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You Can Go Your Own Way: How to Get Things Done When You’re the Only SEO

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You Can Go Your Own Way: How to Get Things Done When You’re the Only SEO


The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

If you’re an SEO like me, you probably spent at least a year or two at an agency where you worked with other experienced SEOs. On large teams, there’s always someone to learn from, bounce ideas off of, or to help finish projects on time.

But what happens when the SEO team is just you? This is the question I had when, after several years agency-side, I moved in-house to be the first and only SEO the organization ever had.

More than three years later, I’m still a team of one. I had to figure out how to accomplish my goals without the built-in support of an established team, and although there are challenges, being the only SEO is an opportunity to flex your knowledge, develop the practices that will bring the organization into the digital age, and maybe even grow your own team.

Here’s how I get things done, and hopefully some of these practices will be helpful for you as well!

How and why some organizations start with just one SEO

Many “legacy” organizations are going through a digital transformation: transitioning from traditional media to a digital presence by investing in their websites and digital specialists. The pandemic likely accelerated this process, and these groups will be hiring their first dedicated SEOs.

This is how I was hired. The Nature Conservancy is one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the world, with offices in dozens of countries and thousands of employees. One SEO. Yet this is fairly advanced — most nonprofits have zero*.

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*Sidenote: If you are a nonprofit SEO I would love to connect!

One of the first digital transformation hires was the analytics director, Jenny. Jenny’s mission was to find opportunities to grow the site. Almost immediately, she saw that half of the website’s traffic is from organic search. So she asked, “Who manages search here?” Turns out, no one. She believed that if the website was important, the organization needed to invest in it. And that meant a strategy for search.

Jenny needed to highlight how beneficial an SEO would be. She built an analytics dashboard for the CMO, who was from a traditional media background. His first question was, “What’s organic search?”

Yes, really. Then he had a lightbulb moment: “Oh, so Google! Wow, that’s all our traffic?”

And a new SEO position was funded.

A rough start

Unfortunately, this realization came at a less than ideal time. The Nature Conservancy was in the middle of this digital transformation, starting to heavily invest in digital marketing, building a team, thinking strategically about the website, and the CMS was shutting down. They scrambled to find a new CMS and execute a site migration.

No worries, they thought, the web developer vendor will handle SEO. Their contract included this line item: “SEO industry best practices for relaunch”.

If your stomach just clenched, imagine how I felt when, during an interview, my soon-to-be-boss excitedly said, “You might have noticed that the website looks a little different today. Our relaunch went live this morning!”

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Yes, they went through a site migration while hiring for an SEO. They celebrated with cake.

Teams without an SEO don’t know what they don’t know, and they’ll make mistakes that you will be responsible for fixing. Until that moment, I had been thinking that I’d be setting the SEO strategy for the future of the organization, help the website emerge as an authority and a leader in the nonprofit space, and contribute to my personal goal of furthering the mission. Instead, my first several months on the job would be cleaning up the migration.

When I started, there were hundreds of errors across the site. It was slow, there were no dedicated SEO fields in the CMS, and there were broken links everywhere. Worse, there was no SEO guidance for content creators, meaning each new page created more errors.

So, how did I start to move the needle on over 2,000 pages that were published with zero thought towards SEO? I had to triage: there was no way I could fix all the issues myself, so my priority was slowing the rate at which new, problematic pages were published.

The solo SEO process

Step 1: Make friends on other teams and find your evangelists

When you’re the only SEO, especially if you’re also the first, it might seem like no one at your organization understands your job. But someone, somewhere, does — at least a little. You just need to find them.

And when you do, don’t immediately ask for favors or demand they change how they do their jobs. Approach your new friend with empathy, interest, and understanding. Start by learning how you can help them do their jobs.

Analysts

My first friends were on the analytics team. Obviously I had Jenny, the analytics director, and I also had Leigh Ann, an amazing analytics architect. She had been with The Nature Conservancy for 20 years and knew how desperate the site was for SEO guidance. Chances were if I was annoyed at an issue, she had been annoyed at it for years. She was thrilled some of these issues were finally being addressed, and I was thrilled I had current and historical data to back up my recommendations.

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Developers

My second friends were the developers. When you’re the only SEO, you’re the default expert on both content and technical SEO. I give the developers a heads up on what the content team has planned that might require their involvement and, more importantly, educate the content team on the level of effort required for seemingly small tasks. This not only helps me directly, it also increases understanding and keeps relationships smooth across teams.

