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Big Game SEO – ESPN’s Super Bowl Seasonality Strategy – Carolyn Shelby // ESPN

Episode Overview

For most of us, Q1 is about getting the year started on the right foot. If you happen to work in the sports media world, winter is Super Bowl season and the kickoff to the busiest time of the year.

Hear Carolyn Shelby, Walt Disney Company’s Manager of SEO responsible for ESPN properties, share her timelines, strategies, and tactics related to preparing for the big game.

Topics tackled:

  • When does ESPN start planning for the Super Bowl?
  • How does the brand term “Super Bowl” effects ESPN’s strategy?
  • How ESPN’s SEO team works with editorial to optimize for visibility.
  • Why ESPN prioritizes Google News stories on gameday
  • Who are the Patriots are going to play in next year’s Super Bowl?


Episode Transcript

Benjamin:        Welcome to seasonality month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re talking about managing the ebbs, and flows of your SEO calendar. Joining us today is Carolyn Shelby, who is the manager of SEO at The Walt Disney Company that is responsible for optimizing, and the ESPN network of internet properties for their search performance, and today, Carolyn, and I are going to talk about how she thinks about managing Q1 seasonality as the sports world prepares for the Super Bowl, but before we hear from Carolyn, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics.

Benjamin:        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 consultation 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.

Benjamin:        To schedule your free consultation, go to Okay, on with the show. Here’s my conversation with Carolyn Shelby, Manager of SEO at the Walt Disney Company focused on ESPN properties. Carolyn, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Carolyn:             Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Benjamin:        I am psyched to be here, and I feel obligated as a giant sports fan to start this podcast by singing the Monday Night Football song to get us ready for the big game. 

Carolyn:             Yeah, just don’t do the Sports Center jingle. I don’t know why.

Benjamin:        I can’t help it now, oh gosh. Obviously, oh boy, I’ve already embarrassed myself.

Carolyn:             That’s okay.

Benjamin:        But I am a huge sports fan, and this is one of the episodes that I was looking forward to the most when we started talking about seasonality. We’re going to talk about the sports world, about what’s happening in Q1, and specifically, one of the biggest events in terms of media, and content consumption is a sporting event, it’s the Super Bowl.

Benjamin:        So, from your perspective, just high level, how do you think about seasonality in Q1? Is it all Super Bowl all the time, or are there other big events that you’re working on, and prepping for?

Carolyn:             You know, the Super Bowl we start prepping for no later than Q4 of the prior year. So, football season is long, and Super Bowl is obviously the culmination of the season. So, we’re thinking about that one long before Q1 starts, but there’s other things that happen in Q1.

Carolyn:             I would be hard pressed to name any of them at this point in time, but our editorial team is very good about keeping a calendar, they actually have this really complicated spreadsheet-like calendar that makes my eyes cross when I look at it, and they know the dates of every little thing before it’s going to happen, and they’ve got things that they want to write about, and feature mapped out months, and months in advance.

Carolyn:             So fortunately, what I do is I have scheduled meetings with different editorial groups, because we have a team that just works on football, we have a team that just works on basketball, we have a team that just works on college basketball. So, individual teams know when they have a big event coming up, and they will schedule time with me depending on the event, six weeks out, sometimes more like eight, to 12.

Carolyn:             For a big event like Super Bowl, we have a number of meetings, but we have to have things in place by 12 weeks out. So, we need to start planning things 18, to 20 weeks out, and planning things 18, to 20 weeks out is like, ‘Okay, what is the key phrase that you would like to show up for in search this year?’ You can’t really say Super Bowl all the time, because it’s a trademarked term, so there’s certain contexts that we can use it for.

Carolyn:             So with search itself, it’s like, ‘All right, well this is the phrase that’s going to pay. So, this is going to be our anchor text in where?’ We’re going to use this as the anchor text in the menus. We’re gonna use this as the anchor text when we interlink between stories, and then we start assigning pages that are going to have that anchor text assigned to it, and mapping out all the different places that we need to build links to point to for that page, so that page ends up ranking number one when people search for that term, and they find it on our site.

Benjamin:        So, it sounds like for most seasonal events you’re working probably max, three months in advance, 12 weeks in advance, the Super Bowl being such a big event, you’re actually working more than a quarter ahead of time, and you’re starting to think about the head term positioning, and really your head term keyword strategy up front.

Benjamin:        Getting into the nitty gritty, and being a sports nerd like myself, aren’t you just optimizing for the term ‘Patriots averse’ in the Super Bowl, because it’s always the Patriots lately? Sorry, it’s a sport joke.

Carolyn:             Well see, everyone hates the Patriots except the people that live on the East Coast for some reason. No, we really don’t optimize for Patriots averse, and people don’t actually search for Super Bowls like that.

