LocalU Interview Series: Phil Rozek

We're back with another LocalU Interview Series post and this week we have the fortune of chatting with Phil Rozek of LocalVisibilitySystem.com. Phil has one of the sharpest minds in the field of local and has spoken at events like SMX, co-builds products like LocalSpark, and is recommended by companies like Moz.

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Business Development

What in the world possessed you to start your own company?

I was finishing up college, and didn't have any better ideas, but knew that I would make an awful employee.

The only "job" I'd had to that point was as a part-time, after-school chess instructor at a middle school in Cambridge - not a long walk from BU, where I was. That was fun, but it lasted maybe a year, until they got defunded.

A couple years previously ('06-'07), I put up a couple of awful websites that made me pocket money. More important was that my dad -- a marketer himself -- paid me to do various types of gruntwork for clients (mostly dentists and realtors). I tweaked their websites, helped with copywriting, and got my feet wet in AdWords. That was the seedling. If he didn't work with those people and didn't want an extra set of hands, I have no clue what I'd be doing today.

Why did you decide to go local?

It was kind of an accident. In 2008, I started seeing the "local map" popping up everywhere. Remember, at this time I was thinking about what I wanted to do after college, and still helping my dad with odd jobs for various online marketing clients. They started asking him why they weren't "on the map," and he didn't know. So I researched the question, jotted down my thoughts on the "local search ranking factors" and suggested X, Y, and Z for his clients.

To make a long story short, eventually I concluded I knew enough to put together a 250-page info product on how to get on the local map. I did not. It was $300 and sucked. My website was dreadful.

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Alright, I'm back from my shower, so I'll finish what I was saying...

Despite my car wreck of a website, I spent what little money I had on AdWords and Aweber and somehow actually sold a few copies. Not many. Not enough. Just enough to realize some people knew about and cared about local search, and that maybe there was something about to start brewing there.

Tell me what happened with Howie Jacobson?

I booked a consultation with him and he told me that my info product probably would never sell well, that my one-page squeeze page wouldn't interest most people, and that Google doesn't like squeeze pages. (He wrote the book on AdWords, and remember, PPC was my only traffic source at the time.) He gave me the same kind of advice that Mr. Wonderful of Shark Tank might have given -- except with more tact, because Howie's a gentle soul.

So I killed off the old design, took cues from Howie's site for my revamped site, killed off my infoproduct, and started blogging (which I'd wanted to do for some time). I probably would have taken Howie's advice even if I never spoke with him, but who knows how much time would have passed. I'm grateful to him. I'd recommend to anyone reading this a consultation with Howie if he's still available.

Where do most of your clients come from?

Probably 80% online. They find my site one way or another. Then most of those people get my emails and decide over time that we'd be a good fit. The other 20% are referrals from other SEOs or from a client who tells a friend.

How'd LocalSpark come about and what is it?

Darren Shaw and I had been buddies for a couple of years, and wanted to think of a way to work together. So we decided to brew up a mean local SEO service, as a joint-venture between Local Visibility System and Whitespark. It's a lot of fun, and we've got a crackerjack team. (Check it out, if you're curious.)

What has been your biggest business failure and what did you learn from it?

Up until a couple years ago, I offered a refund policy on one of my services (the "Done-for-You" service). The vast majority -- 90-95% -- of my clients were happy campers. But that other 5-10% ... boy, did they stress me out. Unreasonable expectations, leaving two voicemails before 9:30 a.m. ... you know the type. It's true there's only so much you can do to avoid difficult clients, but that also means you can attract them if you're not careful. If you suggest clients can just "try out" your services, they're less likely to be committed to the program and help you help them. I don't regret having tried a money-back guarantee, though, because I got some great, long-time clients from it. It also made me realize it's best to offer both one-time services and ongoing help on SEO.

What does your office look like right now? (Pictures to prove it)

Behold the corner office!

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(OK, fine. I vacuumed for 90 seconds.)

Who do you look up to most for business guidance?

My father, Jon. He's been involved in online marketing in one form or another since about '99. As I described earlier, in the early years (about 2008-11) I really followed his playbook. But even these days, every now and then we'll meet up for a cup of coffee and talk shop, which is always great.

Second to him, I've got to go with Perry Marshall.

What are your favorite books/blogs that have helped you along the way in running a business?

Here are some books that really hammered wisdom through my thick skull.

80/20 Sales and Marketing - Perry Marshall

The Power of Habit - Charles Duhigg

Daily Rituals - Mason Currey

Linchpin - Seth Godin

On Writing - Stephen King

The Art of Plain Talk - Rudolf Flesch

I find books about how people think to be the most helpful. Even if they don't directly give you ideas on how to run your business or offer better services, they'll help you understand your clients, understand yourself, become a better writer, etc.

Other times -- especially if you're sitting outside and maybe have a cigar or a libation close at hand -- an unrelated great thought will come to you out of the blue. That's why I like to keep a pen and some notecards handy, even when I'm reading just for kicks.

