Fortunately, Kevin brought his “A” game to the conversation and did a great job of demystifying SEO for our listeners. He explains why SEO is a must-have for some companies, but just a nice-to-have for others. Then he describes why, when SEO is a necessary channel for growth, companies should invest early and heavily to maximize their potential.
In the past, SEO could feel very “hacky” and there were definitely a lot of bad actors in the space. Kevin shows us why today’s SEO is won with a deep focus on delivering value, why it needs to be validated like any other channel, and why elements like backlinks continue to be important.While you shouldn’t expect to leave this conversation as an SEO expert, you will very likely be in a much better place to support, guide, and set up your organization for SEO success after you hear Kevin share his knowledge and experience. This is one of our more directly practical discussions and one we really enjoyed.
So click that play button and jump in with Sean and Ethan as we look to better understand how to drive growth through Search Engine Optimization with Kevin Indig.
* The two dimensions of SEO at Shopify (04:09)
* Who wins with SEO: Aggregators versus Integrators (07:05)
* Misconceptions and constants in a murky world (18:49)
* Practical implementation; how to get started in SEO (34:39)
* Building SEO into a growing organization (36:26)
* Differentiation; why this is a channel that requires specific effort (50:20)
And much, much, more . . .
Announcer 00:00:08 Welcome to the Breakout Growth Podcast where Sean Ellis and Ethan Garr interview leaders from the world’s fastest-growing companies to get to the heart of what’s really driving their growth. And now here are your hosts, Sean Ellis and Ethan Garr.
Sean Ellis 00:00:25 All right, in this week’s episode of the Breakout Growth Podcast, Ethan Garr and I chat with Kevin Indig, director of SEO at Shopify. So when Ethan and I launched BreakoutGrowth.net, we were inundated by scores of messages from consultants offering to help us with our SEO. So with so many people claiming that they have the magic potion to game Google’s algorithm, how, how could anyone really know who to trust or even where to begin? So that’s why we’re really excited to talk to Kevin Shopify’s growth is led by one of the best SEOs that I know. So their overall growth department is led by the best SEO that I know, and I’m sure that he would only hire someone who was really good at SEO lead Shopify’s efforts there. So Kevin is a well known thought leader on this subject who brings realism and straight talk to this discussion. So Ethan, what stood out for you in this one?
Ethan Garr 00:01:21 Yeah, I do think it was very, you know, just straight into the point with Kevin and like just really simple, you know, he simplified things, you know, he did a great job of explaining why search engine optimization for some businesses a must have, and for others it’s just a nice to have. And, you know, with that framing, it becomes more clear who should invest in it. And, you know, if you’re thinking of it as a channel, like to what degree should you, you know, resource it and put effort towards it. So I thought that was really helpful. And then just in general, I think he makes SEO seem just less mysterious and more approachable, less of that black box, which I think is important for our audience.
Sean Ellis 00:01:54 Yeah. He’s definitely reframed my thinking around SEO, where when I look at opportunities, I, I instantly say based on some of the things that he shared with us, this is a great SEO opportunity. And we need to think about this from the beginning. Um, I doubt that many of our listeners are going to listen to this episode and say, okay, I’m, I’m ready to become an SEO master or even wanna become an SEO master. But I do think you’re gonna get a much better sense of how to be become, uh, an organization that supports SEO and, and just, uh, is, is more SEO friendly overall.
Ethan Garr 00:02:29 Yeah. I mean, how you’re going to, you know, just getting everyone in the organization to understand what SEO is means that like, as they’re thinking about what they do, they can make sure that, you know, Hey, I’m writing this piece of content. Is it gonna be SEO friendly? Is it gonna work for our, our audience in that way? Is Google gonna look at this in a positive light and, and showcase it, that kind of thing. So, yeah, the discussion definitely went a little deeper in the nuts and bolts than we normally do, but not in like a technical way that I think will just, you know, overwhelm people. It was more about building this more nuanced picture of the role of SEO and driving growth and how it can be resourced and organized to really drive impact.
Sean Ellis 00:03:05 Yeah. Yeah. And those just really practical stuff from whether you should start with a consultant or hire a full-time expert to whether or not you should even think about SEO in your business in the first place. So lots of thoughts, full discussion without that crazy jargon and black box answers that I think a lot of us are used to when we hear about SEO.
Ethan Garr 00:03:25 Yeah. Hopefully, uh, the Breakout Growth Podcast continues to simplify and not complexify things for people. So, um, I think we’ll probably look to have more conversations like this in the future as well. Cuz I think they’re fun for, for you and I, and I think really valuable for the people listening. So I think, what do you think, should I shut up so we can actually get to it?
Sean Ellis 00:03:42 I think our audience would appreciate it if we both shut up at this point. So, uh, let’s get to Kevin
Ethan Garr 00:03:46 Sounds good.
Sean Ellis 00:03:56 Hey Kevin, welcome to the Breakout Growth Podcast.
Kevin Indig 00:03:59 Thanks for having me. It’s a huge honor.
Sean Ellis 00:04:01 Yeah, we, we are excited to have you here. I’m I’m joined by my co-host Ethan Gar. Hey Ethan.
Ethan Garr 00:04:06 Hey Sean. Hey Kevin, I’m excited to do this.
Sean Ellis 00:04:09 Yeah. So we’re, we’re gonna be digging into SEO today. And, and I think, um, part of our, part of our goal here is, uh, is to make SEO kind of, uh, accessible and relevant to people across the company so that they, they really know how to, how to think about it. And, uh, we won’t go super deep into the weeds, but hopefully enough of a primer so that, uh, listeners can be dangerous and, and maybe protect them from, from being, uh, BS from, from, uh, you know, an SEO con artist that might be out there. Um, but, uh, fortunately there’s, there’s some, there’s some super knowledgeable SEO people out there and you’re one of them. And so I wanted to, uh, wanted to get you on to, um, to, to give us some insights. So, um, you’re running SEO at Shopify. Um, you know, Luke Leki is, uh, I, one of the, one of the people who I like when I think of SEO and like that this guy knows a lot. So if you, if you, uh, are on his team, that means that, uh, that I don’t think anyone could, could pretend their way into, into Shopify. Um, so maybe, maybe we can even just start from that perspective of, of Shopify and, and help us understand why, why is SEO important for Shopify?
