AMA with Tom Critchlow, Creator of SEO MBA

Cierra Loflin
April 21, 2023

Welcome to our AMA with Tom Critchlow, strategy consultant and Creator of SEO MBA.

Tom's upcoming course is on Executive Presence, which helps senior level SEO pros get budget and buy-in for their work.

What did your career journey look like (in a nutshell) to get to this point of creating the SEO MBA and consulting?

Here's the career outline:

  • Stumbled into digital work & SEO because my brother (Will Critchlow) was starting a web design agency in the UK
  • Started doing SEO because I saw some really terrible work from outsourced SEO teams overseas
  • Joined Distilled, helped grow the agency to 50+ people
  • Moved to NYC in 2011 to run the NYC office for Distilled
  • Worked at Google 2012-2014 as a deliberate effort to get out of the SEO bubble and expand my horizons and skillsets
  • Indie consulting 2014 - present with a focus on content, media, SEO, marketing and digital strategy
  • Started the SEO MBA in 2021 after seeing a skills gap in the industry - AND realizing that I was kind of uniquely qualified to teach these skills given so much C-suite and executive level exposure

I think ultimately I was VERY lucky to join Distilled and for Distilled to be at the right time / right place - to get an early partnership with Moz that provided visibility - through writing on their blog and speaking at their conferences.

Why do you feel like advocating to the C-suite is so important?

I think working in SEO gave me a lot of exposure to "recommendations" that went nowhere. There are SO MANY seo audits / documents / best practices that clients simply ignore - so over my career I've been really obsessed with driving to outcomes - how to actually get things done, not just documents stuffed with recommendations.

Then working at Google I was very lucky to work with a team (the creative lab) that was regularly presenting ideas to Larry Page (then CEO of Google) and the Google exec team - so I got a lot of exposure to the kinds of mindsets of those people, their short attention spans etc.

To be clear I helped present to Larry and prepared stuff for senior execs but was never actually in the room with Larry - though I did present to Sundar a few times.

Instead of the traditional keyword research process for SEO, I'm trying to identify the top 2-3 pages from my competitor's websites who are doing well on Google without actually focusing on SEO. What do you think about this workflow in the long run? The reason I'm giving it a shot is because, I can clearly/roughly forecast the est traffic and time that would take to outrank these pages. Would love to know your thoughts?

I think either way the mindset of "competitor X did this thing, and got results Y, we can try and replicate it" is a great mindset.

I wrote a bit about that here: Managing Expectations by Finding Good Comparisons.

How would you advocate for an SEO project that's more of a big, risky bet (e.g. let's make a tool that could generate tons of backlinks) rather than a slow and steady thing (e.g. we're going to blog X times a month)?

Great question - I think the key ingredient for any risky bet is how to reduce risk! Sounds obvious but you have to think about ways to:

  1. Show evidence that this approach has worked (e.g. show a competitor did it)
  2. Find ways to run a pilot / smaller version to find your own evidence
  3. Find insurance - i.e. ways that you can repurpose the tool in the event it doesn't generate links

The good news for things like tools is that there are plenty of prior examples of this working - the downside is that they can be quite expensive to make!

Also - don't forget to factor in the FULL cost of the tool - it's not just making the tool, but making the supporting content, doing the outreach etc.

What do you think SEO looks like next year?

If I had the answers to this I'd be rich lol.

But more seriously - this is a BIG question and one every content business is wrestling with right now. My best guess:

  1. Trust (and links) are going to be EVEN MORE important - in a world of AI you're going to need cited sources, reliable expertise and the feeling of security so double down on that
  2. New kinds of content creation will emerge - i.e. it's not just having the AI write an article that ranks, but re-writing sections of the article every day to be hyper relevant

But long story short - everything is gonna change. But no one knows exactly how yet.

I think this is looking at slightly backwards - yes Google changing their interface is one thing, but the supply side of all the websites using AI to write content is going to revolutionize the content space whether Google changes or not (which will force Google's hand to change).

I'm not necessarily saying that Google is going to turn into a chat interface (though I'm not not saying that) but I do think things are going to change dramatically over the next ___time horizon.

What are your top 3 tips for closing deals, let's say as an SEO strategist or consultant?

Great Q - I wrote a bit about sales/lead-gen for consultants here:

The key ideas are to attract the right kind of deals - and to be positioned so that you're not in a competitive pitch.

After that - you have to really understand the context of the client's business to properly scope the project. e.g. there's no point in selling them a content strategy if they don't have any writers.

Then - my fave tip is to always offer two pricing tiers, anchor them high with a "full" project and then offer a slightly smaller one.

Gives the client a sense of agency, anchors them high and you'd be surprised how often they just say yes to the higher figure.

Lastly - always price a project so that you're happy if they say yes. This means that if the project looks like a bad project, increase your prices!!

What's the temperature right now from CEOs/leadership on AI content/SEO projects? Is it coming up on every call? Is everyone asking for it?

Temperature HOT. Every business that relies on SEO is thinking about it - but if you're a content/media business it's code red.

Why do you think SEOs (and honestly most marketing professionals) struggle so much with tying their work to financial and business metrics? Why is there such a gap between how SEOs describe and evaluate their work and how the C-suite looks at it?

Great question - actually I'm not sure that SEOs struggle with it any more than other industries do. Designers struggle with it, PMs struggle with it.

But I think the hardest thing about SEO is that SEO results (i.e. organic traffic revenue) is 2 or 3 steps away from SEO actions (i.e. links, content, tech work) so showing a direct causal relationship is hard.

