Conversations in Search: Dave Smart

Dave Smart is Director of Tame the Bots

Dave Smart is a technical SEO consultant & developer from Manchester, and one of the most prolific contributors to the Google Webmaster Help Forums.

Dave is an SEOs SEO, and when he is not geeking out on all topics pertaining to technical search optimisation and JavaScript or rendering, he likes playing guitar badly, and going out to watch live bands, who invariably play them better.

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: Thank you, Dave, for taking the time to have a chat. I’ve got a bunch of questions for you. Let’s begin with where your love of SEO started, tell us about your background?

Dave: I started in about 2000 doing websites. I used to run an agency in Stockport, called Website Centre. We used to do small to medium business websites, and then since then, I’ve mostly been freelancing or doing my own stuff.

Before that, I worked in labs doing aerospace engineering and other defence projects. I used to develop ceramics, mostly, for jet plane engines. We used computers to help with that. 

I got interested in the internet and building websites, probably around 1997. There was a problem with the way we would share information within the company, which got me interested. I made some improvements to the way we did that, and learning how to improve internal information sharing, is what got me into computers.

Damien: Before you got into work, were you studying?

Dave: I came straight from school into my first job. Before then, I was at school, doing my A-levels. At the same time as working, I did my studies at the Open University, majoring in Chemistry.

Damien: What did you think your career would be like?

Dave: I thought I’d be doing work related to my degree, but it didn’t last long. After a few years, there were a lot of redundancies in the industry. It’s one of those things, and it’s a strange industry. There’s a lot of money around in terms of everything costs so much, but the margins are nothing. 

Unfortunately quite a few of us got laid off. From there I decided that I enjoyed the computer stuff more than I did that. 

I spent a few years doing a few bits and bobs, including working at Thorntons, packing chocolates and all sorts. From there, I decided to freelance for a short while.

I met a guy, Graham, he was more of a salesman, but he had started a web design company – with no designers and was based literally across the road from my house. I popped in to see about freelance work, and we ended up in partnership with an agency.

As young as I was then, and the non-technical web background of Graham, the plan was to make enough money to eat. As it grew, it became clear to me that running an agency was not for me, and I wanted to get back to doing the actual work of it, and not the admin.

So the agency ran its course, and since then, I have been freelance, working on projects that interest me with my company Tame The Bots. 

Damien: Luckily, you realised that you wanted something different. So, you started ‘Tame The Bots’, as your consulting company. Tell us more about what you do now and how you help your clients?

Dave: Well, I’m doing a little bit of development, but a lot more of technical SEO. I’m not so much into keyword research or content strategy, and I’m not the content guy. I usually admire people who’ve got those skills because those skills are the ones that passed me by a little. 

Tame The Bots provides the range of technical SEO consulting, from auditing to fixing. I still also do some development for clients that I’ve worked with for a while. I will also do development work for some new clients. 

When it comes to finding technical things, like ‘is the site crawlable?’, ‘is it indexable?’, or other technical issues, particularly when it gets to JavaScript. 

I am trying to find out if newer development technologies work with Googlebot. That’s very much where I am right now, and I think it pays to be able to straddle both worlds of development and SEO.

You know, there is often such a huge divide between the two, between developers and SEO. From the SEO side, I think all developers are grumpy old souls, who don’t care in the slightest about search engines. And on the development side, we believe SEO is just a bunch of people who are going to tell them to put another ten keywords on a page.

Damien: Do you think there is a perception from developers that SEOs practice some rare magic?

Dave: Yes, at times, but ultimately the goals of development and SEO are aligned. They both want to create something good, and they want people to use it. Traditionally, I think developers see SEO as maybe a soft science or SEO is something wishy-washy, but it’s not. There’s real stuff there’s metrics there’s actionable science behind SEO. A lot of people don’t understand how two disciplines work together, which causes the divide. 

If you cross the worlds a little, I don’t mean everybody who does SEO needs to know how to program, and likewise, people who develop stuff don’t need to know about all aspects of SEO. Some understanding between the two that both are good professions, not everyone is either full of it or scammers, they’re not idiots. A greater understanding helps each other and makes a better product for everyone out the end of it.

Just learning how each other’s world works, how they think and maybe some of the pressures that are on each other help you to understand and empathise.

Sometimes, empathy can involve understanding the strains and the pressures, as you mentioned, but it also could be as simple thinking about the way we as SEOs might describe something and then how a development colleague interprets that?

Developers tend to have a culture of tickets, like a Jira ticket or something like that. Learn how they work, how they like things to be reported to them. Make stuff actionable and don’t deliver fluff; everyone can smell weasel words. 

When you’re up against it, and someone is coming at you with a load of acronyms and ‘I feel’ statements, that’s not good when you’ve got the boss on your neck to get this feature out. Put it in plain English. 

