Ask an SEO – Matthew Taylor of SEOptimise talks SEO & Design

by Annie Gouk

I was lucky enough to catch up with Matt Taylor of SEOptimise, a senior SEO executive with a background in design. I asked him about SEO, design issues, and the challenges and opportunities of responsive web design.

One of the common themes that we often touch upon in our SEO interviews is the unwillingness of stakeholders involved in the process of creating and marketing a website to adopt best practice in their work.

Matthew Taylor

Most SEOs will know only too well the pain of asking designers and developers to make considerations when working on sites, and having these requests fall on deaf ears.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Matt Taylor of SEOptimise, a senior SEO executive with a background in design.

I asked him about SEO, design issues, and the challenges and opportunities of responsive web design.


Q) Hi Matt, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got into SEO?

I got into SEO completely by accident. After university I worked in various sales management roles which really weren’t for me (I am terrible at sales, but great at sales interviews). I ended up doing a web design course in my free time and fully intended to make that my career. However, entry level positions are hard to come by and after a year freelancing I decided to go and work in SEO temporarily, as it was vaguely related. I was lucky enough to end up with a really great company and three years later I have never wanted to do anything else.

Q) Could you tell us a little bit about SEOptimise?

SEOptimise has been around for a while, in SEO agency terms anyway, but the last few years have really seen us grow massively. When I started there were 7 or 8 of us working in a tiny little office. I had to build my own chair and desk on my first day and find somewhere to put it!

Since then a lot has changed; we have grown rapidly, there are now 15 of us in a plush new office, and we have matured a lot as a company.

Like many companies we strive to be the leader of the market and we work hard to achieve that. We are lucky that we try and give everyone a 4-day working week and use the extra day for company and personal development (we “borrowed” that idea from Google), which really lets us develop the business.

We have also organised the team to be a group of experts rather than all-rounders. For example, our link building content is created by people who do nothing but that, not someone who also does a bit of PPC or who is a specialist developer.

We are very much about honesty and building relationships with our clients. All our clients liaise directly with the technical team and we don’t hide anything, both good and bad.

Q) One of the questions I always ask SEOs is, what tips do you have for getting SEO buy in and implementation from all stakeholders within a business? Do you have any tips for specifically dealing with designers?

Buy-in is vital for everything in SEO, especially if you are working with old-school marketers or a set of designers who think you’re there to stick 500 words on every page (I have had that conversation a lot with designers recently). There are four golden rules that I try to work by:

1. Demonstrate and share knowledge – When I worked in sales I was always told “people don’t buy products, people buy people” – essentially people buy from people they like and trust. Transferring this across to the SEO environment, you need to build up trust with a stakeholder by demonstrating you have the knowledge that they don’t. If they trust you, they will buy into SEO.

I like to do this by sharing my knowledge with clients; I don’t just tell them what needs doing, I tell them why. It is the same with designers: educate them as to why you want a change and they are more likely to do it, especially if you can relate it to site performance (at the end of the day, the better the site performs, the better they will look as well).

2. Be part of the bigger team – it’s often easy to lose sight of the fact that SEO, while important, is just part of a much bigger project. You have got to be willing to work with designers to find what suits both of you.

The great thing about SEO is that there are so many ways to do stuff that you can often find a way around any issues you have. If you’re willing to compromise then usually the designers will too when you really need something. The worst thing you can do is get into a battle with them, because you may win that but you will lose the war.

3. Produce results – It sounds obvious, but nothing gets buy-in like getting results. I always like to get the quick wins that will produce a tangible result done and dusted as soon as possible and then move onto the long-term stuff afterwards.

I usually like to pick a few business-critical keywords to focus on in the early stages (usually the top revenue drivers – clients always know them) and focus on the stuff I am sure will affect their performance. Once I have achieved results on those, that is the time to roll out the long term strategies.

When working with designers, pick some easy deliverables to show you are getting stuff done without affecting what they want to do – stuff like title tags and meta descriptions are great for this, not least as it will save them a job.

4. Get their back – with any project, things get missed and mistakes get made, it is inevitable. If you are working on an SEO project, the chances are that as you are spending so much time on site that you will spot some stuff the designers miss. When you do, drop a quick email to the designers first, not your client (unless it is a major issue). Often they will either already be aware or appreciate the heads up. However, if you hang them out to dry with the client, then they will remember it and may take an opportunity to do the same to you someday. Working relationships are vital on any project.

