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Voices of Search Episode 26: Content Planning & Execution

Episode Overview

Listen in for the third episode of Search Planning Strategy Month as Ben and Jeff Preston walk us through Jeff’s content planning process developed during more than a decade at Disney.

Jeff Preston, is the Director of SEO at Realtor.com.

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Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro and today we’re going to continue our series discussing how to create, promote and operationalize an effective SEO strategy for 2019. But before we get started, 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 your website content and SEO strategies, to inform you on how your SEO efforts can be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.

Joining us today is Jeff Preston, who is the Director of SEO at News Corp owned Realtor.com. Prior to moving into his current role, Jeff also held leadership roles, managing content and site optimization for multiple properties at Disney where he received this year’s Internet marketer of the year award from the Internet Marketing Association. And today Jeff is going to walk us through his strategy and process for creating an SEO-friendly content plan.

Jeff, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Jeff:                  Thank you of Ben. I’m glad to be here.

Ben:                 It’s wonderful to connect with you and I’m honored to be talking to this year’s Internet marketer of the year.

Jeff:                  Probably the biggest person surprised by that was me, but yeah, I’m glad to be here.

Ben:                 How does it feel to be the reigning champ of Internet marketing?

Jeff:                  Well it’d be more fun if I was Super Bowl champ or a UFC champ or something like that. But yeah, I was excited to take that.

Ben:                 Hey at least this way there aren’t 300-pound men trying to tackle you and gouge your eyes out.

Jeff:                  That’s true.

Ben:                 So, let’s talk about your background a little bit. How does one get to become the internet marketer of the year? Probably have some great experience. Set some context for our SEO community listening to this podcast. Tell us a little about your experience and what’s your current role.

Jeff:                  Yeah. Probably like many of us, I fell into SEO during a summer internship when I was in graduate school and business school, and I was working on a website. I had spent some of my earlier career in Japan, could speak enough Japanese that I got a job building a website that sold animate DVDs. And this is back in the day before streaming, and we were outranking Amazon for lots of our titles. And so I couldn’t understand why that could possibly be. It was like four of us in a garage we’re beating Amazon.

This is before Amazon cared about a SEO. And then I started to dig into it. I didn’t even know what SEO meant at the time but started digging into it and I fell in love with it. Kind of the mix between the art and the science. And when I finished school, I ended up getting an agency job in Japan and was the country manager in Japan, and we were doing websites and SEO and SEM.

And as things happened, I ended up getting married and having a child. I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in Japan longer term or come back to California where I’m from. Right at that time when that happened, there was a job at Disney, and so I applied for that job and went through the gauntlet of interviews and then was given a nine-month contract, a ‘prove it’ contract, and ended up moving my family from Japan to Los Angeles. And then that started a 10-year career at Disney.

Ben:                 So, at Disney you started off in SEO after doing a bootstrap startup type experience?

Jeff:                  Correct.

Ben:                 And you moved all the way up to managing multiple different properties. Tell us a little bit about what your responsibilities were at Disney.

Jeff:                  Yeah. Great question. At the beginning I was just working basically on the movies that would come out that were Disney titled. My first ever project was WALL- E, I don’t know if you remember that.

Ben:                 Sure.

Jeff:                  That Pixar movie. So that was my first project and at the time the Disney website was built in flash, and then all the navigation was in Java script. And for sure was not SEO friendly, so whatever I did seemed do we have this huge uptick in organic traffic. And so that got some attention from leadership, and then we were able to build out the team. And over the years we ended up collecting more and more websites that we’re working on.

Ben:                 And recently you moved on from Disney, you manage multiple different properties there.

Jeff:                  Right.

Ben:                 And you’re also involved in the content production. And now you’re at realtor.com. Tell us about not only how the company is structured, but also how does SEO fit into the company’s plans?

Jeff:                  Yeah, so Realtor is interesting in that it’s a real estate listing site and there’s lots of competitors that do the same thing in that houses put up for sale and a real estate agent enters the information in it. It ends up going through a pipeline and ends up on a website. And then if we’re in the market for buying a home or selling a home or renting, hopefully when people are searching for our neighborhoods of San Mateo homes for sale, that our website would pop up, and then we can connect the realtors with home buyers. So that’s basically the business model.

Realtor.com is owned by a real estate company called Move, which is also in itself owned by News Corp, the media company. And what really attracted me to this job is not only is it a real estate listing site, which there are many on the Internet, but it’s also part of a bigger media company that owns like the Wall Street Journal and Dow and a lot of newspapers around the world. It’s about a hundred newspapers around the world.

