This week’s in-house spotlight is on Baron Ginnetti, the new Director of SEO & Content Distribution at Pronto.com. Baron’s legacy comes from his SEO efforts at Shopzilla, where he spent 2 ½ years building a large SEO team that would make most in-house SEOs salivate.
Baron and I both started our new ‘gigs on the same day and I had the chance to sit down with him a few weeks later to talk about the job search, what we learned about building a team and more. In particular, I was interested in learning about his link building team and tips he has for starting up a highly successful link building initiative. I’m happy to report he gave up the goods.
It’s a lengthy interview, but has a few excellent nuggets. Here are the highlights:
Baron’s food-for-thought before accepting a job: Is the company “looking for the level of input that will permit an SEO to contribute to the product in terms of business model and UEX”? This is the best piece of job search advice I’ve heard yet. Too often an SEO goes in-house and feels that their hands are tied. Sometimes you feel like you’re one person pushing the Titanic, it’s tough and best if you have other people willing to get out of the boat and push along with you.
Baron’s pitch for setting link building expectations: Get everyone on the same page with an interesting spin on link building: “you aren’t going to build links,” instead you are going to “develop content and features that will attract links, and to build online relationships with complementary businesses and content providers” It’s a great way to spin link building, because in the end this is what is actually needed to pull it off and you need execs to understand this useful content needs to be written and added to your website.
Best take-away: Baron gives insights on structuring your link building strategy and headcount. The full interview’s a lengthy read, but the questions about link building are the best take-away.
On the Q&A…
Jessica: You were with Shopzilla for over 2 1/2 years, what made you make the shift to IAC to work on Pronto.com? What are you most excited about in your new position?
Baron: During my second year at Shopzilla, I had the opportunity to lead an SEO seminar for other Scripps properties at their Promax (BDA) event. Participating in this event was a career eye-opener for me because I was presenting SEO to an organization of television broadcast professionals. They helped me see that I was eager to expand my participation in SEO, not only in scale, and not only as a craft in which it could be implemented, but the way it’s perceived. SEO is one of the most puzzle-like and yet sensible mediums I’ve worked with. At the same time I started to sense that I didn’t want to whittle away on web sites practicing SEO with a pen-knife as we know it today. There are amazing changes going on in the space, but the “Search Engine” portion of the acronym “SEO” was pushing me into a single media channel focus. I was feeling a nudge to consider my career beyond Search Engines, maybe to multi-channel optimization that resolves at a Search Engine. So as I stood there talking about SEO for broadcast news web-sites I started to envision a flow of audiences moving from one media channel to another. I suppose it’s the same as going to movie because you saw the ad in a magazine except it was coupled with absolute immediacy. At the time I was seeing some maturation in Web 2.0, and the incremental release of Universal Search (a mixed SE result set w/images, videos, blogs and news.) So here were opportunities to diversify SEO via expanded channel exposure today, be it blogs, social tagging, user generated reviews or even that your local TV news broadcast is serving a parallel web experience. The inspiration to me (tomorrow) was that SEO could become about optimizing multi-medium traffic flow.I would have to say a job shift began rumbling there.
At Pronto.com there was an opportunity to develop and build SEO into the social mission of the brand which is an incremental move towards the multi-channel notion. The notion of building users into your product was in perfect alignment with creating an environment that users were driving. To me, that’s a true site to user SEO environment. Getting users involved in transforming the shopping experience is a user-generated content mission that draws on SEO as “organic” search. Is it revolutionary? No, but Pronto.com has a commitment to this experience that goes beyond the usual “write your own reviews experience.” It goes back to what I found exciting about SEO from the start. People say, “how did you go from something as creative and human as screenwriting to technology?” But the exciting irony here was that with SEO, you’ve got two audiences unlike one in the case of the movies. You’ve got your Search Engine user and a Search Engine bot and my goal is to make my site/brand speak clearly to both. SEOs understand this but rarely are we give the opportunity to consider the goal on a product level. Pronto.com gave me the opportunity to build SEO ideas and efforts into the foundation.
Jessica: Now that you have just finished the job search, what advice and lessons learned do you have for someone looking for a new SEO job? What did you find most appealing about this transition?
Baron: I considered the following questions: “Am I going to have the “buy-in” on SEO that I need to be successful?” If yes then move to the next question. Is the new company/opportunity looking for the level of input that will permit an SEO to contribute to the product in terms of business model and UEX so that the SEO initiatives are built into the concept of how users will interact with the product?
