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  • NI Digital Expert interview: Derek Johnson

    We’re already on the fourth instalment of my NI Digital Experts interview series. If you haven’t yet read the previous interviews with Emma Gribben, Niamh Taylor, and Gareth Dunlop, you really should – they’re all awesome people with great digital skills. This week’s interview is with a dear friend of mine: Derek Johnson. Years ago Derek and I first started talking online – I think it was via twitter – when we discovered we had a lot of views and opinions in common about science, religion, and the role of rationality in modern society. As I got to know Derek better, I realised he wasn’t just another opinionated ranter (like myself) – he’s also a damn good web developer. In fact, Derek is the best front-end developer I know. He is fiercely passionate about the web, and has strong opinions about what makes for good web development. When it comes to the user-facing web, there’s no person who’s perspective I trust more than Derek. Let’s hear about him and his views: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover the internet, and how you became so involved with it? I was working as a forester in Scotland, having barely touched a computer since playing a Spectrum 48k when I was wee. It was awesome work but pay was low and tax breaks for landowners were ending, so I needed a way out. It seemed to me that people who knew how to use a computer were making plenty of money, so I enrolled on a computing course at a local college. It was all excruciatingly boring. My mind wasn’t easily numbed at the time but I was lobotomised by this stuff. Writing C++ programs that did nothing in particular, farting about in Office applications, moving files around with a CLI and looking at motherboards. But. One class was captivating. I made real stuff. Information connected by links. I’ll never forget the first time I clicked a link I created. It was literal magic to me. We used FrontPage, and it wasn’t long before somebody game me a pirate copy of Dreamweaver 3. It frustrated me for 5 minutes until I found the code editor and I never looked back. I was skint and didn’t finish the course so went back to forestry and begged my boss to let me build him a website. He relented, paid me £70 on top of my wages and I felt like a millionaire. It would be another 8 years of working crappy day jobs and staying up late to hone my skills doing cheap freelance sites before I got my first full time web job. It was worth every second. Back when we were growing up, there wasn’t any sort of formal education in to digital technologies outside of computer science. If you could go back, what would you choose to study at university, or would you skip university altogether? I checked, and back when we were growing up a 10 megabyte hard drive cost about $1,000. Even when we had finished growing and were moving out of home a gigabyte cost about the same. So yeah, the closest I came to digital technology was Manic Miner on the Spectrum. I don’t have a degree, and if I could go back I wouldn’t do anything to change where my life is now. I’m content, in love and loved. You are without a doubt one of the smartest and most passionate front-end developers I know. Why did you choose this particular field? Ha thanks, but you need to meet more front-end developers. First of all nobody would ever pay me to be a designer. My designs are to quality what crystal meth is to dental hygiene. Another early option was back-end development. The first book I ever bought about building websites was ‘Build Your Own Database Driven Website with PHP and MySQL’ by Kevin Yank. It was at my first proper web job at Website NI, where I did a bit of everything, that I realised front-end was for me. I learnt how semantics implies the purpose and meaning of web content to people and machines, I learnt how accessibility improves the lives of people, I learnt how performance brings the web to people where the internet struggles, I learnt how responsive web design put the web in people’s pockets, on their TVs and consoles, and I learnt how progressive enhancement means we can, among other things, put the web on feature phones. The thread running through all that is broadening access to the web. The best moment of my career was seeing Sir Tim Berners-Lee in the London 2012 opening ceremony tweeting “This is for everyone”. Everyone. You don’t need to be in the developed world, you don’t need an iPhone, you don’t need fibre broadband, you don’t need to be physically fit. All you need is an internet connection and you have the web. The web is also for everyone to publish to. It’s almost as easy to write content that appears on the web as it is to read it. Some people bemoan the fact idiots with opinions now share those opinions, but it’s the web’s best feature! Before the web only the few, the self-declared intelligentsia, could broadcast their thoughts. Sure, you have to take a lot of what you read on the web addito salis grano but it has democratised the world, given voice to the forgotten and empowered the oppressed. Unfortunately there are worse than the idiots on the web too. There are those who use the web to amplify their penchant for promoting violence and doing harm, especially against women. Their actions are reasons not to restrict the web but to do a better job of enforcing the laws we have against that, and to pressure the platforms (looking at you, twitter) that allow harassment while they wring their hands. Finally the web is for everyone in that it is literally ours. It was never patented, it belongs to all of us. Front-end developers are uniquely placed to maintain and expand this broad access. We do most of what makes websites faster and lighter so people can do what they need to do then get on with their lives. We do what it takes to deliver a website to a feature phone in a place where the internet is slow and expensive. We write the code that means people with disabilities and impairments can use the web. We do all that at the same time as delivering a cutting edge, feature rich experience to expensive modern devices that can handle it, and all at the same URL. We do everything we can to give anyone who wants it, access to the websites we build. That’s why I’m a front-end web developer. You came to the digital industry relatively late in your life compared to many developers who started coding when they were in their teens. Do you feel that your late embrace of the web has helped or hindered you? Does it give you a different perspective on your job compared to developers that began at a younger age? I’m pretty sure it hasn’t helped or hindered. I made my first website when the web was about 11 years old, and lots of people of all ages were doing the same. I think my perspective is more common among people who have been doing it for the same length of time rather than are of the same generation. Developers coming into the industry in the past few years are more focused on JavaScript engineering, and often have a poor grasp of semantics coupled with a do-rightly attitude to CSS. Front-end developers must be competent in HTML, CSS and JavaScript, not just one. It has become too easy to build a website with the solidity progressive enhancement naturally brings usurped by fragility for the sake of developer convenience and the chance to go full buzzword by calling it an app. This can very easily lead to exclusion, harm diversity and ultimately betray a lack of empathy for web users. Forgive the jargon, but for any developers who have strayed into the badlands of an SEO blog, it’s entirely possible—nay preferable—to load machine readable markup from the server, style it, and maintain UI state in the browser without excluding anyone. There are plenty of outstanding young developers who broadly share my values though. The web for everyone is alive and safe in their hands. I know you to be incredibly passionate about the web. What do you think needs to be done to help embed front-end best practices, to shape the norms and improve the quality of websites in Northern Ireland? The implication is websites produced in Northern Ireland need improved, and I agree. In fact I would say the agencies that produce almost all of them operate a broken model. Too many agencies do a terrible job of communicating the benefits of broad access to clients. It’s as if lots of people using your website is a bad thing. They pay lip service to it, but go ahead and sell cheap, pointless websites anyway. When a website is cheap there is no room for the things that create success. Everything good is removed at the expense of bad design and silly functionality. Design is appreciated at a visual level, back-end developers are something they wish they didn’t have to pay for but are stuck with, like printer ink. Front-end developers are perceived as an unnecessary luxury. Then there’s Photoshop. Photoshop is not a web design tool. It’s as much use in web design as a caravan in a tank battle. Getting sign-off on a series of pictures that look pretty does not produce successful websites. That is a provable fact. Websites are products. Organisations spend money on them to help achieve their goals. They must be designed as such. One would expect the agencies producing them to be experts, but they are usually led by people who have no clue about how to create success on the web. They only really care about the success of their own businesses, not their clients’ businesses. This means a lot of agencies are in a perpetual race to the bottom, always competing on price instead of quality, always looking for the sale instead of the value. The best designers and developers are leaving agencies here to do freelance or remote work for companies outside Northern Ireland who put users first, value design, understand the web, demand modern development, and know they will provide a return on investment. Too many of our agencies are led by wannabe business kings who read the local biz supplements instead of A List Apart or Smashing Magazine or Boagworld or Baymard. Then they go on LinkedIn and use the same language as their latest hedge fund pin-up in the hope it will create enough self-delusion to make a difference. Not all, I hasten to add. Eyekiller is a fantastic agency in Bangor that focuses on users. The team there are super talented and Jamie (the boss) is sound as a pound. Fathom are also doing interesting work designing user experiences, we need more like them. I’m aware I haven’t answered your question yet, I’ll do so now. It’s process. There’s a delusion abroad that websites are designed by passing pictures around to the soundtrack of drivel masquerading as deliberation until somebody picks the one they like the best. Obvious nonsense. The correct way to design a website is to start by being crystal clear about what it is for. What must it do for your organisation? What must the people who use it be able to do? What problems must it solve? The design that answers those questions grows from sketches, wireframes, prototypes, usability tests, iteration and refinement feeding into each other. This is design. From the first meeting to launch both the agency and the client must focus on those questions, and assess everything against them. No matter how much work a developer puts into a feature, no matter how much a designer likes it or a client wants it, if it doesn’t help answer those crucial questions it must not be part of the website. I have been involved in several projects using a modern, logical process, and it works. Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? My wife and I are parents to four children. This question doesn’t make sense. [Ed: that made me laugh.] Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. Something like Star Rover that tells you what you’re looking at in the night sky when you point your camera above the horizon. It’s healthy to change the scale from the everyday, the human-understandable, to the galactic, even the infinite. It’s healthier again to feel as minuscule and insignificant as a bacterium on an alga in the ocean, because that’s what you are. About Derek Johnson Derek’s site: Derek on Twitter: @derekjohnson