Q) Responsive design is a hot topic at the moment, what are your top tips for leveraging new responsive features for SEO success?

Responsive design is set to be a hot topic for a while I think, mainly due to the massive growth in mobile and tablet browsing and Google pushing mobile (and particularly responsive sites) hard, and even stating that mobile sites will rank better in mobile search (which at some point could well outstrip desktop given the sales figures). The figures also make sense as well; in a Google study, 67% of people said they were more likely to buy a product or service if they find a mobile friendly site and 61% said they were more likely to leave.

These are my top three tips for when you are looking at SEO for responsive sites.

Firstly, and oddly given what I have just said, should you actually have a responsive site, separate desktop and mobile versions, or no mobile site at all (unlikely, but may be true if your market don’t use mobile)? While Google has said that it likes responsive sites, in the same piece they do caveat it with “If responsive design is not the best option to serve your users, Google supports having your content being served using different HTML”. So you really need to make sure it is the best option for your users (e.g. markets in which smart phones are not common). If you want to consider this more, check out this great post from Bryson Meunier.

Next, to make the most of the responsive site you need to make sure you have content that matches the likely keyword searches. Bear in mind that mobile search will often have different intent and is much more likely to be location-specific, so keywords really can vary. This means that you really need to have content on the site that matches these search variations.

Finally, make sure your site is optimised for touch. Getting users to a responsive site is one thing, but getting them to take the desired action should be more important to most SEOs. Make sure that your site is easily navigable on touch devices and make sure it is easy to complete conversion tasks (filling in long forms on a phone can be a pain).

Q) Historically, the cardinal sins of design from an SEO perspective have included things like flash and image-based text. Could you give us a brief checklist of the things to look out for with new, responsive design sites?

A lot of the cardinal sins still hold true for responsive sites, especially Flash for obvious Apple-related reasons. As a result, the things you need to look out for are more user experience-related (which is a whole other discussion).

If I had to pick one thing that everyone should remember, it’s that people will not necessarily be visiting using a Wi-Fi connection, so make sure that your pages (especially any that target mobile keywords) aren’t too resource-heavy. If you forget this, people will bounce straight back off your site, responsive or not.

Q) You wrote a great post last year about HTML 5 and SEO, what have you learned since then? Any new tips on features that can help with SEO?

I think a lot of the hype around HTML 5 has passed (and has moved to responsive design), but it can still really be effective for some aspects of SEO. I still don’t think having a site coded in HTML 5 will have a direct impact on rankings; if you want to spend time playing with code I would recommend looking into Schema instead, as there are some very tangible benefits to it. I think that any sites which have found improved ranking performance since using HTML 5 could probably attribute that to reworking their content during the redesign.

However, I still believe that there are still a lot of indirect benefits to it, mainly related to the design aspects it allows. I think there are a lot of sites and pieces of content that are acquiring links and social signals through using HTML 5 innovatively to create high-quality content (there are examples in my post, which is linked in the question). This will remain pretty much the main SEO benefit for some time.

Q) There has been a lot of talk about infographics within the SEO community of late. In your opinion are they still worth doing and if so, do you have any top tips on how to go about creating and promoting this sort of content successfully?

Infographics are still a great link building tactic, but you have to do them well. The main reasons why a lot of them fail are: the data behind it isn’t interesting; they aren’t promoted properly; the design is poor; or they’re just posters not infographics. As with any piece of content, if you do it badly then it will fail.

We have had some great successes with infographics and it has all been down to the same reasons:

1. Have a good data source – no amount of design will make dull data interesting. Good data will tell a story or be a great narrative to a topic. It doesn’t necessarily have to be shocking or ground-breaking, but it has to tell someone something.

2. Find an angle – no matter whether you are working within a massive topic area or in a niche, always try and pick out a group of sites/a certain demographic you want to target and angle your infographic to them, especially in a market in which everyone is trying to produce content. If you try and appeal to everyone you will more than likely please nobody. This works really well for all content, not just infographics. For example, one of my ex-colleagues was really well known within the music blogging scene and he did some great link building for a printing company by angling his content towards the promotion of bands through stuff like printed stickers.

