Ash Nallawalla Interview

Dixon Jones sits down with Ash Nallawalla to talk about his new book: “Accidental SEO Manager: Managing SEO Teams, Agencies, and Websites that Sell“.

In this interview Ash talks about the inspiration behind the book, his journey in SEO, and how he might be the ‘oldest in-house SEO in the Southern Hemisphere’.

Transcript

Dixon Jones

Hello everyone. How are you today? I’ve got an old friend of mine, Ash Nallawalla, who’s come on, who’s just written a book actually, but also been around in the SEO industry since as long as me, if not longer than me. And I think his story is a really interesting one. He’s a great character and got a lot to share with the industry. Hi Ash, how are you?

Ash Nallawalla

Hi Dixon. I’m fine. Enjoying the summer weather in the Northern hemisphere here in Toronto. I normally live in Melbourne.

Dixon Jones

Absolutely. Yeah. Get yourself out there is out to the north, but you’re up in Canada though, aren’t you? Doesn’t get hot in Canada. I’ve been told it’s always cold in Canada. Maybe I’m reading that wrong. Or was before global warming.

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah.

Dixon Jones

Ash, before I go into to some of the other things, can you tell people a little bit about how you got into SEO, who you are and what you’ve been doing SEO with over the years?

Ash Nallawalla

My background is one of those meandering career paths. I trained as an accountant, worked for a chartered accountant and to cut the jump a few years. I hated accounting, so I joined the Royal Australian Air Force in Australia. I was living in New Zealand and moved to Australia for a couple of years, but the couple of years is still 42 years later, and doesn’t look like I’m going back to New Zealand. But the Air Force set me up for some of the skills I needed later on, especially publishing. I was in charge of a technical publishing team. I used Ventura Publisher to lay out the books and that got me in civilian life as a technical editor for Unisys. And that’s where I learned what proper English, or American English, is and I had to edit books or software manuals in three kinds of English, which is British English, US English, and Australian English. And the three-

Dixon Jones

Well, that right there, that’s interesting because that’s something that SEOs probably don’t pay an awful lot of attention to, three different types of English. We all know that we can set our Windows or our Mac laptops up on in those three different languages, but I didn’t realize that going back what, 40, 50 years, even then, things were being written in three different types of English.

Ash Nallawalla

Well, the challenges between British English and Australian English, which superficially is the same, but in Australia, we use the Macquarie dictionary as the standard, which is from one of our universities. And for the UK, you can use whatever you want. And in my case, it was the Cambridge dictionary because that’s what Unisys had recommended, as opposed to the Oxford dictionary. And one difference I recall is I think Oxford prefers the IZ spellings and Cambridge prefers the IS spellings in words like organization.

Dixon Jones

Mm. Mm. Or even in optimization.

Ash Nallawalla

Correct. And that got me slowly into the marketing side of things. I was a product manager there and in later jobs, it was technical, such as Hayes, the modem people, and that’s where I built my very first website for all the Hayes companies in Asia. I’d be embarrassed to show them to you. Maybe they’re somewhere in archive.org or hand coded.

Dixon Jones

That was Hayes, the manuals, was it?

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah. Hayes the modem company.

Dixon Jones

Oh right. Oh, oh, Hayes Modems. Yeah. Okay.

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah. The inventor of the domestic house modems.

Dixon Jones

Yeah. Yeah. I had one of them. I had one of them. Those are the days. And so, you and I, well, before we met in real life, we met in the early days, I think of Webmaster World, unless we met on Gym Tools or something before that. Are you a CRM 911 on Webmaster World? Was that right?

Ash Nallawalla

I’m A. Nallawalla on Webmaster World, but I use CRM 911 on… Maybe I used it on Gym World. I used to be on several of those old forums.

Dixon Jones

Yeah.

Ash Nallawalla

I’m still there on Webmaster World as a moderator in the local search forum.

Dixon Jones

Okay. We can always track you down there. I think I might just go through and use this as a platform to interview all the Webmaster World moderators and get a pretty good baseline of how the internet marketing industry developed I think, because those were good times basically, Gym World and Webmaster World. I think we really forged a… I don’t know, a methodology for search agent optimization, for internet marketing, for I wouldn’t say critical thinking all the time, but for having ideas put up and slap back down again possibly is more appropriate, but it was interesting times and interesting places. Good to see you’re still there on the… Still moderating on the forum there. Okay, well, let’s get on to your book. Accidental SEO’s just come out. I want to start with… It’s a great read, by the way. I’m on to page 144 at the moment. But why the title? I know you say that at the start of the book, but hey, then there’s people on the podcast.

