John Doherty gets around.
Educated in Virginia before living in Switzerland. Made a name for himself at Distilled in New York City, before doing the SEO real estate rounds from HotPads to Trulia and Zillow in San Francisco, before settling in as enterprise SEO for-hire. Oh, and also the founder of marketing marketplace, Credo. (Phew. I’m exhausted just writing that.)
Here’s how John got started in the SEO biz, how the transition from small-site SEO to enterprise stuff differs, how to solve those unique challenges, and why business strategy should dictate content strategy.
- Marketplace: Credo
- Consulting: JohnFDoherty.com
- Ebook: Busy executive’s guide to hiring a digital agency
- Twitter: @dohertyjf
Where John started in the early days of SEO
Like most, John started with a personal blog to experiment with this new medium. That’s a little “m” in medium, though, because it predated the big “M” version by a few decades.
In 2001, John fired up a Xanga blog, before eventually progressing to the super cutting-edge platform of the day, Blogger (better known for its fugly default blogspot subdomain).
John studied Technical and Scientific Communication at James Madison University. Sounds obscure because it was: a unique blend of technical writing and online publications. So this is where John cut his teeth on both logic-driven writing and building out the front-end basics for websites with HTML and CSS.
Fast forward to Expat John, a few years out of school, living and working with a small company in Switzerland. That’s where the previous few years’ theory was put to the test.
“We were publishing English language books, but we were based in French-speaking Switzerland, and I didn’t have budget to travel,” remembers John. “It was me and the founder, and the founder was based there in the same building in Switzerland where I was living. And basically, I started learning online marketing, I was like, ‘How do I get these books in front people?’ So I started blogging, optimizing the site, you know, doing content marketing in 2009, right?”
From there, John eventually moved back to the States in 2010 and “got a job as a full-time link builder for a small agency in Philadelphia.”
Link building in 2010.
Ahhh, the good old days.
Before a slew of zoo animals came and kicked off an SEO armageddon.
John was still involved in content and technical SEO, but he was also buying links and experimenting with all sorts of gray hat tactics. As you do with most link building.
We’re talking pre-Panda and Penguin classics du jour, including directories, awards and badges, “ads” (which really meant buying text links on big sites), and everyone’s favorite: site-wide footer links.
Call the hats whatever you want. None are illegal. Only frowned upon. And only a “violation” when it’s caught. Like card counting in a casino.
The chief difference between white and gray and black isn’t necessarily intent, but scale. Gray and black hats are masters at it, driving efficiency through a whole plethora of aggressive tactics.
Today, many of these things are slightly more difficult. But still possible.
Whether you agree with it or not isn’t the point, either. Instead, it’s to learn something from it. John agrees, even as his business and style has flipped completely since then.
“At the end of the day, like, it’s against search engine guidelines to be building links that are manipulating their link graph and manipulating their rankings. So, I mean, you could say that any link building is gray hat. But understanding why people link, what incentivizes people to link, all that sort of stuff. You know, it could be money being exchanged, it could be ego bid, it could be any of those sorts of things. Yeah, understanding that really helped me get started and get going in SEO. Now, whenever I do my own personal consulting, I work with very large websites, very large companies, they don’t need more links. They don’t need targeted link building. So the kind of SEO I do now is very different, and how I build links to my own sites, and that sort of stuff is very different from that kind of thing. But, yeah, it’s definitely helped.”
Then, in June of 2011, John joined Distilled — completing a few years apprentice as a well-rounded SEO by that time.
“So, you know, kind of wandering journey there, but really started from content, what do people wanna read and then learning, you know, how to build websites and from there, technical SEO. And then on the link building side, that kind of got me involved with all the things around how search engines describe websites, how they rank websites, writing content people wanna read, and therefore, want a link to, giving them the link to it, and ultimately driving business results.”
Why enterprise SEO problems are the exact opposite of most brands
Most SEOs focus on small sites. There are more of them.
Most SEO content focuses on small site problems. There are more of them.
Enterprise SEO is a completely different ballgame, though. They don’t struggle with small site problems. Their brands and links are legit. Domain Authority is already on point.
