Podcast Description

Podcast Title: Digital Marketing Fastlane

Host: Kevin Urrutia

Guest: Geoff Atkinson


In this episode, Geoff tells his story about how he drove growth at Overstock.com through SEO, became a technical-marketer and founded his own software company, Huckabuy. He explains how companies can leverage SEO to build a more effective business model that fully utilizes their organic search channel for revenue growth. Also, he and Kevin take a deep dive into technical SEO topics like dynamic rendering and structured data markup.

What You'll Learn in This Episode

Time Stamped Highlights

[0:40] Geoff’s Story

Kevin: All right. So Geoff, today we're going to talk about technical SEO. Can you give us a little background about yourself and sort of maybe what you were doing before Huckabuy?

Geoff: Absolutely. So right after school, so I'm actually from the east coast, and right after college, I took a job at Overstock, based in Salt Lake City. I was a ski racer and it seemed like a good fit. It is a place where I could ski a lot and still have a real job working my way up in that organization. And I started on the email marketing team and eventually became their Senior Vice President over marketing analytics and CRM. Every revenue-facing side of Overstock, I've had experience with. I've managed the buying team for a long time and pricing and forecasting, but also, of course, all the digital marketing channels — TV spendings, credit card programs, loyalty programs, all of the interesting customer-facing stuff that had to do with revenue and analytics was in my wheelhouse. 

We had a great SEO story at Overstock. We went from a channel of zero to a channel of about 300 million. And so it's just really a cool experience to sort of have that be, you know, the founder and CEO is my mentor. And, yeah, it's a great fresh-out-of-college job experience to get exposed to that — that world of digital marketing.

[2:00] Advice for Young People Entering the Workforce

Kevin: How long were you at Overstock for? Sounds like you had a lot of hats there.

Geoff: Yeah, I did. I was there for just about seven years.

Kevin: Oh, wow, that's a long time. It's a long time now in a startup world where most people are like, at a job for at least maybe two years now, at least when I was in San Francisco, it was very rare that you had like, teammates that were longer there for three years.

Geoff: I know; I actually encourage people — especially young, aspiring workers — to find a company that's got a career track because once you start jumping around, you never really jump upwards, you might feel like you do with a better title, but you're like back to the basics of learning the company and, and all those types of things. So I think, well, 10 years can really make careers and I really encourage young folks that are getting going to try to find the right place for that. I was fortunate enough for that to happen to me at Overstock.

There's usually a lot more career track at a bigger company. And there's a lot more like training and you know, most big companies like to invest in their employees quite a bit. It's a definitely different lifestyle than a startup. But it's a great way to get your career going.

Kevin: And also, it's similar to what you're saying before, because you've been looking at yourself, you did like almost every channel, TV, digital. At a startup, you're not really dealing with all that stuff at all until maybe 10 years if that company takes off where at Overstock, it's a hybrid. And it's growing, you are dealing with all this other stuff or other channels that you may not have experienced ever before or can't get opportunity to do it. Also having a mentor is a big deal. You said that your boss was a great mentor to propagate out opportunities to execute some of those visions that you had.

[6:06] How Huckabuy Got Started

Kevin: Talk to us more about how did you become an SEO expert? How did you start doing more at Overstock? Tell us about when you left to pursue your own company.

Geoff: So, in 2005, when I started at Overstock, I didn't know what the term SEO meant. I'd never heard it before. I don't think anybody at the company had even heard it before. So I remember, I got introduced to a guy through a colleague at overstock, that was a SEO consultant. His name was Paul. And he was just brilliant. And I remember spending like two hours on the phone with him and learned all about, you know, not everything, but I was, like, learned about SEO and I remember distinctly like going to Patrick's office, the CEO of overstock man, like, there's a huge opportunity for us to alter our website so that Google understands it and we start getting all these organic search rankings and this traffic is essentially free and it can be you know, enormous in terms of size. It was like literally just discovering plutonium. We found this channel and we spent the whole time I was there, basically six years or seven years, getting it dialed in.

SEO is a classic example of where you spend money on technology to make the site better, and then that comes back in the form of revenue. I was a very technical-minded marketer, and, and those investments were always the ones that ended up with the highest ROI no matter what the channel was. I also realized that the problem with SEO is really a technical problem. You know, you have a lot of consultants and agencies saying, “Oh, you have got to put up a blog and you have to write.” Some of those strategies just don't work anymore. 

