Conversations in Search: Tom Crowe

Tom Crowe is founder of Tom Crowe Digital

Tom Crowe is a freelance SEO specialist, working for commercial and non-profit clients, helping them to achieve their SEO goals.

Tom been freelancing for nearly 3 years and shares his views on the value of expertise and how SEO is changing. 

When Tom is not focusing on clients, he works on his passion project websites and gets out travelling as much as he can.

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: Hi Tom, thanks for your time. How’s everything with you?

Tom: All right, thanks. I’m in the countryside at the moment at my mum and dad’s place, and it’s good to be outside of London, there’s lots of space.

Damien: You’re a freelance SEO specialist. Tell us a little about your background, how long have you been doing freelance SEO?

Tom: I’ve been freelancing for about 2 or 3 years, I was doing it when I was working, anyway. So it’s always tricky to put a timeline on it really because I was working for agencies and I was working in-house as SEO for companies, and then people would come to me through LinkedIn mainly.

I had my website, and people would just come to me and ask me for SEO work. People that I had worked with in the past, for example, they might ask, ‘Oh you helped me here, would you be able to do some stuff outside of your company?’ It’s grown organically. I don’t think I would have leapt if it were not just having far too much freelance work. It just got to the point where it overtook all of the work that I had in my regular job.

It was just too much, and of course, when you’re working for yourself, you bypass the agency so you, therefore, end up earning more because you don’t have agency overheads.

Damien: We work primarily in a friendly industry, with lots of smart folks, what do you think we don’t talk about enough?

Tom: I think there can be difficulties in measuring the impact that you have. Because unlike PPC where you can often look at ‘this is how much you spent, and it made this direct impact’ because you put advertising money in, and you’ve got this much revenue out. Whereas, with SEO, if you were to be fixing some meta descriptions or a canonical issue on a website, it’s tough to translate that specific task to revenue for the client.

That can be quite difficult. The best clients are the ones who come to you with an understanding of what SEO is and how it takes time and what it involves. It’s not a case of just pressing a button, and therefore you’ve got loads of traffic and revenue.

Damien: How do you set client expectations?

Tom: Typically, I’ve been lucky because people come to me knowing that they need SEO, and they usually know a lot about SEO in terms of what to expect and what it implies. Sometimes they will ask, how long would this take, it’s very much varied depending on the client and focus. I had one client who, they were the only person in this industry, and this industry had a lot of search volume. 

The majority of the searches were for their brand name. I said to them ‘If you make these changes, it will take weeks.’ Whereas if you’re a brand new website, then success is reliant on other aspects like PR, brand building and other activity happening in their business.

When a potential client first gets in touch, I will send them some information about my service, which includes my prices. There are a lot of people who get in touch and have no idea how much SEO costs. They might have seen someone on Fiverr who says, ‘I’ll be your SEO for a tenner’. That on its own wheedles out a lot of people who don’t have the budget to invest in SEO. 

If they come back and they say, ‘Yes, great, I’m interested’, for example, I’ll arrange a phone call, and during the phone call, I’ll ask a lot of questions about their company, who they are, what they’re looking to achieve.

I want to find out what their budgets are, what’s their history, who else have they got working on their digital marketing, do they have developers, do they have writers, what does the team look like, what growth looks like, what’s happening offline in their business? If you are an offline business, are you coming up with ten new products? Will, that make a significant difference, how does that relate to the website? 

One of the most important things is not a question, it’s finding out whether or not they’re a nice person or not, because you have to work with them. If you’re stuck with a client who is demanding but doesn’t want to understand SEO that can be a real headache, a real nightmare, and it’s not going to go well for either of you.

Damien: What are you most proud of in your career to date?

Tom: It might not be what you expect, but I work with tonnes of charities. I volunteer my services, every year I take on ten charities that don’t have a budget, and I do SEO for them for free. 

I started my career in the non-profit industry, and I saw the value of how a small investment in digital marketing can have a significant impact in the donation, in beneficiaries and the ability to influence policy in government.

Damien: When did you start in SEO, Tom?

Tom: In my first job in a non-profit, I was in the digital team, but I was responsible for SEO. We used to have an SEO agency that supported us, and when you have an agency helping you, you’re very beholden to whatever they say.

The more you spend so much time learning and educating yourself and figuring out what going on, then you start holding them to account and realise they’re not doing this, or they should do this. Then you just kind of grow in confidence a lot, well I did anyway. With non-profits, they’re at a weird advantage in the fact that they have such colossal authority that they can do anything. 

