4 Unconventional Ways to Become a Better SEO

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Let’s get real for a moment: As much as we hear about positive team cultures and healthy work environments in the digital marketing space, many of us encounter workplace scenarios that are far from the ideal. Some of us might even be part of a team where we feel discouraged to share new ideas or alternative solutions because we know it will be shot down without discussion. Even worse, there are some who feel afraid to ask questions or seek help because their workplace culture doesn’t provide a safe place for learning.

These types of situations, and many others like it, are present in far too many work environments. But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be this way?

Over the last ten years as a team manager at various agencies, I’ve been working hard to foster a work environment where my employees feel empowered to share their thoughts and can safely learn from their mistakes. Through my experiences, I have found a few strategies to combat negative culture and replace it with a culture of vulnerability and creativity.

Below, I offer four simple steps you can follow that will transform your work environment into one that encourages new ideas, allows for feedback and positive change, and ultimately makes you and your team better digital marketers.

Vulnerability leads to creativity

I first learned about the impact of vulnerability after watching a viral TED talk by Dr. Brene Brown. She defined vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” She also described vulnerability as “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” From this, I learned that to create a culture of vulnerability is to create a culture of creativity. And isn’t creativity at the heart of what we SEOs do?

A culture of vulnerability encourages us to take risks, learn from mistakes, share insights, and deliver top results to our clients. In the fast-paced world of digital marketing, we simply cannot achieve top results with the tactics of yesterday. We also can’t sit around and wait for the next Moz Blog or marketing conference, either. Our best course of action is to take risks, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and share insights with others. We have to learn from those with more experience than us and share what we know to those with less experience. In other words, we have to be vulnerable.

Below is a list of four ways you can help create a culture of vulnerability. Whether you are a manager or not, you can impact your team’s culture.

1. Get a second pair of eyes on your next project

Are you finishing up an exciting project for your client? Did you just spend hours of research and implementation to optimize the perfect page? Perfect! Now go ask someone to critique it!

As simple as it sounds, this can make a huge difference in fostering a culture of creativity. It’s also extremely difficult to do.

Large or small, every project or task we complete should be the best your team can provide. All too often, however, team members work in silos and complete these projects without asking for or receiving constructive feedback from their teammates before sending it to the client. This leaves our clients and projects only receiving the best one person can provide rather than the best of an entire team.

We all work with diverse team members that carry varying levels of experience and responsibilities. I bet someone on your team will have something to add to your project that you didn’t already think of. Receiving their feedback means every project that you finish or task that you complete is the best your team has to offer your clients.

Keep in mind, though, that asking for constructive feedback is more than just having someone conduct a “standard QA.” In my experience, a “standard QA” means someone barely looked over what you sent and gave you the thumbs up. Having someone look over your work and provide feedback is only helpful when done correctly.

Say you’ve just completed writing and editing content to a page and you’ve mustered up the courage to have someone QA your work. Rather than sending it over, saying “hey can you review this and make sure I did everything right,” instead try to send detailed instructions like this:

“Here is a <LINK> to a page I just edited. Can you take 15 minutes to review it? Specifically, can you review the Title Tag and Description? This is something the client said is important to them and I want to make sure I get it right.”

In many cases, you don’t need your manager to organize this for you. You can set this up yourself and it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Before you finish a project or task this week, work with a team member and ask them for help by simply asking them to QA your work. Worried about taking up too much of their time? Offer to swap tasks. Say you’ll QA some of their work if they QA yours.

Insider tip

You will have greater success and consistency if you make QA a mandatory part of your process for larger projects. Any large project like migrating a site to https or conducting a full SEO audit should have a QA process baked into it.

Six months ago I was tasked to present one of our 200+ point site audits to a high profile client. The presentation was already created with over 100 slides of technical fixes and recommendations. I’m normally pretty comfortable presenting to clients, but I was nervous about presenting such technical details to THIS particular client.

Lucky for me, my team already had a process in place for an in-depth QA for projects like this. My six team members got in a room and I presented to them as if they were the client. Yes, that’s right, I ROLE PLAYED! It was unbearably uncomfortable at first. Knowing that each of my team members (who I respect a whole lot) are sitting right in front of me and making notes on every little mistake I make.

