Data Intelligence

How to position a large organization for SEO success: insights from the TELUS Digital SEO team

November 15, 2018

What is SEO? What’s trending in SEO for 2018 and 2019? How do you rank number one in organic search? Who is the SEO Rapper? And what are the top recommendations to inspire, analyze, and optimize SEO performance within an enterprise organization?

Our Content Manager, Chantelle Sukhu sat down with TELUS Digital’s SEO pros Maria Toribio, Daniel Crough and Josh Arndt to answer these burning questions and more.

Read the full interview to learn more about how this team is using exemplary best practices to improve every part of TELUS’ digital presence, from UX to design.

Chantelle: Let's get this show on the road! Hi, my name is Chantelle and I'm a Content Manager.

Maria: Hi my name is Maria, I'm an SEO Analyst.

Daniel: Hi my name is Daniel and I'm also an SEO Analyst.

Josh: Hi my name is Josh and I focus on Technical SEO.

Chantelle: Today we will be chatting with our three SEO gurus here at TELUS Digital. We’re going to go through some questions, get their views on a couple of topics, and maybe talk about some things that are controversial. 

Josh: Oooh

*Laughs*

Chantelle: I can see Josh is excited to talk about SEO.

So, what is SEO? I mean it’s a word that’s used a lot in the media, in digital advertising, and with people working in content marketing. 

Daniel: SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and it is a cross-functional discipline that involves a bunch of different types of activities. One way we like to look at it is best practice adoption. Your ability to rank in the search engine results page is linked to your ability to adopt best practices on your site. And so, going back to what I said about SEO being cross-functional, it involves performance, design, user experience, content, copywriting and then all of the SEO elements tied in as well. I always say it’s a team sport: it’s not enough to just optimize page titles and meta descriptions, you also need to work with a bunch of different teams to make sure your page is a good user experience. 

Maria: Daniel summed it up pretty well. SEO, at a high level, is about meeting the needs of the user from a content, mobile or web experience and they just happen to come in from a search engine.

Josh: Most people think of SEO as trying to place #1 in search engine results. That is a nice goal. Or position zero if you’re going for the gold. But if you want to understand how you attain that, you need to dig deeper.

Using search engines is so routine that we take it for granted. We expect to type anything into a search box and get back a stack ranked list of results. But if we didn’t get good results consistently, we would switch search engines. So it’s incumbent on the search service to provide good results. So the real question is what constitutes a good result?

There are dozens, if not hundreds of factors that contribute to a good web experience. Collectively, these are best practices; standards that consistently yield rewarding experiences for a broad range of users. There is no silver bullet, nor any secrets. SEO is about being diligent in following best practices. Checking boxes. That is how you create great user experiences, and rank well. That is SEO.

Chantelle: A lot of big companies these days are spending a good portion of their budget on SEO, so why is it important? Why do you think companies are investing in this?

Daniel: One stat from Google that I like to bring up when people ask this question is that 40% of users turn to search first to address a need or solve a problem. That kind of says it right there.


Src: Mobile has changed search intent and how people get things done: New consumer behavior data (Think with Google)

Chantelle: Very interesting. 

Maria: To add to that, most people these days are glued to their phone. Whether they’re trying to find a cat video on youtube, research a product or trying to troubleshoot some issue, it’s guaranteed they will find their way to the Google interface to search for what they need. Hence, the need to ensure your pages are SEO friendly.

Josh: And in the case of voice search, for example, users may not even be aware they are using a search engine at all. It’s just tech magic. As a business, we aspire to offer products and services that are relevant to people’s needs and desires. And as an SEO team, we aspire to be discoverable in the places where they are looking for them.

Daniel: From a business perspective, search data is really valuable. It’s a clear window into what users are thinking and feeling and what they want. It also can tell us a lot about the problem that they’re trying to solve.

Chantelle: That’s very important. Just zeroing in on TELUS and what we do here at TELUS Digital, what does an SEO team focus on? It’s such a big company.

Josh: Collectively we’ve been doing SEO for about 30 years. We have a pretty solid understanding of how to create experiences that perform well in organic search - again it’s about executing industry accepted best practices across many disciplines. But doing that consistently can be challenging at the scale and rate-of-change that we operate at.

We spend a lot of time educating teams on the importance of including SEO at the outset of  projects starting with keyword research. “If no one is searching for it, why are we selling it?” is how I like to phrase it. While it may sound crass, it underpins the importance of our work and why it makes sense to engage us early and often. And to test, test, test.

