2013 Australian Roadshow – Interview with Columbus Search in Sydney

2013 Australian Roadshow – Interview with Columbus Search in Sydney

25th April 2013

I met and interviewed the Columbus SEO Team in Sydney, who are part of Aegis Media.  They have recently grown in size and are at their biggest size to date. I wanted to find out how fellow State of Search blogger, Annabel and her team were enjoying working in Sydney and how it compared to their past experience working in Europe. 

Columbus Sydney SEO Team:

Annabel Hodges – Head of SEO

Karen Lewis – SEO Team Director

Alec Sharratt and Peter Dimakidis – SEO Managers

Jahn Sapanlay, Rich Kempthorne and Cindy Pfitzmann – SEO Specialists

How long have you been working in search in Australia/UK?


I have worked in search for just over four years professionally and around 5 years in total. I’ve been in Australia for just over 3 months.


I’ve been involved in the industry since 2004, but before that, working as a web developer, I was always motivated to learn about getting sites to rank.

(aimed at the AM from the UK)

What is the biggest difference you have realised coming to Australia in the search market?


For a start Google Australia runs on a different algorithm to the UK and USA, the full effects of Panda and Penguin updates have yet to be felt in this hemisphere. As a result when analysing sites or dealing with people who have some knowledge there is a tendency towards tactics that just wouldn’t fly in the UK anymore. But people in the know realise that there are a few algorithm updates waiting to drop like the sword of Damocles and as such at Columbus we are exclusively using best practices at the UK standard.

The whole online landscape is different here, there are just over 20 million people in a country larger than Europe and only around 17 million of those are online. The kind of UX you would expect from .co.uk or .com sites is often lacking on many .com.au domains and combined with slower broadband speeds, it’s kind of like living about five years ago in the UK.

Columbus Team - Sydney, Australia

Do you think there are bigger opportunities in the Australian search market than in the UK?


The Australian Dollar is very strong right now; the country is in a large and blooming bubble of affluence, wages are high and wealthy immigrants from China are providing a constant boost to the economy. The UK is still dragging is mud filled boots through a quagmire of financial ruin, with rising unemployment, poverty and both national and personal debt. Right now Australia is like the Americas of the early 20th century, people are coming from all over to make their millions and live in the sun. You see attainable opulence everywhere here and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

The UK market is saturated with SEO’s and online marketers, industry events swarm with hundreds or thousands of attendees and the same messages about great content and creative link building have been tossed around for a long time. In Australia the industry is more in its infancy and as such there are opportunities everywhere for those prepared to do it properly. If you have ever wished you got into search 5 years before you did, then Australia is the place to come!

There is a great vibe at networking events and everyone really wants to learn, there are less people going but it is impossible not to make contacts and find opportunity. Most big business out here is already aware of search and they all have strategies in place or agencies working for them. There are always more big businesses coming to the realisation that they need more holistic overarching strategies in addition to TV, magazine or paid search, these present huge opportunities. Small to medium sized businesses though are an untapped gold mine of potential, with very few involved in search or doing it properly.

Also working with on-page SEO, UX, and technical SEO is great fun; most sites have ticked very boxes when they cross your computer screen and so there is usually huge opportunity with every project to make significant changes.


Again: “different strokes for different folks”, I think on a top level a good content marketing strategy along with a solid workflow for identifying natural link opportunities is gold. My motto’s always been quality over quantity so focusing on getting those real quality links is where I would be spending my time.

If you’re developing content you need to keep your ear to the grindstone, this can often be overlooked. For example: “Is my info graphic being used somewhere”? Yes! Ok let’s ask for a link.

Have any of your clients had Google penalties?  Why did they receive these penalties?


None of my clients have existing penalties but they have in the past, before coming to Columbus. Certainly there seem to be less penalties handed out here than the UK.


Yes, I remember we had a client that was looking for the easy option. Against our recommendation they decided to move away from an SEO agency and engaged in an automated link network. Needless to say the inevitable happen and they eventually were de-indexed.

Do you have a “content marketing” strategy for your clients? 


All clients have an integrated content and SEO strategy; we work closely with our clients to understand their marketing calendars, plan our strategy around theirs in order to either capitalise or realise potential. By using client events and offline advertising / sponsorship campaigns, seasonal trend analysis and so forth, we build comprehensive strategies to run for 12 months. We use these to benchmark our progress and also retrospectively to analyse our success to further understand what worked well and why.

What is your view on content marketing vs link building?

I try not to draw divides in the sand between these aspects… Even the words “link building” don’t mean the same thing now as they did three years ago. Now words like “outreach” and “prospecting” are more often used than simply just link building; link building has become more of an art rather than a robotic or automatable process. It involves research, analysis, relationship building and planning, the fostering of profiles and personas in addition to social bookmarking or other forms of straight forward link acquisition.

This process is intrinsically linked to the content strategy, the people that write the content and build the links are all sat around a table together generating ideas and pooling their collective skills in order to make effective and bespoke strategies. For example we might look at the existing relationships of a client and see if there is opportunity there to get a link; this may then involve creating content, like an infographic, in order to get a link.

Every link profile needs to be diverse, drawing authority from numerous sources in order to appear natural to Google and deliver referral traffic, content plays a big part in that and so does “link building”. Once content is published, we use link building to improve its authority, we use social to increase engagement and exposure… we have even used competitions and giveaways in order get user generated content that will be used in further link building or promotional activities.

What are the main differences in the SEO community between UK/Australia?

