Conversations in Search: Barry Adams

Barry Adams is principal SEO and founder of Polemic Digital

Barry Adams has been doing SEO for more than a decade, working for many national and international news organisations.

Barry focuses primarily on delivering in-depth SEO site audits for news publishers and large eCommerce sites, working alongside editorial and product teams to improve visibility in all areas of organic search. Some of his clients include The Guardian, Fox News, TechRadar, and Investing.com.

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: Hey, Barry, thanks for your time time. How are you and your family at the moment?

Barry: Yeah, we’re all right; we’re grand. We’ve been fortunate actually, but then we’ve been relatively strict in our adherence to the lockdown anyway. My wife’s mother is quite elderly, she’s in her 80s now and has an underlying condition, so we try not to put her at risk, and my wife still has to go and see her every fortnight to check up on the food stock and medicine. That means we have to make sure we stay safe as well.

Damien: That’s good to hear. So you’re based in Belfast and you’re famously a Dutchman in Belfast.

Barry: Yeah, it’s good. I quite like living in Belfast. My name doesn’t give away my Dutch roots, so people are always a bit baffled when they hear me speak. ‘Barry Adams’ sounds like it should be a local name, but then they hear there’s a bit of a different accent going on. You see them think ‘Can I ask it, is it okay to ask where he’s from?’.

I tend just to say I’m actually from the Netherlands. I get the confusion, I do. My accent is getting more and more Northern Irish anyway as time goes on, I’ve been here 11 years, it’s home now. 

Damien: Where did you grow up in the Netherlands? Did you do your studies over there?

Barry: I grew up in Eindhoven, in the deep south of the Netherlands and spent a few years in University, at the Fontys Hogescholen campus. It turns out I picked the wrong subjects, I did a Business and IT combined degree which turned out to be very business-focused with a little bit of IT.

I got lucky in the timeframe, and we’re talking to the mid to late 1990s when anybody who knew how to use a computer pretty much got pulled off the street and put it into an office. Because I had experience with computers, I could very immediately make a full-time job from my first part-time job at a call centre after I stopped my University studies. 

Then I got headhunted by a subcontracting company, Yacht, and did a lot of sub-contracting for companies like Philips. They trained me up to be a network engineer. I had some short-term contracts for six months, and they had a few long term contracts through Yacht, one of them lasted nearly three years. I was put into lots of different environments and was treated like an employee, even though I was subcontracting which felt like having two employers at the same time. 

Damien: Then you moved on to work at Philips full-time?

Barry: The contract with Philips is when I decided to focus on the web. I was part of a 50 strong team, focusing on the philips.com website and everything that it contained. It was an excellent operation, and I was one little cog in a big operation. I was one of the engineers, updating content and improving the site.

I felt massively out of my depth but very excited at the same time. Up to then, I had experience with some web stuff primarily intranet and a little bit of internet stuff too, for Phillips as a subcontractor. Starting at Philips direct was my first proper job as part of a pure web-focused team. 

I found that fascinating. The technical folks for the job hired me, but I very quickly realised that it wasn’t a purely technical endeavour. That it was the marketing people pretty much in charge of the website and the technical folks worked for marketing. 

That was a bit of an eye-opener to me because up to then I had been pretty much exclusively in technology only environments. While I enjoyed the technical challenges, I always felt at times, and I was sort of working in a vacuum doing technology work for the sake of technology. I suddenly realised that what I was doing is technical, but it’s aimed at people.

That changed the dynamic for me, a sort of a lightbulb moment, and I realised this is something I want to do, for me, this gives more meaning to my work. It was more like a feeling at the time, not a clear awareness, I realised the value of it in my career later, on reflection. 

Damien: You completed the contract at Philips, and your international journey started, tell us about that?

Barry: As a spur of the moment thing. I am a Gamer, and at the time, I was mad about World of Warcraft. Edwin is a friend of mine who was based in Cork, and working for Apple. He said ‘You know what? I’m going to be a ‘gamemaster’ for World of Warcraft in France. Do you want to come along?

I applied for it, and after a series of remote interviews, I borrowed my mum and dad’s car, drove over to France for a face to face interview. It took me a full five and a half hours to drive over there in a Ford Scorpio, a big beast of a car with an automatic transmission, so it was great to drive on the motorways. I got hired, then just packed up and moved to France. My mum and dad were on holiday in South Africa at the time on an extended holiday visiting the family there. When they came back, I’d already moved to France.