This ensures we go to production best positioned to deliver experiences that will delight our customers, and by extension, our business.

Maria: Education will always be integral to our SEO work, especially within an enterprise company. As our teams grow and people move roles within the organization, it’s important to always level-set on basic SEO acumen as well as upskill. There will always be people who have their own ideas about how SEO works and it’s important for us to keep them properly informed and up-to-date on what’s happening in the SEO world.

Chantelle: How do you evangelize non-believers of SEO. What are some of the strategies your team uses?

Daniel: One thing I find really useful is getting people excited about SEO and showing them what it can do. Sometimes that looks like showing missed opportunities, or how things could have been better had a team member used search data; and sometimes it’s more about celebrating them for the good work that they have done. 

One of the programs we’re running at TELUS Digital is called the Rainbow Award for SEO Excellence. It’s kind of a dorky and fun way to recognize our team for going above and beyond and helping us check all those small boxes that Josh was mentioning earlier.

Josh: The proof is in the pudding. While there are many opportunities for us to improve, in some areas we’re doing a really good job. We have clear guidelines on what good looks like. And we can measure our standards adoption in a very granular way and correlate this to search result outcomes. That’s pretty powerful.

For example, we can show stakeholders a page that’s realizing only 50% of our SEO requirements and see it’s ranking on page four of search results and generating very little traffic. Conversely, we can show a page that’s checking off 90% of our standards and see it ranking in position one with scores of traffic and conversions. The data is pretty compelling. 

Chantelle: In line with that, what are some of the tools that your team uses to sort of build that case?

Maria: Interestingly enough, this year one of our key activities was to reassess our SEO tooling. We’ve been using an enterprise SEO tool as our main tool to do all our keyword research, competitive analysis, tracking and more. So we went on a journey to assess a wide range of tools in the market to find one that fit the needs of our SEO team and our various stakeholders.

As part of that journey, we discovered ContentKing which we’ve found to be really useful for insights into changes teams are pushing to production. Given the TELUS Digital SEO team consists of just three people, we can never be on top of all the changes that happen to our web pages without automating some of these activities. We deploy more than 500 code changes per month, plus content changes on top of that.

For example, during our trial, ContentKing discovered a change that prevented server-side rendering. This is important if we want search engines to crawl and see the content of our pages. ContentKing alerted us in real-time when the change happened so we were able to get the help of our dev team to fix it in a timely manner. Without this tool, it’s very likely we would have seen it too late when traffic dropped.

We’re also starting to use STAT to help us with our keyword tracking. STAT is a proven leader within the SEO landscape; the data integrity is there. We’re looking into onboarding STAT this year too. They were also recently acquired by Moz which is encouraging.

Josh: Much of our focus this year has been around workflows, education, and tooling. And central to that theme is decentralizing SEO so our colleagues have greater visibility into our SEO performance, pre-and-post deployments, and enough insight to action opportunities themselves. SEO is a team sport, as Daniel mentioned. Ultimately, for us to be really successful in organic search, everyone needs to own their share in the opportunity. It’s the only way SEO really works at scale. Our role is to enable that.

Chantelle: Maria you mentioned there are three SEO people sitting around this table and we just left an All Team standup where our Chief Digital Officer mentioned that TELUS Digital has over 50 squads. What are some the biggest challenges in preventing TELUS Digital from achieving their SEO goals? Three people, 40 squads, 400+ people, not to mention external stakeholders, how does that math work out? 

Maria: Personally, I think our custom implementation of Google Lighthouse has been a really helpful tool for us. We now have clear data into how we’re doing from a technical SEO perspective and even from a content perspective. It allows our teams to see what they can action to improve a page.

Josh: And just solutioning at scale. We can't be in all places at all times, nor do we want to be. That’s exhausting. It’s not sustainable. Nor can the three of us alone ever achieve SEO success in a meaningful way. Rather, we need to be aligned on the value of SEO as a collective and empower teams with actionable insights so anyone can understand, “this is what I need to do to improve this experience”. And actually do the work because the value is apparent. Truth is, SEO is easy. But the commitment, attention to detail, and discipline it requires to be successful is hard. That’s where good tools, processes, and support from your team are essential. 

Chantelle: With scaling, there are growing pains of course, but there are a lot of great wins for the SEO team. Do you mind talking about some of those wins?

Maria: Hiring Daniel was a big win for the SEO team given that it was just me prior to that, and Josh too; he has been an integral part of the team as well. So really just building out our team with strong contributors has shown great results in performance and getting people hyped up and involved in the SEO program.

