season 1, episode 3: on buy in with Tom Critchlow

Episode Summary

Amanda at FLOQ speaks to Tom Critchlow, fellow independent consultant and the human who launched the SEO MBA, to talk about what it’s like coming in to enterprise as a consultant, the challenges, benefits, advice, what’s been learnt and more.


AMANDA: This is Amanda, your host for this podcast called Engage on Enterprise SEO, where we go where nobody has gone before and dive deep into the world of enterprise SEO from as many different angles and viewpoints as we can tackle. Today, we’re speaking with one of my favorite people in the industry. He and I are on a very similar wavelength when it comes to SEO and how we approach it. Tom Critchlow, the independent consultant and the human being behind the SEO MBA, which if you haven’t participated in yourself, I highly recommend.

TOM: Thanks for having me on, Amanda. Yeah, I’ll try and be brief. So I started an SEO in the UK a long time ago, and my brother actually was running a web development agency at the time called Distilled. And he was like, hey, Tom, you want to come do this SEO business for us? And I was like, yeah, that sounds like fun. So I started reading Moz and learned about SEO. And me, Will, and Duncan started this little agency in the UK. And this is like 2007, 2008, something like that. And we quickly went from, I remember, Link building for a Scottish castle. And they were like a hotel, but they’d been a Scottish castle, they’d been around since like, 1200s or something.

And that was where I started. And then very, very quickly went from there to, oh, Amazon UK is knocking on the door and like high street retailers are knocking on the door. And we were just at the right time in the right place. SEO was kind of exploding. It was a new thing. People wanted it. We formed a partnership with Moz, what used to be called SEO Moz and Rand and the folks over there. So they started to pass us work. And so we very quickly went from, we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re building an agency to…We still don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re building a bigger agency. And so I kind of got my start in SEO there, quickly started managing a team and took all of that stuff. In terms of influences, my brother Wilkrich Lowe has been a huge influence. He had a background in management consulting before we started his agency. And from day one at Distilled, there was always this drive to do work that actually had an impact.

Like this idea of making recommendations that went nowhere or doing an SEO audit that just sits on a shelf. That was never interesting to us. We always, always, always had this focus on how do we understand customer needs? How do we understand what our clients want? And then how do we actually give them work that is gonna get implemented, make change and so on. So we always had a kind of a consultative approach.

And so, you know, fast forward, I moved to New York in 2011 to open the office for the still there, built an agency and a team there in New York. And that was fun. It was a real change of pace going from going from, you know, the UK to New York and building a thing there. And, but you know, I think I landed in New York in 2011.

You know, SEOs used to own everything digital. We used to have this kind of like, we’re the top of the food chain in terms of digital because we’ve been doing it longest and we understand how to drive revenue and everyone should be paying attention to us. And we always looked down on the other disciplines. It was like, ah, PR, they don’t know anything about the internet and creative ad agencies, they don’t know anything about the internet. And we were quite smug, I think, in our SEO ivory towers. And then I landed in New York and I was suddenly like, oh wait, like. There are some really smart digital people who are not working in SEO, who are working in all these other creative industries. So that was eventually the impetus where I was like, I got to go do something outside SEO. I was like, I got to go get some experience. It isn’t just SEO. So I jumped ship and joined Google in New York and I worked for a team called the Creative Lab in New York for two years. And working inside Google doing nothing related to SEO, but doing TV campaigns and brand innovation and all kinds of weird and wonderful things.

I left that in 2014 and since then I’ve been out on my own as an independent consultant and I think that work has, you know, to this day I still carry with me that influence of my brother of trying to do work that actually has an impact, trying to get beyond delivering work that maybe clients are even asking for, right, your clients will come to you and say I need an SEO audit and I’m like do you really need an SEO audit or do you actually want change. And trying to get to the root of what clients’ problems are and how to influence them. So anyway, then the last piece of the journey, and then I’ll stop talking, is the last piece of the journey is last year, I launched the SEO MBA. So the SEO MBA is an online training platform. There are courses that you can buy, and there’s a newsletter to go with it, all about teaching professional skills to SEO professionals.

