John Shehata Q&A: How major publishers, and small businesses, can do better at SEO

John Shehata Q&A: How major publishers, and small businesses, can do better at SEO

The life of an Internet marketer is far from leisurely.

In between training a newspaper on SEO and social media marketing best practices and speaking at the SEMpdx SearchFest, John Shehata, Director of SEO and Social Media for Advance Internet Inc. talked to me about search marketing strategies and tactics.

John oversees SEO for 12 news websites affiliated with more than 25 daily newspapers. I talked to John about his strategy for optimizing content for universal and social search and his tips for taking advantage of the growing list of signals used in ranking SERPs.

What would you share as the top strategy for a publisher who wants to optimize for universal search today?

For publishers, the main advantage they have is lots of content. They produce lots of text content, in particular.

But I don’t see a lot of publishers focusing on is optimizing images. Images can in a big way help in optimizing for Google News, for example. As users, our eyes move from higher contrast to lower contrast. For example, we see images first and then we see text. So when we try to rank in Google News, if our stories are the text headlines along with images, even if the story ranks in number three but there’s an image, users will see the image first and they see that story before they see the first or second result. So this is one of the things that publishers should focus on—optimizing for images.


John Shehata presents at SMX. (Photo provided by John Shehata)

Also for Google News, you can associate your YouTube account with your news or publication on Google News. You can get your videos to rank in Google News and in Google Video as well. If they have their own video platform, they can also focus on transcripts. Google and other search engines don’t understand rich-media yet. They evaluate rich media based on the surrounding text. It goes back to old, good SEO. So if traditional SEO optimization is done, surrounding the image or the video, this helps a lot in ranking these items.

Social search is getting more important every day. Can social be leveraged for universal search optimization?

Absolutely. For some time now, there have been lots of rumors that social signals affect SEO. As you mentioned, recently Google and Bing confirmed that social signals are considered to be part of the ranking factors. Google looks at tweets, the number of shares, and Bing does the same. So it all comes back to the author rank, the authority you have for your Twitter account, how many followers, how many people retweet your stuff, or what is your Klout score and how much authority or impact you have on Twitter or other social media platforms. I think this can affect universal search because now Google has all these social elements in the SERPs.

You have real-time results effected mainly by the buzz and the authority or author rank. You also have with all the real-time results. Also, when you’re logged into Google, you see that if certain sites are shared by your social circle, since Google can identify your social circle based on your Google Profile and which accounts you link to, there are a lot of social results now. Even in Google News you can see how people have shared a specific story. So your social circle, the author trust and the number of tweets and retweets make a huge difference in the social signals effecting universal search.

I think social media and SEO should work hand in hand. Social media can help SEO and SEO can help social media. I think that even if there are two departments in a company, they always should work hand-in-hand to gain maximum exposure in search and across social media platforms.

A big part of getting your content retweeted or viral is about the quality of the content. What does your brainstorming process for new vertical content types look like? How do you identify opportunities for content verticals and who is involved in the creation of that content?

It’s different from one site to another. For a publisher, we produce tons of content, news, events, all different things. The idea for us is, how we can identify which content fits which social networks? What works for LinkedIn may not be a good fit for Twitter or Facebook. For example, Facebook’s audience doesn’t like to talk about Twitter that much, while the Twitter audience has different interests. Understanding the social platform, what type of content works there, what type of demographic, what time of the day is good to share content.

Going back to headlines, headlines that work for social media are different from headlines that work for SEO— how you write your tweet, how you entice users to comment on your Facebook shares—there is this social algorithm. What you share shows up in the News Feed in Facebook based on how many comments or likes you get within a certain period of time. There are a lot of calculations that differ from one social platform to another.

As the Director of SEO and Social Media for a number of long-standing major publications, you have significant resources at hand to develop and manage initiatives geared toward universal search optimization. If asked by a small business owner for advice, what are the top tactics any business should be aware of if able to devote limited resources? In other words, where do you get the most bang for your buck in universal search?

I get this question a lot: we don’t have any interesting content. And the philosophy is: turn everything into digital assets. If your customer support gets the same question twice, that’s a great FAQ. If people ask you that question on the phone more than once, people are probably asking the same question online. So take all your customer support questions and add them as FAQ.

I shared with the SearchFest audience a case study for a company that rents out dumpster bins. They have YouTube videos of what stuff goes into a dumpster bin because this is a common question, and it’s a quick video on YouTube, about a minute and a half that has so many views because it answers a question that so many people ask. They take all their FAQs and customer support questions and turn it into videos and images.

Businesses can have before-and-after images on Flickr. If you’re a contractor, you can have images before a job and after you do the construction work. Same for a plumber. It doesn’t have to only be cosmetic surgeons that have before-and-after photos. If you can utilize your Flickr, have a lot of images, write good titles for your images and a good description, this doesn’t take any time to have a few images. Create quick videos that are less than three minutes long, and now with all the technology, you can easily do a video on your iPhone and upload and edited on YouTube.

I’d say, try to turn all content you have—and small and medium businesses have a lot of content if they think about it—into digital assets.

Also, if you can have a blog, spend a few minutes every week writing a post about something users are asking for. Also, if you can have a small budget for press releases, maybe one press release a month, you may be able to get your content into Google News and other news search engines. But, I’d start with a blog, a few videos and a few photos on Flickr, and I think that’s a good start of a strategy.

It sounds like you prefer Flickr for photos, YouTube for videos and a blog. Are there any other sites for multimedia that site owners should know?

If you sell products online, you should absolutely be in Google Products or Google Shopping. It’s easy, you can upload your data feed through You can great exposure and display in Google products, and it’s less competitive than ranking in the SERPs. If you provide reviews or recipes or events, you need to understand rich snippets. The better display you have in the SERPs, the better exposure you have, and people will see your results first.

So rich snippets, Google Products, Flickr for photos, YouTube for images, and a blog—I would say these are the basic things small and medium business owners should focus on.

  • Kristen

    Great interview. A lot of actionable items that’ll be put to use and passed along to fellow entrepreneurs.

    Thanks for the insightful content!

  • Kevin Getch

    I got the opportunity to meet John as well as hear him speak at SearchFest a couple weeks ago and he is truly a wealth of knowledge.

    Great information… as always!