SEO: The Best Aren’t Always Transparent

I'm on the Growth team at Help Scout. A husband and father of 2. Love data and search.

    In SEO, most are self-taught by reading the great blogs at Moz, Blind Five Year old, Search Engine Land, etc.

    That’s my story. I started on Moz’s SEO guide (doesn’t it bring back good memories):

    Image Credit: Moz

    I watched every Whiteboard Friday on Friday morning (and still watch). I even tried to post WBF on Inbound before anyone else 🙂 I then graduated from asking questions to giving answers in the forums.

    Next, I started picking up content from others: Search Engine Land, SE Journal, Blind Five Year Old, SEER, and hundreds of others. I followed all the big names.

    I really thought I was an expert in SEO (and so did my Linkedin Profile). I had read every article on Moz (no exaggeration). I was giving “expert answers” on forums. I consulted with a few small sites, and even completed several projects with different IT teams and Project Managers. I was convinced I was an SEO expert.

    So a few years ago, I took my expert SEO knowledge, resume, and applied to one of the top 50 websites in the world. I landed an interview.

    • First interview was a HR screening (went great ).
    • Second interview was with the Director of SEO (led a team of 30). We chatted about my interest in SEO — but nothing technical.
    • Third interview was with a team member. We didn’t even talk about SEO because we hit it off so well (things were looking great).
    • The final round was to analyze a competitor’s website and give recommendations. Easy. I got this, right? I know everything Moz, SEER, and Blind Five Year old have ever written about SEO.
    • I wrote down my best 20 page analysis.
    • Failed it.

    Failure was the best thing that ever happened to me. 

    The worst part about failing the analysis was when I asked what I could have improved, the director couldn’t tell me. I was in the dark. I didn’t know if it was because my analysis was so off that she didn’t know where to begin? Or was she afraid of giving away secrets (am I missing something crucial)?

    Where was the transparency? Up until this point, everyone in SEO had been transparent: in conversations, tweets, and articles.

    Not receiving an answer made me seek answers more urgently. What had I missed? How was I to take it to the next level? Was there another blog I was not reading? And then, it hit me:

    Want to the best in SEO? Stop reading only the mainstream blogs, start reading job descriptions of the world’s largest sites, and implement the skills they require.

    I Stopped Reading Only the Mainstream Blogs

    Once I got the fundamentals down, I realized that my skill set was fairly stagnant. I knew all of the terms, had grown sites in organic traffic, but needed more.

    How many of you recognize these names?

    These are amazing people (without much of their writing, I’d be deficient in my job). I could also name a hundred more that you would know. Why do we know these names? Because they publish, they are transparent about their success and failures (as much as they can be while maintaining a business advantage).

    How many of you recognize these names?

    The names above represent some of the greatest minds in SEO: Nike, Etsy, TripAdvisor, Getty Images, and Amazon. For the most part (minus Kaitlin, while she worked for Portent), many of the names above are non-existent on the popular blog sites.

    • Did Steve Bates write an article when Nike became the worlds largest shoe site? What about an article on how they used SQL + Visual mapping to make architectural changes that led to better crawling and more indexing?
    • What about Peter — when Amazon became one of the most visited sites in the world? Did he write an article on architectural changes that led to better crawlability, which led to more indexing, and finally: more sales?

    Of course the examples above are false, because I can’t find any articles from them (and that’s okay — businesses do have to have secrets to succeed. They also probably signed non-disclosure agreements).

    Better yet, TripAdvisor (one of the most respected in SEOIMO) created Trip Advisor SEO University… yet it’s for employees only.

    This is not a critique of “lack of transparency” with these people but figuring out a way around it.

    If you are self-taught SEO, how do you keep learning? How do you continue to learn SEO when transparency stops?

    I Started Reading Job Descriptions

    That’s right: I read job descriptions 🙂

    The best companies normally don’t give away their secrets — unless it’s in a job description.

    Personally, I enjoy a Growth / SEO job description over a blog article on “9 Billions SEO hacks …”. Why? Because you can learn more. You also learn what the company is focusing on (you’re basically reading the rubric to their upcoming projects).

