The first afternoon talk on the Playhouse stage at Nottingham Digital Summit was an SEO panel discussion, led by Susan Hallam, with the following speakers:

  • Barry Adams, Polemic Digital
  • Dave Cain, Boots
  • Charlotte Tomlinson, Hallam
  • Daniel Woodhouse, Experian

SEO panel Nottingham Digital Summit

What are the issues you should be working on in SEO?

BA: One big trend is machine readable content – voice search is growing, and Google giving direct answers in search. By implementing structured data and formatting your content properly, you can create machine readable content. Bots are talking to bots.

DW: There’s more than 200 factors search engines use to understand websites, and see what’s relevant. It’s difficult keeping on top of those trends, but it’s key to get back to basics and understand the core principles of a website, and use that to drive your SEO strategy.

CT: Zero click searches. Almost 50% of searches, result in zero clicks. We should look at how we can optimise for that – for example, using schema and aiming for featured snippets.

DC: Humanising SEO. Writing a piece of content with keywords isn’t enough – you need to project yourself as an authority. One example: imagine if you were picking a plasterer to work at your house. If you were given a phone number, you might call, but you’d want to see the work they do. Would you trust a brand based on one piece of content? Look at SEO in a different way: ask who, what, why.

What have you noticed from Google’s algorithmic updates in March and June 2019, and what are you doing about it?

DC: We’re seeing more content-led sites appear at the top of the results. Someone searching for a product isn’t purely being shown ecommerce sites anymore, and this links back to humanising SEO. From a Google perspective, there’s a change in landscape around page, and pushing SEO down the fold.

BA: I work with news clients, including The Sun and The Daily Mail. The Sun saw an uplift, whereas the Daily Mail’s traffic dropped massively. In March 2018, the Daily Mail also got slaughtered, and while the March 2019 update didn’t affect them, the June update did. This shows to me that Google takes identical approaches across all forms of traffic – from SEO to PPC. The quality and relevancy metrics seem to be the same. Drawing conclusions from an algorithm update can be very hard to do, and there were no consistent technical aspects. Don’t look at what failing websites are doing – look at the winners of the algorithm, because they’re doing something that’s working.

Does the SEO sandbox still exist and how long does it last?

BA: I don’t think it exists anymore. It was the result of Google having multiple indexes. That was resolved with the Caffeine update, and since then, they haven’t had a sandbox.

International SEO: are there any top tips for working across multiple territories?

CT: The first thing is making sure you have the technical stuff set up – most importantly, hreflang tags on your different sites. without that, you have duplicate copies of your website. Other tips are making sure your content is localised in the territories you’re targeting, not just a direct translation.  Think of the idioms and phrases people in your country are using – get native speakers to generate content. It’s also important to have a local presence in terms of linkbuilding and outreach.

DW: It’s a big challenge for us in Experian. If you have to establish new domains or non-country specific domain (e.g. com), it can be difficult. Really understand what goes into the technical development of the website, and make sure you map your content correctly. If you don’t, one may benefit over the other, as opposed to websites being equally successful in their own right. Otherwise you’ll struggle to get your website to rank.

CT: One of our clients had separate ccTLDs, and they wanted to know why they weren’t doing very well. It was because they hadn’t done any linkbuilding work, and had no capabilities to do the legwork. You need to get the strategy right from the beginning.

BA: You’ll get hreflang wrong the first, second and third time… maybe you’ll get it right the fourth time. I’d recommend setting it up in an xml site map, not in metatags. It’s also easier for the developers if you set it up that way – metatags and hreflang aren’t a good combination.

DW: If you use a sitemap, you can update it yourself instead of relying on your developers.

How important is schema markup, and how much time should you devote to it?

DC: Look at how you can amplify your brand within the SERPs. How can you stand out from the crowd? This is a good opportunity to highlight reviews, and that can make your listing stand out. It’s not the easiest thing to implement and it can be quite technical, and Google have specific guidelines on how it can and can’t be used, they are still useful for standing out.

BA: Use the WordPress SEO plugin for schema markup. Make your content machine readable, and that’s what schema markup does. It takes out the guesswork, and lets Google fully understand what your content is about. For me, it’s not a question of whether you should use it – it’s a question of how much you should use it.

