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May 16, 2011

Large-Scale E-Commerce SEO: An Interview with REI

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SMX Advanced is soon upon us, and in my quest to bring our readers insight into some of the hot topics being discussed at the conference, I was fortunate enough to score an interview with SMX Advanced speaker and REI Internet marketing programs and SEO manager, Jonathon Colman.

Jonathon Colman

In this post, Jonathon talks about the development of SEO at REI, some of the challenges of large-scale SEO in e-commerce, and the skill sets that in-house SEOs can obtain that will help make SEO implementation a success.

Jessica: Please give us a little background into the evolution of SEO at REI.

Jonathon: Over the past decade, like most businesses, REI has experienced an organic search revolution in that we’ve moved from not considering it at all to making it part of everything that we do.

Search marketing and SEO in particular, is essential to our growth – you can’t make a sale unless you can be found by your audience and then provide them with a great experience.

So we’re constantly innovating, learning from others, and trying to understand what’s going to work best for our customers and for search engines.

But it’s challenging work in that SEO is never truly performed by just one person in a large company;it takes a village of creative teams, developers, information managers, and leadership to actually get sustainable, scalable SEO work off the ground.

And as REI has moved toward taking an agile, iterative approach to website development over the past few years, that’s when SEO really started to have an impact.

Once organic search is built into your strategies and is part of the process that guides everyone’s work, then it no longer sticks out like a sore thumb or seems like a special one-off effort.

It’s just part of the way we make strategic decisions, grow our business, and help people have awesome outdoor adventures.

When you’re implementing SEO on such a large scale, what are some of the greatest challenges operationally?

SEOs who are focused on scalability and infrastructure need to be sure that they keep the customer at the forefront of their strategies – it’s too easy to lose sight of what the user needs when you’re tackling AJAX best practices or thinking about how to best implement canonical elements across faceted navigation results.

We think that there’s a strong link between SEO and the user experience, and that informs the philosophy behind our development work in both disciplines.

That’s one of the big reasons why we design and develop for the cross-channel experience, and why we think of SEO and organic search as just being one stop for the customer along a path that involves a variety of touchpoints: paid advertising, mobile devices, on-site searching and browsing, physical retail stores and even in-store kiosks.

Another operational challenge: being a multichannel retailer, we have so much raw content at the store level that we work to capture and replicate it online for everyone’s benefit.

Take, for example, the awesome expertise and local knowledge of REI staff (we call them “green vests”) on our sales floor. We’ve taken a stab at replicating that with our Expert Advice content online that helps anyone take on new outdoor activities and learn to use our products, as well as through our new REI Guidepost offering that helps people figure out where to go in the great outdoors and what to do when they get there.

Although this content certainly has organic search marketing benefits, that’s not the primary reason we’re doing it; this is content that our customers ask for and that helps them succeed in their goals.

What are some skill sets that in-house SEOs can benefit from embracing, if they haven’t already?

In large, distributed organizations, a lot of search marketers begin and end their conversations and requests for resources or budget with “best practices” and a focus on rankings.

Unfortunately, what they often lack is a means to tell the story of how this actually affects the business. After all, there is an unlimited amount of things that any given enterprise “should” do, but only an extremely limited amount of things it can actually execute on at a given time.

So with limited resources, staff and competing priorities, why should the business focus on SEO? If it’s truly “free” traffic, then it shouldn’t take any internal resources, right?

But as we all know, SEO isn’t really “free” at all. There are internal costs for any organization trying to pursue it. An in-house SEO proposing work to be done by others will need to be accountable for how their proposals drive real value. So fluency in data analysis, business case development and communication, planning and forecasting are all necessary skills for communicating with the business and its leadership.

Being competent in these areas is just as essential to SEO as the sexy technical skills.

But numbers, spreadsheets and Powerpoint alone do not tell the story of SEO no matter how compelling they may be. We also need to be able to “negotiate to ‘yes’” with development staff.

If you want to implement a technical change, whether it’s a handful of 301 redirects or a massive refactoring of code to boost site performance, you need to be able to communicate its value clearly and be comfortable using the language that suits an audience of developers.

