Mark Williams-Cook, the Founder of SEO tool AlsoAsked, explains how users can maximise the data provided by Google’s “people also asked” feature and how this information can be useful beyond just SEO.

He shares his journey to founding AlsoAsked and the advice he would give to someone just starting out in marketing or communications.

Listen to the podcast now via the links below:

Transcript: Interview with Mark Williams-Cook – AlsoAsked

Speakers: Mike Maynard, Mark Williams-Cook

Mike: Thanks for listening to marketing B2B Tech, the podcast from Napier, where you can find out what really works in B2B marketing today.

Welcome to marketing B2B technology, the podcast from Napier. Today, I’m joined by Mark Williams-Cook, who is the founder of AlsoAsked a tool for SEO professionals. Welcome to the podcast, Mark.

Mark: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Excited to be here.

Mike: It’s great to have you here. I really appreciate you taking the time. I mean, I think let’s start off by talking about your background and how you ended up founding also are so you know, I look to your LinkedIn, it’s very interesting. You’ve done a lot of different things. Do you want to, you know, just give us a potted history of your career and how you ended up where you are today?

Mark: Yeah, sure. So I’ve been working in SEO for around about 20 years now. I’m 39. Now at the moment, almost 40. And I think for a lot of people that got into SEO, that amount of time ago, I kind of stumbled into it. Because there wasn’t really much in the way of even online courses, let alone SEO being covered in like any kind of marketing syllabus or anything like that. So a lot of the information was kind of on forums. And I fell into it after making some of my own kind of just passion websites, and then realising, hey, I’m starting to get traffic here. And I’d had friends helped me set up like little affiliate schemes with Amazon. And as it happened through complete luck, and chance, absolutely no skill or effort whatsoever. One of those sites started earning like 50 6070 pounds a day through affiliates. And that started this investigation of, well, where’s it’s coming from? And I think it was Aw, stats at the time we had to use because there was no Google Analytics. And we found a lot of that traffic was coming from Google. And that really started kind of my interest of well, how does Google decide who should be top of the search results and who should be second and third?

So I started teaching myself a bit. And I was fortunate enough that there was an agency at the time, local to me hiring for an SEO role. So I’d been sort of amateur practising for a couple of years, myself, and I moved into an agency role that was really helpful. And, you know, to fast forward many years, I’ve worked at various levels that four or five different agencies in the UK have always been agency side, I’ve really enjoyed it, because you’re constantly surrounded by people who are very good at what they do and constantly learning. So you’re never, you know, while I’ve thought about getting in house roles before, I think a lot of the people that I know work in house sometimes get a little bit isolated, because they don’t have that big team to work with. So I’ve worked my way up essentially, through through that and actually released some of my own SEO tools along the way as well. So very spammy ones to begin with, that were helping throughout YouTube videos and kind of game Google AlsoAsked came about as kind of a shadow IT project in that weird started to build some tools internally to fix issues we have. And then it was, you know, just, I think this might be useful for other people as well.

Mike: so I mean, just tell me a little bit more about what AlsoAsked does and why you built it.

Mark: Sure. So AlsoAsked, essentially, is a very easy, convenient way to harvest what’s called people AlsoAsked data from Google. So if you do a Google search in English, approximately 50% of the time, you will get a little box below, normally the first result that says people also ask, and it’ll give you four sets of questions. If you then click on those questions, you will get questions related to those questions. And we’ve been using this data for content for SEO purposes for for a couple of years. And I’d originally done that just through using like local Python scripts where I’ve programmed something to grab this data and use it. The reason why I was kind of attracted to this data in terms of this, it’s helpful for content is it’s one of the very well a couple of reasons, actually. But one of the most interesting to me is it’s one of the only sources of data you get where Google has done a lot of the clustering for you. And by clustering, I mean, if you do a search term, Google is giving you insight into what the closest intent proximity is. So if someone searches for this, this is very likely going to be the next question that they ask. And that’s really powerful when it comes to the overall strategic goal of making your content as helpful as possible, which is having that information.

