Thursday, January 15, 2009

SEO Career - Agency vs. In-House SEO

As the search industry grows agencies are popping up all over and more and more companies are hiring in-house SEO's. How does one decide to get into search engine optimization and which direction does one take in their career path? In-House SEO or SEO Agency?
In 2006 I finally jumped ship from SEO Agency to full time in-house SEO at Classmates.com as their SEO Manager. It was a position created with no real thought put into it as to what work was needed, how to scale the effectiveness of the position, or who the position would be reporting to but there definitely was a need for someone in-house as the agency they were working with at the time had great suggestions for SEO but weren't able to get the work completed.
I was originally hired to work under one of the VPs in Marketing who was very good at analysis, but not so much on the technical side of the website, and most certainly didn't understand SEO. He set me loose after I explained the keyword analysis and analyzing what terms were driving conversions from paid search in order to determine a starting point for optimizing the site. Unfortunately that VP quit just a few weeks after my hiring along with not having someone to directly guide me I continued to work on the site as if I were a consultant optimizing for a client. During the first couple of months I befriended a few of the VPs throughout the company who had setup a meeting with Ted Cahall (CEO) along with a group of developers, Directors and other VPs in order to hammer out what changes needed to be made and set a priority. Close to the end of the meeting Ted Cahall had asked me how much revenue I predicted out of these changes. A concept I had never even thought of. As consultants our goal is to optimize the site and increase traffic or rankings as much as possible to show that our work was effective. It was always up to the clients and the website to drive the conversions. Now I was faced with an end-to-end process that I had worried about as a UI designer, but never as an SEO.
My role as an in-house SEO was definitely a learning experience for both Classmates.com and myself. Being in-house and optimizing a website is a completely different beast altogether. This posting looks at the different aspects of each role pointing out the pros and cons in hopes that SEO's can not only understand the difference, but can make a decision as to what direction they would like to go in as a career.

Agency SEO

Depending on the position you are in with an agency the responsibilities change but the end result will always remain the same. Most often than not when a client signs a contract they expect certain things from their agency. A client usually chooses SEO because they aren't showing up in the search engines for terms that they feel they should be showing up for. The reasoning behind this is if they show up for the right terms they will see more conversions or leads from the website they invested so much money in with design and development. For them it all boils down to revenue, for the SEO agency it translates into ranking and ultimately traffic (eventually digging into qualified traffic and leads).
Typically most SEO agencies will have anywhere from 10 to possibly hundreds of clients assigned to one search engine optimizer (or SEO Strategist). Each SEO Strategist begins working with each client by asking a few questions in order to understand the business model and what the client considers an aquisition. The SEO Strategist will then draw up a keyword analysis looking through words and terms based on what the client thinks their users will be suing to find their website. From there the SEO Strategist will choose a select few terms that are most relevant and develop meta tags (Title and Description), suggest copy revisions or additions to the website, suggest a linking strategy and so on. The agency will then send regular ranking reports along with tracking analysis of the traffic coming to the site through natural SEO.
Some SEO agencies have grown beyond the cookie cutter fashion of optimizing a website for their clients in offering landing page design, testing, optimization etc. or even offering social media campaigns that generate links as well as traffic from social networking websites or blogs, etc.

In-House SEO

In the past couple of years more and more companies are bringing SEO in-house not to replace the agency they are using necessarily, but to help manage the relationship between the agency and the people internally that need to complete the work in order to champion the work through effectively. To explain the role of an in-house SEO is to list out most of the responsibilities and goals of what is expected of them.
Core responsibilities of an in-house SEO:
Develop the company and or website SEO strategy and implementation. (complete with time line, work needed from other teams, agency help, etc along with spend)
Hands-on optimization; improving site structure, page construction, content, keyword lists, and SEO copy writing where needed (some companies have copywriters on staff and developers allocated for the work needed)
Keyword Analysis, and set KPI benchmarking and reporting for sites' organic search optimization efforts and continual monitoring of search trends related to the company or website.
Define SEO requirements in a product management capacity by recommending site enhancements that maximize ROI and increase rank of natural search result listings.
Serve as internal search expert, driving all communication between company's domestic and/or international companies to ensure best practices are shared and leveraged throughout.
Work on landing page redesign projects to ensure that paid and natural search pages are not only maximizing traffic but driving conversions.
Analyze and translate quantitative and qualitative data from web analytics tool into an actionable SEO plan.
Create and validate business cases for projects.
Maintain dashboard with work completed including spend along with conversions for each item in order to track cost per acquisition for natural SEO. (in some cases you will be expected to report this to upper level executives or help your superior report your work and effectiveness)
For some larger organizations an in-house SEO can be expected to:
Document business requirements for other teams, working with stakeholders throughout the organization to factor in their needs.
Is the business voice for SEO projects throughout the product development process, working closely with the technology organization.
Experience in defining and writing product/​functional specifications

