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Transforming Your SEO and Digital PR Strategy with James Brockbank

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James Brockbank

James Brockbank, Managing Director of Digitaloft

James Brockbank, the visionary Managing Director of Digitaloft, embodies the evolution of SEO from its nascent, rule-bending beginnings to the sophisticated, integrity-driven strategies that now propel brands to unprecedented organic growth. With a rich history spanning over 15 years in the SEO realm, James has been at the forefront of transforming digital marketing practices, particularly in technical SEO, content marketing, and digital PR. His journey began in the mid-to-late 2000s, a period marked by the wild west of SEO tactics, where the focus was more on manipulation than merit. Yet, it was the seismic shifts in the industry, notably the Penguin and Panda updates, that catalysed James's pivot towards ethical SEO practices.

Under his leadership, Digitaloft emerged in 2013 as a beacon of innovation, navigating away from the questionable tactics of the past towards a content-led approach that predated the digital PR revolution. James's foresight to leverage digital PR, long before it became industry parlance, demonstrates his pioneering mindset. He has been instrumental in redefining what effective link building looks like, always prioritising quality and relevance over shortcuts.

Today, Digitaloft stands as a testament to James's commitment to excellence, boasting one of the UK's largest, dedicated digital PR teams. This evolution from humble beginnings to a powerhouse in digital marketing showcases a journey of relentless improvement and adaptation. James's philosophy is clear: SEO is not about gaming the system but enhancing visibility through deserved authority and genuine value. This ethos permeates every facet of Digitaloft's strategy, ensuring that clients not only achieve but exceed their organic growth ambitions.

James is unwavering in his belief that organic growth is paramount and that achieving this requires a holistic integration of technical SEO, content, and digital PR. His approach is not about quick fixes but building lasting value, aligning perfectly with the needs of ambitious brands seeking to make their mark. For James, the ultimate goal is making clients' brands more visible within their target markets, whether on search engines or in the press, by earning the right to rank through exemplary practices.

His dedication to the craft extends beyond the office walls; James is passionate about rectifying the misconceptions surrounding SEO and demonstrating its role as a legitimate and vital component of digital marketing. As he navigates the complexities of organic growth, James remains a steadfast advocate for specialisation and excellence, principles that have guided Digitaloft to become a rarity in the field — equally adept at digital PR as it is at SEO.

If you're grappling with SEO challenges, feeling stuck in a plateau while competitors surge ahead, or if your digital PR efforts aren't yielding the expected organic performance, James Brockbank and Digitaloft offer the expertise and innovative strategies to pivot your journey towards success. It's not just about quick wins; it's about sustainable growth, visibility, and making an impactful difference in your organic presence. With James at the helm, the pathway to SEO success is both clear and attainable, marking a new era where integrity, innovation, and results converge.

The Unscripted SEO Interview Podcast with James Brockbank

Watch the interview

(click on the 'cc' icon to view subtitles)

Listen to the podcast

(55 minutes long)

Unscripted Digital PR Q&As with Mark A Preston and James Brockbank

Could you share your journey in the SEO field, James?

My journey in SEO spans nearly 15 years, having dived into the field around the late 2009. It's astonishing to reflect on how much has changed since those early days. Initially, I cut my teeth in a junior role at an agency, where tactics like purchasing links from India and stuffing title tags were the norm, and surprisingly, they worked. However, the arrival of Google's Penguin and Panda updates was a turning point, highlighting the need for a shift away from manipulative practices that had become prevalent. It was embarrassing to witness the industry's reliance on such tactics, which prompted a reevaluation of my approach towards SEO. Launching Digitaloft in 2013 was a significant milestone, marking the transition to a focus on ethical, content-driven strategies. We've been pioneers in digital PR, adopting content-led link building long before it gained widespread recognition. This journey from the industry's earlier, less scrupulous days to now leading one of the UK's most prominent digital PR teams is a testament to our commitment to evolving and refining our SEO practices.