Ash Nallawalla

Well, most SEOs themselves are accidental. At least the ones I’ve met. No one went to high school and said I want to become an SEO. They plan to be something, accountant in my case, and then maybe a marketer later on. But when I left Macromedia, I was the CRM manager for Asia Pacific. I built this website called crm911.com, and it was meant to be a CRM consulting practice. It never operated as a CRM consultant, but it ranked number one for nearly 10 years. And the fact that it ranked so well, got me my first assignment through a referral to a company that’s a NASDAQ listed company now called RingCentral. In those days, it was privately owned and that got me into SEO. And later on, when I worked for some larger companies, like banks and insurance companies, I noticed that most of my managers had no SEO background. They were the accidental SEO managers. Somehow, they’d landed themselves a role that included two or three teams, such as content, CMS, and this thing called SEO. And many of them had no idea how to deal with it.

In Australia, we have something that’s quite different from north America, which is SEO is seldom part of the marketing silo. I’ve been in two places, in two companies, where it used to be that way, but some someone before me had pulled it out of marketing and put it into product. Budgets were never as generous as PPC. I’ve been in places where the PPC budget was well into the 20 and $30 million region annually, and this year was lucky if it even reached half a million, which was largely salaries.

Dixon Jones

I mean, it’s a problem in the SEO industry, or has been a problem for a long time, hasn’t it really? This idea that SEO is always the afterthought of a business and yet, the PPC market seems to lap up all the money. Do you think that’s a real shame, or do you think there is a reason behind that?

Ash Nallawalla

It is a shame and I understand why it happens. In many companies where I’ve worked, PPC would bring in about 40% to 30% of online revenues. SEO in the same companies used to bring 30 to 60% of online revenues and that doesn’t cut any ice when you want more money. Even for simple tools. I’ve had, I won’t name the tools, but some really popular ones that you’re very familiar with. I had to justify and then I was rejected for wanting to spend a thousand dollars a year, for example. It’s difficult in a large company, depending on who your accidental SEO manager is, or who their manager is, but SEO sometimes gets the raw end of the deal.

Dixon Jones

Talking about tools, you mentioned Majestic in the book, so thank you very much for that. I mean, I remember the early days of Majestic, or early days of my involvement with Majestic, you were very, very… Well, basically, you read pretty… You must have been an incredible consumer of information throughout your life because you read almost every post I put out, it seems. Not only that, but you showed me the typos, and I’m renowned for having typos. I remember vividly you pointing out my typos and typos in product as well, so thank you very much for that, but it just shows your attention to detail, which I guess stemmed from your time with Ventura Publishing or using Ventura Publishing. But does that stick out for you? A typo, does it just stick out, just fly off the page and hit you in the face?

Ash Nallawalla

Absolutely, and I was recently brought down to earth, because editors can sometimes be arrogant. They think they don’t need to turn on the spell checker. And I don’t, because I think I know everything. When I published this book, or before I sent it for printing, I thought, oh, well, let’s just try this thing called Grammarly. It’s everywhere I go, and I need to just see what it has to say, and boy. I had to put the book through Grammarly twice because for some reason, it doesn’t find everything the first time. It feels that maybe it’s embarrassed me enough. And then I put it through Microsoft Word’s own checker and boy, I found one or two things that Grammarly had not picked up. I was absolutely shocked.

Dixon Jones

Interesting. Yeah.

Ash Nallawalla

And so, sometimes we think that we are so good that we can spot a typo at a hundred paces, but then we forget that we make typos ourselves.

Dixon Jones

Yeah. Yeah. I must admit, I couldn’t live without Grammarly now. I mean, now I’ve seen it over my content, is sitting there on my Word documents as I look at the screen here and my notes. Everything has to have a go with Grammarly because it’s not just the typos. It helps me with my sentence structure and stuff and I think it’s amazing how many errors I make, even when I think I’ve got it right. That’s interesting that even an eye like yours still needs a tool like Grammarly to stop you from going astray, really. Anyway, go back to the book a little bit. Accidental SEO. What are you trying to… Who was the audience that you’re trying to talk to? You talked about two different audiences, the SEO, but also the C Suite that wanted to know what the hell the SEOs did, right?

