Search engine specialist Pure SEO shares secrets of its success, talks all things Google and why content is still king

When Richard Conway, founder of Pure SEO, moved to New Zealand from the UK in 2008, he could not find a job because most employers won’t hire him without any Kiwi experience. The ones who were willing to give him jobs wanted him for ridiculously low salaries.

Conway knew there was a gap in the market for search engine optimisation (SEO) – he had personally found great results using Google’s Adwords while he was working at the Aspect Property Group in the UK, marketing and managing commercial properties.

His business instincts proved accurate. Pure SEO’s growth trajectory between the time he set up shop in 2009 and 2013, is one most entrepreneurs can only dream of. The company has grown from a one-man band started with $200, to one of Asia Pacific’s fastest growing technology companies, with 25 staff.

Its revenue growth rate of 434% in the three years leading to 2013, ranks Pure SEO 91 out of Deloitte’s Asia Pacific’s 500 high growth tech companies in 2014. It ranks 19th in Auckland and the Upper North Island. It also recently won Best Emerging Company award (central) sponsored by Spark Business at the Westpac Auckland Business Award 2014.

Understanding Google’s engines

Pure SEO’s main business is helping clients dismantle the mystique behind the Google machinery so they can understand what Google does with its search engine. This helps companies can position themselves up on the Google engine ladder when searches are done.

“I was selling commercial real estate, leading a team; we were spending £180,000 on national media (Times, Telegraph etc). We then changed to AdWords the following year and managed to reduce the spend to £25,000 while doubling our enquiries within the same time,” he told Idealog.

Armed with this intuition there is a gap in New Zealand for SEO know-how, he took the business plunge. His wife Emily who was working as a social worker, was the main income earner, with her $60,000 per annum salary then.

RIchard Conway, Pure SEO founder and CEO.

Early days

His first ‘office’ was a desk, in space loaned to him by two business partners in IT, Netactive’s Deon Metcalf, and Uli Knapp of Base 10. “It was such a humbling experience, they gave me office space without asking for anything in return,” he recalls,  saying he will never forget their generosity.

His initial business plan was to charge $50 an hour for four hours per month, on a retainer basis. The aim was to get 50 clients for a recurring revenue of $120,000 per year. The company's revenues are in the millions now.

Conway soon realised his knowledge was worth more than that. He soon revisit the charge-out rate. Never wanting to be a one-man band, he got his first employee onboard. It was still a struggle, trying to get the business flowing but after the second employee, the business began to gain some traction.

His maiden client was Creative Embroidery which achieved so much web presence within the first year of working with Pure SEO, there wasn’t a point carrying on, according to Conway. Creative Embroidery is today still ahead of its competitors in terms of presence on Google search rankings, he adds.

As with all business, he got a website built to promote his business. The first one he had commissioned, he said, felt like it was built by a school kid. His next splurge was at a larger budget of $10,000 – it paid off.

Through the new website, the company had an enquiry from SIA (Singapore Airlines). “We didn’t win the business in the end but to have someone like SIA contact us, was profound,” Conway says, citing it as one of the business’ major moments.

His other seminal moment, and his most important one giving him validation of his own capability, was signing on insurance giant AIA. “I was still a one-man band then. AIA is still a client today. I remember going up to them, pitching. I was feeling very out of my depth. The fact that I won gave me confidence in what I was doing.”

Evolution of  search

Understanding Google’s inner workings takes time. Conway says too many businesses try to do things the easy way. They try to piggy ride on others, resorting to illegal ways to gain search ranking lifts. It doesn’t work anymore as Google’s algorithm now penalises illegal tactics, and bad content, he says. Check out his views on how Google penalises the bad boys.

“Understanding the search engine isn’t necessarily a complicated thing but it is time consuming,” Conway says, pointing to it being akin to telling the machine what your pages are all about and creating links back to the website from the search engine.

The science behind what drives searches is changing. Other elements that are becoming important are loading speed, the importance of catering to mobile users, how secure your website is, among others, Conway notes.

Wearable tech will also be dramatically shifting how search engines work. Conway reckons this will lead to more reliance on artificial intelligence as search engine technology develops.