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Gareth Dunlop

    Last week we had Niamh Taylor in our NI Digital Experts interview series, following our inaugural interview with Emma Gribben. Today’s interview is with someone who’s been a champion of the digital industry in NI for many years: Gareth Dunlop. When I first started to familiarise myself with the digital scene in Northern Ireland, Gareth’s name kept popping up. Seen as one of the digital industry’s leading lights in NI, Gareth was – and is – well-known and widely respected as a digital entrepreneur and leader. I consider myself lucky that I’ve gotten to know Gareth a bit over the years, having collaborated on a few projects as well as seeing him in action delivering his expert insights and consultancy. Moreover, I see Gareth as a bit of a mentor, someone who’s advice I value and respect, and who has a keen insight in to the realities of building an agency-model business in the digital realm. His UX agency Fathom is going from strength to strength, something which surprised me at first because too many people in Northern Ireland working in digital barely know what ‘UX’ means, let alone see the need for a specialised service. But I really shouldn’t have been surprised, knowing Gareth’s experience and business acumen. I’ll let him talk about how he got in to digital, and the reasons behind founding Fathom. Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover the internet, and how did you become so involved with it? My year out from university (1992 / 1993 – mercy!) was in AIB in Dublin. I was fortunate to work to a boss who I got on with really well and in a very talented team. When they offered me that same position when I graduated I was only too glad to accept. That crew went on to form the web team who developed Ireland’s first online personal banking platform – – launched in January 1997. (To show how different times were back then, a Senior IT Manager in the bank at the time threatened to move his banking to a competitor if his account was connected to the internet in some way because of the security risk!) That was me hooked. At the time I remember thinking that something big was happening, that the Internet could accelerate a fundamental change in how society communicates. And even though I didn’t quite know where the journey might take me, I knew if those wagons were heading West I wanted to be on them! Contrary to many people that strive to build a business in the digital industry who come from a background in sales or marketing, you as a Computer Science graduate have a formal education that’s incredibly relevant. How do you feel your degree has given you an advantage in this business (if any)? If you could go back, would you choose to study the same subject, another subject, or skip university altogether? Perhaps I can answer that question by letting you know my final year modules? Parallel programming, COBOL, business analysis, assembly language! Like much education it wasn’t the specifics of what I learned, but the logical way it taught me to think, that has stood by me. I wouldn’t change a thing, and perhaps like many it was my year in industry that really lit a spark about how relevant technology can be. As an aside it also means I can speak confidently about the technical componentry of the Internet and I think that has been an advantage. You’ve had a rich career over the years before you started Fathom, and can easily be considered one of the early flag-bearers of the digital industry in Northern Ireland. When did you decide that starting your own business was the right decision? Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur. The Tibus experience was a remarkable one and when I came out of it at the age of 37 even then I knew that if I ever experienced a decade in my career as stimulating and fulfilling as “the Tibus years” I would count myself very fortunate. Tibus was a great cocktail of an old-school Chairman who always demanded more, a super-capable team of Directors who led the various divisions of the business and lots of great people selling, project-managing, designing, developing, hosting and connecting. I used to say Tibus was like when you used to pick football teams at school, except that one of the captains was allowed to pick 20 players before the other captain could start. Luck is such a big part of life and therefore business, so I wanted to know if I could do it again. I came to the simple realisation that I would rather try and fail than not try and wonder. Of course, preferable to both of these was trying and succeeding! And so Fathom was born. Why the name ‘Fathom’? Back in my Tibus days, Kenney and Mark and their team at HamillBosket were very generous in constantly referring their clients to Tibus for their web design and development needs, so Kenney was the first person I turned to when I set up the business to help with my name and brand. Of all the options they provided, I really liked how Fathom had implications of depth and measurement and how that resonated with the type of agency I had hoped I would be able to build. Notwithstanding the challenges of getting an apposite domain name, it’s a brand name I’ve always liked and felt able to rally around it. Clients have often commented unsolicited that they like it too. In Northern Ireland, User Experience design is not on many people’s radar. Many of your clients come from further afield – do you feel that basing your business in Northern Ireland gives you a competitive advantage, or does it hinder your agency’s growth? In between Tibus and Fathom I spent just over a year and a half working for my good buddy Niall McKeown at his business Ionology. Niall spent (and continues to spend) all his waking hours thinking about strategy and I had the benefit of being the sounding board for the creative storm inside his brain. He was clear that businesses needed to be ruthless in their focus for differentiation and that unless they were hugely capitalised that they could only go mainstream via a niche “get big, get niche or get out”. So that gave me the confidence that UX should be the focus for the agency. Our revenue is split roughly 60% Republic of Ireland, 30% Northern Ireland, 10% London, which I think is a fair reflection of our reach and the relative maturity of those marketplaces. Of course the business would find it easier to grow in London because over half of the entire UK digital marketing marketplace is there. However because we are in a niche, many of our clients understand that we need to travel to service their needs. So I would be neutral about being in Northern Ireland. On one side, the marketplace is tiny here and we need to travel for work, on the other we are one of only two dedicated UX agencies on the island and therefore we do get the opportunity to work with large and significant organisations such as Three, Tesco Mobile, PSNI, Ordnance Survey Ireland, Ogvily, Permanent TSB, Tourism NI, Enterprise Ireland, and Independent News & Media. I think one of the reasons we get these opportunities is because we have the confidence to focus our offering in our niche. Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? My lovely and super-supportive family take much of my time outside of work, with my wife Lorna (whose backing has been absolute from the very start) playing the role of listener-in-chief with aplomb. When I’m not doing family things I’m feverishly staving off mid-life crises (plural not a mistake) through a series of sporting outlets including rugby refereeing, keeping fit, mountain biking and of late donning the lycra and getting on the road-bike. I am also on the Board of Christian Aid Ireland, a charity whose values and activities I believe in passionately. Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. Apart from There is a cracking lo-fi and paper prototyping app called Marvel, which is brilliant for getting sketched interface ideas off paper and onto a digital device for testing and validation effectively and inexpensively. Clients and those who attend our UX training courses are constantly amazed at how easy it is to use and how quickly it facilitates design validation and direction. About Gareth Dunlop

