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Enterprise SEO Interview With ABC’s John Shehata
I spoke recently with John Shehata, the director of search for ABC News. Since he owns the SEO responsibility for a number of large media properties, I leapt at the chance to explore some of the things he has learned along the way.
We dug in and explored the challenges of educating a large media company, dealing with multiple content management systems, syndicating content and query deserves freshness, all viewed through the eyes of ABC!
Eric Enge: Can you provide a brief outline of your responsibilities at ABC News?
John Shehata: I’m the Executive Director of Search for ABC News, and recently heading SEO for media properties like ABC Family, ABC.com, and Oscars. Everything SEO goes through our department.
Eric Enge: How many people are in the department?
John Shehata: We’re a small centralized team of 2. We also have “SEO Ambassadors,” which is a group of people that work within different groups at ABC, different shows or properties that help others with SEO as the first line of defense and make sure that SEO is top of mind. They bring us in if they have bigger questions or bigger projects for us to work on.
Eric Enge: The word “ambassador” is a lead-in to the next question. One of the issues with a larger media organization (in my experience, a traditional media organization) is there’s a constant need to educate on what role SEO can play in the growth and promotion of the business. Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges and some of the wins, perhaps, that you have had along those lines within ABC?
John Shehata: Sure thing. I believe that 40% to 50% of our job is to educate and inform people on SEO best practices, and we actually spend a lot of time doing this. We create different presentations and tailor them to different types of audiences. Presentations to C-level are different from presentations to development or tech teams, which also differ from the editorial team.
We try to help them see why SEO is important to them, and what they will gain from doing it. We’re not telling people how to do their job, but really helping them to become more successful at what they do by applying the best practices of search engine optimization. We also stress that we really don’t optimize for search engines, but instead, we optimize for people who use search engines to find our content. Education is a big part of our job.
We educate, train, and we create best practices guides, documents, and one-sheets that go around, answer emails with information, send weekly and monthly newsletters and create wikis. If we get the question more than once, we create an FAQ. We have a lot of material out there for the different users, the different departments and the different properties.
Eric Enge: I imagine that the adoption and acceptance of what you’re trying to teach is like any other human process: some people get it faster than others, some slower. You’ll have people who aren’t officially your SEO Ambassadors that actually become like an ambassador, which must be exciting when it happens. Conversely, you’ll have others where you have to proactively keep getting back in front of them saying, “Hey. Don’t forget about this. This is how it impacts you.” Is that a fair characterization?
John Shehata: Absolutely. There are different ways of approaching this. One of the things we do is highlight the success stories. When you work on a big project with the dev or tech team or on a story with the editorial team, you highlight the results. People love to see their successes shared and to get credit for their hard work, People, in general, when they see successful projects, want to jump into the bandwagon and say great job; how can we do the same?
You will find people coming to you who in the past maybe didn’t acknowledge SEO as something important within their workflow. Seeing someone else’s success makes them want to try it out themselves. You’re not going to be in every department at every single moment, so this is a very good way of letting other people actually come to you asking for help. Highlighting the successes with different departments works very well.
Eric Enge: Do you use the same content management system for all the websites you’re involved in?
John Shehata: No. it’s a good question. When I first started with Enterprise SEO, 8-10 years ago, I thought everyone was using WordPress or MovableType, and I was surprised.
Most of enterprise level companies/sites have different CMSs within the same company and sometimes within the same site. In addition, each CMS uses a different technology; some proprietary platforms and a mix of small and enterprise technologies. You’re working, most of the time, with legacy code; sometimes languages that you never worked on before.
Many companies in the past used to create their own development languages, so you’re dealing with legacy code and legacy CMSs. You have to adapt because you can’t just go to an enterprise-level site and say, “Hey. Let’s change the CMS.” You have to adapt and find your way around it.
Eric Enge: I bet that each CMS comes with its own configuration challenges.
