What books am I reading in 2021?

For the last five years, I wrote blog posts (2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 & 2016) listing the books that I read in the past year and that I wanted to be reading during that year. It was a good year for reading. I added many books to my list during the year, read some unexpected ones (4 about pregnancies and babies, who would have thought!?).

This year (2021) will be slightly different as I expect to read a bit less than 2020 (where I hit over 30 books). As we welcomed our daughter into the world in December, I likely can spend less time reading (I also rather spend time with her). So let’s jump into things…

What books I didn’t get to in 2020 and have re-added to the list for 2021:

My favorites from 2020:

  • HBR Strategic Thinking: Being an executive requires me to put more and more time aside to think about where a business/industry and organization is heading. Besides that, I always really like the format of HBR books with concise articles that quickly get to the core.
  • No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention: I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the ideas around the culture at Netflix from reading some previous posts. But this book very much surprised me, and I found myself agreeing with tons of the content. I would highly recommend this one to leaders/founders that want to improve their culture.
  • The McKinsey Way: Something I wanted to learn more about this year was consulting companies (not for a particular reason, I’m also not becoming one anytime soon). Reading two books about how McKinsey approaches their practices and sees the world was a fascinating insight.

What books I’d like to be reading in 2021

Next year will be a mix of books on Marketing, investing, and personal development. Let’s see how many books I’ll get to realistically.


Leave your recommendations via @MartijnSch as I’d love to know from others what I should be reading.


Deciding between who to hire: an Agency versus a Contractor versus Hiring?

While you’re scaling the efforts of your team, you’re running into bottlenecks as you grow. The faster you go, the more often you lack the resources to add new initiatives or improve existing channels & functions. Time after time, you find yourself identifying the gaps in your marketing organization (or others) trying to figure out how to stitch those problems. In the end, it’ll likely come down to the answer: you need more people/skills/experience/knowledge/time to go faster.

A few weeks ago, Rand Fishkin posted a similar blog post on the topic of Why You Should Hire Agencies & Consultants (for everything you can). As you could already read in his blog post, as it mentions the tweet that I replied to, it was a topic that resonated with me. I also had a similar past to Rand in which we both, it seemed, chose the hiring (FTE) route often over finding agencies or contractors.

I’m not going as far as Rand by suggesting that you shouldn’t hire. In many cases, in my opinion, this is the right answer. But there is more out there, like agencies, consultants, interim, crowdsourced tools that could help you fulfill the same needs.

This also came to mind during the process that we went through at RVshare leading up to the investment by KKR (read more about that here) a few months ago. One of their advisors asked this specific question while discussing our marketing strategy:

“To scale this function, would you outsource the execution or hire internally?”

There is no right or wrong answer to any of this, as it all depends on the situation you find yourself in as a manager/executive. What all strategies have in common is that they require more resourcing. You have a need for it that you currently can’t fulfill with the (extended) team that you have.

My experiences

At the past companies that I worked for, there was always a slightly different strategy. At The Next Web, we hired people and filled the execution gaps with interns in certain periods (the system for interns works differently in most of Europe than the US as they can support you throughout the whole year where the majority of internships in the US take place in Summer). At Postmates, at the time, it was different, and the focus was primarily on hiring in-house (senior) experts as there wasn’t too much time to train people as the company was blitzscaling.

🌍 & 🌎 – Europe versus the United States

When the question got asked at the beginning, a few thoughts came to mind. I’ve been working and living for close to four years now in the US and previously for many years in Europe. As the US is a bigger country with a different educational system and different wage ranges (even across the US), the approach is often different. Some topics that came to mind about the differences:

  • Interns: I touched slightly on this, but Europe’s system enables to train young people more easily throughout the whole year as most educational setups have year-round periods for internships.
  • Wages: In general, wages are much higher in the United States than they are in Europe. This sometimes causes just issues in hiring, where you could hire somebody for a similar role in Europe for 70K that same person might cost 100K in most of the United States (with exceptions reaching much higher).
  • Experience at Scaling: There are different approaches to this. In the wider Bay Area, more people have grown up in a tech ecosystem that has shown them how big tech companies operate. As Europe, in general, is a bit behind that it sometimes impacts how they can operate at scale.