If they launch a page that says ‘diabetes symptoms’, whatever, they may have a considerable chance of ranking as a diabetes charity, because they’re experts and have got backlinks from the BBC, The Guardian, or the biggest brands in the UK. 

I got to the point where I was like well yeah this is fine I’m doing well with SEO for non-profits, but I wanted to see if I could experience the same level of success on my own. So that’s when it was in 2013, I started building my websites. 

I wanted to find out whether I could take a website with no SEO visibility, from nothing to performing well. I failed a lot and learned valuable lessons. I started to see my sites making money, then began to move jobs and focus on SEO. I didn’t go freelance until 2016 or 2017, I think.

Damien: What would you say are the most important lessons that you learned in that early period of your career that have stood you well now?

Tom: In the early stages of my career, what I probably learned most is more how agencies operate. I did a lot on my own, but I’d also be working with agencies. The things that I’ve avoided are things I learned from working with agencies. Mainly, I see a lot of agencies oversell contracts to clients. They would say you need a retainer of 50 hours a month, for argument’s sake, and I’ve seen these sold many times to websites that had a handful of pages.

I’d say I learned a lot about ethics. I had a client, get in touch recently, and he was saying ‘Could you explain to me why all of the other agencies I have asked about SEO work are all trying to sell me retainers?’ He’s got a small website that has plateaued. He probably just needs a month of SEO support tops. There’s nothing a retainer project can do for him except drain his cash.

Damien: What point in your career did you decide that marketing was the thing that interested you and that it was fulfilling?

Tom: I didn’t decide at all, it just kind of happened, and I loved it! I got more access to the website in the early days of my career. Those who are responsible for managing the site, if you’re in a big company, they will provide certain levels of access to different people. 

I was working for non-profits, and then whenever you work in these different roles, you kind of have some access to edit the website. You earn trust, then you do more, and you listen to them, you take their advice, and you learn more and more and more from them. 

I think really for me I just started straying more towards marketing and messing around with websites because I enjoy doing something and then seeing it, seeing the results of it. You can get this online, you can be there, and you can be building a website or fixing issues, and I think that was quite attractive to me, to be honest.

What I wanted to do was I wanted to work in policy, I’ve got a politics degree. That’s what I thought I wanted, but then policy in real life is incredibly dull. Still, just playing around with the website which had like a lot of people in the company also around the site and hated it, by taking on the less loved tasks, I found my passion. I mean I wrote an article for my old University about how you know you can find passion, we had no idea you did not think that you will find a passion like that. 

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

Tom: I’m a bit disappointed by the state of the SEO industry. I think when you look at the SEO industry, you often feel that it’s full, that it’s saturated full of experts and ask yourself ‘how am I meant to make my mark here’. I’ve found out that there are also many people who are scamming, who are not providing a proper product or don’t understand SEO. 

One of the ways I found this out was after being approached for an SEO audit. The client sent me three previous audits they’d had, and it was so devastating to see they’d spent so much money. When I looked at the SEO companies they looked like real established companies or freelancers they looked perfect, but what they’d delivered was absolute nonsense, absolute trash. 

The amount of money that they were charging as well. One was costing like six and a half grand for an SEO audit. When you reflect on your processes and how you work with clients, and when you look at what some others are doing in the industry you can take a lot of faith that you know what you’re doing well. 

There are many good people in the SEO field. I’m part of a Slack group with a range of SEO agency owners, and they are good people. They’ve got integrity. They know what they’re doing. People will be approaching companies who don’t know what they’re doing or freelancers who don’t know what they’re doing, getting a report or some results from them. I think we’re in a weird industry where pretty much anyone can call themselves an SEO expert.

Damien: What do we need to do to change it? What is the antidote to poor practices?

Tom: I say to anyone look at reviews and make sure they are legitimate reviews. Google and LinkedIn reviews attributed to specific companies are a good sign. Google reviews are more spam-proof than a lot of review systems.

Damien: Businesses implementing SEO recommendations often face challenges. Some from poor implementation and prioritisation, and others from poor advice, what else do you see?

Tom: In our industry, it’s about being adaptable. Some of the biggest challenges are about responsibilities, internally, and website capabilities. You could have systems where it takes, for example, within a huge company it can take a year to make a fix. Whereas, you can work with a small client and make the fix on the same day. 

You have to structure your offering around those challenges. So, for example, one of my clients has their website built on a nightmarish CMS, and it’s awful. For a lot of the pages, you can’t even change the URLs, and they’re all just a big random bunch of characters. So then, a lot of it is about reframing. You say, ‘Well, what we’ll do is we’ll audit and say what the ideal is, and you can then use that when talking to your managers and when you go and talk to the CMS vendor about it’. Those are all things we need that you don’t have, what can you do about it?

