Episode Overview: Excellent SEO strategies depend on strong cross-functional relationships to effectively succeed. Building sturdy cross-functional relationships require meticulous cultivation much like building a strong SEO strategy requires. Join Ben as he catches up with returning guest Ryan Purtill from Healthline Media on how to build a culture of collaboration to boost department-wide success within a company and how to navigate common difficult relationships between PPC and organic search focused teams.
- Strong cross-functional relationship building with SEO begins with establishing a connection with editorial groups as their goals align frequently such as analyzing search intent, discussing cannibalization of certain webpages, etc.
- Building a culture of collaboration requires listening, routine check-ins with departments on their goals and progress toward them and offering solutions to achieve small wins that build trust in teammates.
- Don’t compete for resources with departments you’re aligned with as every department’s goals should be pointed toward achieving a core goal. Misaligned goals are a common cause of friction in collaborative efforts
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- Benjamin Shapiro: Bio // Podcast Network // Twitter // LinkedIn
Ben: Welcome to planning month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re taking a minute to evaluate 2019 and help you set your SEO plans for 2020. Joining us is a friend of the pod, Ryan Purtill, who is now the Vice President of SEO at Healthline Media, which is now the largest and fastest growing consumer health publisher in the world with domains including healthline.com, medicalnewstoday.com, and greatest.com reaching over 250 million people a month. Today, Ryan and I are going to talk about how to manage your cross functional relationships to get the resources you need for 2020.
But before we hear from Ryan, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a free trial of the Searchmetrics software. That’s right. You can now test the Searchmetrics suite and content experience tools with no commitment or upfront payment. To start your free trial, go to searchmetrics.com/free trial. Okay. On with the show, here’s my conversation with the newly minted VP of SEO at Healthline Media, Ryan Purtill. Ryan, welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast.
Ryan: Hey, thanks so much, Ben. Excited to be a repeat guest.
Ben: Dude, since the last time we talked, you had a lot going on. You got promoted. You’re now the biggest health media consumer, and the company got acquired.
Ben: We’ve got a lot to catch up on. Let’s start and talk about you. You’re the VP of SEO. Congratulations. You’ve made it to the mountain top.
Ryan: Thank you so much. Yeah, it’s been a wild couple months. I mean really starting in July is almost when all that happened. We got acquired by Red Ventures, big group out of North Carolina, and yeah, at the same time I got my promotion. And the day we got acquired is when the press release went out that we were the largest health publisher in the world, so it was kind of a very big week to set a high bar.
Ben: And I’m sure everything has just been back to normal ever since then.
Ryan: Yeah, of course. Right after an acquisition, it’s always a smooth sail.
Ben: Yeah. Were you guys drastically impacted by the series of Google updates? Or how have things been in the SEO world lately for you?
Ryan: Yeah. So for the four kind of ones, like March, and I think we talked about this a little bit. March was the one that hurt Healthline most where we saw about a 20% hit. So that was really the first real algorithm that’s negatively effected the site. So it was a little bit of like a new kind of place for us, new place for our board at the time, because we hadn’t been acquired. And you can imagine it’s during due diligence to get acquired. So it’s a-
Ben: Perfect timing.
Ryan: Kind of a stressful time, but we really looked at it as a way to learn something new. And it was like, all right, we developed about 30 different tests within two weeks to start diagnosing what that algorithm was all about. Come the June core algorithm, we saw a full recovery and some. So we’re seeing record kind of days. Yesterday was a record the most we’ve ever gotten in a single day, 9.3 million sessions. So we continued to learn these things, so that after each kind of algorithm, September was good for Healthline.
We saw a little bit of a drop off on Medical News Today, which is our kind of second sites, but also learned a whole bunch of things about that algorithm by doing that. I mean I think one of the advantages that I have as an SEO is I had three pretty big sites that are different from one another that are all on the same space, and I can kind of use them against each other to diagnose what Google is assessing as quality in the new algorithm. So it’s been kind of a fun challenge in a way. And yeah, it’s interesting. It seems like almost every quarter now there’s some significant movement either up or down, which makes forecasting for 2020 kind of difficult. And I know that’s a lot of what this week’s about.
Ben: That’s what we’re here to talk about. But before we do get into talking about cross functional relationships and your SEO planning, you mentioned that you learned a lot about the algorithm. Anything that’s not proprietary that you could share with the audience that you guys figured out?
