Welcome to the ninth 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 episode 9, DeepCrawl’s Sam Marsden spoke with Chris San Filippo, who is an SEO Consultant for the Pharmaceutical and Cyber Security companies, about his experiences working both agency side and in-house, how he communicates with different teams and his advice for prioritizing SEO recommendations.
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.
How you did you get into SEO?
[Sam]: I saw that you had a military background. Could you could share a bit about that?
I got into SEO around 2012, 2013 and I kind of got into it by accident. This was when I was in college, I was also in the military at the same time. I was in the Reserves, so it was just a weekend thing, I had to have a full-time job and all that. So, I was kind of juggling college, military and SEO.
And how I kind of stumbled into SEO, just trying to earn some extra money during my college days and what I was doing, was buying broken phones and iPhones on Craigslist and reselling them. I started doing that for a little while, and had a little bit of success with it so, I figured, maybe I’ll make a website? I learned about SEO and then stumbled upon a job ad for SEO down in Florida and it was actually a pretty good first job for SEO because they’re using all the enterprise tools. They’re using Omniture and Conductor and BrightEdge, so they kind of took me in and taught me formal SEO.
And that’s kind of how I got into the whole world of SEO. If they didn’t give me that job, I probably wouldn’t have gone on that road, So I’m very grateful for that. From there, I was an in-house SEO at first and then in the agency side for about three years. Then I went back in-house when I came out here to San Francisco, the Bay area, working at a cybersecurity start-up. And then from there, you know, kind of got into the pharma space.
So, the last three and a half years or so, I’ve been pretty much working mostly in the cybersecurity space and the pharma space. I’ve also worked with two publicly traded companies in both of those verticals, and also start-ups.
So, going from the East coast to the Bay area, you get access to a lot of bigger projects and you get to work in the enterprise side so you get to work at scale. You get to work on large portfolios, websites and high growth start-ups, really exciting things and a really exciting place to be.
What are your experiences of agency versus in-house? Is it fair to say that you prefer the in-house side of things?
Yeah, absolutely. This is something I’ve thought about, you know, throughout my career and there’s really three primary ways that you can make a good living doing SEO, that’s agency side, in-house and then consulting.
I’ve done all of them and I’ve kind of gone back and forth and in between, you know. In my last in-house job and my current consulting positions, I did do the whole like, quit your job and move to Thailand thing, and lived completely off of freelancing, which was really liberating. Because you feel free, you can kind of do whatever you want, but it was also very hard to maintain that clientele and make enough freelance earnings, after all your costs and all that, to live the way that you want to live.
So, for me, as far as a pure SEOs standpoint and doing good SEO and building useful websites and products, the in-house role is a better fit for me. Because I feel like I can go much deeper on that project, I know I can work on it for many years and that I can implement short-term and long-term thinking and planning and try to build something really big for the future.
With the agency side, it’s always tough because you have multiple clients usually that you’re working with and you don’t always get to invest the long-term kind of thinking and planning strategy that you would. Because you really need to make sure that you keep the campaign growing early to retain that client.
The in-house side is fun for me because you get to work with so many other teams, and you get to learn from other smart people. So, you’ll work with product design, engineering, data team and these people have very deep subject matter expertise and can bring a lot of value to your program.
Whereas with on the agency side, it’s kind of like you’re always strapped for resources and the expectation and demand for results is more present and immediate. The in-house role allows you to stay in there and build things in a long-term.
Was it important for you to go through all of these different types of environments, working on different SEO projects?
[Sam]: Or do you wish that you’d just settled on in-house in a large enterprise organization from the start?
That’s a good question, I think it was good to experience all of those different types of environments. And the reason is, because they say ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ and it’s true.
Like you might be able to make more money on one side, you might be able to have more freedom over here but it’s all about what’s important to you and what you value. I think there’s just so many ways and relationship structures that you can be doing SEO. You can be a freelancer, work for an agency or consultant, you know. You can be a consultant that is holding an in-house role and you’re also managing an agency that you’re delegating all your work to, so you can do it from so many different angles.
And being on all sides of that relationship helps you to understand how you can use your resources to the best and assemble a team with processes, delegate and do SEO at scale. So, I think for me, as my capabilities of an SEO and creating those scaled processes, and then also for my own happiness as an SEO professional, to make sure that I’m happy doing what I’m doing, which is really important. Knowing what the pros and cons in each of those types of environments are, that was really important.
And now I know exactly what I need and what will work for me and that makes it so much easier to go in every day and do a good job, be present minded and push your projects forward. Because you have that happiness and you’re comfortable and you know that you’re doing something for the long-term, or whatever it is that works for you.
