Keynote Panel: Enterprise-Level SEO In-House

November 10, 2011
By Michelle Lowery in Internet Marketing Conferences

Well, here we are. The last day of PubCon Vegas. While some of us are sad to see it end, I’m sure a lot of you lucky people out there are planning on attending PubCon Paradise in Hawaii next February, so you won’t have to wait long for more PubCon goodness. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We still have a fantastic day ahead of us here, so let’s get things started with a keynote panel on enterprise-level SEO in-house. On stage, ready to give us some insight are Topher Kohan, SEO Coordinator for CNN, Jeff Preston, SEO Manager for Disney, and Alex Bennert, Director of Search Strategy at the Wall Street Journal. Expect some SEO gold from that trio!

Moderator Joe Laratro starts with a few housekeeping items. There’s a bag drop at registration for those who need a place to store their luggage. It costs $2, which will be donated to the American Cancer Society.

Microsoft apologizes for missing a session yesterday, but it was because of a scheduling conflict on PubCon’s part. If anyone uses Bing, or would like to use Bing, you can get a $50 certificate to make up for it.

Everyone extends a HUGE thanks to the PubCon team for putting together such a great conference!

We start with introductions, starting with Alex, who has been with the WSJ for three years. She oversees SEO for several sites under that umbrella. She started SEO by answering a job ad for what she thought was web development, before Google, in the days of Excite, AltaVista, etc., for a Russian mail order bride site, and a psychic site. So she got the job, and when those sites went under, she stayed with SEO, and eventually ended up at the Journal.

Jeff works for Disney, the happiest place on earth—that and Costco, he says. Disney has several arms (ABC, ESPN, etc.). the company is responsible for live entertainment and for movies that come out, like the Muppets. [Can’t wait for that one!] About four years ago, he was working at an agency in Japan, and he attended PubCon where a Google engineer presented. She said, “Here’s a company that doesn’t get SEO.” and put up Disney’s site. She hit refresh, and the site wouldn’t load because it was in flash. He thought it would be cool to be the guy who did SEO for Disney. Five months later he was interviewing for the job, and now here he is!

Topher does SEO for CNN, CNN Mexico, and several other sites. Before that he worked at CDC, and before that he worked independently as a tour manager/production manager in show business. He started out by wanting a way to bypass having to physically produce slides, and put up a few simple websites instead. People started asking him if he could do the same thing for them. He did that for a while, pro bono, then realized he could make money doing it. Then Google came around, and people wanted to know why they couldn’t find themselves when they searched for their names. He taught himself SEO in 1996. He was touring, got tired of sleeping in hotels, went back to college, and got a degree in marketing, and the rest is history.

Joe: What has been your number one success, and what were the results of that success?

Alex: It’s hard to define that. When the company developed a site that partners with Google for self-publishers, and they eliminated the

implementation of the canonical tag across all their sites. Before they had that, they were trying to map the 301 process for that, and it was a nightmare. So the tag made everything much easier.

As a news publisher, getting their news feed update on demand. When it was updating every five minutes, it was having a negative effect on their rankings because of time of discovery.

Jeff: Our site has to be very engaging and fun because it’s for kids. My biggest accomplishment was learning how to optimize a flash site. After that became a very friendly place.

Alex: How did you manage that at an enterprise level?

Jeff: If you have dynamic flash, the flash actually doesn’t have any content in it, then there’s an XML file feeding the flash content. Because of that, it’s easy to put the content into a div on the page. Now we can have a flash site that’s updated by producers.

Joe: Since you started, what kind of increase in search have you seen?

Jeff: A couple hundred percent.

Alex: At least 300 percent over the last two years.

[I had a computer freeze-up right here, so I missed Topher’s success story. :-(]

Topher mentions that he keeps a TV on at work because if Wolf Blitzer says “Arab spring” a hundred times on the air, that’s what people are going to search for, so that’s how he gets keywords. Alex asks him how he captures that, and Topher responds that he watches TV a lot.

Joe: What was your biggest oops moment or strategic failure, and how did you correct it?

Topher: 2010 midterm elections were a disaster. Not as much newsroom pressure as the presidential election, so they introduced some new technology. On election night, he sat at his desk, and thought he was going to get fired. Pages weren’t showing up, pages from 2008 were showing up. If it had been a presidential election, he wouldn’t be here right now.

Jeff: Usually what I have to work on I know months and years ahead of time, it’s not like news. So say we have a show called “Ant Farm,” we’ll know we have to rank for that term. Sometimes I get really generic keywords (movie coming out called Brave), so even with months to prepare, it can be tough.

Alex: I guess when I started, it was the first time I’d worked for a company of this size. Before I was at an agency. The mistake I made when I started at the Journal was to have the same conversation with everyone about SEO, whether it was executives, editorial, IT. Took me a while to figure out not everyone needs to know everything. Now I know to tailor conversations to the departments. For editorial, it’s keywords, for devs, it’s canonical tags. For execs, it’s the big picture. This has made me much more credible with everyone.

Joe: What is one tip for in-house SEO that’s scalable?

Jeff: The bigger the team gets, make sure you’re involved with everyone. It means going to a lot of meetings, but having that visibility is critical. We’ve all read “Tipping Point,” so hopefully the SEO person is that hub between all the teams.

Alex: And making sure know which meetings you need to go to, even if it means you go to more meetings than you need to at first. Try to make sure you make it part of the process that SEO gets incorporated at the right time. Have people check in with you at certain points of the process. Over-insert yourself into as many parts of the organization as possible, and then you can back off later. It’s good to know everyone.

Topher: It’s completely cliché, but you want to manage the SEO appearance of your company. My managers read Search Engine Journal, Google blogs, etc., so I call it the Chicken Little effect. “Oh my gosh! Site load is important! We have to take all the images off our site right now!” You want to create content that’s not affected by the algorithm. Create well-coded sites, quality content, using best practices, every time there’s a change, you don’t really have to do anything.

Also remember that when you first get there, you’re the enemy. SEO means more work. It means changing how things are done. People don’t like that. I took it personally at first when people said what I was doing was snake oil, so I sat down with people and talked to them and explained what I was trying to do, and they understood.

Now Joe opens up the floor for the panel to ask questions of each other. Jeff leads off.

Jeff: What would be your career advice for someone who wanted to go from agency to in-house?

Topher: Don’t go work for a top-tier enterprise right off the bat. Cut your teeth in a smaller place first. If your agency handles a large client, you may be able to transition in from there.

Alex: First, learn patience. At enterprise-level, things just don’t happen quickly—ever. I am the only SEO in the organization. People will say SEO can’t work in an organization of this size. That may be true, but just don’t expect to do everything at once. We have limited resources, so we tackle one thing at a time, by quarter. What’s nice is you get steady, incremental growth over time. Think of it as ongoing job security. You can ride that for a long time as long as you set appropriate expectations.

Topher: you have to be your own cheerleader, too. Make sure you tailor your monthly updates to your audience. Anytime something big happens, (the day after an election), you send that e-mail out with all the numbers. Make sure you take the time to recognize the people who contributed to getting things done. That goes a long way to helping smooth the way.

Jeff: Be sure to thank people and celebrate your wins. You need to build good will because there will be times when you’re in trouble and you need someone to help you or do something right then. If you’ve recognized them, it will be a lot easier to get them to help you when you need it, and get things done.

That’s all for now, folks! Stay tuned to the blog for more PubCon coverage throughout the day.

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