SEO Advice from SurveyMonkey Director of SEO and Growth, Eli Schwartz
Eli blogs about SEO and growth at elischwartz.co
You can find him on Twitter at 5le.
00:00 – Does SEO matter in 2018?
2:00 – Where should a company start with SEO?
3:30 – Who’s doing SEO well?
4:25 – Why is Amazon doing SEO well?
5:25 – How should you crosslink?
7:10 – Paying for links
7:35 – SEO don’t dos
8:15 – Things that are no longer useful in SEO
9:20 – Keywords
12:45 – Reviews
13:25 – Content
17:25 – Images
22:45 – Link building
28:00 – How much time to give SEO?
28:30 – Mobile
30:35 – Ranking
31:45 – International SEO
33:45 – Translation
37:15 – International search
39:30 – GDPR
41:50 – Hiring someone to do SEO
43:45 – What to do when you organic SEO disappears
46:30 – Metrics for an SEO hire
48:30 – Tools for SEO
50:00 – Getting started in SEO
Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to YCombinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Eli Schwartz. Eli is the Director of SEO and Growth at SurveyMonkey. He came into to answer commonly asked questions about SEO. Eli blogs about SEO and Growth at EliSchwartz.co and you can find him on Twitter @5le. All right, here we go. All right Eli, let’s jump right into it. First question. Does SEO still matter in 2018 or can companies ignore it and focus on other channels?
Eli Schwartz [00:32] – This is a question I get asked a lot and I’ve been asked this question many years past. Sometimes the answer could’ve been maybe, but now I definitively think that SEO absolutely matters and will matter even more. The primarily reason is companies were using other channels to drive acquisition where startups could start their company and think of say, PR or paid media, they raised some money then use paid media to generate buzz and generate new clients. Those channels have now gone significantly more expensive. Brand CPCs on AdWords have gone up. Facebook has made it a lot harder to get an organic reach, and now you’re paying for traffic on Facebook. PR in our world where we want to measure everything it’s not as measurable. Then what happens is companies do spend a bunch of money on those different channels. They’re maximizing their paid budgets on Google. They’re maximizing their paid budgets on Facebook. They may even go into Bing and say, “Hey maybe I have some potential market opportunity on Bing.” Then they’re like, “What’s next?” What they do is they look in their analytics tools and they’re like, “All right, we’ve got break down all the channels, we’ve got all this direct traffic. Don’t know anything about that, don’t know what to do to get more. We have referral traffic. Those are outbound deals. Some of those people link to us, some of those things we did intentionally. We have our pay channel, great, we know what we’re doing there, organic. So this is an untapped channel. We don’t know what we did. We followed some best practices, we read SEO for dummies,
Eli Schwartz [01:58] – we did what we thought was right, driving business, very, very little investment and then they think, maybe if we invest in it, now we’ll get so much more. And we’ll intentionally be working on this channel.” That’s where we are in 2018 where this is the untapped channel. This is the channel which has been driving business for free and now companies put effort in it it’ll actually generate significant returns.
Craig Cannon [02:21] – Where should they get started? Say they’re at just the bare minimum, they have a little bit of content, maybe the blog or something but where should they really focus their energy, in the beginning?
Eli Schwartz [02:33] – It really depends on the kind of company. If it’s an e-commerce company they want to think about architecture and any e-commerce company thinking about SEO, they should’ve thought about SEO before they chose their e-commerce platform. They want to make sure the site is structured properly to scale. What do you do if you get a new distributor and now you’re ready to add 10,000 products and your website can’t handle 10,000 products and now you’re going to load it up and each URL is going to be one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, next one’s one, two, three, four, five, six, eight. That’s not going to scale for SEO. You’re not going to have any way of putting in your right product descriptions and optimizing against likely competitors are selling the same products. That’s e-commerce, they should focus on good architecture or should have focused on good architecture long before. Media, that’s kind of different. That’s where they can look at what has worked for them in the past. My favorite search tool is Google search console because it’s from Google, it may or may not be as accurate as can be but it’s probably more accurate than other tools which are sort of projecting what the actual truth is. Using that tool, they can see what’s working. Here’s what we’re getting traffic on then marry that data with analytics. Here’s what’s actually performing and converting for us, that’s where they should double down. Build more content there, build more conversion elements on that and expand.
Craig Cannon [03:54] – Who’s doing it really well?
Eli Schwartz [03:56] – Media companies have actually gotten around to doing this really well. The way they cross-link and just have every sort of page possible. Take an item in the news today, they’ve got all these cross-links to things they’ve written in the past, which suddenly can become relevant to the searcher. It’s not newsworthy anymore, but if someone searches it like maybe they want to hear about a cow that got struck by lightning four years ago and there’s a display ad. Media’s gotten around to really maximizing the value of their content. When it comes to e-commerce, it’s really only Amazon that’s doing it amazing. Amazon has built a structure where every single product, and they have billions of SKUs, somehow is discovered by the search engines and if you manage to put in the right keywords that match that right product, you will find it.
Craig Cannon [04:42] – Let’s be a little bit more specific. What are the exact mechanisms they’re using to be discoverable?
