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21 Soft Skills to supercharge your in-house SEO team




Tristam: Good afternoon, good morning or good evening depending on where you're tuning in from. It's another SEMrush live webinar. It's Thursday the 23rd of January 2020 and I'm joined by the wonderful John. 

Today John's going to be presenting to us 21 soft skills to supercharge your in-house SEO team. Just to quickly open this up, I'm Tristam, I'm going to be your host today and I'm based in Brighton in the UK and I run a digital marketing agency called Purple Smirch. John, please, if we could have a small introduction from you.

John: Sure thing. My name is John Shehata. I am the VP of audience development strategy at Conde Nast. If you're not familiar with Conde Nast, it's a group of publications. We have wired, Vogue, GQ, New Yorker, Bon Appetit, Epicurious, Vanity Fair and the list goes on and on. I'm very blessed to oversee SEO search, social and email for Conde Nast. I've been doing SEO for 18 years, social for almost 10 years now and email for about like three to four years.

Tristam: Thank you. And I'm very excited to hear what you've got to discuss with us today. From my background, I've worked in-house, I've worked for agencies, I now run my own agency. So it'd be good to hear what your 21 skills to supercharge your team are and chew the fat between us on our different experiences.

Where are we at? We've got quite a few people ready to go. John, if you're ready, I'll hand it over to you and we'll jump into the presentation. 

John: Okay, awesome. Thank you guys all for joining today. I'm going to talk about 21 skills to supercharge your in-house SEO efforts. These kinds of skills I developed and acquired throughout the many, many years of my experience in both small companies, big companies and agencies. 

SEO Skill #1: Build relationships

The very first skill that I feel extremely important, especially when you join any company, is you need to build relationships. Jira tickets are amazing, emails work really well, but the personal relationship is really what gets your stuff done. 

Try just not to limit your communications to emails. It's not enough. You need to put the face to the email...talk to them in person, have coffees. There should have been an agenda when you meet with people, but get to know them, identify the major stakeholders in your company and meet with them.

Relationships gets your stuff prioritized and gets your stuff worked on from other teams. If you know the stakeholders on product or development or business side or finance and so on, these kinds of relationships, you can take your projects, the big initiatives directly to the stakeholders and sell your projects there. And if you're able to sell it to the stakeholder, it gets way easier to get your stuff up in the queue and get it done.

One of the things I did when I first joined my previous company is I did something called SEO Thursday donuts. SEO teams and the development team weren't talking much to each other. I went to the area where the developers sit and I brought every Thursday a big box of donuts. And I left it there and I said, "Complements of the SEO team." It was a nice ice breaker. You start to get to know people and so on. 

Tristam: Just a quick question. If you're new to a company you want to make quick traction, you note donuts, which is amazing, do you recommend meeting with people individually or in teams? What have you found works best?

John: I usually start with individual meetings with the leads of the different teams and then through them I would ask is it okay to present to your team a quick 30 minutes about...SEO and why is it important to the company? That was my approach. 

SEO Skill #2: Get to Know Developers and Engineers

Skill number two. The developers, the engineering teams, after you know the stakeholders, this is the second most important group usually in the company to know. They can make or break your projects. They are your best allies or your worst enemies. By getting to know the development team, understanding their priorities, understanding who works in what, it helps you a lot. 

The other thing also that's extremely important. You need to have some technical background because you need to illustrate your projects, give some technical information, especially with technical SEO and you also should be able to push back when it's appropriate. Now, you shouldn't be coming with the solution. They should figure out the solution, but you should know technical SEO or technical enough to push back and discuss the details over the project. I would say 50% of the work, if not more, especially in big companies and legacy companies and legacy websites is technical work.

And three things I would say never tell your developers: never tell them it's easy. You have no clue if it's easy or not. Yes, you can change it easily in WordPress, but guess what? Your company doesn't have WordPress and even if they have WordPress, it's highly customized. Respect their time, respect their craft. 