So that would seem like an exciting challenge to lead the SEO for a realtor site, but also have the power of a media company behind it, which is familiar to me from Disney.

Ben:                 Yeah. So there’s the correlation of having some media experience that’s really what your background was coming from back to your DVD selling days, and then the all the way through Disney and now you’re at a company that understands media, but you’re really doing more of a consumer service, and you’re doing SEO optimization for listings that show up in short periods of time and go away.

Tell me a little bit about how you think about your content strategy. And I want to specifically dive into, with realtor.com housing listings don’t last forever, and you can’t control when those pages are created and how long they last. So what’s the content strategy that you’re building that’s outside of the actual house listing?

Jeff:                  We have maybe three things. We have a news and insights section of our site, and it’s staffed by the best writers you can find. All professional journalists and their job is mainly a mix of news for the real estate agents, but there’s also news about the industry, interest rates are going up or down, but there’s also a section for people who maybe they’re first time home buyers, who want to know how to do things correctly. So there’s a lot of advice there.

The other popular content that we have though is about particular homes that we write up. So there might be an interesting home that was built in Alaska or Hawaii or somewhere that may be in our day to day lives that we don’t get to see. So that’s some interesting content produced. And then also around celebrity homes. Those are always a popular pieces of content.

Ben:                 So what I’m hearing is that you have a couple of different targets in terms of who you’re producing content for. There’s the first time home buyers, there are your home seekers, people that are actively looking for listings. There’s your real estate agents who are looking for news and events and then there’s like entertainment type content related to real estate, which is sure, glamour homes, famous homes, interesting projects.

What portion of your focus is creating content that is evergreen, something that’s going to be consistently driving more traffic over time, like your first time home buyer guides, and what part of it is more traditional entertainment content, which has a shorter lifespan and is more a news and event type thing?

Jeff:                  Yeah. We try to have a balanced mix, and there’s more scholarly or professional like an economist would write. We definitely have that content. And then in that marketing mix or the content mix then we have some of this evergreen content. And what’s great about the evergreen content, and this is something like other people in the media do. It’s like we did at ESPN, was this is great content and we want to have a permanent home for it, but we can also go back and update it.

So it’s not like we’re going to publish it once and they never go touch it. There’s always a opportunity as real estate changes, as real estate becomes more of an internet thing, we definitely go back and make changes to that content. In a technical SEO we want to keep that URL the same. And then the other third of it is the nosy celebrity check out this great house posts that do get a lot of traffic.

Ben:                 You said the other third of it where there’s your news content, there’s your evergreen content, which are going and updating it. What was the … I’m missing a third there.

Jeff:                  There’s more for professionals, where like an economist we would write a thing about, “Hey, the interest rates are going this way or that way.” And we expect the impact to the whole market to go up or down. Then there’s definitely like guides and that high quality evergreen content. I mean, how to do your first mortgage or how to sell your first home. And then the last thing is more of entertainment stuff that in some ways can be evergreen, these interesting homes or this is where celebrities are living. But-

Ben:                 Most of the time it’s more topical type stuff.

Jeff:                  Yeah. More topical, but the team has tried to have that kind of balance.

Ben:                 Mm-hmm (affirmative). Talk to me a little bit about your planning process. When you’re coming down with a content plan, is this something that you’re doing a year at a time, a quarter at a time, a month at a time? Is it a daily editorial process? How do you figure out what you’re going to be writing, what topics are you going to cover and how do you keep that balance?

Jeff:                  Yeah, for us an annual plan is difficult. Just because the economy could change, and that would be hard to plan out that way. We usually do a quarter and then here’s a whole bunch of things we’d like to cover in the quarter, and then we get to the month and then we’ll go down to a weekly plan of these are the things we want to do.

When I was at ESPN, we could plan out a whole year around events, so the Super Bowl’s every year, the World Series is every year, the NBA Playoffs are every year around the same time, so in that way it became easy for those evergreen events. And the real estate world, it’s a little bit more in flux because the news will pop up that we weren’t expecting. And so in that case, having a smaller planning windows work better for us.

Ben:                 There’s no Super Bowl of real estates?

Jeff:                  Right.

Ben:                 Yeah. The migration from Long Island to the eastern part of Florida during the winter might be the closest thing you get to it.

