Welcome to the eighth 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 8, DeepCrawl’s Sam Marsden spoke with Jamie Alberico, who is a Technical Website Consultant at Not a Robot, about being an SEO Product Owner, ethical SEO and how to make developers your allies.
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 did you get into SEO?
I think like a lot of SEOs, I didn't mean to. It was curiosity.
So, I graduated in May of 2008. And in the States, that was when hold times were longer than normal, while you tried to call your student loan people and go, “I want to give you money, but I want to eat. So how do we work this out?”
I was waiting tables at the time, worked at a sushi bar. Really wanted to be able to use my degree in some way. I had these lofty aspirations of writing plays and graphic novels and I was like, “Well, I'm going to do something. I'm going to blog.” So, I started picking up these jobs blogging. Like literally writing about concrete to pay for my supper.
In that process, finding like, “Okay, this article is fantastic. And this article is terrible. But why is this one getting so much more attention?” And noticing, “Oh wait, there’s this whole metal layer behind it.” And that evolved into, you know, becoming a consumer analyst and then working in my very first in-house job. It was while I was there that I got into working with the dev teams and becoming a tech, kind of out of both accident and necessity. Creative writing is my degree.
How did your transition from creative type to technical type come about?
It was out of curiosity and necessity. So, I was working on this 70,000-product restaurant supply eCommerce site. And in the course of a week, my primary keywords - restaurant supplies, restaurant equipment - we were page 1, haemorrhaged out at 23 ranking spots. And this was 2013 or so.
I spent 11 days straight in the most insane way of going, “How do I explore this differently? I can't find an answer by looking at it this way, but what if I turn it around? What if I look at it this way?” And eventually what I found was that the category filters, the thing that controlled how deeply they would be indexed.
So, if we have a category of pants - we have blue pants, long pants, corduroy pants, cuffed pants, pants pockets. Those didn't actually line up to the controls in the SEO manager tool, which weren't intended to go ahead and control that level of index coverage.
So basically, I had to come up with this insane plan to break the site spine to save it. It worked! It did! But it meant that I was suddenly moving from being this marketing SEO to sneaking into the dev area all the time. They had their scrum master who is just, with a broom shooing me out like a stray cat, persistently. I ended up becoming the Product Owner for the front-end team.
How did your career develop from that point?
So, when I left that particular company, I had been interviewing with an agency in Denver. And I had a chance to meet an amazing human being in the SEO community, Ashley Berman Hale.
I had interviewed with her and was completely like, “This human's fantastic. She knows so many things that I want to learn.” And at the time they were like, “Well, we don't need another tech SEO.” So, they kind of held off on it and they pushed back on it. I mean, I was writing handwritten thank you cards, like “Please hire me,” I just want to work for this person.
Eventually I did get the job and I got to work for her, and she introduced me to this whole new world. And then from there, more people to follow, more tools, more ways to look at things. It's always just kind of been insatiable curiosity. A feral ambition.
[Sam]: I didn't realize that you worked with Ashley. Yeah. Ashley’s working at DeepCrawl in our professional services department now. How was it working for her?
[Jamie]: She’s a terrible, just ruthless dictator. Be so afraid! No, she's absolutely fantastic. And she taught me a lot about even interacting with clients and this ability to always go, “Every piece of stupid code has a very valid reason for being there. And until you understand that, until you understand the intentions of that development team, you won't earn their trust.”
So, taking that aspect and learning how to go: “I'm not going to come in here and bark at you: Do this, do that!” But to go: “What is your goal?” Because everyone wants to make good things. And when you make good things, you want them to be found. So, by pivoting and really understanding that SEO could be this asset to great development work, it opened a lot of doors.
She also taught me a great willingness to be the dumbest kid in the room. Like if you understand 20% of a conversation, cool. That's enough. My very first I/O - that's Google's developers conference - I struggled so severely with being there. I was like, “Why did I get a chance to be here? Of all the people, I'm so unqualified for this.” You know, I took the spot away from someone who was so great and so fantastic, and I really burnt myself out.
