Tim Vee is an award winning SEO
Based in Dubai, Tim Vee is Group Head of SEO for Property Finder, the largest property portfolio business in the UAE and Middle East.
Tim was previously Head of SEO for Samsung, where he was awarded ‘Best Large Global SEO’ at the BrightEdge event Share2018.
When Tim is not leading a content planning or strategy session he can be found cycling desert highways, at the beach and spending quality time with his family.
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: Hello, Tim! Thanks for taking the time. You live and work in Dubai, how are you finding the COVID-19 lockdown in the Emirate?
Tim: Yeah, it’s pretty strict here in terms of movement. You need a permit from the police to leave the house to go out and about your business. So unless it falls into three categories, you’re not allowed outside at all. Unless it’s for food shopping, visiting the doctors or an emergency, then you’ve got to stay at home.
Damien: Let’s hope normality returns soon. Tim, tell us about your background, how did you come to be where you are and doing what you do?
Tim: My actual background before I worked in digital marketing was in photography, and I worked for a long while on cruise ships as a photo operations manager on various cruise ships travelling around the world.
Then my wife and I decided that we were done with life at sea and decided to move to Toronto, and I saw a job advert for an affiliate network, running a team of Photoshop artists.
I was a project coordinator, making sure that they had a nice backlog of work, and [monitoring] quality control in the work that they were doing, etc. It was fine for me because of my photographic background and my understanding of digital photography. It worked well.
After a while, the company owner, Sean Shapcott, said to me ‘Are you interested in joining the other side of the business, which is the marketing side?’ He said, ‘It’s much more exciting, much more interesting than just project managing a group of Photoshop artists.’
So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a go.’ The affiliate network, of course, was heavily powered by organic search, and by paid search to a lesser degree. The guy that runs the affiliate network, Sean, was like a savant in terms of traffic generation.
Sean was already very successful at a young age, just from understanding how the affiliate networks work and everything plugs together, and I went under his wing, learning everything that he knew about it — everything from understanding how to use Google to acquire traffic to what makes a successful domain.
I worked with him for quite a few years, and then he sold to a much bigger affiliate network, and I decided I didn’t want to relocate to the new business location in Montreal, so I just set off on my own.
I did a little bit of consultancy work very early on for a couple of small agencies, and then just moved on to larger agencies working in a more of a strategic role for paid and organic search.
As time went on, I just started leaving the paid search behind, and focusing on the organic search more. In 2013, I got a chance to move with my family back to the UK, and take a much more significant role based in London with Performics as the Head of SEO for the EMEA region.
I worked with them for about 18 months, maybe a little bit longer. I then went to VCCP, as a Director of SEO across the group. Again, working with really great clients, and that’s where I learned the most about SEO.
I think SEO becomes more of an art form than just this group of technical elements when you’re engaging with brand teams and marketing teams, legal, compliance and product teams. It requires another level of understanding.
Then I got the opportunity to join Samsung as their European Head of SEO.
Damien: Tell us about that shift from the agency-side to client-side?
Tim: Well, I’d been in so many meetings in an agency where you’ve got a great SEO strategy, you’ve got great ideas, and those ideas which are all first-class could have had an impact on the business. So much of the strategy just got discarded or never actioned because on the other side of the table there were never the operational elements that were needed to be in place to make an excellent SEO strategy take place. Not in all cases, but it’s surprising how many times you present a great SEO strategy, not even a great but good SEO strategy, and so little of it gets activated.
Damien: Who needed to be in the room to make the outcomes different?
Tim: Often there’ll be a website team, for example, they love the strategy, they love the ideas, they understand where it’s all going, but it requires so many other groups who are focused only on their bit of the pie.
They’re not interested in whether we get more non-branded traffic, whether we get more ‘Share of Voice’ for a category, but they’re interested in their own independent KPIs and their metric of success.
