SEO

SearchFest 2011 Interview: Matthew Brown

Matthew will be speaking about “Advanced On-Site SEO” at SearchFest 2011, which will take place on February 23rd at the Governor Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Tickets are available now. To purchase, please click the following link.

matthew brown SearchFest 2011 Interview: Matthew Brown

1) Please give us your background and tell us what you do for a living.

In January 2011, I left a six year stint at the New York Times Company, as Director of Search Strategy. That involved management of a very large SEO program, encompassing both NYTimes.com as well as The Boston Globe website. In addition, I was Co-Founder/COO of Define Search Strategies, a small consulting branch of the New York Times that worked with companies to build SEO foundations similar to those we created at the Times. That provided a lot of experience in different competitive categories: News, travel, e-commerce, health, sports media, retail and mobile.

In January 2011, I left to start AudienceWise, a search marketing solutions company based in Portland, OR. AudienceWise is founded on the concept of holistic business strategy, as it applies to search and online visibility. Every truly successful SEO/SEM/Social Media effort I’ve seen has all been intelligently tied together with all the other elements of a company’s marketing strategy. Our goal is move search and social marketing out of the realm of tactical, and gain a seat at the ‘Big Idea’ table.

2) Someone might tell you that Enterprise Level SEO needs to be done by a large SEO company.  As a small shop, how would you respond to that?

I think it all depends on who ends up doing the work, whether it’s a big agency or a small shop. The closer you are to the true expertise at a consulting firm, the better. I’ve heard tales of an SEO expert being there for the sales process, the kickoff meeting, and then disappearing when the real work begins. That’s not going to be very useful when faced the hundreds of strategic SEO decisions that need to be made over the course of the campaign.

My experience has been that the strongest Enterprise SEO consulting work is often done by small shop or independent SEOs that take on a smaller handful of clients. Unfortunately, this group of seasoned veterans is often booked many months in advance and they don’t come cheap. Ultimately, your best bet is to find someone who will be doing the work that has a proven track record specifically in your market. It’s a great idea to hire based on experience in a particular vertical, because you’ll save a ton of money and resources not guessing where the opportunities are and which tactics will work. If you’re a company with a lot of brick and mortar, you don’t want to hire me for Local SEO. You want to hire David Mihm or Mike Blumenthal.

3) What are some typical objections in the Enterprise SEO Sales Process and how do you answer them?

First and foremost, it’s expensive. That’s because it combines three talent sets: market experience, SEO acumen, and project management skills that cross a number of corporate departments. You need to be fluent in Executive, Marketing, IT, Sales, and Editorial/Content languages. Hopefully you can stay out of the HR department.

There’s a lot of demand for the folks described above, and there’s not exactly a ton of them with a proven track record. Strategic SEO at the Enterprise level often results in decisions that can have a six or seven figure impact, and in some cases can make or break an online marketing strategy. It’s usually worth it to pay more to hire someone who can prove they can generate results at that level.

The other big objection is the resources and time needed for an Enterprise SEO campaign to truly succeed. Unless the site or network of sites is a total mess, there’s not going to be exponential traffic growth in 30 days. High performing sites are typically the result of many months of careful SEO execution.

4) Issues of “website control” are endemic to all SEO engagements, but especially Enterprise SEO engagements.  How do you communicate to the client stakeholders that you need a certain level of control in order to facilitate the desired outcomes?

The online landscape is littered with companies that fail to execute search strategy because of roadblocks in the Marketing department, with the tech folks, or even at the executive level. Why even bother shelling out for SEO if you’re not going to support it? You may as well increase your offline media buys, or bump up the paid search budget. If you’re embarking on or rebuilding your online SEO strategy, make sure it’s a corporate mandate from top to bottom. Even if that happens, you’ll have to demonstrate the value of almost every SEO project you embark on. Two big strategies here: Accurately projecting ballpark ROI for individual projects, and highlighting how your competitors are successfully employing a tactic.

Fairly often the control issues will be with the tech teams. They’ve usually learned a lot of the ropes as far as SEO is concerned, either at the Enterprise level or working on their own sites. You have to approach them with that in mind. If you start ‘educating’ them about how search engine crawlers work and how keywords are important, that will likely be the last time they listen to you. They know enough SEO to be fluent. What they don’t usually have time to do is process the relentless flood of new information in our industry or pay attention to what competitors are doing. Highlighting the important news, either in meetings or newsletters or email, is one of the better ways to prove value to them. Providing analysis on how industry developments apply to the company is your measure of worth as an in-house SEO or outside consultant. For example, your tech group might read about how Google has a plan to crawl AJAX. It’s up to you as the SEO stakeholder to assess whether that undertaking is worth it given the upside for your company. Believe me, taking a few non-essential undertakings off of the tech team’s plate will get you a lot further in the long run than ‘educating’ them. It goes a long way to establishing trust.

As far as project communication goes, I’m a firm believer in the ‘Grief Sandwich’ methodology. The bad news is firmly ensconced within two pristine slices of good news. Example:

“Hey, those Google News sitemaps are working great! Our number of indexed articles is way up and Google News traffic is up 35% week over week. Bad news on the image search front though…the editors still can’t create optimized ALT tags when they publish images. We need to change that in the CMS as soon as possible so we don’t continue to lose image search traffic. However, when we do have properly tagged images, we often get the picture result in Google News or one of the top image results in Google Image Search for relevant keyword, so that project has a ton of upside.”

5) Many will argue that SEO for Small Business and Enterprise SEO are two totally different animals.  Your thoughts?

