On Monday, April 15, 2019, Technical SEO Specialist Paul Shapiro invited the SEO community for an AMA (Ask Me Anything) hosted on the subreddit /r/TechSEO. For those who may not be aware, Paul is Head of SEO at Catalyst, which is a Search and Social agency.
During his AMA, Paul touched on a number of topics and questions regarding everything from technical SEO and horror movies to board games and TechSEO Boost — a conference he founded devoted entirely to technical SEO (which is currently in the midst of planning for its third year).
With the wide range of conversation, we’ve taken the most notable highlights from Paul’s AMA regarding technical SEO and outlined them to showcase some key elements worth exploring. Additionally, we’ve included some components showing his more personal side because hey, we’re all human.
Advancing your technical SEO skills
One of the first questions Paul was faced with was how technical SEO specialists can take their skills to the next level. Concepts like working with global brands or large scale on-page content creation via APIs, scripts, etc.
Paul touched on this first by noting that, “the traditional definition of technical SEO is broken.” He went on to explain that although “improving crawling, indexing, and rendering are very critical to ranking, where you really get the most bang for your buck is being able to apply the same underlying technical skills to other applications. Things like ‘how can you use Python and data mining to enhance content development’ are where technical SEOs shine.”
Adding to this, he emphasized that technical SEO’s should focus on skills that enhance their thinking and allow them to work on the most set of problems. Data science, programming skills, and web development knowledge were all mentioned as helpful skills in terms of diagnosing problems and creating new solutions.
“I think the data science aspect of SEO is the most interesting. It’s something I do a lot of personally and probably would advise people of starting there. It’s also a highly transferable skill.”
Paul has often declared his love of board games openly so as expected, questions regarding his favorite games or what he’s currently playing were bound to come up. When asked what his favorite newish board game was, he replied with, “My favorite board game at the moment is Great Western Trail. It’s not really considered new anymore though being from 2016”.
He also mentioned that if anyone was curious to learn more about that side of him, he recently started a board game blog called Board Game Squad. So if you share Paul’s enthusiasm for board games, it might be worth paying a visit.
Log files and SEO
Another notable topic that was raised was the question of log file analysis and the level of importance this played in regards to SEO. Paul responded by saying that although he wasn’t huge into log files (for SEO), “They serve their purpose, helping diagnose crawling issues and help better understand how bots and users are accessing your website.”
Then there was the mention of how gaining access to log files from clients seems to remain an obstacle for many SEO’s, both in-house and at agencies. Paul acknowledged this by saying that he rarely gets access himself but went on to note that “There are many types of log files, and they can be set-up on the server to be scrubbed of PII. Helping IT do that is a good first step. You can also just obtain logs that reflect bot traffic. Discussing these options have helped in the past.”
Prioritizing efforts in search
When asked how he prioritized his efforts in search, Paul introduced a model he borrowed from Sean Ellis called “ICE” which stands for “Impact, Confidence, and Ease”. He elaborated further on this concept by explaining that you assign a value of 1 to 10 for “I, C and E”. “I” is the impact you can expect to get from implementing something. “C” is how confident you are that it will actually have that impact. Finally, “E” referring to “ease” and how easy it is to actually implement:
ICE – Impact, Confidence, and Ease
Basically, “You average those scores together and then assign a priority number to it using the ICE score as a strong input.” Paul mentioned that he finds this works very well, especially for more technical SEO tasks.
As a self-declared horror movie enthusiast, others with a similar appreciation for the genre came to pose their questions. The timeless, classic question we all probably expected to be asked was: if you’re only able to choose one horror film to ever watch again for the rest of your life, what would it be? The answer was a little less direct than you might’ve expected.
“One of things I appreciate about the horror genre is the sheer amount of variety and fluid self-expression it offers. Limiting myself to a single film would be painful. My favorite movie is Possession (1981), but I think it would grow old VERY quickly. I might have to go with a more traditional classic like The Shining or Halloween. Although, those aren’t necessarily my favorites either. There’s a ton of movies I can live without, so I’ll go with a more popular one that I can certainly bare without, Child’s Play. Never cared for it.”
Every technical SEO knows the importance of page and site speed but an obstacle facing many is balancing conflicting information that different tools and metrics provide. When asked what tools and metrics Paul used to both identify the correct page speed and understand what metrics were most important, he emphasized that this barrier was the reality of web performance optimization and that different devices, internet connection and so forth, should all have different results.
