Ask an SEO – Stacey Cavanagh on building brand signals

SEO is a rapidly-changing game, with Google seemingly cracking down on every form of easily scalable link building tactic. We are rapidly approaching a time when the only links that will make a difference are those that are earned on their own merit.

Stacey Cavanagh
Stacey Cavanagh

Stacey Cavanagh of Manchester agency Tecmark has long been an advocate of doing it the right way – creating ‘brand signals’ in the form of useful, interesting and insightful content.

I was lucky enough to catch up with her recently and I asked her how you go about building these brand signals.

Q) Could you maybe start by telling us about yourself, how did you get into the weird and wonderful world of SEO?

A) I started out freelance copywriting back in 2007. More and more I was being asked for advice on “optimising content” and started teaching myself the basics of SEO. I realised very quickly that, firstly, this was right up my street! But most importantly, I knew there was way too much happening in the industry to just teach myself. I knew I wanted an agency side trainee role and I took one at Tecmark in 2009. So I was late to the game, for sure. But I learned quickly under the guidance of Kevin Jones, an awesome SEO who’d been working for some massive agencies and on some very campaigns prior to setting up Tecmark. And I’ve been at Tecmark ever since. I’m now Head of Search and I get to lead some great campaigns.

Q) You are a big advocate of using surveys to gain insights, which in turn, gain links. Could you give us some insight into how you come up with the ideas for the questions for these?

A) Absolutely. The thing I both love and loathe most about surveys is the unpredictable nature of them. You’re essentially asking human beings for something often based on their opinion and human beings can always surprise you. For example, a while ago I asked 1,000 Americans (tongue in cheek) to name a British City other than London. The top 10 included ‘Wales’ and ‘Paris,’ so it definitely had the surprise element! But it was light-hearted fun, made people laugh and made people want to share.

On the flip side, the follow up I did (asking Brits to name a US city) was boring. It was too easy a question and us Brits watch films named after US cities all the time etc. So the results were boring and it got no traction.

So wherever you ask humans anything, you can’t be sure you will get a shareworthy or newsworthy result. But the steps we take to try and make sure we do get something interesting are as follows:

Set clear, measurable objectives. What do we want from the survey? A piece of coverage on a certain website? 1,000 social shares? 10 links? We don’t opt for a survey unless we believe a survey can help us meet those goals.

We get a list together of people we think would be interested, develop personas for the type of people we think will share it etc.

The above guide our questions in terms of topic area and tone. But this also guides are decision as to who we are asking the question to.

Only when we have a clear idea on target respondents and target audience do we move on to the questions. We get a few people around the table (preferably a combination of people who are involved in the campaign and those who are not) and we outline the aims of the survey. Then between us we write down as many questions as we possibly can. Later, we whittle them down to a shortlist. From that shortlist, we make a list of potential stories (depending on how the survey goes) that might come out of the data. This is the key part – does each question have the potential (irrespective of the responses) to tell a story and is that story likely to be of interest to our target audience? The questions with the most promising potential stories are the ones we generally go with.

The thing with surveys, though, is that human element. You can minimise risk of a “boring” survey, but you can’t guarantee getting the story you want out of it. You need some good people on hand to turn whatever data you get into the most compelling stories possible.

Q) What is the best platform for attaining survey data?

A) It really depends on your budget. Google Consumer Surveys is a great low budget offering (from around $0.10 cents a response). However, if you want data more quickly and, in my opinion, a better Analytics and reporting dashboard, Quick Surveys is great. Ideally, though, and if you have more budget to play with, it’s great to go a market research company like One Poll. These guys are offering a service rather than a tool and they’re experts in making sure your questions are written so as not to be leading and that the data will be as credible as possible. So if you’re looking at doing a serious study, that’s where you should be looking. For more light hearted, less intense stuff, I’d suggest the other two work just fine!

One Poll
One Poll – Great for surveys

Q) How can you be sure of the integrity of data? How do you know it hasn’t come from click farms or MTurk?

A) Data integrity can be a huge issue. Even if not necessarily manipulative answers, you have the issue with Google Consumer Surveys where people are being asked the question without opting in. They often answer it to get to their content, so you could argue that it’s rushed or they’re just saying any old thing to get rid of the question.