Other marketers

One unexpected friend I made early on was Rachel, a marketer with the Florida chapter. She worked with SEOs in a previous role and understood the value of organic search. She reached out to me after a training, wanting to collaborate. Together we created a new page specifically designed to bring in organic traffic.

The topic was mangroves, trees that grow in coastal saltwater that provide important habitat for animals and protect communities from storm impacts. The Florida chapter talked quite a bit about mangroves but didn’t have a dedicated page for them. I sent Rachel some keywords, questions, and examples of mangrove content and she built a new page. We collaborated on every element. We both wanted to show how SEO could improve the kind of content most marketers were creating.

A persistent notion among marketers is that their pages are primarily seen because they’re promoted. While the page was shared on social media and in an email, within a few weeks, it was ranking for our target keyword. Six months later, 85% of the traffic to that page was from organic search. I made sure to give that page — and Rachel — a shout out, both to give her credit and to show other marketers the kind of success SEO can bring. She also shares the success of the page with other marketers and is a valuable SEO evangelist.

Step 2: Provide SEO education every day

It doesn’t matter if you work with hundreds of SEOs or you’re the only SEO, every SEO role involves a good amount of education. The field changes frequently, new clients and stakeholders have varying levels of understanding (or worse, outdated ideas), and websites and priorities change. You need to keep up with the field and communicate changes and best practices simply and effectively.

Agency clients expect their vendors to be consultants, but when you’re in-house, it can be easy to forget to treat your colleagues and superiors like a client. And when you’re the only one with SEO expertise, everyone has questions. It’s your job to not only answer their questions, but also to be proactive.

Being the only SEO means speaking up and asserting your knowledge. Within my first two months, I conducted an SEO 101 training open to anyone at the organization. I covered what SEO is, what it means for content creators, busted myths, walked through what a SERP looks like, how to optimize pages using our CMS, and highlighted examples of pages that were already doing a great job. I ended the training by giving attendees steps for conducting their own research, and offering to help anyone creating new content. (Giving out candy doesn’t hurt, either.)

Of course, not everyone is going to react well to someone who comes in and tells them the way they’ve been doing things this whole time is wrong. Naturally, you’ll encounter resistance. That’s okay — focus on those who do want to work with you, and minimize conflict with everyone else. Results, hopefully, will speak for themselves.

You get to choose the SEO hill you die on. Figure out what’s going to move the needle the most at your organization. Understand when to fight and when to let something go in order to appease that higher up you just can’t win over right now.

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Step 3: Do (at least some of) the work yourself

One of the biggest culture shocks moving in-house was the level of bureaucracy standing in my way. The larger the organization, the more hurdles you’ll have to jump. Sometimes it takes half a dozen people to approve a title tag change and content owners are sometimes always too busy to fix their broken links. I quickly realized there would be times I’d need to just do things myself.

If your SEO agency experience ever involved providing recommendations to your point of contact and then wondering why almost nothing got implemented, you may have no idea how long it takes to actually do the work you’re recommending, or what very real barriers your client faces. I didn’t when I was with agencies.

At The Nature Conservancy, I tried everything I could think of to encourage content owners to fix their issues: meeting one-on-one with them, sending emails with step-by-step instructions, even setting up automated email reminders. They just didn’t have the time.

So, I started making some of the changes myself. I’d remove a few broken links on one page, update title tags and meta descriptions on another, and worked with my team’s writer (who was willing to pitch in) to update content. It’s important to not be too busy, proud, or afraid to do the work.

If you’re thinking this is time consuming, you’re right. If content owners didn’t have the time to manage a dozen pages, how could I manage thousands? Right when I was starting to resign myself to spending Saturdays doing all the stuff I was recommending so we could start seeing results, we hired a production manager, Lane. He quickly made a sizable dent in our backlogged work.*

*In the never-ending cycle that is nonprofit work, Lane’s plate is now also overloaded.

I was lucky that we had the budget to hire Lane, but what if we didn’t? It would have been unrealistic and unfair for me to actually spend my weekends implementing optimizations across thousands of pages. If anyone is in this position now, build a case for hiring someone. Estimate the time it would take to implement your recommendations, and the cost of not implementing as much as you can. Use the metrics that matter to the powers that be, and show how SEO contributes to their own goals. Ask your advocates for help, especially if they might have some insights you don’t.

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In the meantime, protect your priorities: Block off time on your calendar for focused work (and use it), enforce no-meeting Fridays, don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good” or “done”, learn how to say “no” to tasks that don’t fit your priorities, and recognize and admit to your limits.

In essence, do the work, but don’t actually work through your weekends!

