Today’s in-house spotlight is on Laura Forbes with The Christian Science Monitor. She has an interesting challenge before her – to single handedly encourage a 100 year old publication to change the way they write. SEO only makes up 50% of Laura’s job, which intensifies the challenge when you’re facing a company that must find the balance between SEO and 100 years of editorial practices.
Laura’s advice for illustrating the potential of SEO: Use search marketing to improve the metrics important to stakeholders. When you do that, they’ll be interested in SEO and will have an incentive to effect change.
The Biggest Take-Away: Knowing when to push for SEO hardest is vital, and Laura has an interesting way of knowing when – she watches for KPIs slide. Since no manager wants to see their numbers go down, Laura immediately knows that once KPIs start to slide it is a great time to make the case for SEO.
On to the interview….
Jessica: SEO isn’t your sole responsibility, how did you first get SEO on your plate, and how are you getting it to become a large portion of your role.
Laura: SEO really came to my attention about a year ago. However, prior to that, The Christian Science Monitor had made a commitment to improving web performance. SEO is a priority for our organization—finding the way to make it happen while preserving editorial integrity—that’s the real challenge. About a year ago we were running a special 11-part series written by one of our reporters who had been kidnapped in Iraq. We knew this was compelling content, and we wanted to help reach as many readers as possible. So we needed to make sure that the search engines found it. That was when we first got our organization to agree that we needed to start paying attention to SEO. Now, to gain support for SEO internally, and to help make it a larger part of my job, I’m really working with our web analytics tool to make sure that we can test and document our minor SEO successes in the hopes of creating the opportunity and support for larger ones.
Jessica: When we last spoke it sounded as though, in terms of man hours, you actually have more than one person doing SEO, it’s just that it is dispersed throughout the organization. How are you building out your team, when it only comprises about 50% of your job? How have you divvied up the SEO duties?
Laura: We do have the duties spread among a number of people, and it is our strategy to drive SEO awareness into the entire organization, editorial and publishing. Right now, we are still moving towards structuring our entire Marketing department to foster success on the Web. Part of this includes determining how to structure an SEO team and how that team relates to a web analytics team. In the meantime, we’re attempting to bring more structure to SEO, to educate the organization, and create the foundation, so that as the team grows, it does so in an organized fashion. We frequently will publish internal SEO guidelines for our editorial team and our web producers/developers, and we’re tying analytics more closely to SEO so that we make sure we can document and capture what we’re doing right, and optimize what needs a little help. What has been helpful is the formation of a unified management team. In the initial stages of this new focus on the Web, our organization created a Chief Web Officer position (Robin Antonick) and a 4 person sponsorship team that includes the Publisher, Editor, Chief Information Officer and Chief Web Officer. This team manages the transition from print to web. From there, the organization has invested in sending people to conferences such as SES and to training for web analytics and SEO. This foundation of awareness and structure really helps as we move forward.
Jessica: I have spoken to SEOs at more traditional publications, all are saying how challenging it is to get editors and journalists to write for search engines. How are you getting writers at Christian Science Monitor to think about SEO when they write? Have you found any particular messages or phrases that seem to hit the journalists buttons just right?
Laura: Our organization has been very responsive. The challenge has been to learn to write and package our content for 2 very different audiences—the search engines and our human readers—and to do so while maintaining editorial integrity. Certainly, we have worked to implement as many of the unseen, non-editorial changes as possible. But when it comes to content, and actually writing for SEs—I think we’ve been effective in helping writers to learn how to think about content differently.
Jessica: Sometimes upper management doesn’t pay attention to SEO, or you don’t have their buy-in. You have an interesting tactic for getting their attention, by focusing on what matters to them. Can you let us know exactly what you do, how you deliver it and how well it’s working?
Laura: I think that what is most powerful for us right now is using our web analytics tool in conjunction with SEO. I think no matter where you go, management focus is more on results, and not so much on the details. They need to know that their KPIs are where they should be. We have found that if you can demonstrate success on the more visible straightforward KPIs that management is concerned with—it will get their attention and allow you the opportunity to talk to them about other less visible, more complex KPIs. This will allow you to implement some SEO best practices. So, for us, it’s all about giving management what they want first, and using those successes as a starting point from which to talk about a fuller implementation of SEO best practices. Our ability to do this has really created a lot of buzz at the Monitor, and I think The Monitor, as a whole is making great strides towards optimizing best practices.