Again, this is not me judging Europe or the United States to be better. They both have a place in the overall ecosystem of hiring and extending your resources.

What’s the right approach? What to consider?

  • Short versus Long term needs: For short term needs like a copywriting project, designing a slide deck, creating an explainer video, you can’t convince me easily that they’re worth hiring for. You won’t find all those skills in one person, so it makes more sense to hire.
  • Cost: Let’s face it, the costs of a contractor/agency are higher right away, but don’t forget about all the additional costs an FTE brings with them (insurance, travel, office in a non-COVID world).
  • Depth of the Bench: Many sports teams have outstanding players sitting on the bench; this is a huge upside of agencies, for example. They often have well-trained teams that already have experience working with similar clients ready to roll directly onto your team and help out with efforts. Especially in functions like media buying, PR, and many creative services, I’m having a hard time seeing how you would be able to defend hiring for those positions solely internally.
  • Specialist versus Generalist: For smaller startups, it’s not always possible based on costs or the skillset to hire the right person right out of the gate. It’s the reason why many startups take off with a bunch of generalists and, while they grow, start adding more specialists to their teams. For example, I myself used to be a specialist as well (search and analytics). Over time while moving up the ladder, I became more of a generalist (welcome to executive life) than a specialist. For some roles that you’re looking for, it means that you might be better off with a consultant as they can provide the specialist skills that you’re not ready to hire for (just yet).
  • Range of skills / Many Hires: As a follow-up on this, what you face as well as your scale is that you have a range of needs that even a specialist in an area can’t solve for you. This is usually where agencies come into play as they have a range of skills available for you usually in the mix of 1 FTE. I’ve blogged many times before about our working relationships around Analytics. We use Marketlytics there as part of our setup as they know their stuff incredibly well and have many skills on the team (analyst, engineer, project manager).
  • Scale fast: Hiring is slow. There is a reason why big organizations sometimes have hundreds of different roles open at the same time. They just can’t hire people fast enough. This is mainly a problem at the top of the funnel. You don’t know enough people or can’t reach them quickly enough. It’s one of the reasons why you should always be talking to people to get them potentially interested in joining your company long-term. So consultants/contractors could be your temporary fix as they can usually provide a quick specialist approach to your needs. In addition, if you need to prove a business case, they can provide temporary support.
  • Tunnelvision: It’s surely is a thing. If you’ve been staring at the same problems for years and working with the same people for a while, you likely get stuck in this. A new fresh pair of eyes or agency team probably has a different approach that could help bring additional growth.

What am I missing? What are the areas that you prefer to hire against trying to find an agency or consultant? Leave a comment so we can discuss it. This will likely be one of those blog posts that I’ll keep up to date over time as I learn new things.


The top metrics & KPIs other teams care about for SEO

SEOs care about many metrics, often the wrong ones (rankings, DA, PA, you name it, etc.). What is often forgotten are the metrics that are important for the other teams/departments within their organization. In the end, building a company isn’t just done by one company. Over the years, it’s been clear that you work with many departments simultaneously on the same effort, and often they care about your channels’ metrics. Just not always the same ones, so in this blog post, I wanted to shine some additional light on what metrics you should think about for other departments. It’s the followup to this tweet that got quite the attention, and this post gives me the ability to go a bit more into depth on the whys?

This list is likely incomplete and is using some generic names. Your organization might have different names or have additional departments that might not be covered here. Hopefully, this gives you a better insight into how to think about various departments related to SEO.

🏢 C-Level

Depending on what type of organization you work in and how broad your C-suite is, you are likely to report at some level into a COO/CMO that cares about the SEO metrics. But often in 100+ person companies, they don’t have the depth anymore to really deep dive into the SEO cases that you’re facing within an SEO team on a day-to-day basis.