Really, it’s about teaching the kind of skills I wish I had early on, the kind of ideas of how do you drive change, how do you present ideas to senior stakeholders, how do you win over senior executives, how do you put a business plan together, all of those kind of skills. So not really teaching anything about how to do SEO, but how to do the things that are necessary for SEOs to succeed. So that’s what I’m doing now. I’m a consultant and I run the SEO MBA.

The inspiration for the SEO MBA came because I was doing a consulting project for a very large enterprise client and I was actually building out an SEO team for them. So I was actually interviewing senior level SEOs and I probably ran 50 to 100 senior level SEO interviews over the course of six months. And I was just incredibly frustrated that I found a ton of people who knew more than I do about SEO, people who are excellent practitioners and very skilled, very capable. And I just felt like I couldn’t put any of them in front of the CEO. And that was really the straw that broke the camel’s back, where I was like, I’ve really got to do something about this because I’m sat here trying to hire somebody who can be a senior level executive inside this organization, and I can’t find them. And so, you know, that’s where I thought this is proof that the market needs it, if anything else, because I need it. All these people I just interviewed need this.

And that was really the starting point for watching it. The SEO industry has professionalized, it’s grown up, and it’s also fragmented. So I think, whereas before, even five years ago, you would see SEO as a single discipline, now I feel like there’s a much greater fragmentation and specificity for, are you a technical SEO, are you a content SEO, are you a PR SEO, you know, et cetera, et cetera. And you see that reflected in job postings, right? So you see things like SEO product manager, which is a very specific kind of role, which kind of sits directly inside the product team.

You know, places like Etsy, I believe, have roles like SEO product manager. And a product manager is a very prestigious term in the tech industry, right? If you can be a product manager, you get paid more, but you get more influence, you get more control and so on. And so SEO product manager is a recognition that SEO now needs to be formally part of the product team. You know, not separate to it in its own team, but actually part of the product team. That’s a big step forward. And then in the same way, you get SEO editors. So the New York Times, for example, has the role of SEO editor. And again, the role of editor inside the New York Times is very prestigious. You have a lot of influence, it’s quite senior, you get paid well.

And so I think that what we’re seeing is this kind of professionalization and maturing of the industry generally. But I still think that, like with many other industries, you still see a lot of folks in the industry who are biased towards the technical nature and are fascinated with the discipline itself and are still underprepared for presenting to the C-suite, getting buy-in, managing large organizations and so on. Which frankly makes sense.

You only learn those skills through experience. So you have to, as you move through your career, you kind of pick up those skills over time.

AMANDA: Hearing about how Tom is seeing the SEO industry evolve, mature and grow, and where he feels like he can help the industry get up to speed, I turned the tables and asked him what he felt like were some of the best practices or forward thinking approaches he learnt and has put into practice from his own clients.

TOM:I did some consulting work for DotDash a few years ago and I’m not sure if you’re familiar with them but there are you know what used to be and now fragmented into a bunch of these kind of different vertical specific publishers obviously still have a huge kind of SEO body of knowledge internally I was very impressed with their setup internally not only from the sophistication of the SEO teams and kind of knowledge themselves but also at the executive level the buy-in and attention that was paid to those things. For example, I remember them rolling out citations on their medical content. They run Very Well Health, which is a medical site. They have information about diseases and treatments and drugs and all this kind of stuff. They started to include medical citations of, like, we found this information from this paper, or this is sourced from this place.

Having conversations at the executive level about content quality, about E-A-T, um, about, you know, these things about, you know, should, is this good for users? Is it good for Google? Or is it coded in a way that we think Google can understand? Is it done in a way that is accessible to users? You know, how do we fold this into our business? Um, in a kind of smart way, but, um, you know, that I feel like is a kind of dream conversation for many SEOs, right?

To be able to speak to an executive and have them understand that not, you know, 500 words of content is not the same as some other 500 words of content or 500 words of content is not the same as an expert reviewed, you know, article, I think that a lot of a lot of SEOs are still struggling for that kind of buy in. So I was very impressed working with them just to kind of sophistication generally of how they think about content, how they think about SEO. But that is also, you know, the they’re an outlier. You know, I wouldn’t say that many clients are at that level of sophistication.

