Today’s interview is with Ant Lavall, VP of SEO for Croud, a leading digital agency with offices in the UK, US and Australia. Croud manage the content for many of the world’s largest brands, such as Audible and MongoDB, and have won countless awards for their search marketing, including Campaign’s Global Performance Agency of the Year.
Ant has also recently managed to elevate Croud to the Moz list of recommended agencies – which as anyone in SEO will know, is just about the holy grail of search. There are always a lot of stats bouncing around regarding the proportion of B2B buyer journeys that begin with a search in Google, and there’s certainly no question that it’s always in the top 2 or 3 channels for any progressive B2B or professional service brand. But for every firm that turns this into a huge asset, there are 10 that get it totally wrong and waste a tonne of resources achieving not very much. So, we’re hoping that today Ant can shed some light on doing it right.
Ant, thank you so much for joining us today.
So, diving right into it. In large companies, I feel like SEO can sometimes struggle to get a seat at the strategic table. So everyone in digital recognises its significance, but often the broader sales and marketing functions – and certainly the executives above them – view it as highly technical, highly tactical and something of a mysterious dark art.
So they’re keen to see the brand creating content, running events, sending emails, doing lots of other various channel activities. And they probably even have some kind of social media presence themselves via LinkedIn. But SEO – which is arguably the most powerful channel for so many B2B brands – is somehow treated with suspicion. Is that a barrier you ever encounter? And if so, do you have any methods for overcoming those perceptual barriers and forcing it onto the agenda at the highest level?
Ant: Well, it’s a fantastic question. And it’s certainly something that resonates so much within my job role, pretty much every single day.
Proving the value of SEO is a constant battle – for some businesses more than others. But I feel like the biggest impact of any agency on any business that you can ultimately showcase is the bottom line and the potential revenue that can be made. So we spend quite a lot of time doing forecasting for clients. Now, forecasting within the world of SEO, as you probably only know too well, or within any digital marketing channel, is ultimately a bit of a crystal ball, right? So it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. But we can, based on the output of our efforts, which are typically content created, technical SEO projects delivered, try to estimate what that might do in terms of impact, rankings, traffic and revenue over time.
It’s not ideal. I don’t think there’s any SEO or marketing practitioner that enjoys doing those things, but ultimately, there’s a lot of brands that have an appetite for it and won’t open their wallets until they know that you can showcase some kind of return.
But in sort of the grander perception of our industry, I think trust is just the big thing. You mentioned dark arts and yes, I think there’s certainly a lot of people that do not understand SEO as a channel. And that’s totally understandable because we are not supposed to understand SEO as a channel. One of your previous guests, Rand Fishkin, recently put a video on Spark Toro talking about growth being so important over profitability for a lot of businesses because of capital gains, tax structure – particularly in the United States, but I think elsewhere around the world – and ultimately, the growth channels and the visibility on the invested dollar versus return on investment, ROAS, is available to you via platforms like Facebook, Google Ad Words, et cetera, et cetera. That’s why certain biddable channels are so often preferred over organic channel because with organic channels, we can’t see the keywords that are driving the return on investment. We have to split brand traffic from non-brand traffic to be able to understand: what is the impact that my SEO agency has given me?
I think the shorter answer would be, you either have trust with a client who understands SEO as a channel and knows why you’re doing the things that you need to do or ultimately, you need to be able to showcase some kind of forecasting using a model that is accepted by both parties.
So we do all of these things when we’re doing forecasting, which is not necessarily the easiest thing to be able to do, especially if you don’t necessarily have access to first-party data and you’re trying to do it with third party data as well. So yes, incredibly difficult to be able to do, but also at the same time pertinent. So I think the shorter answer would be, you either have trust with a client who understands SEO as a channel and knows why you’re doing the things that you need to do or ultimately, you need to be able to showcase some kind of forecasting using a model that is accepted by both parties.
So yeah, not always easy, but certainly achievable and ultimately the trust comes from there.
Dan: And have you seen much of a change? Do you feel it’s easier now to have a conversation at a strategic level than it was 10 years ago? Do you feel like as a channel, people are kind of maturing their attitudes towards it?
