In-House SEO Interview: The Hidden Heroes of Search

happy-in-houseWe’re all familiar with the agency SEOs who go out and speak at the conferences, write on the blogs, and talk whenever and wherever they can, in order to establish themselves as experts and drum up more business for their agencies.

But what about the in-house SEOs? They don’t always get to make as much of a public splash as their agency counterparts.

So I thought it was time to chat with a couple in-house SEOs and get their take on SEO from their perspective.

Robin Aguilar Francis is the Senior Manager, Search & Social, for Autodesk 3D design software, and John Cole is the Director of Search Marketing for the NFL.

Simon Heseltine: How long have you been in marketing, and more specifically, in-house. What tempted you to the in-house side rather than the agency side?

John Cole: I got into search marketing in the late ’90s when I had a side business designing websites for local businesses. It wasn’t until 2007 that I began a career as a full-time search marketer. I started off working for an agency, and since taking my first in-house job I haven’t looked back. Working in-house gives me two opportunities being at an agency did not:

  1. The ability to get projects prioritized and manage them through to implementation. Instead of depending on my client contact to be able to take my recommendations and get them done, I can now appeal directly to product managers, engineers, and company executives to persuade them of why a project must be done.
  2. The ability to focus and go deep. I love getting myself deeply engrossed in the revenue model of a particular business and prioritizing SEO initiatives by what will drive the bottom line for that particular business. Being in-house I find I get to go a lot deeper into a business than I was able to on the agency side.

Robin Aguilar Francis: Six years, all of it in-house. I sort of fell into SEO by writing store descriptions for a coupon website. I was told to use the name of the store 10 percent of the time. After reading the end result the writer in me gagged. I went back and rewrote so there was a balance of the mentions with readability. After a while I got really good at it.

When I started looking for other jobs like this one, I had to ask my boss what it was I was doing for him. He said it was called “SEO”. I asked what those letters meant since someone in an interview was going to ask me at some point. Needless to say I know what it means now.

SH: What’s the biggest challenge that you have to your search marketing success?

RAF: No one ever tells you that the biggest part of your job is educating everyone from the top to the bottom on what it is you do, why it’s important, and how they can do it for themselves. I used to think all you needed was buy-in from the top. Experience has taught me that you need buy-in all over the organization plus the desire to learn to fish for themselves. SEO is everyone’s job.

JC: Staying focused on the initiatives that will make a huge difference. I have come to love data and its role in guiding a company’s search marketing program, but data mining can also suck away valuable time. I have to constantly ask myself if the data I’m so excited about slicing and dicing is really the data I need to be focused on right now – will it provide me with actionable insights that will help me significantly increase our profits?

SH: Your manager’s just pulled you aside and told you that you’ve been promoted. Your first task is to hire your replacement. What do you look for? What kind of skills and experience would they need to succeed?

RAF: This actually just happened to me this year. I knew that the person to replace me had to masterfully balance search, understanding the user, and teaching internal stakeholders how to do the same in their content, linking, and technical implementation. Because both search and web editorial was under my previous purview the replacement also had to have a firm grasp on brand tone and voice, adhering to style guidance, and editing overall.

JC: I’d look for a detail-oriented person comfortable crunching through large sets of numbers, and someone with a healthy dose of curiosity and skepticism. I want someone open-minded who admits they don’t have it all figured out, because in my experience the more flexible you are with what you “know”, the more likely you can succeed as the rules of the game shift. I’d also look for someone who likes people and has good energy. So much of this job is training others and building trust.

SH: What’s the biggest tip you’d give to that new hire?

JC: Focus on SEO projects by their ability to increase revenue, decrease costs, and/or deliver value to our customers. If the project cannot meaningfully drive one of those three areas, don’t let it take your time and attention.

RAF: Be bold, stand your ground, and always have data to back you up. You can make your case intelligently and successfully when your data is rock solid. Become BFF with the numbers.

SH: What’s the one tool that you can’t do without (and no, you can’t say your brain)?

Robin: I couldn’t do my job without Google. Even if all keyword data and the Keyword Tool were taken away, I can still look at actual search results pages to see what the algorithm thinks users want. Add that to my deep knowledge of what good content looks like and I’m good to go.

JC: Google Keyword Tool. In second place is Open Site Explorer.

SH: What do you think will be the biggest change in the industry in the next six months to a year? Or has it already happened and we’re still dealing with it?

RAF: Google will figure out social. They will either make Google+ work or they will buy something. They need that social desire data in order to provide better results. Oh, and I’m sure the keywords will totally go away at some point. Then we’ll see the campaign where we can buy it for a price.

Image Credit: HuskMitNavn/AOL Artists.

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