Ep 04: An Insider’s Guide To Award-Winning SEO Leadership – Interview with John Morabito

Ep 04: An Insider’s Guide To Award-Winning SEO Leadership – Interview with John Morabito

I met John on a panel at the Voice Summit a few years back and was impressed by not only his SEO knowledge (he has picked up a few industry awards) but also the soft skills that he has picked up along the way. In this episode, he shares his insights around how to keep an agency team in sync with each other AND the client to deliver results.  

He also digs into the psychological part of SEO – understanding and speaking to the emotions involved in trying to convince clients to implement SEO improvements:

The clients that are most successful, are energized by keeping it positive. You have to celebrate the victories, you have to note where we have gotten something done. 

John Morabito

A marketer, speaker, and blogger with over 8 years of experience in SEO, PPC, and other digital marketing channels, John Morabito is a fast achiever leading the Stella Rising team with several nominations and awards, including a win from Search Engine Land Awards for best SEO Agency in 2018.

Key Takeaways:

  • How soft skills and team leadership are essential to leading an SEO team and getting the client to implement your recommendations. 
  • How the connection and synergy between the team and client can drive true organizational change and SEO success.
  • Why focusing KPIs are essential to driving change and he talks through how to set them even if you’re not working on an eCommerce site.

Connect with John

Check out the Stella Rising website
Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn

Resources Mentioned:

Asana to keep your client projects organized.
URL Inspect Tool in Google Search Console to ask Google to -recrawl your URLs.

Thank you for listening! 

If you’d like to know more about change-makers in digital marketing, celebrate their wins, and discover how they built a breaking ground career you should subscribe! We’d also love it if you’d share the podcasts you like and leave comments about your experience.


Episode Transcript

Katherine Watier-Ong  [0:02]  

All right, so today we’re talking with John Morabito, who’s the Director of SEO at Stella rising. Thanks for joining us, john.

John Morabito  [0:10]  

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [0:12]  

Do you want to give our folks a little bit of a background about how you got into digital marketing and Seo?

John Morabito  [0:17]  

Yeah, sure. So I actually started out in my career as a graphic designer working for a dental consultant, who basically had dental practice management consulting and inferral product. So it was very much rooted in the direct response marketing world, you know, a lot of postcards and a lot of squeeze pages and landing pages and all sorts of fun stuff like that. And so it was for me as a graphic designer with my very early on exposure to this world of direct response, marketing, direct response, copywriting, and really, indeed, the principles of persuasion, right? This guy, Dr. Tom Moore, it was where I learned about, you know, the principles of influence And all these other things and principles of persuasion from Robert Cialdini. So, like, that’s where I sort of initially got my passion for marketing. And then after that, I left to come to New York City. My wife at the time had moved down here after college, and I started working for a camera shop. So at this camera shop, I was basically doing like flyers and like, print collateral and just like silly stuff, like making pictures for like eBay listings. And eventually, my boss came over to my desk and was like, at this time, I’ve been playing around with SEO in the background. So this was maybe like 2011 or 2010. And he was like, hey, do you know how to make a website? Yeah, you know, I’ve done that before because I’ve done some affiliate marketing and I’ve done some stuff where I was like building you know, websites about fashion and linking out to like, Clickbank stuff. And so I built the website started to market it pretty quickly got some decent revenue. Basically now that camera store has the name that I came up with and the logo that I came up with, like on the front of the building, and so completely was taken over by the headphone store. So that’s audio 46. And they’re doing great now. And so from there, I went into the agency world and really wanted to focus on SEO because as I was sort of leading all of the digital marketing efforts and doing PPC and social and influencer campaigns, there’s even videos of me reviewing headphones out there if you try to find them. You know, I really wanted to focus on SEO. And so I went to at the time what was flying point digital now known as Stella Rising. And that’s where I really sort of dug in as an SEO specialist and sort of worked my way through through the ranks there and now and the SEO director. So yeah, that’s how I got into it. But like many people, it was sort of a circuitous route to the ultimate goal. Right.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [2:54]  

Right. That’s a lot of our stories for sure. So I have been noticing that You’ve had quite a few wins your agency over the last couple of years, got like the best SEO campaign in 2019. You’re the search engine lands best large search, SEO agency in 2018, etc, etc search Personality of the Year, you know, that kind of stuff nominated? So a lot of wins over the last couple years. And I’m just kind of wondering, did you have a certain mix of people on board to help you with the wins? was a bit of luck with the clients you’re working on? Did you implement some processes that you think really led you there?

John Morabito  [3:34]  

Yeah. So it was January 2018, when I took over the team as director. And during that time, and even today, we’re really blessed to have a lot of clients who were really primed for success and many of the clients that we’re working with 2017 2018 2019 we’re still working with so we have really great client retention. And I think because SEO is sort of this compounding value, right? that builds over time, those stories became it’s not like we’re telling the same story about the same stuff that we did. But we very often are being nominated for the same clients, right. And so those stories have continued compounding success, I think is what is attractive to the judges. Or at least like, that’s what makes our entries interesting. I’m not saying that, like everyone should submit the same clients for their award entries, because that’s like the secret sauce. But for us, it’s that where we’re, you know, we’re, we’re hitting, you know, in the case of the campaign that one, which was actually our, a campaign from our Associate Director, Lea Giaquinto, you she had been on like her third year of like, something like, you know, triple digit, you know, mid triple digit, like, year over year growth numbers, right for the third year running. And so just like, continued successes, I think what really impressed judges for many of those campaigns also You know, we’ve done some interesting stuff. I think some of the like, the individual and the team award stuff has to do with, like a tool that we created a couple of years ago that we often wrote about in those and some of the stuff we’ve been doing around helping clients to better understand JavaScript. So I think, you know, it’s really it’s also a combination of like, sort of staying on the bleeding edge and putting forth new ideas that I think judges are looking for. Another thing is, I think that, you know, you mentioned the process, right, so the team has very much been a part of that success. So we’ve always had really amazing folks on the team at Stella rising. Those folks haven’t, you know, it’s the agency routes with those folks that haven’t always been the same people over the last few years. But we’ve been really blessed to keep a really great team of creative thinkers. We’re really, really passionate about the clinic work. And so I think that helps but the other thing too, is like having a standard, a process right so while the team’s changed a bit over the years, we’ve largely followed this sort of similar process. Granted, there have been changes, like when you know, EAT started becoming a thing, we introduced an EAT audit, you know, against the quality raters, guidelines and that type of stuff. But, you know, largely like having a process to follow that has been proven that has given previous clients, a degree of success is something that I feel like has been a key to helping with those awards, but not just the awards, but really client retention and keeping clients happy. So it all sort of ties together.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [6:32]  

