Amateur pilot, marketing expert, sought-after speaker, and Director of SEO for Williams-Sonoma, Avinash Conda shares his insights on how search engine optimization has evolved over time. For Avinash, a core premise is data and having the right infrastructure and tools to test consistently. Learn about his journey and his SEO strategies for creating brand success.
- What are the biggest challenges of consumer-facing companies that are multifaceted multi brands?
- What drives SEO success for smaller versus large businesses?
- How do you tailor pricing strategy around the needs of the client?
- How do you handle technical debt?
- How much of SEO is art and how much science?
- How does one combine being self-taught with the necessary fundamentals in computer science and IT?
- What was it like to immigrate from India to the American south?
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- Benjamin Shapiro: Bio // Podcast Network // Twitter // LinkedIn
Ben: Welcome to Career Day on the Voices of Search podcast. Today, we’re going to learn about the skills accumulated and the lessons learned from a great SEO throughout the various stops on his career. Joining us for Career Day is a high-flying expert in SEO for consumer brands. Avinash Conda is the Director of SEO for Williams-Sonoma, which is a specialty retailer of high-quality products that owns a family of brands that includes Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, West Elm, and my personal favorite, Rejuvenation. Outside of his work at Williams- Sonoma, Avinash is also an amateur pilot.
Ben: But before we hear from Avinash, 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.
Ben: Okay. Here’s our interview with Director of SEO at Williams-Sonoma, Avinash Conda. Avinash, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.
Avinash: Thank you. Thanks a lot, Ben. It’s really nice being on this show.
Ben: It’s great to have you here. I’m excited to talk about someone that has a wealth of SEO experience, we said that specifically with consumer brands, but first and foremost I have to talk to you about your experience as a pilot. Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to be 20-30,000 feet in the air with your hair on fire doing twists and turns?
Avinash: Absolutely. Well, it’s a slight exaggeration, but sometimes I don’t do a lot of it. I am a private pilot. So I fly small planes, not the high performance ones. The smaller four-seater and two-seater Cessnas. It’s absolutely great. It’s always been my passion to fly. After I moved to California from New York, I thought it was the best time. I also had ample time on my hands to do that. So just took it up as a hobby. I don’t fly really actively anymore. It’s just a once in a while thing. But it feels absolutely great.
Ben: Rumor has it you’re also an amateur model. So what I’m picturing is that you’re the Indian version of Tom Cruise.
Avinash: Not exactly. I’ve done a few shoots before, but again, it was just out of curiosity. Again, like I said, it was a side passion project kind of a thing. But yeah, nothing big.
Ben: So, the SEO is still paying the bills, but a man of multiple interests. Let’s talk about your career today. Let’s first off just start off by telling us how you got into SEO.
Avinash: Yeah. And again, I don’t think this will be any different from most SEOs is one thing people don’t go to college for SEO. Nowadays there’s a bunch of courses which people can take, but when I was starting off in that field 12-13 years ago, it was all being self-taught. So I’d say I actually started off more in this by accident. I was going to college for computer science, information technology, was working on smaller websites who also wanted, developed a website and also have them ranked on Google. And back then it was not as complicated as now. So I started off doing basic SEO stuff as a web developer, and that’s how I initially started off doing SEO. And this is 2006, 2007.
Ben: So, talk me back in 2006, 2007, you mentioned you’re working with smaller sites. What are some of the SEO strategies that you were implementing? How simplistic was it and how easy was SEO back in the day?
Avinash: Every single strategy I used what, 10, 15, 12 years ago is pure black hat today. So I don’t think I should be calling out those strategies. But what I say is it was pretty straightforward. Google was looking at three major, major, major metrics on site. Title tag, description tag and the keyword tag. Back in the day that was really big. And the only missing piece for most businesses was links coming in. So those were the only four aspects I was concentrating on back in the day, right from building the website to adding title tags and description tags. Again, more or less keyword stuffing. I guess that’s exactly what most people did back then.
Ben: You know, let’s call that gray hat. I think the dividing line for me is if you’re putting white keywords on white text to keyword stuff, then you’re maybe getting into the darker part of gray hat. But that was just sort of table stakes for SEO 10, 15 years ago. I see that on your LinkedIn page you started as a SEO data analyst early on in your career. Tell me about the organization, and how did you land the job?
