Adam is a second generation internet marketer and president of AudetteMedia, a search marketing boutique located in Bend, Oregon. Adam is also a lead SEO strategist at Zappos.com, who he’s worked with since 2001. A veteran of the internet marketing field since 1996, Adam has worked with companies such as Charming Shoppes, JELD-WEN, Intermec, Motorsport, Michelin, University of Phoenix, and HSBC. Adam is a frequent speaker at search conferences nationwide. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter.
Eric Enge: Can you start off with an introduction of yourself?
Adam Audette: I’ve been doing SEO for a number of years. I started back in the mid to late 90s, and at that time my father, John Audette, had a company called MMG. I was a link builder, and I would do something called the top 100, where we would submit sites to different directories like Yahoo, Rex, and others for all kinds of clients. My father sold MMG to a large international agency sometime around 1999 or 2000, and after that, I started consulting and working on different projects, and I started working for Link Exchange and then for Zappos.
MMG still has some pretty good roots in the SEO world. Some of the people who came out of the company are Derrick Wheeler (Microsoft in-house SEO), Marshall Simmonds (NY Times SEO), Adam Sherk, Bill Hunt (well-known SEO) and Disa Johnson (well-known SEO), among others. All these people who were active in the industry started at MMG, so it’s pretty cool to have those old roots. While I was consulting in 2001 and 2002, I started to put together the idea of starting my own company.
That idea evolved over time, and now my company, AudetteMedia, partners with my father, who oversees all the operations and more or less guides the direction of the company. Meg Thompson, who is one of our partners, oversees all the clients and accounts in a vice president capacity. We work with a lot of eCommerce clients, and one of the biggest clients we have is Zappos, which we are going to talk about today. I am working pretty deeply in the company in terms of SEO and all that stuff, and I have to be there every two weeks or so.
Eric Enge: Do you have other clients that are large in size as well?
Adam Audette: Yes. Some of the other large clients we have are Michelin and the University of Phoenix. We work with Charming Shoppes, which has a number of retailers across the country, and with Fashion Bug, Lane Bryant and Catherine’s. We do some projects for other large companies like AOL, and we also work with a lot of startups like DriverSide, Motorsport.com, and Rockler.com.
We also do a lot of one-off projects for other agencies, things like audits. We are working a lot with large interactive agencies that don’t necessarily have SEO capabilities. We’ll do audits for an agency like AKQA and for one of their clients, and we’ll also do SEO for clients such as HSBC. We work on a lot of different capacities, and I think one of the things that we are going to be doing going forward is broadening our reach from strictly e-tailers into other verticals as well. A few months ago, we started working with Primedia, which operates a lot of real estate websites. It’s fun to start working in new markets and industries that are so different from eCommerce.
Eric Enge: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Zappos?
Adam Audette: In 2001 I started working with Zappos on some different things, including producing an email newsletter for community building. That changed to social media stuff, and then about two and a half years ago we started doing SEO. I work there with Aaron Shear, who in my opinion is one of the best SEOs around, and he also has a lot of experience in eCommerce as well. Before Zappos, he was with eBay, Shopping.com, and some of the other big CSEs or comparison shopping engines.
Aaron and I work directly with the CEO, Tony Hsieh, who I had known from my Link Exchange days. Tony actually owned Link Exchange before he sold it to Microsoft back in 1999. He is involved on the SEO side from a high-level perspective, while Aaron and I sit between marketing and development, focusing on interface marketing initiatives and getting them in front of the developers.
Over the last year to year and a half, we’ve had a ton of momentum, and now it’s got to a point where the development, content, and marketing teams are all on the same page with regards to SEO. The model at Zappos is very top-down. Tony is pretty active in all the initiatives for Zappos of course, and he is very active in SEO as well. He is able to drive things through that we wouldn’t be able to do as effectively as SEO managers.
There are different things that we’ve learned process-wise in order to get that to occur, and now looking at SEO for 2010 we have a lot of things planned. Organic free search traffic has turned into a big driver, and it’s going really well. A lot of that probably has to do with early adoption, as Zappos has of course been around for a long time, but it also has a lot to do with the good fluid environment there. There is not a lot of red tape and bureaucracy to impede things getting done, which is a big advantage.
Eric Enge: When you talk about Tony being active, one of the things that I took from that was that when individual teams aren’t able to come to a consensus and someone needs to play the role of tiebreaker, he is probably pretty active in those kinds of scenarios.
Adam Audette: That’s exactly right.
Eric Enge: This is actually a great thing because the big challenge for a lot larger organizations is that there are so many people to sell, and if you can’t get them on board, a paralysis emerges.
Adam Audette: Exactly, that’s very true. Tony does do that, and he can prioritize and de-prioritize things so that it makes sense for everyone, and he makes what he wants done clear to everybody so they can get done pretty efficiently.
Eric Enge: I imagine that the environment for each of your clients is quite different.
Adam Audette: Yes, it sure is. Each one is different, and some of the companies that we work with require a bit of education, and sometimes we are working with a marketing manager that doesn’t really get SEO, and yet the people above him or her are the ones that get it and hired us. As a result, we end up being managed by people who don’t exactly get it.
