This week’s spotlight is on Dustin Woodard, a veteran in-house SEO at Allrecipes.com. Dustin made an interesting choice when joining AllRecipes.com, he joined a company that was already doing exceptionally well with SEO and was faced the challenge of figuring out how to generate incremental SEO traffic. Dustin has been quite successful with his challenge, and did it all as a team of one. His secret to success is training others in the company to incorporate SEO in the way they write and perform their jobs, and leveraging interns to aid with the workload.
- How Dustin makes the most of meetings: He makes sure he’s connected to the web at all meetings so that he can show specific examples of what works and what doesn’t, or how the search engines see things. What this means for you is that you’ll want to plan your meetings in advance, most conferences with computers get booked quickly.
- Dustin’s Advice on Hiring Interns: Work with web-savvy college students that also know Excel very well. As for their inexperience, Dustin says that many aspects of SEO can be broken down into simple steps that don’t require SEO knowledge. He also suggests that that you give them the projects you wish you had time to do yourself.
- Big Take-away for Rookie In-housers: Be careful that you aren’t reactionary to everything you read. Many less experienced in-house search marketers take what they read as gospel and are susceptible to the latest buzz. Instead, remember that what you read could be just one person’s experience and may not set you up for long-term successes. I always tell in-house SEMs to identify a few people in the industry that you believe and trust, and follow everything they read. As you learn more about search, you’ll develop your own opinions; and when you begin to question your idols, you’re starting to grasp search. Because of this susceptibility, I also recommend in-house search marketers have outside council, a consultant they can reach out to for Q&A and to give them a reality check on the latest buzz.
On to the Q&A……
Jessica: Before joining AllRecipes.com you had three job offers, and Allrecipes.com was already doing well with search. The challenge of this role was to find ways to boost their already great traffic. What did you do to increase traffic for the site? What do you recommend someone ask when considering to take a position for a site that’s already doing well with SEO, so they know if they can give the traffic a boost?
Dustin: I chose Allrecipes because I liked the culture and flexibility better than the other two, but it was a difficult decision because I knew I could have easily made a major financial impact at one of the other companies. I decided to accept the challenge of taking a company with an already strong footprint and solid rankings and see if I could still give them a boost.
On the surface, it was a daunting task. After digging in, I started discovering flaws and opportunities with the site. Making those changes lifted Allrecipes search traffic by over 80% in my first year. At a site that relies purely on SEO & word of mouth for traffic, this really boosted the company financially.
My advice to anyone considering an SEO position at an already well-established site, in terms of SEO, is to take it! Much like sports or video games, if you’re willing to move up a level of difficulty, you’ll be a much stronger player in the end. No site is perfect. Even two years later, I have a long list of SEO-related improvements Allrecipes needs to make.
Jessica: AllRecipes has millions of keywords. How do you do keyword research for so many pages? How do you manage such a large volume?
Dustin: Gap analysis exercises are one of the best ways to identify opportunities when dealing with a large keyword set. Compare your internal search keywords against your search engine referrer keywords to identify opportunities. If you can afford it, checking your current keyword referrals against your competitor’s referrer data using a 3rd party’s tools can also be highly valuable. If you see gaps where you aren’t receiving traffic, the two most common culprits are naming convention problems or actual content gaps.
Jessica: You have millions of pages and millions of keywords, how do monitor, track and report on your rankings? What tips and tricks can you pass on to others facing this same challenge?
Dustin: To give you a sense of the volume of searches related to recipes, on the Allrecipes site, we receive approximately one million different keyword combinations on our internal searches in any given month. When people search recipes on our site, they know they’ll get recipes, so they don’t bother throwing in terms like “___ recipe”, “recipe for ___”, or “how to cook ___”, so you can only imagine the amount of food-related searches the major engines see.