So for our listeners who might not all be SEOs, John’s talking about expertise authority and trustworthiness, EAT, which is Google’s guideline for content really matters if you’re more of a site that needs that requirement. So if you’re a site that impacts the health, safety or wellness of your target audience, then it’s more of a priority. But yeah, so that’s kind of interesting to me. I’m still curious. two things. One, it sounds like maybe you’ve got a really great client communication process in place as my guess. So you could constantly telling your clients I’m assuming, you know about new updates or what you’re doing. So they know that they’re providing constant value. That’s my guess. But I’m waiting for you to confirm. And the second part is, I’m kind of curious about how you’re managing staff turnover. So how can you keep the continuity of what you’ve previously done for new people that you’re onboarding because it sounds not shocking because I worked at Ketchum that your team shifted. Some people left, some people came on board, but you were able to deliver the same message to your client. It sounds like So can you tell me a little bit more about both of those like if you have what you think is maybe some sort of a magic mix about client communication. And if you have an onboarding plan for your staff that keeps continuity.

John Morabito  [7:56]  

Okay, yeah. So I want to mention one more thing, because you sort of made me think of it when you mentioned the word communication to clients, which I will touch on, which is the other part of what’s going on with those awards, am I sort of have a secret weapon, which is that. I write in my office and help from our marketing communications team at the Stella rising agency. So we have other people who are helping us to craft those. And so I want to give a shout out to the team who helps us to generate those awards because there’s a lot of work that they put into helping us really shape our story. And we have a lot of great storytellers and stylists. So that’s something I think it’s important, but going back to how we communicate with clients, um, you know, I think, I think sort of the answer to both of those is in this is not like, I feel like I have a very specific vision for what we want both of those things to be and helping to basically make sure that we’re following that is what helps with the continuity. With that said, it’s not like it was entirely my vision, right? So I only took over in 2018. You know, I’m sort of following in the footsteps laid out before in many regards and then adding on my new things. So for us, it really is about, like having that standard of process, we have sort of a curriculum of deliverables that we offer our clients. And we, you know, we improve these over time, and we do things that are sort of less proactive and more reactive like a client’s doing something new, and we want to be able to support that. But by and large, we’re following the standard of process, which again, has been, you know, proven to be pretty successful for clients. So I think having that standard of the process having a sort of process for documenting it, which we have, we have like an intranet and we have a lot of stuff going on in Asana to make sure that we’re communicating different deliverables back and forth. You know, basically, it’s like an organic growing thing, right? It’s always like, who did the last one and what is the you know, what’s the unique interesting finding that you added to this standard or process so that we can sort of bring that into the next clients? And then it’s just it’s a lot of, you know, time training, right? Like you wanna you have to spend time making sure that the work is, you know, it’s having that continuity. Right. We’ve been really lucky to be able to keep a lot of the same members of the team. But you know, we’ve had some people, obviously, over the last three years, come in and out. So yeah, I think that’s what I would have to say on the training and sort of the continuity, but now. Yeah.

Jim Keeney  [10:35]  

And so just so that we’re all kind of on the same page level, do you mind describing your process? So client come to you clients kind of neophyte in SEO practices, what is that process to get them to the point where they’re fully functional, and then what are the next things that You’re doing in your successful campaigns?

John Morabito  [11:02]  

Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, so I mean, like many agencies, we do things like keyword research on-page optimizations, technical auditing, I think, a sort of principle that we have or sort of like a, perhaps a unique approach is while some agencies might sort of start out with like a big tech audit and say, we need to figure out where all the holes are, and then we’re going to start plugging them up. We really start with, you know, unless there are any major obvious discoverability issues and like Google’s just not able to crawl this website, then we start making content improvements. We look at what are the right keywords that we need to be targeting, what are the pages that that map to get those keywords onto the page because that’s where we’re going to start to see improvement soonest. When we start to see those improvements, that’s when we’re able to get clients to buy in to do things that are much more painful on their end. So when you’ve updated, you know, some category level title tags, and all of a sudden, we went from being page two to page one for some valuable keywords for that client. That’s sort of a different, you know, like the place for you to start framing a conversation around something more significant that they need to do, right? You’ve at that point almost proved out that your work can be powerful, right? And now when you’re telling them, hey, you’re gonna need to grab one of your devs for 10 hours to fix this thing. It’s, it’s a little bit less crazy-sounding right.

Jim Keeney  [12:32]   

So that’s interesting because it follows on with the last conversation we had. What you’re saying is essentially find that one first. Easy, straightforward success.

John Morabito  12:45  

Yes.

Jim Keeney  [12:45]  

get that one that gets you kind of the initial buy-in and also it also demonstrates the AHA right. So the customer then goes, Oh, okay, now I see how the pieces connect together. And I’ve got you know, I’ve got an understanding of What the impact will be on me.

John Morabito  [13:01]  

Yeah, yeah, you’re no, you’re absolutely right. And I think that’s, I mean, that moment, I think even starts to happen when we do our call to review our keyword research and you know, sometimes our keyword mapping, where it’s like, Hey, we talked about how you guys, you want to rank for these keywords. And, you know, I think we can all agree the best approach to rank for x keyword would be a page about x, right? But looking at your website, we do not have this page. Yeah. And so it’s like, they go, Oh, so you mean to tell me if I create a page about that keyword, we might rank for it. And like, in many cases, we’re dealing with, you know, enterprise brands, sometimes household names, and it’s like, oh, indeed, like, if you just simply create that page domain authority like yeah, like it’s actually quite likely that we’re going to start to see some ranking there. Very often, it’s, you know, it’s coming in and finding that that alignment of product offering different attributes of the product, what customers are actually searching, and then re-envisioning an E-commerce client’s taxonomy based on that. And that’s kind of like a lot of the magic that happens in the initial phase of the engagement for us with, you know, many of our clients. And that is often like you’d say, that aha moment where, you know, a marketing manager might have a harder time wrapping their head around something like why the fact that their site is built on a, you know, basically like a single page application. And it’s like, you know, JavaScript, and it takes Google. Yeah. Like, that’s, that’s harder stuff for them to wrap their head around then, like, in some cases, right? Because it’s not their realm of expertise. It’s not that they don’t, they’re not smart people. But basically, the, you know, hey, a page about this thing that you want to rank for, is  like a good starting learning, right? So we’re always sort of educating clients and we’re taking them along this journey of, of basically becoming SEOs themselves, right and really starting to understand how to do SEO And so like when you start to learn SEO, right, you start from the basics right? You find keywords that matter, you figure out how to put them on the page. And indeed, that’s sort of what we’re doing with our clients.

