Common Mistakes with Technical SEO (Podcast)

C: Welcome to today’s podcast, where I’m joined by one of the craziest Dutchmen in the SEO or digital marketing industry. He will probably need no introduction. It’s Arnout Hellemans. Arnout, thank you for coming on. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

A: Well, thanks for having me, Craig. It’s always fun. We always have huge laughs and I always get new ideas when I chat with you, so it’s always good fun.

C: I thought it was just me always stealing your good ideas and all your tricks.

A: Well, let me put it this way. You give a different perspective than others do on some of my ideas, which then reshape new ideas. This is why I share some of the stuff I’m doing, or a lot of the stuff I’m doing, just to get somebody else’s opinion but also other use cases. So, it’s always good. I always like chatting with you. That’s the way it works.

C: Yes, that’s it. It’s always good in this industry to bounce ideas off of other guys and, as you say, different mindsets. People are wired up in a slightly different way and look at things in a different way, and it’s always good to have other people’s opinions. That’s why I love talking to everyone. Obviously, one of the reasons I like doing a podcast, it gives me an opportunity to just chat to people and if I’ve got something I want to talk about, I can throw it in there and get their perspective. So, it’s amazing. But glad that you’ve seen some value in anything I’ve done. I always felt I was stealing all your stuff.

How Arnout Hellemans got into SEO

C: For anyone who isn’t aware of what you do, Arnout, can you just give the audience just a wee bit about yourself and what you’re doing, and how long you’ve been in the industry for?

A: Yes. I’m Arnout Hellemans. I’m an SEO, PPC, I would say, and analytics consultant. And on the way there, I do a lot on conversion stuff as well because traffic is one, but getting people to do what you want them to do is probably as important, or maybe even more important. I’ve been in the industry I would say, digital marketing in house, for about a year and a half, and then freelancing since, 2008 or 2009. 10-11 years.

A: I basically rolled in and I was taught a lot of SEO by two Dutch people. I think you know them both. One is Peter van der Graaf, you usually know him because I think I pinged you, you should meet him. And the other one is Joost de Valk, the guy behind the Yoast plugin. Those two people have taught me basically the first things I learned about SEO, and it was a lot about how you come up with ideas, but also how to get the basics right. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

A: I’ve worked for big companies, Dutch insurers, but also banks, car leasing companies. But also smaller, I’m a shareholder in Sitly, which is a babysitting platform in 11 countries now. I spend half of my weeks in the UK and half of them in Amsterdam. In the UK I’m working for RBS Natwest and some other clients. That’s what I do and I just optimize stuff, and I move on if the company doesn’t want to change or can’t implement, I just start doing some different stuff. There is so much work that you never have to worry about work, in a way.

C: I would agree with that. There’s not a lot of good guys that know what they’re actually doing out there, and I think people like yourself with the experience you’ve got, if someone’s not going to listen to what you’ve got to say or not going to implement it, that’s their loss because there’ll be 10 other guys waiting to bite your hand off. I think that’s the way you have to look at it. I know SEO‘s a very big industry, but hand on heart you’ll know yourself, there are very few guys that actually know what they’re doing and actually test stuff, and they’re actually in a position to be able to advise. You’re obviously one of those guys. You test a lot of weird stuff.

C: You mentioned some of the guys you learned from, Peter van der Graaf. I know Peter very well. I’ve built up a relationship with him over the past few years. Love that guy as well. I’m not so familiar with Joost from Yoast but obviously a very smart guy and he’s got, if not one of the biggest plugins on WordPress, or the most popular one, so obviously another very smart guy that I don’t know personally and I probably should try and get to know him a bit better. But yes, so you’ve obviously learned from very, very, experienced and well-known guys which is obviously reflective in yourself today.

