Brighton SEO – April 2018

Yesterday I was at my second Brighton SEO conference. I enjoyed it every bit as much as the last one and I’m already looking forward to the next. Here are my notes about the talks I saw.

Technical SEO

Command Line Hacks For SEO

Tom Pool / Slides

I misread the description for this. I thought it would be about clever ways to use command-line tools for SEO purposes. But, actually, it was a basic introduction to Unix command-line text processing tools for people who were previously unaware of them. I wasn’t really the target audience, but it’s always good to see a largely non-technical audience being introduced to the powerful tools that I use ever day.

Diving into HTTP/2 – a Guide for SEOs

Tom Anthony / Slides

A good introduction to why HTTP/2 is good news for web traffic (it’s faster) and a great trucking analogy explaining what HTTP is and how HTTP/2 improves on current systems. I would have liked more technical detail, but I realise most of the audience wouldn’t.

Diagnosing Common Hreflang tag issues on page and in sitemaps

Emily Mace / Slides

To be honest, I was only here because it was the last talk in the session and I didn’t have time to move elsewhere. I have never worked on a site with pages that are translated into other languages, so this was of limited interest to me. But Emily certainly seemed to know her stuff and I’m sure that people who use “hreflang” would have found it very interesting and useful.

One thing bothered me slightly about the talk. A couple of times, Emily referred to developers in slightly disparaging ways. And I realised that I’ve heard similar sentiments before at SEO events. It’s like developers are people that SEO analysts are constantly battling with to get their work done. As a developer myself (and one who has spend the last year implementing SEO fixes on one of the UK’s best-known sites) I don’t really understand this attitude – as it’s something I’ve never come across.

It’s annoyed me enough that I’m considering proposing a talk called “I Am Developer” to the next Brighton SEO in order to try to get to the bottom of this issue.

Onsite SEO

Optimizing for Search Bots

Fili Wiese / Slides

Fili is a former Google Search Quality Engineer, so he certainly knows his stuff. But this talk seemed a bit scattershot to me – it didn’t seem to have a particularly clear focus.

Advanced and Practical Structured Data with

Alexis K Sanders / Slides

This was probably the talk I was looking forward to most. I’ve been dabbling in JSON-LD on a few sites recently and I’m keen to get deeper into to. Alexis didn’t disappoint – this was a great introduction to the subject and (unlike some other speakers) she wasn’t afraid to go deeper when it was justified.

Here first slide showed some JSON-LD and she asked us to spot the five errors in it. I’m disappointed to report that I only caught two of them.

Cut the Crap: Next Level Content Audits With Crawlers

Sam Marsden / Slides

This started well. A good crawling strategy is certainly important for auditing your site and ensuring that everything still works as expected. However, I was slightly put off by Sam’s insistence that a cloud-based crawling tool was an essential part of this strategy. Sam works for Deep Crawl who just happen to have a cloud-based crawling tool that they would love to sell you.

Conferences like this are at their best when the experts are sharing their knowledge with the audience without explicitly trying to sell their services. Sadly, this talk fell just on the wrong side of that line.


Then it was lunchtime and my colleagues and I retired just around the corner to eat far too much pizza that was supplied by the nice people at PI Datametrics.


Featured snippets: From then to now, volatility, and voice search

Rob Bucci / Slides

This was really interesting. Rob says that featured snippets are on the rise and had some interesting statistics that will help you get your pages into a featured snippet. He then went on to explain how featured are forming the basis of Google’s Voice Search – that is, if you ask Google Home or Google Assistant a question, the reply is very likely to be the featured snippet that you’d get in response to the same query on the Google Search Engine. This makes it an ever better idea to aim at getting your content into featured snippets.

From Black Friday to iPhones – how to rank for big terms on big days

Sam Robson / Slides

Sam works for Future Publishing, on their Tech Radar site. He had some interesting war stories about dealing with Google algorithm changes and coming out the other side with a stronger site that is well-placed to capitalise on big technical keywords.

[I can’t find his slides online. I’ll update this post if I find them.]

A Universal Strategy for Answer Engine Optimisation (beyond position 0)

Jason Barnard / Slides

This tied in really well with the other talks in  the session. Jason has good ideas about how to get Google to trust your site more by convincing Google that you are the most credible source for information on the topics you cover. He also talked a lot about the machine learning that Google are currently using and where that might lead in the future.


I was at a bit of a loose end for the final session. Nothing really grabbed me. In  the end I just stayed in the same room I’d been in for the previous session. I’m glad I did.

