We were at SES San Francisco recently and had the opportunity to talk to Simon Heseltine, SEO thought-leader and head of organic search and training across all AOL and Huffington Post Media Group properties, including Engadget, Huffington Post, and Daily Finance. Heseltine is a frequent speaker at conferences and teaches SEO at Georgetown University as part of the university's digital media management program. We were quite pleased to chat with him on the sidelines of the event about his thoughts on SES, the future of digital marketing and making the case for SEO. Here is a quick transcript.
SES San Francisco A-Ha Moments
Nag: How has SES been so far?
Simon: I don’t always give generic responses but one big reason to come to SES is the whole networking aspect. Depending on your level, you’re not always going to get a lot of stuff from the full sessions but what you will get are those nuggets of information, which you’re just not going to find elsewhere.
Nag: What was the highlight of Matt Cutts’ session?
Simon: The keynote? For one, it was the first time it had all those guys (Matt Cutts, Incisive Media Global VP Mike Grehan, Danny Sullivan from SMX and Search Engine Land, and Brett Tabke, from the PubCon) up on stage together, talking. There were some interesting statements that were made and it’s all over the Twitter feed. I was particularly interested in that last question which was about duplicate content across different TLD’s. What Matt said isn’t necessarily what I always see but, in some respects, it’s good to understand what they believe is how things are working. That gives us a chance to let them know that that is not what we see, which gives them the opportunity to make some further tweaks. We can go back to Google and say “Okay, that’s not what we see happening with these particular properties and here are a few examples” and that way we’re helping each other.
Nag: So, this is a case of the algorithm not functioning as intended by Google?
Simon: In my experience, with the duplicate content across international TLDs, I’m not necessarily seeing the home domain, the one with the TLD for that country, ranking for that particular item. I’m seeing the US site ranking for some search terms, which is an issue when I want the individual country sites or places to rank. We want our .co.uk to be shown to the UK users. Obviously, people have the ability to go and look at content on the other versions of the site but we really want to try and get them to the right version right away. That’s Google’s intent from what Matt was saying today. But we are not always seeing that so a session like today’s that gives us the opportunity to give some feedback to Google and say you might want to look at this and get it fixed, make it work how you intend it to work.
Nag: What were other highlights of the session?
Simon: Other than the discussion on duplicate content, I found the statistics that Matt shared to be quite interesting. Matt threw out some numbers on the number of searches, number of pages crawled and total number of URLS – I find these interesting not just from the perspective of an SEO professional but also from that of a teacher. I teach at George Town University so it’s always good to get some good data and pass that along to the students. You won’t necessarily get some of this data elsewhere.
Nag: What questions would you like to have asked?
Simon: One of the concerns that a few people have had is about the latest Google algorithm update that lends weight to the number of DMCA takedown requests. Naturally, a lot of marketers are concerned that this may potentially lead to an increase in people just filing DMCA’s requests inaccurately, hoping to potentially hit your rankings. It would have been interesting to hear Matt’s perspective on that, although I would assume that there’ll be some quality factor associated with the DMCA requests, which makes it imperative that you’re monitoring the requests as they show up in Google Webmaster Tools.
Making The Most Of Industry Events
Nag: As an SEO marketing expert who is a regular at these conferences, how do you filter the diverse opinions and tons of data that you come across? For someone relatively new to the scene, it can be quite overwhelming. What approach should they take going into these conferences?
Simon: There is a quote that CNN’s SEO Manager, Topher Kohan, says which is that if you ask 10 SEO’s a question you will get 20 different responses and 15 of them will be right. Different people have different ways of doing things. Different people see different things and they‘re not necessarily always wrong because the search engines are evolving. They’re always changing their algorithms. One marketers experience on what worked last month or last year may not be what works now but it’s just what may have worked for them in the past. Listen to what different people have to say, listen to their perspectives, try it yourself. Always be testing, always keep trying new things, keep trying and pushing and see what happens. If you move your company’s name to the end of your title tags, if you move it to the front of the title tags, what difference does that make, does that give you a difference in the ranking or does it give you difference in click through rates. There are all these little things that you can test even down to the color of the buttons, the placements of calls to action on your page, etc.
Looking Into The Crystal Ball
Nag: I know the changing nature of digital marketing is a huge topic for discussion at events like these. I’ve heard different perspectives on what is changing and where it’s going to go. I’m curious to hear your perspective.
Simon: Look at SEO over the last 5 and bit years. The search results page was 10 blue links. Then, in July of 2007, universal search came out and that changed things. As Matt was saying in the keynote this morning, people expect that level of constant evolution from the engines. They expect to see new things, they expect to be able to find what they want to find. When someone innovates in a very short time, that innovation becomes standard. People are used to seeing that so you want to keep seeing things moving. Things change and there are lots of different things that they are doing. As to where things are going in the future, social is obviously something that’s been played with and integrated into the search results now. I think it’s just going to continue. Social is going to continue to grow. Social is going to make more of an impact and things are going to continue that way.
