Spotlight on Search is an interview series that shines a light on search marketing professionals to learn more about the nature of their work, differences in SEO amongst categories of web sites and of course, SEO tips, tactics and useful tools.
This interview with Alex Bennert, a longtime SEO professional with experience working on very large web sites such as Zillow and now with the Wall Street Journal, offers SEO career advice, explores the difference between in-house, agency and solo SEO practitioner, her experiences providing SEO services for a large publisher and the inevitable obsolescence of technical SEO. Oh yeah, we hit the obligatory social media topic too. Enjoy:
You’ve provided your SEO expertise for quite a while with some very large web sites. What is it that keeps you motivated about search?
There are some jobs where the skill set you need is reasonably finite. There is a knowable amount of information you need to learn and eventually master. But SEO is a moving target and that makes it more interesting. Boredom never sets in because I never feel as though I’ve mastered it.
How did that motivation influence your journey to become the Chief Search Strategist at The Wall Street Journal?
After the Journal contacted me, I was invited down to NYC for a casual “meet and greet.” As my husband dropped me at the airport I remember telling him that it was highly unlikely that I would take a corporate job at someplace like the Wall Street Journal. I pictured buttoned-downed suits and a restrictive 9-5 culture.
So I get there and the first person I meet is Kevin Delaney who used to cover the search industry for the Journal. I was immediately impressed by the breadth of his knowledge of search and his enthusiasm for embracing the Web at the Journal. Within 20 minutes of meeting him, I realized that I really wanted this job. That day I met with five other Journal people and my first impression was confirmed over and over again. These were not stuffy old-school folks looking back, this was a group of some of the smartest people I’ve ever met who were savvy about what was happening online and passionate about moving the Journal forward into it. And they were asking me to help! I’ve been with the Journal almost 2 years now and still to this day it’s the most fascinating and compelling job I’ve ever had.
What new insights about SEO have you learned after working for the WSJ?
Before working at WSJ I had assumed that Google Web search and Google News search would be minor variations on the algorithm.. Bad assumption! Google News uses a very different set of signals than Google Web and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of having a new algorithm to untangle.
Career advice: For people who’ve worked in corporate marketing, PR, web development or advertising that are looking to start a new career in search marketing, what advice would you give?
Many SEOs are evolving with the market and expanding their services into social media. I definitely see the value in expanding your skill set and your potential client base but personally I’ve had great luck going the opposite direction… specialization. I focus strictly on organic SEO with a strong emphasis on the technical. The list of what I don’t do is bigger than what I do… no paid search, no link building, no social media, no commerce sites. I know what I do well and I try to stick to it.
What are the most important skills for an in-house SEO vs a SEO working for an agency?
As an agency SEO you’re often juggling multiple projects that are in different phases and have different goals and frequently different resources. On any given day you could doing keyword research for a on a broad category (like autos), working with a junior web developer to launch a site redesign, deploying a search strategy for a small local gardening center, diving into analytics for a monthly report, or writing protocols to optimize title tags for an online hardware retailer with thousands of products. The upside is that you learn a lot because you get real experience in a little bit of everything. But you also have to be very organized and centered because you get pulled in a lot of directions.
Working in-house I’m still juggling multiple projects and working with different departments but in the end these goals have to ultimately be harmonious….everything has to fit together and support the site as a whole.
You have a lot of experience implementing search engine optimization from a technology perspective. What are some of the most common issues with content management systems and/or publishing systems that get in the way of optimal search visibility?
Common things I see are title tags that can’t be edited after the page is published or title tags that can’t be different from the article headline or title tags on paginated URLs that can’t be customized.
Do you have any headsmacking examples of simple fixes that resulted in large scale benefits?
Invest in a really good chair.
You have the unique perspective of having worked for an agency, for yourself and as an in-house SEO. Do you think companies will be able wean themselves from outsourcing any SEO work? Or do you see SEO as being like other professional services where companies will employ a combination of in-house and specialized or strategic outside expertise?
It’s important to know what you don’t know! When WSJ wanted to publish their international editions online my first recommendation was to bring in a consultant with a solid track record of executing successful SEO strategies in multiple countries. I’ve attended conference sessions on international search and read lots of information on it, but I had never developed, implemented and monitored an international search strategy for a client so my knowledge on the subject was academic.
Outside experts are the best way to learn what you don’t know.
What role does social media and networking play in today’s SEO for publishers?