When people can see the real-world impact, that they can imagine the value of taking the time out to do your ticket, it can then be discussed responsibly.

It opens the space to have that dialogue. If you’re demanding of the development team, ‘I want this, I want that, I’m the SEO, I’m the important person because this is for Google.’ it just does not fly so well.  

Damien: Completely. As an SEO, you want to effectively ‘rebase’, to steal a development concept, and suspend assumptions. Having those consultative conversations builds understanding.

Dave: Always be prepared to take time out and educate, not preach. Talk to them and teach them how to do these things. 

There is a difference to something being purely functional in development terms, and of being informed with the range of disciplines, like SEO, accessibility and design to create something greater than just pure function.  

Then the developers are invested in the solution with you, and you build allies. If you’re all unified, then you come together and fight for a little bit more development time to do the necessary things. 

I’ve seen it happen where an SEO will demand stuff of a development team. The developer won’t be given any more time to do that. They take time from the main thing to do your stuff, then their KPIs are looking bad, and they’re getting it in the neck.

If you make friends with your developers, then you are united, and can say ‘together we want to make it a better product’. It’s a more compelling story to tell when looking for a decision and resources from the C-suite or whoever signs off on the funding. 

Damien: Thinking about those friendships and allies that you make, it can be as simple as going for lunch or having a desk-side chat about SEO?

Dave: Exactly, there are many ways to reach out, and different places and different people respond in different ways. Keep the lines of communication open. A desk chat is a great thing; some people react to that. 

They get to know you as a person, a little bit more, and you’re not there to make their life worse, you’re there to try to make everything better for everyone. The combination of all those tactics can help, depending on the organisation, and how it’s run. 

Damien: I’m sure that you have interests outside of technical SEO and development, what piques your interest outside of work?

Dave: I’m a big fan of music, occasionally I used to promote the occasional night, and put the odd band on. 

I love going to the smaller band. I love an arena tour; everyone does. But I love going to a small venue with a couple of hundred people in and getting up close and watching a real band perform. Right now I am really enjoying Falling Red.

Damien: On your website, you say ‘technical SEO done right’. Tell us, what does right mean for you?

Dave: Right means the most significant thing, in all honesty, is consistency. I am ticking off the basics consistently. Don’t worry so much about the arcane and strange, but just get those basics right. It’s surprising how often the basics result in big wins. 

Using something like the testing tools from Google to make sure a website can be read and indexed. Making sure you have a Google Search Console verified profile, so you can see your website is getting crawled, cover off those bases. I don’t think every site needs to run Lighthouse and get 100 to do well.

Getting those things consistently ticked off and making sure everything works as it is supposed to and is tested for quality assurance are essential. Test and measure and track over time. Make sure new features are not accidentally pushing something like a ‘noindex’ that’s gone in, or there’s another command that’s missing when it should not be.

It’s not always about being clever with some latest most exceptional machine learning, NLP powered super thing that’s going to write all your ALT tags for you. These are great things, and I’m not knocking them, but before all of that comes the basics. 

Take your time to look through the basics, stack everything up because that’s the stuff racking up over time with Google. 

You can get a lot of technical debt, bits wrong here, bits wrong there, and you’re constantly tweaking. And it’s always in a state of flux, and you’re never quite sure what you’ve broken and what you’ve fixed. 

So just try and get everything in alignment, and consistent and just keep it going from that.

Damien: What would be your top three priority technical things a site owner needs to get right, what would those three things be?

Dave: The three things would be to make sure that you can be crawled, that you are being crawled and what’s being crawled is what you expect.

Making sure your site and your pages are discoverable and being crawled. Sitemap XML is a great addition to that, they can help Google discover your URLs, but if something matters, make sure it’s linked to from other pages on your site. 

If a page is linked from nowhere else, they don’t have an idea of the context of how important that is. If you have a page and you think Google and people should care about it, make sure it’s linked to canonically. 

Make sure Google is crawling your site, so you look to Google Search Console. Look at what’s getting picked up, what’s going excluded. And look at your log files. That’s where it’s great to make friends with your developers if you’ve not got that oversight. 

You get great insight from looking at your web server log files. You can see how Googlebot accesses your site, and the pages users arrive at.

Your log files tell you what Google is doing, and then Search Console shows you why it has done that, in a sense.

Use the URL Inspection tool. Make sure what you expect Google to be getting is what they’re getting. Have a look at the rendered HTML. Have a look at all the different elements, and the render is appearing as you expect. We’ve got more complex solutions, things like dynamic rendering solutions where the point is to serve items differently but can go wrong if not adequately considered.

Damien: There are rivers of gold in web server log files. Where could Google improve the Search Console further, Dave?

Dave: It’s a tricky one with the Search Console. Some of the messages are not great. You’ll go into the coverage report, for example, and something is called a ‘crawl anomaly’. It’s why having web server log files are essential because they have different goals. 

