community building

interview with Patrick Altoft, director of Search at Branded3

You’ve build up and now sold a well known company Branded3, to a major multinational. St Ives Group. congratulations. It is the textbook success story. Read more here. Image

Patrick is shown on the left with Branded3 CEO Vin Chinnaraja

This interviews aims to cover the background story of your personal story before starting on your business career, pick out some key moments and insights, discuss any lessons that can be learned, and give advice/tips to people who might be inspired by your story.

RL. As I understand it you were an freelance SEO consultant who then formed Branded3 and built it up to market success. Is this a correct summary? Does this leave anything out in your professional history that you think is important, if so what?

PA Before becoming a freelance consultant I worked for a small insurance company and spent a few years learning how to do SEO for their website. This was hugely valuable hands on experience and as the site started ranking higher I setup a mobile phone affiliate website and started to make good money from affiliate marketing. This gave me the impetus to leave my day job and try to make a living online. Being a freelance SEO is tough so after 6 months I joined up with Vin at Branded3 to build the SEO part of the agency. Initially this was a separate company but the two were merged in 2011.

RL Did you plan your the business development from the very start, or was it more a question of “build a successful company” and see what happens?

PA We always planned to sell the business because we feel that being part of a larger group is a far better way to grow and build a long term sustainable business at scale. Our plan has always been to reach 100 people with £10m+ turnover and this is tough to achieve as an independent company.

RL Did you always see yourself as an entrepreneur who wanted to do your own thing? if yes, when were you first aware of it if not when did this change and you start to consider it?

PA I did consider it after university but looking back that would have been the wrong option. I did want to start a company but had no idea how to go about it until I’d worked somewhere else.

RL who were your role models or heroes you benchmarked yourself against in your family or from the media when you were young, if there were none were there any people you did not want to be like, and why?

4. did you have support and/or encouragement from school, university family, institutions and friends, In what ways were you encouraged or deterred from taking the entrepreneurial road.

PA School and university didn’t offer any help at all with being an entrepreneur. I did business studies at school and hated it as the lessons were boring and focused on finance, business plans and accountancy. For me business is about product and marketing which is far more interesting. The education system in the UK does nothing to encourage people to build companies which is one of the reasons so many young people are unemployed spending their time job hunting rather than trying to build a business.

RL . Were there any skills or abilities that you discovered you lacked that would have been helpful earlier on, and were there any particular insights you had early on in your life that helped you to take the right decisions ?

PA The key thing that school and university doesn’t prepare you for is meeting people and how to handle pitches and general business meetings. Perhaps this was down to the course I chose (Physics) but this was certainly a steep learning curve when we started Branded3.

RL Moving on to questions about your professional success as an seo expert and business leader. We were first in contact when I found you through your blog Blogstorm in 2007, and you did a small study for PMR I believe you started it in 2006? When you started the blog did you have a clear goals, and how did they evolve over time? Did you know that it would be such an effective way of building your reputation?

PA I started the blog specifically as a channel to drive new customers so I did have a clear goal and plan. I didn’t know how big it would be however there were not many good SEO blogs back then especially in the UK so it was a lot easier to stand out. Also it was before twitter was sapping the attention of the SEO industry so blogs were far more important.

RL. Did you know back then that you really had ideas worth sharing? There were lots of people around claiming to be good at SEO. Were you sure that you were better than the average?

PA I had been a member on a forum called Digital Point for a few years and had a few thousand posts from helping others with SEO so I had a good idea of what people wanted assistance with and that I knew the answers.

RL . How much of your success is about being good at communication with non specialists (like me), and how far is it other factors, if so what were they.

PA Communication is a big part of SEO and it’s important to be a straight talker rather than trying to blind people with technical terms but the most important factor in our success is down to the fact we wanted to do things the right way when so many other SEO agencies were using poor quality SEO work and ripping off customers. For example, most businesses want to know How to Rank for Huge Traffic Keywords, and it is my job to explain this to them in a way that is accessible. This made us stand out in a crowded market until the rest of the market started to clean up a year or two ago.

RL it is easy for anyone to claim they are an SEO expert… What do you look for if you are trying to figure out if someone really knows the topic well.

PA The most important thing is to look at what the person is actually doing day to day. Anybody can talk about the importance of building good links from online PR and how to technically optimise a site but unless they are actually doing this and delivering results for clients or their own site/business then it’s hard for them to be credible as an expert.

RL In a sense an blog about SEO that is not in the top ten results in Google is not credible. How much work did you put into making your blog popular, and what did you do to promote it? What SEO techniques did you use to make sure people could find it?

PA I didn’t do much SEO aside from the usual WordPress blog optimisations but the key reason for the success was getting quality links from sites like the BBC, Techcrunch and thousands of other top blogs. I also drove huge amounts of traffic from social sites like Digg in the days when these sites were popular. I would say that the credibility of a blog is unrelated to where it ranks on Google it’s more about the content and readership.

RL Is it harder to start a blog now because there is so much more competition for attention? if so what advice would you give now to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps, and is considering starting a blog in an area they want to be successful. (not necessarily about search)

PA It is harder to start a blog now but mainly down to the fact that most things especially in the SEO industry have already been written about rather than the fact there is a lot of competition. My advice would be to focus on something specific that has not had a lot of attention and target that as a niche. It’s not easy though because peoples attention is a lot less these days with the sheer number of blog posts and tweets sent every day. If you are interested in starting a blog you may want to check out somewhere similar to

RL. What were your biggest challenges in building up a business and how did you address them? What were the biggest surprises and if you were to do it again what would you do differently?

PA The biggest challenge has always been delivering results for clients, it’s always been something we are good at but it’s still the thing that consumes most of our time and thoughts every single day. Winning business and hiring the right staff are always challenges that can be overcome but in the SEO industry it’s all about results and this is the biggest challenge for any SEO agency.

RL Finally in terms of getting up to speed and staying up to date with “search” in terms of professional expertise Search and SEO is a rapidly evolving area, If someone reading this interview wants to become a) reasonably proficient b) a real expert what would you recommend (other than reading your blog) Someone can start with a search like this but what do you recommend?

PA The best thing is to read and as well as learning everything you can about technical onsite SEO, usability/design and how PR works to drive links.

RL. Do experts such as yourself have access to inside information for example through personal relationships with people in key organisations like Google and Facebook, or is it possible for someone with the right attitude and motivation to become really good at search simply by working hard at it and reading, listening and reviewing what the right sources of know how and data ?

We do have access to certain contacts at Google but these are used very rarely for client issues and we certainly don’t get any inside information. The funny thing about SEO is that there are very few secret tactics (other than ones that work for short term wins) and it really is pretty simple.

RL. Are there any controversies, trends or issues that you think are going to fundamentally change the way people and businesses design and build web sites so that they can be found through organic search that we should be aware of.

PA The biggest change is the focus on searcher satisfaction. If your site isn’t satisfying users then the next few years will be very tough for you.

RL. If someone was looking for niche areas within the world of search to specialise in where you expect people and companies to be really challenged, and looking for help what would they be.

PA Digital PR is a growing area and one that SEO agencies are not very good at yet. We solve the issue by hiring from PR agencies but smaller teams might not have that option.

RL . Who do you regard as the best experts to follow in the world of search. whose opinions you always take seriously, even if you disagree with them? Finally Is there anything else that you would like to share with people reading this interview ?

PA The most important factor in the growth of Branded3 is that we focussed on one thing – doing a great job for clients. Everything else fell into place once we built a marketing and operational strategy around this goal.

Richard, Thank you very much for your time and sharing your thoughts