Jim Keeney  [15:11]  

And so when you’re doing that initial interaction with your clients, do you find that they just know their keywords? Or is it competition research? Or, you know, what’s the best way to get them to focus on an actual actionable list of keywords?

John Morabito  [15:32]  

I would say that, um, you know, there is, what’s important in that process would be collaboration. So we very often will show them, you know, what are the keywords that you’re presently ranking for, your competitors are ranking for and we like to make sure that we’re targeting things that are what I sort of call like, adequately represented across different ranking categories. So we have enough keywords that are maybe brand or defend and protect really high ranking positions, we have enough keywords that are in low hanging fruit positions that we expect to see improving rate within the near term. We have enough sort of long term opportunity keywords. And then maybe we have some aspirational keywords that are things that are very high volume. And those aspirational keywords are very often the ones that the C suite are like, yeah, we want to rank for that. Right. Um, and you know, it’s more of like an education lesson of, well, we have to start with these keywords right, and then we’re gonna build relevance around these topics and, and sort of, you know, leading people into it that way.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [16:36]  

So related to the keyword research in the collaboration with the client, do you have a set of keywords that you show them so you don’t get the eyes glazed over? Sounds like you’re definitely bucketing them which I’m sure it helps. But do you also limit the number you show them initially? And then show them some again later or something?

John Morabito  [16:55]  

Yeah, something along those lines Yeah, yeah. We basically know, we present our clients a limited set of keywords but we also like to show them all the keyword research that we did. So very often we’re looking at 50,000 keywords right and we deliver that in our keyword research process, which I think, you know, is I don’t really know too much about other agencies’ processes to be honest. Right. But that sounds like a lot of keywords to me. Yep. Um, but yeah, of course, we narrow it down. So I always sort of, I say, I like to sound like a middle school algebra teacher, and I’m always telling people to show your work, right. Like, I want to see how we got to that answer. And so I think it’s important to not only show the focal point of the theory, research, but research itself.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [17:50]  

So also related to that.

No, my question is gone.

Jim Keeney  [17:57]  

So um, so let’s, let’s kind of Walk on from there, right? So that’s kind of the initial thing. So you’ve got that initial win that gets them the buy-in. Now you’re starting to get into more strategy and bigger questions. Can you kind of move forward from those initial steps to working with a client that you’ve had for a long period of time? And how your future sinking so cuz because you get to a certain plateau where it’s like Alright, now what we’ve got, you know, we’ve got our funnels working great, we’ve got our SEO, you know, we’ve got our authority established. What is that ideation now look like as you’re moving forward?

John Morabito  [18:40]  

Yeah, sure. Um, so you know that that is we’ve had a lot of discussions on the team about sort of, I guess, I said, we’ve got the standard of process, but then you sort of do those deliverables over the course of a year engagement, let’s say and then it’s kind of like, well, now what right? So many of the things that we do can be sort of segmented into smaller market categories, keyword categories. So we might do like a on-page competitive analysis, looking at what’s going on across the competitive set the core competitive set that is presented to us either by the client or something that we determine based on who’s ranking for certain terms. But let’s say that the client launches a new product line. Six months, nine months down the road, we might create a specific deliverable for them around that product line looking at how do others talk about that particular thing. So for us, there’s really always something to do so long as our brands are constantly evolving, which literally all of them are. There’s always a new product, there’s always a new initiative, there’s always a new service. And so much of our sort of leader SEO becomes truly like a partnership where we’re supporting any of the initiatives that they have whilst also putting forth proactive deliverables that help to push them to greater levels of authority, better content, growing the content on the site and these types of things.

Jim Keeney  [20:05]  

So let’s ask a quirky question. What is the worst things that you’ve encountered when you first start onboarding a client? What are some of the things that you run into? That you’re just like, Oh, really? They’re doing that? What? What’s going on here? Um,

John Morabito  [20:26]  

well, alright, so for onboarding, I would say we’ve definitely come into a number of sites that Come on, and if you spend no indexed, so they’re like, what’s going on with our website? We just migrated. We don’t know what’s going on. You know, we had all this traffic, and now it went away. And we feel like we need to hire an SEO agency. And, you know, in those cases, I always have to tell them like, hey, look, it’s just like this thing, but like, there’s a lot more that we can do to help you. And so we’ve been able to, like convince some of those clients by sort of giving that freebie away almost being transparent because I don’t want to take on someone just took like, okay, here you go, you’re all set. But basically, yeah, so that’d be one of the more sort of like, you know, facepalm type moments, right? Um, the other would be, maybe not an onboarding thing. But you know, we’ve had clients kind of nonchalantly be like, Oh, yeah, we’re doing this, like reputation management thing. And this is a client who’s no longer with the agency. But you know, it turned out that, the client, had no idea what they were sort of getting themselves into, they were just sold this service by a company who said that they were going to help push down some results that they didn’t want to see in search, and ended up that what they were doing was creating, you know, a massive blog network. And so it was actually able to like, pull down all of the referring domains from something like, I don’t know 40-50 domains, and I put them all into Power BI and I created basically like a Like, I don’t even know what the diagram would be called, but basically visualizing the connection between these domains. And wouldn’t you know, it literally creates a web. Like it’s the craziest thing to see. Right? But it’s like, Oh my god, it looks like a wheel. Right. And so, you know, that was one of the moments where I was like Oh, God, I can’t believe that’s what I found.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [22:25]  

Yeah, hold on for a second. I’m gonna let the dog out.