Now with Huckabuy, we started as a B2C company. We were essentially an affiliate site and Google had made an algorithm change where they didn't want people purchasing products through affiliate sites anymore. They wanted them to go direct. But we built some really cool SEO automation software that helped us with the technical conversation. And then people that knew of us wanted to start licensing it. So we pivoted into this software company and that’s Huckabuy today. So yeah, that’s how we got here. It was somewhat accidental, but it's a product that really works. It's something that I'm proud of and it's exciting.

[9:05] Successful Online Companies Use SEO to Structure Their Site and Business

Kevin: Obviously, with SEO, you need links, and you need people writing about you or even just like talking about your brand. But like with something like Overstock, I guess you had the core links and people talking about you. But I guess your internal structure was messed up. Is that how you guys saw it? Did guys have any rankings at all or was that like when you first started?

Geoff: The site had already had a great domain authority, because it was Overstock and they were starting to do TV and a lot of people linking to great deals. And so there was a lot of domain authority, but the site was a mess from an SEO perspective. Google couldn't understand it at all. There wasn't a friendly URL. There was no way for them to understand what was happening on any given page. And so we basically completely revamped. We had the opportunity to revamp the entire site, based on SEO optimization. 

So we went from a site that literally was like impossible for them to crawl to almost the perfect site for them to crawl and understand. To flip the switch that quickly on a site of that size, the growth was kind of incredible. So once we did that, you know, everybody was kind of on board where the revenue was really coming through SEO. So you've even had like furniture buyers who would hire their own copywriter to write copy about furniture, because they knew it was like the best and most quickly growing channel and they could get, you know, they could increase their revenue. So that was sort of the problem for them. And it took a long time. It wasn't like we could flip the switch overnight, but that wasn’t a rare opportunity. We actually come across a lot of companies that are in a similar situation, especially software products, where there might be a very prominent company with a great domain authority, but Google just literally cannot understand what they do at all, which is a complicated B2B software solution. And so that when, you know, Huckabuy can really come in and doesn't matter what the stage those companies are, they can see just sort of crazy growth when you clear up that communication between their website and Google. 

Kevin: Yeah, and I think that makes sense. Like for example, I think Zapier is a great site that has really great domain authority, and they're also doing great SEO. Their integration pages are just like killing it with like, you know, Google Docs connection with MailChimp. Like they're usually number one or two because they have literally optimized everything. 

I think another thing that you probably would think it's important too, is keyword research. They know what people are looking for. The great thing about Zapier too, is that I think their product is very unique. And they've also coined a lot of this like long-tail keywords that they sort of been able to make up like people before and that sort of mindset has created more keywords for them to even rank for because they're allowing all this sort of integration.

Geoff: Yeah, that's a great example of a site that's not just a site, it's a company that's driven based on SEO. You know, I'm sure if you looked at their trajectory as a business it is lockstep with their SEO growth. And we see that happen a lot with companies,  think of eBay or Amazon, like how they got to where they are. A very large percentage of that was SEO.

[13:32] Big Companies Are Missing Out on Massive Revenue Growth

Kevin: Sometimes I look at a website, I'm just like, "I have no clue what this giant company that's on the stock market does," and looking at them like on Ahrefs, I'm just like, how are they even getting business? Yet, they have such great domain authority. I'm just like, "Wow, if they even did SEO, they would be even bigger."

Geoff: We were talking about this before the podcast, it's nuts, like, you'll have a Salesforce that has hundreds of thousands of employees, and you literally can't find a single one that's working on SEO. And yet 65% of their revenue flows through organic search. Now, there could be a whole other podcast on why that is, but in my opinion, it's because software companies margins are so much bigger, and they're typically sales driven organizations, they can get a lot farther down the football field with just really a good sales team. And they can spend a ton of money to acquire a customer. And it still makes sense because they're selling these real high margin software products. Whereas if you're like in the e-commerce world, if you're not working on SEO, from day one, you just don't have a chance. So even smaller e-commerce companies will have a really sophisticated SEO strategy and the other crazy thing is like, once they do start getting traffic, the value of that traffic is so much higher. But you know, I always try to get customers to figure out what their revenue per organic search visitor is. Anybody in e-commerce knows that number like off the top of their head or they can find it in two seconds. Software companies, it can take the month to try to figure out what it is. We have one customer value of an organic search visitor, just a visitor, not even a visitor that converts is on average $250 a visitor. And at Overstock, that was like $2.50. Yeah. What's cool is that the really smart software companies are getting it. They're getting it that it's their best channel. They just crush it on SEO and it drives crazy growth. When you do get a smart CMO in place that knows the power of SEO, then it's a really quick path to success.