There’s lots of things but the other main thing that makes the data particularly interesting for me? Is that a lot of those questions that Google gives you, if you look at them in standard keyword research tools, they will normally incorrectly come back with that they have zero search volume, zero monthly search volume. So actually, it’s very hard to sometimes discover this information and these links anywhere else, but Google. And yeah, our tool essentially helps people get this data at great speed, map it out, allows you to do all different countries and do it at scale. So we can get you 50,000 questions in a few minutes and have it all out in CSVs. For you with what’s ranking, what’s not.

Mike: So you’re effectively doing a Google search and seeing what Google says other related queries. I mean, you’re literally scraping this off the Google search.

Mark: So we we also, we do that by simulating the click on the question, which we’re the only tool to do it that way. And why that’s important, as opposed to the other method, which is essentially re googling. The question is, I discovered something really interesting when we’re doing this research, which is, if you do a Google search, and you get your four people also ask questions, if you click on one of those questions. So the top one, the questions that Google will then show you are different to if you just Google that question. And that’s got to do with Google’s understanding of intent, the journey, what knowledge you already have, as it affects the like probability of what you’re going to ask next. So by by simulating these clicks, firstly, we actually get more than just four questions. So you get more data this way. But you also get a much better view of what that intent path is, because that’s really what we’re trying to, to help people understand, which is okay, if someone is interested in this, what is the nitty gritty specifics of what they need to know, what do we need to be providing them in answers in terms of value? And that as well, I think from a purely SEO algorithmic point of view, statue up very nicely of Google can say, well, when people search for this, they search for these 10 Other things, and this page has answered nine of them. So that’s quite a good from a probability point of view that you’re being helpful there.

Mike: And that’s really interesting. And the way you present it is in this this really neat kind of mind map format. So you can you can see that flow of what what is directly related. And then also what’s related to those, those secondary questions. So you actually get to see visually what the questions are.

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s important because it naturally, I think it naturally blends into how we can structure content for the web in terms of you know, people read webpages, we know very different to say like a magazine or a newspaper. It’s not this just we start at the beginning. And then linear linearly read, a lot of the time people are looking for specific information or their scan read, which is why, you know, we’ve got this all this encouragement about using like headers to let people know what that section is about. And having the intent kind of group that way, gives you an idea, firstly, of maybe how you should lay that content out. And secondly, there comes a point because you can continue clicking on those nodes essentially, forever. Until you’d have a huge web of questions, there does come a point where this needs to be a new article. And the other interesting thing that you see from that data is maybe where the intent is completely different to what you expected. So working in any particular industry, you get a little bit blinkered vision on well, people search for this, they’re obviously looking for something in our industry. And then you realise when you do this research that that word also means something completely different. And it shows you how that branches off. And just the number of questions that fall into one of those two categories also gives you an idea for the overall intent if you like, so if actually, your business is only, you know, related to 1/10 of the questions have that root keyword or root query, it’s actually unlikely you’re going to rank well for it. Because Google knows nine out of 10, people are actually looking for something else.

Mike: And this is really interesting, because what you’re doing is you’re, you’re giving people ideas for content effectively, you know, if you’re looking to rank for a keyword, and then ranking for the related searches, typically will be the right thing to do. But you’re also telling people when you’ve got a keyword that’s going to be really tough for you to rank for, because it’s more frequently used for something else. I mean, I remember an example where we were working with a client, and we’re talking about coding standards for software. And we thought that nothing in the world is going to have a coding standard because it’s got to be software. And as it turns out, coding standard is a very common term that is used in the medical industry about blood

Mark: I’ve worked with a company that runs coding courses. And this was my surprise as well, coming from that bias background on the word coding just means computer coding, and then you get I think you actually get the Google Knowledge Graph come up, that it’s a medical thing. I was like, Oh, okay. Yeah, yes. Brilliant example.