Carolyn:             Here’s something that we discovered, and we discovered it using wonderful Searchmetrics. This year, Super Bowl was technically the Super Bowl that was associated with the year 2018, but people don’t search for 2018 Super Bowl, and expect to find the one played in 2019, people search for Super Bowl 2019, and they’re talking about the one that just happened. So, we have to accommodate for the general public’s lack of understanding.

Benjamin:        Yeah, that the Super Bowl is the 2018 season, but the actual game happens in 2019.

Carolyn:             Right, so people will search for ‘Super Bowl 2019’, but they’re really talking about the 2018 season Super Bowl, and as an SEO I’ll be like, ‘Oh hey, let’s just call it Super Bowl 2019, because that’s what everybody else calls it’, and the journalists are like, ‘No, we can’t do that.’

Benjamin:        It seems like that’s one of the reasons why the NFL calls the Super Bowl by the Super Bowl number.

Carolyn:             You almost have to.

Benjamin:        Right? To avoid that confusion. It’s Super Bowl 50, or 51, or 52, not 2018, or 2019. That’s I guess, the official title.

Carolyn:             Well, and that’s another thing is that people can’t read Roman numerals. So, unless it’s an easy Super Bowl like Super Bowl 50. This one was what, LII? It’s getting to the point where the American public is going to go, ‘I don’t know’, and they’re just going to go back to using regular numbers. So, you have to do a little bit of psychology there, and go, ‘Okay, if I was your average ‘murican, how would I search for this?’ And then go from there

Benjamin:        So, you’re starting more than three, maybe even six months out, and you’re thinking about your head terms, you’re figuring out what’s the way you want to describe the content generally that you’re producing, and what’s the strategy for how people are going to be thinking about the Super Bowl, the big event.

Benjamin:        As you get closer into the event, right? You have your head term strategy, walk me through the process. What are you optimizing for? You know, what’s the content you’re creating, re-purposing, and the lead up to really, the Super Bowl where you’re in the season, but it’s unknown who’s going to be playing, what are you doing?

Carolyn:             Well fortunately, we have a great deal of content that’s generated all the time that’s related to the Super Bowl if not directly, it’s at least NFL related, and everyone knows that it’s leading up to a Super Bowl run, because we have a team of journalists that do nothing but write things about NFL all the time.

Benjamin:        Unless you’re the Jets fans. Sorry. Sorry.

Carolyn:             We probably have a Jets fan somewhere in the writing department. Maybe, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask.

Benjamin:        He just knows that his team isn’t preparing for a Super Bowl run.

Carolyn:             Well, that’s probably true, but I’m a Bears fan, so I also know that my team is not preparing for a Super Bowl run.

Benjamin:        It’s happened.

Carolyn:             Occasionally. It hasn’t worked out so well though, except in ’85.

Benjamin:        I think the Mitchell Trubisky jokes are going to be a little much for the SEO community, but I understand what you’re saying that you’re producing a lot of content for all of the teams understanding that the Super Bowl is coming.

Carolyn:             But we do know, based on historical data not just coming out of Google, and not just out of our search analytics, but from like Chartbeat, and Adobe, because we use Adobe, we know what stories in the past have done really well in terms of just getting readers, not necessarily performing well in search, but what are people reading, and people are really interested in what time is the Super Bowl.

Carolyn:             Playoffs are a big deal. Playoffs, obviously are ultimately leading up towards the Super Bowl, so if you get people hooked on your content during the playoffs, hopefully they’ll keep coming back to you during the Super Bowl, because they like your content, and they like the way you’re covering things.

Carolyn:             So, as far as determining what not head terms that we can target, for certain sports, we’ll go, and we’ll do keyword research, like using the keyword research available in the Searchmetrics app where I’ll say, ‘Okay editors, who’s the big player everybody’s interested in?’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, this guy. This guy’s hot, this team is going to go to the Super Bowl. They’re going to go all the way.’ So, we put in whatever the guy’s name is.

Benjamin:        Patrick Mahomes this year.

Carolyn:             Okay, we’ll go with Patrick Mahomes. Sometimes, the related keywords that come up that have a higher search volume than the player’s name are the player’s girlfriend, or the player’s wife. People asked an awful lot of questions about how much does he make, where does he live? You know, things you wouldn’t think are directly related to football.

Benjamin:        Where does he get his hair cut?

Carolyn:             That kind of stuff. Yeah, it’s odd. So, then we look at this, we sort it by volume, and say, ‘All right, we need stuff to write about, and we want to write about this guy. Answer the question, go interview his hairstylist. This is where he gets his haircut.

