Craig Campbell

CEO, Craig Campbell SEO

Craig's Interview

In this interview, CEO of DFY Links, Charles Floate talks with Craig Campbell about the agency business model and his ascendency into affiliate and guest speaking mastery. Craig also reminds us of the benefits of our industry, including its implications on family and the great travel opportunities it provides.

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Craig Campbell - DFY Links Podcast Ep. #1

In this interview, CEO of DFY Links, Charles Floate talks with Craig Campbell about the agency business model and his ascendency into affiliate and guest speaking mastery. Craig also reminds us of the benefits of our industry, including its implications on family and the great travel opportunities it provides.

Craig Campbell is a seasoned SEO and all-round digital marketing king. He has featured at international conferences like Brighton SEO, Search Birmingham, and Chaing Mai. With over 15 years of experience in the industry — outdating sites like Bing and Quora, Craig Campbell makes for a great podcast. His straight-talking, no BS approach to marketing provides a refreshing insight that people sick of all the fakery in SEO will relish.

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Charles: Hello, welcome to the DFY links podcast episode number 1, I am here with Mr Craig Campbell — the legend himself.

In this episode, we are going to be going through Craig’s experience in the SEO industry. Nearly two decades worth at this point.

And we discuss some of his experience going from agency owner and doing consulting and public speaking throughout the SEO industry. There are also quite a few other topics as well including some blackhat SEO knowledge that I am sure is going to rile some people up but make some people quite interested as well.

So thanks for coming onto the show Craig.

Craig: No worries, it’s a pleasure.

Charles: Yeah it’s really nice to have you in ‘sunny Birmingham’ as always.

Craig: Not so sunny Birmingham.

Charles: Yeah, it’s not the best weather at the moment. Unfortunately, we were hoping for a nice picturesque background with the weather but it didn’t turn out so well.

*The two turn to the window disappointedly*

So yeah, let’s just jump into things.

You have been active in SEO for like nearly two decades at this point. It’s actually 17 years, is it?

Craig: Yeah.

Charles: Yeah and so… How did you first get started in SEO because 17 years ago I don’t think Google was even the go-to search engine.

Craig: It was only just coming out.  I worked in a flooring company and I was supposed to be a sales guy but they had the website and that kind of stuff so I was just dabbling about with the internet. 

When I was 16-17 the internet had just come out. The dial-up connection and all that kind of stuff were around. Being able to look at something like my house on google earth was mind-blowing.

You were like “fuck, what is this”. So yeah, I’ve been quite obsessed with the internet.

I was in some shitty sales job and no one really knew what they were doing and because I was obsessed with the internet, I started messing about with the website.

It all just kind of took off from there. I started reading up on forums and you know.

SEO wasn’t really a thing. Probably about 2005, which is about 14 years ago, things started to pick up a little bit.

In terms of properly doing SEO, I think I left to start on my own probably about 2006 or something like that. Started doing my own stuff. Started building my own agency.

It wasn’t really SEO as such, it was more just building websites and building some local spam. Back then it was very different. Even now, 17 years in you’re learning new things, new techniques and new ways of making money. 

So yeah, it has been a long thing but you know I didn’t start out as an SEO. I was messing with something I got from pc world called (mister site????????) just to practice.

So, it was really low-class… kind of messing about probably for the first five, six, seven years.

I just trid to understand what the hell was going on, trying to learn how to spam properly.

Charlie: That’s one of the topics I was interested in… I started SEO about 2009-20109, and when I first started, YouTube was just coming out. It was getting really popular and stuff so I dedicated most of my time to youtube. Even like the whiteboard Fridays and stuff back in 09 and 2010. I was just doing things like that to try and learn since there wasn’t this huge community of knowledge, where you know people are releasing 20,000-word guides every week.

You can learn a huge amount of SEO in a short amount of time. So it is very interesting seeing how people got into it when there was not much knowledge out there…

You literally just had to do things and cross your fingers until it works. 

Craig: Yeah, hah.

Charles: So actually moving on, I know you actually sold your agency

Craig: Yep.

Charles: So you actually moved away from agency work…

How was the transition going from agency work to public speaking, consulting and online affiliate even and stuff like that?

Craig: I mean it was relatively easy, I think the agency model just wasn’t right for me for a lot of reasons. I’m not discounting agencies, I know you guys effectively run an agency and that kind of stuff.