Before I learned a lot about self-care, but in those moments of being so overwhelmed, it also taught me that it's okay to not understand. You don't have to get 100% of the material. It's okay to raise your hand and go, “What do you mean by this? What does that word mean?” And it helps to get rid of a lot of assumptions because sometimes you work with teams. And when I say title, that means something different than it would to you as a merchandiser, as a marketer.
Could tell us about your time working at Arrow Electronics?
Oh, 70,000-products just seems so cute and quaint now! If you're not familiar with the Arrow Electronics fortune 500 company at the eCommerce site has between 4 - 6 million products in a given time, and those are available in seven languages. So, it goes from, “All right, let's optimize this on page 2. How do we create meaningful systematic governance and rules to keep this ecosystem of flow?”
[Sam]: That sounds crazily complex.
[Jamie]: Oh, I think it's reflected in a lot of what Google's asking of us these days. I mean, we have those new changes to our no-follow tag. So, there's a couple of new additions. There are all sorts of opinions across learning about what they mean and if they have value. And I really think if you take a step back and go, “Okay, if I know my page templates, my primary types. I know that within this div this content will persistently be user-generated content. Or, this sidebar will persistently be sponsored content.” It's a way for you to create that governments, to create an ecosystem. So, ultimately very beneficial for you.
Who you were working with at Arrow and what did your day-to-day look like?
I think the most important thing to know, is when you're working at scale, there is really no day-to-day. There are certain checkpoints that you will persistently go through. You will always meet with your scrum team, with your development team.
You will do stand up in the morning. Say, “I'm working on this. I’m blocked by this. My next thing up is this.” As I transitioned from starting as a BA, to being the lead technical SEO, to being the Product Owner - was beginning to become more of a cross team resource. So, as the Product Owner there, I was across eight teams. So, it was a matter of coordinating them because you had to understand, at that large of a scale, anybody can come in and go: “Oh, well this is a quick win on this page,”.
There is a complex series of interconnected pieces here. And while it may seem very simple, it's a little bit like you've gone up to Easter Island and you've approached one of those big heads and gone, “It'd be optimal if you move that one three inches to the left.” So, the superficial value doesn't always reflect the complex code independencies beneath. There's a lot of learning and understanding.
[Sam]: And within those eight different teams, are they all development and engineering teams?
[Jamie]: Architects, database, a lot of dev teams working with a business analyst when you get a chance. When you do get to that large of a scale getting BA resources, getting BI resources, it's like Christmas day!
What does being an SEO Product Owner actually entail?
It means a lot of taking your KPIs - so, looking at whatever metrics you are measuring your site by - taking a step back and going, “How does this actually fit into the larger scale of our business goals?”
So, while I may desperately want to go ahead and do X in order to improve an SEO KPI, there are more important and larger impacting pieces that are above me. And I have to acknowledge that. But in the process, I just need to learn about how those systems work and where they're inter-connected. And it means a lot of connecting the dots.
So, in the same way, that title might mean something different between you and me and another person over there. Finding that the same issues impacted different groups in the same way and to get work prioritized. It was less about grandstanding and making some outlandish chart and going, “This problem impacts all four of these groups. If we come with a holistic view of that, that unites how each of us leverages this data point, this piece of technology, we can create a solution that's more effective for the overall business.”
How do you get SEO issues prioritised?
It would depend on who the teams were involved. So, we had a task management system. We were using JIRA. Create an epic and then it would go across those teams. So, some tickets would be assigned to our database architects. Some tickets would be assigned to our PM team. And it was always just a matter of really, thoroughly documenting what the acceptance criteria was.
There were times I had to take a step back and go, “The dev did that right. I wrote bad acceptance criteria.” And connecting those pieces. I really think that having a solid BA when you are a Product Owner, or Product Manager, or for SEO across multiple teams, is a very useful thing.
Could you tell me about a time when something went really badly?
Most of my career is based on, “I know it's supposed to work like this. But behold!”
[Sam]: Right. Let’s hear a failure with fireworks.
[Jamie]: Oh, I can tell you about one of the moments where you have to stand up and own your position as a Product Owner or Manager when it comes to SEO. And, also understand the impact it has to other groups.
