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Finding The Best Of The Agency And In-House SEO Worlds – Micah Fisher-Kirshner // Turn/River Capital

Episode Overview

Choosing between working at an agency or an in-house role is a challenge for most SEOs. In some cases, you can have the best of both worlds. In today’s Career Day episode of the Voices of Search podcast, Micah Fisher-Kirshner, Director of SEO & Content at Turn/River Capital shares his experience of going from an agency, to in-house SEO, to managing SEO for a portfolio of companies for a private equity firm.

Topics Include:

  • What is the difference between agency and in-house life?
  • How to B2B brands compare to B2C brands for SEO?
  • What is the value of taking on a general marketing role at some point?

GUESTS & RESOURCES:

Episode Transcript

Benjamin: Welcome to career day on the Voices Of Search podcast. Today we’re going to learn about the skills accumulated and lessons learned from a great SEO throughout the various stops on his career. Joining us for career day is a chess master turned SEO that works at a private equity company. Micah Fisher Kershner is the director of content and SEO at Turn River Capital, which is a technology focused private equity fund specializing in spin outs, buyouts, recapitalization of growth equity investments in small scale technology and web companies.

Benjamin: And we’re going to hear about how Micah started his career in SEO to working for a private equity fund. But before we hear from Micah, 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 complimentary digital diagnostic where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website content and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.

Benjamin: Here’s our interview with Micah Fisher-Kirshner, the director of content and SEO at turn river capital. Micah, welcome to the Voices Of Search podcast.

Micah: Thank you for having me here.

Benjamin: I’m excited to have you here and it’s an honor and a pleasure to talk to a chess master. I know that that is a little bit of a technical term. You’re a great chess player. Talk to us a little bit about how good at chess you are, and and are you actually a chess master or just a chess master?

Micah: So from a technical standpoint, my rating system got up to being an expert level in chess. I’ve won pretty much back in the day with a Scholastic chess I took.. Oh gosh. Four time state Scholastic chess champion as well as two times Boathouse national chess champion. So those are kind of the skill sets that are [inaudible 00:02:34].

Benjamin: So I want to say you’re our first national chess champion on the Voices Of Search podcast. I feel like we’ve finally arrived.

Micah: Well slight modification. It’s Bughouse chess. That’s a different variation on regular chess, just so you know.

Benjamin: All the same to me. You’re also a wonderful SEO. Let’s talk a little bit about your experience in SEO. How did you get started working in this career path?

Micah: Yeah, it was basically through my alumni networks. So I come out of grad school from UCSD. Took me a little bit of time to find something because this was during kind of a slow period around 2006, 2007. And it was actually through that network, the founder of the agency in San Francisco that I had a connection with, and so through that had an interview and I actually got a choice when I did the interview at the agency of whether or not I wanted to go in into SEO or in paid search.

Benjamin: So let’s take a step back. What did you study in college?

Micah: I focused in international relations both in undergrad and grad school with a focus specifically around international economics, econometrics, as well as Chinese lit and language.

Benjamin: So you had a little bit of an analytics background and also an understanding of language with some of your education. You network your way into working for an agency and you’re given the option to pick between SEM and SEO. Why did you pick the O, not the M?

Micah: I decided to go towards SEO because I felt the paid side was too pure numeric driven. And what I liked about the SEO side was trying to combine kind of the qualitative factors with quantitative. The challenge of trying to actually figure out the black box, which kind of ties into a lot of economics and econometrics, taking one’s qualitative aspects and trying to put numerics behind it was what really intrigued me as a potential career path towards SEO.

Benjamin: So a little bit of the blend of the art and science managing the quantitative and qualitative side of your brain. You started off working at an agency. Tell me about what you worked on. What was the experience like?

Micah: Oh, this agency, relatively small, but had some really massive clients back in the day. We had Adobe on the list here, Pearson-

Benjamin: University of Phoenix.

Micah: University of Phoenix. Yeah. We had a number of them that were pretty big, and so I was able to learn quite a bit on how to do SEO, learning really from a mad scientist who was kind of our head of SEO there, as we like to call him. And the clients that we had were big, very large at size or scale, and a lot of politics and trying to navigate really the waters there. And we had a lot of smart people so I got to learn pretty quickly from some really good SEOs at that agency.

