Conversations in Search: Rob Watts

Robert Watts, SEO Director, YackYack

Rob Watts is the Director for consultancy Yack Yack.

Rob runs a digital consultancy and has multi agency experience in delivering SEO strategies for companies of all sizes.

Graduating from Open University in 1994 with a Ba. Sociology, Rob now runs a digital marketing consultancy to create and implement SEO, social and paid search strategies.

Rob is a keen cyclist and when he is not enjoying the great outdoors, he’s working with community organisations to help them improve their online visibility.

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.

I called Rob Watts for a chat the last week of March just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold in the UK.

Damien: Rob, thanks for taking the time. Can you tell me a bit about where you are now and a bit about your hobbies?

Rob: I live in a seaside town called Dymchurch, which is on the southern Kent Coast, a quiet little seaside town on Romney Marsh. Surrounded by tiny villages and towns, there are lots of green spaces. The economy is mostly tourism and supported by the local nuclear power station. I’m making the most of the great outdoors and plan on having a little cycle after lunch. It’s a bit windy and cold though so yes… #firstworldproblems. I enjoy kayaking, keeping fit and beer.

Damien: Thinking about the best recipe for SEO, what is it for you? 

Rob: You know, obviously looking at objectives; what is it that the business needs, and then looking at the various tactics to strategically approach the methods to help achieve the goals. 

This, of course, takes one on all manner of journeys as you look at the competition in the SERPs and begin to work out how you plan to get there. Tools from Google and commercial tools like SEMRush help speed up the keyword research, competitor and SERP analysis. 

Visually scanning the SERPs to see how Google chooses to compose them in the vertical helps you to learn a lot about what they want to show their users. The question is then how do you take what you’ve gleaned, and how do you build upon it? 

In terms of any website, it’s of course about the fundamentals; having accessible, functional templates and structure, as a website which performs well and provides users with the answers to their search query questions will, subject to all of the other moving parts, begin to win. 

Some people like to over complicate this stuff and talk about vectors and keyword proximity. When you boil it down an overwhelming percentage of pages consistently ranking will apply the same basic fundamentals which are: a solid post title and meta description with a strong call to action, relevant headings, great site architecture and good on-page copy that targets the query.

All of these are tuned to match the user needs they’ve expressed in their search query; which adds value to the business if it converts. 

Without meaning to sound arrogant, having looked at these kinds of things over many years, it does become second nature. You realise that at its heart it is all relatively simple, in that Google is trying their best to return documents to users that it believes the best fit for their queries; it’s not rocket science, but to some people, it is a bit Voodoo-like. 

It is a lot about taking notice of what Google is doing. Right now, organically at least Google pushes many of the also runs or those vying for the better position further down the page thanks to those little ‘featured search’ spots. Where these are materialising, then you need to be alive to the opportunities and be fast to market.

Damien: What do you see as Google’s focus for the future of search?

Rob: Google would say, of course, that their aim is to give users a good user experience to answer people’s questions. You might argue that Google, in many ways, wants to be the destination by answering queries directly within the SERP. What Google has done is taken a look at what organic websites are providing to users, be it in finance, travel, retail, etc. and they’re asking themselves the question: ‘Can we do this with the same data?’ Do we really need this little blue link to answer the user query?

If you think of an affiliate who’s got a feed, or if you think of a hotel supplier who’s meeting a search query for person A or person B, i.e., to find them accommodation it’s not unreasonable when you see Google do the same; they want to make money and perhaps give a few less free lunches, and increasingly they are. 

I think that’s only going to get increasingly more common. 

Now, you might say at some level that’s a bit of a crush on competitiveness. We’ve seen the moves that the EU made about some of that and the fines that materialised. So Google will always, shall we say, be treading that fine line, trying to serve two masters: the user and the shareholder. 

For example, if you look at some search terms, it can be super expensive if you advertise, and there’s only so much space on the search results page. Let’s take a generic query like a “wooden flooring”. How many suppliers are there in Britain, a few hundred? So, how do you determine who deserves to really be there in organic results, if they were kind of selling the same sorts of products and at similar prices?

Google’s job is to effectively police or decide by algorithm who wins and who doesn’t. The jury is still out on whether it’s fair or anti-competitive that they can actually do that. Especially where they’re introducing competing products.

While small businesses don’t always get a look in within organic search results, Google, currently at least, is giving small businesses a look in, via local search and the Google My Business page options. 