Avinash: Yeah. So this was precisely during the depression. I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in computer science. So after my college I was still thinking about which profession I should take up. I knew I wanted to stay in technology, but never had a thought that I would go back to doing SEO. I got a job at a company called consultwebs.com, and this is which actually targeted very niche markets. They did digital marketing just for lawyers. They’re still around by the way actually. So I started out doing reports and data analytics for them. In my first few months I was an intern. And then got inducted full time. I worked with them for a little over a year doing on page SEO for most of their large clients.
Ben: So, you’re doing SEO for specific vertical of websites. You’re focused on SEO optimization for lawyers. What was the reason for leaving that company? And you eventually moved on to a search engine optimization and social media role at Path Interactive.
Avinash: Yep, yep. Again, it was a big change. Moving from India to the United States was one big change. So I went to Kentucky and from Kentucky to New York was actually like moving to another country. The simple answer to why I moved was growth. I was looking for a bigger challenge, a better role, more responsibility. And I was also planning on moving to a bigger city. So that’s how I landed the job at Path Interactive. Great company. They’re still around in an SEO agency, digital marketing agency. When I started I think I was employee number 14. 13 or 14. It was a small startup, only started two years before I joined. Back then, now they are a pretty big size company in terms of SEO agencies.
Avinash: I started out doing small to mid-sized businesses there. Although I had a focus on lawyers, I got to work with different business. It was also the first time I started working on e-commerce websites at Path Interactive. So it was a pretty good move, not just in terms of my role but also in terms of the location. New experiences, new people, new clients. It was a much more client-facing role as well. So that’s how I ended up at Path Interactive.
Ben: So, there’s obviously a lifestyle component to moving from Kentucky to New York City, for better or for worse. So you mentioned that you had moved on from focusing specifically on professional service businesses for lawyers to starting to do e-commerce. As you’re thinking about the SEO strategies, what are the differences between e-commerce and focusing on professional services?
Avinash: There’s a huge difference. Again, the sheer scale is different when you’re doing professional services versus e-commerce. When it comes to technical SEO, it’s very different. E-commerce has different site structures. KPIs are also different when you are measuring and reporting. One big element which most SEOs at bigger companies don’t necessarily have a strong say in, which is user experience site structures, site speed, mobile experience, when it comes to professional services, because they are mostly smaller websites, it’s much more easier. They’re more agile changes. When it comes to e-commerce, it’s actually more important to bridge these technical gaps, but it’s really hard to do that just given the size of the site. I work with some smaller sites too, but just given the sheer complexity, the entire dynamic of SEO changes when you’re working with both of them.
Ben: Yeah, it sounds like my guess is that a lot of the professional service businesses are also very locally focused, less competition, and e-commerce has a broader reach. So you’re going to have a lot deeper competition.
Avinash: That’s a good point. I agree to an extent. There is one other aspect is, when you mention competition, I think even with local businesses there is definitely competition. Because there’s not too many places you can rank your local website on. Obviously, there’s a local track, much smaller than the regular Google search engine three to four results at the most. Back in the day it was two to three at the most. And there was heavy competition, definitely. But you’re right. When you look at e-commerce overall, you’re competing with a smaller set of audience. For a smaller real estate as well.
Ben: So, you mentioned that you were working with sort of smaller, or let’s call them growth stage, businesses when you were at Path Interactive. When you were working with these types of companies that are smaller in terms of budget, probably in terms of resources, what did you find that drove success for your clients?
Avinash: So, the thing is, a very good question by the way. I think every business has a specific need. Tailoring the strategy to your client is absolutely necessary. I think that’s where I found success. Most agencies, back when I was working in New York, what they were offering was we have a similar package, a gold package, a platinum package. You get X number of hours, X number of back links. They were really steps within the contract. We were tailoring our strategy of pricing around the needs of the client. There were even times when we signed up for the number of leads we would generate in a month. So, tailoring the strategy based on the website, the competition, the target audience and the they were targeting was what I think drove success. Again, this is a step even before we get into the SEO strategy, but I think it is a crucial step everyone has to take in terms of tailoring what you’re taking to your clients. That was one thing which was very unique to what we were doing at Path Interactive.
Ben: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but my guess is that this is a lesson that you learned with your client-facing experience which started at this role.
Avinash: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.
Ben: Okay. So eventually you make a pretty dynamic shift again. You’re in New York City. You’re working for an agency. You’re focused on a wide variety of brands. And then you decide to go in house across the country. You move to the San Francisco Bay area and you work for Shutterfly, one of the longer career stints that you’ve had. Tell me about the rationale for another big move and what drove you to be excited about the Shutterfly opportunity?
