Technically SEO: An Interview with Paul Shapiro

25 Minute Read | Digital Transformation

The last time I caught up with Paul Shapiro, search marketer and head of SEO at Catalyst, we were roaming the streets of New York, Paul’s home town. This time, we took some time out of MozCon 2019 to roam the proverbial “streets” of Tech SEO, talking AI, legendary SEOs to learn from, plus the history and future predictions for the industry.

Paul Shapiro in Moz’s Whiteboard Friday

How did you get involved in SEO?

Paul: So I feel like people have these real grandiose stories about how they get involved in SEO, and mine is not that. I graduated from university and I needed a job. I was vaguely interested in marketing and I had this technical skill set around the Web. I had done Web design and development freelance, throughout high school instead of working a typical retail job or McDonald’s or something like that.

Woj: You were moonlighting on the side.

Paul: I did some moonlighting, and so it sort of was actually a logical leap. It’s so funny, actually. I remember I was more interested in getting into social media marketing.

Woj: Interesting.

Paul: And I could not get a job in social media marketing. No one wanted to hire me.

Woj: And that would have changed your pathway quite dramatically.

Paul: I think yeah, absolutely. And I applied for one SEO job. My wife (girlfriend at the time) encouraged me to apply. I was like, “I hate SEO.” It was like, you stick in a bunch of text, make it white and match the background. I didn’t know anything about SEO at the time.

Woj: Yeah. I think I was in the same boat. I used to freelance while I was doing web development. The whole notion of SEO just seemed so shady and full of snake oil merchants. It just didn’t seem like it was really a legitimate thing.

Paul: Right.

Woj: It seemed like it was a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Paul Shapiro SEM SEO at Mozcon 2019
Paul Shapiro (right) at Mozcon

Tell me a bit about how you got from there to how you’re the person you are today.

Woj: Both from, you know, being a father, because you’ve got a couple of brand new wonderful children.

Paul: Newborn twins, a boy and a girl. I love them.

And your career – you work for an agency now?

Paul: I’m the head of SEO at an agency called Catalyst, which is headquartered out of Boston.

Woj: So how have you got to where you are today?

Paul: After university when I got that first SEO job, that’s sort of the path I took. I worked at several agencies; I had focused on enterprise clients, so I had always been working on large clients. And I think my skill set was uniquely suited for it, so I was able to throw myself sort of into the depths of the ocean there. And working on those clients, I just got schooled really well. And I got a little bored eventually.

Woj: Yeah.

Paul: I think SEO, at least post Penguin, was pretty straightforward. It’s almost like you’re doing real marketing. You have to create content that people actually care to read and do it well and attract backlinks and make sure that your website is crawlable.

Woj: Less about manipulation, more about future preservation.

Paul: Right. I think things were a little bit interesting back in the day because search engines were so susceptible to those things.

Woj: Yeah.

Paul: But by the time I got into it, it was really status quo. And so after doing that for a while, I became a little bit bored and started exploring new ways to do my job better, to do more interesting things. And I started applying those technical skills, my programming experience, started building tools and playing with concepts that I think people really, for the most part, were not playing with, at least they weren’t talking about it.

Woj: Yeah.

“I think that really helped elevate my career. I started sharing knowledge, I started writing, talking about the things I was doing, and I think people were really, really receptive to that.”

 

How important is sharing knowledge, as part of our journey? And why should people do that and why do you think people are afraid not to do that?

Paul: You know, it’s interesting. In SEO, you share too much and you can give away a competitive advantage.

Woj: Right.

Paul: So there’s sort of a fine line between sharing and sharing too much. And we also work in an industry that’s been tarnished over the years. There’s so much bad information out there and I have what I think is a respectable career. I think SEO is a respectable industry. It has matured and it is not what it used to be. And by sharing your knowledge and demonstrating that SEO isn’t what it once was, you’re changing the perception of the industry.

Woj: Yeah.

Paul: So I almost feel a moral obligation to share, good knowledge out there.

Speaking of knowledge sharing, I noticed that you’re a moderator on the Big SEO subreddit?

Paul: Sort of earlier on. And we did a lot of cool stuff there.

I did just recently found the Tech SEO subreddit.

Woj: Tech SEO – that’s a good one!

Paul: It’s growing, I think we’re at 5,000 subscribers right now.

Woj: Oh, nice.

What’s the weirdest thing that you’ve seen in the Big SEO subreddit, or even the Tech SEO one?