Jeff:                  Right. Or people going on vacations around Christmas, the holidays and how would you see some interesting homes in Hawaii or Florida or in the Caribbean or somewhere like that.

Ben:                 Yeah. So what I’m hearing from you in terms of the planning process is essentially on a quarterly basis, you’re building your framework for what you want to cover in that quarter. You have a sense of some of the topics that are going to come up where, for example, in the holidays, maybe people are traveling more, what are some warmer destinations in the winter, you’re going to do a couple of profiles of that, or there’s got to be an interest rate change at the beginning of the year. Maybe that’s something you’re going to cover.

Then you have a monthly review where you’re really, I’m assuming picking what you’re more details of the actual content you’re going to produce. Then you have a weekly operational meeting. Is that?

Jeff:                  Yeah. That’s correct.

Ben:                 Yeah. Okay. Tell me about how you’re working with the content team. Who’s responsible for SEO? What’s the SEOs relationship while you’re doing the content planning? Is all owned under the same umbrella? Do you manage both or do you work cross functionally with other teams?

Jeff:                  Yeah, and so for at least for us here we have excellent writers and very talented editors. So for the SEO team, we can take a step back and let them do their thing. And for us it’s more of consulting and suggestions of saying, “Hey, we produced this content in the last 30 days, this is how it performed.” And there might be some surprises and there might be some wins that we can discuss, and try to find the theme of why those performed well.

There’s definitely like a look back of this is how we performed last month. Looking forward, there is definitely of like, “Hey, we’ve got some suggestions.” The SEO team has some suggestions of how we could tackle some of these things that we planned out. And then it gets in it more of, and you’ve talked about this on the podcast, your keyword planning, and are there keywords that we could gracefully lace in some of these articles that would support it? Are we trying to go for these massive head terms or are we trying to go for maybe secondary keywords?

So those are all discussions that SEO team can go over with the editorial team, but when editorial team’s creating their content, they get to do their thing.

Ben:                 Yeah. So it sounds like the editorial team at the end of the day owns the editorial decisions, which makes sense. And the SEO team serves as a consultant in the sense that you’re doing analysis of the content performance, you’re talking about what some of the SEOs strategies are that can drive incremental gains, what are some of the priority keywords, do you want to focus on head belly tail terms.

Jeff:                  Correct.

Ben:                 Interesting. How often do you interface with those teams and what is their editorial planning process look like?

Jeff:                  They have just a normal newsroom setup where they have a plan of stories they want to cover, it gets assigned to different writers, and then as the writers put their stories together, there might be photos, there’ll be definitely interviews to put those pieces of work together. And so it has a news room feel where different writers are working on different projects and they all sit together in New York City.

Ben:                 It sounds like there’s a little bit of … I don’t want to say conflict, but there’s a little bit of a working relationship where on the SEO side from the technical SEO side of the house, you want to have a plan, you have these big projects that take long time to implement what you’re doing, from what we’ve heard from previous guests, we talked to John Shahada, from Conde Nast. They’re doing a yearly content planning cycle and they’re updating their plans every quarter and they do a couple of big projects.

And then on the editorial side, those things are happening on the quarterly basis at best. But in reality, a lot of those decisions are being made on a weekly basis of what we’re going to write this week.

Jeff:                  Correct.

Ben:                 How do you stay on top of both these large strategic projects that take a long period of time and then remain agile and be able to insert influence with your editorial team when they’re operating on a daily or weekly update basis?

Jeff:                  I think the most important thing, and this is a SEO theme, whether you’re talking about technical SEO or editorial or content planning, is to have just a good relationship with that team. And where it becomes interesting is that I’m definitely responsible for how much organic traffic we get to the site, and then the editors in charge of the quality and the quantity of the content. So we have to work together, but they know that they want to have SEO optimize content so that performs well in organic search. So there’s a teamwork where we have to go back and forth and I can say, “Hey, this is what we’re seeing, this is my suggestions.” And then we just start from there.

Ben:                 Yeah. There’s a shared KPI where you’re both responsible for the amount of organic traffic, and they need you to make sure that their content ranks and performs and you need them to produce content that’s going to hit the right set of keywords, so you have something solid to work with.

Jeff:                  Right. And not only have those keywords in there, but it’s very well written that it’s easy to share and it’s of the highest quality.

