In May 2018, Ross Tavendale came to speak at Optimisey in Cambridge.
It was the same talk he’d delivered just a month or so previously at the brilliant BrightonSEO conference.
Ross has been there and done it with some big-ticket clients – so the opportunity to have him speak to the Optimisey audience about how to beat the big guys in search was too good to turn down.
The video is embedded below, with a transcript below that. The new transcribing tool I used had lots of fun trying to understand Ross’s Scots accent so if the transcript doesn’t quite make sense it’ll be me/it – not Ross.
Slide deck: Ross Tavendale – Killing Giants – Optimisey (14MB PDF)
I’m Ross, I’m going to be talking about killing giants. This is a talk I originally done over at Brighton SEO. So there’s some links in there embarrassingly that say “/Brighton”, but in your heads, just be like “/Cambridge” because I actually care way more a bit Cambridge.
So I’m going to take you back to 1994 where I was five years old and I was sitting with my grandfather and he brings me the local paper, not to tell me about what was happening in the news or to perhaps teach me how to read it – it was actually to place a bet on the Grand National. So that’s what you do when you’re five years old and you’re in Glasgow. I’m so ‘Everyone in the family’s doing it’ I thought it’d be about fun. So I got a pound I could just pick anyone in there. So I picked this guy actually.
I thought, you know, the top looked kind of cool. But the problem with that particular horse in the Grand National was the odds were 16-1 which… has anyone ever bet on the National? (everyone’s like “no we’re far too cool for that”) – so a lot of people, bet on the Grand National, 16-1 terrible odds and the conditions were known as ‘heavy’, which means like damp sodden ground.
The horse that I was betting on had no track record whatsoever. And actually was more of a runt of the litter rather than anything else. My family were like: ‘No, don’t bet on that. Bet on the favourite or something.’ And I took my pound, I bet on that guy and I actually won. So you can actually fact-check me, that’s Minnehoma from the 1994 Grand National and that kind of got me into this idea of loving the underdog.
From blue chips to the ‘underbelly’ of SEO
And I skip forward kinda 30 years. I want to tell you why I think I’m kinda in the best place to talk to you about how you can have these killing giant concepts.
It’s because I come from Publicis Groupe beforehand. So Publicis Groupe is kind of this big, networked digital marketing agency with people like Saatchi and Saatchi and Digitas LPI and Razorfish and all that good stuff.
And I worked on some really big clients like Boots and TripAdvisor and Etihad Airways which I had a lot of fun understanding like big global campaigns under multiple languages and literally, can have very difficult problems that those guys had set in order to affect change when it came to organic search.
But I started in much more humble beginnings. So that second bullet point I, my first website I started with something called Bye Bye Mama, which I started when I was a student, which is essentially an affiliate site to help students move into halls for the first time that I’d sell them, like Ikea furniture and things like that.
And I made about money at that. Then I started to move onto things like credit cards.
So it’s got a bit more serious because I wanted to make some money on this SEO thing. And then I went really serious. So I went into payday loans, which – if anyone’s in the… just as a show of hands, like agency and in-house? Freelancers? Agency people? Any agency people? Two… OK so: enemy… I’m just joking. Freelancers? Okay. And in-house people slash business owners? Okay. Interesting.
So, I started at these sites and one of them you’ll see at the bottom is called Asian Cam. Asian Cam was a personal blog of an Asian gentleman called Cameron who was studying at St Andrews University, which I used to get links from St. Andrews University and also Cambridge University and built up his kind of personal profile – as a fake person by the way. And I flipped that onto something called Live Jasmine, which is a, uh… adult cams website which has lifetime commissions.
So like understanding kind of high-end, like SEO, dealing with blue chips all the way down to like the kind of seedy underbelly of SEO. I feel like I’ve had quite an interesting kinda of upbringing and have cut my teeth and in some kind of interesting websites. So I feel like I’ve got some relative authority to let you know how to kill giants like Boots and TripAdvisor in this SERPs.