Most Common Mistakes an SEO Consultant Comes across

C: Today we’re going to talk about what you do and some of the most common things that you see when you are hired as a consultant. Some of the common mistakes that people are making, common problems, and hopefully that will give people an idea of what to cover off first. We had a chat prior to coming on here, and some of this stuff is very basic things that you’re coming across on a regular basis. It’s laughable. In some cases, certainly, some of the ones that I’m experienced in, some of the stuff is laughable. You’ve got to ask questions, so just want to talk to you a bit about that.

C: Obviously, you’ve got the experience from working with massive companies like RBS and companies of that stature. Are these same mistakes being made with these big companies as you would normally see with probably the smaller companies as well?

A: Some of them, definitely yes. I mean, the simple mistakes are simply not looking at load times. I think that is one where people literally are like, “Nah, it works fine for me.” But they don’t really look at users and the way websites load. Because if you are on a dark fibre office network, of course, your website will be there within one or two seconds, and if you check it ten times a day it will probably be cached and super fast. However, new customers trying to find your website or even Google trying to index, and you have a website that loads in 10, 15 seconds, that’s just ridiculous. I see it all the frigging time.

A: I think it’s purely because people don’t really know that it’s important, or they don’t experience it, or they have the idea that it’s their hosting. Well, it isn’t. It’s just the way your website is built, so I’ve seen those plenty of times, and I guess you as well, haven’t you Craig?

Too many WordPress plugins

C: Yes. I mean, yes, it’s outrageous and obviously as you say it can be for a number of reasons. It’s very easy to say it’s the server and not the 75 plugins that your websites been built using. Or if not more, you know. I think, I’ve inherited some websites, not inherited them but had a look at them and stuff and all the kind of functions are running through plugins, and some of the plugins won’t update. It’s just an absolute riot.

A: Yes, or them calling the same framework or the same stuff like five different plugins, that call the same framework. Those kinds of things, it happens all over the place. It’s not only with WordPress, it’s different CMS’s as well. But the same goes for simple things like images, so a common thing I see is that people think that images should be on PNGs which is … well there are use cases when there is a simple one colour or just very simple basic two-colour things, those will be smaller in PNG but if you have a picture you save it as a PNG instead of a JPG, or a Web2, WebP or whatever, then it becomes four, five, six, seven, eight whatever times bigger. And I still see big companies, small companies, affiliates, they all do it. And I’m like, why? Well, I read it somewhere. Again, I wouldn’t take the word for something you read, you check it. So people, please check your image sizes, and basically with all the tools out there, just free tools where you can scale them incorrectly, and even for a simple website you can shave off 20, 30%, 40%, of your total page size, which is so easy. So let’s get it done.

C: Yes, and obviously you make it sound so simple as well, but where do you feel the problem lies with this type of thing? Is it just lack of education from a customer, or are web designers just not giving a toss? Where do you feel the problem lies with this stuff?

A: So Craig, you know the two words that we can always answer our question within SEO?

Don’t always go for the cheap option

A: Exactly, there we go. So it depends but here’s my take on it, I think if we go for the cheapest option people will literally just get a theme for WordPress, install the theme, which loads in loads of stuff and then basically say, here you can upload your images. So there’s no instruction to the website owner to do it in a certain way. So that’s one part of it. I think the other part of it is the misconception that when it’s not uploaded in high-res it will look very bad on a 4K screen or a retina screen. I’ve heard that a lot of times, which is BS as well, especially if you just check how many people actually have a screen with a resolution that big.

C: Yes.

A: So, it’s these kinds of things. I think the other part is that there is no reinforcement in most CMS’s that reinforce and say, do you really want to upload an image of five mbs, or do you want to upload this GIF which is six mbs? I think that’s another part, and I think thirdly there’s just a lack of knowledge at developers’ end as well.

C: I would tend to agree with that, and I don’t like bashing developers because the ones I work with are very good and they understand what we’re trying to achieve. But I do, in the past I have come across a few who have given no consideration for what we’re saying. They want it to look good, high-res, everything else.