Avinash: Yeah, yeah. Great question again. So by trade my qualification, I’m an engineer. So when I was working with smaller companies, I thought I didn’t necessarily use all of my technical skills. And when it comes to SEO and technology merging with each other, I thought a bigger site would be that place. But most of the sites we were working used a CMS, mostly frontal network. Also a couple or three of the e-commerce sites I was working on did not have a very complex structure where I needed to use all of my technical skills. At Path Interactive I got an opportunity to speak at multiple conferences. I was teaching a course at New York University for SEO. But again, going back to the word I used before, growth, that’s what I was looking for in my career. And at this time I thought I’m done with the agency life for now, ready to move to a much more focused larger band where I could not just use my SEO but also the technical skills.
Avinash: So Shutterfly was that opportunity. They had a huge technical debt back when I joined. It was a newly created role. They wanted someone to come in but also help them build a technical road map for the next two or three years. So that’s how I got that opportunity, and it was a big move, you’re right. But the opportunity looked right. I thought I could learn a lot as well as contribute a lot. It was a great balance, so I took up the role.
Ben: So, talk to me, once you had gone in house, what did you realize was the difference between working at an SEO agency and being an in house SEO?
Avinash: Yeah. I had my own questions. I knew a few people working at bigger companies back then and I always asked them, “What do you do?” Like you go in the morning and optimize the same website for the whole day and then go back to work the next day? Because it was really hard to even think about or imagine what a full-time SEO engineer or SEO analyst at a bigger company would do. Once I joined it was a completely new experience. For me it was a completely new experience for me. Processes, something which I was not really habituated to. Much more stronger processes, working cross functionally, many more stakeholders involved. Even right from a smaller change all the way to a bigger change. Many more stakeholders involved. The grand element, which never strikes you hard when you are working with smaller companies, will strike you really hard.
Avinash: SEO obviously is most related to the part of what is visible on the site. So anything you touch, anything you change needs multiple levels of approvals. Obviously with bigger sites they’re more complex. Each one is on a different stack. Again, at Shutterfly we have multiple bands. I’ve worked on all of them. All of them were on different back end stacks when I was working there. It was different working with different bands within the same company. And the biggest change, I would say, was tech SEO. That’s when I first I think stretched my limits in terms of tech and SEO. Before that it was mostly on front end, but then that’s where at Shutterfly I learned most of my technical abilities for SEO.
Ben: So I want to talk a little bit more about the technical SEO components, but before we get there, I’m interested to hear as somebody who was a senior manager of SEO and eventually moved into a director of internet marketing at Shutterfly, I’m assuming that you were taking on responsibility for not only your work as an individual contributor, but also starting to manage a team. So as you are now in a nuanced, relatively matrixed organization and you’re a team manager, how does that contrast with some of the earlier experiences you had as an individual contributor? And how did you balance the additional responsibility, not only for your team, but also to manage a more complex set of problems?
Avinash: Yeah, honestly it was more fun for me working in a team than being an individual contributor. Even at Path Interactive I’ve had instances where I was managing teams at different stages and based on the band width and the scale of projects that we had, but at Shutterfly I did have a full-time team. If you ask me, most of the challenges I’ve faced are the very common challenges most people managers face. There’s no red flags coming out of that. But when it comes to just speaking about SEO and a team, I think it’s a great idea. SEO is a mix of art and science. It’s a trial and error kind of a strategy. And when you’re working in teams, your ideas come from all directions. And that was a really, really good learning experience for me. I had a really great team, brightest people on my team. I was lucky enough to have really strong execution as well as thought leaders on my team. Different experiences, people coming from agencies and other bigger companies, people bringing new things to the table.
Avinash: So rather than looking at it as a top down team, I would say we were more collaborative and in terms of what it did for a search SEO enhancing strategy, we played devil’s advocate. Agree, disagree, tested our theory. I think that’s very crucial for any SEO team.
Ben: I think that very little is certain in SEO, right? It’s a constantly changing landscape. That’s one of the reasons why having access to the data and having an infrastructure and a set of tools to be able to test consistently is important. One of the reasons why Searchmetrics has a business to be able to not only provide data but tools and expertise to SEOs, one of the things that you mentioned, it is an art and a science. It’s also a very misunderstood practice of marketing. So as you find yourself in more of a leadership role, eventually move from being a senior manager to a director of internet marketing, not just a director of SEO, how did you manage to articulate the value of SEO, and how did you get across what your needs, requirements and why it should be prioritized? You know, working with your technical teams and the other aspects of marketing and finance?
