A day in the life of a... Head of SEO

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Matt Sawyer is Head of SEO at Datadial, and agreed to tell us about the ins and outs of his role, as part of our new 'day in the life' series, which aims to shine a light on what digital professionals do during an average working day.

Please describe your job! What does a Head of Search do?
Apart from Reddit and Twitter? Generally I see the role as being both organisational and strategic. I spend a lot of time reading, keeping up with news and testing ideas that I can then pass onto the rest of the team.

For me the largest challenge in the role has been trying to take more of a hands-off approach from day to day tasks, and spending more time trying to organise the team. In search it’s really easy to get bogged-down in details when your time would sometimes be far better spent delegating. I’m still trying to get better at that!

Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
Datadial is full service agency, with our own in-house designers and developers as well as SEOs, paid search and an outreach team, so often I’m lucky enough to have everyone involved in a project under the same roof, which certainly makes communication easier.

Generally I report directly to the MD who acts as a project manager on the larger jobs, but apart from that there are usually regular team meetings and ad hoc project meetings when needed.

I must admit that I’m not the biggest fan of large meetings; I find that you get things done far quicker standing at a desk than you do pulling everyone that you can find into the meeting room.

What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
There is definitely a different skillset to when I was just doing SEO. The larger the team gets the more removed you have to become from the day to day SEO tasks.

So in addition to what I would say makes a good general SEO – organisation, problem solving, analytical, data driven and being creative - I would add being entrepreneurial. This helps a lot, especially when dealing with business owners and working out how search fits into their overall business strategy.

Managing teams is something that was new to me, being organised helps immensely, especially when parts of the team aren’t always based in the same office. Managing other people and project management brings a whole new dimension to a job.

There is also a large degree of sales involved in the role. I’m lucky enough to have a bit of a sales background, and I’m confident when dealing with people, but writing proposals, pitching and meetings are now a large part of the job.

Tell us about a typical working day…
Usually I like to get into the office early to run though emails and to catch-up on the news on my RSS feeds and social sites.

My rest of my day tends to vary a lot depending on what stage of the month we’re at. At the start of the month there is usually a lot more involvement in analysis, reporting and client meetings.

Towards the end of the month I tend to look at this period as being development time, either to develop the team, our systems, tools, strategy or sales.

What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
I think it’s always important to understand what is ultimately motivating the client. In an ideal world it’ll be a simply case of driving sales uplift to an ecommerce site, which is obviously fairly easily tracked and reported.

There are other cases which are more complicated, but technology is catching up. Call tracking software is a great tool, especially when working in service industries where the better leads tend to want a conversation rather than fill in an enquiry form.

Usually there will be internal KPIs that we’ll monitor ourselves, usually more technical metrics like ranking positions, indexation, and Google Webmaster Tools error reports.

We tend to try to report to the client on KPIs that are more business based sometimes traffic, but ultimately it’s sales and enquiries that matter the most.

Especially in the wake of Google Penguin we find that we’re trying to give a degree of transparency with link placements and wins, so we tend to report on these. This also helps build trust. SEO isn’t particularly tangible in comparison to other marketing channels, so being able to report on editorial and link wins helps to demonstrate value.

What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
We tend to use a lot. I’m a big fan of automation: time spent building something to speed-up repetitive tasks is never time wasted!

In terms of commercially available tools, we use:

  • Advanced Web Ranking and proxies
  • Searchmetrics - We use this to discover competitor keywords for both organic and paid search. It is seriously useful.
  • Scrapebox – This has an undeserved black-hat reputation. Sure it can be used in that way, but there are hundreds of other awesome jobs that this can automate. It’s a real time saver.
  • Majestic SEO – I love Majestic, and the volume of their link data is really impressive. I still find their front-end a bit fiddly sometimes, but if they could solve that then I think they would easily dominate the link data market.
  • Hootsuite – I do tend to spend a lot of time on Twitter. I have a ‘Twitter monitor’ on my desk, so although it looks like I’m there all the time, I am working, honest!
  • Google Drive – Again, a big fan of this, it’s simply excellent for storing documents, collaboration in the team and sharing with clients. Also you don’t have to worry about taking documents home to work on as you can access them from anywhere.

In addition to those we also have some tools that we have put together ourselves. Mostly these involve pulling in data from APIs, such our in-house reporting tool that pulls in data from Google Analytics and formats this into a standard set of reports. These can then be dragged and dropped in order to quickly customise reports for clients. It saves hours each month on time that would otherwise be spend manipulating data.

What do you love about your job? What sucks?
I like the variety of clients that I get to deal with. The majority of them are small and medium-sized business, so it’s usually the business owners, or directors that we’re dealing with.

It’s awesome learning from them about their business, what drives them and ultimately helping them to achieve their goals.

I also like the constant change. In digital on the whole we all love having a good moan, but we would all be bored sitting here doing the same things that we were doing 10 years ago.

What do I hate the most? For me it’s the reputation that SEO has with some people. I completely understand why people see the industry in that way, but SEO has definitely grown up in the past few years. We’re seeing a fragmentation of the industry, whereas before you may have had a team of SEOs, these days you’ll have technical specialists, content guys, outreach teams, and social media specialists. There is also far more crossover into other digital channels like paid search, email, PR and affiliates.

There is still some way to go, but these days clients are far more aware of what they want and how it should be achieved and better levels of transparency can only be a good thing.

How did you get started in the digital industry, and where might you go from here?
I originally got started back in 2004 when I was working in marketing for a healthcare company. We commissioned someone to rebuild our site do some SEO and paid search for us. After a while I convinced myself I could do a better job, so I started spending a lot of time reading up on it.

This actually started a small addiction of buying my own domains and building fun, but ultimately pointless sites, just to see if I could make a success of them. I guess it’s the geek Everest challenge – because it’s there.

Currently I’m happy where I am, so there aren’t any real plans for change. Having said that I’ve always been fascinated by digital PR and how brands work with blogs and online media. One of my favourite reads recently was Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday who was the Director Of Marketing for American Apparel. It’s a real eye-opener to how online media works.

Do you have any advice for people who want to work in the digital industry?
Ultimately do it because you enjoy it. Much of the work in digital can be long, boring, repetitive and often thankless, so unless you enjoy the challenge you’ll end-up hating it.

If you’re just starting-out then I think the best thing that you can do for prospective employers is to show some initiative and passion. Read blogs, go to conferences, especially when there are excellent free ones like BrightonSEO, start your own blog, manage your own sites, test as much as you can.

Which brands do you think are doing digital well?
I’m a pretty keen cyclist and I love the Wiggle site. I’m a big fan of developing product pages beyond basic information, and Wiggle has done a great job of making its site as useful as possible, with really in-depth descriptions, buyer's guides, FAQs and user reviews. It’s always my first destination when buying anything bike-related.

Firebox has had a really bold redesign recently, I wasn’t sold on it initially, but every time I go back it grows on me. The Pinterest-style layout helps to focus on the products, and it has always been very strong on social engagement.


If you would like a Day In The Life profile then by all means throw your hat into the ring by emailing david.moth@econsultancy.com, and be sure to put your job title in the subject line. PS - I have had plenty of requests from agency folk, so I especially want to hear from brands / client-side people!

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