Transcript: Neil McCarthy, Online Marketing Expert (Max#29)


Kevin: Welcome to Maximise Potential the podcast to educate and motivate through a range of original interviews designed to help you maximise your potential. Brought to you in association with the award winning recruitment group Jenrick.

Welcome to episode 29 of the Maximise Potential podcast. Knowing how to maximise the return on your website and online brand is one of the most complex issues faced by managers in this increasingly complex part of the marketing mix. Neil McCarthy Sales Director at Shopzilla the largest shopping comparison website in the world is widely regarded as one of the leading voices within the field of online marketing having devoted the last decade or so to developing highly effective strategies for search engine optimisation, affiliate marketing, pay per click advertising and much more. Within this interview Neil shares his vast experience to provide us all with a clear framework which we can all apply to maximise the potential of our own websites and online marketing. Please enjoy.


So we have got the pleasure of sitting with Neil McCarthy today who is one of the Directors of Shopzilla Europe which is the world’s largest shopping comparison website. So Neil I would like to welcome you to the Maximise Potential Podcast.

Neil: Glad to be here thank you.

Kevin: Now Neil shall we paint a picture of why I am talking to you here today because I mean you have already carved out a niche for yourself in the whole search engine marketing field over the last decade so it would be really great just to give everybody a brief intro as to where you have come from and where you are now.

Neil: Okay well for the last ten years, over a decade I have been involved in running companies whose principle focus has been around digital marketing. Originally it was very much in the search engine optimisation SEO arena and in pay per click very much concentrated on relationships with Google and then subsequently widened out to include things like affiliates, display, email and the like. Over the last two or three years adding into that not only driving traffic but one of the things I’ll touch on as we speak about things later on is converting that traffic because there are two parts to the equation and you need to concentrate on the second one as much as the first. Currently I am working for Shopzilla who as you said are the largest shopping comparison engine in the UK and for that matter around the world and what we are concentrated on is delivering high value visitors. Visitors who are very far advanced down the funnel of purchase to retailers.

Kevin: Superb so let’s just jump straight in because I think one of your key strengths is being able to put together a successful marketing strategy for a company on an online basis. You know CEOs, senior managers, marketing managers are still completely confused as to which way to go to actually hone it in and have something real concrete that they can follow and I think that is probably a great, broad as well, starting point for us to have a chat about.

Neil: Indeed I would suggest to anybody that the first thing they need to do in developing any marketing strategy but particularly one that is digitally based is the fundamental difference between digital marketing and other forms is that you can measure everything. And because you can measure everything one of the things that you should do is start with what is your target cost per acquisition, what is your target cost per sale. Because what you need to understand is how much am I prepared to pay for any given sale. I never cease to be amazed by talking to large groups of people, very senior people within organisations who haven’t actually fine tuned it down to forever blue widget I sell online I am prepared to pay 30% of the cost of the retail cost of it or whatever is associated with it. So that is the first thing I would do.

Then there are a number of different ways of driving traffic and driving traffic is the first half of the online marketing strategy. So there are a number of things you need to do, to look at for driving traffic. The first one in all situations is to look at search engine optimisation referred to as organic search or natural search. If you look at Google which in the UK has knocking on the door a 90% market share and similar market shares in most of the major countries in Western Europe or the United States. If you look at the page of Google for any search engine results you will say the main block of it to the left hand side is in white and they are the natural results. They are the results that come by Google going out and spidering i.e. looking around your website finding pieces of information and content and coming back and putting it in its database. Now getting yourself highly listed naturally is one of those things that traditionally was seen as a dark art. But as time has progressed on people are now much, much more aware of what you need to do and what I would suggest to somebody whether they are big or small is to first of all review their search engine optimisation strategy. You should be looking to see can you realistically get yourself listed on the first page of Google for the key terms, key words that people are looking to find you for. So number one your brand. If your brand happens to be something say in the case of recruitment company like Jenrick it’s fairly unique, you will be found fairly straightforwardly that’s a given. But if you happen to have a name that is a word in the English language or is frequently, there are a number of other companies with very similar sounding names you need to do work to make sure that you are the ones found for that name. So that is step number one.

And then you widen it out. And when you widen it out you say alright what are people who are looking for the product that I am selling what are they searching for? Now there are a load of tools provided by Google to help you on your way. And when I talk about Google by the way the same applies to Yahoo and Bing but I just in this context use Google as a shorthand. So you have for example the Google Adwords tool which will tell you how many people searched for a particular word over a given period of time. And you will discover little idiosyncrasies. For example in the insurance world when you buy insurance for a car its motor insurance and as a result most policies are referred to as motor insurance policies. Motor insurance gets 100,000 searches in the UK on a monthly basis however car insurance which is what it is used for in day to day conversation gets over a million and therefore you should optimise your website for terms like car insurance.