3. Design it well – there is no getting away from it – good designers cost money. So if you don’t have a decent budget then it’s going to be very difficult to produce something that will stand out above the noise. The design is the second most important element of the graphic behind the data, so it is not a place to skimp. Remember, a lot of the places you may want to promote it could be offered multiple infographics a month, so you need to make sure yours stands out.

If you are on a budget, I would recommend hunting around for some freelance graphic designers, potentially doing it as a second job, but they still won’t come cheap and it can potentially push back deadlines if they can’t work on it during the day. If you really don’t have the budget, make the stats into some great guest blog posts with exclusive stats instead.

4. Promote it – it is very rarely a case of “build it and they will come” with infographics. We will usually have prepared a minimum of 50-100 sites to approach on the launch day of any infographic and often we will have sent them an initial email a few days before to try and have places lined up for as soon as a client signs the graphic off.

Once we get sign-off we will then hit the outreach hard, hitting all the prepared sites and then about the same number again (at least). As a final push, we will also hit the infographic directory sites as well (try this list for starters

5. Never put all your eggs in one basket – infographics are great, but they really need to be part of something bigger. Ideally, we like to have a supporting campaign ready to go as well.

We would usually look to have some accompanying posts on the client’s site, as well as some for outreach, a narrative that goes with the graphic, some press releases and, if possible, the support of PR agency (if the client has one) to hit the top end news sites where an outreach email just won’t cut it. We would also look to use any social channels we have available. You should be aiming to steal the news cycle for your topic for a day.

6. Cross your fingers – Even if you do everything right, there is no guarantee something will work (a few of ours haven’t), but that’s what makes SEO interesting.

Q) Some more general questions now, what SEO tools do you use/recommend?

We use all sorts of tools in the office as there is no single one that does everything well (sadly). Some of my favourites are Searchmetrics, which is great for identifying penalties or the effects of algorithms, and SEOmoz’s Open Site Explorer, as it is so easy to use and gives reasonably solid data which exports nicely to Excel.

Anything that exports is great; I tend to spend a lot of time working with Excel to create tools for internal use. I came up with one which analyses a backlink profile for our clients and 5 competitors using nothing but exports from OSE.

We also use APIs in the office as well, so we are building a lot of our own tools. We found a lot of tools were close, but not quite what we wanted, so it was easier to build our own. If you can’t build that type of stuff yourself, I would try finding someone on oDesk to build it for you. In the long run it will work out cheaper and give you a competitive advantage.

Q) Is content marketing just a passing fad or is it here to stay?

I’m 100% sure that content marketing is here to stay, mainly because it has been around for ages already. What people seem to have forgotten is that what a lot of people are currently classing as “content marketing” should have been included in the core work of SEOs for years, and also overlaps with a lot of other marketing outside the SEO world, for example PR.

In the last year or so it has exploded in SEO as a result of Google devaluing a lot of the shortcut link building tactics, and a lot of well-known SEOs have been using it as a term to try and differentiate their business models (it is linked to the term SEO being seen as a bad thing in a lot of circles). In reality, a lot of SEOs have been doing it for years; it has been something we have done at SEOptimise since before I joined and will continue to do it until after I leave I expect. Having said that, I do think that it has evolved more in the past year than at any other point, and I also think it will continue to evolve in the future, especially if the search results are more influenced by social signals.

Q) Finally, who are your favourite SEO rockstars? 😉

Is it bad to say that I don’t really buy into the whole SEO ‘rockstar’ thing? Don’t get me wrong, there are some phenomenal speakers and some exceptionally successful people within the industry who I respect – the likes of Wil Reynolds and Will Critchlow spring to mind. But at the same time I find there is a lot of “conference/blog talk” and I would be surprised if it represented what the agencies actually do.

I have been lucky to work with some exceptionally talented individuals and I know that because I have seen the work they do on a daily basis, so for me they are the guys I would rather sit down and talk SEO with, but you are unlikely to see them speak at conferences and some rarely get the chance to blog.

With that in mind, I will give a non-rockstar (but could very well be in the future) tip for you, one of my ex-colleagues Marcus Taylor. If you ever get chance to see him present you should really check it out, he gave a really great talk at BrightonSEO a couple of weeks ago. All his presentations are genuinely based on stuff he has tried. He branched out from just doing SEO a while ago, but definitely worth listening to – you are guaranteed to learn something!

Annie Gouk

Content Delivery Manager at Copify