    Think you’re an expert? Nothing more humbling than reading a job you aren’t qualified for (or getting rejected, in my case). Take a look at Trip Advisor’s Job Description for a SEO Strategist:

    Trip Advisor Job Description

    When was the last time you saw an in-depth post on SEO and SQL on any blogs? What about HIVE and SEO? How many SEOs know what HIVE is? (I didn’t). Why? Because no one has really covered it:

    Image Credit: Google

    How would you know that SEOs need to know HIVE/SQL unless you read the job descriptions? Trip Advisor isn’t writing articles about “How they used HIVE in project X to grow their SEO traffic by Y%”.

    Notice what is not mentioned in the JD?

    Content. Nothing is mentioned about writing SEO focused content.

    Let’s keep going: what about Amazon (SEO Manager):

    Amazon Job Description

    Geez. I can’t remember the last article I read on Artificial Intelligence and SEO.

    Just do it.

    Reading job descriptions is humbling.

    Sure, read the ones for which you are qualified and pat yourself on the back. But when you dig in and read the job descriptions like the ones above, your head will quickly start to deflate and you’ll have plenty to work on. It’s in this place you start to learn. As one of my favorite people, Wil Reynolds, says:

     

     

    So what did I do after I failed? I went back — re-read the job description and quickly realized that I was nowhere near qualified. I started thinking like:

    • What in the world is HIVE?”
    • How would an SEO use SQL to analyze data?”
    • It’s not illegal to crawl a portion of TripAdvisor slowly — lets get a massive list of URLs and put them in Excel and analyze them.”
    • Oh wait… Excel crashes”
    • Ahhh… That’s why they use SQL

    It was asking those questions that led to a greater understanding of SEO. I quickly learned that large site / e-commerce SEO was less about reading the latest link-building piece, and more about solving problems with large data sets. It was about:

    After being declined for the job, I stopped consuming every piece of content marketing. I stayed up to date with the major publications and am grateful to those blogs for having a solid understanding of SEO, but I spent my time reading job descriptions that I was not qualified for and started:

    • Learning more technical skills. I’m not going to write C (yet), but SQL, JS — yea, I can do that.
    • Playing with large data sets and trying to find problems and patterns.
    • Reading over robots.txt files to analyze what sites were hiding (which by the way, has led to some of the greatest discounts available! That’s where most hide their promo pages).
    • Paying close attention to the structure of larger sites (crawlability = indexation = possibly higher rankings).

    I also started thinking about the problems they faced (and the skill-sets they were seeking):

    • Are the worried about link-building?” Probably not in the way I think of it. One link from example.com wouldn’t move the needle.
    • What if their bigger problem was the distribution of those backlinks among their key pages?”

    It was thoughts like the above that trained me to look for bigger issues. I spent less time thinking content marketing and more time thinking data analysis and hypothesis.

    Did it work?

    A few years later, I did end up getting a job offer from a larger commerce site in SEO.

    I turned it down.

    However, the skills I had acquired from reading those job descriptions led to the type of job you dream of.

    I'm on the Growth team at Help Scout. A husband and father of 2. Love data and search.

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    • Great article and a good way to find out more about SEO tricks. In the end it’s all about data:

      - What data do I need
      — How do I get it
      — And how do I use it

      • eoverbey

        Agree 100%.

    • Worth reading post thanks Eli for sharing your experience, I always read job descriptions carefully before applying for any job as I don’t want to waste my and other times for conducting interviews where I don’t fulfill what they are looking for but reading job descriptions will allow you to improve your knowledge in different areas.

    • Scott Pittman

      What you are talking about here is enterprise seo. Sites like amazing and Nike get tons of links and have mega brands. This means technical seo like the job descriptions you see features much more heavily… because it moves the needle and makes a huge difference to these types of sites. 

      Most of the stuff you find online is geared to the small — medium and even large site/brand, not the mega brands. This means content and links factors much more heavily in moving the needle.