Thinking back, I recall this Small Business SEO vs. Enterprise SEO conversation before. I tend to agree that from a daily tactical standpoint, they can look very different. Small businesses or independent webmasters will often spend more time on link building outreach, leadgen, content creation, domaining, and keyword cycling. Enterprise SEOs might spend their day creating strategies for site architecture changes, consulting on CMS changes, and training content creators. Or as I like to call it, ‘death by meetings’.

However, I think each camp has quite a bit to learn from one  another. The same tactics that work on a micro level at a small business are often overlooked by bigger organizations. It’s surprising how effective even a small amount of targeted link building can bring momentum to a new content launch at a big site. On the other side of the fence, Enterprise SEO campaigns can yield a goldmine of valuable market and user data. To accurately profile defensible traffic in a particular vertical, there’s no substitute for data from a large site or network.

The above article from last year hits on what I said in question two, but says it a bit differently. Hiring an SEO is a bit like hiring a lawyer based on specialty. Relevant experience in a market is key. Different competitive search spaces like travel, media, and health can require different approaches.

6) How can a new company with a new domain effectively gain traction in the SERPS?

In most cases, I think a good start is to allocate a paid search budget. You can hone down your keyword targeting to get a better idea of what converts, as well as get a better sense of the competitive landscape. At the same time, the campaign should be building some visibility and traction to the new domain. One mistake I see frequently with new companies or new sites is that they don’t narrow down their focus out of the gate. Instead, they try to build links to hundreds of pages or target thousands of keyword variations. A better plan is to build a stronger, smaller SEO foundation and then expand your keyword and link building focus from there.

In the last couple of years I think we’ve seen Google lighten up on new domains, likely as a result of them turning down the domain weight factor. Not too long ago, I’d advise clients that launching a new domain instead of just adding a directory or subdomain to your established brand was like launching a Viking funeral ship. These days, I’m hearing less about new site invisibility for the first few months post-launch, and whispers of the Sandbox bogeyman have dissipated to some degree. Any “sandbox effect” now is likely the result of launching with a low quality link profile or a mess on the site or network (like the one detailed in the comments of that SEOMoz article).

Another common story you hear about new domains is that they rank after launch, then slowly disappear into the depths of the SERPs. That can be caused by a big visibility blitz followed by anemic growth or stagnation in the link/visibility profile. You can fend this off by structuring your post-launch marketing efforts so they don’t all happen at launch. If you can maintain your PPC campaign and it results in continued link growth, that’s useful too.

7) What level of client education does an Enterprise SEO engagement necessitate in order to achieve maximum ROI?

A ton. Although it’s not a secret, the level of SEO competency across an organization is the engine that will allow them to build a strong competitive advantage in search traffic. If you factor in all the SEO dependencies across editorial, tech, and marketing you might be talking about dozens or hundreds of decisions made each day that can have a positive or negative effect. There’s no way an in-house team or a consulting group can reasonably participate in all those decisions. That’s been consistent within the large SEO programs I’ve been part of. Success requires training after training, specifically focused on what part of SEO/SEM/Social Media each team member needs to factor into their job. There’s no sense in trying to weigh people down with the insane amount of tribal and changing knowledge that we keep track of as SEOs. Cheat-sheets customized to their CMS or process are also very useful.

Emphasis on building SEO knowledge is one thing often glossed over in the current dustup about content farms. Companies like Mahalo, Demand Media, and Associated Content build SEO as a fundamental requirement across their organization. Whether you like or dislike their content quality (or their SEO tactics), this is a great way to make sure you’re not stuck in the cycle of having to re-optimize the site every few months and lose valuable early visibility on new content. Early traction from optimized content also pays dividends as time goes on. That’s how sites like About.com capture search visibility year after year. SEO is baked into the content creation process from the very start.

8) Can you give examples of some high level tools that are needed to optimally perform Enterprise SEO?

It all depends on how big the site or network of sites is. For small sites, you can get a good feel for site architecture and troubleshoot obvious problems using tools like Xenu and Excel. It won’t be as useful on massive sites, and it doesn’t factor in external link weights. The Microsoft IIS SEO toolkit can be helpful, if you’re using IIS. With basic crawl and report tools, I’m looking for bad URLs, weird developer URLs or test URLs that are live and shouldn’t be. Enterprise sites that utilize third party hosting services for things like images can end up with artifacts like test.domain.com or dev.domain.com URLs. The engines can end up crawling and indexing these.

Stepping it up a level, there’s definitely value in using a full-fledged platform like Brightedge, Covario, or Conductor. Obviously these can cost a bit, but they do high level things like analytics integration, detailed SEO status reports, and competitive analysis. If you’ve got enough folks that need real time data or heavily customized reports, these are all worth exploring.  It’s good to know if they utilize a crawler or a tagging solution. Tech teams can be sensitive about adding yet another tag to the code.

For situational stuff, I like using both the SEOMoz tools (particularly Open Site Explorer) and the SEOBook tools (particularly the Competitive Research Tool). I’m keen to try out Ontolo, to see how it can be useful on big site link building projects. Their blog has become a must-read for me.

matthew brown 01 SearchFest 2011 Interview: Matthew Brown

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 SearchFest 2011 Interview: Matthew Brown
Todd Mintz knows PPC...knows Social Media...knows SEO...knows Blogging...knows Domaining...and knows them all real well. He is also a Director & Founding Member of SEMpdx: Portland, Oregon's Search Engine Marketing Association.

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