Conversations in Search: James Rippon

James Rippon is Global SEO Manager for VW at PDH

James Rippon has lived the archetypal surfer lifestyle, growing up in Australia and cutting his marketing teeth as a content producer, and now leads the SEO globally for VW at PhD.

James studied at Southern Cross University, earning his Bachelor of Business majoring in 2009. James enjoys keeping active with cycling and spending quality time with his wife, Emily, and daughter, Lowe.

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 very much for taking the time to have a chat, James. How are you doing, really, right now?

James: It’s an interesting time, isn’t it? It’s hard to judge how we’re kind of getting on really because we can’t escape it. On the surface, I think I’m doing okay. I’m healthy, my family’s healthy, I am still working, as busy as ever, you’ve just got to crack on really.

Damien: That’s great to hear. In time we will all reflect on these times and learn something of ourselves and others. James, let’s begin by learning more about your background?

James: Yeah, so I’m from Australia originally, and I went to Southern Cross University, which is on the Gold Coast in Queensland. At the time digital wasn’t spoken about, I can not remember the words, ‘SEO’ or even ‘digital marketing’ being spoken about at all during my time at Uni, just 11 years ago.

I guess it’s like all education, it’s a bit behind what’s happening, where industry is in real life. Even now, some brands probably aren’t focusing on digital. Indeed, 11 years ago, not many companies were focused on digital, but that’s changed now. I’ve started doing mentoring as part of an alumni mentoring programme, and I’m mentoring a student now. Her whole course is digital marketing.

Damien: Our industry is fast-paced, Google comes out with search improvements daily, tell us where you work and what you see as the fundamentals to search optimisation?

James: I work for a PhD Global, part of Omnicom Media Group one of the more extensive agency networks, and I work on the Volkswagen account, but it’s their global accounts we don’t implement but help guide their strategy and make sure there’s consistency across markets. Rather than working intensely with a single market, we ensure alignment of the global strategy.

You know, we talk about it a lot, but it all comes back to focusing on users. It’s something that can kind of get lost when we’re focusing on really niche SEO topics. 

The fact is, everything we do should be for our customers and our users and of having a fundamental understanding of their needs, and how we can answer their queries to help them achieve their goals. 

Putting users first gives us so much more. We can get lost in the metrics and in the KPIs that we have, sometimes they don’t always align with the users. We have to realign them so that everything we’re doing is always for the benefit of the user.

Damien: Tell me James, is agency life as I’ve seen on TV, ‘Mad Men’, about you know, the long lunches and such?

James: Ha! No, I don’t think so, at least not now. It can be intense, but again I don’t know as this is my first agency role. I kind of did it backwards, I came out of Uni and took some years off. I became almost obsessed with startups and dived headfirst into the startup world. I spent a few years working in startups. 

I was focused on their broader digital marketing, always with SEO as part of those roles, but never purely SEO. In small startups, you can’t always be focused on one channel all the time, and it is just not how it works. 

I always was drawn back to and deeper into SEO, so I then started getting into roles that were more focused on SEO. Eventually, I went to the agency side. A lot of people I’ve come across almost go to agencies first, build some knowledge there and then go in-house, but I did it the other way around. 

Damien: Do you think that you know your experience in the startup community and the entrepreneurial world that that sort of you know encompasses gave you a better balance of appreciation for digital?

James: Yeah, I think it also made me super hungry. It helped in enabling the ability not to be complacent and to embrace change. If you’re maybe working in a more prominent company, early in your career, you might not get that mindset as fast or as quickly. 

It’s helped, even more so in the last few years as SEO has changed exponentially, or has undoubtedly become more technical. You could have worked in a purely content role and not thought about technical SEO too much a few years ago, but that’s not the case anymore.

Having that ability to embrace change has helped me enjoy my work and enjoy the fact that things don’t always stay the same, because your role never remains the same, and indeed, the search engines are ever-changing.

Damien: There must be some complexity working on a global account, interacting with local market stakeholders to have them see your vision and enact it. How do you tackle that effectively?

James: It’s hard a lot of the time, but it’s about relationship building. You build a relationship with local stakeholders, for them to believe you and trust you, and trust your guidance for your ideas. 

There’s a lot of relationship-building when you’re working in a global role. Even when you’re not talking to individual markets, but talking to anybody within the company, it’s all about building relationships. There’s many stakeholders involved in these projects and so many touch points, to get anything done or to understand who the right person is to go to you have to build relationships. Knowing who the right people are and then again, getting them on your side.

Damien: James, take us back to when you first started in SEO?

