Episode 3 – Areej AbuAli – Open Dialog

On 23rd October 2019 • 47 min read

Welcome to the third episode of Open Dialog, the podcast for collaborative SEOs and digital marketers. In each and every episode, we’ll be speaking with the best and brightest minds in SEO, digital marketing and beyond to find out how we can work more effectively, efficiently and productively with other teams, departments and clients.

In our third episode, DeepCrawl’s Sam Marsden spoke with Areej AbuAli, who is the Technical SEO Manager at Zoopla. Make sure to check out and get involved with the Women in Tech SEO Festival, which Areej is organising for 6th March 2020 as well as the Women in Tech SEO meetups which take place in London each and every month.

You can listen to the latest epsiode below, but make sure to follow us on Spotify and Apple Podcasts to be the first to hear about new episodes.

A visual summary of this episode has been sketched out by the supremely talented Katja Budnikov for your viewing pleasure. The full sized image can be found here.

Areej AbuAli Open Dialog Podcast Sketch Notes

Can you tell us a bit about the Women in Tech SEO community and how we can support it?

I kicked off Women in Tech SEO this year in May. I have to say that this is one of the things that I am most proud of doing this year. I have gotten to meet so many amazing women through it. Initially, it started off as a Facebook group but right now we have reached almost 600 members. It’s for women who have any form of interest in tech SEO, whether they’re still starting off or are very experienced, from all around the world.

I thought, wouldn’t it be really nice if we could actually all sit down in a room, discuss tech SEO and meet one another. That’s when I kicked off the London meetups as well. With those, we have one meetup each month, a bunch of speakers and some attendees. They’re all female. It really gives the chance for people who usually would not feel very comfortable speaking in conferences, to think of it as a nice, safe community to come up and do some talks.

For me, the idea came from the fact that sometimes I feel that I’m not good enough for my job and sometimes I struggle to ask people certain questions. I really wanted to create a community where it’s okay to ask anything that you want without feeling that you might not be good enough, and to have a safe community for everyone to be able to express themselves.

It’s going really well. I’m really excited. We have meetups planned from now until February. We’ve got most of the venues sorted as well, which is great. For me it’s about spreading the word, letting more people know about it, having more people join and that would be the best way to support it at this stage.

Are you going to have big enough venues for Women in Tech SEO meetups by February if the community keeps doubling in size?

It’s crazy! A lot of the women in the community let us host [our meetup] in their offices, which is really generous and kind.

I like the intimate setting. The one that we had this week, we could have had up to 100 [attendees] but we kept it to 60. For a two hour event, it gives a better feel, and it’s easier for people to get to know each other, and communicate with one another. Generally speaking, I think it’s nice to kind of keep the meetups down to 50-ish or so attendees and since we’re having them so frequently (once a month), it gives a lot of people the chance to attend.

Do you have any plans to expand Women in Tech SEO outside of London

That’s definitely a really good idea. I’ve had a few people speak to me about it and every now and then we’re going to go on random tours. We’re going on tour this November, it’s not very far, it’s just to Reading.

I think if every few months, we can go and host one somewhere that would be great. I was having a call with someone in Australia who wanted to potentially launch an event there. So I need to have a good think around the logistics behind it and how to make that work.

How did you get into SEO and digital marketing

I did my degree in Computer Engineering which was quite a long time ago now, and that was back in my hometown in Egypt. I moved to the UK around six years ago to study an MBA in IT, and that’s when I got exposed to the world of digital marketing. I didn’t really know too much about it before then.

During my MBA, I did a bunch of internships, I started reading about SEO, and I felt it bridged the gap between computing and marketing. I had a feeling that this might be my thing. I wasn’t really too sure, initially what I wanted to get into. I was trying to discover if I wanted to go down the computing route, or if I wanted to go into something more business-oriented. SEO, for me, was in between [computing and marketing].

The first role I got here in the UK was at an agency, and I initially started as a content strategist, but that lasted one month. They switched me to the tech SEO team right away. I’ve been doing [technical SEO] for a bit over five years now. I’ve explored different aspects of SEO, but I keep going back to tech SEO, that’s the part that I really enjoy the most.

I’ve mainly [been working] agency side over five years, and just last month, I started my first ever in-house role with Zoopla.

What has the switch from agency to inhouse SEO been like?

I feel like I’m learning SEO all over again. That’s how I felt over the past few weeks. It’s quite intense, maybe because of how massive the site is and it’s not something that I’ve had to deal with on this scale before. I’m coming to realize now that it’s not as easy or straightforward to just analyze data, by looking at a bunch of tools. It’s actually way trickier and deeper than that. There’s a lot of new things I’m learning and picking up on, which is great.

