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In-house Spotlight: Duane Forrester, SEO with Sports Direct Inc.

This week’s spotlight is on Duane Forrester with Sports Direct Inc., a leading sports media content publisher. Duane is quite visible in the search industry, also serving as a moderator for, is a SEMPO board member, writes for Search Engine Watch and speaks at conferences. He’s a solo-in-house SEO that has grown traffic and has created synergy with IT and product management.

This is one of my favorite interviews yet, as Duane offers up great advice for things that you can apply today to improve relationships within your organization. So read up, and then take someone out for coffee.

Duane’s Advice for Talking to IT: Look beyond your own lingo. It’s always a challenge when dealing with IT. Face-to-face you talk, everyone seems on the same page, but somehow things morph between that conversation and launch. You need to understand that the SEO world’s lingo isn’t the same vocabulary used by your IT department. As an in-house SEO, you need to learn your IT’s lingo in order to communicate properly, and understand that it can be different company-to-company. Consider it the difference between UK English, American English and Australian English. We do all speak English, but many words and phrases have completely different meanings.

Duane’s Signature Tactic for Relationship building: “Over-coffees.” Building relationships can be tough at the office, where there are high demands, lots of people and a busy environment. Duane takes people out for “over-coffees”, it’s a quick coffee during the day that pulls the person outside of the office setting. These $2 cups of coffee have dividends that are probably ten thousand-fold. By taking someone out for coffee you’ve given them a gift, reduced some of their stress for a bit and identified them as someone worth more than just a quick office chat – and you have their full attention to talk without interruptions.

On to the Q&A….

Jessica: Many companies safe-guard their in-house search marketer and prefer their SEO to have less visibility in the industry. However, you are the exact opposite: conference speaker and a SEMPO board member. How did you get your company to allow you to become so active and visible? How did you build the case and make it happen?

Duane: When I first started down this path, I was, like nearly everyone, at the bottom end of the learning curve. At the time my biggest focus was finding a useful community to participate in – a place when folks knew their stuff and were willing to share. I found that at Fast-forward several years and I’m a mod there. Since I became a mod at SEF, I’ve been able to demonstrate to my company the value of my network. When we faced challenges beyond my scope, I simply said, “Let me reach out to my network and see what comes back on that one.” No one person can know it all, and a few wins brought forth from my network led to me being able to easily slide into a more visible space within the industry. It’s still the same deal – my networking pays off through contacts who can share things we need to know. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.

Fortunately, my immediate report is a big fan of personal growth, too. He’s keen on seeing his staff grow. While anyone can make the pitch to grow a useful network – and that alone should seal the deal – it really helps when your boss understands the value of growth to you. They might not pay me more, but allowing me the opportunity to grow within this industry benefits us both, and I’m grateful.

Jessica: We know that in-house, relationship building is vital. You’ve nailed it down to two untraditional meetings that work extremely well: “over-coffees” and the occasional “gabfest”. Tell us what they are, how you use them to build rapport and to slip in what you need to happen for search marketing.

Duane: With select individuals, I simply splash out some cash and treat for coffees. Everyone likes to be taken for a coffee now and again. It’s a personal touch that also pays dividends in ‘forced focus’ for you. Let’s face it, when someone is busy at their desk, they might be looking at you, but are they really giving you 100%? Doubtful. Take them to Starbucks for a quick coffee, though, and they’re yours for the drive there, the wait in line, the drive back and the few brief moments of relaxation you’ve afforded them. Do this a couple of times with key people and when you arrive to ask for help, you’ll see the warm & fuzzies on them.

Another opportunity to watch for is somewhat harder to nail down. It’s still a relationship building item, but it might not lead anywhere near any topics you need covered. But, just shutting up and listening when someone talks is a pretty powerful tool. Sure, it might mean 20 minutes of your day to listening to someone else’s challenges or thoughts, but do it a few times and people naturally form a relationship with you. If you’re polite enough o listen, and offer decent advice from time to time, they will make time for you.

If you’ve really got to have someone’s attention for a while, buy them a lunch. Doesn’t have to be fancy, but taking the time to devote a meal with someone shows a desire to invent in a relationship. It might sound sappy and psychological, but relationship building is like that. Get to know someone, find out what they like/dislike, and press the buttons accordingly.

I like to bring in treats for various groups, too. One day might be coffees for the design team. Another day might be some chocolates for the programmers. Another meeting might see gourmet scones on the table for everyone to enjoy. It doesn’t take much, it doesn’t cost a lot and it doesn’t happen often, but the cumulative effect over a few months means folks smile when they see you coming instead of dreading more work. These ideas work best when you simply give and leave. That moment is NOT the time to say, “Oh, by the way, could you…” Just be generous and it’ll come back to you when you need it.