Ben:                 Yeah. There’s just that balance. And what I’m trying to get at is there’s the balance of the artistic side of editorial, and you want creatives to be able to be creative and work in the moment. And when they’re inspired, be able to produce content that is unique, differentiated, interesting, and then there’s the planning element of SEO, which requires time and thoughtfulness.

That to me seems like, “Hey I understand having a great working relationship,” but it’s also like you have to allow them to work on the last minute and you need to plan months in advance. Those two things don’t seem like they’re necessarily imbalanced with each other.

Jeff:                  Right. And so there’s definitely going to be a fire drill or the hot topic that pops up that no one was expecting, and so that definitely happens. And then you just do your best. Most of the SEO team is here on the West Coast and the editorial team is on the East Coast, so that becomes a challenge early in the morning. And there’s definitely things that we have to work out.

Ben:                 From a time-management perspective, understanding that you’re going to have the emerging news, even something like real estate, maybe the most expensive house in the world gets listed and it’s in De Moines, Iowa.

Jeff:                  Correct.

Ben:                 Right. Obviously it’s going to be a great news story, something that you have to tackle. How do you block off time or make sure that you are not missing deadlines knowing that you’re going to have these fire drills pop up? Do you carve out time to just deal with the unexpected?

Jeff:                  Yeah, definitely. And then there’s the regular, I think having that regular cadence that’s assuring, because that can catch most of it. We have these standing meetings and have standing one on ones and that helps a lot. And then knowing that, “Hey, the writers and the editors, they can text me at home at 6:00 AM if something pops up,” but I know they won’t do that unless it’s something urgent.

Ben:                 Right.

Jeff:                  So that relationship of trust really, really helps.

Ben:                 There’s no a cross country Bat-Signal that a house over $10 million has been listed.

Jeff:                  Yeah. Something came up that it was something that urgent, they have the green light to reach out, and then we’ll make the best of it. But again, usually those are the edge cases, but most of the work can be done just with just making sure we block out enough time to, as a team communicate.

Ben:                 Great. At Disney, it was the actual Bat-Signal and that move.com and realtor.com you guys just use SMS.

Jeff:                  Yeah. Yes. There was the Avengers thing back in Disney days.

Ben:                 Perfect. I also want to hear about the content update process. You mentioned earlier that one of the three pillars of content that you’re working on, you have a couple of different buyer segments, but you’re going back and you’re touching up your evergreen content. Is there a process there and what’s the timeline look like? How can SEOs think about how to review their existing content as supposed to focus on what they’re creating that’s new?

Jeff:                  I had a colleague, Michael Lodge at Disney that he, I liked how he coined this and we just kept using it, was there’s a gap analysis where, “hey, this is content we don’t have, but we should be able to create. And then if we do create it, we have a great chance to rank for it because it’s a theme that we could write about authoritatively.”

Ben:                 It’s in your wheelhouse.

Jeff:                  Yeah. It’s in our wheelhouse. So there was a gap analysis. The other is more of a playbook of we’ve got great content but it’s not performing well. So it’s maybe it’s on the second page and what can we do to make that move up? And so that’s us as SEOs looking at the content is are we using the wrong words? That’s why it doesn’t rank higher or is there not enough links pointing to it that could boost it.

And so there’s definitely, I think for a good content plan, you want to have both. There’s great content that we already have. What can we do to make it rank better? And then we were missing this content: what can we do to get creative?

Ben:                 And are you doing that on a consistent basis? Are you able to schedule out, “Hey, we’re going to review our existing content once a month and pick five articles and update them?” Or is it just an ad hoc analysis?

Jeff:                  On the SEO team side we can review it and review how those are performing, and then suggest of like next time we have our editorial SEO meeting, then we can suggest like, “Hey, we noticed here’s some candidates.” If there’s time on the editorial to go back and take a look and see if there’s anything we can do to move those forward.

Ben:                 So it sounds like since you’re dependent on the editorial team, it works into your ongoing weekly dialogue with them, but there is no cadence where you’re saying, “Hey, once a quarter we review all of our content,”-

Jeff:                  No. It’s a little bit more ad hoc.

Ben:                 Yeah, it’s a little ad hoc.

Jeff:                  And we might find that the reason that some of this good content (and it’s not ranking better) is more of a technical SEO thing that I have to solve. There’s not enough internal links so there’s something we did on the SEO side or did not do, we fail to do that maybe is contributing to underperforming content.