Google’s very bothered about putting actionable information out via Search Console. Maybe some of those things aren’t actionable for everybody. 

There are almost two kinds of people using the Search Console. Somebody who does their site and they want to use that as your console. They want data that they can see and understand, and do something with. 

Then there’s maybe another enterprise tier, where the volume limitation on the amount of data we get back can be a genuine issue. Search Console will report on the coverage issue and you’ll get 1,000 rows of data. 

For the majority of sites, it gives enough data. For enterprise sites, the sampling and limitations of data can be an issue.  

There are some great tools in Bing Webmaster Tools too, and people should sign up for Bing Webmaster Tools as well as Google Search Console. Some of the issues that they can highlight affect both. 

In some ways, I’m glad that there is the alternative and glad that Bing has started to invest more resources in their tools. Competition drives innovation. Some people have perhaps not worried too much about Bing, because they’re only interested in Google. Well, that’s daft as Bing can still be a great source of traffic. There are many things that Bing will highlight that maybe Google has missed that are actionable and affect you in both, so very much so. Bing may be lacking on the rendering side, but they’ve some great tools for links and crawl errors.

Damien: You’ve been doing SEO for several years, and giving back to the web by helping people with their SEO questions in the Google Search Console webmaster forums, when did that begin?

Dave: I started posting on there a while ago and stuck around. I’ve probably answered thousands of questions in the last five or so years. It’s just one of those things that I enjoy doing. I probably got a little bit more involved with it at the beginning of 2017. 

We were ‘Top Contributors’ back then, and then they rebranded us to be ‘Product Experts’.

Damien: Are there any questions that surprise you or shock you today, that you see in the forums?

Dave: There are, a lot of people have the same concerns, and they raise the same things. To them, their website is their livelihood, and it’s their baby. It’s what they care about so they’ll come with their concerns. 

We get quite a lot of shocking, both in terms of something new or something we’ve not come across before, the oddities, or you’ll get people coming with stuff that is just awful, and maybe they’ve followed some terrible advice. 

You know, you think, ‘I can’t believe it’s 2020 and they’ve read some spam-like that’, but then you have to take a step back and consider they’re not an SEO professional and maybe they’ve read something that they’ve come across to them this is all new. 

It’s kind of shocking sometimes that the misinformation is still out there, but it’s also not shocking, unfortunately, because a lot of it is believable, a lot of it sounds like a solution.

We’re always friendly, but sometimes we have to say ‘you can do better’. It can be shocking sometimes when you see blatant spam or junk, and sometimes it’s surprising when you see an SEO company come into the forums asking why their page is this not ranking number one?

Then there are the small sites, the mom and pop store, they have perhaps in good faith hired somebody to do something, and it is their livelihood, so they’re probably kind of annoyed. 

They’re probably really annoyed at Google because they used to get traffic from Google, now they don’t. That sucks. It’s not great, and it can be very worrying. 

You have just to remember that, they’re not mad at you, at Dave Smart, they’re mad at Google, and the situation, their problem. It comes back to having empathy and trying to set them on the right path. Also, try to set expectations.

Sometimes it’s something straightforward, or very obvious. Those things are great, but they are few and far between. 

They often will need to spend a lot of time and a lot of focus to improve their site incrementally. You need to set those expectations because if that does mean that somebody is not going to be able to pay the bills next month and they’re relying on you to say ‘Google is going to fix it’. It’s not in our power to do that. 

We’re not Google employees, we don’t have access to a magic button to make Joe Bloggs’ site rank well, and nor would I want to. We’re there to advise from our experiences as fellow users.

It’s kind of like being a triage. Yes, all sorts of everything, I’ll spend an hour or so a day, and answer 20 or 30 questions. That’s 20 or 30 more people, sites, issues where you can learn something. You see so much, and you see how people think, you see strange things, is a critical learning process. You learn to dig through very quickly and diagnose what they could be doing better?

Damien: And what are some of those challenges that you’ve seen site owners have time and again?

Dave: It varies, it comes in waves, you’ll see a lot of different things. Very often, it is a lot of bad content, or mediocre content is very common. Where it’s terrible people quite often know. Maybe they spun it, and perhaps they copied it, it’s that level of mediocrity.

They might have spent some time writing a lot of content, but it’s nothing unique. It’s nothing good, in a way, it’s also not very true because you’ve never seen what you’re writing about in your life. You’ve read some specifications, and you’ve written something poorly. We get a lot of that kind of stuff. People think it’s a case of volume, whereas really if they slow down and create something of quality. Something that’s you have a voice, be individual. 

Damien: Google has said they want site owners to focus on creating high-quality content for users and not to chase their algorithms. The Search Quality Team have said low quality content won’t necessarily be indexed.