Eli Schwartz [04:50] – For the most important thing when it comes to SEO and making sure that your site is somewhat optimized for SEO, is that the site is fully crawl-able. No orphan pages. Amazon has built this structure where no matter what the product is, it may be something that there’s only two customers in the world, that product is somehow cross-linked. If Google drops their bot anywhere within the site, it will crawl through the whole site, may take a long time, but it will find that page. That’s where anybody that wants to do this right has to think about what is this thing that I’m putting on, whether it’s an article or a product, what is it related to, to make sure that there’s a path for that page to be found by a bot? That’s where Amazon is going an amazing job of making sure there is a taxonomy for every single page, every page is discovered, and every page can be ranked with the right queries.
Craig Cannon [05:45] – In the context of a company that’s not an e-commerce company, would you recommend using plug-ins to display relevant content to link to other pages or building your own? How would you actually set up that architecture?
Eli Schwartz [05:58] – For media, you can use a plug-in because all you’re trying to do is create relevance and get links. If users click it, great, if they don’t click it, okay. Things should be built for users. When it comes to e-commerce, there has to be a good plug-in or something built internally because you’re not going to want to have, say, a red sweater cross-linked over to like a dog leash. That’s where a plug-in that sort of correlates between hey red, and here’s a red dog leash, that’s not going to work so you might want to build something internally. Again, what a lot of media companies do is they’re just sort of looking for relationships. One thing I found to be very effective for cross-linking is just randomization. If you randomize your URL’s, you make sure that, provided your randomization algorithm is correct, every single URL ends up being cross-linked. If users click it, great, if they don’t end up clicking, you still have achieved that level of cross-linking that Google can discover it.
Craig Cannon [07:01] – /just literally random pieces of content or products added in there.
Eli Schwartz [07:06] – Products, not so much because there is a user experience to that. When it comes to articles, it will work.
Craig Cannon [07:13] – Really?
Eli Schwartz [07:13] – Again, someone’s reading some article, they’re reading about something that President Trump said today and there’s an article about somebody getting struck by lightning, they may click it and it could be relevant and who’s to say that’s not another article that might be interesting.
Craig Cannon [07:30] – That will always be interesting. What about paying for links on other sites?
Eli Schwartz [07:35] – That’s an absolute no-no, according to Google. However, people still do it. They’re doing it through like a business development relationship. If it’s done purely just to get the SEO-link, then it’s not advisable because someone could report that Google and you don’t want to go down that path of buying links.
Craig Cannon [07:54] – It seems like there are so many of these don’t do’s, these no-no’s, what are the other things people should absolutely watch out for?
Eli Schwartz [08:01] – The big one is anything that you’re not comfortable talking about maybe to your mother. Hiding text at the bottom of the page so you’re building a bunch of content. If it’s not something that you’re going to be proud of, it’s probably something you shouldn’t do. The way Google really puts it is if you’re doing it explicitly to rank for SEO, then that’s probably something you shouldn’t do. They have a bunch of rules around that, but really like there’s nothing you should be doing that’s just for crawlers, it should all be for users. Maybe if there’s some relevance for hidden text on a page for users, you might have an explanation.
Craig Cannon [08:36] – Right, okay. Are there things that may be quite useful in the past that are no longer relevant? I’m thinking meta keywords, stuff like that. Are there things that are kind of just no longer useful?
Eli Schwartz [08:51] – Meta keywords is a great example of something that’s no longer useful. The reason meta keywords existed is because Google and other search engines that actually were relevant at the time, didn’t have a really good way of understanding text. Now we’re in this stage of development around search where Google announced today that Google Home understands Spanish. They’re understanding spoken words and they’re understanding spoken words not even in English so they don’t need you to put meta keywords on a page to say what you’re trying to rank for. But back then, when search was early they kind of did. Google was more advanced than other search engines because they were able to determine what the page was about. However, meta keywords was still a signal of maybe what’s on the page. Of course, marketers spammed that by putting what they thought would be the most relevant words which were usually porn because that’s what people were searching for.
Craig Cannon [09:45] – Obviously, this is on YouTube. When YouTube asks for keywords, do you recommend people use those? We use them but to a limited extent.
Eli Schwartz [09:55] – YouTube’s different because Google’s not great at really understanding what the video is about so by giving more information, and it could be a transcription, those keywords that you put in, you’re giving a better indication of what the video is about. With YouTube, though, it’s really hard to guarantee a ranking. The more information you can give, the more likely you have a chance at playing that game. One other place where keywords are really important and they’re hidden is when you’re trying to rank an app on the app store. Well, on Google, the way they rank an app is based on all the visible text. It’s the name of the app, which is sort of the title, the short description which is I forget how many characters but a shorter description of the app which you see right above the fold, and then a long description which is thousands of characters where you can just fill in whatever you want. All of that goes into what Google is going to rank the app on Google Play. On iOS, there are keywords and I think you have 100 characters hidden. If you’re trying to rank an app on like selling something random but you think people are going to search porn keywords, that’s where you would hide it and no one would even know that’s what you’re trying to rank on.