Kevin: And really what you are emphasising here is it is so easy to optimise for what you consider to be the correct phraseology rather than the everyday phraseology.

Neil: Exactly and you need to find out what people are searching for not what you call it.

Kevin: Yes.

Neil: Now there is what they call the long tail. Now there are a large number of words that people will use in all sorts of different combinations to create this arc of search so that it goes on for quite a long time. So you are in a situation where people will not only look for hotel or holiday but they will look for hotel or holiday in the Caribbean. They will type the word villa, swimming pool, all these types of words in all sorts of combinations. And one of the things you have to look at in natural search is trying to tackle those long tail keywords. Those keywords which are where people are further down the funnel. 2.5million people type in the word holiday into Google on a monthly basis. Give the poor search engine a chance you know. Those sorts of words they generate lots of traffic but because the are so wide they don’t generate a lot of conversation. So long tail keywords are something that you should look at.

Kevin: This goes back right to the beginning where you were saying that your objective is to deliver people to your clients much further down the sales funnel because obviously the more defined their search is the more serious they are about finding something or finding a solution to their problem.

Neil: Indeed. There are hundreds of things which dictate how you are found within Google but there are two things which are fundamental that’s content and incoming links. So the first one is content. You have to have on your website content about the topic that you want to be found for. There is no way round it. You have to mention, not over mention but mention the term that people are interested in on your website and then Google recognises that that is what the website is about. And the more fresh new different content whether it be images, video, audio as we are doing or plain good old fashioned text you should have a lot of it and you should renew it as frequently as is practical.

The other thing is incoming links. Google runs what is effectively a popularity contest. It looks at how many people and what sorts of people, what sort of websites link to your website. And most people if they can look at their suppliers, their customers, people that they interact with on a daily basis can go out and ask them to put links on those websites incoming links to your website and it will make a dramatic difference to your listing.

Kevin: Really so just something as simple as just going to your network of people you already have relationships with and just asking them to do this very simple thing.

Neil: Yes and the other thing to tackle is most people have some form of PR activity. When you are talking to your PR agency they should be aware of how to optimise a press release for search engine optimisation. Because one of the key things with it is if you can generate a link within your article that goes out then that will be stored on a news website and Google highly rates those news websites because it thinks the content from them is important and therefore their vote when they link to you will transfer across.

Kevin: And can I ask you does this all tie in with whole Google page rank?

Neil: Page ranking was one of the things that made Google originally different. Page rank has nothing to do with pages in reality. It was named after Larry Page one of the founders of Google and he named it after himself. What it is was a method; it is a method that Google uses to evaluate the importance of a website and not the number of pages within it. It is a score out of 10. What you are looking for is to have a score of 4 or better for the home page of your website.

Kevin: Right.

Neil: It used to be vitally important in search engine optimisation however because it can be gamed and people spent time and effort trying to deliberately increase their page rank Google has diminished its importance and now it is more a mark of things historic rather than a predictor of what would happen in the future.

So you need to get content you need to get incoming links. They are the two fundamental things. A couple of suggestions I would talk to people about be very wary if you are in the retail environment of how you lay out your website and how you lay out the database because Google struggles to index pages which are dynamically driven. The reason is that if you look at a long URL string if it has a? In it, it means that the page has been pulled from lots of different databases and put together for the single occasion you are looking at it. In that sort of environment Google can frequently find difficulty getting to that page and when it comes back and spiders you a second time or a third time the page isn’t in the same location and Google gets confused. Because fundamentally Google is actually quite simple. It expects to find a page with content on it and it expects to find it in the same place. So what happens? You then write the URLs in a manner that Google can understand and that is something that most of the more modern ecommerce packages or content management software are capable of doing. But it is something you might want to look at.

Kevin: So pretty much what you are saying is if your URLs have been churned out automatically and it could be if you are throwing products online, if they have got quirky characters in that is not good.

Neil: Indeed it is not good. The other thing I would warn people about is changing the core URL of their website. If you for whatever reason decide to change the name either or the main website or change the company name and go from a .com to a or vice versa Google looks at history so one of the things it is very interested in is how long has it been here for. In short the older the better. So when you are transferring from one URL to a new URL for a perfectly good reason you need to be a little bit careful and its one of those environments where I tend to talk to an expert about how to do it and to make sure you do it. Because it is one of those ones if you get it wrong then you have lost all the history associated with the original and you can’t get it back.