Dave: I don’t think it’s an entirely new thing. It’s become more visible because of Search Console changes. We now get to see things like ‘crawled, not indexed’ and stuff like that. In some ways, at least if you’ve got visibility, you know you need to step up your game, whereas in the past maybe you got a page with a ‘noindex’, but did not notice.

Damien: Thinking about the people who have had the most significant influence in your life so far, who has had the most positive impact on you?

World War II veteran, Tank Commander Windsor Swift receives the Order national de la Légion d’Honneur medal, with his grandson, Dave Smart.

Dave: I was always close to my grandparents; I’d spend a lot of time with my granddad, Lance-Corporal Windsor Swift. He was a World War 2 veteran and would often talk to me about the importance of being decent. He drummed that into me from an early age, and that has stuck with me. 

He was in 4th/7th Royal Dragoons. We got to present him with the Order national de la Légion d’Honneur medal the French government sent to him for his part in D Day and the liberation of France. Proud day.

In my first job, in the aerospace industry, my boss there, Derrick Griffiths, was excellent because he taught people that you should be curious. That you should question stuff, that you should improve yourself and learn by asking questions. 

You can approach stuff if you’re prepared to ask a question. If you’re ready to say ‘I don’t know, I’ll go and find out’. If you prepared to ask what may seem like the stupid questions or the simple questions, even if you think you know them because sometimes you don’t. That always stood me in good stead for the rest of it.

Damien: Part of what makes you as a person are the experiences that others are generous enough to share. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?

Dave: Take your time, because not everything comes naturally, even though it’s not nice to think you don’t know something. Another bit of advice is don’t feel ashamed about being wrong. You don’t want to be wrong about it, you want to try and get it right, being wrong about something is an opportunity to learn to improve yourself. 

Being too obsessed and arguing your point, without listening to reason, without accepting that, ‘Hold on, I might not know about this’, doesn’t mean that you have to say ‘I don’t know’ to everything. Be prepared to learn, be ready to be wrong, and not be ashamed about that, and be prepared not to give a stuff about those that do try and shame you for that.

Damien: Where do you think we are right now in the SEO industry, Dave?

Dave: Things moving in the right direction; it’s maturing. Many people grew up with Google and search engines as their library. Things change a lot, this is a technical industry, and things change so fast. 

There’s sometimes friction between the new people who are wanting to learn and wanting to learn in public and bringing new ideas. There are significant pushbacks and rejection of that sometimes. So, there are some growing pains. There needs to be some honesty, and we need to learn as an industry from everybody, somebody who’s been doing it a couple of years might share something brilliant that you never knew. 

Damien: Yes, there are so many people sharing brilliant approaches to SEO, were they using automation and new ways of thinking to help solve complex problems.

Dave: Exactly, and that should be applauded and pushed forward and not pushed back. Maybe we’re turning the corner there’s been a lot of voices and a lot of conversation, uncomfortable conversations about representation, of both women and people of colour in the industry; particularly at the minute. Those conversations can feel a little awkward to listen to as a white man, and I am thinking ‘Am I part of that?’. You’ve got to be honest with yourself, encourage, applaud and push the new voices into the limelight where you can.

You don’t know everything because you’ve been doing it for a long time. SEO did not start and finish back in 2000, and nothing’s ever changed. The world’s massively different, and it’ll be massively different next year. That ability to grow, to listen to the new voices, and see who’s coming up. Take some of their lessons on as it makes everyone better.

Damien: What do you think the future of SEO is?

Dave: Thinking back to my answer earlier, about the three things – question those three basics. Google is insatiable, and they want to index good content. You could say, in some ways, that their rational goal would be to make technical SEO not necessary. I don’t see that ever really happening. 

Google needs to be able to access your content to get the data. You need to be able to present things in friendly ways that ensure this access. Where SEO is going to go, I don’t know. Keeping abreast of Google changes as we’re going to see them able to index more types of data and in different ways. 

There’s probably a lot to come in terms of images, and image search being more than just a text that’s around the image. They will be able to understand the objects within an image better. Look at Google Lens, for example, the Pixel phone is increasingly powerful. There’s so much rich context, so long term that’s maybe where it’s going to go. Start thinking more holistically about that kind of thing. 

Voice search is a much-fated area, but I don’t think it will be too much different from what we have now. You’re inputting a string, and it’s outputting a string or a chained response to a query. It doesn’t yet feel natural to research. Say you wanted to find out ‘how is a shoe made’, that’s not a natural voice query because you can’t select all these different things without it becoming overwhelming.

I do think voice search will grow, but I don’t think it will detract from other modes of search. People may worry too much about whether voice search will be complementary, and that it’s going to grow in addition to it.

Damien: You’ve been very generous with your time. I appreciate it. Dave, and it’s my shout when we can, take care.

Follow Dave on Twitter @DaveWSmart and discover Dave’s work at Tame the Bots.