Podcast 150: How Jonathan Kiekbusch Went from PBNs to White Hat SEO and Has Grown a Thriving Business
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In today's episode, I share an interview I did with John Kiekbusch from SEOButler.com.
John and I crossed paths because he is a user of Table Labs (my Amazon Table builder SaaS application). He had a few questions and then suggestions for the tool. When I finally looked at the domain his emails were coming from, I realized that I knew his business!
I invited him on the podcast to share his story.
Listen to the entire episode to hear how John went from building an “offline” security business, to transitioning PBNbutler to SEObutler, how he's built a portfolio of sites and more. Along the way he also shares some great tips for how he's grown both SEObutler and his own portfolio of sites.
I hope you enjoy the episode!
Hey, everyone. . Before I jump into today’s episode, I want to remind you that I’m working on a new WordPress plugin called Link Whisper. If you head over to linkwhisper.com, you can check out what I’m working on and get on the waitlist there. In a nutshell, what it is, is a WordPress plugin that makes internal linking much easier and much faster. In a very semi-automated way, it allows you to essentially check a box and add an internal link. The tool will find and recommend related posts and also the anchor text for you.
It’s going to eliminate a ton of work that you, or your virtual assistant, or your author has to do. It’s also going to make your website much more powerful because internal links are an SEO signal to Google to help them crawl it better. It also helps users find your content better. Overall, it really should improve the quality of your website and it’s going to save you a ton of time. Go ahead and go over the linkwhisper.com. It has not been released just yet, but if you get on the waitlist, I’ll let you know as soon as it’s ready.
For today’s episode, I have an interview with John Kiekbusch from seobutler.com. John has built a really cool business both an agency, SEO services, as well as his own portfolio of sites. We’re going to talk about all three of those. SEOButler actually started out as pbnbutler.com when he initially joined that. We’ll go into that story, how they thrived building private blog networks—PBNs—about how they no longer actually do that. He bought his partner out and they’ve transitioned now to seobutler.com. They focus more on quality, they no longer do any PBNs, and overall, we’ll talk about that entire story of why he made that transition.
Also, he has a B2B agency that we’ll talk a little bit about. Finally, during the latter half of the interview, we will dive into a lot of his SEO tips that he uses for his own portfolio. I’ve tried to drive some value out there for you, the listener, that you can apply to your own websites. Go ahead and listen in to the interview. John’s got a lot of great tips, he’s got a very interesting story, and he certainly built a very successful business.
Spencer: Hey, John. Welcome to the Niche Pursuits Podcast.
John: Hey, Spencer. Thanks so much for having me.
Spencer: Absolutely. It is great to have you actually officially on the podcast. We’ve connected a little bit via email. Actually, remind me. How was it that we initially connected here?
John: I think it was a good friend of mine or a common friend actually recommended one of your SaaS products to me. I started using that, found some things I would have really liked you to implement, and then I just shot you an email and then everything just evolved from there.
Spencer: That’s right, Table Labs. I got a few emails from you and I was telling you previously that I didn’t quite make the connection of who you were. You were just asking for some adjustments on Table Labs and then I realized that you owned SEOButler. We connected from there and here you are on the podcast.
I want to chat about a lot of different things here, your current business, what you’re doing, your portfolio sites, what you’re doing there. Before we do that, can you just give us a brief background on your work or business experience previous to building any online businesses?
John: Sure. I would like to say a relatively unorthodox career as many people ironically have in this industry. I was born in Bremen, Germany which I hide very well behind this fake British accent, I dropped out of school at 16, and the next logical decision for me was to move to India where I spent just shy of three years and my first exposure to the digital world was out there. I learned flash development, back in the days that flash was relevant, worked with a company that created visualized story books for children and adults to learn their own languages, how to read and write them, subtitling them and stuff like that, and animating them.
Fast forwarding from there, after just shy of three years, I moved back to Germany, got head hunted by a big usability testing company. The European headquarters were based in London, that lead to me moving out to the UK. I started as an account executive there, then worked my way out to the Director of Sales to Europe within a very brief amount of time. I really enjoyed that because I got a lot of big boy corporate experience there getting to sell to billion dollar companies and dealing with that kind of stuff, learning about the importance of paperwork and the processes involved in closing big deals.