In terms of how stressful or crazy it might be, inhouse seems way more organized probably because of the split between the teams and how everyone has specific job functions. Whereas agency side, you have to do everything and there are all these crazy deadlines. This is the feeling I’m getting, but maybe my answer might be different a few months down the line.

In your BrightonSEO and Mozcon decks you spoke about the problem of getting SEO actions implemented. Could you share some of your experiences?

I think it took me six months to put that talk together. I got my acceptance in September and I presented in April, and I started working on it in September and finished it in March. So that was quite a long way to go, but I am very proud of this talk, and it resonated with a lot of people.

The funny thing with this talk is, when I initially started working on it, that client was still a client. I had high hopes that things would turn around and that by the time I got round to my talk I would be showing all these amazing results on how we’ve done all these crazy things and they’ve done them, look at them now they’re ranking on page one.

Actually that was not the case, by the time my BrightonSEO talk came around, the client was no longer a client and there was no success story to share. Funnily enough, I think that’s actually what ended up working and making that a successful talk because I honestly said that it wasn’t a happy ending and that thing’s actually didn’t work out but here are all my learnings and here’s what I would do differently.

I would say specifically with that client, there’s so much I learned. They were quite a small client, we weren’t working with anyone in their marketing or their SEO team. I was literally working with their CEO, COO and CTO, those three were my points of contact. That was a very different experience from anything I was used to, because my usual role at the agency would be dealing with the marketing team or dealing with their inhouse SEO, so we were more or less on the same wavelength.

With these guys, it was very different and I think I summed it up really well in the talk when I said that, I realized what the problem was quite late on and that it was technical problems are people problems. So it didn’t really matter at the end of the day, the amount of technical issues that they had on the site or what needed to be changed. What really mattered is that you need to make sure that you gain their trust. Then you need to make sure that you communicate things right, and you need to make sure that you get off the right foot from the start.

If that doesn’t happen and the relationship just drags on, then they’re going to slowly lose their trust in you, and they’re not really going to go ahead and implement all of this 100 page audits that you’re sending through. I would say it was one of the most difficult clients I have ever had to work with, but definitely the one where I learned the most.

Did you have to change your communication style when talking with the C-suite as opposed to marketers?

Yeah, completely. We were on a completely different page at that point. Their main issue was that they were so focused on, “How do we rank on page one? How do we rank for this? Or should we start creating a blog post for this?”. When actually, Google was barely indexing any of their pages. All their important pages weren’t even being indexed. It was really difficult for the site to be crawlable. They had millions and millions of pages, and there were absolutely no rules set in place to direct Googlebot where to crawl. The basics were missing.

To try to explain that to people at the C-level, you really need to communicate things in a much different way. Even to show them the business results out of it and to speak to them at their level. Whereas, I feel like I spent so many meetings sat there explaining to them crawling and how the process works and what a noindex is. It was just way above them. I would say also, specifically with CTOs, what was really tricky and I didn’t realize this at the start, but I was always thinking, “Why is he getting really defensive?”. At the end of the day, this site was his, he’d built it from scratch and a lot of it was his own custom code. If I was in his place, I would probably get really defensive as well, because who is this random technical SEO who’s coming in and telling me it’s my fault that Google isn’t ranking me.

I think I even specifically used that sentence in my slides, where I said this site was his baby and I was attacking his baby. In a way, that is what I was doing the whole time. I think for them it was also this idea of here’s this agency that we’re spending a 12 month retainer on. Here we are eight months in, and we have yet to see any results, and they’re so focused on the numbers, which again, completely makes sense.

At the same time, from our end, we’re just so focused on, “Well, you haven’t implemented this and you haven’t done this” and it kind of reached a point where it was a “he said, she said” type of situation. I do feel it’s because it took me a very long time to understand what the core issue was and it’s this idea that I hadn’t communicated things right from the start. I hadn’t explained to them what was at stake if these specific things weren’t to be implemented. I think the other thing is specifically with that client. I went ahead with my usual way of coming up with a very comprehensive audit and giving it to them with all of the things that they need to change.

With these guys, that shouldn’t have been the situation from the start because they had one major core problem, and that’s the one that they needed to focus on. From day one, I should have just given them that one problem that they need to fix, as opposed to going ahead and giving them 50 or 60 recommendations for them to get distracted by.

In retrospect, was it a bad client to take on or was it more a case of setting expectations from the start?

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that I wasn’t experienced enough and I’m happy to be honest about that. I had never dealt with a website of this scale. I had never dealt with anything like this, and so I felt very overwhelmed. I feel that right now, I would be more than comfortable taking on a client like this because I am more aware of how to deal with issues at this scale and what kind of problems there might be.