With Quick Surveys, you’re asking a panel of people being paid for their answers and all we can due is due diligence on the company behind it to see what measures they’re taking to ensure the panel is authentic.

With One Poll, similarly, they’re the experts. We trust they take steps to ensure the integrity of our data. But ultimately, I would say you just have to be clear with any survey data you publish just makes it clear where the data has come from and ensure you speak to suppliers about how they source their panels.

Q) So I have my survey data, what do I do with it?

A) You need to turn it into a story. A compelling one that resonates with the audience you’re targeting, or perhaps throws a spanner in the works of a widely accepted theory or maybe rides on the back of something topical.

But the key here is the story. You could deliver this in several different formats – an infographic, a text blog post, a video… the key is turn it into something someone somewhere gives a crap about.

In terms of outreach, it’s going to depend on your audience or goals. If you’ve made a good target list of influencers at the beginning and the final results haven’t changed your plans, then start there. If I have a newsworthy piece, I like to get in touch with journalists  who’ve written about it recently. Use sites like to find people who might care and who might be able to use it.

Paid discovery channels like Outbrain, Zemanta and even Adwords can be effective too.

You might like…

Q) There are lots of platforms for content distribution which are your favourite and why?

A) I’m a fan of paid content discovery platforms. I have tried Outbrain and Zemanta with similar results. I’ve also experiments with Reddit paid entries, paid Stumbleupon discovery, Facebook advertising and Google Adwords. The 2 I always go back to though are Outbrain and Adwords. But I’m always experimenting with others.

Wil Reynolds gave a great talk on this, outlining some figures from an experiment they carried out at SEER.

Q) What is the best platform for getting in touch with journalists?

A) I do rate HARO. I also like Muckrack and Flacklist. is a good database. But honestly, I think you have a great shout on social media too if you have the names of the journalists you want to talk to. If you have a telephone number, even better. You’re harder to ignore on the phone. And journalists have busy inboxes. If someone is happy to take your call, it’s a better way to go about introducing yourself, I find.

Q) Asides from these signals, what other tips would you give to companies who want to look like a credible ‘brand’ online?

A) Social signals, evidence of real customers talking with you or two you online and things like that. A real business has real customers. And if you’ve left them with the warm and fuzzies, they’ll be talking about you online (unless you’re in a sensitive niche, of course!).

Real Company Shit” as Wil Reynolds refers to it is critical. Ultimately, if you want to look like a credible brand online, then be one.

Q) Are you still guest blogging after Matt Cutts recent announcement? And if so, how are you going about it?

A) Yes, I am. And I’m still running guest editorial on my own blog as well. Particularly with the amendment after his post, Matt Cutts made it clear that what he is calling out is crap guest blogging.  I wrote about how badly this has led to people misinterpreting Matt Cutts. I think if you’ve always had quality at the centre of your guest editorial, then carry on! That’s my view.

300 Seconds
300 Seconds

Q) You have spoken at a few SEO events (Search Love, BrightonSEO) do you have any tips for aspiring conference speakers about how to go about it?

A) I’d suggest starting by attending a few conferences. Get to grips with the topics, the formats and meet some people. Then get involved in some small events just to get some experience under your belt. There are some great opportunities for women in the UK in the form of a series of small conferences by 300 Seconds where women new to the scene can get a 5 minute talk under their belt in a comfortable environment. They can then reference this in future pitches (there will be a version on Youtube for you).

When you feel ready, pitch on of the conferences that has an open pitching policy (SES and SMX both do). My first big conference was SMX London in 2013. That led to invites from BrightonSEO and SearchLove.

Getting the slot is only half the battle though. If your content isn’t right or you miss the brief, the chances of a repeat invite are slim. So really do set out every single time to deliver the absolute best you possibly can.

Q) Lots of SEO agencies and professionals have been rebranding themselves recently, do you think that SEO is becoming a dirty word?

A) I think it has dirty connotations to it, yes. SEO is evolving and in order to compete effectively now, there are more skill sets required than were required, say, 5 or 10 years ago.

