I'm excited to be back with an interview featuring another very smart member of the NotAnotherSlack community - Dean Cruddace, the founder of technical SEO and link building agency Cultured Digital.
Dean was one of the early faces to join the Slack group and has been a very helpful resource - clearly having plenty of experience that covers a wide range of areas within SEO, not just falling within the tech SEO and links categories.
At Cultured Digital Dean works with clients to fix technical issues which may hold back their indexing/ranking capabilities, but also can help to build links too - arguably two of the most important parts of SEO (with content being that additional piece of the puzzle).
Today I wanted to chat with Dean about the interesting blend he offers his clients (not often you see an agency that does links AND tech SEO!) as well as speak with him about his very interesting side projects which involve programmatic SEO (bit of a buzzword these days!) and all sorts of other tech wizardry.
Thanks for reading - and cheers Dean for finding the time to answer these questions! 💪
Hey Dean! Thanks for taking part here today.
First question - you’ve been specialising in technical SEO and link building for a while with Cultured Digital Limited.
It’s not your typical offering for an SEO (often it’s and/or, not both, from what I can tell!) - do you think it gives you a nice competitive advantage over the many different SEO providers out there?
Never really thought about it that way, it is just how I have evolved over the years.
Coming from a coding beginning I always had a passion for the puzzle solving aspect that coding brings and the evolution into Technical SEO was an easy transition.
It is much easier to understand potential technical SEO issues if you have your head buried in code, whether that’s your own or an unfamiliar CMS or bespoke build in whatever language is used.
On the link building side it is more a translation of how relevance plays a huge part in how much you can shift the needle(s) towards yours or your clients goals, I'd always found that part fascinating and I still learn new ways every other week.
Is it a competitive advantage? I wouldn’t think so, I have seen the rise of some true talent over the past few decades that have embraced both.
Sticking to the theme - do you have a preference between technical SEO and link building? (I personally love them both so would absolutely hate being asked this question)😬😬😬
There are pros and cons to both disciplines, where I have spent the vast majority of my career concentrating on Technical SEO, I'd always been aware of but never really pursued link building until the past 10 years or so.
Learning in the earlier days from the OGs like Eric Ward (RIP), through to the emerging talent of the time and other true link builders in the sense of the word like Debra Mastaler, Julie Joyce and others.
And even in recent years some really talented link building specialists like Taylor Tomita & Tony Randall.
Technical SEO on the other hand is where I love to be, I don’t get the same buzz out of landing DR90 links as I do in figuring out a technical puzzle that releases a site from its shackles so it flies.
So as much as I do love link building I am going to say Technical SEO just pips it for me.
Another question you probably hate being asked, for it’s sheer inane nature - what’s more important, links or having a technically sound website?
A technically sound (as much as feasibly possible) website every time, otherwise link building would be fruitless if the site on the other side of the link is full of issues that the potential client/customer just leaves in frustration from anyway.
Search Engine Marketing, Link Building, Off-site SEO, whatever you want to call it may still provide some benefit but nowhere near enough.
Is it typical that clients you work with will want links to be built, or technical issues resolved, and not both?
Or do they tend to go hand in hand?
Completely down to the level of knowledge of the client, Marketing Manager or whoever has been tasked with the absolute joy of initially talking to me.
There is a discovery process, a Technical SEO audit and an understanding of the business and where they want it to be, but as with all new adventures we go nowhere near link building unless they have something to work with.
I’ve also had clients with millions of links in their profiles who still wanted links built and on the flipside some of those sites that are so technically bad the best advice is to not even consider links until they rebuild from scratch.
Moving on to side projects - how many do you have, and are you able to share any details on any of your biggest ones?
The amount of domains I own kind of dictates this part, I’ve slimmed right down on the amount of domains I own and as of today I have around 140 domains, yes a few were drunk buys, we all do it, don’t even judge me here.