Benjamin: So what were some of the things we were focused on? Were you technical, content, optimization? What was the area of focus? What’d you learn?

Micah: For me a lot of it at the start was a lot of onsite SEO link building. Back in the day there more flexibility in that area. But my real kind gen focus was around the analytics side. And it just ties back into wanting to bring in more of the data and analytical mindedness with SEO and the fact that SEO didn’t really have very many tools and so at the agency actually really dove into an expertise with Google analytics when that was kind of still relatively new at the time.

Micah: And so I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into dashboards, reporting, and how to tie multi attribution from students signing up, and how over time you can kind of look at seeing where that attribution really should be attributed and then you buy potentially how much.

Benjamin: So you start off learning about the qualitative side of SEO and eventually you move on from working at the agency to move in house. Talk to me about what the transition was like going from an agency to in house. What drove you to your next role?

Micah: Kind of what drove me to my next role was I felt the agency side, which I learned kind of a lot really fast didn’t allow me to really focus in towards one business. It didn’t allow me to look at kind of the cost optimization side of SEO, like trying to do things faster, trying to find better tools to make my job more efficient versus just a pure rank higher rank better and move to the next client. So that kind of what drove me in house. I also wanted to work at an even larger scale, which is where moving into comparison shopping really pushed the boundaries of massive site optimization.

Benjamin: So tell me about what you were doing specifically at the next role. What was the company, what was the thing you liked about it? What’d you work on?

Micah: Yeah, so I worked a company that was called become.com. It was a comparison shopping engine. I was a number of them, and I was there pre panda and for a little bit post panda. The aspects of what I worked on was management of a large team of analysts, interns, essentially the competitive side of it, content side linking side of SEO. And while kind of managing that, working with the engineers to build projects that could help optimize the internal linking structure within the however many millions of pages that would become.com had. One of the ways that that was done from a testing platform was actually building our own internal SEO testing system so we could actually make minor modifications to the site. We tested, for example, pagination when it first rolled out, seeing did actually this real pagination work better than canonical tag? Was it actually an effective approach? Seeing that we could actually make the single change across the site.

Micah: We did an what was… We created what was called an ABN type of model, which essentially means instead of pure test and control, we had a noise bucket. So we could made sure that the value in them got out of it was actually a win and not just extra noise that maybe could still bring some valid of error range. So that was kind of one of the things that was fun to create at the time.

Benjamin: So it’s interesting to hear that you started off with a very analytics focused experience and then you move to another brand to basically work in more depth. And one of the things that you’re doing is building out testing infrastructure to understand the real value that some of the optimization strategies you’re implementing are taking. I’m interested to hear it, over the next couple of years you’ve gone from working at Become, making the transition to working at an in house brand to a series of companies, going from Balsam Brands to Zazzle to Zen Desk, all in house as an SEO.

Benjamin: So as you’ve gone through the series of two to three year, one and a half to three years stints, what’s the reason why you decided to move across these different companies? What are some of the things that you took with you and what’d you learn at the various roles?

Micah: Yeah, and that’s actually something that I usually keep a thought process on when it comes to factors I think is either I want to learn or is missing when it comes to my career development. So when I went from become.com and over to the Balsam Brands, I wanted to experience what it was like to do a little bit more outside of SEO. So rather than just appear SEO mindset, I got to understand content side, social media, reputation management, do a bit more in analytics, and kind of broaden my organics fear of marketing.

Micah: And really by doing so I learned quite a bit more actually about how to do a better job in SEO beyond just a pure tactical level and see a broader picture of how SEO fits in with other departments.

Benjamin: So you moved from being an SEO specialist to getting some broad marketing experience, which in the end you go back to SEO and then doubled down, dedicated yourself to the craft. But you feel that the experience you had managing a marketing team more broadly helps you have a better understanding of how SEO works.

