Listen in for the second episode of Search Planning Strategy Month as Ben and John Shehata walk us through John’s SEO planning process and how he integrates both his businesses and team development requirements together to deliver an effective strategy year after year.
John Shehata, is the Vice President of Audience Development and SEO at Conde Nast.
Ben: Welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro and today we’re going to continue our series, discussing how to create, promote and operationalize an effective SEO strategy for 2019. But before we get started, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics.
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Joining us today is John Shehata, who is the Vice President of Audience Development and SEO at Conde Nast. John oversees a team of experts across 18 brands spanning multiple departments including: SEO, social media, email strategy and operations across brand initiatives and organic partnerships. Today, John is going to walk us through his SEO planning process and how he integrates both his businesses and team development requirements together to make an effective strategy.
We’re excited to have John here, so John welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.
John: Hi Ben, I’m glad to be with you guys. Question. Do I call you Ben or Benjamin?
Ben: I’ve been called both and I’ve been called worse either way. Ben is fine.
John: Okay awesome.
Ben: Great. So it’s great to have you here. I want to start off by, just tell our audience a little bit about yourself and about your role at Conde Nast.
John: Sure, thanks for the intro. I am the Vice President of Audience Development and Strategy including three main areas which are SEO, which I have been doing for over 14 years now, social media, which I have experience about ten years or so and email strategy and operation which is about three years. So these are the main three areas that I focus on. I also focus on traffic diversification and organic partnerships. So what can we do with platforms like Reddit or Smart News and so on. So that’s another area that we, my teams focus on.
Ben: And for the people that are listening that aren’t familiar with Conde Nast can you just give us an overview of what the company does?
John: Sure. So Conde Nast is one of the top publishers worldwide. We have amazing brands, amazing premium content. So you guys might be familiar with Wired, Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Glamour, Self, Pitchfork and so on. I just want to make sure I didn’t forget anyone. So we have about 18 brands in US and about maybe 50 to 60 brands worldwide.
Ben: For those of you who are familiar with Conde Nast or maybe aren’t, one of the interesting things about the company is Anna Wintour is part of the leadership and she’s a famous influencer in the fashion space and specifically as the editor of Vogue and now all of Conde Nast as a whole. John do you actually interface with Anna at all?
John: Every once in a while. She is the main lead for all editorial teams, oversee all the AICs within the company. She is my boss, boss.
Ben: Your boss’s boss and you said AIC, what is an AIC?
John: Editor in Chief.
Ben: Editor okay. EIC.
John: Sorry sometimes we use these acronyms here.
Ben: Yeah absolutely. So let’s talk a little bit about your SEO planning process. Can you give us an overview of just sort of the structure that you use to create a process. Is it yearly, quarterly, monthly? How long is the planning process and what’s sort of the structure that you use?
John: Sure so everything starts with the business goals and objectives and the editorial initiatives and calendar for the year. So we start with these to figure out what are the important things for business and edit and from there we start building our road map and our road map is based on quarters of the year. So Q1, 2, 3, and 4 and then phase the on tracks. For each of the tracks, we will define a few projects that are important for us to accomplish during each of the quarters.
Ben: Okay so you’re basically taking, since you’re a content driven business, you have some editorial objectives across each of your brands. You’re looking at creating projects and strategies on a quarterly basis, but you’re putting together an annual plan. Is that right?
John: That is correct yes.
Ben: Okay and you mentioned that you are focused on specific tracks. Can you give me an example of what you mean by a track?
John: Sure. So I think for SEO next year, we’re going to be focused on eight tracks. So content and technology are the main tracks that we focus on, for sure. So content, all the major content initiatives. This is not a specific content idea, but more like a specific content strategy. Are we going to focus on featured snippets, for example or are we going to focus on content gaps or are we going to focus on cannibalization and so on.
So it’s a strategy focus not a topic focus kind of a thing and for technical aspects like all the technical work that SEO help with working with all the other products and engineering teams. There is tracks for audits. So we want to make sure that there are specific audits we want to do every year or every quarter that helps us with the strategy and what’s needed for our brands.
