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Will Critchlow – CEO of Distilled – Transcript
Will Critchlow is CEO of Distilled – a company he founded in 2005 with Duncan Morris. Distilled provides online marketing services from offices in London, New York and Seattle, hosts the SearchLove conference series in the US and UK, produces the popular online training platform DistilledU, and runs the SEO split-testing platform DistilledODN.
The AMA with Will was held on April 4th, 2018. This transcript has been edited for punctuation, grammar, etc.
Hi everyone! Happy to give any kind of question a shot, but I’ll probably be most useful on:
– search / SEO / digital marketing
– SEO split testing specifically (https://odn.distilled.net)
– marketing conferences (https://www.distilled.net/events/
– Boston coming up in June: https://www.distilled.net/events/searchlove-boston)
– running agencies / running companies generally / managing teams (ours is ~50 people across 3 offices and 8 timezones!) (edited)
Less work-related: basketball, whisky, cooking….
Hi Will, how important is process and documentation to your agency? Do you rely on time tracking/project management systems heavily? What’s enabled you to scale over the past 13 years?
I think that Distilled probably follows my own personal habits a little here. Process is actually *not* an area we are super strong. This has its pros and cons. We do tend to reinvent the wheel a little too often, and occasionally deliver things differently from different offices, etc. But the benefit is that we stay curious and look to figure out the best ways to attack new problems.
I have used an approach I call “checklists and cheatsheets” for processes. Rather than heavyweight processes, use simple checklists to make sure you don’t forget stuff (I love _checklist manifesto_) and cheatsheets which are quick guides to where other things are.
We built DistilledU in large part because we wanted to improve our own training processes. More on that here:
We use a home-grown time tracking tool that is also our resource planning setup.
I’ll try to come back to more general scaling questions – need to keep rolling with others!
We have some cool things going on in New York – but we are struggling with PR. Would you recommend a local agency there?
I’m not super-connected to the traditional PR industry there. If you want content-driven digital campaigns, we’d love to chat to you! But if you want more trad coverage / events / etc., then you should reach out to my bro @tomcritchlow on Twitter who’ll probably have recommendations and Distilled alum @leximills.
Is Distilled the company that Rand Fishkin is coming in on?
No. Rand founded moz (SEOmoz as it was back then), and we partnered closely with them (they’re the reason we opened up a Seattle office back in 2010). He recently moved on to found his own new thing –
What would be your advice to someone just getting their team built, crossing the gap from consultant to first employees?
This’ll depend a bit on what your specific experience / experience gaps look like, but looking back at my own experience:
Get better at management and set that up well from the beginning. My absolute favourite book that I wish I’d read so much earlier in my career is Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni – it’s only a short read but it’ll change how you work with others.
Be open and honest and explicit about the pros and cons of working with / for you – the freedom / opportunity to grow traded against lack of established processes, budgets etc. Do this openly upfront and you can refer back to it over and over again later.
I’m sure I’ll have more that come to me later. Gotta keep typing……
What has been your secret to scaling Distilled from just you and Duncan to now a large and growing agency?
Many of the most secret-feeling things have felt like luck at the time (e.g. the way that our online friendship with Rand at Moz grew from commenting on their blog to meeting in person to partnering, to eventually taking over their consulting business). I guess then, that the “secret” is what I’ve heard of as increasing your “luck surface area”:
I’ve also heard it referred to as “planting seeds.” I do a lot of little things that can’t possibly pay off for ages (and many that likely never will). Answering questions when people email me. Chipping into help out on social, etc. I took a *lot* of coffee meetings in the early days (too many, perhaps?).
I wrote a bit more about that here:
— including getting past cold calls as fast as we could (more here:
Are there any tests you’ve run that you were pretty damn sure would be great…that absolutely tanked?
Haha. *Oh* yes.
My favourite is the “how hard can it possibly be to write some better title tags” series of tests – just digging out a link for you now.
Beginning of this deck:
Managing teams in so many offices and timezones, what are your most useful tools for managing tasks and teams?
I wrote a little bit about one aspect of that here:
– You have to do the 1:1s and weekly video calls. It’s *so* easy to skip them because you don’t have much to discuss – but then realize you haven’t spoken for weeks (this is A BAD THING).
– We use slack (no surprise).