Craig Cannon [11:03] – When it comes to actually building out your SEO, what is the kind of content that’s important? Because we talk about content marketing, we talked about it on the podcast before, we’ve talked about it in the context of YC and other companies and oftentimes people just kind of copy what other companies are doing and that’s not always the most effective strategy. How do you frame what’s the most important content to be actually working on for your company, whatever that might be?
Eli Schwartz [13:00] – going to be super confused.
Craig Cannon [13:03] – That’s where people add in reviews and that sort of thing for e-commerce.
Eli Schwartz [13:07] – Reviews can be tough too because Google can understand then that it’s user-generated reviews and it may not be as high quality, but that’s something where I don’t know. Those are one of those things where you have to take that question and test it from an SEO standpoint. If I add reviews onto this, am I going to rank more on different keywords and get more traffic or is Google going to look at that and say it’s user-generated and not send more traffic for the content that’s in the review.
Craig Cannon [13:32] – Got you, okay. What about you’re a consumer company and it’s not an e-commerce company and you want to get into generating content that will generate traffic for you. Where do you start and then let’s go through the actual work flow.
Eli Schwartz [13:47] – Let’s think of an example company, they’re selling a service. You want to come up with anything related to that service and so the first kind of content you’re going to need is the closest to that service. Let’s say the service is plumbing. Let’s just go old fashion, you’re a plumber. You offer different services that people need like unclogging drains. You want to have a piece of content that talks about unclogging drains. Now when people search, and this is something where you don’t really need to rank on unclogged drains anymore because Google is very local. If you’re in San Francisco and you’re a plumber and someone searches unclog drains, you now have a much higher chance of ranking on unclog drains than Roto-Rooter, it’s just national.
Craig Cannon [14:32] – By adding your address?
Eli Schwartz [14:34] – Yes, your address should be there and you need to have some sort of local signal. But Google is going to show for unclog drains, that’s a plumbing need right now. Google doesn’t help to even show someone not in your area. You won’t have that piece of content. Now as you build out that content, you can move further up the buying funnel, which is all right, now I have an immediate problem, unclog drains, but how do I make sure I never have a clogged drain? And you can have best practices on how to maintain your plumbing so as you build out this fuller site, it can even go into how do you hire someone to renovate your house and make sure you have quality plumbing and what’s the kind of piping you should choose and let’s say, you’re going to buy it yourself, where should you buy it? There’s many, many different avenues of content all related to your original service which can help you establish yourself as an expert in plumbing and pipes and clogged drains.
Craig Cannon [15:28] – If the angle is like it’s just taste, it’s just opinion and you figure out if you really understand your customer, you can know all these things. But is there a more programmatic way to be like, “Okay, customers that end up on our site are looking for x, y, z thing.” How do you find out those terms, those queries?
Eli Schwartz [15:45] – You won’t know until you start. The best way is you’re using Google search constantly, you can see the kinds of things people are looking for. If you don’t have that content, so say you had a great piece of content on unclogged drains, but everyone is searching about unclogged bathroom sink. That’s the specific thing they’re looking for and you don’t have a piece of content on unclog the bathroom sink. Time to write that piece of content. Now, before you start, what you can do is you can go to the Google keyword tool, I think it’s called Google Keyword Planner now. They keep changing it. You go to the Google Keyword Planner, and you’re searching for keywords related to what you need. You’re looking for drains, you’re looking for clogs, you’re looking for unclog and that should give you a bunch of ideas along with search volume about what people are looking for. You can also use my favorite paid SEO tool, which is called Ahrefs. They also have a keyword tool. You’re getting ideas and from there you want to sort of battle test those ideas by launching them, seeing what kind of traffic comes in and seeing how it performs. Maybe you have this great page on unclogging drains and all people do is learn and never fill out a lead or call your phone number.
Craig Cannon [16:49] – Are you tracking that through Google Analytics, or using other tools? What do you recommend?
Eli Schwartz [16:53] – Analytics would be my favorite tool for tracking how their performance is going on, as far as traffic coming in. Even though you can’t see the keywords people are searching on analytics, you can see the URL’s. You look at the URL that’s generating traffic, you see the conversions, hopefully you’ve tagged your goals in analytics and you see the conversions that come through and you know what’s your best performing content. Now you can take that same URL, put it into the Google search console and then see the kinds of keywords you’re even getting impressions on. If they’re keywords you’re getting impressions on, but people aren’t clicking, that’s an area of optimization. If they’re keywords you’re getting impressions on and people are clicking but not converting, another area of optimization. It’s very iterative. You’re starting with getting ideas, maybe starting with keywords, building it, and then learning from what you’re getting.
Craig Cannon [17:43] – You said that it’s important to have raw text on a page, that’s the easiest to parse for Google and other things that crawl on your site. How do images affect all of this and are they important at all?