Jim Keeney  [22:32]  

Yeah, so where I’d like to kind of dive in a little more after this is what differentiates the clients that you really love working with. So, you know, as consultants, we always have this experience, right where, you know, we encounter 10 clients, and, and three of them we’re like really excited to be working with and the rest were like, it’s gonna be that again. So tell me about your, you know, tell me about some of the experiences of your best clients and what distinguishes them, what do they, what do they do that’s different from other clients? And why is that so important?

John Morabito  [23:17]  

Yeah, well, well, first, I love all of my clients.

Jim Keeney  [23:20]  

of course.

John Morabito  [23:21]  

But you know, I would say that the ones and even the ones who might, you know, maybe give you that initial reaction of like, ooh, I don’t know if this is gonna go great. I find that I always learn from them. And so ultimately, I really enjoy working with all of them. But the clients who I would say see the most success out of our partnership, are those that really sort of hold up their end of the bargain in terms of pushing things through organizationally, right. So the work that we do only is impactful if we get it implemented. So client teams that are really successful at taking our recommendations, putting them into the dev queue, pushing those along, making sure that they get implemented. You know, being sort of bold and taking risks and doing, you know, things that are creative with us are definitely the ones that have seen the most success out of SEO. Um, yeah.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [24:25]  

Do you think there are champions internally that you know of initially or are you seeking them out and sort of giving them extra love and support? So they become internal champions or a little bit of both?

John Morabito  [24:39]  

You mean, within the client organizations?

Katherine Watier-Ong  [24:41]  

Yes. Within the client organizations Yeah.

John Morabito  [24:42]  

Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely right. So very often, we’re working with one primary point of contact. And as I said earlier, we really believe in a partnership approach. So we’re trying to become almost like an extension of the team. In doing so we’ve really tried to become you know, No that person’s place to go for not only SEO but really anything digital marketing, right? We try to really support our clients in any way that we can. Um But um, it’s usually that person who then champions SEO within the organization. So through that time working with them directly through that time sort of teaching them about SEO and the way that things work. But then even in the cases where we have like multiple client teams, I would say that you have to also want one of the things about enterprise SEO that’s different than than when you’re working with, you know, smaller brands where you might only have one point of contact because less red tape to get through, is you sort of have to learn who your person is for each thing, right? So you have to build relationships within the organization with different people to I don’t want to sound like an opportunist but like to basically get different things out of people, right. So if you’re, you know, talking to the art department about your tech fix That’s not going to get you very far. So you have to know who are the right people organizationally to bring certain things to. Because sometimes you might not have one sort of the point of contact, who’s holistically owning everything. You basically’re the holistic point of contact for SEO and everyone needs to sort of, you need to then disseminate that information organizationally. So that’s something that we’ve gotten very good at over the years.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [26:25]  

Do you ever proactively either draft materials that can be shared internally or proactively ask for some time on somebody else’s calendar in a different department? Our last interview with Dan Shure, he had actually a few insightful moments when I asked him this type of question, because he worked at some enterprise level organizations, I’m just kind of curious about the getting into the weeds of Sure. Remember how you grew those relationships particularly?

John Morabito  [26:53]  

I would say that, you know, I’m thinking of one particular case with a brand that we started basically doing a training session. This is where I was going out to Pennsylvania for a major manufacturer of residential and commercial lighting switches. And we were doing, you know, SEO 101 trainings. So getting like 30 people throughout the organization in a room and teaching them about SEO. Then we did copywriting training so really specific training around copywriting. So I think that yes, training and basically preparing lessons or preparing materials to sort of teaching the client teams about SEO can be really successful in terms of like getting that buy-in across teams organizationally, because very often it takes a sort of like if you’re talking about an enterprise, it takes mobilization of a large number of people. Right, like in this particular brand, the one thing has to go through 20 people. And so you really kind of need all 20 of those people to understand what the objective of SEO is and what you’re initiatives are and you know where you’re trying to go with it.

Jim Keeney  [28:04]  

comes back to corporate communication to that to that link with the, with the customer and also communication internally, right.

John Morabito  [28:12]  

Yeah.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [28:14]  

I’m actually curious about the technical and I know after you get past the content, you probably do have some technical fixes. You’re encouraging these folks.

John Morabito  [28:21]  

Oh, sure. Of course. Yeah, we absolutely do do a technical audit. I’m actually sorry not to have you asked me that one more time. My computer’s about to die. Sorry. Hang on. I have to go get a cord. I did not. Well prepared.

Jim Keeney  [28:43]  

There will be some cutting and pasting with this one.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [28:47]  

No, I think he’s on WiFi. Yeah.

I stopped recording, but then we’d get two slices. I’d rather just

Jim Keeney  [29:09]  

better leave it the way it is. And then, yeah, take your time.

John Morabito  [29:14]  

So while I’ve already sort of screwed up our flow here, can you ask the date? The question that you asked about Dan Shure is, I went direction. I am okay with my answer there. But I want a different direction than I was thinking like something came into my mind. And I was trying to work my way there. Sure. Maybe if you asked me the question again, I’ll remember it.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [29:32]  

Sure. So as you’re working on selling through SEO in larger enterprise organizations, and I asked this because I work with quite a few to when we, on one of our previous interviews and other SEO had a very unique way of making himself available to the larger organization, which I thought was really different and new that I hadn’t heard about, and so I’m kind of curious, what is your process to help the organizational change that needs to happen in these enterprise-level organizations, do you provide trainings or materials or time? Like, what can you tell us a little bit more about what you’ve seen, become successful with your organizations that you’re working with.