I set the agency up around my skills so I didn’t work on the business operations so much, I was more working in the business. I didn’t ever set out to be a business owner.

I  just found myself with 17 staff at this point.

People were pulling sickies. As soon as I went out the office, people’s feet were put up on the desk, and so I get frustrated by a lot of the staffing issues and then you’ve always got all the client crap that you get.

As an agency, I was dealing with a  lot of websites, I was getting low cost with the website because I used to do a lot of ranking rate stuff, just giving websites out the cost price for link building reasons.

But also I would get a website out for a good price, prioritising the SEO gig, so I wasn’t that fussed.

What I found was 80-90 per cent of the time were taken by clients: you know,  they would say things like: “I don’t like that colour” or “my cousin down the pub doesn’t really like that and he said this should be on there”. I would reply: “Man, I’ve quoted you and this is what you’ve asked for”.

It was just a whole lot of fighting.

One day I decided, this is enough, enough is enough.

I felt that my SEO skills were deteriorating because I was the type of guy that loved listening to podcasts and reading up on stuff and quite geeky about tools and stuff. I felt I wasn’t getting the time to do that either.

My SEO skills were suffering.

Charles: You were losing your passion for the actual business you started in the first place? 

Craig: Yeah.

Charles: Yeah, then it is hard to work in that environment, right?

Craig: Yeah so at that point I told myself:  “focus on what you’re good at”. I think SEO is what I felt I was good at. And I thought I should get rid of everything else: staff and all that other kind of stuff and start working your own projects and stuff like that.

I had one client who was a dentist. I had done SEO for this guy for about 4-5 years, and he said to me: “I’m gonna have to let you go. I’m retiring, I’ve sold up the practice.”

And he says “you are the biggest fool I’ve ever met… with your skills, you could be making so much money.

I can retire at 31, spend time with my family, and you’re not”.

And that was something that kind of triggered something in my brain that said: “What the hell are you doing here?” 

Ahehe.

*Charles laughs*

And I know younger guys like Matt Diggity who have always been selling your own stuff effectively rather than doing the kind of client-side.

When you see guys doing that… You were like bloody hell I’m doing it all wrong. I’m not shy to admit that you know that the agency model for me was all wrong for my temperament and everything else. So I found it [the move to affiliate] quite easy…

It was quite a relief getting away from it.

Charles: Yeah, I really don’t think the agency is plausible unless you do partnership shares or revenue shares with clients. Otherwise, to grow your own revenue you have to constantly onboard new clients, or you constantly have a loss rate and some times you have bursts where clients don’t manage their business properly.

You will naturally just lose clients. It’s not often your own fault. It may not be that you’re not doing the work properly. You’ll just lose clients because that’s the way the business world works.

I think the only sane one [business structure] like you said is actual revenue share or profit share even or some kind of asset where you can hold money company is earning. Otherwise your not growing with the clients SEO and growth unless you state in the contract that there are payment tiers… but most companies won’t sign this without clear goals, but then it is very hard to give clear goals without extensive case studies. You have to have clear goals. 

Craig: Even the agency model, it does always have its problems, when you put people into the equation because people get greedy and I think stand on your own two feet is probably the best. 

Charles: Yeah, 100%.

I have been focusing mainly on white label and freelancing projects at the moment.. such as this!

So… in the actual scene that you are in it is mostly a white hat conference scene. That being said, even though a lot of people say they’re white hat, there are an awful lot of agencies, even some of the bigger agencies, that speak at these conferences, that talk a lot of crap to be honest because they buy links off us let alone doing other work especially.

So what is it like being honest with the SEO community when you go up to these conferences?

You have spoken at Brighton SEO, you have spoken about PBNs and stuff… Something I personally never thought would be at Brighton SEO… so you’re the first person to have done that.

What is the kind of reaction you get from people at these white hat kind of events, and possibly the backlash you get online?

Craig: It was surprising, as you say, not many people have done it, and you know… it was all new to me.

To be honest, it was a fairly negative experience, if I’m being honest, I thought I would go on the Brighton stage, have a good laugh, talk about PBNs and people would be laughing, talking and joking.

I made it clear that it wasn’t for everyone but I still took a fair bit of a beating online.

People coming up and going: “you’re a criminal”, and you know all of the other usual stuff that you get because you speak about PBNs. It was fun overall and I would do it again but not at Brighton.