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah. A few days ago, I think after I published the book, I had a realization that the problem that I’ve been trying to address is a lack of web governance. I think that is the key problem that trickles down to the ACO level and I didn’t know it at the time when I was writing the three books. Initially, it was a single manuscript, and a good friend of mine, who is a former CEO of a couple of NASDAQ listed companies, told me very frankly, that if you put SEO on the cover, no CEO or C Suite person’s going to pick it up. He suggested that I use some salesy language, such as leads and profits and words like that interest the C Suite.

Dixon Jones

Yeah.

Ash Nallawalla

I was trying to address a different audience at that stage. I wanted to start with the Accidental SEO Manager.

Dixon Jones

Yep.

Ash Nallawalla

I felt that they need a level of knowledge that’s not detailed, not how to do SEO, how to do keyword research at any level of detail, but they need to know what is required, what’s their checklist of things to see whether their own internal or external SEO consultant is doing or not doing. Therefore, I decided that the first book needed to be pulled out from the manuscript and called The Accidental SEO Manager. The third book is tentatively called Untapped, and I’m not sure about that anymore. It might change. Maybe I’ll try and fit in web governance there and see whether that fits.

Dixon Jones

I wonder if the SEOs or the CEOs will like the word web governance anymore than SEO.

Ash Nallawalla

Well, that’s how passionate I am about web governance. I think that all these issues stem from allowing SEO to just happen any way it happens. And as long as there’s someone sitting in a chair with the word SEO stamped on their forehead, everyone seems to be happy. But the point is, not everyone with that rubber stamp on their head is necessarily the right SEO for the company. They might be great at some other kind of SEO because there are many types of SEO, but simply hiring such a person or such a consultant or agency may not be the right fit for your company. I wanted to enlighten both the managers and the C suites through these three books.

Dixon Jones

Book two and book three are not going to have the word SEO in the title. Is that the idea?

Ash Nallawalla

Well, book two will probably have SEO because it is aimed at the manager. It’s going to be important conversations that they need to have with their SEO team. Anything that’s slightly technical, I felt was perhaps a little too overwhelming to put in the first book. Once they’ve read the first book, they might be brave enough to tackle things like co web vitals and using lighthouse scores and starting those conversations with their own teams or advisors to see what’s involved, why is it important? Will it change my ranking? Which we know doesn’t necessarily improve your ranking, but it definitely improves speed, which is important to end users. Such conversations definitely are a little more technical. Maybe accessibility is another area that you could write books on it, but you just need to give the manager the right level of information so that they can make sure that their website is going to be accessible and fast. That’s where the second book will be aimed. These are tentative titles for now.

Dixon Jones

Yeah. Yeah. You’re not shy of going into talking about tools and technologies within the first book, within Accidental SEO Manager, because I mean, you talk about Majestic, so thank you very much for that. You talk about InLinks in there, but you talk a lot about… Well, you cover the vast majority of Google approved stuff, I would say. You are very much a white hat approach to SEO. And so, you spend quite a lot of time making sure that you cover Google search console or these kind of things so that they’re at least covered in the system. You’re saying that in book two then, you’ll go perhaps into some really technical bits that are considerably deeper than you are in the first book.

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah. SEO Manager’s talking points are the important issues to be discussed with the team or agency. And in this book, I simply describe it at that level. I really don’t want to scare them from compiling the next two books

Dixon Jones

Probably fair enough. That’s good.

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah.

Dixon Jones

That’s good. I mean, thank you very much for writing it. I mean, it’s called The Accidental SEO Manager and it’s on Amazon. It’s on Kindle. It’s literally on my Kindle right now and is a good read, but let’s just find out a little bit more about the real Ash Nallawalla and where he came from. Let’s hear about your backstory. Tell us about your early life. I mean, New Zealand’s a long way from most of us, because my audience are in the US or the UK largely. Tell us about your early life. What interested you, how did you end up in accountancy of all things? Was maths your favorite subject in school?

Ash Nallawalla

No, it was my worst. It was the least favorite subject. I was born in India, in Bombay in particular. And just to drop some names, I was a correspondent of Lord Mountbatten, who was the governor general of India after he was Viceroy before independence.

Dixon Jones

The guy that got blown up in…

Ash Nallawalla

Unfortunately.

Dixon Jones

By the IRA. Yeah. Yeah.

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah. And I was in the United States on a student exchange for four months and I’d completely missed that news because in the US, as you may have noticed, not much international news comes up. And I was a student, so there was less opportunity and it was two or three years later that I discovered that’s what had happened to him. But I knew him because my uncle was his personal photographer.

Dixon Jones

Oh wow.