John Morabito  [30:20]  

So in addition to the trainings that I just mentioned, one of the things that we also do is very early on in the engagement we call, we basically ask anyone on the client team who handles PR to a meeting. during that meeting, we basically explained to them the connection and synergy between SEO and PR. So many, very many times our client teams are working with some of the, you know, anywhere from some of the biggest PR agencies to just like, you know, a person in the brand who’s in charge of the PR communications. And so during that meeting, were telling them, you know, look like here are sort of the shared objectives of what we’re doing here, right? Here are some of the common pitfalls that we see with what PR agencies typically end up going out and generating and what we’re looking to have generated. Right. And for many times, our clients that come back to, like beauty brands that are being linked to on, you know, Derm store support, and like all of these affiliate sites, where the publishers are really sort of adverse to directly linking to the client, right. And so we have to get really creative about ways that we’re going to make publishers want to link directly to the brand website, that it’s not purely about just the product, right? And so that means creative content, creative pitches, that means getting very involved with the PR team. It also at times means sort of having the client reframe the discussion with their PR team, which is, you know, we love placements, but we really love placements that point directly back to our website, right? Because very often the client comes to a PR and says, you know, we want visibility we want mentioned, we want placements on high monthly average view websites, right, that is gonna dry visibility for our brands. They’re not necessarily thinking we want links, but ultimately some of the brands that are sort of like maybe serendipitously or deliberately, very successful with digital PR and backlinks are really through these types of PR initiatives. Right? And so it’s sort of connecting the dots and saying, Look, what you guys are doing is ultimately what we’re trying to do. Right? You hear SEOs talk about all the time, like creating, you know, interesting content pitches and going out to meet it’s like, but we also have a whole other discipline. Meanwhile, there’s these other teams that are completely specialized to do that, right. You’ve got the Rolodex, they know that editor. They’ve talked to them. So why are you You know, trying to and I’m not saying that we don’t do any outreach, but like, why start in the trenches when you can go to the people who are already on the frontlines and start to work with them to try to foster those relationships with publishers, right. In many cases, they already have those relationships. So it’s about connecting the dots there for us with like, the PR and SEO as sort of being a shared goal type, you know, thing.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [33:28]  

So is there anything, trying to get in the head of a PR person? Because I started to catch on some very curious about your response to this question. So what is it that you think is driving in an aha moment for the PR practitioner to want to help you? Are you getting someone internally to put some pressure on what their deliverable should be? Are you like, What’s that carrot that gets them to start helping you beyond just educating them, educating them as well? Right, I did plenty of that at Ketchum. But that did nothing to change their behavior. So I’m curious about the behavior change. Do you have a little tip there?

John Morabito  [34:07]  

Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to make the sound easy, because it’s really not because very often the publishers, it’s not even the PR agencies or person fault, it’s that the publishers are super averse to linking to things that don’t have monetary benefit for them. So take that for what you will. Right. But that kind of means that like, I don’t know, like the linker audience very much pay to play. Yeah. But, um, but you know, I think that it really is about getting the client to say this is what I want, right? And so like, we have a direct line to the client, we don’t offer PR, right. So the PR is a separate agency. And so, so long as the client is sort of taking you know, we say to the client links are important to you, and then the client turns to their PR agency and says links are important to me. And that’s when links become important to them. Some of you know, and again, it doesn’t necessarily mean like a seismic shift, but it’s important for the client to communicate that to their vendor the PR vendor, that this was part of my objective with you, this is what I would like, this is what would make me happy. And if you’re dealing with, uh, you know, like, assuming that the PR agency likes to keep their clients, right, they’re gonna try to act on what the client is saying makes them happy, right, and as part of what their goal is, and I’m not advising people to go fire their PR agency if they’re not getting them lots of backlinks. But you know, if you say I would like to find ways to get links directly back to my website, instead of all these affiliate websites that sell my products, um, you know, they should be open to that they should try to work with you on how to do that, I think, right. One of the ways that we’ve seen clients or seen PR teams work with us to help better communicate, save us time. is even under weekly digest basically saying like, does this link directly to the website? Right? And so once we have that conversation, sure, not everything went directly to the website. But now all of a sudden we start to see, well, maybe not all of a sudden, but now we’re starting to see, you know, there are clearly more links directly to the website. They’re trying, right. They’re doing their best. And that’s all we ask for. So, so yeah, that’s kind of how that goes.

Jim Keeney  [36:24]  

Now, does that drive Creative Conversations with the customer? Because part of what we’re doing in the marketing world is we’re coming up with creative campaigns, and we’re starting to think about, you know, unique ways to really excite people about the organization or the product or what have you. And, and those sorts of creative endeavors lead to richer backlinking.

John Morabito  [36:52]  

Exactly. Yeah. So an example of that right now. So that’s still arising. We have, you know, the same sort of marketing communications Team well, actually not the same thing. So parts of the same team. Basically, we have a research and Insights Team. So our research and insights team uses some of the industry’s biggest tools to do research. But also we have our own proprietary research community called glimmer. So we actually have a pool of like 25,000 women who we can tap for poll questions. And so sometimes what we’ll do is we’ll actually create data-driven visuals for our clients based on these polls that will launch to our own community of you know, again, 25,000, everyday women asking them questions. In one example, we created a map of the United States asking women what, what hairstyle was going to be sort of like their look for for 2020 or actually maybe 2019. And then basically, like, depicted that regionally and found that there were some definite differences regionally from like the West Coast and the East Coast and stuff like that. So I would say that, you know, trying to use data-driven visuals where there’s something surprising or unique. I can’t remember who wrote it. But this is sort of based on an article called the trust formula. And you know, people have been doing this for ages. But I think this guy was the first one to sort of put like a good catchy name to it. But you know, sort of sort of like data driven visuals, not necessarily infographics is something that we’re using as a method to create rich stories that our client PR teams can then take out and try to promote, wherein there’s no other logical alternative, but to link back to the client website to the study to the graphic to the brand, right? You’re not going to like the link to the product you know, Nordstrom shop or whatever, because you’re talking about this map. And so I think it’s having a creative approach, having a story that your customers want to hear. arming your PR team with that creative story is part of the recipe for how to make that work.

Jim Keeney  [38:59]  

Does video and audio play a role in that as well?