Eli Schwartz [17:56] – The most important thing to consider within all SEO, is that you’re doing this for users. You’re doing this because users are going to use Google and then find your website on Google and then click through into your website and then hopefully experience your website and do whatever you want them to do with your generating revenue from ad impressions, you want them to click on another page. If you’re generating leads, you want them to fill out the lead form. If you’re selling a product, you want them to buy it, or whatever that is. Images help with that user experience. If all you’re doing is putting text on the page, none of us like to look at raw walls of text. The images in that sense should fit in with their user experience but there is an SEO aspect to that. Google Images is one of the largest, if you want to think about it as a separate search engine, it’s one of the largest search engines after Google. Then YouTube is number two but Google Images is definitely up there. If you put images on the page, one thing you can do is make sure the images are titled so that the actual JPEG file or PNG file are tagged with the keyword. Say you’re selling coffee mugs, you want to call it CoffeeMug.jpeg and not just some random file name that came from the camera. You also want to put alt tags, or alt text, around the actual image, which is still needed in today’s day, but Google eventually will figure out what images are and they’re getting closer at figuring out what images are.
Eli Schwartz [19:29] – Alt text is the version of meta keywords, like meta keywords used to be, so Google didn’t know or doesn’t know what images are so you’re saying what the image is and that helps your rank. The actual ranking formula for Google Images is really, really hard to discern, but if you follow best practices like you have this chance of people searching and then there’s this additional avenue of people finding content.
Craig Cannon [19:51] – It seems like Pinterest has been the one who unlocked that, right? There are many things I search for and I click through, I end up on Pinterest and I’m forced to log in.
Eli Schwartz [19:59] – That’s essentially them doing a great job of SEO around the images and then they have these unique images and they show up on Google. However, there is something interesting about your Pinterest question, which is Google specifically does not like search within search. Google would much prefer that you don’t go to Pinterest, that you go directly to where that image was, but maybe that site didn’t do a great job of optimizing the image, but Pinterest did. Now Pinterest is that layer in between. If you just sort of follow best practices like Pinterest does, now you’re skipping that middle man and they’re coming directly to you.
Craig Cannon [20:33] – Are there best practices around technical aspects, like literal resolution of the image, anything like that?
Eli Schwartz [20:39] – Not as far as I know. It’s really raw and sort of like put your alt text in, you can put a title in around the image, you can caption it. There’s also relevancy so like the kind of page the image is on sort of gives more signals. For now, I don’t know that Google is really looking into the quality image. They’re not yet, I don’t think, at a place where they’re understanding what the image is and then choosing to rank it.
Craig Cannon [21:03] – Got you, okay. Now we’ve built out our content site. We’ll keep with San Francisco Plumbing and we’ve made 20 blog posts about whatever we think someone might be searching for. When it comes to distribution, are there any non-intuitive pro tips that you would recommend? Are you suggesting people start getting paid traffic through their sites? Or do they just leave them up and hope for organic?
Eli Schwartz [21:33] – You can’t hope for organic. You could wait years for the organic traffic to show up. You need to be pro-active about that. However, in the meantime, and actually when your organic strategies start when you put up the website. In the meantime, you can be generating paid traffic and then organic has time to grow until organic becomes an important channel for you. The way sharing things on Facebook or sharing things even with friends and family helps is that if you created great content, let’s say again the San Francisco plumbing you created, the best guide in the world about how to unclog your drains, and you share that on Facebook, now other people may share that to their friends and people see that and someone out there is going to decide that they’re writing a blog about do it yourself and they just have to link and recommend this blog post that you’ve written or article that you’ve written about unclogging drains. That’s how you’re getting links. You’re starting the distribution of that organic from their Google discovers. You can also go and as you build your website, it’s a service website, get yourself listed on all the directories. Chamber of Commerce and other directories for your neighborhood so the directories don’t really give links but they give avenues for discovery and as you get discovered, you can generate links.
Craig Cannon [22:50] – Pretty common question and word around SEO is links, link building, all that kind of stuff. Is it important and if so, how would you go about doing it?
Eli Schwartz [23:01] – Links are what differentiate Google when Google first came out. At the time, there was Yahoo and a bunch of other crawlers and indexers and search engines, if you want to call them that. What Google did differently is they ranked the site based on the quality of the links and it was sort of academic. If you’re an academic and you’ve come out with something interesting, other academics are going to cite you so Google determined that if you were, and they had this PageRank patent and algorithm, that if you were quality, other websites would link to you. That was how Google sort of grew into that. Then, of course, people spammed it. They bought links and they did a bunch of spamming things to get links and trading links and all that. Links are still very important but they’re not important in the sense that they used to be where people measured them by quantity. My competitor has a 100 links to this page, I need 101 links and if I get 101 links then I will guarantee a rank ahead of them. That doesn’t work anymore. What you need are a quality and relevant links and it could only be a handful of links and that’s all you need and what Google is doing is this is the algorithm borrowing a sort of link equity from the pages that link to you to make your page more valuable and relevant for all the other queries that people might find you for. It doesn’t have to be like this page, say it’s Stanford, is talking about meta-physics and you’re talking about plumbing, therefore, you can only rank on meta-physics because meta-physics is linking to you.