I don’t think Brighton is for me. That was a negative one. But I’ve spoken at other conferences where other people lap that stuff up.

Charles: Yeah, saw your search Norwich talk… 

if anyone wants to go look that up. It’s a really good talk about black hat SEO and at the ending you basically get a standing ovation which is really awesome to see, to be honest.

Craig: That was a good one. A journalist came up to me because I was talking about [James] Dooley’s image trick and gave Dooley the credit for the image trick.

Not sure if it was him, but whoever’s Image trick it was, a journalist came up to me and said: “I laughed so much during that presentation but also felt like punching you in the face because I took hours to write that article and you’ve just swarmed in and stolen a link.”

I got very good feedback from that.

Charles: You should have offered him some money instead. Hahaha

*Craig and Charles laugh* 

Craig: I think, you know it would be unfair to say that talking about these kinds of things on stage is always negative, I think that the UK or Brighton SEO is more for agencies in the white hat community.  You are going to take a bit of a beating.

In other places, I’ve heard tons of people desperate to speak to me or desperate for me to open up even more. 

But I think you have to be careful, I’ve done the search Norwich thing as well which you mentioned and Barclays bank was one of the sponsors of that event.

Because I was talking about like poison my URL shop and the GMB stuff, which is kind of dodgy again, I had a guy say to Barclays: You’re sponsoring a criminal.

Charles: It’s not really criminal acts though.

Craig: No it’s not like I’m robbing a bank or something.

So yeah… I got a bit of negative stuff from that as well. I think if you’re gonna put your neck on the line you’ve gotta be prepared to take some blows to the chin.

Charlie: Yeah, 100 percent,  I’m not surprised.

The actual UK scene is probably the biggest in the world. Brighton seems to be the biggest conference in the world. Over 4k attendees, conferences and meetups up and down the UK. Some of the biggest names in the industry have come out of the UK.  You’ve got Matthew woodward, Garreth Hoyle, Gareth Simpson…

A lot of Gareths actually. *The two laugh*

So, how have you found that the UK has evolved since you’ve been involved in the community?

How has it grown? Has it lived up to expectations?

Craig: Massively like, obviously a few years ago before public speaking and going to conferences, I was always the guy who stayed in the agencies and didn’t really venture out much.

So I wasn’t developing personally as much and didn’t realise how big all this stuff is.

I’m not going to say conferencing because I don’#t really go for the conferences, more networking and what not and to chill out with guys like you cus you know having a few beers with people doing what you’re doing is good because you know, most people will not get it.  

But it is massive. 

Charles: if you going to these network events, when people are a bit drunk they will say things that they simply just won’t tell you online.

They will be honest with you and open up to you because it is face to face.

Online everyone wants to slightly be anonymous. People don’t like saying things online because it can be print screened and people easily record stuff. 

In-person you will be able to network with people that will share their specific tactics with you especially if they are a bit drunk. 

Craig: I think as well if you start to meet the same people time and time again you do open up. You’re not just gonna sit there. You are building trust with these people.

I think it has evolved massively especially in the last 3-4 years, for me personally. again, I’ve only been doing it for that amount of time, so I’m not sure if it’s just one-sided, but for me, the industry has gotten massive and I’ve got guys like Dooley that will come up to the office in Glasgow and chill out for a few days. 

So I think we’ve got a good community here…

Although, a lot of people will think it’s just the lads going out and you know I think we’ve been called SEO chavs, Champagne boys club, whatever…

But you know I think this community is massively rewarding, as I say, it’s not just whether the guys that like the beers and networking. There’s also a geeky side of people.

I think it is massive in the UK.

Hopefully, I think I’m gonna be opening up my eyes to Chiang Mai and stuff like that as well, it’s massive over there.

Erm, and hopefully America, that’s one I want to do more of as well. That’s gonna be the plan for my future… To try that.

I think I’m relatively unknown in America. So, trying to do a bit more over there and see how it goes. 

*Charles mutters* If they let you in over there, haha. 

Craig: if they let me in haha. I don’t think talking about PBNs…

Charles: You could get in ungagged.

Craig: The guy doesn’t let me in ungagged, I’ve tried so many times

Charles: Yeah,  the black hat world guys, yeah it is alright, you’re not missing out too much. 

One of our friends, Guy, He actually sponsored ungagged and he spoke there. It is very private, very secure and things.