My favorite tactic for relationship building is an old one. I simply dig in and look for things we have in common. Do you both know someone in common? Ask that person what the other likes. Find out about hobbies and talk about them. Share tidbits on the newest/greatest local things – restaurants, bars, etc. It only takes a few minutes during each interaction, but over time, it builds up to a point where you can walk up to someone, check on what’s new in under 30 seconds, share a laugh, then get to your project quickly.

As throughout history, taking the time to get to know someone will pay dividends.

Jessica: Virtually every in-houser has been caught saying one thing, but IT hears something completely obvious. How do you get around that?

Duane: Yeah, this can be a real killer. Recent history showed me just how drastic this gap can be, too. I sat with my IT folks and we agreed there’d be no blind redirecting when the latest project rolled out to the general public. We both understood why and agreed it wouldn’t happen. I said, “No 302 redirects.” They agreed saying they never used 302s. We both smiled and walked away.

Fast forward to the day after the launch. What do I see – users being redirected via 302s to our new login server, then bumped back to the requested page, with a different version of the URL in place. Naturally, I lost it. We’re on the mend now (well past in terms of Google et al), but this lesson taught me the value of looking beyond my own language. As a certified searchgeek, I get together with fellow searchgeeks once, maybe twice a year, to chat the lingo and feel a part of the gang. As an In-House SEM, I’m the only one in the office that speaks my language. Worse, there are several other languages being spoken around the offices – IT, Sales, Finance, etc. It’s far too easy in a busy day to blurt out your demands and run screaming for the next meeting – leaving those in your wake to wonder if there’s a Search-to-Programmer dictionary around somewhere so they can understand what you just said.

Granted, it’s usually more subtle than that, but this is where having a tuned ear is even more important. In my example above, everyone in our world knows what a 302 is. Programmers know what it is, too – they just don’t usually call it a 302 redirect. A few extra minutes discussing the vocabulary and meanings would have avoided a world of issues.

Sysadmins are another famous tangle-point for In-House SEMs. My best advice here is this: learn a bit of their world. Taking the time to understand how what I’m asking for is done in their world has helped me understand immensely why they may not be able to actually do what I want. Don’t get me wrong, in the end, the goal is still met (like having the non-www version of a domain redirect to the www version), but taking the time to understand how this process is handled on their end saved me hours of frustration in wondering why they wouldn’t do it for me. Their language might be different, but we’re still all on the same team. Learning their lingo will help you clearly speak to them to articulate what you need done.

Make time to learn the languages around your office – even just a bit. It’ll pay off handsomely for you when you’re in need of help down the road. Also be sure to remind folks to ask about something if they don’t understand what YOU meant 100%. It’s critical stuff, and wasting time on a project because, “I thought you meant…” just won’t cut it.

Jessica: We’ve all had situations where we tell IT how the site needs to be coded, they say “got it” and when you get to QA, it’s nothing like you discussed. What are the key points to the crucial conversation that needs to be had?

Duane: Be sure to foster a baseline understanding that search is a game of inches, not miles. But, to reach the end of the line, every inch counts. Sure, they might want to use [bold] tags and you asked for [strong]. From the users perspective it doesn’t matter. Based on today’s flavor of SEO etiquette, it should be [strong]. Take the time up front to explain why some of these details matter – I’ve found that because I’m the In-House search guy, when I say, “Google likes…”, it’s usually enough to get what I want. 99% of the time, the IT folks are the least of my worries. I face far bigger hurdles with the Product Managers – they guys who run the sites and say what goes where and why.

Getting them to understand that keyword-based headers are better than images takes some doing, but once you explain why, they start to actually look for things like this for you. I work very closely with our Product Managers to ensure my world is never far from their mind. If they go down a path – and they have – then come to me with something and say, “It’s ready to go live, optimize it”, I simply say it’s ready as is and let it go out the door. Sadly it means a couple of missed opportunities, but if you pick these battles in the right spots, the message gets through loud and clear – and you suddenly find yourself looped on everything.

The key for me has been numbers, really. Talk to a Product Manager about missed inbound search traffic opportunities, and he’s ready to move heaven and earth to score more traffic. Talk to the IT department about how many more hours they’ll have to find to integrate what you asked for, instead of what they thought would work, and it’ll get turned around quickly. No one likes to waste time, so position yourself as a ready-to-go part of the process. And you’d better be ready to go. When the PM says he has an idea, start crafting it’s positioning search-wise. Make sure IT understands clearly what’s meant by your requests and what’s needed as the end goal to be “search savvy”. In the end, it’s less important people KNOW what should be done at every step in the process to meet your needs, and more important that they trust YOU as the in-house expert. Build that trust and you’ll get your product your way!

