Welcome to Search Engine Journal’s new column, In-house SEM, which features an in-house search marketer each week. For the kickoff, I spoke with Yahoo!’s Director of Search Engine Marketing, Dave Roth, to understand how search marketing is handled at Yahoo!.
There are different types of in-house roles, and Dave’s role is that of very high-level leadership where he spends his time clearing obstacles and setting standards for search marketers on his team and in the decentralized Yahoo! Properties, and not doing hands-on search marketing work. Dave spends his day making it possible for the search team to move forward. While Yahoo! didn’t divulge the size of their search staff, they said that have a small centralized search staff that sets standards and guidelines for search marketers that exist separately within each Yahoo! property (each property may have someone full-time, as a portion of their role or utilize an outsourced consultant).
As I learned more about the search marketing organization at Yahoo!, I realized Dave’s department is a model for extremely large companies with many decentralized properties (companies such as Sony, Intel, HP and Intuit). Similar to IBM’s SEO organization, Yahoo! has a centralized SEM/SEO team that sets standards, guidelines and offers tools for the SEOs and SEMs within each separate Yahoo! property. Dave’s team creates templates, tools and resources that bring consistency and cohesiveness to the search strategy.
Dave says the key to success in-house: Impeccable presentation skills and the ability to build relationships, influence others and get people to do things they wouldn’t do on their own. “You find yourself in front of a number of audiences, with little time to prepare you need to distill the message down to something people can understand and will want to do,” says Dave.
Dave’s advice for someone considering going in-house: Build your search skills, before going in-house. Dave said, “The agency is where people really learn. You don’t get that on the client side, you’re not always around other SEOs to learn more. When you’re in-house, it’s assumed that you are the expert.” How true it is.
On to the Q&A –a series of questions that will help you decide whether or not to accept an in-house leadership role.
Jessica: Last summer you moved from being an agency search marketer to an in-house search marketer. What made you decide to make the move? And most importantly, what do you really think about that transition?
Dave: As you may know I had a pretty good job at Carat. I was building a search marketing practice in an advertising agency, which put me on the bleeding edge of the search marketing industry, serving some pretty heady clients. My feeling was that eventually I wanted to get to the client-side, and I had been getting calls from recruiters for some time, but nothing really sounded that compelling. Yahoo! was really starting to take search marketing very seriously and created a position so unique that I had a very hard time saying no to it. The transition has been fairly smooth, and it turns out my agency experience has served me very well in this setting.
Jessica: Going in-house has enormous challenges. What has been the biggest surprise or challenge you’ve faced in-house (that you didn’t have agency-side) and what advice do you have for the in-houser facing the same situation?
Dave: To qualify that, in-house can be a very diverse set of experiences depending on the company. At Yahoo!, we have many different business units, which makes standardizing very challenging. For example, our Personals business takes paid subscriptions while our Sports property is media-supported. Thankfully I have a very sharp group of finance folks who help me define corporate standards for search marketing that work for all business units. Aside from that, I think the biggest difference in making the transition is that your customers are now internal, rather than external, which changed the complexion of the relationship.
Jessica: In past year many in-house positions have opened up, what would should one consider before making the decision to go from agency-side to in-house?
Dave: The agency business is extremely dynamic and very exciting, which is why it appeals to so many people. I would say that agencies are a great place to learn quickly and develop a strong set of marketing skills. I wouldn’t recommend moving to the client side without a solid foundation like this. On the client side, the skill set is assumed, and more of the job becomes about understanding the organization you are in and how to navigate through it to get your job done.
Jessica: All those in-house postings need to be filled, what advice do you have for someone trying to fill an in-house role? What unique skills, experiences and characteristics do you feel would make a successful in-house leader? Does it vary for an in-house SEO vs. in-house SEM?
Dave: Again, the basic marketing skillset needs to be very strong. Beyond that, I believe that the single most important asset is strong presentation skills. In-house marketers need to present to different audiences on short notice. I just did a one-day presentation training offsite that was the most valuable investment in my success I can remember for some time. Additionally, group dynamics become very important in the in-house setting, so influencer skills become very important.
Jessica: What advice do you have for someone just starting as an in-house SEO? What lessons have you learned that will help someone make a smooth startup?
Dave: Take the CTO out to lunch. Any successful in-house program will take absolute commitment from the top down on the technical side of the house. In the agency world we’re somewhat insulated from this dynamic, but in-house we feel it all the time. Web developers, product managers, and platform folks absolutely need to be bought into the process and to the extent their incentives are aligned with yours an in-house SEM program can be successful.
Jessica: You manage both SEO and SEM, obviously in-house SEO is a challenge. How about in-house SEM? What does a company need to consider before taking that role in-house.
Dave: Taking SEM in-house is a huge commitment. The industry changes quickly and constantly, so for most companies taking it in-house doesn’t make sense. I think it makes more sense to break SEM down into a series of more discrete tasks like campaign management, bid optimization, keyword expansion, ad creative, etc, and see which ones can be done better in-house rather than outsourcing.
Jessica: Most in-house SEOs constantly explain why things are being done a certain way. For me, the most repetitive thing is 301 vs. 302 and when to use each. Because you work at a search engine, do people understand why you’re changing copy and recommending various back-end changes? Which aspect of SEO do you find yourself continuously explaining?
Dave: Since Yahoo! was born online, yes, there is somewhat of a heightened sense of awareness about SEO issues here. But as you probably know, at big companies SEO has a lot to do with getting the fundamentals right and scaling those efforts across the company. So perhaps surprisingly, I spend most of my SEO efforts focused on a relatively small set of issues across a very large set of constituents.
Jessica: Yahoo! has an extremely large amount of content that could be optimized. What is your focus and how do you manage it all? Is there a secret to the way you’ve set up your search department that makes it easier?
Dave: We’ve set things up here for scale. So we have a very small central group that maintains contact with a large set of internal customers. One of our main points of focus in 2007 is training. All of the big companies who are good at SEO train everyone in SEO, not just the engineers or the copywriters, but everyone. That’s my goal here, is to infuse SEO into the DNA of every Yahoo! employee.
Jessica: How on earth do you have time to stay on the top of the industry’s changes? It’s my biggest challenge.
Dave: I attend industry conferences, read all the online e-zines, and ask our SEO experts what’s happening on all the message boards and blogs. We then have weekly working sessions to help disseminate all this data across properties. We also leverage internal wiki-like tools to share new information and best practices in the organization.
And the question you really want do know… Does Dave get assistance from the Yahoo! search engineers? The answer is no. There is a high wall between the engineers and the search team, which means that Yahoo!’s SEOs do not get special access to Yahoo! search engineers.
For those interested, as of the time this printed, Yahoo! is hiring a senior SEO manager.