Interview – Eli Schwartz, SEO Expert and Consultant & Ambassador OnCrawl

December 11, 2019 - 8  min reading time - by Emma Labrador
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Meet Eli Schwartz

Eli is an SEO expert and consultant with more than a decade of experience driving successful SEO and growth programs for leading B2B and B2C companies. He has helped clients like Shutterstock, BlueNile, Quora, and Zendesk build and execute Global SEO strategies that increased their organic visibility at scale.

Previously, Eli managed the SEO team at SurveyMonkey, building organic search from nearly zero to one of the largest growth drivers at the company.

He is also a regular speaker at marketing events across the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and he writes for Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, and Search Engine Journal. He’s also been blogging a lot recently on his own site about SEO at https://www.elischwartz.co/

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First steps in the SEO industry

Like many other SEOs, Eli discovered SEO as a profession by accident while working at ClickStream, a lead generation company. He worked on the affiliate side with websites who knew how to drive traffic and was astounded to see how much money they were making by building websites that drew traffic.

He read a book on SEO, Aaron Wall’s SEOBook, and started reverse engineering everything successful websites had done, like using the DOM explorer to see how they built links.

He started building his own links and his own websites and loved doing it.

Over the course of his career he got more and more access to tools, and was able to learn more.

Eli was probably able to learn the most from Google penalties he got hit with, such as the Panda penalty in 2010 and the Penguin penalty in 2012. Learning how to crawl his way out helped him understand how to do SEO properly, how to understand Google, and how to build a very strong SEO foundation.

Takeaways from Survey Monkey

It’s easier to do SEO at brands: they’re crawled more frequently and have more authority. However, within a brand, it can be very hard to do things: it can require multiple months of work to get a robots.txt file or a redirect updated.

What Eli has learned has been how to do the right thing and how to work around the inertia. The result is the ability to develop a “good enough” SEO strategy.

This is something he applies today when he works with larger sites, where things are complicated. You can’t just rely on best practices; you need to balance the different factors:

  • The brand: the brand will define their product in a given way, whether or not anyone will search for that content
  • The engineering team: the stack works in a specific way, and many engineers don’t want to accept direction from someone in SEO
  • The teams: there might not be the right people and the right managers in place
  • The company priorities: in a large company with many teams, each team is promoting their own needs as a priority to the executives

It’s about figuring out how to use what’s available to get ahead, and maneuvering during periods of growth. This doesn’t mean SEO can’t succeed in a big company: some of Eli’s greatest successes were achieved as the company got bigger.

SEO, for example, is currently about 60% of the revenue. However, when Eli started at the company, this wasn’t the case; much more was spent on paid marketing. The company’s growth allowed SEO to pull more weight and save money from paid marketing to use for other things.

Keywords: do they still have the same weight when it comes to building an SEO strategy?

When Eli started doing SEO in about 2005, it was about matching keywords. Everyone would try to optimize to generate content to get the top AdSense keywords on their website. At the time, Eli learned a lot about keywords and misspelled keywords. For example, you could rank for a misspelled keyword, which would have a different ranking than the intended original keyword.

At one point, he worked for an automotive media company, where synonyms (car vs. vehicle vs. automobile) were all very different. Eli watched as Google became smarter about what sort of words they would match. At first, the company had managed to rank 6th for the word “cars”–but they lost the ranking when Google figured out that searches for “cars” might also include people looking for the movie “Cars”.

Now we’re in a different period. It doesn’t really matter what you search. Eli works with clients whose top ranking keywords are not words they’ve ever used on their website. Google takes the intent behind what people want and provides results that correspond to that, instead of just matching the exact words or exact spelling of the query.

When keywords used to matter, how you ordered the words also mattered: ranking for “online survey” was not the same as for “online survey”. Now, the intent is completely different.

Another thing Eli watched happen while he was at SurveyMonkey was. They used to rank number 1 for “surveys” and “online surveys”… But they lost these keywords: when people looked for the plural, they were most often looking to take surveys, not create them. Consequently, SurveyMonkey lost these spots to websites that had much lower domain authority and also had a tendency to be somewhat spammy.