Instead, large sites suffer from their primary competitive advantage: scale. They’re too damn big. Too damn unwieldy.
Affecting change across tens of thousands of pages (or more), re-organizing site-wide architecture, or getting buy-in from execs is the challenge.
“For the vast majority of websites, small businesses, medium-sized businesses, people in competitive spaces, it’s really about, ‘How do I build more links? What kind of content do I create?’ You know, that kind of thing. Obviously, those somewhat easy problems to solve but it just takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of time to do the research and create the content and optimize the content, build the link. So that kind of thing is a long-term investment, and obviously, for, like, smaller businesses, they really need to build their authority in their space. It’s not even necessarily about domain authority, it’s about, ‘Is their website more authoritative than their competitors?’ Like, that’s how you win, basically, in SEO.”
“But when it comes to working with, let’s say, an eBay or someone like that? eBay, they’re not client, they’ve never been a client, but, like, they’ve been on the internet for so long, they’re like a 2.0 marketplace, right? Or 1.0 marketplace maybe. But they’ve been around for so long, they’re such a [big] brand that they get links because they’re eBay.”
John experience this first-hand while at Zillow. “Zillow got links because it was Zillow.”
Not through any clever link building per se. But because “they’re doing TV advertising, radio advertising, all of this drives links as well. It’s not, like, ‘Hey, would you like a guest post?’ But it drives links.”
That subtle shift changes everything. It requires completely different strategies and tactics. But more importantly, it requires a completely different mind and skillset.
“So at that point, it’s not about how do we get more links, but it’s really how you accelerate the brand because that accelerates links. And then what you do is, you go, ‘Okay. Do we have the site built so that we’re targeting all of these head-terms and also the long-tail terms?”
Here’s how this looks, practically, on a real estate site like Zillow.
“Head-terms are, like, ‘real estate,’ ‘homes for sale,’ that kind of thing. But then you go further down, you zoom in, it’s, like, “State + homes.” For example:
- “Colorado homes for sale”
- “Denver, Colorado homes for sale”
- “Denver, Colorado two bed, two bath homes for sale”
“Being able to zoom into the neighborhoods, it just like extreme long-tail. So it’s a lot about, ‘Do you have the pages? Is your site built so that?’ And then are you internally linking to all of that, prioritizing the right pages in your architecture, so it’s all crawled, and you’re sending more internal link equity to your ‘Denver homes for sale page’ as opposed to your ‘Highland Square,’ ’Denver homes for sale,’ or ‘two bed, two bathrooms for sale page.’”
SEO challenges on large sites are more internal vs. external, then. “Yeah,” says John. “It’s on-page optimization. But you’re not thinking about, ‘Is this specific page optimized?’ But it’s, ‘Is this page template optimized?’”
Scale is the name of the game. Optimizing templates, as opposed to individual pages, because you might have hundreds (or thousands) of pages based on that template so start.
That means having things like naming conventions for H1s, H2s, and H3s that factor in your k keyword research. That means going deeper into technical aspects, like making sure sitemaps are dynamically updating properly with the syntax you’re specifying.
“If you have a 10-page local realtor website it’s a completely, completely different ball game. And you’re not gonna get nearly the bandwidth out of going in and optimizing your on-page SEO for a local realtor website, as you are from building links versus with Zillow. That’s what’s gonna drive results for eBay, that’s what’s gonna drive results for them.”
Nowhere are these challenges better highlighted than with dynamic content, like expired or private listings on a site like Zillow, that — by definition — will expire after thirty days.
Here are the problems (and solutions) that creates.
How to successfully implement enterprise SEO
Enterprise sites constantly struggle with content.
And a lot of the content on a site like Zillow tends to be time-based. You have rental listings which might last a few weeks, and for sale ones that might last a few months.
The issue is that they both — literally — have a sell-by date. After their time is up, their content is no longer relevant. Or worse, completely removed from the site.
Multiply that across tens of thousands of pages and you’re quickly looking at a nightmare, unless, you’re able to deploy changes at scale.
“Different people, different companies take different approaches,” explains John. Here’s the approach he takes when looking at a large volume of relatively temporary content.