Ant: Yes. 100%. Like I think if you go back 10 years, people didn’t necessarily think that they needed to do SEO. It was a little bit of a gold rush and there were potential opportunities there, but certainly larger businesses perhaps were a little bit more aware of potentially, you know, doing something that could be negative or could be considered black hat; obviously there was a lot of spammy link building going on if you go back to sort of 2012 and before that time, and a lot of other manipulative practices that are still in part in practice today. Ultimately, I think nowadays one of the great things that I often say is that people do and businesses do know that they need to be doing SEO to some level, they need to be investing in it, and certainly, I’m more aware of what it does, and probably have worked in a business that has ultimately done SEO previously.
So yes, that does open a lot of opportunities, particularly as an agency ultimately selling SEO and content solutions. So yeah, that’s certainly enabled us to be able to speak to a lot more businesses more readily because it is more prevalent. Even if businesses don’t necessarily understand what it is that they’re going to get out of it or what it takes to make it happen, they certainly understand that they perhaps need to do it.
Dan: This is a slightly more technical question than I would usually ask, but with having a bit of an SEO background myself, I can’t help it. So, for a lot of B2B brands, 90% of the traffic can often be noise. Lots of long-tail stuff landing on the blog or other resource pages that add some value but probably less than the 10% of more targeted terms that arrive on specific landing pages. One thing I like to therefore do is to isolate those more sales and promotional landing pages in an attempt to gain a clearer sense of the site’s performance.
I just wonder, are there any tricks or methods that you deploy to try and get a better understanding of a B2B site’s changing performance over time? Particularly with keyword data now being so limited.
Ant: Yeah, so I think B2B generally is something that we have to adopt a slightly different approach for, with the businesses that we’ve worked with in the past. So going back to your previous question about sort of the readily available appetite to consume SEO as a product that is certainly prevalent in the market.
Now, I can give you an example of a B2B company – a very large architectural and construction B2B company that we actually worked with in Mexico and Latin America for a couple of years – and the reason why we started working with them is that one of the key marketing practitioners at that business was working previously for a very large airline, and he’d seen the success of SEO there and he thought I want to bring that to my new business. But the key difference is that he was working at a B2C company before and now is working at a B2B company where we started working with him. And some of the things that we had to ultimately do were to be able to understand, to the nth degree, how a customer, via the digital property, was actually going to be acquiring, purchasing, or at least just submitting a form for the sales teams to follow up on. So we had to do a lot where we were connecting with sales teams, connecting with marketing functions in order to be able to understand, you know, how is this product sold? And then how does that potentially translate to the web property that we’re managing now?
So in terms of your point with regards to the sort of segmenting, certain aspects of traffic via Google Analytics, for example, and then trying to make an analysis of that cohort, yeah, I think certainly there’s sort of elements of that. In particular, in creating your conversion funnels via Google Analytics; ensuring that those attribution funnels are ultimately not just last click because obviously, as we know in the world of B2B, it’s entirely irrelevant because, I did a talk at a Google event a few years ago, and one of the stats that they gave was that there’s five B2B, senior executives that are involved in any decision with regards to a B2B purchase. Ultimately, the average lead time is at least 10 weeks. So the last-click attribution in Google analytics is entirely pointless because that could come from anywhere.
So the attribution needs to be given to all of the channels that are touched along that journey as well. And I think that’s a very important thing too, in the context of B2B, is to set up those different attribution funnel instances. So, yeah, that’s another key thing I would say as well.
So, I think it’s just ultimately understanding how your customer is going to potentially interact with your site and then curating, you know, the digital marketing experience around that. Ensuring they have the right content to connect with. And then ultimately, I think even before that, arguably, or in conjunction with that, making sure that your analytics – whether it be Google Analytics or Adobe or whatever it might be – set up to be able to convey that narrative in the right way.
Dan: That’s awesome. Really interesting. So I always think there are two ways of looking at an SEO campaign. Either you adhere to best practices and trust that it’s going to contribute some value over time or you can decide that it’s a real priority channel and go after it like a maniac.
I just wonder, how should a B2B brand make that decision? Is it a question of really extensive keyword research or is it about instinct based on your understanding of the audience? Or perhaps you’d advocate the company running a series of tests to see how Google responds and how the traffic behaves when it does arrive on site?
Ant: Again, I think this comes down to trust. Ultimately, if I am the principal in charge of marketing dollars or pounds for a B2B business, then ultimately, my investment in SEO comes from trust in the channel. I think any business that invests significantly in SEO content, digital PR, over time sees the impact of that eventually, but not a lot of businesses do. Now at the one end of the spectrum, it could be that, ultimately, the majority of your deals in the B2B space are done based on conversation. They’re done based on personal relationships and word of mouth and that kind of thing. Now, I don’t think it’s fair to say that that potentially isn’t an opportunity for that business to utilise digital marketing and SEO to be able to better emphasise what it is that they’re doing, but it may be that it’s just not right for you.