Step 4: Find your community

It can be a bit lonely and isolating to be the only SEO at your organization. Who do you go to for a gut check, a proofread, or to ask a dumb question without judgment when you’re the only SEO? You need to find your community outside your employer.

First and foremost, you don’t need to have every answer immediately. “I don’t know, let me find out” is an acceptable answer. You can Google answers to the questions you’re asked, or you can find people to ask.

Former colleagues, former classmates in similar positions, website forums, even Twitter hashtags can be a good community. Women in Tech SEO is a wonderful, global community for women in the field. I also had some success reaching out to others in similar positions at related companies. There are SEO podcasts, YouTube videos, webinars, conferences, and online courses to learn from.

No matter where you find your community, don’t just take: remember to help others as much as they help you.

Why it’s actually great to be the only SEO

Being the only specialist at a company comes with unique challenges, as outlined here. But there are some wonderful benefits to being the only SEO on your team.

The wow factor

Chances are, your colleagues and superiors are learning a TON from you. I regularly hear things along the lines of, “Wow, I never knew we needed to do this!” or “This is hugely helpful!” for simple best practices.

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Employee appreciation

Your colleagues can be extremely happy you’re on the team. Like Leigh Ann, the analytics architect, who had spent years measuring metrics that no one had been working on. And Rachel, from the Florida chapter, who got to show her boss results from our collaboration.

It feels good

When there’s no one else who knows SEO at your organization, there’s also no one to disagree with you! But in addition, if you’re the only SEO on the team, your company may be low on digital expertise, maybe even transitioning from traditional media to a digital presence. You get to genuinely help bring an organization into the digital future and show how SEO can have incredible results.





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Underused Tactics and Overlooked Metrics in E-Commerce

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Underused Tactics and Overlooked Metrics in E-Commerce

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

There are plenty of impressive tactics or metrics that aren’t often discussed, not necessarily because they aren’t important, but because it’s easy to get locked into the rhythm of simply reporting on traffic and sales.

To change things up, let’s look into some other areas we can optimize to improve the organic performance of e-commerce websites, and some underrated but useful metrics that can help you report on that performance.

Tactics to optimize and measure your e-commerce website performance

Data scraping for SEO and analytics

Data scraping is very useful when you want to retrieve, or scrape, elements from a page for further analysis or optimization.

Most people know that you can scrape common webpage elements such as publication date, author name, or price, but what about more specific aspects of e-commerce websites, and what can we use them for? Product pages have unique attributes that you can scrape, such as “add to basket” type buttons or even product schema; below, I’ll talk about how you can scrape breadcrumb data.

Scraping the breadcrumbs

In short, breadcrumbs are a trail that shows users where they are in the structure of a website, and they are especially useful for navigation and internal linking.

By using crawling tools to scrape data from the breadcrumbs, you can have a more complete view of the site as a whole, and it allows you to identify any trends.

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Below, you can see that it’s possible to extract breadcrumb data as a series of values by using XPath, and setting this up as a custom field. This allows you to see the data as a separate field once a crawl is finished.

Evaluating your page templates

The typical page templates that you’d expect to see on an e-commerce site include:

  • Homepage

  • Information pages (e.g. about us, delivery information, terms and conditions)

  • Product pages

  • Category pages

  • Navigational landing pages

  • Blogs / guides

  • Payment / cart pages

  • Help/support area

A large e-commerce website may have a significant number of product and category pages. These are the pages that generate the most conversions and transactions, so it is tremendously helpful to know how you can break these down into more manageable chunks.

For a website with millions of pages, it is practically impossible to crawl the whole site; your crawler will run out of memory and space, or it could take weeks to finish, and that’s just not feasible for most of us. This is where segmentation comes in. Segmenting your website also allows you to focus on one area of the site before moving on to another. 

A common tactic for websites the size of Target or Tesco is to focus on one category per quarter, and then move on to another area of the site. It’s through segmentation that they’re able to do this.

Segmenting product pages

There are many different ways you can segment a website, and focusing on your products can help you start seeing improvements in revenue sooner than if you were to focus on other areas of the site. 

With product pages, a good tactic is to look for URL patterns, such as those that end in .html or contain /product/.

It’s also possible to get additional dimensions from your product pages by segmenting your products by their stock status. Separating pages by whether or not a product item is in stock or not can help you determine:

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  • How much traffic is going to out-of-stock products.

  • Whether availability and out-of-stock products are affecting product conversion rates.

  • Get a granular view of what page engagement metrics are affected by stock availability.

When scraping this data, you can look for specific on-page elements such as missing prices or an Unavailable / Out of Stock message on your pages.

