Conversations in Search: Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons is Owner of Re:signal

Kevin has spent the last decade finding himself and the focus of his agency. There’s an ease in the way Kevin tells his story of facing up to challenges, and chasing success. Optimising himself to be better.

A native of Oxfordshire, Kevin lives in Didcot and has resumed his passion for tennis, cycling and has a deferred place to run the London Marathon with his sister Laura, hopefully in 2021. Family values are important to Kevin, as is the time to re-energise by spending time with friends and family.

This post is part of a series called ‘Conversations in Search’. I discuss the current state of SEO practice with other SEO experts and discover their views on the future of SEO.

Damien: How’s it going, Kevin, how are you doing?

Kevin: Yeah, good, everyone’s healthy, and I’m just trying to make the most of the situation, you can’t influence or change it. I’d like to get back to the real world as soon as possible, but there’s not much I can do either way. If you’ve got your health at the moment, then there’s not as much to complain about.

Damien: Absolutely. It brings to light there are many more important things than we previously thought. Thank you for your time to chat, Kevin. Let’s get to know more about you. Take us back to the start of your career, what did you want to do?

Kevin: I studied a mix of computer science and business and was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do. It was a modular course at Oxford Brookes University, and it was called Information Systems and meant I could pick from the business modules too. 

I then did a placement year in 2003 at a web design agency, Domino Systems, in Oxfordshire. It was a great way to learn, I ended up learning web development, sysadmin and later on SEO. The plan was to go back and do my final year to graduate. I was never that academic, and I loved that one year working within the agency. 

At the stage of life I was at, I guess when I was 22 years old I ended up being good at everything great at nothing. Looking back, it was a good experience because I could build websites, do web design / development, my own SEO and paid search. It wasn’t to a high standard, but it was enough to get started. That kind of got me hooked on SEO.

I built some affiliate sites, and I did a project at Oxford Brookes in my final year, which I had the rights to. I created a website for a driving school and I got smart enough at SEO at that point to realise a webspace was quite powerful. I optimised the project and got it indexed in Google, ranking number one for all of the driving school + Oxford keywords. I ended up getting lots of inquiries so I added AdSense and that was my beer money; it was probably like a tenner a week or something.

My realisation was that I was going down the track of being a web developer, and I’d never really got that passionate about it. On the other hand, I could do marketing and SEO back then, make changes one day and then the next day I could see if that worked. Whether it was creating some new copy, changing a title tag or stuff like that, it got me hooked. I didn’t have the money to do paid search, but I had time, and I put the work in.

Damien: What was your dream back then, Kevin?

Kevin: It’s difficult to look back now and give a clear answer. I wanted to be a sports journalist, I’m kind of hooked on football. What I was doing [back then] was trying to find something I could make money from. I went into computing because it just felt like the future, a good bet, more than anything. It definitely wasn’t a passion of mine, it was more of the sensible choice.

I got a job as a developer and built my own websites, I created all sorts of different websites just playing around with it and having a bit of fun. I got to the point where I was doubling my salary with affiliate income for SEO within a year of doing SEO, back in 2004. 

I then went down to half salary because I quit my job. I had enough income from the stuff I was doing on the side that I spent a year travelling in Australia. I was an affiliate marketer doing SEO, and that led me to become a freelance consultant. Because I was learning at the same time, I started a blog which at the time was more of a journal, writing notes to myself about what I was learning. 

I was getting referenced back in the day from like Barry sports on Search Engine Watch, while he was there with Danny Sullivan. I remember thinking ‘Okay well if Barry is referencing my blogs, this is a problem that I’m solving that other people have as well’. I realised that maybe I can help other people as well as doing it myself. That led more into consultancy, which then led into an agency, SEOptimise.

Basically, year one was me in Australia. I don’t even know why, but I never wanted to look like I was a freelance consultant, and I wanted to look like a company. I think it came out of a bit of imposter syndrome. Maybe I didn’t feel credible enough on my own to be this person that is helping people. I wanted to look more professional.

I did six months in Brisbane and five months in Sydney and then travelled around for the rest of it. I was on the beach in the day, and I worked in the evenings quite a lot because I wanted to live somewhere that had lovely weather.

Damien: Moving forward in time, you’re running your first business, SEOptimise, becoming more successful, did you have a plan?