How has your approach to earning links evolved since starting your agency?

When Digitaloft was founded, our initial strategy revolved around using content to naturally earn links, a stark contrast to earlier methods. Looking back to 2015, our approach, while effective, seems primitive compared to our current standards. Initially sceptical about the E-E-A-T (Experience,Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) guidelines, our perspective shifted as we recognised the value in building a brand's reputation through authoritative link building. Today, our digital PR strategy is sophisticated, focusing not just on link acquisition but on aligning with E-A-T principles to enhance our clients' brand reputation. Our PR team has grown to over 50 specialists, making us one of the largest dedicated digital PR teams in the UK. This evolution from rudimentary tactics to a comprehensive, reputation-focused strategy underscores our growth and adaptability in the SEO landscape.

Do you still play an active role in your agency's operations?

Absolutely, I remain deeply involved in the strategic direction and innovation within the agency. While my day-to-day may not always directly involve client accounts, I'm committed to staying ahead of the curve in SEO and digital PR. My passion for elevating websites on Google search remains as strong as ever, whether it involves tactics that worked a decade ago, those that are effective today, or anticipating future trends. At Digitaloft, we pride ourselves on straightforward, no-nonsense SEO that delivers real results. My hands-on approach ensures that we continue to lead with strategies that are not only effective but also ethically sound and aligned with the latest industry standards.

What significant changes have you observed in the SEO industry?

The SEO industry has undergone tremendous growth, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, last year, we witnessed the devastating impact of the healthful content update on many sites. This was largely due to adherence to misguided advice circulating on social media platforms like Twitter, or X as it's now known. This type of strategy lacks sustainability for a business. Fast forward to today, success in organic search requires more than just keeping up with social media chatter about the quality of search engine results pages (SERPs). This discussion is timely, especially with Google's recent Core Algorithm Update announcement. Over the past six to seven months, there's been significant critique about SERP quality, focusing on why certain brands or niche sites have been affected while big brands remain unscathed. The underlying factor here is reputation.

Could you elaborate on your views regarding EEAT?

Discussing the nuances of EEAT could go on indefinitely, but at its core, it's all about reputation. Many businesses attempt to showcase EEAT or a reputation they haven't genuinely built. You need to establish your reputation before you can demonstrate it. Overcomplicating EEAT misses the point; it's essentially about building trust and a positive reputation. The big brands dominating the SERPs for years have done so because people trust them. It's not a new complaint that brands seem to have an unfair advantage. I've been running intensive training sessions on EAT for our PR teams to ensure we stay ahead. An analogy I use is the trustworthiness of recommendations among friends in a pub. This concept should be intuitive, mirroring expectations in the offline world, like trusting a recommended mortgage broker because of their proven expertise and credentials. The difficulty some have in grasping EAT surprises me, as its principles are straightforward when applied to real-world scenarios.

Why is it crucial to build a reputation?

The challenge often lies in overthinking the process. Building a reputation isn't about quick fixes like creating author pages. It's a long-term commitment. The notion of building a brand, as discussed by experts like Carrie Rose, underlines that reputation comes first, with everything else falling into place subsequently. This can't be rushed; it takes years to cultivate a brand or reputation. Digital PR stands out as a key strategy in building this reputation, as it's not just about self-promotion but also about what others say about you. This aligns with the quality raters' guidelines, highlighting the importance of external validation over self-assessment. Building and then demonstrating a solid reputation should be a primary focus, leveraging tools like digital PR to achieve this objective effectively.

Is Google improving at identifying and closing SEO loopholes?

Google is indeed becoming more adept at sealing the shortcuts and loopholes that were once exploited in SEO. We need to move away from the notion of seeking easy routes to success; the shortcuts that existed in the past are progressively being eliminated by Google. While it's true that certain strategies like parasite SEO are still profitable for some, those involved are well aware that such tactics are not sustainable in the long run. As professionals within the industry, we bear a responsibility towards those new to the field, guiding them towards more ethical and lasting SEO practices.