By the way people have to be realistic there are only ten spots for any given keyword on the first page of Google and if that keyword happens to be cars insurance or loans or finance or something you are going to have to invest money in it. So just moving on to pay per click which is Google Adwords. It is based on an auction model and the genius behind Google is when Yahoo did this originally Yahoo said he who is prepared to pay the most money goes to number one. What Google said was he who is prepared to pay the most money and gets the highest click through goes to number one and the combination of that meant that Google made more money. And not only made more money but the result was more relevant. So Google when it is trying to work out where to position you on pay per click works on the basis of simply an auction model where the amount of money you are prepared to bid is multiplied by what is called quality score. Now the quality score is dependent on a lot of things. The fundamental ones are your click through rate. The speed of load of your page. The relevance of the page that you are trying to load. The time that people spend when they land on your page. Because what Google wants is to deliver a benefit experience so as people click on your link what Google doesn’t want them to do is to bounce straight back off again. So all of these things are factored in.

Now anyone can run a PPC campaign it is comparatively easy to do reasonably well. You can go on to Google you can set it up yourself, Google gives you lots of tools which will help you and what I would recommend for people starting out in a business is that initially they do a lot of this work themselves because it is useful to try and understand what the dynamics of this thing that are happening. But once you start to spend significant starts of sums of money anything over about £1000 a month you start to get into the territory of something where an expert, somebody who has experience will do things better than you.

Kevin: And I suppose as well you have got the time factor.

Neil: Exactly. But I do recommend that people particularly as they start out learn how the system works because as you grow bigger and you start to spend very significant sums of money understanding how it works and therefore why Google is looking for certain things. Pay per click is the most straightforward way of delivering traffic. It is virtually guaranteed. You can predict quite accurately how much a given amount of traffic is likely to cost you and you can turn it on and turn it off. So pay per click is significantly more expensive than a CO but because it has this controllability, because you can turn it on and turn it off then you are in an environment where you can dictate what you want to do.

So what you do is you need to fill out your keyword listing. You should run as many words as is practical for what you are trying to do. So certainly into the hundreds and potentially into the thousands which is why technology and software can help you manage these things. You need to work out coming back to this what is your target cost per sale because you can spend a lot of money very quickly on pay per click and Google will be very grateful but unfortunately you can drive a lot of traffic that may not convert. So what we tend to suggest with people is that you start small and then iterate, constantly working out if I paid a little more, if I do a little more what are my conversions and you need to be able to track it. Google analytics which is a fairly decent package is free. You should implement that and make sure it is properly implemented not so you are just looking at how many people are just visiting your home page but looking at people as they walk through the site and what they do. But PPC is an incredibly powerful tool for driving traffic in volume.

Third area I was going to touch on is email. Email has been with us since the beginning of time in terms of those of us who are from a digital marketing background and it is still incredibly powerful. It is very, very good at doing cross sell and up sell. It is less good at straight acquisition. So what you tend to find is people who get emails from companies they have never heard of will tend to delete them, ignore them, they will go into their spam folder. For companies they already deal with in some way, shape or form telling them that there is a new product, that there is a new version, that there is something that is different they will tend to click on the link. You know over the years I have known people who if you get the right email can have 30 – 40% of the people open it, 2 – 3% of those people actually action the transaction that you are asking them to do. The numbers when you are doing pure acquisition are much, much lower.

So another couple of areas just to touch on. Affiliates. Affiliates has always been a thorny subject because what you are talking about is people who are driving traffic to your website using other peoples websites or indeed search engines themselves. What you are doing is you are transferring the risk to them. So they will charge you per lead that they will generate potentially per visitor per sale. So frequently affiliates are quite a strong way of adding additional sales to an already existing digital program because people will say okay if I set up with a particular affiliate network be it trader or affiliate window or any of these sorts of guys and they have hundreds and thousands of people who are active in the affiliate market who are driving traffic to particular websites and what you need to do is get your website on one of those programs. You have got to be realistic though. You need to be competitive with the other people on that affiliate program and you need to be selling something that there is a reasonable volume for. The affiliate themselves, the person who is driving the traffic isn’t realistically going to go after somebody, some particular small niche and that is a niche you should probably look after yourselves.

