The Rise of the SEO Influencer: An Interview With Steve Toth

Steve Toth with a special bubble

Steve Toth of SEO Notebook, sits down with Elijah-Blue Vieau, The Influence Agency’s Director of Search Engine Optimization, in this exclusive interview to discuss the rise of the SEO influencer. Steve shares his insights on the role of communities in SEO knowledge-sharing, the responsibility of SEO influencers to dispel misinformation online, as well as some of the up-and-coming SEO names he thinks you should look out for in 2023.

Elijah-Blue Vieau: Hello and thanks for joining us today. My name is Elijah-Blue Vieau. I'm the director of SEO and content at the Influence Agency, and I'd like to welcome you to a very special video edition of The Yearbook, which is essentially our annual publication to share our team’s insights, knowledge, and expertise in the realm of digital marketing and what brands can do to sort of anticipate the upcoming year.

The theme for this year's SEO section of The Yearbook is "The Rise of the SEO Influencer.” And when I was faced with the challenge of deciding who I wanted to bring to the table for a quick discussion on the topic and sort of the wider realm, there was no other person I wanted to speak with, other than my good friend and colleague, Steve Toth.

So rather than me giving a long-winded intro, welcome, Steve.

Steve Toth: Thanks so much, Eli. Man, it's great to be here and great to chat with you again, I know that we go way back. So really honoured to be on the episode today.

Elijah: Thanks, man. So let's dive right in. 

I guess for those who don't know you and sort of a little bit about yourself, why don't you sort of give us the once over on who you are, SEO Notebook, how you got started and, the weird, wacky world of SEO that we reside in?

Steve: Yeah, for sure. So, I’ve been in SEO for over ten years now, since around 2010, and I just absolutely love this space. It's what I was meant to do in a way, or at least what I found and 

what I've really enjoyed in my career. I've worked at agencies where I think we have a little bit of a past. We worked together and then I left the agency world and worked with a company called FreshBooks in Toronto—an accounting software company. Did really well there and about a year into my stint in 2019, I decided to start an email newsletter called SEO Notebook, where I email one page of my strategy notebook per week to the list. 

It's now been three years and I haven't missed one week. And the list has grown to almost 14,000 subscribers now, which is just crazy. And during that summer of 2019, I started also posting on LinkedIn. And then basically, without any real intention, I was able to start getting clients while working at FreshBooks just by posting on LinkedIn and doing my email newsletter. So that fall in 2019, I incorporated my business while still working at FreshBooks and in March 2020—literally two weeks before the first lockdown—I went out on my own as an independent SEO consultant who actually used FreshBooks as one of my first clients. So that was cool. 

Since then, it's been an absolutely amazing ride. I work with software as a service (SaaS) clients, mainly in B2B, with a few B2C companies here and there. But that's sort of where my bread and butter is. And yeah, I have no plans on stopping.

Elijah: I mean, what a wild ride that was to witness on the sidelines. And I can remember some of the early conversations when you were thinking of going off on your own, and then you mentioned LinkedIn and that sort of leads into my next question here.

As you said, you and I go back to a 200-client agency, just absolutely grinding shoulder-to-shoulder across a variety of industries. You know, when we're thinking about search engine optimization as a topic and sort of the evolution of SEO as a marketing practice, we can't ignore the role of these communities like LinkedIn groups, Facebook, and different blogs and the role that these threads play in pushing the tactics and the theories forward.

In your opinion, why is community-driven knowledge sharing so vital to SEO as an industry—as a practice?

Steve: Yeah, great question. And it's not something that I remember actually writing a post for Moz back in 2014, which was a fairly big website. [The post] was about how to get a job in digital marketing. The one thing I left out at that time was about communities, and the editor told me, no, you've got to start talking about communities. And that at the time in 2014, that's not something that I was personally involved in. 

I wouldn't consider myself even 10% of the SEO that I am today when I wasn't part of those communities. So I think the communities play a really strong part in surfacing the knowledge that's a little beyond what regular publications write about. And once you offer your own contributions to that community, there is a level of reciprocity that gets fired right back at you. So that act of being helpful to other people only pays dividends for you long term.

And within those larger communities, within those groups or the sort of SEO people on LinkedIn, it's important to make individual connections with other people who are also sharing values so that you can kind of even go beyond what's just discussed and get some really next level knowledge that way.

Elijah: That's a really good point in terms of things becoming reciprocal. And as a member of the community putting forward experiments… in your case, something that I've always loved and you've always had a strength for is your spreadsheet templates. These are things that you've sort of always put a lot of time and care into and it seems like this turned out to be a really great vehicle.

And in the early days of SEO Notebook and it's just give, give, give, right? The more you give and the more thoughtfulness that is behind some of these experiments—because let's face it, I mean, up until, you know, however many years ago, it's not even like Google necessarily supported SEO as a practice. It's only now in the last several years they're starting to talk about things like this. So I think that's something I've seen, especially in the pandemic, because a lot of players—especially on LinkedIn—really stepped up and started putting forth their experimentations. 