Not only do we have to try to get our recommendations implemented, but we also have to educate either the main marketing contact person or the whole marketing department on why we are trying to do what we are trying to do. That’s one of the more frustrating things, but I guess the integral part of our job is that it’s not as easy as just handing over our recommendations to development and then managing that process to get it implemented. We also have to rationalize all of our recommendations and talk about why we came to these conclusions. That’s probably one of the harder and more social parts of SEO that some people in the field maybe don’t always think about.
Eric Enge: For a small business whose fate is dependent on search engine traffic, you can count on the owner of that business probably being at least basically knowledgeable about SEO.
But when you have a large, established brand company like Michelin that hasn’t been dependent on traffic, it can be much more challenging.
Adam Audette: Yes, that is exactly right. Michelin is interesting because in that case we are the specialty SEO shop and we are a small shop. We work with companies that already have other digital agencies that they work with, and in Michelin’s case, that’s exactly what occurred. In those cases, we have to share deliverables with larger agencies, so that’s kind of an interesting situation as well.
Eric Enge: Going back to Zappos, I guess the other thing that is unique about it is that it developed as a web-only business.
Adam Audette: Exactly. Zappos tried to roll out some outlet stores about a year and a half or two years ago, and I believe there are still two located in Las Vegas. It’s been an interesting situation to see a web-only startup roll out some brick and mortar stores. They weren’t really successful for the first year or two, but the one outlet in Las Vegas had bigger sales than it ever had this holiday season, which is really interesting to see.
Zappos is still a pure website all the way, and the main thing about it is that there was a never a lot of money put into marketing, as the entire focus of the business was on word of mouth through great customer service. For Zappos, it’s all about having a great experience and then getting that customer to tell his friends and family about it, and of course, getting previous customers to come back again themselves as well.
Spreading marketing by word of mouth really helped the company grow for a number of years, and SEO fit nicely into that because it’s not as hard as an upfront cost, especially when you can build SEO into the processes of the company and get content teams to think about it. Therefore, marketing dollars were saved for things like PPC, some display, and very little TV and print advertising. Then about a year ago, Zappos started to push more into traditional advertising channels.
Eric Enge: What were some of the unique challenges in the Zappos environment then?
Adam Audette: One of the things that makes this challenging is that it’s such a large corporation with so many sorts of moving parts. Getting resources is the biggest challenge we face, so if we have a project or an idea and we want to get that slated, it may not happen because there are 10 or 12 other things that have already been prioritized above that. One thing we do to counteract that is having monthly meetings where we get the key stakeholders from each department in a room together, including Tony, and we all talk about the outstanding projects out there and what we need to do to prioritize. Those have really, really helped, just that one hour together a month, because there are just so many other needs out there between brand and other marketing channels, so resources continue to be the biggest challenge.
Eric Enge: The other thing that occurs to me is the size of the site, as it is a large, extremely complex, multi-navigational path type site. Another challenge is just the complexity of getting that many pages to not be seen either as low-quality or duplicate of something else.
Adam Audette: Exactly. Talking about the site, one of the things that will jump out is that there are basically two sites there. There is what we call Classic, which is the old Zappos site, and what we call Zeta for Beta, which is the new Zappos site. Everything has been slowly migrating over to Zeta, and we basically are running two sites in parallel that have been there for a long time. We’ve had several million pages, so trying to transfer this all over to a new site just wasn’t going to happen in one fell swoop.
First, we started with certain sections of categories, and we rolled it out from there. If you look at the site we have, there are people all the time, SEO consultants and agencies, who will email Zappos marketing telling us to look into some SEO consultant who wants to help and listed out a number of problems with the site.
From a classic SEO perspective, Zappos is doing so many different things wrong. There might be 2,000 links on a single page for sections, such as the brand section, and other pages could have several hundred links. There is no clear information architecture in that way. The environment is now so large that we really have to prioritize big chunks and take things off one at a time. There may be a reason why there is a neglected part of the site where some old NoFollow tag is still out there, and obviously, the page titles need to be ideal. There are the kind of lumps we have to take because even though we want to, we can’t do it all.
Eric Enge: In some way, it gets back to the resources thing and dealing with the massive number of potential projects. You have to find a way of thoroughly cleaning house on things that you know you need to do, but it’s just isn’t making it up the stack.
Adam Audette: You got it, that’s exactly right, and we have to rationalize the need for every project. When we put that ticket in, it has to have a clear benefit and a clear bottom-line. If it doesn’t, it’s going to get shoved right off. That quickly prioritizes things on our end, because we can see right away if something is or isn’t going to have a massive effect on the bottom-line. We only want to look at the stuff that really will hit the bottom-line.
Eric Enge: Do you ever run into a situation where you have things accumulating bit by bit that wouldn’t hit the bottom-line substantially themselves, but dozens or hundreds of them together would cumulatively make a big impact?
Adam Audette: Yes, I could think of a number of different examples that I won’t share, but in SEO it’s so true that all those things add up to affect their overall score. When all those signals are pointing in the same direction on the page, it’s going to have a very strong effect on the SEO. When some of those signals are pointing in different directions and it all adds up, that’s going to have a big effect.