But I think the way to overcome any dirty connotations when talking to prospects or clients is an education session on where SEO was and where it’s at now – the role of content marketing and so on.

Q) I’ve got a site I want to SEO, but I have literally no budget, what is your number one, free SEO tip?

A) Start by researching all possible ways in which someone looking for your site might find you. Focus on the long tail – tools like are awesome for that. Use this data to populate your site with useful content tailored to the different ways in which people might look at you.

Invest a LOT of time getting the on site content absolutely spot on. And in terms of link building, network, make friends and engage with others online. It’s through contacts you’ll find yourself invited to contribute on others’ websites and being talked about online (which results in links).

A good quick win method for existing businesses with a decent offline offering is to do a search for mentions online that don’t have links. That’s a nice freebie!

Q) What are your favourite SEO tools?

A) I use loads. The ones I use most are Screaming Frog, the Moz suite, Search Metrics, Majestic SEO and Buzzstream.

Q) Who would be your dream SEO client and why?

A) Disney, mostly just because I’m a massive fan. But they have this huge engaged market, so much scope for content marketing and so many avenues where online traffic and sales can be measured (from park bookings to the sale of soft toys, for example).

Q) Who are your favourite ‘SEO rockstars’?

A) Love to hear Wil Reynolds speak at any conference. He’s always informative and engaging. Similarly, Kelvin Newman is incredibly knowledgeable, so too is Aleyda Solis. And one of the most insightful people I’ve ever spoken to about outreach is Gisele Navarro.

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Ask an SEO – Paul Delaney on managing clients and their expectations

Managing expectations is a vital part of any SEO campaign, and a good account manager will be adept at doing this, by balancing realistic targets with the resource available to them. I caught up with Paul Delaney, SEO Account Director at MEC Manchester and asked him how he goes about this.

Paul Delaney
Paul Delaney

Q) Hi Paul, could you maybe start by giving me some insight into what a typical day in the life of an Account Director looks like?

A) A typical day consists of reviewing campaign activity for the clients I’m responsible for. This consists of keeping up to date with communications between internal and external teams, dealing with any queries from clients, operationally as part of the senior team we look at planning and product development to ensure that MEC are continually keeping up with market trends and that our product remains best in class.

Q) Tell us about your firm MEC, what does the team and setup look like there?

A) MEC is an all service media buying agency, we have core groups for each discipline and the structure is generally what you’d expect from any agency, an example for my clients would be myself, a Senior Account Manager, account manager and an Executive with touch points from the content team and the wider areas of the business.

Q) When you’re pitching for a new account – what do you hang your hat on, what are MEC’s USPs?

A) The ambition of MEC is “To be our clients’ most valued business partner – famous for inspiring people & exceptional results.” with this ambition, when pitching SEO/organic performance we pride ourselves as a best in class enterprise service and we are also the highest ranked media agency for the last 3 years in The Sunday Times best 100 Companies to work for.

Q) MEC are a media buying agency, does that mean that you can leverage relationships with publishers for links? If so, do you have any insight into this process and how perhaps those without these relationships could go about this?

A) Being a large media agency we do have the benefit of contacts throughout the business, from a link POV it’s not something we go for in isolation, as part of wider campaign activity we ensure that any SEO value is looked at when campaigns are being planned and executed.

Q) Could you share with us some insight into how your SEO campaigns are set out in terms of targets, are these focused on rankings or traffic? Are there any PRFs involved?

A) Each campaign is very different to the next, a typical campaign is set out to ensure the client KPIs are continually measured against be that rankings, traffic, sales, ROI. We ensure a site is critiqued for top to bottom and all angles covered from a technical viewpoint including audits, research as well as the on and off site activity.

Q) Is it easier or harder to do SEO in a full service agency, as opposed to one that simply focuses on SEO?

A) It’s a bit of both to be honest, when solely focusing on an SEO campaign in isolation it can be easier as the tasks in hand are very specific and managed accordingly, with clients with multiple media disciplines co-ordination with wider teams is key in terms of planning and communications.