So, I was working on a redesign for an eCommerce site. This was right before Googlebot finally updated to being evergreen. And I had gotten to work hand-in-hand really well with the developer for working on the product detail pages. But unfortunately for the product listing pages, that developer had a series of truly unfortunately events, and I wasn't able to work with him.
So, we are at ‘go live’ and I do not have a chance to test the staging environment until three days before we're supposed to launch on it. And I get in there and I'm testing our product detail pages and I've been using, you know, a series of not first party tools. So, I've been using different crawlers that can go ahead and render pages for me and whatnot.
But when it came time to actually use Webmaster tools to use for mobile friendly tests, and I got to those product listing pages, they were a grey bar. A single grey bar. So, this entry point to thousands of products was empty.
And there was a moment of: “I am actually in a nightmare right now. Like, this isn't real life. It can’t be real life!” But also sitting around the table with a bunch of stakeholders who were very invested in this digital business and going: “I understand this is going to be the impact. I've projected how much it's going to hurt us. And here's our recovery plan that we could take action on. But I can't hold back deploy. Because if I say no-go on this launch, then I am actually sitting back for other teams with their deploys. And for an overall business value, it's not worth it.”
Do you have to be as transparent as possible?
Yeah, absolutely. Transparent. You have to go: “This is how we're going to fix it. We're going to use inline styling. We're going to go ahead and do this. I'm going to use our polyfills.” We lucked out and Googlebot updated to evergreen very shortly after and that was a saving grace. So many fetches, so many requests.
[Sam]: Were they quite understanding?
[Jamie]: Yeah. I mean, when you're at that level, when you're working with that many pieces, everything's on fire all the time. And unless you truly love that particular dumpster, you have to go, “Okay. That is in queue.” Like you can’t follow an inherent desire to freak out. To go, “Ah, the sky is falling!”
And the nature of eCommerce, particularly with a lot of frameworks, a lot of sites that have been around a long time. 51% is built on Java still, which is not scalable in the slightest. And we've got Kubernetes coming in to help make this scalable. But a lot of these Titans of industry right now, they have code stacks that aren't meant to go to the next billion users. And we're all going through this learning curve together. So, you take it with humility. You own it. And you learn a lot from failing. And you learn a lot from making amazing fireworks.
How do you get developers to prioritise changes based on search engine developments?
Well, the brilliance of being the Product Owner, is that you get to prioritize your backlog. So, there is that bit and there's less bureaucracy there.
Anytime you communicate with a dev - if it's a bug, you want to give them repo steps. “How do I make this happen?” Again, if it's a new thing, you need to give the acceptance criteria. “When X does Y, Z happens.” You need to clearly lay those out. You have to be very literal, provide testing tools. “Please provide the QA.” So, “QA should test on this list of URLs.” It makes their jobs so much easier as opposed to having to dig through and figure out how they're supposed to test this thing. Be considerate of your team, they work really hard.
Does it make it a smooth process if you are communicating with developers in this way?
Yeah. I don’t push back any questions. I try and learn what the concern is. And I've definitely had them at “You're right.” Where I had mis-considered an element in our stock. I had not thought about some other outcome and how it would play. That willingness to go, “I'm the PO, but I trust you. You know this development aspect better than me.” It was very useful because you get to learn, and they get to learn.
Then when you have devs who are allies. Devs make the best allies because they're often in meetings that you're not, and they can shut down terrible ideas from the start.
How do you make developers your allies?
Working with them. Cooperating. Respecting their process. I know everything's on fire, all the time. I totally respect that. And I hear you. I feel you. I'll roast marshmallows with you over the dumpster fires of code any given day.
But you can't continue to work and make a product if you're always in that anxious, heightened state. So, respect the formats they have. They may request a user story as ‘blank’. I want to ‘blank’ in order to ‘blank’. As a flying space monkey, I want to fail fantastically to make the best fireworks.
Sometimes I get to read tweets about my talks and the out of context quotes are….! Learn how they work. Learn what works best for them. Provide proper documentation. If you are recommending a code change because of how Googlebot has changed in X or Y, provide the documentation. Provide the developer resource. Provide a testing tool. That's how you earn credibility.
A lot of developers have been burned by SEOs going, “This is magic… ooh.” I understand that. I do. When you show them that you understand that code is a series of elements. X does Y and then Y becomes Z. And it moves through sequential order - it goes a long way.