Jessica: You actually have IT calling you in the midst of coding, to ask your thoughts on which way they should develop things. How did you get that to happen, and what advice to you have for someone who doesn’t have that relationship with their IT department?

Duane: I racked my brain for months trying to figure out a way to insinuate myself into the product loops here. Sure, the company, from the top down, believed search was important. But, in every day workloads, thinking of yet another need when building new areas for our sites ranked right below “I need to rotate my tires” in our programmer’s minds. Then it hit me – why should I be the only in-house search person? I wasn’t going to expand my department, at least not in the traditional sense, but I needed “more hands on deck”. I couldn’t be everywhere and do everything. So I started training folks. I selected a couple programmers and a couple Product Managers. I booked a lunchtime boardroom meeting and had lunch brought in for everyone.

Then I started the slideshow and walked them through my “search box” – the 3D world of a web page and the things we could control to help our rankings cause. From the front to he back, and the top to the bottom, I walked them through it and pointed out missed opportunities. At the end of a couple of hours, they left with glimpse into my world. Nothing to threaten my job, for sure (LOL), but enough that it got them oriented to how much needs to be considered. The best move was including the IT guys. I now have champions upstairs who stop and think of me while coding something. The questions come in, I make my call on it, they build it and it’s baked in when the product goes live. Much better to spend 10 minute snow on an item than 2 hours later trying to fix it.Your browser may not support display of this image.

Jessica: Sometimes people don’t like the SEO answers to their questions, often wanting things that just won’t work with SEO. How are you handling those discussions with product managers and IT leaders?

Duane: My initial approach was to treat things like I was an agency. I was a consultant. I’ll tell you what to do, if you don’t want to, so be it. That was fine to a point, but a few years ago I switched tactics. I had a series of meetings with key people – Product Managers, our Site Architect, the Director of IT and some VPs. Every meeting was basically the same – I wanted to know their goals and make sure everyone agreed search was a priority for the company. With that out of the way, I stepped up to be heard.

When I came across a project underway, I stated my needs. When I got push-back, I explained the choice the PM had to make – more traffic v. less traffic – the argument was killed every time. It made for some tense times when folks thought I was trying to take over things at first, but they were easily defused by explaining my roles was one of support, not lead.

It takes time for folks to get comfortable with this. Marketing efforts typically kick in well after a product has begun to be coded. Part of the education process needs to be to get folks realigned to understand that search efforts start at the concept stage. It’s a marketing function for sure, but it needs to be baked into a product, not slapped on like icing after the cake is baked.

The critical point is to get some real estate inside their heads. I tell them all the time, “If you brainstorm a killer idea in the shower tomorrow morning, the very next thought in your head should be “Duane”…” It doesn’t happen over night, but over time you’ll see the shift in perspective – and be busier than ever.

Jessica: Being involved in SEMPO takes up both work time and personal time. What are you gaining by getting involved in SEMPO? In essence, are you finding it time well spent vs. time spent merely reading industry news and being active in forums, etc.? What advice do you have for someone playing the idea of becoming more involved in the industry ?

Duane: Do it. That’s my best advice. Just get going. My desire to become involved stemmed form a need to learn back in the day. Even today, I scan the news feeds, sites and forums endlessly to keep up on the latest news. I spend about 12 – 15 hours a week just keeping up with the news and changes. Countless more hours get spent trying to figure out how those changes will affect my day job and its products. After a while of helping folks in one forum I was invited to be a moderator. I don’t take my duties lightly, as it’s yet another way to help me stay fresh with things. It also allows me to give back. Folks there helped me learn, I should help others.

Over time this has lead to my involvement in SEMPO. I support the organization because I believe in its goals. In fact, I believe in it enough to dedicate my time to helping it grow. I get back so much more than I put in, though. For my few hours a week, I get access to the latest tips and tricks via whitepapers, I get exposure to some of the top brains in search today, quite frankly, and it’s a great way to help grow my own skills. I know I’ll be in search for a long time yet. Might not always be with the same company, but I’ll be in search somewhere.

Folks need to be pragmatic about this point, too. It’s nice to be loyal – I am. But, should you find yourself looking for work someday, having the network, the exposure and the knowledge sure makes it feel like it’ll be easier to deal with the transition. Never stop preparing for your next job. Being active in communities and with groups such as SEMPO helps support that. It helps you and your employer.

Category SEO
Jessica Bowman Founder at SEM In House

Jessica Bowman is an in-house SEO expert who knows how to start up a successful in-house SEO Program that gets ...

In-house Spotlight:  Duane Forrester, SEO with Sports Direct Inc.

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