– We used to have global functional teams, but found it way easier to manage with geographic business units managing their own P&Ls – i.e. a trusted senior manager in each location with essentially responsibility for everything in that location.
I also recently listened to this podcast episode which I found *excellent* on the subject and is the cross-office management I aspire to:
Do you have a road map for SEO that you’ve found works most of the time? I’ve wanted to venture on SEO and find it quite difficult to find a structure that says, “This can be a proven method for starting SEO.”
There is no proven / perfect method (but that’s most of the fun!). I have talked in the past about our “balanced digital scorecard” approach:
Essentially, the hypothesis is that you need to get everything “good enough” (e.g. if you block crawlers, you’re screwed, but if you can be crawled and indexed then that’s enough for a small site on day 1 for technical stuff). Get everything good enough – and then work to build out spikes (normally in content or audience development) that can sustain you against your competition.
I realize that’s a high-level answer, but part of the fun is there is literally no one-size-fits-all solution.
What part of running an agency has kept/does keep you up at night?
People. Almost exclusively people. Sometimes money. But mainly people. Sometimes people and money.
I’ve had hard days from upset clients or bad meetings or whatever, but the stuff that has literally kept me up is to do with the team (normally in my case, it’s that I wake up in the early hours and can’t get back to sleep – I’m pretty good at the *going* to sleep part in the first place).
All the really gnarly problems have involved some combination of:
– worrying about how to keep / reward top performers (often as a collective problem: how to use a limited budget to reward a whole group of top performers)
– firing / layoffs (obviously, thankfully relatively rare)
– alignment issues – just not quite seeing eye-to-eye on the goals – sometimes in ways that ultimately lead to parting ways one way or another, but just as often as difficult issues that need working through.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a natural manager, so this stuff also comes hard to me and I have to work at it.
Do you still onboard the long-tail content and keyword train, or are you pivoting to the “topic cluster” strategy?
I am a firm believer in the long-tail theory as it applies to search *generally* (i.e. that the aggregate search demand across the infrequent queries adds up to far more than the demand in the highly-searched queries).
Having said that, I very much dislike anything that looks like long-tail keyword disaggregation (e.g. having different pages for [houses to buy in Brixton] and [buy house Brixton] or whatever). I don’t know if that’s exactly what you mean by “topic cluster” — I think that could mean a few things to different people — but I like to see content ranking for a broad range of closely-related terms.
When you started your business, was it just you? What helped you in decision making of hiring your first employees to make sure you don’t just pay them to sit in the office, but they are actually busy?
It was myself and my co-founder Duncan Morris – we had known each other for well over a decade when we got started, having gone to high school together.
I recall that when we hired our first team member, we were busting at the seams, so if anything, we probably left it too long. We also hired relatively junior / cheap and trained up so we weren’t taking such a huge financial risk — but I do remember us both getting an overwhelming urge to call our parents and get “permission” to hire someone. It felt like *such* a responsibility and we felt like as two 25 year-olds who’d never managed anyone, we shouldn’t be allowed to just ask someone to work for us, but we could, and we did, and it kinda worked out!
How do you make sure strategies for your clients are right for them – do you review channels per client and how do you choose which ones to use? How do you ensure they work together to get the best results for your clients?
This is some of the hard yards of consulting. Yes – this is absolutely what we try to do – but it is *hard*. It’s hard both theoretically (how do you predict results / returns, etc.?) and also practically (does our point of contact have the influence or authority to affect other channels?).
I wrote a bit about modelling for marketers here:
and I believe that lightweight modelling is often part of the answer.
Another thing is internal expectations on our end – we settled on “consultant” job titles for our team after considering all kinds of variations more and less specific — to emphasize that we wanted a partnership and to think about the whole problem.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on voice technology and have been trying to track more long tail to build some of our content around searcher intent using voice. I’m finding out that some are reluctant to think in that direction and stay with traditional keyword strategies.
Tracking—anything–to do with voice search is practically impossible right now.
My *personal* view is that dedicated voice devices (google home, echo, etc.) are a bit of a red herring marketing-wise. I have a google home, and I like it, but I don’t do a lot of interesting searches on it. I do a lot of control / request stuff and some simple queries that I imagine it’ll be able to answer. Even as that tech improves, voice without a screen is IMO not super interesting as a marketer.