John Shehata: Absolutely, yes. Some CMSs don’t even allow you to change a page title or add new tags into the head section. There are a lot of challenges. The biggest challenge is to convince stakeholders and explain why they need to improve the CMS, code or even upgrade the CMS platform. Another big challenge is that many big companies customized their CMS to the point that they can’t do any upgrades because it will break all their customization.
Eric Enge: I imagine that some of these content management systems freely create duplicate content. Would that be an accurate assessment?
John Shehata: I can say that every single enterprise site I worked on in my career had major duplicate content issues. But, it is not only the CMS, there are many other practices that cause this: inconsistent linking, sharing content on multiple sections for traffic credit, and sponsorship opportunities that require different integration and designs so you need to replicate the content in different ways to satisfy the sponsorships.
Sometimes, you also see internal tracking done incorrectly causing many duplicate content issues. People want to track what happens on the sites, so they add tracking parameters to URLs for links within the site. There are so many things that can cause duplicate content.
Eric Enge: There must be lots of situations where simply eliminating the duplicate content is not so straightforward.
John Shehata: True! Sometimes, there are strong reasons for the duplication that you can’t simply fix or change, especially the ones tied to sponsorship opportunities. So, while eliminating the duplicate is the best SEO solution, we often have to rely on alternative fixes like rel=canonical tags and XML site maps. You must work with the tech team to figure out the correct permalink URLs for each of these pages so you don’t end up duplicating URLs in your XML site maps or in the source code. This can fix a little bit of the issue.
You can also work in Google Webmaster Tools to eliminate certain parameters that create duplicate content. If you have some kind of sorting or tracking parameters, you can identify those in Google and Bring Webmaster Tools to be ignored; just be very careful so you don’t end up blocking a big chunk of the site.
Eric Enge: Are you confident, in your experience, that the rel=”canonical” really does a good job of dealing with the duplicate content? Have you seen measurable benefits from that?
John Shehata: We have seen some benefits, but it’s really a Band-Aid on the problem. In many cases, I believe the XML site map actually is a much stronger signal than the canonical tag. I think a combination, of different signals, or different places giving the same signal, will hopefully get Google to accept the page you designate as the main page.
In many instances Google continues to index and rank other pages, not the canonical ones, so the best solution is still to fix the site architecture. If this is not doable, doing rel=canonical, and XML site maps are good Band-Aids.
Eric Enge: Are you also involved in syndicating content?
John Shehata: Yes. Most of the major publishers either syndicate content on their site or syndicate their own content on other sites.
Eric Enge: What kind of challenges does that bring for you?
John Shehata: There are so many questions you need to ask before you syndicate your content. Are you syndicating content to other sites that are more authoritative, or have less authority than your site? When should you syndicate the content? Will they accept or implement certain tags on their pages to tell search engines where this original content comes from?
A couple of years ago, Google told publishers to use syndication source tags. But, most of the sites that syndicate the content on their sites don’t have the capabilities, or sometimes the resources, to add these tags dynamically, linking back to the original content.
Later, Google said to use rel=canonical tags. They told us that they would consider canonical tags to be more authoritative than the syndication source tags. So, even if the site syndicating your content has the syndication source tag, but the page has canonical tags pointing to their site, this will override the syndication source tag.
Some sites do delayed syndication, where they wait a couple of hours or more before they syndicate content to other sites, so Google can verify that this content actually belongs to their site, and it was published there first, before they see it everywhere else.
What we have seen is that even if you have all the tags pointing to your site but you syndicate to a site that has a much higher authority than yours, Google might end up actually ranking the higher-authority site.
Eric Enge: I’m no Googler, but when you syndicate content to a higher-authority site, I believe that from their point of view, the user might prefer to read it from the higher-authority site, and feel more comfortable there, than they do reading it on your site, even if you published it first. Since their goal is to maximize the satisfaction of users, while it may seem wrong to us, it might actually be the best answer to them to do that.