A: Exactly.

C: But it’s basically the same as building a house. So you need a good builder that you can trust, that will do it the right way, and not one that just makes it look good but you when you start living in the house within a year half of it falls apart. Which is basically what you do with your website as well. So if you pay peanuts you probably get monkeys.

C: I’ll give you a scenario here as well. I had a guy actually the other week who offered to build a PBN website for me, and he wanted to do it to impress me so that I could maybe vouch for him and get him more work. So he’d done it for free, and he put up a website, he used a nulled theme, and within days that website was hacked and ripped apart just because they guy offered to do it for free and obviously he’s not going to go out and pay for a theme for that to work for me or whatever, you know, he’s just using his time. Even just using a nulled theme is a bad idea, so scrimping on $39 or whatever it would cost you for a template on Themeforest is potentially going to cause you not only speed issues but security issues and everything else. As you say, this is your shop, this is your house, so to speak, a website, and you can’t … you got to treat it the same way you would treat your house, or your health, or whatever, and get it checked out and pay the right rates to do it.

Use the Same Developers After Mistakes?

C: But typically, when you’re doing this kind of stuff and people are hiring you for consultancy, do they go back to these same developers to get them to change it? After you audit it or whatever.

A: Yes, well in some cases yes, and in some cases no. So the biggest challenge here is that I get called in when it doesn’t work, which is a bit of a pain because if you get a proper SEO involved at the beginning of a project basically you’ve got safeguards. It’s kind of like again, building a house, so if you just say, all the doors need to move this way, and I need these quality windows, and I need a certain foundation, or I need this kind of glass, or whatever. If you don’t spec it out then it just looks good. So yes, I’ve seen that happen a lot. If you’re going to do a rebuild just get somebody who’s knowledgeable involved, if only it’s to put it specifically in the briefing. These are the things I’m going to test and they need to be this. So either uses tools like GT Metrix, or Lighthouse, or say with Screaming Frog you need to have separate top page navigation, and all of this kind of things which are so frigging basic but still this happens.

A: Somehow I often feel like people in big companies especially they want to overhaul their whole website every year and a half. Frigging ridiculous, why would you want to do that? It’s probably because a new marketing manager came in and wants to put his stamp on the website, and basically goes, “We need new …” And then what happens is everything changes and you go what’s this? Why would you want to do this? I mean, it’s not going to add any value.

C: Yes, it doesn’t add value and it creates a lot of hassle and stress in-between times. I’ve actually seen it with a big company, they actually rebranded as well, and one day they just sprung it on to everyone that was involved with the online side of things and said, “We’re changing company name, we’re rebranding, here’s a new website.” Didn’t do the 301’s properly, there was no time. The owner said, “This new website is going live by this specific date and that’s all there is to it.” You can argue all day long but when someone owns a company of that stature, it was a massive company, no matter what you say they’re never going to listen to you. They actually had to feel the pain of seeing the rankings disappear, and then take on board what they were being advised. It potentially cost them millions of pounds.

A: It probably has, and these are the worst. Rebranding in search has become even a bigger issue. If you properly rebrand, especially if you’re a big company, people keep on Googling your old name and all the signals you give to Google are basically built on your old brand name and not your new one. It’s just, in my opinion, don’t do it unless I don’t know, I couldn’t think of a reason for doing it. Anyway, that’s my personal opinion.

Page Speed Issues

A: So, those are simple ones. So page speed is always like a bugbear with me. I think the other ones are just the basic SEO stuff, like basically what I see a lot is that people tend to tell people what they’re doing. So the website is like an online brochure, but the problem is that people are looking for solutions to their problems. They’re not looking for what you have to sell, so you need to think from a user perspective so how are you going to make that shift? I see this especially with the biggest companies, there are people there that actually don’t even know what their consumer is. I once asked a question, this was about four or five years ago when I was at a Dutch bank, and I asked them, “Okay, so, why would somebody use your investment product?” Then they said, “Well because they like to take a risk.” And I was like, “What are you saying? Nobody in his right mind puts his money at risk for pleasure.” No reason, even gambling, you gamble because you think you can make more. You don’t gamble because you want to take a risk.