You asked me to reveal the kind of secret source now, the things that I’m stealing from clients. You know, I think that, honestly, this is going to sound like a kind of a cop out answer, but honestly, I think the things that I’ve taken away from the clients that have most impressed me is the bias towards action, right? I think that a lot of, um, a lot of SEOs, and I think a lot of strategy consultants like to put together a detailed plan and that’s fine, but I think that I’m always impressed by clients that say, let’s just move and learn as we go. It’s kind of a bit of a running joke for me, this idea that a client will spend 100k a month on paid acquisition and will look at that as a, well, we spent 100k, we’re going to optimize, we’re going to approve month over month. And then they’ll spend like 10 grand on content and be and this kind of like there isn’t, there still is not this kind of test and learn, you know, rolling iteration and so on kind of approach to a lot of SEO work. And so I’m always impressed by clients that do that.

And in my own work, I try and, you know, I mentioned that I hate SEO audits. I think that’s pretty clear from anyone that reads my work. And I’m really trying to bias my work around how do we get real life feedback? And, you know, how do we test things out, get things live as quickly as we can. If you do an SEO audit and then you do a keyword research plan and then you do a content strategy, you’re not actually producing any content until month five, six, or seven, right? Which is a terrible situation to be in. And therefore you’re not learning anything, not figuring out what works, figuring out what doesn’t work. And so you really haven’t got any room to experiment or to change strategy. Whereas if you can start producing content on day one or in week one or week two or whatever of an engagement everyone has much more time and patience to be like, okay, well, we tried some things, they didn’t work, but we’re gonna try some different things and see if they work, and we’re gonna learn from those things and build on it and so on. And so I think that that’s one of the things that I’ve learned from clients that I’m impressed by is that bias towards action, bias towards getting things done and starting small, right?

And I think that this is the other thing that I’ve observed working with executive teams is, there’s a very, very different feeling in the room when you try and pitch an idea that hasn’t yet been validated, right? When you say, I want to, I want, you know, $200,000 to go and make all this content. And somebody says, how do we know it’s going to work? And you’re like, well, I looked at SEM rush and it has a bunch of, you know, keyword research numbers and there’s some executives being like, mm hmm. Mm hmm. Yeah, exactly. Um, the, the feeling in the room is just so it’s like night and day versus some kind of project where someone’s like, I did a few things, it really looks like it’s going to work. I have real data with our website, with our industry, with our users, our conversion data, et cetera. I think it’s really going to work. I want to scale it out. And now I want $200,000 to go do more of this. And the feeling in the room is just so different.

AMANDA: So from working with and learning from so many enterprise clients in SEO and appreciating the need to get shit done, I ask the question I’m sure is on a lot of people’s minds. How?

TOM: Honestly, it’s one of the hardest things, I think, especially if you start a new role. So imagine you’re a new SEO inside a large organization. The first thing you’ve got to figure out is how do I get something done? And how do I get something done with the resources that I have available? And there are typically two answers to that question. One is I can make a friendly face. So I can make a friend in the editorial team, or I can make a friend in the tech team, and I can kind of sneak some things in. So I’m not really getting any big budgets. I’m not really rocking any boats. I’m just like…Can we just do a little bit of my ideas? And it’s going to be like, you know, you find a way basically, right? You kind of find like a friendly face to help you out, do a few things. And you use that as the proof and the example and the evidence, you know, for more. The other way is to just observe very closely. And so it’s not even your work, but you go in and you say, well, when the editorial team made a bunch of content, I noticed that the SEO results were X, Y, and Z. Or when the product team, you know, shipped a faster website, I noticed that X, Y, and Z improved, right? And so you’re kind of, you’re still using real evidence from the business, but it isn’t necessarily your work, right? So, and again, this is one of the things that I think is quite unique to SEO, that we’re like chameleons that spread across all these different teams, right? We’re kind of part of the product team, kind of part of the marketing team, kind of part of the engineering team. And So we have to kind of blend in in these different environments. And as such, we’re also borrowing budget and roadmap from those other teams. So I think you take that approach of kind of observing just very closely and seeing what happens and seeing if you can use that as evidence for your ideas. And then you have to pitch for it. And this is one of the biggest mistakes I see a lot of SEO teams do. And this happens time and time again. I go into an organization. I meet the lead SEO. And they’re really frustrated.