Paul: There’s a unique people on Reddit. And I think SEO subreddits in particular are susceptible to spam. Like there’s always people trying to promote their product or promote their tool, promote their agency. But any legitimate company that actually works in the SEO space would not go about it this way. The subreddits get berated for junk and trash and we have to actually pretty heavily moderate things.

Woj: Are there are a lot of fake accounts?

Paul: Oh, tonnes of fake accounts. We apply sophisticated moderation tools that help assist with that. And we make the rules kind of strict. Then you get legitimate people that are blocked and they message you saying, “Well, I’m a legitimate person, so please let me post.” So reverse moderation occurs as a result.

 

 

You started the TechSEO Boost conference?

Paul: Yeah. I founded TechSEO Boost. It’s powered by Catalyst. They foot the bill right now.

Woj: Yeah. That’s pretty cool.

Paul: And it’s a conference dedicated entirely to technical SEO.

Woj: Yeah.

Paul: So it’s really a conference that we want to open up to technical SEOs, SEOs that want to learn more about technical SEO, Web developers, engineers. It’s not purely an SEO conference, it bridges the gap between those sort of people.

Woj: That’s so cool. Because we work with a lot of Web developers, engineers, and they need to be upskilled in technical SEO as much as SEO consultants. Because half the time we’re waiting for them to get through our list of bugs or improvements or things that should have been taken care of in the first place.

Paul: Right.

What have you learned from running your own conference?

Paul: Oh boy, so it’s our third year and I feel like every time we put it on I learn so much. Running a conference is not easy. I mean, this is not my background. I never intended to be the person who runs a conference, but there is so much to think about. There’s logistics galore, making sure that everyone’s happy, that people are well represented, that ideas are well represented. And making sure that you’re checking all these boxes, that you’re actually doing a conference as it should be – worrying about things like the order of the speakers, am I drowning the audience with something way too heavy, can people actually see well…

Woj: Yeah, yeah. So many things to consider. Just the whole experience.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely.

Woj: I feel like there’s really a big gap in the market for something so niche within an industry like this. Because something like MozCon covers all angles of SEO. But specifically focusing on tech and involving all those suppliers, I think it’s really good.

Woj: So I guess you’ve listened to my podcast, or bits and pieces?

Paul: Yeah.

Woj: The whole premise of it was trying to understand the notion of digital empathy. I’ve now distilled through the first season and defined digital empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of a person on the other side of a screen. How do you think we can do that?

How can we understand a person at the other end of the screen better, as marketers?

Paul: I think you have to understand that when you’re building a website, when you’re creating a piece of content, that there is a person on the other side of the screen.

Woj: So that’s step one.

Paul: Step one. But I think what happens is, we get so involved – anyone who’s a specialist or anyone who really spends their time doing this, we sort of get away from that notion. But you need to keep it in mind, first. There’s an audience that you’re catering to.

Woj: Yeah.

Paul: So I’m a fan of… and people have argued against this to me numerous times… I’m a big fan of buyer persona-driven content creation.

Woj: Yeah. I mean who’s reading it at the end of the day?

Paul: Yeah, I think that’s hugely important. And that distills down to everything, to the content writer, to, you know, the technical design of the website, the user experience. It really can encapsulate everything.

Woj: I think even having a persona gives the writer someone to rant at. I think it was Steinbeck or someone who was saying that some of his success was attributed to the fact that when he wrote, it was like he was ranting at his mother.

Paul: That’s great.

Woj: It was just aimed at someone in particular. At least you’ve got that kind of, “Okay, I can imagine this person. I’m going to write a love letter to you or a rant.”

Paul: That’s awesome, I’m going to look that up.

So I put this diagram together featuring different components of digital empathy through what people have said through various interviews. Which one sort of resonates the most?

Digital Empathy Diagram by Woj Kwasi
Digital Empathy Diagram compiled using ‘Wojcast’ interviews with industry leaders.

Paul: Design for users. It’s straight to the point. It’s what we were just talking about, there is a user in mind, there should always be a user in mind. And you need to connect with them. And however you do that, you need to just make sure that at the end of the day, that’s something that they want.

Woj: Yeah. That’s a good answer, I like that. But now I think we should stop talking about people and talk about tech SEO.

Paul: Oh boy.

Making your first AMP Story: Google’s answer to Snapchat and Instagram.” You wrote a post on AMP stories?