C: No.

A: It’s ridiculous. So, again, one of those things, if you want to get more people to gamble for instance, or you basically give them, in the way you communicate it, is taking a gamble you have a chance of this and this, making so much. Imagine that. Way better than say, “Hey, take a risk.”

A: So there’s these kinds of things, those are the basic ones. As you said, I think the biggest one that I see failing is simply redirects. I mean, we’ve all been there. If you’re in SEO you’ve all been called into a failed migration.

C: Yes.

A: Haven’t we? I mean, that’s what we do, we fix failed migrations. I still remember that I once called in on a failed migration, and the company or the agency that did it employed three full time SEO’s.

C: Jeez, what just to try and resolve a failed migration?

A: They called upon me because they lost all visibility.

A: They said, “We’ve got everything redirected.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” And then I checked it out, you know what was happening?

C: It could be a number of different things, but I’m guessing they’ve just redirected the domain straight over to one domain to whatever. There’s got to be some cock-up there.

A: So basically the cock-up, because the domain name stayed the same, they mapped all URL’s but what they didn’t do was it was a multi-lingual website that did geo redirect.

A: And all of their major backlinks came to one of those three lang is. So basically what happened was you had the lang is, which was now say, slash EN slash, and slash FR slash, and slash NL slash. Those were different but all of their really 100% organic links from governmental sites and all over the place because it was quite an established institution. So we redirected it and within three weeks all the traffic was back up.

How quickly can someone recover after a mistake?

C: So you’re able to get recovery fairly quickly from such a mistake?

A: It depends on how big the other links are but what I basically did was I was able to recover an old site map, and I just submitted it in search console to get all the 301’s properly set. So it was including the lang is links, and then basically by submitting the old site map that everything re-crawled and basically was attributed to the other one. The second thing I did was to make sure that using a third party domain to get the old governmental and really big links re-crawled when the redirection was in place.

C: Cool. So just for anyone who doesn’t understand that, what do you mean by a third party domain?

A: Just some random domain that you own, so, in this case, I used my domain, and I basically put a link on there to that website and then fetched it in search console and submitted it to index, which was slightly harder but it still works. At that time I’d just share it on Google Plus, that was the easiest way.

C: Google Plus was good for something then. I’ve heard a few SEO guys saying in terms of index and stuff they used to submit stuff there and it’d get done relatively quickly. So, a good old trick that obviously no longer works, but yes, at least it was good for something.

A: Another one that I did some testing on but it was a while ago, is just to submit it to Twitter, just that URL, because Google uses the Twitter Firehose and it uses it, so basically create a new page and I have a feeling that they also use that to get stuff in the index faster.

C: Yes, and if you get loads of guys that talk about indexing and tools and stuff like that, I take it you would use Twitter before you would use an indexing tool?

Re-indexing Backlinks

A: Yes, I’d rather use my own. However, if you’ve got an awful lot of backlinks that need re-indexing then you might use one of those tools. I presume they work simply the same way, they add links, they basically trigger a re-crawl there and that’s it, but I don’t know, I’ve never spoken to any of the guys behind those tools so I don’t really know.

C: It’s one of those things, but this was a fix which literally it took me five minutes to figure out so what do you do then? You could charge them a thousand because you can get them back in, or you could charge them hardly any, what would you do?