Yeah, I think the conference game now has got so big that it is actually hard to find people willing to have you…

The SEO industry itself is very diverse. To be an SEO, you’re not really an SEO anymore, you have to, realistically you have to do web design, coding, you have to do a bit of PPC, a bit of social media, a bit of graphic design, a bit of video editing, its so all-encompassing just to rank your video, requires the  actual process of making and distributing the actual video, its taken on a life of its own for me at least. I’ve found that I’ve learned an array of different trades alongside just the SEO side of things.

What is it that you think has been the number 1 learning period. Where have you got the most value out of info, is it conferences, blogging, people?

Craig: Networking and people, you can do online courses and as you know you are not ever going to release anything in a blog piece.

You give people a rough idea, you then have to use initiative and trying and testing. That takes a lot of effort.

And people can’t be asked for that, there is no one place you can go to get all the info, no one confidence. It is something that has to happen over some time. You talk to guys like Diggity and you learn a bit from him.  But you might not talk for six months, and in the meantime, I’ll talk to you and pick up another nugget, so this whole thing takes years to piece together.

Even my wife says: “you’re always away on your jollies going to these events and stuff” and I’m like: “noo, I’m going out to learn, I want to talk to these guys I want to pick their brains.”

Like James Dooley, you go up to his office, see all his money sites and pick his brain, there’s another golden nugget there.

That’s taken years and years to develop and probably cost me thousands and thousands of pounds on travel, hotels and time and effort and all that kind of stuff.

Charles: But the thing is… A lot of people think they will go to these events and be able to network and just pick up ideas but you have to be giving back.

You have to give to other people for them to give to you, you can’t go to an event empty-handed and just try to grab at the scraps on the table.

You have to have an arsenal yourself so you can go out there and give to other people so you can get back in return.

Testing is probably the biggest way to do that, that is one of the things we are doing the most…

Single variable tests where we change just one element of the links or one element of the site and see how it affects the SEO and we do that on mass so that we can test and see specific ways to do SEO…

And that’s part of the entire package of it….

Erm yeah, but something that a lot of my viewers will be interested in: do you have any black hat tips and tricks which might rile up the white hats on twitter? 

Craig: So anyone listening, buying links DOES work. That’s one that will probably rile up people! You have to buy links, there is no way you’re not buying links, I don’t care who you are or who trains you, at some point money is going to exchange in some way to get a link on the website. 

Or you’re gonna be doing something else, sexual favours or whatever that may be.

*Charles and Craig burst out giggling*

One way or another, it is happening.

I know a lot of white hat guys, go outreach and this that and the next. It doesn’t matter if outreach, still money transactions occur. Paid links do work very well.

So, continue outreach if want to be at the bottom end of the scale and continue to do client work…

Charles: That’s the thing. We sent tens of thousands of emails every single month for outreach, the only ones that get response rates are ones you’re offering something.

Endorse people to reply to you because they get so much spam from SEO and PR companies.

They’re only gonna listen if its gonna benefit them in some way. A piece of content in 2019 is not gonna benefit them that much. Not gonna understand the value of it in the same way as money… or an iPad! Or that type of thing.

You also have to build relationships. If you build relationships over time, you can get cheap, effective PBNs and be able to use the site repeatedly.

Another tip I might share: We also do a massive amount of outreach on Linkedin…

A lot of people actually check linked in more in comparison with emails. Most people just spam their emails but actually read custom LinkedIn, probably will ignore emails. You need LinkedIn premium. Buying LinkedIn has defo been one of my main sources to get the best links from high authority sites, or Forbes, NY Times editorial and I even had my hotel affiliate website on the Airbnb blog, so that was  a pretty good one. *They both laugh*

So I think the next point I was going to get onto was your ability to market yourself…

You are one of the biggest SEMrush affiliates out there and the SEMRush affiliate project is huge and lots of people competing. So, to say Craig is one of the biggest is a huge accomplishment, considering how many are competing for this title.

So, how have you gone about originally building you name and your brand to get visible around the community? 

Craig: I looked to guys like Matt woodward, talking at events and webinars. What he’s doing? I said. I want some of that. The SEMrush came by pure default. I was talking at Alexandra Tachalova’s Digital  Olympus, online conferences. SEMrush quite liked the way I was talking: “Do I fancy doing a twitter chat”.