It was shockingly made redundant from that job about a year-and-a-half into my career with them. Again, completely logical move started a physical security company doing events, doing retail, doing body guarding, doing surveillance jobs, that kind of exciting stuff. Did that for three years. Towards the end of those three years, I got reintroduced to the world of online through a friend who then became my initial business partner in this venture. There was a very distinct moment where we started doing things online, I can go to more detail on that, but we started doing things online and starting seeing some traction.
I was working at an event here in the city for my security company and all hell broke loose. Somebody threw a rock into the crowd and it hit me in the hand. My hands split open and I was sat at the A&E in the hospital here, waiting to have my hands stitched back together. That was the exact moment that I knew that my security world career was over. From that moment onwards, I did everything that I could to scale up this online income. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was within about three months of that moment that I completely stopped working in the security industry and started doing this full time.
Spencer: Wow, quite a journey there. Very cool. From Germany to India, back to Germany, UK, offline, online businesses, a lot going on there. To give people a timeline, what was the year that you stopped the security business and started the online businesses?
John: We started the online business, I want to say around October of 2014. By November of 2014, we thought it was serious enough to have to register a business. The business was registered as of the 14th of November or something. I officially sold off all of my contracts in the security business in, I want to say, February of 2015.
Spencer: Just gives people a little bit of a timeline there. Tell us briefly about your initial online business ventures. You mentioned it sounds like maybe you were building some websites or doing something outside of SEOButler, outside of the agency, that you initially started. How did that go?
John: The business partner that I started the business with was a pure technician, an SEO guy, lots of experiences, had some good successes, some not so good experiences. He was ultimately looking for somebody that could take over the business side and really create a business out of his skill set. I had known this guy for a while at this point. When we initially talked about it, we thought that we were going to start an SEO agency from scratch, approach local businesses, get retainers and grow that.
That didn’t really work out because we didn’t know what we were doing, we had no SOPs in place, we had no experience, no rep, nothing. We started looking at Facebook groups and seeing what people were doing, trying to understand a little bit more about the industry. Especially me being quite alien to the industry, I really wanted to soak up what people are looking for. At that particular time, there were a couple of big Facebook groups that were very active in the world of PBNs.
There was a tremendous need for building out PBNs at scale every step of the way, finding domains, writing content, building out the sites and all of that. My experience of having been in India and having worked for both small and large business gave me the competitive edge when it came to systems and building teams. What we were seeing is that loads of people were failing to deliver in these groups, in these niches.
Our first ever product was PBN content. It was written in the Philippines, it was four box an article, it was horrendous. All we did is we threw up a PayPal button on a single page or site and we were like, “We’ll deliver your PBN content at scale.” What we did initially is we just did what everybody else did which is hire a bunch of Filipino VA writers and hope for the best. Obviously that fell apart really quickly because there was no accountability, there were no proper systems.
Our two biggest changes that made all the difference were, the first thing was that we hired a local manager in the Philippines who was solely tasked with finding, recruiting, and managing these writers. The second thing was that we recruited some students in the US to proofread this content for $0.75 an article or something and just make some basic changes to clean them up or reject them if they’re horrendous. Those two changes then instantly flipped the switch and we were flooded with orders. From one day to the next, we were doing hundreds of articles.
We then started looking into the avenues of creating other products, such as selling PBN domains, building out PBNs. That’s how our first brand was born, which was PBNButler at the time. All of that actually worked out pretty well. The margins were very slim and we had to put in a lot of work for very little gain because, obviously, we were working on margins of $1.50 per article or something. It was insane and you had to do some insane volume to see any kind of gain. We scaled that up and started to really have the need for a team.
The next thing that we did is we flew out to India, opened up an office there, and started teaching the team to build PBNs out. That worked really well as well, so we scaled that. To spare you all of the hyper detail stuff that happened from there to where we are now, I ended up buying out that business partner and actually went down a completely different route because as soon as I was faced with this whole situation of buying him out, which was about two years ago now or a year and a half ago, we decided that a 110% of everything that we do is now going to be focused on quality.
