Q & A With Brent D. Payne, In-House SEO Director, Tribune Company
Brent D. Payne is the SEO Director at Tribune Company, whose properties include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore Sun. In one form or another, Brent has been engaged in search engine marketing for over a decade. He’s also a well-known name in the SEO community, with many speaking appearances augmented by an extremely active Twitter account.
As one might expect from a highly experienced and social SEO, Brent has much to say about in-house SEO, optimization of news content … and a whole lot more. I hope you enjoy his insights.
Q: Describe the career path that brought you to the Tribune.
Brent: Brent D. Payne was born on a rainy September day in … just kidding. My background is in technical sales and marketing. I applied for my first ‘real job’ at the age of 19 by responding to an advertisement in the local Ogden, UT newspaper.
After some rather interesting antics to get the job (which included running into a wall, literally, for $100 and the need to go by my middle name of David instead of Brent), I worked as a 100% commissioned salesperson with a recoverable draw salary of $26,000 per year. After some additional issues in the small Utah sales office (which included my boss taking a swing at me and my reporting the incident to human resources),Viking Components decided it was best to close that office and have everyone (that wanted to) – work in the corporate offices in Orange County, CA. Considering the then $78,000 per year income was more than I could make at the local fast food joint, I chose to make the move despite making an offer on a home the previous day.
My then wife and I moved to Orange County, CA on January 15th, 2000. I immediately asked for all of the dot-com accounts in the company, as none of them were performing. The CEO, Glenn McCusker, was reluctant to have me handle them as ‘the dot bomb’ was either underway or he had the insight to see it coming—can’t recall which. I, being even cockier than I am now (yes, it’s possible) told him that I’d be his #1 salesperson within a year if he let me have them (I was, at the time in the bottom third). He agreed, under one condition … if I wasn’t the #1 salesperson…he would FIRE ME! I was okay with this challenge and I took on the dot-com accounts.
Amongst them was a books, movies and video/DVD seller by the name of Amazon.com. Within a few months, I setup a meeting with the electronics buyer, Chad McFadden, and flew to Seattle. Our appointment was setup in the early afternoon but he canceled on me. Being persistent, I sat in the lobby as I knew what he looked like and knew he had to exit the bank of elevators I had in sight. At around 7pm he emerged from the elevator. Yes, I had waited 4 hours for him. He was shocked. He accepted a 30 min meeting with me on the spot.
The next day, we were uploading Viking Components’ 2,000 products to Amazon’s database. But even after several weeks the sales weren’t doing well. I was getting concerned as it was now almost halfway through the year. Just as I was about to start polishing my resume, I received a call from Amazon; they were placing a rather hefty order. When asked why they said, “Because we are seeing a large spike in demand for your products.” I asked if they had put our products on the Amazon homepage or other special placements… “No.” So, I did some research … low and behold … I ranked #1 in AltaVista, Yahoo!, and I believe this small search engine at the time – Google.
Visions of Scrooge McDuck diving into his money danced in my head (but, instead it was me, and oddly I was in a duck costume.) I then determined that I’d no longer beg Chad McFadden to buy more of my products. I’d drive demand for those products from the search engines instead.
I figured out how to automate Amazon SYLTs (So You’d Like to…), Listmanias and reviews. I setup 35 online profiles and maintained them all in Word and Excel spreadsheets. I assigned the profiles names, vehicles, families, computer types and models, camera brand loyalties, and full personalities. I would start threads in forums, newsgroups, industry sites, etc. and have conversations on those threads amongst my several personalities until the ‘real people’ came into the thread. I’d drop in those conversations mentions, links, deals, secrets, of the Viking Components products available on Amazon.com, Buy.com, and other locations online. I worked very closely with Amazon’s editorial teams like Ara Jane Olufson to make sure our product titles on Amazon.com exactly matched what I noticed most people were searching for, mentioning in newsgroups, forums, other sites, to find our products.
Sales skyrocketed. I was mentioned by Amazon.com’s EVPs by name at corporate meetings. Some angrily (the Amazon Communities Group hates me to this day) but some mentioned ‘David Payne’ as being the thought leader and vendor that gets it better than anyone. My pay, being 100% commission, was beyond what any 24 year old could ever fathom making. My wife and once bought a Mustang (albeit purple) one weekend simply because we could. South Coast Plaza was a full weekend experience for us most weekends spending thousands on items we sometimes never used. I was young, financially reckless and was encouraged at every turn by my bosses to spend more so I’d be more driven to make more the next month.
But as any older, wiser person would tell you …the fun times never last forever.
