Mentoring at Summer of Somewhereto_

I’ve recently been asked to become a mentor as part of the Lottery funded Somewhere To_, an initiative that links young people with donated spaces around the UK. Yesterday was the launch of the Summer Somewhere To_ – a “festival of fresh talent in amazing spaces” and I was invited to speak on a panel discussion in the afternoon.


That’s me, second to the right.

The day was officially kicked off with a talk by Ben Drew (Plan B). He seemed down to earth and very informed when it came to  the issues facing some urban young people (such as postcode wars minimising the benefit of otherwise great youth services).

I wasn’t sure if search and SEO was going to be a very hot topic (compared to, say, the entertainment industries), but I ended up speaking with lots of savvy young people who wanted advice on promoting their websites, writing copy and keeping motivated.

ribbon cutting

Plan B cutting the official ribbon.

Also got to chat with some of the other mentors, including presenter/actor Aaron Roach, Fred Butler (a London based fashion designer), Cassandra Stavrou, owner of Propercorn, Jo Burford (head of talent at Latimer), and Eddie, a talent scout for SYCO Entertainment.


Slightly cheesy “mentor huddle” photo.

A great day, I’m looking forward to more mentoring!

Confessions of a SEO Guest Poster

News from Google’s Matt Cutts last week sent a massive ripple through the SEO community. Never one to mince his words, Cutts stated in his blog post The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO that “guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy. In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a linkbuilding strategy.”

confessions of a guest bloggerThe reason this announcement feels so galling is that – ironically – quality guest blogging felt like one of the last bastions of ethical, or “white hat”, SEO. While your competitors might be using spam directories, buying sidebar links or acquiring links in other nefarious ways, guest blogging felt altruistic in comparison. Creating a high quality article which spoke to the blogger’s readership seemed like a fair exchange for the exposure and, more often than not, link. And it was by no means an easy process. Bloggers are, very rightly, protective of their blogs and quickly turn away sub-standard copy. In doing so, they became the gatekeepers of quality content in a way that Google’s algorithm can still only dream of.

Having blogged and guest blogged in some shape or form since 2003, I’ve learnt a lot about publishing online – both personally and as an SEO consultant. From my stint as a guest writer for the Londonist, to building connections with great bloggers like Judy at Work from Home Wisdom and Brenda at The Green Familia, guest blogging for me has never been just a cynical exercise in building links, it’s about forging connections.

So is guest blogging dead? No, I don’t think so. If you read between the lines, you can see Google is hoping to squeeze out the spammers and anyone trying to manipulate rankings using guest blogging. Their aim is to increase quality, and I’m on board with that. But I do feel the way Matt Cutts announced these changes does a disservice to bloggers, many of whom have been working for years to bring quality content to the web. It lumps them all together, and tarnishes them with that most pejorative of web monikers – the “spammer”.

I hope guest blogging rises from the ashes. Instead of low quality blogs trying to charge exorbitant amounts for a post, I’d like to see us as a community dedicated to creating quality content together. I think we need to be nicer to each other in our communications. After all, we’re all just people sitting behind our computers (or in my case, standing at my computer) and we shouldn’t forget that guest blogging is about creating a dialogue and sharing ideas. Isn’t that what the internet was made for?

More info on Google & Guest Blogging:
Forbes: Guest Posting Isn’t Dead: Google Just Raised The Quality Bar
Moz: Why Guest Posting and Blogging is a Slippery Slope
Search Engine Watch: Don’t Stick a Fork in Guest Blogging Yet…

Image Credit: Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos Blogging, after Franciso de Goya y Lucientes by Mike Licht (Original image cropped).

Computer Malfunctions and Killer Insects: Sitting the Adwords Exams

Sorry to leave you hanging in suspense like that. So, did we pass?

The Fundamentals exam was, for me, the more nerve wracking of the two – mostly because I didn’t study for it per se (although obviously, I was training Christina on it, so I touched on most of the key points). For anyone who’s not sat an official Google Adwords exam before, you download a programme and when you start the test, the program takes over your computer, feeding you the multi-choice questions and counting down a timer (two hours). You can’t pause the timer – even if you need to go to the loo – which adds to the dramatics of it all. I was doubly nervous – for my own results, and also to know if I’d equipped Christina well enough to pass. I’ve always felt that studying for exams makes you better at the exams themselves, not necessarily what you’ve studied. I knew Christina was a great Adwords student, but I didn’t know how proficient she was with time-management, keeping cool under pressure and ticking boxes. Luckily, we both passed the first exam with flying colours.

Sitting the Adwords Exam - after

Christina concentrating. I like the writing on the flip chart behind her.

