Expert Interview: SEO with long-time specialist Ash Nallawalla


Ash Nallawalla, author of The Accidental SEO Manager, shares some hard-earned lessons from an SEO career that began before most of us had even heard of Google.

Ash Nallawalla is one of the most deeply experienced SEO experts in Australia. There are very few situations where he wouldn’t have at least a couple of clever thoughts to share. What’s more, as we discovered over an hour-long conversation, everything he says comes from direct experience with countless websites.

He’s busy distilling that experience into a book series that explains SEO to managers (or clients) so they can get the most out of their team (or agency). The first volume is already out.

Ash is softly spoken and careful when choosing his words, which could have made it easy to miss some of the incredible successes that he described to us. By following his recommendations, a big-four bank added 10% to its organic traffic in a few days. As a solo CRM consultant, Ash built a website that spent years topping search rankings for that speciality. When he took control of the SEO services that one of Melbourne’s largest agencies offers to clients, the team went from the CEO’s chopping block to his list of company-wide boasts. Ash tells these stories naturally, without any ego - just as testament to what SEO can achieve when you really, really know your stuff.

And every one of those stories came with a useful piece of advice attached.

SEO before Google

Ash’s experience in the field began in that long-ago time when AltaVista was more popular than Google, and when surprisingly simple techniques could result in long-lasting pay offs. Like most search optimisers in those days, Ash started off as a hobbyist.

“I’ve been building websites since 1996 - as soon as I realised that anyone can build a website. I built very simple websites for Hayes, who used to be famous in the modem game, and for the Melbourne PC User Group,” he says.

AltaVista, the world's leading online search engine until the emergence of a plucky little start-up known as Google.

“Eventually, I was tinkering and discovered there were ways to make these websites appear higher in AltaVista, which was the search engine of choice at the time. In those days, you could put a dictionary of keywords in the keywords meta tag and you could rank for anything. But then came Google, and people started switching over.”

Google wasn’t the only thing that was changing the burgeoning Internet. As the dot-com boom ended, Ash found himself looking for a new career direction.

“I was working in CRM, customer relationship management, for Macromedia (which is now part of Adobe). I managed a wildly successful CRM lead-generation campaign - top of the world! But, next thing, the entire headquarters in Melbourne was laid off.

“So I decided to be a CRM Consultant. I built a new website, optimised it for the term ‘CRM consultant’, and it ended up ranking in the number one position worldwide for about five years until Google became fussier about what deserves to rank. Because my site didn’t really deserve to rank like it did,” he says.

The dot-com bust of the early 2000's reached around the world, from Silicon Valley across the Pacific to Melbourne.

It was telling that Ash’s CRM Consulting website ended up being a better showcase of his SEO talents, because they would soon be in greater demand.

“A friend who was part of an online community of product managers had a client who needed SEO and he asked if I would take a look. Long story short, I got them to rank. They were really happy and wanted me to look at Google AdWords, LookSmart and other pay-per-click search accounts that they were using. My first thought was, no, I'm a CRM consultant. But this was 2002 - the dot-com boom was over and no-one was buying a new CRM system. That's really what got me into paid SEO and PPC consulting.”

Around the same time, Ash was also looking at ways that SEO could pay off more directly. There was money to be made online and, eventually, a big lesson to learn from one of Google’s first - and still most notorious - algorithm updates.

“I started playing with SEO to make money. I had somewhere between 50 to 90 websites that I'd created using scripts that fetched data feeds from various websites. I would put an affiliate link to all the products, then each purchase would earn an affiliate commission,” he says.

Google's search engine, pictured some time after it destroyed AltaVista and ended Ash's dreams of retiring early to a beachside life.

“I was making as much as $1500 a day. People were talking about retiring, working from the beach, working one hour a day…all these amazing stories, and they were true for me, and for people who had already been successful for two or three years. Then Google brought in the Florida algorithm in 2003 and my income just vanished overnight. So I'm glad that I didn't resign from my day job and move to the beach!”

There are still relevant lessons here, almost 20 years later. The Florida update “completely destroyed the value of 1990s SEO tactics and ushered in a new era of search engine optimization” (Wikipedia), but it didn’t end the use of data feeds that describe almost countless consumer products.

A case for AI in SEO: Differentiating data feeds

Ash says, “The current relevance of the Florida story is something that I've been advising on lately: data feeds supplied by a merchant or manufacturer. I'm talking about large catalogues of data for clothes or cameras or shoes, anything where the basic item is the same for every retailer. There are a few words of description in there, and because every retailer is faced with thousands of products they're not going to read these descriptions, they're just going to upload them to the website. This makes every website identical to the next one.”

