S3:E3 - How to integrate SEO into your digital strategy

Updated: May 18, 2021

In this guest episode, we talk to Jason Barnard, the brand SERP guy and search engine expert about SEO for marketers, how Google has changed from a data lake to a data river, why there's no point in having a separate SEO strategy any more and why chasing the algorithm is a fruitless approach.

SS: Hello folks, welcome back to the Marketing Mindset Club. Today, we're talking to Jason Barnard. Jason is the founder and CEO at Kalicube, a groundbreaking digital marketing agency that pioneered the concept of exact match brand SERPs, which is what your audience sees when they Google your brand's name, and I'm definitely going to ask more about that in our conversation.

He has over two decades of experience in digital marketing, starting in the year Google was incorporated with a site for kids that he built to become one of the 10,000 most visited sites in the world. He regularly writes for leading digital marketing publications such as Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Land, SEMRush and a whole host of other publications, and you have probably also seen on stage at Brighton SEO, PubCon or SMX London and YoastCon So, welcome to the show Jason, it's nice to have you here.

JB: Thank you very much Sarah it's absolutely delightful to be here. I'm terribly impressed by my own bio.

SS: Your bio was very impressive. I was a little bit intimidated, I've got to be honest.

JB: All right, well, don't be intimidated. I was a blue dog in a TV series, and cartoon Blue Dogs in TV series should not intimidate anybody.

SS: Cartoon blue dogs? Okay, start there. Start me off

JB: That was somewhere in the middle. In fact, the cartoon blue dog thing was, what was the 10,000th biggest site in the world. In 2007 with my ex wife we created two characters cartoon characters called Boowa and Kwala, and I tried to get book publishers to publish the book and record companies to release the record and they all said, well, there were so many cartoon goals - so many pairs of characters there's no point, It's never gonna work there's Tom and Jerry, there's Rhubarb and Custard.

And I'm the kind of person who thinks no I think this is a good idea. I think we've got something here and I'm going to make it happen whatever happens. So I actually bought a capital copy of flash Macromedia Flash from the time in 1998 a year Google was incorporated created the site created the animations made the songs made games, and it grew and grew and grew and grew over the 10 years. And we literally had 5 million visits a month. Yeah 100 million pageviews, a month, every month, then 2007 for a site for kids aged up to 10 and Alexa officially ranked us as 10,000 biggest site in the world in terms of visits.

SS: That's a pretty impressive accolade to have, I think you should have that on the t-shirt and red t-shirt for stage next time.

JB: Yeah, well the red t-shirt which nobody can see because this is sound - I'm actually wearing a red shirt is to get away from the blue dog, I think.

SS: Okay, yeah, I get it. So I just have a million questions about the Blue Dog scenario but the main one I'm thinking of is, did flash and the end of flash kind of do for that site or did you just decide to say, okay, we've done that, next thing.

JB: Well in fact it's a really sad story - I had a business partner who bought into the company, it was my company I allowed him into the company and it turns out I was a cartoon Blue Dog, and I began to believe I was a cartoon dog. And he completely ripped me off. So, my lesson for anybody who wants to become a cartoon blue dog is don't sign up with a business partner.

I think that's the thing, as well as is I talked to somebody in the industry and I was saying to people who actually do these TV series (because I don't want to generalise about an entire group) are they say a lot of it is that people who create that kind of content tend to be terribly naive.

That's a really easy target for a businessman or business person. It's a sad story, but in fact, I think we should always focus on - it was a phenomenal success. I'm incredibly proud of what we did, and the TV series was actually done by ITV International, and it was shown around the world, and it's still available online so you can actually still watch it so it's not like something that disappeared off the face of the universe. So it was really positive, And that's what got me into digital marketing.

SS: Awesome, well I guess that covers a lot of the kind of background questions we were going to start with, but tell me specifically what interests you about search and search engines on that part of the work that you do.

JB: Yeah, well in the blue dog and yellow kwala in the other corner in 1998, started when Google didn't really have any market share it was a Stanford University, I think it was kind of experiment that turned into a company so they incorporated in September 1998 and that was the month I built my first flash game, which was stunningly stunningly rubbish.