Ryan: Yeah, I’ll say September, because that’s kind of the most recent one for other people. I think if you looked at the rise in dictionary traffic in September, and if you look at where we saw it at least, and I’d imagine it’s repeatable for a lot of other sites, what we saw were pages didn’t lose ranking for their head terms at all. Large comprehensive pages saw lost in rankings or kind of long tasks.
I think it got very easy to see that it was Google was really just refining intents. So if you’re trying to rank for the more obscure query, and something that’s very directional as far as this intent is what the user’s trying to do. A head term overview page is not going to cut it anymore. So this does change some things in terms of what you can do in your content strategy. Meaning before where I might say I’m not going to write specifically on let’s say complications of breast cancer, because I can write a breast cancer article that just covers that, and I can have one article that ranks for 20, 50 terms. It might be smart to understand how that SERP, if you start looking at that SERP and noticing actually all the ones that are ranking now tend to be ones that are specifically written around that intent, you can start fracturing some of those pages.
Now there’s always a risk in that, because you’re kind of diluting your link equity and some other things to think about your content strategy. But that was kind of a clear takeaway for September, at least for us.
Ben: Yeah, fascinating. We had a perfect lead in that I totally blew apart by not saying, “Great. Let’s talk about SEO 2020 planning,” but you mentioned that you can learn a lot about the algorithm by going through these process that makes predictions hard and makes getting ready for the next year a little challenging. Today we’re here to talk about working with your cross functional partners. So as we start this part of the conversation, I just want to get a sense of who you consider to be the highest priority or most influential cross channel partners that you work with. What teams are the ones that you’re collaborating with the most?
Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. So I mean I always say SEO for me anyway, my job is to be a consultant for all these groups. So in a way I don’t think of them as very siloed, right? Like a website’s an ecosystem, like everything else. If I start changing certain things with product, that has editorial implications, which could have traffic implications, which could have needle implications. So I try not to pull apart individual things as much, but certainly when I first started here, the first place, because you can’t build that relationship evenly with every group right off the bat. The first place was editorial, because one, we’re a publisher. That’s really where you’re going to reach the most of your kind of audience. And two, it was our sharpest arrow in our quiver certainly already. The content quality was already there. The more I can embed myself with that group, the faster I can move the needle.
So editorials, always. And at this point I almost think part of our success at Healthline has been turning editors into SEOs, and turning SEOs into editors. So when we’re in meetings with our editorial group, I have editors who have totally just lit backgrounds, never in actual digital performance in any way, talking about certain search intent, talking about cannibalization, and nothing makes me happier. I think one of the ways we’ve been super successful has been building that culture of how do you kind of integrate SEO into that group? And then the other way around. We have SEOs say, “Hey, from an editorial integrity standpoint, maybe us tackling a certain topic might not be worth it, or we should rethink our sources for this particular one.” And that’s really been a huge part of it, but editorial certainly one of the first places my mind goes in terms of that relationship is key for success.
Ben: Sure. And as a publisher, it makes sense that your editorial team is very important. I think that for eCommerce businesses or some of the companies that are not specifically focused on their content as the product. You still have an important relationship with your content production team, and if you don’t have a specific team dedicated to that, whatever external resources you have managing those relationships is really important. I’ll tell you content production. You sort of mentioned briefly product. What are the other teams, product engineering, your leadership team, that you spend a lot of time working on managing those relationships?
Ryan: Sure. So certainly our digital performance marketing team, working with our paid team essentially to figure out, okay how much will organic contribute to a certain program, versus paid? What will our margins look like next year. That integration is certainly something that’s very tight.
Our product team. Absolutely. It’s very interesting. Sometimes you’re just looking over. We’ll review each other’s road maps, right? So I looked at product’s roadmap the other day trying to understand where can SEO actually influence their roadmap? And then where are there spots where I need their resources? I have a thing I want to do AMP for example, next year in a certain place on my site. Well I’m going to need product resources, so I better make sure I’m baked into their roadmap early enough on, so this is not what I would recommend to anyone listening. This is not something to do in November and go, “Hey, by the way, I have six things I’m hoping to accomplish next year. Dah, dah, dah,” and blindside any particular group. Right?
Everyone has their own things. These need to be conversations that are going on throughout the year, and you need to be able to be present in the early ideation of these projects so that you can have your influence and say, “Hey, well there’s an SEO component to that, so when we bake that in, let’s think about that.” Or, “That’s not going to match up with something that I was thinking about,” and actually comparing and making decisions from that point of view. But I’ve seen that kind of folly of waiting till November and December to when we should plan, and then ten different groups say, “We don’t have the resources to support your plan.” And then you’re in a lot of trouble.
