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The Unusual Branding Strategy That Made This SEO Company a Success

Clayton Johnson of The HOTH joins SEJ’s Loren Baker to share insights on link building and content and how the industry has changed in the past seven years. 

In a sea of vendors, providers, and agencies that all provide the same services, it can be challenging for a company to stand out. Even more difficult is when you’re involved in an industry as competitive as SEO.

Because of this, only a few manage to survive for the long haul. The HOTH is among those companies that were able to overcome this hurdle. With an ingenious philosophy and a remarkable branding, The HOTH has evolved from a 100 percent virtual link acquisition team to a white label SEO service company with a brand new office in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Clayton Johnson, COO for The HOTH, joined me in this episode of Search Engine Nerds to share insights on link building and content. Johnson also talks about how the industry and The HOTH have changed in the past several years.


What is The HOTH, what do you do, and how have you progressed over the years beyond solely being a link acquisition company?

Clayton Johnson: It’s definitely been a journey. The HOTH started in 2010 and I’m part of the original crew from back in Chicago actually. And so the HOTH, it’s actually an acronym. It stands for ‘Hit ‘em Over The Head.’ And it’s not a reference to physical violence, it’s basically a company philosophy that in 2010 when you’re a small business and you wanted to buy SEO services, it was kind of difficult, the kind of landscape of the market was buying things off of forums. The level of service wasn’t there. It wasn’t as developed of an industry as it is now.

We wanted to really change that so we took a HOTH and then ‘Hit ‘em Over The Head’ as a philosophy in terms of bludgeoning with awesomeness. And we put that into everything that we did. We put our names and faces on it, provided really good customer support, all that kind of stuff. That was kind of the core philosophy.

We started in 2010 which was before Panda or Penguin or any of the big disruptions in the SEO industry. So through that, by using that core philosophy of The HOTH to hit ‘em over the head, to make everything go above and beyond, I think that is what really carried us through that whole period of Google beating down on link building companies.

With that said, we have also evolved with the times, not only survived but really grown quite a bit and we’ve also done that by just evolving the product line. We’re really focused on creating content now. So that’s a huge part of our business. We actually write content.

We have a product called the HOTH Blogger, which we can help you create blog content. We do local citation building, we help you get reviews to your business through our review acquisition software called HOTH STARS, and all these different kinds of things. So we’ve really evolved the product line to be part of what’s going on in the SEO landscape as of today.

What would you say are some of the highest in-demand types of services that you are offering right now? What are most people looking for?

CJ: A big part of our audience is agencies. We’re a white label SEO provider – meaning that we don’t put our names on any of the reports. It’s basically meant to be resold. We have a lot of resellers coming by various types, different things they need for their clients. A lot of these agencies, they service local clients, so local’s a big part of it. Blog content is a big part of it like I mentioned.

But our biggest service that we have right now, the fastest-growing service that we’ve ever released is a totally managed service. We provide you whatever you need for your website – whether that is content or local citation ability – all in a managed package where we do the keyword research, the link building, the content, all that kind of stuff. That’s our fastest-growing service.

How did the branding help from the beginning? How did that set you apart? Because I can’t think of any other companies that have done it in our industry.

CJ: The branding is definitely a big part of it. I always think about how, there’s that quote that they say, ‘People forget what you say, they’ll forget what you do, they might even forget your name, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.’ Right? And so to be able to embody that in a character and kind of tell a story, I think that’s something that will stick with you through a sea of SEO companies.

If you go to one of these conferences, you’re going to see 5,000 booths of 5,000 SEO companies that do various renditions of the same type of thing. How do you stand apart from that? Well, you can draw people in with our HOTH monster because it looks so different but then once you [understand and get] the chance to talk, they’re not going to explain the story and the concept behind it and that’s something that can be memorable.

There’s a lot of fly by night companies and we’re not one of those. We’re in it for the long haul. So that guiding philosophy of The HOTH, ‘hit ‘em over the head,’ to go above and beyond, I think that is the thing that helped us survive through everything that happened in the last seven years.