Micah: Yeah, in a way I would put it as I was much more purely a tactical level SEO. And by going outside of SEO to learn more, I got to be better about thinking strategically with SEO. And so that was kind of what I shifted around and then wanting to go try and use that back at scale at Zazzle.

Micah: But during that time what I had kind of realized is I had never really worked at a brand that was big and really, really was well known and cared about their brand. And that’s why kind of the shift from an e-comm world to the B2B world. And that’s where recognizing kind of one of the weaknesses that I had at the time was how to handle all of the politics and work and strive to build an SEO program, get SEO through in a much larger company situation. And that’s actually one of the reasons why I switched off from the e-comm world of SEO and Zazzle over to Zendesk as B2B SEO.

Benjamin: So you get lots of consumer experience and wrapping up with Zazzle where you’re managing an ecommerce SEO platform and you decide you want broader experience and you care very much about the brand. What was it about Zendesk as you were going through the interview process that made you feel like they cared about the brand in a different way, whether it’s Zen Desk or whether it’s just B2B brands in general. What did you feel about that experience that made you think it was the right move and that there was a difference in how the brand was treated?

Micah: Well, I think the fact that they had a massive brand team.

Benjamin: Just pure headcount.

Micah: No, I mean it just they actually had a real brand team dedicated to that. How it would be perceived, how design structure, literally had lunch and learns to deal with how to properly build on brands Zen Des PowerPoint decks.

Benjamin: That seems like an incredible waste of time. I’m sorry.

Micah: It actually really helped improve my PowerPoint skills so that actually I found to be

Benjamin: PowerPoint. Yes, very important. Here’s how you use the Zen Desk template. That seems like a little bit of overkill.

Micah: Think of it this way. If you’re standardizing at a large company, how things are presented. You don’t have to look all around to understand people’s different styles and templates of what their point’s trying to get across, because a lot of time is spent in meetings trying to convince others about how to do something.

Benjamin: Was it effective?

Micah: I think so. I mean I found it very helpful. I found it’s one of the few… I was personally very impressed with kind of what they were doing.

Benjamin: So at this point you’ve had close to a 10 year, at least a 10 year career experience as an SEO and you come into Zen Desk and they’re not only teaching you about the brand but also how to communicate internally. You’ve been around the block at that point. What were some of the things that you picked up from those classes?

Micah: I picked up I would say how to take the phrase as I would use on an SEO and try to make it less… We love an SEO use jargon is the way I would put it. I took from those kinds of classes trying to think in other terms outside of my world and how to translate over into theirs. And a lot of the classes kind of talk about what are the phrases that the brand likes to use. And so trying to think through that same aspect within kind of this, what I would say the [Zinus 00:15:13] case and use it in that way. I took away of how to get some point that I want to try to get across much more effective than it would be otherwise in kind of the usual day to day aspect of just talking through us.

Benjamin: Okay, so you’re, you’re basically learning how to speak. And it seems like there’s a common thread here of you wanting to learn to communicate outside of the way that SEOs sort of traditionally think and talks amongst themselves. Where as you went from Become to the next company, you wanted to learn about how marketers think and communicate to become a better SEO and eventually go back in house. And then you go from B2B to B2C, and you work in this company that has a really defined brand. And some of the big takeaways were how to communicate to non SEOs about SEO. Having gone through this experience, do you think that there are lessons that other SEOs can take away for how they communicate with each other and how that’s different than how they should communicate with the non in crowd?

Micah: Yeah, I definitely think that communication barriers is probably one of the larger issues oftentimes I’d say we SEOs can have in getting our projects and our points across. We can get very excited about our area, very technical driven in our speech, and the aspect of that can get lost upon others that are as well versed. Sometimes that internal bias that we have of how well versed we are in our field and how much that can then be used across so many different areas and who we are dealing with, be it an engineer, product manager, brand team, user experience, et cetera, the terminologies differ quite dramatically.

Micah: And so that… The way I would kind of just say the things to learn is understanding that you’re going to be not always understood or you might come off in ways that become misunderstood. And so the clearer you can make it to them, the more you’re using common language or even better their jargon, the easier it’s going to be to get what you’re trying to get across and have a better discussion about what can or cannot be done because of that.