They’re like, we haven’t got the budget and the buy-in to do all the things that we want to do to make SEO a success. And I’m like, OK, well, let’s take a look at the pitch that you made for the budget and the buy-in. And they’re like, well, I don’t really have a pitch, per se. I mentioned it to my manager and I tried to sneak it into the yearly planning. I talk about it a lot. I’m like, OK, but, you know, OK.

If you want a team of six and if you want $2 million to go make SEO, your SEO program of success, you have to ask for it and you have to ask for it deliberately. And you have to not take no for an answer. Right. And this is the other thing that is maddening about enterprise work is it’s slow. Right. And so again, a lot of people are like, I asked for this yesterday and I still haven’t got it and I’m like, whoa, okay, slow your, slow your, slow your horses. Right. Yeah. And so, you know, finding the right time, the right cadence to make the budget ask, asking for it often enough and loudly enough and asking for it explicitly to make sure that eventually somebody pays attention. I think that was a long way to answer your question. But basically, you think about how to get things done. It is both working at the real micro scale of how do I just get one piece of content or how do I get one little ticket through the development queue? And then at the macro scale, how do I actually ask for what I want? How do I actually ask for what the right answer is?

AMANDA: And as a consultant, how do you manage that desire for action as a consultant often has much less dedicated time than someone starting as an in-house SEO?

TOM: A lot of it, honestly, it comes from, you know, having been in the industry a while and having done this a lot, um, I can look at a website and size up the opportunities pretty quickly, right? So a lot of this comes from this kind of back of the envelope math, right? I’ll look at a website and I’ll be like, all right. Seems like you should be making content, or it seems like you should be making more content or better content. And so we’re just gonna resize that out. Like I’ll do that, you know, sometimes live with a client and I’ll be like, all right, so let’s take a look at these keywords, looks like this. Let’s say that’s like a hundred pieces of keywords. If I asked you to make a hundred pieces of content, how would we do that tomorrow? And so again, it’s like, it’s trying to shift from that mindset of the kind of abstract we need to do content to a more tangible, like operational, how are you gonna make a hundred pieces of content?

And I think C-suite leaders in particular suddenly have something to grab hold of. They’re like, oh, SEO isn’t this abstract thing. It’s like 100 pieces of content. OK, fine. We can’t do that today. So you’re going to have to figure that out for us. OK, fine. I can figure that out for you. But it’s a very different conversation than me doing a content strategy. Me doing a content strategy is not figuring out how to operationalize content production. Those are two very different things. So I want to have that conversation early and at the beginning of the project rather at the end. It is astonishing the number of clients that will ask for something that they can’t even use. Especially mid-sized businesses. I’ve had this example. A B2B, like Series B tech startup comes to you and says, we want you to do an SEO audit and a content strategy. And they pay me like, let’s say 20K to do that work. And I produce the SEO audit and the content strategy. And I say, okay, so you’ve got to make you know, 200 pieces of content and there’s all of these, you know, tech changes to make on the website. And then they say, well, we haven’t got any editorial team and the tech team is focused on making an app. We can’t make any changes to the website. And I’m like, okay, so then you didn’t need an SEO audit or a content strategy, right? You know, why did you ask those things? And you would be surprised how often clients are asking for things they can’t use.

And so again, my philosophy is, and I do this often, pre-sale, so before even actually kind of closing the deal, I’ll say to clients like, okay, you know, let’s just shortcut to the answer. The answer is gonna be more content, maybe more links, and maybe some tech changes. Can you do any of that? Like if I say more links, can you do that? If I say more content, can you do that? If I say tech changes, can you do that? And you know, you try and get under the surface of the client to really, you know, force them to answer that question honestly. And then you find out that, okay, so you don’t need a content strategy, what you need is a content agency because you need somebody to actually produce the content, to strategize it. Or you need me to go and hire you an editorial director because and story content is important but you don’t have someone managing it today. Okay fine. And so in my own consulting work and I’m very lucky now that I’m an independent consultant, I’m not part of an agency so the work itself can be lots of different things, I actually structure the consulting work around the actual need. So I’ll try and not give you an SEO audit or a content strategy. I will try and say, oh I’m going to go and hire an editor or I’m going to sit with a technical team and train them on SEO, or whatever it is that is really going to feel like it’s useful, again, rather than doing the thing that everyone thinks they need. Again, a lot of clients will just ask for an SEO audit because they think that SEO is important without actually really understanding all of the bits that go into it, which is crazy when you think about it. It’s kind of amazing that SEO is still this kind of black box, and SEO is really not that complicated. It’s like, well, you need content and links and…

