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RankUp #18 – Enterprise Level Technical SEO with Gerry White

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Gerry White from Rise At Seven joined us for episode 18 of the RankUp podcast to talk about his experience working on technical SEO for enterprise websites.

The conversation centred around how to make sure that the teams you’re working with actually get stuff done, with tips on talking to both developers and high-level stakeholders.

Listen to the full interview here or on your app of choice, or keep reading for some of the interview’s highlights.

Introducing Gerry

Ben: How did you get to where you are today? What’s your story in SEO?

Gerry: I’ve been in the digital world for about 20 years. I did dip in and out – I actually went to sales, recruitment, various other bits and pieces. I tried building web pages, I did web development, but it turned out that people I worked with were better at that.

I found that I could hold my own when it came to elements like analytics and SEO. An all-round knowledge of digital, combined with a good knowledge of how the internet actually works has proven quite useful in my career.

Ben: What does your current role as SEO Director at Rise At Seven involve?

Gerry: It really does depend! I can’t give you an answer as to what I’d be doing from day to day, but a lot of it is basically talking through our clients and trying to get things done in some way with different clients.

Common challenges in enterprise SEO

Ben: What common issues do you come across when working on enterprise sites?

Gerry: I think the biggest problem is GSD – getting ‘stuff’ done. For example, getting sign off for fixing legacy systems. With enterprise websites, you often discover that there’s a core component which part powers part of the site, which will be 10 to 15 years old.

A great example is Premier Inn. For instance, when they did a site migration, it turned out one of the processes powering the site was actually older than the internet because it was the room booking system!

The BBC’s search, which was fed through so much of the BBC itself, was so legacy and nobody really knew exactly what was powered by it. So if we switch it off, how much of the website will break? Because the website was just a little bit older than anybody who actually worked there.

Another good example is something as simple as an XML sitemap, when it’s built out of half a dozen different components, and the URL structure isn’t actually mapped anywhere. One of the strange objections that I’ve seen is the fact that an infosec team, for instance, don’t want the website scraped by competitors. They don’t really want an XML sitemap that exposes all of the product listings, that can then be scraped by the editor.

When I’m working with enterprise clients, I have to make sure I think about these objections and say to them, “Look, we can make sure that competitors don’t find it, we’re just giving it to Google.” We need to make sure that things are fast enough, scalable enough, and there isn’t going to be a huge amount of load on an API if something is fed through to the homepage.

Communicating with senior stakeholders

Ben: Do you have any, any tips or anything for how to modify what you’re saying to make it appropriate for the people that you’re talking to, to make sure that things get signed off in the right way?

Gerry: I do find that much better at talking to product and tech people than I am with senior leadership. They don’t really care about how an XML sitemap works, they don’t care about the values that you put in it. They care about what it needs, and the business benefit.

If you can fit [your proposal] into a single page, they’re much much happier. Generally speaking, a slide deck for something like this should be three slides long. It should say what you need, and how to get it done.

It doesn’t give you code, it doesn’t give you any details about the backend system, it doesn’t give you any implications beyond that, it just says what you need, what the benefits are, or alternatively, what the risk is, if you don’t do it.

I often find that our clients want to know the ROI of doing something. I find that I’m sometimes trying to explain to them that there’s a negative ROI if they don’t do it – this is how much you’re going to lose. If you don’t implement this, or if your competitors do something, they’re going to steal the traffic away from you.

Communicating with developers

Ben: What are your tips for speaking to developers at an enterprise level?

Gerry: Simply put, make sure that you talk to them in the right way. They usually use something like Jira – a ticketing process or user stories. So make sure that the tickets written in the right way. We often say to developers, “Look, just show us what you actually enter into.”

For instance, if there’s a particular field we need to enter, we make sure it’s there written in advance, so we don’t have to work with them to add it in later on. Your acceptance criteria is often the big one. If you have something in their system which says you must put in a user acceptance criteria, we give this to the SEO team and we write out the problem. It might be something as simple as if you go to this URL, there’s an XML sitemap that looks like this. We try to use the correct format, and be comprehensive enough that it works with how they work. And I think that is critical.

A lot of them also want references. So for instance, if you’re talking about how a redirect should work, they want kind of a reference as to what a redirect is, what the headers are, what it should look like.

But one of the things that I do recommend is not giving them too much code. So for instance, if you tell them they need to create something in their back end, you don’t give them the code that you’ve googled on the internet. The reason why not is often it just won’t work with our system. It’s the wrong version of .net, .php, or something similar. They’ll experience that feeling that you almost patronizing them. When I was at Just Eat, we had an agency that would give us redirects for htaccess files. I’m then trying to explain to them we don’t have an htaccess file. It’s the wrong type of server. If that got through to the developers, they would have lost trust in me.

Find out more

You can see more from Gerry on Twitter, or learn more about his work with Rise At Seven and Take It Offline. Don’t forget to check out the whole interview on a podcast app of your choice.

Edd and I will be back soon with a new interview for the RankUp podcast. In the meantime, you can find us both on Twitter, @BenJGarry and @EddJTW.

If you’re interested in being a guest on the show, please reach out to us on Twitter or via email.