Eli Schwartz [24:24] – That link value is helping you rank better on plumbing because if Stanford thinks you’re a good plumber, you might be a good plumber. Now, where I like to do link building and where it’s the most effective, is to create interesting content and this is sort of where SEO goes hand-in-hand with PR. You’re creating interesting content that people might want to talk about and then from there people might also want to link to it. One good metric of measuring if you’re on par is do people share about it on Facebook? Do they like it? Because the motivation to like something is the same as the motivation to link something if you have a website. The most successful link building campaign I ever did wasn’t even really an intentional link building campaign, was when I was living in Singapore, I did a survey with a company, or an agency that measured the cleanliness and satisfaction of people around bathrooms. It was called the Restroom Association of Singapore. We created this survey and I created a bunch of interesting questions around people’s bathroom habits, which is something people are always interested in. From that survey, I turned it into an infographic and a blog post and then just kind of put it out there and I basically got links from every single English media site within Southeast Asia and it even got translated into other languages. That was linked but they were mentioning it and they were just providing due credit back to the original source with a link. If you’re doing creative things and you’re doing good PR, that’s sort of like a good SEO effort
Eli Schwartz [25:56] – because you’re getting that link to that content. How many links you need? Still, we wouldn’t know. Where do those links need to come from? You can’t know. But if you’re working on these processes and making sure each page is linked, you’re doing what’s necessary to get that link value into each page.
Craig Cannon [26:13] – Are you spending time and energy and money on PR itself, or do you just mean, hopefully, organic traffic?
Eli Schwartz [26:20] – I’m thinking this is like PR-mindedness, rather than actual PR. From my experience, the PR people I’ve worked with, they don’t necessarily do things for SEO. I’ve even worked with the PR agency where they were proud of an article that showed up or an article that was in print and they gave me the PDF. That did nothing for SEO, obviously. But if they’re doing something where it’s an actual link or a mention with here’s a credit back to the source, that would be a link and that would be valuable for SEO.
Craig Cannon [26:53] – Then as an individual like thought leader type person thinking about link building, do you recommend people go out and like blog on other sites? Is that still an effective strategy?
Eli Schwartz [27:05] – It is an effective strategy, as long as it’s not spamming. I got an accidental sort of link, probably the best link I ever got to my blog is I was working with a professor at Stanford, he invited me to his class, an interesting seminar and I was passionate about things related to Asia. That is an interesting seminar and he asked me to do him a favor and take notes. I got this idea that if I took notes, maybe I could turn it into a blog post and if I turn it into a blog post maybe he’ll publish it. I asked him if that was something he would be interested in doing and he did and now I have a blog post on Stanford’s website linking back to my personal blog. That is a guest post but there’s nothing spammy about that. This was content the professor needed and that’s something that can be repeated anywhere. Professors are like anybody, they can be baited by their egos and you can write content about them and they’re very likely to link from their classroom webpages.
Craig Cannon [27:59] – Well, also, if you just make something good. This is something that time and time again, make something good.
Eli Schwartz [28:06] – That is the underlying ingredient to anything related to SEO. Good content will get good links.
Craig Cannon [28:13] – Perfect, and so how much time do you give yourself to really test an idea and test to see if something’s working?
Eli Schwartz [28:20] – Depends on the scale of the idea. When it comes to a piece of content and the website is brand new, it could take a really, really long time to know if that content is resonating, to get ideas around it.
Craig Cannon [28:32] – Is that maybe a year? What does that mean?
Eli Schwartz [28:35] – It could be a year. But if it’s a going concern, say, it’s widely commented or you’ve already got a ton of traffic, you know that you put something up, it’s instantly going to get found. People are going to search for it. That could happen in a matter of weeks.
Craig Cannon [28:48] – Okay, and what about all this in the context of mobile? I know habits are very different.
Eli Schwartz [28:55] – There’s a lot of talk about mobile, first, in Google moving to mobile first. Within that, what people forget is that there’s still only 24 hours in a day. Yes, we’re on our mobile devices all of our waking hours but eight or more of those waking hours, we’re actually at a desktop or laptop. We’re on a larger device. It’s not that we shouldn’t optimize for the desktop anymore, it’s just that you need to consider mobile and you need to consider user behavior. There are many, many products that are probably never going to be bought on mobile. Probably no one is going to buy enterprise software on a mobile device. I highly doubt, at least in our first world economy, people are going to book their entire vacation on a mobile device. You’ll probably do a little searching while you’re sitting on the train like where should I go? What should I see? But like before you shell out thousands of dollars, there’s a desktop involved. Or if you’re doing Black Friday shopping, you may read some emails around Black Friday deals, you may do some searching on your phone, but before you go and buy a brand new TV, you’re going to go to a desktop site, look at that and look at as many images as you can, read reviews, possibly even purchase it on the desktop. Yes, mobile is growing and we need to consider mobile users, but not at the expense of desktop users.
Craig Cannon [30:19] – With that in mind, what are the best practices to account for both?
Eli Schwartz [30:24] – When it comes to SEO, not much. It’s really taking into account that there’s a smaller screen and people are clicking through on search from a smaller screen and then the biggest thing that you really need to keep in mind is that it’s not about ranking in the top ten results, you actually have to rank in the top three results. They just try harder because a mobile device, there’s just less results.
Craig Cannon [30:44] – That does seem to be the permanent challenge. Getting from the second page to the first page and then to the top of the page. Obviously, you’ve written about this pretty extensively online but what are your pro-tips?