John Shehata: I totally agree with you. A lot of times, SEOs think of one specific tag, or one specific tactic to optimize, and then they don’t get the results expected. Google has hundreds of different factors and signals that go into their ranking formula. Syndication/Canonical tags are one of those factors. As you mentioned, if the higher-authority site has a higher click-through rate, more clicks into the site, users spend more time into the site; then Google may consider it as a better experience for the user versus the original site.
Eric Enge: Sometimes media companies let other media companies syndicate a synopsis of the article, rather than the whole article. Is that something that you use at ABC, as well?
John Shehata: We don’t do it this way; we do full syndication. ABC News, in general, is a high-authority site, and we make sure tags are implemented correctly. Even though we don’t use it, I think it’s another good tactic. Delayed syndication, partial syndication, and having a rel=canonical link back are all good tactics.
Eric Enge: As the Head of the SEO team, you have to integrate your efforts into a larger online marketing effort. Can you talk about that, as well?
John Shehata: We believe SEO is just one of the marketing channels every site has. There is paid marketing, social media, email marketing and so on. The SEO team needs first to understand the objectives and goals of the marketing department, of the site, and of the company as a whole, and then start working with all the various channels to meet those objectives.
For example, SEOs need to know what keywords the paid marketing team is targeting, such as what are the 10 most expensive keywords. Can SEO help there and save the company money? When you make other people successful, they absolutely work better with you. For example, money we saved can go to SEO or be directed to tools or development.
Social media is another marketing channel where I believe collaboration is important as SEO and social are becoming more and more integrated. Social media is becoming, or is about to become, an important SEO signal. SEO is just a part of the bigger picture of online marketing.
Eric Enge: With a large media company, I imagine that you get a tremendous amount of attention without having to do much outreach.
John Shehata: In general, that’s true. But, it differs from one brand to the other. For example, if you have a very big e-commerce brand, you will probably need to do a lot of outreach; product reviews, trying to get links, etc. For media publishers in general, people like to share, link, discuss and engage with the kind of content we produce already. In all cases, social media is very important for all types of brands to utilize effectively.
In addition, one social platform is completely different from the next. What you communicate in Google+ may not and shouldn’t be the same for Facebook or Twitter; the frequency, the timing, and other factors also need to be taken into consideration.
Eric Enge: I would picture, even for large media companies, the speed at which you can get the word out about the news you publish would have something to do with whether you win what I’ll call the ‘query-deserved freshness battle.’ There’s still some incentive to do outreach. It’s not like you need help getting in front of people, but it’s not a bad idea to get in front of people faster.
John Shehata: Absolutely. I think speed is very important factor, especially for breaking news, especially with QDF, query-deserves freshness. Taking that into consideration we never sacrifice accuracy for speed. Social Media is great help getting the word out there faster, for sure.
I believe that search engines are absolutely looking at the social rates for new Tweets, Re-Tweets, Likes, Shares, Pluses on Google+, or for whatever platforms that are opened for them.
I believe that search engines are looking at that, and some already have it as a part of their algos. If a story gets 200 Re-Tweets in 5 minutes, versus another story that got just 10 Re-Tweets, it makes a difference. I think search engines do consider these factors. Google also has sharing buttons now in Google News, so they also consider how people Like and +1 the news on Google News, as well.
Eric Enge: Thanks for joining us today.
John Shehata: Thank you so much for having me, Eric.
There are many things that make Enterprise SEO particularly challenging at this scale. Some of the biggest ones are the inherent complexity of the organization, the many different business objectives, and the number of different properties involved.
John faces all of these on a day-to-day basis. But, on the other hand, there is tremendous leverage to be gained. For example, at ABC, the massive marketing machine is a big advantage; once you get it pointed in the right direction, look out!
You can see more of John Shehata’s thinking on Enterprise SEO here. Below is an example of what you will see there:
In closing, I hope this interview has offered plenty of insights for enterprise SEOs. If you have any comments, please post below.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.