This could mean doing minor things such as updating the XML sitemap, internal link structures, updating robots.txt, and dealing with duplicate content, and all those things cumulatively make the difference. We had a lot of issues with things like redirects, which we have accounted for in the last year or so, and now we are feeling really good about them. Once that’s done, we can look at some of these other things that have been lower priority up until now.
Eric Enge: By redirects, do you mean redirects implemented using the wrong HTTP status code?
Adam Audette: Yes, there would be some cases where 302s were occurring on areas where we wanted 301s, and with the Zeta site rolling out we had just thousands upon thousands of URLs that needed to redirect the old classic URLs to the new versions. Each time we roll out a redirect, we introduced site latency just to ensure those were all happening because it’s one more lookup that has to occur. That’s something that’s very important to us, just the speed of the site. Over the last two years, ever since Aaron Shear and I started really diving in on SEO, site latency has been one of our higher priorities. We were gratified to see Google acknowledging publicly that site latency is going to be a factor in its algorithm, and that’s a big focus for us.
Eric Enge: If you look at the webmaster tools and check out the performance stats for your site, it’s pretty interesting to see. Google is pretty aggressive in terms of the messaging they are giving you through webmaster tools.
Adam Audette: Very true, very much so. They are really trying to speed up the web, and leave it to Google to speed up the web. If anybody can do it, they can.
Eric Enge: Yes, they are pretty determined. You look at all the various initiatives that they have, such as launching their own DNS infrastructure, and not a lot of companies would think about doing that.
Adam Audette: That’s true.
Eric Enge: Are there any specific example scenarios of issues you’ve had with large company SEO that you could provide?
Adam Audette: We had a large client with several very large eCommerce sites roll out some new designs under their brand. They had worked with a design company that didn’t do SEO natively, so they hired AudetteMedia to vet their work, make sure their SEO was built in, and make sure their legacy URLs were redirected.
There were a number of challenges that arose when working between a large company and its design agency. Even though we repeatedly hammered into them the fact that they needed to do 301s for all legacy URLs and implement redirects on them, they failed to do so. All these sites were returning error pages for the legacy URL, which of course is a big problem in itself.
What was happening was those error pages were actually returning a 200, so these thousands and thousands of links, were permanently redirected to an error page that returned a 200. We are still trying to recover from that with that company, and it’s been several months since that occurred.
Eric Enge: That’s one of those education type scenarios here we are talking about, where we need people to understand the basics or at least have a process in place so that these things don’t get pushed out the door like that.
Adam Audette: Yes. I think it will continue to improve on the web in general. A lot of design agencies are getting better with SEO, but, there are still some real horror stories out there. Some of these things which we consider to be basic SEO aren’t being taken care of.
Another good example I can share is when we worked with a company that had their link canonical tag implemented. Unfortunately, every single product page on their site had a link canonical target to the homepage. We didn’t see this problem until three months or four months later, because we hadn’t been working on that particular site.
Eric Enge: Yes, that’s a tough situation too. That leads to the reason why Google has stated publicly that it takes the canonical tag as a hint, as opposed to a directive. They are anticipating, and rightly so, that there will be people who implement it improperly.
Adam Audette: You got it. In our experience so far, they are treating it as a very strong hint, and it’s working well when implemented properly, but it can also really work well against you.
I’ll share one more example. We work with a really large company who has a number of websites, and the company wanted us to do some audits for them. One of the first ones we looked at was a site that conditionally redirected the user with a 302 to a landing page if the user agent didn’t accept cookies. Of course, search engines generally speaking don’t accept cookies, so they all get 302 redirected.
Out of the hundreds and thousands of pages on their site, they only had one page indexed, and that page was the page prior to the 302. They were wondering what was going on with that. This is another case of just missing the boat on fundamental things need to be taken care of.
Eric Enge: Yes, it’s amazing. One of the things that I have written about somewhere along the way is that one of my first recommendations for large companies is to set up training sessions.
This way, we can walk them through some of the basics so that we can spend more time being proactive and building traffic, rather than being reactively driven by basic mistakes.
Adam Audette: That’s exactly true. Training is something that we’ve focused on a lot, and it takes a little bit of time, but the value there is amazing. Getting everybody in line with SEO just so they know it at a superficial level will save so much time, resources and pain by being more proactive and not having to just react to everything that occurs.
Eric Enge: Any final thoughts?
Adam Audette: One thing I would like to say is that despite all the difficulties we face, working with these larger sites is a lot of fun, and I really enjoy it. Eight or nine times out of ten, the brand strength itself will trump a lot of their problems. We are working with a site like Zappos that has millions of backlinks. The amount of muscle to push around is it’s just tremendous. It has been like this in the past and it may change, but there is an unfair advantage for these larger brands in SEO.
Eric Enge: I like to say that links basically cure all evils.
Adam Audette: Well said.
Eric Enge: Thanks Adam!
Adam Audette: Thank you Eric!
Eric Enge leads the Digital Marketing practice for Perficient Digital. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO. Learn More About Eric Enge