So in certain instances, it could just be, you don’t necessarily need it, but for the vast majority of businesses online, I think, ultimately, you want to be able to tap into different channels. And having long-term engagement by producing high-quality content that speaks to your audience at a variety of levels is potentially going to help you to be able to achieve that. So how do you make that decision? Well, I think, ultimately, testing helps anybody who doesn’t necessarily have the trust or doesn’t know the channel of organic search.
You can test for a number of different keywords that you think that your audience might search for in the context of being able to find your product, and then hope that, you know, you get some conversions so that it ultimately warrants the potential pursuit of those keywords from an organic perspective, too. That’s how we set up our B2C campaigns as well. Like that’s one of the most important things that we do; ultimately, we look at any ad-words data that we’ve got and then that’s the only way that we have the ability to be able to see keyword to conversion, because that information is taken away from us on the organic side.
So the ability to be able to understand what keywords convert or at least what keywords perform an action that would then potentially lead to conversion – be it filling in a form, sending in an email or whatever – is going to be critical to be able to validate the potential that could exist within a particular industry. And then after that, ultimately, it’s just a case of saying: “Okay, right. If we think there’s an opportunity for this, then, you know, we need to make sure to invest in it sufficiently.” And such a large part of that comes from content. So particularly in the B2B space, content is important for not just bringing in new customers, but also for providing support pages for existing customers and ensuring that they’ve got a fantastic experience, but ultimately, you might have complex products maybe guides or comparison pages are important, videos and white papers. Obviously white papers behind sort of a log-in wall or an email wall or whatever it might be are very prevalent in the world to B2B for obvious reason, because ultimately it’s all about those kinds of soft conversions and being able to understand who might be interested in this product and how can we build a sufficient lead and prospectors base for our sales executives.
So, yeah. You know, I think regardless of B2B or B2C – but I think in particular, within B2B – it’s important to be able to prove whether or not a keyword or whether or not a website has the capacity to convert a specific keyword, and that’s where PPC comes in so incredibly handy, but once you’ve done that and once you’ve validated it, yeah, you can pursue that then from an SEO perspective. And know that if you rank first organically for that keyword, not only are you getting the free clicks for as long as you maintain that ranking, but also you’re getting the bottom line off the back of it because you’re sending qualified leads to your company website.
So if you can do that for 50 – 100 keywords, suddenly you are sitting pretty.
Dan: I just wonder about reconciling all of this SEO stuff with broader content strategy? If we go back 10 plus years, it was largely accepted that they were two very different disciplines. And then we tried to convince ourselves that they were the same thing – what was good for Google was good for the user and for the brand – and I think that was the right mindset to adopt, but there certainly remains some very tactical distinctions.
I just wonder if that’s moved on now? Are we at a point where these things truly have aligned? Or is there still a discrepancy you have to wrestle with?
Ant: Yeah. I do think that we ultimately treat those as two different things. Sometimes, and I’m not one of these people who’s quick to dismiss using SEO as a term, although I do think it’s evolved massively, I think, you know, to give context, so Dan was the first person that I ever started working for in a digital marketing agency. And I think even when you and I first worked together, Dan, ultimately, SEO was something that was much broader than just it being this individual channel. You had to understand digital PR, you had to understand backlinks and you had to understand the technical aspects of SEO, which is so extensively vast. And you had to understand content and maybe outside of that, you had to understand HTML and CSS, and you had to understand very broadly sort of how the web works and relationship building.
But those things are true for a lot of digital marketing channels. I certainly think that there is a distinction that we place as an agency between SEO and content, but one of the big things – and I’ve had a new business contact, a client of ours that we work with on the PPC side here in the United States, ask me this week – is we can create as much content as we want for any given client, but ultimately, this contact that we had asked me: “Well, what happens if we don’t rank first when we create the content for the keywords that we’ve targeted for that page? What do you do then?” Well, the question is if we’ve created – so we use certain tools to be able to create content, right? There are some incredible tools out there now for content briefing, Clearscope, Phrase, a lot of these will just be automatically, using artificial intelligence, generate content categories for you. They’ll look at the SERPs, the top 10 results, and tell you what the word count is for the articles that are listed in those top 10 results. They’ll tell you the readability score, et cetera, et cetera.