I was in that job for just six months. The only reason I left was that I had a flat in Eindhoven which I’d bought several years earlier, and I just couldn’t sell it. The housing market had started to slump. I couldn’t afford to pay rent in France, and have a mortgage in Eindhoven and thought ‘Shit, I’ve got to make a choice here.’ So I moved back to the Netherlands, which was a bit of a shame, but I have no regrets about that adventure, it was terrific fun.

I moved back to a job in Amsterdam and commuted for a bit. I had lots of different jobs, actually, and then I finally landed a job in Eindhoven at a company called Handheld Products. They put me in charge of the International website, and then I was ‘International Webmaster’; which is still the coolest job title I’ve ever had. 

The most exciting market I worked on was the Japanese market. It was an eye-opener because of cultural differences and norms. We had to adapt our branding, and the local sales people wanted to take ownership of their website as well rather than just leave it to the central offices.

I remember they sent me to Shanghai, to the Shanghai office to deliver training to the people there. People from Japan, China and Korean offices came to Shanghai for me to train them on the content management system, and how to upload content and all that. I was still relatively young at the time, at least I felt young, and it was just such a big deal for me to go there and deliver training. 

The teaching was the first time I did that in a formal environment. I think the root of enjoying teaching was from my time at call centres where you had to explain technical stuff to people who barely know how to use a computer sometimes.

Damien: You then got into publishing SEO with Independent News & Media in 2010, was that a turning point in your SEO career?

Barry: Yes, Independent News & Media, The Belfast Telegraph came knocking they needed someone with some SEO expertise, and that was a real pivotal moment for me because that’s when I fell in love with the news industry in the context of SEO. The sheer speed at which SEO worked.

SEO has always been a long term activity, a slow builder. Not so with the news. News is as close to real-time SEO as you can get. You make changes, and you do things differently you will see resolved reasonably quickly with news, especially in those days when Google News was, let’s be honest a relatively simple algorithm. It was ridiculous the amount of traffic you could get quickly from Google News in those days. Google News has significantly improved since then.

Damien: You decided to start an agency, Polemic Digital, in 2014. Tell us the story that led you to that moment?

Barry: Well, I was working for an agency at the time, a local agency called The Tomorrow Lab, who again headhunted me away from The Belfast Telegraph. I enjoyed the agency environment, it was different because of that, and all my jobs have been more or less in-house. The agency side was fast-paced, very creative, and I worked with some brilliant people. I got promoted to digital director, and then I realised that I’d become a manager rather than a doer. We were doing quite well, and I had a knack for hiring good people. 

I fully understand that a lot of people take a job as a nine to five thing and then go home, and that’s fine as long as in that 9 to 5 time they put their best foot forward, and they care about it. I wasn’t perfect with my hiring process, but I hired people who were good at their jobs and who got better at their jobs all the time. We were winning awards, winning big contracts, getting new business in, and I realised I didn’t like my job.

I just didn’t like what my day to day job consisted of. I didn’t know what to change until I woke up in the middle of the night one night with the thought to work for myself. So, I talked it over with my wife, Alison, I was afraid she’d be a bit apprehensive, but she said ‘Go for it, let’s make it happen’ and we haven’t looked back since. I could not have done it without my wife; that’s for sure. The idea to use the name Polemic came naturally because I am direct and have strong opinions.

It took me quite a long time after I started the business to convince her to join me in the company because she had a great career. I’m not good with money, and she is very good with money. After several years, in 2017, I finally convinced her to join me in the business, so it’s a two-person business. She does all the commercial stuff, and I do the SEO.

Damien: That’s fantastic. Turning to SEO, you’re a guest lecturer at the Ulster University, which you’ve been doing since 2011, how do you prepare students for the challenges of the SEO world?

Barry: One of the things I try is to give the students a basic understanding of how search engines work because it immunises them from all these trends and hypes that you see going around. 

One year it’s content marketing, the next is growth hacking, and the following year its influencer marketing. If you stick to ground principles of good marketing and the ground principles of SEO, you tend not to get caught up in the hype. You can stay focused on building long term value for the business and website users.