In some cases an in-house SEO is expected to:
Work closely with the paid search marketing team (if not part of the responsibilities as an in-house SEO - depending on the company size) in creating SEO strategy to increase organic traffic and rankings.
Leverage social networking, user generated content and PR releases to drive qualified traffic. (as social media becomes recognized as a high impact strategy I believe companies will start to hire social media people as a role all its own)
Manage SEO initiatives for Google beta programs such as, mash ups for Google maps, Google co-op, plug-ins for Google desktop, widgets and other incremental SEO opportunities where applicable.
Set up a process to continuously educate internal teams on SEO best practices and emerging optimization techniques.

As you can see the roles and resposinbilities of the in-house SEO and SEO Agency employee are completely different, but yet both require a solid understanding of SEO. So how does one get started in SEO as a career? If you are passionate about SEO and you find that you have a unique satisfaction of seeing a website or page rank for a term you targeted then you have been bitten by the SEO bug and are definitely cut out to work both for an agency or in-house. It is highly recommended that you start with a smaller agency or on your own optimizing as many websites for clients as you can. Gather data and document as much as you can so that when you go to the agency or company hiring an in-house SEO you have examples of your work to show you understand the basics and can at least optimize a website. Agencies give you the opportunity to work with multiple websites and clients so that you not only get different scenarios of website optimization, but become exceptionally good at working with people along with the common questions such as, "I searched 'X' and we don't show up, why?" The questions you get from clients as an SEO Strategist in an agency prepare you for the same questions you will get occasionally see as an in-house SEO.
When you are ready to make the transition from agency to in-house SEO be prepared to have a robust understanding of marketing and how they track conversions, budget, etc as well as having the patience in working with other teams such as copywriters, designers, developers, legal, PR and so on. You will not only have to know SEO well, but to be able to explain different aspects of it to people that think differently from you. For example, when talking to a designer you will want to stress the importance of copy on a page that would most likely have a design focus in order to get key terms in there, or explain to someone in legal that you don't have complete control over what ranks in the search engines.
All in all both positions are very rewarding and a job in search engine optimization is not only challenging, but a lot of fun with a constant evolution in strategy and know how.

For more help on getting started in a career in SEO visit:
Market Motive SEO Training
SEOMoz Beginner's Guide to SEO

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Online Marketing Strategy and Your Target Persona


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Whether you are planning a natural search targeting campaign, a paid search marketing strategy or a social media strategy it’s always best to know who you are targeting before implementing any of your campaign or strategy. But how do you know who you are targeting and how to target them?
The www.savethebreakfastsandwich.com (STBS) website was originally developed as a fun site after speaking with a colleague in February 2008 in finding out that Howard Schultz was planning on discontinuing them in October of 2008. The goal was to develop a website where breakfast sandwich lovers could join in support of keeping them with a discussion board with stories and discussions supporting the sandwiches.
In this website’s case my main goal was to encourage people to sign up and possibly join in on the discussions. The site isn’t a money maker, but rather a site that was to generate buzz and enough members to hopefully convince Starbucks that the Breakfast Sandwich is worth keeping. In order to determine who I would be targeting in my strategies I had to go back to the type of person that enjoys walking into Starbucks and ordering a breakfast sandwich, and then narrow it down to the type of person that would be upset enough to rally in support. From there this person had to be technically savvy and one who is involved in the internet (i.e. active in sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc.).
As I dug deeper into the personality of the STBS Persona I narrowed it down to a male between the age of 20-30 who is very active in the online community having Facebook profiles so that he would talk about the site and the story of the Breakfast Sandwich being discontinued creating awareness. He also has his own websites and/or Blog in which he would post a blurb about the story and link back to the website (generating awareness and linking credit for SEO). He is a very sarcastic individual and loves to mock the large corporations (what I like to call the conforming non-conformist). He also enjoys a good controversy (but only the obscure ones). Let’s call him Brian…
Now that I know I am targeting Brian, where he enjoys hanging out on the web, and what he does, as well as what will spark his interest it was time to determine a strategy. Every online marketing plan should have a basic strategy of 4 channels.
1) Search Engine Optimization – natural rankings on Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask, and more
2) Paid Search Marketing – paid placements starting with bidding on key words and showing up in search results on the top sponsored or right side placements up to placements on other sites (per keyword bidding and/or placement targeting) to even banner ad placements(per keyword bidding and/or placement targeting)
3) Social Media Marketing – generating brand awareness and/or buzz about a website, company or product through social sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and more
4) Traditional Banners – with sites such as Adready in which your ads can appear across a network of sites generating awareness.
Depending on your budget and man power you should have a clear plan established before ever beginning any work or hiring of agencies to help you.
In the case of the STBS site I had no budget whatsoever, with limited amount of manpower since I was already marketing full time for Concur Technologies.
With a budget of nothing and limited manpower I set a plan that solely relied on the controversy of the Breakfast Sandwich being discontinued to trigger Brian to start talking immediately. I developed the site in 3 days keeping all search engine optimization in play with each page and across the entire site, and focused on promoting it as much as I could through social media sites.