Eli Schwartz [30:58] – It’s really matching user intents. As we’ve discussed, the user is the most important. So understanding the user and getting in the user’s head and finding the queries that the user will search for to find your content. It’s not about, “What do I need to do to be in the first page,” because that’s a very vague goal. You want to be in the first page for what your specialty is. Our plumber’s specialty is unclogging drains that are very old. Let’s say that plumber can charge a lot of money for their specialties. That’s what they want to be on the first page for. Write a lot of content for that specialty, make sure they’re found on mobile devices in the first couple results on the desktop and for sure, the first couple results. But just generally ranking for this broad term, that’s very hard to do. If you’re not a big brand, may even be impossible.
Craig Cannon [31:48] – If you can’t spend against it, like a lot of cash. And then the international context, how do you think about getting to that, assuming that you have a clear intent? Say you’re going to franchise. Your San Francisco plumbing business is going to open up in Beijing, what should you be thinking about?
Eli Schwartz [32:06] – International is the untapped opportunity in SEO, but it will probably remain untapped for a long time because the products and services most American-centric, or English-centric, websites offer, aren’t necessarily relevant for a global audience. You can take a couple steps into becoming relevant so say your e-commerce, if you partner with a company that can enable shipping to other countries, so you don’t actually need to do the shipping yourself, you just need to get yourself listed or make whatever integration you need necessary in order to get things out to other countries, if customers want to buy, at least you’ve enabled that. You can also take other sort of payment like work with a payment provider that may be able to take other currencies. It may come into you as dollars but you just want to work with that gateway that can take the pound or take the euro because if you’re just working with a standard payment gateway, like if someone doesn’t have a US credit card…
Craig Cannon [32:59] – They bounce.
Eli Schwartz [33:02] – Right so that’s an opportunity just to expand a little bit. Maybe if you have an audience in another country that’s where you can take a one step forward into SEO where say you have that audience in Beijing, you might want to create one page about your product in Chinese and then people will discover it, click through, and it’s an experiment I’ve tried in the past where you localize a page. You have your CTA’s in that local language, click the CTA, and then bang, you have English. You’re obviously going to filter out a lot of people, but you’re also going to get people through that where if they may be a potential customer of your product, they would still go through that funnel. So you’ve brought in your appeal, you’ve brought in your potential base by having your content translated and you can potentially get more customers at the bottom of the funnel. In general, international, huge opportunity, but probably not relevant for most companies.
Craig Cannon [33:53] – Okay, and so let’s use YC as an example. All of our content is in English. It’s at ycombinator.com, right? Do you build another website with a separate top level domain, or do you add Chinese translated content to your main blog? What do you do?
Eli Schwartz [34:12] – It used to be best practice is that you would build another website for customers in another country. I no longer think that’s the best practice. I’ve tested this a few times, and the reason behind that best practice is that users trust something local more. UK users are going to trust a .co.uk. Google actually hides URL’s in search to begin with and they test it sometimes. It comes in sometimes it comes out. On mobile, you don’t see the URL at all. That doesn’t matter. Users don’t even know that you’re a .com versus .co.uk. With that in mind, you have a great website already, why would you split your efforts and create a new website? What you’re going to do is you just want to open up a new directory that’s very explicitly another language. And you want to follow the two letter naming convention, or the three letter naming convention, so Google understands exactly what it is. If you’re quoted in Chinese, I think it would be ZH for Chinese, or if you’re going to another country so obviously the UK would be UK or GB. So Google understands that localization aspect of like hey, this is targeted somewhere else. You wouldn’t want to go to say, Spanish
Eli Schwartz [35:25] – and just do SPA at because it would be hard for Google to understand it. With that, you’re doing a sub directory, not a sub domain.
Craig Cannon [35:34] – And then you are just having your content machine translated or are you paying for translators? What are you doing?
Eli Schwartz [35:41] – Again, user-centric. If content is machine translated, the machines have to be very, very good. If it’s very good and it’s not that important content, then that should probably work. If you really want to get users through the funnel, you want to make sure there’s no misunderstandings, you should hire local people to translate it for you.
Craig Cannon [36:01] – We can just use YC as an example, it’s pretty easy. You would just take say our top 100 blog posts, pay for a translator who’s native in Chinese, or Spanish, or whatever it might be, post it on the actual ycombinator.com site.
Eli Schwartz [36:19] – In a new sub directory dedicated just for Chinese.
Craig Cannon [36:22] – Right, okay. Then meaning like a new sub domain on the blog?
Eli Schwartz [36:26] – Not sub domain, sub directory.
Craig Cannon [36:28] – Sub directory within the blog, right, okay. And link that through the nav on the blog? What is the best practice there?
Craig Cannon [37:07] – Okay, and so all the content is actually there.
Eli Schwartz [37:10] – All the content you’ve translated is there. You don’t want to have like any sort of automated like I’m changing, let’s say, EN to automatically ZH or something like that.
Craig Cannon [37:23] – In terms of appearing on separate search engines across multiple languages, what are the best practices for that?