How to report on SEO in 2018

Stephen Kenwright / Slides

All too often, I’ve seen companies who don’t really know how to report effectively on how successfully (or otherwise!) their web sites are performing. And that’s usually because they don’t know what metrics are important or useful to them. Stephen had some good ideas about identifying the best metrics to track and ensuring that the right numbers are seen by the right people.

Top GA customisations everyone should be using

Anna Lewis / Slides

Having following Stephen’s advice and chosen the metrics that you need to track, Anna can show you how to record those metrics and how to also capture other useful information. As a good example, she mentioned a client who was an amusement park. Alongside the usual kinds of metrics, they had also been able to track the weather conditions at the time someone visited the site and had used that data to corroborate ticket sales with the weather.

Anna seemed to be a big fan of Google Tag Manager which I had previously dismissed. Perhaps I need to revisit that.

The Math Behind Effective Reporting

Dana DiTomaso / Slides

And once you have all of your data squirrelled away in Google Analytics, you need a good tool to turn it into compelling and useful reports. Dana showed us how we could to that with Google Data Studio – another tool I need to investigate in more detail.

[I can’t find her slides online. I’ll update this post if I find them.]


Live Google Webmasters Hangout

John Mueller & Aleyda Solis

Two things struck me while watching the keynote conversation between John Mueller and Aleyda Solis. Firstly, I though that Aleyda was the wrong person to be running the session. I know that Brighton SEO tries hard not to be the usual stuffy, corporate type of conference, but I thought her over-familiar and jokey style didn’t go well in a conversation with Google’s John Mueller.

Secondly, I had a bit of an epiphany about the SEO industry. All day, I’d been watching people trying to explain how to get your site to do well in Google (other search engines are, of course, available but, honestly, who cares about them?) but they’re doing so without any real knowledge of how the Mighty God of Search really works.

Oh, sure, Google gives us tools like Google Analytics which allow us so see how well we’re doing and Google Search Console which will give us clues about ways we might be doing better. But, ultimately, this whole industry is trying to understand the inner working of a company that tells us next to nothing.

This was really obvious in the conversation with John Mueller. Pretty much every question was answered with a variation on “well, I don’t think we’d talk publicly about the details of that algorithm” or “this is controlled by a variety of factors that will change frequently, so I don’t think it’s useful to list them”.

The industry is largely stumbling about in the dark. We can apply the scientific method – we propose a hypothesis, run experiments, measure the results, adjust our hypothesis and repeat. Sometimes we might get close to a consensus on how something works. But then (and this is where SEO differs from real science) Google change their algorithms and everything we thought we knew has now changed.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fascinating process to watch. And, to a lesser extent, to be involved in. And there’s a lot riding on getting the results right. But in many ways, it’s all ultimately futile.

Wow, that got dark quickly! I should finish by saying that, despite what I wrote above, Brighton SEO is a great conference. If you want more people to visit your web site, you should be interested in SEO. And if you’re interested in SEO, you should be at Brighton SEO.

See you at the next one – it’s on September 28th.


Brighton SEO

Last Friday, I was in Brighton for the Brighton SEO conference. It was quite a change for me. I’ve been going to technical conferences for about twenty years or so, but the ones I go to tend to be rather grass-roots affairs like YAPC or Opentech. Even big conferences like FOSDEM have a very grass-roots feel to them.

Brighton SEO is different. Brighton SEO is a huge conference and there is obviously a lot of money sloshing around in the SEO industry. I’ve been to big technical conferences like OSCON, but tickets for conferences like that are expensive. Brighton SEO is free for most attendees. They must have lots of very generous sponsors.

The conference took place at the Brighton Centre. The people I was staying with in Brighton asked how much of the centre the conference took up. Turns out the answer was “all of it”. Not bad for a conference that started out as a few friends meeting in a pub just a few years ago.

The conference day is broken up into four sessions. It was easy enough to choose sessions that sounded useful to me. I’ve only really been looking into SEO since the start of the year and I’m more interested in the technical side of SEO. I don’t have much time for things like content marketing and keyword tracking (although I’m sure they have their place).

So I started in a session about Javascript and Frameworks. This began with 

This was followed by Emily Grossman talking about Progressive Web Apps – which are basically web sites bundled up to look like smartphone apps. I plan to try this out with a couple of my sites soon.

The final talk in this session was David Lockie on Using Open Source Software to Speed Up Your Roadmap. I’ve used pretty much nothing but open source software for the last thirty years so I needed no convincing that he was advocating a good approach.

A quick coffee break and then the second session started. I chose a session on Onsite SEO. I was amused to see that even after only eight months of working on SEO, I could pick a session that was too basic for me.