Ben: So, talk to me about the cadence of communication. When you’re regularly talking to these teams, you’re understanding what everyone is working on throughout the year. Is that a monthly check in? Are you doing it quarterly? Are you sitting in daily meetings? What’s the right cadence for you to stay in touch with your products, and your editorial, and your engineering teams?
Ryan: Yeah, and it’s not the same cadence for each group. Again, I kind of prioritize it a little bit and say, “Hey product, I probably need to check in with quarterly.” Certainly we have projects that are ongoing and we’re always talking to each other, but really understanding what their plans are moving forward. It’s more of a quarterly check in around quarterly business reviews to kind of feel, “Okay, where are you guys going?” And for this and that. And then there’s a lot of just ad hoc kind of meetings in between those quarters of like, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about this. Let me throw this by you.” And then they’ll say, “Actually, that’s on our potential roadmap for next year. Okay then, let’s talk about it.” So there’s kind of more structured ones and then there’s ones where you just need to be pinging in with those groups. Luckily I’m blessed that I’m in a culture where SEO is, I say SEO is the amalgamation of all these different groups doing a really good job.
So you’re a little bit of a consultant. So they are actively pulling me into meetings too saying, “Hey, we want to change our navigation in certain parts of the sites to accomplish this goal. What do you see as the potential problems in that? How can we accelerate it? What’s the win there?” And I get to get pulled into different groups, but building that culture was the harder part. Building that culture where I feel like every company is on its own spectrum of how willing they are to adopt SEO as a consultant for whatever group, whatever their goals are. But we’ve been lucky enough here to kind of build a culture where they’re actively inviting me to those groups.
Ben: So, talk to me a little bit about how you developed that culture. You’ve been working at Healthline for roughly five years. Was it an SEO-centric organization when you arrived, or is this a culture that you helped build?
Ryan: Yeah, a little bit of both. They weren’t in bad shape. Certainly leadership was bought in to SEO. My boss, Tracy Rosencrans, is a world class SEO and had already been getting some of those wins in the company. But certainly had to accelerate that, certainly had to build that with different groups. And then within five years, you have leadership turnover, people change. So when new people come into a group, you have to do it again. You have to kind of reset the tone. I don’t know. One thing that I was thinking about was there tends to be a notion that, especially in the higher levels of leadership and C level, that when you join an organization you should make an impact quickly. So you see people join a company, and they lay off people. Or say, “Hey, we’re changing our total, our new mission, and our new charter,” and all these kinds of things.
And I actually think it’s kind of a myopic move and not that smart. One thing that I think we did well when I first came onto this team was listening. You should spend your first couple months of joining any organization meeting these different groups and just listening on what their pain points are, what their goals are, and starting to figure out how you can contribute to their goals. Win them over with kind of the small wins. We’re talking about guitar right before we started. I play too, not as good.
Ben: No one ever said I was good at the guitar, but go on.
Ryan: It’d be like joining into a song, mid song, and just ripping a solo. And you don’t know what key you’re in. You don’t know the tempo. You don’t have an understanding of, “Hey, the bass player is amazing, and the drummer’s kind of weak.” You have no sense of the dynamics of what people are trying to accomplish. So you should sit in and listen, and just be like I said, a consultant to these groups. What’s your number one problem? Let me try to solve that. No one will say no to that. If you’re working off your own budget and you’re trying to get wins there, no one will say no to that.
So depending on where you are in the spectrum of how willing your company is to adopt different SEO tactics, you might have to be more or less like a lamb in those situations. But I found that worked super well. And secondly, adopt the group’s shared language. This goes back to my psychology, cultural anthropology kind of love and things. The fastest way you can signal culture to ingroup and align with them is use their language. And sometimes it’s as simple as figuring out, “Oh, they don’t like the word ranking, and they want page visibility.” Or going to editors and saying, “We need traffic,” never, never really fits well. But if you say to them, “Hey, I want to get as many people seeing your concept as possible.”
Ryan: Yeah. And it’s just like messaging, and it’s super simple. But you’d be surprised and someone will be like, “Oh, it’s just semantics.” Yeah, it’s just semantics. But the end result is you’re aligning yourself with their goal and their mindset. And when I say this, I don’t mean this in a manipulative way. It’s just understanding what their goals are and kind of aligning yourself to them. That’s helped us build a group where editorial cares as much about SEO as product does, as much as the SEO team does, which is awesome. And when you do that, compounding wins, because you have everyone doing SEO. I don’t have to catch something.