For Eli, we’ve moved far beyond keywords and keyword frequency. Voice search plays into this as well: queries are entire sentences, and Google must deduce the elements that actually matter in the query.

The role of technical SEO in an SEO audit

“Technical SEO doesn’t matter at all for smaller websites. It’s something they should do in the first two minutes of launching the site.”
–Eli Schwartz

Small websites aren’t going to get any improvement from anything technical if they already follow best practices. This might involve:

  • Use a CMS like WordPress
  • Use keywords correctly
  • Make sure the website is cross-linked
  • Avoid Javascript

Technical SEO becomes extremely important at larger brands. Larger companies end up with strange setups. Examples Eli has seen a lot include:

  • Websites with 15 redirects without a particular reason
  • Websites built entirely with Javascript and Google Search Console showing over 90% of their search traffic from branded keywords

How do you see SEO evolving in the next year?

“I don’t think SEO ever evolves. SEO is still the same as it always was.”
–Eli Schwartz

Google uses AI to understand what users want, and Google uses AI to understand what websites say, and then it matches the two of them together. The AI keeps getting better. This allows it to find spammy queries and backlinks; it becomes hard to mislead the user or Google. This is partially why Eli’s a fan of the concept of E-A-T: you can’t fake it. Either you are trustworthy, or you aren’t.

Where he sees a change happening is from a user’s perspective. As Google’s AI algorithms improve, users will see a better experience on search.

When SEOs optimize, we’ll have to do a better job to be as real as possible. Practices that amount to lying to users–including buying links, bad UX and slow websites–will be as pointless in SEO as in offline, traditional marketing.

He also thinks we might see a local or global recession. In the context of a recession, Eli expects people will spend less on marketing, particularly paid marking. They’ll look for more returns on channels that cost less money. And even good SEO costs less money. There will likely be more interest in SEO because of the perception that it’s free. (It’s not, but they won’t realize that until they’ve already started building it.)

Favorite conferences in 2019

One of Eli’s favorite conferences this year was Content Marketing World in Cleveland.

It was a different type of audience: as content creators, they aren’t marketers, and SEO is only a small piece of their job. The questions they had were amazing, and they took notes differently than what Eli has experienced in strictly marketing conferences.

Eli’s deck included a lot of images from OnCrawl. One of the things he likes the most is the way OnCrawl helps you understand page speed. This is one of his favorite topics, because it’s the first thing you hear from someone pitching bad SEO: “I crawled your site, and your site is terribly slow!” It’s a metric that’s easy to show.

But page speed isn’t that straightforward: many large websites are hosting their website in the cloud, but their competitors are not. This means that, as long as their code is ok, their website is automatically faster.

For smaller websites competing against other slow websites, page speed doesn’t make as much of a difference as they think, and the website might not be as slow as they think they are.

A slow website is the website he can pull up on his phone–and it’s just too slow to load.

Eli’s hobbies and free time

Eli loves to travel and tries to go somewhere interesting at least once or twice a year.

He spent two years living in Singapore–and that was two full years of seeing different things, going new places and meeting all sorts of different people.

On becoming an OnCrawl Ambassador

Eli really enjoys being an OnCrawl Ambassador because it allows him to work with a tool that he uses all the time. He likes seeing what the OnCrawl team is up to and appreciates the two-way discussions that provide value and share experiences in both directions.

Oncrawl SEO Crawler

SEO crawler for enterprise audits and daily monitoring. Increase your organic traffic and site revenues with reliable data.

For bigger sites, it’s impossible to understand how the site is structured without a robust enterprise crawler. A website Eli is currently working on is built entirely with Javascript and believed their only had 5000 pages. Using OnCrawl, he was able to crawl the entire site and render all of the Javascript pages. He had to pause the crawl after 2 million URLs. Without OnCrawl, there’s no other tool that can tell you that.

Emma is the Head of Communication & Marketing at OnCrawl and write about SEO and search engine updates.
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