Spotlight on Search Interview with Scott Skurnick of Edmunds.com
For every SEO guru speaking at a conference, there are 10 or 20 more SEO experts you might not have heard of, making things happen in amazing ways. Scott Skurnick has worked in the Search Marketing industry as long as anyone I know on the conference speaking circuit and has a tremendous amount of experience and expertise to share.
In this interview, Scott shares his journey to become Executive Director of Search Engine Optimization and User Insights at Edmunds.com, his take on social media and SEO, scalability of SEO, tips on audits, best practices, tools and more.
You’re a long time consumer products search marketer, having worked at companies like Circuit City, OfficeMax and currently with Edmunds.com. What made you decide to work in the search marketing industry and what do you like best about it?
Actually I got my start with Search Marketing in Mexico City when I was working in the Tequila industry. I had worked for Jose Cuervo for a number of years and then went to work for their main competitor at the time which was Tequila Sauza. When I launched the first brand websites back in 1995 I became obsessed with Tequila Sauza being the number one result in Yahoo and Alta Vista for the query “tequila”. Of course that wasn’t a very hard task because there weren’t a lot of tequila related sites but the whole concept of search engines intrigued me.
The thing that I like the most about our industry is the fact that it is ever-changing and there are no “absolute” answers. The end goal is the same for everyone in SEO in that we want to generate both traffic and some kind of conversion. What differs is how we reach that goal. Everyone’s SEO recipe is a little different and who’s to say that their approach is any better than someone else’s. What’s not to like about this?
What job skills and career advice can you offer to Search Marketers that want to work in-house vs working at an agency? Do you think it’s reasonable for companies to expect SEMs to be advanced at both SEO & PPC? And Social?
There are a couple of necessary skills that most people don’t speak of. I won’t get into the debate of whether or not we should be able to write code because I think it depends on the situation. The list of skills and qualities I feel are necessary for a successful in-house SEO are:
- Must be highly analytical
- Understand how the different parts of an organization work
- Have Great negotiating skills
- Be likeable and never bite the hand that feeds you (developers and writers)
- Be curious and never think you know everything
- Be humble. You have to be able to admit your mistakes, we all make them especially working in SEO
- Most importantly, you have to have thick skin. You will always have your doubters and people who want to see you fail because they don’t believe in SEO.
While I feel it is vital that an in-house SEO understand both Paid Search and Social, depending on the size of the company it may not be realistic for one person to manage all 3 areas. All 3 are highly specialized and changing very quickly. More importantly, you can easily ruin a company by committing errors in any of these 3 and errors usually occur when there is a lack of understanding or knowledge. At my current company we have separate teams handling PPC, SEO and Social and this seems to work the best. Of course we all interact and share information but at the end of the day we have an expert for each channel.
Speaking of social, what are some of the ways you’ve made SEO content more social at Edmunds.com? What are some of the immediate opportunities within the social web to advance SEO goals?
When we talk about Social Media at Edmunds, we are really talking about Forums, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Edmunds has been running an online automotive community (forums) since 1996 which is, for the most part, based on SEO best practices. As far as Facebook and Twitter are concerned, our editorial and PR teams are directly involved. While we do engage in some auto-tweets, the majority of what we put out there has an original voice to it. We also actively engage with people who are discussing our brand or the automotive market in general.
The biggest Social Media opportunity for us is brand promotion and audience engagement. Our content travels very well. Not only do we review almost every vehicle imaginable, but we also have a data department that is responsible for coming up with industry sales forecasts and results. When we issue a sales forecast or summary, this information is immediately picked up and re-tweeted or shared via Facebook.
Many agency marketers say quality SEO cannot scale because working with many different types of web sites and companies is unpredictable. Do you think that’s true for in-house SEO?
I couldn’t disagree more. Since 1995 I’ve worked as an in-house online marketer with tequila, office supplies, consumer electronics and automobiles. I view myself as product agnostic. For me it is all about the marketing channel. Of course every industry and website presents a different set of challenges but I’ve always followed the same SEO blueprint. The SEO blueprint changes due to the elastic nature of our industry but I’m going to apply pretty much the same strategy regardless of the product I’m trying to promote. Some sites may require more effort when it comes to link building while others may need better editorial content but at the end of the day the basic SEO infrastructure is very similar.