So, we know what type of content we need to create to rank, but that content isn’t always going to rank because there’s more than just creating content as a ranking factor for SEO. Ultimately, we have to think about whether we need to look at internal linking? Do we need to look at structured data? Or do we need to look at page speed? Like there are other things outside of that that encompass the SEO container, that ultimately, we need to consider if we’ve created the content and it isn’t performing as it’s supposed to.So, as an agency, we come at it from the approach of we’re creating content with the intent of that content performing and ultimately converting. And there’s a lot of data that we analyse to be able to make that decision. But what we know is that the SEO bit comes back into play if that content doesn’t rank.
Dan: So a very generic, but I think, very important question. What would you say are the top three defining principles of any great SEO campaign in B2B?
Ant: Okay. So I just looked at the poster on my wall, where I keep my three defining principles of any great B2B SEO campaign. I’ll just read off the poster.
But yeah, it’s a good question. I think, ultimately it becomes about what a B2B customer is looking for. And again, going back to some of the data that I previously mentioned, that was from this B2B event that I attended at Google in New York, a couple of years back, you know, there are longer lead times with B2B there are multiple decision-makers. And I think one of the most important pieces of research that I learnt from that particular event was that 66% of B2B decision-makers start with a brand in mind. And of that 66% – based on the cohort that they surveyed – 96% went with the brand that they knew. So purchased from the brand that they’d started with.
So the first one would be, and I think this is something that you and I have discussed many times, Dan, invest in content that leads the conversation, be the voice of your industry. If you are already the B2B brand for commercial facades, for example, or teleconferencing solutions or whatever it might be, then, people already know about you because you do something that’s really cool that resonates with them, then it’s very likely when they move into a position where they can potentially acquire your product, they will go with you. And that is regardless of whether or not it’s a B2C or B2B target in terms of your content and customer, like ultimately, putting out that incredible content is going to come back because you’ve made yourself the voice of your industry.
So investing in content that leads a conversation would be the first one. The second one would be don’t ignore the upper funnel and there was actually another stat from that Google event: 74% of the time, according to Google, search helps users at the top of the funnel discover their brand. So, search is much more impactful at the beginning of the conversion funnel. So don’t ignore the upper funnel.
I think it’s probably quite easy in the context of B2B to get bogged down more in trying to help explain what your product is. I’ve worked for B2B brands where it was quite difficult to understand what that solution potentially was, and you know, there is certainly an education piece that is important in the context of that without a shadow of a doubt, but also at the same time, I think it’s important to think about how you can expose users to your brand at the top of the funnel and what type of content can enable you to be able to do that, be it a podcast or video or some sort of introductory guide to a product within that space. I think that’s something that’s well worth pursuing.
And then the third one, I guess, would be – and I like to say this because ultimately, if there’s a situation where there is something that needs to be made, that’s going to garner digital PR attention or something that, you know, ultimately is going to lead to a conversation where there is a significant amount of content created around a specific theme or topic for a B2B brand – is that we’re only limited by our own creativity.
So I think that’s really critical as well because ultimately we are only limited by our own creativity. We see things go viral every day. We see incredible examples of data visualisation, and businesses working in B2B space have a lot of data at their disposal. It’s how you utilise that in a way that’s informative and that speaks to everybody, but really resonates with your B2B target customers. So, you know, I think ultimately, any given day, you can be the voice of your industry, and you can create incredible content that resonates with people, but we’re really only limited by what it is that we can come up with.
Dan: So, within SEO, I think sometimes we can have a tendency to focus almost too much on KPIs and not enough on inputs. In the long run, KPIs are everything, but they can also be hugely misleading in the short term. So sometimes we might do all the right things but the results are really slow to emerge, or others, we may do almost nothing and yet the traffic just keeps on rising.
What are your thoughts on that? Do you measure your performance purely in terms of outcomes or are there other considerations, activities and metrics that you report on?
Ant: I think this has been my answer to every question so far, but I think again, it comes down to trust.
Trust is such an important part of this, because, we’ve had all of those situations take place at Croud, right? We’ve had a situation where we’ve driven a significant amount of traffic for a client in a very short space of time – albeit that was via a very successful migration – but ultimately, then within sort of 6 – 12 months they moved elsewhere because they felt like they sort of got what they needed from us. That’s the shortcomings of an agency.
