Organic Audience Development Across a Broad Spectrum

Video Interview with Simon Heseltine, Head of SEO at AOL

For many SEO professionals on the brand-side, a job well done means increases in traffic, conversions and revenue for your company’s website. But what if your company had multiple websites? And what if each of those websites sold ad space and relied on each and every impression as a source of revenue? Finally, what if these websites were the likes of TechCrunch, Huffington Post, Autoblog and more?

Simon Heseltine’s Insights into Building Organic Audience

For SEO juggernaut, Simon Heseltine, this just begins to scratch the surface of his role as Senior Director of Organic Audience Development at AOL. Simon stopped by the DragonSearch office not long ago and provided a wealth of knowledge on mobile marketing trends, event marketing strategies and audience engagement. He was also kind enough to sit down with me for a quick video interview in the first installment of Marketology in Motion, a new interview series published by DragonSearch and hosted by yours truly.

We hope you enjoyed our interview with Simon. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and be sure to be on the lookout for the next Marketology in Motion video.

Video Transcription

Abe: Today we are with Simon Heseltine who is the Head of SEO at AOL’s web properties such as Huffington Post, Tech Crunch and a lot of other really cool websites. What role does that play in the revenue model for all these properties?

Simon: My role as the head of the organic audience development team, which encompasses both SEO and social, is to help all the teams we have across the organization to improve their SEO, to improve their social and to thereby grow as much as they can in the areas that we want them to grow, which is pretty much everything.

Abe: You’re creating inventory for these products by bringing organic traffic and visits to these websites. Is that accurate?

Simon: We are actually working with the individual sites to enable them to grow. So my team, we’re not writing the content, we’re helping to train those teams. We work with their developers to make sure their sites are as crawable as possible. With some of the sites we help them find out the keywords that that they want to be targeting, the type of content that they should be targeting and we help them achieve what we want them to achieve.

Abe: How much of your daily work flow is training and really consulting these internal teams and how much of it is actually implementing strategies and kind of getting into the nitty gritty?

Simon: One of the members of my team, she is basically embedded with some of the properties. So she is working on a very close basis with AOL Autos, Auto Blog, Daily Finance, AOL Jobs and a few others. She is really able to really do deep dives to help those brands by working directly with both their developers and the editorial staff. With me, at the moment, I am working on pretty much everything else. I’m working with doing training for those sites, I’m helping them out with redesigned, CMS migrations. If we’re are looking at any kind of acquisitions then you know my team will be asked to pull up a profile of those sites to see whether it is worthwhile to actually move forward with those. For an in-house marketer one of the biggest tasks is actually the inter-team interactions, actually getting, in some cases, getting teams talking to themselves. Helping them to understand how they should prioritize, which elements are worth them actually getting out there and doing them. Which are just nice to have.

Abe: What type of work flow are you helping them implement when you are taking something from a journalistic perspective and translating it into something that is really going to meet these kind of more bottom line objectives of the greater web property?

Simon: It’s making sure that SEO is part of their DNA. That they understand why they are doing something and why they need to do something. Journalists won’t necessarily use the named entity, in the title, in the description, they won’t put it in there. So they need to make sure they do things like that. So if you are talking about a particular place or particular person that is pertinent to the story, they are the primary entities for the story, put them in there. And just because something happens to be hot, that doesn’t mean that every story you write about 10 key releases should feature the name Lady Gaga.

Abe: Do you get a lot of push-backs when you start to really get into areas that some might perceive to kind of cross the line into making editorial recommendations?