[16:45] More Software Companies Need Developers Working on SEO

 Kevin: I also think the software companies are also more equipped to do SEO and kind of like what you were sort of like to do as technical SEO because they already have the technical capabilities of an in-house versus like an e-commerce company. It's maybe just marketers doing things like Facebook ads or online ads. And I really think about SEO or even the technical aspects of a website, where as a software company, they're the ones building the website. So they kind of understand this. But I think the other challenge with these software companies is sort of getting them to understand SEO and thinking it's a great channel, and not just like the sort of scammy channel that exists online.

Geoff: You know, you'd be surprised Kevin, software companies never put their tech people on their website. All the strong developers at a software company work on the product, not on the website. So the website is almost always controlled by marketing. It’s almost always a WordPress site, which is not optimal, in most situations, the website team will have very minimal resources to invest in the site. All the good developers will be working on the actual product instead of site. 

Whereas like the CTO of an e-commerce company, all they do is work on the website. So yeah, it's just a different dynamic. We're trying to make SEO cool for software companies, and it becomes cool when it starts generating a ton of revenue, and there's nothing that can argue with growth, and especially revenue growth, which is what our software really helps companies achieve.

[18:24] Huckabuy Makes Products To Fit the Future of Google Search

Kevin: Can you explain how your software works a little bit? Maybe there's a plug-in to the website or how does that work?

Geoff: Yeah. So there's two major things that Huckabuy does. And they're two of the top trends when you look at what Google's doing. All that Huckabuy really does is just listen to what Google wants out of a website, whether that's super fast page speed, mobile, structured data, dynamic rendering, we can get into those topics. And then, on behalf of our customers, we make their site perfect so that Google understands them. 

There are two big trends that we identified. The first was structured data. Structured data is a language, it's basically the language that Google prefers to talk in. So instead of them just crawling HTML, you can actually now tell them, you know, “This is a product, here are the reviews, here's the price,” or “This is a person or this is an event.” Then when you speak their language, and you apply world-class structured data to a website, they understand it a lot more than they did previously. And the more they understand, the more they give it rankings and traffic and all that good stuff. Structured data has been around for like 10 years, and it was something that we figured out at Overstock and it moved the needle a lot. 

When you hear Google’s Webmaster team talk, and you hear them talk about the core algorithm, there's two things that in every algorithm update over the last five years that they have made more and more a part of the algorithm and each update. One is mobile friendliness, it's a mobile-first index. Now most people are accessing the internet using their mobile phones. So their desktop’s page speed was super important for mobile. And then the other one is structured data. Every single algorithm update has more and more structured data. 

The other piece about structured data, it's not only a way to communicate, it's how Google enhances their search results. So when you search for movie times, and the movie times just show up, all those enhancements throughout search results, which are called rich enhancements, those are all powered by this language structured data. So that was a trend that we caught on early and have written it, you know, for a long time now. 

Then the other big massive change is a topic that no one really talks about, which is surprising to me. But it's something called dynamic rendering. And dynamic rendering came out only about a year to a year and a half ago. Dynamic rendering is essentially Google saying, “The web is getting so complex and it's getting so difficult for us to crawl, just give us a simpler version of a site for us to be able to understand it.” The concept of dynamic rendering is just simply that URLs load dynamically, or pages load differently based on what calls them. So if I go to a site on my desktop, I see one experience, I go on my mobile phone, I get another. The big change was them saying, Well, now you can give a version for us. And that really opened the door for us to build this Huckabuy Cloud, which is sort of what we call Google's perfect world, like what would a website look like if it was built for Google? 

So those are the two trends that we've latched on to that we think are the future of where Google's going. And they're talking about it, it's not any secret, you know, they're out there talking about these things. And so we bet on those trends and build products around them. And we'll continue to listen, I'm sure there's gonna be new trends in the future. But we've built products that basically leverage those two trends, structured data and dynamic rendering, which are two very technical problems. So we have an automated solution that can take a site and make it, you know, world-class structured data and perfect dynamically rendered site for bots to crawl. 

[22:13] Dynamic Rendering: Why Do I Need It?

Kevin: For dynamic rendering, is that for websites that are like JavaScript, is that why you're seeing that trend? Let’s say it’s something in WordPress, do you still need to do dynamic rendering? Or what's the difference there for listeners?

