Expert Interview: Lee Wilson on the power of automation in SEO

Marketing automation is getting a lot of attention these days. Not because it’s the latest trend that’ll be forgotten by the end of the year; because brands can’t do without it as the marketing workload increases and data drives everything.

Make no mistake, automation is probably the most important technology in marketing right now and – to help explain why – we asked our Head of SEO, Lee Wilson, for a better idea of what it can do for search marketing.

Q: What are the benefits of automation and machine learning for SEO?

Lee Wilson, Head of SEO at Vertical Leap
Lee Wilson, Head of SEO at Vertical Leap

“Automation means that we can become vastly more thorough, efficient and effective at what we do. By automating the tasks that machines should be doing (monotonous, repeated tasks, and really anything that has a clear decision tree, or logical approach applied to it), experts are able to spend more time on the actions that require human attention, and less on those that don’t.

“These expert actions are often the more creative, strategic, and tactical aspects of SEO which match service delivery to the bespoke customer needs and objectives.

“When you introduce machine learning into the equation, you create an integrated way of working (between expert and machine) whereby every new data point can become a new opportunity to maximise, or a newly discovered threat to be made aware of. The sheer volumes of data that machine learning can process means that typical marketing, and digital marketing experts can spend more time doing, and less time getting the data to a point where it becomes useful, or ready to derive insights from.”

Q: How does Vertical Leap use automation for SEO?

“In every useful way possible, and this is evolving all the time.

“As a practical example, every SEO expert understands the importance of website health and technical performance of a website for search engine success and user satisfaction. This covers everything from broken links and site speed, through to missing meta data and unwanted characters in page URLs.

“In fact, a typical technical checklist would span hundreds of items, likely matched with hundreds of hours required to manually review and implement checklists. This means that technical SEO actions are often under-prioritised based on time restrictions, or overlooked completely because there are so many items to review.

“At Vertical Leap Apollo audits hundreds of technical items every few days. It completes a more comprehensive and frequent website technical audit than any human could ever complete, or justify.

Apollo SEO audits across desktop, smartphone and tablet
Apollo Insights

“From Apollo Auditor we derive the most detailed and complete technical information about our customers’ websites. We are advised about the technical priorities and changes that have occurred and set technical benchmarks that enable our experts to showcase progress made to our customers, related to website health and technical performance.

Extract from Apollo SEO audit report
Extract from Apollo audit report

“To sum it up; when something changes technically that matters, we know it’s been checked recently, and are advised about priorities requiring expert focus, rather than spending (in fact wasting) client hours looking for things that may or may not require attention.”

Q: Where does machine learning come into things?

“Here’s one client example that springs to mind, plus a little context.

“Apollo Advisor is an intelligent algorithm that looks at clean data, plus all new data changes, then advises on items for experts to look at.

“We work with some substantial websites and one customer in particular had hundreds of thousands of pages being discovered including many broken content pages that accumulate over the years – something very common with large online entities.

This threat to the business would not have been discovered anywhere near as quickly (if at all) without intelligent algorithms and machine learning.

“Apollo could tell one of our experts that within this digital haystack there were a couple of hidden needles that we needed to prioritise. In this case, there were several broken pages that used to drive volumes of impressions, traffic, and most importantly business revenue, which had recently broken, but needed to be reconsidered for introduction back into the website.

“Within minutes the pages were fixed and very quickly started driving revenue back into the business. This threat to the business would not have been discovered anywhere near as quickly (if at all) without intelligent algorithms and machine learning, combined with expertise to solve the problem.

Q: What kind of SEO tasks does Vertical Leap already automate?

“There are too many to list, but some of the larger automated areas include:

  • Gathering data from many different sources, combining it, refining the data, and providing a clean, reliable, and usable database,
  • Prescribing next actions based on an ever-changing data set – some examples of this include:
    • Flagging top priority issues for attention,
    • Identifying and communicating pages that have lower click through rates (CTR) and have an opportunity to deliver more traffic,
    • Providing insights on pages that do not contain business critical terms but should,
    • Sharing new potentially dangerous backlinks that are triggered based on site quality and relevancy metrics, and
    • Communicating high value and low performance pages (performance may be tied to technical or other metric areas).”

Q: Automation technology will continue to progress; what do you expect to automate in the future?

“Lots. Anything that has a clearly defined decision tree, or logical process that can be followed, could, and in most cases probably should be automated either partially or completely.

“Ignoring automation is equal to taking your tax returns to an accountant and them manually adding everything up rather than using a calculator, Excel templates and other supporting applications that automate repeated aspects of their delivery.

“SEO is no different, regarding lots of actions that need to be automated and made more efficient.”

Q: Why should Vertical Leap’s clients care about SEO automation?

“Firstly, because it means that they are getting vastly more value from their investment in digital marketing. By using automation and machine learning, we can offer our customers much more bang for their buck!

“Rather than delivery teams spending most of their time gathering data, re-combining it, and spending hours making it useful, experts are provided with ready-to-use, clean data, as well as ongoing prescriptive insight that can be acted on immediately.

“This freeing up of manual labour empowers our people to focus on the areas of SEO delivery which require real expertise, and leaves the tasks that should be automated to the machines.

“The collaborative aspect of human/machine working leads to increased proactivity, added insight, and almost always competitive advantages that can drive success in a hugely challenging industry.”

Q: Machine learning is obviously central to Google’s evolution now. What do marketers need to know about this?

“Google is the leading example of machine learning and automation. At the route of maximising machine learning when it comes to search marketing is discovery and understanding. For me this is at the heart of what people need to focus on from an SEO point of view (at least initially).

Discovery and understanding covers a myriad areas including:

  • Universal access to information
  • Mobile-first search engines
  • Voice search
  • Improved user experiences (including chatbots)
  • Hyperlocal results (including ‘near me’ query sets)
  • Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
  • Google RankBrain
  • Latent Symantec Indexing / context.”

Q: We’ve already discussed what automation and machine learning can do, but what can’t be done without them?

“The needle in a haystack situation discussed earlier is a great example of this. For me it’s not that automation does things that cannot be achieved by an SEO expert, but that it speeds the whole process up, and is much more comprehensive and thorough.

“On top of this, automation supports a collaborative working environment where you can achieve results much quicker, identify threats and opportunities automatically, and rely on outputs like clean data to make key decisions. Automation supports a collaborative working environment where you can achieve results much quicker.

“The time-saving aspect of automation empowers experts to become more creative and expansive in the service they provide. Delivery teams can plan more effectively, get to work with, and understand changing customer needs to a greater degree, and ensure we are focusing on what matters most at any given time to achieve search engine optimisation results.”

As you can see, automation is already a fundamental part of what we do here at Vertical Leap – and it’s only going to play a larger role over time. Marketers can’t afford to waste time and resources on tasks that could otherwise be automated. Aside from freeing up time to concentrate on tasks that need creative attention, automation simply handles tasks at a scale and accuracy that humans can’t keep up with – e.g. rooting out broken links.

In terms of managing effective marketing campaigns at scale, automation is the most important development in the industry for years.

Got a question of your own for Lee?

Just drop us an email to [email protected] and he’ll be more than happy to help. Or you can tweet him at @LWilson1980.


Michelle Hill profile picture
Michelle Hill

Michelle joined Vertical Leap in 2011 as Marketing Manager, having spent the previous 15 years of her marketing career in the recruitment, leisure and printing industries. Her passions include dogs, yoga, walking, cycling, the beach, mountains and tapas.

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