I’ve promised to interview a few interesting people from my own network for Irish Tech News and first up is Barry Adams, founder of Polemic Digital in Belfast. Barry is a Dutchman who’s lived in Northern Ireland for some time. He’s the most awesome SEO expert I know and he’s been building (and improving) websites for clients for almost 20 years. In this interview we cover how Barry got into tech, why as a founder he’s never taken on investment, what it’s like working in an industry well known for its snake oil merchants and a few hints and tips about how to get to grips with improving your own SEO. I hope you enjoy the read.
Tell us about yourself & your journey into digital; how did you discover tech & decide to work in the sector?
I was a computer geek from a young age. Quite socially awkward and more comfortable dealing with computers than with humans, I usually only enjoyed human company if it involved talking about computer games and comic books. I suppose if I was growing up now rather than in the 1980s I’d be slapped with some ASD label and possibly medicated.
While I loved computers, I didn’t think I’d want to make a career out of pure IT, so I enrolled in a mixed business and ICT course at university. It ended up being 90% business and 10% IT, which really sucked because I didn’t enjoy the business part at all. So I dropped out after 2 years and just went to work.
The real value I got from those 2 years at university was that I discovered the internet. I was hooked straight away. I became a member of several forums on a variety of topics, and started building my own websites – first on Geocities and later on my own domains. But the internet remained a hobby for a long while.
When I quit uni in the late 1990s, IT was booming and anyone who knew how to operate a computer was pretty much hired on the spot. I was already doing part-time work at an IT helpdesk while I studied, which I turned in to a full-time job. Working at a helpdesk is pretty shitty though, because you get to deal with all the things that go wrong and never with things that go right. So I moved on quickly, and because I knew some HTML I was hired to help manage a corporate intranet.
The contracting agency that employed me didn’t see a lot of value in developing staff for web related jobs as they wanted to focus on hard IT contracts, so eventually I quit and job-hopped for a while, including a stint as a Game Master for World of Warcraft in Velizy (just south of Paris). That was a lot of fun!
Eventually I ended up as the international webmaster (still the coolest job title I’ve ever had) at an industrial manufacturer, and that’s when I really discovered SEO. I was already dabbling in the craft, trying to get my hobby websites to rank well in search engines – first Altavista and Yahoo, before Google emerged on the scene and became the dominant engine fairly quickly – so I thought I knew a lot about SEO already.
I convinced my company to send me to the Search Engine Stategies conference in New York in 2007, and that’s when I realised I knew very little about SEO. I also fell in love with SEO, and that love affair has been going on ever since.
— Barry Adams (@badams) April 3, 2017
You are a well known & well respected SEO expert. Is it difficult working in a space where there are perceived to be so many charlatans and snake oil peddlers?
Yes we have our fair share of scammers in our industry. SEO is often seen as a dark art, which it really isn’t. But unscrupulous salesmen will capitalise on a client’s ignorance to make a quick buck, and damage the entire SEO industry as a result.
This isn’t helped by the fact that many web developers don’t see SEO in a positive light either. Too often I still encounter web developers that admit to hating SEO and seeing it as bullshit.
Such a negative attitude to SEO from multiple angles doesn’t help the industry’s reputation. Which is a shame, because SEO can deliver such tremendous value to a business if done right. Those same web developers giving off about SEO would be the first to admit that websites need to load fast, that a site’s structure should be flat and hierarchical, that navigation links need self-evident labels, and so on – all things that emerge from good SEO practices as well.
But all these people see and hear are the negative stories about people being ripped off and sites getting penalised, and they turn a wilful blind eye to the real value that SEO delivers to countless businesses every single day.
But to be honest, I more or less stopped caring about what other people think of SEO. In fact, I revel in it to an extent. People who see SEO as bullshit still use Google every day, helping the SEO industry with their searches. And the more web developers ignore SEO while building websites, the more work I’ll get later down the line to fix their fuckups.
What other people outside of the industry think about SEO is irrelevant. I care about what my clients think. The rest is just noise.
— Polemic Digital (@PolemicDigital) April 24, 2017
What are the most common or consistent SEO mistakes that organisations make?
The most obvious one is seeing SEO as an afterthought, rather than a foundational element of a good website. SEO is not magic unicorn dust you sprinkle over a website and voila there’s a million new visits. No, SEO starts with the foundational aspects of a website to ensure it can be efficiently crawled and its content indexed and ranked in search results. Then it moves to ongoing efforts to build authority and trust signals to improve those rankings and earn more traffic.
SEO is also not a quick fix. Very rarely will we be able to quickly boost a website’s traffic. It usually takes months of sustained effort to deliver results – which is also a contributing factor to SEO’s poor reputation. Clients want fast results, and some SEO agencies will promise fast results just to get the deal. Then, when the traffic doesn’t immediately appear, the client is disappointed and feels cheated.