Voice generally is a little more interesting. But I’m actually more interested in query interpretation – whether typed or spoken – and the incremental search queries it could unlock. I wrote about that here:
If you were start a new SEO agency, what niche would you specialize in?
Hmmmm. If it were literally me, probably SEO split testing! (I mean, we kind of have, our ODN division is like a little startup within Distilled).
In your opinion, what is the most underrated SEO tactic, that most people miss? (Linkbuilding, PR, Ads…)
It might not be exactly what you’re looking for, but I think that we spend far too much time as an industry looking for the tip or new thing that’ll change the world and too little time focused on execution (getting the thing *done*).
Create the content.
Get the change made.
Measure the effects (ideally).
One of our core principles at Distilled is “we believe it’s not our job to deliver reports, it’s our job to effect change”
— nothing matters till it hits the web.
I wrote a bit more about that here:
I would love to learn more about your SEO split testing. Any particular project that you wanted to share? This is something that I’d love to start doing within my company. Do you have any tips on how to get started?
You’re in luck – we’ve written a bunch about that:
How did you get so good at everything? Where did you start, how did you progress? I mean from just basic SEO skills to more advanced analysis and then developing entirely new techniques/methods of doing things.
“so good at everything” <– I know a few people who’d dispute that, but thank you.
I wrote a few bits and pieces about that in a presentation I gave to my high school years ago:
— about staying curious and just being independent and diving into things.
I think this is relevant on a similar (technical) topic:
This presentation from 2011 has some useful bits and pieces in it I think, as well:
Underpinning it all, I’m very glad I put so much energy into STEM (mathematics, especially) and did a really hard degree in the area. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I feel like the power of first-principles-thinking is pretty damn incredible in so many areas.
That concludes our AMA with Will Critchlow–thanks for being here!
I’ll try to get to answer some of the questions that were asked during the hour that I didn’t manage to type quickly enough to get to – but thanks for having me. Hit me up on dm or on twitter (@willcritchlow there too) if you need me. It’s been a blast.
(next day) Going to try to get through a handful of the questions I didn’t get to yesterday…
Are you working on any side projects?
No. Not right now. I’ve been doing better recently at managing to exercise – playing more basketball than I was a couple of years ago, etc. And then I’m pouring all my “work” effort into Distilled.
I’ve ebbed and flowed on this a little over the years – but taken the decision always to build things back into Distilled or stop working on them after learning what I wanted to learn.
DistilledU / our online video store started as essentially a “side project” when I wanted to learn some python and django and started coding on my commute.
12-18 months ago, I spent some time teaching myself basic ML using tensorflow and built a prototype we called deeprank that attempted to understand google rankings.
My “side projects” have all ended up being in the space I understand most deeply!
How have you seen marketing and PR work together, and do you feel that there is growth in the way that PR attributes to the way a brand markets itself?
I can’t remember if I’ve ever written it up anywhere, but I remain somewhat surprised that SEO didn’t end up being a sub-function of PR. It seems to me to encompass elements of modern PR, and the content / outreach activities are so similar to traditional PR. But I guess it’s good for us specialists that the technical hurdles were too great for many of the traditional big PR groups.
There is a lot more to say here, but I guess the short answers to your questions are:
I’ve seen it work well and badly – at worst, I’ve seen territorial behaviour that prevented either side doing their jobs well, but at best, I’ve seen PR teams *love* the earned visibility that came from searchers finding their best work and vice versa (getting to promote work that came originally out of marketing).
I wanted to ask your advice for scoring high quality editorial backlinks, publications, or just high authority links in general.
I’m just hammering through the questions I didn’t get to during the hour yesterday, but I’m just going to share one link which is still my favourite resource on this, even though it’s 4 years old at this point. It’s from Distilled alum Mark Johnstone, who created and built our creative team, and it has almost 3.5 *million* views on slideshare:
What have been some of your biggest tested wins for travel companies?
I need to go and mine our library a little bit, but off the top of my head, the biggest wins I remember have been in structured data – adding to pages that don’t have it, enhancing / building it out to more detail / fixing anything broken.
What tools / software do you use internally?