John Morabito  [39:04]  

You know, that’s a great question. So I would say that absolutely. But that’s not something that we have done a ton with, interestingly enough, not a lot of, well. So a lot of our brands do produce, maybe not for backlinking or creating links, or using it as sort of like a linkable asset, but a lot of our brands being that their beauty brands do create tutorial videos. And so one of the things that we’ve had some success with there is basically reappropriating this, right, so taking a tutorial video, creating a blog post out of that, um, you know, taking the video and uploading it to YouTube, because it was like natively uploaded on the website, it’s spreading it out throughout the ecosystem, you know, basically taking that transcript and again, sort of turning that into a blog post and treating that as a landing page. So we’ve done some stuff in sort of taking quiet video assets and then creating an SEO landing page out of that, but not much in the way of using them for linkable assets just yet.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [40:04]  

Okay, so I’m kind of curious about the persuasion part, because I’m still back on the fact that you’re on purpose, creating relationships with different folks within your client organization to lead organizational change to be more effective, etc. And we haven’t talked about technical yet. And Jim’s got a technical background. He builds websites. Yep. So I’m really curious, I know you have to deliver a technical audit. So it was really challenging to get your technical audits, the pieces of it implemented, and I know you prioritize, we all do. But is there something else that you think you’re maybe you don’t even get to do this across the board? Because the personality on the other side I’ve found really impacts how effective you might be. So the developer team and whether or not somebody sort of gets it, I think, in my experience, changes whether you get stuff push through, but is there anything that you’ve noticed across all your clients where it’s like the magic mix that helps a bit to get those fixes pushed through.

John Morabito  [41:05]  

Yeah, so I can talk a little bit of our processor. So so as you mentioned, right, prioritization is a big thing. So, when we come out of our technical audit, um, you know, for us, it’s like, the big 40 page Word document type thing. At the back of it, we have sort of a table. And then we basically take that table, we put it into Excel and that Excel or, you know, Google Doc, right? It’s essentially used as a project management tool between us and the client. Within that Excel, we have what is the task? So what is the thing that we’ve assigned? Well then have some notes about it. So maybe it is something like and so I think the reason we have the notes is that context is important. Very often, developers are going to look at this, then they’re going to come back to it three weeks later, they’re not SEO. So the stuff that you’re saying kind of bear’s some repeating And bear’s some need for context. So let’s say I say something like you start using pre-rendering or move to server-side rendering, right. And that’s something that we recommend coming out of a technical audit. Well, in the notes section, I’m going to explain to them why this is beneficial, right? So we’re going to say something as concise as possible, like, you know, um, client-side rendering can impact page load times as well as Google’s crawl rate for your website. The purpose here is to make discoverability easier, right? And so we’re giving the developer a little bit of context. And that might not have been the perfect explanation, but like, we are giving the developer some context as to why we’re doing this thing. Then we’re going to have the prioritization. So in this particular case, let’s say that this really was so we have a client website right now, were a combination of search spraying and magento is causing an issue whereas the search spring sort of like kicks in the pages like timing out. And it’s just like all the entire body of the category page is not coming into Google mobile-friendly testing tool, the way that rankings are behaving, I’m pretty sure that real Googlebot is not seeing it. It’s not coming into any of our testing tools. So, you know, there’s, there’s something going on here because of this, basically, you know, client side rendering. And so we’ll say that this is a high priority item, right? And then we’re going to say that, you know, the estimated impact. So this is something that I think comes from having done a lot of these and, you know, you have to, there’s clearly some, some estimating happening here. But judging by the severity of the situation, like in this particular case, I know that fixing that thing is going to have a high impact. And so I actually will do a scale of high medium low impact. We’re not going to tell you this is going to increase your traffic by 25%.Some time clients have asked us for that type of granularity, we’ll do our best, but I think it’s sort of an exercise in guessing. Right? Um, to sort of, say the percent that you’re going to see out of it. But something like, you know, fixing this thing where Google, which really cannot see our category, right, can’t see, this is a category page, but I can’t see the products, right. So like, how, how much is it going to love that page? Right, this is something we’re clearly fixing, this is going to have a high impact. And the last thing that we’ll do is, you know, just having been through a lot of these fixes with different developers will give our best guess as to the difficulty for the dev. Now this can be a tricky subject, because we’re not devs. But we know generally that, um, you know, let’s say that we have 50,000 internal links throughout blog posts that are to all different pages on the website, because we migrated the website, and then you know, there’s all these blog posts that point internally To things, and it’s like in the body of the HTML, but no one ever went in and fixed it. Right? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s going to take a long time. Even if you’re doing Find and Replace, right, that’s gonna stink and it’s gonna, it’s gonna be painful. And so we know that that’s a lot of it’s a lot of time, versus like, Hey, we noticed on the canonical, you’re not including a trailing slash, and say, okay, we know that you’re going into a page template. And like, yeah, maybe there’s some extenuating circumstances that make this sort of difficult, but by and large, this is going to be a fairly straightforward fix that you should be able to execute in a minimal amount of time. So with a combination of a rough estimation of how long something is going to take, the expected impact, and what we assign as the priority, we can very easily rank and file these things. to, you know, the order in which we wanted to dev or the client team to file them for tickets. From there, it becomes our job. I always sort of explained to people coming onto the team, that your job is at least 20% project Manager and cheerleader. Right. So every time we get on the phone, it’s not just like, Hey, did you do that thing? It’s like, wow, if you don’t do it, we’re not going to see any impact, right? Like you have to, you have to keep positive, right? You have to celebrate the victories you have to note of where we have gotten something done. And really, you know, if as politely and as positively as you can try to push things along. And very often, again, this is where it goes back to the clients that are successful, right? The clients that are most successful, are energized by that they push things through, and you know, and even the clients that are not super thrilled with big to do lists and get some of that stuff done. Like because we’re prioritizing things. Even if we knock off the first two things like and we’re moving kind of slow. We’re making big progress because we’re starting with the biggest things. And then you know, like I said, like we’re also looking at the website holistically. We’re not just focused on the technical aspect. of SEO. So all the while each month we’re giving them technical content and off site based deliverables. So we’re moving the needle forward all over the place, even if like we’re not just like racking through all of the technical fixes, we’re still able to move the site forward. I mean, I think I speak for many SEO is when you’ll do a technical audit, and there’ll be things a year later that you’re still looking at that you’ve recommended to fix. And it’s not that those things wouldn’t be impactful. It just doesn’t mean that you can’t be impactful elsewhere. So I think also, sometimes it’s about not getting hung up, right. So project managing that list or pushing that list through still being a cheerleader, but then not just like stopping there, right? It’s always about that. What’s next and you got to be putting forth proactive ideas. Okay, well, maybe if this is tough for your developer, can we do this instead? Or you know, alright, so I said I wanted you to build out a category with all of these products, but I noticed you have this page template, could we rescind that page template so sometimes it’s also about like getting a little bit creative and, and trying to understand like, once you’re pushing all these things through, if you’re, you know, you’re pushing on one of the stones and it’s not moving, it’s kind of trying to figure out like, what can How can I reframe the Ask here in a way that maybe I can get it through?

