Square Vanilla, Sitges and SEO
In July 2018 Katie Thomas took a leap of faith and moved to Sitges, just south of Barcelona, with her husband and 2 young daughters. Her girls have settled into school, she has found a like minded community of locals and internationals and her business, Square Vanilla, successfully delivers a cost-effective, hands-on, bolt-on service for any smaller business that needs help.
You had worked for several years in a corporate environment in the Digital Industry before starting Square Vanilla. What made you decide to leave and set up your own business?
My choice to leave was down to becoming a mum more than anything else and needing that work/life balance. I found the pressure of Corporate life a little too much, the politics and never-ending meetings zapped my energy and I found I was doing more firefighting than doing the tasks I loved. Square Vanilla has been running for 13 years now and I find that (outside of the running the business back office) I much prefer to work with different clients and sectors. It keeps my ideas fresher and allows me to share my learnings across various clients.
You specialise in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). What is it exactly and why is it so important?
SEO is a powerful ongoing process of ensuring a website is “ticking all the boxes” for Google to deem that website relevant enough to rank for user-chosen keywords. The collective tactics help broaden your reach online, provide a higher ROI and delivers users to you that convert. There are many regular tactics a business needs to implement to ensure that firstly they ranked high up in Google and then maintain that position over their competitors.
In this day and age, more and more online users are taking time out of Social Media (Digital Detox) and trying to avoid negative news and political arguments. This means that SEO is once again one of the most important digital marketing strategies you should be focusing on. Yes, it is slower and takes time to see results, but the long-term benefits outweigh the outlay and time-consuming tasks. It also enables a business to really understand the worth of their website (shop window) and make sure they are providing the most relevant information to the right customers at the appropriate point of their sales cycle journey.
What are the common mistakes people make when trying to build up the SEO on their website?
Well there are many unfortunately and mostly due to a business not deeming SEO as an important marketing activity and therefore ignoring it. Trying to cut time and budget by using bad black-hat techniques, such as keyword stuffing, will only get a business penalised or blocked by Google.
My top Ten would be: –
Not having an SEO and content strategy.
Not using analytics to see what is and is not working, and changing their tactics for the latter.
Not optimising for Local Search traffic.
Not taking the time to research key terms correctly for every part of the sales cycle, effectively guessing what they think their target market are putting into Google.
Having duplicate content on their site and not declaring it to Google.
Having duplicate Meta descriptions and titles on multiple pages.
Not using anchor text for Hyperlinks within their website and clearly showing users which page they will land on.
Having bad links coming into their website or having too many and not very good quality – a few quality links are much more valuable and less damaging than hundreds of sketchy ones!
Having poorly written visible content or not enough copy at all that is not relevant to users.
And my final one would be designing a brand-new website and building it with no SEO considered at all – SEO should drive most decisions in a first-time build or re-design of a website.
Many businesses consider Google to be a thorn in their side, they’ve caused me many a headache over the years, but they are always teaching us how to provide the best website for our target market, by following and adhering to their rules and algorithm changes a business will find Google will reward them by lifting them up in position.
How has the world of SEO changed since the emergence of the internet?
That is an interesting question and one that has seen us having to keep ourselves knowledgeable and upskilled every single year as it changes so often! The dreaded Google algorithm updates have been used to implement these changes and taught many businesses some harsh lessons, seeing themselves drop positions dramatically overnight. However, all the changes Google implements have always had user-experience at the forefront, and those businesses who adapt will find a higher volume of traffic that converts rather than bouncing off. Here are just a few of the main ways it has changed….
Content marketing became king for a successful SEO strategy, and in 2011 the Panda algorithm ensured that marketeers stopped writing spammy content replacing it with quality, relative content for their website users.
The overlap of Social Media and SEO really came into force when a business was able to become an authoritative influential author using content to drive natural traffic to a website. These natural inbound links helped to move them up in position as Google could see the importance of the website.
Key terms were always the key starting point of SEO strategies, and still are, but now we look at user intent when we carry out key term research rather than just words – now considering what point of the sales cycle a user is at and serving them the right pages and content to move them through that cycle quicker.
At the very beginning linking tactics included listing your business on multiple directories and business listings, this led to invaluable and spammy links that gave no value to customers whatsoever. In 2012 the Penguin update ended these tactics and ensured businesses were only focusing on links and guest posts that were relevant to their business offerings, which meant your business content was being seen in other online sites and giving users a reason to visit your site.
Local search has come on leaps and bounds, with businesses who have well-optimised sites seeing themselves maintain higher rankings for longer periods of time to local customers.
The Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS), now customers are seeing more relevant listings and reading clearer descriptions and calls to actions, inevitably enabling them to make quick decisions on which company to choose and engage with.
Optimising for mobile as well as desktop, yes they are different and the newest trend being Voice Search is a new tactic we are all getting up to speed with!
My final one would be website security, this has come on leaps and bounds and as users are more and more savvy these days, will only choose to engage with businesses who operate secure sites. Google will continue to change their algorithms and keep us moving in a positive manner when optimising for search, and therefore SEO is a regular activity for all businesses to pay attention to.
What are the main challenges when working on SEO on somebody’s website?
Oohh this is where I have to be politically-correct!
One would be when a site has been recently built or re-skinned with no SEO in mind at all by the developer. Don’t get me wrong, an aesthetically pleasing website is fantastic, but with no SEO and irrelevant content it will never perform in the way the business owner needs and with no converting web visitors, it seems pointless spending on a website in the first place. I have spent many years arguing with developers over aesthetics vs. sound SEO architecturally built websites.