I’m advising them to build lasting value, make a website that people will want to visit that Google will want to reward with good rankings. Don’t try to find this shortcut because they don’t exist anymore. Then promote the shit out of it and don’t skimp on the technology. If you start making money with the website, make it better, improve the design, improve the content, make it faster and continue to re-invest to improve the website.

Damien: All of those things often compete for scope and resources. If all are of equal importance, by and large, how do you prioritise what to do first?

Barry: That’s the thing that you learn by experience, isn’t it? There’s no real one standard answer. It always depends on the context. I see a lot of companies making decisions that benefit them in the short term, but in the long run, can be very dangerous to their brand and their website.

For example, pop-ups that make money or ‘dark design patterns’ they put in there to extract a little bit more value from every customer. I think that’s a dangerous path to go down because those things actively make interacting with a website a bad experience.

Damien: What do you think the most significant competitive advantages are in digital marketing today?

Barry: Responding quickly can be a real competitive advantage. I think a lot of big companies especially are weighed down by internal momentum and slow decision-makers or just old school thinking. They’re not able to adapt to the rapid change of pace on the internet. 

I will relate to one of my earlier examples of the Belfast Telegraph, where I realised it was time for me to move on when they wanted to implement a schedule. They had two paper editions that they printed every day, the morning and the afternoon editions. They didn’t want the website to take over for people buying the paper.

They planned content from the morning edition would publish to the website after 12 noon, and content from the afternoon edition had to wait until after 4 pm before being released to the site. I was like, ‘Yeah, no, that’s that’s such backward thinking I mean what the fuck are we doing here’. You have got to be able to adapt and focus on what people want from you right now and not be too slow in all sorts of battles. 

Most competitors will be slower, and if you can be faster than them, you can capitalise on that. You can claim market share, loyal audiences and loyal customers that the competitor just has no idea how even to begin winning back market share.

Senior people need to stop putting their own opinion first and listen to the smart people that they hire. I know many people who have worked in digital for years, who were entirely hamstrung by senior management. If you hire smart people, get out of the fucking way and let them do their thing, listen to them and let them add their value.

Damien: Tell us more about smart people adding their value, what does that mean for you?

Barry: I get this a lot as an external consultant now as well where I get hired by people who know all too well what they need to fix on their website and what they need to change, but nobody in senior management listens to them. 

Then I come in, and they pay me thousands of pounds to tell them what they already know, and only then the senior manager will say ‘Yeah, okay let’s go and do that’, and it’s because an expensive external consultant said it. I don’t mind making money, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time, I shouldn’t have to. Most in-house SEOs are so good, they know what they need to do, just fucking listen to them, let them do their thing.

Too many senior managers are entrenched in their little domains, and it makes them hesitant. They get awarded on quarterly quotas and targets, and they’re risk-averse. They don’t realise that they’re creating the higher risks themselves, they’re creating the problems that will cause the downfall in the long run.

Damien: Taking a longer-term view, thinking in terms of 5, 10, even 20 years, companies would be better off.

Barry: Yes, but that’s something that also their bosses need to realise that comes from the upper echelons of the company. Too many companies have too much of a short term focus and not enough of a long term focus.

With this short term focus that lots of businesses have what are the under-utilised SEO opportunities, where should business owners be spending their time?

They are generating long term value for the customers. I’ll give an example. Law firms are notoriously terrible at SEO because one of the best SEO tactics, content marketing, is something law firms are very hesitant to do because they feel they’re giving away the secret sauce.

Give it away, and people will still come to you. More people will come to you because you’re giving away the secret sauce. The businesses that win contracts are the ones that blog the most, and speak the most and are the most generous with their knowledge because people trust their expertise.

Don’t hide it all behind paywalls and walled gardens and proprietary content. No, that’s not the way to win the trust and build a brand, quite the opposite. 

Damien: It’s apt that your answer focuses not only on SEO but more on building a brand and trust.

Barry: Yeah, it took me a long time to be won over by that perspective. The early days when Google used to say ‘Just write great content’ I rolled my eyes so hard they perpetually stuck in the back of my head. Whereas now, I’m the one singing that song. I’m the one preaching to the choir because it is unavoidable.