At this stage, I was probably in my mind. I was too busy thinking I have no idea what I’m doing, and it was kind of distracting me from actually trying to come up with valid solutions and communicating them well.

You touched on Imposter Syndrome in your talk. Would you mind talking about that?

I mean Rachel Costello from DeepCrawl, I think she’s brilliant, and she just posted that article which I have so much respect for around Imposter Syndrome and dealing with that. Even when she did the Women in Tech SEO Meetup for this month she brought it up again and I have so much respect for that.

For me, I did overthink it before adding it to my slides back in BrightonSEO in April but then I was like, “You know what? No, I think this is something worth talking about because the number of people who resonate and relate with that but choose not to talk about it is crazy.” I do think this is something a lot of us should talk about. I feel like this is something, especially in this industry, where we always have this in-between feeling. We’re not developers, yet at the same time, we are trying so hard to be as close to developers as we can be, and so I feel that this always makes us feel slightly overwhelmed and that we’re not quite sure what it is that we’re doing.

I think a lot of it does come down to the whole idea of dealing with C-levels, that was a first for me, and I was sat there a lot of the time feeling like my answers were not good enough. I would re-read emails up to 20/30 times before sending them across and I would dread when I got a reply back because I wouldn’t want to know what it said. Me and that CTO had threads of 30 to 50 emails where we were arguing why fixing this would solve the indexing issues and why doing this wouldn’t. Then I would get random articles from Search Engine Journal back in 2016 being sent back that would contradict the advice.

A lot of that would really kill my confidence and there were a lot of times where I would just go home and cry and think that maybe I’m not good enough to be doing what I’m doing. I should probably think of doing something different and, to be really honest with you, this was one of the main reasons I started Women in Tech SEO. At some point or another, especially towards the start of this year, I was really starting to lose my motivation and I was starting to think, “Do I even want to continue doing SEO or should I do something completely different?”.

Doing my talks, writing and starting this community has just completely shifted my thinking. Getting to talk to people, having a network and having the community support has made me realise that I really enjoy Tech SEO. I am not too bad at it and I can probably get better.

It took me a really long time to finally decide to pitch for a talk. What really inspired me was last October when I attended SearchLove. I’d been thinking to pitch to speak at BrightonSEO since the very first time I attended it years ago. The community speaker slot in SearchLove is what really inspired me. Those were three of the best talks, I was so blown away by how amazing they were. I went home that day and I was like, “That’s it! I’m going to pitch for BrightonSEO”. The week after, I’d done my pitch form and I’d sent it to BrightonSEO.

As you said, it’s just completely different. I feel like it is a lot of pressure, and it is really stressful, but once you do it and you realize this is something you could do and a lot of people learnt something from it, it just puts things in a completely different [perspective].

Have you had any first-time speakers at the Women in Tech SEO Meetups?

Yeah, we have and I’ve tried my best to encourage new speakers as well. Something amazing that happened, for example, for the August meetup we had Serena Pearson – a brilliant Tech SEO. She did a talk on site migrations, and it was one of the most detailed talks I’ve ever seen on-site migrations. It was so good.

I tweeted that out the next day, and I tagged BrightonSEO on. I was like, “If you’re looking for a Tech SEO then she’s your girl. She’s done this amazing talk on-site migrations for our meetup last night.” Kelvin replies right away, and he’s like “Actually we just had a slot open for September. Serena, would you be open to coming and giving the talk.” Now she’s going to speak this September at BrightonSEO, and she’s going to do the talk that she did for us in August.

Have you got any SEO success stories

Speaking of good, happy stories, though. That same client was one of my absolute favourites and I think the main reason was that we had a full retainer with them. We were doing everything from tech to content to support and outreach. It was the whole package.

Usually, that’s not how we work or how we worked. Usually we would have clients that were purely tech, ones that were purely outreach and it was very rare that we would have clients that would be fully comprehensive. It made such a difference because you feel much more in control. You know, everything that is happening in every single angle and every single perspective. [The client] trusts you and you start feeling like you’re an extension of the company and you get involved in all the decisions and everything that’s happening.

We were working with them across their sprint system. Every two weeks, we would provide implementation support based on what tickets they had done, we had access to their JIRA and we knew exactly what was going on. I felt like that was the best relationship because it was as if we were their SEO team because we were involved throughout. Generally, with agencies, I would say that’s what works best.

When you’re only in control for something specific, for example, if you’re just doing creative campaigns and outreach but you have no idea what’s happening on the tech side then there’s only so much you can control. If they go ahead and mess up a migration, for example, it doesn’t matter how much coverage you get for them none of it is going to count.

