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Transitioning, Rebranding & Leading In SEO: Q&A With Rachel Heseltine

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have to be more than organizational buzzwords. An SEO pro shares her experience transitioning and rebranding.

Transitioning, Rebranding & Leading In SEO: Q&A With Rachel Heseltine

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are major priorities for organizations in 2022.

But DEI has to be more than just a buzz term – and it needs to happen at every level of the organization, starting at the top.

McKinsey finds that those companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability.

The impact is even greater for organizations led by professionals with ethnic diversity; they’re 36% more likely to financially outperform the least diverse companies.

What does it look like in practice to be truly inclusive, supporting diversity and equity in real ways, in the workplace?

I reached out to Rachel Heseltine, VP of Customer Growth at Trader Interactive, to ask about her recent experience coming out to colleagues (and the world).

In this interview, Rachel shares what she’s learned about leadership through her transition, how her colleagues and company supported her, advice for underrepresented professionals in SEO, and what it takes to grow into an executive role.

Coming Out In SEO

What were the greatest challenges you experienced in transitioning from Simon, a fairly well-known male SEO professional and speaker/author, to Rachel?

Rachel Heseltine: “When I announced my transition at TI, I wrote a note to be read out to my team and to be shared across the organization.

Here’s a quote from that note:

I know that this may seem like a big deal to some, but to me it’s not. This is who I am, but fundamentally who I am hasn’t changed. The only thing that has changed is that I’ll now be wearing clothes that have an insufficient number of pockets.

The greatest challenges were pretty much in my head. ‘What would people say?’ ‘How would they react?’ ‘Will I be accepted or ostracized?’ – all valid questions, but all things that held me back.

I told my CMO in November 2019 about my situation but asked her to keep it to herself until I was ready.

I didn’t start to let friends know until late 2020 and didn’t talk to others at TI about it until August 2021.

Then, the full announcement to the company was made in early January.

I received a lot of lovely notes from folks across the company, several of whom I didn’t even know.

As far as my personal rebranding, I did have to change my Twitter user name, which meant that I immediately lost my verified status. Apparently, Twitter believes me to be a different person.

Then it was simply just changing my name in various places (as well as legally through the court system).

I’ve not gone back to places I previously wrote for, or spoke at, and asked them to retroactively change references to me. That’s the name I went by then, this is my name now.

Of course, my old domain 301’s to rachelheseltine.com. I’d not be much of an SEO if I’d not done that.”

Were there any welcome surprises along the way?

Rachel Heseltine: “There were a few friends that I was very hesitant to tell, unsure how accepting they’d be.

Each one has shown nothing but support and positivity.

Since I’ve gone public on Twitter and LinkedIn, I have had several other folks from the SEO community reach out to me to offer their support.”

Learning To Lead With Empathy

What new perspectives have you gained on life and leadership through your transition journey?

Rachel Heseltine: “Well, given that a chunk of my transition journey has been completed against the backdrop of a global pandemic, and a switch by many companies to remote working, I think we’ve all gained new perspectives on life and leadership in this new world.

We use a tool called Insights that measures personality traits, and we use that informationally to identify how best folks work, and work together.

I re-took this last month, after last taking it in May 2018.

My biggest difference is that I now lead with empathy, rather than 2018’s motivation (although that’s not far behind).

But given how the remote life and more distributed workforce has shifted more towards introversion than pre-pandemic, in the office, that makes sense.

When you can no longer do a ‘quick drive by’ of someone’s desk, you really need to pay more attention to different signs.

We also use a tool called Ring/Allie; Ring is for celebrating wins, Allie is for anonymous feedback – we pay close attention to both.

Every quarter the entire company does skip level meetings (we pioneered this in the Marketing Department).

It’s another great, regular touch base with employees that you may not meet with regularly, to get their opinions on how things are going, any issues they have, opportunities they see, tools they want, and how happy they are with their career direction (which, in the era of ‘The Great Resignation,’ is vital to know if you want to try and save someone before it’s too late).”

Supporting DEI In Real Terms

What advice do you have for underrepresented professionals in SEO – those who may be experiencing discrimination, or fearing reprisals if they come out as who they really are?

Rachel Heseltine: “Look for your supporters – folks you can lean on, folks you can reach out to, folks who will reach out to you.

You’re not alone.

There are others in the SEO industry who are in the same boat as you.

For example, there’s an LGBTQ+ SEO slack group that I’ve been a member of for a couple of years now.

Look for a therapist you can talk to, one with experience in your situation. They’ll know what the appropriate steps are and what speed to take them, based on your situation, as well as a good working knowledge of your protections in your state.

Look at your company, what initiatives do they have in place?

After the summer of 2020, TI officially formed a DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusivity) council.

That, and the work they did through that council, showed me that my company was going to work with me in a positive, supportive manner through my transition, once I informed them. And they did.”

Growing Into SEO Leadership

What path brought you to your VP role and what advice do you have for junior SEOs who aspire to leadership?

Rachel Heseltine: “I’m the Vice President of Consumer Growth, which incorporates SEO & SEM for our marketplace sites (RVTrader, CycleTrader, etc.), and dealer sites, Content Marketing, PR, Corporate Communications, and Social Marketing.

Basically, if it involves getting consumer eyeballs on websites, that’s my area.

I joined Trader Interactive (TI) almost four years ago, after leaving a similar position at a former sister company.

Before that, I worked at HPE and was a Senior Director running SEO for (at one point) 135 AOL O&O sites such as TechCrunch, Engadget, Huffington Post, etc.

I had a few other roles before that, and in my past life before SEO (pre-2005), I was a Smalltalk developer.

Don’t be afraid to take a step backward in your career for the right opportunity.

I went from a Director at a boutique agency to a Principal SEO Manager at AOL, with a 20% drop in salary.

I did that because the opportunity at AOL – to work with well-known, large publishing sites, and a large, established team of SEOs – was something that I knew would help me grow as an SEO.

Within two years, I’d been promoted to Director of Audience Growth, and three years later, Senior Director.”

What’s In Your SEO Toolkit?

What cool new SEO/AI tools are you using or excited to try out?

Rachel Heseltine: “Day to day, we use the usual suspects for crawling, competitive analysis, etc.

But, on the new tools side, Ryan Jones, SEO & SEJ author, has recently updated some of his tools, and I absolutely love his free Ngram tool.

I’ve been using that to help identify areas for improvement for our sites.

All you do is take your keyword list for, say keywords that other tools show you ranking on Page 2 for, plug them into this tool, and see what the commonalities are.

Then, it’s back to your spreadsheet to look for those specific keyword combinations, and then off you go to develop a strategy.”

What’s Next For Rachel In SEO?

You have major SEO accomplishments under your belt. Is there anything else you want to achieve in your career?

Rachel Heseltine: “I’ve been lucky enough to be named an award winner over the years, and at TI we were named the Best In-House Team at the 2020 Global Search Awards, as well as winning a couple of others at the 2020 U.S. Search Awards.

But, that’s not just me; it’s not even just my team. It’s always the entire organization; it really takes a village to build, support, and develop an SEO team.

For my future, I just want to keep improving TI’s digital presence and grow my team members.

What I would like is for those folks that have worked with me to be of the opinion that I’ve had a positive impact on their career, and that they, themselves, then do that going forward for the next generation that they manage.”

More Resources:


Featured Image: Courtesy of Rachel Heseltine/Trader Interactive

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Miranda Miller

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Writer, editor & marketing professional; digital nomad, feminist and mother bear. 15 years of experience planning & executing engaging digital ... [Read full bio]

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