Simon: They want to get eyeballs on their articles. They want people to come and look at it. It’s helpful for them to have as many people as possible come and read their articles to see what they have to say. You will occasionally have journalists that will write a soft lead for a story, so they will put a really flowery start that’s just descriptive and doesn’t talk about the actual story. If you have a CMS that strips out the first 150 characters and says that’s the description for the article as a lot of people’s CMS actually do. That description has no bearing on the story as a whole, it doesn’t have any keywords, when it gets searched for, in all likelihood Google is going to say the keywords aren’t here, we are going to rip it from somewhere in the story and you may get a description that doesn’t match what you are actually looking for in the story. You are not going to get that call-to-action that you maybe want. So one of the things is to make sure that writers have the ability to override the description, to override the title, to make sure it is maybe a little bit more search engine friendly, or SERP friendly. The one thing I always, always start off by telling journalist is I am never going to tell you to write for a search engine. A search engine is not going to read your article, a search engine is not going to click through and read more articles of yours, a search engine isn’t going to come back because they like what you wrote, a user is. I want people to write for users. I am not going to change anybody’s journalistic style. Write for users because they are the people that actually care, that actually matter. But think about how users would find you in the search engines. Because we’re all searchers. We all go onto Google, we all go onto BING, we all go onto AOL and we search. No need to smirk when I mention AOL. We search for content and you’ve got to think about how would you like to be found.

Abe: You also mention that you work a lot with the social teams, can you describe what that work flow is like?

Simon: I actually have a social guy on my team and he is responsible for running the social tools we have. Not all of them, we have different tools for different teams. He does a lot of the best practices training across the organization. We all get the data, we will do the analysis, we will do the audits, we will figure out where things could potentially be improved. One of the first audits he did when he came into the organization, he looked at one of our sites, he said you are not posting on weekends, people are searching for your content on weekends. Post on weekends. We posted on weekends, engagement shot up. A lot of it is common sense but it’s applying that common sense. I did a webinar for ClickZ in December of last year. I was asked where I thought search was going, what people needed to do for 2013. Get your house in order before you start thinking about what the next big thing is. Run crawls on your site, see what’s working, see what isn’t working. People talk about SEO all the time as dying, dead, and it’s not, SEO just evolves. Google changes. BING changes. All search engines change. Nothing looks like it did before 2007 when we had the 10 blue links, universal search since then, we’ve had, not provided is something that’s happened over the last, since October 2011. But obviously in the last two weeks it’s been a big…

Abe: It really shot up.

Simon: Well, it’s 100 percent of Google traffic. Not 100 percent of traffic as people keep saying, 100 percent of Google traffic. There is a difference. You don’t get all of your traffic from Google, if you do, you’ve got a big problem. You should at least be getting some data from BING, Yahoo, AOL, Ask and so forth.

Abe: And that data is becoming more and more valuable.

Simon: It’s the only data you got from there seeing it in your analytics.

Abe: So what brought you to SEO in the first place?

Simon: I started out as a smalltalk developer, moved over to become a Java developer. I was over in Virginia working for a company called Synexus which eventually evolved to Innovectra. We were doing local Yellow Pages. We were working four of the top five telecoms at the time. We were taking their Yellow Pages, the print format and we were putting it online, in the same look and feel. So it was an up-sell for their Yellow Page sales guy. We had these sites up there, it looked really nice. We implemented, we put web trends on there and we got to look at the traffic and the traffic was kind of like that. We gotta do something about that, what can we do? And the CEO said I’ve heard about this thing called SEO, can you take a look at it Simon. So I took a look at it and yeah that’s where I started working with it, was probably the last time I did any code. I can still read code, can’t speak it anymore. We took those sites and started working our way, started working on PPC, started working on SEO. And then as I went to the agency side after that and started working on all the social. Really missed the in-house side of things. About four and a half years ago, I moved over to AOL because I thought that was a good challenge there.

Abe: So if there are folks out there that you could give one take away, one skill that you feel is really critical maybe something that has helped you, what would you say it is?

Simon: Probably curiosity and problem solving. The team when I first came to AOL, we had two former developers, two former librarians, a former chef, I forget what the others have done in their past lives, but they came at it from different angles. The librarians came at it from a more analytical perspective, the developers we came at it from a more of that architectural perspective, the chef, she was all content. I think it is really is just that, having that curiosity, trying to find where that piece of the puzzle is, to see what works, just moving things around a little bit, not necessarily listening to what everyone says as canon or gospel. Having your own curiosity and trying things yourself.

Abe: Well thank you so much for joining us and you can connect with him @simonheseltine on Twitter and feel free to check out our blog at Looking forward to the next time. Thanks so much.

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