Was there anything that allowed that good working relationship to happen?

If you start off the relationship right with them from the beginning. We agreed a 12-month relationship, we showed them the importance of us getting involved in helping them with all their content strategy, with the tech as well as the outreach and creative campaigns. That was the main reason they had come to us in the first place.

The fact that we managed to integrate all the other stuff as well, meant that over time the relationship was so much better. We even knew the junior content writers, they were people that we were in touch with. We provided them with SEO training. They would always think, “Let’s get in touch with them, we need to make sure they’re on board with this.” or “We need them to speak with this team member who just joined who’s going to be involved with our in-house PPC team.” We would share data with each other, so it makes such a big difference when you have that kind of relationship.

There were so many clients that we had who were purely outreach and as the Tech SEO team, we wouldn’t really be able to get that involved or get under the skin of the sites to see what was happening. If something went wrong, then it felt like it was a bit too late because it wasn’t something that we were involved with from the beginning.

Is there any advice you have for SEOs and marketers who are looking to work better with developers?

One of the main reasons I wanted to move inhouse was this idea of getting really close with the Product and Tech team. It was such a struggle, for me, from an agency point of view because I didn’t know the devs who we’re going to wind up working on the stuff that I was recommending.

I’ve only been inhouse for a few weeks now, and I’ve already met the majority of the Product and Tech teams that take our implementations and recommendations. It makes such a difference to be involved in some of these product meetings where you are saying what is and isn’t a priority and what should be added in the sprint and what should happen in the next sprint. It makes such a massive difference to have this involvement.

Working inhouse, it is much easier to be able to build that relationship because these are people you could have coffee with any time of the day, they sit right next to you. Working agency side, I would say, that it is really important for you to form these relationships. Don’t just go for a meeting to meet the CMO and leave it at that. Specifically, ask for a meeting with the dev and the product teams to understand what other things they have going on.

Something that I realized when I started inhouse, was the amount of stuff that the product team and the tech team have to work with and have to prioritize that an SEO agency has absolutely no exposure to. They’re not going to sit and sift through an 80 page audit, they don’t have the time to do that. They have got so much stuff on. It’s ridiculous that I used to expect that I could send an 80 page document and expect it to be implemented by the end of the month. Of course, that’s not the case! You have to make sure you communicate [audits and recommendations] right and that’s in line with what I shared in my talk.

Give developers one thing at a time and make sure you prioritize it. Don’t bother with the nice to haves and SEO best practice. Don’t bother with any of that, because it doesn’t really matter. Leave that until the very end, when everything is great and perfect. At least then they will have things that they can work with.

Don’t give them 70 page audits where you’re blabbering about SEO theory. It doesn’t really matter, they’re not going to read it. They don’t have time, so you have to tell them exactly what they need to do and about the end result. “By doing this, expect this is going to happen to your leads or conversions”, and that’s going to be enough for them to make a business case to prioritize it and work on it.

Could you tell us about your experiences with 100 Days of Code?

The 100 Days of Code challenge is one of the coolest movements I’ve ever come across. The guy who created it now has 100dayscode.com. Basically you can do it for any different challenge that you have in mind. Some people do 100 days of code, some people do 100 days of yoga. It could be learning a language or exercising, but his first initiation to it was the idea of 100 days of codes, and then from that, he expanded on the idea.

[The founder] has written such an amazing Medium post about it, explaining his process and why he started it. The amount of followers that he got out of it and the amount of people who ended up changing their jobs completely and becoming developers just because they took on the 100 Days of Code Challenge from the beginning is amazing.

There’s a really supportive community and, they have a Slack channel, and they have the whole idea of the hashtag is that then you wind up being in different lists and you get followed by different people who are also doing the challenge, and you get to meet a lot of people through it.

I would say what’s really tricky about 100 Days of Code, or at least what could make it less challenging and less daunting is to have a plan from the start. What is it that you want to learn? What are your resources? What are you planning to tackle? The idea is that you spend one hour a day doing it. I found it really easy to do it by scheduling a specific hour. I like to wake up early, for example, so I used to have my 6 to 7am slot specifically for 100 Days of Code. I was trying to learn Python back then and I knew exactly what resources I was going to tackle and what exactly I’m going to be doing every day.

The other thing I was personally missing when I tried to do the challenge is that I didn’t have something specific I wanted to build, which started making it feel a bit aimless 30 or 40 days down the line. Resources like Code Academy or Treehouse, are really good but after a few days or weeks, you start feeling like you’re doing a lot of theory and all of these mini-projects, but what then? So, [I’d recommend] thinking of things that you actually want to build that might help you in your day to day job, because then it’s going to make it way more practical and exciting. You’re going to feel like you’re working on an actual project.