It would be nearly impossible to track our rank for every recipe-related search, so I decided to use 200-300 keyword sample sets for a few different types of recipe searches. For example, in one bucket, I’ve got really general searches like “recipes” or “bread.” In another bucket I put in less general, but still fairly common, searches like “banana bread recipes” or “vegetarian lasagna.” In another bucket, I targeted multi-word long-tail searches like “how to cook a turkey without much time on hand.”
When creating these buckets, it’s important to pick terms that you may not necessarily rank for already because the goal is to keep track of your ranking improvements or declines over time.
Jessica: You’ve been doing inhouse SEO for 10 years and have never worked for an agency. With all of the background you’ve had, do you recommend a company hire someone with in-house experience or agency experience? Does it really matter, or are there key experiences to look for when hiring?
Dustin: In the late 90s, SEO wasn’t a known term, nor were there “SEO agencies,” so it was impossible to hire someone with agency experience. That’s no longer the case.
Successful SEOs seem to come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have strong marketing backgrounds and others come with strong development backgrounds,
but the best SEOs seem to be very well-rounded and are very web savvy. The advantage for someone with an agency background is that they have worked with a variety of sites and have encountered a lot of situations. The advantage for an in-house person is that they know how to make SEO work within a company and they know what it is like to have their livelihood and that of their co-workers on the line.
If I were hiring, agency vs. in-house wouldn’t be a deciding factor for me. Years of experience and proven success are more important. Look for an SEO who has ran all aspects of at least one site, even if it’s their personal site. Also look for someone who is curious, competitive, analytical, adaptable, well-written and good at working with varieties of people and departments.
Jessica: After 10 years as a solo-seo you’ve learned to master the workload, which is huge. What are your secrets and what are the top three things any solo-seo must do?
Dustin: Prioritize, evangelize and never give up. Working in-house can be a large challenge, especially for companies that don’t understand how important it is. I spend much of my time educating others how to write, format, architect and cross-link better. It’s also important to showcase the importance of SEO to the execs, mostly with numbers and competitive research.
Jessica: One of the things you do is train other people in the company to do elements of SEO. What are the things you train other people to do and what are your lessons learned when doing this?
Dustin: What I teach my co-workers depends on what role they play and how they affect the site. Rather then tell them what to do, I explain the reason behind why they should do it. In many ways SEO & usability tie nicely together, so it’s usually an easy sell. I always make sure I’m connected to the web in all my meetings, so I can quickly provide live examples of what works.
Jessica: Many SEOs have thought about interns to help out, but the challenge is that they don’t know SEO. You’ve had success using interns, what do you look for when interviewing a good SEO intern? How do you bring them up to speed and make them productive when they know nothing about SEO, but need them to make a long-term impact with their short-term engagement?
Dustin: I like working with college interns because they tend to be web savvy and are eager to learn more because, let’s face it, most universities are many years behind in teaching about the web. As complicated as SEO is, certain elements can be broken down into simple tasks.
When interviewing interns, I recommend looking for students who use the web heavily and know how to use Excel. Have them help with research and give them one of the projects you wish you had time to do yourself, then steer them through the process.
Jessica: You’ve noticed a trend about newer in-house SEOs, what have you noticed and what advice do you have for someone new to SEO in-house?
Dustin: The most common problem I’ve noticed with newer SEOs is that they are highly reactionary. They’ll read something in a forum or on a blog and treat it as gospel. Sometimes that information can be terribly outdated, incorrect, or just one person’s experience, unique to their niche. Newer SEOs are also susceptible to the latest buzz, which may only help in the short-term and could later lead to penalties or, more importantly, may distract them from efforts that will stand the test of time.
My advice to newer SEOs is to stand back and look at the big picture. Think about what you can do to make your site work better with the search engines and their crawlers. Think about what search engines consider a quality site, what users consider a quality site and how to stay away from activities or behaviors that may look like a spamming technique, no matter how innocent your intentions are.
Jessica Bowman is the Director of SEO for Business.com and an independent consultant. Most known for being an in-house search marketer, Jessica relishes in the human side of SEO – the art of getting things done within an organization, a challenge for most search marketers.