Interview with Chris Alan, SEO manager for Expedia.com

January 14th, 2008

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Chris Alan is a SEO veteran who currently holds a position at Expedia.com as their search engine optimization manager. Currently, he manages and executes large-scale organic search campaigns and keyword portfolios as well as a number of other on-page and off-page SEO-related items that affect Expedia’s natural search engine placement.

Stephan Spencer, Netconceptsâ?? founder and president, interviewed Chris about his experiences with managing SEO for a large business. Read more about how Chris Alan’s experience working for a large website can help you understand SEO from a different perspective.

What types of keyword metrics are important to a business?

I think that anyone managing a SEO campaign is going to care about the volume of searches that are associated with any keyword, the likely click-through rate that they would be able to get given the current competition (for that keyword) and the anticipated or actual conversion rate that they could get for that size of the transaction and the profitability of that transaction. All general business effectiveness evaluations that you would want to do for any type of sale (but certainly with paid or organic) you care about where that lead comes from, what the size of the market is, and what the likelihood is that you’ll be able to sell effectively vis-a-vis your competition.

What do you do to ensure that your landing pages for natural search perform well?

We do a lot of research on how to make our landing pages as effective as possible. I can’t get into any details about the techniques that we use, but I would certainly encourage anyone who has engaged in a search engine optimization campaign to put in place systems that you can use, just like you do with your paid marketing, to determine the effectiveness of that landing page.

It’s a little bit harder with SEO because, unlike the SEM campaigns, you can’t just just switch out those pages very easily unless you’ve created technology that’s allowed you to do that. Of course with SEO, any changes you might make on that page might actually affect your rankings so you have to do something that allows you to make changes on the page but maintain your rankings. If your ranking drops, that might be why your numbers are off, not just because the page is less ineffective. So it’s a little bit trickier with SEO than with SEM, but it certainly can be done.

If a person has a sufficient budget to do both an SEO and an SEM campaign, which most businesses do engage in these things, certainly you can do this kind of testing with your SEM campaign. Then, once you have that worked out, apply those results to your SEO campaign.

What are the top factors in SEO to optimize your really large website for Google?

Personally, I don’t think the things you want to focus on are all that different between a big or a small site. I think anyone doing an SEO campaign has to pay attention to the basics. I’d break it into three sections: you have content or on-page factors, you have internal linking and external linking. I generally separate out internal and external linking because, of course, of the way that you can evaluate and the way that you manage those are generally completely different. I tend to think of SEO in those three areas.

Some large sites do have special considerations because they might be created with large, complicated CMS systems, and sometimes those systems weren’t designed with any consideration for SEO. Some of those systems may introduce problems that a normal website wouldn’t have, so I sometimes add a fourth dimension to SEO which is: things that might block spiders or hinder search engine performance against your site.

Clearly, if a search engine spider can’t get in and index your site (especially with a large site if you’ve created an impediment for that spider) you’re going to have a hard time ranking for anything. People who are doing this for a site of any size will want to check that out first but, if you have a large site, it’s much more likely that you’ll find issues that could be anything from: having certain browser requirements (like if you require your browsers to have javascript-enabled), if you require cookies, or if you require a certain version of a browser. All those can be impediments for spiders. So certainly, that’s something that anyone would want to check to make sure that their site is simply accessible.

What is one of the biggest pitfalls you’ve seen large, online businesses fall into?

One of the biggest errors that I see, is the way that people regard their site. Often, people who approach SEO think about the content on their site and then go to work on their site. That’s what I call a “content” or “supply” orientation. You have a particular product (or service) and you have some information about that particular product (or service) that you tend to think about in certain ways, based on being an industry expert or industry insider. If you work on your content really hard, you can have a very myopic view of what exactly you’re doing.

In almost every engagement, I would find examples of keywords and content that people would try hard to optimize which was not actually something that anybody was looking for. An example I frequently use, is for a campaign many years ago for a wooden box manufacturer in San Diego. One of the keywords I suggested to them was “wooden crates.” Their response was, “But we don’t sell crates, crates are kind of low-end palettes and things like slatted palettes.” Because the word “crates” appealed to me, I was an uneducated consumer, but I encouraged them to test that (keyword). So, rather than use that in a SEO campaign we put that (wooden crates) into a paid campaign and it turned out to be one of their most effective keywords, much more effective than what they suggested was their product (wooden box or wooden shipping container). People would sit down at Google or some other search engine and type in “wooden crates” when they’re actually looking for a “wooden shipping container.”

So I think often, when people have a specific industry knowledge they use certain terminology and have a bit of a blind spot about how they’re customers think about and look for their products. In the oil industry they don’t call it “oil” — they call it “hydrocarbons” — so you’ll hear a couple of oil execs talk about hydrocarbon-this and hydrocarbon-that. Of course, you and I talk about gas and for an oil industry executive that’s kind of a misnomer yet that’s the terminology that you and I use. So I think anyone who’s attempting to engage in an SEO or, for that matter, a paid campaign should really should think hard about evaluating the demand side of the equation. What are people looking for? Then, quantify the volume and value of what they’re looking for.

What sort of tools and tactics do you think would be valuable to start analyzing external links from scratch?

I think the first tool that anyone who’s wanting to engage in SEO is Google’s webmaster tools. If you’re thinking about SEO or are currently engaged in SEO, and you’re not using Google webmaster tools, I think you’re missing one of the best opportunities out there. It’s good, it’s useful and it’s free. I don’t recommend it because it’s free, I recommend it because it’s good. It’s just extra-nice that it’s free and it’s information that would be very hard to get any other way with the precision that you can get from Google’s webmaster tools. Google actually gives you a glimpse of how they view a site and you can see these things like an inventory of who’s linking to your site in a much more useful way than you can get from the Google search engine like the links command. Links:yourwebsite will show you links pointing to your site but it won’t show you all your links. The Webmaster tools doesn’t necessarily show you every single link that’s out there but it will show you a lot more links than the link command through Google. I highly recommend that because it can also show you whether or not you have any spider impediments. That’s the first place to start.

I think that anyone is an avid reader of SEO books will find numerous techniques for your site. I think the key is to find legitimate ways to do it. There are so many illegitimate ways to get links, everything from trying to sign up in guest book entries to trying to do the same thing in forums or any other blog comment tools. These things take a huge amount of time and they ultimately are not very effective because a lot of those paid link pages tend to be transient anyway, they go away.

It’s really annoying for people who operate a site to see people fill up their comments pages with what are obviously gratuitous messages designed to put a link in there. It’s really not an effective technique. So, in the end I think that anything that is likely to result in someone linking to you along with a legitimate way is something that you should consider and there are no real easy answers for that. So there’s not real any good, quick cheap ways to do it because if anyone finds a good, quick cheap way of doing it Google decides that it doesn’t adhere to their quality guidelines and they’ll figure out ways to discount it through their algorithm or editorially. It’s a very short-term kind of a strategy and ultimately not very effective.