The session started with Chloé Bodard on SEO quick wins from a technical check. This was interesting because it’s close to a service that I’m thinking of offering to clients. But I learned very little.

Chloé was followed by Sébastien Monnier with a talk entitled How Google Tag Manager Can Save Your SEO. Earlier this year I was involved in discussions where a client was talking about using Google Tag Manager. Another developer and I managed to persuade them that it was a bad idea as GTM inserts data into the page using Javascript and the right approach was to ensure that the correct data was inserted into the page as it was first built. It was gratifying to hear Sébastien (who is a former Google employee) say that (and I’m paraphrasing) “GTM is really a tool for SEOs to work around bad developers”.

The final talk in the session was Aysun Akarsu and On the Road to HTTPS Worldwide. This was a good talk, but it would have been far more useful to me before we moved ZPG’s three major web sites to https earlier this year.

It was then lunch and with some ZPG colleagues I wandered off to sample some of Brighton’s excellent food.

For the first session in the afternoon, I chose three talks on Technical SEO. We started with Peter Nikolow with Quick and Dirty Server-Side Hacks to Improve Your SEO. To be honest, I think Peter misjudged his audience. I was following the conference hashtag on Twitter and there were a lot of people saying that his talk was going over their head. It didn’t go over my head, but I thought that some of his server-side knowledge looked a little dated.

Then there was Dominic Woodman with a talk entitled Advanced Site Architecture – Testing architecture & keyword/page groupings. There was a lot of good stuff in this talk and I need to go back over the slides in a lot more detail.

The session ended with Dawn Anderson talking about Generational Cruft in SEO – There is Never a ‘New Site’ When There’s History. A lot of this talk rang very true for me. In fact just the week before, I had been configuring a web site to return 410 responses when Google and Bing came looking for XML sitemaps that had been switched off two years ago.

For the fourth and final session, I chose the talks on Crawl and Indexation. This session began with Chris Green giving a talk called Robots: X, Meta & TXT – The Snog, Marry & Avoid of the Web Crawling World. The title was slightly cringe-making, but there was some good content about using the right tools to ensure that pages you don’t want crawled don’t end up in Google’s index.

I think I wass getting tired by this point. I confess that I don’t remember much about François Goube’s How to Optimise Your Crawl Budget. I’m sure it was full of good stuff.

There was no chance of dozing off during Cindy Krum’s closing talk Understanding the Impact of Mobile-First Indexing (the link goes to the slides for a slightly older version of the talk). This was a real wake-up call about how Google’s indexing will change over the next few years.

I had a great time at my first Brighton SEO. I wonder how much of that is down to the fact that for probably the first time this millennium I was at a conference and not giving a talk. But I’m already thinking about a talk for the next Brighton SEO conference.

Many thanks to all of the organisers and speakers. I will be back.


Opentech Overview

[Update: Details of this year’s Opentech conference are at]

Yesterday was the annual Opentech conference. I’m going to have some more to say about it in some detail over the next few days, but those thoughts are still peculating so in the meantime here’s a list of the talks that I watched.

Community and Democracy in Hijacked Space

One of the Space Hijackers talked about some of their projects. If you haven’t heard of them, they are the people who drove a tank into the G20 protests. Their protests sound like a lot of fun.

Does FOI work? You bet! – Heather Brooke

Heather Brooke told the story of how she used the Freedom of Information Act to finally get details of MPs’ expenses out of the House of Commons. It was a long and complex story and Heather made it very interesting.

Digital Engagement – Richard Stirling (Cabinet Office)
Open Government Data – John Sheridan (OPSI)

Two civil servants talking about how the government is making more and more data available to the public. They were asking people to take the data and build interesting applications with it as the more applications built, the easier it is them to persuade people to release more data.

Opening Up Government Data: Give it to us Raw, Give it to us Now – Rufus Pollock (Open Knowledge Foundation)

Rufus Pollack of the Open Knowledge Foundation replied to the previous two talks explaining where he thought the government’s current efforts are falling short. They need to do more, sooner and they need to get the licensing right – the more open the license is, the better.

10 Cultures – Bill Thompson

Fifty years on from the original, Bill Thompson updated CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” talk for the twenty-first century and turned the title into a geek joke. Thompson’s main point was that the people making the big decisions in the UK all hold PPEs from Oxbridge and know next to nothing about the opportunities that digital technologies can bring us. We need more geekery in the halls of power.

