The Business Of Web Design Conference 2014 – An SEO’s Perspective

Yesterday I attended The Business Of Web Design 2014 (#tboWD), which was held on my doorstep in Cardiff. Although I am not a web designer, I could see from the conference’s talk topics that a lot of it would relate heavily to SEO freelancing – and I was right.

The question “how much does a website cost?” is so similar to the question “how much does SEO cost?”, when you’ve not even been told the prospect’s industry, their goals (e.g. whether they want to rank for a really tough keyword or a few less competitive keywords) or even the URL of the site. Determining how to price yourself as a consultant – whether it be on a basis of time or the potential value/ROI offered to the client – is applicable across both industries. And getting a client to say “yes” to things can be just as tricky in SEO as it is in web design.

In addition to eight fantastic talks, there was a panel Q&A at the end, and to my terror (but also delight), the wonderful world of SEO was debated. I spent the first few minutes of my recent unified.diff talk tackling the subject of SEO’s terrible reputation – especially in the eyes of the web design/development community – and have previously blogged about how one of the best compliments I’d ever received was from a highly-respected local developer. Fortunately, while there were some stirrings of the typical “SEO is evil” type talk that we’re so used to seeing, I was really surprised and pleased to discover that the debate was handled really well. I’ll go into more detail below.

(Note: for those where it says “[Slides TBA]” for now, I’ll update the post with the slide deck embeds as-and-when they all become available.)

1) How much does a website cost? – Sean Johnson

[Slides TBA]

Sean Johnson photoSean (@seanuk) kicked things off with the question from prospects that often causes the most chagrin: “how much does a website cost?” Why? Because the answer is always: “it depends!”

What’s your industry? What are your goals with the website? Do you need eCommerce functionality? Does it need a blog? This applies to SEO so, so much: What’s your industry? What are your goals? Is the site brand new? Is the site even live yet? Has SEO work been carried out before, and if so, were spammy tactics involved? How can a web designer or SEO quote effectively without knowing that type of info first? The answer is: not very effectively. Not very.

The biggest point that Sean made was that when a client approaches you telling you what they need (i.e. a website or SEO), ask them why they need it. Is it pivotal to their business’ success, or are they only getting it because they think they need it, when it might be the case that they’re fine with what they have? This is especially true for SEO, when I’ve been approached by businesses who I’ve honestly felt would’ve been better off not doing SEO – a good example being a family-run eCommerce site who only would’ve made £2 profit on every product sale, who wanted to rank for keywords with no search volume, yet would’ve been up against the likes of M&S and John Lewis. I politely turned them away with the advice that they should invest their money in other marketing activities instead.

2) Learning to love your clients – Viviana Doctorovich

Viviana Doctorovich photoThe next talk was from Viv (@vivdoc), who talked us through her process on how she encourages clients to get involved with a project by inviting them to a workshop-style meeting where they iron out everything they want and need, getting their thoughts across more concisely and helping the project to move along more smoothly.

It definitely got me thinking if I could do something similar with my clients, so it was very useful.

3) Smile! It’s never THAT bad! – Kirsty Burgoine

Kirsty Burgoine photoOn Twitter I said that this was a talk after my own heart, as Kirsty (@KirstyBurgoine) described it as “mastering sales without turning to ‘the dark side'” (and I’ve never been a fan of sales)!

She ran through her process, especially concerning the discovery phase and with asking the right questions. One point I especially liked is the temptation to say “we can do that!” about a particular task or requirement just to win the work, even if you don’t have the skills to do so. Also, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know something, and that you’ll have to research it and get back to them – nobody can know absolutely everything about everything, after all.

4) One year of freelancing – Stu Robson

Stu Robson photoI caught Stu’s (@StuRobson) talk of a similar name at Port80 Localhost earlier this year, so I was slightly concerned that the same talk would be rehashed, but I’m pleased to say that there was plenty of new information in it. Even with the info I was seeing a second time around, to be honest it made a good reminder/refresher.

Stu talked through his personal experience as a freelance front-end developer, particularly the pros and cons of freelancing in general and making sure to keep your pipeline filled up, so that you’re not twiddling your thumbs when a job finishes. He also warned about prospects who set off alarm bells, such as those who promise more work (“it’s only a bit of work for now, but I’ll give you more in the future – I promise!”) or those who say it’s only a ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ bit of work when it probably isn’t.