We’ve also had clients where we’ve done a lot of positive things, but ultimately, we were just missing out on something. One client I can think of is we did some fantastic technical SEO work, helped them to implement a pre-render solution for an Ajax framework that they’d implemented, and ultimately built a lot of content for them in a short space of time. But really when it came down to it, they just didn’t have the authority. And we started to build some authority, but the runway was a little bit too long.
I just think that there’s a myriad of situations and potential outcomes that can come from engaging with an online business – and nothing to do with SEO. But it depends on what kind of timeframe that you have in order to be able to implement what you want to be able to see. And if you do consistent content creation, make sure that your pages are optimised, make sure that you have a quick website that performs well on multiple devices, and you’re building authority and brand reputation, which all comes from, not just SEO of course, comes from a host of different channels, over time, ultimately, you’re going to see a positive SEO impact.
So yeah. I think, as SEOs, we probably do rely a lot on KPIs and really for us, this varies from client to client and as an agency speaking, of course, I think we try to put a lot of different KPIs in front of clients that perhaps don’t understand what it is that we’re doing and just try and give them the visibility on that. But it’s really difficult to be able to estimate how things are going to grow over time.
I’ve gone back and forth on this for the longest time. I’ve said, you know, it’s really important that our clients have goals because then we know that if we hit those goals, they have every reason to stay with us. And as an agency, we want our clients to stay with us for as long as possible. That’s ultimately our business model. But at the same time, I’ll be quite frank with you, the lion share of our clients do not have targets for us. We don’t have specific conversion targets. We don’t have specific traffic targets. We have expectations and we review the work that is done. And we say: “Okay, right. Is this working? Are we seeing performance impact? Are there things that we can report upon to say, yes, this is moving in a positive direction?” But it’s really difficult for most businesses, regardless of the business, to be able to put together very specific goals around what it is that they want to achieve.
So, yes. I think ultimately again, as I said, it comes down to trust. Like if you trust an SEO, then you keep doing it well, you’re going to see the impact in the long run.
Dan: Do you think we have maybe a responsibility as well, or it would be in our interest to do a better job of educating those people at a more senior, strategic level? Because if they don’t understand what we do and the nature of SEO, that may well help in the sales process – it may mean because there’s something of a blind spot in there, and we’re in possession of all the information, that it’s easier for us to inject a sense of urgency and fear and scarcity and all those 6 – 9 months down the road, if they still don’t understand what it is that we’re actually doing. In which case, they have no choice but to judge the performance of the campaign – whether it’s delivered by an internal function or an external agency – entirely and exclusively on the KPIs, the outcomes.
Whereas if we did a better job of educating them and taking them on that journey, then they would understand all the fantastic inputs, whether they’re highly technical or whether it’s about great content, but they would understand the value of those things. And would it make it easier for them to buy into that and to create that trust that’s slightly separate from the pure KPIs?
Ant: Yeah, I just turned my camera on there, just so you could see my expression, because basically, you described my career for the last five years there, which is, to varying levels, going into businesses and either understanding that there is somebody who is ultimately an advocate for what it is that we’re going to be doing, which makes our lives so infinitely easier.
I mean, I genuinely think that with some of the SEO engagements that we’ve worked on, we perhaps spend 50% of the time trying to prove why we are even talking to them in the first place. And then 50% of the time working out what to do, how to do it and then implementing it, right? That should really be what all the clients spend their money on. And we have to build for the time where we’re trying to prove to them why we’re even speaking to them in the first place. Why is this person with a British accent talking to me in my office about things that I don’t really understand? That has been my career – not just in the US – it’s been my career basically since day one.
And that’s what we know about SEO; it’s a misunderstood channel for a lot of good reasons. Again, Google wanted to be misunderstood. That’s not a secret. I have various opinions about this and sort of going back and forth with regards to, I think it’s important to educate, and I think if you’ve got somebody who’s very keen to learn, like any kind of education, regardless of the seniority of the individual, 100%, they should be given the time to have an explanation. This is what we have. This is the data that we can look at. This is how we can see rankings. This is how we do forecasting. This is where we get the metrics from to gauge the performance of your campaign in your analytics platform, et cetera, et cetera.
But I found, more often than not, at a senior level, people don’t often want to spend that time trying to learn. It’s not always the case. I spent a lot of time with the B2B client that I mentioned previously doing training in places like Mexico and Columbia and also in the US, and sometimes with very senior execs because they wanted to understand what it is that we were doing.