So, how can a business in 2023 solve the problem of standing out when the same massive datasets are available to every competitor? It’s about differentiation and speed. Enter AI.

“I’ve been exchanging ideas with a large retailer here in Melbourne. They’ve already implemented an AI to rewrite all the product descriptions at scale.

When Google is faced with 10 websites selling, say, a particular brand of running shoes, it has to instantly decide which sites belong on page one. If all those resellers are saying the same words, it’s a bit of a lottery. But if one of them has made additions, or at least changed their text, then it's possible that they could get to page one far more easily.

But as people are discovering in all sorts of areas, AI needs careful management. “AI does have relevance in SEO, but it pays to check out the different offerings,” Ash says.

“For a test, I threw camera descriptions into ChatGPT and Bing Chat, which I've been given access to. ChatGPT was really good with several descriptions. Unfortunately, Bing Chat changed a description about facial recognition of animals to say, ‘You can take photographs of animals’.”

It’s an increasingly familiar story that for AI to deliver value, it needs to work alongside human expertise. As Ash explains, “You will definitely want to test a small sample of the AI’s output and make sure that it's not hallucinating, to use an expression that we are now getting familiar with.

“The average business probably won't be able to do this evaluation and implementation on their own. I’d say an agency is in a better position to do the testing, then go out to their clients and offer the solution.”

There are other ways that switched-on businesses can make the most of undifferentiated data feeds. “Of course there are other SEO efforts to make. If they're smart, they'll be implementing schema tags - structured data tags - which a lot of websites haven't done yet. It's so easy to edit a template and then suddenly millions of your products now have structured data tags.”

A case against AI in SEO: Content good enough to EEAT

Through the history of SEO, Ash says, “Paying attention to content is the main principle.”

Every Google update aims to improve the system’s chance of ranking high-quality content well. Best practice changes over time as Google looks for different signals of quality.

There’s one new method of content creation that definitely won’t solve this old problem. “You can't just have a novice attempt at using ChatGPT to create an article on a topic. That won't get you very far.”

Instead of looking for shortcuts, look to Google’s own documentation.

“Google uses human quality raters to evaluate websites. They're given a booklet called the Quality Raters’ Guidelines, and every SEO should be aware of this booklet.”

These guidelines are incredibly thorough. The current version runs to over 170 pages. But four words stand out over everything else.

The Quality Raters’ Guidelines started this concept of E-A-T, which stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. Last December they added one more E to it, which is Experience.

Ash says, “They’re saying that writing well about a topic is no longer enough. We haven't seen any hints that the extra E is already being used in Google’s algorithms, but everyone is getting ready to ensure that their content includes an element of experience that an algorithm can detect.”

For content creators focused on SEO, the question is how to demonstrate your experience. The more you consider your options, the more you see how this new E could count against AI-generated content.

Ash talked us through the example of a recipe website. “It's just too easy to copy someone else's entire site, or to just steal from lots of sites, and do some superficial rewriting like changing a few words or switching the measures from ounces to grams. With that kind of fiddling you might think that you've got a brand new website with a thousand recipes.

Personal experience will matter more for content ranking in the future. If you're writing recipes, for example, find ways to show that you have made the dishes yourself.

“Under a new algorithm when the extra E of experience is added, that's not going to rank, if we are to believe Google. It doesn't show evidence that the creator of the website has personally made any of those recipes that they list. Especially if the photographs are generic,” Ash says.

The ‘content quality’ bar could be raised quite some distance. “There is pressure on content creators to add an element that shows their experience. So, typically, I would recommend that, if they cook the item themselves, then have a little video showing them making the recipe. Put their face in front of the items, introduce themselves, in the first person, into the recipes. That’s where their experience becomes credible.”

Time will tell whether Ash’s recommendations will satisfy Google’s future algorithms. In the meantime, everyone with an interest in their own search rankings needs to keep E-E-A-T in mind every time they’re working on content. Experience. Expertise. Authoritativeness. Trustworthiness.

Putting numbers on SEO

Wherever Ash works, no matter whether in-house or as a consultant, his eyes are consistently on the prize. Search rankings earn clicks, clicks create website traffic, and traffic means revenue.

SEO tools let you measure almost anything, regardless of how useful that measurement actually is. Throughout our entire conversation the only figures that Ash ever mentions are rankings on search result pages, organic website visitors, and percentage changes in revenue. Just the stuff that really matters.