Ben:                 Yeah. At the end, you mentioned this, my take away here is that the relationship between the content team and the technical part of SEO has to be a consistent dialogue, and when you’re working at scale across multiple properties, in the move.com, realtor.com example, you’re focusing on different types of buyers. You’re really not able to do a ton of planning out on the quarterly basis, maybe with some exceptions where you mentioned ESPN, “Hey, I know the Super Bowl is going to be in February, we’re going to write about that.”

Jeff:                  Right.

Ben:                 And you could start building a plan there, but a lot of it is about building close relationships, keeping a regular dialogue, and then also making sure that your incentives are aligned and you’re sharing KPIs, so everybody feels like we’re all on the same page in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.

Jeff:                  Yeah, that’s exactly right. And again, going back to that relationship and the trust is that these are professional writers who are paid to write. So that’s their job. And so whatever suggestions I make, it’s done in a respectful manner. I would have that same discussion with the engineering team about technical SEO. If we have that relationship of trust, everything goes a lot better.

Ben:                 Yeah. I think the underlying theme there is that you’re dependent in as an SEO on multiple different organizations.

Jeff:                  Sure.

Ben:                 Right. You have to work with your content team. Obviously you have to have buy-in from your leadership team. You’re working with your editorial team, your product managers, the business, there’s a bunch of different people that SEOs serve as at a bare minimum of consulting function too, and so when you’re talking about planning outside of just the operational work as an SEO, you also need to be planning to build and cultivate and develop the interpersonal relationships with your team because you’re dependent on them to be successful.

Jeff:                  And add to that. Like the larger the company, the more critical that becomes. If you’re in a small company, you can just walk over and ask somebody. But again, I’m on the other side of the country or at different times zones, like having that good relationship we could work together, and we’re faithful to them, they’re faithful to us. And I answer emails quick, they answer emails quick, like all of that, what would seem like common sense things, but unless we’re doing that well, we’re not going to be as high performing as far as our SEO.

Ben:                 Yeah. My key takeaway is when we’re thinking about content planning, it’s not like your technical planning, like we talked about in our last episode where you’re coming up with a yearly plan and you’re evaluated on a quarterly basis, and you have your three or four big projects that you’re working to achieve to do these step level function changes. This is a process that is an ongoing hand to hand combat battle that happens on a daily or weekly basis.

And where you’re actually doing most of your planning is scheduling the time to build the cross functional relationships, setting your reoccurring meeting with your cross functional partners, not coming up with a content plan that is 3, 6 months, 12 months out. It’s really just about saying, “What is the best time and cadence for us to communicate to make sure that we stay on the same page.”

Jeff:                  And when would you shop for that monthly meeting? The SEO team better be prepared.

Ben:                 Have your ass together.

Jeff:                  Yeah, yeah. And we’ve got all the performance, we’re looking back, we’re looking forward, here’s a bunch of recommendations. And that we’re very active partners. That’s critical as well.

Ben:                 Okay. Any last words of advice for the SEO community as they think about their content planning for 2019?

Jeff:                  My advice would be, yeah, just again, be very good partners to your content team. They’re the professionals in how to write well and we support them. But if they write great content, I would make sure to celebrate with them. If we write something, it ends up going number one for some competitive keywords, the content force very well, then make sure to go back and celebrate with them. And I think sometimes, maybe when I was earlier in my career, I would spike the ball and say, “Hey, what a great job the SEO team is doing.” But it was really the writer’s credit, great content. That’s what performed well.

And so always make sure to go back and let’s go back and celebrate what great content you guys provided.

Ben:                 But I think that’s the beauty of Two-Buck Chuck. You can buy a cheap bottle of wine anytime of the year, celebrate your successes and when you’re giving constructive feedback, frame it as a way that both teams can continue to develop and become successful. And you have to manage the relationships with your editorial team, let your creatives be creative, and guide and support them more than push them specific direction to cultivate that relationship. Because at the end of the day, you are truly in it together.

Jeff:                  Correct.

Ben:                 And I think that’s great advice. And let’s land the plane there. That wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast.

Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jeff Preston, the Director of SEO at realtor.com. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Jeff, you can find a link to his bio in our show notes, or you can shoot him a tweet at Jeffery Preston. That’s Jeffery Preston.

If you have general marketing questions or you want to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can tweet me @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 searchmetrics.com for a free tour of our platform, or you can get your free digital diagnostic by going to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.

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 lastly, if you enjoyed this show and you’re feeling generous, we would love it for you to leave us a review in the iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcast. Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the daily.