Kevin Indig 00:05:25 Sure, sure. Absolutely. And yeah, Luke is, uh, um, yeah, he’s uh, something else for sure. <laugh> uh, so in the, in the orbit that is Shopify, there are two dimensions in which SEO exists on the one hand as a user acquisition channel for Shopify itself to bring more merchants to Shopify and on the other hand, as a channel for the merchants themselves. Right. So we wanna make sure that our product is as search friendly as possible. So merchants can use SEO as a channel to acquire customers. Oh,
Sean Ellis 00:05:56 Cool. Okay.
Kevin Indig 00:05:56 Right. And, uh, and so yeah, these are two kind of different lenses and I’m sitting somewhere in the middle of that.
Sean Ellis 00:06:02 Okay. That, that actually makes it sound pretty, um, similar to even like Eventbrite, uh, when, when I was there way early on the, uh, yeah, the, the, the more people can find events because they’re, they’re very, uh, you know, findable on, on Google than then the more likely that, uh, they sell more tickets through organic search. And, uh, and then the business model for, um, for Eventbrite was to, to, to, um, you know, get a cut of every one of those ticket sales. So I’m sure, I’m sure there’s some similarities there for sure. Um, so when you think about, um, like SEO in general, I can’t, I can’t imagine that like, it’s, it’s perfect for every type of business that there’s some types of businesses that like, would be crazy not to be thinking about SEO and then there’s other businesses that probably, uh, it, it shouldn’t be one of their top priorities to try to figure out SEO. So why don’t we start with the, the first one of those is there, is there a certain type of business that should really have SEO kind of, uh, as one of the first things that they they think about when they’re, when they’re driving growth in the business?
Kevin Indig 00:07:05 Yeah. I think you hit it on the head. Uh, the SEO world is really split into two companies. It’s those companies where it’s a, a significant channel where if that channel were to go away tomorrow, that business will die. And then there are other companies where it’s much more of an add on or an extension or nice to have. Uh, and you kind of wanna, you know, it’s like, you wanna take that extra money sure. Extra business, but if Google goes away tomorrow, you’re gonna be perfectly fine. And the mental model that I use for these types of companies is I, I divide them into aggregators and integrators. Uh, this term, by the way, was not coined by me. There’s a super smart guy on the internet called Ben Thompson. He’s a probably know him. Uh, he’s a, an analyst, um, and writes a lot about these things.
Kevin Indig 00:07:50 And that’s where I have the, these terms from, but they’re very applicable to SEO as well. And the reason they are is because, um, they really differentiate between whether SEO is a significant driver for a business or not. So an aggregator could be, it’s usually marketplaces. It could be a business like, um, Uber eats like booking.com, G2 an event bride. I would also put into the aggregator, uh, category because it basically aggregates a lot of events and makes them easily searchable and findable. And then on the other hand, you have integrators and integrators in the business world. They usually companies like a Peloton or a Disney where they’re mostly interested in fostering a di relationship with their customers, and then basically increase their margins over time. Uh, from, from SEO perspective, the biggest difference is that aggregators don’t create the content themselves. So if you stay with an example of event, bright, um, event pride is an aggregator because they have people who wanna organize events on their platform.
Kevin Indig 00:08:50 And they basically provide a marketplace between event organizers and event attendees integrators. On the other hand, they have to create all the content themselves. So if you think about a Peloton or an Atlassian in the company where I worked at before, uh, and that falls into a typical integrator category there, we have writers or work with outsourced writers, and we have to create all the content ourselves, which then ranks in surge engines and attracts traffic and eventually business. So it’s really integrators versus aggregators. And, uh, the same way you can think about where SEO plays a significant role in where it might, might be more of a nice to have.
Sean Ellis 00:09:29 Okay. So, so just for, for clarity then for the, uh, for the integrators, um, that the, the role that SEO would play is more in, uh, in, in creating content around their category. And, uh, and that, and that it’s a lot of work to be able to make SEO work where on the, um, aggregators it’s, uh, there’s just a lot of content that’s naturally created in the process of, of aggregating a, a, a bunch of different providers. And, and so, um, in that case, you, you wanna content might also work, but you, you wanna just be able to make sure that, that all this naturally created content is findable in, in search. Is that a, is that a good way to think about it? Am I might repeating that correctly back to you?
Kevin Indig 00:10:16 <laugh> yes, yes, absolutely. That that’s exactly right. So, uh, G two’s example, right. They aggregate reviews of software, and that’s a fundamentally different approach to SEO because they don’t create that content themselves. They just make it, uh, findable and easily accessible. So they have listings of different software categories. And within these categories, they have different software vendors. Right. And so there, the leverage is really in making sure that Google can find all the pages that they’re, uh, you know, providing a certain degree of quality content and so on and so on. And then the opposite is integrators where all the content has to be created by themselves.
Sean Ellis 00:10:51 Okay. So, and then one more thing, sorry. Uh, and then, uh, so, um, would you say that, that then, um, every company kind of falls into those categories and, and so that basically, so basically SEO is something that can benefit really, every company is just that the, uh, the aggregators can benefit even more from it. Is that a, is that an accurate way of saying it?
Kevin Indig 00:11:15 Yeah, that that’s really, that that’s really how I, how I think about it. Um, and it’s a matter of sequence and, and prioritization. So a, an integrator, for example, right. Let’s, let’s take an Integra integrator that maybe sells to, um, to other enterprises and has a strong component of sales, like a sales force, for example, right. For them, SEO is not the highest priority by any means. And they should not, if I, if Salesforce were to start tomorrow, right. If mark Benioff were to go back and start again, he should not think about SEO as the first way to drive more business. He should think about building a sales force, literally
Sean Ellis 00:11:50 <laugh>.
Kevin Indig 00:11:51 Whereas for example, if you were a young, young, uh, company that sells data or say, you know, uh, uh, DoorDash goes back or Uber eats or Instacart from day one, right. They really wanna think about SEO from day one in building their web app and their side with SEO in mind, because that’s gonna scale and compound like crazy. Yeah. Perfect.