Metrics:

  • Revenue, average order value (this number should in most use cases not be too much different from the performance of other channels), and the number of Transactions.
  • Sessions from organic search as an absolute number but also the percentage of total traffic. Primarily the latter as you want to keep a healthy/diverse balance for your marketing mix. Something that I blogged about before.

🛠 Product

What is Product building that you can benefit from, and how are you working with Product to prioritize the most important changes to the product to drive additional growth from organic search. No product is finished so there is always something that you can help prioritize from an SEO point-of-view.

Metrics:

  • Load time: There has been enough buzz about the importance of site speed for good reason.
  • Number of Pages per Template
  • Growth in Sessions
  • Best Performing Page Segments
  • Conversion Rate from Organic Search, etc.

Not necessarily in that order, but usually, metrics that are impacted with/by the Product organization.

💻 Engineering

Sitespeed, code velocity, sitespeed and load times. Well you get the point. It’s all about how fast the site is and how quickly you can work with an engineering team to get changes that you want fixed implemented.

Metrics:

  • Load times/site speed, traffic to specific sections of the site.
  • Velocity of tickets/items that you want Engineering to implement.

💲 Finance

Metrics that show the potential for growth and the return on investment. In the end, in many companies, Finance is the gatekeeper of money flowing in and out. They want to get a better insight into what you’re spending and how that eventually contributes to the bottom line. Providing a simple version of a P&L for SEO will likely return a happy smile if you’re able to produce that.

Metrics:

  • ROI % (how much have you spend on SEO resourcing: team, tools, other expenses for content) versus what will it return
  • Budget Spend, Returned Revenue, and future growth.

🖼  Marketing

Likely your closest allies in the ‘battle of SEO’ together with Product. Depending on the organizational structure, you probably find the SEO team itself here or in Product. So having enough impact on the metrics that your marketing team cares about is important.

📝 Content: Do you have a separate content team? They’ll likely care about the organic traffic coming to their pages, and they should care about the impact on those business metrics too. Besides that, any insight into specific keywords (volume, CTR) is always useful for a team like this to help optimize existing content.

Metrics:

  • Impact on branded search terms: sessions.
  • Increase/decline so you can measure the uplift of other brand awareness campaigns.

🧳   Sales & Business Development

At what scale are you still able to set up partnerships and does that actually fit into the scope of SEO at scale? Likely the answer is, no. That’s why you want to partner with a sales/biz dev team that can help you solidify partnerships and companies to work within your space. They have better skills and you can likely provide them meanwhile with more useful input on who to go after.

Metrics:

  • The number of big partnerships.
  • A shortlist of partners that you want them to go after, not just for dumb link building (preferably not, in my opinion). Instead, create lasting relationships that impact the industry, TAM (Total Addressable Market), and market presence.

📞  Customer Service

The better, faster, and more quickly you can answer your customers’ questions likely the better your business will thrive in today’s environment. Often this means that providing the answer directly in search (think featured snippets). You can’t just do this alone as an SEO team, you need the input from people in Customer Service, they’re the ones talking to your customers about the (mainly) negative and positive situations. The more you can support them with the metrics that they care about, the more comfortable both your lives might become.

Metrics:

  • Organic Traffic to Support related pages, the number of calls/chats that you avoid by better-optimized pages, etc.
  • The top questions that you can answer directly via featured snippets.
  • The top 100 pages on your support portal, based on organic search segmentation.

📈 Growth

When I was on the Growth team at Postmates the insane velocity that was produced there to grow faster was great to see. As SEO isn’t the fastest-growing channel often (especially not in the short-term, as I can throw 1M towards PPC tomorrow and create near-instant results) it’s important to show how it’s attributing to the mix of long and short-term initiatives of a growth team.

Metrics:

  • Growth % of the SEO channel, compared to MoM, WoW or YoY.
  • Long term contributions of growth, as lots of SEO growth is evergreen and at relatively low costs.