Benjamin: I think what makes a great SEO is the ability to consume and understand really complex information, right? The best SEOs have read and understand Google’s webmaster tool guides, right? All of the information that you have to get through and you have to stay on top of a constantly changing medium. And with that comes this incredible amount of information that you’re able to store and it’s very technical for the most part. And communicating that to somebody who is outside of the field can be very complicated and very difficult.

Benjamin: When you throw out the Eton YMYL acronyms people outside of the SEO community think eating is putting food in your mouth and don’t realize that it has a different context for the SEO community. And obviously I’m using a little bit of a jokey metaphor here, but I didn’t before working on this podcast and working with Jordan and working with Searchmetrics, didn’t know what YMYL was, and why would I? I’m not a search engine optimization expert. That’s what the rest of the Searchmetrics team is for.

Benjamin: As you’ve moved on in your career and you’ve gone from working at technologies to working for a private equity firm, I imagine that there are fewer people that not only speak tech but speak SEO. Talk to me about what your current role is and how you made that transition and if you faced any sort of communication challenges working in your current role.

Micah: Yeah. So the way that I kind of usually talk about what I do as an SEO in a private equity firm is it’s really kind of the middle ground between being in house and in an agency. I kind of explained it as most private equities, if you dumb it down, is increased price, cut costs. We have a third option which is improve the marketing optimization side, or bargaining and sales optimization. And so my role is as the agency that owns the company in some ways. And so we work to as a partner with them saying, okay, this company that we have has a marketer, and usually they’re of a size where they are literally the only marketer. We come in and we have a team, an SEO, a paid person, a salesperson, a CS person, and say you now have a whole slew of people who work for you to help provide the ideas of what to do and you can go and help get that implemented for business.

Micah: And we’re all aligned. And so the communication side is actually a lot easier. The process is comparatively easier because of a couple of factors from my perspective. One is, as you said, most of them aren’t as well versed in SEO and don’t really have a preconceived bias about SEO. Whereas in other places people might already have that and you have to kind of retrain them, which I find is often harder than no training. And because everything is aligned and they’ve never had people to help them before, oftentimes the companies we work for are very grateful. And that’s kind of how we choose. We look for companies that have that deficiency and so being able to improve upon it, we can really work to improve those businesses through a lot of the work that we do, and for my area specifically with SEO and giving them a set of recommendations, things that need to work on, prioritize, training them up about why it is what it is, talking to them at a much more common level and being there to help them at any step of the way is needed.

Micah: And the fact being is that within the turnover side of being private equity we are generally aligned on all the same goals. So there’s no real competing interest of okay his stuff got done first, it’s going to be done first before mine. And that doesn’t mean really in the end that I’m going to suffer, because as a group if there’s one metric that we’re generally going after. And as long as that metric goes, we’re good.

Benjamin: It’s an interesting role for an SEO and it’s one of the things that caught my eye that when I think of private equity and investments I didn’t necessarily think of well what is an SEO going to do for a private equity firm? And essentially you are the in house agency. You’re also the in house marketer for all of the portfolio brands. And so you get to manage and operate like an in house employee at all of these different brands, but you get to work on multiple different projects. It sounds like a fascinating role.

Benjamin: It also sounds like it’s an incredible amount of work. How are you able to manage multiple different brands and serve as the in house marketer when that can be a full time role doing SEO for one company at a time?

Micah: Yeah. So that’s where commonalities of the businesses we focus specifically say on B2B SAS and finding themes that can be repeated across them is generally what I try to find and work on. So in terms of… Sometimes there’s a view that there isn’t repeatable processes with SEO, that one thing that you do in one area for one business doesn’t equate the same in another. And that’s not quite correct. It may be the case across different areas-

Benjamin: Different across different industries. But if you’re working on all ecommerce companies, there’s a lot of similarities.