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Niamh Taylor

    Last week my NI Digital Experts interview series got off to a great start with Emma Gribben. Be sure to read her interview if you haven’t already done so. For the second instalment I asked Niamh Taylor to participate. I’ve know Niamh for several years now – we first met through the (now dormant) Digital Exchange networking group, and got to collaborate when she was at Sliderobes. Since she started her own business I’ve been working with her on several client projects, and we’ve also shared judging duties on the DANI Awards. Niamh is one of the smartest and most educated digital marketers I know. She did amazing work while at Sliderobes, and her new agency Digital Twenty Four has been going from strength to strength since its inception. I was really chuffed that she agreed to be interviewed for this series. So let’s get stuck in and read all about Niamh’s journey in to digital marketing: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover the internet, and how did you become so involved with it? Back when I was 14, I started working in a travel agency on a Saturday in Omagh – earning £10 a day! It was a fairly stressful job for someone so young but it completely shaped me into the person I am today. I know that sounds a bit clichéd but I learnt so much over the 7 years I worked there – from dealing with customers, working on a computer and being responsible for booking flights and holidays. I was exposed to marketing too and that’s pretty much when I decided I wanted a career in advertising and marketing. I was fortunate because so many leave school not knowing what they want to do. I went to Queens and studied Economics and Information Management which included coding and marketing. Once I completed my degree I got on to the Premiere Programme. It places you in work experience within a company on your job choice – mine was marketing. I got placed in Bedeck and I got kept on once it finished. I stayed there four years before deciding I wanted to spread my wings and go to Australia. During my time in Bedeck I was involved in a basic website project which was the only online activity there was back then. I went to a similar company to Bedeck in Sydney – Sheridan Australia – where I worked on their Actil brand for a few years. I worked on their website and was more involved in online then. When I came back to NI, I worked in Translink, then Hollywood and Donnelly C&C, before I finally settled into a job looking after Sliderobes marketing. During my 7 years there we moved from traditional marketing with a £3m budget to a solely digital strategy and a £1.8m budget. Changing strategy meant we could reduce spend. It was in the latter 5 years that I started to work closely with Google in Dublin to develop a strategy that reduced the cost to acquire targeted leads. I was so fascinated by the possibilities that online opened up and the targeted reach you could get from advertising. I gradually built up an in-house digital team before leaving last May and starting my own digital company. Since your original studies in information management, you’ve never stopped learning and have collected an impressive range of professional certificates and diplomas. Do you feel that such a wholehearted embrace of lifelong learning is crucial to success in the digital industry? If you could go back, would you study a different subject at university? I’ve always enjoyed studying and learning new things, and I guess getting a qualification or certification at the end of it is always nice. I do think it is important to never stop learning – whether that is through completing a course or just constantly reading. But I don’t think having professional qualifications or diplomas are critical, especially in today’s digital age. As long as you have common sense and a desire to learn – like a real yearning to constantly learn new things – then you can be very successful in digital. Digital is constantly changing. If you aren’t in the ‘here and now’ reading every day you will miss something. That is crucial to success in the digital industry. My biggest advice to people is to be on Twitter daily; look at what’s happening in the digital sphere and sign up to lots of industry related newsletters. If I had to go back to university now I would love to do some sort of psychology – something related to the brain and behaviour research in marketing. I’m fascinated by neuromarketing. You’ve had a rich career over the years before you started Digital Twenty Four, including working two years in Australia. How do you feel your varied experiences have shaped your focus on digital marketing? When did you decide that starting your own business was the right decision? Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur. Australia – and, more importantly, the Central Business District of Sydney, which is where I worked – is an incredibly dynamic and exciting place to be. There is such a strong work ethic there, much more than I had ever experienced. People in NI tend to work 9 to 5 but Sydney was very like London. All work and little play. The opportunities to do varied work is vast. My job came with great prospects for an interesting and rewarding career but I missed my family too much and came home to NI. Travelling and working abroad just opens your eyes to a whole new world out there. When I came back I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut but as with many things I did. Time ticked on and suddenly ten years had passed by. I was feeling frustrated at myself and didn’t know what I wanted. Loads of incredible people whose opinions I value had said to me that I should go out on my own and with that in mind I decided to go for it. The biggest driver for me was the same as when I went to Australia – I didn’t want to look back and regret not trying. And so in May last year I did just that. There was no magic formula – it just happened and I haven’t looked back. I was accepted on to Women in Business ‘Power of Four’ programme which really helped with my network. To be surrounded with like-minded people was important to me. Then I got accepted onto Entrepreneurial Spark which meant I had the opportunity to grow my network even more with like-minded entrepreneurs, not to mention it came with free city centre office space. I have just completed that and have found new offices with some amazing entrepreneurs I met through Power of Four and we move in at the start of September. Why the name ‘Digital Twenty Four’? I don’t want this to sound like a “train wreck” approach to creating a business name but I was lying in bed thinking about what I wanted the business to be called, and I thought Digital was important to have in the name. And then I decided my slogan would be “always on” because the online world never shuts. I thought about Digital 24/7 but the domain was gone and so I went with Digital Twenty Four. I wish it was more exciting than that but it just happened. There was no musing for days. It took about 15 minutes. But I liked it straight away and my gut said to go with it. I always trust my gut instinct. You’re well-known in Northern Ireland as a strong all-round digital marketer. What skillset within digital marketing do you consider to be your main strength? Are there areas of digital marketing you feel you could develop yourself further in? I lectured for the Digital Marketing Institute, have spoken at conferences, taken masterclasses for Women in Business, judged CIM awards and DANI awards, so that helped me become well-known in my field. I won awards in marketing like CIM Senior Professional as well as multiple digital accolades and head hunters told me I was seen as a “person to watch” in the digital arena in NI. I would say my main strengths are looking at a business and developing a holistic digital strategy as well as implementing it to deliver a return on investment. The main areas I look at are Affiliate Marketing, Email Marketing, Paid Advertising (Search and Display), Social Media, and Content Marketing. I learnt so much during my time working alongside Google which definitely helped and now I am a Google Partner. I have been able to deliver brilliant results for my clients with some seeing 100%+ increase in sales revenue year on year. That makes me happy and also drives word of mouth recommendations. My link building and technical SEO skills aren’t up to scratch so if you ever wanted to run a masterclass course for us digital marketers in NI on Technical SEO then I would be the first to sign up. Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? I could live my entire life travelling – I just love going abroad – seeing new places and experiencing different cultures. I have been fortunate enough to have travelled throughout the world; I took 3 months off when moving back from Australia and travelled extensively. My husband and I try to get away at least 4 times a year and never to the same place. I have a house in Rossnowlagh, Donegal, so I love to go there for long walks on the beach or the odd cycle which always inevitably ends up in the pub. I love eating out too as well as entertaining friends and family. I pay for Virgin gym membership but it stops there. Does that count as a hobby? Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. Buzzsumo is a website I am on practically every day. It helps me when I am looking at trending content or coming up with great ideas for blog topics. It lets you enter any keyword or topic you are interested in and it’ll show you the most shared articles for that keyword across all the major social networks for any time period. It is my go-to for all content marketing ideas. About Niamh Taylor