There are a track focus on tools. Tools that we want to build here internally, tools that we want to look to utilize maybe next year, tools that we currently have and reevaluate, if we continue working with a vendor or not and so on. These are the tracts that we work against for each of the quarters and then when we look at each of the quarters, usually we don’t go more than three or four projects and we highlight the projects that are must have, knowing that we have a small SEO team, it’s very important to be agile and flexible. So we will highlight the one or two projects that we must have and then the other one to two projects are like good to have kind of thing.
Ben: Okay so just to recap, you’re working on a quarterly basis and you’re going to pick three or four priority projects for a quarter out of what you’re calling the eight tracks. And some of the examples of tracks are what are you doing to make sure that your content is relevant and effective. How are you using technology and you’re doing some reoccurring audits, evaluating your tools in an ongoing basis. So you have these, sort of, eight priority pillars of your strategy and you’re prioritizing and picking a couple of them at a time and really focusing each quarter, on a couple of them.
John: Correct, yes.
Ben: You mentioned that you have a relatively small SEO team. I’m sure that the devil is always in the details of what relatively small is. You work on a lot of brands and produce obviously a lot of content as well. Tell me a little bit about the structure of your team.
John: Sure, so we have a 6 team members team. We have the head of SEO team, we have two SEO managers, we have an SEO analyst and we have an SEO engineer.
Ben: Okay so you have a six-person team. You have some leadership, two managers, operators and engineering resources.
John: I wouldn’t call them operator. They’re more like focus on analysis.
Ben: Okay analysts.
John: Analysts, yeah.
Ben: Then engineers to help you build out your tactical needs.
Ben: When you’re building your plan, talk to me about how you’re basically getting inputs from the top down and the bottom up. Is your analyst and engineering team and your managers, your functional area experts, are they feeding up what they think are the priorities or are you taking it from a top down objective and then having them put in the operational plan together?
John: So I think it works both directions at the same time. So we look at each of our brands to understand what’s their business objectives and their editorial initiatives. So take this in consideration and then we work with each SEO manager. So the SEO, the head of SEO team works with the SEO managers to figure out what have been the challenges of last year, what they want to accomplish next year and so on, taking in consideration the business objectives and editorial initiatives.
Then merging these together and then making sure that we focus on the highest ROI, we start to filter out stuff that doesn’t have a considerable ROI in the roadmap, then we come up with the plan. So it’s not like a top down only. I think it goes both directions.
Ben: Yeah that’s interesting. I mean it sounds like if I had to boil this down to either top down or bottom up, it sounds like you’re getting strategic direction from the top down and the operational plan is coming from the bottoms up. You’re basically saying, “Hey with this brand we want to go this direction. How are you going to accomplish that from an SEO perspective?” Your SEO team is sort of building out the levers that they want to pull, to steer the ship in the direction that the captain says to go.
John: Correct yes and we have a lot of input to with these kind of business initiatives and editorial, the business goals and editorial initiatives. So because I think our job is more like providing recommendations to business and edit teams on what the consumers are looking for, what are the latest trends and so on from an SEO perspective and at the same time, making sure that initiatives and goals are found and highly visible in Search. So we work both ways.
Ben: Yeah, it’s interesting. One thing that sticks out to me is you’re working across 18 different brands and you have, you’re what you mentioned are your eight tracks of focus that are important to probably each of the brands. Like each brand needs to think about its content, it’s technology, your vendors, your tools. But there has to be a level of complexity between the different brands and needs. How do you manage the complexity of 18 brands at once and come up with three or four projects that are going to Spanish the needs of all 18 of those, sort of, unique properties?
John: Sure. So different levels of complexity. One is working on projects that can benefit most of the brands. So unless it’s a really huge project that is only dedicated to one brand like Met Gala for example, for Vogue. We have to make sure that the benefit of the project can go to all the brands. So that’s one of the criteria when we look at that are around it. Also, the complexity of how responsive the brand is. So there are different personalities, different brands, different levels of responsiveness.