Avinash: Yeah. This is one of the most common challenges most SEOs face is they have to consistently sell SEO internally or sell SEO to their boss or the executives in the company. You’re right. It is often the most misunderstood. Because it is that way. There’s no lift and ship strategy, lift and ship, each site is different. We did this for one site, why can’t we do the same thing for the other? There are questions like that. And the second biggest challenge is how do you quantify it? In a world where SCM gets four dollars, you get $1.50 on display Facebook where you just throw money and within a day, sometimes even within an hour, you see money coming back. It’s really hard to quantify SEO. Not some of the time, but most of the products have issues. Now I’ll give you an example.
Avinash: If I have to go to site map, a website doesn’t have a site map, Google webmaster it takes a lot of work for a bigger company to build a site map and automatically populate it on a weekly or a daily basis. What is the revenue of site for that project? Now how do you quantify that? Doing an analysis after the fact might be a little more easier because you already have the data, but focusing these kinds of projects is where the challenge comes in. And selling that becomes even harder. So I think most SEOs will agree to this part.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll play devil’s advocate a little or talk through this. Just as a general marketer, as a marketing strategist and a consultant, the way that I describe SEO as opposed to paid acquisition challenges, it is the more that you continually invest, the more that you’re building towards your future. It is a slow-growing channel that if done correctly never gives that value back. As opposed to it is eating your broccoli instead of eating candy. You can eat a piece of candy, you get a sugar rush right away. You eat a piece of broccoli, you develop good habits. You do that consistently over time, you build muscle mass and you have energy for days and years.
Avinash: That’s great. That’s the first time I’m hearing something like that. I agree. I think that’s of it.
Ben: You know, and that’s something that I struggle with consulting clients and describing SEO to even people like my mom and dad. What’s the difference between a marketing channel is when you put a dollar into a project in SEO, the goal is to get a return of a dollar a day six months from now. It is not necessarily focusing on a real time return, but if you’re patient over time and continue to invest, you build this wonderful infrastructure that you can live off of. So without me talking too much about the value of SEOs, tell me about some of the technical things that you were working on Shutterfly. What were some of the problems you faced, and what were some of the skills that you learned?
Avinash: Yeah, so when coming to work at a bigger company, any new product the business launches is in some or the other way tied to SEO. You think about any marketing channel who’s launching. Any new tech front end work, even if it is related to the promo engine, even if it’s related to the navigation structure, the site structure, internal links, you are building your responsive site, almost every product which touches the front end is directly or indirectly related to SEO. So as you become the stakeholder at multiple projects, inevitably it’s not like SEO has an exclusive road map, which it actually does. Even outside of that, SEO kind of has a consulting role in most of the other projects. That’s one thing I learned a little earlier in my job, that it’s not like you have these full products, you need to go to the product engineering team and get it done. They’re already working on maybe 14 other products out of which you have stakes in eight of them. Some of your existing products will have easier fixes with the product they’re already working on.
Avinash: So just given the depth of what all SEO touches on a website, I think that level of diversity, I don’t think any other channel has that level of diversity. When I say channel, I mean other marketing channels.
Ben: So Shutterfly was your first experience at a consumer-focused brand when you were an in-house marketer. You’ve now moved on from Shutterfly and are the director of SEO at Williams-Sonoma, so you own multiple brands. And you went back into an SEO-specific role. First off, tell me what it is that you like about working on consumer-facing brands that are multifaceted multibrands? What are some of the challenges that you’re facing as well?
Avinash: Absolutely. I love retail. I mean I’ve come to love retail. When I started working at Shutterfly, just how the market is evolving, how the consumers are evolving in terms of consuming content. The purchase behaviors, the consumer journey. I think it’s really fascinating how advertising works, how a paid channel works, how organic plays a major role in connecting the dots. When it comes to multidevice, multitouch models, I think each channel adds more value than the numbers actually speak to. How they all tie in together, how can we bring in a customer, how can we reach them, how can we have them come back? I think the whole idea of retail is really exciting to me. You’re right, at Shutterfly I have worked on multiple channels, being the biggest channel I’ve worked on outside of SEO. I’ve done some display. Some of my previous jobs I’ve also done SCM. But big piece which was missing, again my personal opinion which was missing at Shutterfly was I wanted to work closer with the technology arc. Although I did have an opportunity to work with them pretty closely, I wanted to have an opportunity to work even closer.
Avinash: Williams-Sonoma gave me that opportunity. I actually the product technology arc. So outside of just SEO strategy, I worked really closely with a couple of strong teams on building the road map for the next two years, also getting them executed. So this is what I was looking for and spent six holiday seasons at Shutterfly. I thought that was enough. Again, it was great experience.