Do you think generally we have enough of those tools to be able to communicate effectively with developers?
It's a closing gap. So as of 2018, our beloved Google Webmaster Analyst team is now underneath Google developers. They are part of the same thing. Because we all ultimately have a desire to make a better web where you can find what you need. And when that moved, we saw just the world shift.
Thank you, Lizzi Harvey, for all of that beautiful new documentation you have made. Shout out! She's an unspoken hero of the Google developer team where she's doing this new documentation that goes through step by step. And for a while there, you'd look for an answer and there's three versions, but none of them are dated and you're not really sure what's from where?
[Sam]: Yeah, the stuff Martin’s doing is amazing.
[Jamie]: Thank you, Martin.
How useful is Search Console when you're working with huge sites? Do you have to use it in special ways?
You get a little crafty. You do. So, you've got properties, right? And you can make properties that are sub folders. So, I would have one, obviously one for each of the variants. So secure, non-secure, dubs, non-dubs. But here's my primary. And here's my primary for each of the languages.
And then beneath each of the languages, each of the categories, each of the products, and by breaking it down like that. And then doing a series of crafty automations through Google sheets and APIs – you can do some good reporting.
So, how many properties would you have GSC? Are we talking several or hundreds?
Many. Of the primary domain, about 50. Of external domains and subdomains, then we start getting out into more lofty numbers. But as one human you still have to prioritize, “Okay, what’s the 20% that’s 80% of the impact?”
How have you found it since going for yourself and starting as a consultant?
So, for the record, we're in week three! Hit the ground running, absolutely. So, very early on into this one. I think the thing that got me to move away from being in-house and really having that comfort of the day to day was just, there were so many opportunities of things, where like: “Oh, I want to go try that. I want to go experience that. I want to go see if that'll work.”
It's nothing to detriment. It was just going, well, “Let's see how big the sky is.”
Are you looking for clients?
Please give me a shout out! Because even if I say I have enough work now, in the nature of digital, you know, things fall through. Things change all the time.
[Sam]: I think by the time we publish this, like it might be closer to Christmas to be honest.
[Jamie]: Merry Christmas everyone. Happy holidays and your assorted respective holidays.
What importance do you think there is for having different skills within marketing?
I don't think there’s necessarily anything wrong with choosing your spot. Claiming your stake of land. But you need to pretty persistently be aware of how that fits into the overall landscape.
But just knowing the landscape and how things evolve is going to be very important. And it's not necessarily a matter of me going, “Oh, this is superior,” but it's your own longevity. If you don't understand how that fits in place, especially because it's always adapting. The web is a persistently changing beast. It might not be a good long fit.
[Sam]: Some people talk about different letters for skills. So, you get like T-shaped marketers, where you've got like a broad base of knowledge. And then the T going down is your specialty. And then there's like other different letters.
Is it more important to just kind of follow your own natural curiosities?
I'm not saying it's better, I'm saying it's worked for me. There's nothing wrong with knowing what your strengths are. I think that maybe I do follow that T-shape or I'm like, this is where I'm really comfortable.
Like I can tell you all about these bits, for now. It might change later on, but the idea that you should know everything - I don't know. I'm going to possibly make some people a little miffed right now, but there is no such thing as a full stack. Full stack engineers are just people who Google and use stack overflow. Having to be able to do all the things means that you never really get to be proficient or curious in things. Nothing wrong with it.
Can you tell us a bit about self-care?
Absolutely. 100%. I was joking with Sam before we got here, that he should share the questions with me beforehand because I've just been in Brighton. And then I did Optimisey, this great event out in Cambridge. I was like, “There's a good chance I'm going to be a broken Roomba by the time I get here.” You know, you can only put at 240 volts through 120-volt fuse for so long before there's a ramification to it.
It's very important to go ahead and acknowledge your hard limits and soft limits. And to take time to just sit and do nothing for a second. Especially when you've been in really intensive work all day. I'm a compulsive gardener. And really, it's my rebellion against my digital life, is I garden. I play Dungeons and Dragons, tabletop style. And I bring a Polaroid camera with me when I travel.