There are still some scenarios where you can win in SEO without building a brand, especially where there’s not a lot of brand loyalty and not a lot of repetitive business. Increasingly people want to know that they’re doing business with a company that they can trust, a company that’s reliable, and a company that delivers quality. You can’t get there without building your brand.

Damien: Where is your focus now, Barry, with SEO?

Barry: I’ve been fortunate to have that experience at The Belfast Telegraph and then later build on carving out a niche in news SEO, working with news publishers in the UK and further afield.

It’s a fascinating niche for me to be in because it’s a fast-moving industry, and it plays to my strengths as an SEO. I am still a bit of a technology nerd, and in news SEO, most news websites accumulate links by being a news publisher. So it’s more about all the other aspects of SEO which are the aspects that I enjoy.

I still work for some publishers who are more interested in quantity over quality, but even then you see that perception slowly starting to shift. They’re like ‘Okay we don’t necessarily have to push 1,000 articles a day. We just have to publish articles with more depth.’ 

Damien: Barry, tell us about your values, what is it that drives you?

Barry: I don’t think I’ve ever put them into words. I believe in honesty, I believe in being generous and not expecting anything back in return. I believe in people who are better off looking after people who are worse off. 

Despite all the negative news that we see, on the whole, humankind is on the right path. We’re living longer than ever, and fewer people are in poverty than ever before, more people being able to afford food and take care of their families and ever before. 

We are bombarded with bad news, and we lose sight of that not realising that the good news massively outweighs the bad news, but it just doesn’t get reported. Nobody reads the good news, everybody reads the bad news.

Damien: What do your family think of your job choice, of pursuing the technology career?

Barry: I think they always pushed me towards technology and IT and I think the only thing I’d let him down is that I never finished a degree. Because my career hasn’t been too negatively affected by that, I think they’ve sort of forgiven me for that. I hope I make them proud. Both my parents encouraged technology from a young age.

I was 12 years old when we got our first computer in the house, and it was an 8086, 16 megahertz PC with a 16 colour EGA screen. My mum, Marianna, and dad, Cees, let me play around with that. I’d destroy it and then have to re-install all the software to make it work again. I got interested in computer technology, just by messing up the computer and then my dad gave me a stack of floppy disks to say right go and fix it and re-install the operating system. 

Also because I was trying to play the first Civilisation game on this computer well, and this was a computer with 640 kilobytes of RAM, and Civ needed one megabyte. Still, I managed to get it running by minimising the OS to the absolute bare knuckles. Ah, it was trial and error of deleting different system files, I destroyed that computer so often it became a running joke.

Damien: What are the accomplishments that you’d like to be known for?

Barry: That’s not for me to answer, Damien. My father, Cees, is a man who’s got accomplishments. He got a knighthood in the Netherlands. He worked for Philips for 40 years of his life, and retired and then worked even harder as a volunteer for organisations for people with mental disabilities. My younger sister, Monica, has Down syndrome, my parents, especially my father, have been very much involved in those sorts of organisations for a very long time.

From Left to Right: Jackson (Marlies's son), Marlies (older sister), Marianne (mum), me, Cees (dad), and Monica (younger sister)
From Left to Right: Jackson (Marlies’s son), Marlies (older sister), Marianne (mum), me, Cees (dad), and Monica (younger sister)

Damien: Google iterates every day. They find, crawl, select and display the search results, what’s next, what’s the future of SEO?

Barry: The way I see it is that Google will send less and less traffic to websites, but it does still need websites to populate search results with, and then send people to the actual final destination that we’re looking at, and I’m with Jono Alderson on this. He and I have independently arrived at the same conclusion that websites are becoming less for human consumption and more just data sources for systems like search engines.

An eCommerce app, for example, will become more like a catalogue for Google to take a product from and then show in whatever context Google deems it necessary. Which can be a search result but can also be an interactive voice search query or inside an app or whatever it is.

Google abandoned the bargain with webmasters many years ago. It was an unwritten rule that they very quickly violated when they started showing ads in search results and realised you know what, we can make a fortune off of this. 

Google still needs the web, but it doesn’t need the web to be as big as it is at the moment. If the web was one-tenth the size it currently is Google still has enough information to feed the search results and then make massive profits. 

They don’t care if nine out of 10 online businesses go bust, they don’t care. That doesn’t affect their bottom line at the least. We care because it’s our businesses, they don’t care, in the end, it’s a publicly-traded company, they only care about profit. 