For example, if you’re asked to help a promoter get even more people to the 2011 Rolling Stones concert, there’s a good chance that you’re only going to be able to optimize the marketing initiatives that have made the Stones one of the most successful touring bands of all time. Conversely, if it’s the year 2001 and you’re asked to draw more people to the Coachella Valley Music festival than they did in 1999, then chances are that you’re going to be able to implement some of that “tried-and-true” Rolling Stones marketing and work in some very exciting marketing techniques based on the feedback of a relatively new market group with evolved needs and desires. As a result, maybe you get a chance to deliver this crowd a night of entertainment that they felt they had only dreamed of.
To me, Pronto.com’s mission is on the same parallel, as if saying: “Hey, come to interact with our product, compare prices, get your shopping done and use your voice to help shape the product. Tell us what you want and what’s the coolest thing you ever dreamt of. Share that dream. And create a Search Engine audience beachhead with us for that dream. I don’t expect our success to happen exactly like that but in looking for a new role as an SEO; I did indeed look for a clear inspiring mission in which SEO could be a driver to the evolution of a conceptual goal.
SEO becomes limiting to me if you continue to staple it onto the edges of a site, but when you can be involved with product on a conceptual level then you’re looking at an opportunity to not only build SEO into the DNA of the site but to get the user into that DNA as well. It may not be a breeze, but the notion that we can make root decisions that move in this direction is exceptionally compelling to me.
Jessica: Before your first day, you did some homework. What were the things you did before the first day and why?
Baron: Before I accepted the job I had to determine the site’s relationship to a Search Engine or actually the level of inclusion that a Search Engine has committed to the site. Just prior to my actual start, I made a metrics analysis. What metrics are they looking at right now? What metrics do I need to view (at-a-glance) day-to-day to make the right decisions. In short, I outlined trended dashboards. To this day, you’ll still hear agencies and SEOs saying SEO metrics are somewhat mystical and as a former writer, I was happy to support that excuse. But at the end of the day, SEO metrics are as important as PPC metrics and you have to throw a stake in the ground if you’re going to monitor organic traffic as a revenue stream. But on a more personal and team level, with high-level and granular SEO metrics, a company can deliver very meaningful cause-and-effect relationship between action and Search Engine performance. This is necessary for upper-management and it also delivers meaning to your SEO team. If you can’t show cause and effect to your team, then they will tire and turnover. I know that for me, impact of my efforts creates meaning in my work.
Jessica: You have experience building a strong link-building department for large-scale link building. How would you recommend a business get ready for building link development operation?
Baron: Before I would hire anyone for link development I would ensure that the mission of that program is articulated and agreed upon by the team and upper management. The most important distinction to make in this case to the executive team, and to your new hires is that you won’t be building links. The philosophy behind the mission is to develop content and features that will attract links, and to build online relationships with complementary businesses and content providers that can help expose your brand, whether it is through a standard advertisement or a link. It’s important that a company’s link development strategy be rooted in the question, “How can our brand attract links?” If the company wants to position for specific terms then the approach should be, “How can we create content that will attract descriptive links that describe our service?” In a perfect world, “link building” and web site development are processes that are inherent in one another.
Jessica: In regards to link building teams, how do you determine the number of link builders you need on your team? How many links should a link builder acquire in a month?
Baron: This isn’t a perfect world so many of SEOs/companies may feel the need to build out a link development team to compete in the organic space in their vertical during this decade. Here’s what I would ask myself to get started.
To answer your question, I think it’s important to put the whole paid vs. organic linking debate aside and to define what your link developer(s) will do. For the sake of clarity, let’s assume that your goal is to have a person, or a team contact hundreds of relevant sites and buy or develop a synergistic linking relationships.
No matter the size of your company, start with one dedicated person who will be your process explorer. Every business is slightly different and there is no canned business model for developing links or performing SEO in general. This first person will get the job done, map the process, determine a suitable number of links per month, find out what tools are needed and deliver proof of concept to your business leaders.
If you think that a full operation is something that can work for your business then you have to look at the number of categories you need to target to be successful.
If you’re a site that only targets traffic for one type of term, for instance: ‘compare credit card rates,’ then it’s specific enough that you may only need one person on a part time basis. Or you might need 10 employees to get you the raw tonnage and traction in a super competitive vertical. If you’re sitting back in your chair and saying: “Yes, that’s what I need to get more Texas Hold-em players to my site. I need scalable automated link tonnage to kill it in my vertical,” then I would say flat out “don’t bank on SEO”. Look to an actual advertising channel.