Kevin: I can tell you I wrote a business plan for the first time last year! So, no, there was no plan and looking back there’s a lot to be said for ‘in the moment’, do what you feel is right and work hard and see where it takes you. Yes, you need to get your head up and think about whether this is really the right path, but at that stage, it was ‘Let’s see where this takes me’.

Damien: Are there lessons that you took away from your entry to the business that you carry with you now?

Kevin: in the six years between 2006 and 2012, I teamed up with a business partner, Stuart Tofts, and we grew the company. We were Deloitte Fast 50 listed, which is something I was very proud about. We then split the company in half, in 2012, and I took the London office and left behind the Oxford office with my old founder. 

The London office of SEOptimise became ‘White’, which was acquired by an agency called ‘Found’ about two years ago. I ended up doing a deal where I took what I had, and turned that into BlueGlass UK. We became part of a hugely popular US agency by reputation, BlueGlass. 

They wanted to expand to the UK and Europe and had big ambitions. Going back to your question about the plan, on paper they had a great plan, it was all about international expansion, software tools etc. etc. The short version of that story is that the US business collapsed within 6 months of joining, and we were back to being an independent again. 

The biggest lesson for me was the importance of focus. We went from winning local Oxfordshire clients to national brands to global brands from SEO to PPC to analytics to social media. 

Back then, you could be a rounded digital marketer and get away with it. If you say the same today, people will laugh at you, because every facet of digital marketing is so in-depth. 

Now, rather than saying to our clients, ‘We can help you with this as well’, we say ‘We understand that, and we’ve got partners that we can recommend and refer you to if you need help, but it’s not what we do’.

Focus has been really important for us. When we specialise, it sometimes opens doors to bigger brands and budgets. The other thing to focus on is this: I’ve changed our model entirely in terms of being selective over who we work with. At SEOptimise, from memory, we had on average around 25 clients at any one point in time.

What I found is that it plateaued. We ended up focusing too much on growth and the next new client win. We’d have a week that seems incredible because we won a pitch, but the same week we’d lose one of our biggest clients. Someone else described it to me, as ‘it gets to a point as if you’re running a bath with the plug open’. It began to feel like we were working really hard, driving a lot of new business, but we were standing still.

The big lesson was that retention is growth, so I put much more of my effort on how we can be great internally, so we work from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in. In the past, we were very good at promoting ourselves as an agency to look like we’re bigger than we are. Quite often people come to our office and are surprised to learn we are only 15 people. That’s good because it shows that our marketing’s working and I always took that as a compliment. 

At the same time, I want to do great work for our clients, firstly because that’s what they pay us for and that’s what we’re here for. And secondly, that’s what I’ve realised drives growth because the more we do good work for our clients we retain them.

Damien: I can’t even count the number of awards you’ve won. Is there one that stands out to you as a real trophy of your own success?

Kevin: I’m always proudest of the client awards. If we’re doing award-winning work for our clients, that’s when I’m happiest because I feel like we’re in a safer position with our client base and future. 

Winning Best Retail at the Search Awards was a very nice one for us, it helps to attract new clients and get invited to pitches. The DADI awards are very competitive and only have one category for SEO — that means a lot to me. 

Damien: You’ve had great success and significant challenges, who has influenced you the most?

Kevin: I could name several people on a personal and a professional level. On a personal level, it’s definitely my dad, Jim. He has a way of looking, or had, my dad sadly died in 2012, which was actually a big turning point for me when we split the company and everything else.

He always had a very positive attitude. Going back to how I got started, saying ‘I’m just going to see where this takes me’, that absolutely comes from my dad. 

I’m just going to be positive, and I don’t know if this is going to come to anything or not. I’m curious, and I aspire to be, and what my dad was definitely like, is non-judging of people and being positive. I am always thinking ‘How can I focus on doing the best for others?’.

Damien: What values did your dad instil in you?

Kevin: Integrity is one of them, doing the right thing. I’m definitely not money orientated. I’m much more purpose-driven, and it’s one of our values as a company at Re:signal.

Damien: At some point, you realised your role had changed from being deep in the weeds to being the leader. How do you think of your role now, at your agency Re:signal, and what’s your purpose?