There were a couple of massive changes that I wanted to make, the first one was no more PBNs not because they don’t work, but because they don’t align with our brand. We changed from PBNButler to SEOButler, we got rid of really low quality products like the VA content from the Philippines and replaced that with really high quality content written in the US, we upped the amount of supporting staff that we have in the UK that deal with customer support, and we started looking at opening up a physical office in the UK and phasing out the Indian office.
That in itself was probably the biggest game changer for the business. As soon as we started doing these things, our revenue just kept doubling. It was insane, just because we finally understood what our real market was and because we finally understood how to position ourselves and how to deliver something that people want in the long term. That made all the difference in the world. Until today, the brand is called SEOButler. I want to claim at least that some people have heard of it.
Spencer: Definitely some people have heard of it. That is very interesting. I don’t know if you know my story with PBNs, I’ve talked a lot about PBNs over the years. I did a public niche site project. This is going back probably to a similar time frame of 2015-ish, something like that. I was using PBNs and got a penalty. Long story short, I swore off using private blog networks ever again. I wrote about it very publicly and on the podcast. It’s cool to hear that SEOButler has made that decision that you’re not doing anymore PBNs, you’re focusing more on high quality content, high quality links, that sort of thing. I’m all on board with that.
John: It’s more rare than you’d think to have this discussion and actually be on the same path because as you know, many SEOs, no matter if affiliate, or agency, or legion prefer the shortcut route of using PBNs. Don’t get me wrong. People have massive successes with them, but how long will it last? If you’re doing client SEO, especially, then I always question the ethics of it.
Spencer: I think it’s a smart move on your part and it’s probably a really tough decision because there’s a lot of money to be made in building up PBNs for clients. I made the decision. I’m a content provider, on my blog, and on the podcast, and a lot of people follow what I do. At the time, I was using PBNs, everything is great, rankings are improving, earnings are doing well. I got hit with the penalty and it hurt a lot. It was very public and I decided to just be very open and honest and say, “It’s just not worth it for me to take the risk with my own sites anymore, I am advising all of you not to use PBNs again.” Ever since then, I have not used a single PBN link, that was 2015 or whatever it was.
John: That’s awesome.
Spencer: Yup. Very focused on white hotlinks, doing things the way that should last a longer time.
Give us a sense of your business right now, everything that you’re involved with because you’ve got SEOButler. Maybe just briefly describe, of course, all the services that are offered there. I know you’ve got some other things going on as well.
John: Ultimately, our mothership is called i2W. We are a company based in the UK, we have eight full time office-based team members here. We have a full time contractor that’s a German guy in Thailand, we have a full time contractor guy that’s a Canadian guy in Vietnam, and then we have a team of about 45 contractors full and part time in the US. That mothership then owns the brand seobutler.com which is our productized SEO store where you can buy guest posts, contents, citations, press releases, other exciting products that we’re about to release. Loads of stuff.
We have our agency which currently is flying under the flag of i2W which will probably be rebranded very soon, which is a B2B agency. We work directly with ecom brands, we work with big national businesses, we work with smaller businesses that have a decent budget, and just purely focused on SEO. We sometimes help them with little things like CRO, et cetera as well, but our bread and butter there is SEO.
Then we have a third wing, if you will. That’s the investment side of the business and that’s where we essentially put the majority of our profits that we make in all of the three wings. We essentially buy affiliate sites, SaaS products, whatever we can get our hands on that we believe we can add value to.
Spencer: That makes a lot of sense. If I can just break it down in terms of your target market a little bit, SEOButler sounds like that’s almost like your self-serve the consumer. Maybe individual website builders could come to SEOButler, get content, guest posts, social sharing, et cetera, whereas your agency side is, of course, built probably more for larger businesses that are looking for a little bit higher touch type work where you can get involved a little bit deeper in their business. Did I break that out properly?