Carolyn:             Let’s talk about the wife. Yeah, she’s got an Instagram account, and that’s why she’s famous, let’s talk about the wife’s Instagram account.’ You know, find things that are related to him that people are asking questions about, people are searching, people are interested in.

Benjamin:        So in the lead up to the Super Bowl, and going through the playoffs, and it’s probably something that happens in the season as well, you’re using your SEO data to dictate to the editorial team, what are some topics that are going to be relevant? And this is less specifically focused on the Super Bowl, and more just, how do you stay topical around the NFL so people are used to going to your site to learn about football, and to stay up to date?

Carolyn:             Well yeah, you want to stay relevant. You want to make sure that when people have a sports-related question, they see our brand in the search results so that there’s that mental awareness of our brand as being an authority on search related things, and I would like to clarify, I don’t dictate to the editorial team anything.

Benjamin:        Suggest.

Carolyn:             I will offer suggestions.

Benjamin:        Right, of course. Sorry, I misspoke. Absolutely, the editorial team calls their own shots.

Carolyn:             They call their own shots.

Benjamin:        But the research that you’re doing feeds them some good ideas for how to drive content that’s actually going to be trafficked.

Carolyn:             Especially if you’re getting to the point where it’s like, ‘Oh my God, it’s the Patriots again.’ We have done every single Patriots story you can possibly imagine to death. What can we do now? So, that’s something that’s helpful. What would also be helpful is if maybe the Patriots didn’t go to the Super Bowl for a change, but you know.

Benjamin:        I wouldn’t bet on it this year. Let’s talk about the lead up to the event, and as you get closer to the Super Bowl, and you’re out of the season, right? It sounds like you’re producing content that is relevant, but you’re looking for stuff that is topical associated with the NFL, and not specifically focused on the Super Bowl during the season, but eventually you get to, and through the playoffs, and it really becomes about the big game. What are you doing to optimize your content when it is peak Super Bowl season, the lead up to kickoff?

Carolyn:             A lot of what we do is making sure that we’ve got the internal linking structure, and links in the nav to drive authority to the particular landing page that we have decided will be authoritative that year for the Super Bowl.

Carolyn:             So, we’ll have an information page, an umbrella kind of page where we want everyone to go, so that they know everything there is to know about the Super Bowl, and then we can also nudge them to download the app, and things like that. So, we’ll go through, and say, ‘All right, editorial, any time the word Super Bowl LIII, or whatever letters they’re on his year comes up, we would like the first instance of that to link to our Super Bowl landing page.’

Carolyn:             So, that is the job that the writers have to make sure that they’re getting those internal links put in. Then we go to the nav team, and say, ‘I want you to put in the top nav, take out this one for the draft, because we don’t care about the draft right now, and put in ‘Super Bowl LII, and make sure that people have the opportunity to click on that right away, and get to the page.’

Benjamin:        So, you’re using the power of your domain to basically point the signal to Google that it’s Super Bowl season where we’re bumping this up in terms of our priorities to try to make sure that you have the authority over the head terms on that keyword.

Carolyn:             Well, and then it trickles down to the long tail words too, because they’re all prominently linked to from that main Super Bowl page.

Benjamin:        How much content are you able to repurpose? Do you have a Super Bowl page that is around year, after year that you’re just updating, or are you creating new pages every year?

Carolyn:             Oh, if only we could, but that is not how things work right now. So, we do create a new page every year. Sometimes, they reuse the old template, but it’s not necessarily the same URL we had before.

Carolyn:             So, the vanity URL, which would be the short pretty one, which would be like, or something like that would get directed to whatever that new landing page is for the year, and then they push the old landing page off to somewhere else in the archives. So it’s not my ideal structure, but it’s the legacy structure that we’re working with.

Benjamin:        I mean, that’s just the nature of working on a platform that has a ton of content that’s been around for a fair amount of time.

Carolyn:             Yeah.

Benjamin:        Talk to me about what you do game day, and when the Super Bowl stories are at their peak, when we’re at kickoff, during the game, and even the recap after the game. I’m sure that there’s lots of news that’s breaking mostly in the days before, and after the game, and what’s the strategy to maximize the actual Super Bowl event traffic?

Carolyn:             So, that would largely deal with I would think Google News, and prepping the editorial team for the Google News cycle around the event is something that we’ll have a special meeting just for that. So, what we’re looking for is for some events, and I was still only a couple months into my role for this past Super Bowl, but we had at the NBA draft recently where we did a war room basically.