After an agonizing 60 minutes of me presenting to my team, I finished and was now ready for the feedback. I just knew the first thing out of their mouths would be something like “do you even know what SEO stands for?” But it wasn’t. Because my team had plenty of practice providing feedback like this in the past, they were respectful and even more so, helpful. They gave me tips on how to better explain canonicalization, helped me alter some visualization, and gave me positive feedback that ultimately left me confident in presenting to the client later that week.

When teams consistently ask and receive feedback, they not only improve their quality of work, but they also create a culture where team members aren’t afraid to ask for help. A culture where someone is afraid to ask for help is a toxic one and can erode team spirit. This will ultimately decrease the overall quality of your team’s work. On the other hand, a culture where team members feel safe to ask for help will only increase the quality of service and make for a safe and fun team working experience.

2. Hold a half-day all hands brainstorm meeting

Building strategies for websites or solving issues can often be the most engaging work that an SEO can do. Yes that’s right, solving issues is fun and I am not ashamed to admit it. As fun as it is to do this by yourself, it can be even more rewarding and infinitely more useful when a team does it together.

Twice a year my team holds a half-day strategy brainstorm meeting. Each analyst brings a client or issues they are struggling to resolve its website performance, client communication, strategy development, etc. During the meeting, each team member has one hour or more to talk about their client/issue and solicit help from the team. Together, the team dives deep into client specifics to help answer questions and solve issues.

Getting the most out of this meeting requires a bit of prep both from the manager and the team.

Here is a high-level overview of what I do.

Before the Meeting

Each Analyst is given a Client/Issue Brief to fill out describing the issue in detail. We have Analysts answer the following 5 questions:

  1. What is the core issue you are trying to solve?
  2. What have you already looked into or tried?
  3. What haven’t you tried that you think might help?
  4. What other context can you provide that will help in solving this issue?

After all client briefs are filled out and about 1-2 days prior to the half day strategy meeting I will share all the completed briefs to the team so they can familiarize themselves with the issues and come prepared to the meeting with ideas.

Day of the Meeting

Each Analyst will have up to an hour to discuss their issue with the team. Afterwards, the team will deep dive into solving it. During the 60 minute span, ideas will be discussed, Analysts will put on their nerd hats and dive deep into Analytics or code to solve issues. All members of the team are working toward a single goal and that is to solve the issue.

Once the issues is solved the Analyst who first outlined the issue will readback the solutions or ideas to solving the issue. It may not take the full 60 minutes to get to a solution. Whether it takes the entire time or not after one issue is solved another team member announces their issue and the team goes at it again.

Helpful tips

  • Depending on the size of your team, you may need to split up into smaller groups. I recommend 3-5.
  • You may be tempted to take longer than an hour but in my experience, this doesn’t work. The pressure of solving an issue in a limited amount of time can help spark creativity.

This meeting is one of the most effective ways my team practices vulnerability allowing the creativity flow freely. The structure is such that each team member has a way to provide and receive feedback. My experience has been that each analyst is open to new ideas and earnestly listens to understand the ways they can improve and grow as an analyst. And with this team effort, our clients are benefitting from the collective knowledge of the team rather than a single individual.

3. Solicit characteristic feedback from your team

This step is not for the faint of heart. If you had a hard time asking for someone to QA your work or presenting a site audit in front of your team, then you may find this one to be the toughest to carry out.

Once a year I hold a special meeting with my team. The purpose of the meeting is to provide a safe place where my employees can provide feedback about me with their fellow teammates. In this meeting, the team meets without me and anonymously fills out a worksheet telling me what I should start doing, stop doing, and keep doing.

Why would I subject myself to this, you ask?

How could I not! Being a great SEO is more than just being great at SEO. Wait, what?!? Yes, you read that right. None of us work in silos. We are part of a team, interact with clients, have expectations from bosses, etc. In other words, the work we do isn’t only technical audits or site edits. It also involves how we communicate and interact with those around us.

This special meeting is meant to focus more on our characteristics and behaviors, over our tactics and SEO chops, ensuring that we are well rounded in our skills and open to all types of feedback to improve ourselves.

How to run a keep/stop/start meeting in 4 steps:

Step 1: Have the team meet together for an hour. After giving initial instructions you will leave the room so that it is just your directs together for 45 minutes.

Step 2: The team writes the behaviors they want you to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing. They do this together on a whiteboard or digitally with one person as a scribe.

Step 3: When identifying the behaviors, the team doesn’t need to be unanimous but they do need to mostly agree. Conversely, the team should not just list them all independently and then paste them together to make a long list.