Justifying costs

“There’s a regular question that comes from higher up a business when the SEO team wants to spend money. It’s easy for a senior person to say, ‘How much more money will we make if we buy you this tool or subscription?’ and, the first time you hear that, you might laugh. But then you realise that you'd better come up with an answer if you want the thing,” Ash says. What’s the dollar value of, say, a shift from 4th to 1st place on a page of search results?

He describes the numbers he assembled the first time he needed to answer a question like this. “I had to find a study that told you that, in those days, 33% of clicks hit the number one position. Then the second position gets 19% of clicks and so on, until page two gets almost nothing. Then I made calculations based on the value of a website visit. I would select an important product, one that was ranking but perhaps not at number one. So, how many more clicks would you get if you were in one position higher up? Or if you were at number three or five? Then you can perform a calculation based on whether we could improve it by one, two, or three positions, and how much more money we'd make.”

“I only had to do it for one or two products to make enough effort to justify my request.”

Getting hired

“I was contracted to NAB (National Australia Bank) for a time, and I remember it fondly because it's the only time that 100% of my recommendations were accepted. I promised a 10% increase in traffic after 12 months, which we achieved in the first week. I thought, this is a fluke. Within eight months I doubled their organic traffic, which I just couldn't believe. They weren't in trouble, so I wasn't rescuing them. I just improved their normal, successful implementation. Doubled their traffic. I have never managed to do that since.”

From NAB’s perspective, then, Ash’s contract was definitely worth signing. But the ink would never have gone onto the dotted line without the original goal of a 10% increase in organic traffic.

”That figure was important because the manager had to ask for the consulting budget. To get that budget, he needed to show a return, and 10% was apparently good enough to get me in - it would increase revenue by more than they were paying me. So I asked for some data, checked page rankings and made some calculations. With their current rankings and some estimates about the extra clicks that each improvement would earn, 10% looked easy over 12 months.”

As for how the target was reached so fast: “Sometimes what you request gets put on a backlog, which you can’t actually see. So one of my requests was for developers who were ready and available to run with these recommendations straight away.”

Fast turn-arounds of this sort are easier to achieve as a contractor or consultant coming in with a target and a lot of attention. “Once you're not a consultant, and you’re working in-house for a company,” Ash says, ”you are no longer the expert.”

It’s easy for internal expertise to be undervalued in other ways, too.

Paying talent what it’s worth

SEO is perhaps one of the easier digital disciplines to put exact values on. Quality SEO practitioners know their own value.

Sometimes, experts only want to work for themselves because they can charge a good consulting fee. It's going to be difficult for companies that are used to only ever offering a particular salary range. Someone will never work for a corporation that says it can't pay, say, $200,000 when everyone else at that level is earning $95,000. You get situations where the right person might exist but you can't afford them.

If you only have $95,000 to spend on SEO expertise, then you need to accept that you’re not hiring from the highest-grade talent pool. Especially if you’re operating on a range of digital platforms, you are unlikely to find a person with all the ideal mix of experience.

On the other hand if you have a $200,000 SEO problem, then perhaps the person solving it ought to be higher in your company’s hierarchy (and salary bands). That’s what Ash would argue to anyone managing SEO teams - the exact people who his latest book is addressed to.

Writing for accidental SEO managers

There are plenty of books that teach you how to perform SEO, but Ash has written something different. It’s called The Accidental SEO Manager, and the title captures the experience of many people Ash has worked for.

“In my corporate career I’ve had many managers who had no background in SEO. I found that I often had to explain why we needed SEO, and what we needed to perform SEO well. Sometimes that wasn't to my manager, but to someone further up. If they didn't have enough knowledge, then bad decisions could be made.”

Those decisions could relate to SEO strategy, team recruitment, selecting and working with an agency, or many other areas that Ash covers in The Accidental SEO Manager. He also introduces the practice of SEO. “There’s a full list of all the topics that SEO covers, only a high level, but enough to hold good conversations.”

Not that Ash is leaving his readers to hold those conversations unprepared. “Book two, tentatively titled Is Our SEO Working?, is hopefully coming out this year. It’s about the conversations you need to have with your own team. Things like the right questions to ask when SEO’s not working, for example: What do we need to do to beat the competition?”

Managers who are better at engaging with their SEOs can expect better results.

It gives SEO practitioners a morale boost when suddenly the manager is not just asking for a report once a month, but gets actively engaged in this process of generating revenue. And it helps to elevate SEO’s position.

Ash says, "In book three I talk about where SEO sits in the company hierarchy. I am encouraging companies to elevate that position, so that someone within SEO becomes aware of future decisions much earlier in the piece.”