Viking Components, strapped by overpaying their sales teams (some made over one-million dollars a year) for a decade, started making commission changes. They made 7 of them over the period of a year. They experienced 11 rounds of layoffs. I watched people go from making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to being unemployed within a 3 month time period. My friends and colleagues were losing homes, families and their self-esteem everywhere around me.
While my income continued to rise (as my sales were growing exponentially), those of my co-workers did not. I was told by my bosses not to share what I was making with others. I was told to just keep my head down and worry about myself not those around me. But the environment was brutal, and the competition started calling me.
They, SimpleTech, started calling me a lot! They eventually (took about 9 months) pried me away from Viking after offering me a guaranteed income (versus 100% commission I was on at Viking), a team of four, a budget, stock options, etc. But I quickly learned that tearing apart, piece by piece, something you built for several years, was like ripping out one’s own soul. I left, after only a year, to a job that paid less but allowed me to stop destroying and start building something new.
I left to head up Targus.com and their online reseller division. It was there I dealt with accounts like BestBuy.com, CircuitCity.com, OfficeMax.com, Staples.com and Walmart.com. I was amazed by how far behind these brick-and-mortar dot-coms were in comparison to Amazon.com or even Buy.com (which was several steps behind Amazon at the time.) It’s those frustrations and learning how to overcome objections on things that seemed so obvious that helped prepare me for working with newspapers and their transition to online. The parallels are endless.
During this time period at Targus, I went through my divorce; a pure hell to live through especially it being the stark contrast of the amazing highs of the years previously when I was making insane money, had a beautiful wife I thought loved me dearly, a newborn son, a million dollar home, etc. The ex-wife moved to Washington State and we both thought it best if I could move as well. So, I asked around … found a job working for the former Director of Amazon Electronics, Lance Binley, at a company called OneCall.com.
At this time, I had a moral change as to what type of SEO I wanted to be. I didn’t want to skirt the line of legalities or morals. This was partially driven by some of the legal issues I got myself into via LyricVault.com (just cease and desist letters, but still) and some issues I had with things I did with the Amazon Affiliate Program (sorry, no deets peeps.) I deleted my scripts that automated Amazon reviews, SYLTs, Listmanias. I deleted the 35 profiles and their logins from my computer. I … went completely white hat. Not black … not grey. Not pretty much- completely white hat. It wasn’t worth it to me. Sure. I made out better financially as a blackhat but not emotionally. I found my limits. I reset my boundaries.
Soon after moving to Washington State, my ex-wife got a job in Washington, DC and moved there. So, my need to stay in Washington State no longer existed. I eventually found two options that interested me – a role at Buy.com as their Director of SEO and a role at Tribune Company as their SEO Manager. The Buy.com position paid literally double what I was offered at Tribune. But Buy.com wanted me to stay the silent SEO I had been for the past several years. Also, they would not allow me to consult. Tribune, however, offered me both; the ability to consult and the ability to be active online. I felt the offer at Tribune would be better for my career long-term. It was the first time ever I chose to pass on the larger income in lieu of something intangible that could be greater.
Was it the right decision? I think so. Most importantly because I have made a ton of friends in the industry, been able to influence others in the industry, seen parts of the world I wouldn’t have visited before, and shared experiences in the industry like #BigWatah and #BaldSEO that wouldn’t have been possible had I stayed silent like Buy.com required. Financially, it was the best decision because since then I’ve been promoted and the income I make from consulting is more than I make at Tribune; thus, I make more now than the original offer from Buy.com. But … who knows where that would’ve taken me too. Don’t look back and wonder what if though …look forward, always look forward.
So, long version … that’s how I landed at Tribune as their, now, In-House SEO Director.
Q: You’ve stated that you’re “not the best SEO for all fields of SEO.” Where do your strengths lie, and where do you turn for expert knowledge that you perceive yourself lacking?
Brent: I feel my strengths lie in salesmanship really. My ability to see a situation as a puzzle to solve and not as a roadblock is probably one of my greater strengths. I work very hard to empathize with others. I understand many aspects of marketing, advertising, sales and even management. Most importantly, though, I understand people. That understanding of people is what allows me to work with them well to accomplish the things I need to accomplish within the organization. I still have my pitfalls. I resist a management style that is heavy handed. Guidelines are much better for me than rules for example. I think that has to do with my upbringing, mom and dad never gave me ‘rules’ they gave me their opinions and then allowed me to choose my own path.