Jessica: You tend to keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to implement the best practices. Where are you listening, and what tells you its time to make an SEO pitch?
Laura: Well, we’re constantly keeping up with industry trends through various industry newsletters, conferences, and training. We also refer to an outside consultant from time to time for advice on how to handle a certain situation. But in terms of deciding when to make a pitch, again, we let our numbers do the talking. We keep a close eye on our metrics through our web analytics tool. And when we see a KPI sliding, we know that’s a great time for us as SEOs to get our foot in the door with management and make our case for implementing best practices. NO manager wants to see their KPIs slide—those situations offer us a great pitching opportunity. In addition, what has been extremely helpful is having the support of an internal financial analyst (Donal Toole)who is trained and up to speed on SEO and web analytics, as well as the support of the CWO. With buy in and pitching coming from a 3-person team with knowledge of business, finance, and SEO-we can really make a powerful argument for implementation
Jessica: You’re at a point where you are trying to decide to continue building the in-house team, or outsource SEO. What are you seeing as the trade-offs for each? Is there anything that you think a publication should consider, other companies may not need to factor in?
Laura: I think SEO is an amazing opportunity for a publication such as ours to begin playing on the same field as some of our larger competitors, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. As we have begun to fully implement SEO best practices, we have noticed a huge return, and a large increase in our KPIs across the board. If we can manage all of that with an in-house team, our ROI is likely to be much greater. However, we need to be sure that we can systematically and fully execute on these best practices. If we don’t think we can do that, then it may make sense to outsource—increasing our cost, but also potentially increasing our return. From time to time, we have used a consultant to really align ourselves with best practices and supplement our own knowledge. Learning from these collaborative experiences has been really helpful in building our in-house expertise.
Jessica: You had a huge opportunity put before you when Jill Carroll was captured in Iraq. Management knew as many people as possible needed to read the story, and you were given the opportunity to optimize the story and get the word out. What would you have done differently and what are the key lessons learned that you would pass on to others who get the one chance to make an impact? How has the success of that project opened the door for more optimization opportunities?
Laura: Well there’s no doubt that Jill’s story was compelling. We just needed to make the series as visible as possible. It was actually a pretty great package to work on. We had a very compelling product that lots of people wanted. The challenge was that this story came out about 4 months after she was released—the buzz had died down by that point. So, we used this as an exercise in SEO coupled with web analytics and Online PR. Taking a broad approach such as this allowed for us to maximize success. Sometimes, I think we are so focused on traditional SEO, that we start thinking just about SEs and forget about the people. We tapped into social media, pitched bloggers and partners. This was part of a much larger offline PR campaign for releasing the series. By creating this buzz through Online PR, having a comprehensive link-building plan, and implementing standard SEO practices, we noticed record numbers across all of our online and offline KPIs. This has really offered us a benchmark from which to build the case for more complete and organized implementation of SEO practices moving forward.
Jessica: A lot of people ask about fast-track training programs vs. reading the right materials for independent study. You have been evaluating these options, what are your thoughts about each route?
Laura: Honestly, it has been my experience that practice is the best teacher. My knowledge has come from trial and error, from paying attention, testing and tracking results through web analytics, and picking the brains of the industry professionals that I meet. I’ve also had the opportunity to attend industry conferences such as SES as well as receiving training in web analytics. In addition, I take the opportunity to read whatever industry materials I can in the time I have. There are a number of industry newsletters that keep me up to date on best practices. Beyond that it’s just taking the basics and knowing how best to apply them to your own situation. Fast-track training programs may be great for some, but my experience is that every SEO will have a different experience depending on the organization they’re working for. So, you may take a fast-track training program, but then have to spend more time learning how to adapt those general principles to your own experience. For me, I think it’s more beneficial to go to the reference material when you need it, and learn all you can in the context of where you are. The rest will fill in as you go along.
Jessica: SEO comprises about 50% of your job, making prioritization and time management vital. Which SEO publications give you the biggest bang for your limited time?
Laura: Really, I look to anything on the SEMPO website, or Click-Z. I feel that the articles and lessons on the SEMPO site are high-caliber and generally very helpful. Click-Z is great because it’s so well organized—if I need some background info quickly, this is a great place to go.