And then after three months I've managed to get good enough when we released the actual site in December so it took me three months to develop anything that I actually wanted to show anybody.

And from there on in, in fact at the time I mean anybody who was in the Internet at that time you had like Infoseek and Excite and Magdaleon or whatever it was called and Hotbot and Lycos and I remember like us young and literally like, 40, different engines of which 10 were reasonably big. And we would create one HTML page for each engine, and each variant of each current keyword including plural so if I had "kid game", then I would also have to have "kids games". And I would have to have "kid games", "kids game". So you'd have all these variants by letter, and then multiply that by 10 engines, minimum 40 engines potentially if you wanted to add the entire market. And you ended up with 10s of 1000s of pages for a very small keyword set to actually rank, and it became very quickly, very boring and it was all about counting words in pages. It was stunningly uninteresting.

And Google came along, brought links into the whole kind of game, and changed it from just counting words in pages to counting words in pages and counting inbound links. And that's what they did for 15 years. And if you look now you think, you know, counting links and counting words in pages sounds pretty stupid now.

But in 1998 - 2000, it was just counting words, which is even more stupid. And today we're obviously on to something completely different, which is where I found it became incredibly interesting. What we did was focus on Google, and we were lucky or smart depending on how you want to look at it. I said to the people I was working with, we're just going to focus on Google, because we can't create 1000s and 1000s of pages - complete waste of time. And if we focus on Google at least kind of we know where we're going and we can, we can not spend our entire life building these stupid pages with word counts and we can actually spend some time making some decent content with blue dogs yellow koalas, which we did. And I think kind of it was a combination of the two it was a nice balance, and we were lucky to hit that balance. And, as Google grew, of course we grew with them because we were focusing on them.

So we grew up with Google. Google's got no idea but, you know, I was growing alongside them, but for me it was kind of this big important thing and the more they, the more Google succeeded, the more we succeeded, which was a happy coincidence and I'm incredibly happy I made that choice.

SS: Yeah, I mean there are, there is a danger of spending a lot of time reminiscing but I first got into the game with a little book that was less than A6 size and it was titled "get into bed with Google", and it had those horrendous tactics in it that we would now cringe about where you would put keywords on the page and the same colour as the background, and you would have exact match URLs, and when keyword domains were thing, and all of that. So that was for me probably like 2006/7 ish, something like that. And I just remember being fascinated by the power that you had to manipulate essentially, what was an engine then displaying your content to a user, and, and that's sort of what got me hooked.

JB: I completely get that and seeing the effect of what you were doing was having on the fact that you were being shown people going to decide. But the other thing I remember is the whole kind of its data lakes and data rivers, which said like that sounds a bit complicated but actually isn't. And what was happening at the time is Google would go and collect all the information, stick it in this big lake. And then another machine would come around sort through the like. And so you would have to wait three to four weeks, every time you made the change.

Before that change actually took effect because you'd have the first main machine that would collect it, and the second machine that would go through it and reindex it and push it all back into the actual live index. So you didn't know if what you were doing would have any effect for several weeks. Yeah, and then going to rivers is the idea that the data flows by the machine and it grabs the stuff as it goes by. So you've got this almost immediate effect and people get impatient after, you know, a day and we're getting impatient that we're not ranking.

SS: That's a really interesting concept - is that something that is your way of thinking about it because I've not heard the whole concept of lakes and rivers before.

JB: Oh, I went to, in France, I mean, I live in France and I'm an English person who has now become French, and I work within the French community and I knew some people at Google, a few years ago, and they invited me to one of their seminar thingies. And they explained the Google Cloud Platform, which I now use. So they did a very good, obviously a bit of a sales pitch, but even so, and they explained the evolution of the technology from 1998 to 2017 when I did the seminar course. And that's all part of it basically what we're seeing today is that they develop the technology to be able to do what they wanted to do in the first place. And in 1998 they were saying we want to be an assistive engine, we want to be the Star Trek machine that guesses what you want before you even said that, I mean, answer engine is one thing you've got search engine then answer engine then assistive engine and then predictive engine.