Kevin: How I feel about my role is twofold. 1. How do I coach and support the team to build them up? I’m probably less involved with clients these days and 2. How do I make sure that we’ll be prepared for unknowns and add strength to the business? 

In the past, I’ve got into the position of firefighting and fixing problems for a while. I had a realisation there must be a smarter way and asked ‘How do we fix problems before they happen?’ By extension, I’ve also asked ‘How do I work with the team?’, and ‘How do I coach them?’

In the early days, I could do it all myself, and I could certainly oversee it all myself, and now because of scale, I can’t. Now, we have quarterly business reviews with our clients, and I’m much more involved there where I will challenge our team. In terms of:

  • What’s the plan? 
  • What are our results? 
  • What are we doing next? 
  • How do we innovate? 
  • How do we improve?

Pushing the actions back onto them, so that they can learn from experience, and I’m not the one that’s left in all the work which I definitely have been guilty of!

Damien: Absolutely, and drawing yourself away from ‘doing the doing’ of the tasks that you know so well does change the dynamic of your role.

Kevin: Yeah, and sometimes it’s holding back, I mean my team would probably laugh if I said this to them. There are certain things that I don’t tell them because I feel like I can go overboard sometimes. Again, with the values, we reset them in early lockdown. We all brought to the table different things that are important to us. One that I said was ‘good enough isn’t good enough’, and everyone laughed because they were like yeah that’s absolutely you yeah it doesn’t mean that that’s us as a company. 

My view is nothing gets out the door if it’s average. We’ve got to do the best that we can do. I appreciate there’s a balance, sometimes you have to go with speed and efficiency over quality. My preference is quality over anything else.

Damien: What are the common issues that you see website owners coming against time and again with SEO?

Kevin: I think it’s looking at the wrong problem. Sometimes people look at what they can measure, and they don’t look at what’s most valuable. Examples of that could be looking at short term metrics. For example, asking how do we improve page errors and links, the tactical rather than how do you get the alignment to the business goals. Once you have that, what’s the activity that’s really going to move the needle?

Damien: What do you think that’s a symptom of, why do people consider the wrong problems?

Kevin: Some people in the SEO industry get a lot more passionate than I do about the tactical side of things. Because they are passionate about that, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. 

Whereas my mindset is much more about the business goals, and how do we hit them? Being a business owner, when spending money I would look at if it’s going to make the boat go faster. Everything we spend is an investment, and I would look at that from an SEO perspective.

I want to be able to go to the marketing director and say this is where we’ve managed your budget, and this is the return for you. 

Awards are attractive for this because on the other side of the table I judge the US Search Awards and the MENA Search Awards. I’m quite a harsh judge when it comes to award entries that achieve SEO KPIs, and I’m a generous judge when it comes to achieving a return on investment. That’s just the way that I look at things.

Damien: If you have a client with challenging targets, and they’re not seeing the bigger strategic picture, how do you get them onside?

Kevin: If you’re talking to the marketing director, it’s a more comfortable conversation. Because if we want to make you more money, this is how we’re going to do it, and this is how we’re going to value the outcomes.

The challenge could be that if the marketing directors have delegated responsibility to someone more junior. That person has said, ‘I’ve got a budget, and I need to buy deliverables’. My answer to that is, ‘Why do you think those deliverables are the best answer to what you’re doing? We might hit a brick wall.

Sometimes it might be a case of listening to what they want, and if we think we can help them, we’ll help them. And if we don’t, then we’ll move on. I don’t think it’s a case where you can win every single time it’s. But again, going back we want to work with the right clients and a smaller group of on the whole larger clients. We can be more selective, and we can say ‘These are the ones that they get it, they get us’. We don’t have to be all things to everyone. We just need to have a small group that values what we’re doing.

Damien: I’m betting that the refinement of positioning had positive impacts within your team and company?

Kevin: Exactly. I think positioning is really important, externally it makes it clear what we’re good at and internally it means that people know where to focus. I’ve had this reaction quite a lot in the past, and even over the last 12 months.

When we take on new projects outside of what we’ve done before the reaction from the team can be pure stress because they’re the ones that are actually going to do it. The response for me is ‘Of course we can do this!’. We don’t want to lose our innovation, and we can’t say we’re only going to ever do what we’ve always done, because the world we’re in changes too much.