Whereas before maybe 2014, going back to you and I, when we first started working together around 2015 it might have been a little more closed-door. You don't want to give away your tactics or your secrets, whereas now it almost feels like, as I said, the pandemic has sort of fueled this transparency where people are realizing that it helps everyone when we go out there and share what we're finding and what we know.

Steve: Yeah, I think a lot of people fall into this idea about SEO as a zero-sum game in terms of there are only ten spots on page one and there's only one number one, so there's only one winner really. We have to realize that the chances of your competitor actually entering your SERP and using your tactics against you, it's not something that you can concern yourself with.

I also don't think the Facebook groups and LinkedIn have been as involved in terms of knowledge sharing the way that they have been in the last few years. I have also noticed that what you said about COVID is absolutely true. A lot of people really brought their game on LinkedIn and helped each other. And I think that was probably also a symptom of the fact that companies did pour a lot of money into SEO during the pandemic and continue still to.

Obviously, with this recession, we don't know what's going to happen. But in terms of COVID, it was very good.

So me posting a graph and telling everybody all the things I did with complete transparency, that also reciprocity comes back because I get leads from those types of posts.

Elijah: Right.

And so, thinking about the brands who might be tuning in and listening to this, going back to your days agency side, what are some of those organic search fundamentals that still hold true for you this year? We can say things like content wins and all this and that. But in your honest opinion what still holds true in terms of the absolute core fundamentals of succeeding with organic search and positioning content in the right way to get there?

Steve: I think one thing that I wish more people knew about SEO is that you can't rank just a single page. If you have a target keyword and you create the absolutely perfect page and Surfer or all these tools are telling you it's a perfect score, that page is not going to rank unless you have the supporting content along with it. You've got to not only commit to the keywords that are going to bring you that business, but you've got to explain to Google that you are an expert on this topic as a whole, right?

It's important if you're working with a freelancer or an agency to trust them on the fact that you've got to put out additional content to support the important pages on your website. And that means comprehensively covering all aspects of that business or that niche. 

I don't think enough people do that. I think they get caught up in just trying to rank their main page and perfecting it. But no matter what, if you have a perfect page with nothing to show Google that I am, in fact, an expert on all areas of this business, you're just not going to rank.

Elijah: We're talking about a cluster of keywords and a hub of pages that internally link toward each other. And they're propping each other up and sending all those right signals to Google to be like, hey, it's not just this page, it's these 50 pages. And across these 50 pages, they represent maybe 600-1,000 keywords. It's much more of a cluster opportunity than it is one keyword, one page. That’s a bit of an old-school mentality, where we get to a single keyword at a time. That old-school mentality also saw that one page receive a bunch of links—and links are still important—but links are not going to be able to prop up a single page. 

Steve: Google has already told us in their own documentation that "E-A-T"—expertise, authoritativeness, and trust—are all important in the way that you create. And then as that content becomes popular, it earns links or you build links to it and it all works as one, but you can't just create a single page, blast a bunch of links, and then see that page rise. It just doesn't work like that anymore. It absolutely did work like that, but not anymore.

Elijah: So shifting gears a little bit off the topic of SEO, but kind of relevant, I know a big part of your success with SEO Notebook in the early days revolved around your email list. In your opinion, what value has email brought to your business in terms of traffic generation, in terms of building credibility? How can business owners and influencers leverage email to propel their own growth online? Because I think a lot of people just often put email to the side when, really, it can be the most powerful mechanism of bringing repeat traffic to a website.

So what's your experience been like these last few years becoming a successful email list owner?

Steve: I never knew anything about email marketing when I decided to do this. I always heard that it's better to have 10,000 email addresses versus 10,000 followers. Now, obviously, the followers and all that stuff still matters hugely. But in terms of email, people are not likely to abandon their email the way they would a platform. As time wears on, Facebook becomes less popular, Instagram becomes more popular, email is just a very reliable traffic source. 

Like, my open rates are still at like 40% three years later, which is amazing. It's been really great social proof to differentiate me from another person to say that I have 14,000 subscribers and it grows at a steady clip without any active sort of list-building. I probably could do more even to build my lists, like prizes and contests and stuff like that. But I just basically let it grow naturally.

It's also provided me with an additional source of revenue for advertising. So I advertise regularly. Ahrefs, which is a major popular software in our industry, has sponsored me for the entire year. That's been amazing. To be associated with brands that you use and support and like—that are part of your workflow—is great because A) you're getting paid which is fantastic, but B) you're also associating yourself with something that people use on a daily basis. And it comes from an authentic place.

And so with email, you need to work on some fundamental things like your deliverability and all that kind of stuff. I have hired consultants in the past to basically try and maximize that. You need to keep your list clean as possible because there is a lot of spam through there. So I get somebody to regularly go through there and weed out spam accounts.

But in general, I would say if you have your social channels, maybe you do SEO, you do display, help diversify yourself with email list building. Obviously for certain industries that can be absolutely massive, like e-commerce, but even if you're a consultant or you're offering a service, just put your value out there, put your passion out there, and really try and help people through it. You'll only see good things from that.