I had someone recently, he was not even part of any of the SEO group, mention to me, Authority Nutrition was an acquisition we did a couple of years ago. Turned out the redirects from authoritynutrition.com, they broke. They weren’t going to Healthline anymore, and there’s tons of equity in those links. And we were like, “Oh, good catch.” People are educated enough to make those kinds of things, and it makes it a lot easier when you have a company doing SEO, than a department doing it.
Ben: The culture really matters when you’re talking about building and managing cross functional relationships, and I think you mentioned the roadmap to creating a good culture, the cadence for talking about and staying up to date with what your teams are happening. When you get to the end of the year, and you’re in the hardcore planning phase. You’re getting ready for 2020, and the teams are starting to horse trade resources. Talk to me a little bit about how you manage the process of gaining all the resources that you want and need without being grabby. What’s the right way to play nice in the sandbox, but without giving away all the things that you need to be successful for next year?
Ryan: Yeah. No, that is a great question. I think one tactic is take whatever area that you’re hoping to develop and whatever you’re trying to do for the next year, and really hold it up to the flame as far as what’s the overall business objectives? And if you can easily answer, “Oh, this links into this, and we actually have company alignment,” might be not a hill worth dying on. And starting to separate kind of what are the projects that are really going to move the business versus what’s not. Then secondly, when you’re asking for resources, and I am thinking of that from a budget perspective within SEO. But let’s say it’s a time thing like, “Hey, I need product’s time on this given thing,” and they’re like, “Hey, we got this amount of time to give you and nothing more.”
So one way to kind of test that and get a feel for it, and maybe get what you need, is aligning with product’s goal. They’re more willing to give you resources if you can say, “This not only solves what I’m trying to do, it solves this other group’s problem, and solves this other problem.” If you can start getting buy in from other groups and say, “Actually that initiative would help us a lot out in yields or would help us out a lot in brand differentiation, and that’s something that we’re pushing for.” If you can get allies, it’s a faster way to make sure you’re going to get the resources you need for it. And then lastly, there’s always that stuff in the gray where you’re like, “Hey, we don’t know how this will do. Why would we put money towards this? Why would we put time against it?”
And for that, it’s really great to have a data scientist on your team, and have a team that knows how to test. So in the middle of this year, I was testing things that I wanted to do in 2020, so that when this time comes along or even months before this to be able to say, “Here’s the case study. This is what I think I can do. And here’s the data.” It’s very hard for someone to say, “We won’t get you those resources,” when I say, “Hey, for every $5 in this group, I’m going to give you 10 per year.” They’ll find money for that, I mean, depending on your organization. That’s, I think, another place where I’m blessed is Healthline’s been willing to back resources like that. But in my situation, in my experience, having a strong case study, and having some test results, and some data to put behind something makes your argument go over a lot easier.
Ben: I’m hearing three things. First off, the relationships matter when you’re talking about building relationships with cross functional teams. You need to speak the same language, understand what somebody’s roadmap is looking at, understand what their objectives are. The second thing you need to do is to be able to integrate what you’re doing and what you’re trying to accomplish with the overall company’s goals, right? If you’re trying to drive increased visibility in organic growth, and the company overall is trying to raise their awareness, there’s obviously some overlap. And being able to communicate that is really, really effective. And the third thing to do is come armed with data. This is not a fight. It’s not a competition, but the more you’re able to run small tests and provide the background for why a project is important, and what the return is going to be, the more likely you’re going to be able to be successful in getting the resources you need to actually execute.
Ryan: Yes, absolutely, better said than I said it. Much more succinct, and I would add just a little caveat to that last thing is don’t compete. These are people that you should be aligned, you should all be going in the same direction. I’ve seen way too many times where someone’s like, “I have this idea. I think this is a bad idea.” And they spend the meeting competing instead of saying, “Hey, we don’t see eye to eye on this. Let’s see where the data takes us. How do you feel about a test?” Because they both want the test approved. “Hey I was right, or you were right.” So like don’t get in a competitive place. Especially for SEOs, because this isn’t my experience at Healthline, but certainly in other places, of when you walk into a product group, product goes, “This is SEO. They kind of know product, but they don’t really.”