Structure what you recommend based on the clients own brand guidelines, their limitations as a lot of excellent consultancy work is about understanding their unique challenges and making their lives easier.

Damien: Absolutely, and the investment you’re making in that initial phone call, and subsequent discussions build that understanding of their needs.

Tom: Yeah, that’s one of the significant differences between good SEO and lousy SEO, it’s being able to properly understand and tailor the SEO consulting to make it bespoke to real and specific challenges. 

Damien: What are some of the website capability challenges that you’ve seen that should be more easily solved?

Tom: Oh, you wouldn’t believe some of the awful things I’ve seen! 

There’s a whole website with duplicate titles, and they were all the brand name. If you look in the CMS they can’t edit that field, that field is not available; it’s just not an option. So the client has to go and beg their CMS vendor to fix that. 

There are times where it’s like, oh, you know, we’ve got 500 location pages. Therefore, these could be high converting pages, but they’re built as a template so you can only make the title, one sentence, and a button unique for example. You could say, ‘Well, the location page would be great if it had a map or you could put an address in there or provide a more substantial page copy to help turn those pages into converting pages. 

Damien: Your job then becomes much more than just an SEO advisor, your role becomes, partly an extended member of their team on how they should develop their product. 

Tom: Yeah, exactly. There’s no point in me offering SEO advice if it can’t convert. There’s no point doing this project if I can get traffic to your website, then they can’t go any further than that. I also offer to look at their user journeys and conversion rate optimisation. 

I’m looking to make sure there is the consideration for additional features complementary to SEO. My reports are going to be the ones that gain from it because I’ll be able to say that many people came through search and that many people converted.

Damien: You’re anchoring the client to an expectation of performance, that they will see business value from their SEO investment. I wonder what are some of the challenges you’ve seen with clients and their responsibilities internally?

Tom: It’s difficult because you often have very technical stuff, which most of them don’t have the resources for tasks and a lot of technical things will go to an IT team not developing their IP, but working more on hardware and desktop support. In big companies, there can be confusion. 

Developers can sometimes be challenging to work with, and it doesn’t matter how easily your layout. A lot of challenges come back to personalities and how teams are structured. We can only do as much as they allow us to. So, you can say in your monthly reports, and we’ve managed to do all of this. Our barriers are X, Y and Z. 

If they see the report, and they see that, if they see the same things every month, they might decide to tackle it and then decide to do something about it. 

Damien: I’d like to get your view on the future of SEO, what do all of Google’s changes mean for SEO practitioners?

Tom: I think a lot of future challenges are going to be around a decline in organic traffic and how you can position the offering to compete when Google shows the information in the search result page so that nobody needs to click through. 

I’m always reluctant to talk about what the future of Google or SEO will look like because people’s predictions are typically wrong. You see it with the big algorithm changes, that authority will matter more in medical fields or Your Money Your Life (YMYL) fields, but I believe I’ve seen that in other areas in the past year, I’ve seen it travel and food as well. 

It used to be you could see lots of travel blogs ranking, not so much now. In food as well, which is, you know, something that I thought ‘Well, who cares about which recipe it is, you know this one has terrible BBC Food is overtaking a smaller, more niche food blog. Unfortunately, I feel like Google is focusing more on authority, i.e., the backlink profile.

The whole presence of a company on the internet is crucial. If you were to compare any brand with the BBC, you’re probably going to lose out. I mean, when we’re looking at specific metrics where we can and cannot see and impact often we’re looking at things like backlinks, and we’re looking at referring domains. 

It’s not an exact science, but it’s way more effective than finding out how many times a web page has been referenced on social media or as unlinked citations. These things are essential and are things that I work with my clients to achieve in priority. 

It is a reflection of how well that company is known, how they’re getting their name out there. Backlinks are just one of the many ways to show that a company is relevant, and it’s the one metric we can see and rely on a bit more.

Damien: Is there anything I’ve not asked you about the future of SEO, that’s on your mind?

Tom: I want to follow what testing shows, or what Google announced or what happened. I think the prediction thing can be hazardous unless you’ve got substantial evidence or analysis about it. There are very significant practices in SEO that won’t go away and will get stronger, like content will always be king. Essentially, SEO is user experience, in a nutshell. What is useful for the reader is also suitable for search engines, and that won’t change, and there will be more of a focus on it.

Damien: Tom, thank you. I appreciate your views, thinking about the future is part of the challenge. Your response is honest that resonates, and I appreciate that. Speak soon mate.

Follow Tom on Twitter @TomCroweDigital and discover Tom’s website at Tom Crowe Digital.