Mike: Yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s also really interesting in terms of coming up with ideas. I mean, I’ve just, I’ve actually literally just put hardware learn cricket into AlsoAsked, I thought I’d better try this whilst we were talking. And it’s interesting, because, you know, I would think the related questions would typically be around, you know, what skills do I need and things like that. But you know, one of the related questions is, what’s the best age to start cricket? And I think that’s, that’s interesting, because maybe you wouldn’t have thought to write an article about what’s the best age to start cricket. But clearly, if you want to attract people who are looking to take up cricket, this is a great term.

Mark: So there’s two sets of tools that we’ll use very regularly with content planning. So one’s quite famous. It’s called Answer the public that uses Google suggests data, which is very different people get them confused. A lot of the time are two tools, because the output looks similar. But a tool like answer the public using suggest data is a really good way to get an overview of different topics you want to write about, because it’s using Google Autocomplete at the actual article levels, you’ve decided I want to write about learning cricket, that’s when you might use also OS and as you say, yes, there’s probably a whole separate article you could do about, you know, examples of people that started later in life and became really good at cricket. And you know, the benefits of starting young, that’s like a whole, even, you know, you could dig deeper into that as an article itself.

Mike: And so this is great. And obviously, SEO professionals, I can see how they’re going to use it. But I think a lot of our listeners are probably not specialist SEO is that they’re looking to generate interesting content that’s relevant to their audience. And to me, this is perhaps where, you know, we, as marketers should, should look towards some of the SEO tools, because this is a great way of not only finding relevant questions to answer, but But surely, it’s also a great way to get ideas to write content that actually resonates with your audience as well.

Mark: Yeah, 100%. And I think it’s, it’s been marketed a little bit as an SEO tool, just because I’m ingrained in the SEO industry. But from speaking to people that have actually used it, the use cases have been surprisingly wide. So even things like product designers, people are getting a view on how people perceive their brand. Just understanding your customers, pain points, their insights, all of this, you know, even if you’re not writing content, it’s helpful to know, okay, if someone is looking to solve this B2B problem, these are the kinds of things they’re Googling and that they’re that they’re worried about. But yes, absolutely, I would hope it’s used by anyone producing content, let alone you know, even if they’re not involved, even in SEO, but I’ve even had people do pay per click. So it’s been really useful for them again, to even in writing their ads, their ad copy, so not just what questions they’re targeting. But if they do a search around a product, and they see lots of comparisons to another competitor brands, they know they need to focus on that.

Or if there’s lots of, say, searches that are price sensitive, then they know that’s a particularly big thing for customers. So that yeah, there’s there’s all kinds of value you can get from getting this insight from from people’s searches. So just unpack that analysis of what people think your brand.

Mike: So you’d actually put your brand in as a query and see what the related queries are. Is that what you’re saying? So larger brands?

Mark: Yes. So you have to have a brand that’s kind of understood by Google as an entity. But most most of the larger brands, when you put them in, you’ll get people also ask questions. And some of them which I won’t name have questions like, you know, is Brand X a scam? And why is this so cheap, and then direct comparisons to their competitors, and it gives them insight into? Firstly, well, if people are asking those questions, maybe we should produce content. So we own that space to answer that question, because there’s a good chance as the brand if you produce that content, Google will pick you to answer that question. Rather than leave it to some other random website or blog to tell the world it’s piggybacking on your brand search, which might have hundreds of 1000s of searches a month. So it gives you that visibility about again, what people are thinking and asking what questions they’re asking you about your brand.

Mike: And that’s fascinating. I mean, I’ve literally just done this with one of our clients ABB, you know, he’s an absolute total business to business company of a very large company, but you know, got back some very interesting questions. So, one of the big questions is what does ABB stand for? Which

You know which key I guess people want to know, what does the company do? But then there’s a question is Abb owned by Siemens, which I think is very interesting because it shows that people don’t actually understand that ABB and Siemens are direct competitors. So that’s an amazing tool to get some insight as to what people are asking about clients. A fascinating use, I’d never thought of. So I mean, yeah, the question there? Well, in my mind would be, you know, why do they want to know that? Is that affecting their kind of businesses? Usually they’re making if it was a was not owned by Siemens, why are they why is that important to them? And how can that be covered in our kind of content, even if we don’t directly answer that.