Never ask a developer is it doable. Everything is doable. It's a matter of resources and how many hours and how many developers will be dedicated to that task. And never tell them how to solve the problem. You'll come with the problem, the challenge that you have, you come with the outcome. This is what we need. Let them figure out the solution themselves because this is their job, how to solve these kinds of problems.

SEO Skill #3: Understand Your Tech Stack

Moving to skill number three. You need to understand your tech stack. This is a problem with a lot of agencies I see out there and some of the in-house teams as well; they don't understand the tech stack. 

The first step I would say when you join a new company or when you work in an SEO for a small or big company is understand your content management system, what type of CMS you have. Log into the CMS and ask the CMS team to give you training, how to write content and how to publish this content, understand what type of fields are there and how these fields translate to the front end. What type of front end language are you using, are you guys using React or any JavaScript frameworks.

SEO Skill #4: Technical SEO

Understanding the tech stack is very important and it comes back to the technical SEO as well to provide greater recommendations because you can say this field should be mapped as a scheme map on the front end and these are the different values that are coming from the CMS. You need to understand your tech stack very well before you start doing your recommendations. I truly encourage you to follow Martin Splitt from Google. He does a lot of community work and he talks a lot about the technical SEO from a Google perspective. 

SEO Skill #5: Sell Your Projects

Now you need to start selling your projects. You join a company and you have a ton of projects, you have a 50 pages huge project, where do you go? I would say instead of pushing your own project first...start aligning your goals with the company's goals. If the company's focused on, let's say for the next quarter on commerce and/or certain seasonal content or whatever, start creating projects for the company, major initiatives. This will get your project easier into the queue because your project is servicing the company's goals.

Also, another way to do this is you find a sponsor, which now you're connected to all the stakeholders. You know people on PR, you know people on development, on product, you know people in different businesses within your company. This is two easy ways to get your projects done by figuring out what are the company goals and figuring out what type of projects I can help different stakeholders within the company.

SEO Skill #6: Establish Quick Wins First

When you first start in a company, the first three to six months are very important to establish a newer authority, to establish your reputation within the company. I would recommend not to start with major big projects like the 50 pages project I mentioned. Focus on low hanging fruits, quick wins. If you establish a series of quick wins, people will know that you are a guy or girl that can give these kinds of projects and they have a high impact with little bit of effort and we see results. 

SEO Skill #7: Initiate Big Projects After Quick Wins

Then after you establish your reputation in the first three, six months and no massive projects there, unless it's like a real indexation issue or a big issue or a revenue issue, you start focusing on big projects. These are like your own SEO projects that are important for the company. 

I will break big projects into small projects. Maybe a big 50 pages project can be broken into four or five projects or four or five phases that are consumable. And again, focus on the quick wins out of these phased projects.

SEO Skill #8: Show Value

Everything you do, you need to show value especially when it comes to the quick wins early on in the company. You need either to provide dollar signs or whatever the currency is, provide dollar signs next to the impact that you project for your project or provide KPIs or both. Let's say your company is advanced, they have a unified KPI within the organization, time spent or sessions per user or whatever the KPI is. Then your projects need to show impact in these kinds of terms.

SEO Skill #9: Develop Analytical Skills

Nine. Develop analytical skills. You should be able to figure out the impact of your projects, document a log of all the things that you guys worked on. You can add these notes directly into Google Analytics. I think SEMrush allows you to add notes as well. Add them in Google sheets. Now it's way easier than it used to be before. There are so many connectors to Google sheets. Google Sheets become my favorite SEO tool of all tools, to be honest with you. There are API connections from all the different tools including SEMrush and any other tool.

If you're using their crawler or whatever, you can connect all your information. Even Google search console, there is a between Google search console and Google sheets. You can pull all the information into Google sheets and do like deep dives and figure out the impact of the projects you're working on. It's good if you know how to use business intelligence dashboards. If you have some MySQL skills, that's awesome. If you can use API calls and so on. Analytical skills are very important because sometimes you have to show the value and there is no one else to help you to show the value of the work you do or they're so busy doing other stuff.