Elijah: Yeah, to any influencers listening, putting all your eggs in one platform basket and calling that a day without actually getting those people and getting into their inboxes can be a little bit risky.

Steve: You could have your Instagram account taken down. And then what? Right? You have those email addresses. They belong to you.

Elijah: Yeah, it goes back to that old saying the money is in the list. I personally think that will always ring true. I think it's one area where a lot of businesses need to invest more time.

Back to our theme. I'm not an influencer, and I don't have any following online, but I've been in the game about as long as you have and we've seen a lot of voices come and go. We've got a lot of different people in our industry. Maybe the general populace might throw out a name like Neil Patel, and that's the first thing they think of when it comes to SEO. 

As someone who's put in effort and built up yourself as a recognized thought leader, with regards to scalable SEO strategies, what sort of responsibility lies there in terms of you being a quote-unquote influencer now and having to disprove out-of-date tactics or proving theories through experimentation? Do you feel pressure on yourself that you've got to make sure that what you're putting out there is accurate enough that it makes for a good recommendation? Because, obviously, if someone says something and you try it out, it doesn't necessarily mean that the theory is true. 

What sort of responsibility did you find comes with being an influencer, specifically in SEO because of the way that this industry is with a lot of theoretical stuff?

Steve: It's a great question and there is definitely a responsibility there. Like if I put something out that is completely off base, I'm going to have thousands of people reading that every week and I'm going to get a flood of emails saying I'm incorrect. I haven't gotten anything like that because I've been very careful to not do that. 

Each week when I come up with that one strategy and I'm coming up with it on the fly. I have a few lists of things that I could draw upon that I can do for notes. But generally, I'm actively involved in the work and out of that involvement comes my content.

I'm not giving people the huge overarching strategy—it's not a paint-by-numbers SEO. It's like, “This is the journey. I'm giving you one thing to do at this stage of the journey that you can actively try out for yourself.” And there is a huge responsibility there.

But if I get too caught up in thinking like, “Okay, now a thousand people, or however many people, are going to read this..” I would get too nervous if I overthought things like that. In general, it's something that I know that's there, but I don't dwell on it too much. And I just know that if I would find this interesting, I would want to try this, then it's something that I should write about.

Elijah: Well, that's good. Not putting too much pressure on yourself, going out there and putting some outlandish off-the-wall things. A lot of people can get messed up if they actually follow up what someone says.

Steve: Oh yeah. I don't think I'll ever get to the point of not having any content to produce. But if I was ever grasping at straws, I wouldn't just make something up.

Elijah: Well, to close off, we're talking about the rise of the SEO influencer. You and I have seen quite a few really great names pop up in the last few years. Someone I can think of is Kristina Azarenko. She's someone who I've started following in the same light as you. I find she puts a lot of value out there, she's got a great extension…

Who's on your list of people that you think we should be looking out for in terms of SEO influencers; people who are doing some cool things?

Steve: Well, on my list—it's not going to be the most notable names in the industry right now. Like it's not going to be the people who are publishing on Search Engine Journal and stuff like that. 

But I would say Kristina would be on there as well. I think she's fantastic. And in terms of technical SEO, Kristina's amazing.

There's a guy who's building really interesting links through PR named Fery Kaszoni who I really like.

There's another guy on the Facebook groups named Mike Friedman. His site is called The SEO Pub. He's got a newsletter as well that you should check out.

There's a guy that I work with on a couple of projects who does posts on LinkedIn named Kapil Ochani. He’s somebody that I met in Chiang Mai and who I definitely respect.

There's another person on LinkedIn who posts a lot of amazing value and a lot of detailed content named Daniel Foley Carter. He's definitely got the right mindset when it comes to SEO.

And Steven Kang from SEO Signals Lab. He runs that group, which is like a plus 60,000-person group, at least the last time I checked. And he doesn't post his own stuff all the time, but when he does, it's something definitely you should pay attention to.

And then there's my boy Eli, who I always respect and always love to shoot the shit with when it comes to SEO.

Elijah: I appreciate that, man.

To me, these are the people that we want to shine a light on and the people that we want to sort of get their voices out there and get them heard. There are a lot of different types of influencers in the SEO space that are coming up. Some of them are technical, some of them are content-related, some of them are just an ecom, like yourself. You're really specializing in SaaS and working with SaaS companies more and more. So it's really cool to see all these different people doing amazing things.

Well, I think that's it. For those who want to continue checking out what Steve does,

you can head over to SEO Notebook. As Steve mentioned, he sends out a blast every Tuesday a page from his notebook containing tips, tactics, different strategies, templates—which I always find extremely valuable. And you can check more from Steve's there. Feel free to subscribe to that.

Steve, thank you so much, man. Always a pleasure chatting with you.

Steve: Thanks so much for having me on.

And you guys are doing great work at the Influence Agency, so just keep it up.

Elijah: Appreciate it.

And for those who want to check out The Yearbook, go to The Influence Agency, look for that yearbook sign up and see all the trends and things we're talking about for this upcoming year to make sure your company is staying on top of the ball.