Working for a pharma organization, what does your day-to-day look like?
[Sam]: What projects are you working on and with what teams do you interact with?
As a consultant, I’m working on two projects. One in the pharma space, and one in cybersecurity space. With the pharma project, it’s a lot different than a lot of other industries, when it comes to SEO and the importance of SEO within the company you’re working for, some companies care more about SEO than others. And some companies will prioritize SEO work and change requests greater than others.
So, when it comes to the pharma space, there isn’t a whole lot of urgency for SEO results. And there isn’t necessarily a correlation of SEO performance with business performance. So, SEO is not as prioritized within the organization, and that means that your job and your role is to best align SEO to the ongoing website changes.
That means you really don’t have the ability to prioritize everything that you want to do. If you’re working at a start-up and SEO is an important channel, sometimes they’ll pretty much tell you: “here’s your developer he’s going to prioritize all your work.” but in pharma, it’s not really the case.
So, how it works in pharma, is usually there’s a lot of organizations, pharma companies that have portfolios of websites. So, you might be managing 20 – 40 websites and those websites are constantly getting updated to align with FDA regulations and things like that. They’re basically just relaunching the website, rewriting some content and those are your opportunities to sneak SEO in there.
So, the teams that you work with for that will be creative agencies, brand teams, developers. You might work with data or analytics and then you work with QA. But for the most part, you’re working with the brand team and the creative team, so the brand team kind of owns the website – they own the strategy for the website. Creative team is the people that design the website and write the content. Working with those two, is kind of your opportunity to align SEO. And then on the back end, you’re working with developers and data and QA to implement technical SEO, measure success and QA the websites in different development environments.
When you were thinking about coming on board with this client, did you see it as a challenge to get SEO more prioritized within this organization?
So when I started working in the pharma space in general, I wasn’t expecting the amount of limitations that you’d have there. You know, like when you come into a new project, you always do an audit and you look at the opportunity and you might have an enormous amount of traffic that you see that is in striking distance that you can drive and a bunch of technical issues.
Then you present that and it’s a little bit surprising to see that SEO is important and they want to pursue some of that in most pharma companies. But they’re not necessarily going to go out of their way to implement those changes, you might just have to wait until the next website update to try to align those changes to that.
And the reason for that, because the number of steps that are involved with making a website change on a pharma company’s website or drug website, is enormous and there’s a huge number of sign-offs even the legal department needs to sign off. So, there’s an enormous amount of steps, to publish one new page on a pharm website, it might be over a hundred steps and it might be 20 – 30 change of hands. And that could take three to six months to do that.
So really, the name of the game with pharma SEO, is trying to come up with your strategy in advance. And then understand all the opportunities and be all over the process for website changes and know exactly when and where you can work those changes in.
Most of the changes that you’re recommending, are they on a site-by-site basis? Or are they things that can probably benefit a chunk of these portfolio of websites that the company owns?
Yeah, so it’s both. One of the portfolios that I manage is over 40 websites, so there are some changes that you can make that are global. These are usually technical SEO changes, under the hood changes, things like image compression, technical SEO changes like internal linking, sitemaps and things like that.
And then for the brand specific stuff, that’s usually content changes. So, it’s a combination of both and really, the technical SEO opportunities are probably the only thing that you can really scale. That’s if all the websites are on the same platform, which in my case, is the case.
[Sam]: That must be a big help.
[Chris]: Absolutely. And you know, there’s no shortage of people that want to improve the websites. But the pharma space operates much differently and for that reason, your rate of success for SEO, is going to be dependent on the rate of shipping these websites and these website updates.
Particularly on the technical side, who would you most likely need to try and win over to be able to sneak in various SEO recommendations?
Right. So, the organization kind of itself collectively owns the timeline and website updates and when and where any website updates take place. But then within those website updates, it’s mostly the creative agencies and the brand teams that need to sign off. So, the brand team kind of recommends, and then the creative agency usually signs off and approves.
But even then, like through the legal process – the legal review – you can have a lot of those recommendations stripped out and there’s really not a whole lot that you can do there. So, the great thing though, is that a lot of these websites have a lot of authority and they have a huge amount of domain authority and high-quality backlinks. And that means that you actually can have a lot of success with slight one-word adjustments even.
Some of these brands have a ton of links and they rank well in search engines for high volume phrases and it doesn’t take a whole lot to improve that position. So, there are pros and cons for sure.
[Sam]: So, you’re leveraging that authority in various ways then?
[Chris]: Yeah, absolutely.
[Sam]: Ok. That’s really interesting.
Are there any projects that you’re particularly proud of having worked on?
Yeah. One of the projects that I worked on recently was image compression at scale across the entire portfolio. And that required getting sign-offs at a high level for implementing these changes.
