Talking Ecommerce SEO With Bill Sebald
How did Bill Sebald get into marketing?
In my teen years I was considering psychology, working in the media, or slacking off. Ultimately I fell into marketing during a communications major at Penn State, and realized that it had components of at least two of my above interests. A couple years later I hooked up with a CD shop in Ambler, PA that was looking to sell products on a website. A progressive idea at the time.
They wanted to be CDnow.com for used CDs – these were the days when it was rare to have a shopping cart, and even rarer to get someone to give you a credit card number over the internet. We did guerrilla digital marketing, and I was hooked. From there I started my own music and commerce websites, learned graphic design, and started doing SEO (which was basically as simple as resubmitting to engines over and over – this was 2001, a year or so before the Google invasion). I also spent some time in the music industry, so I got to learn a different side of marketing there.
What do you love most about your job? What gets you excited?
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I love that after all these years it remains a somewhat niche industry. Relatively speaking only a few really savvy companies truly get the value. I love becoming part of these companies and helping them see success in this industry. I also actually enjoy the chaos, energy, and challenges our “sub-culture” provides. It’s pretty rock and roll and still somewhat guerrilla in my opinion.
What are some of the challenges you encountered when you started optimizing e-commerce sites?
In 2005, the complexities of database/dynamic web design seemed to grow out of step with the growing demands of Google’s algorithm. URLs got uglier as Google started to get more vocal about their expectation of needing them cleaner.
Duplicate content started growing out of control while Google burdened SEOs with keeping it manageable. In my experience, most e-commerce website developers I worked with were struggling to meet internal demands without either knowledge of SEO or the interest in being slowed down by one. I learned quickly that one of the biggest challenges of being an e-commerce or enterprise SEO is that you need to be aggressive and “crash” other department’s parties, unless you like being on “clean-up” threads later. Back then SEO was so much more reactionary, which drove me nuts. I started making friends with the business and project managers who fed these projects so I could be part of the plan from the FRS stage. That meant a lot of internal presentations, meetings, schmoozing, and even more email threads. Networking (even internally) always pays off.
Networking (even internally) always pays off.
Then of course, there’s the ROI challenge. A client gives you a dollar, and expects you to forecast how many you’ll give back. For every client or company that understand the nature of SEO, I had an equal amount refuse to accept it but demand their expectations be delivered. I had bosses ask me to “invent” numbers to sign or placate existing clients (those relationships always failed).
Luckily I also had some bosses allow me to set expectations correctly. I was never comfortable putting my name on a forecast I didn’t believe in. You need targets and goals, but when it comes to SEO, I didn’t want to sign myself up to be the fall guy. Some SEOs are OK with that (that’s why there are so many hit-and-run SEO companies), but I don’t like the contention that comes from it.
Where SEO Fits In
However, we’re in a much better place now. Analytics and attribution tools, along with maturity of the SEO space has killed much of the previous fuzziness. At its base, the ROI of e-commerce SEO is simply the possibility to play in a space that all your competitors are in only because they took the risk before you.
Transactional keywords may always fall to PPC first, but SEO is the leader in informational searches which lead to plenty of sales at some point in the purchase cycle, despite the life of a typical tracking cookie. We might as well use all the data we can get in 2013.
SEO is the leader in informational searches which lead to plenty of sales at some point in the purchase cycle
Getting Things Implemented
Despite these two things (which really doesn’t bother me, it’s part of the game), the true frustration for me is implementation. I don’t know anyone in e-commerce SEO who doesn’t constantly hit roadblocks when trying to enter projects. Usually e-commerce sites (including those who are the younger brother counterpart of large brick-and-mortar stores) have limited funds and a lot of projects vying for that money. E-commerce campaigns are usually the most cost-conscious, complicated engagements you can have as a digital marketer.
How is optimizing for e-commerce sites different from optimizing regular sites?
1. Lots of Conversations Internally things tend to move slow with e-commerce development companies – I remember months of conversations on robots.txt specifications, canonical tag implementation, nofollow implementation (when we used it for PageRank sculpting), XML issues, URL parameter streamlining, and pagination. Lots of email threads with lots of different departments. Code updates seem to cost more, usually due to more QA scrutiny.
2. Overlay Content Externally, vendors started putting out content overlays (that sniffed search engine spiders and served optimized content upon recognizing one’s visit) only because they understood how difficult it was for most platforms to do this natively. For example, ChannelAdvisor’s NSA, Netconcepts’ Gravity Stream, YourAmigo – most are gone these days. They weren’t optimal solutions, and I’ve seen them really screw up Google, but some of these overlays are still around.
Admittedly I used one in a prior job. Google actually told us they knew about it, but because we were “cloaking with positive intent” we were allowed to continue… for now. Still, we got off it in a hurry, because we didn’t want Google to ever misunderstand our intent in the future. It was a multi-million dollar change to our ecommerce platform, which gave more SEO controls to our clients in the long run.
To see a live example, YourAmigo lists Avon as a client; by using a user-agent switcher Chrome extension, where I tricked Avon into thinking I was Googlebot, you can see a different URL. Other sites would take advantage of this technology and show much more than a different URL – you would often find optimized title tags, body content, internal links, header tags, etc., that a user wouldn’t normally see when they navigated to the page with a regular browser.
3. Duplicate Content Issues E-commerce has a lot of content duplication, either from distributor or vendor feeds that are being shared with lots of other sites, scraping, or even through their own syndication of feeds to 3rd party CSEs or shopping portals. Again, with limited control over the dynamic templates, this can be a frustrating thing to get a hold of. Cease and desists don’t work.