What many organisations also get wrong is seeing SEO as separate from their other online activities. Digital marketing channels don’t operate in isolated silos. Signals boost and amplify one another, so SEO needs to be integrated with everything else the business is doing online: social media, email, content, conversion optimisation, etcetera. SEO on its own won’t deliver as much value as when it’s integrated with other activities.
What is your advice to readers wanting to improve their own approach to SEO?
Practice makes perfect. Reading about SEO only gets you so far. Launch your own site, even if it’s just a hobby blog, and try to get it ranking for some relevant search terms. That will really teach you more about SEO than any amount of blogs and conferences.
Or just hire me to train you. That might also work. 😉
You’re originally from the Netherlands but have lived & worked in Northern Ireland for a long time. How did that come about & how do you find it as a place to base your business?
It’s the same reason most people emigrate; love. I met my now-wife Alison in 2007 with her living in Belfast and me in Eindhoven. After a few years of to-ing and fro-ing between our two cities we decided our relationship was serious enough to move in together. We decided it’d be easier for me to move to Belfast, which was the right decision both personally and professionally. Not only did I end up marrying this woman who I love more than I can describe, Northern Ireland also proved to be a wonderful location to grow my SEO skills.
Back in The Netherlands I was one of many SEO professionals, and it was tough to make a name for myself. But in Belfast, still behind most of Europe in all things digital, I was quickly seen as an expert of sorts – a case of the one-eyed king in the land of the blind.
I also felt warmly welcomed by local people, especially the digital industry. Folks like Naomh McElhatton, Andy Hill, Niamh Taylor, and you yourself, have all helped make me feel welcome and part of the local digital community. Back in Eindhoven I was never a part of any digital scene, but here I was quickly adopted by everyone.
Because of that, career opportunities arose that I’d not easily have had back in the Netherlands. For example, back in 2010 I was hired to work as the SEO specialist at the Belfast Telegraph, which was a hugely educational experience that taught me a lot about specialised SEO for news publishers. That has since become one of my key specialisms to offer to my clients, and I’ve had the privilege to work with some really big news publishers over the years.
When I started my own business in 2014, I thought Belfast would be a perfect base. It’s a lovely city and not an expensive place to live. There are great transport connections to Dublin, London, Manchester, and mainland Europe. For someone like myself who has clients all around the UK & Ireland and further afield, Belfast is a great hub to be based in.
Now with Brexit imminent, however, this European immigrant in the UK has some tough decisions to make about what to do next. I don’t want to leave Belfast any time soon, but we may not have much of a choice in the matter. It all depends on what kind of Brexit deal the UK government can negotiate. But even if it turns out to be a decent deal, I doubt our long-term prospects are in a country that has chosen to isolate itself from its closest neighbours.
When a client persists, good things happen. I set them on the path at the start of 2015 and they've been at it ever since. pic.twitter.com/6IhhmBMeyk
— Barry Adams (@badams) April 11, 2017
Any top tips for anyone thinking about starting their own tech business?
Yes: don’t start a business because you want to start a business. Too often I see entrepreneurs who just want the label of ‘entrepreneur’, who do it because of the perceived prestige and status. That’s a load of bullshit.
Build a business because you love doing it, whatever ‘it’ is. The business itself should be just a vehicle that allows you to do what you love. The business itself should not be the reason.
Also, I’m not keen on taking investment. People have different perspectives on this, but I for one am happy to bootstrap my business and see where it leads. It allows me to stay fully in control, and not have to bend to the whims of any investor. I’ve been offered investment a few times, but have always turned it down. I like being my own boss too much.
Like me you’re not afraid to voice your opinions. Has this ever got you into trouble?
Oh yes, it regularly does. Sometimes I offend the ‘wrong’ people, and I’m pretty sure my rants have resulted in some missed opportunities because some folks think I’d not be a good fit for them.
But on the other hand, a lot of people appreciate my blunt honesty and unvarnished opinions, and it actually helps me win business as well. There’s so much bullshit in the technology sector in general, and SEO in particular, that I think people can appreciate someone who just says it as they see it.
And the profanity, well, I’ve never been a socially polished individual, so that’s just part of who I am. I doubt that’ll ever change. Though I have learned to tone it down for specific audiences that need more careful handling.
I’m a blunt instrument, but I’m not an idiot.
Last one – tell us about a website or app that you think is underrated & deserves a wider audience.
The Parkmobile app ( http://www.parkmobile.co.uk/download_the_parkmobile_parking_app) is a real life-saver when you have to park in city centres often. I never have to carry small change to pay for parking, the app handles it all.
I’d also like to recommend the Polygon website ( http://www.polygon.com/ ) – news and features for geeks who like science fiction, games, movies, comics, etc. It’s almost as if someone set out to make a perfect website for me. 🙂