Generally, I am loved by my peers and management that prefers to leave me alone. Management that likes to micromanage will find they tolerate me because of the results I get more than my ease to work with … I am not a “Yes Man” (though I also am not insubordinate.) I voice my opinion and will do it loudly if necessary. Tribune’s upper management really likes that in their employees and thus, I tend to have decent relationships with upper management here at Tribune and most of my managers have been hands-off with me anyway. Get results and the details matter a lot less. I have had more managers at Tribune than any other company though and of the 8 managers I’ve had … 6 are no longer here (most left on their own accord, not because of me, LOL.)
As for specific SEO strengths … I do a great job analyzing a Content Management System (CMS) and finding out what needs to be added where and which groups of people need to get involved to get it approved and then implemented. I also feel I can explain to various groups of understanding aspects of SEO that are actionable in their daily life. This makes managing a lot of content for proper SEO possible. I don’t have to personally make sure the SEO is being ‘done right’ if I can train literally thousands of others to ‘do it right the first time’.
Beyond that, I’m not afraid to take risk. I adopt change early and implement quickly. This tends to keep the companies I work with ahead of the pack. I know some SEOs think you should do nothing for months or years and they were right in one instance (which they LOVE to bring up), the rel=nofollow attribute for PageRank sculpting. My response to that is that it gave Tribune an edge for a period of time. That period of time was important … an election year.
My forte is large content sites (e-commerce, news, gaming, autos, etc.) that I can manage proper PageRank flow, content relevance emphasis, site structure, editorial training, link partnerships (not buying, not exchanging, partnering with key organizations) and big picture SEO strategy. Truly optimizing a site!
What do I suck at in SEO? Mobile SEO, the latest blackhat tactics, Flash SEO, are a few of the big ones. How do I overcome it? Via my relationships in the industry to learn more by sending: an email, a direct message on Twitter, Skype text, Instant Message, etc. Occasionally, a project warrants hiring a consultant to help out. Such was the case with Tribune and their Mobile SEO needs. I hired Cindy Krum to take care of it for me. Best decision I could’ve made. I was able to focus on other things instead while she did what she does best … Mobile SEO.
Q: Had you previously worked with in-house teams in your e-commerce work? At the Tribune did you inherit a team, or was team-building one of your initial tasks?
Brent: I worked with in-house teams at OneCall.com, Targus.com, SimpleTech.com’s own website and Viking Component’s Memory Configurator which we put on other ecommerce sites like Amazon.com, Buy.com, Walmart.com, BestBuy.com and others. Teams being a loose term though, not necessarily what they are today at a company like AOL for example that have a group of people all with nice and neat SEO titles and specific sites to work on. You have to remember that it’s only in the past few years that SEO has really gained a massive momentum within organizations.
Before that, SEO was a function of something larger like marketing, advertising, technology, etc. My roles everywhere except here at Tribune have been multi-faceted. The roles included SEO as well as business development, affiliate program management, advertising, marketing, sales, even operations and user experience roles have been included in my job titles. The role at Tribune where I could be just the SEO was very exciting to me as SEO has always been my passion despite my other duties – sometimes to the detriment of those other duties (but I always made up for it in returns with SEO).
When I started at Tribune, Sarah Walker (now at Motorola), helped me to identify some potential candidates for what later became the SEO Task Force. The concept of setting up a task force was an idea that was here before I got here. However, with all of the layoffs, attrition, promotions, role changes, etc. that has beset Tribune, the original team is really not in existence anymore.
Today, it is a team of about 80 people across 70+ domains that are under the Tribune Company umbrella (either directly or via partnerships where we manage their SEO for them as part of our CMS services package, yes we sell our CMS now – it’s quite popular.) In a nutshell, their task is to be my eyes and ears over a subset of the content. My role is to be the point person for SEO questions and funnel those up if they can’t answer them. To be the person that will tell me when they have a piece of content that they need help from the Tribune network of sites to rank better on. To be the person that will make sure SEO best practices are adhered to as regularly as possible. None of them officially report to me directly (not even Kat Bockli, our SEO Communications Coordinator) but when I have something for them to do, they do it and prioritize it above all us. Frankly, it’s a perfect system for my style. Less management headaches and yet still very efficient.
Q: I’m curious to know about the composition of your team. Is it a large team, and what’s the mix of roles?
Brent: As mentioned above, the team is around 80 people. It varies from VPs to interns. Roles vary from marketing, to sales, to photography, to editors, to producers, to anchorman, to even weathermen. It’s about passion and understanding of SEO more than what your daily duties are that gets you into the SEO Task Force. Can I rely on you to be my eyes and ears? Can I rely on you to jump into action when needed? Are you able to influence others around you to accomplish an important task on a tight deadline?
