You don't Shove out SEO: Yard Digital's expert tells how it's done

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By Craig McGill | Digital Strategist

August 23, 2013 | 11 min read

SEO is a key part of the digital sphere yet for many, it's still incredibly misunderstood. In an effort to clear up some misconceptions, Richard Shove, SEO Technical Lead at Yard Digital, the award-winning Edinburgh and Cardiff digital firm, looks at some of the basic issues impacting on the industry at the moment.

In terms of SEO are we settled back into routines after the Panda/Penguin updates? Have lessons been learned and everyone knows what the new benchmarks are? Are people sticking to them or are there still cowboys out there?

I think for some, the routine is the same as it always has been, best practice hasn’t changed at all. SEO has always been a long-term strategy but difficulties come with demanding clients looking for quick results and the temptation is always there to take shortcuts.

Shortcuts are risky when it comes to SEO. The Penguin update was always going to happen sooner or later and it largely punished those who had taken one too many a shortcut.

For me, SEO should always be sustainable and if you’re relying on low quality links, you’re walking a tightrope. You may get away with it for a while but you’re likely to get caught out in the long term and if you’re unable to recover, that’s a lot of time, effort and money wasted. If you’re working for a big brand, or household name, shortcuts are inexcusable.

The cruel irony is, that bigger brands will likely recover quickly or be able to survive without SEO while smaller, online-only businesses could quite easily go out of business from a single penalty.

I think Penguin was a necessary wake up call to a lot of people but of course, there will be plenty out there that don’t learn or simply don’t keep their knowledge up to date. I’ve seen some truly outrageous recommendations made over the years. A bad SEO has the potential of absolutely destroying the livelihoods of small businesses.

Are we at a stage now where companies understand the benefits of SEO or are there still industries and areas resistant?

I think we’ve a way to go yet. You only need to look at the size of SEO spend against Display, PPC and other forms of digital marketing.

SEO as a discipline has grown, there’s far more to it now than keywords and title tags. Companies (and some SEOs) are too secular and refuse to see the bigger picture.

For me, SEO is as much about integration with other marketing channels, particularly social and PR, as it is with ranking for generic phrases in Google. Agencies need to actively educate clients, rather than keep the knowledge to themselves, it’s the only way things will change.

What’s best: a m. website and desktop site or one responsive website for everything?

A single, responsive design is always preferable from an SEO and usability point of view, it’s also a lot easier to maintain due to the lack of duplication. I won’t shed a tear when dedicated mobile sites eventually die.

What are your essential must-have SEO tools and why?

Screaming Frog - Always the first tool that comes to mind when I’m asked this question. It just has so many uses, mostly for on-page SEO, such as detecting duplicate content, scraping page titles and descriptions, checking broken links and redirection issues, to name a few.

Majestic SEO - Easily the best backlink analysis tool out there. Data is vital and it has it by the bucket load. I do wish they would make it a bit prettier and add certain functionality but its API almost negates the need.

SEO Tools for Excel - Completely free and has some incredibly useful features to pull useful SEO information straight in to an Excel spreadsheet

Buzzstream – If you carry out any kind of outreach or link building campaign, this is essential for tracking progress and contacts. Also useful for PR people!

We see SEOs moving more towards producing content and not just chasing backlinks. Are we seeing social media types trying to poach into SEO space at the same time?

Ultimately, content marketing is still about backlinks from an SEO perspective. Content has added benefit though, of course. More content gives you a wider net in which to capture search terms for example.

I think there is a bit of hostility as SEO merges with copywriting, social and PR but this shouldn’t be the case. As soon as there’s hostility it makes everyone’s life more difficult. If everyone looks after each other’s best interests, the end result will be better as a result.

What one tip could you give Microsoft to try and have Bing topple Google?

I honestly don’t see it happening, which is a shame, a monopoly is never good for the end user. I think if I had the answer, Microsoft would be paying me handsomely.

One thing I will say for Microsoft, is I like where they’re trying to go with the Facebook integration. I don’t think Google gets personalisation of search quite right, particularly in terms of social integration. Its reliance on Google+ is a negative for me, as I don’t care for it.

What’s your favourite campaign you’ve worked on and why?

For most of my career I’ve been more at the coalface than masterminding campaign strategy. It’s always pleasing to see your recommendations implemented and having an instant impact on a client’s bottom line, regardless of the client.

In your eyes, what individuals or firms gets SEO and does it right (apart from yourself obviously)?

A tough question to answer. SEO is shrouded in mystery a lot of the time, there’s a lot of reluctance to divulge client bases. With regards to individuals, in my opinion there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. There are lots of individuals out there who have no interest in making themselves known outside their own office. The unsung heroes of the SEO world if you like.

With that said, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a lot of SEOs and I’ll happily discuss those I know well enough to pass judgment. I had the pleasure of working with Sam Crocker at OMD UK and we shared similar views and passions. He’s an incredibly bright individual, able to cross over technical and creative aspects of SEO, as well as dealing with the political issues with ease.

I also have huge respect for Rob Kerry and Ayima. I love his (and Ayima’s) data driven approach to testing and learning. Far too often people rely on word of mouth and causation is not a familiar concept. Depressingly, both are younger than me. I’d also have to give a mention to Rishi Lakhani, who is definitely not one for sticking to SEO by numbers. He’s also one of the most approachable and generous SEOs out there.

The PR world was slow to catch up to the possibilities of SEO. Do you think it should be an essential part of any PR practictioners tools, especially for a crisis.

Yes, definitely. SEO and PR should be like peas and carrots. If PR practitioners and web developers knew about SEO, there would be no SEO, or at least, there would be less requirement for SEO specialists.

In your opinion, what’s coming next from Google that’s going to cause impact on the industry? Or should we focus elsewhere than on Google?

Google as a traffic source isn’t going to go away any time soon but I think that businesses should definitely diversify. Older marketing methods such as email are still as effective as they ever were. It’s a bit cliché in this day and age but brand building and truly remarkable content helps to ensure that your business will not suffer too much if Google stops sending traffic your way.

Do you have one SEO takeaway tip that you could share?

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of content and rightly so, but as with any craze, people forget about the basics. Content marketing and traditional link building are far easier when your website is in good shape. Pay particular attention to your site hierarchy, it’s incredibly important both for SEO and to form a skeleton for your content to live in.

Google talks a good game in terms of punishing people for not following best practice but there still seem to be a lot of sites out there getting away with black hat tactics. Does this annoy you? What can be done about it?

It’s definitely annoying, certain niches, such as payday loans, are almost entirely dominated by one or two enterprising individuals. The sites are almost always affiliates that redirect to businesses. It makes it impossible for genuine businesses to rank (if you can classify a payday loans company as genuine and not daylight robbery).

The issue Google has, in penalising certain tactics, negative SEO becomes a very real possibility (and indeed already has). In my opinion it should simply devalue low quality tactics, rather than penalise, but of course, that means that people will continue throwing enough faeces in the hope that it will stick.

What’s the most annoying thing in the SEO industry at the moment?

Misinformation. There’s so much of it out there and it’s resulted in the industry getting a bad reputation, which hampers progress.

Interview by Craig McGill with thanks to Ian Daniels

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