Ethan Garr 00:12:11 So I’m curious with that. Does that really inform the approach to SEO two? I mean, if you’re an aggregator, it sounds like it’s gonna be a lot of science behind it. It’s gonna be about making sure your site speed is optimized and all these like, sort of mechanical pieces to drive SEO. Whereas if you’re an integrator, it’s more the art of it and coming up with the right content. And I mean, I’m sure both, both are important on both sides, but is it more sort of science on the aggregator side, art on the, uh, integrator side?
Kevin Indig 00:12:41 Yeah. It’s, uh, spot on. That’s exactly how I think about it. Technical SEO, including side speed, including internal linking, you know, crawling all these kind of technical factors that are mostly for aggregators, whereas for integrators it’s, it’s like, sure, you look a little bit at it, but it’s, it’s not close to the effort you would put in as if you were an aggregator. And on the other hand, on the integrator side, when you create the content yourself, it’s all about content marketing, building a strong brand, building back links, and then having what we call unique content, which is really non commoditized content. Right. So there’s really about, Hey, what is the content that only I, as a company can come up with and how can I wrap that into a amazing experience for readers and users?
Ethan Garr 00:13:25 Hmm, interesting. So if we take a step back, how did how’d you decide to get into this? How what’s your journey that got you to become a SEO guy? <laugh>,
Kevin Indig 00:13:35 <laugh>, it’s funny, cuz I don’t think there’s any SEO who was a teenager or kid and said, I wanna become an SEO. I’m gonna go into this field. You know, everybody kinda stumbles into it. And, and so have I, uh, the, the short story is that as a kid, I was, uh, you know, very into computer gaming, online gaming. In fact, you know, when, when I was a teenager, broadband internet and, and DSL became available in Germany, which is where I was born and raised. And, uh, I was, you know, a, a close, uh, circle of friends and we play a lot of games. And then when internet became accessible and available, we played online and we applied for some tournaments for games and I became the guy to figure out how to build a website. And it kind of all, you know, evolved from there.
Kevin Indig 00:14:17 I built a scrappy website, uh, with eye frames and tables and stuff. It was, it was horrible, uh, and taught myself a little bit of CSS and eventually some Photoshop. And eventually I, I realized that people come from different sources. I, I found this thing called Google. And then I kind of fell into this rabbit hole, which is SEO. And back at the day, or back in the days, it was very hacky. It was kind of this stark art and, and, you know, it was, it was very mysterious. And then I got very lucky to kind of grow with the industry. And today it’s, it’s a, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s not as hacky anymore at all. You have lots of SEOs, lots of companies investing in SEO. And, uh, I kind of, I kind of fell into it through computer games.
Ethan Garr 00:14:57 That’s great. And is, was there a moment where you kind of felt like I get this? I, I, you know, now I am world class at this.
Kevin Indig 00:15:06 Whew. Still, you know, there’s still days like, uh, am I work class with this? No, we’re all seriousness. I, there wasn’t one defining moment for me when I was like, oh man, I kind of, you know, I really, really good at this. Uh, it was more a series of events, but the first time when I started to develop a hunch was when I finished my traineeship. So after college I had a quick St investment banking. I, I really thought I wanted to do that and then realized that’s, that’s not what I wanted to do at all. Uh, and then I, I went to a enterprise consultancy, um, and I started as a trainee, um, where I learned the craft kind of, you know, from, from the ground up. And, um, I, I finished my trainee ship in nine months instead of 12 months and I got promoted to a, to a regular consultant.
Kevin Indig 00:15:54 And that’s when I started to think, okay, this, this kind of works out, but, uh, I, I really kind of got a different feeling for it when I came to the us. So as I mentioned, I was born and raised in Germany. Uh, and then in my mid twenties, I came to the us and I spent six years in Silicon valley and I very quickly got a lot of very positive feedback. And, you know, I think it has a little bit to do with American culture, which is just very reinforcing, very supporting and positive. Whereas maybe German culture is a bit more realistic, sometimes pessimistic and sometimes a bit more, you know, grounding. And so that actually accelerated me. And, uh, you know, when I started to kind of quote unquote, believe in myself, it, it kind of set off this, this flywheel where I was like, oh, maybe I can do this and I should aim a bit higher. And then that worked out. And so that was kind of a spiral that really kicked things off much faster.
Sean Ellis 00:16:42 That’s awesome. I actually, uh, I used to run, um, European operations for a, uh, for a company that, um, Ethan and I worked with. And then I stayed over and, and ran marketing for, for a different, uh, European company and, uh, and the such a, a different kind of culture in Germany, um, in terms of, uh, like the best, uh, best marketing material came out of there because it always had to be highest quality, very, very like well, well created, but there was, there was definitely a, uh, a not, not as much warm and fuzzy, very like honest, honest assessment when, when there was disappointment with things. So, yeah, I think, uh, America would seem very warm and fuzzy after that, cuz <laugh>, it’s, uh, a lot of, a lot of positive reinforcement, not always, I mean maybe if you’re working for Steve jobs, it might be a little different, but, uh, but I think in general, so, um, so, you know, I, I think, um, there is sort of, you know, my first experience with, with SEO was kind of bringing in a firm to do some SEO when I was at log me in and, and God didn’t know what we got and it kind of felt like, like we probably just wasted some money.
Sean Ellis 00:17:56 And um, so I like, I’m, I’m curious when, you know, there’s probably a lot of people who’ve done a lot of wrong things when it comes to SEO. So what, what are kind of the most common wrong things that are done? Yeah. What, what are most people get wrong?
Kevin Indig 00:18:12 <laugh> yeah, yeah. There’s, there’s certainly a lot. And I think, you know, um, in, in general you kind of wanna see SEO as a channel and you wanna validate it like any other channel mm-hmm <affirmative>, uh, every business and we can go deeper into how the business model relates to how SEO fits in, but every business needs to kind of define and find its own growth channels. And right. SEO is often a shiny thing. It’s, it’s not always super clear what to do and how to do it. Right. And, uh, it’s, it’s tempting, especially as a founder to kind of see it as this magical thing that will propel the business forward. But as you
Sean Ellis 00:18:46 Already viral plus SEO is like world’s greatest growth engine
Kevin Indig 00:18:49 <laugh> yep. Definitely a red flag for any, uh, angel investor <laugh> uh, to hear that, but, uh, yeah, no, absolutely. You wanna validate and you wanna be very critical about it. Right. So, um, I, uh, I strongly advise to, to treat it like an experiment and to set clear criteria for when that experiment turns out successful. Um, and, um, so, but there, there are a couple of like common misconceptions about SEO that, that I honestly think we, as the SEO company, don’t do a good enough job in, in explaining. And so if I had to, to pick three, uh, one of them, which is pretty important is that SEO is this very stable channel or source of traffic and business in reality is that that’s not the case anymore. That used the case. But today we find ourselves in a world where there are more search results on websites than ever before, right.