That’s really where on an enterprise level, SEO gets very complicated because, in its purest form, it’s brilliant. Once it gets introduced to a broader mix of teams, and people and personalities then it can often become a real obstacle for moving forward.
The reason I was interested in joining Samsung was number one because it’s a huge brand. In terms of recognition, I was working on the cutting edge, working with cutting edge products and a brand recognised around the world. It was certainly all that.
Secondly, I had a desire to sit on the other side of the table and be the person whose job it was to make that idea happen, rather than just sharing an idea and hoping it happens.
Damien: What was the reality of being that person like?
Tim: I was very fortunate when I joined Samsung, I was parachuted in and stood up to work on a big project that was kind of like the landmark initiative probably in like a five-year window either side of when it was happening. Everything took secondary importance to SEO because we were going through a massive re-platforming, as well as migration, as well as about 1,000 other things, that’s how Samsung works. They like to do a lot of things in one go for efficiency. Don’t do one big project a year, do eight big projects a year, and then do them all at the same time!
I was lucky in the sense that the spotlight was on me to make this happen. When we went through the re-platforming and the content migration, and the restructuring of the content and this new idea that we had to put in place, working with the American and the Korean team everything else became secondary. I was fortunate because it gave me an excellent opportunity to prove my worth and also get a lot of things done very quickly. We were in meetings, and everyone just turned to me and said, ‘Is this good for SEO?’, and I would give the thumbs up or thumbs down, and if it was the thumbs up, then troops rallied. If it wasn’t right for SEO, then it didn’t get done.
In some ways, we were fortunate, because the migrations and the re-platforming went very well, and there was a lot of success with a lot of proof that we could build the [digital] product around integrating SEO into all the decision making early on.
That made things much easier moving forward that we didn’t have as many battles to fight. Within the new team assembled in the digital marketing team at Samsung, I was inserted in amongst all these new people, and we all started the journey together. SEO very much included from the onset as one of the critical things that we had to concentrate on.
Damien: So you moved on from Samsung and decided that you would take up a new role?
Tim: Yeah, I was approached to come out to Dubai early last year, and it sounded stimulating. Where I am now at Property Finder is the polar opposite of Samsung with hundreds of thousands of people, where Property Finder is about 350 people. So it’s on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of scope, size, magnitude and volumes and what have you.
However, with the work that we’re doing here, SEO is very much like sort of institutionalised within everything we’re doing. That’s one of the reasons why I joined.
The product team, the tech team, the devs, the design team, always one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Is this going to impact SEO?, Is this a good thing?’ It’s very collaborative, and it’s the kind of organisation that I wanted to join.
There are no silos; Property Finder is in the growth phase of where it is and where its potential is, where it could get. We’re very much about moving fast, thinking fast, trying, testing and getting stuff done. Rather than creating walls, barricades and silos and sort of isolated activity. We have to move quickly and achieve results, good or bad so that we can move on to the next thing. Test and fail, test and fail, and then test and win.
Damien: Thinking about SEO as an industry, tactics are always changing. What’s the maturity level of our industry?
Tim: As an industry, it’s got a history of bad habits and gaming the system. The original intent of SEO was to game the system rather than it was to for reward.
A lot of those historical practices, although they’re not as overt, and they’re not as spoken, and there are maybe more euphemisms, I think a lot of the bad practices that are frowned upon by Google and aren’t necessarily considered mainstream are very much in play.
SEO as a function, I think large and medium-sized organisations are very much open to including them within their operating model for marketing and acquisition strategy.
SEO, of course, works best when it’s integrated into other departments. Often what works well for SEO purposes, also works well for engagement and also works well for UX and works well for several different areas of an online business.
I don’t think we’re there to that kind of matured stage across the board, where SEO is very much a function and a channel, rather than a thread that weaves itself through other teams and other disciplines to elevate the overall offering.
Indeed, in a lot of cases, brands have very high expectations of when things can happen and how they can happen. Often that’s why you see some legacy kind of activity still taking place in the market.