How small business can win at SEO
What I’m gonna do, I’m gonna try and go through it. And in the interest of speed, I’m going to go through it relatively quickly because there’s quite a bit to go through. So I polled all of my peers on Twitter and I said: Guys, how long does it take for you to do a technical audit? Usually a technical SEO audit. Is it like an hour a day, a week, a month?
And most people said between one week in one month. I’m like, okay.
And this is when I say week, I mean like from Monday to Friday, that’s five full days. And if you’re charging as an agency, £600 a day, you’re charging people three grand if it’s a month in multiples of four. So a lot of money and a lot of time.
Well, okay, so there’s the results.
And, how long does it actually take to implement this stuff?
Which tends to suggest that doing that level of SEO means that we do a lot of auditing, we do a lot of research, but implementation is something that is incredibly slow and a lot of these people work for kind of big blue chip agencies.
So that’s a very common thing in that world.
The best response from this guy Khushal who said: In my part of the world, your poll options should not include anything else less than one month.
And I’m like, your part of the world? (This is the best bit of this entire talk…)
Slow-vakia? Os-slow? Minne-slow-ta? That one, personally, I think that one was the best.
Anyway, so moving on. So Elon Musk said: Each person within an operation is a vector that exerts energy to achieve a goal. Everyone has a quantity of both magnitude and direction. And a company’s progress is determined by the sum of all these vectors.
So in other words: Get your finger out and please do some work.
How to make your team more productive
So you’d be very surprised actually how little work everyone actually does. So at our agency. We’re really, really obsessed with not perhaps productivity but actually the effectiveness of doing something and the speed in which you can implement it.
So we use something called Rescue Time on all of our people’s machines, which are essentially… what it does is it just manages the amount of time that you’re actually spending on tasks.
So I was on a 60 hour work week, pretty standard stuff for anyone that runs a business but actually – according to Rescue Time – I actually only do 140 hours. That’s a 100 hours of just messing about and wasting time.
So I started to get into that thing. Well why? Why is that happening? I started thinking of things to block out, so I got some Bose QC 35 noise-cancelling headphones, which are very posh very opulent and all of it, I got them for the entire business… and this happened.
So Rescue Time tracks productive time. Productive time is things like times inside spreadsheets doing actual output, deliverable work – and it pretty much doubled through the entire agency. So a quite hack to get your staff to do more, just cancel all the noise outside their heads and give them some headphones.
Slack, which is instant messaging service we use to communicate with each other, the chatter pre-headphones was on the way up and post the headphones, massively went on the way down.
So that’s all very well and good. So I would implore you to start removing network tools from your life and start really looking at the density of what you’re doing and asking yourself: is this actually effective? Has it actually moved me forward?
How to achieve perfect technical SEO
So with that in mind, how can we achieve perfect technical SEO?
Who’s ever went into work on a Monday and a bunch of stuff’s been broken on their website? One person? Two? So when I deal with my clients, so I’ll give you a quick little anecdote:
So one of my client’s URLs is: domainname/brand/brandname and – in their infinite wisdom – one of their juniors decided to change “brand” to “brands” plural… which is correct, from a grammatical point of view. But what that does is it completely de-indexed, every single brand and every single product on their site.
So all the traffic they were getting, is now hitting a 404 page.
Now, I would not have known that or the client would be like: ‘Um we’re losing tons and tons of money. What’s going on?’
So what I’d recommend is you lock everything down. So the first thing I’d recommend is look at Little Warden.
Little Warden in something you can get relatively cost effectively. And their tagline is amazing. It’s: ‘Monitoring the tedious’ which I think is great.
It looks at if your SSL certificate is about to expire; it looks at if your canonicals are going awry; just all the basic, boring stuff that you’re never going to check on a day-to-day basis, but if you don’t check it you could be in real bother.
This is my new favourite tool of all time Content King.
It crawls your site on a daily basis, but it doesn’t actually give you any kind of technical output. It just tells you what’s changed.
So if someone on your website, let’s say you’ve got some juniors are putting some content on in and just randomly decided to change your page, you would never know about that until you run this. And it says literally like every title that changes; every external link that changes; lock it down so you can see cause and effect.