Kevin Indig 00:19:38 And Google has become really smart. It’s basically this big AB testing engine on steroids. And so what happens a lot of times is that Google shuffles, their search results constantly and tests different results in different positions. So it could perfectly be that you have a really good say block article or, or just page that, that actually provides a lot of use useful information. Um, but Google just decides to see what happens when a competitor ranks first, instead of you. So there is a natural fluctuation in volatility that business has have to take into account. It’s not a, it’s not a given anymore. It’s not as, uh, stable anymore. Another thing is that a lot of companies focus on only what happens on their website, right? They focus on the technical stuff. They focus on the content and that’s not wrong, but they disregard what happens before people even click through to their site.
Kevin Indig 00:20:30 What happens in this search results pages. And that has become a huge point of leverage because Google gives more and more direct answers in the search result and uses more. What I call se features to enrich the search results. So a SERP is a search results page and certain features are things like map integrations or image carousels, or sometimes even direct answers that give the answer to the user before they even click through to the, uh, to the website. Right. And, uh, you as a business and, and anybody who does as oh, really wants to think hard about what is the experience that users have when they search for a term that’s relevant for me and how can I stick out from the noise? Right? So, and, and the mistake that people make is that just focus on their own side, but completely disregard what happens before people even click through the, maybe the last thing I would I would offer is that it’s very sexy to say, oh, just create a lot of good content.
Kevin Indig 00:21:25 Um, but reality is that the content game has become incredibly competitive. It’s easier to create content than ever before. And, you know, creator economy, for example, is a huge example of that. Anybody can, these days, you know, create content, whether it’s on a website or YouTube videos, TikTok, Instagram, all this kind of stuff. And as a business, you really wanna think hard about what is my competitive advantage when it comes to content that relates to the experience, it relates to the depth relates to features of your site. Um, but it all needs to aim at differentiation, right? People need to understand that when they come to your site, that’s they get something that they cannot get anywhere else. And that’s when you build a true competitive advantage, right? So just creating a lot of content that that will cost a lot of money and effort and time, but it will not always yield to the result that you want,
Ethan Garr 00:22:13 As you met, as you described that, it seems like, um, a lot of your role as an SEO is deconstructing and trying to under trying to sort of gain the Google system, I game the wrong word, but really deconstruct what Google is doing and what they’re trying to accomplish. I mean, how much of what you and your team do is thinking what’s in it for Google <laugh>
Kevin Indig 00:22:35 Hundred percent. I think that’s, that’s really the way to think about it. Um, because so, so the, the way where kind of like a, a, a, uh, attack line that I keep repeating over and over is that back in the old days, right old school, SEO was all about understanding how to, uh, quote unquote, um, uh, kind of like find out that the latest tactics and tricks and hacks and have like this unique thing that nobody else does. And the new kind of approach to SEO is really that the teams win that have the best understanding of what happens in the search results, because it can totally be that you have amazing content and Google just decides to give the answer right away, and then it’s not right. It doesn’t, it doesn’t matter anymore. So, uh, and that’s not easy. I mean, the, the tools are there, there are lots of SEO tools, but none of them is perfect.
Kevin Indig 00:23:22 And some of them lack important information because the search results develop so quickly. So fast, there’s so much that happens all the time. So it’s the teams that have the best understanding of what’s going on dead win. Uh, and just to paint the picture at Shopify, we build a whole tool suite of custom in-house tools that only we have to really satisfy that need. So, um, it’s, I think a lot of teams, a lot of, a lot of companies underinvest into understanding what’s really going on in the search results and what Google really wants, because by looking at the se features that Google shows, we can get an understanding where we can kind of reverse engineer what Google really tries to achieve. So an example is when people Google something like, uh, tattoos and just making something up, there’s a high likelihood that they’re looking for inspiration for tattoos. And so Google will show a lot of visuals to satisfy that need. And by just, even without knowing the keyword, but just by looking at what Google displays in the search results, you can reverse engineer what we have to provide ourselves, right? So if I write a blog articles without, uh, visuals, I’m probably not gonna get very far, but if I find a way to maybe create a, a thousand inspiring tattoo pictures, then I might have a competitive advantage. And so that’s really how to think about SEO in this new world.
Sean Ellis 00:24:33 I love that. That’s great. Um, so one of the things, and, and I’ve, I’ve heard you kind of reference this a little bit, but I’ve, I’ve, I always hear it related to SEO, is that like yeah, there’s changes all the time. There’s, you know, Google’s changing the way that they’re doing things or like one big algorithm change and suddenly, suddenly everything you knew thought you knew about SEO is out the window and everyone needs to re rebuild their rankings, but I wanna take it from the other direction on that. What’s, what’s the thing that’s actually been fairly constant over the last 10 years. Is there, is there, is there any kind of like base knowledge that, that, uh, really been kind of lasting that, that serves you well over the long term?
Kevin Indig 00:25:11 Absolutely. Absolutely. So we still in SEO, we’re still using keywords. Um, right. So people still use, use text search to, to find what they’re looking for. Uh, for now I like elaborate in a second, but the keyword still matter, you just wanna kind of update your knowledge and think about intentions or topics, right? So, um, the reality is that pages can rank for thousands of keywords, right? So it’s not just a one to one map where one page goes after one keyword reality is that Google understands content and the so well that they will try to rank you for many different versions or iterations of a keyword. So an example, Airbnb, right? They used, they, they used to have these great pages for, um, the keyword things to do in San Francisco. And they would go through all mutation for all cities. So they have that for San Francisco, Chicago, New York, city, Baltimore, whatever, but Google understands that this is an intention.