We aim to evolve with our existing clients. If there’s something new we can grow into new areas with a current client, it’s easier to do that in an honest, transparent way. It’s a much better platform to build upon.

Damien: It’s refreshing to hear your views on transparency. The digital marketing industry has been known for opaqueness in agency/client relationships.

Kevin: Yeah, I’ve always tried to play the long game. In the short term, you can quickly get some wins by taking on everything that you can. Still, for me, the long game is doing the right thing, and growing in the way that we think it is better for us while doing great work and developing a bit more organically. 

Damien: What was the last book you’ve read to up your game?

Kevin: There’s been a tonne of books, but one of the recent ones I’ve read is in ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear.

I really liked the simplicity, and I’m the same if it’s a marketing strategy. There’s a Seth Godin quote I heard years ago which was: ‘What’s your goal, what’s the easiest way to achieve it?’. I love the simplicity of that because it’s easy to overcomplicate every problem. You don’t get big success by doing one amazing thing in one day. You get success by doing lots of small items on a repeated regular routine basis.

How do you focus on what’s important, and do that one thing every day, whether it’s exercise, marketing, writing – anything that you want to do? Also, how do you break it down, what’s the easiest way to get started? The exercise example might be you do one pushup a day, and the writing example might be you write one sentence a day, and then to one page a day and on it goes. 

I think SEO is like that as well. SEO is no longer the game it used to be. Long gone are the ‘Let’s do an SEO audit and do all of the actions off of that’, and then forget about that entirely for at least the next year if not probably three or four. Now it’s more about sprints and deployment and let’s break it down, let’s do this, let’s test and learn and move forward.

It’s quite empowering in the way that if it’s too big, it can feel overwhelming, which goes back to how I started running an agency. I never planned to run an agency. I just wrote about it and etc. etc. and then found another one. Breaking it down into small steps and having clear habits, is pretty powerful.

Damien: What’s the greatest lesson that you’ve learned so far in your career?

Kevin: One of the things I’ve struggled with a bit is the social media side of things. Sometimes I feel like online I’m someone that I’m not offline if that makes sense? On the agency side, you have to be loud and out there, showcasing what you’re doing. 

There’s an element of pushing yourself out there, outside of your comfort zone to grow a business. I would never have done Public Speaking at a conference if it was my choice of what I wanted to do as a person. I saw this is a crucial way to grow my business and attract clients. Pushing yourself out there, it’s more of a necessary evil.

Everyone has skills they’re natural at, and everyone has gifts that they have to learn. At the same time, I don’t want to lose the integrity of who I am. I’ve always thought of myself as a person, not a brand and don’t like the phrase ‘personal brand’ for that reason.

I’d like to think there’s a link between me and what I’m saying and how I come across online. From a personal perspective, I’ve got no desire to share my life publicly with people I haven’t met, I’d probably just delete my social accounts if it wasn’t for work as that’s not how I communicate with friends/family.

Professionally, I do feel like there’s an element of having to push yourself out there to grow. A lot of agency new business is about word of mouth, so if you’re not in front of mind, you get forgotten about. If I can be proud of what I’ve done, then it’s amplifying myself in more of a professional sense.

Damien: Looking through the lens SEO best practices, what are the areas most underused by businesses when it comes to SEO?

Kevin: I feel like there’s a depth of quality in strategy missing. In terms of the way brands look at this, and it’s an extension to my answer earlier of being KPI focused. I’ve written a blog post about this before, it’s around short-termism, and how the average CMO lifespan is similar to a football manager in the Premier League. Pitching an idea to a brand that’s going to take two to five years to really get off the ground and make them a market leader, takes a particular type of brand.

Football teams are an excellent example of the ones that invest from the ground up, versus, bringing in the established players for expensive money. The ones that have more patience often see a bigger payoff. It’s similar to marketing but what you need is patience. Sometimes it’s removing the fear of failure and looking at everything from more of a strategic view to do what matters.

I think of SEO as compound interest, and our client results have gradually gone up and up month by month. On a short timeframe, that doesn’t look exciting, it only looks exciting a year in, two years, three years when you can really see that paying off.