Ben: Spoken like somebody who works in retail. You don’t count the years, you count the holiday seasons.
Avinash: Yes, absolutely. And I thought it was a good time for a change, and for a really long time. My wife is a fan of Williams-Sonoma and I’ve been a customer. I love the brand. I already have some history with them because I’ve done some competitive analysis when I was working at Shutterfly. So when I had the opportunity, I just took it.
Ben: So, it sounds like one of the motivating factors for you to move towards Williams-Sonoma, A, you had some brand affinity. But it also gave you the ability to go back to your roots in some capacity where you are still focused on SEO but exclusively focused on SEO, but also working very closely with the technical teams. Talk to me about some of the challenges you’re facing and some of the responsibilities you’ve taken on in your current role.
Avinash: Yeah, again, Williams-Sonoma is over 60 years old now. So it comes from brick and mortar retail. So the top down view is not necessarily the same as how a Wayfair or eBay might think. Who are purely tech-focused, website-driven, and that’s how they start and finish their jobs with. Here it’s a little more, obviously more than 50% of the revenue comes from. The other 50% comes from brick and mortar retail. The focus is slightly more divided. Obviously the business realizes that digital is the next big thing, I mean is the big thing, in terms of growth. And in the process of migrating from model to online retail to actually being one of the biggest online retailer, I think from an SEO standpoint, I can definitely speak to that. There having and that’s where I come in to close.
Avinash: So, when compared to some of these smaller, newer businesses who have a very easy code base, not too complicated, built in recent times, have a strategic advantage in adapting to the changes Google is making. Again, this is not just for Williams Sonoma. I think I can speak for most big older sites like Macy’s, Walmart, JC Penney. All of these guys have the same problem. Adaptability to the pace at which Google is changing is the biggest challenge they have to face in terms of technical SEO.
Ben: I think it’s an interesting and complex type of organization. You mentioned you’re dealing with a fair amount of code debt like other mature brands are. So from a technical perspective it’s complex. But there’s also the notion of, you talked about multitouch attribution. But there’s also the idea that your digital advertising can drive somebody to a brick and mortar conversion. How are you thinking about using SEO tactics and the impact that they have on actual brick and mortar conversions?
Avinash: That’s a very good point. Not a lot of people have been able to figure out how to measure. There are a few models, custom-built models how to do that. Local SEO, that’s the easiest and the biggest way, most easily measurable way to actually drive foot traffic to the stores. We have over 650 stores all over the United States. And people definitely do search before they go to a store, local SEO. Pretty big. When you’re searching for most terms, be it branded or even nonbranded terms, Google is going heavier. Most of these searches happen on mobile. Google is going heavier with local impact. And there’s a huge opportunity to drive foot traffic to the stores.
Ben: Interesting. So as you’ve moved from working in small agencies in Kentucky to a larger agency eventually to focusing on a digital retail brand like Shutterfly and now to a digital and brick and mortar retail brand, as you reflect on all of your experiences, what advice do you have for SEOs who are earlier in their career who are interested in breaking into your career path that are a little more technical and are interested in the retail industry?
Avinash: Sure. I think a good SEO should have a decent technical understanding of how search works. Most SEOs I meet today; good SEOs follow Google religiously. But usually the gap with most SEO analysts or pressures I’ve seen today is lacking the technical studies. And obviously that’s not something you can acquire overnight. And that’s not necessarily what Google is posting or writing bout on a daily basis. These are problems which happen at a company. You have to identify and fix them in real time. So technical expertise is one area which I would suggest new SEOs focus on. That is where Google is heading. That’s where retail is heading. That’s where most of the industry is heading, and building expertise there will give you an advantage over the others.
Ben: So, the interesting thing to me about what you’re saying is that even at a company that is not traditionally a tech company, brushing up on your technical capabilities as an SEO is still the first thing that you think provides value and leads people to success. So Avinash, let me just say it was great to hear about your career. Congratulations on your success, on the move to Williams-Sonoma, and we’re excited to have you as our guest on the podcast.
Avinash: Thank you. Thank you. It was great. I really enjoyed talking to you, and thanks for having me on the show.
Ben: Okay. And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Avinash Conda, director of SEO at Williams-Sonoma. If you’d like to learn more about Avinash, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes, or you can send him a tweet at avinashconda.If you have general marketing questions or if you want 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. 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. If you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast application, and we’ll be back in your feed next week.
Ben: Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast 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.