Simon Heseltine, Director of SEO at AOL Inc., is an organic search beast, and he’s got the hands-on experience to prove it. Responsible for all AOL and Huffington Post Media Group properties, including Engadget, Huffington Post, and Daily Finance, he’s also trained the AOL-UK teams on SEO best practices. Impressive!
Simon is a familiar face on the conference circuit and, as it happens, in the aimClear blog. Last year on the advent of Search Engine Strategies Chicago, aimClear sat down with Mr. Heseltine for a casual Q&A. This go-round, as SES San Francisco draws near, we revisited Simon with a batch of new stuff to ask (except… we accidentally asked the “hi, who are you” and the fav adult bev again… cheers!). Read on for the goods.
| aimClear: Simon! Hello, friend. Tell us a bit about yourself. Howdidja end up in the profession?
Simon Heseltine: I refer you to the answer I gave the last time you asked me. Is that cheating? Because that past life as a programmer taught me that reuse was a good thing.
| aC: Alright, fair enough. So, your position with AOL affords you glimpses of the SEO universe only those privy to an enterprise of that kind of volume can understand. Has this experience provided perspective for working on smaller sites? What are some main observations and takeaways?
SH: It’s true that we have some very powerful, growing sites such as The Huffington Post and TechCrunch, but we also have several niche, or smaller sites that we work with (i.e. http://energy.aol.com/), so my team really works across the whole gamut. Regardless of the size of the site, the guiding principles remain the same, make sure that you put out good quality content on as structurally sound a foundation (CMS) as you can. With larger sites you will generally have more clout to get things done, as they tend to have more resources, so with the smaller sites you have to really marshal your effort to make sure that you’re getting the most benefit for what’s available to you.
| aC: Very interesting. What about SEO has changed the most over the last five years? What remains the same eternally?
SH: Undoubtedly the biggest change has been the coupling of search with social, along with the ever increasing personalization that it brings. Five years ago if you did a search you were much more likely to see the same thing as the person next to you, now it’s possible for the page to look completely different based on your friends, your location, your previous searches, etc.
As for what remains the same? The fundamentals may be tweaked, but they’re still there. Make sure that your site is crawlable, if the spiders can’t get to your content, how can they index it? You’ve got such great free tools available from both Google and Bing to let you see data directly from their crawlers so make use of it.
| aC: Your top 5 SEOs or blogs you look up to the most, and why!
SH: Hmm, there are too many to list, although most of them don’t call themselves SEO’s, so I’m going to weasel out and go down the blog route. That said, I’m now going to side-step that, after giving the plug to Search Engine Watch (where you can find my bi-monthly column), and say that I get the majority of my news from social media sites, and recommendations from my friends. If something’s worth knowing about they let me know. Five years ago I’d start every day with Bloglines and go through the latest posts on over 100 sites to see what was going on in the world. Now I monitor Twitter & Facebook and get probably a better level of information / use of my time as I see what matters to people. Of course it helps to be well connected and have a wide range of friends with differing, but trusted tastes, but I do think it works well.
| aC: Word. If you were marooned on a digital desert island and you could have only three analytics tools to measure SEO, what would they be? Why?
SH: I’d just need one. E-mail, so I could contact our great in-house analytics team.
You’re not going to let me get away with that one are you?
Ok, well, obviously one would have to be an actual analytics suite such as Omniture, Google Analytics, or WebTrends (although I haven’t used the latter for quite a while). The second would have to be a spreadsheet package to play with the data. For the third, I’d go with a diagnostics tool to identify any issues that could be affecting the site, while they’re not technically measuring the SEO, they’re giving you an indication of where you’re missing out by not following best practices, so for that you’d need to have a composite of Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools.
| aC: The afternoon of Day 3 at SES San Francisco, you’ll be sharing the stage for the Successful In-House SEO session. Can we get a sneak peek at what you’ll dish up to the audience members?
SH: It’s still a work in progress, so it’s going to be nice and fresh for the audience, but what I can say for now is that it’s not going to be a “get an exec on your side and give the devs a beer and the world will be rosy” presentation. The panel and I will talk about some real world situations that we’ve encountered, things that worked and things that didn’t. We’ll talk about the challenges that in-house people face, how to work with consultants / agencies, where the SEO team fits within the organization, and when to pick your battles.
| aC: Lightning round: Favorite adult beverage, ethnic cuisine, and outdoor activity – GO!
SH: Somerset Cider, although Magners will do in a pinch.
Kung Pao Bean Curd… mmm…
Playing soccer, or at least it will be once my calf heals up again
| aC: Right on! Great, now I want Kung Pao bean curd… well, thanks for your time today, Simon Safe travels to SFO!