I’m sure this won’t be comprehensive, but off the top of my head:
*General / business / comms*
– G suite
– 15five (line management)
– Lever (recruiting / applicant tracking)
– Bamboo (HR)
– Quickbooks (accounting)
– Hubspot (CRM / email marketing / analytics)
– Google analytics (obvs)
– Trello (relatively unstructured)
*SEO / creative / client work*
– Stat (
– Moz, ahrefs, majestic
– Deepcrawl, screaming frog
(sharing design work / feedback)
(and individuals use others in probably all of these categories!)
*In-house / dev tools*
– “hub” – resource planning / billing schedule management / basic project management
– “ops” – SEO monitoring and alerting
– various integrations between e.g. search console and bigquery / datastudio
– some bespoke tools for link analysis, diagnosis of e.g. hreflang issues etc.
(random tech stack stuff: python / django / mezzanine / wagtail / github)
What % of your toolset internally is bespoke / hacked for your needs?
Aside from the ODN project (
), the vast majority of the “hard” toolset is bought in – we prefer to partner with the best-in-breed for things like rank tracking (stat!) etc. Our other internal tools tend to be quick hacks, API connectors, or integrations between tools or data sources.
You have some large clients – what drew them to you? Or was it inbound? I presume your conferences have played a big part in raising your profile to such clients?
Yeah – they all came to us in one form or another – either having seen us speak / write, as a referral from another client, or from our network. We are trying to be better at letting our audience know the services we offer to give us a bit more control over dealflow, as the downside of this approach is it can be somewhat spiky!
ODN is a wicked project–at what traffic level is it an appropriate tool to consider? And do you resell through agencies (transparently/white label/otherwise)?
It can work for any size site as a meta-CMS (i.e. helping ship changes that can’t be done any other way), but for the SEO split testing, our rule of thumb is that you need a site section (i.e. group of pages with similar templates) that gets at least 1,000 organic search visits / day.
Yes – we are happy to partner with other agencies, but can’t whitelabel because of the deep tech integration of the product–the end client needs to have a direct relationship with us for liability / emergency reasons.
How do you describe Digital PR and the differences between it and trad. PR, in the changing PR landscape we’re seeing online at the moment?
Traditional PR encompasses so much more than “getting in the papers” — and is the discipline of changing how the public views your organization. As I said in an answer above, I look back and remain surprised that PR didn’t encompass SEO entirely, but it didn’t!
When it comes to the classic “get coverage” side of PR, I think that digital PR is really just the evolution of modern PR in that area. It’s not that functionally different in my view.
I was tasked by the CEO to move over our website to http/2, and I said that it can be done through CloudFare, but he said that I need to change the DNS servers. Is that true?
Yes – if you aren’t already using CloudFare, then deploying CloudFare will require a change of DNS. Feel free to drop us a line if you need more info – you can reach me or Tom on twitter (willcritchlow / tomanthonyseo respectively).
Is link building/promotional strategy still a big focus for Distilled now? And do you see it changing?
We still build a ton of content – some of which is explicitly designed for links, some more for branding / traffic / directly ranking.
It definitely has changed and is changing – probably our best summary of current thinking is this presentation from my colleague Tom Capper:
To what extent do you “amplify” organic content pieces (“10x” content, etc.) to speed up traction?
You definitely can’t just publish and hope! We do a load of outreach and often put social advertising budget into them as well. Sometimes ad budget is just for traffic / visits, and sometimes it’s more targeted at influencers, etc. Probably needs to be the subject of a bigger post…
With the mention of reporting, I’d love insight into what you guys use for your reporting on the SEO side, and the frequency you do reports at for clients.
We don’t have a standardized platform – we tend to pull data together from a variety of sources depending on the needs and preferences of the client. Sometimes we’ll do something like a dashboard (like the process my colleague Dom wrote about that @jacksonpowell1 wrote about in the thread:
Sometimes it’s very much more focused on the narrative and the progress (more structured around an executive summary, etc.). In which case this post I wrote is possibly more useful:
In general, we report monthly, but some have a more frequent formal reporting structure, some are more about status calls, etc. It’s not hard-and-fast.
OK everyone. I’m done. Thank you for stopping by, and for the excellent questions. It was a ton of fun answering. You can always reach me on twitter:
if you have other questions outside this forum. Otherwise I’ll see you around.
– If you are interested in SEO A/B testing, get a demo of our tool here:
— it really is magical.
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