Whereas, a lot of people can get excited about a big spike that appears and disappears. And where does that take you in the long run? Do you just get back to zero again, or is it building compound value? So patience in the long term investment, and having the strategy aligned with long term goals.

The first thing I thought when you asked that question about the future of search, I remember, Jeff Bezos got asked a question about the future of retail. His answer was, the one thing he can be sure of, that isn’t going to change is that customers will want products at the lowest price, and at the highest convenience. 

So if they double-down on those two things he’s pretty confident they’re not going to go too far wrong, and everything else they can trial and error. That’s at the core of what Amazon does. In marketing, there will always be a change in tactics, and there’ll be new things that people will get excited about. But marketing directors will still want a return on investment.

Damien: Google owns near enough to 90% of the global search market, their search algorithms are in constant change, what’s your view on the future of SEO, Kevin?

Kevin: It’s trying to find a balance, isn’t it? When you look back over indeed 10 years as opposed to a few years. Google has always been about two things. In the early days, it was definitely about user experience and just being the best for the customer. And they reached a point of needing to keep their shareholders happy as well. 

The balance of keeping users happy and shareholders smiling with a growing company and nice dividends is vital. The one thing SEO always has to be cautious of is Google pushing more down the paid search route. The most significant fundamental risk is Google taking away the market share of organic search as a channel.

With Google, you do have to read between the lines. Quite often what is it they’re not saying that is more important than what they are saying. There’s an element of trust that’s been lost for Google, but at the same time from an SEO perspective, you can’t ignore them, they control too much.

That’s probably the reason why SEOs are so cautious and sceptical about Google is that they know that they can turn it all off overnight. The other thing to focus on is brand. If you have a brand, then you’re going to win, and if you’re the leading brand in that space, you’ll get even bigger rewards. It’s been the case for a while, and it’s only ever increased and will likely continue that way.

Damien: Fear is a motivator, and it often presents itself as a power to stop people from achieving the success, the results that they would otherwise achieve. I wonder if there’s a time where fear has burdened you and how you got past that?

Kevin: That’s a good question. Sometimes there’s limiting beliefs as much as there is fear. For example, we might think ‘We can’t win this client, they’re too big’. Even now, in how we’ve changed our positioning, saying no to some clients that aren’t the right fit. There’s always a fear that things might dry up. We’ve been lucky enough to generate reasonable inquiries and interest in our services. Even over COVID, there’s always work out there. 

If you’ve got a healthy pipeline, you’re not too worried about it, and you can be very selective, if you haven’t, you do worry about where’s the next thing coming from. The challenge has been how do you keep a consistent voice going all the time. I definitely went through a phase in the past where I would speak at every conference going, and write on our blog, eConsultancy, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Watch.

I would burn out, I would do that for six to 12 months and just say, ‘I’ve had enough’. Then I would do nothing, and I go back to the conference, and everyone be like, ‘Oh, where have you been?’. Fear might have been part of that as I think back. I just need to pick my battles and probably be more consistent, which likely back to daily habits, as well as

Damien: Realising your strengths and playing to those are of enormous value, I wonder, in terms of advice to other people how do they go about doing that to focus on what matters?

Kevin: I think fear is a good word again. I’ve gone through phases, several times in the past where I’ve said, ‘We need to drop PPC as a service’ which we used to do. Then we’d get a client that wants to spend a decent budget with us on paid search so we’d carry on. 

In the end, what we found is we still had PPC clients; we just referred them to another partner agency. We had to take that stance. We’d reached a point where we were good at everything but great at nothing, and what we were really passionate about was SEO and driving meaningful growth. To be great at one thing, you have to say no to the good stuff. For me, positioning is absolutely about that it’s not that you’re not good; it’s that you want to be great. 

The more we’re talking this through, I can see that’s very value-driven as well. Can I be proud of our work, if we’re trying to do too much? No, I can’t. Can I be proud of our work if I feel like we’re a specialist in one space and we put everything behind, improving and getting better? Absolutely. 

But there’s a limiting belief that I think you need to remove which is that things will dry up and we need to say yes to everything. Sharpening your positioning can mean you get better leads, more business and grow quickly as opposed to saying that we can do everything under the sun.

Damien: Kevin, thanks so much for the time to chat, I’ve certainly learnt a lot, and I look forward to speaking to you again soon!

Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevGibbo.