I’m honored to welcome Kevin to Writing Studio for an interview. I’ve been excited to pick his brain about everything SEO. We originally recorded a 40-minute video (see below) but unfortunately, as you can hear, the audio is irreparable. We’ve turned the video into a digestible article with some highlights for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
Philip: Hi Kevin, thanks for joining me today. It’s great to meet you. What’s life like as Director of SEO at Shopify? It’s quite the title!
Kevin: It’s my pleasure. Life is full. It’s a fantastic role. I stepped into a large role a couple of months ago. I’m working with engineers, designers, data scientists, project managers, product managers, and basically go after organic traffic as a primary lever, but also think about how to nurture the traffic. So how can we, for example, educate potential users through email and how we convert them to actual users. It’s not enough to just drive traffic to the website. We have to have a plan to take care of those visitors as well.
So, my life as director of SEO is very full, but also comes with many exciting opportunities as I feel I can take SEO to the next level by a couple of steps after people come from organic search to Shopify’s website.
Philip: That’s fascinating. I wanted to ask; how did you first get into SEO? What was your introduction to that world?
Kevin: It’s kind of like most people, I stumbled into SEO randomly. I discovered SEO from computer games. When I started to play online with my crew back in the day (about 15 years ago), that got me into building websites and eventually SEO.
Philip: What are your predictions for 2022? What do you see happening?
Kevin: It’s funny because I’m actually currently in the process of writing an article about that. So maybe I can give a little bit of a sneak peek preview.
Full article: My SEO and Growth predictions for 2022
Just for context for why I’m doing predictions at all, it’s more about the process of predicting and thinking about what’s going to happen. That’s the important part, not the prediction itself.
Some of the things that I said for my 2021 predictions were that this idea of social commerce is going to become much bigger, live shopping shows by influencers would become more prevalent, and that there will be more companies that provide very specific solutions to very specific problems that will develop – some will even grow to be worth more than one billion dollars. Also, I predicted that short-form video will continue to dominate and that Tik-Tok will become a serious channel. So, from those, you can see how difficult it is sometimes to get these predictions completely right.
And so, back to my thoughts for 2022. One thing that I feel that’s very important as a prediction for next year, that not many people have talked about is the supply chain issue, especially in the context of commerce. So, when you think about any successful products, we often talk about this in terms of product-market fit. People really have to love your product. Whether you build a software product or even an e-commerce product, people really loving the product is so important for marketing. Fulfillment is a huge part of keeping customers happy. Next year, I feel like it’s going to become a competitive advantage for companies that are able to get their products to the customer faster and in a predictable way. I feel like it doesn’t matter how much money you spend marketing the product, if you can’t get the product to the person, it almost doesn’t matter.
Then there are a couple of things that we have already seen this year that I think will continue next year. One of them is that getting organic growth is getting much, much harder – you’re seeing Google answering questions directly instead of sending traffic to other websites.
It’s also going to get harder to get traffic, due to more competition, as anybody can create content. This will cause more companies to have to buy “attention”.
And then, a third one is the state of mobile. The app is kind of dying, mobile pages are becoming more important to stay relevant. Google has really been pushing forward with this, as a requirement for organic search.
Philip: Fascinating. I want to pivot to something different, but still on the topic of SEO. As you know, there are many charlatans in the world of SEO. There are many people out there that are ready to sell and promise customers a lot, especially to small businesses like plumbers, for example, who don’t really understand SEO.
What would you say are the tell-tale signs that an SEO specialist or agency doesn’t really know what they’re doing?
Kevin: That’s a really good question. I think you gave away part of the answer – in terms of promises. The more they promise, the bigger the promises they make, this is a red flag. If they promise, say to get a backlink from somewhere, I know this won’t be organic. Overconfidence is a big thing to look out for and avoid.
Philip: That’s a great point. What would you say is the biggest difference doing SEO for a large enterprise compared to a small business with a small website with 50 pages or so?
Kevin: I think the biggest difference is the number of skills you need to have. So, on the enterprise side, at least 50% of the job is communicating, presenting your vision, and collaborating with the client. Whereas on the small business side, you can be effective right away and focus much more on tactics.
Philip: Awesome. Let’s go through the main aspects of on-page SEO. Let’s start with meta titles and H1 tags. I remember putting a website into Semrush, and it said “your H1 tag and meta title are the same, change it.” Should they be different? I’ve heard other people say that’s a complete myth.
Kevin: It’s really hard to give you a yes or no answer. I’m saying that in part, because Google recently started to rewrite titles when they don’t have high confidence that your title is adequately suited or is good, so they often lean on the H1 tag title. So, a good argument to make for using the same title, is that’s easy to have some sort of consistency between them.
It also really depends on what the idea of the H1 should be for your user – like is it to foster excitement, set an expectation, or to provide context. It depends as well on if we’re talking about an article, a product page, or something else. There are lots of different variables.
Philip: So basically it depends!