Of those 140 a few are reserved for inane tests, usually using crawling and indexing tests and not the “does the title tag that includes X get influenced by Y” type of tests, I prefer reading from those that dedicate time and effort like Will Critchlow and his team at Search Pilot. Those guys will get you thinking.
Biggest one? For the past 18 months I have been obsessed with building sites at scale without a database, not even SQLite, just a CSV file and a few lines of PHP to build something big enough where I can test crawling and indexing, I have a few sites of varying sizes from a few thousand URLs through to one around 750k URLs.
Yes some are setup as affiliate sites (I would be mad not to wouldn’t I?).
I also have a few smaller sites in the travel niche where they are only a few hundred pages.
Programmatic SEO seems to be a phrase doing the rounds recently, at least popping up on my twitter feed now and then.
You’ve mentioned you make use of it with your side projects.
What actually is it - what does it involve?
Programmatic SEO is essentially building at scale very quickly, I touched upon it earlier and it has been my obsession for a while and that all started with a stupid thought, more than likely a drunken one at the time.
It went along the lines of “I want to build a page with a million words on it” which evolved into “I want to build a million page website”.
The next few weeks and months after hassling people like Rob Watts (PHP genius BTW) and Augustin Boteanu (another genius) I managed to cobble together some PHP that would do what I wanted without a database.
I could simply fill a CSV with all the data I wanted and use it to spit out all the landing pages I had rows for.
Both of those guys told me I was mental for doing it that way, which I completely ignored (but appreciated) and continued down that route anyway.
So now if I want to build a site and I have the data I can build a 500k page site in about 30 seconds.
Alcohol isn’t the answer by the way.
(In this part I've asked members of the NotAnotherSlack group to put any of their own questions to Dean through this interview)
Thijs van Hal asked:
What are some ‘basic’ link building techniques that are not worth the time anymore? Better question is: In 2022, what techniques should we focus on with link building?
Link building the hard way has always been about relationship building, whatever niche you're in.
This can apply to PR too.
If you're known for continually producing great content you're more than likely to naturally attract editorially given links (that's for John Mueller in case he is reading this).
Otherwise there is a literal goldmine of information around growth through acquisition, i.e Expired Domains and making the best use of them to not only help your side project efforts but also your clients ranking efforts.
Do you think Loveholidays magical referring domain growth was down to people loving their brand alone?
They do have a great brand to be fair but I see things in link profiles everyday and just nod.
There is also Programmatic SEO done the right way with varied internal linking to strengthen the content that does inevitably point to your target sites in a natural way that will help a visitor achieve their goals, whether that's for informational or transactional queries.
But ultimately the web has always been about trying to provide the best content and building relationships with related sites and the men and women behind them.
SEO Jo Blogs asked:
What are the top 5 tech seo errors you should fix on your site?
A great question and without trying to sound too general there's probaly 2 ways to look at Technical SEO issues, those that are going to move the needle and those that are going to improve the user experience within the site, the top 5 list for each may well be different.
But commonly for those that are going to move the needle it's always the easiest stuff that can be fixed:
For the user experience side of technical issues, quite commonly it will be:
We all come across common issues whichever site we may be auditing so a top 5 is hard to nail down as not all will have all of the above, prioritising the ones that will have the most impact across more URLs will always be the 1st to address is the way to go.
What’s the hardest thing about building or growing your side project.
Lots of others I’ve spoken to have said content, or links.
With your experience I’m doubting you struggle getting the links you need?
Links are not the issue, my biggest weakness is content, I joke with clients that I can hardly string 2 sentences of content together, and it’s true, that really isn’t my forte.
But aye, it has to be content, real quality well researched content that is better than what is already out there, and let's face it new content is rare, well written, well researched content is hard.
I know copywriters brains are just wired differently to mine, they love the flow, the storytelling and capturing your attention. I like links and code.
Do you have any advice for fellow side project owners when it comes to link building?
So (for argument's sake), perhaps someone with a simple blog/informational site that is monetised with ads and/or affiliate links?
For content? Data.