👩‍💻 Human Resources

Admittedly, this one is one of the most distanced departments from just SEO, but if you’re a big organization and recruiting for dozens or even hundreds or roles, how important it could be to help drive traffic to a Careers/Jobs section on a site. If that’s the case showing the importance of driving job applicants could be incredibly helpful to help understand what SEO can do for them.

Metrics:

  • The number of job applicants that applied because they found the jobs via Search.
  • Traffic to a specific segment of the site from Organic Search: Careers/Jobs.
  • The number of pages marked up properly with structured data for Jobs.

What metrics are missing? What do you measure for your organization? There are so many different business models out there that likely this list is far from complete for; for example, B2B cases are likely to be missing here.


Saving Bing Search Query Data from the Bing Webmaster Tools’ API

Over the last year, we spent a lot of time working on getting data from several marketing channels into our marketing data warehouse. The series that we did on this with the team has received lots of love from the community (thanks for that!). Retrieving Search Query data from Bing has proven to be one of the ‘harder’ data points: there is a lack of documentation, there a no real connectors directly to a data warehouse, and as it turns out the returned data (quality) is … ‘interesting’ to say the least. That’s why I wanted to write this blog post, to provide the code to easily pull out your search query data from Bing Webmaster Tools and give more people to evaluate their data. Hopefully, this provides the overall community with a better insight into the data quality coming out of the API.

Getting Started

  1. Create an account on Bing Webmaster Tools.
  2. Add & Verify a site.
  3. Create an API Key within the interface (help guide).
  4. Save the API Key and the formatted site URL.

The code

These days I spent most of my time (whenever I get to write code) coding in Python, that’s why these.

import datetime
import requests
import csv
import json
import re

URL = "https://example.com"
API_KEY = ''

request_url = "https://ssl.bing.com/webmaster/api.svc/json/GetQueryStats?apikey={}&siteUrl={}".format(API_KEY, URL)

request = requests.get(request_url)
if request.status_code == 200:
    query_data = json.loads(request.text)

    with open("bing_query_stats_{}.csv".format(datetime.date.today()), mode='w') as new_file:
        write_row = csv.writer(new_file, delimiter=',', quotechar='"')
        write_row.writerow(['AvgClickPosition', 'AvgImpressionPosition', 'Clicks', 'Impressions', 'Query', 'Created', 'Date'])

        for key in query_data["d"]:
            # Get date
            match = re.search('/Date\\((.*)\\)/', key["Date"])

            write_row.writerow([key["AvgClickPosition"] / 10,
                                key["AvgImpressionPosition"] / 10,
                                key["Clicks"],
                                key["Impressions"],
                                key["Query"],
                                datetime.datetime.now(),
                                datetime.datetime.fromtimestamp(int(match.group(1)) // 1000)])

Or find the same code here in a Gist file on Github.

Steps to take

  • Make sure you have all the needed dependencies installed: json, re, requests, csv.
    • pip install requests json re csv
  • Run the script: python bing_query_stats.py and enter the API Key and Site URL in the constants at the top of the script.
  • If everything is successful the information is saved in this file: bing_query_stats_YYYY-MM-DD.csv

Data Quality

As I mentioned in the intro, the data quality is questionable and leaves very much up to the imagination. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to share this script, so others can get their data out and we can hopefully learn more together on what the data represents. The big caveat seems that the data is exported at the time of extraction with a date range of XX days and it’s not possible to select a date range. This means that you can only make this data useful if you save it over a longer period of time and based on that calculate daily performance. This is all doable in the setup we have where we’re using Airflow to save the data into our Google BigQuery data lake, but because it isn’t as straight forward this might be harder for others.

So please share your ideas on the data and what you ran into with me via @MartijnSch


Case Study: How Restructuring 6800 Content Pieces For SEO Worked

I presented the content in this blog post about a week ago for the Traffic Think Tank community (highly recommend it), but after a Twitter thread on this topic as well, it’s time to turn it into a blog post.

