When I graduated from uni a few years ago (sometime after colour TVs were launched but before the iPhone), the prevailing business mood was one of secrecy.

Proprietary software systems, business procedures locked down, “secret-sauce” recipes guarded in safes (OK, Coke still does that) and interminable conferences where no one learned anything because none of the speakers would share anything.

The view was broadly this: why should I tell you how I do my job? If I do that, you might take my job.

Well, happily, some of those things seem to be behind us. Certainly in the digital space anyway.

Conferences have improved and there are many that are great places to go and learn and stay at the forefront of the industry. (Side note: not all conferences are equal. Some are just sales ops and still incredibly dull. Choose wisely.)

It was on that conference circuit that I first met Stacey MacNaught. Dublin. Learn Inbound. About 3 years ago.

A funny, engaging, razor-sharp SEO walked on stage and captivated the audience for half an hour with a hilarious walk through how to not be shit at SEO. That might not have been her exact wording, but it was the general ethos.

As a budding conference speaker, I was blown away by Stacey’s method. In depth, high quality content, delivered with the skill of a stand up. I had work to do.

Roll forward a few years and I was presenting to a busy room at Brighton SEO, not long after Stacey had performed the same trick on the main stage. I’ve still got work to do! Although I was lucky enough to share a pub stage with Stacey at Chester SEO recently.

SEO belfast
(Some drinks may have been harmed in the taking of this photo)

Building an Agency

These days Stacey has her hands full. Two beautiful kids take up as much time as you’d expect, and she’s busy establishing Stacey MacNaught Limited as a boutique SEO consultancy. Stacey has a good profile in the industry, but I’m interested to find out what her strategy is for growing her own business.

“My strategy, basically, is to just be a gobshite.”

Simple, succinct, eloquent. That’s why I like her!

And behind that, the facts. “Speaking at conferences is definitely part of my strategy. The quality of the leads that come through speaking at conferences is usually better than most other sources.”

I’m interested to hear Stacey’s view on sharing information, especially when all the best SEOs in Europe are sat listening.

“The one thing about the SEO industry and the conferences is that everyone is competing with everyone, but sharing quite openly what’s working and what’s not. There’s enough business out there for everyone and everyone benefits from open sharing.”

“I love conferences for things like idea sharing. Everyone knows where their strengths are – I really fancy my skills as being able to compete in the most competitive SEO areas and deliver results, but I’d never want to compete with some others on a technical audit.”

“Because it isn’t just a rankings game with one keyword anymore, you don’t feel like you have to hide everything from anyone who has a similar client. And because we’re all competitive, if someone is out performing me one week, I’ll be at home that weekend trying to fix that!”

I’d also add into that mix there’s a fair degree of confidence in their respective abilities too.

Having spent some time with Stacey and Barry Adams, two of the best in the business, I know how brilliant these top notch SEO folks are. They either just don’t like to admit it or don’t quite believe it! Either way, I’m happy to say it on their behalf.

But they do have confidence in their ability to deliver results for clients. And with that in mind, sharing best practice with others is much less risky.

It’s also the chance to get back to working closely with clients that saw Stacey set up on her own. She joined TecMark in Manchester as the fifth employee, a trainee, fully expecting to last a year. She stayed for eight and when she left, was Search Director with a seat on the board.

With those promotions came managerial responsibility, which took her further away from doing the stuff she loved.

“I really don’t like managing people and sometimes I don’t even like working with people!” Stacey said.

Which almost sounds like the perfect SEO skillset!

stacey macnaught manchester seo

Managing People or Managing Clients

But the broader point she’s making is around the Peter Principle – an issue that raises its head in every organisation.

“Promotion is for people who do well at something. So we reward them with more money and they end up doing less of the stuff they do well and more of managing people to do that stuff less well.”

“I never naturally leant towards people management. I’d rather mentor than manger. My best years were when the team I had didn’t need micro managing, they didn’t need me looking over their shoulder, they just needed mentoring and support. That’s when it works really well.”

It’s a point I had to challenge Stacey on. I’ve written before about marketing being a people discipline and I firmly believe that.

What she saw as a failure to manage people shone through as brilliant management to me. Assemble a team of smart people and give them the freedom to be brilliant. By doing that, you get the sum of all their talents, not just the sum of yours.

Stacey is far too modest to accept the praise for setting a brilliant culture that allows others to flourish, “you’re giving me an awful lot of credit!”, but it’s definitely the impression I’m left with.

It’s supported by a story she tells me about a staff member who she recruited. The guy had been long term unemployed when he was sent to her agency by the dole office for what was effectively a work placement. Rather than being preoccupied with formal qualifications or sniffy about his work history, Stacey saw a talent that needed nurturing. Roll forward a few years and a few training courses, and TecMark had a brilliant employee who was smashing results for clients.

That, to me, strikes me as someone who is a brilliant manager. But whether I’m right or Stacey is, she’s now on her own and loving it.

What Makes a Good SEO

It’s hard to pin down a character trait for all of the SEOs I know, but the closest I can find is they’re fanatical about results. This often leads the SEO industry to feel like it’s in open warfare with Google.

Google set the rules of the game, so SEOs push them. Then Google change those rules and the game starts again.

“I don’t have an issue with people pushing the boundaries. I think as long as they’re open with their clients about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and the risks are explained, then it’s fine.

“I have more of an ethical issue with taking someone’s money to rank for x keyword, knowing for a fact they can’t compete with the top of the listings because the people above them are engaging in black hat techniques.”

And I think that’s why Stacey is enjoying being out on her own. She gets to work directly with clients, testing, improving, delivering, learning and repeating.

“I have a bank of my own websites that I use to test things on. I have some that have been penalised, some that generate revenue and a few that I just try new stuff on. I started most of them from scratch and it just means I can try new tactics without worrying.”

That’s an impressive dedication to your craft.

business and marketing strategy belfast

So what next for Stacey MacNaught  Limited? “I think I’m fundamentally unemployable! I want to work my hours from where I want to work them and fit them in around my life.” Again, almost the perfect SEO skillset!

“So this needs to work out!” And I know it will.

You’ll notice I’m a fan. If you see Stacey at an event near you, get a ticket and go. You won’t regret it.