And even these days, a technical website is usually not rocket science. It’s like, you know, and, but people, companies, clients still feel like SEO is this dark art and they can’t understand it. And so again, a lot of the work is just trying to like help them understand what it actually means to do SEO.

AMANDA: It’s well and good to talk about prioritizing action, but how do you educate clients to get them on board with how you’re approaching SEO and what it is you want to do?

TOM: So, I mean, honestly, I think that the best education starts from the real world in the same way that I just talked about, kind of getting specific. I love to look at little case studies of websites that the executives know and understand. Often that is a competitor, but often it is not necessarily a direct competitor. It’s somebody who’s more like, here’s another Series B startup, or here is another two-sided marketplace, or here is another e-commerce website. And using them as a framework for the teaching to be able to say look they have four times as much traffic as you have they also have four times as much content let’s look at we let’s back into how this works right and you can do the same thing for site speed you can do it for all kinds of things you know like this kind of framework for um again uh you know any kind of teaching works best if you can help the other person come to the realization themselves rather than just telling them the Google likes fast sites, it’s saying, look at the performance of these other fast sites, or look at the performance of these slow sites, or look what happened to this site when it got faster.

And kind of helping them understand and internalize that that is actually important, rather than just saying, there’s something I read on SEO blog, or here’s something that I think is best practice.

And so, you know, I think a lot of that education is, you know, clients want to understand it, right? Like clients are not often willfully ignorant.

They just…there is still this perception that SEO is this black box. And so you have to break it down. And this is where the expertise comes in, is taking the hundreds of potential ranking factors back into, okay, for your industry, for your website, for your business at this moment in time, the following three things are the things we need to do. And once you can get to that level of shared understanding, I find executives are much more willing to give you budget and green light projects because they’re like, I understand it. I understand that these things are important and I understand the magnitude at which I need to do them. Right.

You know, this is the, the other thing. One of my favorite ways to explain the gravity of SEO is to show a kind of similar kind of analogous business to the client and then show the size of their SEO team. Right. To be like, well, they have four full-time SEOs. You have me like a part-time consultant.

How do you think that’s going to work out for you? Like, what do you think those four full-time SEOs are doing? Maybe you should consider building an SEO team. Maybe that would be a thing that would be useful to you, or worthwhile, or necessary. So again, a lot of times clients just don’t, they just haven’t thought that way. It’s not blaming them. It’s just the way that, again, there’s still this mystique around SEO that I think you have to work hard to dispel. I certainly don’t have any secret sauce.

Obviously as a consultant, I’ve worked across lots of different industries, and so that helps, right? You tend to have a kind of well-rounded data. But like, if you ask me for something at the financial vertical, I can grab something. The e-commerce website, I can grab something, et cetera, et cetera. But honestly, I think that, again, for me, I would much rather spend my time crafting a case study or a little kind of picture of an analogous website that is specifically analogous to the client and is simple.

I’d much rather focus on that than try and shoehorn some kind of case study that I read online or from some other industry that doesn’t quite apply but like, you know, is saying what I want to say and like doesn’t relate as much. The trick is that it has to be understandable, it has to actually feel real for the client, it has to really feel like, oh, this is the same situation that I’m in, right? And they have to feel that viscerally, that this example you’re giving them actually applies to them, rather than just being some best practice or something you read on the internet.

And so again, I usually try quite hard to find the actual examples that are relevant to them, and then you choose the SEO tools to kind of back into some kind of case study example data, etc. Now that can be harder if you’re looking for an example about a very, very specific thing, right? So if you’re looking for a specific example about a time that a large international retailer has messed up the HREF lag, it’s like those examples don’t just fall on your lap. I feel like that’s also a good example of where SEO communities come in, Traffic Think Tech or Women in SEO, like there’s a bunch of those communities out there that I think are really great spaces for people to share knowledge, talk to each other. You know, those are perfect forums for those really specific things where you can ask somebody, somebody will give you that example, that reference that you might not otherwise have. But again, I would say 90% of the time.