Ash Nallawalla

For the independent ceremony. And I had swapped some photos with him, some duplicates that we had in the house, and he would then write to me once a year. And I developed a fondness for a girl in New Zealand who was my pen pal and I wanted to see her and I couldn’t get a visa.

Dixon Jones

Oh, right.

Ash Nallawalla

He then wrote to the governor general of New Zealand who…

Dixon Jones

Useful friend.

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah, and he wrote to the prime minister of New Zealand, who wrote to me with bad news. He said, sorry, I lost the election. I’m an opposition. And he gave it to the minister for immigration who then got himself arrested by the French. You can’t make this up. If you look back at the news of the early ’70s, you’ll find that New Zealand sent a frigate to Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific to protest against the French nuclear tests. And so, he went on a Navy frigate, the whole frigate got arrested, including him. That delayed things a bit, but he got me the visa and I got to New Zealand. I tried to study accounting. I worked for a chartered accountant. And then I realized I really hated accounting. I got married. I met my wife in Dunedin, New Zealand, and we moved to Australia where I joined the Royal Australian Air Force, and I was an officer there for eight years.

Dixon Jones

Yeah. That’s fantastic.

Ash Nallawalla

That was my early start to computers. I built my first computer by hand by soldering it together. It was an Australian Z 80 based computer called the MicroBee.

Dixon Jones

Was ZX 80 the Sinclair thing?

Ash Nallawalla

Well, Sinclair also had a Z 80 and ZX 81. There were two Sinclair models, at least two, but this was an Australian chip that uses I Log Z 80 chip in it, and you could only assemble it by… Well, you could only use it by assembling the kit.

Dixon Jones

What would the kids of today do?

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah. Well, the commercial computers, it’s begun to appear like the Apple 2 was out there, but it was out of reach. I could never afford that as a young married person trying to save a deposit for a house. That didn’t happen. But this knowledge plus my background in amateur radio, I’m a ham radio operator. My call sign now is VK3 bravo, tango VK3BT. But those little skills all came together and knowing electronics, building a computer and slowly moving onto CPM and through CPM, I moved on to MS-DOS before Windows was released.

Dixon Jones

If you were playing with CPM, would you say you were a programmer before you were a marketer?

Ash Nallawalla

Not… Well, by qualification, yes. I did a computer science graduate diploma, but I’ve never worked as a programmer.

Dixon Jones

Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Ash Nallawalla

It gave me the fundamentals. It made it easy for me to talk to developers, but I never needed, other than writing little routines for text processing, I definitely did that. I used Turbo Pascal as the language because our university taught us a form of Pascal in Munix, whereas at home, I had Turbo Pascal.

Dixon Jones

Okay. Interesting stuff. I mean, I think it’s fascinating that you leveraged your Mountbatten connections to get you a visa into New Zealand. That’s great stuff, and an interesting backstory I think, so thanks for sharing with us. But Ash, this isn’t your first book, or your first series of books. You’ve written some other things as well. What else is out there that we might have seen or can get our hands on?

Ash Nallawalla

I mentioned the MicroBee computer. Now, being an Australian computer, it didn’t have the luxury of 50 books being written and available, as was the case for any American computer books. If you had an Apple or an IBM PC, there were 50 to a hundred books already out there. Three of us got together at a computer club and we noticed that we were writing articles for the club magazine. We decided to get together and collate all our writings and write a little bit more. And we put them into four books called Wildcards Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4. We were lucky that when Volume 3 was released that a publishing company known as Pitman, the famous…

Dixon Jones

Yep.

Ash Nallawalla

Short end people. They knocked on our door and bought us out. Every last copy that we had. I’ve got no spare copies of those books now.

Dixon Jones

Really?

Ash Nallawalla

Other than one for myself, but none if someone asked me for a copy. And-

Dixon Jones

What, did Pitman burn them or did they sell them or did they produce their own?

Ash Nallawalla

No, they not only sold them, but they reprinted Volume 3 and 4 in a smaller format, physical format. You’ll find them on Wikipedia if you look for MicroBee, or if you look for my name. You’ll see a list of these books. The fifth book that I wrote was in 1985. It was about my radio listening hobby, which is known as Radio DXing. It is titled, Better Radio and TV Reception. I worked together with a very famous radio listener. He was blind. His name was Arthur T. Kuchen, MBE. He lived in Invercargill and in the early years, he made a name for himself by taking down lists of prisoners of war during World War II. He would listen to the Japanese transmissions, wrote down the names of POWs and he gave them to the government.