Q: Are in-house SEO teams the norm or the exception for news organizations of any size? Is it presumptuous to say that news outfits lacking SEO programs risk online marginalization, or is it still possible to be successful in online news without substantial search-driven traffic? And is setting up SEO in-house always the best way to go?
Brent: I am friends with most of the major media organizations in-house SEOs. Mostly because I am loud and obnoxious on Twitter and because I’ve had some really awesome people put their neck out there for me to get me into the SEO speaking circuits. Plus, Jessica Bowman,. creator of the In-House SEM Exchange at SMX, has taken me under her wing and put me in a position where I have a leadership role in the in-house SEO niche of our industry.
Thanks to this gracious position others have chosen to put me into, I get an insightful view into the SEO organizations of other media companies. I can state that most of them struggle with the same things I struggle with at Tribune. Some of them have greater hurdles and some of them aren’t in a position to risk ‘everything’ to fight a proper fight to win an important battle. I’ve put my job on the line several times at Tribune. Literally packed my cubicle up three times expecting the next day could be my last. Most people won’t take risks like that – I do. I don’t expect others at other organizations to do the same though. I wouldn’t have before Tribune either.
I’d say most of the major media organizations have someone assigned to SEO. Are they dedicated enough to it? Are they the right person for that organization? That could be debated in some instances but, for the most part, I think media companies today realize the benefits that can be had from SEO. I think Marshall Simmonds really led the charge on that and I will forever be grateful he did so because it’s what made my role at Tribune possible. Funny how a competitor of mine today (and a formidable one) is indirectly responsible for me even being where I am today at Tribune.
I think some media companies are small enough that they don’t need a dedicated in-house person full time. I feel a part time in-house SEO person could be sufficient for them. I know people that are willing to do such a role too so maybe I’ll become a recruiter of sorts someday and just get paid to make introductions.
Can a media company survive without SEO? Hmmm. Can any company survive without SEO is the question I feel should be asked. I’d say they can survive … it’s just really less effective. Marshal Simmonds once said that NYTimes.com receives over 50% of their traffic from search engines. Tribune now receives about 40% of their traffic from search engines. But … how much of our revenue does it generate is the bigger question and one I won’t answer.
Q: You obviously work closely with journalists, and one of your tasks is educate them about SEO. Journalists can sometimes be antagonistic towards SEO, believing that the necessity of strategic keyword use stifles creativity. Have you had success in changing writers’ attitudes about SEO? And what have you found to be effective in bringing recalcitrant stakeholders – whatever their roles – on-board with SEO efforts?
It’s about understanding personalities and roles. It’s about knowing SEO so well that any question they ask you are prepared to answer and if they catch you off guard, admit it and refuse to answer until you can get additional information. I train a group of people on SEO that are trained to ask questions. Journalists are born with an inquisitive spirit as well as a skeptical view on things that aren’t based in hard facts. I try to provide as many hard facts as possible for them. I use the people around them that they do trust to ‘bless me’ as someone that they should give the benefit of the doubt. Whether that person is a peer of theirs or a respective boss, I don’t really care. You start somewhere. You start with the people that are willing to listen and learn and see the success that SEO can bring to them personally as a journalist (like a great audience) as well as the benefits it can create for the company (like revenue and branding.)
I make it very clear I am not a journalist. That they do things I can’t even fathom doing. They understand the English language far beyond this hick from a town of 800 people in Northeastern Oregon (Irrigon, OR) could ever understand. I need them. I need them to be successful at what I do. I then explain to them that just as they are good at their role. I am good at mine and we can help each other to be even more successful both for personal careers and for the company that writes our paychecks.
Not everyone listens … but most do. For those that don’t listen, find out who they will listen to and teach that person so they can become passionate about SEO and willingly share it with the skeptic.
It’s never just about the message … it’s about how well one trusts the messenger as well. Try to gain rapport but with as many people as you can but know it’s not possible to do it 100% of the time. Go for the secondary network if necessary.
Q: Google News is a fascinating beast. Unlike, say, e-commerce SEO, you’re not looking for long-term SERP stability but short-term exposure, and mostly in the three or four links in the web news vertical (the “one-box”). And the ranking algorithm, as you’ve written about, is different from the web algorithm. Does news optimization entail doing things very differently than what you would for non-news indexed websites, or are the fundamental tactics basically the same?
Brent: NewsRank is about mentions from other sites that are in the Google News database. Get more mentions from them. Appear to be the original source of the information. Make it easy for Google News to find your most important stories quickly and accurately. I am not going to go into too much detail on this question. It’s kind of the core of what I get paid to do at Tribune and I like my paycheck.
Q: You’ve extolled the virtues of Live’s xRank. Do you think Microsoft has done a better job here with trending search data than Google has with Trends?