How do you get prepared before you speak at a conference?
So, hilarious, fun story from SMX Munich. So, that 30 seconds before we start this talk. The night before, one of the gents who was supposed to have this panel, his baby came early. So, I get an email going, “Hi, can you cover this topic?” And I'm like, “Okay, I'll be there.” So, I whipped together this deck overnight and I'm up on stage and getting ready to do talk. And I’m there with Patrick Stox who is just one of the amazing heavy hitters in our field. And we're getting ready to queue... and I've lost my clicker.
I've lost the clicker to move the slides forward! So, the laptop is there on the podium. And while I look very graceful, it's because I'm nonchalantly reaching over and tapping through the slides I have.
[Sam]: There’s nothing like a bit of improv.
[Jamie]: I think everybody feels the jitters and the fear. I mean public speaking is everyone's biggest fear. If you go through and you do a poll, “What are you most afraid of?” Spiders and all of this. No, it's getting in front of a crowd. And being willing to share what you know and being willing to be wrong about it.
I always want to like put up a slide like, “Hey, guess where I'm wrong in this deck? Because it's somewhere. Or just where a pin that says, “Ask me about my crippling anxiety.” Just to completely disarm it because it's there. It's part of the process that I go through. But I’m acknowledging it.
[Sam]: So, do you mean you purposely put something wrong in your deck?
[Jamie]: No! I’m just, inevitably I am wrong because I am human. Like there will be something wrong. Yeah. I'm not trying to intentionally mislead anyone! I am providing you with the best information I have at the time, but I am human and highly fallible.
Can you explain a bit about what motivated you to write your post on ethical SEO?
I felt it was a necessity, because if we just watch someone go ahead and sit in a nice coffee shop and get a good view. So, watch when people pull out their phones when they ask a question. Or just walk into your break room. They're like, “Hey, what was that movie with that guy?” Someone's going to pull out their phone. We inherently trust the answers that appear there. We believe that they're true. But the reality of it is, we have jobs manipulating how that happens.
In 2016 in the States, we had a bit of an issue with social media on the elections that happened. And those ads were very quick turnaround, quick ROI to them. You paid. You got the result. I am aware of SEOs who are working in political fields right now and who are perhaps using a longer game. Using it for manipulating search results.
There are SEOs involved in politics and it has a very real impact. So, the information we trust, how does it get there? And, as an SEO, is what you're doing helping to create the kind of world that you want to live in, and you want to be a part of? Or is this something that is self-serving to move you particularly forward?
I have a bit of a personal moral imperative that, if I'm acting upon someone, I should act upon them for themselves and value. If I'm doing it for a motivation that lies outside of them and then that's not okay.
So was this post a message to people working in the political field?
This is me touching my toe in the water. It was me kind of dipping my toe into the water of this world because it's a bit too ballsy for me to go out heavy-hitting and be like, “Hi guys. There are SEOs who work in political campaigns.” Because when you think about it, obviously there are, but how does that impact people who don't know how the search results come?
I have an amazing grandmother. I love her. She's a wonderful human being. She’s fallen into that little bit of a Facebook black hole where she sees information and that echo chambered back to her. And she believes it. And it’s persistently reinforced.
And I’ve become very discouraged and concerned. When we're in a place where the idea of objectively providing information, you know, that doesn't get clicks. It doesn't get headlines. But giving us slant, giving a salacious story does.
Okay. It may move you further forward in your personal career momentarily. It may benefit whatever goal you're after. But how would you feel if everyone behaved that way? If everyone adopted the same kind of morals? I don't have an answer to it. That's why I said ‘Armadillo’ earlier, because what is the answer to ethical SEO? Armadillo. I'm not sure.
Are you talking about both sides of the political spectrum?
I’m going to decline to comment on that one.
You can make an argument that every other industry does it. We see dark money moving through channels all the time. People are funding whatever they want to be in power.
In the States we have Citizens United. So, money is a vote. Corporations are people there. So, it's not really any different, but it still doesn't mean that I have to go: “This is what I see every day. So, therefore it's what I should accept as being intrinsically valuable to me.”
