season 1, episode 2: on exiting with Jonathon Colman

Episode Summary

The last big shifts in SEO Jonathon Coleman remembers are Panda, Penguin, and (keyword not found), while today some folks working in enterprise may not even know about those algorithm shifts. So what has Jon been up to since? We discuss:

  • How he shifted into content design (and what it is)
  • How REI looked at SEO back in the early 2000’s
  • What the big takeaways were from his enterprise SEO career

AMANDA: Hi everyone, this is Amanda, your host for this podcast called Engage on Enterprise SEO, where we go where nobody has gone before and dive deep into the world of Enterprise SEO from as many different angles and viewpoints as we can tackle. This is an interesting one, and if you heard me fan going before we recorded this episode, you might understand how excited I am to speak to Jonathan Coleman, Senior Design Manager at HubSpot.

Jono was one of the big SEO figures early in my career when he was at REI and so many times I bookmarked the articles he wrote or the insights he shared or I thought, man, I want to be able to do this someday. If you can’t tell, what we’ll be talking about today is life after enterprise SEO. Yes, it does exist. We’ll talk about things like how John made his exit and what he learned along the way.

JON:Like what you have to understand is at the time, REI did not have a deep investment in SEO. I was the investment. I was the only person whose responsibility it was to like focus on SEO all the time. And so we came up with this methodology and this was sort of our breakthrough moment in terms of accelerating impact and results from our SEO work.

What I was able to do was to sort of win over approval in REI’s marketing division, which created a lot of content and what they called online, their online division, which did a lot of like the technical work and infrastructure, is able to win approval for this concept that everyone should spend something like 1% of their time doing SEO work.

And if we could do that, and, you know, it’s nothing we tracked formally or anything, if we could do that, if we made SEO just a tiny part of everyone’s job, then we could achieve outsized results. And so we did some experimentation with that idea where teams would set aside a cycle to look at things like the content they were writing or how they were building infrastructure, how they were coding this or that page template or setting up the CMS, things like that. And we’re able to make some massive wins along the way. And over time that added up. I think what was key to winning folks over was just having the data. So everything we did in SEO at the time was intricately tracked. So it was very easy to see like, hey, what’s the average value of someone who arrives on a website through organic search? How many times do they need to visit us before they make a purchase? when they do make a purchase, like watch their average cart size, you know, what is SEO share of overall revenue. And from there, it was just a matter of making some projections. So like, hey, if you know, we’re confident that we could drive even something like a 10% increase in SEO through making optimizations and you know, writing content, managing content, setting up the website, doing infrastructure, all of those things and I think 10% was probably low balling it, then hey, we will achieve a massive, just a massive increase in the amount of traffic and revenue. And so that kind of set us along two different paths. One was optimizing for traffic and then the other was optimizing for experience. So, you know, how do we actually convert the people who would land on the site? So two major work streams there.

But yeah, no, the things I remember most are like a penguin, panda, keyword not, what was it? Keyword not allowed or no, keyword not shared. Keyword not found, like when they stopped showing organic search keywords in analytics, things like that. So I joined REI in 2008 to take on SEO. Again, I was the only person there at the time who was focused on SEO.But I did not sit as part of like their marketing department. So like all the advertising, all the brand design and brand just messaging, all of the writing of content, that was largely in marketing. But I was part of their online division. And the reason I was there is because of what I can only describe as a genius level of vision of someone, of the woman who hired me at REI. So her name was Samantha Starmer.

She’s a very old school information architect. I believe she’d been at Amazon and Microsoft before joining REI. And she had this crazy idea. Like you have to think back to 2008. At the time it was crazy. I believe now this may be common stance. I’m actually not sure. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. But she had this crazy idea that, hey, what if SEO is not a marketing discipline? What if instead it’s a experience to explain. So she paired me, an SEO person, with an information architect and a data architect as part of an online team. And together we sort of worked on like, what is the infrastructure of how like generates content, manages that content, what happens to traffic, what’s all the workflows for customers, things like that. And so we took this very like top tasks, like user experience focused approach to doing SEO, which allowed us to focus really deeply on like, hey, what is going to be best for the customer? What’s most relevant for them? What, in fact, are they looking for? And can we reduce the time to value so that they can find it even quicker? Meanwhile, all of the content that REI developed, they were early into branded content. So they had this massive library of what they called expert advice on the website.