The Practice Of SEO
Nag: I want to switch gears from industry talk to day to day SEO. What ‘hands on’ SEO or marketing work, experiments and testing are you involved in?
Simon: In the US, we are a team of two, we have a team of 1 in the UK and that’s across all the AOL properties including Huffington Post, Endgadet, TechCrunch, AOL Auto, AOL Finance, Patch, MovieFone to mention but a few. The engagements that we have differ with what the needs are and what’s important for the business. In some of the businesses, we’re more deeply embedded, within others it’s more of an ad hoc engagement based on needs. As you may expect, we have a lot going on, with some exciting projects that’ll see the light of day throughout the rest of this year.
Nag: Are you also an SEO practitioner? Do you like getting into the bits and bytes?
Simon: I try to! My background is that of a programmer – I started off as a Smalltalk developer, moved over to Java development and then got into SEO. I do tend to look closely at the architectural side of things and we also do a lot of in depth testing. We’ll move some things around and try different description tags, little tweaks that we can make just to see what makes any kind of movement and in the right direction. A lot of our sites are content sites so don’t have a specific conversion event, maybe you sign up for a newsletter but we’re not trying to sell anything, we’re just trying to go eyeballs on the sites.
Nag: A common concern among SEOs is how to implement all these recommendations from their technology platforms, agencies or thought leaders like you. They know that content is core but they do struggle with keeping track of all the keywords, pages, site architecture issues and many more areas that touch SEO. How should they (prioritize) all this as there is a lot more to be done than the bandwidth available?
Simon: That is always a challenge. I’m speaking on the in house panel tomorrow on structuring your team, trying to get some success from the team. There are absolutely challenges in prioritizing the work and getting the work done. I’ve been within organizations before AOL where I have the director of development say “I don’t really get this whole SEO thing so we’re not going to prioritize any of that work”. Then they don’t understand why they don’t get the traffic. SEO is not just marketing the content to the outside world. It’s also marketing your team’s talent, making sure people understand what it is that you can do and how you can move the needle. Sometimes you’ll find a team that is absolutely willing to work with you, they’re hungry, they want to do it, they want to get things going and you can then use them as a (internal case study) to show what you can do. And get other teams to actually buy in from that internal case study.
Championing SEO Internally
Nag: What has worked for you within the different companies you work for in raising the profile of the SEO team?
Simon: For a content site, it’s really about showing those daily visits and trends – it helps to have executives support from somebody who can actually give you that leverage to get the teams to do the work, to get that prioritization in place. I’m not saying that SEO should be the highest priority, there are obviously other business considerations that need to be accounted for but it needs to be slotted in there appropriately. You’ve got to work with those teams, you’ve got to build that profile up whether it’s doing training across the organization or one on one meetings or anything that communicates the value of SEO.
Collaboration - SEO, Paid & Social
Nag: In that context how do you make sure that, for example, your paid teams and SEO teams work together and also look at each other as rolling up into a single goal of higher conversions of higher traffic?
Simon: Within AOL, they’re actually in separate organizations within our company. We do some interactions across the teams but not a great deal. In other organizations where I’ve actually run both paid search and organic search, we have used that. Paid search is able to tell you where you can find those conversions and more immediate type of traffic. When you see something is working through your paid keywords, you know these are the ones we want to focus on for the organic side too. For content news based site, you’re obviously not going to be really doing a great deal of interactions (between paid and organic). The paid search team, if they have the budget, may go out there and buy the paid terms for news information. But if you’re doing your job right and you’re ranking on Google News and you’re getting your pages up there in natural content for the right keywords, then I don’t think it’s necessary.
Nag: What about interaction with the social team? How do you approach this given the interaction between search and social signals?
Simon: We actually do interact more with the social team than we interact with the paid search team. Huffington Post has a very good social team, a very mature organization with a really good process around social media activity and streamlined training. They are a great team and they show fantastic results in the form of extremely high Facebook referrals. We do work closely with the team, meet with them frequently and I’m up in New York talking to them and try to figure out what we can do, how we can make the best of things to drive social engagement and thus potentially help our organic efforts.
Nag: How do you use social for search at AOL?
Simon: When you’re actually looking at social as an influencer on search results, it seems to be in a constant state of flux. Bing has changed how they’re doing social search results over the last few months, and Google… they’re always making changes, they initially had Twitter in their real-time search module now and then they had Google+ results showing up and , in the keynote this morning, we had Matt suggesting that SEOs should not worry too much about Google+. So, that’s going to be interesting!
Nag: What are your favorite marketing success stories?
Simon: I’m going to give you an internal one – how we showed tremendous growth for Fanhouse, AOL’s sports site. This is an example of a team, which was hungry, wanted to learn, had executive support and had the development resources. When I came into the company, I sat down with the developers and editorial staff and we all worked together to make sure that SEO was part of everything within their organization. The team did such a fantastic job – growing organic traffic by 250% in 18 months. They truly helped me make the case for other properties within the company to really focus on SEO.