I think it’s really important when you do a scaled process – if you’re working on a portfolio of 20+ sites – then minimizing the number of steps in that process and the number of sign-offs is really important. So, two things that I think are important, is to get a high level of buy-in for that project. And then, to also get committed resources. So, for this project, I was able to get a dedicated developer for 40 hours a week to work exclusively on this.
So, creating the resources and then a scaled process, compressing all images on all websites was the goal. And we used New Relic Browser to measure the page speed for actual usage on mobile and desktop, so we have a benchmark of all the page speeds for mobile and desktop. And then for our scaled process, we basically downloaded all the images, compressed them at scale using an API, and then re-upload them.
It was really that simple, but for a pharma industry, that’s really not standard to be able to ship quick changes like that. So just by applying those compressed images, we’re able to reduce the page speed on a lot of websites by like 50%. So that made a huge difference on mobile, trying to get closer to that 3 second benchmark that Google recommends.
A lot of websites in the pharma space are close to 10 seconds and that was similar to some of the websites we were working on. We’re able to get those a lot closer towards that 3 second mark.
In terms of how you’re communicating recommendations to the people higher up – what are the different ways that you’re speaking about these changes?
[Sam]: Do you have to include financial metrics against that?
So it kind of started with getting the buy-in for it. A lot of times when you go to request resources at a large company like this, you need to make the business case for it, and in SEO, you always want to try to start with revenue if possible and then work your way down to lower priority KPIs.
So, revenue would be at the top and then traffic, impressions, things like visits, bounce rate, engagement. In this case, to get the buy-in for the resources, I had to put a deck together and present to senior leadership to show what the industry standards were for page speed, here our current sites were at, where our competitors were at and what it would take to improve and get closer to that landmark. And then get a level of effort from the developers on implementation, and came back with 40 hours a week for about three months.
And so, I had to put together the business case for that, and once I got those leadership members to support that, then I had the ability to run this process at scale. I didn’t have to get sign-offs for each and every little step, we’re able to ship page speed optimization across every site.
And then afterwards, every time we would finish up a site, we would give it a week and then we would report on the improvement. And we had a table that was having all the brands and the benchmark and the new page speed. It was actually getting people more excited. The way that it works is, people have brand assignments, so the other people started to ask when their site would get optimized and updated. And they were curious about if we can do theirs next, it got kind of everyone excited to be a part of those wins.
[Sam]: So, you were generating interest internally and getting people on board with it.
[Chris]: Yeah, exactly. Because more people wanted to get involved with that, because they wanted to be able to join in on that win and get credit for that and use that as an accomplishment. So, we’re sending out emails and every time I would deploy the change for a website, I would thank all the people involved with that brand for helping us prioritize it. And so, now everyone in our department is getting wins every week, because the SEO team is making the websites faster.
[Sam]: I’d just like to go back to the business case. Sorry if we’re going really granular here, but I think this is the area that a lot of SEOs struggle with.
What level of detail are you going into when you’re talking about where your sites are?
[Sam]: Are you keeping it more top level?
Yeah, definitely top level, for our audience, they’re not as technical. So, we’re sticking with page speed index metric from Lighthouse and then from New Relic, we’re just looking at full page load for desktop and mobile.
We didn’t want to get too technical with them, because it would probably go over their heads. So, for measuring the success and the impact, there’s kind of two phases of that. So, it’s reporting on the before and after page speed, is kind of the first part. But recently completing this project, we’re also looking at our mobile rankings, particularly for our priority brands, looking at high volume keywords where we rank in pages 1 and 2. Looking at our mobile positions there and mobile click through rate and looking at the increased number of clicks from those phrases.
So, we’re also reporting on the amount of extra clicks or click increase from those particular non-branded phrases, and that is valuable because it shows that, not only do we improve the page speed, but we improved the bounce rate as well. We’re also driving extra traffic from improved positions.
Obviously, there’s other factors that layer into improved mobile rankings and traffic, but if you have a website that’s on page 1 for a high-volume keyword, and that page has a very high bounce rate and you’re improving that page speed, therefore improves the bounce rate and the rankings go up. That is something that you can attribute to that work.
And the way that we value that is to look at not only the click increase, but also the cost per click of that keyword. And that gives us the click value. And we can total up the click value for all rankings that improved for mobile and we can kind of put some numbers on because we don’t have revenue for the pharma space typically. It gives you a different metric, is traffic value.
And I think that is a value that most SEOs don’t use that much, especially because, with Google Analytics, you have your organic traffic data in there, but you don’t necessarily have branded and non-branded split out. And you can split that in Google Search Console data, then you can more accurately measure the impact of your SEO strategy by measuring the non-branded clicks, but also the click value.