All of that was being generated in marketing and being written in a very unique branded style and managed by teams there. And so as we began to get a handle on infrastructure and what you might think of as the pipes of SEO, over in marketing, we started to make connections and start to handle the water, if you will, that travels through those pipes over the content.

And so that’s sort of the initial idea of like my role at REI, how it was set up, what we sort of optimized for in our approach. And it led to some really good things. We had a lot of wins along the way. Once you start thinking about like, you know, core concepts, like findability and relevancy and like, you know, successful completion of a task, like a purchase in the case of REI’s customers. You.

It changes the way you see the world. You never sort of stop thinking about that. Essentially it’s an optimizer’s mindset. How can I more easily or better achieve the thing I’m optimizing for? So in my case, and I don’t know how interesting this journey is, but after doing SEO, is this super interesting? After doing SEO for a few years, hey, I was starting to get burnt out, as you do, as a thing that happens.

I remember thinking at the time, like, oh, if I have to, you know, rewrite one more title tag or tell someone else why meta keywords doesn’t make a difference, I am just going to lose it. And so again, I have Samantha to thank here. So she was also a professor at the University of Washington’s information school, which is part of the University of Washington’s like long long storied position of leadership in library science. And she convinced me to pursue a graduate degree in information management. And UW was very forward thinking about that program. And this sort of allowed people to kind of shape and craft it to suit their needs. So I really focused on information architecture because I had become more interested in user experience and in building product and in building experiences than I was in driving traffic, converting that traffic, optimizing for things like that. So over the course of two very long years, I took lots of night classes and weekend courses and did lots of readings and coursework and all those things.

And in 2013, I had graduated with this fresh, shiny master’s degree. But along the way, Samantha promoted me into a new role that she created at REI, which went by the title Principal Experience Designer, I think, or Experience Architect, maybe. I just wanna be open. It was a made-up title. What it really was, was a role as a content strategist. And so my last year at REI from roughly 2012 to 2013, I had sort of, you know, left the SEO role and they hired more people into that. And I believe I’ve actually built out a pretty decent like large team now, but I wasn’t focused on that anymore. So I just want to date for your listeners, my SEO knowledge ends sometime in 2012. Wow, a full decade ago, wow. But instead I was focused on like, okay, what is our enterprise approach to content? And I sat on a team of like, A team focused on content management and information architecture and taxonomy and search to try to figure that out. Um, so that was the, my last role at REI.

And I transitioned into Facebook where I was a content strategist working on product and a number of teams. Um, from there, I went to intercom here in Ireland, um, uh, to do the same thing for a different kind of product and her come as a B2B product. Um, and now I am at HubSpot doing much the same thing again.

So yeah, that’s sort of the thread and how it got started. The point is that, you know, and these are just my definitions for what it’s worth. I view content strategy as being like truly enterprise level, well, content strategy. So everything from, you know, what you might say on your website or in your product or in your communications or your PR or your publications or really everything else, content. I view that as sort of the role of the content strategist, which is to figure out how do we optimize this so that it’s good for your users or your customers, your clients, your constituents, but also is a business asset and provides business value. Yeah, so content design as opposed to content strategy is much more of a product focused discipline. And so here, what we’re trying to do is, make our products meaningful. So there’s an old quote about the role of design. And it basically says that design is how things work. And that could be a bit challenging for someone who’s usually focused on design as a way that things look, right? I want the design to be pretty, make the logo bigger, make it pop. But when we talk about products and how products work, design is the act of figuring out, how that thing works. And if we take that to be true, then content design, I think, is the act of determining what that thing means. Because what it means and what it’s good for and why you should use it and what you’ll get out of it and all of that, products don’t speak for themselves. It’s often quite difficult to determine that. And if we think about it hard, you’ve probably all had product experiences like that where you’re like, I’m not sure why I’m doing this or the value here is kind of murky or this seems confusing or maybe even…Am I being deceived? And so what content design strives to do is to make that experience clear above all other things. But similar to content strategy, content designers also have that dual mandate of producing both customer or user value on the one hand, but also business value on the other. You have to do both to be successful.