      So the takeaway from my comment is both of these approaches and skill sets have a place, just different situations. The skill for leaders is in knowing how/what/where to apply these different elements/skills 😉

      • eoverbey

        Complete agree and valid point. 

        I think there are a few, Capterra (no association whatsoever, just love), comes to my mind as one that falls between enterprise and content marketing. I find it fascinating to apply enterprise to content marketing for scale.

    • Hi Eli.
      It is worth reading your experience. I don’t know whether being or acting or looking “transparent” is part of SEO, but i liked your article. A unique idea, i didn’t see around till now. I observe that top-most SERP articles are written for the liking of the search engines than the casual user. I think it’s time for Google and Bing to show results of fresh and WORTHY content and articles which even do not have 1 back link. Yes, that’s difficult to separate the milk from the curd. But in the next decade with A.I growing, that should not be long enough.

      Thanks,
      Palla.

    • Nice approach Eli… SEO is much more than what 99% of the people teaches… Thanks

    • Completely agree, people also ask for SEO analysis & Strategy, when they got complete for their website, then result after all SEO interview round = Rejected.

    • Keith L Evans

      Truly stop and think about it. If you knew how to rank a website, why would you reveal your secret formula?!!

      • eoverbey

        And I think that’s where Moz, Seer, Seige Media are to be thanked. They don’t have to do what they do. I know it’s part of creating interest around their own products but still honorable.

    • Interesting read Eli, thanks for sharing part of your journey 🙂

    • Chandan Nasta

      So where can we go and find such experts who are the best at their work?

    • Tom

      I’m a data analyst. And it’s data that drew my interest towards SEO (as well as making extra $). Crawling sites using python, developing univariate models to forecast data from Google trends, using tableau and R to discover patterns in the captured data is fascinating for me. I agree with this article and think the Web is a data analysts/scientists playground.

      • eoverbey

        Much respect, Tom. I wish I had began SEO with a computer/data background, instead of learning computer/data with an SEO background.

    • Vinicius Castro

      Life changing article. Just thanks! <3

      • eoverbey

        Well thanks!

    • Good article. As an enterprise SEO this is what I’m spending a lot more time with — how do we make the links we’re naturally getting from all of our PR and brand marketing activities work with our site architecture to better benefit our key pages.

      Always lots to analyze and even more to do!

      • eoverbey

        Thanks for the comment Craig. Tons of respect for enterprise (and others).

    • If you are so good at SEO (and it sounds like you are), why not just create an affiliate site, get traffic, and forget working some crummy, corporate 9–5? And what is really the measure of a good SEO? 10x-ing your former salary with your own internet property or making 60k a year and doing ‘SQL SEO’ and then begging for a 5k bonus from some jerk*ff boss who takes all the credit?

      • Mathew

        +1. But u have to develop mindset like this and 90% of people simply can’t (or don’t want to)

        • In the immortal words of Stephen Jackson: “he ain’t’ bout dat life”. 

          Really absurd- he’s got the keys to the kingdom but prefers to be a salaried tour guide.

          • eoverbey

            Thanks for your comment and POV Ryan. I get it — I really do. And do apologize if the article took the approach of me “being so good at SEO”. Wasn’t the intent. 

            I do some small affiliate, but nothing major.

            • No need to apologize- it’s a great article. I’m just saying, for your own benefit, since you are apparently good at SEO, you can leverage all of your skills and break out of the 9 to 5. That’s if you want to. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, too. Why not turn “small” affiliate into “big” affiliate, that’s the question.

            • eoverbey

              Thanks Ryan. And noted — really.

            • Siem van Dongen

              I totally agree on this. But as Mathew said, most of the people are good at SEO, not at business / entrepreneurial stuff. I’m definitely focusing on my own stuff, combined with customers. I’ve got my monthly salary ánd I’m working on getting that passive income going.

    • Good read, and I like what you say about SEO’s are self trained — that’s so true and everyone has their own understanding on what’s important for effective SEO. It’s an interesting concept and I’ll take a look at a few job descriptions for some of the companies that are more reputable — also agree on your point about being transparent — why would these guys share their most effective strategies with the rest of the world.