Tristam: And we've just actually had a question that neatly links into this from Keith Randall. He's just asked, "We're trying to decide whether we should have a full -ime employment, digital marketer person that will focus on SEO or to contract this function out." Could you give some ideas or to help make this decision for Keith?

John: There is no option or one choice that is correct all the time. It depends on where you are and it depends on your company and it depends on your budget. If the resources and the budgets are there I usually always go as the in-house solution. You have more control, you are connected within the business so people listen to you and you are able to connect to other stakeholders. The top priority is the company. 

But sometimes you don't have that luxury, you don't have the budget to have a team or a main person or your budget can only allow you to have one person versus working with an agency..

Tristam: It does depend. Hopefully Keith, it has given you a bit more direction. But yeah, as you say, it depends on your situation. Anyway, back to you John. Thank you.

SEO Skill #10: Establish an SEO Process

John: Cool. You need to establish an SEO process. If you work with a medium to a big size company, you need to figure out all the touchpoints of SEO with the different teams, how you can work with editorial teams, how you work with design teams, how you work with engineering or development teams, how you work with the product team and I would say in big companies, product teams are extremely important. Work with each team figure out all different touchpoints, suggest a process. 

SEO Skill #11: Integrate Into the Workflow

How can I optimize my workflow? How can I optimize my conversion to the tickets I'm sending? And by removing extra clicks, removing the email from the equation and going directly to Jira if they allow that, then you make it easier. You made it easier for them to connect with you because you are in their system. It's all about optimization, optimize everything that you do. 

SEO Skill #12: Find Hidden Resources

12; find hidden resources. After you do your round of discovery within the company and do a listening tour and meet who is the stakeholders and meet who is the different teams, you can start finding what are the resources that you may not be aware that they want to work with you. Are there sister companies within the portfolio that they have...other SEOs that you guys can communicate together? Are there different talents and other departments who are interested in SEO? 

SEO Skill #13: Work on Team Visibility

Work on team visibility. This is a big one. You met the stakeholders, you know the people in the company, your work with different groups. You've got your low hanging quick wins early on. You send communication out. Now you need to establish visibility and visibility here is not like going around and saying me, me, me or us, us, us, it's really like, how you can educate the company and communicate to the company the great work that you and your team are doing.

When you first join a company, you should create a training series for different departments and different levels. You should have some kind of C-level training if it's possible that tailored to that audience. Different training for product, different training for development teams, different training for design and so on. They will not take everything that you said in the training and remember it forever, but it's the seed that you plant there. And then you can schedule annual training, right, but you establish the connection. 

You should do a Wiki or FAQ within the company, if you get the same question twice from two different people that should go in your team Wiki for sure. Best practices, one-sheeters that you can distribute around and send it, some kind of a weekly newsletter or biweekly newsletter. All of these are just ideas on how to establish your visibility within the company.

SEO Skill #14: Develop Centers of Excellence

Number 14, so develop centers of excellence. You are one or two people and you cannot do everything and you cannot be everywhere in the company and every department, find your champ in every department, who is the most open to SEO within each department and work closely with these guys. These are the guys who are going to come to you and say, "Hey, we have this project, but we're not sure if we're going to impact SEO or not."

SEO Skill #15: Develop Roadmaps

Develop a roadmap. It's very important to understand what kind of projects that you want to accomplish this year. Don't just be like, "Hey, whatever comes our way. We will work on it." I don't know if you're familiar with this, but if you have a bucket, put there your big rocks in the bucket and then fill all the small rocks. This is how you get things done. So “these are the top four projects that we want to work on this year”. And then everything else is more like small rocks. 

Work with the content teams on content calendars, okay, these are the events that are coming during this year and are important for us, plan trainings, refreshers, plan technical audits for your company. And then at the end of the year, evaluate your roadmap, which stuff was accomplished, which not? This can help you with the next year to be more realistic in your roadmaps. 