Realistically, if you’re a large sporting goods business then you’ll be going wider then a single term type. Now you have categories within your vertical. Once you have a system in place, then you would need to outline your staffing requirements at around 1 person per 5 categories. It’s important that your link builders have the time to become expert in the categories they cover, develop the right relationships with relevant publishers and be able to finesse new and creative link placements that expose your brand, while offering a relevant resource/tools to your publisher’s visitors.
Jessica: When it comes to hiring to build your team, what hiring strategies do you recommend?
Baron: As a business just entering the SEO fray, I would aim to make an SEO Strategist the first hire. This would be a multi-purpose SEO who’s going to understand how to optimize your site architecture, how Search Engines return pages, has experience with Keyword research, SEM & keyword performance, linking and content development for search. I see a lot of companies looking at an SEO Director as their first hire, but they don’t have an SEO team to manage and they don’t have an SEO revenue stream they understand yet. In a sense, they have an organic revenue stream, but, be it big or small, it just exists. At that point you don’t understand how SEO actions relate as impact factors on your revenue stream. Have your strategist lock in your foundational SEO tactics and track the impact of each action. Once you have a general sense of how an SEO release relates to your site/business, then you will have a track record of tactics and their relationship to revenue on your business. Once that’s in place, then maybe you’ll see that your strategist should take on the Director role or you’ll have to look for someone else to manage the higher level SEO financial process.
If you know that you want to build a team beyond a strategist then you’re probably looking at SEO Specialist roles. I generally look to recent college graduates with no Search experience. I’m amazed by how search savvy each class entering the work force is.
In past years, I used to ask: “When did you first start using the Internet?” Then it was, “What do you use the Internet for?” Now it’s more like, “Did you offer RSS to your subscribers as you blogged from the womb?” Today, it’s not a matter of whether new hires understand Search it’s a matter of whether they’ve thought about their relationship to it. My approach has always been to hire highly trainable, web savvy candidates with no actual search experience. After the first person is in place I approach their role and the burgeoning team as SEO School, or more broadly Search school. From this perspective you’re getting a custom trained team, tailored to your business, and at the same time you’re offering employees an experience based training ground with an eye on the broader SEM marketplace. This creates a broader long-term opportunity for your team.
Even though their routine role may only include 2 pieces of the SEO pie, I make a point of exposing them to all of the slices as they relate the company directly and to the world of Search in general. Internet Marketing is known for high employee turnover rate. They say that two years of employment at the same Internet company is like 7 years at an offline company. But I’ve found that if you underscore the conscious and expansive training approach to your team members, you derive positive results and keep team members on board for 2 + years at their starting salary range. Even SEO entry-level jobs get repetitive, but if you can ensure that members of your team are actually learning something new almost every day (and feeling something new) then you can drive high retention rates. To do this, you have to be consciously forthcoming in sharing information with your team. We all know SEO is neither rocket science nor Voodoo, so I let them know that within 6 months to a year, I expect them to be as expert as I am.
If you send your star players to SES (for the first time) and they come back saying that they didn’t learn anything new, then you know you’re creating a rich work environment that offers fertile opportunity internally or externally. Either way, think of your team members’ future (not your own) and they will pay you back in spades.
Jessica: After a while in a position you start looking at ways to expand your role and begin looking for new opportunities out there, what do you recommend someone do to prepare for the transition before leaving an in-house SEO position?
Baron: Regardless of your position, I always try to go out of my way to ensure that the company you may leave will have all the information they need to continue the work that you’re leading. Even if that means cranking out sketch specs for tools or operational components that you’ve only blue-skied over your tenure. I think it could be easy for a departing employee to get a competitive mind-set and to think that it will help them to place their former employer in the dark so that they can deliver that edge elsewhere. But I have to say that my approach in leaving Shopzilla was to give them etchings of every product/idea that the team (myself as a member) had generated during my collaboration there. Chances are your next endeavor isn’t going to be in a place to execute that exact concept and there is something to be said for bringing something closer to completion, to reality/existence. Then you’ve contributed to the overall evolution of the craft and you can step beyond those concepts in your next role.
Jessica: You had a large SEO department at Shopzilla, where an in-house SEO had career path options. What were some of the traits unique to an SEO that you looked for when promoting someone?