Now us as an agency, the client has got a living, breathing website, then it’s their right to change it, but when they come to me and say ‘Have our rankings moved?’ maybe they’ve moved up, maybe they’ve move down. If I can see what we’re doing but also what they’re doing, it gives us a lot more insight into what’s going on.
Please run periodic crawls. Does anyone here use SEMrush? Could be one of the best tools in the world for this sort of stuff.
If you’ve got a larger site – 20,000 URLs plus – I would recommend something like DeepCrawl because it a little bit more robust when it comes to crawling.
So ultimately I would implore you to fix broken stuff right now.
How to find & Fix broken stuff on your website
I think for as a show of hands: Like website owners, 3000 URLs and below, show of hands? 3000 URLs and above? Interesting. Five thousand URLs above? 10? 20? Oh, okay. One hundred thousand? Of course. Yeah, next one.
So when it comes to say it was between 3,000 and 5,000 URLs, there’s really no excuse not to have it like extremely clean, a level of hygiene that comes to search.
So I’m going to go over how you can fix all this broken stuff pretty much immediately with just a little bit of automation.
You’re talking about orphan pages and anything that’s not in the index, I’m not going to tell you what those things are. I’m going to assume that you already know it.
I’m not going to teach you how to suck eggs. I’m just going to tell you how to fix them.
So first and foremost, if you download this deck, this particular URL will take you to archive.org. Has everyone used archive.org before? Yeah, so usually archive.org is for people looking to reanimate old websites.
But if you go to click that link, that’ll take you to every single URL of yours that’s ever existed over the last 20 years on your website… which is quite nice because you only see usually little snapshots month to month. Download that.
Go to your analytics, filter by pages, download that again since the beginning of time, since you put analytics on your site.
And what we want to do is go and get that crawled.
Stick it into something like a Screaming Frog crawl it in ‘List mode’ and you’ll find everything that’s 404’ing and then you can move those 404s into some better pages in the site.
And usually when we’re doing any sort of clean up, the first thing you do is go to Search Console, see what’s there and redirect it in. But for most small businesses it’s kinda interesting that they’ll change their website every 18 to 24 months and therefore break the vast majority of their URLs – so very, very important to have a look at the archive in particular.
That was a lot of work. And this is where the embarrassing “/Brighton” things come in… just pretend that says “/Cambridge”. We’ve got a free Google Sheets if you want to do that, just dump it in there. It’ll take you about an hour to just dump all the information in there.
Any developers in at all? That’s for you: Python script that will do it in about, literally 60 seconds. Really easy to use.
Orphans and weak pages
Alright. Orphans and weak pages.
Now I’ve got a picture of a champagne pyramids next to the word orphans. It’s not because I’m a horrible but it’s to illustrate that the way internal linking works, so has everyone seen a champagne pyramid?
You don’t bet on the Grand National but you all know what champagne pyramids are? I’m getting a really good idea of the crowd!
So when you pour the champagne at the top, I only have to remove one of those glasses… that technically orphans, that glass orphan page from the champagne. So it’s physically impossible for any champagne to go in there, right?
It’s the same with link equity coming into your homepage and being disbursed through your website.
So the more glasses that are in there, the easier it is to come down to internal linking. And orphan pages are very important because you’ve got a page that isn’t linked to from anywhere that’s not going to rank.
And if it’s a main commercial page that’s a serious problem.
So all we want to do with us is just release pockets of power within the site. And the way we do that, first and foremost, take all your main commercial keywords and map them to individual URLs.
So for example, let’s say you sell a lights and light bulbs or lampshades. You would go to your lampshades page and you would map that to the keyword “lampshades” and then you would go through all of your main commercial pages and map them together.
Once you do that, you want to do a site commands, so say site:domain.com keyword.
So in this instance I’ve used SEO, but we’ll just pretend this is Optimisey, the best SEO.
Say there, I’m so for it to do a site optimisey.com, and the keyword would be “venue” or the keyword would be “conference”.
What that’s going to show us in Google is all of the Optimisey pages that Google thinks are the most powerful and be most semantically related to the keyword we’ve asked for.