A: I’ve got to say that answer that I don’t like saying, but it depends on the situation. If there was a potential for future work then I’d probably would hardly charge them anything, but what a lot … there’s a counter-argument there where because that took you five minutes, it could have taken another man 100 hours, and it’s only because you have experience in stuff like that that you’re able to try and it’s paid off. So should you be penalized because you can fix something in five minutes that might have taken someone else 100 hours? Absolutely not in my opinion, so you know, in the grand scheme of things I think the price is the price and your time’s valuable. Whether it takes you five minutes or not you’ve resolved a problem that could have potentially cost someone hundreds of thousands of pounds and you’re only charging £1000 to fix it. So, as I say, it depends if there was a potential work I might just use it as an in, personally, to be able to get that other work.

A: Yes. In this case, I basically did some more work and this was just part of it, but this brought it back fairly easily. So I think I charged him a thousand for the whole … I just basically spent a day double checking stuff and giving them some more recommendations. But I’ve got an even better one. You want to hear this one?

C: Yes.

A: Content marketing agency, quite a big one, in The Netherlands. So they did creative content for big brands that was basically built on discovery, basically brand building, and all cool stuff. So I get their office manager call me, through a mutual friend or somebody we knew, and they said, “We have a problem.” So I say, “Well what’s the problem? Tell me.” And he was like, “You can’t find us.” Okay, and someone once told me that this kind of client will at some point in time pop up. So what happened was … So I Googled them and they were not to be found, brand name, nothing. The only thing that showed up was their Google My Business listing. So I’m like, “How long has this been the case?” And they said, “Well I’ve been working here for two years and the website, you just can’t find it.” Do you know what happened?

Make Sure you Untick that WordPress, Allow Google to Crawl

C: You’re going to tell me something like they didn’t untick the allow the search engines to crawl the website or something like that.

A: Exactly. Basically, their whole website ever since it had gone live, and it was really working for big brands this company. For about a two and a half years before that call nobody ever bothered looking in the back end of WordPress and it basically said, disallow all robots. Literally, it was not crawled, and every page was on no index.

C: It’s bizarre. It would be one of the first things that I would check, you know, I’ve heard that one a few times but it’s amazing that someone can go so long without checking that that’s the case, it’s insane.

A: It was insane, and again what happened was, so a coin flipped in my mind, should I charge him a thousand, or should I just tell them to untick this? So I told them to just untick it, and not charge him, and I’ve done a lot of work for them afterwards.

C: So it paid off.

A: Exactly, but it’s one of those things, so somebody in the beginning of my career in SEO basically told me there will be a time when … and I said, that can’t be true. If you’re any serious on your website you’re going to check this, I mean, obviously, but no, it wasn’t the case. Even worse, it was a frigging content marketing agency.

C: Jesus, no that it a worrying one though, that you can’t go that long with that. You’d be kicking yourself, it’s one of those ones, but I have seen that on several occasions over the years, just very basic things like that. I have in the past done audits and got third parties to have a look as well, you know, got another guy to look, can you see anything here? And then you come across that, you’re like, how could I have been so stupid? But, yes, you live and learn.

Prices for SEO Consultancy


C: That’s it and I think you made a very valid point where we’ve been in the business so long so we should be charging for this because a junior would probably take two days to figure this one out, or maybe not this one but other ones. Whereas we can basically go, because of the experience and knowledge we’ve built up over the years in a very simple flow through the website and go find a problem and diagnose it.

C: You’ve got to look at it in this way, how many site audits or failed migrations have you looked at over the time to be able to quickly … you’ve now obviously got your own process if someone comes to you with a problem wherein your head you’re checking this, this, this, whatever that process might be. As I say, whether that takes five minutes or not, it’s taken you 12 years to learn that process. So I would never, to any SEO I would say, never undervalue yourself even if it takes you an hour, or you can tell someone to untick a box, because people can sit there for two and a half, three years, with no revenue.

A: They were making revenue, they were just not being found.

C: But you’ve done that to the wrong website, a big e-commerce website, that relied on being found online as their only source of income, that would ruin a business such a silly mistake.

A: I know. I’ve seen where quite a big e-commerce player rolled out a new website with faceted navigation which was horrible, literally what they had I think about 8000 pages, or 10000 pages, and they ended up having 350k pages in the index within a week.