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Emma Gribben

    When I moved to Northern Ireland in 2009, I felt a bit like a fish out of water. Culturally it was a huge change from my native Netherlands, and the digital community in NI was a very different environment from what I was used to. But I shouldn’t have worried – the people in Northern Ireland embraced me with open arms and quickly made me feel welcome and part of their community. The digital industry was especially welcoming, and I quickly made good friends with many people working locally in the digital realm. Having worked in Northern Ireland for over seven years now, I feel that many of our best and brightest digital experts are not always getting the recognition they deserve beyond NI’s borders. While I’m lucky enough to speak at international conferences regularly, few of my peers in the digital industry in Northern Ireland have managed to create a name for themselves outside of NI. I want to do what I can to change that. To that end, I am performing a series of interviews with local Northern Irish digital experts that I feel are at the top of their game, and deserve wider recognition in the UK & Ireland and beyond. Through these interviews I’m hoping to help promote these NI digital experts to the rest of the world, and perhaps contribute – however modestly – to a wider appreciation of their skills and abilities. The first person to feature in this series of interviews is Emma Gribben. I first met Emma when I did a guest lecture for the Ulster University, and later I collaborated with her when she was the Digital Marketing Executive at Linwoods Healthfoods. For me, as an agency-side supplier of digital marketing services, Emma was a breath of fresh air; she came fully armed with a comprehensive digital strategy for Linwoods, which made working with her very easy and rewarding. Emma has since started her own business as a freelance digital marketer, and she’s also working as a TV presenter for Irish TV. Below you can read all about Emma’s journey in to digital marketing. Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover the internet, and how did you become so involved with it? I grew up in the era where social media was just starting to become a thing – in my school days we had Bebo but we weren’t quite sure how to use it and we had absolutely no concept of the possibilities that social media and the internet could offer us. I did the CAM degree at the University of Ulster and digital marketing at that time was starting to become quite big, there was a lot of talk about it. Because it was new, the course didn’t have a dedicated module focusing on digital, so once I graduated I decided that I needed to skill myself in that area, as I saw it as the future from all the reading and research that I was doing at the time. I completed the Digital Media Communications course at Ulster University – I’m very proud to say we were the first year of the course and recently got invited back to share our experience with some potential applicants. From there my passion was ignited, I loved that the digital industry could provide so many solutions and new opportunities. From there I decided that I wanted to focus on digital full time and I jumped at a role with Linwoods Healthfoods as a Digital Marketing Executive with both hands! You have a formal education in communication, advertising, and marketing. Do you feel that there was sufficient focus on digital technologies in your studies? How did the DMC post-graduate course you undertook later help you focus more on the digital side of marketing & communication? At the time when I was doing CAM there was not a strong enough focus on digital marketing – I graduated in 2010 so you can see how much it has evolved since then. I think because digital was still a new things it was hard to work out what the course should teach people. The DMC course was fantastic, a really solid starting point for any digital strategy or project. Now I still utilise the models and frameworks that I learned in DMC and I find myself teaching these to a few of my digital training clients, which is nice to be able to pass on the information which helped me so much! You’ve had a few in-house roles before you decided to work for yourself. What made you decide to start your own business? Tell us a bit about your journey in to self-employment. I’ve always been quite independent and ambitious since a young age and starting my own business was something I’d always wanted to do. My father was and still is a role model in that sense; he saw an opportunity in the market 20 odd years ago and built a successful business out of nothing so I always felt that it was something in my blood. I worked client side with Linwoods Healthfoods and I absolutely loved that role, I’ve never been happier in my life. The experience was great and the Board of Directors there were very ambitious with their plans so there was a lot of activity and growth. I soon realised that I wanted international experience and it would be now or never before I settled down so I took the leap and moved to Dubai. That was a whole other world and I learned more about life than anything else I suppose! I had a fantastic role there and really got to experience international culture. I was amazed by the fast pace of life there and if somebody wanted to make something happen they just did. Projects that would take years here in the UK happened in weeks and months, there was a real sense of ‘go for it, make it happen’ and that influenced me to a great degree. Whilst I was there I started to think about my life path and my passions and I wanted to do something meaningful that would make a difference – something that I could create. I thought long and hard about starting up on my own and I think everything guided me to that point and I just went for it. I’ll admit, I had no idea what it would take and I think if I did it might have put me off, but the excitement, the passion, the ability to control my own future pushed me forward! You’ve established yourself fairly quickly as a top all-round digital marketer in Northern Ireland. Is there a specific area in digital marketing that you feel you’re strongest in? And which of your digital skills would you like to develop further? I don’t know if I would say that now, as I always feel that there is so much room to learn – especially in digital marketing as it moves so quickly day to day. When speaking to clients I love the buzz when we can identify an area that we can work on and build something from and that’s what keeps me going – seeing the results at the end of a project. I work a lot with social media at the moment as many brands have witnessed the shift in social from organic reach to paid advertising. Some companies were achieving fantastic reach results and those have now gone through the floor as Facebook and others change algorithms and make those companies now pay for the reach that they were previously able to achieve day in, day out. The most exciting area that I’m working in is digital training. I saw an opportunity in the market where many businesses no longer want to pay somebody to ‘do digital’ for them, but they want to learn and have that ability in house as they see it as a longer term project. I have worked with some amazing clients across retail, hospitality, media and investment to deliver digital marketing training and for me, this is going to be an area of focus for the rest of the year. I’d like to develop my SEO skills as at the end of the day, every client with a website wants more traffic. I’ll be honest, I leave PPC to the professionals as it’s a bit of a science. I work with my clients to create a PPC strategy and I have a great agency locally that I work with on their PPC and they do the intricate stuff that would take me weeks. I like to work with clients to steer the ship in the right direction and get the best possible skills on board to make it a success. You’re now also a TV presenter for Irish TV. Do you see that side of your career taking off and becoming your sole focus, or will you always stay a digital marketer first and foremost? My experience so far with Irish TV has been unbelievable! It’s something that I never thought I’d achieve in my wildest dreams but every day we are out filming I feel so blessed and lucky to be able to do that. The thing that I really like is that there are so many people, groups, clubs, bands and organisations doing amazing work throughout County Armagh and I may be able, through Irish TV to help others learn about them and what they do, and even support them or get on board. This role is very important as a digital marketer as I am literally challenging myself day and daily to create engaging content – something that I am always discussing with clients. It has helped me become a better digital marketer and get a clearer perspective on story telling. I absolutely love digital marketing and it will be my key focus – right now I am doing the work with Irish TV one day per week so I have plenty of time to build my business and deliver great results for my clients. You were the Armagh Rose of Tralee in 2013/14. For those of us who have no idea what that means, tell us a bit about it. The Rose of Tralee is an international festival that celebrates Irish roots and we all know that Irish people are renowned throughout the world! Even though we are one of the smallest land areas our people go far and wide. The Rose of Tralee has an ambassador from every county in Ireland and many countries across the world, with a big festival every August in Tralee, County Kerry with one lady being chosen as that year’s Rose of Tralee and they have a fantastic year of travelling and profiling worthwhile causes and trying to bring a positive change into the world. It was Linwoods Healthfoods that encouraged me to apply in 2013 and I saw it as a challenge and definitely out of my comfort zone so I went for it and gave it a go! I was shocked when my name was called out as the Armagh Rose as I was just doing it for the craic – I didn’t think I’d win! For me, the best part was meeting 60 odd roses from right across the world and 32 guys who were called escorts (not in that sense!) and we all got to know each other and learn a lot from hearing about our different backgrounds and way of life. The one thing that connected us was a sense of pride in where we came from and the ambition to better ourselves to do something positive in this world. Three years later I am still very much connected with the 2013 gang as we call it, you could easily travel round the world and have a bed for the night by calling to say hi with all our connections. Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. I have to admit that I am absolutely addicted to Canva – I use it on a daily basis and I often ask how something so useful and easy to use can be free! It is an image creation tool where you can use pre-loaded templates, shapes, lines, frames, borders as well as uploading your own assets. I tell all my clients about it and once they start using it they love it. If you have not yet tried it out you need to! About Emma Gribben, Digital Marketing Consultant

  • Are you going to be at Pubcon 2016?

    Last year I attended and spoke at the renowned Pubcon conference for the first time. It was an awesome experience, and you can read about it here. I’ll be going to Pubcon again this year from October 10 to 13, to deliver two talks – one on technical SEO issues and one on site security. I’m very excited to share sessions with great SEOs and long-time industry friends like Dawn Anderson and Kristine Schachinger. Additionally I’m moderating a session on site speed, which features SEO legends like Ian Lurie, Fili Wiese, and Michael King. Having gotten an early glimpse of what these talks will be covering, I can’t wait to see the whole thing! In fact, the entire Pubcon 2016 schedule is packed full of great sessions and keynotes from amazing speakers. It’s going to be very hard to pick which ones to see. To make this Las Vegas trip even more special, I’m on the judging panel for the US Search Awards which will be held in association with Pubcon at Caesar’s Palace on October 12th. I’m honoured to be part of this year’s US Search Awards. I take the responsibility of judging awards very seriously, as an award win can make a huge difference to a business. All in all, Pubcon 2016 is already shaping up to be a truly amazing event once again, and personally I can’t wait to get there. As a speaker, I can offer a special discount on Pubcon tickets – You can get a 15% discount on Gold and Platinum passes, just use the following code in the checkout process: rc-8768015. This code is valid until August 31. If you need more good reasons to help convince your boss to send you to Pubcon, they’ve got you covered. I hope to see you in Vegas!

  • How to Find & Fix Crawl Optimisation Issues – #BrightonSEO

    BrightonSEO is the largest and post popular SEO conference in the UK, and the April 2016 edition sold out in record time. I was fortunate enough to speak at this event, sharing a stage with the wonderful Dawn Anderson and Oliver Mason for the ‘crawl’ session. Dawn delivered a great talk about crawl rank, and Oliver showed us how to handle large server log files. My talk was about finding and fixing crawl optimisation issues on large websites, with examples from real client websites. Here are the slides from my talk: Judging from the feedback on Twitter, the session was a success and the attendees got plenty of actionable tips to help improve their SEO efforts. My talk got mentioned in several BrightonSEO roundup posts as well: Tecmark Impression Unwritten DeepCrawl Distilled