What they want to do is I want to go to every single one of these pages and check, does that have an internal link to my main commercial page? If it doesn’t, that’s a problem because Google thinks these are the most related in the most powerful, to your main commercial page and you’re not linking to them.
So that’s the first thing you need to do. Now that can be quite difficult to do manually.
Screaming Frog users? A couple? Screaming Frog is super cheap, so I would recommend that you download that.
I’m going to Screaming Frog, use ‘custom search’ they have a ‘list mode’ which can just crawl a full less of URLs. And then what you want to do is a that this particular thing here is custom search, so you’d put the URL that you want to link up to and run all of your Google URLs through that.
And if it’s got an occurrence, that’s more than one, that means that it does not have an internal link pointing to it. So you want to go in to that particular page and add an internal link. Super simple.
If you want to do that instead of one page at a time, you can do several pages at a time. Something called Scrapebox. Has anyone ever used Scrapebox in here? Definitely a black hat.
Okay, brilliant. So this used to be used for a blog comments spamming back in the day. We of course do not use it for that.
We use it for pulling information and not pushing information out. So with this you, you can do, instead of going to Google and doing the site command, URL plus keyword, you can just put a ton of them in there and this is the output from Google, so you can do that at scale and bulk so you can do your entire website in one.
Or you can just use our sheet. It’ll take about two to four hours. A sheet like this.
Internal linking, Content Gaps & Keyword research
Internal linking is very challenging, very difficult. Or again, for the developers in the room, you can use our internal tool. It’s going to be public in the next two weeks with a nice front end on it.
So we’ll send you an email whenever it goes live.
Next big bit is content gaps.
Does anyone here work in content at all or are responsible for blogging things? Yeah. Okay.
I want to see all the things that my customers want to buy from me but I”m not putting in front of them and I’m not getting traffic for. So this is how we do it.
Who here has ever used AdWords to do keyword research?
It’s slow. I’m not going to do the story.
So we kind of do keyword research. We kind of don’t. So what’s keyword research ultimately is like list of keywords with the volumes, right? So you’re like this key word, this estimate of search volume, which tells you a little bit, but it doesn’t really tell you the commercial intent of what’s going on.
When we do this sort of stuff, ideally what we want to do is group them into big topics first and foremost. And then
I want to see how much money you’re gonna make out of each of these topics. If we decide to go for it. And I want to see how difficult it is.
So what we do is we look at, add up all the keywords you’ve got here to understand the entire marketplace search volumes.
This particular client sell sofas and there’s about 11 million searches for “sofas” in the UK every month. Great.
We then try and understand the clicks to their website. We go to Search Console and then we just look – we remove their brand name – and we look at their average click-through rate.
Apply that to this; put their average order value in there and then really easier kinda linear maths we just add it all together. We model a bunch of different conversion rates, 0.5% being terrible, 1% being about normal, then we’ll have 2%.
Does anyone in here have a conversion rate higher than 2%? Hire this man. And that man as well. That is phenomenal.
And then we give them a high, medium, low in terms of the amount of revenue that that particular bit of the marketplace could drive.
And from there we can start understanding efforts actually worth pursuing it.
We then plot and an access to see, show me the volume. So the physical demand versus the competition. So much like a Boston Matrix. Have you ever seen that? So you really want to be a high end to the left.
So you can see in furniture, this is a bad business to be in because high end to the left means that there’s actually nothing that’s high demand and easy to rank for.
But as we can go through it, we can see that things like a deck chairs and things like that are a little bit easier to rank for.
So we’d have a conversation with a client and say: What’s your margins on things like deck chairs, because they’re easier to rank for and there’s good margin for it. So we’re having a commercial conversation.
We’re not having a: ‘There’s 3 million people who look for sofas! Let’s optimize for sofas!’ chat.
Gaps and seasonality we’re going to go into in a second, but I want to first tell you about my secret weapon…
Which is using the SEMrush API with something called Supermetrics, which is something that takes all the SEMrush information and sticks it into Google Sheets and this is how we do our keyword research and our gap analysis.
So literally all using the SEMrush tool: Go to your main nav, drop all the keywords in there and then put some negatives in there. Again, I’ll give you this sheet afterwards if you want to play with it yourself.