DW: I always encourage my team to use schema markup. Use your website code to influence the look of your site and content. However, it’s not the be all and end all – I’ve seen sites chase to get schema markup added to their entire website, but it can take a lot of time. If content is your key proposition, schema is key. If it’s not, then search engines are good at interpreting it themselves, so it may not be the big win you’re looking for.

CT: Look at the specialised rich results you can optimise for – Google has a list of around 30 different types of schema markup, which shows how much they want us to implement schema. Look and see what’s relevant for your industry, and implement whatever you can.

If you have limited resource, should you opt for video or voice optimisation?

BA: Go for video, because there’s a tangible ROI. It can lead to traffic and sales – voice is a great opportunity, but you don’t know the results it’ll drive.

DW: Video is key out of the two. If you have limited resource and want maximum reach and engagement, video can sit on your website, blog, and YouTube and you can drive traffic, whereas voice search is more of an action.

How important is a blog in terms of SEO strategy?

DC: A blog can play a crucial role in terms of business updates and information within an organisation. It goes down to the purpose of that blog – is it customer led or business led, and what is it’s overall purpose? Churning out content for content’s sake isn’t the best strategy. You need a clear plan on what you want to do with your blog and content on your site.

BA: If you sell a product or service, Answer the Public is great, as you type in a keyword and it scrapes Google and returns a load of questions that people are searching for. This can feed into your content calendar, to ensure what you’re publishing is asking what people are searching for. You’re adding value, and helping potential customer solves problems, whilst gaining meaningful traffic.

CT: Another thing a blog can do is set you up as an expert in your industry. Blogging is a major part of our strategy at Hallam, so Google sees us as trustworthy.

DW: What is the purpose of your blog? If it’s to sell a product, don’t use a blog. But if it’s to build brand trust or answer questions your competitors aren’t answering, then a blog is a great way to engage with a new audience.

How might Duck Duck Go be important in the search engine space?

BA: It’s a privacy focused search engine, it doesn’t track or remember what you’re searching for. As a result, it’s not as good as Google in terms of giving you the right results, but it’s getting there. I haven’t focused on optimising for it, but I’m hoping it will get better because I think search engines need more competition, and the privacy aspect is a huge selling point.

How important is linkbuilding and what does good/bad linkbuilding look like?

BA: I published two blogs on my blog: one was about Google News, which was 1500 words on bias in Google News, making it fairly in-depth. It got 15 links. A couple of weeks later, I ranted about AMP on a blog, and that got 353 linking domains. It’s not always what you say, it’s how you say it – the second article had a lot of emotion, and people will share it if it resonates with them. Always attack ideas, never people. For me, it’s proven to be an interesting tactic and I’ve seen other companies do it – e.g. Paddy Power, they decided to donate 1000 EUR every time the Russian team scored a goal in the World Cup, going to an LGBT charity. It’s Paddy Power’s most linked to campaign page on their website. If you want to solicit controversy while doing something good off the back of it, it can be a fantastic linkbuilding opportunity.

DW: Thinking back ten years ago, a lot of small businesses treated it as quantity, and would often buy links. The search engines caught onto that. It’s not a good way to build trust, so businesses were penalised. You can get significant gains by having good links, but the focus should be getting fewer, really good links as opposed to having lots of poor links.

DC: I hate the term linkbuilding. There’s a place where links act as votes, so it’s a must from an SEO perspective, but I wish it was called link earning because you have to put in a lot of work to get them. Paddy Power made a real, conscious effort on their campaign to gain links.

Is there a relationship between social media activity and SEO?

DC: Social can play a role in making content discoverable, so pushing stuff out on Twitter or Facebook. There are studies that show that more likes, tweets etc can have a positive impact on SEO. My thoughts are that these can be bought, so I would look at social as a way to help customers and search engines discover new content, but I wouldn’t say that social can have a positive impact on SEO.

