With budgets for paid traffic acquisition channels drying up for many portal and marketplace companies and seemingly more property hunters than ever online searching for their next home, now seems like a good time to talk about SEO. Who better to talk to than Mike van der Heijden: the Melbourne based CEO of specialist SEO consultancy firm Portal Ventures.
Hi Mike. Can you tell us a bit about what Portal Ventures does.
At Portal Ventures we help online marketplaces generate more revenue through effective and scalable search engine optimisation strategies and solutions. In a nutshell, we help you generate more traffic, from more relevant keywords by helping your marketplace outrank your competition.
Can you tell us some portal and marketplace sites you’ve worked with?
Portal Venture’s roots started in the classifieds industry, in particular in Real Estate, and quickly expanded to cover more general classifieds such as automotive and any two sided marketplaces, including e-commerce, services such as mechanics, beauty & wellness to art, travel and waste management.
We’ve worked with a number of key clients across a lot of industries, most notably Digital Classified Group (who operate real estate portals in Camodia, PNG and Fiji) as well as LatAm Autos with market leading portals in Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina.
Outside of the classifieds realm we’re very fortunate to have worked with fantastic companies such as Sensis, beauty and wellness marketplace Bookwell, and Australia’s largest art marketplace BlueThumb.
What made you want to work with portals in particular?
I personally got my start with Australia’s largest SEO agency at the time Bruce Clay, which had me consult in the most competitive spaces on the internet including leading financial institutions and health insurance brands. However, that quickly changed when I started work on my first marketplace, with literally hundreds of thousands of products, that’s where my passion for working with marketplaces really started.
It was interesting to learn about how marketplace operators think people search (e.g. traditional categories) versus how people actually search (e.g. thousands of permutations of those categories).
We quickly realised that online marketplaces are significantly under-serviced in terms of agencies/consultants that really understand the intricacies of making SEO work, which is why we decided to start Portal Ventures.
What is the most common request or question you get from portal and marketplace clients?
The most common question is always “What results can I expect, and how soon?” or “How quickly do you think we can beat Incumbent X”- it always makes me laugh, because the question is always prefaced with “I know you can’t give me an accurate answer, but…”
Whilst it’s a valid question, we want marketplaces to think about SEO in a different way - organic search traffic is really the only scalable marketing channel for a marketplace and with that, it’s biggest competitive advantage.
If a marketplace hasn’t got a solid SEO strategy in place - they usually have a high marketing line item in their budget (be it Adwords, Facebook Advertising, Instagram, etc.)
Now, consider the fact that if they did nothing to build their SEO strategy - there’s only going to be x guarantees.
The cost for advertising will go up as more competitors enter the market
They’re going to start to compete on price, reduce margins, and start a race to unprofitable campaigns
Smart competitors with an SEO first mindset will come and take market share away.
Therefore, even if someone chooses not to work with us, if you’re a marketplace without an SEO strategy you’re playing a losing game.
How do you work with portal companies and their internal teams? Do you audit and make recommendations or do you actually write code and make changes yourselves?
Once we’re engaged with a marketplace the first few months are the most intense, in that we try and get an understanding of where things are at right now - and where we need to get to in the next 6 to 12 months so we’re deep into analysing and then prescribing the exact ‘roadmap’ of what’s required, by when, and how for the marketplace to achieve a position of being able to drive consistent organic search traffic.
Most of our time is spent helping and guiding in-house development teams on what changes are required - as much as we’d love to be able to get involved and have our own development team available, it’s virtually impossible given the variety of tech stacks we come across.
In layman's terms, what is the most common issue or error you see with portal clients?
The biggest (and most frustrating) issue we still have to this day, is the under resourcing in technology resources, largely driven by the misunderstanding that ‘once we built the platform, we’ll hire an SEO person’ - whereas the time to have SEO specialists involved is in the inception and planning of the actual platform.
The organic growth success stories we’ve produced have largely been driven by re-thinking & structuring the actual marketplace platform and it’s functionality. Which again, is why when we’re brought in, most of our time is spent with the development teams as opposed to the marketing team.
If you’re really serious about marketplace growth, consider taking a page out of the books of marketplaces that have autonomous teams dedicated to overall growth marketing (be it paid, organic, conversion rates) - marketplaces where there is a dedicated team that has elements of development, product and marketing, but works outside the norms of the typical ‘marketing department’ are marketplaces that win big.
Do you think that portals are doing a good job of their SEO in general?
For this question, I will consider purely the classifieds portals - in which case, they do ‘OK’. The reason I believe that, is that classifieds sites in general, be it real estate, automotive or jobs, really haven’t changed much - sure they have added clever ancillary services, mortgage lead generators, content, but the actual classified product is still a heading, 10 or 20 listings of inventory with a filter on the left hand side.
Whilst it’s true that those inventory listings service the purpose for the user, the user experience leaves much to be desired. I think portals in general can take learnings from more general marketplaces in how they deal with their users, understanding their behaviours and catering the content on these pages to anticipate what users are going to do next, or what information they may want next.
Do you think that portals do a good job of capturing the ‘long tail traffic’?
I do not.
It’s actually quite surprising that most of the incumbents, especially in Western markets, still haven’t fully understood or dominated that long tail strategy, partly because they dominate the short tail so well, that perhaps it’s not a priority for their business any more.
A perfect example of this was CarGurus in the United States, that for a long time flew under the radar by focusing on the long, less popular car makes and models and quickly outpaced the incumbents like AutoTrader in a relatively short amount of time.
In the end, it comes down to really understanding your market and the search behavior in these markets - what works in Australia, won’t work in Thailand, and what works in Thailand won’t translate to what works in Europe.
One thing that holds true, though, is that every market has their own version of ‘the long tail’.
How has COVID-19 affected the SEO landscape? Is there anything that portals need to take into consideration now that perhaps they didn’t before?
I don’t think that COVID-19 has necessarily affected the SEO landscape, in that the ultimate goal of the search engines hasn’t changed - to serve the best possible results for answering a searcher's query.
However, there was a short term change in behaviour we saw where a lot of portals reported traffic growth - and arguably lead flow in some industries, but a lot of that increase in traffic wasn’t driven by a purpose to buy but rather browse and look.
The silver lining, for us at least, is that with the economic slowdown, budgets for paid channels dried up fast, and marketplaces quickly learned how much they were dependent on ‘paid’ channels vs. their organic traffic, which saw more marketplaces reach out to us about plans for accelerating their organic search growth in the future to try and avoid as situation like this.
What makes Portal Ventures different from other SEO agencies?
That’s an interesting question. There’s three key ways that make us different from your typical SEO agencies.
We only work with online marketplaces, that’s our unique specialty. It also helps that both partners in the business run successful marketplaces - so aside from just the SEO side of marketplaces, we understand the entire business model from top to bottom, extremely well.
Secondly, we only work with one vertical in each market - we sign exclusivity agreements with the portals we work with excluding us from working with any competitors in the market.
Lastly, aside from being specialists in a relatively small niche, we have a model where with select partners we offer both fee for performance and equity for performance models - which are quite unique in the SEO space as not many agencies will back themselves in such a way.