Paul is involved in Salford University's Search & Social Media Marketing Course.
Paul is involved in Salford University’s Search & Social Media Marketing Course.

Q) Do you outsource any elements of your SEO campaigns, or is all work carried out internally?

A) We have a very experienced and strong team for our content creation and outreach that means we don’t need to outsource our work, as part of a wider company we can reach out to other parts of the business to co-ordinate anything that doesn’t sit within our team.

Q) My experience of agency-side SEO has been something like this – sales promises the earth to get clients in the door – SEO team then struggles to meet these expectations. How do you prevent this from happening?

A) As an all service media buying agency the process to win new business is a long and thought out one, multiple rounds of pitches take place and all teams involved work together to plan for resource to ensure that new clients are serviced to the full ability.

Q) As an in-house agency copywriter, I was often handed some pretty unrealistic deadlines due to account managers with a lack of understanding of how long things actually take. Does having been at the coal face in terms of actually working on SEO campaigns help you to avoid doing this? How hands-on are you in terms of campaign delivery?

A) Yes indeed, having worked in SEO for 5+ years I fully understand how long things take to produce and part of my role is to ensure that campaign delivery is managed through our content team and ensuring both expectations of the client and internal teams is co-ordinated, so very hands on managing the process.

Q) Prior to joining MEC, you looked after operations for Latitude Express, an SEO service aimed at the SME market – how does that differ to your current role where you are presumably working with much bigger brands? Do you have any tips for SMEs with limited budgets on what to focus on in relation to SEO?

A) Yes the role differs greatly in terms of the size of clients, the pressures are still the same, ROI. With the ever changing face of SEO it’s important that SMEs with limited budgets ensure that their site is in the best shape possible and also ensure the correct agency is chosen if partnering that the advice given is correct.

Q) How do you deal with the issue of getting buy-in and SEO recommendations implemented by your clients?

A) When working with large clients it can be challenging and therefore it’s imperative that any recommendations the team and myself are giving to clients is discussed and the relevant stakeholders are engaged, my role is to ensure that a clear and concise strategy is delivered and maintained, generally a marketing manager is the day-to-day contact and they understand the values of what we are trying to achieve so good communication is important.

LinkRisk – one of Paul’s favourite SEO tools

Q) Some more general SEO questions now – one of the SEO tactics frequently used in the past is press release syndication, has your approach to this changed recently following Matt Cutts’ recent comments?

A) I still use press releases post Matt Cutts’ comments, a press release can be used to not just gain links but to be used for visibility and get important client information out there, I believe that traffic can be gained as well as any declining link value, a press release generally should be as it’s named and not just created for links.

Q) Who would be your dream client and why?

A) Good question! There are so many brands that would be great to work on it’s hard to say, I suppose brands like Apple and Sony stick out for the range and quality of their products. They would be good to work on from an all-service point of view as the creative options would good.

Q) What are your favourite SEO tools?

A) There are so many out there but my go to tools are Search Metrics, Majestic SEO, Linkdex, LinkRisk, I also develop my own tools for some tasks as well as using proprietary tools we have built.

Q) Who are your favourite SEO rockstars?

A) I don’t really like using the term ‘SEO Rockstar’ but good industry people I follow and trust are Martin MacDonald, Bas van den Beld, Kevin Gibbons, Joost de Valk to name a few. I also engage within the Manchester Search and Social community so the likes of Shane Jones and the 3 Door Digital guys.

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Download our free meta data creator

Meta Data Creator
Meta Data Creator

Meta data – a mundane but vital component of any SEO campaign. The bane of many an SEO executive’s life, this menial task just got a whole lot easier!

Thanks to the Copify Meta Data Creator you can now create thousands of meta titles and descriptions, quickly and easily.

What you’ll need:

  • List of keywords (if multiples, separate by |)
  • Spreadsheet – the tool works with Excel, Open Office or Google Docs
  • Call to action and USPs for each page

How does it work?

1) Download the Copify Meta Data Creator.

2) Add the following data to the first four columns:

  • Keyword
  • Brand name
  • USP (Unique Selling Point) – Why would a customer choose your product/service over competitors?
  • Call to action – what do you want people to do, call/click/ring/buy?