A lot of the SEO world confuses me. Because it seems as though, yes, you could absolutely short-term game the system, you will 100%. But how are you making the world any better? How are you making the internet any better? How are you getting more information and more people who could potentially make an impact?
[Sam]: This is what I like about technical SEO. Generally, the people who do technical SEO, that's their motivation. It's not to try and grow a business or anything. It's like there's a kind of pure motivation there of wanting to make the world a better place, which is refreshing.
[Jamie]: I acknowledge that I have privilege. So, for me, even getting into SEO, learning any form of code. My grandpa won the lottery when I was in 8th grade. He won all of $800 and he used that money to buy me a computer. And I stayed up far past my bedtime. And I was on GeoCities and I was going to other websites and there I was learning to look at things on their sites and going, “How do I make this on my own? How do I play with this?”
And the HTML and CSS that I learned there has ultimately done me a lot better than my English degree, which I have used once to kill a spider. English degrees. They're lovely. But yeah, that graphic novel and that play have still not not been written. One day, one day.
What advice can you give for SEOs looking to work more closely with developers?
So, the thing about becoming a tech SEO, is it's not yours until you break it. So, there's this wonderful thing out there. Google's created Codelabs. There are places where you can go ahead and you can learn HTML, you can learn CSS, you can do all these things and you can break them. You can break them without consequence. You can break them without having to breathe down your neck or yell at you that you've taken down production. Also, sorry, Anthony. I know that was like six years ago, but I didn’t mean to take down production. That's my own guilt. He's never nagged me.
But yeah, so there are new resources available, particularly for developers. I was at I/O two years ago and there was a session on search and findability. And to watch how excited these devs got on the idea that their stuff could be found.
They could find out how people got there, what they looked for. Well that's a crossover because we know the webmaster’s guide. We know these pieces. So, start there. Go into developers.google.com and they have a section on search. They have a developer's guide to search. It'll take you through practical code examples. It'll let you get hands on and get your hands dirty and break things. So be curious, go break some stuff. Go make amazing fireworks. That is my best advice.
Is there anything that you'd like to shamelessly plug on this show?
A productivity hack…posted notes and dry erase boards. I'm a very tactile human. I really am. I find that I have commitment issues, so the posted notes and the dry erase boards are like “This never happened!” It's quite lovely.
I would recommend different communities. So, there is the Google Webmaster Forum. Started by Areej - Women in Tech SEO - that is a new Facebook group. They're on Twitter. They have a website. If you're out there, if you're a woman who is getting started and wants to learn a bit more and connect with other really smart women, please join that bit.
[Sam]: She was telling us about how she’s starting up a conference next year? So yeah, it's really a growing community. It sounds amazing.
[Jamie]: It's so exciting. I remember the first time I met another technical SEO and it was like, “Oh, this is beautiful.” And now to be able to go sit in a room full of other technical women is just, it's absolutely a gift! Thank you, Arish. I really do appreciate that.
So, beginning to connect with other people on just having people you trust, you can go: “Hey, have you seen that thing? Hey, I'm seeing this. Do you see this?” It's a little bit of a sanity check, which is really valuable when you’re in deep complex reasoning.
Are these places where being the dumbest kid in the room is accepted?
I think in most scenarios, I believe most of our community isn't going to go ahead and try and shoot you down. There's a difference between asking a dumb question, and interrupting, to ask a dumb question.
So, when you don’t know, you're not directly in that conversation, take a note, follow up with it. But yeah, I don't see any reason. If you go and do due diligence. If you show “I've tried to understand this and I didn't,” then come back with that. You're not going to be shot down. At least not by me. Or maybe I will. Who knows!?
And the next shameless plug can be anything you want to promote. Anywhere you’re speaking or anything you're trying to vlog? We’ll give a shout out to you on Twitter anyway.
If this is airing around Christmas, then come see me at Engage at SEMpdx. It's a really lovely conference out in Portland. Super fun.
If this somehow airs before then - I'm going to be at SMX East, SMX Milan and there's a Google developers group meetup that's going to be in New York City at the same time as SMX East. If you're around, if you're a developer and you want to learn more, I want to learn from you. So, let's teach each other.
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A massive thank you to Jamie 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.