  • Tool Review: Monitor Backlinks

    Doing search engine optimisation is much harder without good SEO tools. While there are many tools available, not all of them will be suitable for everyone. Back in 2014 I reviewed a new tool called Monitor Backlinks. It’s been a while since then and the tool has expanded significantly, so it’s time to revisit the tool and see what’s been added and changed. Rather than point out the differences, I’ll go through every aspect of Monitor Backlinks to give you a full overview of the tool’s current features and possibilities. As the name suggests, Monitor Backlinks helps you monitor your site’s backlinks, but that’s not all it can do. You can also use Monitor Backlinks to keep track of your keyword rankings in Google, spy competitors and create a disavow report with your bad links. How to start using it Monitor Backlinks comes with a 30 day free trial. After registering your account, you’ll be asked to add your domain. You have the option to connect it to Google Analytics, which will give you more insights about your website, so it’s worth doing. The core feature of Monitor Backlinks is that it automatically identifies your site’s new backlinks and sends email alerts when you earn them. In this day and age of virality as well as the threat of negative SEO, knowing when your site earns new links is crucial to stay on top of your SEO efforts. Aside from identifying new backlinks, the tool also verifies the status of your existing links. For example, if one of your links goes from dofollow to nofollow – a constant possibility when you do blogger outreach – you’ll be notified. The Dashboard On the main dashboard, you’ll see a range of metrics for your site, such as: Social signals, number of pages indexed in Google, total number of links, unique referring domains, Google Page Speed, MozRank, Spam Score, Trust Flow, and other metrics of varying usefulness. There’s also a module showing if it detects your website has been hacked. These metrics are automatically updated on a monthly basis. Also on the dashboard, if you’ve connected your domain with Google Analytics, you’ll see a graphic with your organic traffic, the average keyword position, the dates when you got new links, overlaid with dates of know major Google algorithm updates. You can see at a glance when you got new backlinks and how it helped you increase your average keyword position in Google. Backlinks Overview The backlinks table is where the fun happens. All your discovered backlinks are shown here, but you also have the option to add your own links, if need be. Each backlink comes with a range of metrics, so you can easily analyse and compare their value. For some of your links, you’ll see a warning sign on the left side of the row. That indicates the backlink has some questionable metrics, and it’s recommended to manually review it. If, after a manual review, you decide to keep the link, you can ignore the warning. Alternately, you can click on button “disavow domain” and you’ll add the link to your disavow list. Hold your mouse over the warning sign to see why the backlink has been flagged as potentially harmful. The huge variety of metrics provided for each link is what makes Monitor Backlink very useful for those that want to quickly analyze the quality of their inbound links. A backlink can have various status codes, which is why the tool has a dedicated column showing the link’s status. Aside from regular dofollow and nofollow, links can also suffer from redirects or errors like 302, 301, 404, 500, 403, 522, 503, etc. Below the backlink status, you’ll find a Google icon that indicates if the page or domain the link resides on is indexed by Google. When the icon is green, it means both the domain and page are indexed. When it’s yellow, the domain is indexed, but the page isn’t – which can happen with fresh blog posts for example. If the icon is red, it means that both the domain and page are not indexed, meaning it’s likely the site was penalised by Google. Monitor Backlinks makes use of APIs from other SEO tools to expand their platform’s usefulness. Therefore, for each of your links you’ll see Trust & Citation Flow, MozRank, Spam Score, and Domain & Page Authority. Other metrics include: TLD/IP location, social signals, number of external links, and referring traffic for each link (if you’ve connected it to Google Analytics). You also have the option to sort your backlinks using the filters located on the right side of the table. Multiple filters can be applied at once. If you want to learn more about filtering links to find good and bad ones, you can check this video tutorial from the team at Monitor Backlinks: You can also tag your links or add notes to easily identify them in the future. For example, if you’ve done some guest blogging campaigns, you might want to tag your links as “guest posts”. This will help you easily group your links. To add a note or tag a link, click on the settings icon located on the left side of each row and then on “Edit”. Reporting on links Monitor Backlinks can also generate reports about your site’s inbound links. Using the same filters available for the backlinks page, you can generate custom reports with their TLD, IP location, top Anchor text, backlinks status, most linked pages, Majestic metrics, Moz metrics, and most shared backlinks distribution. Spying on competitors with Monitor Backlinks The tool’s competitors feature is very straightforward, and quite useful. You simply add your main competitors and Monitor Backlinks will automatically verify all the links they are getting, every 10 days. If new links are detected, you’ll get an email showing you these links. It’s an easy way to keep up with your competitors’ link building campaigns. Using the metrics provided, you can decide which backlinks are worthy of being replicated. The domains from where your site already has links will be highlighted in green. Keyword rank tracker To add to the tool’s already all-round usefulness, it also includes a keyword rank tracker. You can keep track of rankings in Google and get a side by side comparison with your competitors. Monitor Backlinks checks the rankings on top 150 results for each keyword and shows average search volume, AdWords competition and CPC. All keywords are checked weekly and included in the weekly SEO progress reports you receive via email every Wednesday. The tool supports rank checking on various international Google versions, making it useful for international SEOs. And you also get nice graphs to visualise your progress and include in management reports. The Disavow Tool The disavow feature is quite handy. It works directly in conjunction with the backlinks page. Once you identify a bad link, you can add it to the disavow list. To export the disavow report, you have to go to the disavow page, and then click on “Export”. The report generated by Monitor Backlinks matches the format Google requires for disavow files. All that’s left for the you is to upload the report to Google’s Disavow Tool. Conclusion Monitor Backlinks is a good all-round SEO tool with a specific focus on link analysis and monitoring, making it a key weapon in every SEO’s arsenal. Unlike other tools which only give you data on demand, with Monitor Backlinks most of the reporting is automated. I especially like the numerous metrics you are given for each link, negating the need to go to multiple tools to gather all this data. I also found the ease with which you can identify and disavow bad links to be very useful. With the 30-day trial Monitor Backlinks provides you can’t really go wrong, so give it a try and let me know your thoughts.

  • Who Will You Vote For? Whoever Google Wants You To.

    Search Engine Optimisers have known for years that top rankings in Google are about more than just getting traffic to your website. Occupying the first spot in a competitive organic search result has additional and less tangible benefits, such as improved brand recognition, trust, and authority. All SERP click-through studies show that the top results get by far the majority of the clicks. This simple fact, taken for granted, actually has profound consequences. First of all we need to truly understand why the top results on Google are so dominant and why so few people bother scrolling down or, heaven forbid, go to the second page of results and beyond. There must be a strong sense of trust accorded to Google’s search results, in that the vast majority of people trust Google’s judgement and that the results shown present the best possible websites for that particular search query. It’s this inherent trust in Google’s search results that has such far-reaching and, until now, mostly unexplored repercussions. Research psychologist Robert Epstein is one of several researchers looking in to the effects of search results on the human psyche. More specifically, he’s looking at how Google’s search results can impact elections. In a great essay published on Aeon, he shows how Google’s rankings can have an immensely powerful impact on how undecided voters view political candidates, to such an extent that the outcome of elections can be decided by which webpages Google decides to rank at the top of their results: On average, we were able to shift the proportion of people favouring any given candidate by more than 20 per cent overall and more than 60 per cent in some demographic groups. Even more disturbing, 99.5 per cent of our participants showed no awareness that they were viewing biased search rankings – in other words, that they were being manipulated. As a veteran of the SEO industry, this doesn’t really surprise me. We’ve known for years that achieving top rankings on Google carry a lot of weight beyond the immediate traffic boost. What few of us have ever bothered to think about, however, is exactly how potent a force Google’s results can be in the wider context of society’s dynamics. This is what Robert Epstein’s research is showing, and it’s a terrifying thought. Algorithmic Bias The immediate focus will be on how Google decides to rank webpages, and how the inherent bias of their ranking algorithms will impact on political viewpoints. Google’s defense will be based on algorithmic independence, but this is a thin shield as the algorithm itself is of course fully created by people. Google’s search engineers have their own fair share of biases and personal beliefs, and those could very well influence how the algorithm decides which webpages deserve to rank. Every tweak made to the algorithm to improve the quality of search results is, in essence, an editorial decision made by a Google engineer that a certain type of webpage deserves to outrank another type of webpage. Even if these tweaks are made on the basis of objective quality metrics, it’s very easy for political beliefs to creep in to these algorithmic tweaks without engineers’ conscious awareness. After all, our beliefs and convictions influence everything we do on a subconscious level. Our behaviour and decisions are the end product of internal mental processes that we’re only superficially aware of – most human behaviour emerges from the unknown depths of the subconscious mind. And in the context of Silicon Valley’s homogeneous environment, it seems logical to conclude that Google’s ranking algorithm will have some inherent bias towards a certain belief system that most of its engineers adhere to. So Google cannot honestly claim its algorithms are entirely objective and free of bias. Even without any conscious manipulation of search results, there’s an implicit prejudice built in to the search engine. Legal Obligations Yet regardless of what Google claims about its ranking algorithms, there’s a second issue that’s much more important to discuss. This is Google’s legal obligation, as a publicly traded company, to maximise profit. Epstein refers to that incentive in his essay, when he discusses Facebook’s controversial political manipulation experiment: Is Facebook currently manipulating elections in this way? No one knows, but in my view it would be foolish and possibly even improper for Facebook not to do so. Some candidates are better for a company than others, and Facebook’s executives have a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s stockholders to promote the company’s interests. This hits the nail directly on its head. Like Facebook, Google has an obligation to its shareholders to maximise profit. Combine that with the power to sway elections in favour of specific candidates, and you have a recipe for electoral manipulation that ensures candidates are elected which promote policies favouring Google’s interests. This is the topic of an Evgeny Morozov column, in which he discusses how Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Uber are using their reach to directly impact on the democratic process: But Uber also added a De Blasio feature to its app – an unmissable “NO CARS – SEE WHY” sign placed on New York’s map. On clicking it, users were told Uber would look like this if De Blasio won. Users were encouraged to email the mayor and the city council with a handy “EMAIL NOW” link. Eventually, De Blasio capitulated. So far the attention has been on Facebook and Uber, who have already actively used their immense reach for political purposes. It’s time we expand our attention and include Google as well, now that there’s abundant research showing exactly how powerful a tool their search results can be when it comes to influencing public opinion. Such manipulation is almost entirely undetectable, which begs the question; do we simply trust these technology giants to be neutral and not abuse this enormous power they’ve gathered, or do we find some way to ensure that Google and Facebook do not have decisive influence on who gets to be the next President or Prime Minister? And it’s not just election outcomes at stake here. From Epstein’s essay: We have also learned something very disturbing – that search engines are influencing far more than what people buy and whom they vote for. We now have evidence suggesting that on virtually all issues where people are initially undecided, search rankings are impacting almost every decision that people make. They are having an impact on the opinions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of internet users worldwide – entirely without people’s knowledge that this is occurring. Silicon Valley companies want to be part of everything we do, all the time, to monetise every aspect of our daily lives. But beyond the immediate commercial gains, this grants Silicon Valley a very real and direct control over what we believe, who we trust, and how we behave. In effect, with every search on Google, every post and like on Facebook, and every ride booked on Uber, we’re handing ever more power to a very small elite of men in California. I don’t know about you, but that thought makes me very uncomfortable indeed.