AMANDA: And after speaking about some of the ways in which UX shaped his career, his way of thinking and what he’s doing now, I asked Jono how he got to where he is now and how he transitioned away.

JON: I think I had some luck and some benefits on the way. So first of all, at REI, I was specifically, intentionally placed with a group of user experience focused people. And so when you’re exposed to that mindset often enough, it is quite influential and you do start thinking about everything as sort of a user experience.

That was one thing. The other thing though is that I had those two years of graduate school work. So I was exposed to also a lot of theory. And so I had the practice at work, I had the theory at school, and all sorts of assignments and things that I could partially execute at work. So I was just sort of constantly immersed in this for like a good two years. And so I think that that’s what helped me make the transition.

But you don’t have to do that. Like I wanna be really clear to folks, you do not have to invest in an expensive graduate degree. That is not a thing that is a requirement. A lot of people transition into content design, content strategy through related fields. Marketing being one of them. I myself obviously come from marketing, but also technical writing. I was a technical writer before I was a marketer. Even people come into it from design of all types.

I’ve seen people come into it from product as well, from analytics. I think of content strategy, content design as being like a big tent industry. Like we are so happy that you are interested in the value of good content. We want everyone to come in. We’re welcoming, very accepting. We’re just excited that you’re excited about it. So you do not need fancy schools or certifications or degrees or anything like that.

AMANDA: But then, of course, I had to bring it back to digital and SEO. How and where does the most crossover actually or theoretically between content design and SEO?

JON: We do, we have a few crossovers. One of the most important crossovers is product naming. And as you think about it, hey, that actually kind of makes a lot of sense. So I won’t bore you with the details, but naming is the hardest thing to do in product.

There’s an old computer science joke. Let’s see if I can remember this one. It, it goes something like there are only two hard problems in computer science. First is cash in validation. And the second is naming things. And that’s from like an engineer’s point of view. Naming things is really hard. And especially if you’re an engineer, you know, you’re naming like, you know, variables and database fields and all sorts of things, but even at like the product level, naming is really, really hard. And so what a lot of companies find is that they get into the situation where they have given everything, every concept in their product, some very custom, unique, special name. And it adds a lot of bloat. It really hurts, um, you know, uh, customers or their users cognitive loads. So they have to remember that like, when the interface says X that really means Y to them, they have to sort of meld how the company talks about things with their own mental model. This takes a lot of work. It makes for a not good customer experience. And for the company, they have to manage all those names. They gotta remember to call the thing the right thing. They get a lot of debt very quickly. So, and that’s just on the experience side. When we get to the marketing side, a bad product name can cause all sorts of problems. Everything from being perverted or becoming a sort of joke.

And I think like we probably all can think of examples of that. Uh, Chevy Nova, for example. But that’s not all that happens there. It may be that a product and its name are great, highly relevant, like, provides like the value prop of the product or otherwise signifies what it’s good for. And yet it’s not something that anyone knows to look for.

And so then that marketing team has this burden of like driving awareness before they can even get people into the experience. So what happens at HubSpot is that, our product team, our marketing team, our SEO team, but also our internationalization team, even folks looking at accessibility, we all have a piece to play in the naming process. And so what we try to do is to take folks ideas and their inputs and their concerns and their feedback into account. We look at things like competitors, and we just sort of try to build our confidence as we like diverge and converge on all these possible names to reach one that we think is going to work best. But at the end of the day, naming is hard. It’s always going to be a bit of a crap shoot. You never really know what’s gonna happen until you go public. So while naming, maybe where digital marketing and content design come together. 