SEO Skill #16: Pick Your Battles Wisely

Pick your battles wisely. And this is a big one. Don't have a fight over an H1. Like, "Oh, wake him up, this is critical." Understand what's important and what's not important because you cannot be the blocker all the time. Not everything is important. If everything on SEO is a priority, nothing is a priority. 

SEO Skill #17: SEOs Are Strategic Partners

17, okay, we're almost there guys. We are strategic partners. I cannot express this enough. I hope no one gets offended. But your job as an SEO is a strategic partner, not a keyword provider. It's a part that you provide keywords and topics and so on, but it's bigger than that. Understand the goals of the projects, understand the goals of your internal clients, what they're trying to achieve.

And then give a complete holistic approach to SEO. Keywords is just a part of it. It's not the main task that you work on. Avoid sending keywords, as I mentioned as just the main task for SEO. 

SEO Skill #18: Stop What Doesn’t Add Value

Stop whatever doesn't add value. Big reports that no one reads, long emails that no one looks at. Even try to understand your audience and how they read your emails or reports. Someone completely into the content creation and wants to get more are they going to read every word that you write? Someone on the executive level, they don't have time to read a five minutes email. Even when you send a visibility email or a project results email, have an executive summary, three points on the top and then for more details you can read the rest of the emails so they can read the part of the email and figure out what's the message.

SEO Skill #19: Make Other People The Heros

Now, let's come to the final three points or so. You did all this work. You're doing an amazing job. You have great results, communicating back the results. Make sure that you make other teams the hero. When you communicate the results back, there is no SEO task I'm aware of, very few that only require SEO resources. 

You're always working with other teams, you're always working with content teams, you're always working with developers or product teams. Highlight their efforts and make sure that you give them big thanks because if it wasn't for their work, that SEO job will never see the sun. This is going to get you far within the company and when people see the credit attributed back to them they want to work more with you because you are a guy who appreciates their craft and give them the credit back. 

SEO Skill #20: Plan for the Future

Plan for the future. See what can be done within your limits to enable your company to succeed in the future. If podcasts are growing, what kind of schema can we implement? Do we have a podcast unit within the company? Are there a couple of podcasters within the company that they are doing it as a hobby within the company? Try new things; voice search. 

SEO Skill #21: Respect Others’ Craft

And last I would say, which is very important. Respect other's craft. And I mentioned a couple of times we need respect for what we do. And we cannot gain respect unless we give respect to other teams. People really work so hard to become a UX designer or a creator of amazing content. You are not the guy who tells him how to write headlines, but how to make their headlines SEO friendly. There is a big difference between the two. You're not there to tell developers how to do their job, but how their code can be SEO friendly. We are consultants, we give recommendations, we respect other people's craft. This is what is going to get us further. 

And last as a bonus. I think being a good person within a company or an organization or in society or wherever, be genuine, approachable, humble. People will want to work with you. Help others, extend a hand, share your knowledge, always be open to learning something new. That's it. I hope you guys enjoyed it. 

Q&A on SEO Soft Skills

Tristam: Thanks, John. There's a couple of questions that have come in. Hydro Chem Systems Inc. they're looking to hire their first full-time marketing person, hopefully someone creative. “Should we expect them to be able to do SEO and analytics or keep this with another employee?

I'm going to jump in because my feeling is like what we said earlier being a Swiss army knife, you need to be wearing these multiple hats. If you're doing content creative stuff, you should be looking at whether it's keyword ranking data, SEMrush data, whatever tool you want to use. Google Analytics data, Google search console data. Just a very basic level you should be checking into these tools.

John: Yeah, I agree with you but from my experience I feel like our brains are set either to be analytical or creative. I rarely found people who are extremely doing well on the creative side and at the same time they're very extremely analytical. 