I know people who built custom click-through rate curves that could be extracted from Search Console using things like R or Python. Now, that’s a really cool project to work on and if you’re using your 100 Days of Code to build certain mini-tools like that, then I feel like that’s probably going to make you much more motivated.

Some people like to switch up the hours. I work really well under schedules so, for me, it just made sense to stick to it at the same time. Some people might want to use it in their lunch break or have it in their evening, there’s no specific rule. If you want to get really motivated, I know that there are so many medium posts that have been written by people who have done their 100 Days of Code challenge, and they share exactly what resources they’ve used and what projects they’ve worked on. There are so many success stories as well about people who have done several rounds of 100 days of code in a row. That just amazes me, it’s quite an achievement.

Is there a particular language you’d recommend that SEOs learn

People have very different views on this. Personally, I’ve always felt like Python is a really good one. The more you, as an SEO, start behaving as a data analyst or a data scientist, the better you will become at your job. At the end of the day, what we do is we analyze data, so the smarter, better and faster we can do that, the more efficient we’re going to be in our jobs. Hamlet Batista has written some really great stuff on Python. He’s also really approachable and always offers to help if anyone has any questions, so I’d definitely recommend reading his stuff.

I’m personally behind Python, but I’ve started working with a colleague who is really good with R. Again, R is a language for data analysts and data scientists, so that can be [another option]. I’ve also started getting really into SQL because I realized the importance of analyzing data via Big Query when you’re dealing with large data sets.

Then, JavaScript is one that DeepCrawl talks about all the time as well, so getting a better understanding of that, and then maybe just general HTML and CSS to understand how the web works.

Is there a reason why Python is more popular than R with SEOs?

I’ve only started getting into R, but I learnt Python five or six years ago. Back then, Python wasn’t really that popular, and R seemed to be the data analysis language to go for. Whereas now, a lot of people go for Python. I think maybe Python has more support libraries, it’s much better established and its syntax doesn’t feel very weird as well. Whereas R feels slightly different than normal.

I would say explore what works, what doesn’t work and what makes you comfortable. Especially with 100 Days of Code, there were a few days where I would feel a little bit demotivated or things were a bit hard. Then I’d just go for something a bit easy. I’d start playing around with HTML or SQL just to free my mind. That’s the thing, It doesn’t have to be strict. You are learning. You’re spending one hour a day learning something new so don’t feel the need to be too hard on yourself. I would say that’s the number one rule.

Is there a product or service you can recommend that makes you better at your job?

What really works for me is the Pomodoro Technique, it is such a lifesaver for me. It’s something that I’ve been using since I had to write out my thesis back in my bachelor degree. If anyone’s not familiar with it, the Pomodoro Technique is this idea of timing for 25 minutes purely focusing on one task. Just one task. Then you get five minutes of doing absolutely anything you wish, and then you start the cycle again.

I personally use an app called focus booster. It’s a tool that you have in the background while you’re working on something. You start it and you’ve got your 25 minutes where you’re focused on this one task, doing absolutely nothing else except that one task. You can’t browse the internet, you can’t look at your phone, you can’t do anything, and then that time finishes. After that, you’ve got five minutes when you can do anything you wish to.

The amount of productivity that comes out of me when I use that technique is crazy. I cannot believe how the human mind can operate this way. I highly recommended it, especially for procrastinators like me. It is the best tool out there.

Usually, it works for me if I’m plugged in listening to music because then I know I’m not going to randomly start chatting with someone. I tend to focus better with music, but I know what task I’m going to work on. I just focus on that for 25 minutes and they fly by so quickly. Once the first 25 minutes goes, it becomes so normal and then your five minutes feel like your reward. That’s when I hold my phone, when I browse a bunch of stuff and then I’m back again.

Is there anything that you’re working on that you’d like to let people know about and promote?

I’m more than happy to promote my meetup again. I’ve built a site for it, which I’m so proud because it was the first site I built using GatsbyJS. It is Women in Tech SEO and it’s a really simple site. It’s got all the links that anyone needs to for our Twitter account, meetup, our Facebook and Instagram. I have even learned how to use Instagram Stories for Women in Tech SEO. Please do visit our website and spread the word as much as you can. I’m really active on Twitter and my handle is @areej_abuali. I’m really active on Linkedin as well, so just look me up.

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A massive thank you to Areej for being such a great guest on Open Dialog and for teaching us so much about her experiences working agency-side. You can find more episodes of Open Dialog here on the DeepCrawl Blog and you can be the first to find out about new episodes by joining our mailing list.

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