Kevin: Yeah. I really try not to give that answer anymore, if you pull the depends card, then you are obliged to say what it depends on! But, on a serious note, it’s a very hard question to give one clear answer to.
Philip: Let’s move on to the meta title specifically. Many SEO specialists will say that you need to use your focus keyword in the title and that ideally, you need to have that focus keyword in the beginning. How important is that?
Kevin: So, based on some experiments that I’ve run, it still seems important, but it’s not as important as having a click-worthy title that’s enticing. What doesn’t work well anymore is stuffing the title with keywords. What works much better is keywords being in the title only when they fit naturally and close to the front if you prefer. You really want to think about the value that the title conveys – think hard about the value for the user and solve their problems.
Philip: I agree. It comes down to putting yourself in the users’ position and thinking, if I were them, which title would stand out to me and make me go, “aha, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!”
Kevin: Exactly. The title also has to be tied to your brand. It has to be authentic and have a connection to your brand.
Philip: Let’s move on to the meta-description. Specifically what makes a meta description good?
Kevin: Yeah, a good meta-description is contextual to the title, so there’s some sort of a connection between them. Preferably it has the keyword, but most of all, it should be an extension of the meta title. If the description conveys more information than the meta title teases, then this will be very click-worthy. It’s also important to have empathy for the user – understand what they want.
Philip: Awesome stuff. Let’s move on to the slug. What are some best practices? I do hear a lot of people saying that the slug is not as important as it used to be.
Kevin: I don’t think it’s that important anymore. I wouldn’t worry too much about it unless you have very cryptic URLs. You want to have “speaking URLs” that provide some context. Now, there are some opinions out there saying that the folder structure is really important. I’m open to having my mind changed, but I think it is a small factor.
Philip: Interesting. Let’s move on to the content itself. Optimization tools like Yoast say keyword density is really important and it gives your content scores. How much do you focus on aspects like that? Or is it more about establishing the topic, the search intent, and then just writing the best content possible?
Kevin: I think scores can be helpful for people who are not SEO experts, just to give them some guidance about good content. Don’t over obsess about scores, but at the same time, it can be a great way to quantify something that some people do really well intuitively.
Philip: So, I guess the takeaway is don’t overthink scores too much and try to meet arbitrary metrics, but at the same time, keywords are still important, and if it’s a keyword that people are searching and it’s relevant, and you can use it in a natural way, go for it.
Kevin: Exactly. It’s super nuanced. Based on some of the papers that Google has published and updates that they share about their machine learning capabilities, we can infer that Google understands when you use too many buzz words.
Philip: You don’t have to hire an “SEO writer”, the best person to hire is someone with subject matter expertise, and then have someone who understands on-page SEO to make sure it’s successful. You’ll be surprised how well content ranks by someone who has no idea about SEO. They just write what they know about.
Kevin: Right. And the reason is that if you’re a subject matter expert you’ll sniff out a non-subject matter expert immediately. Like if you spend years fixing bicycles, you know exactly when somebody has no idea what they’re talking about.
Philip: 100 percent. So, a few more things. I want to ask about content and backlinks. Are backlinks becoming less important over time as Google’s algorithm becomes more sophisticated at determining if the content is good or bad?
Kevin: It depends on the query. There are some queries where backlinks literally don’t matter at all and there are other queries where backlinks still matter greatly. Now, one aspect of backlinks that we don’t talk about enough is this idea of a network of sites that link to each other. And it goes back to what we talked about earlier, which was about authority. Google really understands when a website is writing about something that they are an authority on and that has to do with backlinks. I think that this network of links has become so large, that it’s harder and harder for us to really understand. And so, I think actually a great proxy for backlinks is referral traffic and how it grows over time.
Philip: Okay great. Let’s wrap this up with one final question. So, something that’s very often discussed is the word count for content. Let’s say you have an article for Shopify that you’re assigning to a writer, do give an approximate word count range for the article? And if so, what do you base that on? Or, do you just say, hey, just write what’s necessary?
Kevin: Yeah. I say, write what’s necessary for the topic. The word count doesn’t matter to me anymore. It used to, but it doesn’t anymore. What’s much more important for me is the density of information and the quality of information. If I compare the piece of content against the top search results, I’ll think does this content provide as much helpful information or not? And see if they can express the same information in fewer words and still give the necessary context. SEO is an iteration game, It’s about making small changes and learning from them.
Philip: What’s something that you look at when you do an audit of your website’s content that makes you go, okay, we need to update that?
Kevin: I look at how well it performs. Does it rank well for its target keywords? How many keywords does it rank for? Does it rank for the keyword with the highest search volume or impressions? And does it convert? Conversion may mean several things like people buying the product or signing up for a newsletter. If it doesn’t perform, we go back and keep tweaking and iterating.
Philip: Awesome. Let’s wrap it up there. Thanks so much. This was really great!
Kevin: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me on and taking the time.