  • Predictions for SEO & Digital Marketing in 2016 and Beyond

    The end of 2015 is in sight, so as is customary around this time of year the web is bombarded with articles predicting what will happen in 2016 in any given industry. SEO and digital marketing are no different – after all, it’s always fun to speculate and imagine what the future will look like. And it gives us something else to write about and fill blogs with. Rand Fishkin over at Moz has been doing predictions for a number of years, and he’s gotten pretty good at it – he seems to have a keen grasp of where the digital marketing industry is headed, so do keep an eye on his upcoming predictions for 2016 (update: here are Rand’s 2016 predictions). I’ve been contributing my opinions to predictions posts for years – see my predictions for 2013, 2014, and 2015 –  with varying degrees of success. Some of my predictions could generously be interpreted as accurate, while others have perhaps fallen a bit short of the mark. Despite my less than perfect track record, I’ve again been asked to contribute to a number of prediction posts this year. I’ve collected all my various foresights for 2016 in one article here. Barry’s Predictions for 2016 Contribution for State of Digital: Backlash against ad blockers There will be a backlash against ad blockers, with some websites blocking visitors that have ad blockers enabled. The deeper root causes that make ad blocking so popular will be left almost entirely unacknowledged, with publishers and advertisers instead preferring to use crude measures to protect their ad revenue rather than face up to the fact that they’ve been behaving like total pricks for years. Contribution for Momentology: Narrowing Search Space The search space will continue to narrow in focus in 2016, as mobile-first browsing habits will siphon traffic from search engines towards mobile apps – specifically YouTube, Facebook, and news apps. I suspect 2016 might be the first year to see a stagnation, if not decline, in search volumes on some of the major search engines. As a result of this narrowing search space, a brand’s total share of voice will become even more important. I expect a proliferation of brand-owned content channels – such as Momentology – in a wide range of industries, from DIY to retail, manufacturing, and medical technology. Brands will create and promote self-owned publication channels to build their own audiences, rather than rely on third-party platforms to deliver visitors to their commercial sites. Some of these brand-owned channels will be indistinguishable from independent channels. A few independent online publications will be bought by brands who can’t be bothered building their own audience from scratch. Altogether, 2016 will be the year where the fight for audience attention will reach a new peak, as organic search evolves in to a zero-sum game and social media becomes exclusively pay-to-play for corporate accounts. The limitations of our industry will start to materialize as consumer behavior changes, and the fight for consumer attention will be fiercer than ever. In order for SEO to survive and thrive in such an environment, SEO providers will need to focus more on highlighting their clients’ competitive edge and find increasingly provocative and attention-grabbing content angles. The future of online success will not be dependent on organic search. Instead I see an online brand’s growth rely on how successful they’ll be able to integrate with existing dominant platforms. News hosted on Facebook (Instant Articles) and Google (AMP), ecommerce through Twitter and Instagram, those will be the trends that will pave the way for online success in the coming years. Contribution for Search Engine People: App Streaming & Branded Channels We’re now firmly in the era of the mobile internet, so all your strategies need to start with mobile experiences and scale up from there. App Streaming New app streaming features will make creating your own app more attractive than ever – users won’t need to install your app to be able to enjoy the experience you’ve created, removing a large barrier for app adoption. It’s now more attractive than ever before to build an app experience that helps your customers in tangible ways and makes optimal use of mobile’s built-in advantages. When you enable it for streaming experiences through Google Android, you’ll be tapping in to an entirely new growth market. Apple will not be lagging far behind so be prepared for similar possibilities on iOS in the near future. Expect to see this take off in 2016, and it’ll pay to be an early adopter. Branded Content Channels As the fight for consumers’ attention becomes ever fiercer, you’ll need to be firing on multiple channels with a strong, unified brand message. For brands in competitive and saturated spaces, a potentially powerful option is to partner with or create a content marketing outlet that is partially or wholly independent – for example a magazine like Red Bulletin, an authoritive blog like Linkdex’s Momentology, or an event series like Intel’s Creators Project. By owning a separate content channel that you can develop in to a niche authority, you can build an engaged audience without having to overcome the usual resistance to corporate outlets, and create an audience community around shared ideas and interests. What do you think? Are my predictions way off, or do you see some merit in them? What are your predictions for SEO and digital marketing in 2016? Feel free to sound off in the comments.