But you know, whether or not they still remember anything that I said to this day is debatable, but ultimately you do it because you have a product and you’re trying to sell it. And the more buy-in you can get from more people within the organisation, the better. So yes, I think ultimately, it’s the perennial problem within SEO that, you know, you have to be able to not only do the job that you know you need to do, because as SEOs, we know what we need to do, and we know what’s going to drive performance but also sometimes, you know, you have to be able to say: “Well, this is why we need to do it.” And what do we think is going to happen when we do it? And when that gets down to the nth degree, you know, what do we think is going to happen to the ranking for this keyword in this month? Which does happen, believe me. You’re in a tricky spot, not necessarily unmanageable, but it’s obviously a lot easier to just be able to create all the content you need to create, to execute all the technical SEO campaigns you want to create.
Dan: You may disagree with this, but I think for a lot of SEO campaigns, the primary consumer of time is the creation of high-quality content – be that blog posts, landing pages or other resource materials. Therefore the question of: how much quality content? Is perhaps the single most significant as it will largely determine both the efficacy and the cost of the campaign.
So, how does a company make that judgment? How does it determine the ferocity with which you should be churning out that quality content? Or is that missing the point? Should it be looking at something else entirely?
Ant: Entirely pertinent for us right now. We had a meeting yesterday talking about this very thing. For the longest time, we have been moving down a path of human-driven content creation, which involves so many different things. Ultimately, we need to come up with the ideas of exactly what to write. So we need to do our keyword research. We need to ultimately understand the types of ideas of content that we might write about, and then we need to do a brief, so we need to understand, well, is there any competitor content out there that we can learn from? What keywords should we be targeting? What types of topics should we be writing about? We need to write the thing, then we need to QA the thing, then we need to deploy the thing.
Now you think about that process and, you know, maybe I make it sound a little bit simple at face value, but there’s actually a lot to that. And when you’re doing that scale. And when you’re doing that for multiple languages and multiple countries, it becomes an incredibly complex proposition.
So in terms of specifically answering your question, I think how much quality content can we create that’s going to have a performance impact? Ultimately, you know, I think I still see this time and time again, like, yes, I can create a piece of content for you as an SEO person, and then you can use that on social media, and you can use that in your email marketing campaigns, which is great, but that’s going to be ephemeral traffic lifts, right?
Social media content that goes viral; you’re going to still have one or two days where it’s very popular and then nobody clicks on anymore. Email marketing, people only get that email once. The key thing about SEO is that people are searching for things again and again, and again and again. So if you can create the piece of content right and it performs for SEO, which is the goal of all of our content, then ultimately, you’re in an incredibly advantageous situation.
So, I think the goal of creating quality content at scale in international languages, if you are an international player, is incredibly important, but how do you do that cost-effectively? And how do you do it if your budgets are relatively limited? Well, we’re talking a lot about tools that provide automation, which I mentioned previously, there are some fantastic tools on the market. So Phrase is one, Clearscope is one we use quite frequently. There are other tools as well for international content creation, we recently had a meeting with Smartling, which seems like an incredibly in-depth proposition from them as well for creating international content. But I think the introduction of machine learning-driven content creation platforms that ultimately are able to provide you with a lot of the things that you need in order to be able to create a piece of content.
So, you know, how long should it be based on what’s currently performing in Google? What’s the readability score? How well does this need to be written? And then features such as, you know, what kind of sections can I have? Can you give me some ideas of things to write about? What topics do I need to cover? What semantically related terms need to be within this piece?
Dan: Just very quickly, these tools are not creating the content for you are they? But they’re providing a framework within which you then populate the content?
Ant: You know, you can expand on that question because ultimately, they’re not creating the content for you right now. There are actually tools that do create the content for you, 100% will literally write the paragraphs out. I think right now, as we exist today, there is still a huge place for content writers. And I think there always will be, to a certain extent, however, I think there’s going to be, certainly, I think it’s probably already happening now. You would imagine that there is a version of a piece of content that is like a thousand words, that ultimately has been written by a machine and then is simply QA’d by a human, and you know, as we move towards that space and as this technology becomes available, we have an obligation to our clients to understand exactly how these solutions work. We have an obligation to us, our proposition within the industry, to understand, you know, can we utilise these tools? So we have incredible content writers who can produce fantastic pieces of content that you’d think a machine, based on billions of rows of data, would struggle to be able to authenticate, but you know, I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. I think it’s probably coming at some point. But using humans is going to be the more cost-prohibitive approach. It’s going to be the more affluent and more expensive approach, is probably the word I’m looking for, and then on the other side, utilising machines is going to be potentially more cost-effective, but you know, you miss some of those steps.