3) Click and drag columns B, C & D.

4) Sanity check content and title lengths (title max 70 characters, description max 155 characters).

5) Manually upload title and descriptions to CMS, or create CSV file for upload.

Need more help?

Check out Moz’s handy guides to creating title tags and meta descriptions.

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Ask an SEO – Sam Applegate on effective content promotion

You’ve created the perfect piece of content. It’s taken hours of research, you’ve agonised over your keywords, pored over hundreds of images. You’ve strategically linked out to some influential people in your space, in the hope that a pingback might earn you a tweet from that ‘rockstar’ that everyone knows and loves.

The content goes live, you tweet the link, add it to your Facebook and Google+ profiles. You wait a while, give it another tweet, maybe resort to some social bookmarking. No-one responds, and all of that effort and hard work has been in vain.

Sound familiar?

Sam Applegate
Sam Applegate

SEO consultant Sam Applegate is aiming to help, with the launch of Flauntt – a new social content promotion tool, which gamifies the sharing process by requiring users to earn credits by tweeting links to content from the site before they can add their own link.

I love the model, and I was fortunate enough to catch up with Sam to learn a bit more about it, and his tips for effective content promotion.


Q) Hi Sam, I can see from reading your bio that you have quite an unconventional background for an SEO! Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Hi Martin, sure. Well, I graduated with a degree in Computer Science back in 2003 (wow, 10 years ago now) and really didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself.

After moving between a couple of engineering jobs, and travelling around South America for a bit, I heard about the wonderful world of Affiliate Marketing.

This is when I was first introduced to SEO. I read a lot, learnt a lot, and put together a few affiliate sites. I quickly left my engineering job, and started work as a full time affiliate marketer.

A couple of years later, and with mixed success, I met a guy who earned twice as much as me playing online poker. I studied hard (I was a real ‘fish’ at first), and soon started beating the small/medium stakes. My highlight was discovering a bot network on one of the poker sites, and exploiting them for over 10k USD in 2 weeks. Cheaters never prosper!

I still play poker now and then, but it does take up so much time (high hand volume required to even out the variance).

So, other than living in Argentina for 6 months, then moving to Malta for a year, that pretty much brings us up to now: I just moved to Spain with my girlfriend, and I can honestly say, tapas are awesome.

Q) Where did the idea for Flauntt come from? Was there a Eureka moment?!

Not really a Eureka moment. I was just hearing more and more of my clients struggle with the social promotion of their stuff.

Many ‘traditional’ companies (plumbers, electricians, accountants) have read so much about social media, but don’t really know how to leverage it for their business.

Besides asking a few friends to retweet stuff, or getting great Aunt Hilda to like their Facebook page, they didn’t have the time or know-how to build up social connections.

Flauntt basically encourages what we do anyway. If somebody retweets one of my articles, I will no doubt tweet something of theirs in return. Us SEOs know how the game works. But not everybody does. Flauntt is just a way of policing it, so everybody is fair with each other (without needing to build up relationships first).

There are plenty of other sites out there, Viral Content Buzz is probably the most similar model. There’s also: Triberr and Empire Avenue (I love EA!)

But with Flauntt I wanted to achieve a couple of things:

1. No Spam

There is a quality rating given to each piece of content that is submitted. Poor quality stuff will either get rejected, or not promoted as much as the good stuff.

2. Quick and Easy

Nobody wants to fill out forms, nobody wants to read pages of text (yes, I need a how-it-works video!). So I’ve made the tool as minimalist and light as possible.

Q) Staying on the topic of spam. This is probably one of the biggest issues facing bookmarking/sharing sites at the moment. Could you go into a bit more detail on how exactly you fight spam?

First of all, each ‘flauntt’ that is submitted is manually moderated before going live (made available for other people to tweet). Part of the moderation process is to score the ‘flauntt’ (1-10) on quality.

At the moment, I’m using Google’s quality guidelines as a baseline for my simple scoring. The usual stuff – is it original, is it spelled correctly, is it advertorial or editorial, would I share it with my friends?