And if you can get that click value to a significant amount, that’s really useful in getting more resources for future projects and just showing another way the impact that the SEO team is making.
[Sam]: And I suppose, once you’ve done something like this, it gets easier and easier to get more resources.
Were there any teams in particular that also benefited from these improvements?
Yeah, absolutely, the media team and paid marketing, those teams are very interested in this as well. And aligning with SEO and SEM is important, how important really varies from business to business and website to website.
But, one thing that is pretty consistent for SEM and SEO, no matter what industry you’re in, is if you’re sharing landing pages, then you have a lot in common. You have engagement and conversion metrics that are the same on that page, you have keywords that are driving to those pages. We also have technical SEO metrics like page speed.
So, one really interesting thing that happened was, we optimized the images on a website and then we went back into New Relic and we looked at the page speed, and the page speed actually got worse. I was like, “How did the page speed get worse after compressing those images?” We were looking at the domain as a whole for mobile and what happened was, the paid team started sending traffic to different places. And it happened to be that they were sending traffic to pages that had more images and that had a slower load time. So, where the paid team sends traffic to, determines your actual page speed, performance and usage.
So, I looked at that page and the reason why we didn’t compress those images was because they’re mostly PNGs and you don’t get as much of a file saving size there. So, we converted PNG as JPEG and then the page speed improved.
And then on the media side, they’d seen some gains there with AdWords quality scores and engagement as well. So, moving forward, sharing those dates that the image optimizations deployed and really any SEO-related events or changes should be logged and annotated in Google Analytics. That will just help the media team to diagnose performance improvements.
[Sam]: That sounds so interesting. That’s such a great use case of different teams coming together. That’s brilliant.
Have you got any disaster stories up your sleeve?
[Sam]: Has there been any experiences that you’ve had that have gone a bit pear shaped?
Yeah, absolutely. So, you’re going to see a lot of disaster cases with other departments, more in the start-up kind of space, where things are a little bit less structured.
So, one of the experiences that I had, was getting blocked for engineering resources. So, this was a cybersecurity start-up that I was working with and when you have a SEO strategy and you’re working in a very technical company or a very large company, it’s very rare that you’re actually going to be implementing anything yourself.
So, you need to work with engineers, developers, designers, product team, translation agency. Like there’s a number of different people that you need to work with in order to get your strategy implemented. So, some of the things that are important with getting your work implemented, is to get high level buy-in, and then to get resources dedicated, but also to get prioritization.
Sometimes you might have alignment with the department, but you don’t have a prioritization and that’s because that department head prioritizes the work. If your project is not that important in their eyes, you may not get it prioritized, so you have to make the business case and you have to have higher level buy-in, in order to work around those situations.
So, in this case, I was trying to build a product, I did build a product for that company, an online privacy checker. They were in the online privacy space. And so, we built an online privacy checker and got that to rank for phrases like, “What is my IP address” and that was a success.
But, when it came time to building some of these other products we wanted to build, we just couldn’t get the engineering resources approved, and that was because the Engineering Lead had projects that he wanted the team to be working on. There was a product team that had requests, there were other security issues that they were working on and SEO was not a high enough priority to get that work prioritized above those other projects.
So, in that case, I had to put together the business case, the business opportunity for that and put a deck together. I had to go to the President and get him to schedule time with the Engineering Lead and I had to pitch basically the President and the Engineering Lead on my project. And I thought I had a good business case for it, but the other projects that the engineering team were working on, were just so critical that they wouldn’t be able to get to that SEO project for 6-12 months. Especially if there’s security issues with a cyber security company, they really kind of have to prioritize that.
So, not being able to get your high impact SEO tactics or strategies approved, means that you’ve got to cross that one off and you have to work on the next strategy. And you’re not always going to be able to get your SEO strategy perfect, you’re not going to be able to get everything prioritized.
So it’s not so much about: “Here’s everything we need to do and let’s do it.” It’s more about: “What can we get approved? For what can we get resources? And what is high impact?” And making kind of an opportunity matrix and going after what’s high impact, what’s approved and what can be implemented quickly.
Looking back on that time, do you think maybe you shouldn’t have worked with this company?
[Sam]: Do you have any recommendations to avoid these situations?
I definitely think that, when you start at a new company, you should try to have a good idea of your roadmap and what that’s going to entail. When you first engage on a consulting project or you move to a new in-house role, you want to understand what resources you have access to and you want to get permission to delegate at a higher level.
