Mark Wright won series 10 of The Apprentice by pitching Lord Sugar his plans for building a new digital marketing agency.
After the show, he quickly attracted criticism from the digital community for a perceived lack of knowledge and some rather bold claims about revolutionising SEO.
There were also a few glaring errors in the process of setting up the company.
But what does Mark make of all the controversy and how are things going over at Climb Online?
Here is a verbatim write up of our Q&A, with some of the questions kindly provided by our Twitter followers…
Firstly, how is the business going so far?
On April 5 the business will be three months old and we now have 81 clients live and running campaigns.
We just employed our tenth staff member yesterday, so it’s growing and growing and growing.
We also have around four freelancers as well, so each week we seem to have more staff.
And you’ve mainly been targeting small businesses so far?
No, I wouldn’t say that. Our key customer would be achieving around £1.5m turnover with about 10-20 staff.
Our clients range from one of the largest insurers in the country down to some small garages that have maybe two workbenches in their shops.
There is a vast array, but I’d say most of our clients are medium-sized businesses.
You said you have a product that was going to revolutionise SEO, can you explain what you mean by that?
Well basically I think when I say ‘revolutionise’ I mean I’m going to change the industry for the better.
SEO is something that customers have previously looked on as a dark art where they don’t understand what an SEO analyst is actually doing to their website or how they’re helping their business.
Our SEO product is unbelievable….!! It will change the way SEO is done in the UK. White Hat, ethical techniques that get page 1 results.
— Mark Wright (@Mark_E_Wright) January 4, 2015
So we’re trying to make it easier for the customer to follow and also make results tangible.
I think for far too long people have gone into a business and said, “Give me £300 and I’ll make you number one on Google.”
That is the wrong attitude. Search is evolving to the point that getting to number one on Google isn’t a target, you need to help businesses understand why having a good website is important, why creating good social media and content is important, and also about having good quality links into their website.
It’s a full strategy, not so much a product.
We call it a product because we’re a business and that’s how we finance things, it’s through product, but SEO is a strategy based around good content and representing your business in an online space as well as possible.
You mentioned that you have an SEO platform you developed in-house. What does it do?
We’re in the process of creating a platform that is somewhere in between Majestic SEO and SEOmoz.
It’s a client-facing tool where they can check keyword reports, link opportunities, brand mentions, and competitive metrics, but also we can build the campaign work in, so we can investigate links and we can monitor it from our side and create content and update the site from our platform.
That’s something we’ve been working on pretty heavily for the past couple of months.
So the approach is the same, the difference is perhaps in how you’re educating customers?
Yes, it’s more from an education perspective. We don’t just do our work over the phone, we go out and sit down with our customers and do a full analysis and show them where their website is at that point in time from a compliance perspective and where their keywords are ranking as well.
But we never talk about the first page of Google, we seldom talk about keyword rankings, it’s all about good quality content, a good quality website, and an increase in visitor traffic.
Some people have a negative perception of the SEO industry, do you think you can improve that?
You’re never going to have all happy customers, because at the end of the day what we do is a form of advertising, and you’re never going to have 100% client satisfaction even though we do our utmost.
The main problem with the SEO industry at the moment is negative SEO and people with powerful skillsets going to the other side and harming businesses.
It’s something I’m seeing more and more, and where SEO used to be about improving keywords and getting sites up the search rankings, it’s now about doing that while also protecting businesses from the negative side of SEO.
I understand there have been negative SEO attacks on your own site? How have you dealt with those?
Ever since I won the Apprentice we’ve been subject to negative SEO attacks on our website.
We don’t know who by or why it’s been done, but I think it’s because we’re the new shiny toy, we’re signing off a lot of new customers and people want to prove that we can’t get our own website on the search results in order to suggest that we can’t help customers do the same.
I employ a guy four hours a day to disavow negative links and crawl the site using Google Webmaster Tools.
We have three or four pieces of software in place to stop negative SEO and DDOS attacks, but the attacks are huge and by people with vast skillsets.
Some people felt you had more experience in sales than in SEO, so perhaps didn’t have the experience to be running an agency. What’s your view on that?
I agree with them. I’ve got far more ability as a salesperson than I do as someone who could complete an SEO strategy.
To be honest, that’s my job. I’m not the guy who’s going in analysing the websites, writing the content, or building the links.
My job is to train the sales staff, run the company, employ people and make the business profitable with Lord Sugar.
We employ some of the best SEOs in the country. We’ve got people that have come from Wonga, Google and Facebook.
I was never under the illusion that I was going to be doing that side of things myself.
My job is to create a really good, fun place to work and I’ve never said that I’m an SEO expert.
I’m quite the opposite, I’m an avid lover of SEO and the online marketing industry, but my skillset is focused on finding a new way of communicating it to customers.
We’ve seen a trend for agencies to move towards becoming content marketing agencies with a broader view of digital marketing, rather than specifically focusing on SEO. Do you think your focus on SEO is slightly out-dated?
We probably have around 15 of our 80 customers doing SEO, then we have a large majority doing paid search, Google Shopping, remarketing, or display.
We then have a PR model that we use in conjunction with another company for more integrated projects, so I completely agree with you.
I think SEO as we know it is slowing down or certainly changing.
With the constant algorithm updates from Google you have to have a full solution to the way you go to market.
That might be keeping your website and social up to date and running it with a remarketing and Google Adwords campaign.
I think that approach is more sound than any other.
One of our followers asked how you would evaluate a site hit by the Penguin update. But I’m assuming if you’re not the expert that’s not a question you’d be able to answer?
Well look, Penguin as an update was based around the link-building algorithm and analysis would be purely based on scanning the site comprehensively for negative links and making sure to disavow those you don’t want.
But like you said, I’ve got a team of people with years of experience and the tools to do this.
My knowledge is somewhat better than most people you meet in the street, but in terms of analysing the impact of Penguin or Panda, I know enough to hold a conversation but it wouldn’t be up to me to go in and implement it.
What is your opinion on link building and whether recent updates have made it a less valuable tactic?
I’m seeing a number of things from the bigger campaigns I’m running.
Link building used to be the most effective way to gain search rankings, then content became the king, and now what I’m seeing is that some of the bigger companies we work with will come to us and only want nine new links but they’ll tell us exactly where they want them from.
I think link building is extremely important if you get the right links. It’s best to focus on quality over quantity and combine it with content that’s relevant for those links as well.
There’s been a lot of interest around your brand name. Did you check that the domain name was available before you chose the name Climb Online?
There are a lot of things about the Apprentice that people don’t know.
I submitted 100 potential company names before I went into the show, but when you’re on the Apprentice you’re not allowed a laptop or access to the internet.
So I had submitted the name Climb Online and the team came back to me and told me it was available, so we went with that.
I think about 8m people watched the final episode and the name they heard uttered for 60 minutes was Climb Online, so as a branding exercise I think it would’ve been negative to change the name of the company.
Also we already owned the trademarks for ‘Climb’ and ‘Online’ in regards to climbing search rankings.
SEOs can be quite vocal about their industry. Have you been surprised by their reaction to you?
The thing is that SEO is only one part of our business and it wasn’t even part of my original business plan. It’s something we skimmed over on the show and has become a huge talking point ever since.
We also focus on other industries like web development, PPC or display but they don’t seem to get involved with the hype as much.
We do have SEO campaigns though and yes the industry has been quite vocal about us, but I am proud to be part of the industry and I want to help the businesses in it as well as the industry itself.