Data is a huge linkable asset, whether that’s a site for engineering parts, a footy fan blog or a Christmas Tree website (hi Mark!), there’s data in every niche and it’s extremely linkable.
When it comes to link building techniques, dig into your competitors with AHREFS using the best by links report.
What is your competitors' best performing content that is attracting links?
There’s huge clues in there, repeat that for 4 or 5 competitors, formulate a strategy to improve on what exists.
If outreach is your thing go that route.
If your network of those in the same niche is your thing? Go that direction.
There is no single blueprint to a link building strategy but there is enough data in AHREFS to provide enough information as to what works.
How do you tend to monetise your own side projects - do you have any preferred ad networks or affiliate networks?
I do not have a single preferred network as each site could be completely different in its offering, for a travel site you could use Travel Payouts alone or you could use AWIN where you could find complementary services with travel.
There really are hundreds of potential affiliate networks you could use, I've got a list of around 50 affiliate marketing tools.
There are also some vendors that do not even use a network at all and offer their own affiliate schemes.
A few search operators within your target niche + “affiliate scheme” or similar will unearth them.
Ultimately it is what is the best fit for the site you’re building.
I tend not to build the “Built for AdSense” sites much anymore or use Amazon where I can as those commissions are likely not close to what you may get either directly or via somewhere like AWIN etc.
There are lots of people working in SEO but it seems not so many people with their own side project sites.
Do you think this is down to a lack of time, interest, or something else?
That’s a hard ones to answer but in my opinion not all SEOs are completely absorbed in SEO, they may well enjoy their 9-5 but could well have commitments of family or something else outside of the office.
I know SEOs that are amazing at their role within their respective agencies but you won’t find them on social media or even professional networks.
They do their thing really well and go home.
Another big interest during the past few months seems to be based around AI generated content.
Have you dabbled with this, and if so what are your thoughts.
Are they outputting content that’s good enough to rank in Google consistently?
I remember about 5 or 6 years ago an SEO for Trinity Mirror(?) I want to say Trinity Mirror, I could well be wrong, but Malcolm Coles (I have no idea where he is now, he was a twitter blue tick that just disappeared) used GPT, or a developer at the same place did to produce a football match report, that was my first encounter.
A few years later it seemed that there were GPT-2 tools starting to spring up all over the place, I didn’t really play much then as when I did the output wasn’t great.
I have dabbled in quite a few tools with varying degrees of success since then and I did get in early on the beta for OpenAI and was blown away by the output, it is still evolving and will become something very powerful over the coming years, will it put copywriters out of a job? No, but it will be an aide to content generation if the briefs are primed enough.
It essentially dives into Github to find the working code for all of the elements you want to stitch together, I recorded something basic using that playground and used @syndk8 as my test subject, I think that side really is going to make no code builders so much more powerful.
Is it good enough to rank? Yes, to a degree but will still need a good editor's eye to go over the copy, it is by no means a substitute for a good copywriter though, I recently used it to create around 450k words for 1 of my travel sites and yes it does rank, but no it isn’t of the quality I would like and I have a job ahead of me going through all that copy but at the time I just wanted to whack it up to see what happens.
Others in the NotAnotherSlack group have mentioned their own struggle with getting motivated, or finding the time to dedicate to their side project.
Any hints or tips for anyone else that finds it hard to get going with their side projects?
Patience and time and a real interest in what you want to build.
We’re all motivated by different things, as you may have gathered I like to build quickly, but that doesn’t mean to say it ends there, far from it, I only have the starting point.
Client work allowing, I will spend time on “how can i make this better?” which can lead me off into all kinds of rabbit holes from finding new APIs to integrate or simply tweaking the small things here and there and revisiting it another day.
It’s an as and when time allows for me.
For others they may be right at the beginning of the project, whether that’s keyword research through to finding data or even formulating copy briefs, you need a process to get you to a stage where you can just launch it, forget perfect, whack it up, see where it lands and iterate, improve … make it better.