John: Yeah. With SEOButler, it is a mix. You have DIY SEO guys working on the affiliate project on their own client projects and even some business owners that are working on their own thing. We got a lot of web designers ordering content for web development project, and then we have agencies. We have agencies that outsource all of their link building to us or all of their content writing, et cetera. Our agency is exactly as you described. Basically, I like to call it a full service SEO. We do everything from the onboarding and auditing all the way until the final report at the end of the month.
Spencer: You’re very involved in SEO working with lots of businesses. Can you tell us how you grew SEOButler? What’s worked really well to grow your business?
John: To be totally honest and this is such a lame answer to your question, the best growth hack or whatever you want to call it, for us has been incredible customer service. SEOButler has grown pretty much exclusively through people mentioning us on social media when other people are asking for a supplier. It’s grown through industry authorities mentioning us in their guides after testing our products, people mentioning us in forums, et cetera. A lot of that is based just on our customer service. We have a no bullshit approach, where we own up to our own mistakes. We tell our customers that we’ve messed up and we give them a refund or we try to fix what the problem is. In our industry, I’m sure you know, that’s more rare than it should be. People really appreciate that and we’ve been really, really grateful for the fact that we’ve been able to grow so much because of that.
The other methods, of course, are quite traditional. We run Facebook ads, we blog, we email. But because we have such a priority on fulfilment, we have failed at that from time to time. Our blog for the longest time was completely dead until I made the decision to actually hire an editor-in-chief who is now solely in charge of creating content for the site.
Spencer: Definitely, good customer service, fulfilling orders, and getting word of mouth referrals is a great source. It sounded like at least with PBNButler, when it started early on, there are a lot of private Facebook groups and social media were a large source. I guess that’s just fed in, of course, it transitioned right in the SEOButler. Is private Facebook groups, are you still heavily involved in that now or is it more just other people mentioning it at this point?
John: At this point it’s mostly other people just because I quite frankly don’t have the time. I, literally now, have a recurring time on my calendar that forces me to have time to go onto Facebook because I want to do more of it, but it’s so difficult because the day just ends up being booked out.
Spencer: When you have a growing business, your time is stretched and lots to work on. I want to talk about strategies because a lot of the listeners here are building out their own sites and trying to determine what type of links they should build or what other SEO strategies. Maybe you can talk about this a little bit in regards to your own business. You said you have an investment site where you’re buying and building out affiliate sites. So, you’re in the trenches building out your sites. What’s working really well for you and your sites in terms of SEO, whether that be links, or content, or a combination of things?
John: The first thing that we see results with is always the content. Whenever we take over sites, no matter if they’re the $100 stage or $1000 stage or whatever they’re at, one of the first things that we review is the content. This is a luxury that we have because we have a really large content team in the business. What we tend to do is we tend to look at the quality of the content that’s already on the website from almost like a CRO point of view more than an SEO point of view. We look at, is it actually informative? Is it written in a way that it can convert? Does it answer the questions of the user to a point where after reading it, the user is able to make a purchase and a decision?
Then we carry out stuff like absolute keywords, competitor gap analysis that then also feeds into a keyword gap analysis, where it basically highlights either supporting pieces of content that we haven’t thought of or keywords that we just haven’t targeted in general like product names or whatever it might be. By doing that and then massively briefing up the quantity of the content on the website, we usually get some really, really quick wins. Link building is of course something that we do from day one, but for the first couple of months where we brief up the content, we usually just build naked, branded links to the homepage, catch lead pages, maybe […], too.
Spencer: What tools or what’s the process that you follow to do that keyword or content gap analysis?
John: There’s a couple of ways that you can do it. The easiest one is Ahrefs has a got a pretty decent option that allows you to pop in your site and then, I think, up 10 competitors that you want to look at. You can then select how many of your competitors have to rank for a keyword that you’re not ranking for, for it to identify a gap, and that then removes a lot of the brand keywords and stuff like that that you don’t want, that are messy, as in keywords of their brand rather than the brand that you’re promoting. That’s probably the easiest way.
What we do is we actually export all of their keywords and then we put it into our own systems which then highlight the wins. Basically, it’s just advanced Google Sheets, if you will, which then automatically highlights it by filtering it to certain search volumes and stuff like that. I’m 99% sure you can do most of this on Ahrefs. It just easier for us because we’ve got it all preset on our sheets.