After a short break for lunch, we threw ourselves straight into the Advanced Search exam. I was maybe a little cocky now, having scored 98% on the first one and finishing 45 minutes early. And I’d actually studied for the Search Advanced exam. But it was harder. The questions were much longer and more complex. Here’s an example:

You are a CEO of a small e-commerce shop and your team is debating Adwords performance metrics to maximise profit. Budget is unlimited as long as ROI is positive. Whose recommendations most effectively position you for maximum profit?

A) Lou: “We get a CPA of $15 on our e-mail campaign. Let’s meet or beat the benchmark across all marketing platforms.”

B) Joe: “An MBA class once suggested ad-spend should always be 9% of revenue. Let’s use that as our target ROI.”

C) Jane: “A $15 CPA is okay, but if we could get it down to $10 that would give us more profit-per-customer.”

D) Pete: “Let’s start by verifying our campaign is profitable, then test different CPA targets to find which maximises total profit.”

Simple, huh? To be fair this does correlate with some of the Adwords training, but it takes a lot of unpacking to understand it, and when you’re under pressure, it just turns into a jumble of acronyms. They weren’t all like this, but I think the readability of some of the Search Advanced questions need to be looked at and the copy simplified.

There were some other distractions too. My computer kept disconnecting from the internet (we were taking the exams in one of Livety’s lovely bright meeting rooms) which meant I’d be thrown out of the Adwords programme. The computer froze and my heart stopped. Luckily, when I restarted the programme each time it opened on the question I’d been working on, the timer resuming from the moment it had frozen.

Then there was a very loud, very angry wasp. I couldn’t concentrate with all its buzzing, but as I was trying to scoop it out of the window as the wasp bucked and writhed – the exam timer ticking away – I realised there was a strong chance I might get stung. High stakes, indeed.

Fortunately computer failure and a swarm of locusts (well, one wasp) didn’t stop me from finishing. I only had a ten minutes spare this time. I’d stopped calling over to Christina in the first exam to ask how it was going – because I could tell it annoyed her. I submitted the exam and got the results immediately – I passed (the pass mark is 85%, I got 87%), and quietly waited for Christina to finish. She looked up. “87%” she said. We’d done it. We were both Adwords Certified Professionals (as you can see here and here).

I was over the moon for Christina. She’s really put in the hard work, and become a mighty fine Adwords specialist. I’m pretty finicky and a bit of a perfectionist, but I would definitely entrust her with any of my Adwords campaigns, and I look forward to working with her in the future.

How I Created a Free Adwords Training Course (and lived to tell the tale)

Three years ago, I had an idea. I was living in Bethnal Green – a relatively poor area in East London – and knew a lot of families would be struggling as benefits were cut and jobs were still hard to find. As a freshly freelance SEO consultant with some great clients already under my belt, I realised I had some spare time each week and wondered how I could give back to my community. I liked the idea of providing training, but I wanted it to lead to actual income at the end of it. Google Adwords seemed to be the answer; I could train people to pass the Google Professionals Exam and once they were certified, it might open doors for them at an agency, or to find work online. All the material for the exam was provided by Google – I’d only need to turn the info into an eight week course, find a location, get some computers, source some students…

Er, yes. It started to look a little more complicated than I’d first imagined. I put out some feelers locally and met with the guys at School of Everything who were encouraging and offered to lend me classroom space. Next, I spoke to Action for Employment in Hackney to see if they had any suitable candidates. The response from A4E was this: great idea, but a lot of our clients are struggling with basic computer skills – could you come and teach those instead? After some deliberation, I accepted: it might not be the vision of teaching I’d imagined, but if I could be useful, that was enough for now. I learnt a lot too. Many of the people I worked with were setting up an email account for the first time. It illustrated to me how much computer knowledge I take for granted, and how much harder it might be for someone to process all the Google Adwords course work. When I moved out of the area and thereby stopped volunteering for A4E, I paused the training plan – maybe it had been too ambitious to begin with anyway?

Then, in February this year, I had lunch with an old client of mine. He was now working for Google, and I mentioned to him my idea of providing free Adwords training. He liked it, and said I should contact the Youth Engagement Agency Livety as they might have someone suitable. And that is how I was introduced to Christina.