Jim Keeney  [48:16]  

Well, and remaining positive is a really important point. Because you think so yeah, you know, you have your weekly meetings or what have you. Yeah, want people to actually get to those meetings and want to be at those meetings? Right, constantly battering them, forget it.

Yeah, that’s a piece of advice I need to take.

John Morabito  [48:37]  

Yep, you want people to look forward to those meetings. You know, I always see it as a good sign when clients tell us, you know, hey, thanks, john. This was really useful when we hang up a call even when it’s like, you know, giving them their to-do list right. So, I think there are ways and I’ve and I’m certainly more early on in my career, right? I  can remember times where I was sort of the, you know, the tasks Master, right? So I say these things from experience, right? I’ve learned, you know how, you know, clients not like any of the clients at the thing. But you know, like you get better results out of it, right? You get better, you get sort of better feedback and better vibes out of people. When, it’s more like, Hey, did you get this thing done? And they’re like, no, don’t worry about it. We’ll get it done. But I’ll ask you about it next week again, okay.

Jim Keeney  [49:26]

I need to steal that voice right there.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [49:27]  

Um, have you ever shared success metrics with your development team? I asked this because I did that once. And it seemed like it really moved the needle. I had a client that had a web platform that was very hesitant to do anything. And they had, it’s crawl trap. And I got them to fix that one thing, which I knew would be the big mover and when I tried to increase, they were like, a bit floored frankly. So I’m just kind of wondering if you have a regular process of doing that and you just do it with the tough cases.

John Morabito  [50:01]  

Yeah, um, there’s a cut, there’s like a couple of devs, I have in mind that I’ve shown some results like that, too, I’ll tell you, that’s maybe something I’m going to take away is that we should probably be doing that more often. For many of our client teams, we have the developer on the call, right? So like, you know, we probably work with about 50% Enterprise-ish or very big brands. And then, you know, a lot of fast growth emerging brands. So not small brands, but brands that maybe do have just that one person. So on the other half of it, right, we’ve very often got a team of like the marketing director, the developer, someone on the content side, maybe even someone involved with social, sometimes somewhat involved with PR, so we might have three to five people on a client call. And sometimes those are the developers. So sometimes the developers are getting the monthly reports and we’re hearing you know, they’re sort of part of the story where we’re saying like, hey, last month we implemented this thing. Now we’re seeing these increases for these keywords related to those pages that we want. So I think that, you know, to the extent that we can right? or listen to advice for other folks is like, try to get those developers onto your monthly reporting calls. And then you don’t have to maybe make like a special trip of it. Right. And then they’re for, you know, they’re more involved in the process. And then, you know, I have like, what we call initiative based reporting. So we did something big, like what you were talking about Katherine with, like, crawl trap, right? So we discovered not necessarily well actually, there was a crawl trap in there too. But just a number of index stability issues. We made some changes and went from having like 25,000 pages indexed to 75,000 pages indexed like the next day. And so that was, like, you know, instantly show this to the developer, like, Hey, Mike, the work that you did here, man, like really, really helped us, like, thank you so much, please keep it up. You know, try to cheer him along for the remainder of that list, but I’ll tell you, you know, in that particular developer’s instance, that’s one of those developers we have a really great relationship with. I think he was impressed and happy with the results. That guy was gonna keep, you know, trying as hard as he could regardless. But, um, but I do think it’s important to share that type of stuff for sure.

Jim Keeney  [52:15]  

Well, speaking from my perspective, development often is an afterthought. And it really needs to be a forethought. Because they really are part of the overall equation, especially when you later on in your maturity cycle, you’re getting into the flow of the individual within the page. And that becomes a lot of, you know, both the individual and the crawler within age. And that gets into a lot of real subtle things. And we take for granted the technical people know those details, but they don’t. So, you know, being able to wrap them in as the forethought and say, okay, exactly what you said this change has an impact for this reason. And letting the developer then discover how they can start to anticipate your needs and get there ahead of you is a really good journey.

John Morabito  [53:10]  

Yeah, definitely.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [53:12]  

So I’m kind of curious because we chatted a little bit, you’ve got a couple of clients that are not strictly e-commerce and I’m kind of curious how you’ve been able to convince them to make large changes on the site that you know, are going to be beneficial when you can’t tie it back to revenue.

John Morabito  [53:30]  

Yeah, so,, you know, for for those clients, I think it’s always really important to figure out what types of KPIs they’re most interested in very often for CPG clients when we first engaged, they might not actually even have what we consider like appropriate goals set up on the website. So they might have a store finder. They might have a newsletter sign up, but they’re not really measuring these things as a KPI for success for their website. There may be just looking at traffic, right. And so we sort of call those types of like soft conversions or goal completions, you know, our primary KPI for those types of campaigns. Ultimately, as a performance-driven agency, we’re looking to drive revenue for our clients. And so we try to stay away from focusing on communicating the benefit of our work based on keyword rankings, or even honestly, traffic, right? It’s largely about that revenue number. So if we can’t talk about revenue, so can we talk about how many people went to a store finder? And is that an indicator of how many people might then go to a store and buy, you know, your kombucha or something like that? Um, so I say that it’s making sure that you have those types of soft goals or even just, you know, soft conversions, if you will, that you can talk about look if we, right, okay, so, right now we’re getting this many sessions off the pages that we’ve built and of those sessions We ended up with this many store finder completions. So if we were to build out this new section of pages that I’m recommending, based on the average click-through rate for ranking One, two and three, and the average monthly search volume and our conversion rate to a find a store, building out this content could result in 50, more store finder visits per month, right. And so it’s like the same way that we would sort of forecast and tie our revenue back to something for an e-commerce website using basically forecasting through the, you know, through the different ranking positions with keyword monthly search volume, and a set of keywords that we’re going after for let’s say, a set of pages, right. If it’s more of like a technical fix, and that’s something where, you know, we could we could do some similar estimations and say all right, you know, we we believe that doing this fix is going to lead to a 25% increase in traffic that 25% percent increase in traffic would equate to this many more newsletter signups this many store finder completions For some of our more advanced clients, they are even sharing daily sales data. So for some of our clients who are in, let’s say, for, you know, some of the major retail stores. Part of our mission is also to drive to that retail store. And so we get back sales data. And sometimes what we’re doing is basically tying lift in the traffic. Very often it’s more things like our display campaigns or other, like other paid channel campaigns. But we can do the same thing with SEO tying back increases in monthly search volume or increasing demand for the client website and then people going into the store and actually making purchases.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [56:40]  

Awesome. So that was a great answer. I’m actually also really curious since we asked this question just about every podcast, how are you getting closer to your clients’ customers? So what kind of data are you using? How are you making sure that you’re developing content that you know is going to resonate with them, especially with every I think we know about how Google personalized and uses searchers’ journeys and that kind of stuff. I’m wondering if you’ve pivoted your strategy, in any way with a lot of the most recent Google announcements around how smart they are about your target audience.