Step 4: After 45 minutes, you re-enter the room and over the next 15 minutes the team tells you about what they have discussed

Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • When receiving the feedback from the team you only have two responses you can give, “thank you” or ask a clarifying question.
  • The feedback needs to be about you and not the business.
  • Do this more than once. The team will get better at giving feedback over time.

Here is an example of what my team wrote during my first time running this exercise.

Let’s break down why this meeting is so important.

  1. With me not in the room, the team can discuss openly without holding back.
  2. Having team members work together and come to a consensus before writing down a piece of feedback ensures feedback isn’t from a single team member but rather the whole team.
  3. By leaving the team to do it without me, I show as a manager I trust them and value their feedback.
  4. When I come back to the room, I listen and ask for clarification but don’t argue which helps set an example of receiving feedback from others
  5. The best part? I now have feedback that helps me be a better manager. By implementing some of the feedback, I reinforce the idea that I value my team’s feedback and I am willing to change and grow.

This isn’t just for managers. Team members can do this themselves. You can ask your manager to go through this exercise with you, and if you are brave enough, you can have you teammates do this for you as well.

4. Hold a team meeting to discuss what you have learned recently

Up to this point, we have primarily focused on how you can ask for feedback to help grow a culture of creativity. In this final section, we’ll focus more on how you can share what you have learned to help maintain a culture of creativity.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: I show up at work, catch up on industry news, review my client performance, plug away at my to-do list, check on tests I am running and make adjustments, and so on and so forth.

What are we missing in our normal routines? Collaboration. A theme you may have noticed in this post is that we need to work together to produce our best work. What you read in industry news or what you see in client performance should all be shared with team members.

To do this, my team put together a meeting where we can share our findings. Every 2 weeks, my team meets together for an hour and a half to discuss prepared answers to the following four questions.

Question 1: What is something interesting you have read or discovered in the industry?

This could be as simple as sharing a blog post or going more in depth on some research or a test you have done for a client. The purpose is to show that everyone on the team contributes to how we do SEO and helps contribute knowledge to the team.

Question 2: What are you excited about that you are working on right now?

Who doesn’t love geeking out over a fun site audit, or that content analysis that you have been spending weeks to build? This is that moment to share what you love about your job.

Question 3: What are you working to resolve?

Okay, okay, I know. This is the only section in this meeting that talks about issues you might be struggling to solve. But it is so critical!

Question 4: What have you solved?

Brag, brag, brag! Every analyst has an opportunity to share what they have solve. Issues they overcame. How they out-thought Google and beat down the competition.

In conclusion

Creativity is at the heart of what SEOs do. In order to grow in our roles, we need to continue to expand our minds so we can provide stellar performance for our clients. To do this requires us to receive and give out help with others. Only then will we thrive in a culture that allows us to be safely vulnerable and actively creative.

I would love to hear how your team creates a culture of creativity. Comment below your ideas!

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The One-Hour Guide to SEO: Technical SEO – Whiteboard Friday

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We’ve arrived at one of the meatiest SEO topics in our series: technical SEO. In this fifth part of the One-Hour Guide to SEO, Rand covers essential technical topics from crawlability to internal link structure to subfolders and far more. Watch on for a firmer grasp of technical SEO fundamentals!

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome back to our special One-Hour Guide to SEO Whiteboard Friday series. This is Part V – Technical SEO. I want to be totally upfront. Technical SEO is a vast and deep discipline like any of the things we’ve been talking about in this One-Hour Guide.

There is no way in the next 10 minutes that I can give you everything that you’ll ever need to know about technical SEO, but we can cover many of the big, important, structural fundamentals. So that’s what we’re going to tackle today. You will come out of this having at least a good idea of what you need to be thinking about, and then you can go explore more resources from Moz and many other wonderful websites in the SEO world that can help you along these paths.

1. Every page on the website is unique & uniquely valuable

First off, every page on a website should be two things — unique, unique from all the other pages on that website, and uniquely valuable, meaning it provides some value that a user, a searcher would actually desire and want. Sometimes the degree to which it’s uniquely valuable may not be enough, and we’ll need to do some intelligent things.

So, for example, if we’ve got a page about X, Y, and Z versus a page that’s sort of, “Oh, this is a little bit of a combination of X and Y that you can get through searching and then filtering this way.Oh, here’s another copy of that XY, but it’s a slightly different version.Here’s one with YZ. This is a page that has almost nothing on it, but we sort of need it to exist for this weird reason that has nothing to do, but no one would ever want to find it through search engines.”