Have any of your personal sites been negatively impacted by a Google update?

Indeed, I've experienced both sides of the spectrum with Google updates. Some of my sites were adversely affected by the Helpful Content Update, which, in hindsight, were not deserving of their rankings. Conversely, other sites of mine benefited significantly from the same update. As an SEO specialist running an agency, it's crucial to gain firsthand experience with what strategies succeed and which falter. While I manage sites that utilise unedited, AI-generated content on expired domains for experimental purposes, I am acutely aware of the associated risks. These projects serve as research rather than strategies I would apply to client work. Their purpose is to explore the boundaries of SEO practices, fully understanding that they are not foundations on which to build a stable business.

What is your stance on individuals who take risks in SEO?

I have a certain disdain for labels like 'black hat' or 'grey hat' SEO. With experience comes an understanding of the risks involved in exploiting loopholes. If someone chooses to utilise these with full knowledge of the potential consequences, then that is their prerogative. My concern lies with the dissemination of misinformation, suggesting that short-term gains from questionable tactics can translate into a sustainable business model. I respect individuals like Charles Floate and Craig Campbell, who are well-informed and articulate about their methods. They know that exploiting current opportunities, such as parasite SEO, is temporary and constitutes only a small portion of their overall income. They're adept not at gaming the system, but at optimising strategies while they remain effective, always conscious that these approaches have an expiration date.

How do you distinguish between unethical and ethical SEO practices?

The debate over what constitutes ethical versus unethical SEO has evolved significantly. Gone are the days of neatly categorising tactics as black hat or white hat; it's more about appropriateness to the given context. For legitimate businesses that could thrive independently of Google—like e-commerce stores, which can sell products without search engine visibility—the distinction is crucial. My stance isn't about endorsing fraudulent practices but acknowledging that not all content has to come from certified experts. In recent years, the emphasis on the experience and expertise aspects of E-E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness, Experience) has surged, highlighting the fine line between spammy content and well-crafted material that lacks originality. Despite this, I am experimenting with purely AI-generated content on expired domains as part of ongoing research projects, aware of the thin ice upon which such ventures tread.

Have Google updates led to inconsistent impacts on sites?

Definitely, I've observed a variety of impacts on sites with 100% human-crafted content, particularly those lacking experiential authority on their topics. Reflecting on the Penguin update in 2012, we were somewhat naive to think Google wouldn't address manipulative link-building practices. The surprise and subsequent penalties were a wake-up call, reminiscent of the more recent Helpful Content Update's effects. Many site operators reliant on Google for traffic arguably could have anticipated these shifts, underscoring the importance of foresight in SEO.

Should clients be involved in content creation to improve SEO outcomes?

Involving clients in content creation is pivotal for SEO success. The longevity of ranking for certain terms is unpredictable, but authenticity and expertise in content can extend this lifespan. Consider a real business, like an air conditioning repair service; content generated by an actual tradesperson might lack polished copywriting but is inherently valuable due to the genuine expertise and experience it conveys. This type of authentic content has been rewarded, particularly post the Helpful Content Update. Businesses inherently accumulate E-E-A-T through their everyday operations. The challenge for marketers is to effectively showcase this built-up expertise and trustworthiness, both on and off the page. Real businesses often have the necessary E-E-A-T signals—certifications, expert staff, and years of experience—but may struggle to highlight these strengths effectively. Demonstrating these qualities is essential, yet it's impossible without having first established them.

Why is it crucial for SEOs to avoid risks with client businesses?

In my experience, the impact of risky SEO practices on clients' businesses can be profound. A few years back, it wasn't uncommon to encounter businesses that had been severely damaged by previous SEO endeavours. While I believe most situations can be rectified, the process is often lengthy and complex, especially when it involves repairing a tarnished online reputation. Quick fixes are rarely possible, and by the time a business has gone through a couple of SEO providers, it might already be too late for recovery. This stark reality underscores the importance of ethical SEO practices. Personally, I might experiment with my sites, which only affect me. However, when working with client businesses, the stakes are much higher, and the strategies employed must reflect a commitment to long-term sustainability and growth.

