Conversations in Search: David Freeman

David Freeman leads the SEO strategy for Treatwell.

A graduate of University of East Anglia in 2006 with a Bsc. Hons Computer Science, David held multiple senior SEO roles in digital marketing agencies before joining Treatwell in 2018.

Responsible for the global strategic direction and development of their SEO, Treatwell is a marketplace operating in 11 markets to make book spa and salon treatments easy.

When he is not creating strategies to help connect you to your next zen moment, David is a petrol head, enjoying pretty much any fast cars and photography.

This post is part of a series called ‘Conversations in Search’. I discuss the current state of SEO practice with other SEO experts and discover their views on the future of SEO.

Damien: So, David, where do you reckon we are now as an industry with SEO?

David: We’re far better off than we used to be. I think it’s grown up as an industry. People are less in it to benefit themselves and driving high risk short term wins, and thinking more about how we drive long term organic growth and how we do it well, particularly with enterprise brands. There’s a good trend of putting the consumer first, and thinking about what is the best experience we deliver for the consumer rather than how we can get the most traffic to the site in the quickest way possible.  

Damien: ‘How do we get the most traffic/conversions’ seems to be a universal message. How do you manage the tension between commercial and user needs?

David: If you look at everything the search engines say, and actually what works, in most instances, you do right by the user and win more often. That means investing in great user interfaces, superb mobile-first experiences and not doing what lots of sites still do which is to just cram as much content on the page as possible.

When you start stripping that out, it makes a fundamental difference to performance. A lot of people put far too much effort into optimising the page. I know, this sounds strange for someone who spends their time thinking about optimising their website, but you can overdo it quite effortlessly.

I think a ‘less is more’ approach is best. I think you’ll see a lot of sites move to that. It’s something that I’ve prioritised my whole career and it’s the approach I prioritised at Treatwell as soon as I joined. We really put the consumer front and centre.

I focus on tuning a site to be really customer focused. Looking at the primary goal for each page, focusing on that, making it super mobile-friendly asking along the way, what’s the best user interface to drive interaction and to get into the next step. For me it’s the best way to ensure increased visibility, traffic and conversions – a winner for everyone.

You’re not only focusing on the pages and journeys that have the most conversions. You’re putting that longer-term hat on and asking ‘What’s the best way of shaping the site for user interaction to drive that conversion?’ 

By giving people the content they need where they need it on the site in the best possible mobile interface does a better job.

Damien: Thinking about the users’ needs, and by extension, the problems that you’re looking to help them solve, do revenues follow if you focus on those needs?

David: Exactly, and I think it can very quickly get too confused on the page. There’s a ton of examples, nearly all sectors hide content right at the bottom of the page, below their pagination, they drop all the mediocre content in there ‘just for the search engines’.

When you look at that from a user experience perspective, does it help? Are there others out there doing the same thing with a much cleaner interface, yes. 

Taking a step back, and just thinking for a second, you don’t have to throw a whole bunch of content onto them, and kind of doing unnecessary stuff to capture ‘game’ the search engines and increase visibility. 

Damien: David, tell me more about the shift in mindset of ‘SEO doing its thing’ to ‘SEO is all about the user’. What does this shift do within your business?

David: It builds trust. Most teams tend to be quite nervous, and there’s always resistance to doing things purely for the reason of SEO, for a good reason. Because sometimes, quite a lot of the time, it’s not necessarily the right thing to do. 

If you take a user-focused approach, in theory, you’re working with your UI designers, user experience teams, and product owners to build the best experience, and doing that in the way that is the best fit for the user and also best fit for search engines. 

Get that balance right, and you get the best fit for everyone, and it works seamlessly. You then achieve more with changes rolled out quicker because you’re working as a unit to improve the overall product experience. It’s also just more fulfilling.

Within most agencies, you are very much in a consultant framework, you can recommend a client to do something, but ultimately, it’s up to them, whether they choose to implement or not. As an agency and as a consultant, you can’t force someone to make a change. Moving client-side, you have the end to end ownership.

It’s all about cross-team collaboration [in-house]. Everyone, you know, whether it’s the product team, the platform team, the paid marketing teams, everyone all works together to achieve the same goals.

Damien: Where do you think SEO is going to be in the future?

David: I think it’s always going to be an unresolved question, as you never quite know the direction things will go in. For me, the direction I focus on is moving away from what we usually think of as being SEO. 

If we look at things that we do, things that people traditionally focus on in SEO, let’s take rankings, let’s take links, let’s take SEO metrics, for me they’re dead, and they will only be less critical moving forwards. 

What do they mean business performance? Very little. Everything comes back to what drives business performance, and then how you achieve and the best way. It’s going to be less about what’s your SEO approach, but what’s our integrated approach to doing that? 

I think market integration, and product integration as well will come together otherwise you’re going to have people more entrenched to doing things in silos. 

A great example of this is a technology provider enabling you to do SEO ‘on-the-edge’? Where you can bypass your entire CMS or your entire product workflow, and just make changes on a CDN or proxy level without the product and tech teams knowing what is going on.

When you see SEO technology vendors pushing these types of shortcuts, and I can see the appeal of them, you’re effectively creating conditions for an SEO versus product confrontation. This type of solution also more often than not avoids solving the hard problems which need resolution.

Things might be challenging to change, but you shouldn’t be taking shortcuts with your product. You set a course to explode any trust that you may have built up if you make changes to your product which are not prioritised, tracked, tested and managed in a proper product management workflow. You also tie yourself into more significant technology dependencies which may have lasting effects. 

When you think about enterprise-level e-commerce and finance where it’s massively regulated [edge serving SEO refinements] is just a car crash waiting to happen.

Quality web and mobile products need workflow processes, quality control, and testing, and this applies to all aspects of product improvement. 

Damien: So is the future of SEO for you more about the longer view on strategy than the short term tactics and shortcuts?

David: Yes, SEO is all about long term strategy for me. If you need to take big steps to drive significant change in the business, you must have those conversations.

Big decisions about the way things work, and the platforms that were on need discussion at a senior level, with appropriate decisions taken. It doesn’t matter if decisions are no, we’re not going to do it, as long as there is a considered decision made, you can then move on. But if those decisions have been avoided or not brought up, you end up being in a state of limbo which is not suitable for anyone. 

Damien: Google has made different releases following advances of machine learning, voice search, schema and predictive results, what does it all mean?

David: You know what it comes back to? Put the consumer’s needs first. That is all the search engines are trying to do with whatever they’re rolling out. They’re trying to give the consumer the best results possible with whatever device or input method that the consumers use. 

All we have to do is architect our site and provide content in ways they can understand to surface those results. We all have to move away from thinking just about organic search because ultimately, what you’re doing is driving relevant traffic to a site. It should not matter where those users are from, but it should matter how you serve their needs and engage them through the marketing funnel. Helping the user with a non-converting journey could easily lead to a future sale.

There are different ways to communicate as people move through the marketing funnel. That conversion is not going to come via the same channel as a user lands on the site. Keep collaboration front of mind, think how do you get those closed loops baked in, and understand how channels work together, along with the product to enable that.

Damien: David, thank you for your time and insights. I appreciate it.

Follow David on Twitter @davefreeman and visit his site David Freeman.