That’s, of course, a bit of a shortcut. There’s a lot of people working for Google who have good intentions and who want to connect people to products and information that they’re looking for with the least amount of friction possible. But when push comes to shove, Google will always choose what makes them the most money.

I think Google is too big, by all definitions, they are a monopoly. I am still hoping that some nationwide or European-wide regulators will stop being soft with them and say ‘You know what, let’s get break this fucking company up; because they’re too big, and have too much power’.

The standard capitalist argument is to let someone better come along, but that doesn’t apply anymore because monopolies have so much power they see those competitors coming a mile away and just scorch them or buy them up.

Damien: How are you preparing for this future of Google being the catalogue of choice, as opposed to delivering users to client websites, what sort of things are you asking your clients to invest?

Barry: I am preparing my clients by making their content machine-readable and enabling them to tap into all kinds of different platforms that may not exist yet. I’ll give you an example, I recommend implementing ‘speakable’ structured data markup, which will help the news articles to be read out loud by the voice assistant. There is no monetisation for that at all at the moment. Still, it will probably pay to be an early adopter with that technology, because the monetisation will come as the use-cases grow.

Damien: What thinkers, authors or speakers outside of SEO do you admire?

Barry: There’s a few. I’ve been listening to Scott Galloway recently. He’s a marketing professor who has some exciting ideas. Rutger Bregman, he’s a Dutchman and published Utopia for Realists and Humankind. Both books are inspiring and paint a more positive picture of the future. As I said, we get mired in negativity too much, not realising that on the whole, we’re going in the right direction as a species.

The Four by Scott Galloway
The Four by Scott Galloway

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Damien: Let’s go back to the mental health point we touched on earlier. The last few years there’s been a tendency for new people in the SEO industry to put their ideas and hypotheses out there, and when they do, they often get shouted at, ridiculed or shut down.

Barry: I’ll be entirely frank with you, Damien, I used to be that guy who shut others down. It took me a while to realise my behaviour was toxic. In my early days, when I tried to make a name for myself, I thought that I needed to shout loud and be aggressive. 

I was just pissing people off, and not contributing anything meaningful to the discussion. I’ve realised coarseness is not a means of adding real value. I’ve had cases of being shouted down, and learned from it that it is uncomfortable. When that happens, I try to take stock of it, and learn from it.

It becomes dangerous when it turns from criticism to harassment and trolling. That’s when I draw the line. I think people should be open to critique, but it needs to be constructive and meaningful criticism without belittling the person.

Damien: There is no room to belittle people trying to learn or share their ideas. I agree; all opinions need to be open to being respectfully questioned. Keeping on this, what can SEOs improve?

Barry: I think we’re already improving to a large extent as a profession. We’re starting to speak the languages of other disciplines rather than sitting in a silo.

We’re communicating more like developers, talking more like marketers too. We need to improve the way we sell the value of SEO to people who are sceptical about it — having those sorts of difficult discussions where we have to ask clients to put their faith in us, and being able to sell that effectively.

Everybody wants that silver bullet that one piece of magic and pixie dust sprinkled over the website and voila you’re at the top of Google. We still get stuck in our jargon and don’t necessarily see the more comprehensive picture and the struggles that the business might be facing beyond SEO.

Damien: What do you want to understand more about Google, Barry?

Barry: I think Google doesn’t necessarily understand Google anymore. It’s become such a vast and complicated machine. There are so many moving parts in there, and some parts are deliberately opaque. Google has made them deliberately concealed to give them plausible deniability. 

It’s why they went so hard on the machine learning route and ‘Rank Brain’ and all of that, so they can say hey it’s not us, it’s the machines. 

Humans code the machines, the machine learning algorithms train on data selected, collected and parsed by people for specific outcomes that people aim for, and have decided as an editorial decision that that is quality and the other stuff is not quality. 

What I would like to know about Google is how they measure the effectiveness of those core algorithm updates, and what they are aiming for when they say, this is a quality website and that is not a quality website. If you look at the winners and losers of a lot of those algorithm updates, you can’t make heads or tails of them.

Damien: Barry, thank you. I’m looking forward to our next chat.


Follow Barry on Twitter @badams and learn about Polemic Digital.