That means you want to get dedicated developer resources, you want to know who prioritizes and approves design work and dev work. And you want to be clear to whoever you directly report to, about what you need in order to be impactful and you want to let them know that you’re going to need resources to get this job done. That means budget, as well as for tools and for whatever it may be, contractors, etc and to let them know that performance will be hindered if we do not have the resources to get the job done. So, trying to be clear and upfront about and getting resources early on, is really important.
And then also, getting that high level of buy-in, it might be one of the most important things that I can recommend. Because if you have someone like the President, or maybe even a CEO of a smaller company, in your corner, that is going to help you to just get things done. And you might not need to make the business case, you might be able to just have that person sign off or be cc’d on an email. That might be enough to just get all of your work prioritized. So, high level of buy-in is so critical.
[Sam]: So, you can either like stake your claim and say, “This is what I need. And this is what is required for this to get done and be where we want to be.” Or, you can just brown nose someone who’s quite high up in the company. Is that right?
Yeah. And that’s pretty much what I do every time I start a new role or take on a new consulting project, is I understand who the decision makers are. Who has the ability to approve and sign off on things? And I try to get time on their calendar early and to just give them visibility into what I’m doing.
And then when I meet with them, I let them know these are the things that I need to do, etc. It’s not that you want to go over your direct manager’s head and try to get a higher level of buy-in and that, but you want to make sure that senior leadership has visibility into SEO and that they understand the opportunity and the items that need to be completed in order to get there. And they can know the impact that it can make.
And by always giving visibility, no one’s going to stop you from trying to give visibility to people. So, that means you can get on anyone’s calendar. And you want to consistently try to get on the calendar of that senior leadership. And that way, when things are coming from above, that way people are less likely to try to block you or try to make you make the business case for it, or not prioritize your work.
[Sam]: That’s such solid advice. That’s really useful.
Can you share some of your experiences working as an SEO freelancer?
[Sam]: So, for our listeners, we met at SMX Advanced in Seattle in June. So, we met at the pre-party of SMX Advanced and you were actually wearing a DeepCrawl badge for the majority of that evening. And getting pestered by people who thought you were a DeepCrawl employee and asking you questions about the platform. Sorry again about that, but you might not have gotten in otherwise!
So, I think we were walking back from there and you were telling me about your time working as a freelancer. And I think you were doing a bit of traveling as well. And you had some really interesting kind of insights about that because, although I really love working for DeepCrawl, there’s always a bit of a, I don’t know, a fantasist part of me which thinks, “Oh, maybe I should just drop everything and just like go do some freelance work and travel the world for a bit.” Speaking to you, it put me off that idea a bit. So yeah, I’d really like for you to share a bit about your experiences there.
[Chris]: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s a great topic. My last full-time in-house job was really challenging, and I learned a lot, but it kind of wore me out and I was really looking for a change. And so, I think it was like April of last year, basically I left my job and I moved all my stuff into a storage unit. And I don’t have a car because I was in San Francisco, I literally just booked a one-way to Thailand and told myself I was going to freelance and just figure it out.
[Sam]: It’s a bold move.
[Chris]: Yeah. So, I lasted about three months before I decided I was over it. But basically, you know, in the freelance world, you’re selling and doing the work. So, it’s really challenging once you move from an in-house SEO or employee, I should say, to a business owner or freelancer. There’s so many other tasks that you need to do outside of SEO that take away from your SEO and experiences. Those other responsibilities can be a real headache, you know, accounting and billing and chasing down payments and legal.
And also, if you’re trying to scale it, like I was trying to scale it with other freelancers. So, I would be taking on projects and then I would assign them to people underneath me. So, you have a lot of things going on and during that time, that three months, I did 60 paid SEO audits. So, I was really out there working hard, trying to figure some things out.
But in the end, trying to maintain a large number of clients, was a lot, and I really missed being able to be an in-house SEO and really like submerge myself in my work. And just not have to worry about the sales part of it, or kind of like needy clients or people that want to see you sweat. They want to see something every week. If you have the right clients, then it can work, but at that time, I had a lot of smaller clients and I wasn’t able to get the right mix before I kind of got burnt out. So, I think it can be good to try it if you have the right thing set up.
But it’s definitely possible and I’ve seen people do it. But in my opinion, I prefer being an in-house SEO. I think the freelance life is a grind and if you don’t need to grind like that, you shouldn’t, because it can really wear you down and take away from the fun that you can have. You know, building cool things and working with other smart people.
[Sam]: I bet those smaller clients can be quite demanding as well. Even though they’re probably not paying you as much as you’d like.
[Chris]: Yeah, exactly. In my experience, like the smaller the client, the more they expect and the harder it is to make an impact. And you know, being in the Bay area, most of the people I hang out with are either Growth Marketers or Engineers. And they come to me all the time about projects. They’re like, “Oh, I want you to look at this project like you’re really good at SEO,” yada, yada.