Kevin Indig 00:26:07 When people look for that keyword, they want, they have an intent, we call this user intent. And if you, if you do it right, you can rank for thousands of iterations and not just things to do in San Francisco, but also attraction San Francisco, what to do in San Francisco. What’s going on in San Francisco, read all these kind of different ways to phrase the same thing. So still think about, uh, keywords and keywords still matter. Um, backlinks still matter. Uh, and this is kind of one of these open dark secrets, um, where Google really tries to, to sell us on out. Don’t worry about backlinks and, and, you know, we can just take care of this. We understand it’s better than you do, but reality is that backlink still matter. And just to take a quick step back, backlinks are actually what made Google one of the most successful startup in history of humankind.
Sean Ellis 00:26:52 That’s the whole page rank thing, right?
Kevin Indig 00:26:54 Exactly. Yeah, exactly. That’s the, the initial patent that made Google, you know, uh, kill all the other search engines and, and become so successful. Uh, and it’s all about patron. It’s all about references from other sites and the more relevant and important that site is in my space, the more important a reference or a back link from that site will be for me. And Google has gotten a lot better in understand the context of that, uh, back link and punishing people who are too aggressive with it, or companies who are too aggressive with it. Uh, but reality is that backlink still have a big impact. There still matter. There’s a whole dark secret. No, not so secret, but you know, an unspoken about industry, about people who sell links and trade links and do all this kind of stuff. And that, that still matters. And the last thing I would wanna mention is, again, that that users still search with text.
Kevin Indig 00:27:41 They still go to Google and they type in a search, um, and that can come, that can change significantly. There’s like this running industry joke about voice search, which like five years ago was taught as the next big thing. And, uh, you know, five years ago that came out the statistic that said that, oh, in five years in the future, 50% of all searches will be with voice devices. That’s not really what has happened, but, uh, Google is pursuing this, this new grand vision of ambience computing. The idea of Aming computing is really that all the devices around you, your watch, your computer, your phone, maybe your glasses at some point of time, your Google home, your car, they’ll all kind of fade into the background, but all interact with each other and all share a context like where you are right now, what the previous searches were, what you’re kinda looking at right now.
Kevin Indig 00:28:31 Um, and, and it’s, it’s very interesting because that means that search will detach from text, text will still work and be relevant, but people will use their voice more or will take a picture of something and, and say, Hey, I want that in a different color. Or, uh, tell me what this is, or how do we repair repair this thing that I don’t even know what it’s called, right? This is a big push that Google is doing right now. And to take it in the larger step back is absolutely fascinating because they’re kind of going in the opposite direction of Facebook, right? Facebook wants to create the metaverse, which is kind of a new digital world. And Google really wants to digitize the world,
Sean Ellis 00:29:10 The real world <laugh> yeah.
Kevin Indig 00:29:11 Wants to digitize the real world. Yeah. Uh, and so it’s, it’s fascinating because search is still driving over 80% of Alphabet’s revenues, and they’re kind of detaching it from just a pure text and trying to add as much context as humans.
Sean Ellis 00:29:24 That makes a ton of sense. Yeah. Yeah.
Kevin Indig 00:29:26 It’s still text, but, uh, maybe not forever.
Sean Ellis 00:29:29 That’s cool. I know, uh, Ethan’s on the, on the brink of asking a question here, but I wanna squeeze, squeeze one more. <laugh> something that’s just kind of been brewing in my head. So you, you had, uh, you had talked about, um, in, in one of the first questions I’d asked, we talked about these, the aggregators and the integrators, and that aggregators should be thinking about SEO from kind of day one in the business. And, um, so I just wanna dig a little bit deeper on that. So if, if they should be thinking about it day one, what should they actually do? And, and kind of like, obviously obviously there’s a, there’s a 40 hour answer there <laugh>, but, um, in, in kind of like a one minute snippet of, of like to help them point them in the right direction, what, what should they actually do if they’re an aggregator kind of in, in the very early days of the business,
Kevin Indig 00:30:19 A hundred percent, I I’ll keep this super short. The first thing is they want to, they wanna understand what kind of inventory they have. Right. Um, so for, in the case of G2 S it’s software reviews in case of event, bright it’s events, uh, in case of booking its hotels, uh, maybe cars and restaurants, the next thing is to understand about, uh, is, is to think and, and research what different intense their audience has. Right? So, uh, in the case of G2 for software reviews, for example, you wanna, you wanna look at all the different software vendors in a certain category, like marketing automation. I just wanna understand who are, what are all the different, you know, tools that I can use within the marketing automation category, but you also wanna compare different software tools with each other. So comparison is an intention. Uh, and then maybe you wanna find an alternative to a current tool that you’re already using.
Kevin Indig 00:31:11 So you wanna get a high level understanding of the intense or jobs to be done. There’s this amazing framework from Clayton Christensen about the basic jobs that people try to get done. And then as a third step, you wanna understand how you can create different types of pages that can satisfy, satisfy that intention. So in the case of G2, obviously the site has a lot of category pages for all the different software categories, which are easily searchable. So people can just skim and browse and, and look, but they also have alternatives pages in comparison pages. And these are different page types that scale over hundreds of thousands of categories or products or comparisons. And so by mapping that out, even on a, on a high level, um, that’s how, that’s how an aggregator really wants to think about it. Um, in the case of event, bright, it could be different types of events or different, uh, themes of the events. So you kind of wanna think about your taxonomy or drops to be done, and then map actual pages that you can serve Google and index and Google, uh, to these different types of intent.
Ethan Garr 00:32:14 You, you mentioned sort of taxonomy and mapping. And, um, I worked with a company a little while ago that, um, they had actually had a, a, a, a precipitous drop in their, uh, their search ranking. And I, I think it was a, some changes they made in something that Google made. And then a big part of trying to recapture what they had lost was site mapping and site mapping sounds like something that Sean and I were talking about, you know, or, or hearing about in 1997 and 98 is, so is that still really important in this world and the, the ecosystem to, to really understand how to draw, how to build a site map, how to properly index and control things together?
Kevin Indig 00:32:52 It is, it is there, there are two types of site maps. There are XML site maps and HTML site maps, and both of them serve a very similar need, which is to help Google find all pages on your site, uh, and give Google kind of an understanding for the relevance and importance of all of these pages. In the context of an aggregator, you can have hundreds of thousands, millions of pages, which is why SEO is such as significant channel for your business. And by creating an XML side map or several XML side maps, and a large HTML side map, Google can just find these in an easier way. So just like quickly explain the difference between the two, an XML side map is something like a feed that only Google sees. You can upload that in a, in a free tool provided by Google called Google search console.