Paul: I thought it was an interesting technology and I sort of covered it just as they announced it. Had a little bit of fun just experimenting with it in the early days and I hadn’t really done much with it up until very, very recently, where I created an affiliate website. And I wanted to have an interesting format for showing product sales. So I started creating some AMP stories. And it’s interesting.

Woj: Do they work?

Paul: I’m getting some clicks. It’s early days for the affiliate site. It’s something novel; the adoption of AMP stories is not there yet. Right now, it’s new and interesting and it’s not a bad technology to be playing with. The bar for entering and trying it out is pretty low. Like, AMP is very simple.

Woj: Yeah. I guess, broadly speaking, how important is it to test? Because I know you’re a big proponent of testing things. And even Rob Ousbey today spoke about just what works for one site won’t necessarily work on another site.

Paul: Yeah. That was a great presentation from Rob. I’ve seen him present similar things in the past too, and I’m wholeheartedly in agreement. I’ve seen things work for one website and not the other, especially in recent years. And I’m a huge proponent of testing and challenging the status quo or so-called best practices because I’ve seen things backfire, I’ve seen things that are completely sound SEO advice just not yield results.

Woj: Yeah.

Paul: So if you have the ability to test things, you’ve got to do it. Everything else is just anecdote.

Woj: Yeah, it’s true. To that point, what would you consider statistically significant as a minimum entry level metric?

Paul: I think it’s wrong to think about it as you would, like, CRO. The math is a little bit more complicated. But you need to give a test a certain amount of time to run, you need a large enough data set, plus it needs to run across enough pages and be seen by enough users.

What’s the size of a data set to make something even worth testing? Obviously with a brand new site, it’s going to be hard to do some tests.

Paul: I’ve primarily done it on larger e-commerce websites and on publications where I’m not worrying about that as a factor as much. But if you’re a website that has maybe 10 pages or something, you can run a test, but…

Woj: It would be a different type of test.

Paul: It would be a different type of test. I think it would be a little less conclusive. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that. I mean, definitely test things. And a test could be as simple as, you have a baseline of data and you make one change and you measure the results. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated split testing like Rob is talking about, or using one of these edge computing platforms. Like, it could be simple. And the merit of doing such a simple test is there. Don’t feel dissuaded by these complex systems.

Woj: And I think I remember you were saying in one of your talks that if you’re still reporting manually, I can’t remember what the expletive was but the general narrative was you should be shot or something like that.

Paul: Yeah, I mean in particular reporting. We do automated reporting, but we still take the time, we sit down with the client and analyse the output of our automated reports. You know, we walk them through it. We don’t just hand them a dashboard or a report without any sort of explanation. But the creation of a dashboard or a report is one of the most automatable things. If you’re taking the time and actually manually pulling in data from various sources in, like, Excel, it’s a waste of time in my opinion.

Woj: What about Data Studio?

Paul: And Data Studio, I mean they’re fantastic. Just entered the market and made it free and easy for everyone.

Can you explain KNIME?

Paul: KNIME. It’s German. The K is silent.

Woj: Like “knife.”

Paul: Yeah, I don’t know. It stands for something. But no, so KNIME is a tool that we use in our organisation often. It’s a little bit hard to explain, it’s a graphical programming interface. So, you can build sophisticated programs that are specifically centered around data. So, the whole idea is you’re building programs for data manipulation, ingestion and output. And you can do it in a graphical manner.
So there’s what they call “nodes” in it, and each node serves a particular individual purpose. And you string them together to do a more complex task. The adoption of this technology was really fantastic in our organisation. It meant that we can do more sophisticated things and sort of cut out engineers. It was powerful enough that an engineer or an analyst would want to use it, but simple enough that we could get some of our less technical staff playing around with it. I’m not a big Python guy, but, like, KNIME is an incredible platform.

Woj: So KNIME outputs Python or it just provides a middle layer…

Paul: You can use it as a Python replacement, but it will also work with Python – you can run Python code within it. It’s extremely powerful. Whatever you want to do with it you can do, for the most part.

Woj: So it’s like a bunch of connectors?

Paul: That’s exactly what it is.

Woj: Interesting. I’ll have to check it out.

Let’s talk about scaling and automation.

Woj: Why would you not do the same thing over and over again?

Paul: So why would you not automate? Because sometimes problems are more complex and you need to take a look at it from a different angle and sort of re-evaluate how you might have done it.
Other times, there are things that need that human touch, they need you to think about it in a way that would be a little bit more difficult to program a computer. Although this is changing, I think, with the use of machine learning because you can let the machine do a little bit more complicated decision making. But for the most part, it’s still easier in some cases to just, you know, let a human mind do its job.