Okay, when you encounter these types of pages as opposed to these unique and uniquely valuable ones, you want to think about: Should I be canonicalizing those, meaning point this one back to this one for search engine purposes? Maybe YZ just isn’t different enough from Z for it to be a separate page in Google’s eyes and in searchers’ eyes. So I’m going to use something called the rel=canonical tag to point this YZ page back to Z.

Maybe I want to remove these pages. Oh, this is totally non-valuable to anyone. 404 it. Get it out of here. Maybe I want to block bots from accessing this section of our site. Maybe these are search results that make sense if you’ve performed this query on our site, but they don’t make any sense to be indexed in Google. I’ll keep Google out of it using the robots.txt file or the meta robots or other things.

2. Pages are accessible to crawlers, load fast, and can be fully parsed in a text-based browser

Secondarily, pages are accessible to crawlers. They should be accessible to crawlers. They should load fast, as fast as you possibly can. There’s a ton of resources about optimizing images and optimizing server response times and optimizing first paint and first meaningful paint and all these different things that go into speed.

But speed is good not only because of technical SEO issues, meaning Google can crawl your pages faster, which oftentimes when people speed up the load speed of their pages, they find that Google crawls more from them and crawls them more frequently, which is a wonderful thing, but also because pages that load fast make users happier. When you make users happier, you make it more likely that they will link and amplify and share and come back and keep loading and not click the back button, all these positive things and avoiding all these negative things.

They should be able to be fully parsed in essentially a text browser, meaning that if you have a relatively unsophisticated browser that is not doing a great job of processing JavaScript or post-loading of script events or other types of content, Flash and stuff like that, it should be the case that a spider should be able to visit that page and still see all of the meaningful content in text form that you want to present.

Google still is not processing every image at the I’m going to analyze everything that’s in this image and extract out the text from it level, nor are they doing that with video, nor are they doing that with many kinds of JavaScript and other scripts. So I would urge you and I know many other SEOs, notably Barry Adams, a famous SEO who says that JavaScript is evil, which may be taking it a little bit far, but we catch his meaning, that you should be able to load everything into these pages in HTML in text.

3. Thin content, duplicate content, spider traps/infinite loops are eliminated

Thin content and duplicate content — thin content meaning content that doesn’t provide meaningfully useful, differentiated value, and duplicate content meaning it’s exactly the same as something else — spider traps and infinite loops, like calendaring systems, these should generally speaking be eliminated. If you have those duplicate versions and they exist for some reason, for example maybe you have a printer-friendly version of an article and the regular version of the article and the mobile version of the article, okay, there should probably be some canonicalization going on there, the rel=canonical tag being used to say this is the original version and here’s the mobile friendly version and those kinds of things.

If you have search results in the search results, Google generally prefers that you don’t do that. If you have slight variations, Google would prefer that you canonicalize those, especially if the filters on them are not meaningfully and usefully different for searchers.

4. Pages with valuable content are accessible through a shallow, thorough internal links structure

Number four, pages with valuable content on them should be accessible through just a few clicks, in a shallow but thorough internal link structure.

Now this is an idealized version. You’re probably rarely going to encounter exactly this. But let’s say I’m on my homepage and my homepage has 100 links to unique pages on it. That gets me to 100 pages. One hundred more links per page gets me to 10,000 pages, and 100 more gets me to 1 million.

So that’s only three clicks from homepage to one million pages. You might say, “Well, Rand, that’s a little bit of a perfect pyramid structure. I agree. Fair enough. Still, three to four clicks to any page on any website of nearly any size, unless we’re talking about a site with hundreds of millions of pages or more, should be the general rule. I should be able to follow that through either a sitemap.

If you have a complex structure and you need to use a sitemap, that’s fine. Google is fine with you using an HTML page-level sitemap. Or alternatively, you can just have a good link structure internally that gets everyone easily, within a few clicks, to every page on your site. You don’t want to have these holes that require, “Oh, yeah, if you wanted to reach that page, you could, but you’d have to go to our blog and then you’d have to click back to result 9, and then you’d have to click to result 18 and then to result 27, and then you can find it.”

No, that’s not ideal. That’s too many clicks to force people to make to get to a page that’s just a little ways back in your structure.