Kevin Indig 00:33:39 Um, and you can structure these XML site maps in a way you want say by categories page typed by time, it it’s really up to you. And the HTMS HTML site map is an actual page on your website with links to all the different categories, block articles, products, basically anything that lives on your site so that the, the Google crawler can just, you know, the Google machine can just come to your side and follow all these links and then find all the content on your side. And, um, by, by orphaning pages, it can sometimes happen by accidents. Orphaning pages basically means that, uh, some, some pages cannot be found by Google by, by doing that, you can basically cut off your lifeline to these pages cause Google cannot find them. There might be cases where it’s intentional say in the case of landing pages, just for paid ADSS, but that’s like a more of an edge case. So generally side maps are still absolutely essential when it comes to SEO. And you can, you can be very advanced with them. You can structure them in ways that help you better understand Google’s behavior on your side, etcetera, et cetera.
Ethan Garr 00:34:39 So if you’re an aggregator, for example, where you know that this is gonna be a really important part of your business, and let’s say, you’re, you know, you’re early on as, and you’re saying it’s really important to jump into this, right? From the beginning, what’s the right way to do it. I mean, should, should CEOs be looking for consultants? Should they be looking to outside firms that they can trust? Should they be bringing, you know, a person like you in house? Where, how do, how would you recommend founders think about this?
Kevin Indig 00:35:08 So for the case of an aggregator, um, I, I generally, as a, as a founder, we have a, a billion things to do and you’ll need to be very careful with any step or move you make, especially in the beginning. So to initially just understand what we fall in, if you have leveraged an SEO or not, you probably wanna talk to a consultant to just kind of get you, get you started. However, in the case of an aggregator, once there is a strong case to be made for SEO in a company you want in house or insource as quickly as possible, because the, the learnings that you gain over time will compound, and it’s important to kind of keep them in the company. Uh, it doesn’t always have to be an SEO. It can also be a head of growth or a growth lead, or just somebody who’s looking at growth, uh, who can, you know, ideally has some basic SEO knowledge who can, who can, who can work with a consultant to, you know, just make sure that basic things are correct. Um, but then execute and implement the validation of SEO and, and scale themselves. And how so ideally, uh, kind of mix a, both in the beginning, if you have strong conviction as a founder, that SEO is important, then I would have a, a, a growth person or growth expert to take that on full time with the goal of validating SEO as a significant channel for the company.
Sean Ellis 00:36:26 Yeah. So in, in terms of validating, um, <laugh>, I know, you know, compared to like, like if it’s seom, you know, paid search, you can, you can kind of validate that in an afternoon, SEO takes a little bit longer. So how, how can, so what does that timeline look like for validation? What does success look like? Like just a little, little bit of insight on that would be helpful.
Kevin Indig 00:36:51 Yeah, it’s, it’s a great point. Uh, because as you mentioned, SEO can take quite a while. However, validation in my definition means an impact on revenue, and you can define proxy metrics to understand that better. So there is something like a, um, like a, like a life cycle of a page, um, UN until it kind of ranks in search engines and users come to it and then convert. So you basically create the page, Google finds it for the first time. It starts to rank and drive some traffic users come to the site and ideally they convert or buy on your site. And you can measure proxy metrics, like the impressions that you get in search results, which you can again, measure in, in search console, which is a free tool provided by Google. So you can look at impressions, which is the earliest metric in this chains of, of proxy metrics, uh, metrics, um, impressions, and you can measure clicks.
Kevin Indig 00:37:45 Then you can measure things like, uh, conversions or sales. So even though it takes a while for SEO to really, you know, uh, catch a lot of traction or deliver a lot of traffic, you can measure these proxy metrics and then see if they all line up to an eventual conversion or two eventual revenue. And that’s, that’s really how I would approach it. I would go after very low competition keywords in the beginning. Um, and then see if impressions go up clicks, go up ranks, go up, and then eventually conversions go up or leads go up or some sort of from conversion intent. Um, and then see if, if that kind of, if that scalable in my company.
Sean Ellis 00:38:21 Cool. And then, uh, I wanna go back to something that you talked about as well the a minute ago. So usually your answers take a little bit of time to percolate in my head, and then I’m like, wait a minute. Um, so you, you had said something about, uh, yeah, you wanna bring it inhouse pretty fast if you’re an aggregator and it can be either in the form of a, of a, like SEO, inhouse, or a head of growth who works closely with a consultant. Um, that, that kind of leads me to think, um, because I’ve, I’ve seen, and I’m sure you’ve seen this as well, where there’s some people that that can be great. Like, like some companies can be really good at, at getting a lot of search traffic to the site. And, um, but that may not have much to do with, with the value that they’re supposed to provide and how they monetize.
Sean Ellis 00:39:11 And, and so it’s kind of like, they’re, they’re almost have two worlds that they’re going. And so I think the benefit when you said of kind of bringing in, in house is that, uh, particularly if you have ahead of growth who may have good SEO strength or, or may work closely with someone with good SEO strength, that then there become some knowledge transfer, but that, that ultimately you wanna build that full system where it’s not just the traffic being there. So kind of building on what you just talked about there, that it’s, it’s also does it ultimately convert into revenue. And, and I think that’s when we think about ahead of growth, that’s really what, what ahead of growth should be thinking about is, is kind of, you know, not just acquisition, but acquisition, conversion, activating them to a great experience with the product, helping them achieve the job to be done and, and, and ultimately retaining and monetizing them and, and building that interdependent system. And, uh, and so SEO’s a really important component of that for certain businesses, but, but bringing that all together. Um, so I, I’m just, I’m curious, sort of where does SEO begin and where does, where does kind of it intersect with growth done well and, and should a good SEO actually be thinking about that, that full machine?