And right at the beginning, they knew they wanted to be a predictive engine and they said we just don't have the technology to do it. So over these last 20 years, they've just developed the technology, little by little, to be able to do what they wanted to do because the technology could not cope with the amount of data they were collecting so they had to do data lakes, and then sort through the data lake, through this big sludge boat, whatever you would call it. And then they said well we want to make this faster so they developed a machine that could deal with data rivers as the data flew past it. And my concept of that is that what they've got is this kind of gold panning thing, where the data flows past, and if the gold panning robot sees something that is a nugget, it will just fish it out in the water on the way past.

So, if you can convince that robot that your content tends to be full of nuggets, it will tend to pick your content out faster than your competition, which goes into the lake and waits a few weeks. That's kind of my concept of how it works but I think whether it's true or not is debatable, but it's certainly an important way to look at it it's saying if you can convince the machine to trust you. You've nailed it.

SS: That, that trust is such an important thing, and the bit that I wanted to bring us on to the next is the three pillar approach that, that you and I've been talking about, and you've written about before, You know understand understandability credibility and deliverability. Just talk me through that structure a bit because we've got marketers listening of all skill levels and all backgrounds so just give me the top level, what that means and why trust is important.

JB: Yeah, I'm sorry for going on about data rivers.

SS: Not at all, I share the enjoyment of the geekery but I also want to take it up a level to guys and gals who might not be so, so in the weeds with search

JB: Right well if they stuck through that last boring but we can come back to what we were saying right at the beginning which is they want it to be more than anything, if you look at search it's basically you search for something and they offer you up a list of possible solutions to your problem or answers to your question and you choose which one you want. And that was the 10 blue links when it would just say here's 10 blue links, you choose the one that you think is the best we've put them in order of what we think is the best but we're really just suggesting things. Answer engines which is the next step up is saying here's what we think is the answer and that's when you see the answer at the top of the knowledge panel on the right-hand side and they're saying, our machine to determine that this is the best answer for you. Then you get assistive engines, which is saying not only is it the best answer, but we're going to help you interact with that answer. For example, by putting a video in the search so you can just click on it and you can find the exact place in the video where you want it to go so they're assisting you on your journey to find the solution to the problem you have asked to Google. Because remember when you type into Google or speak into Google, you're asking a question that you want an answer to, or you're giving it a problem that you want the solution to and its role is to get you to that solution as efficiently as possible.

And the last one is a predictive engine which is where we going next, that wasn't enough for you already with Discover where it's predicting what you're going to want, so it will push content towards you that it thinks you will be interested in. And that's where it gets a bit mad but they wanted to do that that's the Star Trek machine Captain Kirk. Doesn't know he needs a stun gun, but the machine tells him to pick a stun gun up because the machine knows that he's gonna need in 10 minutes when the Klingons turn up. I've been watching too much Star Trek.

Yeah, and so we're moving towards that and I think that's kind of the really important aspect and then we come up with this three-pillar approach, which kind of takes the scarytude away from that, it makes it less, because you're gonna, how am I going to approach this, I can't approach it because I don't, I can't get my head around the entire concept and its global idea, if you say Right. Google has three basic problems and if you can be empathetic not unfriendly to Google as a machine but empathetic to what it's trying to do and the problems it's facing, you can definitely start to provide help to Google, and the three problems aren't needed to understand who you are, what you're doing, who your audience is. If it can't understand that it can't possibly offer you up as a solution to its users, especially in a predictive sense, it is predicting what you want these to understand what you are offering to its users.

In order to offer you as a solution to their problems, and you can listen back to that half speed if it was too fast for you because I just realised that made sense to me. I've said it so many times. And the next thing is once it's understood who you are what you offer, and who your audiences, then it can start saying okay this is a potential solution and it's a decent solution, but I've understood you and others to be a competitor competitors. So I've got three possible solutions, all of which seem about the same I've understood them all. And I'm going to pick the one that's the most credible, the one that I think will best satisfy my user remember Google's users. So your audience, who are coming through Google are actually Google's users they're Google's clients, Google's recommending you Google's giving you that traffic. It's not something that is yours by right in inverted commas. So Google saying I need to understand that I need to be confident you can supply and provide that solution and if I'm confident that your solution is going to be better than your competition I will then ask itself a third question.