If you are hiring a creative person for the creative purposes that you absolutely need in the company, they will have some basic knowledge. They will be like, "Okay, what are the important keywords that we might have there?" But don't expect that they become a true SEO, a true analyst within the company. If you are hiring a true SEO, analytical skills; don't expect them to be very creative. They have some creative knowledge, some UX knowledge. But yes, if you are on the creative side, you need some basic knowledge and skills. On the other side, if you're in the SEO analyst side, you need some basic knowledge on the creative side.

Tristam: Well Hydro Chem Systems, I hope that puts you in the right direction for the decision you need to make. And we've got another question from Keith Randall. "We're looking to do a complete website refresh in 2020. When we're contracting this work, how can we make sure we're taking into account what will be required for ongoing SEO?"

John: I think if you're contracting this work out, a complete website refresh, I think you need to find an agency who do SEO as well. There is a lot of creative agencies, especially on the design end, "Oh yeah, yeah, we have SEO skills, we'll take care of SEO." In reality, you need someone who has truly an SEO team. 

When you redesign a store, you don't just move the store through some other location unless you really need that. Making sure that the redesign doesn't change the architecture of your site, the URL, only for the stuff that's needed, look at redirect and so on. 

Tristam: Perfect. We've got a question from Christian. "I've been practicing on my site, on and off with SEO for my small company for the past few months. I'd like to learn and put into practice in technical SEO. Where do you recommend I start?" 

Obviously we're on an SEM rush webinar. I would recommend if you're new to technical SEO to jump into SEMrush or a similar tool. But I know SEMrush, you can run a site crawl, it will populate the results for you and then it will take you through each of the sort of severity of issues and explain to you next to those issues why it's an issue and steps forward on how to fix it. 

John: There are a few guidelines on SEMrush on entry to technical SEO. You should absolutely read them. There is also great stuff on other sites, search engine journal and so on. You should absolutely check the presentations that were done in tech SEO boost conference, amazing presentation if you’re interested in Python or whatever.

And again, follow Martin Splitt from Google. This guy is great when it comes to technical SEO and he provides a lot of information. 

Tristam: I don't know what level you're at, Christian, with technical SEO, but once you've started and you start to understand some of the common issues and how to fix them, you can start to look out and there's a lot of wonderful digital marketers that are more than happy to put up to the bullet points of their site audits, their technical SEO audit. Start to have a look at those and some go into aspects more than others, but you can kind of just reverse engineer what they're talking about or take that section, what they're talking about, and then go and research that.

John: Google webmaster guides is essential to read. Don't start SEO and figuring out everything without reading what Google is providing. Go through the webmaster guides and they talk about almost every aspect, many of the aspects, again, this is from Google’s perspective. But figure out what they recommend for syndication, what they recommend for canonicals, how they read your site, what's the difference between crawling and indexing and so on

Tristam: Definitely. I think we're almost out of time, John. I don't know if you want to just round up with a couple of points whilst we're just rounding this up or if you can just let people know how they can reach out to you or follow you on the internet at all.

John: Sure, absolutely. I just want to thank you guys. I want to thank SEMrush for putting this together and for Tristam for being an amazing host and for you guys. You can follow me at Twitter. I also live on Twitter, J, which is the first letter of my name, John and Shahada, last name @JShehata, and then on LinkedIn you can just search for John. I'm very active on Twitter and if you reach me on LinkedIn and you have questions, I'm more than happy to answer them as well. 

Again, being good with the community and trying to help others. I would say go again, read these points, give us feedback and if there are more questions, we're more than happy to answer some of these questions. But build relationships is extremely important. Start with the quick wins, improve your technical and analytical skills, show results, and talk in the language of your company. Either it's dollar signs or KPIs, make others the hero is very important. Just give credit back and just be approachable and humble and learn new things every day. 

Tristam: Yeah, I definitely think it's about sharing and learning sort of the two takeaways that I'd sort of give for this. Time is up, so I just want to thank you, John, for presenting today. It's been fantastic sharing this time with you. Thank you to everyone that's watched and commented.

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