Damien: When technical debt increases, what looks simple from the outside, often is not so simple inside a business. What challenges do you think about when looking to find that golden thread, from SEO being just a channel to touching everything?
Tim: I always think the biggest threat to great SEO is often around resourcing. [Good] businesses are run inherently lean, they’re never going to have like an idle dev sitting around waiting for a ticket to sort of closeout. There’s always going to be a backlog of work.
It’s those competing priorities around whether changing a module or changing this structure or adding this or taking that away and how that competes with other things that the business wants to do. I think that’s the biggest challenge that many organisations have is in how they prioritise a purely SEO thing against a product enhancement, that’s got lots of bells and whistles, and it’s beautiful that’s going to get people excited.
A lot of SEO is unexciting. Its impact can be game-changing, and as long as you have openness, discussion and understand at a senior level how SEO can change your business, and how it’s not a channel or a silo or a function, chances of success are much higher.
Tech debt and working through a backlog, getting things squared away effectively so that you can make that progress, it’s always going to be a challenge in any organisation that’s rolling out functionality and improving it.
With UX or adding features, it’s always going to be a challenge to prioritise an SEO change that isn’t noticeable on a consumer-facing front end scale but could have a definite impact in terms of increasing visibility.
By feeding those communications upwards and with a leadership team that appreciates the entire playing field rather than just one or two positions within it, then you have a better chance of success.
Damien: What do you think about the practice of tracking individual keywords?
Tim: I’ve always been cautious to avoid individual keyword tracking because I think it can be a distraction, and can also cause much more work when it’s necessary. I much prefer to concentrate on category level visibility rather than individual keyword visibility.
Also a one or half per cent increase in share voice, maybe nothing to write home about, but it’s the consistency that you can achieve with those small incremental gains that are important. Very much like a tap, it’s dripping into a bath, each drip is insignificant, but when they all add up, then you’re making progress.
I’m very much in favour of concentrating on the big picture, not individually focusing on a particular keyword and making that the Northstar metric because that can be very damaging to a team and demoralising.
It can also distract a senior leadership team from focusing on just one particular area of the website’s performance. It’s much better, I think, to have a category level understanding of visibility about the marketplace itself rather than just want to zoom in on an individual, the ‘important’ keyword. If you can win that conversation with your leadership team, then you’re in a much better place.
Damien: What tools or frameworks that you use now that you didn’t have when you started your career?
Tim: We’re in a fortunate position at Property Finder. We have the UAE market, which is our largest market, and then we have Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are our second-largest markets, probably equal in size, but then we have several smaller markets.
In my career when I was starting, I did not have a testbed where I could try things, and experiment to see how things function and work in-market with live consumers, a live Google crawl, search index and search engine results pages.
Fortunately, now I’m in the position, and it’s a model that I worked with when I was at Samsung. We wouldn’t ever dream of testing anything on the German or the UK market, but we could test something on a much smaller market such as Singapore, where commercially, it’s not going to sink the ship.
Where we can examine in a live environment, the changes that we’re trying, and these are always meticulous tests — not anything radical or reckless. Still, it’s good to be able to test in a live environment, on a much smaller site where if things do go pear-shaped, you can rollback pretty quickly and hopefully right the ship without sinking the whole of the operation.
That’s something I didn’t have early on in my career, an opportunity to test in a live environment. I hear a lot of SEOs talking about AB testing, and sure that will work on a conversion and consumer experience level, but it won’t ever give you an idea of how Google is going to appreciate it and work with it.
That’s why when we do roll things out, we always start with a small market and then if it works, well there then we choose a bigger market and then if it works, well there then we go up a level until we’re right at the top and then the risk involved once we get right to the top to our premium markets is nominal.
Damien: How do you decide between the competing priorities in a business and the potential wins from any SEO action?
Tim: I can give you an actual real example. One of the things that I’ve worked on is a ‘recommended search’ or ‘popular searches’ module at the bottom of the page on Property Finder.