5) The Lessons I’ve Learned – Dan Edwards

Danny Edwards photoDuring his talk, Stu (speaker #4) joked that he had the difficult ‘pre-lunch’ slot, but if anything, the ‘post-lunch’ slot is the tricky bugger – case in point being the fact that I missed the first 10 minutes of Dan’s (@de) talk because we were held up at the restaurant where we went for lunch… Sorry Dan! (Incidentally, I missed the “SEO Ninja” slide – wish I’d been there for that!)

In addition to coming out with what became the unanimously agreed-upon quote of the day (“starting a business is easy, running a business is hard”), what I liked about Dan’s talk is how oozled (his current project) grew out of a blog post and into a full-on online resource directory.

6) Does size matter? – Steve Kirtley

[Slides TBA]

Steve Kirtley photoAlthough all the day’s talks were great, this was probably my favourite. Not only a funny speaker, Steve (@stevekirtley) made a great point – solo freelancers tend to seek out small work because they think “if I’m small, I can only take on small.” But he made a great point about his own background, working at a big household name company where only him and one other member of staff were in charge of the website (when you would’ve assumed that it would’ve had dozens of people doing it). Suffice to say that there’s nothing stopping you working with big companies – if there’s any doubt or concern that we’re too small, it’s (mostly) all in our heads.

He also shared some jaw-droppingly insightful anecdotes… but I’m not allowed to share those (or else he might get in trouble)…! 🙂

7) How processes can pivot a digital agency – Danny Bluestone

Danny Bluestone photoFor me personally, Danny’s (@danny_bluestone) talk was really insightful and useful. He talked us through his journey as a solo freelancer working in his bedroom to growing his agency into what it is today.

What I really liked was his approach and his process (talking a lot about lean start-up terms such as Holacracy and jidoka) and the fact that he sees staff as his most important asset. One quote in particular that he shared hit the nail on the head: “train staff so well that they can leave; treat them so well that they don’t want to.”

8) Educating Clients to Say Yes – Paul Boag

[Slides TBA]

Paul Boag photoI spent the whole talk thinking to myself: “Paul Boag… Boagworld… Why does that sound so familiar?”

While I pondered, Mr Boag (@boagworld) gave some cracking advice on how we can motivate and empower our clients, instead of making them feel excluded, interfering or stupid. The two main points were:

  1. Be an expert – let your clients see that you are an industry authority and they will be much more likely to take your thoughts and suggestions on-board.
  2. Be passionate – not only about your own industry/services, but about your client’s products and services, too. Positivity and passion shine through – and incidentally, so does the opposite…

I don’t know if anyone else picked up on this, but notice that the title of the talk is “Educating Clients…”, not “Getting Clients to Say Yes.” It’s only subtle, and Paul might not even have done it on purpose, but even that use of language – and just that one word – is important and sums things up well I think.

I was still no closer to figuring out why the name Boag was so, so familiar… but everything became clear during the Q&A, which closed the conference.

Panel Q&A – All eight speakers

Joel (the conference’s organiser) allowed a question or two at the end of each presentation, but also allowed 15-30 minutes for a panel Q&A session involving all eight speakers.

Questions included how much effort to put into winning work (especially if a prospect takes the mick by requiring lots of meetings up-front), the morality and ethics behind value-based pricing (one that I asked via Twitter; i.e. charging someone more just because they stand to make more of an ROI from your work) and – perhaps most infamously on the day – a heated 5-10 minute debate about SEO…

An audience member (a professional web designer) asked the panel: “what should I do when a client asks for SEO? I don’t know much about it, so should I give it a go, pass it onto someone else…?”

At first, there was talk about the ‘snake-oil merchants’ of SEO: the guys who cold-call businesses “promising” page 1 results; who might be utilising AdWords (instead of organic SEO), hoping that the client doesn’t realise the difference; who say that they’ll rank the client for what might sound like a good keyword, but is so specific that no one ever searches for it… I was thinking “oh here we go” and about to jump in Scrappy-Doo style (“lemme at ’em, lemme at’ em!“), wanting to set the record straight… but I didn’t have to.

It seemed to work out and resolve itself. Paul Boag once explained that he hated SEOs, but implemented some proper modern-day advice and found that it worked really well, changing his mind on the subject. Joel jumped in arguing that it’s an education issue – clients need to understand that if someone’s cold-calling them about it, they’re probably not that reputable, and if they’re ‘promising’ anything, it’s probably too good to be true…

The consensus was summed up when a web designer who works at an agency that also offers SEO explained their process, which sounded like the right way to do SEO – not only by my standards, but by much of the panel’s, too.