Josh: Yup and TELUS Digital is hiring!

Daniel: Yeah I think the iPhone XS win was huge too, just two hours after the Apple Keynote for iPhone XS, we had our pages ranked in Google’s index. And for a short while, in some regions, we were actually outranking Apple in Canada. So that was a huge win for the Mobility team. 

Josh: So Daniel just acknowledged a nice win that Maria and I contributed to along with many awesome people on our Mobility team in Toronto. Daniel and our Home Solutions team in Vancouver have also had some nice wins recently.

For context, the Home Solutions team is focused on internet products and services. Thanks to the great work by that team, and Daniel’s contributions, we are now ranking very well for search terms relevant to those products and services. At unprecedented levels, in fact. It’s a great story. And we’re just getting warmed up. It underscores, and validates, the importance of sticking to our SEO playbook - it works.

But if we take a step back, I feel our biggest wins have been around setting baselines; defining and implementing the precursors for continued success.

From a technical perspective that includes things like moving to HTTPS, doubling down on page speed, complying with accessibility standards, embedding Structured Data into our code templates, and testing these things in our pipelines before releasing them to customers. This is the foundational stuff you need to create quality digital experiences at scale. Or conversely, if you don’t do this stuff, you may one day find yourself irrelevant to humans and search engines alike.

It goes back to best practices -  whoever checks off the most boxes usually delivers the best user experience. It’s that simple. So, definitely, we like to celebrate every positive search result, but seeing this foundational work come to life is what excites me most because I know the search results and traffic will follow. In SEO, if you build it well, they will come. You can bank on that.

Chantelle: And Shawn Mandel, our Chief Digital Officer, often talks about how we’re leading the digital evolution at TELUS. We’re trying to digitize a 100 year old telecommunications company which is not a small feat. What is it like acting as digital change agents within such a big company? 

Daniel: That’s a great question and I think that’s something all of us deal with at TELUS Digital. It’s a balancing act between making sure that our programs get the support they need, while still having empathy for other teams’ priorities and initiatives. Some of the changes we are advocating for are big and they can be challenging. At TELUS Digital, there are many people practicing many types of disciplines. It’s important to remember that when we are negotiating how to build the best digital experience possible for our customers.

Chantelle: Maria or Josh do you have anything to add?

Josh: There are lots of peaks and valleys in this role. Our team has taken on a lot. But we believe in each other and our ability to realize some pretty profound outcomes. I take a lot of comfort in that we have a strong team. Maria, Daniel, and I really support each other. And we have good support from our leadership team, which is integral. But when you put yourself out there, going into other people’s wheelhouse and sometimes challenging their norms, you can expect some pushback. It’s not always easy. It helps to be prepared for pushback and to stay focused on the outcomes you are trying to deliver which should be shared outcomes. I love this team, we have a lot of fun doing this stuff... and of course, we love successful outcomes.

*Laughs*

Chantelle: That’s awesome. It’s really empowering to hear that other people at TELUS supporting SEO. We’re going to switch gears a little bit and we’re going to talk about your SEO expertise and knowledge and I have a couple of questions hopefully to ask you and get your feedback on.

What are some sites you take SEO inspiration from?

Daniel: I enjoy Moz. I think when I was first starting out in SEO, Moz was a great source education for me. Moz has content for all levels of SEOs. Their beginners guide to SEO is perfect for SEO newbies. It’s basically an online SEO crash course. 

Also, STAT Analytics is doing a great job with their content. They're able to do some really detailed and granular research, so the outcomes of that are usually really interesting. Also shout out to our friends over at ContentKing, Steven and Vincent; I think they’re doing some good work on the content front as well.

Josh: ContentKing is amazing! A joy to work with and great tools.

Google Webmasters has a wealth of SEO best practice info.

Following thought leaders on Twitter is another way of not only consuming information, but actually engaging with others in the field. It’s amazing who you can connect with.

Maria: The main place I go is whatever competitive landscape I want to own, so whoever is ranking one, two, and three. I look into what they’re doing and try to share that with the rest of the team. To Josh’s point around Twitter, there’s Danny Sullivan - Google's public search liaison - his handle is @dannysullivan. Some of the tweets he shares are really insightful just because, that’s his main goal, educating the wider masses on how Google works, what they’re doing internally, not just from an SEO perspective, but whatever fun things they’re doing internally within Google. I find that really helpful.



Josh: There’s also the SEO Rapper. You have to check him out on YouTube. He seems to know his stuff and is super entertaining. I love this guy. Hit me up on Twitter SEO Rapper. Let’s drop an album.