Now, this module did not contain popular searches. They were links to pages to encourage indexation by Google. When I first looked at this, I thought from a consumer point of view, this is not very good, because these aren’t popular searches.
They’re just links that we’ve placed in there to encourage Google to index the far depths of our website, which is another story. Then I also thought, from an E-A-T, Expertise, Authority and Trust, perspective: ‘Is this the right thing that we should be doing? Could we be trusted if we’re not truly providing the popular searches?’ when we’re providing a machine-generated list of links that we want Google to crawl?
That was a straightforward conversation to have with a product team because I could make those two points: it was terrible for the user, and it does nothing for our credibility with Google. Why were we encouraging Google to go to the very bottom of the website and crawl these pages, they get maybe a session every six months, compared to the top, most popular pages where we want users to get value and Google to spend all of its time.
Selfishly, that’s what I wanted, but from a user experience perspective, this is something I always try and do when I’m making SEO recommendations, I very much place myself in terms of the user. ‘Is this good for the user? Is having a load of links to pages on the 18th level of navigation good for the user? Is it good for us as a brand?’ No, so it was a straightforward conversation to have with the product team on how we could improve this so that when it does load, it’s dynamic, and shows the consumer, the actual most popular searches that have occurred within the website.
We only have a finite amount of time to impress Google. Very much like a series of first dates that we’re on with Google and often the pages that are in the very bowels of our website are the ones that have the least to offer. They have the lowest link equity, they have the lowest number of property listings, have the thinnest content, and in some cases, don’t have any content at all, and they don’t have any property listings.
By redirecting that traffic up to the more critical parts of the website, we saw an improvement in our usability, shared voice, and how attractive we are with Google on these series of first dates.
Damien: That’s a great example of needs aligning. You mentioned AB platforms and SEO, tell us more what your view is of them?
Tim: In most organisations, the critical thing that they don’t want to mess with [or degrade] is the conversion. If you’re selling something, or you’re offering a service, or you’re generating a lead, that’s the Holy Grail. They want to preserve the golden egg of conversion.
I can understand the temptation of doing that kind of thing. I’m lucky that I work in an organisation now where we are in arm’s reach away from each other. I can easily have a stand up at short notice to discuss something that we want to do, and we can very quickly get to an amicable solution and move very quickly.
Now let’s imagine that we’re no longer in that environment, and we’re in a much larger organisation, where maybe different teams are in different cities or different countries. They’re not necessarily even talking; they’ve all got their agenda. I can understand the temptation of why you would want to use these tools to move fast to circumvent other approaches and procedures.
The most important thing in both of those situations is you find what works for you. If you label it up correctly, Google will never see it. It’s not until it goes live that you’re going to be able to have an understanding of whether Google likes it or dislikes it.
Damien: Where is SEO headed, and the future of search optimisation practice for a medium and large enterprise?
Tim: Especially where we are at the moment with the COVID 19 situation, and the slowdown and maybe even the halt of the global economy. That, of course, impacts everyone, and it affects our master, which is Google, more than is necessarily apparent.
If we look at the medium runway for Google, they’re going to have lost a significant amount of revenue from paid advertisers offering their services. Anything that requires you leaving your home to do anything, they’re going to have lost money. So whether it’s buying a house, whether it’s loans for cars, actual cars, sports betting, anything, their primary bread and butter, all of that lost revenue has got to be made up at some point.
I think in the medium term, when we come out of this, hopefully, sooner rather than later, we will see some significant plays in Google on how the SERPs are structured, in being weighted even more in favour of paid search.
The effectiveness of SEO, in the medium and maybe even long term, will again be diminished from the share of voice and CTR rate perspectives. There’s a certain inevitability about that. We can expect Google to want to recoup some of its losses as we come out the other side of COVID-19.