SEO is a non-tangible service, but one with so many areas to cover to make it work – anything online now should be optimised for search, your website, PDF’s, listings on other directories and sites, blog writing, Social Media posts etc; but as most of the work is in the website back-end or on other sites, added on to a huge amount of time spent on research, planning and writing, it can be challenging to show a client everything you have done.
I would say the biggest challenge on both sides is when you choose a focus for a page, carry out all the work to boost it up the SERPS, optimise the page, write content, find good back links for it to just not be quite enough to get above competitors and needing to start again.
My advice here is to trust the person you work with, allow for more time and budget at the start of your working relationship to get things moving and then keep that person tinkering each month on a lower budget to keep the SEO moving and up-to-date. Challenging? Yes! Worth it? Absolutely!
Aside from SEO, what other ways can you get your business onto Page One of Google?
SEO is the predominant way to rank in Google, Bing or Yahoo, but you could also use Social and PPC. The overlap of SEO and Social can be useful! Social Media, if done right, provides organic links into your website, thus alerting the Search Engine to the relevance and importance of your site to users – resulting in a higher Search position.
Pay for adverts – PPC – a quick marketing win to appear in the ad section of Google, great for promotions and shorter marketing campaigns. The plus side? Quick clicks to your website and potential conversions. The negative? You pay for a click whether a user converts on your site or not and depending on your sector the key term you pay for can cost a lot per click. This is where a business should consider the cost of irregular quick PPC work, which means once you stop the campaigns you are no longer seen, or invest in SEO where your site remains as high as possible for as long as possible.
Back in my corporate days, I knew marketing teams who would sit most of their day clicking on competitor PPC ads just to cost the competitor money!
How important is good copy on a website?
It is absolutely imperative! Content marketing is a massive part of good SEO, optimising it for a user’s sale cycle journey will mean higher conversion rates. It is how Google deems your website relevant and increases the traffic to your site. Being an online business, no matter what sector means most visitors never physically interact with you, content that shows the heart of your business, staff and products or services allows a user to feel connected to you and engage. Your content not only ensures higher positions and conversion rates, but encourages your content to be shared with colleagues, friend, and family – an online word-of-mouth.
Writing compelling content includes blog posts as well as the main landing pages. Using headlines, informative and well-written content allows visitors to drill down into as much content as they need to feel informed and ready to buy. User intent is now a driving force behind good SEO, providing the exact content they need to make an informed decision at the right time. Good web design and aesthetically pleasing websites just do not cut it in comparison to great copy!
You also build and design websites. Which platform would you recommend to anyone wanting to build their own website if they have a small business?
I have had quite a journey with website design and build, my love was always with WordPress, but now with some any plugins and need to use CSS I have moved away from this. I found that most smaller clients I developed for in this platform could not maintain it easily themselves moving forwards, and one thing I like to do (which big agencies don’t) is empowering a business owner to do as much as they choose to moving forwards, it helps them understand their business and target markets more, which in my eyes is always a plus!
Weebly and Wix are websites I have also built in, as this has been the platform that clients have had built or prefer. As much as these platforms are playing the catch-up game with others, they are getting better, but the build process is clunky and certainly not as easy for SEO tactics once built.
My favourite by far, and it’s not perfect for all clients is SquareSpace – this is my platform of choice now for many reasons, but the main one is the ease for a client to maintain and change it in years to come. I find most businesses, once they realise the amount of work SEO needs only choose to run and manage their blog, but SquareSpace allows them to do this with ease. The templates are clean and easier to adapt to a clients needs, the backend is a joy to work in, it is responsive for mobile and the SEO set up is much easy to navigate than other platforms. Oh, and their support is second-to-non.
How important is social media marketing for a small business?
Well, before Covid I would have answered this differently! Social Media was first used in business to showcase what went on behind business walls, so customers could relate in a more engaging way. Over the years Social Media has become noisy, busy and mostly taken over by those with big budgets and teams to create more and more clever posts. For smaller businesses this need to stand out can be an unaffordable cost, and they find that all the work they put into posts gives little return or engagement. For now, I would put more budget and effort into SEO than Social Media.
What digital training do you offer?
I offer bespoke training in SEO, Digital Marketing Strategy and planning as well as how to optimise and run your platforms on Social Media effectively. All the sessions are done in half days as it is a lot of information to take in. The other way I offer it, is through smaller sessions, explaining in depth what I am doing as work for the client at the time, so they can learn as they go and choose what tasks they take on as their confidence grows – this is a more popular one, and makes us a formidable team!
You moved to Sitges, a coastal town just south of Barcelona, in 2018 for a better quality of life. Has it lived up to your expectations?
Absolutely! It is a beautiful part of the world, with a fabulous expat community. The girls are thriving at their school, we have a great mix of Expat, Spanish and Catalan friends and can firmly say (after 6 years of dreaming) it has been the best thing we ever did as a family. My favourite part is how you can work all day and then get your “second day” after 5pm when everyone still goes out and socialises, shops and sits on the beach!
What advice would you give to families thinking of relocating to the area?
Just go for it! Everyone who lives here says there is a certain magic about this place, we cannot put our finger on what that is exactly, but it is intoxicating! If you have a dream for something better and a beautiful place for your family to grow up in, I can’t think of anywhere else I would choose.
Describe your life in 3 words.
Adventure, Balanced, Family