Natural SEO

My main target was to rank for “Starbucks” of course, but second would be to show up naturally for “Breakfast Sandwich”, “Starbucks Breakfast”, “Starbucks breakfast sandwiches”, etc.
When targeting a persona and optimizing a website for that persona it’s always important to pay attention to the following 4 optimization techniques:
1) Landing Pages – focus on obscure terms (long tailed key phrases) that are 3-5 words in length that your persona might specifically be searching for and provide them with a landing page or 2-4 page microsite that gives them exactly what they are looking for.
2) Meta Tags – each landing page and page of your website should keep your persona in mind as you write the title and description. If a persona is looking for the “Starbucks breakfast sandwich” the result should explain what the site is about. Especially in the case of the STBS site. We don’t want a user searching for the actual sandwich to click the result and close out the website because they didn’t see the sandwiches. If they saw a result that talks about the demise and saving the sandwich and they choose to click the result then they are already aware of what the site is about and less likely to close out.
3) Internal Linking – when it comes to the persona the links pointing to other pages is very important. If you have a page seeded with links within the content the person might be compelled to click through to irrelevant pages and get lost within the site. Focus on the links that would be most important to them as they land on the pages that rank with clear calls to action (graphical buttons, banners, etc) and keep the linking to other pages in the sitemap or on pages that are more relevant.
4) External Linking – external linking is a great source for SEO credit. Encourage users to link to stories, landing pages, posts, etc. by adding “bookmark us” with the more popular bookmarking sites (Google, Digg, del.icio.us, etc) and encourage them to add links to their blogs or websites to specific pages with quick html they can copy and paste and talk about on their blog.
Of course this is all in addition to the standard SEO such as xml sitemaps, robots.txt, etc.

Social Media

Keeping my persona Brian in mind as I looked to other sites to talk about the STBS site and spark controversy I started with other blogs that discussed Starbucks either by fans or had Starbucks coffee drinkers talking to one another. I particularly started with a comment to a blog post that was a few days old on the Starbucks Gossip Blog - http://starbucksgossip.typepad.com/_/2008/01/starbucks-to-ge.html
The comment was quickly picked up and blogged about http://starbucksgossip.typepad.com/_/2008/02/seven-people-ha.html. The site immediately took off from there with blog postings from local obscure publications such as Seattle’s own Stranger http://slog.thestranger.com/2008/02/save_the_starbucks_breakfast_sandwich , to the New York Times http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/25/blogtalk-burgled-in-the-burg/
From there the site took off for the first few weeks it was launched. People were buzzing about it faster than I could keep track. Knowing that this groundswell wouldn’t last long (as most controversies die off within weeks or even days) I had to keep the momentum going as well as implement an SEO strategy that would keep the awareness of the site prominent in the internet culture.
With regards to the social media I kept commenting on blogs and sending out emails to members that would be interesting enough for them to forward on. I also setup a Facebook page and occasionally promoted it through my profile, twitter tweet, etc.
The SEO strategy was focused on local targeting. I developed a database of every city in every state across the US and created a page for each state and then the city targeting individuals that would be searching for a Starbucks in their area. The beauty of SEO is that you don’t have to be as specific to the user since you aren’t paying for the ad. The goal with these pages was to mention the demise of the breakfast sandwich in the snippet itself. The user would be searching for Starbucks close to their home, work, hotel, etc (for example starbucks felton, CA) then see the result and read “Find the Starbucks in FELTON - CA for your favorite breakfast sandwich before they are discontinued.” The user would click the result out of curiosity (not a highly qualified referral – but SEO has next to $0 cost per click so it has room for less qualified click throughs) the user then sees a landing page that educates them more about the decision to discontinue the breakfast sandwich and encourages them to sign up to help support it. Signup is free and easy which makes that decision fairly easy (with a 40% conversion rate from those pages from natural traffic).
Of course if I had an ad placed the messaging, and landing page would be much different, but again, this is SEO so we have a bid of legroom to convince rather than just presenting as we would with paid advertising so that our return on investment would be higher.
Always remember your user with any marketing strategy - a banner ad should spark curiosity and educate before the user clicks so that it is not only noticed but the user knows what to expect before clicking through, whereas a PPC ad should be specific to the term you are bidding on with the ad and landing page giving the user exactly what they are looking for. Pay attention to who your user is, what they are looking for and where you are grabbing them from and you will be successful in your marketing.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Optimize Your Landing Pages Without Disturbing Your Tests