Screenshot of Screaming Frog configuration menu.

One method of doing this would be to extract the product availability property from a site’s schema markup. If you’re using Screaming Frog, you can access the Custom Extraction feature in the Configuration dropdown under Custom > Extraction,and then set up your extraction rules.

Screenshot of Screaming Frog extraction list.

Segmenting category pages

Segmenting category pages allows you to find any categories that have hundreds of products and could benefit from being split into subcategories.

Category pages don’t always have specific URL patterns, and they differ from one CMS to another, but you can look out for those that contain /category/ or /shop/. Another good option is to look for unique attributes, such as those with text showing X of Y results or pages with options for sorting product results.

Structured data markup

We saw earlier that you could scrape pages for instances of product data to identify product pages. But before we move on, we need to ensure we understand what structured data or schema markup is and how it can benefit e-commerce websites.

Product markup

Product markup provides more information about your products directly in the SERPs when your audience searches for them. Product markup can also mean your products are more eligible for rich results, such as carousels, images, and other non-textual elements.

The product schema might look something like this:

Screenshot of product schema code.

Once added, product schema allows your audience to see valuable information about your products before they even land on your page, improving your CTR! We can see Walmart has added product schema to their products in the two examples below:

Screenshot of SERP with Walmart product listings.

Star ratings in search results

The more positive reviews your products have, the more likely customers will be to visit your website and buy your products, especially when compared to your competitors.

Star ratings can be pulled in from your product markup through third-party tools such as Trustpilot or Reevoo, or from on-page customer reviews.

Screenshot of SERP with Dell results that contain star reviews.

We see this when looking at these searches for Dell laptops. Realistically, which links are you more likely to click on as a customer: those with high star ratings or those with seemingly no rating at all?

Optimizing crawl budget for e-commerce

There will likely be pages on your website that are useful to existing customers, such as thank you pages after placing an order, logged-in account pages, etc. However, these pages won’t be the most important for new users looking to find you or your products on search.

It costs Google time and money to crawl our sites, so they need to budget accordingly. By managing this crawl budget, we guide search engines toward our most valuable and essential pages.

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Noindexing

We don’t need to index every page on our websites.

It’s entirely acceptable to meta-noindex or disallow certain pages in the robots.txt file — in fact, it’s expected. This is because indexing everything could mean that Google might not crawl all of our pages, so they might not index all of our content. This would be a problem, as it could mean some of our high-value, top-converting pages might not rank organically.

That said, we shouldn’t be noindexing vast chunks of an e-commerce website without proper research. By noindexing huge chunks, we’re missing out on the ranking potential for key search behavior, e.g. locations, product sizing, etc.

Use of URL parameters

As users or owners of e-commerce websites, we’re likely familiar with URL parameters. Common areas that we see these parameters include:

Faceted navigation pages and product sorting options are typically blocked in robots.txt files, but it’s a good idea to find out how many of those pages Google is still serving to searchers. We can do this in our chosen crawling tool by selecting the option to ignore robots.txt rules. Alternatively, you can segment landing page session data in Google Analytics by URLs with parameters to see how many of those parameter pages are being served to users. Then, the session data will be used to show how many visits those pages are getting.

It may seem counterintuitive to do this, but these pages tend not to have unique on-page content, as they will have duplicated titles, headings, or body content, which means you could be missing out on other, more essential pages ranking for relevant keywords.

Measuring site speed across templates

With large e-commerce websites, it doesn’t make sense to simply test one or two pages and take that as a site speed reading across the entire website. Each page template is built differently. One type of page can load faster than another — even if all other test parameters are the same.

Testing site speed across multiple page templates

As discussed earlier, there are many different template types that can make up a successful website. Testing a selection of pages from each of these templates is recommended to get the best picture of the load time performance of your site.

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An excellent way to do this is through using the PageSpeed Insights API and connecting it to Screaming Frog or using cloud tools such as OnCrawl or Site Bulb, which will test the speed of each page on your website as it crawls.

To do this in Screaming Frog, go to “Configuration”. In “API Access”, select “PageSpeed Insights”, and there you will see fields to include the API key.

Screenshot of PageSpeed Insights Account Information menu.

Once done, in the “Metrics” section, you can select both the device that you want to track and the reports, metrics, etc., that you are interested in extracting page speed information. In the example below, we have selected Crux Data and TTFB (Time to First Byte) and LCP and FCP data. Although the crawl may take longer to complete, this information should now appear alongside the URLs in the final crawl.

Screenshot of PageSpeed Insights metrics menu.