And then he was a famous listener with a session on Radio New Zealand, Radio Netil and so on. And being in the next city from Dunedin, I met him many times. And the other author is Brian Clark, who lives now, north of Auckland. He’s still active in the hobby. That was my fifth book and then there was a huge gap. There was an unfinished book somewhere in between about lead generation from my CRM days, but that never got beyond 60 pages. It’s just sitting there as a Word document never to be finished.

Dixon Jones

Well, I found out that the minimum size book that you need for an Amazon Kindle is 72 pages, by the way. Just in case you ever want to write a short one, like I did. I thought I’d be short to the point in mine. I mean, what advice would you give for other writers? Particularly writers… I mean, I’m not talking about fictional writers, but if anybody in the SEO space or in the marketing space, or even in the technical space, wanted to write a book, have you got any tips for people that they might think about?

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah. This book that I released started life many years ago, but the first word started being captured in the Word document three years ago. And for a whole year, there wasn’t much movement. I might write a chapter name, a paragraph heading, perhaps a paragraph here or there, and I was slowly trying to assemble my thoughts. In those days, I was joking to my staff that I need to write a book about the value of ignorance. And they looked at me strangely and said, what? Well, if you think about it, there are many kinds of ignorance out there and we pay people with the knowledge to solve those problems, whether it’s a plumbing problem, electrical problem. And similarly, SEO needs skills that an ignorant company can’t afford to be ignorant about.

And hence, I was playing with that title and I thought, nah, no one’s going to buy a book if you’re insulting them on the cover. Well, maybe some books are written like that. They’re cheekier. But I recommend to people, there’s at least one book in most of us, especially amongst SEOs. And when I started talking about this book, several have said to me that yes, they are writing a book, or they are thinking of writing a book, and when you think about what is out there for SEO, my advice is look for the gaps. For example, affiliate SEO. Are there many books on affiliate SEO? I don’t know. Many affiliates just don’t like to give away their secrets, but if they think that there is enough generic information that can be put out there without revealing their personal sites, then please do that. There are many kinds of such SEO. I know Brent Payne has put out a book on law firms, SEO for law firms.

Dixon Jones

Yeah. Certainly, when I wrote about entity SEO and entities, that fitted into a gap very nicely. But also, I felt it scratched a niche for me. I mean, it helped me define what I was thinking in terms of, for me, understanding how to use knowledge graphs, how to use topics instead of keywords and that whole mantra of things, not strings. It was very, very helpful and cathartic for me to write things down. I don’t know if that’s the same with you and Accidental SEO Manager. Is it a little bit of putting your thoughts down on paper to get them out of your brain? Or is that an unfounded reason for writing a book?

Ash Nallawalla

Well, I’ll be 70 this year and I might be the oldest this year on the planet.

Dixon Jones

Oh, I know several that would challenge you on that one.

Ash Nallawalla

Okay. Well, I want to outlive them.

Dixon Jones

Okay.

Ash Nallawalla

Maybe I’m the oldest in-house SEO working for a salary for someone. I might find a niche, or the oldest in the Southern hemisphere, as we say about many things in the Southern hemisphere. The tallest building and so on. Yeah.

Dixon Jones

Tallest building in the Southern hemisphere. Yeah. Brilliant.

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah.

Dixon Jones

Ash, it’s been lovely. What’s next for you? What are you going to be doing next? I mean, you’re out in Canada now. How long you out there for?

Ash Nallawalla

I’m here for another week. I leave Monday week and I hope I don’t get delayed. It took me nearly 36 hours door to door, thanks to an overnight stay in Los Angeles at my expense. The airports are still not ready. They appear to be working, but there are lots of horror stories out there.

Dixon Jones

Yeah, absolutely.

Ash Nallawalla

But I’ll go back to my job and perhaps in a year or two, I might decide to go back to consulting, which is a semi-retirement that I was doing a year ago before the former colleague dragged me into this full-time role.

Dixon Jones

Back into his clutches.

Ash Nallawalla

Yeah.

Dixon Jones

That’s brilliant. Ash, thank you very much for coming on the show today. Thank you for your time. Really do appreciate it. Anybody out there on podcast land, you can get to the book by going to accidentalseomanager.com. I’m sure you can find it other places as well, such as Amazon, but please do go and have a look at it, and track down Ash. He’s a lovely guy and got a lot of other interesting stories to tell as well and has got a lot of history to share with us all. Thanks very much for your time, Ash. Bye bye.

Ash Nallawalla

Thank you. Bye bye.

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