The last in terms of the various different areas of digital marketing that we talk about is social networking. Social networking is one of those areas that there is just huge amounts written about most of it rubbish. Life is comparatively simple in this environment. There is only one genuine player well two actually if you include Twitter but arguably for a lot of people having a Twitter strategy is a nice to have rather than fundamental core part of what we are trying to do. But what you are looking at is FaceBook and FaceBook dominates the display advertising market in the UK. Upwards of 30% of all display ads are now on FaceBook. Display advertising banners as they would be known to most people used to be a very prevalent area for people to drive traffic. It still is and its one of those areas that as it has dropped off in popularity the cost has fallen away quite dramatically and now there are many deals to be had. If you are trying to build a brand display advertising is probably a strong way to go. But if you are looking for direct response it can tend to be quite weak. One of the new characteristics of display advertising though recently is the fact that we now do a lot of retargeted advertising. So when you visited a website and you haven’t made a purchase when you then go on to other websites the banner ads that you see on your newspaper site will reflect where you have just been or where you were in the last seven days.

Kevin: Wow.

Neil: Because it will turn round and encourage you to say oh you had a look at this iphone the next ad that you see is for iphone because people tend in the web environment to come in and go out, to stop and start. And they potentially can be reminded again of the place they just were, oh yeah I meant to do that and off they go.

But just coming back to FaceBook so what any company should do is set up a FaceBook page and then look at potentially how it can encourage people who are fans of it within FaceBook to interact with the brand. You need to have a brand for that sort of thing to work. So you need to be at the high end, comparatively speaking at the high end of things for people to be interested and excited about it. So there has got to be something slightly edgy about it or something that generates an interest. But the one thing that I would say about FaceBook is that the demographics have exploded to the point where in the United States for example over half the population has an active FaceBook account. In the UK the numbers are well over 15 million and growing. It’s no longer the preserve of the young, the teenager. It has grown significantly and it like the use of the internet, like the use of the email is becoming one of those things that people just do. It is becoming part of an everyday existence.

The other thing that I will just touch on is location based marketing particularly if you are running something that is dependent on a location, so a shop, a restaurant anything like that FaceBook has just released something called FaceBook places where people check in and say yeah I have arrived. You can offer discounts or something that would interest them. So just to give you an example FaceBook launched its discount deals associated with FaceBook Places and one of their opening partners is The Gap and what The Gap has said is they are offering 10,000 pairs of jeans to people who go to a Gap store and check in using FaceBook Places. You get a free pair of jeans. What that means is that you then go to the store and what they are banking on is when people arrive in a store yes they will get their free pair of jeans which will give them a positive reaction to the brand but they are also there in store and the chances are they will buy more product. And it also delivers a bit of a buzz about the brand.

So the second half of just talking about digital marketing program. Second half of it is all about conversion. Because there are two things you are driving traffic to a website and once you have driven traffic to a website what you actually need to do is make sure that something happens with that traffic. And it’s the most neglected part of it because people fundamentally believe that they have spent time, money and effort designing this website it looks wonderful the question is is it effective. Most websites are designed by what’s called the hippo principle. Highest paid employee’s opinion right. And what happens is the CEO or someone else says that’s the way I want it to be. It could be the creative it could be something else. And what I would strongly argue is you should let the data decide. Install Google’s Web Optimiser tool. I sound like a fan boy for Google but it is merely the tool is free and it is a good start point and that does A B testing. That allows you to say if I offer my users page A and page B which one of them do they do the action on in the highest numbers. Which one of them is the most successful and it will say after a given period of time the answer was B and therefore you should use B and then you go on to the next page of the process and the next page. Products like Clicktail which are comparatively cheap tell you where the user is going round your website as they are clicking. There is nothing more interesting than watching somebody who can’t find the buy button because you thought it was in the appropriate place but they didn’t. And as you get advanced in these things you should look at multi variant testing. So that is not only testing page A against page B but it is elements on each of the pages against elements on a different page.

I did one recently where we tried out 674 different versions of a page through something getting on for a million visitors and version number 426 turned out to be the best one. Now it was 12% better than the one they were currently using so that meant that that customer got 12% better sales off their website through simply running the test. And in all of the examples with all of the tools that people have used you are almost guaranteed from a standing start to make at least a 5% improvement in the overall transactions that you are going to deliver through your website. You would be horrified to realise how many people actually go through your website and don’t actually get to the checkout, leave stuff in the basket and when you go through these sort of processes with these sort of tools you found out what is happening and then you can start to advance it into why it is happening.

