Growth Hacking Interview Series #44: Gareth Cartman

Gareth is Director of Digital Marketing at CLD, a boutique UK digital performance agency based near London.

He’s been in SEO and digital marketing for 15 years, working across publishing, HR and technology while running his own sites and blogs.

He’s also a dad of two talkative young children, and for his sins he’s an Everton and a Boston Red Sox fan. http://www.cleverlittledesign.co.uk

How would you explain specifically what you do as an SEO?

It’s always been hard to explain what you do as an SEO. In the past, you’d answer with a degree of shame – but no more.

Today I am proud of it – I like to think that we’ve moved SEO on to such a degree that it’s something you can explain with pride.

We help people grow their business through the online channel. That requires a mixture of technical expertise, creativity and flair, analytical insight and lateral thinking.

And you don’t find that combination in many job descriptions, so it makes SEO quite special.

A lot of the time, I find myself planning campaigns and planning web builds from an SEO & a digital marketing viewpoint.

We’ve got some great people working for us who have that creative spark or that analytical mind, and I want them to become brilliant marketers and have brilliant careers.

The planning is what gives them the foundation to go out and get the results.

What is your primary marketing goal when it comes to delivering results?

Delivering results is the marketing goal.

Every client is different, of course. We work for a major global healthcare provider whose primary online interest is in improving engagement with the website, which is quite different from our e-commerce clients who measure our digital performance in terms of revenue.

So perhaps the primary marketing goal is keeping the client happy. If you jointly set the expectations, the objectives and the measurements, you have a consistent discussion about where you are and where you’re going.

Without that, you tend to get lost in the muddle and even if you’re pulling in great results, the conversation doesn’t have the right framework.

Which new skills are most important for SEO’s to learn in the next six months?

If SEOs haven’t learned these skills by now, they’re in trouble. I’d say resilience, adaptability, an appreciation of how content actually works, and design (or knowing a good designer).

Resilience – as in knowing that Google’s not your friend, it’s constantly chipping away at your online presence and you’ve got to weather that storm. Google wants your traffic for itself, you have to accept that.

Adaptability – if Google wants your traffic for itself, it’s stealing your direct route to market through the search engine.

Look at car insurance in the UK, for instance. Google goes to number 1, with a field to enter your car registration plate number. Wow. You have to adapt, quickly, and find new routes to market.

Content – I’m lucky I can write. I’ve written constantly since I was about four years old, and I’m always looking at how my next piece of writing can improve upon the last one.

If you know how content works, how words can act like design and move a person to act (i.e. read more, scroll, click, etc.), then you’ve “done SEO”.

It’s all about engagement these days – Google knows everything about your visitors, what they do, how they scroll, how long they stay on pages… so content has to be engaging, and it has to be designed in an engaging way too.

Design – or knowing a good designer. Google claims that it will rank ugly sites but that’s only if those ugly sites have something unique that others don’t.

Good design will make your content so much more readable. When we redesigned that healthcare website, we doubled time on site & reduced bounce rate by 33% – the impact? Rankings improved. So good design is good SEO.

What do you find most rewarding about SEO?

It used to be rankings, but they’re borderline meaningless these days.

What’s most rewarding is when you go to a client and they say “we’ve just bought the building next door” or “we can’t cope with the orders” or “we’ve just hired two more people”.

If we’ve challenged a client’s entire business, you’ve done your job.

How do you stay updated with the latest SEO industry news?

Firstly, I’d read the likes of Rand Fishkin, Michael Martinez, Eric Ward and Bill Slawski.

Very few others have the insight, and it’s not really industry news as such (which bores the life out of me), it’s actual game-changing insight or (in the case of Martinez), cut-the-bullshit-realism.

Secondly, I’d look at what the black hats are doing. They’re clever people who have invested a lot of money in their activities. Their insight is fantastic and what they do is brilliant. I’d never condone it, of course, but they never get the credit they deserve.

As an SEO, what is your favorite SEO hack?

I hate the word ‘hack’. It was ‘hacks’ that got SEOs into trouble in the first place.

But if you want to know what has really made a difference to our efforts, it’s this: be in control of everything. And if you can’t be in control, make sure it’s happening.

It’s not like 10 years ago where 100 links would shoot you to number 1. Now you need to be a Head of Marketing and a Head of IT rolled into one. Don’t focus on one slither of SEO, control the lot.

That’s not a hack, is it. It’s more world domination. But you should do it.

What are some of the top tools and apps in your SEO stack?

SEMRush is invaluable, and Ahrefs is brilliant for backlinks.

However, the guys up the road from us, Screaming Frog, have delivered the most useful tool in the SEO world and they keep making it better.

Basecamp and Harvest are what keeps our business together, though. Knowing how much time you’re spending on tasks and how much time you’re wasting on admin is essential to keeping the focus.

How is your typical work day structured?

I’m up early – I have two young children and I live in a commuter town that seizes up at exactly 7:01am. So I’m in work early, and that helps.

I use that extra time to get ahead of the day – clear out e-mails and stale to-dos from Basecamp – before cracking on with some writing before the team gets in.

There’ll be team meetings at the bar or on the sofas throughout the day, and we have a strictly-no-work-talk tea break at 3pm every day. We stole that idea from the Swedes who believe that teams collaborate better when they get on better.

I’m usually done by 5 – I’m not one for working late, although I’ve got the laptop on in the evening where I’m trying new things out. Currently I’m delivering a website via a database in Google Spreadsheets. It’s a geeky way to spend your evening, and I really should be on the bike instead.

Which one book/blog post would you recommend every SEO should read?

Read The Chimp Paradox. It’s nothing about SEO, and that’s a good thing. It’s about how to control your primal emotions and apply reason.

It worked for Ronnie O’Sullivan and the British Olympic athletes – it should work for SEOs when their rankings disappear overnight and they want to punch Matt Cutts.

Secondly, there’s a book about Essentialism. It’s about cutting things down and only doing what’s essential.

I only read the first chapter.

What advice would you share with other SEO’s who want to become more productive?

Ask yourself three questions:

  • Will what I’m doing have an impact?
  • Can I measure it?
  • Can I outsource it?

I spent years ignoring the first question, and not understanding the second sufficiently. Don’t do things because everyone else says you should – and don’t measure things you can’t act upon.

And the last one – what’s the point in spending all your time filling in data and spreadsheets when someone can do it at a lower cost. As an SEO, you need to be more strategic and give yourself the time to add value. There’s always someone out there willing to take on the graft while you do more thinking.

Among the Google algorithm updates what is the most challenging one that you’ve encountered?

Panda.

Penguin is easy. Everyone knows a shitty link when they see one. I know it’s not that simple, but if you know how to find your backlinks and you can see which ones look bad, the job’s nearly done (not that you’ll get out of it quickly).

But Panda’s another beast. The problem with Panda is that it’s based on machines and what they’ve learned.

That’s hard to decode, because it could learn that your industry has an average 4 minutes dwell time, but your site only has 1 minute.

Or it could learn that a chunk of your content has poor engagement levels, so it downgrades your rankings just for that content.

It’s always going to be different because it’s a machine-based appreciation of your content and how people engage with that content. And not everyone has the resources to improve their content, so you’re faced with a mountain to climb.

Panda requires real brain work.

If there’s one SEO Guru you’d recommend who and why.

Michael Martinez. There’s no hype, no smoke or mirrors, just the theory and the application.

But I’d urge SEOs to move beyond the SEO field and read thought leaders in other industries. I always read Laurie Ruettimann, for instance, she cuts your BS and makes you think.

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