10 Mistakes in 10 Years in SEO (BrightonSEO – Sept 2021)
10 Mistakes in 10 Years in SEO (BrightonSEO – Sept 2021)
I started working in SEO in June 2011. On my first day at Screaming Frog, this is very first email I sent –
It’s just a blank email to my dad – I think I was just proud to have my own email signature.
I share this because I’ve been reflecting over the fact that I’ve recently passed the milestone of working in the SEO industry for 10 years. Obviously that is a significant period of time, but it’s also plenty long enough to have made some mistakes.
So a few months ago when I saw that Kelvin Newman, founder of my favourite SEO conference BrightonSEO, was looking for speakers for the September 2021 edition, an idea popped into my head. I’d tentatively pitched to speak at BrightonSEO before, but in hindsight I’m not sure I ever had a strong enough idea, and was probably at least partly pitching because I thought I ought to, or that it was ‘about time’ I spoke at Brighton. I’m glad I never had, because it made doing so this year all the more special.
My idea was to openly share some of the mistakes I’d made over that 10 year period. I wanted to show, warts and all, the realities of managing clients, managing people, trying to help grow an agency, and to share some of the challenges I’ve faced and mistakes I’ve made along the way.
Kelvin and the team kindly accepted my pitch and I was officially a confirmed speaker at BrightonSEO number 24 – I’m still waiting for some sort of public recognition that I’ve attended all but the first three of them…
I sit here typing this the week after the in-person version of the event (at the time of writing there is still time to register for the free online version on 23rd & 24th September), and can say without hesitation that it was a tremendous success, both for me personally and in the wider industry sense too. I delivered my talk just how I wanted it and have had some lovely feedback from the audience since. The whole event was magic; the overall quality of talks were as high as ever (ahem), it was delightful to meet and talk to other SEOs face to face again, and the many seafront beers did not fail to deliver (or did, depending on the perspective of your hangover). In short; in-person events hit different.
So without further ado, I present in blog post format, 10 Mistakes in 10 Years in SEO.
1. Thinking I’ve completed it, mate.
The work that my colleagues and I have undertaken has changed vastly over 10 years. Perhaps this is true of any job, but especially so in SEO. I started out by building links on random resource pages across the web (sometimes exchanging money for those links…). I did a lot of product reviews and giveaways in exchange for links. I’ve done my fair share of infographics, of interactive content, of data-driven campaigns, of digital PR stories, and so on and so on…
What am I getting at? Well those examples demonstrate how quickly and how often things change in SEO, and they represent just the tip of the iceberg. They also focus only on link building, one small component of SEO. So I go back to the mistake I’ve made. Thinking I’ve completed SEO, thinking I have it all figured out.
If I’ve learned 1 overarching lesson in those 10 years is that no-one’s really got it all figured out. If they think or say they do, they’ve probably already fallen behind the curve. The fact that the SEO industry iterates in the way that it does is precisely why it’s so exciting and why I love it so much. So please, don’t make the mistake I and many have probably made in the past, of thinking you’ve completed it.
2. Failing to set expectations.
Setting expectations is pretty much an occupational hazard working at an SEO agency. This takes many forms and is almost a daily occurrence in some shape or form. One important lesson I’ve learned in my time at Screaming Frog is that failing to set expectations is almost always a big mistake.
Particularly with clients, if they don’t have fair and realistic expectations, or don’t fully understand the scope of your role or remit of your responsibilities, at some point that is going to catch up with you. This is certainly a mistake I’ve made, and something I wish I’d understood sooner in my SEO career. Ensuring you set out very clear expectations with a client should minimise any confusion or disappointment down the line.
3. Talking SEO instead of normal language.
Now, I regularly use all of the above SEO buzzwords and terminology, and of course there’s a time and a place to use them all, but I also think there’s a danger of getting wrapped up in that sort of language and forgetting how to actually communicate SEO with a non-SEO audience.
In fact, many business owners and key stakeholders I regularly communicate with have little knowledge or interest in canonicals, hreflang and so on, so going in heavy by name dropping the latest SEO tool metric or creatively coined algo update, is at best going to confuse them, and at worst alienate them completely. It’s easy to have the blinkers on and be focused in on our little SEO world, but I would encourage people not to make the mistake of forgetting who you’re talking to, and how best to frame and position certain things.
If you’re interested in this subject I recommend checking out Tom Critchlow’s SEO MBA – it’s a free newsletter with loads of great advice on things like getting stakeholder buy in, how to present in a more compelling way etc. And also Chris Green is well worth a follow on Twitter – he and I have discussed some of this sort of thing at great length before, and his article on skills required to become a senior agency SEO is excellent.
4. Listening to SEO Twitter.
Ahh SEO Twitter. It is a complicated and confusing arena at the best of times. I’ll preface this point by stating that there are lots of lovely people on SEO Twitter, and at times it can feel like a very welcoming and encouraging place –
But sometimes, it can be a cesspool of arrogance, ignorance, disrespect and plain nonsense. Unfortunately, you still see a lot of this –
You see a lot of Twitter feedback like “this is nothing new” or “this is so basic and has been covered before”.
I can’t emphasise in the strongest possible terms what complete rubbish this is, and that no keyboard troll can tell you what you are or what you aren’t, and this type of gaslighting is just the tip of the iceberg of the rubbish often spouted on SEO Twitter. These people have no context of who you are or what you are putting out into the world, and this attitude of constantly looking down at people new to the industry or those who are less experienced, honestly makes my blood boil.
So please, do not make the mistake of taking SEO Twitter too seriously!
5. Assuming a client won’t noindex their entire website.
This mistake does what it says on the tin. Every agency SEO has a story or two of a horror show mistake on a client website, and I am no different.
One morning in 2015 I was scrolling through my daily client ranking report, and noticed one of our clients had suddenly lost positions for all their keywords overnight. I crawled their site and found the whole thing had been noindexed with an X-Robots-Tag –
Clearly this wasn’t good news. A new release of the site which had been in staging got pushed live with the noindex in tact, which was obviously a mistake. We spotted it quickly, the client got it fixed even faster, so no long term damage was done, but it served as a reminder that these kinds of mistakes can and do (and will!) happen. I’ve learned there are no end to the kinds of mistakes that might be made on clients websites, so this particular incident served as a sobering reminder to always remain vigilant and to be as on top of client website performance as you can be, to minimise the damage when these mistakes occur.
6. Blaming Google for everything.
Like it or not, Google are a massive component of the SEO industry. As SEO professionals we need to pay attention to what they do, the changes the make, and try to make educated guesses as to where they may go in the future.
We know that a lot of changes they’ve made to the search results in the last 10 years have dramatically changed the face of SEO and what most of us do day to day. We also know that some (or even most) of these changes have been or continue to be a threat to organic traffic. It can be easy to get frustrated by the changes the Google make, and I’ve certainly felt that way myself.
The thing is, dealing with what Google does is my job. I have to deal with it. I have to think of new approaches. I have to restrategise. I have to find new opportunities, new traffic sources, new ways of doing things. That’s my job.
If a client reminds me they are paying me a lot of money and want to know where their traffic, conversions & revenue are, I can’t just say; sorry, it’s all Google’s fault. Even when there are big algo updates announced, the industry becomes rife with debate about them, people start tweeting Googlers to complain about things being unfair or wrong.
My view is that honestly, most of this is just a waste of time and energy. Complaining about Google or blaming them for all your troubles doesn’t actually achieve anything, it doesn’t give you practical solutions as to what to do about it, so I would encourage people not to make the mistake I certainly have in the past of blaming Google for everything. That time and energy could be much more effectively used by analysing and strategising what you might do about Google’s changes.
7. Being afraid to challenge clients.
The above visualisation will be familiar to anyone who works in an agency (and I’m sure it’s applicable in different ways inhouse, too). And that is of clients basically being in charge. They are in charge of the budgets, they pay the invoices, so broadly speaking, what they say goes. While this is inevitable in a client/agency relationship, it can also foster an unhealthy dynamic where the agency feel afraid to push back or challenge clients, even when they might be right to do so.