So this helps us or guides us in a way on which brands and which projects are a better fit for the brand. Also, we look at the product and engineering availability. We look at the roadmap, what they’re going to be working on next year. So I always say it’s easier to align yourself with the company’s goals and roadmaps, than just to go completely off on your own roadmap and have no resources to implement it. So we try to align ourselves very closely to the product/engineering roadmap, so we can get most of the technical SEO work through the projects that the company really cares about and so on.
Ben: Yeah that’s interesting. So you really have to work closely with specifically, your engineering cross-functional partners to make sure that the projects you’re prioritizing are not just something that are happening in theory or in SEO land, but they’re actually getting implemented and built into the website across multiple different, or the websites across your multiple different brands.
John: Absolutely. I mean, so we try as much as we can. Unless it’s a critical SEO project and externality issues, probability issues, we push these as much as we can. There are simpler projects that we do ourselves, using our own SEO engineer. But most of the time we try to align ourselves with the engineering/product roadmap and get all the recommendations and optimization we can get into these projects.
Ben: Yeah it’s interesting. It sounds like there’s lots of different influential factors as you’re figuring out what projects to prioritize. You mentioned you do it on a quarterly basis and you’re picking off three or four high priority projects and you’re looking at the editorial team’s needs, you’re looking at what the engineering team’s roadmap is, what the more operational part of your team is focusing on as well and that all leads into your decision for which projects are going to get flighted and which ones are going to be red-lighted.
John: Absolutely. In complex metrics like our organization you have to align yourselves with so many other teams. You can’t work in a vacuum or in a silo and this is how you get stuff done. So we work closely with product and engineering, we work closely with design, we work closely with the editorial teams, work closely with the business, work closely with consumer marketing and so on.
Ben: Yeah, I think that, I’m sure that it’s magnified in a large complex, matrixed organization like yours. I think that that’s also just a problem that people that work as SEO specialists face in general. You are almost a consultant in your organization and always going to be dependent or working very closely with a large set of constituents across multiple different business units.
John: Yeah, we don’t give mandates. As an SEO, we give recommendations, we provide advice, we are consultants on best practices. But in the end of the day, it’s our, the business objectives and needs our strategic partnerships and relationships with the stakeholders and the company. We work through influencing them to adapt these projects and show the value of these projects.
Ben: I want to turn the conversation a little bit more to talking about reflecting the needs of your team. As you’re putting together your SEO strategy, you’re figuring out what your priority projects are for each of the four quarters of the year. How are you taking into consideration the developmental needs and the career-pathing for the six people that are on your team in SEO?
John: Sure. So one of the things we take in consideration is, we are a small team considerably, for 18 brands. So that’s why when I said, “We set the projects for each quarter,” we highlight the ones, the must have, versus the ones that good to have.” Because we know there is so much going on that it’s almost impossible to get everything done. So one of our team values for our team and other teams within the organization is focus. How can you focus based on ROI and so other like KPIs into selecting, encourage rising projects and being comfortable saying “No.” So that’s one thing.
The other thing is because we have so much on our plates, it’s very easy to get into the day to day kind of, job and neglect training, knowledge and so on. So a part of our weekly meetings, for example, is we spend about maybe 20 minutes on sharing new stuff that the team learned, read. Whenever there is a conference that we think that was really useful, we give each of the team members one of the presentations, so they can speak on at the weekly meeting.
So this is so important for growth, because if you just focus on what you do, you’re going to continue doing the same things you have done, two or three years ago and SEO as you know, keeps changing all the time. So you need to be aware of all the different strategies and tactics and new ways of doing SEO. So that’s a very important thing.
Third, I would say, it’s very important, also, to have a clear carrier path within the company. So if you get hired as an analyst or associate manager, you get a document that tells you what’s the career path for this position. So you know that an analyst will become an associate manager, associate manager will become a manager, a manager will become associate director and then a director and then so on.
And for each of these, what is the level of expertise and the skills needed to fulfill this role? It’s not just years of experience, also must have skills for such role.
Ben: Yeah you bring up a couple interesting points here. Focusing on ongoing education and we talk a lot about this on the Voices of Search podcast, how the landscape of Google and Search is always evolving. So it makes sense that prioritizing, staying up to date and knowledgeable about your industry has a positive business impact and is something that you should dedicate time to and then there’s the notion of career-pathing.