Should SEO professionals be more accountable for their decisions and actions?

Absolutely, accountability in SEO is paramount, especially when handling client projects aimed at sustainable growth. The decisions we make on behalf of clients can have lasting impacts on their livelihoods, necessitating a level of caution and responsibility far greater than what we might exercise on our personal projects. Ethical considerations aside, it's about being prepared to face the repercussions of our actions and recommendations. There's a significant difference between employing risky tactics on one's own sites and suggesting such approaches to clients. The latter requires a foresight and readiness to navigate potential challenges and tough conversations down the line. Educating clients about the realities and timelines of SEO success is also a crucial part of our responsibility, setting realistic expectations right from the start.

Do SEO professionals have a duty to educate?

The responsibility to educate both within and outside our industry is a critical aspect of being an SEO professional. While the intention to help may be strong, the reality is that not all situations are salvageable, particularly if the business is already in dire straits. It highlights the importance of ongoing education and transparent communication about what SEO can realistically achieve. Although I believe the SEO industry is largely made up of professionals aiming to provide genuine value, the lack of regulation means there's a wide variance in how SEO is practised. Education plays a key role in elevating our industry standards and helping clients understand the complexities of SEO, ensuring they have realistic expectations about the processes and outcomes.

Should there ever be regulation in the SEO industry?

Regulating the SEO industry presents a significant challenge, given the diverse strategies that can lead to the same outcome. The idea resurfaces every couple of years, with some advocating for industry regulation. However, I remain sceptical of this approach, fearing it could hinder rather than help. The field has evolved immensely since my early days, when resources were limited to platforms like Moz. The knowledge I gained then was invaluable, shaping my understanding of ethical practices. Today, we have a responsibility to educate both newcomers and clients, not just on specific tactics but on ethical thinking and decision-making. Digital PR, a topic of growing interest, exemplifies the complexity and evolving nature of our industry, making regulation a tricky, if not counterproductive, proposition.

What role does Digital PR play today?

Digital PR has transformed significantly since its inception around 2014-2015. Today, it encompasses a range of strategies, including data-driven campaigns, expert comments, and brand promotion. The focus must always be on selecting the most impactful approach for the client's specific needs. Relevancy has become a crucial factor; practices that were effective a few years ago may no longer suffice due to changes in best practices and audience expectations. Digital PR's ultimate goal is to enhance a client's reputation and brand recognition, making their name more familiar and trusted among potential customers. This familiarity can lead to improved SERP click-through rates, underscoring that digital PR is about more than just link acquisition; it's about building a trustworthy brand.

How has your perspective on Digital PR evolved?

Over the years, my understanding of Digital PR has deepened, particularly in recognising its value beyond link building. As the industry has evolved, so too has my appreciation for the nuanced ways in which Digital PR can benefit a business. It's about positioning a brand as a trusted voice in relevant discussions and ensuring visibility in the right places. The links that come as a by-product of well-executed Digital PR are the ones that truly matter, reflecting Google's preference for links that signify genuine endorsement and relevance. Acknowledging past strategies and their effectiveness is important, but it's equally vital to adapt and focus on the future, ensuring our methods align with current best practices and ethical standards.

Do links from Digital PR lose their value over time?

It's conceivable that the effectiveness of links obtained through Digital PR might diminish as time progresses, with their impact becoming less noticeable. However, I cannot envisage a scenario where Google would penalise a website for possessing links of questionable relevance from authoritative sources. Google has made strides towards moving away from penalising based on links and has improved its ability to assess the intrinsic value of a link at its origin. This approach allows for a distinction to be made on whether a link should be impactful. It's essential to acknowledge that what was effective and surpassed the competition several years ago might not hold the same value today. As the digital landscape evolves, it's crucial to adapt and stay ahead of these changes.