Eli Schwartz [37:31] – There really are no other important search engines in the world. They’re locally specific so there’s Baidu for China. If you care about China, then it’s Baidu. If you care about Korea, it’s Naver. Other than that, it’s Bing. Wherever Bing has penetration. So if you’re following best practices for Google, that should help you rank on Bing, that doesn’t necessarily help you rank on Baidu and that’s for China specific regions. In order to rank on Baidu, you actually need Chinese hosting. The reason for that is obviously, China has censorship. Baidu’s concern is that if you’re not local, they don’t want to take responsibility for your content. If you’re local, you’re already complying with laws with what kind of content you can have because you’re local. If you’re not local, you’re going to see a huge rankings hit. Your website will be significantly slower, obviously, getting behind the Chinese firewall. If you care about China, there’s a lot of things you need to do. It may be even advisable for China, again this is China specific, not Chinese language, to have a separate Chinese domain because to have that Chinese domain, again, you’re complying with the laws. And then Baidu will break you. Korea is different. Korea has Naver as a search engine. I don’t remember the break down of Naver versus Google right now, but Google used to not be dominant in Korea and they’ve been increasing dominance through their Trojan horse of Android. Google’s obviously very closely partnered
Eli Schwartz [39:03] – with Samsung and LG, Korean companies. As Korean users use these products, they use Google. Prior to that, Naver, which was search but it was also sort of like AOL where they offered everything and they offered from forums to chat to blogs and search. Again, their ranking algorithms were very different and sort of rudimentary when it comes to Google. Unless Korea is a specific target for you, or China is a specific target, Google is all you’re going to need.
Craig Cannon [39:33] – If you optimize your Google strategy, dial that in, you’re going to be in a really good spot.
Eli Schwartz [39:37] – Absolutely.
Craig Cannon [39:38] – Thinking again internationally like GDPR just happened, what should people have in mind and why do you think SEO is important in the context of GDPR?
Eli Schwartz [39:49] – I’m in the middle of writing a blog post about GDPR and the benefits for SEO. I think GDPR is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to SEO in the last five years.
Craig Cannon [39:57] – For American companies?
Eli Schwartz [39:57] – For everyone.
Craig Cannon [39:59] – For everyone.
Eli Schwartz [41:29] – get its due. We’re going to see that full funnel conversion SEO all the way through SEO.
Craig Cannon [41:35] – Has this affected how you do like any SEO practices?
Craig Cannon [42:06] – Okay, great. If someone wants to employ all of these tactics, who should they think about hiring? Who should be brought onto the team?
Eli Schwartz [42:17] – The people that I found to be the best at SEO are incredibly creative and are very curious and are able to develop a hypothesis around what should work and they’re basing that on other things that they’ve seen, things they’ve read, things that Google has talked about. Google has a whole guide on SEO best practices. They put out a guide on best practices as well as a guide to their search quality radars of how to evaluate a website. You can see what Google is thinking. You want someone who can take all that, come up with ideas, but also is incredibly analytical so they can understand what works and learn from past performance of websites and measure their own testing.
Craig Cannon [43:00] – Say you’re a startup founder, maybe you have ten employees or something like that. How do you even evaluate the applications you might get?
Eli Schwartz [43:10] – It’s sort of hard. You want to look at someone that was entrepreneurial in the past, demonstrates that creativity. But this is something where the on-site, in person interview or phone interviews where you ask a lot of questions is really where you’re going to flush out the creativity and that analytical ability. Looking at a resume, I’ve looked at many resumes of people who have done SEO, and I’ve discovered they don’t really know anything about SEO. They’ve just done SEO. When you talk to someone that would be good in this seat and it doesn’t even have to be someone that’s ever done it before, you’re asking them creative questions. How would you solve this? Or what do you do if you woke up in the morning and your organic traffic has disappeared? Where do you go first? How do you troubleshoot this issue and just understand their ideas? They’ll make mistakes. Everyone is going to make mistakes. But you want someone that has that natural curiosity and creativity along with the smarts to really be successful in this.
Craig Cannon [44:04] – Actually, what is your answer to that? That is a great question. Your organic disappears overnight, what do you do?
Eli Schwartz [44:11] – That’s happened to me multiple times. The first time it happened to me, I was working for a startup and I remember the exact date, February 24th, I don’t remember the year, and it was the day Google rolled out the Google Panda Update. Up until this date, which I think was in 2010, the best way of writing content was to write as much of it as possible and come up with every keyword and rank on everything that you could think of. These are the days of eHow where you actually had guides on how to pour water or how to boil water. There’s crazy stuff on eHow and may still exist. The set I was working with and the company I was at, we had content for every possible iteration. We were an automotive review site and we had every car, we had every review, we had every picture, and we lost 65% of our traffic one morning. At the time I was measuring rankings, I no longer believe in measuring keywprd rankings like as we discussed we’re focusing on a user so it’s not just generic rankings. Started with looking at our rankings, what we’d ranked on number three the day before, we were now at number 80. It started with that then going into analytics, looking at the URL’s that got hit, and then after that oh crap moment, it was it looks like this is a Google penalty and it wasn’t until I’d probably say mid-day, until the blog posts had been out of Google first put out the blog post we’ve gone out and destroyed half the internet, we’ve changed the way things work.