Chantelle: That’s awesome. If there are smaller companies or startups looking to get their feet wet in SEO, and they don’t have a dedicated team, where would you recommend they start?

Josh: Call Maria and Daniel.

** laughs **

Daniel: Sure… But only during business hours.

I think some of the stuff I already mentioned. Moz has a lot of good foundational information. They also have this thing called Whiteboard Fridays where each week they tackle an SEO problem or question. There are hundreds of videos and I find the whiteboard approach is helpful when tackling challenging concepts. Also, pay attention to what Google is saying - I think that is very important. They're very cryptic, but they will kind of give you little clues as to where they're headed. Definitely pay attention to the Webmaster Blog.

Chantelle: Like Blues Clues. 

Daniel: Yes, exactly. And one caveat to that is, do your best to not take everything Google says super literally, sometimes they roll out a change out and then axe it three months down the road. An example of that is meta description length last year. They increased it from 160 to 320 and then they switched it back three months later.

Maria: It’s always good to check out what other people in the industry have tested in the past. It’s a good learning experience. To Daniel’s point, never taking what Google says out loud, sometimes you need to test it and see if it actually works within your own market.

Josh: On the eve of their 20th anniversary, Google provided some insights into the evolution of their search experience; what they're working on and updates we can expect in the near term. Google runs 200,000+ tests on their search experience each year. It’s to be expected not everything will stick. But I believe we’ll see some real game changers in 2019; in fact the revolution has already begun.

Personalization is one new feature; Google has started pushing personalized feeds based on your search history and other preferences. Image search too will be completely transformed. Google Lens has already landed in image search in the US and on the latest Google Pixel 3 devices which we offer at TELUS, of course. You can now take a picture and begin a rich search experience by selecting items in your photo. “Search what you see” is how Google advertises it. It’s impressive. I’ll be getting a Pixel, that’s for sure.

And then there’s voice search; it’s already big and it’s still early days with devices like Google Home Assistant and Home Hub, Voice Assistant, Siri, and Alexa. So voice and natural language search are really important opportunities to consider.

Search is going through a renaissance, but many of the precursors for success remain unchanged. It’s just following them is now more important than ever. It’s exciting to be an SEO.

Chantelle: Very interesting. I might be opening up Pandora’s Box by asking this but a trending topic in 2018 was that SEO is dead. What is your position on this? This was a very divided topic…

Maria: I feel like every year this is always a thing.

Daniel: I think people freak out because SEO is constantly changing and so as SEO changes some tactics that used to work in 2017 are no longer applicable in 2018. That headline is a dramatic response to those changes. SEO is not going anywhere, as long as we have search we will have SEO.

Josh: You have to be careful what you read. I read Elvis was dead, but I just saw him like 10 minutes ago.

*Laughs*

Maria: This also goes back to what Daniel said at the very beginning, on what SEO is which to reiterate is a multidisciplinary discipline, all those things content, UX, design they’re never going to go away. It’s all part of what makes SEO great. 

Chantelle: Absolutely - that was a trick question. I guess that means the SEO team is still growing?

Maria: Yes we are! Check https://www.telus.com/en/digital/careers

Chantelle: What are you folks looking for in your next SEO superstar to join TELUS Digital? What are some of the traits you want to see?

Daniel: We’re looking for somebody that isn’t necessarily an SEO expert but who has a really solid foundation in search and who is keen to learn. That role will be supporting Home Solutions in Vancouver.

Maria: And maybe Toronto too.

Daniel: Yup, Toronto too, definitely will be supporting the SEO team as a whole.

Maria: Working at TELUS is pretty fun. Everyone is pretty chill. As long as you can work with anyone here, you should be fit to tackle all our other external stuff. 

Josh: For me, it always comes down to having a passion for what you're doing and a desire to improve. And of course, chemistry with your co-workers. Everything else can be learned. But put those qualities together, and you have a recipe for success no matter what you do.

Chantelle: Those are all the questions I have for now. Thank you so much for sitting down and explaining the world of SEO within a big corporation and how you guys can implement it. I can’t wait to see who the next SEO rockstar will be.

Daniel: Thank you.

Josh: Thanks!

Marie: Thank you. 

Daniel: WooHoo! 

We hope you’ve learned more about how we use SEO at TELUS. If we’ve captivated you until now, we’re hiring an SEO Specialist! Check out the job posting and reference this post in your application: http://bit.ly/SEOSpecialistTELUS 

TELUS Digital