So creating content at scale isn’t a cheap thing to do, because it’s ultimately one of the most significant flags in the ground to be able to say your brand is the industry leader in perhaps multiple markets and, ultimately, has this incredible content that really defines our tone of voice, but entertains the audience and puts us in an amazing place. But it’s going to cost you probably quite a lot to get there.
So there are certainly some elements of machine learning and artificial intelligence that will perhaps allow that to be done in a slightly more expeditious manner, which is incredibly interesting and certainly a game-changer for the industry.
Dan: Really interesting, slightly terrifying, but very interesting.
Ant: It is a bit, I think if you’re a content writer, it’s very easy to think: okay, well, that’s tricky, that’s going to be a problem for us. But also, it’s not just content that’s changing, and I don’t think content writers necessarily have to be changed. I just think, you know, there’s always going to be opportunities. There’s always going to be input for writers and journalists, right? Like writing a book, I’m sure there is some version of a book that could be written by a machine, but ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to be the greatest read.
You know, you need that human intuition to be able to really provide the quality that’s needed. And then from a journalistic perspective, that’s true too. So you can apply that to content writing as well, but also as well, think about development, like there’s sort of the evolution of no-code and no-code platforms like Webflow, for example, for designers is a very popular platform. It’s one of the biggest growing businesses here on the West Coast. And, ultimately, they’ve provided a no-code platform. And I think that evolution of no-code platforms perhaps could have a developer saying: “Oh, you know, that’s a bit worrying”.
But yeah, I think everybody’s got to sort of fight against the potential battle of automation and what they’re doing being replaced by a robot and something automated, but that’s why it’s so important to diversify and to make sure that you’re looking ahead – in particular in our industry, more than anything – and seeing the opportunities that exist outside of that.
Dan: Slightly different question now, Ant. What is it you see taking place in the SEO space that just frankly, pisses you off? It just bewilders you that people could still be making these same mistakes even now in 2021? Is there anything that springs to mind?
Ant: I have an incredible curiosity for the same thing that got me into SEO. When I first started out in my career, I think I spoke to a guy in an interview this week who told me that he worked in sales and then he transitioned into SEO. And I said: “Well, that’s exactly what happened to me.” I was working in Australia, I was selling online advertising directory subscriptions for a big website that used keyword stuffing and all kinds of spammy SEO tactics in order to be able to prop their pages up to the top of Google in Australia. And I wasn’t as interested in selling the directory listing as I was in how that keyword got us ranking third. Why did we rank second or first, or whatever it might be, over these over guys in the space? And I think that’s the key indicator to somebody that they’re then interested in SEO and then become part of that world.
So the reason why I’m mentioning that is because I still, in 2021, see examples of grey and black hat, whatever you want to call it, SEO tactics that work. And I’m honestly just impressed when I see it. I think that’s kind of amazing, but it makes life pretty difficult because ultimately as most agencies will say: “Yeah, we don’t employ grey or black hat tactics.” And it’s like, okay, well, we don’t do that, we don’t engage with black hat world and buy PBN. So what that means is when I do get – going back to our previous conversations within this interview – somebody asked me: “We want to be here by this date, how do we get there? What’s our ranking for this going to be by this date, how much traffic we’re going to have by this date?”
I’m like, well, you’re essentially asking for black hat SEO, I’m going to steer you away from it, because that’s my job, and we have a reputation to think of and all the rest of it, but ultimately those things still work. And they don’t work for a long time, but they work. And they work enough for a brand to see that and go: “Okay, well how can they do it?”