Each week for nine weeks (spread over about three months), I’ve met with Christina at Livety’s offices in Brixton, and spent two intense hours trying to make sense of Google’s learning material. Then during the week, Christina would fire over questions as she studied the next section. I also created a Memrise course to help Christina learn the key components of the Fundamentals exam (which would assist and frustrate her in equal measures, as Memrise mostly deals with language learning and so was overly pedantic about correct spelling). Christina is a great student: she’s smart and has excellent attention to detail, and working previously as a web editor for Livety she has strong computer skills in place already which, I’ve discovered, is paramount. She often worried she was asking too many questions but in fact, the level of feedback was perfect for me to see if my training (and my training style) worked. Although I manage active client accounts every day, there’s a lot of Adwords functionality I don’t often use. Christina has really pushed me to provide reasoning’s behind the sometimes frustratingly oversimplified learning material, and make sense of it all.

Christina and I will be sitting the two exams  – Fundamental and Search Advanced – on Thursday (the certification expires after two years, and so mine has lapsed). Christina has covered all the course work and has made major head way in her revisions. I, on the other hand, have not. Come Thursday, we could see a scenario where the mentee passes, and not the mentor. Hopefully this isn’t the case and we both pass with flying colours (*studies frantically*), but whatever the outcome, it’s been an amazing few months, and I’m so pleased that the original nebulous idea three years ago has achieved some type of fruition. And fingers crossed for Thursday.

Game Over Marketing

I’ve always been fascinated by car adverts. I’m not your typical car-buying customer though – I can’t drive and I’m 100% car blind – but this is perhaps why the ads have such a strange allure. They’re alien, exotic; like billboards in a foreign country. I try and work out the hook – what pulls the strings of a person about to buy a car? For many years it’s been those old advertising stalwarts: status and sex. Encase yourself in a desirably sleek new metal machine! coos the ad. Then, about a decade ago, Honda brought in the concept of the “dream”, the car as a religious experience. More recently though, they’re targeting other things. What do 30+ men want most in the world now? This is an ad from yesterday’s London Time Out:

“Best Dad in the World? You will be with the new Fiat 500L Trekking. Arm your kids with the perfect playground verbal ammunition when you scoop them and their mates up… Dad 1. The Rest 0. End of.”

Game Over car advert

This confuses me, the childless car buying virgin. Do fathers want their kids to be jerks? Or is it, they want them to be the best jerk? Either way, I’ll walk thanks.

SEO – What’s in a Name?

In the Friends episode The Contest, Ross creates a quiz as part of a bet to see which housemates (Chandler and Joey vs. Monica and Rachel) know each other best. The question that stumps Rachel and Monica seems to be a very simple one – what is Chandler Bing’s job? – but neither of them can remember (Rachel desperately guesses “Transponster” as time runs out. Chandler in fact works in Statistical Analysis and Data Reconfiguration, but of course you knew that).

For years, I’ve had a similar experience – none of my friends or family could remember what I did either. “Something with computers” they might say, or “web design?”. The acronym S.E.O. was especially off-putting, and the mouthful “Search Engine Optimiser” wasn’t much better (and is it Optimiser or Optimizer?)

I applied for my first search job at the (then) fledgling agency Greenlight in 2003. Warren explained I’d made it to the phone interview stage because I was the only applicant who knew what the acronym S.E.O. actually meant.

More recently, people had begun to nod knowingly when I mention what I do. Increasingly though, there’s a slight recoiling, something I imagine divorce lawyers and traffic wardens must experience. People might not know everything about search engine optimisation, but they have a hunch it’s a little untoward. I try and put them at ease: I enjoy working with ethical companies, SEO isn’t a dark art but one grounded in good usability – but the black clouds still linger. Only Google seems to make the clouds part again. Oh Google, they say smiling. You work for Google? With them, I reply, not completely disingenuously, and that finally seems to put them at ease.

As search marketing continues to appear on people’s radar, the industry is going through a makeover, especially when it comes to link building – always the most ghettoised of SEO techniques. It’s much better in polite conversation these days to discuss “inbound marketing” instead (Of course many of the folk pushing inbound or content marketing will be furiously old skool link building when they hope no one’s looking). There are other changes too. SEO is being absorbed into PR and more traditional marketing, while the search engines push on with glasses and global updates and push against the usurping social media giants. As they say here on the Underground: it’s “all change”.

So why The New Ethical? I’m talking to a lot of clients who seem worn down by Google’s monopoly. How do you work ethically and effectively without being left behind by your less than ethical competitors? Is link building really dead or is it just being given a new lick of paint? And why isn’t paid search more of an even playing field? I want to explore these questions, and others as they come up, and use this blog as a repository for my adventures in corporate responsibility and social enterprise (but no preaching, I promise).

Of course, you could argue I only wrote this post so it included a healthy frequency of digital marketing keywords, ensuring its well optimised (or optimized?) – but I only have one thing to say to that, or rather Chandler does: could you be any more cynical?