Conversations in Search: Phil Crothers

Phil Crothers is Head of SEO and performance content at Performics

Fuelling the performance forecasts and strategy for enterprise SEO clients, Phil Crothers manages a team who sit at the intersect of SEO, content creation and data science.

When he is not working on SEO, Phil is obsessed with the Justice League superheroes and Warhammer, some say the ultimate battle game of strategy. We spoke about the state of SEO just before the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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: How are you, Phil? Tell us more about your background in SEO, and what you and your team do at Performics?

Phil: I’m good thank you. I’ve been in SEO, as a dedicated SEO for about ten years or something like that. I started in a web development agency, as I think a lot of people do, with copywriting and all that sort of stuff. I’ve always been on the agency side; I’m focused on larger scale enterprise-level clients.

Performics is effectively the brand or the company that sits across multiple Publicis agencies to provide the performance people. The way that we do things across these different kinds of clients sets means best in class work can be surfaced between the brands. We look after primarily clients for EMEA, and in some cases the global SEO strategies.

Damien: What are the differences in delivering SEO strategy for multi market businesses than businesses operating in a single ‘local’ market?

Phil: It always depends on the clients. Some clients, for instance, it’s all about how efficient we can be, where centralisation is the goal. I suppose for some products, there’s not a huge variation in the way people search between markets. In that instance, a centralised SEO strategy very neatly cascades into the multiple markets, with a central view driving it.

Whereas for other clients, the way that people search for things is so different, culturally between different markets. Even though there’s a central view, it’s very much an in-market or an in-region led strategy because unless it’s in a particular market, you just don’t get the nuance for how those searches are happening.

So, it’s a tricky thing to say, because, for some clients, a centralised strategy that cascades down to the local market is the best way of doing it. For some clients, they very much need a market-by-market plan that then rolls up into a centralised or global viewpoint as opposed to the other way around.

Damien: This makes sense from the demand side, for consumers. Do the local markets always accept the cascade of a central SEO strategy?

Phil: Hopefully, by making good arguments, and a demonstration, you show the principal considerations that would go into it. You show them some of the data insights and some of the ways that they’ve been doing things previously, and try to get them to understand this with data. 

We have a framework that we work through to help our clients effectively establish where, and how we should be resourcing for them. So we’re going to take them through that process as a fairly robust, flexible, way. We help clients understand that on that kind of scale from local activation, to this kind of centralised approach.  

If a client has a particular view, ‘No, we want to do it this way’, well, of course, we’ll do it that way, our jobs to be able to advise them on the manner I suppose that we think will be the most effective way of setting strategy [for/with] them.

Damien: It’s great that frameworks and processes guide those discussions. What are your views on the current state of the SEO industry?

Phil: I think it’s pretty healthy. For as much as we always talk about the challenges that exist in search, particularly diminishing click share, almost because of how ubiquitous searching to find information is means that there is increased opportunity.

If I think back to when I saw the industry maybe ten years ago, it’s no different now, in terms of the number of people who rely on organic search to effectively fulfil a lot of business requirements. 

More and more as we move away from talking directly to those customers that want to buy something immediately, we are talking to them earlier when they’re in more of a consideration or evaluation phase of thinking. 

I think SEO is all the more needed now. The industry is in a pretty healthy state. Unless there’s a radical shift in some way that I can’t foresee I can’t imagine it shrinking, at least for short to medium term.

Damien: So it’s about SEO helping to tell a brand story, and genuinely answering the needs of those different consumers, through the content that the brand has to offer?

Phil: Absolutely, that’s pretty much hitting it nail on the head. So, it’s not enough to just say ‘Hey we’ve got this product, do you want to buy it?’ You have to be able to anticipate what people have bought before they get to the point of purchase. 

You know at the point of purchase they’ve done a whole host of research, and looking around. How well are we anticipating what that is? How are we talking to them through the voice of the brand at an earlier stage of that conversion?

Damien: What sorts of things do you see clients finding tougher to adopt from SEO recommendations?

Phil: With some clients, there’s disharmony between who looks after the websites and who looks after the marketing. Given that SEO is dependent on being able to make changes to a website, if that doesn’t sit with the marketing team, it can be a challenging thing sometimes then to get the actual change to happen. 

The marketing team tends to be where the budget comes from, and tends to be the stakeholders that we interact with, at least on the surface level the most. 

When you have brands that are sitting on systems that are 10 or 15 years old, where they don’t have CMS in place that have been that way forever, and the website isn’t seen as the priority in the marketing mix or when you have people in senior marketing positions, who haven’t grown up in the digital landscape as much with their marketing. They don’t necessarily always appreciate the value, or how impactful something like SEO can be. 

Whenever we speak to a CMO and show them hey, did you know that if you were able to make this small change that would probably get you a reasonably large amount more revenue? You can see their eyes light up, and they go ‘Wow, yeah, absolutely, we should be doing this’, but they didn’t know about this before we spoke to them. 

Damien: There’s then an investment of time to educate and up-skill stakeholders to develop their specialised SEO understanding?

Phil: Yeah, exactly the value demonstration to more senior stakeholders who don’t necessarily always see it. I think there’s one thing that the industry can be very guilty of, particularly in agencies. That is talking on a very tactical level to day-to-day stakeholders but not equipping them to have a conversation with their manager. So it can get into the weeds quickly, and unless we elevate that conversation, then it’s hard to make lasting change in a large corporation.