What are some of the common obstacles with large retailer web sites when it comes to SEO? What makes a successful large site SEO program so successful?
Enemy #1 is the CMS. Most large retail sites use shiny and expensive out of the box systems which are great for everything but SEO. From dynamic parameters in url strings (no not just 1 or 2) to duplicate title and description tags across hundreds or thousands of pages, most CMS’s just don’t know how to handle SEO. Add in code bloat and duplicate pages across multiple categories and there is enough to keep any SEO busy for years. The other big issue is unique content. Too many large retail sites don’t put in the effort to write unique and appealing product descriptions so their Sony Plasma TV description is the same as hundreds of others across the web.
As far as what makes a large site SEO program a success, this is very cliché but I dare any in-house SEO to disagree. It comes down to education and compromise. Until everyone in the organization has a very basic understanding of SEO, you will have a hard time getting a SEO project to succeed. The developers need to understand why you are asking them to change the code and the writers need to understand why you are asking them to change their titles. You never ever want to mandate change because this will only make you enemies. You also have to understand that sometimes SEO has to take a backseat to a more important goal. There are few instances where SEO and usability or SEO and development conflict with each other but when they do, you need to choose what’s best for the company. Never ever let your ego get in the way.
Let’s say a friend shows you his new retail product web site and asks you to do a SEO audit. What are 4-5 things you would look for?
Any audit starts with a simple question; are you willing to go under the hood and make potentially large scale changes…If the answer is yes then:
- Need to understand the CMS / Shopping Cart solution and see if it’s flexible.
- I’m checking urls, most retail web sites use too many dynamic parameters
- I’m making sure a product only lives in one department / category. If it doesn’t I’m using the canonical tag (worst case scenario) or convincing him to change his categorization.
- Making sure his product descriptions are unique and in-depth. Too many ecommerce sites use canned descriptions.
- Making sure he is letting his customers review the products. You can say what you want about the now defunct Circuit City on the store side, but the web site had by far the most comprehensive customer product reviews on the web and these generated considerable SE traffic.
What are your favorite web based SEO and social media marketing tools?
For SEO: Bruce Clay Toolset, SEOmoz Pro Tools, Xenu, Majestic SEO, Ranking Manager and Wordtracker. For Social Media: Co-tweet, Klout and wefollow. I also set up a really nice reputation management dashboard based on a post from aimClear a while back.
What role does social media optimization play in an overall SEO program? Do you think it’s worth optimizing content for search within social media sites like Facebook or MySpace?
Social media is important in that we want to let people consume our content wherever they feel comfortable. We try and optimize the content for the channel but not necessarily for search engines. We don’t create special content hoping to create a temporary lift from social media and we definitely don’t promote all our content via social channels. The worst thing a brand can do is abuse Twitter or Facebook. Our users can smell a “hyped” story from a mile away.
Staying on top of best practices in general and specifically for what’s most important to the web sites you’re working on can be a challenge. What do you do to stay current? What blogs do you read? Do you have favorite conferences, books, forums or newsletters?
I easily spend the first hour of every morning going over my analytics and reading up on the latest SEO news. As far as the sites I visit, they include: Search Engine Land, Michael Gray’s Blog, WebmasterWorld, WebProNews, MediaPost, paidContent.org and the IAB. I also love 1938media.com, it keeps me grounded. I don’t really go to a lot of conferences but I have been attending PubCon since 2005 and SMX Advanced since it started. PubCon is great because there is something for everyone and SMX Advanced is one of the few conferences where experienced SEO’s can learn something. The one conference I would love to attend but haven’t been able to yet is the Search & Social Spring Summit.
Thank you Scott!
Scott has been working in online marketing since 1995 in industries ranging from Tequila to Automobiles. He’s an avid Packers and Soccer fan and live in Redondo Beach, CA with his wife and two girls. You can find him on Twitter, LinkedIn and working hard on SEO at Edmunds.
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. We do not take PR firm pitch suggestions or solicitations for these interviews. They are by request from TopRank Online Marketing Blog editorial staff only.