Mark: So I can immediately see some, some opportunities to create content. And it’s interesting what you say, as an SEO professional, it makes sense. You know, if you ask, answer a question about your brand, you’re saying that Google is likely to rank your answer quite highly, because you’re considered authoritative about your brand. Yeah, absolutely. So generally, for branded search terms, you know, there’s there’s high a high probability, you can control the search engine result page for that. There are some exceptions, when it comes to things like reviews where Google wants a third party. That’s, that’s non bias. But certainly, again, for larger brands, I will try and own as much of that space as I can, because you know, that’s, that’s your brand, you want to convey the truth and control the information that goes out if you can.

Mike: And it’s fascinating. I mean, I love the idea, I love the idea that someone who’s who’s a real practitioner has come up with a concept and made it into a product. I guess one of the things you know, a lot of people will be asking themselves listening to this is, are you as a software engineer by training? And if not, how did you manage to get something coded? Because it’s obviously a very polished, very professional product?

Mark: Yes. So I wouldn’t say I’m a software engineer by profession, very much amateur. So I have coded for many, many years, I’ve released like games for iPhone and stuff like this. So I’m okay, at kind of a hobbyist level, but I do work at an agency as well. And we’ve got coders here.

So essentially, as I said, the way this tool emerged was I made the kind of local version as a proof of concepts that we were using getting value from. And then it occurred to me that we could possibly make this as an available tool, because the libraries to do this did get released. And I was aware that while it was kind of plug and play written in Python, that still quite an entry barrier for a lot of people that aren’t comfortable with like command line stuff. And it just seems all a bit techie. So we had a very kind of brittle version, put online as a would you like to use this. And essentially, it was phenomenally popular. To the point, it got so popular, it was like many sites just breaking. So we ran a beta for a year and a half, which allowed us to get feedback from customers, it allowed us to stress test things, because we were just running it for, for free.

And this is where we had to get Professional Coders involved. Because, you know, we had to start using AWS have to have things scale. And even during the free trial of this, we were handling around about a million searches a month. So even the database size as we were caching the results was growing very, very quickly. So there needed to be a lot of planning and testing in terms of how does it scale? How many concurrent users can we have? How much does searches cost, because when you’re interacting with Google that way, they tend to like blocking you. So like, you know, like many of the major SAS tools, you have to use proxies. And then that’s got its own cost and complexity. So it did take longer than I thought it would.

But it was around about a year and a bit development to get something really solid to where we are now. So we launched the paid version in March, we still operate a freemium model, which means people can go in and they can do 90 searches a month for free, which is three a day. And they’re tapered like that to allow us to make sure there’s no like spikes in demand. Because if everyone gets 90 Free whenever they want, and you get lots of people pile on, it can be difficult to maintain the service. But then there’s a subscription model for people that do want to get slightly heavier use, there’s more features as well, if you pay for a subscription, and essentially everything at the back end like scales as we get new people sign up so we can meet that demand. And we’ve just put status kind of checking lives. It’s publicly available now the status of the website and the back end. But yeah, it’s Touchwood been super reliable so far.

Mike: Yeah. And I think that’s very cool. And a lot of people probably listening to this are working. You know, with Napier on PR perhaps as a PR pro three searches a day is probably more than you need. So, to me it’s fascinating. You can access this kind of technology and insight, but you can do it basically for free. I mean this is not an expensive enterprise product or not something you need to go cut a purchase order for Yeah,

Mark: That’s true. Yeah, it’s very interesting. So I did some pricing research at the beginning on what people would pay and how much they expect for free. I got hundreds of responses, but no parity in some people were very angry about the fact that it was ever going to cost anything for anything. Other people were saying they would pay hundreds of dollars a month, other people were saying, you know, five bucks. So it’s, I think we settled essentially on a model that I don’t think is greedy at all, it scales with our cost. Even on the most basic plan, you can have unlimited users attached. So we just scale on on the certain number of searches, which is where our cost basis.

