Pubcon Vegas: Keynote with Topher Kohan, Jeff Preston and Alex Bennert

By Janet Driscoll Miller | Nov 10, 2011
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The last day of Pubcon Vegas started off with a keynote from Topher Kohan of CNN, Jeff Preston of Disney and Alex Bennert of the Wall Street Journal. Joe Laratro moderated the panel.
What was a change that showed the real result of your work?

Alex said it’s tough to nail down one, but moving to FirstClickThree helped. It allows publishers with a paywall to partner with Google so that users can bypass the paywall if the user comes from a Google query. She also cited the canonical tag as huge help in buying time to figure out how to deal with redirects. Finally, as a news publisher, figuring out how to do a newsfeed Sitemap on demand was key so that news articles could be published immediately and get better ranked in Google News.

For Jeff, the site has to be engaging and fun because it’s for kids. He had to optimize a dynamic Flash site fed by a CMS. That made Disney.com much more SEO friendly. To manage the optimization of Flash on an enterprise level, Jeff had producers put the content in HTML and the Flash pulls from the HTML to populate content into the Flash. Jeff said that he’s seen a couple hundred percent lift at Disney.com since making the changes.

Topher was the first search person at CNN. He started there in 2008, so there was a lot of great election data that they wanted to use in cool ways on the site. The problem was that it was all in AJAX and Flash, so he utilized the noscript tag all over the site to get around it then. The canonical tag, moving away from Flash and changing CMS also were changes that led to big search wins over time. Topher added that there’s more effort today to be consistent across the entire brand about how certain phrases and words are used to describe things.

What was your number 1 “oops” moment, and how did you correct it?

Topher said that while the 2008 Presidential election was very successful, the 2010 midterm elections were not. They weren’t ranking for simple election terms for the 2010 pages, but the 2008 pages were ranking. That taught him that no matter how small the effort or change might be, you have to put your full effort behind it.

Jeff said that a challenge for him is titles of movies, etc. For instance, they might want to name a movie “Cars” or “Ant Farm”. The keywords can be very generic. Even though he has months to prepare, it can definitely be tough to rank well for a generic term that is a movie/show title. Jeff also added that there are about 500 people are working on the Disney.com website. There were a couple of times where a site wasn’t built to SEO specifications. He’s had to learn to give the web developer the benefit of the doubt — it’s often someone higher up who makes the decision to avoid SEO before launch.

Alex said her biggest “oops” moment was when she started at WSJ. It was her first job in an enterprise-level SEO position. The mistake she made was having the same level of dialogue about SEO with different people. The message to IT vs. editorial vs. executives is different. She needed to just customize the message about SEO to the group. For instance, editorial should focus on keywords and writing titles vs. IT might be about the canonical tags.

What is one tip you can give to in-house SEOs?

Jeff said if you have a team and the team grows, makes sure as the SEO person you’re involved with each team. If there’s a PR meeting, be there. If there’s a tech meeting, be there. You need that visibility.

Alex also added that you should know WHICH meetings to attend. In the beginning, go to as many meetings as you can so you can learn which ones are the most important. Try to make it part of the projuct plan is to assess search in the project.
Topher said that it’s about educating the people that you’re working with — be they your staff or others. Educate them that you’re not “chasing the algorithm” so there’s not a knee-jerk reaction to every new bit of news about Google. The second thing Topher added was that if you are the first SEO at the company, you are the enemy. You bring them more work, until you can show them the value you’re going to bring to their content and the exposure you’ll bring them.
What advice do you have for those who are in an agency that want to go in-house?
Topher said don’t go to a big company first. Cut your teeth at a smaller organization. Also be your own cheerleader — have updates for those in the organization. Be sure to recognize those in other departments that helped.
Alex said that you have to set the expectation that you can’t do everything at once. Plan it out. Alex said definitely be friends with your Analytics team. Buy them a beer!
Jeff added that you need to make friends in the organization. Thank people, like Topher said, so that you can build up goodwill for when you need help from others.
What are you doing to get your mobile sites search-ready?
Topher said they have two mobile sites: one that is for tablets and one that is for phone devices. There’s a producer whose job is to pick which stories go to which sites.
Google News introduced the “stand out” tag. Is this something you’ve integrated? Success?
Alex has not been able to roll it out for WSJ yet because of workflow issues and the publishing system.  They plan to try testing it on smaller properties first, work out the kinks, then take it to the larger site.
Topher said they recently rolled out a new CMS before this was introduced. So they’re tools to call the data from initial sites, like blogs, and test it to see if it’s the right move for a global change.

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