Baron: One of the first traits: Who on the team has that Search Engine get-it quotient? And by that I mean, somebody who is naturally (or through experience) thinking about his or her work from a user facing point of view (POV). Almost every SEO decision can be made simply if you ask, “What is my user thinking?” Whether you’re looking at a keyword, staring at an SE result set, re-writing a URL, or evaluating a web page, you’re going to make the right decision for your business if you ask that question. Whether a team member is a technical SEO, a content-based SEO, an SEO tools builder or a combination of all three – if a team member is naturally coming from a user intent perspective, I know they get the essence of true SEO goals. After all, I’m coming from a place in which, Search Engine Optimization is User Optimization is Search Engine Optimization is User Optimization.
If a team member has that natural user facing POV, then I can look at the following: Do they work well with other teams? They’re going to need to resource projects through the support of departments across a company. Are they conceptual thinkers that are going to bring new and/or optimized strategies to the table? Can they weigh and present options to upper management?
For example, an SEO should be prepared to offer upper management two options. Every day is a bit like, “our business can take the white pill and make incremental gains based on SEO (integration A), or we can take the grey pill (integration B) and get tons of traffic but risk losing all or some of that traffic at any time. It may not be up to the SEO to make that call but you need to be working with an SEO who can see the options and present them to upper management if they’re not the decision makers themselves.
Jessica: What advice do you have for someone interviewing and/or considering a creative mind for an SEO position? What advice do you have for the creative mind that wants to get into SEO?
Baron: I’m not sure that the SEO job market is quite mature enough that creative minds are waking up and saying: “Ya know what, I could stop bartending, being a script reader or courier (don’t pounce on me – I enjoyed them all) and enter the fast growing field of Search Engine Optimization Strategists.” So until we’ve got late-night infomercials outlining the opportunity, my advice to creative thinkers be they writers, painters, sculptors, video artists, etc…is to cut through the “plot” of what you’re doing. Whether or not you’re a raving success at any of the crafts listed above, I found a major breakthrough in zooming in on the absolute essence of what it was I was trying to achieve (in my case screenwriting & filmmaking). I had identified the medium of success for myself (film) but what was I really trying to achieve via that process? What was driving me to love doing this and love this process amidst the unpredictable business model that was filmmaking? Communication. Impact on an audience. Sharing something known and something new. Is a new business concept as satisfying as a new idea for a screenplay? Both will tell a story, both will interact with an audience to larger or lesser extent. The quality of your concept will be rewarded and determined by the size of your audience. Once I saw my efforts via the simple motivating factors, I have to say that the blinders were blown off. I didn’t need to be married to a specific medium. All creative mediums have communication in common. And if communication was essential to my happiness, then all mediums were viable channels for my efforts. So at the risk of stepping into new-age cheese here, I would recommend that creative minds (before they consider SEO) just step back and try to identify the essence of what they’re trying to achieve with their creative vision in their medium. If you identify that, then you can start to look at a variety of unexpected and burgeoning careers that may be hungry for your talents.
Jessica: Some of the best SEOs in the industry came from obscure backgrounds; you were a screenwriter before an SEO. What advice do you have for someone interviewing and/or considering a creative mind for an SEO position? What advice do you have for the creative mind who wants to get into SEO?
Baron: I agree. Going from screenwriting to SEO does seem like an obscure leap at first blush but there are many components that make it a logical leap. I would posit that an earnest selfless screenwriter is punching out new stories and concepts before bed, and banging away at the keyboard because he is thinking about the audience. He has to be thinking, “I’m writing this for a crowd that’s sitting in the dark and giving it my undivided attention. How can I as a writer/filmmaker deliver them an experience that they can both associate with (have some level of operational comprehension)? And once I’ve connected, how can I make them learn something new about themselves organically (without imposing my own vision)?
In my opinion, Search is a magnificently similar process. You have a user/audience member glued to the screen (by choice) looking for an experience with exacting keyword relevancy to their life. So how do you fill the results set (screen) with something relevant to their desire? You ensure that your pages deliver on the user expectation. Now you’ve created comfort zone via relevancy. Now you can deliver them other related options and web pages and experiences that lift them to another level of awareness and education. So in that regard I see both mediums a parallel processes. They both initiate with a level of predictability and if the story or Search Engine is a good one – then the visitor is moving towards a revelation.
Jessica Bowman is an in-house SEO evangelist at Yahoo! Inc. 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.