Like all the advice that Ash has for accidental (and non-accidental) SEO managers, his view of SEO and company hierarchy comes from personal experience.

“I've been in more than one company where we suddenly discovered that a new website was being built, or had already been built by an external agency and suddenly it was just presented to us. We had no input to all the decisions and development that had already happened,” he says.

The books won’t exactly be bestsellers. “It's a small audience, but I’ve suggested that The Accidental SEO Manager be purchased by SEO practitioners and agencies for their managers or clients. An American agency put that idea into my head. It will help agencies to educate clients about SEO, if they feel that is needed. But more typically, it would be a good thing to bring out if an issue comes up between the agency’s recommendation and the client’s understanding or resistance to that recommendation.”

Technical SEO: Your chance to really stand out

SEO is inherently competitive. It’s all about doing things better than your direct competitors in order to earn higher rankings than them. If you’re looking for areas where you can stand out, Ash has some good news.

“I’d say that in general, on the average website, even the basics are not in place.”

He explains, “We're long past the point when companies had no idea what SEO is, but unfortunately it has been reduced to a ‘check the box’ activity. Once someone is looking after SEO, managers don't really want to know any more about it. They might ask for monthly reports so they can say, ‘Oh, I see this is doing well’. And that's about all the attention it gets.”

"Oh, I see this is doing well."

A more active approach can pay off relatively easily. One good place to look for gains that others miss is technical SEO. It's an area where experienced specialists can really prove their value.

“SEO has changed from the simple WordPress days to more complex websites that sometimes require multiple platforms. Implementation techniques differ, based on all the elements in the mix,” Ash says.

“SEO, in itself, has become very specialised. As an example when companies use SaaS extensions to their website, they’ll need an SEO who has specialised in SaaS of that specific kind. Or they might be using a selling engine such as Shopify, so they’ll need to hire an expert who's specialised in that. Otherwise you get a generalist who has played at the surface but will have to learn your platforms’ differences on the job,” Ash says.

Infrastructure choices, like using a CDN (content delivery network), can have an impact on SEO as well. When it comes to engaging a specialist, Ash recommends finding someone who's familiar with as much of your technical setup and systems as possible.

Run-of-the-mill business SEOs might not have experience in your mix of technology. If you're looking for an SEO, then it pays to list specific elements and ask if applicants have worked on these platforms. You would be lucky to get someone with the perfect mix of skills, so you might need to hire for potential.

"If the person has shown that they have adapted to different environments, then that's a good sign. But it still might take them a few months to learn the specifics,” Ash says.

Subdomain authority

Asked for an example of when technical know-how pays off, Ash says, “Times when you need an additional service that cannot be installed on your own platform. You might have a Microsoft platform when some service is only available under a Linux base. So a third party will install it on a subdomain on their own machines. There is an SEO implication with subdomains, because Google treats them as a completely different website. Most SEOs would perform an entire dose of SEO on that subdomain.

“But if you were aware of a technique known as a reverse proxy, you can make that subdomain a folder of the primary domain. This suddenly gives you all the blessing of the parent domain’s SEO, so you're running on day one. That kind of knowledge needs some deep experience. It's not something that the average SEO comes across, especially if they've been working on small websites before now.”

When language matters

There are techniques that only pay off in some situations, so the right level of technical awareness can avoid wastage, too.

“There are more and more companies that are catering to people overseas, or to immigrants with different languages within the same country. So there are situations that call for this particular tag, called hreflang, which tells search engines that this here is the default page if the person’s language is not specified, and for Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, etc, here are separate pages for each of those languages.”

We’re talking about pages that contain more or less the same content, translated for different audiences.

“Many SEOs are quite aware of hreflang but I've seen misuse - a situation where the tag had no meaning to a search engine, so by implementing it you’ve wasted time. I found a multinational company where each company was completely autonomous, not even selling the same products. The SEO, who claimed to have some international experience, implemented this particular tag across these sites even though they weren’t serving the same content in different languages. It was a classic example of an issue caused by an SEO’s superficial knowledge of a specific topic. They were burning money that they didn’t deserve, and wasting the client’s time on development work to implement these useless tags.”

As technical platforms and options proliferate, opportunities to seize an SEO advantage will, too. But so will potential traps and pitfalls. SEO specialities will multiply, and the job of hiring and managing SEO practitioners will get more complex. This is why Ash Nallawalla is writing the books for those managers now. It’s also why, after 20 years in the industry, he’s still learning new lessons to share every day.

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