“The biggest change in search engines for the future is the move from semantic search, to voice search. More and more people are using (iPhone's) Siri to search for instance.

“And if you wear Google Glass, how do you deal with SEO...This shows how ultimately, wearable tech is here to stay. This will change how we are going to interact with computing.”

Search engines will be smarter, built to crawl look for and recognise information, the ‘conversational way’, he says. Conversational search defines how computers and humans interact. Rather than using single key word searches, search engines are being built to recognise longer string of words and respond accordingly. Google, for instance, has an algorithm (called Hummingbird) which incorporates elements of conversational searches.

The increasing use of videos, for instance, also impacts how companies build links to Google’s searches. “If you have video content/ Google can’t ‘read’ it.” Global company Reuters, for instance, built transcripts into its web pages which helps get around that, he notes.

Don't optimise for search engines

Conway warns however against companies building content for the sake of grabbing search engines. “One of the problems is people writing copies for search engines. You should be writing for customers. If you try to optimise for search engines, that’s not necessarily good, you could end up being contrived. Also, copy writers are not naturally search engine optimisers.”

In its bid to help clients build more links into Google’s search engine, Pure SEO recently acquired a company called Round Vision -- being rebranded Pure 360 -- specialising in building virtual location maps. Pure 360 is one of just a dozen of accredited Google photographers in New Zealand.

“This is a really exciting acquisition, it gives us another point of difference. Using the application, you can literally ‘walk’ around a place,” he says, noting the panoramic view offered by the product has widespread applications.

Pure SEO has a simple rule – that of not compromising what it does. “We specialise in SEO and Google AdWords so we can be the best at it. So we refrain from web design or advertising. Ad agencies know we are not going to steal their business, and often refer clients to us.”

The company’s success has caught the eye of Tony Falkenstein founder of Just Water, who took a 35% stake in Pure SEO through The Harvard Group. “I have known Tony for a few years, he is one of the most ethical people I know. I didn’t have to sell, I sold because he has the same ethics as I do.”

He also counts former boss Barry Beck as someone who has given him major opportunities in his early working life, and who sparked his interest in entrepreneurism.

Embracing discomfort

Although an accomplished entrepreneur now, Conway doesn’t intend to get too comfortable. He says he still frets a lot, especially when he has to stand in front of a crowd, to speak.

Yet he pushes his boundaries. “I am a big believer in embracing discomfort but I believe you have to do these things. How else are you going to improve and get over it?”

The fast-track to success Conway has achieved has been achieved amidst some personal tempests, including coping with the emotional roller coaster of three miscarriages by his wife, who at one stage also had to battle thyroid cancer. The family is now complete, with his wife well, and two kids.

“It was a shocker. I had to manage the business, everything at home without our family being here. I was a full-time dad plus I had to run the business. I had four or five staff by then, it was really a difficult time. But I am an eternal optimist. That’s made me reassessed everything: I value everything so much more now.”

Conway’s recent highlights include being chosen by Google to go visit Googolplex, in Mountain View, California; and listening to Jonah Berger speak. Berger is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch.

He also counts himself lucky being chosen – as part of being in the Entrepreneurs Organisation – to visit Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island, and be among other world class entrepreneurs.

Invitation to Necker Island with Sir Richard Branson

A crucial piece of learning he walked away from Branson is understanding how a company’s culture is the most important aspect of a business. “It is all about how you treat your people: treat them with respect and they would want to work hard for you. If you think you are better than other people, it is going to go the other way.”

The Pure SEO 'family' at Spark Business/Westpac Auckland Business Award 2014

Conway takes this motto seriously – enough to walk away from work to protect the ‘family’ at work. A current staff had been treated in a not-so-kind way when she worked at a potential client’s, so he decided to withdraw from putting in a pitch because of his staff’ unpleasant encounter. 

Meanwhile, he plans to aim for shooting star position, and be number one in New Zealand. “We have 200 clients now, we may be the biggest in terms of SEO, but we want to have 1,000 raving clients by the end of next year. We still have a long way to go in New Zealand.”