“Listings don’t change that often, right? On eBay, or even Craigslist or Zillow. If you go to the ‘Denver homes for sale page’ today on Zillow, and you go there in a week, there’s gonna be a lot of overlapping listings, because they just don’t turn off that fast. If you have a strong brand like that, the search engines are constantly hitting those pages.”
Here’s the first fix John recommends:
“Do you have enough listings on the page to make it a really robust page? You can also create unique like ‘SEO content.’ “You can create that stuff and try to link that way. I’ve seen it help, I’ve also seen it not help.”
In other words, you’re creating and adding a few hundred evergreen words to describe page, to give it something tangible, while the dynamic aspect of each page (listings, etc.) can change more frequently.
“It’s something I’ve been testing out on Credo. I also have friends that own e-commerce sites, so they’ve done that on their category pages, and its really helped them rank better. So your mileage may vary, you should definitely test it if you own that kind of site. But really, it comes down to, ‘Do you also have links pointing into those pages as well?’ So ultimately, it’s links that are gonna drive those results or drive those rankings.”
“When I was working on HotPads.com, I was running marketing and SEO there. One thing we noticed was that all of our competitors had 20 to 30 to 35 listings on their category page. So if you looked at apartments.com, they have 30. If you looked at apartmentguide.com, they had 30. I looked at ours, and we weren’t ranking quite as well as our competitors for many different reasons, but I was looking at ours, doing some on-page research. I looked at our category pages and we had 10. And I’m like, ‘That’s interesting. Their page is way more robust because they have more listings on that first page, plus, then they had fewer paginated pages, so crawl budget’s better,’ all that sort of thing. So we increased it to 20, and I think we saw about a 10% bump in our organic traffic to those pages, then we increased to 30, and we saw another 5% to 7%. We increased to 35 and didn’t see anything. And conversion rates actually dropped because page load time went up. So we kept it at 30, obviously, right where are our competitors were.”
So in addition to unique content before or after the dynamic, simply adding more listings per page can also help create something more robust, while also saving on crawl budget with less overall (low value) pages.
This strategy also has ramifications in marketplaces, like John’s own Credo.
Except in this case, John’s purposefully not wasting time with location-based pages because there aren’t enough companies within each location to be able to compete on a listing-based battle with their larger competitors.
“We don’t have 3,000 companies purposefully within the Credo network. We have 90, 100, something like that. So my ‘New York marketing agencies’ page has two [companies], something like that. That page is never gonna rank against, like, a Clutch or an UpCity or someone like that, that has, like, you know, 400 agencies in there. So you do have to think about these very specific kind of marketplace or directory problems. But you do have to think about, like, ‘does this page even deserve to rank?’ Some people obviously are gonna hate on that, they hate on that kind of perspective on it, but, you really do have to ask yourself, ‘If Google ranks this page number one, is it the best result they could show for that query?’ And if not, either, ‘How do you make it the best result if it makes sense within your business strategy, or you do prioritize and don’t try to expect those pages to rank and drive real traffic.’”
Once again, scale is the problem. Because a few quick fixes or tricks won’t move the needle.
It’s like investing in penny stocks vs. buying businesses. To fetch a big enough return to warrant the risk, you need to put way more capital into play on fewer bets.
And with enterprise sites, you need to determine where to invest that offers the most leverage across this massive network of pages. John contrasts this with a typical small-site approach:
“A 10-page B2B site, you can hire an agency, they can go build links, they can do guest posts, and it’s really gonna move the needle for you. But when you’re talking with a big enterprise site, the biggest challenge I see to getting things done internally, is getting the people, right? There are still a lot of companies that they’re like, ‘Go do our website’s SEO.’ It’s, like, ‘Well, I need developers to implement things, I need content ready, all this stuff.’ And they’re like, ‘But you’re an SEO guy, you can do all the SEOs.’ Like, ‘No. We have 10-million pages and I’m not a developer.’”
People and budget are a prerequisite for enterprise SEO because you need teams of people to be able to do enough that will eventually produce results that might actually get an enterprise company to care about.