Beyond Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s topic dovetailed nicely with Thompson’s. If people were better educated in science then there would be less excuse for the appalling science journalism that we currently suffer from. Goldacre went on to talk about the bloggers who are doing sterling work revealing the dangerous science stories that the mainstream media aren’t covering and suggested some tools we could build to help them to work together more efficiently.

The Guardian and the Ian Tomlinson story – Paul Roache

Paul Roache talked about how the Guardian dealt with the Ian Tomlinson video. Normally an exclusive like that would have been held back for the next edition of the paper. In this case they took the unusual step of putting on the web site first. This gamble seems to have paid off. Over the next day or so, the video was responsible for 20% of their web site traffic.

Opening up the Guardian – Simon Willison

Simon Willison talked about the Guardian’s Open API and Data Store. He also introduced the crowd-surfing application they wrote to process the MPs’ expenses details once they were published.

Spread The Web – Fran Sainsbury & William Perrin
Local web beyond the hype – William Perrin

Two linked talks about how the internet can help organisations and communities to communicate. The first talk was about the number of organisations who have paid stupid sums of money for a proprietary web site that they find too hard to update and how in many cases a simple WordPress site would be far better suited for their purpose. In the second talk William Perrin talked about using simple sites (again, WordPress or a similar technology) to bring communities together. This is an area I have a lot of interest in.

4iP – Public service tools for empowerment – Tom Loosemore

Tom talked about 4ip, a Channel Four initiative to support innovative digital projects. Tom listed half a dozen or so interesting projects that they have already supported.

Just before Tom’s speech there was a slight change of plan as Sir Bonar Neville Kingdom spoke to us. The text of his speech is now online. I highly recommend that you read it.

A fabulous conference as always. My thanks to all of the organisers. More thoughts on it over the next few days.


Darwin, Humanism and Science

Darwin Humanism Science
Darwin Humanism Science

Yesterday I was at the British Humanist Association’s one day conference, Darwin, Humanism and Science, at the Conway Hall. I confess that I was really going to see Richard Dawkins speak, but actually I got a whole day of fascinating speakers.

Following a brief introduction by Polly Toynbee, Dawkins was the first speaker. His talk was based around the final words from The Origin of Species.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Dawkins dissected these words and showed how they are a powerful and succinct summary of Darwin’s ideas. It was a very interesting talk and serves as a good precursor to Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which will be published later this year.

Following Dawkins, Professor Charles Susanne talked about how the teaching of evolution in schools is under attack in various parts of Europe. Many different religious groups (sometimes with the help and support of national governments) are suppressing the teaching of evolution in favour of myths of legends.

Next up was James Williams with a talk entitled “Insidious Creationism”. This was the highlight of the day for me. Williams talked about the amount of creationist literature which is aimed at young children. Many of the images he showed were very funny (the one of Jesus cuddling a baby dinosaur was a particular favourite) but there is, of course, a very serious side to this. He talked about creationist books that were found in school libraries having been donated by parents. He also mentioned Genesis Expo, a creationist museum in Portsmouth which sounds worth a visit – if only to point and laugh.

I think that it was during the Q&A following these talks that we had the only nutter question of the day. Well, it wasn’t really a question. Someone a few rows behind me stood up and tried to use evolution as evidence that homosexuality was wrong. There was stunned silence from the hall and the moderator moved swiftly on to the next question.

Following lunch, we had the most scientific lecture of the day. Johan De Smedt talked about we may well have evolved brains which find it counter-intuitive to accept evolution as a fact. Then Michael Schmidt-Salomon talked about fighting the idea that evolution leads to a lack of morals. He ended by showing us a rather bizarre video called “Children of Evolution” – Darwin reinvented as a rock star!

After a coffee break we had what was, to me at least, one of the most surprising talks. I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that Hindism was slightly more rational than other religions. Babu Gogineni soon put me straight. He told us about an Indian university that had started a department of astrology (and cut back the study of chemistry and physics to pay for it). His talk was full of interesting (but worrying) anecdotes of religious stupidity in India.

The final speaker of the day was AC Grayling. Whilst many of the day’s speakers had mentioned this year’s Darwinian anniversaries, Grayling took as his theme the 50th anniversary of CP Snow’s influential lecture The Two Cultures. Grayling suggested that the gap between the two cultures (art and science) is now wider that it was fifty years ago and that we need to do what we can to bring the two together.

It was a very interesting day. I’m grateful to the BHA and the South Place Ethical Society for organising it. I’ll certainly be looking out for similar events in the future.

All of the talks were filmed. I hope that means that they’ll appear on the BHA web site at some point in the future.

There were a few twitterers there. You might be interested to read what they said during the day. James O’Malley has also blogged the event.