James: My first role was a content role with Homify in Berlin. I started with not too much understanding of what SEO is and writing content. Then, naturally, when you’re spending so much time creating content, you want to maximise its reach. I started thinking about how I can get more people seeing this content and learnt more about keyword research and on-page optimisation.

We were doing all this content writing, but no one was thinking about how to maximise it, or at least at scale. I took it upon myself to try and understand how I can maximise the reach of this content, and it all snowballed from there. Homify is a platform that connects interior designers and architects to customers. 

A big part of that was content marketing. I was tapping into potential home renovators or home builders looking for some ideas on how to go about tackling these projects. I enjoyed working for those guys.

Damien: What is most challenging about getting SEO buy-in?

James: Getting buy-in from senior stakeholders, in general, has always been hard for SEO. Unless the senior stakeholders or the C-suite, understands or believes in SEO, then it’s going to be hard to prove that this is a valuable channel to be prioritised. You don’t get that initial ROI and rich conversion data straight away as you do with a well-tracked paid channel.

Historically, there’s been so much black hat SEO thrown around, bad advice, and bad SEO work that a lot of people have been probably burned by it. I’ve come across people who have been burned in the past. For a lot of people, there’s a consensus that SEO is a little bit dodgy. 

The mindset has definitely changed recently, but I could imagine ten years ago, or fifteen years ago that if there were senior executives that were engaging with these guys back, then a lot of that still resonates.

I did not come from a technical background, and a lot of people I work with now are developers, and we work together to get technical SEO implemented. 

A lot of the SEOs I’ve worked with have a development background. Those guys in SEO these days have an advantage. People from a content marketing background, like myself, might have been at a slight disadvantage because SEO is so technical now. 

Learning technical SEO is probably the most significant thing I’m most proud of because it’s not something that ever came naturally to me. I was initially intimidated to speak with developers to recommend something to them. Imposter syndrome sets in and you feel like what you’re saying isn’t good enough because these are the guys that develop the website they probably are should already know this. 

The more you speak to developers you realise that they don’t, and then it’s your job to educate and show them that this is worthwhile.

Damien: Is there a maxim which sticks with you, and you think of today?

James: Done is better than perfect. Just getting something done rather than dwelling on it for too long to try and make it perfect so to speak, that’s something that has resonated with me.

I attended a presentation that was given by a neurosurgeon. He suggested our work in any field other than medicine is at the end of the day, just our job; it does not put people’s lives at risk.

We’re not operating on people’s brains, or we don’t have someone’s death on our mind before we go to bed. I know that sounds a little bit grim, but at the end of the day, it’s just a website or web app. 

Damien: There is so much truth there. Thinking of truths, who’s had the most significant impact on your professional career to date?

James: It’s the people outside of my professional life, I think, that have influenced me in the values that I take into work. It sounds super cheesy, but my wife, Emily, she’s so cool, calm and collected all of the time. She takes things in her stride and just gets it done without worrying about too much. I think that’s the right sort of attitude to have in and outside of work. 

Also, my brother who is four years younger than me, he’s not young anymore, but I still see him as my little brother. He’s a pilot now and has always been so dedicated to his craft. He could fly a plane before he could drive a car, and he was taking me and my dad up in a light aircraft when he was about 15. He has maintained that dedication for the last 15 years. He loves flying, and he is very good at it.  

Having a passion for something; anything was a great example that you could takeaway. Being around my brother for a lot of my life and seeing him have that passion for his work has helped me to find passion in something, and to find passion in my own work. 

I do genuinely love what I do. There’s always room to grow and to learn and to change. To want to adapt and to want to embrace that change, I think you have to be passionate about it. My wife and my little brother, who are super close to me, have helped me inside of work and outside.

Damien: Before you found your passion in SEO, tell us more about what you were doing, what did you want to have a career as?

James: I didn’t know, I’ve always enjoyed writing and saw myself as a writer. I didn’t ever want to be a journalist or anything like that. I wasn’t sure in the very early stages of my career how I could incorporate writing into a marketing role. 

I quickly found out that content is a vital part of the web and use my skills to help make better websites. I was not sure where my studies would take me; I was just kind of letting the wind take me and just try everything and put my hand up for everything. 

The worst thing that that could happen is you realise that what you try is something that you don’t want to do. As a matter of trial and error I’ve just been open to trying anything.

Damien: What lessons did you learn from your time working in startups that you carry forward to today?

James: Being adaptable and having to execute means you’re resourceful and making sure everything you’re doing is the right priority, so prioritising as best as you can. Budgets are tight, and time is money,  everything’s time constricted, so you have to make every day count. 