Press the magic SEMrush button and it pulls in every single related keyword and every single phrase match keyword for that particular query, which, this kinda starts to look like keyword research everyone’s used to. Like just big, unusable blocks of information and research.
So it tells you everything, all the furniture and all the sofas and all that good stuff – so you have a big data dump.
We then want to tag that up. So of all these keywords that SEMrush tells me exists for three seater sofas, two seater sofas or chairs and beanbags and all that sort of stuff. I want to categorize it as top level categories so I can start moving around.
So we do that here and then we want to cross reference it.
This is perhaps the most important things.
You can do this in a really easy way. So go to Search Console using Supermetrics and, in your keyword research, take the keyword, find it in Search Console and say: OK Search Console, if this keyword exists, show me the URL that’s ranking for it.
And a lot of times you’ll see things like: no landing page comes up (and I’ve had to blank this because it’s actual client information) but the home page will come up a lot.
I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at your rankings recently, but especially for ecommerce, a lot of times the home page ranks. To me that’s a negative signal – you want to create a landing page for that.
So being able to really quickly crosswalk this and understand: a0 what’s most commercially relevant b) when should I be actually optimizing for this stuff and do I need a page for it – and we can literally do this by clicking a bunch of buttons.
Like we could literally sit and do this right now. It takes us about 20, 30 minutes and you can get all that stuff at a.agency/brighton.
[alarm chimes] So I’ve just had my 20 minute mark. That’s what that was.
I’m going to get go really fast.
How to get links from high Authority sites
I’m an ideolog when it comes to link building. Does anyone here do link building or a PR, anything like that? Okay. A couple of people.
It’s interesting the way I think of links, so usually I’ll have a friend come to me to say: ‘Ross, I can get a domain authority 10 links, tons of them, absolutely tons of them. I’ve got 10 of them over if you want. Surely that’s the same as getting one feature in the BBC right?’
Well it would be if it was a linear scale as in one is one is one is one, but it’s not. It’s a logarithmic scale.
So actually the BBC in this graph would be physically off the scale. So we only go for high end PR because we’re kinda ideologues with that.
This is what this looks like to me.
So I look at something called algorithmic risk versus flop risk.
So algorithmic risk is the risk, if Google finds it, it will either take some sort of punitive measure on your site either by penalising you or just removing the value of the links. Therefore dropping your rankings.
Flop risk is a risk of it not working. So PBNs have got zero flop risk because you own several… now, does everyone know what a PBN is first and foremost? So it’s a public [Ross meant ‘Private’ – Optimisey] blog network. It’s a bunch of websites that you physically own that Google doesn’t know that you own and so you can use it to artificially link everything.
So a PBN is low flop risk because you own it and you can put any link on you want.
Getting a link on to the BBC is extremely high flop risk because all we’re going to do is create a bunch of stories, pitch them to journalists and they either like them or they don’t like them.
This is our kind of mix of that sort of outreach. So we will do about 70, 20,10.
CocaCola use it for their kind of content marketing. 70% will go on regionals and nationals; 20% on niche publication and just putting things out in the wires; and then we’ll kind of bulk it up with some blogger outreach and stuff like that so about 10 percent of our world is that.
The reason Trump is the on this picture is, because you’re familiar with the term fake news. So the idea of fake news, we don’t create fake news, but we kind of manufacture the news if you like?
So get ideas you just take one interesting data point over here, one interesting data point over there, put them together, then selling that story. Some of the things that we kinda learned: so we don’t actually pitch in to get the link immediately we pitch in to get the brand mention.
So we recently got this place for the BBC. We just want them to get the brand and there, which is very traditional PR, not very SEO.
The reason we want to do that is because when we go to reclaim the link, we don’t talk to the journalists to get added. We talk to the IT manager and copy the journalist and the journalist doesn’t usually really do that: going into the CMS and changing links and finding things – that’s the IT manager. That’s his entire job.
So we do a bunch of reclamation for a bunch of people and that’s always what we do. We actually find the IT and web guy, not the person who was originally actually wrote the story.