Mike: I’ve got to ask this, and it might be hard for you to answer but you know, is it a nice profitable part of your business?

Mark: Yeah, it’s working well, now. I mean, I guess on a, on a monthly view, like starting from now, yes, it’s profitable, like a lot of SAS tools are? Probably not if I dug into the couple of years of development and head scratching and time spent on it. I don’t think we’ve recouped that yet. So as of wide view, we would still be in the red. But that, you know, that’s the that’s the thing with SAS tools that yeah, once they’re up and running, if they’re stable, if they’re providing value, it’s been growing naturally itself very strongly. Every single month, we’ve had more users sticking with us than the month before, with without any type of paid marketing, it’s all just been kind of word of mouth and me demonstrating it to various people. So that that gives us confidence that at least it’s a good product, people are enjoying using it. They’re, they’re getting value from it.

Mike: That’s very cool. I mean, you did mention before that, you know, your day job, if you like, is it an agency, but you’re also running this business? Or? I mean, I’m intrigued to know how you balance your time between those two competing roles.

Mark: Yeah, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it. So I’ve worked at a couple of agencies where they wanted to do side projects, and it’s inevitably ended up in disaster, because you just never get time to do your own thing. The key here, all stems back to when we founded our agency, we did this on the premise of trying to make it a very nice place to work, because there are some agencies where, like burnout and staying late and unreasonable expectations are kind of the norm. And this has had a cascading effect, I think, in that we’ve got very good staff retention, which has meant we’ve been able to train and have people stick with us and promote them to positions of responsibility, where I’ve actually been able to take a step back, and we’ve got a brilliant, you know, head of marketing. Now, we’ve recently taken someone on giving them shares as a director, so it’s given me more time to try and run these projects and, and peel off time for them. So we actually run an E commerce business as well. And we started some different content sites. And that’s all been from essentially, I think, through staff retention and unhappiness, which seems kind of abstract in the, you know, how did we implement a system to divide up this time? It wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have the right people there to do the work that was left over. But I honestly think that’s what it was. And it wasn’t easy, and it took a long time.

Mike: Yeah, I think that’s awesome. I mean, it’s interesting, there’s been a couple of really great products actually come out of UK agencies. I mean, obviously, also ask is extremely well known, particularly in the SEO industry, and I think should be more broadly known in marketing. But you know, we also see products like coverage book, which again, came out of propeller net, which is another great product, it seems actually search agencies are really good at doing this.

Mark: I think it’s got to do with the, the age of the industry, and that, as I saying, nothing existed in terms of specific tooling. So probably the most famous technical SEO tool is one oddly named one called Screaming Frog. And, you know, this came from an agency, because before that, there was only one piece of software I could think of that did anything similar. And lots of agencies just kind of half bake, you know, make their own solutions. I think we’re still in a, even from a digital PR point of view, to be honest, you know, we’ve got things like rocks Hill, which cost quite a bit of money, and all respect to them, even things like adding and removing users, you still need to email them to do that, which doesn’t seem very 2023. So I think there’s definitely in the kind of digital marketing industry still spaces where the demand for certain types of products exceeds the supply of good up to date. Products that that make things easy.

Mike: That’s awesome. It makes me feel we should be doing something as well. Yeah. Well, I’ve got a list of ideas always. It’s just like you say, trying to find time to do them. Well. I think my favourite phrases though, is ideas are easy, execution is hard. I mean, the fact the fact you brought an idea to a product, a real product that’s, you know, not only being used but also is commercially viable. That work is really tough. And it’s amazing. You’ve done it.

Mark: Thank you.

Mike: I’m really interested, you know, so you obviously started, you started, you know, relatively early in the world of SEO, you stay there as a career. I mean, if you were talking to a young person today, who was looking to start a career in, in marketing or communications, I mean, what advice would you give them?