He suggested not to focus on a metric like Google’s PageSpeed score, but instead a series of metrics more aligned with your goals. He continued to say, “TTI seems a bit wonky. I like speed index, FCP, and FMP more. Even better is to measure when a particular, critical item is loaded on the page, but that takes a little more effort.”
He encouraged SEO’s to look at these metrics as a trend to improve upon.
Squarespace, Wix, and Shopify: Are these right for SEO?
When faced with the question of drag and drop website building platforms like Squarespace, Wix, and Shopify, and his thoughts on these platforms in regards to SEO, a simple, “It’s probably okay,” was his response.
“Most SEO’s I think will scoff at it, but I think it’s probably a fine starting off point.”
He elaborated further by mentioning he wasn’t super familiar with the differences between the Wix and Squarespace platforms and noted that Shopify was “decent” for e-commerce, however, he also emphasized that “When you’re starting off, the most important thing is actually getting started. Anything that helps get you there is good. As you and your website grow, you may want to think about a more sophisticated solution,” and “At some point, you’ll want to grow up.”
With the volume of day-to-day tasks for the technical SEO, the value of automation is high. When asked what automation tools he’s built that helped the most with daily tasks such as keyword research and analysis, page-speed tracking and analysis, and SERP ranking/tracking analysis, for example, he replied by saying, “One of the easiest and greatest savers of time you can invest in is automated reporting. In doing so, you’ll build a data warehouse which will become applicable for other automation activities. I use KNIME a lot for prototyping, but have been using more and more straight Python as of late.”
What makes a good technical SEO?
When Paul was asked what the top qualities he’d look for if hiring a more junior technical SEO, his first response was that more than anything, he valued critical thinking. He continued to explain that a lot of the SEO knowledge can be learned with time but pointed towards the concept that critical thinking was something that needed to exist separately and beforehand. During the interview process, Paul described further what he would look for by saying, “I care that they have a burning desire to learn,” and suggested that when hiring junior technical SEO’s, “Start talking to them about interesting problems you’re working on and hire the ones whose eyes light up.”
He also noted that “More practically speaking, you need to either be obscenely good with Excel or can code (I don’t care what language or how good they are as much). These are skills that help you with other aspects of your job to a high degree. Understanding of basic statistics is also a must-have.”
Tools for technical SEO
It should be expected that the topic of preferred or favorite tools for technical SEO would come up and it should also be expected that Paul would likely utilize and rely on a lot of in-house tools and tools developed ad-hoc (which he does), however, he did share some of the more standard tools he used or would at least recommend.
“Botify is my (newfound) crawler of choice. Screaming Frog and Sitebulb are both fantastic for desktop software solutions. I constantly use Chrome Developer Tools (or Firebug if you’re a Firefox user). For an all-in-one suite, not specific to SEO, I often use KNIME for a myriad of things.”
Can silos in the URL help rankings?
Search engine algorithms prefer order. Unorganized websites can make content and navigation confusing for people and simultaneously, can complicate the way search engines crawl and sort content. When “Siloing” (the act of organizing and structuring content into categories and subcategories), URLs and whether or not this helped rankings, Paul responded by saying:
“I think actual URL structure is vastly overrated, site architecture and interlinking is another story. I think having a logical linking structure is very important, but having that represented in the URL is a little less so. Although, having a good taxonomy can help prevent people from mucking the whole website up and is recommended.”
Impact of schema for articles, blog posts, etc. In terms of voice search
You can’t talk to another SEO without the topic of voice search coming up. And most are scrambling to prepare for the flood of natural language-based queries. It’s no surprise then that Paul was asked how this might impact Schema for articles, blog posts and the like (among other things). His response was a refreshing calm from the hype over voice search in the SEO world.
“Structure data will help search engines understand your content hypothetically. I’ve never seen an identifiable lift from it myself, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Speakable markup is an obvious thing you should implement if you’re attempting voice search. Otherwise, just carry on and do good SEO.”
Perhaps that is the most notable takeaway from all of this. Even though the world of SEO is always evolving, Paul says, “the approaches have shifted slightly, but the core tenants haven’t.” At the end of the day, performing quality SEO is what will continue to drive results and pave the way for success.