When I was first approached by Mark (CEO of Smartsheet) with the opportunity to work for them in marketing I was excited about the product and all that it has to offer. I was even more impressed while in the first week in my new position to find out that they had already implemented landing pages with a complete user flow. From paid search advertising that pointed to a landing page that then sent the user through a very simple registration process, then showing the user a template that helped them get started based on the landing page or ad they came from. The user experience was unique depending on what each user was interested in. How brilliant!

The VP of Marketing (Maria) had done an excellent job working with Widemile in optimizing the original landing pages. With over 40-50 landing pages they were able to take the results from a select few pages and apply them across the rest of the 40 to 50 pages that weren’t tested, resulting in an increase from a 4-5% conversion rate up to over 6-12% by redesigning a select few and testing the designs against the original. (read the article on btobonline.com here)
With the website going through a complete redesign and a new product rolling out I wasn’t sure if we were going to see the same results, or if I could try some of the strategies I had used in the past with Classmates or Concur to increase the conversions. Luckily I had 40+ landing pages to work with that all had templates associated with them. I started with the most popular based on the natural search traffic. A lot of the landing pages were indexed and had a pagerank of 4-6 (depending on the page). So I took the pages that were driving the most conversions naturally and applied three different designs across them. We launched the new site and our BETA product in July 2008 and thus the landing pages were setup for A/B testing (A being a design based off of winning combinations against 3 new design layouts) in 3 groups. I captured the paid search marketing campaigns that were setup before and split them up by content targeting, and search only instead of one lump in one campaign (difficult to track effectiveness of ads on content, vs. search). The first week of launch our paid search marketing campaigns were converting at 6%. Over the course of the few weeks I noticed that the content network was converting higher, and the landing pages were doing much better with the new designs. Over the course of the few weeks I optimized the campaigns and created banners to see if I could drive more traffic to the landing pages for testing. By the end of July 2008 I was able to get the overall conversion rate up to over 9%.

In August I created adgroups for each landing page (20 of the top converting pages) complete with text ads, banners, and a template that the user would see once signed up. I implemented the winning test design on the pages, and added some new elements for multivariate testing in 2 groups. One group had an emphasis on “Free Account” and the other had an “easy as 1-2-3 to sign up” block to the right. Our conversion rate jumped up to over 11% (getting close to what we were at in the past). With the “Free Account” traffic we noticed that the users were less likely to stick around so we pulled the “Free Account” wording off of the pages. Since I was testing other elements on those pages and not the “Free Account” I grabbed a footprint of where the conversions were so I could see if removing the words would affect the conversion rate. At the same time I added a block with a list of our value props to some of the pages. Once again, since I didn’t have enough data to stop the test, and adding the block wasn’t a part of the tested elements I took a footprint of where the pages were at.
I did notice a drop in the conversions from the “Free Account” removal, with an increase on the pages I added the value props to.

I charted a few of our results below for you to see:






I am happy to say that as a result of the small changes I made (while keeping the tests going) I was able to increase our overall conversion rate to nearly 15% by the end of August 2008.
The lesson learned is that you don’t have to keep stopping and starting new tests just to make small changes, and the small changes you make can still be tracked if you just grab the data before you make the change. You do still want your tests to run long enough to collect enough data for the small changes you make, but the idea is to leave the multivariate testing for 1-2 elements (that way you get faster results with less combinations). Do remember that these are tests, and the data your are collecting through multivariate, and especiall A to B, shouldn't be manipulated too often otherwise your results could be skewed be all the changes you made along the way.

Just as I was able to get templates to show up when our users sign in, I took the time to setup the sheet that I keep track of my landing pages as a template - complete with tips on how to keep track of it all. Just click the link here, sign up and you should see the template once you have verified your email.
Happy Testing!