local page that basically on your mobile phone, it was just a sticky little button at the bottom, and it said “Directions.”
And we looked at it. We’re like people aren’t looking for directions during a lockdown. They’re looking for food. Let’s put a “Place Order” button or “Start Order” button right there at the bottom, right where their thumb is so that they can go right into that whole experience of purchasing and getting what they need.
A few days after the weekend, we got an email from Jeff, our contact over there. He says, “Guys, we had a $2 million weekend. Can you send me some stats and all the details. This is fantastic.” The next week, “Steve, guys, we had another $2 billion weekend. This is amazing.”
All it took was just really paying attention to what our users needed. At that moment, they needed to be able to do delivery and carry out and not have to figure out where they start to make that happen. Again, it is a little bit of math, art, science and creativity. But it starts with just asking your customers, “How can we make this a better experience for you?”
I was going to ask you about the pandemic, as a matter of fact, how that affected search. Because we know that so much of retail and other types of business was moving towards ecommerce and towards being internet- and cloud-based. But during the pandemic, people who had maybe never used the internet to order anything, suddenly, as you said, found themselves ordering from restaurants or found themselves buying groceries via the internet. And, so, tell us about the impact that COVID had on it. Are those trends that are here to stay? Did they just accelerate something that was inevitable already?
It’s funny you asked that because when we look at our annual KPI goals with all of our clients and say “What do we want to achieve in the following year?” And you know, for our larger brands, it’s generally right around 10-15% growth: “We want 10-15% more people to purchase online. That’s our goal.” And so we make optimizations during the year to kind of make that happen.
But when the pandemic hit, I mean, the results from people that were now searching online just skyrocketed. I mean, just in the hundreds. Like we went up over 200% on some of the restaurant chains, and the number of online orders that were coming in. It was huge. So now, as the pandemic kind of comes to an end, we look back and we’re like, “Wow, what do we do? We can say we want 10% growth during a period where people now to go back into the restaurants. You know, that wouldn’t be fair.
So now our KPI goal is retention, right? What’s our goal? “We want to retain 40% of what we gained before the pandemic started.” So, we go back to 2019. And then we look at what we gained from in 2020, which I mentioned was in the hundreds. And our goal at the moment is to retain by the end of the year 40% of that. Our efforts are “Continue to order online. Use the loyalty program, where you get points and see what your points look like online to get free food and perks and status.” Right?
So, the goal here is now that these people are starting to use their phones and their computers to order food and products is to keep them there as much as we can. Because we can scale that. It’s harder to scale in-store, in-restaurant. If we do something we’re pushing people to go into the restaurant too much or into the store too much, lines go around the building or they don’t have enough staff. That’s a challenge we’re dealing with right now where, you know, now things are there’s just not enough staff.
Given everything that you’ve said with the way that COVID has changed our approach to doing business on the internet, given the way that the industry is just changing so much—the innovations that just occur on a regular basis—at lightspeed some business owners might even say—it’s hard to keep up with it. Talk to us about what business owners need to really be paying attention to in 2021—what they should be Talking Business Now about.
Absolutely. I think it does go back to understanding your customers, that your customers behaviors have changed. They’re going to price shop a little bit more. Some of them are still working from home, and on the laptops on the couch, and not, you know, sitting in a cubicle with someone else over their shoulder. So, they can price around a little bit more. They can do a little bit more research.
So as a business, now’s your opportunity to take all that great knowledge of your product, of your services and your business—and put that content online. Put what you know about your clients—not privacy-related things, but more in aggregate, here’s what we know about our customers that you might find interesting. Did you know 60% of iPhone users prefer this over Android? Things that only you know about your customers that might be interesting to the industry and to potential future customers. Take that time; list them out.
And if you’re still not sure that your customer service department isn’t telling you what people want, what they’re asking for, then use some tools that are online. There’s tools like Answer the Public. You can go to AnswerThePublic.com, punch in your product or service name, and you’ll find hundreds of questions—what, where, how, why—strategies, tips, ideas of what people are searching for that relate to your product or service. Put those things on a content calendar, plan them out for the next year and really get those pages to be the best answer.
And if you’re not sure, just perform a search for that question. And if your page isn’t as good as that page that shows up number one, make sure that it is. Make the time. Invest in some content writing, some research, some rich media, some pictures, some video. You know, really get that page to stand out and be as unique as it can. And by 2022, you’ll look back at your digital analytics and go, “Wow, look at all the traffic we drove from people who were interested in these questions that we were solving, this problem that we were solving. Look at all the websites that are linking to us and referencing our definitions and our data and our research. Look at all the referral traffic we’re getting from those links as well.”
Google is definitely going to be looking at those links, they’re going to use those as votes to help move your pages up in the rankings as well. So, I think it’s exciting to see how one plays with the other, and the more information you can share about your products, your services, what they solve for …
Here’s an example. A spiral stair company we worked with had 10 fabricated products on their website that were for people who just want to order a spiral stair online. And we did some competitive research. We looked at search terms that were driving in traffic to their competitors. And we found that people were looking for deck stairs, patio stairs, library stairs, basement stairs. And we helped them create a page for each one of those reasons that somebody would want to purchase a stairway. And they had plenty of pictures—they’d sold, you know, tens of thousands of products. So, you know, going from a paid site that had 10 pages on it to well over 200 pages by the time they were done. Between materials, uses types, tools, parts—we were able to expand the content on the website with all the different components of what makes up that business. And I think it was a night and day thing.
The other thing I think during the pandemic that we learned is that people care about safety. People now care more about viruses and airborne things than ever. Just because your people are getting vaccinated doesn’t mean that they’re not going to think twice before they touch the door handle. Right? Because it’s embedded in them. It’s ingrained. It’s imprinted. So, I think as a small business, if you’re brick and mortar, make sure you have pictures on your site that show your workers wearing masks still, show them practicing social distancing, show some level of safety and that you care and that you’re paying attention to those things and that your business has been updated since 2019 with images that represent the times.
Very good solid, practical tips that any business can practice. Thank you for that. And I think one of the other things that I’m hearing you say that is a misconception surrounding digital marketing—and that is —it’s the results are instantaneous. You can, I mean, you can get a pretty quick bump in some cases. But like anything, it’s something that you’re investing in for the long haul. When you talk about writing all of those blogs and creating all those different pages and writing articles to address each of the questions that people are searching for—that’s not quick work. It’s still a long game. Gear your expectations accordingly is what I was hearing you say.
Get it on the calendar. Allocate some time to work on it. Outsource if you need to. But, really, you know your brand better than anybody. So, it’s always better if you or someone on your team could do that. Maybe even bring in a college intern to support you. You’re still the primary writer. They’re just helping you. You know, at some point, if that intern gets really good and understands the business and really follows the vision of what the business is trying to do and gets the value and the narrative that they could take that over and become an employee and convert from intern to employee. In fact, three of our team members started as interns. That can work for you. It worked for us.
Steve, thank you so much for your time today, for shedding some light on a topic that so many business owners still struggle with, and sometimes don’t even have a lot of confidence about themselves in making the kinds of decisions they need to when it comes to digital marketing. So, thank you very much. We appreciate the time. Thank you.