There’s a lot of wisdom in Google with the engineers and the management team who know that search is a delicate balance. If people feel that they just get ads all the time they’ll switch search providers or use something that works better, like Amazon. So for many reasons, I think the future for SEO is stable as ultimately, people don’t always want to click on ads, even if they’ve been fiendishly disguised to look organic! 

Damien: What are your thoughts on the current state of the SEO industry and of applying SEO recommendations?

Rob: I think we’re somewhat developed as a service sector. If you think of the number of agencies we have in the UK, they’re all pretty buoyant and doing well, providing robust and useful services to businesses who are looking to succeed online and need a little insight and knowledge to improve their visibility.

Google has stepped up to the plate. Look at how well they’re informing businesses and marketing teams. With the likes of John Muller and Danny Sullivan, and the Webmaster Hangouts sessions videos I don’t think they’ve been as communicative with us webmasters as they are now. This complements the multitude of talking heads from industry, then it’s in a pretty good place. The market is continuously maturing, and the best players are making the most of the opportunities that exist.

Damien: Is it still possible to do an SEO audit and strategy without any toolset?

Rob: Yes, but it would probably take me a little longer without them, so I wouldn’t recommend not using tools. 

Necessarily, tools are useful and make our job more comfortable than without them. For example, cross-referencing of what Google tells us in terms of search console data versus what other tools can tell us. There’s no tool better than a seasoned brain that can cut through and make sense of the contradictions.

Great tools, like Screaming Frog, for example, help to get a quick overall look at a site in terms of technical aspects, through using it when it can see if it matches or contradicts what Google Search Console tells us and make more informed decisions. Other tools, like SEMRush, can tell us a lot about competitive spaces which would otherwise mean trawling through lots of SERPS to identify and understand where they are winning and for what.

We can always look at our own data too and glean from our experience and log files also, but tools like GA etc. make it all that little bit more actionable. The art is in using these resources effectively to determine the strategic way forward. We live in a competitive world and need to keep an eye on competitors but not simply mimic everything they do either, and this is where experience and knowledge come to the fore.

A recent example that really stood out to me was with FAQ Schema. I say to myself ‘Oh wow, look at all these competitor pages that are doing FAQ spam’, as they were doing it in ways that were not very intelligent or useful to users.

I’d imagine that while occupying a fair bit of search results page real estate, they probably weren’t getting a lot of clicks through on those results, simply because they didn’t think too much on what it was they wanted to achieve with it. Starting with ‘Why’ is always useful.

What is the point of ranking in search results for something if you can’t measure the value that a user or your business is getting from your content? The opportunity for using the FAQ schema in a meaningful way for a client needs to be clear, and that takes time to get the right balance, sticking within guidelines and making the most of the opportunity.

Damien: Thinking about the businesses who employ us, I’ve noticed a trend for clients to build up competencies in-house. What are your views on this, and the value of specialist SEO consultants?

Rob: I think it’s hard to identify as an individual because I personally tend to stay with companies as long as they need me. I sometimes train teams to build up their SEO skill set in-house. Naturally, any business that has a cost expenditure where they are giving an agency a retainer each month when looking at the numbers may decide to employ someone in-house to do it instead. 

For marketing teams, there is a lot of information out there that they can use and grow their businesses. The best companies recognise that agencies or individual consultants can be beneficial offering crucial insights that a business unit alone simply won’t have, lack of specialism/experience, and will also have a pretty good idea online of their marketplace and what their competitors are doing, through knowing where and how to look. 

Many businesses will often engage a specialist consultant to stabilise the ship. At some point, there will be naturally times when their built knowledge and experience is sufficient and right for them to hire in-house teams. Unfortunately, there’s not always that appreciation of the complexities involved and the need to keep up and stay ahead, making the most of most opportunities. The way I see my role is that I want to impart as much as I can and help people to succeed, but I don’t want to be there forever either. Hit and run effectively.

Damien: What does the future of search optimisation hold for us? Where is it all headed?

Rob: I think it’s about finding the best way of making use of those opportunities Google will continue to present in the search results space, which sounds a little bit trite, but that’s really what it all boils down to. 

Google will continue to make use of user search patterns, etc. and the truth ultimately is that it’s tough to predict. Google will continue to push its ad-based, and commission-based products to the benefits of shareholders and regulators will push back.

As practitioners, we must always be on top of our game, at the forefront and be reactive, really and of course proactive where we can be. That’s how it’s always been for me.

Evaluate on a case by case basis and make the most of what fits that particular vertical. 

Damien: Thanks for your time, Rob, enjoy your country bike ride!

You can follow Rob on Twitter @robwatts and visit his website at Yack Yack.