It’s one of those things that’s also non-quantifiable. As a marketer, as a direct response marketer you want to be viable in everything. The thing about marketing is it’s not all science. There’s an art to it as well. And so this is part of our art that’s going to help us continue to be around for a long time.

Loren Baker: I’ve been building links forever, and at the time in 2010, it was just a huge link marketplace going on, right? Most of the competitors that I was up against, they would use a link marketplace and buy links from home pages. I was investing a little bit more time and effort but less money and putting together great articles on sites that were relevant to my clients as opposed to just buying footer links or side bar links…

So fast forward now and you’re talking about content being an important part of what you do, do you think the industry has kind of caught up knowing that they have to be able to produce great blog content?

CJ: If you want good links, content is a prerequisite for that. So I think that a lot of people – maybe bigger brands that were more sophisticated – they were able to catch onto this a handful of years ago. However, smaller businesses are just now catching on. What I think is the best thing that we can do as SEO companies or contributors to SEO sites, people in the SEO industries educate people on how it’s going to work today and how it’s going to work in the future.

We invested super heavily in creating an entire content team to be able to give our clients… so that if they want to acquire links in the future, they actually have something to link to.

LB: I’d like to really hear your opinion on what the difference is between link building and PR or outreach and PR. Because right now we have influencer marketing, right? You have link building companies approaching major publications trying to contribute content and get links you have. Traditional PR companies going after those same publications on the link side. So what do you feel is the difference if there is any? And how can they work hand in hand?

CJ: I think it first depends on what the company is. Like what you touched on earlier a little bit… the types of people you are pitching has changed. And so now for some companies, PR and your SEO team, they’re not mutually exclusive. If you’re in a company that has different types of teams, I think that there’s definitely a connection between them. And the best thing that you can do is educate all these different teams on what you’re trying to do as an SEO.

LB: There’s been some news recently. A lot of bigger sites (such as Forbes and Inc) are starting to use nofollows on some of their outbound linking. I just wanted to kind of hear your thoughts on the world of ‘follow the links’ versus ‘nofollow the links’ and some of the trends that you’re seeing there in the world of linking.

CJ: Yeah, it’s an interesting development. These big sites, they have a lot of contributor accounts. They make a lot of their money off of page views and so the more pages they have, the more chances they have to rank. The problem that they encountered really, it’s just having a bunch of contributors that were not contributing very good content or contributing content with links that probably shouldn’t be in there.

If you look at the history, some of these big sites have actually been penalized in the past for various different things that have happened with their SEO. So I think this was like a blanket response to all of that.

In general, a lot of our audience is really focused on getting dofollow links and obviously, they’re still important. But I think there might be too much of an emphasis for people that are doing link building on just getting dofollow links as the nofollow has absolutely no value. I would say having a mix is always a good idea. But I think these big sites, they’re probably trying to just crack down on poor quality contributors.

LB: What a lot of people forget about linking is that in the pre-Google days and before PageRank, before everyone started using domain authority as a metric to sell links or whatever it may be, links are actually there to get traffic, right? So at the end of the day, if you’re getting a good link on a great site, dofollow, nofollow, it doesn’t really matter. If it’s getting in front of the audience that’s helping to sell your product, support who you are, social proof around yourself or position yourself as an expert and they’re clicking over to your site, all the better.

CJ: Yeah, I 100 percent agree with that. Sometimes people get so one-track minded-about the SEO or the link exactly and forget about the big picture of it’s your marketing.

To listen to this Search Engine Nerds Podcast with Clayton Johnson:

Think you have what it takes to be a Search Engine Nerd? If so, message Loren Baker on Twitter, or email him at loren [at] You can also email Brent Csutoras at brent [at]

Visit our Search Engine Nerds archive to listen to other Search Engine Nerds podcasts!

Image Credits

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita

SEJ STAFF Loren Baker Founder at Foundation Digital

Loren Baker is the Founder of SEJ, an Advisor at Alpha Brand Media and runs Foundation Digital, a digital marketing ...

The Unusual Branding Strategy That Made This SEO Company a Success

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