That’s something that was drilled into me pretty early, and I don’t know if you’d adopt those values so early on in your career if you started in some in a more prominent company or a bigger agency or whatever it might be. Being part of a bootstrapped organisation drills home the fact that money is everything and you can’t really dwell on much and get stuck in, get your hands dirty. 

Damien: What do you miss about getting your hands dirty in your role now as a strategist?

James: Working for a startup is very much like everyone’s involved, and the highs and lows impact everyone. You’d become heavily vested in it and watching something grow from almost nothing is super rewarding, where everyone is in it together. 

The excitement of growing your channel from nothing is just as rewarding as those early days of startup experience. I enjoy my job with PhD immensely, in different ways to the enjoyment of working at a more bootstrapped startup.

Damien: There is a difference between creating strategy and implementing tactics from it. When there is a tension to cover gaps, as opposed to being innovative, what side of the equation do you sit?

James: Typically, auto companies did not think digital-first. They’ve been slow to the party when it comes to promoting themselves well online, and even selling their products online. Even now, the concept of buying a car online is still a relatively new thing.

Traditionally people would always go to a dealership, have maybe a test drive or two, speak to a dealership and do the deal there, but that is changing rapidly. VW is acutely aware of the opportunity that exists online for them. We’ve got buy-in from them, and they’re willing to do or willing to take on our strategies and the recommendations we make. 

For some corporations, I can imagine it would not be possible. It is still hard because it’s so big, but it’s more likely to happen because you’ve got buy-in. 

Showing new and innovative ways, or thinking, which is proactive and outside of the box helps them to see they’ve made the right decision; you’re going to get even more buy-in. 

Damien: You’re demonstrating the value and potential wins which are possible with your strategy, leveraging that to gain implementation?

James: Yes, it’s all about proving the value for sure.

Damien: When you’re aiming for the edge of an envelope, how do you sell the value of a cutting edge strategy?

James: Other than telling a great story or showing the value I’d try to model the impact of the activity there is no silver bullet. You need to predict as well as you can how something might perform. Larger companies have a lot of data, more first-party data and data teams that can help you do this. Tapping into the first-party data helps to build those stories and predict value. 

Damien: I’m hearing collaboration with teams outside of SEO, and joining forces, making those friendships across the organisation in multidisciplinary areas can help?

James: Totally, yes. Truthfully, building those relationships and motivating people to be on your side will help you get things done. 

Damien: What are the common challenges that you see people having, where do they get SEO wrong?

James: Thinking about the auto sector, a car is such a high-value product that you’re potentially going to purchase online. Performance and PageSpeed is something that’s not at the forefront and strategies by automakers. They’ve notoriously slow websites that are asset-heavy which have hindered them. 

Because they are so asset-heavy, any strategy needs to tackle this. It’s one thing to have a slow website if all you’re selling is a pair of shoes, but if you’re selling a high priced car people need to be served the most incredible experience online for them to have the trust to then go out and purchase a car from them. 

Damien: I can imagine that brings up some tough conversations with disciplines like the design?

James: Yeah, for sure, and creatives who have this design vision, and an SEO come along and say ‘the performance here is off’ and there’s a need to balance performance and design assets, those tradeoffs come down largely to how invested a product manager is.

Even the most granular things can be bottlenecked by design in isolation. So much of the detail is a kind of ‘table stakes’ for deeper indexation and visibility. SEO and disciplines like design and user experience should be best friends. 

Damien: Preach! I’ve had that before, arguing the balancing point for a performance improvement, versus a design need.

James: And again, perfect, is the enemy of good, right?

Damien: Absolutely, so you drop that argument you move on to the next priority challenge or opportunity?

James: Yeah, the objective of everything we’re doing is to help sell a product which still can sometimes get so absolutely lost. Just take a step back with these guys to explain the value. 

Damien: It goes the other way as well. Some business teams wholly vested in driving revenue that they forget the impact on customer experience. It’s easy to get stuck behind a screen and a KPI in our digital world. Breaking out of those singular points of expertise, singularly, and taking in the entire orchestra is where everyone wins. 

James: 100%. Yeah. 

Damien: Where is SEO as a discipline now, James?

James: I think 2020 will be remembered for apparent reasons, and 2020 will also be a particularly memorable year for SEO. I think that will be still related to COVID-19, right? So I mean for a lot of companies budgets just froze up overnight because of the lockdown. 

I think all of a sudden brands that weren’t focusing on reaching their customers organically, began to see SEO as a valuable channel or started thinking about it more. They start looking at other ways to reach customers. Once there is someone championing SEO and SEO is potentially being spoken about at the C-level when it wasn’t wasn’t before. When they see that it works I think that that message that it works will stick around for a long time with the C-level.