What I’m interested in hearing is, as you’re putting together your strategy and you have for me, what I would consider a relatively large team for SEO even though you’re covering a lot of ground with 18 different brands. You have six different personalities and six different career agendas and they have their targets for what they’re trying to accomplish in their career and you’re trying to hit your business objective. So how do you balance the quantifiable business goals, driving revenue, increasing visibility, making sure that you’re crawled and indexed with some of the non-quantifiable goals, building the career skills, the communication skills, the ongoing education, learning the ability to say no, developing managerial experience. How does that fit into your planning process and your goal setting?
John: So for goals we spread the goals into business goals, professional goals, strength and areas for development and some of these goals are easily quantifiable. It’s like working on X number of projects per brand or something like that. While others, it’s hard to measure, it’s more on the quantitative end. But the split between business and professional goals, so we have I think two to four business goals and one to two professional goals, it will allow us to work on both sides at the same time. So one of the professional goals for example, the SEO, head of SEO team, is to speak at at least one conference this year.
So this, having this is as a goal then you can work with them and making sure it’s like what are the different conferences you can contact. Moderators, try to get them in, work with them on presentations and so on. So this is more in the professional aspects and the career development and then with the business goals, if you focus on what’s happening on the business and so on.
Ben: Do podcast visits count as being a speaker, because we have space for the rest of the quarter? We’d love to have your head of SEO join the show.
John: Absolutely and I think I mentioned to you this is my first podcast ever and I think you guys converted me. So podcast will be an important thing we do going forward.
Ben: Well it’s a growing medium and from an SEO perspective, I find that it’s been an effective one for Searchmetrics and some of my personal brands, where when you record the audio content, you could repurpose it, you could transcribe it and turn it into summaries and that’s a lot of what we’re doing here at Searchmetrics is repurposing conversations like this, to be both content that we consumed while people are on the go, but also written content as well.
But going back to talking about the career developments and how you’re managing and combining your business and personal goals. As the leader of the team, how much time are you focusing on prioritizing the team development and what your team needs and how much are you focusing on building the business strategy? Is it a 50-50 split when you’re putting your strategy together or is it 90% of the time you’re just trying to achieve the business objectives and the personal development will come if the team succeeds?
John: I think with all honesty, I think it’s a 90-10 kind of a split. I would love to do more on the professional and the career side. But the nature of our industry and how demanding it is and the changes in SEO all the time, it makes it harder. But at least 10% of our efforts are focused on the career development.
Ben: I mean at the end of the day, you’re running a business and the main objective has to be that the business thrives, succeeds and grows. People, is obviously an increasing part of that, it’s people that drive the business. But it makes sense that the focus is really more of a quantitative set of goals. Any last words in terms of putting together your planning advice for the SEO leaders and some of the operators that are listening to this show about how they can create a more successful SEO plan for 2019?
John: Sure we do a six month evaluation because you have to be agile, you have to be flexible, things do change in the organization. So once, before we hit the six month mark, we evaluate what took place in the past six month and are there any major changes to the plan into the next six month? Also, most of the time we’re able to fill Q1 to Q3, sometimes, Q4 is hard to fulfill, to plan early on. So we usually, end of Q2, beginning with Q3 we start looking on what we do in Q4. So it’s not like you must have every quarter, every track planned out for the whole year. But at least the first two quarters of the year should be well planned.
Ben: It does sound like in a perfect world, what you want to do is tackle your biggest most strategic projects first because the landscape and your prioritization, funding, all those things can change over time. So if you’ve got a big strategic project, don’t delay, get started on that first.
Ben: Okay. Great advice. John I really appreciate you joining us and that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with John Shehata, the Vice President of Audience Development and SEO at Conde Nast.
We’d love to continue this conversation with you. So, if you’re interested in contacting John, you can find a link to his bio in our show notes, or you can shoot him a tweet @jshehata, on Twitter. If you have any general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes or you can send me a tweet, @benjshap.
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