Do you have any grand plans with your side projects?
Would you like to pull back on the SEO work for other clients and put more time into side projects - or anything else?
Grand plans? Ultimately I want to build, monetise and flip some or just let them mature and pay the electric bill.
No real grand plans as such but everything is for sale from domain names through to money makers.
I still love client work though, I do get a buzz out of growing other peoples’ businesses and getting to know their niches and helping them dominate or at the very least be competitive.
This also provides me with the variety my brain keeps ticking over on.
One week I am deep in understanding and helping psychotherapists rank their thing, the next I am building links for sunglasses brands.
SEO is so varied and rewarding.
I think we’ve all heard that good solid foundations, content, and links are needed for a site to rank well.
What are those other unknowns - things you think a site needs to rank, which don’t get much credit?
Generalised yes, but Technical SEO, Content and Links are the foundations alongside a good commercial understanding of the business you are working with, and by that I mean knowing that the decisions you make are going to have a financial impact.
Whether you’re working closely with the Marketing Manager, developers or other decision makers, your recommendations are going to have an impact.
Having a timeline, a strategy and aligning yourself with the business shows invested interest in how your recommendations are going to improve from where they are right now.
Making use of Expired Domains is another way some people like to grow their side project - either by adding content to them and pointing links to their side project site, or through simple 301 redirects.
One site that seems to be quite powerful, and free to use for the most part, is ExpiredDomains.net.
Would you mind sharing an example of how someone might make use of that site, if they were looking for valuable links? Let's imagine they are working on a side project relating to dogs.
Sure - so in this case, these are the steps I'd be looking to take.
Step 1 - take your topic (in this case dogs) and what we'll want to do is create a list of search terms related to this topic.
You can use Ahrefs keyword explorer or some other keyword research tool.
We just want a list of relative terms right now, which we can export and then remove everything except the term, volume, CPC and traffic potential.
Step 2 - I would then write a few formulas to remove the spaces in the term =substitute(a2," ","")
Then a concatenation of the term + a tld i want to target. either .com .uk or .co.uk or whatever =concatenate(a2,".com").
Step 3 - Take that list to the bulk search tool feature within the expireddomains.net site (accessible for members, logged in at https://member.expireddomains.net/tools/bulk-domain-search/)
You can of course do a bulk search without a targeted TLD which will provide more potential domains but what you will have now is a more targeted list as opposed to scanning.
So if you didn't want to use the above method you can also look manually within the site - there's a very powerful filter that lets you do things like filter by CTLD (.co.uk, .com, etc) and to filter only domains with a certain # of backlinks, by domains containing specific words, and lots of other nice features.
Step 4 - Once you click on through domain name search linked at the bottom of the list it just spat out is a more targeted group to filter by further.
Then it's a case of digging into archive.org, making sure it wasn't a steaming pile of 💩, then dig into the backlink profile and the golden domain is one that passes them sniff tests and has dropped as recently as possible so that you can do whatever you plan to do with it next.
Any suggestions for people reading along at home, who know a bit about SEO but are yet to start any side project of their own?
If you were starting over, what would you do?
What would I do if I was starting over? I would probably have asked Hamlet Batista more about Python when i had the chance.
That language is still my nemesis.
I would also seek out more APIs to enrich the content I was looking to create at the planning stage.
For others starting, really absorb yourself in the SERP you’re looking to rank within, what works? (you do not know what doesn’t work yet), this is pretty much basic SEO advice, everything you’re already doing for others you really can do for yourself.
I'll be trying to interview as many members of the NotAnotherSlack group as I can, diving deep into the nitty gritty of their side projects to try and celebrate their knowledge and to encourage more people to give side projects a go.
We've got some great little interviews lined up, with some other well known side projects. Check back over on our Member Interviews page to read any of our others (there's a great one with Kirsty McCubbin!).
If you'd like to add any other questions or comments - feel free to leave one below. If I can get Dean to give his feedback on it I'll then add it in as a reply 👇👇👇
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