The struggle for SEO as a siloed type of specialism, has largely been with itself. There’s a need to have senior stakeholders, who aren’t just marketing stakeholders, see the benefit of SEO as part of a broader product mix.

SEO no longer, and probably shouldn’t ever have been considered a soiled channel; it has to be part of a holistic strategy. A customer’s journey is so complicated these days with so many touch points. 

It doesn’t make sense to consider just SEO. SEO is only one touchpoint. It’s one channel that forms part of a broader marketing mix or even a more comprehensive product mix, it’s also not just about marketing anymore.

Damien: What three things would you advise a standard business do to improve their SEO performance?

James: I mean, definitely speaking to their customers. Find out their pain points, understand what their real intent is and the language and the nomenclature, or vocabulary, that they use. Understanding users and intent is everything, and there’s only so much you can do by sitting at a screen. Take on that mindset of speaking to people in person, because they are at the end of the day, real people on the other end of these searches.

As SEOs, we’re going to have to understand what machine learning and what AI is for us to do our jobs well. We’re going to have to get buy-in from stakeholders, from clients or whoever because Google’s machine learning applied to SEO results is going to get so advanced, and it’s going to come, thick and fast. We have to genuinely really understand what that is and how we can and how we can use that to our benefit to automating some optimisation tasks. 

Damien: What I’m hearing is to automate and codify some aspects of SEO and that there’s a new world of SEO coming. Now is the time to enlighten clients, and let them know the investment will be obligatory. We’re on a roll, James, what would be the third thing that you would advise a client?

James: It’s to focus on content that is written for humans and not to match a particular search. Putting your focus on content that is human, is real, and has the language that speaks to the customer, product or service-led optimisation which can cover any area to delight customers.

You can uncover new products. Say you find there is a gap between what your product currently is and what your customers want or need or are searching for. You can use that knowledge and understand that gap to then go and speak to a product manager and say look we know that this is what customers want, and customers need it how we can offer this as part of our product or service.

Damien: Where is SEO headed, James?

James: Google has said that its next billion users, and it’s pretty obvious anyway, is going to come from developing nations. In these developing nations, not everyone is going to have the latest mobile phone with super fast processing power. If your potential customers in the future are in these markets and you understand that the best connection they’re ever going to get is 3g. 

I’d like to see the future of search be about designing your product around that. Don’t think that everybody lives in London with the latest iPhone and a 5g connection because they are the outliers. That’s not the real world. 

Developing a product or a website or web app that focuses on the outliers might make you feel good as a developer, but in the real world that’s not what people are using to search on with the hardware and bandwidth they have.

It might be a bit of a far fetched idea, and I’d like to see something along the lines of the environmental costs of what we do become known. 

If you think about it, the web has just grown exponentially. Not only has it developed, but the number of people using the internet has grown and the processing power needed to power a modern website or a web app has grown exponentially because of JavaScript and technology choices.

The processing cost. On behalf of the likes of Google to index it and render it. Yeah, and the users on the other end, finding this these, these, these new this new content these new web apps that take processing power and that processing power costs energy costs.

I know Google operates all its data centres and offices on green energy. But what of the users? We are also on our laptops or mobile phones, searching for things, everyday, and that has an enormous energy impact. All that energy has an environmental cost. I don’t think that’s anything that’s spoken about very much.

I’ve seen plenty of excellent presentations on the cost of JavaScript in terms of performance, on conversions or UX. What has not been highlighted is the cost of JavaScript on the environment. Maybe now is the time for a new JS framework to come out that doesn’t require so much processing power? 

Damien: Do you think that Google might argue the AMP is their first volley in that direction??

James: Potentially, AMP is such a small part of the web that hasn’t taken off at scale yet. Maybe, maybe the first iteration of something along these lines. Building websites that take into account the processing and environmental cost. If the environmental impact was a ranking factor, how nice would that be? That’d be awesome.

Damien: I mean coming from the Gold Coast which is not far from the Great Barrier Reef, you would see the impact of this in terms of rising sea temperatures on the coral reefs. Is there anything else you’d like to mention, James?

James: I have an insatiable desire to learn. That does not just work; that’s everything. It’s the whole Kaizen principle, just get 1% better in each iteration. That can be anything, whatever it is. Have a desire to get better incrementally and not approach it in big chunks. Approach it as one day at a time, one percent of the time.

Damien: That’s awesome, James, thank you so much for your insights, and I am sure there will be plenty of people who benefit from your views. Speak soon.

Follow James on Twitter @RipponJames.