Mostly just size, with only a third of the population of the UK there are about half as many people online in London as there are in the whole of Australia! Both communities suffer from cowboys looking to wrangle themselves and unsuspecting client, but both UK and Aussie communities are enthusiastic, passionate and happy to share information.

(What link building would you recommend for your clients and why?


A nice technique that can yield some really good strong and relevant links is to monitor brand mentions for the client… any high PageRank sites that use the client’s brand name in a positive or neutral context can often be approached and asked if they can make the brand name into a link. This kind of activity is great because every week will yield different results, it keeps you in touch with what people are saying about your client and it is possible to get a strong branded link.

If someone has mentioned the client already, it is often very little bother and very few reasons why not to give a link… You are not going in cold so to speak, the result being that people are often more receptive and amenable. It is also a strong tactic because it’s very natural, it doesn’t require much research and very little time either coming up with ideas or content in order to get the link.


Content marking & link building are often the same thing in my option. I think your traditional “link building” begging & pleading or even selling your soul for a link is dying if not dead. Good content is always going to promote natural links or at the very least present opportunity to ask for links & be better reciprocated.

Sites with good content are always going to be more invulnerable to algorithm changes. If you just focus all your efforts on building links you will ultimately get stitched up by algorithm changes. Google loves brands, when Penguin/Panda hit you would have noticed that sites with strong brands were not really affected. So think long term – build your brand and incorporate sourcing links within your content marketing strategy.

What is going to be the biggest change in the Australian market this year and why?


As I mentioned before, if the proverbial string holding the sword of Damocles finally gives way and Google Australia is brought up to speed with the UK, which will be the biggest thing in SEO down under since mobile devices could access the net. This will bring a wave of new clients to agencies that have proven experience resolving penalties and using modern tactics to get results. I imagine there will be a period where some high profile sites are hit making everyone realise the golden age has been replaced with a load of Pandas and Penguins!

Failing that, I see the changes to be gradual, many people are being flown in from the UK to work with big media agencies simply because there are not enough people in Search within Australia, if this trend continues as the market grows, we are likely to see an explosion of search much like we have seen in the UK… where everyone from small to large businesses, one man bands and blue chips are all aware of Search and its value.

Certainly with regards to paid search there will be significant changes and there already has been with Google now allowing the targeting of trademarked terms in AdWords; soon the “enhanced” campaigns will be the only campaigns and so businesses will need to build ‘responsive’ websites in order to keep up.


I think one of the major changes will see this year is more vertical search & as a result we will most likely see the SERP’s shrink. We can already see this happening on the US SERP’s so I think it’s just a matter of time before Australia adopts the same behaviour. I don’t particularly think this is a bad thing as I think vertical search has a valid place in our SERP’s however as an SEO it will naturally make achieving that 1st page ranking more competitive.

Last but not least – some final comments from other members of the Columbus Sydney SEO Team who have made the move from the UK to Aus over the last few years:


For my money there is no comparison between leaving work and stepping into the cold bleak overcast English weather, and stepping out of work into the beaming hot rays of beautiful Australian sunshine!


Having worked in the UK with over eight years’ experience in the field I was then given the opportunity to come to Australia.  I have been working in Search in Australia almost two and half years now and lifestyle and career wise it was definitely a great move.

I think the biggest challenge I faced when I first arrived was lack of knowledge and awareness around the potential of Search (clients and agencies alike). In that sense the industry was very much in its infancy. Since then I have seen the standard of awareness and creativity improve dramatically. I have had the privilege to work on some amazing campaigns with proven success.

Brands now have a better understanding that the trail blazers in the industry are providing true value and it has encouraged people to embrace Search solutions themselves. People are now a lot more switched on than when I first arrived and understand the potential of Paid, SEO, CRO and Social as a full service solution.   I think the only way is up for Australia and I am lucky enough to be working for an innovative agency who encourages this growth and creativity.

I think as long as we continue to source creative, talented people in the industry the results will speak for themselves and clients will look to invest more heavily going forward.


I started life across paid search and SEO back in the early 00s and it’s crazy how much the digital has changed since then. From an agency perspective, suitable jobs and job titles can’t be created fast enough to keep up with the requirements from such an ever changing landscape. It’s becoming increasingly impossible to pigeonhole what we do into the ‘SEO’ category.

As everyone says, it is true that with Australia being on a separate algorithm to the UK/US, this does mean that practices that have become all but obsolete across those shores do still exist (and work) over here. Having said that, I think the Australian market operates in quite a different way to the more established US and UK markets.

Annabel and her bike - Sydney, Australia

Australia often sits back and waits to see what happens elsewhere. With an economy far more rooted in the APAC region, and the security of its domestic market, it has the luxury of patience. However where emerging technologies and trends experience gradual, slow growth across the seas – Australia will accelerate from 0 to 60 at lightning speed when the product is right. We will definitely be seeing exaggerated growth at double quick speed over the next few years, especially with the influx of overseas talent in the job market.

Culturally, I’m learning a lot from my Aussie colleagues on the dos and don’ts of the marketplace. Relationships make or break multi billion dollar deals and an understanding of the culture you work in is crucial. Europeans or Americans who come to Australia thinking they know it all because it’s ‘5 years behind’ will fail. The SEO and digital industry may be behind in some respects but there’s still plenty to learn in the market!

Thank you to Columbus for taking the time to answer all my questions.  It was great to find out more about you and the search market in Australia.  The new Columbus site will be re-launching in the next couple months over at www.columbussearch.com.au so please keep a look out for it!

Written By
Jo Juliana Turnbull is the organiser of Search London and the founder of SEO Jo Blogs, which provides practical advice and tips for those in SEO.
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