Sometimes you have to take a stand and make something better when it’s already performing well. Over the last months, the RVshare marketing team worked on some great projects; one of them that I was involved in was restructuring 6800 pieces of content that we created a while ago. The content and pages they were on were performing outstanding (growing +100% YOY without any real effort), but we wanted to do more, to help users and boost SEO traffic. So we got started…

Why restructure content?

A couple of years ago, we published the last WordPress page/post in a series of 600+, the intent: go after a category near and dear to the core of the RVshare business: help more people rent an RV. We did that by creating tons of articles specifically for cities/areas. Now over two and a half years later, the content is driving millions of people yearly, mainly from SEO, but we knew that there was more as it’s not our core business. We also weren’t leveraging all the SEO features that have become available since two years ago, think about additional structured data like FAQs but also monetization that we thought was important. All improvements that we had to go back into every post for if we wanted to take advantage of it.

What we did, leveraging Mechanical Turk.

One of the biggest obstacles wasn’t necessarily rebuilding pages, coming up with a better design, etc. WE have a great team that is nailing this on a daily basis. But having to deal with 650 posts that contained ten sub-elements itself was a struggle. The content was structured in a similar way but some quick proof of concepts identified that scraping wasn’t the solution as the error ratio was way too high as with most projects we wanted to ensure that the content could be restructured at low costs not to avoid this project not having a valid business case (does the actual opportunity outweigh the potential costs to restructure the content?).

Scraping versus Mechanical Turk

As we had initially structured the content the same way: headline, description, etc. we were able to have at least a way to get the data out. When we did some testing to see if we would be able to scrape it looked unfortunate, there were too many edge cases as the HTML itself around it was barely structured enough to get the actual content out of it.

We looked into Mechanical Turk as the second option as it gave us the ability to quickly get thousands of people on a task to look at the content and take out what we needed. We wrote the briefing, divided the project in a few chunks, and within 10-12 hours, we had the content individualized per piece. We did our best to deal with most of the data cleaning from the workers directly in the briefing and form but also had some cleaning scripts ready. After it was cleaned, we imported the data into our headless CMS Prismic.

How to do this yourself?

  1. Create an account on Mechanical Turk.
  2. Create a project focused around content extraction.
  3. Identify what kind of content you want individualized, it works best if there is a current structure (list format, table) that can be followed by the Turks. This way, you can tell them to pick up content piece X, Y, Z, for a specific URL.
  4. Identify the fields that you want to be copied.
  5. Upload a list of URLs that you want them to cover and additionally the # that it has on the list.
  6. Start the project and verify the results.
  7. Upload the data automatically back into your CMS (we used a script that could directly put the content as a batch into our headless CMS Prismic.io)

Rebuilding

We decided to build the content from the ground up, which meant:

  • Build out category pages with the top content pieces by state.
  • Build out the main index page with the top content from all states.
  • Build the ability to showcase this content on all of our other templated pages across RVshare.

By building out the specific templates, it gave us additional power to streamline internal linking, create better internal relevance, build-out structured data but mainly figure out a right way on how to leverage a headless CMS with all its capabilities instead of just having raw (read: ‘dumb’) content that can’t be appropriately structured. We already use the headless CMS Prismic.io to do this, in which you can create custom post types, as you see in this screenshot. You define the custom post type and can pick the kind of fields that you want, which turns itself just another CMS after that. The content can then be leveraged through their API.

How to do this yourself?

We were previously leveraging WordPress ourselves, but all entities were saved as 1 post. If you’re able to do this differently and save pieces individually it’s many times easier to create overview pages by using categories (and/or tags). This is not right away something that you can always do without development support.

Results

Because of the design changes, engagement increased with over 25% because of the new format. Monetization is making it more interesting to keep on iterating on the results. Sessions were unfortunately really hard to measure we launched the integrations a few weeks prior to the kick-off of COVID-19 resulting in a downwards spiral and a surge in demand right after. Hopefully, in the long-term, we’ll be able to tell more about this. We are sure though that we didn’t suffer on SEO results.


Want to see the new structure of the pages? You can find it here as our effort on the top 10 campgrounds across the United States.