And the thing is, there’s two sides of the SEO world in my opinion. There’s the high performing enterprise sites and portfolio sites, where you’ve got a huge amount of revenue going through them. You’ve got a huge amount of traffic and you can make small incremental adjustments that make a huge impact that pay for your entire retainer as a consultant, or maybe even your entire SEO program. You can justify everything quickly at scale like that.
And then there’s the bottom side of it where you don’t have a lot of resources. You’re not paid that well, it’s a grind, the expectations are higher and the probability of failure is a lot higher because you’re trying to build something from the ground up, which takes time.
So in my experience, I like working at scale or on portfolios of sites or large websites, or websites with a huge amount of traffic. Because it’s a lot more fun and I think you can be a lot more impactful as an SEO on that and those types of projects.
[Sam]: Yeah. You want to feel like you’re making a big impact, don’t you, that’s got to be part of it.
[Chris]: Like one website I was working on had like 100,000 visits a month. And I looked at it and they were de-indexed from Bing and it was because the Bingbot that went to their website, got a 500-error and then de-indexed the site. And literally, just by re-submitting the sitemap on Bing, the traffic and monthly downloads went up by 10%. And so, you know, that was in my first month. So, those are the types of opportunities that you have when you’re working at a larger scale.
[Sam]: Yeah. Even small things can seem like… I suppose you are very transparent about what you did, but I suppose you can seem like some sort of SEO magician.
[Chris]: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You make a couple of small tweaks and they’re like, “Whoa, this guy is incredible!” Versus the opposite, where you can do everything possible on a website for SEO, and you might not see an increase at all, and then they just don’t believe you. So, that’s why I like to work on the larger end of the spectrum.
Do you have any tips for how SEOs can work better together?
[Sam]: I saw you retweeted a tweet by Rory Truesdale about treating SEO as a culture. I think it probably strikes true to what we’ve been talking about. Do you have any tips for how you can get interest across a broad range of stakeholders?
Yeah, absolutely. So, in my experience working with the other departments, is really figure out who are all the department heads or decision makers that you need to work with and then to try to just put your SEO roadmap on the radar.
And also have visibility into their roadmap and understand, because that’s going to let you know what your goals are and their objectives and you want your worlds to collide. So, you want to be in their project management system and have visibility into their work stream so that you can make your own assessment of, if the activities that are going on there need SEO input or serve as a SEO opportunity or maybe even SEO disadvantage. So, you want to be reviewing all the work streams possible for the departments that you intersect with, which is usually product, engineering, design and the data team. So, it depends on the company.
But you also want to understand their meeting cadence and if they have weekly stand ups, you want to get on those. Even if you just contact them and say, “Hey, can I just shadow and listen in on this weekly stand up for a couple of weeks? Just so I can get my bearings and see what you guys are up to and what you’re working on? How you’re prioritizing things?” and that will get you in their meetings. And when you’re in their meetings, other things might come up, they might be SEO related and you might be able to work in new opportunities there.
I would also say to try to find other people in other departments that are curious and excited or interested in SEO. Having an engineer that’s interested in SEO or analytics is really helpful, because they’re going to be poking around and looking at Google’s documentation for developers. And they’re going to be looking at analytics, so sometimes you get lucky and you have an engineer or a designer who is really excited about your work and they’ll prioritize it just because they like it.
So, I’ve had that with designers too. Where, if you want to build new landing pages for new topics, or you want to make some improvements to the navigation or whatever it might be, sometimes just because they like the idea, they’ll prioritize it over other stuff. So, having a good rapport with them and being in communication with them is important.
I would also say that you want to have a genuine connection with them. So, you want to actually really understand what they care about, what excites them, what drives them and try to align to that and just understand them as a person. Sometimes people lose interest in their work and they still hold that role and they really don’t want to do a whole lot of other projects that are not necessary. Other times, people are really passionate about what they do, and they want to do anything and everything they can.
So, you want to try to understand who you’re working with, that dynamic, and then base your requests on that. If you know that they’re not excited to work on new projects, then you might only want to come to them for the really high impact stuff and take it easy and take it slow. If they’re dragging the feet on prioritizing your work or getting back to you, maybe try not to push them too much in the beginning because that might spoil it and it might tarnish that relationship.
So, you’ve got to understand the people and understand how you fit into their world and you want to ease into it. Strategically, before coming through and saying, “We need to fix this. We need to fix that. It’s broken.” You want to come at it from a very respectable, collaborative kind of approach and maybe say: “Hey, have you thought about the page speed?” instead of saying, “Hey, the page speed sucks! We need to fix it.”