Hmm, I say, yeah yeah I’ll do a twitter chat, no problem. This then became a webinar then became speaking events. SEMrush really has put me on the map because of the size of the company and the exposure they got.

And then when you go there to any event and deliver some information and they like you it just goes arms and legs.

Got a lot to thank SEMrush for but it was pure luck. I did follow Matthew Woodward and stuff. I think back before me speaking, he was bigger on SEMrush thing. I know he’s now a big advocate of Ahrefs but before that he was big on SEMrush. 

Charles: That’s funny because it was actually Matthew that got me into SEO and things as well. I was actually the first person to guest post on matthew’s blog.

He didn’t allow guest posts for several years then I started outreaching to him because I had my own little blog that based itself of the tutorial of how to start a blog online, using all the tips he recomended.

Craig: I’ve done exactly the same thing.

Charles: Yeah, haha, I went for it mate, haha. I was 16, working as an SEO junior for a company here in Birmingham and I would be up at night at 8:00pm and 3:00am in the morning trying to read Matthew Woodward’s tutorials and build my blog and things and try to grow it from there.

I actually started, I know Matthew has moved more to ahrefs now, and I know that he is actually living in Costa Rica, he is actually a big advocate of moving away from being self-affiliate to trying to supply your own products and try and supply your own business.

This, erm, takes it from just being a commission to the next level of owning things. He’s actually just sold a website… can’t remember niche, but he sold it for a lot of money.

He was actually using his own model, he wasn’t being an affiliate but more of an actual business. I know that lifestyle isn’t actually for everyone…

I was just wondering what your opinion was on the business models that you think are the best ones for your business and why.

Craig: For me personally, the kind of model I’ve got when I get to travel and speak is quite good.

I know guys like you and Matt [woodward] love living the life and the sun shining. If I was younger I’d love to have done that but with a wife and a baby, it’s a little more difficult. I love holidays and I love Thailand and speaking at conferences.

I can still have a bit of what you’ve got. But then I’m back here for 6-7 months.

I’ve got the balance where the wife if very into her family and you know the big family so I could never get her to move abroad although I probably would.

The good thing about digital marketing is that you can do what you want, you can work where you want. I could be down in Birmingham and still be able to fire off emails like I did this morning. And you know, delegate my tasks to what I’m doing that day.

So, you can really have whatever life you want. The James Dooley approach where the world is my office, that can be a reality. There are guys out there killing it, unknown guys, not big on speaking circuit making absolute fortunes, and loving the life they’re living.

I think that is what we all aspire to have, surely…

You know Sunny, vitamin D, a bit of sun on your back. 

Charles: I’d almost prefer at this point some of the lifestyles those guys have got. They’re anonymous. Nobody knows them, they’re completely in the shadows.

They could just turn up to a conference, no one knows they are worth like 50 million pounds. It is amazing and it is purely down to the internet. This literally wouldn’t be able to happen without the internet. Businesses’ wouldn’t be able to scale the way they do now. 

But yeah, aside from that…

Is there anything else you would like to shoutout, or are you doing anything else with your life? How many conferences this year?

Craig: I’ve got to speak in India, Poland…

Charles: India? *Confused tone*

Craig: it’s a SEMrush thing in India, 2k people going. I am trying to build exposure over there so I’ve got that. Chiang Mai… not speaking there but I should be going hopefully.

Poland… what else? *talking to himself*

Milan… And, I might have America. I am trying to get things running in America… SEO rockstars but I’m not sure, I think they might ditch it for this year. *Craig chuckles*

So yeah, trying to work my way into that one because I’ve been told that’s a good event.

But there’s also this… I’m gonna be doing a talk here tomorrow about affiliate stuff but going forward I am going to be launch, not an empire flippers model, but aim for a lower end for people wanting to buy a cheap website so I’m going to be launching a marketplace for that.

Not just amazon sites, but you know, apps, whatever. Broker and help people because I get loads of guys saying I’ve got ‘x’ to invest but I want to learn how to do it. ‘Where can I find a website’? I normally send them to your group.

Don’t want to compete with flippers. So launching that, that should be ready in a couple week so looking forward to a bit on that as well.

Charles: Well… it was great having you on the show and everything Craig as well. 

Craig: Perfect.

Charles: I’m sure the audience got a lot out of that, and there have been a few laughs along the way.