Choosing your testing location

There are various tools you can use to test your site speed, such as PageSpeed Insights, WebPageTest, and GTmetrix, and most of these do allow you to set your testing location.

It’s important to test your e-commerce site from a location close to where your data centre is located (where your website is hosted), as well as one that is further away. Doing this lets you get an idea of how your real customers are experiencing your store.

If you have a CDN installed, such as Cloudflare, this is also useful, as it allows you to see how much of an impact the CDN is having on your website and how it helps your site load more quickly.

Wherever you decide to test from, remember to keep these locations the same each time you test so you can get accurate results.

Understanding caching and how it influences site speed

If your e-commerce website has caching installed, it’s even more important to test your pages more than once. This is because, on the first test, your page may not have loaded over the cache yet. Once it does, your results will likely be much faster than what you saw on your first test.

With or without caching installed, I would recommend testing each page template around three times for both mobile and desktop devices to get a good measurement and then calculate the average..

Common e-commerce website mistakes

Understanding the common problems that e-commerce websites make is valuable for learning how to avoid them on your own website, as the reasons some tactics remain underused come down to these errors.

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Faceted navigation for e-commerce

Whatever your e-commerce site sells, it should be easy to navigate, with sensible menus and navigation options that clearly tell visitors what they will see when they click.

Screenshot of boohoo faceted navigation menu.

You can see this on the Boohoo website, a prominent fashion retailer in the UK. This image shows the women’s dresses navigation, but you can see how it is broken down by type of dresses, dresses by occasion, colour, how they fit, and even by current fashion trends. Users are able to navigate directly to the subcategories they need.

Good website architecture matters

The importance of good architecture cannot be underestimated and should be centered around the core actions you want people to complete. Ideally, it would be best if you attempted to set up a site with the homepage, followed by the subsequent categories, subcategories, and then the products underneath.

Illustration of website structure layers.

Boohoo has followed this same ideology with their architecture — as trends change and new lines of dresses are added, they can quickly expand and edit the architecture as needed.

Keeping it simple and scalable is the key to setting up good architecture. As your store grows, you will likely add more categories and products, so you need to be able to do this efficiently. You should attempt to keep important pages less than three clicks from the homepage and implement keyword research processes to create highly relevant page URLs and subdirectories.

You want people to buy your products, so don’t make it difficult for them. You can then have other areas on the site for content silos and blogs that link to the various categories and products around the site.

Creating effective product pages

The product page design shouldn’t detract from the shopping experience, and the product information should be as “friendly” and accessible as possible.

Try to use the product information you have available in your Product Information Management (PIM) system. Ensure that your sizes, measurements, colors, prices, and other details are easy to find, read, and understand. These details are even more vital if you happen to sell products that others also offer. If you’re not including any sizes, but your competitors are, you’re increasing your chances that potential customers can choose to buy from them instead. If you’re targeting multiple countries, consider whether you need to include your measurements in imperial, metric, or both. Information should be localized where relevant.

Some top ways to ensure you always include enough information and avoid thin content on your product pages are to:

  1. Start with a 50-100 word introduction: Think about what the product does and who needs it? One way to do this can be seen in the example from Apple below.

  2. List the critical features and technical specifications in bullet format.

  3. Include a “deep dive” section: Write a detailed product description with use cases, relevant awards the product may have won, benefits of the product, images of the product in use, and any FAQs.

  4. Make use of user-generated content such as customer photos and reviews.

  5. End with a 50-100 word conclusion: Summarize the product and use a call to action to encourage your customers to make the purchase.

Screenshot of Apple Watch product listing.

Including enough information can be the difference between whether or not you make the sale or whether a customer purchases from a competitor.

Utilizing FAQ content to sell more products

People undoubtedly have questions about your products. If customers can’t find the answers they need on your website, they’ll search elsewhere. They’re likely to buy from that website when they find the answers.

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You can rectify this by having a general FAQ section on your website. This is where you would answer questions about website security, shipping and return policies, etc. When it comes to product-specific questions, these should be answered on the product pages themselves.

The need to monitor out-of-stock products

There can be many reasons why a product is out of stock, yet the page is still live on an e-commerce site, including:

Ultimately, out-of-stock products can lead to customer frustration. Unsatisfied customers and a poor user experience — on top of the SEO implications of so many unuseful pages — result in fewer purchases and, ultimately, a poor-performing e-commerce store.

In summary

There are many ways that the performance of an e-commerce website can be optimized and analyzed, and these are just a few. While they may be less common, they can allow you to get additional data, which, once acted upon accordingly, can help you to outperform others in your market.

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