Craig Cannon [45:41] – What did you do to fix it?
Eli Schwartz [45:44] – We actually had to rip the band-aid off. We lost 65% of our traffic, we took down tons of content, brought it down to like 80-90% complete loss of traffic so we intentionally took away organic traffic, and rebuilt up our high quality content, re-architected everything we were going to do. Ultimately recovered so we recovered with a 20% gain on what we had in the past.
Craig Cannon [46:09] – How long did that take?
Eli Schwartz [46:11] – That took only six months.
Craig Cannon [46:11] – That’s fine.
Eli Schwartz [46:13] – We were lucky that we ripped the band aid off and we were able to do it. Nowadays, it could happen a lot faster. At the time, we were waiting for Google to rerun that algorithm, once they reran it we were back in their good graces. Now things are more automated and algorithmic where if you got hit by the penalty one day, you cleaned it up, did everything possible, maybe filed a reconsideration request, you can be back in a couple weeks.
Craig Cannon [46:33] – That’s not so bad. Going back to this person that you’re evaluating to be hired for your company, say you pick someone you think they’re good, you hope they’re good, how do you set metrics for success? How do you set a goal and then how do you measure it and how do you know if it’s working? What should you be working for and really like how much time should you give this person?
Eli Schwartz [46:57] – If they’re creative, they should be coming up with creative plans right away. If they’re coming up with a strategy of how you’re going to grow and they’re also going to require a lot of investment. If they’re coming up with a strategy around content, you got to buy the content. That’s the first thing you’re going to want to look for is what is our strategy? How are we going to grow? How are we going to increase your SEO traffic or get SEO traffic if we don’t have any to begin with? That’s the first metric. I’d say within 90 days you’d want to have that plan. Moving forward, you’re going to measure against that plan like are we getting traffic? Did we make any mistakes in our forecast in our estimates? And then, again, assessing your creativity, how quickly can they iterate and pivot if they’re wrong? You’re looking at the growth and traffic like that’s your primary metric. Once the traffic starts coming in, put some goals in that. If it’s a startup, you can have things like 100-200% growth. If this is an existing company who already has tons of organic traffic, maybe it’s more manageable to have 10-20%. Those are your metrics you’re going to apply to this person.
Craig Cannon [48:02] – Okay, got you.
Eli Schwartz [48:03] – Then I would look at traffic and dollars coming from this channel. What you never ever want to measure for anything related to SEO is rankings. How many page one or how many position one rankings we have because those aren’t yours to have. Google can change their mind or users can change their minds and like that is the wrong way of aligning your SEO efforts.
Craig Cannon [48:25] – That’s kind of true across the board. All these systems, if you engineer the employee incentives for them to just game it, that’s what’s going to happen and if it’s not directly tied to your bottom line, you’re wasting everyone’s time.
Eli Schwartz [48:39] – Absolutely.
Craig Cannon [48:41] – You’ve mentioned Ahrefs, you’ve mentioned Google Analytics, what are the other tools people ought to be considering to like say you brought this employee on, right? What do you need to install the first day to ensure that you’re tracking all the right things?
Eli Schwartz [50:07] – is savvy, they may see that show up in their log files like hey, why is this IP address tied to my competitor now crawling me? It could make them upset.
Craig Cannon [50:16] – Be careful.
Eli Schwartz [50:18] – Use at your own risk. This is a great technical tool to just understand how sites are structured.
Craig Cannon [50:25] – What about if someone just wants to get into SEO? Where do they start, what courses should they take? What would you do?
Eli Schwartz [50:34] – No courses to take really. It’s a creative pursuit. You have to start drawing art in order to be an artist. The way I learned this was I was working for a company and I was managing affiliates and at the time and it might still be true, the most expensive ad sense keyword and ad words keyword was mesothelioma, the lung cancer related to asbestos. I decided to see, well I needed to write content in order to get content matched to those ads and keywords so I decided to write content related to mesothelioma and see if I could get it ranked. That was really my first SEO project and in the process I wrote something about John Edwards and I don’t remember the connection to it and this was when you could still see all the keywords coming in. I saw keywords coming in related to John Edwards and I was like well, if I write more content on this maybe I’ll get more traffic and I did. That’s where you start. You start with an idea, maybe it’s a personal blog, maybe it’s something you’re passionate about, create content, get the traffic in and learn from it,
Eli Schwartz [51:34] – and if that makes you excited to try more, then this is something for you. If this is like well, this is taking too long and this is really boring and I’d much rather be an Instagram influencer, then that’s where you should go.
Craig Cannon [51:46] – Awesome, man. Well, thank you so much for coming in. If someone wants to reach out to you and learn more, how can they connect?
Eli Schwartz [51:53] – I like LinkedIn a lot. I respond to all my LinkedIn messages and I’ve done a decent job at making sure I can be found on LinkedIn.
Craig Cannon [52:00] – Man, that’s great. That’s also rare and sounds like an effective strategy.
Eli Schwartz [52:05] – Thank you.
Craig Cannon [52:05] – All right, thanks, man. All right, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and the video at blog.ycombinator.com and if you have a second it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.