Carolyn:             So, we’ve got a Slack channel, we’re all over the country, but we’re watching the draft happen, and as things are happening, they’re saying, ‘All right, we have the story ready to roll. Here’s the headline, here’s the lead, how’s this Carolyn?’ And I look at it, and I say, ‘Okay, well we need to make sure we’ve got this phrase in it, and this guy’s name, because it has to do with this guy.’

Carolyn:             So, if you’ve got all the elements in a headline, and your lead paragraph reiterates that, and expands on it, so your headline makes a promise, and your lead delivers on that prompt, then we’re good to roll. Just double check, make sure we’ve got the 80 word minimum, double check, make sure you haven’t put an embed too high, or the caption’s not really weird on the picture, and then they can go ahead, and push it out, because Google News, you really don’t get a lot of opportunity to revisit something if you publish it with some mistakes in it. So, it’s got to be perfect out of the gate.

Benjamin:        So, walk me through the strategy here of not focusing on the universal results, but as you get into game day, you’re really optimizing for Google News. You know, why is the strategy focused on news, and not game day stats, or something that is more of a persistent page?

Carolyn:             Well, because Google’s special results features push the universal results so far down the page, who scrolls that far? When the game’s happening? Google’s going to pop top stories, there’s going to be top stories carousel with your amp articles, and your news.

Carolyn:             There’s going to be a video carousel, there’s gonna be all kinds of carousels, but what there’s not going to be are universal organic results until you’re three miles down the page. So, even if we are number one in universal organic, there’s going to be 90 other things above us in the special results. So, we have to make sure that we’re getting into those special results in order to stay relevant, and capture traffic.

Benjamin:        So, obviously there are events that ESPN is writing about that are largely followed across the world every month, the sporting world has a rich editorial calendar, like you said. How does the Super Bowl differ from the NBA finals, from Major League baseball, from the Olympics, from all of the other myriad of sporting events that ESPN covers?

Carolyn:             The Super Bowl in particular, we don’t have the contract to carry that. So, we have to be a little delicate about some of the phrasing that we have, and we definitely can’t broadcast it live. I’m not sure what the rules are surrounding getting clips to incorporate into our video coverage.

Carolyn:             So, the Super Bowl is a little tricky for us, but like the NBA finals, we carry the NBA finals on a couple of our stations. We carry the NBA draft, I think we carry the NHL draft, or that might have been jointly carried. There’s several events that we have either exclusive license to, or a big license.

Benjamin:        And just to clarify, you mean the broadcast rights.

Carolyn:             The broadcast, yeah.

Benjamin:        Okay.

Carolyn:             And having the broadcast rights, I mean it’s an advantage. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve worked at places before where we didn’t have TV, and broadcast and we didn’t have that extra screen to reach people, and drive people back to the website, and having that is such a blessing to SEO.

Carolyn:             You know, you can really generate awareness, and search traffic by getting someone to mention something on their show, or in their report. Like, phrase it like this so they all run, and search for that, because that’s the phrase we’re going to come up number one for. It’s really helpful for us when the event is something that we carry.

Benjamin:        I guess the last question that I have for you, having access to the Searchmetrics database, a rich set of keywords related to the Super Bowl, and being able to access ESPN’s data, who are the Patriots going to be playing this year in the Super Bowl?

Carolyn:             I am so not even thinking about football right now. Do you realize we have the women’s World Cup happening in soccer, or football as they say in the Europe? The Copa World Cup is going to start any day now, or the Copa Cup in Brazil. Wimbledon’s coming up, we just had the NHL draft. I mean, there’s so many other sports in the universe. We even cover Esports.

Benjamin:        It’s baseball season right now, unless you’re in San Francisco. Sorry, Giants fans, it’s been a rough year.

Carolyn:             Oh, are they sucking really bad?

Benjamin:        Oh, they’re terrible, and I love them, but they’re terrible.

Carolyn:             I’m so sorry.

Benjamin:        Anyway, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. That’s the way the ball bounces. Carolyn, I hope the answer to my question about who the Patriots are going to be playing in the Super Bowl this year, if it’s not the 49ers, I hope it’s the Bears for your sake. I appreciate you coming on the show, and walking us through how you think about seasonality at ESPN, and specifically for the Super Bowl.

Carolyn:             I appreciate the invitation, and I hope the Patriots don’t make the Super Bowl. No offense.

Benjamin:        Okay, and that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Carolyn Shelby, the Manager of SEO with the Walt Disney Company focused on ESPN. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Carolyn, you can find a link to her Linkedin profile in our show notes. You can send her a tweet, where her handle is Cshel, C-S-H-E-L, or you can visit her personal consulting website, which is

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

Benjamin:        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.

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene is the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Searchmetrics. Previously, Jordan was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay. During his time at eBay, Jordan focused on utilizing eBay content to improve user experience and natural search traffic.

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