That means knowing the difference between XML and XSL. Between IIS and Apache. Between PHP and JavaScript. Between a 404 status code and a 410.

And if you’re actually doing technical production work or server administration yourself, then essentially, you never stop learning new skills and systems. But if you’re still getting started and only know HTML and CSS, then learning the fundamentals of programing and getting engaged in basic software development practices will help you build relationships with your developer colleagues … and improve your SEO work!

Please share a couple SEO challenges you and your team worked through at REI.

One challenge was improving site speed and performance. No matter how fast your site is, it can always be faster.

Quicker page load times are associated with increased search traffic, additional crawling, increased conversion, increased customer loyalty and even reduced hardware costs. It’s one of the only “silver bullets” that we have in all of e-commerce; a faster website helps everyone out, especially the customer.

Following Google’s announcement that site speed and page load time would be taken into account as a new organic search ranking factor, we used SEO as part of the business case for investing resources in speeding up REI.com.

This helped align our teams and get everyone focused on the same goal: improving the user experience.

Using existing best practices as well as a number of tools from Google and Yahoo!, REI was able to identify some of key issues that were slowing down site performance. Taking an agile, iterative approach, we were able to measurably improve our sitewide performance by taking care of the biggest pain points in a short period.

Here are some of the well-known issues that you might look at on your own website to see how they’re affecting the page load time for your visitors:

Another challenge we faced was lack of “Rich Snippets” in the SERPs. Rich Snippets are a way for website operators to structure their content (specifically the data behind their content, such as product attributes like price, availability, reviews, photos, etc.) so that this content appears directly in the search results.

We think that this is a big win for customers because they can get an immediate sense about the things that matter to them most (“What does it look like? Do others like it? What’s the price? Is it on sale? Is it still in stock?”) well before they arrive on their site.

Using standard mark-up and vocabularies (such as hProduct or GoodRelations), you can expose these product attributes for display directly in search results. While this doesn’t make any difference in ranking, we believe that it plays a strong role in increasing the qualification of our visitors, potentially increasing our conversion rate as well as reducing our bounce rate once customers arrive on our site.

We also think that this feature increases click-through. If you were a customer, which of the following search results would you rather click on? This one:

REI Search Results, Google, No Rich Snippet

Or this one, which includes reviews, price and availability?

REI Search Results, Google

Or, better yet, this example from Yahoo! that also includes a product photo?

REI Search Results, Yahoo!

In the course of developing this feature, we learned a lot about the relationship between SEO and e-commerce information architecture. Usually, these two topics come together when SEOs are thinking about navigation labels for users, the crawlability of a site’s hierarchy or when developing XML Sitemaps, but the sort of linked data that enables Rich Snippets presents yet another junction between these two disciplines.

I was particularly inspired by Jay Myers and his work at Best Buy on “Semantic SEO,” also known in some circles as “SEO 2.0” or “SEO++”. Mike Atherton has also done amazing work over at the BBC on “domain modeling,” one of the next big steps in building the semantic Web.

And given that we know search results pages are going to change quite a bit over the next five years, it seems like structured data is likely to play a larger result in how users interact with search engines and advertisers in the future.

____

If you’re headed to SMX Advanced, don’t miss Jonathon’s presentation on “The Really Complicated Technical SEO Infrastructure Issues,” June 7. If you can’t make it, don’t despair — Bruce Clay, Inc. will have SMX Advanced liveblogging coverage of that session for you.

About Jonathon Colman
Jonathon Colman serves as Internet marketing program manager of SEO at REI, and  genuinely enjoys helping people find what they’re looking for and finds great pleasure in helping others find their way outdoors. For more than a decade, he’s designed, developed, promoted and advertised Web content for large corporations and nonprofits, including REI, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and IBM. A cyclist, treehugger and self-acknowledged coffee snob, Jonathon lives in Seattle with his wife, the glass artist Marja Huhta. You can follow him on Twitter @jcolman.





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