Spencer: That makes sense, briefing up and doing a lot of gap analysis with the content, writing new content. Is there any type of research strategy that you’re following like specific keywords? Is it more you’re just trying to cover everything in a particular topic?
John: That’s actually a really good question. For us, when we started, we were deeply obsessed with keyword research, with keyword density, with really hammering out those percentages and stuff like that. I have to be totally honest with you, we have totally removed that from our strategy other than as a failsafe review option to make sure it’s not keyword stuff because that wouldn’t be good. Nowadays, what we do is we just give the writer a scope, we tell them what we want them to write about, we give them some resources, and we tell them, “Hey, here are the main two keywords that we would really appreciate you to mention in the first paragraph. Write everything as naturally as you can and follow this general layout because that will make it easier to put into the site.”
What we found by doing that is that the content comes out 10 times more natural and we’re still able to put keywords into headings or subheadings or whatever if we feel the need to at a later stage. The content coverts much better because the writer isn’t so restrained by our 75 keywords that we want them to include in 76 words.
Spencer: Maybe you can talk also a little bit about content length. I’m curious how you’re having your writers determine how long an article should be. Are you just giving them a general prescription, say, make every article 2000 words? Or is there more science behind that?
John: Again, it’s a tricky one because this is actually something that splits the opinion even within our team. Generally, we look at the average word count of the top 10 performing pages. My opinion is, only write as much as you need to write. As soon as you start fluffing out the content, just let you hit the word count, you’re losing traction. What I found is that, you can outperform a page that has 1000 words with your page having 800 words if your page only need to have 800 words, if it all makes sense. We have to keep in mind that, yes of course, the amount of words can be considered a banking factor but there are so many other factors that come into play that I don’t think they’ll outweigh all of these other factors like the bounce rate, like the time on page, all of those bits and pieces.
Spencer: That makes a lot of sense. We talked about content, let’s talk a little bit about link building that’s working well for your portfolio in terms of link building once you’ve built out the content if you’re doing some targeted links or other general links. What’s your strategy for your own sites?
John: Initially, we started with branded, naked […] should probably add that. We just do that to maintain link velocity, keep the authority. It’s important to mention as well that for the most part, we just do guest posting. When I say for the most part, it’s because we also do what I call media buying which is basically just glorified guest posting. These are usually posts on far, far more expensive websites where we usually don’t get to write the content, for example, and where the commitment is a little bit more intense.
Long story short, what we think works really well is to start building up a certain velocity and then not constantly changing that, not building three links and then waiting for a month and then going like, “Now, I’m going to build X links.” Even if it’s as little as one link a week, just building that velocity and then slowly upping it, I think works a lot better than just sprinkling the links every now and then.
The other thing is that we very rarely use the same anchor twice, we mostly optimize our anchor text ratio using internal links because we’re in control, and we mostly use external links for authority and power. I think that, that worked out really well for us. What obviously really helps is we refuse to build links on sites that don’t get traffic. We’re really happy because we are an SEOButler and our social signals product where URLs gets shared on social media really helps. What we do is we actually use that in multiple ways.
The first thing is that when a post get social signals, it usually indexes really quickly. The second thing—this is probably one of my favorite things about social signals—is they show up on sharing buttons. When the site owner suddenly sees that our guest post has received 100 shares, 200 shares, whatever, they really like us for the next one and then the one after that and the one after that. It really helps. Big picture, we start off with branded, naked anchor text, build a lot of vaguely related stuff—it really depends on the site that we’re working on—and what we try to do is we try to be very, very topical in the paragraph that we’re linking from. I think that it’s tinfoil hat kind of talk, but we also try to have the link as far up in the content as possible, as close to the beginning as possible, and we use internal links to optimize our anchor text ratios.
Spencer: Those are some great strategies, tips that people can follow there. In terms of your investment side of the business, maybe just to clarify, how many sites have you purchased and how many sites have you built from scratch there?