Micah: Exactly. And so the amount of workload or how that comes off is a lot less because you’re doing a lot of those same things. And it doesn’t mean I’m not trying to find new stuff and create new, as we call it, IP, or really best practices. It’s just that there’s a setting starting point of we work on this first, I’ve analyzed the site, same type of kind of SEO audits. There are technical differences, sure. But as long as I can find things to scale my work, not scale the business, but scale the areas of what I can do and do a quick repeat of the same thing, the more that I can work on and the stress level in the amount of time spent for that is less as a result.

Benjamin: It sounds like when you make one optimization on one site and you see it works, you have the ability to roll it across to all of the other portfolio companies and so you’re able to leverage the same win multiple times.

Micah: Yeah, and actually vice versa. Sometimes the ideas that comes from their end is we find that that works, we’ll use it then across the rest of our portfolios as well.

Benjamin: So you’ve gone from being an agency in house on B2C side, B2B side, and now kind of a hybrid agency type in house role. I mean, it’s a unique role. What advice do you have for some younger SEOs about picking between the various types of companies, organizations? Should they go B2B, B2C, in house, out house, agency, shmagency? What’s the right way to find the right fit for you?

Micah: I mean, I can’t say that works in today’s world, but at least when I started, I always have felt that the agency world is a great way to learn fast, but it’s also a much more demanding job at the start. You’re putting in more hours or you’re potentially at more risk to burn yourself out at an agency, but you learn a lot faster than you would at an in house role. Now you can go more in depth, you can learn a lot more of the social skills and how to handle things with SEO in house.

Micah: But from a technical standpoint and really getting into your SEO, I’ve personally usually felt like the agency side is way faster and personally I think is a better starting point. Unless you’ve got an amazing team in an in house role. And unless that is there, it’d be kind of hard for me to say one way or the other. I do think there’s a value of say if you’re starting in an in house SEO role with a large team that you can probably learn a good amount in there too. If you’re a single in house role, it’s a lot harder to learn as fast as say agency side, in my opinion. So that’s kind of my way of how I would say go that way first.

Benjamin: Yeah. I think that you’re going to have a valuable experience working in house and at an agency. what I’ve found from doing this career day interviews is that a lot of people appreciate having the experience working in house and working at an agency to be able to contrast and compare what’s right for them. Some people like the volatility and the constantly changing challenges of working at an agency and some people like to be able to go deep working for a single brand and the security of working in house, and it’s different for everyone.

Benjamin: I think you’ve had some really interesting experience and I think it’s interesting how you’ve been able to find a role where you are essentially doing both. You have the security of an in house brand but also volatility and something different every day because you’re managing multiple different clients for the private equity firm.

Micah: Yeah, I got lucky on that and there’s very few of us. It’s always fun to kind of run into someone who’s in that space and chat with them about those types of things.

Benjamin: Michael, last thing I want to bring up, I understand that you’re the president of a community of search experts. Tell us a little bit about outside of your career, what’s the organization that your the president of?

Micah: Yeah, so I’m president of Bayareasearch.org and it’s an SEO meetup association primarily based in San Francisco. Started about a year and a half to two years ago. And we host meetups every other month at different companies around the San Francisco area. And our next one’s coming up, going to be at Macy’s August 15th. I’ll probably be sending it out actually tonight. So it’s just been kind of a fun little thing. We get between 50 to 75 SEOs that show up every time we host these.

Benjamin: Great. So if you’re interested and you’re here in San Francisco, meeting up with Micah and some other great SEOs. Micah, how can people find the group that you’re involved with?

Micah: You can go to the bayareasearch.org. We usually have the thing up when it comes within about a month’s time before the event. Otherwise you can join our meetup group or sign up to our email list, which is also on the bayareasearch.org site.

Benjamin: Bayareasearch.org, okay. Well Micah, I appreciate you coming on the show. I appreciate you telling us about your experience. And that wraps up this episode of the Voices Of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Micah Fisher-Kirshner, the director of content and SEO at Turn River Capital. If you’d like to learn more about Micah, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can send him a tweet. His handle is MicahFK, M-I-C-A-H-F-K, or by visiting his company’s website, which is turnriver.com.

Benjamin: If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes or you can send me a tweet at 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/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.

Benjamin: If you like 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 next week. Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed the show and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the Apple iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.