In terms of SEO as practice the days of the mammoth website, the million-plus page website, is very much in its twilight. Look Agoda, as an example, which is a site with about 18 million pages. The days of being rewarded in SEO for having so many pages are very much over.
Google is going to very much favour a leaner, more compact websites that provide a better experience and a lighter crawl budget as well.
Historically, as you started making money, and you started making an impact on marketplaces, you grew your website. You added more landing pages, more facets, more navigation, more levels, greater depth, and all of that costs money for Google to index and crawl.
If you’ve got 18 million pages, and only maybe 70,000 of those get any traffic from Google, you’re a liability.
One of the critical things that we look at later in 2020, smart SEO teams are going to look at their websites and ask ‘Are we going to be the one that stands out that cost Google money?’ Indexing isn’t free; it costs energy for Google to power up its data centres, store all of this and organise it.
Another example is ‘Airbnb’ vs ‘Home To Go’. The latter has about 5,000 landing pages and ‘Airbnb’ several million. In the markets where ‘Home To Go’ operate, they dominate Airbnb from a visibility standpoint.
I think that’s a precursor for many large e-commerce websites that have tried to build red shoes, black shoes, red women’s shoes — every possible permutation base covered from a keyword level point of view. Moving through 2020 that’s going to be very much considered an older strategy, and an earlier SEO approach.
Damien: Producing higher quality, elevating the experience rather than over-thinking the breadth of keyword phrases feels intuitively right.
Tim: Yes, reducing the number of URLs you present to Google, and creating or curating the most crucial user journeys to what consumers are looking for, will increase organic growth.
So by focusing on delighting users, you’re not doing things just to improve SEO, it is to improve the product and the journey for the consumer.
We spend time training our teams about SEO and that doing SEO that worked in 2016 or 2017 and generated rapid results, those tactics and strategies had a short shelf life. We not only have to change the way that we present ourselves to Google, but we’ve also got to change in the way that we present ourselves to our consumers.
The old way of doing SEO was to try and run everything by scripts, automate everything. Everyone had the same experience, and it was never curated by humans so that the pages all look identical. Now, in 2020 every visitor to a site is a human that’s going to have a human-centred experience.
Tim: One of the things I’ve encouraged within our business was that we change as well, we changed the way that we treat their [Google’s] consumers, and aim to delight them with features and functionality that keeps them on the page and increases engagement with the website.
Damien: Did you want to mention anything else about your views on SEO?
Tim: Very early on in my career, I was certainly involved in link building, because that was just the way that things worked. Fast forward 15 years, and one thing that still frustrates me, is how aggressive brands can be with paid link building and the use of private blog networks to increase their visibility.
As a dated practise, it is unfair on the brands that playing a straight wicket, because other brands can, they can game the system and seem to operate with impunity.
SEO is very much like being a farmer in the sense that, you know, none of the work that I’m doing today will have any, any short term impact or benefit. Everything that we do today is thinking about the future.
The biggest challenge in SEO, of course, is when you have a chief marketing officer or head of digital or whoever is in charge of everything that maybe comes from a more traditional background, they’re very much living quarter to quarter. So if you’re telling them that you can do something in May that’s going to generate a return in October, to them, it just seems wacky.
I think as time goes on, and SEO becomes less of a dark art and a mysterious thing. The key to that is, of course, integration into other teams and increasing everyone’s knowledge of it, then the fear of investing in long-term strategic objectives will become less and less.
We can see now during this unfortunate period of COVID-19 that it’s affecting so many people on so many levels. The brands that invested heavily in great SEO historically are now reaping the benefit from that.
Their pipeline of whatever it is they sell, or make, or do is very much now continually serviced by an audience linked almost 24 seven now to the internet.
It’s the brands that didn’t invest in their digital strategy; many moons ago now who are heavily reliant on their paid marketing investment to survive.
Damien: Tim, it’s been a pleasure to chat, take care and speak soon.
See how Tim has helped to raise the SEO visibility of PropertyFinder.ae