“If you’re gonna launch new pages on a site that gets 20-million visits, you can’t launch a page that looks like crap, that isn’t within keeping with your brand. So you need design involved, you need development involved, you need content writing involved, you need copy, you need all of that. When companies are willing to give that sort of support to SEO or content initiatives, that when stuff really takes off. That’s when Zillow took off when they formed their growth team.”
Developers especially come in handy because you’re able to make programmatic updates, not manual ones. Think of a simple meta description. It might only take a minute or two to write one for a page. But how long would it take to do that across millions of pages?
Way too damn long is the answer.
“When you have that many pages, you have to think scale. Plus, it doesn’t even make sense because Google is constantly changing the mark, and half the time they’re not even gonna show the meta description that you defined. So why are you gonna waste time and budget and energy doing that, or hiring people to do that, when it’s not actually gonna move the needle?”
You might run tests or experiments with individual pages. But as soon as you see any success, you need to figure out better processes and automation to actually implement it across the site.
All of this — or more accurately, none of this — happens without internal buy-in.
“I think the biggest thing that a lot of people miss internally is getting the internal volume,” explains John. This rings true across his entire experience, from in-house to agencies to consulting and matching companies with clients, “the projects that work the best, to drive the best results, are when the executive is completely bought in as well. Executives aren’t at the point of contact, but they’re bought in to invest good budget into improving their revenue through organic means.”
That needs to start at the top and permeate the organization so you’re the first, not the last, person brought into a project.
“So when I was at Zillow, Zillow was all about SEO. I mean, as an SEO internally at Zillow, like, you’re a freaking rockstar. The CEO, Spencer, was all about SEO. Their current COO, Amy, who would be at the time is my boss, she’s all about SEO. Like, all throughout Zillow, everyone thinks about SEO, the executives evangelize it from the front. So it very much comes from the top down. Everyone thinks about it, like when developers are building out new, new products, new pages or something like that, there’s never a, ‘Oh, here you go SEO. Do the SEO on this page.’ But they’re, like, ‘We’re involving SEO from the beginnings.’ So there are all sorts of SEO requirements as they’re building out new pages, new taxonomies, that sort of stuff. So it’s not retrofitting it, but it’s actually, thinking when you can start thinking proactively about new things that you’re building, that’s when SEO moves, especially on the enterprise level.”
The marketplace content marketing Catch-22: prioritize supply or demand?
Brian Jackson said marketing is one of the hardest things to hire for because the barrier to entry is so low, and John couldn’t agree more. That’s just one of the driving forces behind creating Credo, a marketplace that matches clients with the right agency.
“There’s a super low barrier to entry to calling yourself a digital marketer online. Anyone can say that they’re a digital marketer, right? I get inundated all day by these people that are like, ‘SEO, I did this $5,000 launch,’ or something like that. And I kind of roll my eyes because in the grand scheme of things, if you run a good size business, $5K is nothing.”
Instead, Credo relies on a vetted network of people with real results and testimonials to show for their work. And they work internally to match them with clients based on their specific needs.
“We also know who is really good at what, for which kinds of businesses. So we know who is was really good at technical SEO for e-commerce businesses that do over 500K a year in revenue. We can get down to that specific. So we’re not gonna refer an e-commerce business to someone that specializes in just SaaS or B2B SEO. Completely different kinds of SEO. We’re not gonna refer a big marketplace like eBay to someone that specializes in helping local realtors rank in the local map cap in their one area.”
Marketplaces are tough to scale, though, because you’re often having to promote your business to two very different audiences.
Too many SEO providers inside Credo, without enough deal flow coming in, and they’ll eventually get frustrated and leave. Or, too much demand (clients looking for services) and not enough providers? They’ll eventually get frustrated and leave.
How do you balance the two opposing forces? How do you carve up budget for each side of the equation, or how do you decide on messaging for the entire marketplace?
There’s no ‘right’ answer. You have to do both to a certain degree, but prioritize one over the other depending on where you’re at during that time.
“I believe that business strategy drives content strategy. And really, you have to get clear on who your customer is. And so the challenges that I deal with and kind of how I message, my services are different from, like, you know, a plumber because they just have one customer. It’s the homeowner or the landlord, really the property owner that needs plumbing help. Supply for us is the marketer, so it’s the agencies, consultants, etc. The demand is that people that are looking to hire. It is always harder to generate the demand than the supply.”