AMANDA: What is the role of a content designer? How do they measure success? What does that look like in the day-to-day for someone who may be interested in becoming a content designer?

JON: My side in product is much more focused on like, hey, you know, once we have those people coming to us, you know, what’s the value props we can offer them? What’s the kind of experience we can give them that will meet their needs. And if they do something like set up a trial, for example, how do we follow through and make sure they’re getting the value that we said they would get? Decreasing time to value is a key thing, I think. All user experience people should be focused on.

AMANDA: Finally, I asked him what advice he would give to anyone coming into marketing or SEO at an enterprise level.

JON: Well, I guess I would say, that like your relationships internally with other teams is probably like the most important currency you can build and develop. And even talking about it in the metaphor of currency feels like that’s not right. Relationships are how anything happens. They don’t even have to be transactional. Relationships are just how we earn each other’s trust, drive partnership, gain momentum, get unstuck as well.

And that’s far more important than like, you know, I’m thinking back to 2012, you know, the latest thing that Matt Cutts might have written about or John Miller or that happened at an SEO conference, things like that. For me, that was always the worst part of the industry is that like, we were always trying to like find all these little crumbs and hints and things. It’s not really satisfying to work in an environment like that. But what is satisfying is building relationships with teams and with colleagues, helping everyone succeed together. I think that’s a large part of what’s driven my career and probably many careers of folks out there. That comes to mind as well as the only good trick I guess I had ever learned to do that, which is to find out what people value and then show them how you can help them achieve that value. So just a for instance, just a quick story about working at REI.

One of the things that was a great pain point for us when I was at REI was website performance. We knew it was slow, customers told us it was slow, and even doing things like research, usability, all of that, like we could see in real time with our customers that it was slow. And we eventually took on work to optimize our performance and that involved a number of different areas, front end, back end, our entire stack, content management, everything. But the reason why we took it on at that time, again, this was a long time ago now, was not just because it was a good thing to do for our customers, it absolutely was. I believe that performance is one of the very few silver bullets that is out there. The reason why we took it on is because SEO provided a business case for us to take it on. I could show a drop off of natural search or organic search customers based on how long they were waiting for things to load. And in particular parts of our site, performance was worse than in others. And so I could track how that affected conversion. And so the business case I put together, and it wasn’t just me, like I had to seek out people to contribute to this.

But it was organic search that drove the development of the business case and eventually the work. And that was a big part of how we tracked its impact after the work was done. Now, the point of the story is not to say, hey, I’m great or like, or, you know, website performance or site speed is like a universal, you know, win or silver bullet. It absolutely is. The point is to say that my approach to this was to try to figure out what is something that everyone in my organization wants. And then what can I provide that helps get them that thing? And then the key, and this is like the final piece of this, is that you call that thing whatever it is you do. So in my case, I said, oh, you wanna drive more conversion. You want to help customers have a better experience and you want to make more money, great.

I can help you with that and what I do is called SEO. And what I do now is basically the same thing in developing relationships, understanding what people value, try to figure out what they need. And now I just change that last line in the script and I say, oh, and by the way, that’s called content design. It’s the only trick I know, but it is a good trick. It’s simple, but like, hey, it’s a good thing.

I should mention we are in fact hiring right now. So if you stop by the HubSpot career site, you will see positions open for content designers. Look to the skies, look to the skies. Nope, nothing more to add. But thank you so much, Amanda. Thank you for having me on and thanks to your audience for listening. I really appreciate it. All right, cheers.

AMANDA: And I have to thank Jono for joining us today. It was a pleasure speaking with him. Thank you for listening everyone and I hope you enjoy this episode and the rest on Engage on Enterprise SEO. And as always, if you want to continue this conversation, find me at Twitter at Amandaecking or on LinkedIn. I’m Amanda King, but you should probably search for Floq, which is my business F-L-O-Q because there are quite a number of Amanda Kings on the internet. So everyone have a lovely day and we’ll talk soon.