I’m not relying on that kind of thing. I’m just relying on putting in the work. I just, you know, trying to find a business that is actually related to them and then using that case study. And what’s your advice for others coming from your own personal experience? Yeah, I mean, my best advice is to understand where the other person is coming from. So I think especially in the enterprise setting, you have to understand the marketing roadmap, the product roadmap, the engineering roadmap.

You know, I wrote about this for the SEO MBA email newsletter, very few companies have an SEO strategy, right? Which sounds ridiculous to say it, but actually it’s true. Companies have a product strategy and they have a marketing strategy. They don’t have an SEO strategy. And so when you take that to its logical conclusion, you have to make sure that the SEO strategy is actually part of the product strategy and part of the marketing strategy. That means you have to understand what the product strategy is and what the marketing strategy is, right? Like it’s kind of… So the education piece comes from a place of listening primarily.

How do you actually understand what the marketing team cares about? What are their objectives? What are they measured on? What tools are they using? What does their roadmap look like? What resources do they have? What is their budget? And then same for the product team. What is the product team measured on? What does their roadmap look like? And so on. And you use that as a starting point for any kind of education or advocacy that you want to do. It isn’t just wrapping SEO down people’s throats as much as it is saying, like, how am I useful? How can I be useful to the organization?

And how can I be doing it in a way that blends in rather than sticks out? I think a lot of SEOs are quite opinionated, which can be a blessing and a curse. Myself included, I’m quite opinionated. But that can be a danger in an enterprise setting. If you’re trying to do something in a way that nobody else is doing it, or reporting in a way that nobody else is reporting, it’s like you’re probably not doing it right. Especially as an SEO, you have to try and follow suit a little bit.

My favorite example is If you can understand how the finance team reports, right? And this isn’t always possible, sure, but if you can understand how the finance team reports, if you can see like a P&L statement, or if you can see a kind of quarterly financial report, you should be reporting in the same way, right? Like they’re gonna segment the business in a certain way, right, they’re gonna look, use certain metrics, whether that is revenue, whether it’s margin, contribution margin, profit, any other kind of financial metric. I remember working for a client a few years ago, and they were using a metric called NPV, which I’d never heard of. And I was like, what is NPV? And I asked the client and they were like, oh, well, we just calculated it as like two and a half times revenue. And I was like, okay, fine. But now I’m going to report on NPV. I’m not going to report on revenue, right? Because that’s what everyone else is using inside the organization. And that is going to make everyone understand what I’m talking about. And I think it’s kind of a simple example, but I think that too often, you know, we report on SEO metrics and traffic even rankings even share a voice like these things that at the executive level no one cares about no one understands them no one cares about them right um you know the the the product team is not reporting on traffic the product team is reporting on other things and so i think you you’ve really got to understand the the kind of language and currency at the executive layer and and work hard to make sure that what you’re giving them is understandable, recognisable, they trust it, they understand it.

AMANDA: And finally, what’s kept you in SEO for as long as you’ve been in it?

TOM: Great question. I think the changing nature of it, I think, is always really exciting. The fact that it’s never really… I mean, some of the basic principles have stayed the same, but there’s always new things emerging. I think that that is… That’s the reason I think a lot of people got into this in the first place, was realizing that the kind of speed of the feedback loop from making changes, seeing impact, Google changing things, your changing things, and having that kind of cadence is generally, I think we take it for granted in the SEO world, but many other teams don’t have that. Many other teams are like, this industry is the same as before forever. And so I think that that’s always good to kind of keep you interested. Thanks so much for having me on the show. I really enjoyed it.

AMANDA: I want to offer a massive thank you again to Tom for joining me on Engage on Enterprise SEO. If you want to continue the conversation, find me by my company, Floq. That’s F-L-O-Q on LinkedIn. Follow me on Twitter at amandaecking or reach out to me directly if you’re interested in talking about my own strategic consulting services. Have a lovely day and enjoy listening to the rest of season one.