BA: An interesting tweet experiment I saw yesterday, he asked Google to retweet a link he was posting (the only promotion he’d given), and Google started using that content as a featured snippet within the day. This links back to machine reading. Social media does have a role to play – it increases your chance of earning links, but I think Google is paying a different kind of attention to what is happening on social media, to define authority and relativeness.

DW: It depends on your strategy – social media tends to be topical or seasonal, so you can boost your visibility by having this content, but it shouldn’t replace the core offerings of your website. You don’t want to compete against yourself by moving your top content and what is driving your organic traffic, over to your social media channels.

You’ve been attacked by a competitor with negative SEO – does it exist?

BA: It exists, and the best tool is a disavow tool. Attack them back.

DC: It’s a strategy out there, and we’re at the hands of Google in how they would manage that. Websites can be severely penalised and it can ruin businesses.

DW: There have been articles in the past about how the power of Google can cripple businesses. I’ve worked with businesses before who have had this happen to them, and they’ve gone as far to take legal action. So I would agree with attacking back. If they’re trying to hurt your SEO performance in a negative way, defend yourself.

BA: If people leave fake reviews, go on the defensive because people read those, and it’s likely they will be removed.

As a non-technical person, if you’re doing your own SEO, what should you be focusing on?

CT: It’s tricky because the technical foundations are probably the most important thing. So for small businesses, technical matters – if you don’t do it, you’re going to struggle to rank. Once they’re in place, make sure your website is well optimised. Do some keyword research to see what your customers are searching for – there are lots of free tools in place. Make sure you create useful content that’s optimised for those keywords. Another element to think about is building authority. Set up partnerships with local businesses, or support a charity and see if you can get links back to your site that way. Also, you should conduct competitor research – find out who they are online (those who rank for the questions your customers are asking).

DW: The thing I love about SEO is it’s free. You can invest money, but you don’t have to. It comes down to the purpose of your website. If it drives your sales or enquiries, SEO is crucial as it will power your website. If you don’t have the skills, knowledge or resource to technically develop your website, then work with someone who can. Get back to the basics of exactly what it is you’re trying to do – what is your key proposition? What makes you stand out from your competitors? If you’re a local business, target the area you operate in.

DC: I still get asked how unique my content has to be – small businesses can look at competitors’ content and take content from who they inspired. It has to be 100% unique to set you up. Also, you have the option to work with freelances and agencies – there’s a real advantage to this, as opposed to using tools on your own. Technically it should be sound as opposed to self-serve sites. These sites don’t perform or rank that well, so from a business perspective, you have to invest in a technically sound site.

What free training courses are there out there?

DW: Google Garage courses are good, as are Analytics academy courses – they’re completely free and online.

If you’re looking to build a new website, are there any tips on what you should focus on in terms of SEO?

BA: Redirects. Redirect all old urls to new URLs. Search engines don’t crawl and index content, they crawl and index URLs. If you change them drastically, you have to do one-to-one redirects. If you can keep URLs the same then great, keep them like that. If you do rebuild a website from scratch, it gives you a lot of freedom to do cool things like implementing schema, and increasing page speed. You have to follow where search engines are going, which is providing good quality content answers, so you need to follow that. It’s dangerous to create a website from your own perspective.

DC: Redirects is time-consuming. We replatformed at Boots a few years ago, and we remapped 120,000 URLs, and we found a process to automate some of it, but the manual work took a few months. That was one of the key things we worked on. For launching a new site, we’ve talked about content and UX – everything has to be done from a mobile-first perspective.

DW: If you’re bringing a new website to market, remember the user journey starts on the SERPs, not the website. Think what you’re putting out there – look up your competitors and see what they’re doing, and map your content similarly to theirs, so you can rank for the right things.

If you could have one tool for SEO, what would it be?

DC: Bright Edge – enterprise SEO tool to help discover what’s going on with your site. It’s a competitor intelligence keyword tool too.

CT: SEMrush – I use it everyday. It gives you great site audits, toxic backlinks, organic opportunities.

DW: We have a wealth of different tools, but the one I use daily is Screaming Frog. It’s cheap to buy, and it gives you so much insight you wouldn’t otherwise be able to find.

BA: Deep Crawl, a cloud-based crawler, but having said that Search Console is a winner.


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