Then you have to have another whole explanation of the conversation around what that is and how it works and all the rest of it, it becomes quite complex. So I don’t know if there’s anything that I’m seeing that specifically pisses me off about campaigns that I’ve inherited or campaigns that I see, it’s slightly frustrating that black hat does still work, but at the end of the day, Google is still – for all the advancements that they’ve made over the course of the last 20 years – they’re still just an algorithm. It’s still something that’s potentially open for manipulation, you know, albeit very difficult to manipulate, but you analyse it. I saw a website the other day – I won’t name it, obviously – but it’s in the space one of our clients are in and I analysed the backlinks and Ahrefs, and I was like, this is really interesting because what they’ve done is they’ve been quite methodical. They’ve employed a PBN, but then also a lot of the links on that PBN are no-follow, and they curated a backlink profile that means that they still have by and large, more do-follow than no-follow. They’ve basically curated this thing and it’s very difficult to not go: “Wow, that’s actually quite impressive.” So whilst it’s annoying because, you know, ultimately we advocate for white hat SEO and doing it the hard way and negotiating with journalists and trying to get our name out there with digital PR and creative content, which is very important for brand growth from an off-page perspective. It’s also sometimes frustrating to still see some of those black hat endeavours work. But also incredibly interesting. And as an SEO, it is important to not just ignore that as like, oh, they’re doing that. But no, to understand, because ultimately, the more you understand about that, the more you understand how the algorithm works and then you know how to do it right for your clients.
So all wrong, as the case may be. I might just save that for personal projects.
Dan: You mentioned PR, journalists and that side of the marketing equation. Do you feel like those individuals typically have a sufficient level of insight – not just in SEO, but digital generally – in order to be able to fully leverage the skills that they have, because very often, those people on the more brand side journalistic side, are often in the best position to do things like increase the authority of your domain, and create fantastic content or whatever it might be.
To me, it seems like there’s still quite a big gap between these two worlds. And I wonder if you think enough is being done to close that gap?
Ant: So I think a lot of PR companies now have heard about what PR is in the context of SEO and the importance of backlinks. And ultimately now understand that that’s a part of the industry that they’re going to be asked about. Whether or not they choose to engage with it intentionally from a proposition perspective is a different thing. It may well be that they do very traditional PR, in my experience, agencies that don’t do that or they only specifically do crisis management or they specifically do some type of other reputation management or something like that. Ultimately, they don’t necessarily do the digital PR side, but we’ve also worked with agencies who do, very actively, consider it to be a key part of their proposition to engage on the digital PR side. So it really depends on the agency and whoever’s running that agency and is working for them, and whether or not they have the skill sets within that to be able to work with you on potentially leveraging backlinks.
But we’ve done that. We’ve worked with other agencies to build back things for clients, digital PR agencies, to great effect. So, yeah, I think ultimately creating content for a digital PR campaign takes a different set of skills than perhaps it would do for a traditional PR campaign because, you know, you need to think about: “Okay, well, what’s the lever? What’s the catch? What’s the thing that I’m dangling out to get that press interest in the first place? Who’s the contact that I need to obviously garner relationships with?” On the page itself, you know, how am I going to maximise the opportunity for that particular piece of data visualisation or infographic, or whatever it might be, to be embedded on the client-side to get the backlink? And, you know, you have to think about it in the context of that backlink which is obviously the critical part in the context of SEO. So yeah, I think there’s still probably a split, but I think you’re probably going to see more of those businesses that have engaged with digital PR continue to go down that path and realise that as long as right now, like links are still, as far as I’m aware, I’ve not checked the news this morning yet, but they’re still the most important part of SEO. And there have been, since, you know, I started doing it 10 years ago. I know that they want to move away from that.
I think one of the big things for Google is that there was a patent recently that garnered a bit of fervour with regards to Google evolving their search engine to be able to accommodate sort of a chatbot type response for certain queries, utilising their artificial intelligence algorithms and databases, to be able to answer questions with regards to certain day-to-day topics. Informational-style queries would go into a very specific chatbot-style response system where there aren’t results anymore. We see that already. It’s no surprise. It’s not a far stretch to consider that jump. We already see that Google will leverage and scrape content – and that’s the premise of its business, albeit slightly ironically – and then ultimately they will leverage that to users based on specific search queries so you don’t even need to click on the page.
An evolution of that, of course, is saying: “Well, we know the answer to this question, there’s no point showing anything else.” And we’ve seen examples of that previously, but then to engross the user in this chatbot-style experience when they’re asking around a certain type of question and that’s a patent that they’ve logged. Ultimately, what does that mean for other industries? When people say: “Hey, I want a flight to New York, is it just Google that shows you the price of it?” And all the other industries that Google has permeated over the years, recruitment, travel and all the rest of it.
Dan: Well, thanks so much, Ant. You were an insightful chap when we last worked together, and that mighty brain of yours is clearly on another level entirely now. Really appreciate you sharing your thoughts today. Really enjoyed it.
Ant: Fantastic. That’s great to hear, I really appreciate you having me on and always a pleasure to speak to you.