John: We sold a bunch of sites at the end of last year. Right now, I think we only have five sites that are actively being worked on. Out of those five sites, I think there are two that we bought that were starter site that basically never even received traffic but we thought that the domain was great so we bought those two that were making a little bit of money and then one that was already doing quite well. Therefore the most part, Amazon affiliate which I’m not a huge fan of, but we’re starting to switch out the deals now.
Spencer: How are those sites going? Have you been able to grow them? Is that becoming a more significant part of the business?
John: They have been, not as aggressively as I’d like to. To be honest with you, that’s my own fault because I signed on a ton of clients at the beginning of this year for our agency so we’re really busy. What I’ve done now though is we actually just added two interns in the business and I’m actually using some of our affiliate sites as their long-term training project because they have to basically complete a project over the course of the year. Now, they each have a date dedicated every single week that they will work on nothing but the sites, which is really awesome because it means that I get to spend time with them and work them through it, and we get to have some consistency on them as well.
To be honest, our initial strategy with growing these kinds of sites is something that I don’t see enough people doing, which is the first thing that we look at, is the deals. If a site is already making money, then I want to see if I can make more money just simply by having a better commission. That means either going to the current partner for the site, as in the current network or whatever it is, and just simply asking for more money, or replacing the current offer with a better offer.
So many people don’t do this. So many people are like, “I need more traffic. I need to start doing Facebook ads. I need to start doing blah.” So many people don’t go, “You know what? Actually, if I can just up my commission by X percent, I could make that much more money next month because I’m already consistently getting this amounts of transactions.”
Spencer: I think it’s smart. You’re right. A lot of people do not look at that.
John: That’s one of the first things that we do to scale them up, that really helps. It’s a no brainer but you buy a site that’s making $1000 a month. If you can double that, which is not impossible, then you’re starting to make your money back twice as quick.
Spencer: In terms of SEO strategy or even general website strategies, is there any other tips that you’d like to share? Any final SEO strategies or things that we did not cover that you think are working well right now for you?
John: To be honest, I think one of the biggest ones is revisiting content. I think siloing your content out is really important no matter what type of project you have. If it’s affiliate, if it’s a legend site, if it’s a client site, it’s super important to create content silos where it’s logical and using those internal anchors to really push power. It also gives you more places to send links to, really liking that.
A really simple strategy that a lot of people, again, are not really making use of, if you have something like Ahrefs, I’m pretty sure you can do SEMrush, even Moz, Majestic, export all of your competitor’s backlinks, filter it down to the best backlinks, and start contacting those sites. Either get them to replace the backlink to your competitor with yours, which is a bit naughty, or just simply see if you can bribe them to publish your content and give you a linkback. You’ll be surprised as to how many of your competitor’s links you can get. Obviously review them, don’t assume that your competitors have great SEOs. Such a quick way to build a link list.
Spencer: That is great, a good reminder for those people that haven’t thought of that in a while. You can see all the links that your competitors have, there’s no reason to be reinventing the wheel. A lot of times you can just replicate what they’ve already done.
Spencer: It sounds like you’ve got a great business with SEOButler, it sounds like it’s growing, it’s doing well. I hope that things keeps growing and doing well.
John: Thank you so much. I’m sure it will. It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s worth it and I love it.
Spencer: What’s the big picture of vision and goal for SEOButler? Just grow as much as possible? Or any other grand vision there?
John: For SEOButler, we are constantly trying to improve the quality of the products and services. Like I said earlier, we’re going to be releasing some more, the ideas to actually split it off from the other brands. We’re in an effort to individualize them a little bit so that we can scale them a little bit more aggressively because right now, time from team members is split across different ventures. Hoping to grow that on the investment side. Really keen to grow that aggressively. I would really like to have a much, much bigger portfolio of sites there. Not necessarily just affiliate sites but ecom, SaaS, whatever, and just build that out. On the agency side, just keep leveling up our clients, keep getting them great results, and keep doing good, honest work. That’s pretty much it. It’s all I can ask for.
Spencer: I think that’s great. I love seeing the ambition that things are growing, that you want to keep growing and growing your own portfolio. I really appreciate you taking some time out of day, sitting down with me here and the Niche Pursuits audience.
John: Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.
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