In terms of SEO, social media offers a much more viable and authentic way to develop links to your site rather than link acquisition campaigns which were generally designed to get links for search engines. Now you can connect with your market, network, create buzz and really increase the exposure of your brand. And a happy by-product of that is links for SEO.
Also, social media provides another distinct source of traffic. A few years ago, you had email, search, referred traffic from editorial or advertising links and direct traffic from offline marketing. It makes me nervous when I see someone rely too much on a single source of traffic. If your business runs on a website and you’re getting 60% of your site traffic from organic search, you need to diversify. One little algorithm shrug and whammo… you could be feeling a lot of pain.
How do you see the influence of search innovations changing how you “do SEO” in the next year? In the next 2-3 years?
I have a hunch that the kind of technical SEO that I do will phase into obsolescence in the next few years. Google and Bing are aggressively expanding their Webmaster toolsets to put much of this information right into the hands of anyone that needs it. I think technical SEO will become a standard part of web development and other forms of SEO will be assimilated into social media, PR and analytics (except for paid search which isn’t going away). Obviously this begs the question, what will I do? I’m still thinking about that!
How is SEO for a large publisher (like Marketwatch or WSJ) different than some of the other large content sites (like Zillow) that you’ve worked on?
The great thing about doing SEO for a publisher is never having to worry about editorial content! Zillow, Avvo and DriverSide all started with a database of useful information. That database of content can be optimized so that it’ll rank for thousands of relevant queries (san diego homes for sale) but if you want to rank for queries like “best elementary schools in san diego” or “safest neighborhoods in san diego” you’ll need editorial content. Lots of it. On a zillion topics. Oh and make it high quality please? Yeh. We got that.
How much of a role do you see structured data and microformats playing in the future of search engine optimization?
I’m a big fan of Edward Tufte who writes about the visual communication of information through display. From a user perspective, I love the addition of structured data and microformats. From an SEO perspective, I firmly believe the more relevant information you can intelligently convey in a search result, the more qualified your visitors will be.
What about sitemaps and feeds? Essential or only necessary in certain situations?
For large sites, feeds and sitemaps are the most efficient method of discovery for new content. Far more efficient than getting crawled. But crawling is also important because you don’t get anchor text factored into a feed.
What tools would you recommend to an in-house marketer that’s newly acquired SEO responsibilities? Any advanced tools for more experienced marketers that you like? SEO or Social?
Most standalone SEO tools are geared towards linking and that’s something I stay away from. If you don’t have a viable PR strategy or a product that people will want to talk about our content that folks want to read and link to, then you’re not my ideal client. I’m not a PR person and to me, that is the essence of link building. So I don’t use too many tools. Xenu has been a workhorse for me over the years and I’m a big believer in having 2 sets of analytics. Besides that, using the engine’s toolsets as well as syntax queries provides the bulk of the data that I need.
How do you stay current with SEO and all the marketing, technology and communication channels that come with it? What are your favorite conferences, blogs, newsletters, organizations, books or networks that you rely on?
My favorite conference is coming up next month. SMX Advanced in Seattle is one of the few SEO conferences I attend where I always learn something to make it worthwhile. PubCon is another one. As for reading… I try not to spread myself to thin during the week because I could easily end up spending all day every day reading blogs. Generally I hit searchengineland.com because if there’s something I need to know, it’s there. On Fridays I try to make the round of blogs and catch up.
Is there a question I should be asking you?
You may not know that although I am “full-time” and “in-house” I’m actually a consultant for WSJ, not an employee. The difference for me (besides longer-than-usual vacations) is that I don’t *do* SEO for them…my goal is embed it as a process into their standard procedures and work-flow systems. I believe that a really good consultant works to make herself unnecessary. It may seem counter-intuitive to remaining employed but I’ve found that this philosophy makes me more valuable to my clients.
Alex Bennert is the in-house SEO at the Wall Street Journal. Specializing in algorithmic search, she’s worked with clients such as Zillow, Philips, SFGate, JibJab and other enterprise level sites with millions of pages. A search geek since 1999, Alex analyzes bot behavior, ponders crawl barriers and conjures friendly URLs while waiting in line at the grocery store.
You can find Alex on Twitter as SEOsylph
If you’re in Minneapolis May 25th, check out the Integrated Marketing Summit where Alex is participating on a panel on SEO with Findlaw, International Dairy Queen, Apogee and TopRank Online Marketing.