There can be that kind of feeling of they’re not really subject matter expert in my world, and your programmers and engineers will say the same thing. And your marketers sometimes say the same thing, and your sales team. So you’re a little bit of knowing the whole ecosystem. So if you get in a slug match of like, “Hey, I actually know your job better than you,” you’re going to ruin the relationship and the culture. You’re going to have an uphill battle to get anything done with that group. The easier place to always go, “Totally respect your point. That makes a lot of sense. Would you mind if I test it? Just want to see where the user goes.” And it makes a lot of sense.
Ben: Where I’ve seen the competition come in is the fight between organic and paid growth channels. Right? The PPC channels always want the budget, and the head counts, and the resources, because they can spend a dollar and get a return immediately. And the SEOs are always saying, “I can invest that dollar, and I can get a larger return, but it takes a longer period of time.” Last question I have for you. As you’re thinking about managing the relationships specifically with your performance marketing team, you’re responsible for driving organic growth. How do you avoid not getting any each other’s hair?
Ryan: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think that’s been the fundamental battle between so many SEOs, particularly because it’s easier for CPC to show ROI on a quicker-
Ben: In the near term.
Ryan: Yeah. And then they get all the resources, and then organic kind of gets the leftover. I think one way, and luckily I had walked into a situation where that wasn’t the case. Paid was mainly used to supplement organic programs. One of the ways that you can kind of do that is, depending on what your company’s KPIs are, your performance team probably cares about margin. Talk to them about how organic can totally help their margin. If you can bring more organic free traffic into any campaign, it’s going to lower your CPCs. You’re going to have to do less of it over time to actually reach your goals. So that’s a place where you could align with your kind of CPC seeing that, “We’re not fighting. Let me contribute some of my expertise into your worlds, and I’ll show you returns.”
That’s one way to do it. Another way to do it is to focus on the funnel, and you can separate it a little bit. And that’s what we did a little bit at Healthline is hey, really top of the funnel, organic’s been a more proven strategy, a less expensive strategy over time if we can rank. And then lower in the funnel when we need a more qualified audience, we can hand off to our performance marketing teams to really deliver there. So you can kind of align and separate. Both of those tactics can kind of help you make sure you’re at profit.
Ben: I think that there’s a world where SEOs and PPC marketers can live in harmony, and the way that that happens is data sharing, right? There is an understanding of, “Hey, there is an opportunity for us to rank highly in this keyword, but we’re struggling, but we see that there’s value there. We should buy that traffic.”
“Oops, you’re running a campaign to try to address this type of users. It’s really expensive. We’re spending a lot of money. Let’s try to build content to supplement that.” And you can work together to accomplish shared goals, but again, it goes back to you have to have the relationships. You have to be able to communicate and talk to each other.
Ben: Ryan, I know that obviously it’s been a very busy year for you. I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to talk to us about how you’re building the relationships. Any last words? Any last bits of advice for the teams that are going through and thinking about how to work closely with their cross functional partners?
Ryan: Yeah. I would say, just to kind of wrap it up, and this might be the San Francisco psychologist side of me a little bit, but don’t forget that you’re just humans. You’re all just people working together, right? You’re in the business of people, whether you like it or not. So maintaining and nurturing relationships are vital. It might mean going to lunch. It might mean sitting in, but every interaction you have with someone in your group is a place to build trust. And if you start approaching your work like that, it’ll be a lot easier to build the relationships, which builds the culture, which means you’re going to have the wind at your back when you’re trying to get things accomplished.
And when there’s push backs, you can trust it a lot more. When someone says, “That’s not a good idea,” you can see it from a place of respect and say, “Okay, well what’s their lens here? Why isn’t it a good idea to them? How can I rethink this?” It’ll make you a better SEO. It’ll make you a better professional, and certainly it will make your company stronger. So people are people. Be cool.
Ben: I think that’s great advice. It turns out the secret to building cross functional relationships is focusing on building real relationships. And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Ryan Purtill, VP of SEO at Healthline Media. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Ryan, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can send him a tweet. His handle is @RyanPurtill2, R-Y-A-N-P-U-R-T-I-L-L, the number two, or you can visit his company’s website, which is healthline.com.
If you have general marketing questions, if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, or if you’re interested in being a guest on the Voices of Search podcast, you can find a link to my contact information in the show notes. Or you can contact me on Twitter. My handle is benjshap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. And if you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/free trial for your complimentary trial of their software. And if you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed sooner. All right. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.