Some blogs that have influenced me over the years:

Small Business SEM

Blind Five Year Old

Anything by Danny Sullivan

David Mihm's blog

Mike Blumenthal's blog

Local SEO Guide

There are others that didn't influence me, exactly, but that I really like as a local SEO-er. The Whitespark blog comes to mind. Joy Hawkins has also written some top-shelf stuff lately.

What business questions are you currently trying to solve for your company?

  1. What's the ideal blend of (a) new clients and (b) ramping up efforts for old / existing clients, in terms of total workload? You need at least a stream of new clients, or else you don't get exposed to new situations and your business won't grow. But you need to give your long-time clients the Royal Treatment. That takes priority, in my opinion, but you still need to peel off a certain amount of time for marketing and for working with the people who will become your old-time clients eventually.
  1. At what point should I get a really good virtual assistant or some other type of trusty sidekick to deal with the many emails I don't need to answer personally? On the one hand, I'm fairly good at not spending too much time on the small stuff. On the other hand, a few unnecessary minutes every day can add up.
  1. How can I get even more done without spending more time? My two assistants currently do a ton of work that I don't have to do personally (just have to oversee), which frees me up for the stuff that only I can do. But I'm always on the prowl for efficiency hacks.

What do you think it takes to be successful in this industry?

You have to enjoy tinkering with websites, you have to enjoy trying different approaches to marketing that make sense on a gut level but also might help rankings, and you must love talking with and working with business owners.

Local

Why the name Local Visibility System?

It was originally the name of my infoproduct, website, and company all at once! I killed off the infoproduct, but liked the name enough to keep it around. It's a little clunky, but I like that it's not too rankings-centric or Google-specific.

What do you think of the San Francisco locksmith and plumber test?

I suspect it's not a test anymore. Google never met an ad it didn't like. I think the question is to what extent paid 3-pack results will coexist with "free" results, versus just replace them in some markets.

What do you think most people are missing when it comes to local?

Business owners and local SEOs are too afraid to work on the hard stuff: earning good links and glowing reviews.

If someone had a gun to your head and said, you can do one thing and it has to move rankings up in a local pack, what would you do?

Getting a few good links. I like to start with "dummy links" -- good links that you don't have to think too hard about, write "content" for, etc. Join a Chamber of Commerce, at least one industry association, maybe get accredited by the BBB, find a local event that you can sponsor, and try my hack for finding Meetup.com link opportunities. There's a lot more you can do, of course, but those ideas are a very solid start.

In your consulting, what do people tend to always have wrong?

The basics:

  • They usually don't know about messed-up listings that even a free Moz Local scan can pull up.
  • They don't have a separate and detailed page for each specific service they offer.
  • Their homepage is anorexic.
  • They don't have any more reviews than the next guy ... and then wonder why they don't get more clicks than the next guy.

What is the most messed up local problem you have solved?

That's like asking a New York taxi driver about his least-favorite traffic jam. πŸ™‚ I couldn't pick one even if I could remember a shortlist.

Where do you see local search in five years?

Oof. That is tough.

To start with, I think "Google Places" and "local SEO" won't be as synonymous, because I think some combination of Facebook, Apple, the EU, Uncle Sam, consumers, and lawyers will force Larry and Sergey to care about quality again.

As I wrote on Google+ recently, I think more businesses will need to brand themselves online as specialists -- especially if they're just starting out -- because of the absurd amount of effort it can take to rank for broad terms like "lawyer" or "dentist" or "roofer." At least online, industries will be more fragmented, in terms of who shows up for what terms. That will probably be a good thing, as long as Google doesn't favor big stinkin' "brands," intentionally or unintentionally.

Yelp will get acquired or taken behind the barn.

Yahoo will remain the equivalent of an '80s hair metal band that's still touring.

Results will get more personalized and location-sensitive, and user-behavior is going to affect rankings more and more.

It will be interesting to see whether the reviews space gets more fragmented, or whether a site comes along that really solves the quality-control / authenticity question.

Home Life

Can you give us the story about how your family came to be?

Let's start from the beginning. My mom is from Texas, and my dad's from Colorado. They met at college in crazy old Cambridge, MA. That's also where -- as luck would have it -- my wife, Stefanie, and I first met many years later.

We lived in Boston for the first year of my life. I was about this close to being born in a Boston taxi! Because things were getting ridiculously expensive (even in '80s dollars), we moved just far enough that my dad could take the train into Boston every day for work.

So I grew up about five miles from where Stefanie and I live now: North Attleboro, MA (about 30 miles south of Boston, closer to Providence). She and I met when I was taking a "year off" before college. One thing led to another and, well, it's been about 10 years now.

We plan to live in this area for good. I can't say it's a happenin' place, but it's laid-back, it's grown on us, and it's a good place to raise kids.