      • eoverbey

        It’s interesting. There is a really great culture that Moz, Seer, etc, have created around transparency. Then you have the opposite spectrum — where you sign NDAs even to interview 🙂 AND I get it. It’s not a critique, just figuring out how to jump the hurdles.

    • Guy Hamilton

      Great article as the “lesson” has applications to all industries and life in general. Once you start to believe that you know everything, you’re screwed. Think outside the box and continue to search and learn. “Failure was the best thing that ever happened to me”.…Something we all need to learn!

      • Jordan

        Fantastic observation. You are the only one who was able to see the philosophical angle on this.…..what site to you work with and how can I contact you?

        • Guy Hamilton

          Hey Jordan.……thanks for the compliment but it was the author who nailed it.…Im in the affiliate marketing business and dabble in a few other things

      • eoverbey

        Thanks Guy. And great recap.

    • Ok Eli, so the post intrigued me and yes I AM SURE I am not the SEO expert I think I am — if if was I would be ranking for more keywords in higher places.

      Yet, it leaves with a bitter taste in my mouth — is this how your article ends? Tell me something new — what, where, how do I start to learn more? How will learning Hive make me a better SEO?

      • eoverbey

        Sorry it left you with a bitter taste, David. And comment noted — I’ll keep that in mind the next time I post.

    • yagneshshenoy

      This article was actually insightful, I also was once a know-It-All SEO expert, But now i’m wiser

    • I think the post makes a critical error in assuming that the best SEOs in the world work for the largest consumer-facing companies. I’ve worked with people who work at large companies doing SEO in the travel space (millions of organic visitors per month) and they’re often dealing with difficult challenges no doubt about it. 

      However, they’re dealing with a completely different set of challenges that the average small-business owner who needs to sell more widgets or drive more leads for their business. If we look at the raw numbers of traffic, sure, the best SEO in the world works for Wikipedia or eBay. 

      But, if you instead measure your skills based on the impact you can have for one site and one business, I think you’ll get a completely different set of people. Both sets are skilled, knowledgeable and talented. Bigger is not always better.

      • eoverbey

        Valid Point, Conrad. I agree with you and wasn’t something I mentioned above ^. Thanks!

    • Gianluca Fiorelli

      Good post and you bring up interesting reasons.
      As a self-taught SEO since 13 years, and still learning, I agree with Scott when he says that what you’re talking about is more Enterprise SEO, which is heavily keen toward hard technical SEO… sincerely Machine Learning for SEO when your average client is more interested in Local Search is, well… surely interesting and to know about but not so useful in your daily job.

      Said that, it is not so true that you cannot find valid and also “popular” SEO writing in depth post about topics like the ones you cite. Mike King, for instance, could be cited.
      And you cite also Stephanie Chang, who actually wrote about her job as SEO at Etsy in the Moz blog.

      Or you can find people like Russell McAthy, who will talk about how to use Machine Learning for Forecasting Future Sales at The Inbounder in London I organize (or, again, Mike King who will talk about practical uses of ML for marketing at The Inbounder NY).

      I mean, to discover experts who openly write about hard-and-not-common SEO topics in not impossible 🙂

      • Justin Morgan

        This is an extremely well put article, as always on the ahrefs blog. 

        Thanks for helping me think in a new way!

        I do think one of the reasons why there are no publishers on these topics has more to do with a lack of an audience that needs the info. 

        Even if you limit yourself to e-commerce SEO, most business owners actually need digital PR and link building services of the type you’ve studied. 

        Keep up the great work, Eli!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Eli. This is a great lesson for everybody. But I think one reason why these big names are on top of the list is because they know something we probably don’t. They have their secret recipe I guess. But anyways, I was wondering why did you turned down a big job offer at that time?

    • The simple idea of reading job descriptions to get insight into company’s needs is such a powerful one. I started working as a content marketing guy without ever having read any job descriptions at all, and 4 years later I’m only just beginning to check them out. It’s really quite illuminating, and goes so far beyond SEO. Good post!

    • GREAT ARTICLE