C: Jesus, that is a hell of a lot of pages.

A: And the thing was there were no canonicals because then they wouldn’t have happened, then it took them again quite a while to get canonicals in place. Then you have to wait for Google to revisit all of those old pages in order for them to be taken out of the index and your canonical to be really be picked as the right one. So it was really, really, frigging messy. This is again one of those cases, if you do migrations like this, just get a proper SEO. If you launch a new website, get a proper SEO that will look at the 301’s, that will check all of the faceted navigation stuff and really get a proper one, because here’s another story. I did one and we built canonicals, which was awesome, and we built a very cool tool, and the SEO agency came back to me saying, “No, you should do it … there’s no canonical and you should do it  and no index.” And I’m like, “There is.” And they said, “We crawled it, we can’t find it.”

C: Jeez.

A: This was probably the biggest SEO agency in Italy.

C: Wow.

A: Then I pointed it out to them saying, “This is how you inspect a header response.” And they were like, “Oh.” It’s like these things happen and you just go like, “Come on guys.” That’s another little thing of me is people kind of tend to only basically trust a tool instead of their own common sense, you know?

C: Yes.

A: I’ve seen it so often that tools like, it can happen SEMrush, it can happen on BrightEdge, it can happen with Search Console data, it can happen with … like people assume things are the way they’re reported, but it might not be true.

C: Yes, it’s how you interpret that data is the important part.

A: And how you validate it.

C: And that’s something only an experienced guy can really do at speed. That’s where your experience and stuff really shows, because there are a lot of false positives and stuff with certain tools. I’m not going to name tools and bash anyone’s tools because the tools are all great, but we do know as experienced SEO’s that certain tools have certain flaws. When it does say something it’s really not a problem, and I think you can’t take the tools 100% accurate, it’s a use it as a guide.

A: Exactly, it might give you some hunch on where to look but you need to validate it yourself and don’t just send a whole list to somewhere with all the bugs and say, “Fix these.” Because they might actually not be bugs.

C: I’ve actually experienced that in the past where I’ve done an audit, pulled it off as a PDF and sent it over to the client who has then got their own development team, and the development team’s come back and went, “Listen, that’s a lot of fucking shit.” And I’ve not put the full on it because I didn’t validate anything I was just rushing about, and you know, I obviously had issues with the development agency and it was one of those, you probably see it all the time yourself anyway, where it was like us and them. It was a case of me grabbing some stuff and showing it to the client, saying it’s them, give it back to them. Obviously that’s not doing that as well but as you say, you’ve to validate it because even sending that back can come back to bite you in the bum and you look like a fool regardless. So, no, I think that’s really important as well.

C: Sadly, we are out of time.

A: Yes, no worries mate, no worries.

A: It was good, good fun, and I hope your audience likes it and if they want to get in touch it’s always good. I think the main message here is just working with somebody who knows what they’re doing.

C: Yes, and if someone wants to work with someone that knows what they’re doing where’s the best place to get hold of you?

A: Well the best place is either on LinkedIn, Arnout Hellemans, or you can Google me. I might have a knowledge panel, and my Twitter account, I’m very sociable on those things. You can always reach out to me, if I have time I’ll help you. If you need more work then we can maybe work out a deal, we’ll see. That’s the best way of doing it, and they can reach out to you because we know each other relatively well.

C: Yes, so if anyone does struggle to find Arnout give me a shout and I can point you in the right direction, and if you’re ever at Brighton SEO he is the crazy guy who swims across to the burned-out pier and then takes a selfie. So you’re probably most well known for that to a lot of people as well. Thank you Arnout for taking the time to come on, it’s been a pleasure.

A: Thank you for having me Craig.

C: Cheers.

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Craig Campbell

I am a Glasgow based SEO expert who has been doing SEO for 18 years.

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