From my experience though, the best client/agency relationships are those which have push & pull, back & forth, challenge & counter – use your analogy of choice. Not only is the healthy in any relationship, it can help to reinforce your expertise and knowledge, as well as ensure you set clear boundaries and expectations when working together.
If you are going to challenge or even say no to a client though, there are certain rules of engagement. Hopefully these tips are useful when you face such challenging situations –
- Be nice and polite! – manners cost nothing, so simply being polite and empathetic in how your phrase certain things, can go a long way in getting a client to understand your position.
- Offer an alternative – if you’re rejecting a request or challenging a client, offering some sort of alternative is very effective. Think about it – if someone asks something of you and you just flat out refuse, that isn’t a very constructive or helpful response, so offering an alternative approach or suggesting a different way of doing something, can strengthen your position significantly.
- Back up with evidence – if you are saying no to a client, if you can back that up with some sort of evidence, whether that be some data, a fancy upwards SEO graph, or citing previous conversations about the topic, that can make your position a lot more compelling.
- Be clear you are saying no – learn from a mistake I’ve made, it’s important that the client walks away from the conversation understanding that you’ve said no. This not only makes it clear that the request has been rejected, but they also should understand what it might take for you to accept a request.
- And finally – being well prepared, being honest and speaking confidently, for me are the three key pillars to having what can sometimes be tricky conversations with clients.
8. Form over function.
So, if you’re planning on moving house anytime soon, you might be interested in this infographic –
It’s an ESSENTIAL checklist for changing your address, with some very useful tick boxes of water, gas, electricity…
Now, I don’t mean to pick on this example, but is this really the best way this topic could be tackled or the best way this information could be visualised? For instance could the content be interactive and have links to where you can inform your energy provider of your change of address? Could the list be segmented by the different types of companies you need to contact? Could it be in timeline form to show you when you need to notify different companies?
Those are just a handful of ideas. I suspect this infographic exists in this form because some people still think that ‘SEO strategy’ means “let’s make an infographic / interactive / a dream job linkbait / a most Instagrammed campaign / a most Googled data piece” etc. And this is a mistake I’ve made myself, probably more times than I care to admit.
For the record, none of those formats are wrong if they are the best way of articulating what you want to say, to tell your story and get your key hooks across to readers, but shouldn’t ever really be the first point when ideating or coming up with a new client campaign. That’s how you end up with content like the ESSENTIAL checklist for changing your address.
My colleagues Tom & James have previously covered how to ideate content marketing campaigns in much better detail than I ever could, and our Head of Marketing Mark Porter also gave some great tips on how to avoid content marketing mistakes on a recent Fractl podcast. I recommend checking both of those out.
9. Taking things personally.
If I’ve learned anything from my 10 years at Screaming Frog, it’s that to survive in an agency environment, you need thick skin. In my early years I remember taking every email I ever received quite personally, I read a lot into things which probably weren’t there, and honestly spent a lot of time stressing over every bit of communication that came through me.
While you might hope that everyone you end up communicating with doing this job will be fair, measured and respectful, unfortunately that isn’t always the case. In fact, one of the less enjoyable parts of the job is having to deal with the odd arsey email, ungrateful clients, and sometimes just being spoken to in ways which are uncalled for.
This can range from the quite amusing blunt feedback –
To emails which are actually quite nasty and personal. It’s easy to take these emails personally, and sometimes they can do a lot of damage, whether that be to people’s mental health, their confidence, or even their career progression.
What I’ve learned is to try and not make the mistake of taking things too personally, and don’t sweat every email you ever receive. If you can get up and walk away from your computer at the end of the day, knowing you’ve done the best you can, you have to accept that you can’t keep everyone happy all the time. That’s life (especially agency life!).
10. Bullet points (apparently).
My last mistake is rather tongue-in-cheek (you can tell I was getting tight on the 20 minute BrightonSEO talk limit!) – apparently people don’t like bullet points?! I’m not really sure why. I think in bullet points, I talk in bullet points, I just think they are very effective in structuring my thoughts.
If you’ve ever seen Greg Gifford talk at a conference, he has a theory that bullet points kill kittens. Well, my little girl Bella is alive and well –
So to leave you with one key takeaway –
Thank you for reading!