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Ask an SEO – Stacey Cavanagh on building brand signals

Ask an SEO – Stacey Cavanagh on building brand signals

I caught up with Stacey Cavanagh, Head of Search at Tecmark to talk about brand signal building and SEO

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.

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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.

Martin Harrison

Works at Copify

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