Woj: Yeah, especially around natural language processing. There’s really a limited subset of words that, you know, even Trump and four-year-olds of a country utilise, so it wouldn’t be too hard to string a political campaign together that’s automated.

Paul: Yeah, it’s getting there, it’s getting there.

Woj: It’s like, “Well, what do you want, fourth grade level, fifth grade level? We got you.”

What’s a quick win in terms of an easy programmatic automation a brand can implement?

Paul: I just presented one at MozCon. We took a Wayback Machine, which has  an archive of the Web, and the API pulls in all the historic URLs for a domain name. So you take that, get a list of all the historic URLs for that domain name, crawl all those URLs, you crawl the current website, and then you let the program do a text comparison between the two. So if you’re ever doing a site migration or you’re trying to find some lost pages that just fell off over the years to rebuild them, you have an easy map for achieving that in an automated fashion.

Woj: Yeah. I had a tool way back when, when it would also check the Google index. It would compare the test site or staging site against the Google index, so you could see what pages were missing.

Paul: That’s awesome.

Woj: But I’m going to use that tool that you’ve got because I’ve got a migration coming up. But I could also see it being good for analysing expired domains and potentially finding heaps of content that could be used.

Paul: So, like, find the content that wasn’t matched?

Woj: Yeah.

Paul: It can do that.

Is PageRank still a very important part of the algo?

Paul: Paul: Yeah, I believe it is. I think there’s enough study, and experience tells me, that links still matter. So if links matter, PageRank (PR) matters. I mean the algorithm is certainly more complex than just PR, but I think Google has even come forward and said PR is still a major part of it.
I’m not talking about the PageRank of old where people were chasing the toolbar page rank. [Rather,] understanding how link equity flows throughout a website is useful.

Woj: Yeah. And there’s a lot of talk around search quality rater guidelines and how we shouldn’t be looking at metrics of how different silos of things could impact the performance of your website. So speed may be one, content may be one, on-page links. And it’s like if there’s a low score on one, it’s going to bring the whole weighting down.

Paul: Right. That’s how… I mean this is all hypothetical, but that’s how an algorithm works, right?

Woj: Yeah.

So you talked about the 4 types of technical SEO during your presentation. Was it fairly easy to come up with those four buckets?

Paul: It’s something that I’d been pondering for a while. So I wouldn’t say it was easy. But, I mean, I just saw when people were talking about technical SEO, it was always this notion of crawling, indexing, and rendering. And it felt so limited. People that were really good at it were so much more than that and they were doing so many more technical things. So we had to think about how it might be more applicable to use those skills and how there are different facets of actions when we do things like a technical audit or evaluate a website.
So I’ll just reiterate the four since your audience may not have seen the presentation.

The first one is what I call “Checklist Technical SEO”.

Checklist technical SEO are things that pertain to crawling, indexing, but they’re automatable. You can use tools to get most of the way there, identify problems and pass that off into a site audit. Still, important stuff. If you don’t fix those things, your website could be affected. But the skill required to do them is lower. So much so that I think it was worth dividing it out.

The next one is “General Technical SEO”. 

So the same thing – it is things that have to do with crawling, indexing and rendering, but this is the more difficult version of that. It’s less automatable, requires higher skill and more evaluation of interconnected systems. We’re talking about maybe finding a bug in your CMS that’s hampering crawling. It would be very challenging to automate something like that.

Then we have “Blurred Responsibility Technical SEO”. 

These are things that are technical in nature, but don’t necessarily have to fall to an SEO. And this is true of other areas of SEO, so it’s possible to just do blurred responsibility SEO. But there are, I think, more technical ones in particular, which is why I made it. So, for example, page speed Web performance optimisation, sophisticated analytics implementation – I think these things run the gamut so to speak. You could hand these off to a front-end Web developed or a UX guy and it could just as easily be their job. But for whatever reason it often falls to an SEO to do them.

And the last one is “Advanced Applied Technical SEO”. 

So this is the one I emphasised in my presentation. It’s taking someone who has these really technical skills – they’re programmers, they’re great with numbers, they’re scientists and creative in how they think about technical problems – and applying those skills to other areas of SEO and things that are not necessarily crawling and indexing, like data science and the application of data science to SEO, enhancing content creation with natural language processing.

Woj: Yeah.

Paul: SEO testing.

Woj: Keyword research.