Damien: Consulting businesses are venturing into SEO, passing their brand of advice to the top of an organisation. Is there something here to learn, which creates better SEO impact?

Phil: I think there is probably, in some way, truth to that insofar as if they’re having the conversations they can leverage the relationships that they already have. It’s a tough thing to build up the capability suddenly. Unless you’re eyeing a pre-built agency for instance and slotting it into what you’re doing, it’s a tricky thing to suddenly develop skills and ways of working that take specialist agencies time. I think it’s maybe a little bit generous on their side as to quite how advanced those capabilities will be.

Damien: True capability and value is added by specialist SEO teams because of their experience of ‘getting into the weeds’, and by selling a bigger picture vision?

Phil: I’d like to think so. Because of the type of agency that we are which is quite large, and has a substantial global footprint, someone in the business is having a conversation at a very senior level, which means that we can then directly input into that conversation. Even if we as a team aren’t able to have the conversation but the CMO for someone particularly senior at a huge company we can always speak to someone that is, and get that on the agenda. 

For as much as a traditional management consultancy might be saying, well, we have all these conversations, well we also hold these conversations. At the same, we’re doing all their media, their outdoor, and a lot of the time creative too. So, it makes more sense to join up the conversation holistically like that.

Damien: SEO is a young industry. It is maturing, particularly so over the last decade. Where do you think the future of SEO practice is?

Phil: The core of it is almost the same, the fundamentals behind SEO haven’t shifted radically, you know. It’s a continued evolution of the tactics that sit behind it. You know, but if you were to look at what fundamentally makes a difference to be able to drive excellent performance and search it’s going to be relatively similar as it was five years ago. 

You need to have a certain amount of authority or credibility to talk in space. You need to be able to directly answer the questions that a user might be asking, with hopefully well written very insightful information. You need to have a website that a search engine as a robot can understand, and, you know, highlight it where you’re first you’d like that kind of hasn’t shifted but how we do it has changed. 

In particular, you know, looking at going forward. For me, something that I know everyone’s talking about is how we anticipate the intention behind the search. Given that searches are effectively concise phrases, and we mostly don’t know anything about the searcher behind the information, we have to use some form of natural language processing to try and understand what people truly want as a return for that search query.

What is the information they expect and are we answering that? It’s not how to be targeted so much. It’s how we answer it, and I think we can only do that with an understanding of almost the psychology of expectation.

For me, the tactics will evolve the next few years, maybe even five years, fundamentally. I think what needs to shift and where I think companies need to be investing their money on development is on ‘How do we anticipate what that intention is?’

The more you can understand it, the more we can get that insight, well that’ll be our leg up over the competition, more than just doing SEO well.

Damien: Then, using developed expertise and proven tactics, combined with a thorough understanding of the audience, is that where it’s headed?

Phil: Yeah, there’s a quote, and I can’t remember off the top my head, it’s something like There are only two competitive advantages in any form of marketing:

  1. knowing your audience better than anyone else knows it, and; 
  2. doing it faster than anyone else can do it.

Damien: How do you suggest SEOs prepare for the future?

Phil: I think the more we can understand how language works, I believe the better we will be able to succeed. But at the same time, you know, you can see that for as advanced as Google’s become, it still struggles with fundamental things. Also, if you don’t get your web build right, if you don’t get the technical foundations right, there are massive SEO consequences. 

A lot of the people that have joined agencies have come from different agencies, their understanding of some of the technical elements in terms of how websites are built, beyond best practice, I think is one of those fundamentals that we need to train into people continually. It’s still not something as a natural background skill.

Unless you go out and learn it you won’t just pick it up; you don’t just have a knack for it, most marketing people need to learn how it works. The industry needs a renewed focus on the importance of how the site’s built.

Damien: Perhaps a ‘centre of excellence’ in which technology weaves together a mesh between DevOps, web development and marketing strategy?

Phil: It’s an excellent way of putting it. A few years ago, we used to speak about people who were ‘technically minded’ or people who were ‘content minded’. I don’t think that we’re really in the position to legitimately, or earnestly say that specialisms don’t kind of digress like that. 

Yes, we might have people who have specialised. The majority of clients and most of what people need in SEO can be quite similar. I think there’s a greater need for us to have the most fantastic generalists, and then bring in specialists when they need them. You need to be able to answer 95 to 99% of all queries without having to bring in a specialist. So it’s about rounding that knowledge out as opposed to just making it deep.

Damien: What have I not asked you about SEO that you’d like to share?

Phil: There’s one thing that I have quite a firm view on, and it kind of relates to something that we spoke about earlier. I think that there is a real needs industry in terms of how we talk about some of the stuff that we have access to.

You see a lot of people talk about integration but not with an appreciation of the practical impact search data can have. Search data is probably one of the most profound sorts of business insight — it’s pure demand at an anonymised and grand scale.

How can we use that to input genuinely into business operations, to find out more about people and their expectations?

I think there’s so much insight, that we sit on, that is beyond just getting more people to the website that can fundamentally change the way that marketing and media is being impacted by understanding user behaviours. We’re just scratching the surface. I think that’s particularly exciting.

Damien: Data is definitely the key to making informed choice. Thank you, Phil, for your time!

Follow Phil on Twitter @Phil_phc00001.