What does a typical day outside of work look like?

Totally boring to anyone but me. My wife and I will go on a walk or go swimming or do some errands, we'll eat dinner and watch an episode of some show, and I'll run or go lift weights (or run to the gym, lift, and run back). There's usually some non-work-related chore on any given day that needs dealing with -- although I'm pretty bad about getting to those. We also spend a decent chunk of time cooking, partly because we're vegetarians and like to eat fresh stuff.

What are some hobbies that people would be surprised you are involved in?

That's tough. I guess your level of surprise would just depend on how long we've kicked around together.

People who mostly know me as a local SEO-er might be surprised that I'm kind of a jock. I lift weights about 3 days a week. (Current bench: 290. Deadlift: 340.) I also love running. Not quite as fleet-footed as when I was on the track team, but I'm slowly getting there. Where we live has some nice hills, and more scenery than you might think.

I'm outdoors-y, especially for someone in a newfangled industry like "local." I was a Boy Scout for 10 years (made Eagle), and every month we'd go camping. I still love camping. I used to be a pretty hardcore shotgunner (skeet), which I'd like to get back to soon. When I'm not doing work, I'm usually outside running, or my wife and I are on a walk, or swimming at a nearby pond, or I'll go out and shovel snow three times in a day when only once would be sufficient, or we'll go skiing, yada yada.

Even people who've known me forever might be surprised that I used to be obsessed with old U.S. coins. I still have the 1797 Draped Bust Cent that I saved up my allowance for when I was a kid. (It's so old that it predates reeds, at least on American coins.)

Oh, I've also played chess for probably three-quarters of my life. Used to play in a club, but now mostly online.

Are there any organizations in your local community that catch your interest?

The Paws of Plainville cat shelter. My wife volunteers there, I occasionally pop in and impose on the cats, and we donate money. It's also where we adopted our cat, Peanut.

(By the way, Gentle Reader: if you donate to the shelter you'll have my gratitude -- and I'll give you some "free" or local search help.)

Tell us about 3 things in your house that you are super proud of?

It's not our "dream house" -- that's in the works -- so I'll talk about things in our household I'm proud of:

  1. Our cat!
  1. Our greenness. We throw out very little: we repurpose, donate, and (as vegetarians) compost like it's going out of style. My wife and I walk places when possible.
  1. Our books. Many that we've read, many that we will read, and many more that we'll never get around to. But they're everywhere, which means there's always something you can learn and ponder.

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If you could give advice to our industry about non industry things… what would that advice be?

Get enough sleep! (At least seven hours, in my book.) Sure, sometimes you just do what you gotta do. But I speak from painful, first-hand experience when I say that if you're consistently a couple hours short, you're shooting yourself in the foot. Everything else goes to seed. Anyone can muddle through a day -- and many people do. To say, "Well, but I just have so much work to do" is a cop-out. It means either that you're not too good at managing your time, or that your work under-challenges you and doesn't require you to bring all your brainpower every day. If it doesn't require your A-game, something is amiss.

But even having enough energy to do your best work isn't enough. You still need gas left in the tank so as not to be a grouch to people close to you, to get or stay in-shape, and to kinda-sorta have a life. You can't do that with one hand tied behind your back. So yeah ... get your sleep.

Do not pick up your phone unless a call is scheduled. Listen to the voicemail to decide when's the best time for you.

Don't sit at the computer for more than an hour at a time. Look for excuses to unglue your eyes from the screen and unflatten your rear. Grab a piece of fruit, or go on a walk, or say howdy to someone you love, or do some little chore. It's a good way to keep your vision sharp, and it's the best way not to get burned out.

Start your day with a walk, or pushups, or writing without an open browser -- basically anything other than checking your email. Hold off for 30-60 minutes. There is plenty of time for email and so forth later.

10 Responses to “LocalU Interview Series: Phil Rozek”

  1. I’m imagining that’s a glass of wine on your oh so neat desk, Phil. Tell me it’s true…

  2. Hey Mary,

    I’ve got two libations on my desk: black coffee (mug), and some single-malt Scotch (bottle). Only one is the daytime beverage πŸ™‚

  3. Great interview, Phil, and great advice for those reading πŸ™‚

  4. Thanks, David! I appreciate you guys’ having me.

  5. Awesome interview, Phil. I loved your non-industry advice. I’m going to work on following that advice, and hope to be as productive as you one day!

    I’m surprised your love for Judas Priest didn’t come up. πŸ™‚

  6. @Darren

    WHAT? I can’t hear you. I’ve got the Priest cranked up πŸ™‚

  7. I really hope these fantastic interview sessions continue. They offer great insight into how some of the best minds in Search work and balance work/life. Its also great to see what others value outside when they are not wearing their SEO hats. Terrific stuff team!

  8. Hey, great interview and very solid deadlift! πŸ™‚

  9. @Marcus

    Thanks, mate. Working on it πŸ™‚

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