  • Using PESTLE to Develop a Strategic Vision on the Future of SEO

    As an industry, SEO is obsessed with tactics. We focus most on what works now and look forward to new tactics that can help us deliver better results. Our tactical perspective helps us cut through the clutter and get things done, but it also comes with a downside: At its core, SEO is a reactive industry; always running to stay in line with the web, catching up with trends rather than set them. Often what we call a ‘SEO strategy’ is in fact simply a collection of tactics in service of a long-term vision. Such a strategy assumes that the current landscape of SEO remains fundamentally unchanged. But true strategic thinking is so much more than that. If we want to think about SEO with a proper strategic mind-set, we need to understand not only SEO as it exists today, but also where it will be heading in the future. And that means we need to understand the various forces that have an impact on SEO, and foresee how those forces can change the practice and purpose of SEO. This sort of forward-looking strategic thinking is mostly absent from the day-to-day discourse on SEO, and I hope to change that to some degree with this article. Here I want to outline some of the key forces for change that can affect SEO, and engage in some speculative thinking about what SEO will look like in the near future as a result of these changes. The model I use to think strategically about the driving forces for change is PESTLE. This model categorises the various forces in to six main areas: Political Economic Social Technological Legal Environmental Using this model we can describe the potential drivers of change that affect both how SEO is done and its purpose of connecting business and consumers. Political Political factors determine the extent to which governments may influence the industry. These factors tend to result in legal factors later down the line, as new laws are introduced and existing laws changed to accommodate the changing technological and social landscape. Sometimes political factors are more overtly influential. We saw in 2013 how political manoeuvring had a profound impact on the search industry, when extensive lobbying in Washington resulted in the almost complete dismissal of the FTC’s antitrust case against Google. More recently, Indiana’s adoption of a ‘religious freedom’ bill has impacted the state’s economic situation, as several large companies have made changes to their internal policies and procedures as a result. Similar legislation is on the table in Northern Ireland, a country whose private sector is immensely dependent on foreign investors which may withdraw if such a law was passed. When you want to embrace a strategic vision of SEO, you need to keep the political landscape in mind. One potential factor is the possibility of a change of guard in the White House, where the current Democratic pro-Google administration could be replaced by a Republican government in 2016 that has a less positive relationship with Silicon Valley, and which might introduce legislation that hinders how Google and other search engines do business. Economic Economic factors are the result of an economy’s performance that directly impacts the industry and has resonating long term effects. In the case of SEO, one of the key economic drivers for change is the growing purchasing power of consumers in second and third world countries, which can drive a greater embrace of search technologies and open new markets for international SEO. Other long term economic factors are things like employment and inflation, which can have massive impact on consumer spending and, thus, on what types of searches are popular. For example, in a strong economy with a vibrant middle class, searches for holidays and luxury items will be more popular than in an impoverished economy where wealth is concentrated in a small elite and the bulk of the population has little spending power. Understanding how a country’s current and future economic status can impact how you do SEO is crucial to anticipating your target market’s search intent and ensuring your client’s websites are ahead of the curve. Social One of the more profound drivers of change in the SEO industry, social factors include aspects like cultural trends and population demographics. In recent years we have seen the 45-54 demographic become increasingly active online, which has resulted in all kinds of changes in search behaviour. For example, much of the growth of online activity in these older demographics is due to their embrace of tablet computing. This digital empowerment of the older generations has given rise to new markets online and changed the profitability of existing markets. Additionally, the growing international popularity of holidays like Halloween – previously a mostly American affair – has also opened up a range of possibilities in European markets. You’ll also want to keep an eye on the cultural landscape and anticipate the popularity of certain movies and TV shows, as these can have a profound impact on consumer behaviour. Not only will new markets appear as cultural phenomena wax and wane, existing niches can change as a result as well. The comics industry for example has experienced a revival in the wake of the massively popular superhero movies. Lastly, social and cultural factors influence how much traction a piece of content might achieve online. By tapping in to developing cultural trends you can generate stronger results from linkbait and clickbait. Technological Most often when we think about long term drivers for change in SEO, we only see technological factors at work. Indeed, technology plays a huge part in how we do SEO. Yet most SEOs barely look beyond the obvious drivers for change, such as the adoption of mobile computing and search engines’ carrot & stick approach to semantic markup. There is so much more to the technological realm that affects SEO and its long term future, and this requires a broad perspective that looks at wider technological trends. These then need to be interpreted within the context of SEO – primarily, how they impact the very purpose of online search itself. Technologies like wearables and embedded devices will fundamentally change the way we search for information online, and that means the very foundation of SEO can be affected. This is of course exactly where search engines are headed, changing in to information providers rather than doorways to the world wide web. In fact, as technology continues to miniaturise and integrate in to our daily lives, the web itself will fade to the background and consumers will increasingly rely on intermediate platforms like Google and Facebook to provide all their informational and transactional requirements. The concept of a SERP will at some stage become obsolete, and the SEO industry will have to adapt and embrace new ways of organically introducing client sites in their target audience’s information streams. The intermediary platforms intend for you to use advertising as the primary medium for that, and it’ll be challenging for SEOs to find ways of circumventing such commercial frameworks in favour of unpaid & earned channels. Legal You don’t have to look far to see legal ramifications for the SEO industry. From relatively small factors like the ASA’s insistence on declarations of sponsorships for bloggers (which applies to most forms of blogger outreach), to the ongoing antitrust litigation against Google in Europe, there are profound legal consequences to how SEO is done and how it will exist in the future. If, for example, Google were to be heavily penalised in Europe for antitrust infringements, we could see a drastically altered search landscape. At the lower end of the impact scale we will see changes to how Google presents search results to European users. At the higher (and unlikelier) end, Google may opt to withdraw from Europe entirely, which will be nothing short of a foundational shift for SEO as we will suddenly have to change focus on whichever search engines emerge to fill the void. Data protection law has also emerged as a powerful driver for change, as this can impact how search engines are allowed to personalise results for users. All things considered, it pays to keep a close eye on the courts and anticipating the effects of new legislation and landmark decisions. Environmental While it may appear on the surface of things that the online realm has little to do with environmental issues, this is assuredly not the case. The way increased awareness of climate change has altered consumer behaviour is profound, as with the embrace of ‘organic food’ trends in affluent populations. Additionally, environmental factors can reverberate powerfully through political, economic, and legal factors to create fundamental shifts in how business is done online on regional, national, and international levels. Just one look at how hurricane Katrina impacted on the New Orleans area shows you exactly how devastating environmental factors can be. While it may seem callous to look at how this impacts your industry, it’s nonetheless essential to keep such factors in mind when outlining a long term vision for your client’s SEO – especially if your target market is in a climatically unstable region. Further Reading If the above has peaked your interest in developing a proper long term strategic vision for SEO, further information on the PESTLE approach to strategic management can be found on I encourage you all to think more broadly about the ever-changing world and how the SEO industry must also change with it. Embracing change is at the heart of SEO, and rather than wait for things to happen we should be anticipating what comes next and preparing for it accordingly. After all, chance favours only the prepared mind.