Kevin Indig 00:40:37 I love that question because that has really changed over the last 10 years where maybe 10 years ago, um, you know, SEO used to be its own discipline its own department. Um, and today we see that SEO is kind of more as it’s more like a layer that stretches across many different organ departments in an organization like engineering, uh, maybe writing or copy creation, um, design, right? So it becomes more like an additional layer that everybody should be thinking about. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful when when growth has, or quote unquote owns SEO. So at Shopify, SEO is part of the growth organization, right. Um, and what, what I love about it is first of all, um, growth and, and growth experts, they’re very, um, they’re, they’re very target oriented and they’re very impact oriented. And sometimes SEOs can be stuck too much on organic traffic or ranks, but then disregard what the actual business impact is right at the end of the day, it’s all a means to an end.
Kevin Indig 00:41:40 And that end is to grow the business, uh, and, uh, growth people hold themselves to that high standard, to that high bar oftentimes, and really they’re very critical and very binary. And does this, is this impactful? Yes. No. Okay. If it’s not, then let’s look at something else and if it is, then let’s double down on it. Another advantage that growth has, um, is that it often has dedicated engineering resources or some sort of dedicated engineering capacity, which is absolutely crucial for SEO. Um, and that goes back to SEO, just having lots of dependencies. I mean, there’s really, you know, as SEOs, you don’t, you barely do stuff yourself. There’s barely deliverables coming out of SEO other than recommendations. And so the, the actual, you know, people or departments that do this stuff are the engineers, designers, writers, etcetera, et cetera. So that’s another reason for why it makes sense to that, to be, uh, a discipline of, um, growth.
Kevin Indig 00:42:33 And then just in general, I love the kind of product oriented and product focused, um, component of growth, where it’s about the, the complete experience, right? It doesn’t, that’s also important for SEO. It doesn’t just stop when the people come to this side, but as you, you mentioned, you care about activation and maybe even retention or maybe even brand and, and all that kind of stuff. So, uh, there are, you know, there are cases which SEO just where the job is done when the visitor comes to the site, but that doesn’t really work anymore because Google can deeply understand when people have a good experience on a website and when not. So generally I’m a big fan of SEO being product of growth. Um, and especially for aggregators, that makes perfect sense. There are integrators were, it might make sense to be part of marketing where the game just works a little different, but for an aggregator. Absolutely.
Ethan Garr 00:43:20 As you were asking that question, I was thinking like, what does the ideal SEO team look like? And I think at Shopify, you probably, I, I mean, we’ve spoke to Mor we’ve spoken to Morgan brown. I know your growth team is huge. So being able to have all of those resources completely dedicated from engineering to design to copywriting, right there is great, but for smaller companies where that might not be, um, really available. Um, I imagine that what becomes really important is that everybody understands SEO and even the people who are not directly involved with it, um, know how to support it. Um, do you have thoughts on how to evangelize, like how the SEO lead should evangelize the value and importance to the rest of the team and how to get other people involved and excited about it? Because it does sound like a black box. If you don’t know what it is, you know, what it does and how it works.
Kevin Indig 00:44:12 Yeah. It makes me smile cuz I, I faced exactly that situation in Atlassian, uh, when I worked there a while ago, uh, and, and the SEO team was very small. I was the first SEO hire and then I slowly out a team over time, but SEO is sorry. Atlassian is a huge organization with a, with a vast product portfolio. Um, and there was no way that we were gonna build out a big enough SEO team to serve all the requests that are coming in, but also go after all the opportunities that are out there. And so you already hinted at this, that SEO is kind of a company wide job and almost everyone can contribute to SEO. And the way that we quote unquote scaled SEO is by, um, inspiring people to do things that good for SEO. So we went on a whole campaign across the company and, uh, held workshops with different types of departments, with all the writers, with the engineers, with the designers, with, uh, the, uh, the PMMS, the, the product marketing managers with the PMs, with almost everyone of the company.
Kevin Indig 00:45:10 And we tailor these workshops specifically to them and explain to them why SEO is important, how it can impact the company and how they can make an impact. And the funny thing is that you saw that typically 50% of the people are engaged the 50 people that maybe don’t convince them or so, and of those other 50%, um, a handful of them will try out the things that you recommended and what happens. And what’s really cool to see is when the things that they do, right, when a writer creates an article in a slightly different way to make sure it’s search friendly, and then they see the results and you bring that result back to them, that’s you see this kind of, it’s almost like, like a flywheel, right? Where they, they, you know, they, they licked a little bit of blood and they’re like, oh man, this is amazing.
Kevin Indig 00:45:52 This is so much fun. And then they go, then you have this kind of, uh, this, uh, this, this engine that starts to grow out of it. They start to quote unquote, uh, in fact, or inspire their colleagues. And that’s, that’s when you can have real impact. And that happens. And again, in every, in any craft, it can happen in, in engineering as well. And the important piece there is not just education, but closing the loop by bringing the results back to people, by showing them what they did by adopting a different behavior. And once you get that going, it’s, it’s almost like it it’s itself reinforcing engine where people just get excited. They presented a company all hands or at the team meetings, and then you’re in a good place. It took us, you know, a good six to, to 12 months to get that rolling. But once we’re there our impact skill through the whole company,
Sean Ellis 00:46:35 Mm-hmm <affirmative> yeah. I definitely have found results drive, buy in. And, uh, and yeah, and I, I basically optimized my whole approach at Dropbox of like, get enough experiments through, to get some good results, to convince everyone, to then have that flywheel of like, oh my God, this works, this is math. Just, we, we, we try stuff and someone’s gonna work well, and it’s gonna keep moving up. And then, and then get that buy in. And I actually remember interviewing Luke years ago at a conference, uh, when he was still at trip advisor. And I think he was talking about, uh, a and like an SEO wins newsletter that he, he created at a trip advisor where SEO was sort of a really important part of trip advisor. But, um, most of, most of the broader company didn’t really even think about it or know about it.
Sean Ellis 00:47:25 But once they started this new, like one, once they started this newsletter where they were sending out the wins, he’s like people would get the, uh, attaboy and atta girls just like walking down the halls of, of, of trip advisor and, and that, that drove a lot more buy in. So it’s, uh, it’s cool. And then finally, like one other thing that just came out, uh, I, in, in the last several years of, of trying a lot of stuff to get, to get company buy in just for growth in general, um, workshops have by far been the most impactful. So it’s cool to hear you say that like once, once you, if you can get people out of their day to day job and, and really understanding something on a good enough level and understanding the role they can play and even even driving some of that, uh, collaboration to, to, to come to some decisions and, and, and then, and then build that, that feedback, uh, loop on wins on the back end of something like that, uh, that, that drives more cultural and company transformation than anything I’ve seen.