So that is one of the things that I would strongly recommend that people do. Not only concentrating on how many people you are driving into the website, how many people you are bringing to show what your product is but then what is happening when they are on that website. In terms of cost effectiveness the conversion work is generally speaking much, much more cost effective because it is comparatively cheap to do or in some cases with the Google tools free but it will deliver quite dramatic results and those results tend to be long lasting.

One of the things, just the last thing to touch on attribution modelling, there is a word or phrase indeed. Attribution modelling is about the idea that people go to different places and consume different parts of your marketing mix before they actually make the purchase. If you talk to anybody they will tell you my brand searches are driving my sales off the page it is doing so well and they may very well be. But the reality is most people will buy own brand as the very last part of the transaction. So having done all the research they type your brand name into a search engine and then they go and make their purchase. So what you need to do is when you have touched on whether it be search engine optimisation, PPC or any of these different things look at some technology and there are plenty of them out there which will help you see where people went to and what pieces of your marketing material they saw before they actually came and made the purchase. Because what happens is you can look at maybe pay per click for maybe some expensive word and decide that it is not driving enough sales or you can look at SEO and say it is not converting and the reality is when you look at it in an attribution model you might very well see that 60% of the people who purchased on your brand clicked on one of your PPC links before they had done that or went and saw some display advertising that you were running or did something. And if you take that away you may ultimately reduce the number of people who are making those purchases.

Digital marketing still has large amounts of low hanging fruit and if you work out how to work with it you can deliver a lot of visitors to your website convert them and therefore make a lot of sales for your company.

Kevin: A simple question to finish on do you have to have a tangible product in order to apply this, there is so much service driven business now isn’t there?

Neil: There is and the difference is that you should have a digital marketing strategy for a service it just won’t transact in the main people don’t tend to buy services in block online unless they are already a familiar user of that particular offering. But what you will find is that people who are looking for everything from solicitors to tax experts, people who are looking for recruitment, people who are looking for any of those service industries the first place they will start, whatever the service they are looking for and the town they are looking for it in and that will drive you know whether it is plumbers in Macclesfield or accountants in Bognor Regis that is exactly where people will start and you will be able to find even if you are very small niche provider or a particular service in that town or city you will be able to find a number of people who are searching for exactly that through a search engine. And if you can be the person who is most relevant you will be the one who drives the drafting and gets the sales.

Kevin: Neil that is superb and I would love to say that, that is the end of the interview but as always I do like to throw in a question right at the very end which often puts people on the spot a bit but it’s the nature of why we are here and it is all about maximising potential. Is there something that you can pass on, is there something that you can share about how maybe you have approached your career over the years that has enabled you to become a Director of a global success company?

Neil: I mean there are all the usual things that people talk about at times like this about focus and all of these concentrating on areas in particular. I suppose the one thing I would look at and talk about is always look out and look around you at what other people are doing and look at what’s happening in the world and why it is happening because history repeats itself continuously in different business in different models. And the same thing always happens and you just have to be one of the people who can spot the trend and understand why it is happening and what will happen and therefore you can be the one who is one step ahead. And if you can look out and around because in our lives we are very concentrated on what is happening to us rather than necessarily what is happening around us and I think if people look out rather than focussing in on themselves then they will ultimately be able to see the wood from the trees, be able to see what is important and then be able to make the right decisions both in their career and indeed in their job day to day.

Kevin: Thank you Neil McCarthy for so clearly breaking down all the core elements within online marketing and highlighting the techniques and overall framework you apply in order to make the most of your online presence. Neil’s key message of building your online marketing strategy around relevant content that you are constantly adding to is a core lesson that I shall personally take away from this interview.


Kevin: Now this is something for you all to get involved in the Jenrick Recruitment Group the sponsors of the Maximise Potential Podcast run an annual charity photo competition where £1200 is donated to the charities of those who enter the competition. This year’s competition has just been launched and I have put all the details of how you can enter on the show notes for this episode as well as in the Maximise Potential Group on LinkedIn. The theme for this year is called ‘Why I love Weekends’. So please dust off your cameras and come and join in.

Here is a track from Xerxes as always to finish on today and it is called ‘Yurgens Theme’. We will be back soon and thanks for tuning in bye bye.


About the Author

Hi, I'm Tom Burkinshaw, I co-produce the Maximise Your Potential Podcast and Website and my goal is to help as many people as possible be successful in life, careers and business, by offering free coaching and mentoring through a series of unique interviews from inspiring people who all display exceptional self-belief, mental toughness and desire to achieve. Thank you for taking the time to visit Maximise Your Potential!