Don’t make your stories too hot. We’d done this piece on Brexit, which I appreciate is a very hot topic. Because we’ve got a bunch of local newspapers as clients, the BBC give them a bunch of data just because they used to steal all their information over the last 20, 30 years.
So we got all these kind of research pieces from the BBC, which we can use in all of our outreach. And one of the particular pieces was a bit about Brexit and it was about foreign nationals in the NHS – sorry, are foreign nationals leaving the NHS because of Brexit?
Which if you looked at the BBC’s graph over six months, was absolutely, categorically correct. But if you looked at it to over a year it was also correct. We looked over three years, it was still connect. And if you looked over six years it was still correct.
So regarding Brexit, had no change to foreign nationals leaving the NHS because Brexit didn’t happen six years ago, it’s only been a recent phenomenon.
So the BBC’s angle of this is happening and driving foreign nationals away is absolutely correct, but when you zoom… like any piece of data… when you zoom out, it actually wasn’t the full story.
So we pitched that to right wing media, so Telegraph, Daily Mail, all that good stuff. And the first thing they said – this is for a recruitment client of ours by the way – the best, best, best answer I’ve ever got from a journalist, he said: ‘Am I going to break this and say sponsored by your shitty Scottish recruitment website?’ And I’m like: ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do.’ right? ‘You want me to break a massive story that’s gonna affect the entire nation sponsored by your shit client.’ ‘I’m like, that’s exactly what I want you to do.’He’s like: ‘No, that’s not…’ So don’t make it too hot.
Too hard to verify.
I thought this was an absolute banger of a story. So you might laugh… meat trade journals, but that’s domain authority 80! I mean I’ll take a link off meat trade journals. I mean things like ‘Baxter’s admit meat reduction in Fray Bentos pies.’ I mean, that’s hard hitting journalism at its best!
So what we looked at was a fintech brand who specialize in giving loans to small startups like butcher shops. Anyone heard of ‘Vegan-uary’ in here? Vegan-uary is vegan January, which is essentially like celebrating people not eating meat.
So we decided to do a comparison of butcher shops popping up in the high street over time versus the amount of money PETA are spending on above the line advertising.
Now to get that information we had to use our python developer to scrape all the data from Companies House, data warehouse it ourselves, then visualize it. Then we had to go to another secondhand database pool that, data warehouse it ourselves and then compare it.
We then pitched it in to these guys and they’re like: ‘This is amazing! Where did you get all this data from?’
I say, oh, we got it from like these 50 sources and we’d done this cool thing, and we put it here and we put it there.
They’re like: ‘Right, so how long is it going to take me to physically verify that?’ I’m like: ‘Oh, it’s totally impossible to verify.’ He’s like: ‘So you could have actually just picked it out of your arse yesterday?’ And I’m like: ‘That’s one way to look at it..’
So yeah, don’t make it too hard to verify because the way that the publishing cycle works, is for journalist who needs to write what, eight to 10 pieces every single day – if he needs to spend a couple of hours of verifying if your bits, right? Like if they get it wrong and they have not verified your story, they can’t go to the Editor: ‘Oh, the PR must have gave me the wrong information.’ It’s like, ‘No, that’s 100 percent your job to get that right.’
So you need to make sure it’s not too hard to verify and ultimately just come up with stories with decent angles.
So gender pay thing was very hot recently and still is. We had a e-sports client, we decided to look at the pay of people who are getting played, you know, people who play FIFA for a living, the people who play FIFA for living on the computer versus actual footballers.
And we found out that 80 percent of a top shelf footballers get paid less than kids playing FIFA. Cool story. Right? What’s a better story?
You look at the women’s professional football league of every single professional female football player in the world and you find out 100 percent of all professional female football players get paid less than every single guy in his bedroom playing FIFA.
That’s a story and that’s quite cutting information.
So we pitched this in to a bunch of people and the BBC were good enough to take it.
It was really easy to verify it because it came from the PFA straight from the horse’s mouth. And there you go that’s how you get BBC links!
That’s everything from me. You can download everything at that URL. Thanks very much!