Couple that with the conflation of brand and non-brand organic traffic and it means that many exec teams are left unclear on the real value of SEO.

Would you say that professionals need some type of psychological shift in addition to learning the hard skills (like the ones you teach for SEO) to communicate the value of their work better?

I mean I'm entirely biased because I run the SEO MBA but.... Yes! I think there's a real lack of experience around clear business communication, how to create a business case, financial modeling and so on.

People are very rarely taught how to advocate for their work - you just kind of pick it up over time.

That's a real shame because there are totally concrete, tangible ways to learn how to get better at this - concepts like "executive presence" and "strategic thinking" are actually real skills you can improve at.

Can you give an example of how you go beyond audit + recommendations and get actionable right from the get-go?

I've written a bit about that here: The Consultant Out of Time: Chronos & Kairos - a framework for just-in-time consulting

The basic principle is simply to ask for every "deliverable" or "document" - so what? What is actually going to happen as a result? And then work to THAT as best you can.

So if you're making a content strategy deck - is the output from that the client producing content? If so, why not work with the content writers, test some ideas, improve process etc.

I don't have a team of practitioners, it's just me! I still definitely get my hands dirty and roll up my sleeves with things like keyword research etc. when needed.

But I try and do it in service of helping clients build their own capabilities.

Thinking less about "an SEO audit" and more about "how does the client build an ongoing SEO program."

Do most want to slowly build those capabilities in-house?

I think ALL agency/consultant relationships should have one eye on long term expanding your client's capabilities.

It's not about making yourself redundant (there's always more to do) but the most impactful/ valuable thing you can do is help your client get better at something over time.

What are some interesting ways you’re seeing folks use generative AI in SEO?

I can't talk about the MOST interesting ways lol. But obviously people are using it to generate content, aggregate data and more.

But the space is moving very quickly.

You've likely seen the Bankrate stuff etc. already.

What's your work/life balance like? What do you do to unplug/destress?

I've been an indie consultant for 8+ years so I've been working from home for a long time! I've got two kids now (7 & 3) so they take up a bunch of downtime and family time.

Outside of that - rock climbing, biking!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how to present to mid-level folks in a company. We're an agency that frequently works with mid-ish level client-side people who tend to be (maybe?) receptive of more context in a preso. How do you balance something like that with the fact that the deck we're presenting likely is going to circulate beyond them to folks who don't have context and/or patience for the deeper dive?

My absolute best advice is to use a concise executive summary - as outlined in this piece - the great thing about an exec summary is it's designed to circulate around a company.

So start with that - then flesh out the details etc. with your point of contact.

Also - don't be afraid to ask your point of contact who else in the business cares and what kind of summary they need!

You can often really help your point of contact look good by collaborating on a deck that can be circulated around the business.

And making your point of contact look good is a GREAT plan for agencies/consultants.

What are your top tips for moving pages up in rankings, especially when they're very close to position 1?

  • Rewriting sections of the page and updating the "last updated" date
  • Adding page sections e.g. adding an FAQ section (with schema)
  • Adding something really sticky and valuable to the page (e.g. a downloadable PDF template)
  • Adding more external links (easier said than done!)

Can you a little about Quotebacks?

Quotebacks has a dear place in my heart - it was a covid project I made with Toby Shorin. It's a kind of lightweight blogging technology that is both embeddable style for quotes AND chrome extension for managing snippets and quotes around the web.

We have some grand plans for the future but unfortunately Toby and I are really busy so it's kind of hold for now.

It has a small, but really active userbase. My fave is Matt Webb's blog that uses it heavily.

Who do you learn from these days? Any creators / brands / publications / shows that you follow and wholeheartedly recommend?

Right now I'm a HUGE fan of Cedric Chin and his writing on CommonCog.

Also, some great writing by Will Lethain.

I also think Reforge has put out some great content.

Sacra is doing some really interesting things too! I love their tone of voice and love how deep they go in their analysis.

Are there any outdated SEO tactics that you see people using all the time even though they don’t work anymore? Any that particularly grind your gears?

Hmm. It's hard to single out any specific things - most things still work in some situations.That said - I think people put a bit too much emphasis on things like H2 vs H3 tags. I see some bad SEO audits that advocate for changing page structure and HTML structure when I think Google has got the page completely figured out already.

I also think that as an industry the SEO industry focuses on creating content for the sake of it without really knowing why.

You end up with a lot of recommendations that say "make all this top of funnel content" but without really having a deliberate plan for building links, or moving users down the funnel.

So you end up driving traffic, but not really impacting conversions.

I'm not saying that top of funnel content isn't worth doing but you gotta do it with a plan.

Do you have any advice for someone who’s built out a good SEO strategy and content pipeline as an in-house director, demonstrated success with their past process, but is now being questioned and told that they need to show ROI because AI can do the same amount of content for $40 / piece or less?

I think there's two ideas here:

  1. Firstly, let's be clear - AI-written content is still a risky SEO move. While AI-content is "good enough" in many cases it's still often getting penalized by Google! So let's be clear about the downsides and carefully consider the risks. There's lots of case studies on LinkedIn showing initial spikes of traffic for AI content that then falls off a cliff at some point. Start here.
  2. Maybe their boss is right? I don't mean to be alarmist but AI def IS going to change the game. If you're not experimenting, exploring how to improve process, workflow etc. for content then you're gonna get left behind. We don't know exactly HOW it's going to change everything yet but it's definitely a big change. So I think you also can't ignore the mindset.

Thanks for tuning in! Make sure to follow Tom on Linkedin and you can sign up for his SEO MBA Cohort that starts on April 27, 2023.

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