Brent: I like that I can find celebrity information easily through xRank. It’s similar to Yahoo’s Buzz but it’s deeper and I happen to have an API to the information in xRank so it’s easy for me to extract data from it. Hmmm. Not sure if that API is public or not. Probably is by now. If not, well, relationships at the search engines are a plus.
Q: You’ve described content management systems for media companies as “horrid,” and cited CMS enhancements as a prime factor in increasing search traffic to the Tribune. What proportion of your efforts is dedicated to CMS and site structure improvements? And what’s your success been in getting (often expensive) development resources dedicated to these tasks?
Brent: Ah, yes, the lovely concept that Tribune had 10 years ago to duplicate as many times the same exact content online. It was a mindset of print applied to the web. When I got here it was horrid. Literally, 500+ copies of the exact same story being published online to dozens of domains. We had little to no tools to manage 301’s, our content auto expired after 30 days with no redirects, our link structure was a disaster.
We have made hundreds of changes to our CMS to specifically improve SEO. I think we have the best CMS in the newspaper industry at this point for SEO (but we have a lot of work to do still, our URL structure being one core issue that drives me insane.) We have also made a few steps backwards for convenience and saving on man-hours of our web producers. Example, our H tags used to be really well laid out and Google used them as a hierarchy of information. Our H1 appeared only once on our homepages, H2s only a couple of times, etc.; really clean hierarchy of information. Since then, we allowed for greater flexibility and lost that cleanliness and hierarchy. It was a step backward for SEO but a leap forward for flexibility. As an in-house SEO, you have to know when to let things go for the good of the company sometimes; hence the case in this scenario.
Today, we can 301 redirect massive layers of content if needed. We can change the destination page of our taxonomy links in our content to any page on the web. We are starting to better understand how Google thinks in regards to what content needs to be on a page for customers coming from a Google property and how that compares to what Googlebot crawled. We are doing some interesting things via our monetization partner, PerfectMarket, with archive pages (e.g.) they manage for us as well. Again, many things to improve upon . . . but wow, am I impressed by the massive improvements we made in the past 2-1/2 years I’ve been at Tribune.
I can solidly state that we have a very talented technology team and a management team that embraces risk and change versus cowards to the thought of it. Without these two components, success would’ve been slower (but I still would’ve got it, LOL.) I very empowered at Tribune and honored that, despite the hell I give our technology team and the ridiculous deadlines at times … they continue to love me enough to continue putting in the insane hours to make it happen.
They say you are only as good as the team behind you. I’ve learned over the years that to be true.
Q: Between the continuing struggles of print publications to make ends meet, Rupert Murdoch’s ongoing war of words with Google, and a new paywall being planned for the New York Times, whether or not to charge for online news content has become a hotly debated question. Do you think a paid content model is viable for online news? And what impact, if any, do you think paywalls may have on search indexing and traffic, given the ability of the Google News bot to circumvent registration requirements?
Brent: Well … Rupert Murdoch is taking a different path. I have to give him credit for starting a pissing match with the likes of Google. I’m sure part of it is for amusement (billionaires are interesting folks, I’ve known a few throughout my career) and part of it is legitimate. I think a larger part is just a misunderstanding of the situation from the beginning and now egos making it impossible to back down. I hope Rupert Murdoch is successful … but faith and hope have never been my strong suit. Action and results work better for me and I’ve seen much results from his battle.
Tribune is going in a different direction for as long as I can influence management to do so. Sometimes I do better than other times in keeping Tribune focused on what I feel is the best approach here. I can’t say what we are working on but I will state it is all about working smarter and being more revolutionary than just pointing blame at a company that has done a fantastic job of becoming a landing page of the Internet. If Rupert can brand his papers enough in the eyes, minds and hearts of his customers and be the destination for news then he won’t need Google. Reality is, that is a very long and expensive battle and CNN is already miles ahead of all of us.
I am proud of how Tribune has gone from about 22% of their overall traffic derived from SEO to over 40% derived from SEO over the past couple of years, but – without more direct traffic to our sites, the more reliant we are on Google. As they continue to launch more and more products that keep their users on their site longer versus linking off to media sites like WSJ, NYT, or Tribune, the scarier it gets. I’ve watched traffic to our sites decline as they launch more and more 1-boxes. We can’t rank on AP articles (for the most part) because they have a direct relationship. What happens if Google decides they don’t need us to provide a proper user experience for their customers? That’d be painful.
So I ask … who needs who more when we discuss media companies and Google? I’m thrilled to see Tribune working on things that will make us less reliant on Google.
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