John Morabito  [57:14]  

Um, I don’t know if it was necessarily, To be honest, a response to any of the more recent stuff. But really, I think for us, there’s been a desire to better understand who is searching the keywords that we’re targeting. And so one of the things that we’ve started to do is use um, you know, I very often even going and stepping out of the audience discussion and have been partnering a lot with our PPC team, right? So looking at what we call a co-optimization, audit, understanding the synergies between those two marketing channels where there is sort of give and take between, let’s say, branded search. And so through our partnership, or SEO teams partnership with our SEM team, one of the things that I’ll do is sometimes look at, let’s say we’re working with a brand that Something like helps businesses to create their formations, right. So I’ll look at a phrase like, LLC, which maybe we’re bidding against in PPC. And I’ll set up a segment in Google Analytics. So you could basically go into segments and add new segments and set up a condition of advertising section keyword equals, yeah, right, whatever keyword, you know, that you guys are bidding on. So the thinking here is that while many of us are probably saying, well, I never click ads, and so I am a different person. Right? That’s probably true. But this is the closest we can get where let’s say, you know, 45,000 people per month are searching LLC. Um, you know, your audience is encapsulated within the demographics that are present there, the interest categories, the affinity categories that you can see through Google Analytics are very likely going to overlap with the organic side of that audience. Even though we’re talking about people who clicked a paid ad. Again, the people who click a paid ad might be slightly different, but it is, you know, it’s what we have, right? If anyone’s aware of an SEO tool out there that gives you demographic data more accurate than this, let me know. So we’re basically looking at, you know, what are the interest categories? What are the affinity categories for people searching particular keywords, and then we look at how we can build a content strategy around that. Right. So in the case of LLC, right, one of the other interests and affinity categories is you see that people are in the market for real estate, which makes perfect sense, someone’s building a business, they’re doing a formation, they’re, you know, they’re starting an office, right? And so you can maybe tap into that by writing a blog post about considerations for selecting an office or, you know, that was a terrible working title, but, you know, something along those lines, so that’s one of the ways that we’re using that type of keyword demographic data, or even just looking at maybe your own like interest category data, but then like looking at, you know, who would from a from a gender and from an age perspective Who is searching these terms? Does that differ for nonprofit versus LLC? You know, we actually see slightly more women searching for nonprofit in a slightly younger age category than we do searching for LLC, LLC, generally, you know, older, generally male searchers for that term. And so you can, you know, not even generally it’s more like that one I think, was more like 50-50. But then nonprofit had actually more of a tilt. So you can see sort of interesting things in the data, where, you know, it might be different keyword to keyword, you might have more people have a certain age group searching for something. And that’s something I think is interesting that we’re starting to play with more and more now.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [1:00:43]  

Awesome, that was a great answer.

Okay, so I think we’re getting near the end. And so you’ve mentioned quite a few tips and tactics that you’ve used to get to that win, but are there any others? There’s a resource that you’d like to share with our listeners. that you think would be really helpful?

John Morabito  [1:01:02]  

Mmm hmm. Yeah. So, I don’t want to give a lame answer. But I would say that like one of the places that, um, I sort of ran out of episodes, but last year, I learned the most probably from a combination of the Brighton SEO podcast in your last podcast. So Dan shures podcast experts on the wire. If your listeners are not already listening to Dan’s podcast, please do. But then similarly out, you know, like, for me, going to conferences is always like a really big moment of like rejuvenation and passion for learning and everything like that. And so when you know, I’ve not had the opportunity to go out to Brighton yet, but listening to that podcast has been really instructive. And so I would say that like continue to just like, tap into whatever resources are available.

particularly the ones that I mentioned there, that would be my tips.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [1:02:01]  

And there’s a new website called SEO slides where people are collecting all the slides.

John Morabito  [1:02:06]  

Oh, that’s super cool.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [1:02:07]  

Mm hmm. All in one place. So that’s your other little tip. If you follow along the conference circuit, which I totally do.

John Morabito  [1:02:14]  

yeah, totally.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [1:02:15]  

don’t get a chance to go. But I read the slides for sure.

John Morabito  [1:02:18]  

Yeah, I think you’re interesting. That’s awesome.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [1:02:21]  

All right. So, uh, how can people learn more about you?

John Morabito  [1:02:26]  

So you can find me on Twitter. It is. JOHN Morabito SEO, and then also, um, Stella rising.

Reach out to us on the contact page there. We’re happy to help.

Katherine Watier-Ong  [1:02:42]  

Awesome. This has been a great chat. I learned a ton. I picked up quite a few tips that I’m going to add into my own workflow. Thank you for taking the time with us today.

John Morabito  [1:02:51]  

My pleasure. Thank you for having me. This has been fun.

Jim Keeney  [1:02:54]  

Definitely, each of our podcasts has a theme of this one apparently was communication. And interestingly enough, the most significant thing at the end was how positive you need to be.

John Morabito  [1:03:11]  

I would say yeah, positivity is hugely important.

Jim Keeney  [1:03:14]  

But that in and your emphasis on process and clearly the way that you have, you know, a process that comes bound with significant deliverables for each of the clients, I think that that’s, that’s a really important point.

John Morabito  [1:03:28]  

Yeah, I think it’s key clients always want to know where they’re going. So it helps

Jim Keeney  [1:03:32]  

Awesome. All right. Thank you very much. Thank you.

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