Geoff: So the reasoning for it is absolutely because mainly of JavaScript and Angular, and things like that, that are dynamic that they can't crawl. Google is the only search engine that can crawl JavaScript content, by the way, which is kind of fascinating. But the way that they do it isn't by just crawling it. They use a renderer, which is what they actually use Chrome, the browser. They use a developer's version called Chromium and any page that has JavaScript on it gets thrown into this queue, this render queue, which essentially is waiting for the page to fully load in a Chrome browser for them to be able to crawl it. And so that's super time-consuming. And it takes a bunch of resources and money for them to do that, versus crawling HTML. 

They saw that these front-end technologies, and this dynamic content was not going to slow down, and if anything it was going to start growing, which makes it almost like 10x harder for them to crawl any given page if it has this type of content on it. And then they're like, “Well, also the internet's not getting any smaller. It's growing exponentially, as it always has.” So they're faced with almost an impossible problem, which is this ever fast-growing internet and pages are getting slower and much harder for them to crawl. And so that's really why they introduced dynamic rendering. 

It is a lot like Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). Like the solution ends up being a lot like AMP where you're just dumbing down the page, but there are two separate things. AMP was an initiative to try to almost take market share away from all the hosting companies like AWS and stuff like that. So that they were actually hosting a large portion of the internet. There was so much pushback, though, on limited developers so much that it really wasn't as successful as they hoped. And so now, they've introduced dynamic rendering, which I think they're really going to stick with and is the future of how they want to talk to sites.

We have our own renderer. So we actually render the page just like Google does. Then we convert it into a flat HTML version that we then host in CloudFlare, we have a partnership with CloudFlare. And that creates the super fast, you know, the pages are like 20% of the size of the previous page. It's cached in CloudFlare. It's instantly available for Google to crawl, obviously, we add structured data to the top. And the way we thought about it is like, what would the perfect page and website look like for Google? And that's what we built with Huckabuy Cloud super fast. There's no dynamic content, flat HTML that has structured data. And it turns out if you give them what they want, they reward you.

[26:21] How Cache Refresh Works with Huckabuy Software

Kevin: When you're working with brands, what's like the cache of something like this? How automated is your process, or how does that work for a tech company? As they change their content, how often is the cache updated?

Geoff: The frequency depends on how often they update the site. And we're starting to get more sophisticated about actually recognizing changes and just automatically updating. Our typical customer gets crawled — even the big ones — once a week. So we set our cache refresh to once a week. But actually in the platform when you log into our dashboard, you can take say, you just generated a number of blog posts, you can actually just take those URLs, put them into the dashboard and hit purge the cache and we’ll come and re-cache all those pages. So there's a number of ways that we do it. But, you know, some sites change so frequently that we have to we have to be updating it daily, others, it's 2-3 weeks, because they don't change all that much. So, kind of depends on the customer, but it's a pretty slick solution, if they, you know, are changing pages often to be able to refresh the cache and get it indexed.

[27:57] Websites Need Dynamic Rendering Software In Order To Be Found

Kevin: JavaScript is sort of really how people want interactive websites. But Google isn't fully seeing that, you need a solution like yours in order for people to get found, because sometimes people don't. I think a lot of people will not realize that Google doesn't really render this stuff, or it does very little of it. Whereas your solution really helps sort of push it to the maximum in order to get crawled as much as we can.

Geoff: Most sites don't even realize how much of the content that they're generating just doesn't get crawled. So anytime they have a page that's going to have that stuff, it's going to take like 23 weeks before it even gets touched on. So we always laugh about these major content marketing trends, which I think it's a great trend, but if you don't have your site set up correctly, Google is not even going to see it. So all that effort is really getting wasted. So you do have to have a technical solution to help communicate with Google and make it make it so they understand.

Helpful Content from the Show

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Q&A From The Episode

How does Huckabuy dynamic rendering work?

At Huckabuy, we have our own renderer. We render the page just like Google does. Then, we convert it into a flat HTML version that we host in CloudFlare — we have a partnership with CloudFlare. This creates the super fast page speed. The pages are like 20% of the size of the previous page, it’s cached in CloudFlare, it’s instantly available for Google to crawl and, of course, we add structured data to the top.

How often is the cache updated with Huckabuy software?

The frequency of cache updates depends on how often the customer updates the site. Our average customer gets updated once every week.