What concerns do you have regarding Digital PR?

My primary concern with Digital PR lies in the lack of comprehensive SEO education accompanying it. It's evident that for the majority of our Digital PR clients, link building remains the primary objective for engagement. Nevertheless, this doesn't preclude the approach where link acquisition is considered a secondary outcome of promoting a business, enhancing a brand, and building a reputation. These are the types of links that truly make a difference. Given that SEO budgets often fund Digital PR initiatives, there's a significant responsibility on agency leaders to ensure their teams understand how Digital PR complements SEO efforts. This understanding is crucial for sustaining and enhancing SERP visibility not only in the present but also in the future.

Why is relevancy critical in SEO and Digital PR?

Relevancy stands as the most crucial factor in both SEO and Digital PR strategies at this juncture. Whether it concerns a link, a brand mention, a follow link, or a no-follow link, the significance of relevancy cannot be overstated. The focus should always be on ensuring that every element is relevant to the context it is placed in, as this is what drives genuine impact and value from SEO and Digital PR activities. This principle of prioritising relevancy is essential for achieving sustained success and visibility in the ever-evolving digital landscape.

What are your views on follow versus nofollow links?

In an ideal world, as an SEO, we'd prefer every link to be a follow link. However, realistically, this isn't going to happen and it wouldn't appear natural. For example, if the Daily Mail applies nofollow to all its external links, this policy affects every brand and competitor, not just us. Having delved into Google Patents, including the PageRank algorithm, the shift of nofollow links from a directive to a hint was a pivotal change. This indicates there are circumstances where Google can acknowledge the value of a nofollow link, particularly from highly reputable sources like the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, or the BBC. Whether a link is follow or nofollow, what truly matters is the reputation and trust it can build for a brand. The ongoing debate between follow and nofollow links is becoming outdated; the focus should be on the quality and source of the link rather than its follow status.

How do you measure the success of a Digital PR campaign?

Quantifying the success of a Digital PR campaign presents a challenge, especially when clients have in-house SEO teams and seek digital PR services exclusively. The traditional metric of coverage quantity doesn't fully capture the impact of a campaign. We've engaged a data scientist to develop models that predict the potential impact of a link, looking beyond simple metrics to assess relevance and authority. The key measure of success is relevancy; securing relevant coverage is crucial, whether or not it includes a link. Brand mentions from authoritative sources like the BBC are valuable, given Google's advancements in understanding entities through the Knowledge Graph. This approach underscores the importance of building a campaign that contributes to a brand's overall reputation and visibility.

Why does Google reward certain businesses?

Google rewards businesses that have painstakingly built and maintained a positive reputation over the years. The rationale is straightforward: why should a newly launched business immediately surpass well-established ones in rankings? While it's true that smaller, agile businesses can potentially build reputations more quickly than larger entities can maintain theirs, the core principle remains that aligning SEO and digital PR strategies with reputation building is fundamental. Consistently focusing on enhancing a brand's reputation is likely to be rewarded by Google. Starting up and trying to disrupt a sector today presents significant challenges, particularly given the advantage longstanding brands hold in terms of established reputation and trust within Google's ecosystem.

What would be your advice to a startup operating with a tight budget?

For startups on a tight budget, the choice of marketing channel should be meticulously considered, as SEO might not be the most suitable initial focus. Depending on the business's nature, some may find greater immediate value in leveraging social media platforms like TikTok to build their brand presence. The reality is, the opportunity for rapid growth through SEO alone has become increasingly challenging, and for many, the traditional pathways to visibility are no longer viable without significant investment. It's essential for startups to evaluate where they stand in their business journey and choose the marketing strategies that align best with their current objectives and budget constraints.

What key metrics should be prioritised in Digital PR?