Kevin Indig 00:48:29 It’s pure magic. And it’s in part because you wanna align kinda, or you kinda wanna play to people’s goals too, right? I mean, usually if you work in a startup, you have ambitious goals, you know, uh, at best and sometimes outrageous goals and you’re, you wanna do everything you can to achieve them and SEO, I see it as a, as a skill you can give to people to achieve their goals. You just need to convince them by showing them what they actually do. So, yeah, it’s exactly that same, uh, experience that I had. And as you said, it can be complet transforming to a degree where all of a sudden, everybody thinks about SEO. Um, and that’s, that’s when your job is, I mean, it’s not never fully done. Right. But that’s when you’re like, man, I got the whole company behind me. How else does
Sean Ellis 00:49:09 That? Well, Ethan and I have even come to the conclusion that like, we won’t do any hands on work with the company, unless it starts with a workshop because it’s just too frustrating trying to drive the change if you can’t drive the alignment front. Yeah.
Kevin Indig 00:49:22 Yeah. Huge alignment is huge. And by the way, we also have a wins newsletter at Shopify, uh, for all the growth stuff that we do. Cause there’s a lot of things going on. Yeah. It’s just, it’s awesome to see, to read. It’s awesome to read that email.
Sean Ellis 00:49:33 Yeah. That doesn’t surprise me that he would, uh, he would bring that with him if it <laugh>, if it worked years ago. Uh, Ethan, do you have any more questions?
Ethan Garr 00:49:41 Uh, no, I guess we should. Uh, we’re
Sean Ellis 00:49:42 I, I actually have, yeah, have one, one more that I wanted to ask. Just, um, again, I think a lot of our listeners are not your, your necessarily deep SEO practitioners, even though I’m sure if there are some that they’re gonna actually get a lot out of this conversation. But, um, if we, if we think about more on the executive side who are thinking about getting started with SEO, I think there’s been some great guidance, but, um, just a more open ended question to you. Is there, is there anything else that you, that you feel like you, uh, wanna communicate to them, uh, in terms of what they should be thinking about as they, as they kick off an SEO initiative?
Kevin Indig 00:50:20 Yeah, the, the number one thing is probably differentiation, right? Um, I, so I, a blog on a regular basis and one of the blocks that I wrote a while ago, um, that really hit home is this idea of commodity content. Uh, and so what’s happening a lot of times out there is that, you know, companies get excited about SEO and, and driving organic traffic with content, but they don’t put enough time and effort into differentiating their content. As I mentioned before, to make sure that it’s one of a kind and people come to your site to get that type of content and often goes back to having unique data and insights. Uh, I mean, Shopify, for example, is blessed with data and insights. We have a lot of merchants out there. Uh, billions. And so we can we can get a pretty accurate snapshot of the eCommerce landscape and struggles, right?
Kevin Indig 00:51:09 And so what struggles and benefits and opportunities and everything involved. So you, you really wanna think critically about what can I bring to the table that only I have access to. And it’s usually a ideally insights, or maybe it’s an experience, uh, as a competitive advantage against other companies. And so it, I, I think too many CEOs or founders, um, fall into the trap of just wanting to get going on this shiny object that is content, but they’re not setting their teams up for success, but by giving them access to some unique insight insights that a company has, ideally you have a data scientist who can help leveraging that. And that’s when you’re in a really good spot. Um, but, uh, today’s content game. It’s, it’s not enough to just look at what already ranks well and synthesize or summarize it in your contents. You really have to have experts and you have to have insights that make it worth for people to click through to your site. So that would be my, my one appeal.
Ethan Garr 00:52:05 Yeah, it’s funny. Um, as Sean and I have put out our own content over time, one of the things that we, you know, we’ve, we, we’ve done a few things to try to be SEO friendly, but like one thing we just always agreed on is that like, you know, probably what Google wants most is valuable content content that matters. And, uh, I we’re maybe not as prolific as either one of us would like to be in terms of getting our content out there. But, um, but I do think when we, you know, if we, the more we focus on trying to make it valuable, the more effective it is in reaching people and you see it and, and how the, how Google picks it up and you know, how it’s, you know, how people find it. So it’s interesting. So I know we’re almost outta time, but we always like to follow up with one final question, which is, what do you feel like you understand about growth today that maybe you didn’t understand a couple of years ago? And if you wanna adapt that more for SEO specific feel free <laugh>
Kevin Indig 00:52:58 Yeah, I think it’s, I think that the one thing that I learned, um, over the years is really how dependent growth and growth mechanics are on the business model. So I, I see a lot of cookie cutter approaches or templated approaches on growth where maybe people had a good experience, uh, and cracked some growth mechanics at one company and tried to bring that to the next company, but that’s not always possible unless you stay in that same industry or type of company. Right? So we began the conversation with aggregators versus integrators. And the reason is that they, they scale in growth and an SEO fundamentally different. And that to me was one of the biggest, uh, you know, lessons. We, we spoke about Luke and, and TripAdvisor and Shopify. And the reality is that TripAdvisor and Shopify have fundamentally different growth mechanics and SEO mechanics as well.
Kevin Indig 00:53:47 So the thing that I learned is to look for, you know, or get an understanding of the networks, if network effects of a business and how they scale over time, if they even are network effects, um, where the points of scale and leverage are, how users engage with your product and how users pay for your product as well. Uh, not, you know, uh, like there’s a, there’s this, uh, famous example of, uh, HubSpot versus Salesforce where HubSpot is more on the lower end of the market in terms of price points. And therefore, you know, they might have a sales team now, but they, they scaled famously with SEO early on because it’s a self-serve bottoms sales product, whereas a Salesforce, they don’t start with SEO in mind. They start more with their sales people and, and sales teams in mind, so that those are different business models that are tied to engagement monetization, but also network effects. That that’s kind of the biggest lesson that I learned over the years.
Sean Ellis 00:54:41 Awesome. Well, this has been amazing. I’ve, I’ve actually learned a, a ton and, uh, I’m, I’m hoping and expecting that our audience will as well. So thank you so much for sharing your experience and expertise in SEO and, uh, for everyone tuning in. Thanks for listening. Thank you.
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