So if I love your ‘flauntt’, I’ll give it a 10. This means each person that tweets it will receive 10 credits, in addition, the ‘flauntt’ will remain live until 10 people have tweeted it.

If I hate your content, I will just reject it, or give it a low score of 1 or 2. The incentive won’t be there for other people to tweet it, plus it’ll only stay on the system for 1 or 2 tweets.

I’m also fighting spam at the tweeting end of things. I’ve had a couple of users tweet stuff to earn credits, only to insta-delete the tweets from their timeline.

At the moment I’m just warning/banning these users. But I’m working on a better solution: when these spammers try to ‘flauntt’ their own content, I can check to see if they’ve deleted the previous tweets and punish their ass if they’ve been cheating (just like I did with those poker bots).

Q) Besides the usual ‘create great content’ are there any tips you can give to SEOs who are looking to get maximum exposure for their content?

Well, great content certainly does sell itself. When I created the funny Matt Cutts Mash Up video all it took was just one well-connected SEO to notice it, write a blog post, retweet it, and off we went.

The trick therefore, is getting influential people to notice it.

Build a list of the top people in your niche, and target them. Don’t spam them, but engage with them (comment on their blogs, mention them in tweets, join their Facebook/Google+ pages).

When the time is right, gently point them in the direction of your stuff. If you’ve done the hard part and created something awesome, your influential friends will be all over it.

Q) My opinion is that Twitter has largely made social bookmarking sites redundant. Would you agree with that? Are there any particular bookmarking sites that are still useful?

I would probably agree. I think a lot of the social bookmarking sites have had to re-invent themselves over the past couple of years.

Digg has changed dramatically, for the better. Now pretty much no spam and a great simple interface. It’s a good place to find quality content.

I think reddit is still useful, for micro niche stuff. Although the quality of traffic it provides is a bit hit or miss to say the least.

Q) Now some more general SEO questions, have you been impacted by Panda and Penguin? If so, what have you done to recover?

Honestly, I can’t say I have! Sure, I’ve been Google-slapped in the past, plenty of times, but not specifically for Panda and Penguin.

Actually, I wonder why so many people see it as a bad thing (well, obviously I understand people’s frustrations, but they need to change their way of thinking).

If you know what you’re doing, the algorithm updates are a great thing for the good guys. What an opportunity for everybody to be quicker than their competitors to react, and storm up the SERPs! Get creating awesome content.

Sam recommends Empire Avenue
Sam recommends Empire Avenue

Q) What SEO tools do you use?

Besides the usual: Google Analytics, Google Keyword Tool, Notepad.. I’ve been discovering loads of great social tools recently.

Empire Avenue – not really an SEO tool, but it can be used to increase traffic and build social connections (plus it almost feels like a strategy game when you’re using it). I joined just last week and am becoming an addict.

Q) What are your SEO predictions for 2013?

SEO is becoming more and more like mainstream (offline) marketing, in my opinion.

No more geeks and their tools, no more counting links and stuffing keywords. It’s simple: produce great stuff for people, and get creative about it.

The bottom line is that Google is providing a service to its customers. This is to fetch the best (and most related) stuff to the searcher. If you really sit down for 3 days and bash out a corking piece of content, Google can’t afford not to rank you.

They would be doing a dis-service to their customers (if your piece of content really is the best thing to answer that particular query).

Links, shares, they all come naturally with creative inbound marketing.

Smart SEOs know this. But plenty of old-hat SEOs need to stop living in the past and filling the Internet full of junk, with their clever link-counting-pagerank-building-robot tools.

So in 2013 there’s going to be a continued decline of ‘gaming’ search results, until eventually SEOs = Creative Marketers, and have art degrees rather than scientific ones.

Buffer founder Joel Gascoigne
Buffer founder Joel Gascoigne

Q) Lastly, who is your favourite SEO ‘rockstar’?

Not really an SEO rockstar, but I’m a big fan of Joel Gascoigne of Buffer. Reading his story is inspirational to entrepreneurial folks like me. He’s got a lot of smart ideas (plus a cracking little tool with Buffer).

Who’s next?

If you are an SEO and you’d like to be featured here, drop me an email.

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