Measuring the success of Digital PR activities presents a complex challenge, particularly when it comes to demonstrating a clear return on investment or impact on key business metrics. While link quantity alone may not fully capture the value delivered, agencies and service providers must navigate client expectations and the limitations of their influence over broader SEO strategies. Success in Digital PR, especially when not overseeing the entirety of a client's SEO strategy, cannot be solely attributed to organic growth metrics. Factors outside an agency's control, such as technical SEO issues or competitive actions, can significantly affect outcomes. Therefore, assessing success should involve a more nuanced approach, focusing on specific pages or content that benefited from digital PR efforts, examining organic traffic and impressions growth, and comparing these results against overall site performance. This granular analysis allows for a more accurate representation of Digital PR's contribution to a brand's online visibility and growth.

How can Digital PR effectively demonstrate its positive impact?

Demonstrating the positive impact of Digital PR efforts involves a detailed examination of the specific areas of a website that have been directly or indirectly influenced by link-building activities. Agencies should look beyond superficial metrics and delve into the performance of commercial and informational pages that received link equity, either directly through backlinks or indirectly via internal linking. By comparing the organic traffic and impression growth of these pages over a period, such as three to six months, against the site's overall average growth, it becomes possible to isolate and quantify the impact of Digital PR. This granular analysis not only provides tangible evidence of success but also facilitates more informed discussions about the value and effectiveness of Digital PR strategies in contributing to a business's overarching goals.

Do you believe many Digital PR agencies are approaching their strategies incorrectly?

The crux of the matter lies in who is helming the overall strategy within a business. There must always be an individual or team responsible for orchestrating the SEO strategy, whether this is managed by an in-house team or an external agency. Far too often, Digital PR efforts misalign with the overarching business objectives, focusing narrowly on link acquisition rather than understanding how these efforts fit into broader goals such as revenue generation. A strategic approach involves drilling down from top-level business objectives to the specifics of how increased traffic, through improved rankings for targeted keyword variations, can be achieved. This requires a detailed analysis of the site's current performance, identifying gaps in links, content, or technical SEO that need addressing. The challenge within Digital PR arises when there is no clear directive or understanding of the specific link or content needs that align with the business's growth strategy, leading to a disconnect between efforts and outcomes.

What enquiries should Digital PR professionals be making of their clients?

Over the last year, we've focused on enhancing collaboration with clients, particularly those who may lack a comprehensive SEO strategy, to ensure our efforts have the greatest possible impact. We're taking the initiative to regularly engage with our clients, asking them every quarter about their keyword growth objectives and the specific page groups they aim to target. This proactive approach allows us to align our Digital PR campaigns more closely with the clients' desired outcomes, ensuring that our work directly supports their strategic goals and contributes to tangible improvements in their online visibility and performance.

How should the success of Digital PR be evaluated?

Determining the true measure of success for Digital PR is a complex question, one that, frankly, hasn't found a universally accepted answer. The ultimate goal, of course, is financial profitability, but distilling this down to the specific contributions of a Digital PR campaign involves understanding the division of responsibilities and the scope of each agency's role. This isn't about shirking responsibility but about clarifying what outcomes can realistically be attributed to Digital PR efforts within the broader marketing strategy. It's essential to consider who holds the accountability for various aspects of the campaign, a reflection not of a desire to avoid accountability, but a need for strategic alignment and clear objectives.

What discussions are you keen to engage in, James?

I'm eager to engage with individuals who are looking to approach search marketing from a fresh perspective. Specifically, those ready to reverse-engineer their strategies based on clear business objectives, exploring how various elements, including Digital PR, content, and technical SEO, can drive growth. This year, I'm focused on shifting the industry's mindset to ensure SEO strategies are truly aligned with tangible business goals, moving beyond traditional tactics that may no longer yield significant results. If you're interested in rethinking your search strategy to prioritise effective growth, I welcome the conversation. Whether you're looking to stop ineffective practices or to concentrate on methods that deliver real impact, let's discuss how to make this happen. You can reach out to me on Twitter as @BrockbankJames, connect with me on LinkedIn, or send an email to

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