Why? It comes down to the value proposition. If I sign up for Credo (which I have), the value prop is that they’re going to give me money (in the form of new work).
That’s a pretty easy sell if we’re being honest.
It’s much harder to build trust and value, according to John. That’s why “the content that I have on Credo is 90-some percent focused on the clients because they’re the ones that need help, and they’re the hardest ones to generate.”
It’s a never-ending process, though. John needs to continually grow supply and demand. Content plays a big role because it lends itself better to the slower, education-based consultative sales process.
One tactic John uses is to separate where that content lives. The stuff for in-house marketers (Credo’s demand side) is on the Credo blog. “We still get a lot of like agency marketers and, you know, that sort of stuff reading our, bringing us up, but they’re not our primary audience.”
The stuff for agencies and consulting companies who’re interested in selling services? The supply side lives on John’s personal site, johnfdoherty.com. And this is where John’s placing more priority lately:
“I have realized that we need to get more people within the Credo network. And that’s sort of come about because we have a good flow of clients now on the demand side. I don’t have to worry, like, ‘Are we gonna get, you know, more leads, more people looking?’ Like, it’s not the hustle that it was three years ago when I was really starting out with this. And actually, the biggest risk to my company’s growth is not having a big enough network that we have the right people and having the right people within it. So really, I’ve focused on the client side because that’s the harder part, and really once you get the demand side really churning, the supply side come super easily.”
Business strategy drive content strategy — regardless of competition
John will use paid social to drive awareness. But most of the budget is reserved for lead gen.
That process starts with promoting bigger content pieces, like the SaaS SEO guide, as gated content. This way, he can use automated emails to nurture them after and slowly but surely convert a few of those into real customers.
This SEO guide is organized as a content cluster because “topic relevance has become super important in SEO over the last really, 12 months, I would say.”
So the guide’s pillar is https://getcredo.com/guide/saas-seo-guide, with subtopics listed out underneath, like https://www.getcredo.com/guide/saas-seo-guide/ranking-factors/.
In essence, John’s taking an enterprise-like view of how content’s organized on the site, and optimizing it accordingly. For example, he found a winner with building out dedicated taxonomies around the type of business. This included pages like “SaaS SEO company,” SaaS SEO agencies,” etc. And when he launched the SaaS SEO guide, guess what happened?
“My rankings for my SaaS SEO agencies pages all just shot up. I went from top of the second page to top three by launching that big guide because my site became more topically relevant towards SaaS or e-commerce.”
Picking keywords to target in these low volume, hyper-competitive spaces isn’t straightforward, however. So how does John, an SEO’s SEO if there ever was one, think about keyword prioritization for his own business?
By being less focused on ‘SEO’ exclusively.
“I’m in this business for the long-term, and I am building a brand. Right? Some of the companies I compete against, their brand is so SEO-focused. Like, ‘top10SEOcompanies.com.’ It’s so SEO-focused, they’re not gonna be able to rank well for ‘best Facebook ads companies’ and that sort of stuff without rebranding. So I very much believe in having the evergreen stuff that, like, it’s just gonna take a while to rank for that kind of thing.”
He’s OK, in other words, prolonging the massive results to avoid taking shortcuts in the interim.
“There is definitely a trade-off between the short-term and the long-term.”
He’s OK leaving potential opportunities on the table, like algorithm-chasing posts or news updates, to focus on the stuff that really matters to his core audience at the end of the day.
“The business strategy drives content strategy. I’d rather rank for these bigger terms over the long-term and be, like, the only place to go to before hiring someone [in marketing].”
Case in point:
John’s got an ebook for that, too.
The busy executive’s guide to hiring a digital marketing agency is a 23-page ebook that “walks you through basically all the questions that we ask and everything that we go through in vetting people and helping clients hire and all of that. You can download, you can read it all there, you know, logged out, you can also, you know, put your email address and get it sent to you and downloadable format. That’s really like a valuable resource that a lot of people have downloaded and really got a lot of value from.”