  • Barry’s Top SEO Tools

    Updated: 31 October 2022 One thing the SEO industry isn’t lacking is tools. For every SEO task there appears to be at least one tool that claims to be able to do it all for you. From site analysis to on-page optimisation, from outreach to content planning, you’ll never be short on tools to aid in your work. But tools can be a crutch, an inadequate replacement for real skill and experience. SEO tools are only as good as the SEO practitioner using them. There are hundreds of tools to choose from. Brian Dean at Backlinko has compiled a whole list of them – you’ll find dozens of tools there for every conceivable task. But here at Polemic Digital, I only use a handful of tools; a few tried and trusted platforms that, for me, deliver all the value and automation that I require. Google Search Console is such an obvious source of data that I won’t mention it here. Instead I’ll focus on my favourite 3rd party SEO tools that I use (almost) every day: 1. Sitebulb I used to rely exclusively on Screaming Frog as my desktop SEO crawler, but recently I made the switch to Sitebulb and haven’t looked back since. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Screaming Frog and use it often, but when it comes to running a first-look crawl on a website to find (almost) every potential technical SEO issue that might affect it, nothing beats Sitebulb. In addition to extensive built-in reports, which include everything from performance checks, structured data, site architecture, HTML optimisations, and much more, the tool also allows you to extract the raw crawl data so you can dig deeper into the site and create your own sheets and reports. It’s simply the best SEO crawler out there, bar none. 2. Screaming Frog Where I use Sitebulb for full site analyses, I use Screaming Frog for focused crawls – usually a specific list of URLs or an XML sitemap. The ability to connect Screaming Frog to 3rd party data sources like PageSpeed Insights, Google Search Console & Google Analytics, Majestic & Ahrefs, means that with Screaming Frog you can collect all the relevant data for a URL in one place and get this data for hundreds of URLs in one go. Screaming Frog is like the Swiss army knife of SEO. Its uses are almost endless! A true must-have tool in every SEO’s arsenal. 3. Sistrix For evaluating competitors, there’s one tool that stands apart from everyone else: Sistrix. With this tool you can get a very good snapshot of a site’s performance in search results, and compare that to those of its rivals. The data is excellent and will give you a reliable impression of a site’s footprint in search results, and any shifts associated with algorithm updates. You can also compare multiple websites, allowing you to see exactly where one is gaining at the expense of another. Sistrix also has a host of other features which can help with all kinds of other aspects of SEO, including site audits, keyword research, and rank tracking. I’ll be honest and admit I don’t use those, as I prefer specialised tools for those aspects of SEO. 4. Rank Ranger Over the years I’ve tried many different rank trackers. They all do more or less the same, so none really stood out. Until I tried Rank Ranger. Now this is to rank trackers what a space shuttle is to a kite. It’s much more than just a rank tracker – it’s a Google data gathering platform. Rank Ranger not only tracks a site’s rankings on Google for your keywords, it gathers pretty much every conceivable bit of information about those search results pages and allows you to generate reports for them. Plus it has a host of other features that make it an extremely powerful SEO suite. For my work with news publishers, Rank Ranger created a special Top Stories report that tracks a domain’s visibility in the top stories carousels on up to 50 keywords on a daily basis. I can honestly say that Rank Ranger has become my go-to rank tracker for every client project. 5. Little Warden When Dom Hodgson launched this tool in the middle of 2017 I was keen to give it a try, and I was instantly turned in to a lifelong fan. Little Warden is a monitoring tool that checks a domain and homepage for a huge range of technical aspects, such as: Domain name & SSL expiration Title tag & meta description changes Robots.txt changes Canonical tags Redirects 404 errors and many, many more. Little Warden sends you a notification every time something changes, so that you’ll never let a domain name expire or have a robots.txt disallow rule change pass unnoticed. You can configure the checks as well and choose which checks you want to enable or disable. So far Little Warden has been a huge lifesaver several times already, notifying me of potential problems such as expired SSL certificates, title tag changes, wrong redirects, and meta robots tag problems. A hugely useful tool if you manage a varied client roster. 6. NewzDash Because I work with several large news publishers, I need specialised tools to analyse a website’s visibility in Google News. This is where NewzDash comes in. Where Sistrix keeps track of regular search results, NewzDashb monitors Google News. There are many different ways in which Google shows news results, both in the dedicated Google News vertical and as part of news boxes in regular results on desktop and mobile. NewzDash monitors all of these, and provides visibility graphs showing how different news sites perform over time. Additionally, NewzDash can also be used to see what trending news topics a website is covering, and what topics it isn’t showing up for. The latter is very useful data to give to a newsroom. An alternative to NewzDash is Trisolute News Dashboard, a similar tool for Google News and Top Stories rank tracking. 7. SEOInfo I stopped using Chrome and switched to Firefox a few years ago (and you should too), which caused me a bit of a challenge in terms of browser plugins. Many SEO plugins are made for Chrome only, with no Firefox version. Then SEOInfo came around and saved my bacon. SEOInfo is pretty much the only Firefox extension you need for SEO. It gives you all the relevant info such as on-page SEO elements, meta tags, load speed, mobile usability, HTTP headers, and so much more. It also has a built-in structured data validator, and a SERP snippet simulator that shows how the page’s listing would look in Google results. All in all it’s a plugin I’ve come to heavily rely on in my day to day SEO work. 8. Google SERP Checker Because I work with publishers all over the world, I need to be able to see search results from different countries and in various languages. This is where the Local & International Google SERP Checker comes in. With this simple web app, you can mimick Google search results from any location and language, showing you what searches based there would see for that same query. This is incredibly valuable, allowing me to check for specific search features as well as rankings in Top Stories boxes and other search elements. Plenty More The tools listed above are the ones I use most often, but don’t represent the full extent of the arsenal of tools at my disposal. There’s plenty of other tools I rely on for bits and pieces, such as GDDash, Lumar, and of course Google Search Console. There’s one tool I haven’t yet mentioned that prize above all others: critical thinking. When you become overly reliant on tools, you lose the ability to analyse SEO issues properly, and you’ll start missing things that tools might not necessarily be able to spot. In SEO there are no more shortcuts. No tool in the world is going to turn you in to an SEO expert. Tools can certainly make some aspects of SEO much easier, but in the end you’ll still have to do the hard work yourself.

  • Barry’s Pubcon 2015

    I arrived in Las Vegas on Sunday evening, exhausted from 14 hours of travel but excited to be there. It’s a city that certainly overwhelms visitors with its hustle & bustle, and a constant assault on the senses with light and noise everywhere, so I couldn’t just go straight to bed. Fortunately there was a wee unofficial gathering of Pubcon people at the New York New York hotel, where I got to hang out with Dawn, Kristine, Simon, Rey, Becky, and several other folks that my sleep-deprived brain struggled to remember (sorry!). We played several rounds of a digital-themed Cards Against Humanity variant designed by Simon, which had all of us thoroughly entertained. Due to the inevitabilities of transatlantic travel, I woke up way too early on Monday so decided to get some work done before heading to the Las Vegas Convention Centre for the Pubcon speaker’s enclave. When I arrived I couldn’t help but take a photo of the venue: it’s enormous! The enclave was all kinds of awesome. It’s an opportunity for the conference speakers to network and mingle, and to ask each other questions about issues they’re struggling with and the state of the industry. Many of Pubcon’s speakers were there, and I felt truly privileged to be in their company. My tweet pretty much sums it up: At the #Pubcon speakers enclave. Many of the smartest minds in search in one room. And me. #whoop — Barry Adams (@badams) October 5, 2015 That evening I explored Vegas a wee bit with the help of Dom, Gareth, Paul, and Eddy. We ate obscenely large portions of chicken wings and wandered around the southern end of The Strip before calling it a night. The next day I once again awoke way too early (damn you jetlag), and decided to make the most of the day by using the hotel’s gym to burn off some of the calories from that ginormous portion of food the previous night. Then I headed to the venue to make sure I got there early to explore the place a bit. I took a peek at Salon A where I was due to speak that day, and was a bit in awe at the sheer size of the room: Not much time for worrying though as I didn’t want to miss Guy Kawasaki‘s opening keynote. His talk was amusing and full of interesting anecdotes, but I’m not sure I learned anything new. Basically he said that you needed to get the small details right in your marketing, something that many have been saying for years (myself included). After the opening keynote, there were no less than nine concurrent tracks of talks. I went to see Eric Wu‘s talk about SEO and JavaScript, which was all kinds of awesome – it taught me a lot about how to best approach JS-heavy websites for SEO. His slides are online here. I had to leave a bit early to head to Salon A where my own talk was due to take place. I presented as part of the SEO Tech Masters session alongside Dave Rohrer and Michael Gray. My talk was about crawl optimisation, and it seemed to be received pretty well – I got lots of positive feedback on Twitter, After my talk we had a lunchbreak, and then I headed to Salon I where I was part of a live site review session with Russ Jones, Kevin Lee, and Derrick Wheeler. We reviewed a handful of websites for SEO performance, and I have to say there were a few sites that I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at. After that session my speaker duties at Pubcon were fulfilled and I could relax and enjoy the remainder of the conference, which lasted until Thursday. On Tuesday evening we had a big social event in the Señor Frogs bar at the Treasure Island hotel, where I hung out with lots of awesome folks such as Dawn, Patrick, Mark, Eddy, and many others, so come Wednesday I was a bit worse for wear – not least because despite abundant consumption of alcohol I again woke up at 4.30 AM, my body still refusing to accept I was in a different time zone. With the help of prodigious amounts of coffee and Mountain Dew I made it through Wednesday, catching a fair few sessions as well. My favourite was Rand Fishkin‘s afternoon keynote, in which he gave a great outline of where search in general and SEO in particular are headed. I got to see my friend Martin Macdonald speak about narratives in content marketing, and while he’d admitted to me he’d only barely finished his slides before his talk, you wouldn’t have known that from his great delivery full of humour and witty anecdotes. That evening I had intended to go to another social event and perhaps even drop by the US Search Awards, but my combined hangover and jetlag made me crash without a hope of getting up – despite Nicky Wake‘s best attempts to get me to the awards! The next morning I was actually quite pleased I’d gone to bed as early as I did, because for the first time that week I felt fresh and full of energy. The last day of Pubcon featured a few sessions I desperately wanted to see. Duane Forrester‘s keynote was very good, with loads of interesting trends and factoids, and he mirrored many of the points Rand had raised in his talk. Search is changing and we as SEOs need to adapt, modifying our tactics and priorities as the market transforms. SEO is not going away, but it has gotten a bit more complicated. Later that day I got to see one of my heroes in the SEO world speak: Alan Bleiweiss, whose example I’ve been trying to follow for years. The man is an SEO audit genius and his approach to site audits has inspired my own. It was great to see him speak and talk to him later that day. I also caught Kristine‘s talk about technical SEO, which was very good, and got to meet Corey McNeil, who I’ve been friendly with online for years but had never met face to face. It was awesome to finally meet him and I felt like I’d spoken with an old friend rather than a total stranger. After the conference there was one final social event where I got to hang out with lots of great folks again such as Aleyda, Sylvia, Dawn, and Eric, and also got to meet Wissam, another long-time online friend. I had high expectations of Pubcon beforehand, as the conference has such a great reputation. Having been to the 2015 edition, I can honestly say Pubcon lived up to that reputation all the way. It’s been without a doubt one of the greatest industry events I’ve ever attended, and I will definitely be back.

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