It was around this time when I finally placed Paul Boag’s name. This article – which he followed up with a retraction about a month later – whereby he slagged off the entire SEO industry. I nearly stood up, pointed and shouted “YOU… IT WAS YOU!!!” once I realised. Fair play to the guy though… he replied to criticism on that post and later published a retraction, which is more than what most people would do – I remember one guy calling us “SEOs bastards,” yet whose post contained the most flawed arguments in history, but who only published comments that agreed with him and didn’t approve any that didn’t (including one that I tried to publish)… But hey, that guy was a giant prick. Paul Boag is not.

Anyway… I was really pleased with the way that the SEO debate turned out during the Q&A, and I carried on the discussion with various attendees and some of the speakers at the after-party, which took place at a nearby bar.

All in all, it was a fantastic day, with a lot of useful and actionable advice to freelancers and small business owners – even for those who aren’t in the web design industry, such as myself.

For those of you who are interested, Joel also runs Port80, and I’m speaking at the next event next month (in August) on the recent Google Authorship changes. More info can be found on my Speaking page.

[All speaker profile pics lovingly borrowed directly from the tboWD 2014 website.]


  • Mike

    July 20, 2014 at 8:59 am Reply

    Hi Steve – this is a really good and thorough write-up of the Business of Web Design event. Have to agree that Steve Kirtley’s talk was definitely a highlight for me and loved his dry delivery! Paul Boag mentioned at the start of his presentation there was a free book download – you wouldn’t have caught the URL would you? Mike

    • Steve

      July 20, 2014 at 10:26 am Reply

      Hi Mike – thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      I remember Paul sharing the link, but unfortunately I didn’t catch it either – sorry! He told me via Twitter that it might be a little while (up to a few weeks!) before he gets his slides online… It might be worth asking via the hashtag and seeing if anyone else got it and can share it. I’ll keep an eye out for it as well. Good luck!

  • Emma Davis

    July 20, 2014 at 4:42 pm Reply

    Nice succinct overview of the conference Steve 🙂

    By the way I have the link for Paul’s book but don’t want to put it on here so please email me if you want it.

    • Steve

      July 21, 2014 at 9:47 am Reply

      Thanks Emma – I might very well be in touch. 🙂

  • Stuart

    July 21, 2014 at 9:41 am Reply

    Hi Steve,

    Nice analysis of the day’s events.

    I agree both Steve and Paul’s talks were the highlights for me, although I really found Danny’s talk interesting, as we’re a small agency that’s maybe looking to grow into something bigger over the next few years.

    The SEO debate was fascinating and I was looking for Paul’s blog posts on the subject, so glad you posted them here.

    • Steve

      July 21, 2014 at 9:48 am Reply

      Thanks Stuart. 🙂 I agree with what you’re saying about Danny’s talk – I’m also considering expanding in the future and growing into an agency, so his talk was really valuable.

  • Web design cannot be done in isolation

    July 21, 2014 at 11:15 am Reply

    […] teams, the processes behind organising big, creative groups and much more. Here’s a good write up about the day from Steve […]

  • Tony Dimmock

    July 21, 2014 at 2:56 pm Reply

    Hey Steve,

    Excellent write up of the event. As one who couldn’t attend, your insights (especially those that are transferrable to SEO) are thought-provoking and well laid-out.

    Fingers crossed I can make the next one and join you 🙂

  • James

    July 21, 2014 at 3:39 pm Reply

    Learning to love your clients is so important. Making sure you are doing everything they want and need for their business should be your top priority because it will be theirs. Doing this with SEO is something that I used to struggle with because people didn’t really understand what I was talking about. But I made a plan out for me and I can tailor it now to every client, be they big or small.

  • […] I can honestly say the name is deceiving… the business of web design was a conference that would appeal to every freelancer working on the web – not just those picky designers (joking folks!). There was plenty of great advice from seasoned freelancers on the worries and issues every one of us experiences at some point in our career. I’m not going to try and rival this amazing write-up of the day from Steve Morgan. […]

  • […] save you a blow by blow account of the day; both Steven Morgan and Mike Hince have penned some great write ups (please shout out if you want yours added […]

  • Colin Stead

    September 3, 2014 at 5:43 pm Reply

    I am interested in the sales side of SEO. It doesn’t matter how good you are at SEO, if you can’t sell yourself or your services, you end up with no customers. Interesting viewpoint on not just going for small customers if you’re a one or two man band. It’s a matter of confidence to some degree

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