You know, there’s different ways to communicate with people. So, you want to collaborate in a way that’s respectful. And not from a position of “Something’s wrong, we’ve got to fix it.” But you know, “here’s an opportunity, what do you think?”
[Sam]: That’s some really, really good advice there, I’m learning so much. And that’s something that’s come across in, I this is episode number nine now? And I’ve learned so much about the practicalities of working within SEO, particularly within larger organizations. Because, like you can learn all about SEO and best practice and what works and what doesn’t work. But it’s really opened my eyes like this conversation and all the others as to just how big a part it is working out how to sync with other departments. And how to talk about what you’re doing, get other people interested. So, it’s such a huge part of things that I don’t think we’re speaking about enough really. So, it’s been really interesting hearing about your experiences there. However, I would like to just kind of change things up a bit now.
I saw that you’re a book addict. I also came across a Medium article you wrote back in 2014 called “Why the first third of a book is always best.” What is that all about?
[Sam]: That was something where I was just like, “Oh, I completely understand this.” I’ve got so many books at home where I’ve bought the book and I’ve started reading it and it’s like captured my interest. And then I just kind of lose interest and maybe it’s just something with me and you. But yeah, why have I got so many unfinished books on my bookcase?
[Chris]: So, yeah. I think reading a lot of a variety of nonfiction books and business books is really helpful for SEO. Because there’s so much more to SEO than just subject matter knowledge. From my experience, reading a lot of nonfiction books, I think I’m probably up to like 300 nonfiction or business books by now. And most of those are on Goodreads where I log all the books that I read and the books I’m reading and so what I found is that the author’s premise is usually within the first third of the book. So, it doesn’t always take that long. You can sometimes, you know, from the content and the back cover and maybe the first chapter, get the gist of like where the author’s going with this.
But within the first third of the book, you can figure out where they’re going with that. And from there, you can say, “Do I want to continue reading this book? Is it worth my time?” There are so many books out there that you can read. For me, when I read, I’m usually looking to try to advance or think differently about whatever project I’m working on at the moment. So, if I go into the book and I’m reading the first third, and I don’t have the idea that that book is going to help me get there, or that it’s not going to provide enough value, I don’t finish reading it. Because you know, there’s no point if it’s not going to help you.
[Sam]: But in some cases, is it just that the essential, kind of core point is being made and everything else is just kind of elaborating on that. Is that part of it as well?
[Chris]: Yeah. But different books are structured differently. Some books are structured so well that you can read the outline and then you can scan the chapter headers. You can go through and read the chapter headers and you can extract the author’s premise and you know, the scope of the whole book.
Other nonfiction books are more meaty and you have to read through them. They might just have a table of contents, but then, it’s just paragraph after paragraph with not a lot of headers. But in general, by the first third or the first quarter of the book, you have an idea of what the book is about and if it’s going to help you advance and learn what you’re trying to get. Like I go into a book, I’m trying to extract information from it. So, if I get into the thing and I figure out that there’s not really a whole lot worth extracting here, I’m just going to grab the next book on the shelf and go after that one.
If you had to recommend one fiction and one non-fiction book for SEOs to read, what books would you recommend?
I don’t really read fiction, but for nonfiction, the number one book that I would recommend for SEOs is probably Lean Analytics. That’s not really a SEO book, it’s an analytics book. But I think the Lean Analytics book helps you take a step back out of the SEO world and look at how SEO plugs into like a business, analytics for business.
And there’s analytics frameworks in there. The one that I like is the AARRR framework – the Pirates framework. And that one is like acquisition, activation, revenue, retention and referral, so those are the stages of analytics framework and SEO fits into the first one.
So, when you work for a tech start-up, that’s like an app or SAAS product, you’re going to have users, you’re going to have different metrics. So, you have different metrics for different stages. And so, for the acquisition – for SEO – we’re usually familiar with those metrics. You know, downloads, installs, conversions.
But then you have other metrics after that from your SEO users. You have, how many people went from free to paid? What is the lifetime value? What is the churn rate? What is the referral rate? So, you have a lot of other metrics after SEO. SEO is just the first part of that user journey. So, understanding the whole analytics framework, will help you see how SEO fits into a business, and analytics in general.
[Sam]: Yeah, analytics is an area where I’ve got some understanding of it. And then I see… like I follow Simo Avo and I’m just like, “Oh wow. There’s like so much to this that I’m not aware of this.” But I think that’s really important.