Mark: I don’t know how good of a person I am to ask that question. Because I came into SEO, from a very technical background, having no clue about marketing, I was essentially hired by an agency because I could get things to rank well in Google. And it took me many years of sitting next to people who knew about marketing to understand, you know, concepts about brands and, and things like this. My advice would be from being an employer as well. And obviously talking to people coming straight out of uni, and people that want to work in, in marketing, especially digital and such, I think there’s still a big gap between maybe what you’re taught academically and theoretically, in marketing, versus when you go into even very big companies, the reality of what’s happening, and who’s doing what. And in between those two realities, there is a lot of room for you to teach yourself to try things yourself, it’s the bar to set up even like basic websites is very low. Now, there’s no code solutions that cost no money, you know, if someone can come to me interested in a job in search, and they can say, Here’s my blog about my hobby, I got it to ranking Google, because I did these things. That is hugely impressive to me that they’ve gone and had that real exposure.

You know, I’ve spoken to many, like graduates that come out of courses. And they’ve never, for instance, even looked in how to look at Google Analytics, which is one of the main tools, you know, that our industry uses. So you can really give yourself an edge just by getting some hands on experience, even if it’s just playing around with it, again, like Google Analytics, completely free, you can set it up yourself, and you’re spoilt for choice in terms of videos as well. Even if like me, you’ve got a very short attention span, you can put the YouTube video on times to speed and whip through tutorial and you can learn something new that you can you can demonstrate. So the actual application, I think, of what you’re learning, if you are getting that education, and I don’t even think that’s, you know why it’s good. I don’t think it’s necessary. So I don’t, I don’t have a degree, I didn’t go to university. I’m self taught. So there are ways to get there. So don’t think if you’re sitting there maybe thinking well, I didn’t go to university that this rules you out at all, because it certainly doesn’t.

Mike: I think that’s a great point. I love the idea of getting some, like, you know, practical experience. I think that’s really important, often underestimated by a lot of students. I think that’s, that’s awesome. You know, I’m aware of the time and we need to wrap up. I mean, I think the first question is, you know, if people want to actually try using also ask, I mean, how do they go about that? How do they get on the system?

Mark: What made it as super easy as possible. So you can literally just go to also, and you’ll see a big old search box there just like Google, and you can just start typing away. As a head, you’ve got three questions a day, you can use three queries a day, you don’t even need to sign up for anything, it will just give you the results. There’s live chat on there. So if you get stuck whatsoever, you know, you can ping me and pretty much no matter where I am, it probably be me answering it. This is the bootstrap nature of a SAS. Yeah, it’s meant to be super easy. There’s an inbuilt help system as well. And if anyone does use it, and has any feedback, I always love to hear it. Because there is always, you know, the, when you’re building products like this, people encounter friction. And it’s the right expectation to have that everyone tells you when they get problems or errors, because most of the time and experienced they just leave. So if you do think of you know, this is very good, or I wish it did this, just let me know, because I can probably do it.

Mike: That’s brilliant. I mean, in terms of people contacting you whether they got a question about, you know, something we’ve discussed today, or, or have some feedback on AlsoAsked what’s the best way to get ahold of you.

Mark: If you want to kind of just talk to me, I’m very active on Twitter. I’m also fairly active on LinkedIn. If you just Google Mark Williams-Cook, I think I’m actually the only Mark Williams-Cook on the internet. So if you just Google me, you will find all my social profiles and creepily everything I probably posted online. But yeah, I’m super easy to find.

Mike: Oh, that’s awesome. I mean, Mark, it’s been absolutely fascinating. I think it’s great, you know, that not only have you been able to take an idea and produce a tool that works really, really well and it’s certainly something we’ve used. It’s also a tool that’s got a whole range of uses, you know, may have been designed for SEO but as we talked about, you know, the the ability to find out what people asked about brands is super helpful to lots of people in different marketing roles. So, really appreciate it. Thank you ever so much for your time, Mark.

Mark: Thank you for having me. I’ve had a lot of fun. Thank you

Mike: Thanks so much for listening to marketing B2B Tech. We hope you enjoyed the episode. And if you did, please make sure you subscribe on iTunes, or on your favourite podcast application. If you’d like to know more, please visit our website at Napier B2B dot com or contact me directly on LinkedIn.