5. Pages should be optimized to display cleanly and clearly on any device, even at slow connection speeds

Five, I think this is obvious, but for many reasons, including the fact that Google considers mobile friendliness in its ranking systems, you want to have a page that loads clearly and cleanly on any device, even at slow connection speeds, optimized for both mobile and desktop, optimized for 4G and also optimized for 2G and no G.

6. Permanent redirects should use the 301 status code, dead pages the 404, temporarily unavailable the 503, and all okay should use the 200 status code

Permanent redirects. So this page was here. Now it’s over here. This old content, we’ve created a new version of it. Okay, old content, what do we do with you? Well, we might leave you there if we think you’re valuable, but we may redirect you. If you’re redirecting old stuff for any reason, it should generally use the 301 status code.

If you have a dead page, it should use the 404 status code. You could maybe sometimes use 410, permanently removed, as well. Temporarily unavailable, like we’re having some downtime this weekend while we do some maintenance, 503 is what you want. Everything is okay, everything is great, that’s a 200. All of your pages that have meaningful content on them should have a 200 code.

These status codes, anything else beyond these, and maybe the 410, generally speaking should be avoided. There are some very occasional, rare, edge use cases. But if you find status codes other than these, for example if you’re using Moz, which crawls your website and reports all this data to you and does this technical audit every week, if you see status codes other than these, Moz or other software like it, Screaming Frog or Ryte or DeepCrawl or these other kinds, they’ll say, “Hey, this looks problematic to us. You should probably do something about this.”

7. Use HTTPS (and make your site secure)

When you are building a website that you want to rank in search engines, it is very wise to use a security certificate and to have HTTPS rather than HTTP, the non-secure version. Those should also be canonicalized. There should never be a time when HTTP is the one that is loading preferably. Google also gives a small reward — I’m not even sure it’s that small anymore, it might be fairly significant at this point — to pages that use HTTPS or a penalty to those that don’t.

8. One domain > several, subfolders > subdomains, relevant folders > long, hyphenated URLs

In general, well, I don’t even want to say in general. It is nearly universal, with a few edge cases — if you’re a very advanced SEO, you might be able to ignore a little bit of this — but it is generally the case that you want one domain, not several. Allmystuff.com, not allmyseattlestuff.com, allmyportlandstuff.com, and allmylastuff.com.

Allmystuff.com is preferable for many, many technical reasons and also because the challenge of ranking multiple websites is so significant compared to the challenge of ranking one.

You want subfolders, not subdomains, meaning I want allmystuff.com/seattle, /la, and /portland, not seattle.allmystuff.com.

Why is this? Google’s representatives have sometimes said that it doesn’t really matter and I should do whatever is easy for me. I have so many cases over the years, case studies of folks who moved from a subdomain to a subfolder and saw their rankings increase overnight. Credit to Google’s reps.

I’m sure they’re getting their information from somewhere. But very frankly, in the real world, it just works all the time to put it in a subfolder. I have never seen a problem being in the subfolder versus the subdomain, where there are so many problems and there are so many issues that I would strongly, strongly urge you against it. I think 95% of professional SEOs, who have ever had a case like this, would do likewise.

Relevant folders should be used rather than long, hyphenated URLs. This is one where we agree with Google. Google generally says, hey, if you have allmystuff.com/seattle/ storagefacilities/top10places, that is far better than /seattle- storage-facilities-top-10-places. It’s just the case that Google is good at folder structure analysis and organization, and users like it as well and good breadcrumbs come from there.

There’s a bunch of benefits. Generally using this folder structure is preferred to very, very long URLs, especially if you have multiple pages in those folders.

9. Use breadcrumbs wisely on larger/deeper-structured sites

Last, but not least, at least last that we’ll talk about in this technical SEO discussion is using breadcrumbs wisely. So breadcrumbs, actually both technical and on-page, it’s good for this.

Google generally learns some things from the structure of your website from using breadcrumbs. They also give you this nice benefit in the search results, where they show your URL in this friendly way, especially on mobile, mobile more so than desktop. They’ll show home > seattle > storage facilities. Great, looks beautiful. Works nicely for users. It helps Google as well.

So there are plenty more in-depth resources that we can go into on many of these topics and others around technical SEO, but this is a good starting point. From here, we will take you to Part VI, our last one, on link building next week. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

In case you missed them:

Check out the other episodes in the series so far:

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