Paul: Keyword research. You name it.
Other examples:

  1. Expired Domain Finder
  2. Google Entity Extractor from Search Results
  3. Reddit for Niche Content Insights
  4. YouTube Subtitles for Content Ideas
  5. Automatic Wayback Machine 301 Mapping
  6. Semi-Automated Meta Descriptions
  7. Storing Search Data for Reporting Dashboards

But are there degrees of SEO difficulty, do you think? 

It almost seems like checklist SEO, that’s kind of level one tech SEO. Whereas advanced applied…

Paul: Yeah, I think that’s the only one that has a level. The others are, I think, perhaps the same level of difficulty; it’s more a case of what do you have more experience and expertise in.

Woj: Interesting. But I feel like, you know, checklist SEO, you need to start there.

The BigSEO community on Reddit is for ‘grown up’ SEOs.

You mentioned how coding is an essential skill for advanced applied technical SEO. Why is that the case?

Paul: It becomes an essential tool when you’re trying to do more advanced things. Because you’re going to find that the existing tools, they don’t cut it anymore.
Excel, for example, doesn’t cut it anymore. Because it will only do like a million-some-odd rows. And you burn through that very quickly when you start working with large websites to do more sophisticated things. You need that customisability, and that means learning to code a bit, for most people. I wouldn’t say that’s the only thing, the only path, but…

Woj: It certainly helps, having an understanding of even the object-oriented approach to things and modularising things…

Paul: Yeah. And even for general technical SEO – if you’re doing sophisticated things with crawling and indexing and you’re working with developers and understanding how these websites work, how they operate, what your recommendations might actually do, how it might impact things. I think it’s a valuable skill set to have.

Woj: Yeah, definitely.

What does the future of our industry look like?

Paul: Interesting question. I think things are going to change drastically. And this is not isolated to SEO, I think the world is rapidly changing. Particularly because of machine learning, honestly. We’re entering a world where a lot more things are going to be automated, a lot more decisions are going to be made by machines. And Google is applying more machine learning, their algorithm is less obvious, so making sound decisions is going to be much more difficult. We’re going to rely so much more on testing. Which is great, to be honest. I think it matures our practice even more.

Woj: Oh, absolutely. We have evidence-based marketing.

Paul: Right. And that’s what it should be, all of that. That’s what it was once, a blue moon ago. So I think that will be interesting. You know, Google spam algorithms are becoming more sophisticated, people have to do more. That’s good for everyone.

Woj: Oh, it is. I think it’s going to get better. There’s a bit of fear about AIs and stuff, but they’re never going to be able to replace the full process.
I recently watched an interview with the CEO of Uber and he was asked about self-driving cars and if they are going to replace the whole workforce at Uber. He said no. There will be a gradual transition, but they’re never going to be able to do the more complicated routes. They’re going to start off with the simple routes, when it’s just down the road, it’s a straight road, it’s predictable. If we’ve got to go around roundabouts and through tunnels and different things, it might be a little unpredictable. But there’s also going to be things where the machines are highly talented, more talented than humans.

Paul: Maybe, maybe.

Woj: You think it will take over the world, you think it’s going to be a Skynet?

Paul: Maybe.

Woj: Or do you think they’re going to have the maturity of a four-year-old, because they’re going to learn from the world?

Paul: I don’t want to apply maturity to a machine, that would be the wrong way of thinking about it.

Woj: True.

Paul: It’s a grim picture.

Woj: Yeah, ok. Let’s finish upbeat…

Who are some amazing Tech SEOs we should watch and learn from?

Paul: Oh my god, there are so many good ones. Patrick Stox at IBM, I think he’s an incredible talent. JR Oakes at Adapt Partners, he’s doing incredible work with machine learning and Python and intense research. So is Hamlet Batista. He’s been sharing so much knowledge in his latest blog posts on the subject matter. Mike King is always great. Britney Muller at Moz. I mean, I think we’re really in a technical SEO renaissance, there is such talent emerging.

Woj: That’s awesome. And they were all at the Catalyst conference, at Tech Boost SEO?

Paul: At one time or another.

Woj: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time, Paul – that’s a wrap!

Paul: Appreciate it.

Woj: Great interview.

If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to follow Paul on Twitter @fighto and check out some of our other interviews:

You might also like...

Comments (0)

Get Your Free Digital Transformation Guide

Digital Transformation is no longer something that will happen in the future. Your customers have already placed digital at the centres of their lives. Businesses that don’t adapt to this new digital world will be left behind.

Don’t get left behind.

Get the guide here