Sometimes it makes more sense to constantly wash and enhance your content and try to beat your old, stolen content. When you’re dealing with so many URLs you really need to pay attention to those parameters and duplicate URLs. Search engines have gotten a lot better at consolidating them. Remember when they used to tell us not to worry too much because they were on it? Yeah, well the canonical tag came out a few months later.
They still need our help. I think it’s important to focus on these URLs if not just for optimizing your crawl budget. The index may sort itself out eventually, but if you’re constantly spending time updating and adding new pages, you want your crawl to be as efficient as possible. Otherwise a lot of the traditional stuff a regular site does can work for e-commerce. Buying guides, user generated content, how-to content, and continually writing language that convinces engines that you’re more than a thin, low-text commercial site and more of a “for the people” type authority that just so happens to sell stuff too, can go a long way.
What are the most common mistakes you see on how e-commerce sites are built?
Not Enough Text
These days the number one issue is low volumes of text. Plenty of pictures, but not a lot for an engine to read. I typically produce a spider emulator snapshot of the actual content on a website, then ask the client to tell me what Google will think this page is about. 9 times out of 10 they have no idea what page I pulled the content from, and can’t figure it out based on context. That’s a real “a-ha” moment for clients. “If you can’t figure out what to rank this for, how will Google?” Luckily SEO is much more mainstream for e-commerce platform developers these days, so a lot of the traditional platform issues are fine out of the box.
Not Working As A Team
I think an SEO’s job is to come in and try to create something unique for every important page, and work with UX teams to create funnels that make sense to users and engines alike. Even if you only have budget to follow the 80/20 rule, or some variation of it, e-commerce SEO is as much about what the page says (contextual) as it is creating efficient crawls and improving findability (technical).
How do you decide which categories/products to target?
I break it into phases and living calendars. Seasonality is huge for e-commerce. Product margin is big. I like to be there to compliment other incoming company marketing initiatives, too. Then I relate all this to competition for low-hanging fruit. Start getting some wins so there’s an organic halo effect into the other pages. It makes getting the big wins much more likely down the road. I also try to do a parallel content marketing strategy to build authority on pages. Ideally I work with the client or business teams. I never go in pretending to be the expert in an industry.
Ask the right questions and the business may unknowingly set your course for you.
What is your favorite strategy for e-commerce sites?
That’s a hard question for me. I don’t think I have a “go to” strategy, or a favorite per se. My favorite part of any campaign is drawing one up from scratch. I usually find that connecting with other branding and marketing channels flows nicely into SEO if you can get all the other parties on board (which isn’t always easy considering the silos in retail businesses).
But if I have to answer the question, content strategies are always solid, whether they’re on a microsite, sub-section of the main domain, or just category pages. Simply finding the information searchers need, finding what differentiates your copy from the the competitors, and building out exactly what searchers need. I like to build my content strategies out for 3 month spans, which tends to work well for seasonal changes and keeps the whole process agile. I’m big into content marketing for e-commerce.
How will e-commerce optimization change in 2013?
In terms of SEO, not really. Definitely in other channels. I’m very curious about some of the new things PPC and mobile are trying to do together. I think the whole mobile landscape will continue to advance (which is obvious considering the trend from each Q4 in the last 5 years).
A few more useful rich snippets will probably come out, and the knowledge graph will likely get smarter which could either improve or repel clicks.
It’s a matter of time until social signals start to be impactful, but I don’t know if this is the year it explodes through Google Plus. I just don’t see the signs, but anything is possible. I don’t see any big changes on the horizon like I did in past years – at least not yet, and that’s a little disappointing.
I think we’ll be talking more about responsive design for e-commerce, and microformats, but not as a new, exciting thing. I think SEOs should continue to get into CRO and UX so they can get happier customers from search.
What I’m not hearing as much about as I’d like is attribution. I think that’s something that should only get more attention by SEOs, so they can build strategies around it (and increase their job security!). There are untapped strategies to build out via a customer’s purchase journey.
I think SEOs should continue to get into CRO and UX so they can get happier customers from search
What resources would you point people to if they wanted to learn more about e-commerce optimization?
E-commerce seems to be a niche that there’s surprisingly less resources on, which is unfortunate.
All the big SEO sites hit e-commerce optimization from time to time, but specifically I’m on these sites often:
Your blog is named Greenlane SEO & you have your own hashtag. Can you please explain: I don’t know where the hashtag came from – I’m thinking Anthony Pensabene (@content_muse) after a crazy night in Seattle where I, well, misbehaved.
I’ve seen it used on tweets I wasn’t part of, usually referring to something wild. I’m not that wild (anymore), but I like going along with it if it makes people laugh. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good tweet. It’s probably annoying to all the Twitter fans of W.G. Sebald (the writer) who actually follow that hashtag.
The company name is a lot less interesting. For a brief time I lived in Perkiomenville, PA. Green Lane park was a great man-made lake and fishing spot. There were a few rocks I used to sit out on and relax. It’s where I decided to go solo. One day I’ll change the name, but I’ve had it since 2005. I’m open to suggestions!
Got a suggestion of what Bill’s site name should be? Please leave it the comments!
Mac or PC?
PC. Only because I know how to build them and debug them fairly well (though Windows 8 might make me abandon Microsoft altogether). For a while I tried my hand at graphic design, and still found a way to resist a Mac (despite how powerful they were). I have an iPad, iPod, and iPhone 5, but the Mac’s confuse the hell out of me.
Droid or Iphone? I’m addicted to the iPhone. I probably have as much money sunk into apps as any Gizmodo reviewer. I’m the guy who slows down 4G for everyone with my highly abused unlimited data plan. AT&T hates me.
Drink someone can buy you at conference?
Any microbrew IPA will make you my best friend. Triples are top of my list, but if you really want us to get in trouble, Jack Daniels is the way to go. #sebald
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