[Chris]: Well, as an SEO, your job is spread across analytics, development, content and product. And you’re trying to go as deep as you need to, to make an impact on each of those areas. Sometimes you need to go really deep and sometimes you’re able to delegate at a high level. And that’s one of the great things about working with smart people and big companies, is that you can delegate at a much higher level, then you can scale, and you can get a lot more done.
[Sam]: Well, okay. So, the book is called Lean Analytics? I’m going to be looking that up later and buying that from Amazon very shortly.
[Chris]: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Is this level of discipline drilled into you from years of working in the Air Force Reserve?
Yeah. That was something I learned from the military for sure. But you know, I got to work with pilots every day and their training and preparation is like no other. They constantly are preparing and training and they’re ready to go.
So just from spending a lot of time with them and seeing that level of professionalism, it carried a lot into my [life], because I see that they’re constantly studying. They have all these books and they’re flagging and highlighting and they’re quizzing themselves. And they’re going through emergency procedures and they’re showing up earlier, they’re thinking through details, they’re setting the agenda, they’re just like taking charge of the day.
And that was really helpful to have that kind of discipline. And to this day, I still go back and read these books, like Lean Analytics and the Art of SEO. I look at DeepCrawl webinars and other content sources. And I’m constantly making sure that I’m staying on top of the industry. And I’m going to those conferences and all that. So, I would definitely recommend that to anyone; try to stay on top of all the latest changes and constantly quiz yourself because it’s easy to get rusty.
[Sam]: I have to say thanks for the cheeky shout out there as well. I appreciate that.
Is there anything that you’d recommend people to try to be more productive? Or how to become more disciplined?
I would recommend this book called Focal Point. And within that book, they have a kind of a matrix; you basically, you just draw a plus sign on a white paper and then the top left corner is like the urgent and important stuff. And then on the right, you’ve got not urgent and important. So, you’ve got four combinations there and basically, you want to take all this stuff that you’ve got going on, like your roadmap and the emails and everything like that. So, I do this every Sunday.
So basically, I take everything that I think that I need to do, and I put it into that matrix. And I figure out what is urgent and important, I do that first. And then, you know, you can do the stuff that’s urgent but not important if you have to. Or you can do the stuff that’s important. But you want to try to always prioritize important stuff over urgent stuff and separate it that way. And then basically, you number like 1A, 1B, 1C, etc. So, they go over that in that Focal Point book by Brian Tracy. He’s like a self-help kind of guy and so that has always been super helpful for me.
So, I do that matrix every Sunday. And then I map that to a timeline, and I block off my time. And I say, “Here’s what I’m going to do 9AM-10, 10-11, 11-12. And then you’re mapping your priorities and that way you can stay focused on the important stuff, rather than the stuff that pops up in your email and just kind of derails your whole day.
[Sam]: That sounds like such a good idea. I think I’ll have to try that. What I tend to do, it’s a much less sophisticated version of that, of just like listing off all the stuff that I can possibly think that I’d need to do and then just kind of ordering it in terms of like priority. But I think that making it into a matrix and separating out into urgency and actual importance as well. I think that’s a really good idea. What was the name of that book again?
[Chris]: That one’s called Focal Point. Yeah. That top left corner is usually the most important because it’s urgent and important. And if you’re able to delegate too, that’s how you just crush your to-do list. Is you just try to delegate as much as possible.
[Sam]: That sounds like great advice.
Is there anything that you’d like to shamelessly plug?
I don’t have a shameless plug. I’m just a pure SEO, so.
[Sam]: This is what everyone’s saying! Like, I’m giving people an opportunity to like – they can promote whatever they want. You don’t even have to be connected with it, just like stop being a good technical SEO!
[Chris]: Okay, cool. Yeah, I think, just DeepCrawl in general. I would recommend the DeepCrawl Open Dialog. I’ve been listening to them and they are just full of awesome information from very smart people.
I’d also recommend a lot of the SEO conferences. Especially if the DeepCrawl team’s there, but you can mingle and learn with other SEOs. But I would definitely recommend all the DeepCrawl webinars and DeepCrawl in general.
And to also just go to the SEO conferences and mingle with other SEOs because that’s how we all learn and my favourite and most exciting part of being an SEO is going to those conferences and going out and grabbing drinks with other smart SEOs, and SEO products, and just learning from each other and continuing to grow.
[Sam]: Yeah, I thoroughly attest to attending conferences and it’s so good from a networking perspective. I also want to point out that I, at no point, prompted Chris to mention DeepCrawl there! He’s done that completely of his own accord. So, I just want to make that known.
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A massive thank you to Chris for being such a great guest and teaching us so much about her experiences working as a product owner. You can find more episodes of Open Dialog here on the DeepCrawl Blog and make sure to be the first to find out about new episodes by joining our mailing list.