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Episode 4 – JP Sherman – Open Dialog

Welcome to the fourth episode of Open Dialog, the podcast for collaborative SEOs and digital marketers. In each and every episode, we’ll be speaking with the best and brightest minds in SEO, digital marketing and beyond to find out how we can work more effectively, efficiently and productively with other teams, departments and clients.

In episode 4, DeepCrawl’s Sam Marsden spoke with JP Sherman, who is the Manager of Search and Findability at Red Hat.

Over the course of our conversation, JP told us about his unique route into SEO through the army and how he works between departments to improve internal search at Redhat.

A visual summary of this episode has been sketched out by the inimitable Katja Budnikov for your viewing pleasure. A full-size image of the sketch notes can be found here.

JP Sherman Open Dialog Sketch Notes

Welcome to the show JP! I had the pleasure of meeting you at BrightonSEO last year. What was your experience of the conference?

I totally agree. BrightonSEO is one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. Of course, being a part of a session with Michael King and Barry Adams, I was completely and totally intimidated, but I just rested back knowing that I generally know what I’m talking about. But it was intimidating and incredibly exciting and it was great meeting you as well.

I’ve got to say when I saw your presentation, it was really eye-opening. I’ve told this to Rachel Costello before. I honestly cannot wait until your generation of search professionals takes over. It’s getting to the point where my generation, it’s about time for us to shut up and listen and I cannot wait until you guys take over.

Can you tell us how you got into SEO through the army, if it isn’t too top secret?

I was working in special operations and psychological operations. It sounds a lot cooler than it actually is. Generally, when you’re in the army, for every two really cool things you get to do, you do eight things that are just sweeping the barracks and things like that.

It really all began with my Dad, who was an English teacher, so I had this love of language. As a kid, I learned German and Spanish and when I got into the army, they taught me Korean. I had a real knack for languages and how words fit together to create meaning. I was also a huge nerd and a gamer. I was on the internet in high school, and when I say the internet, I mean the internet in 1989 and the 1990s. That’s when I first came across a website.

What were websites like back in the early 1990’s?

They were total garbage and took forever to load, especially if you were dealing with anything with images. When I eventually got into the army, I was working in the headquarters of special operations and I had this full bird Colonel. A Colonel is right below the General, so these are important people. I heard across the hall, “Sherman, you’re a nerd, right?” I’m like, “Yes sir, I’m a nerd.” And he goes, “I need you here right now.” and so he told me, “I need you to figure out search engines because you’re doing a presentation on them next week.”

This was in 1998, the year that Google was born. So I figured out how search engines worked. I did a presentation and that combination of semantics and technology really hit. What we did with the internet was [use it] particularly in humanitarian operations like demining, specifically along the Thai-Cambodian border, which is the second most landmined area in the world. We got to work with the World Health Organization and I got to work with DC and Marvel Comics to create host language comic books about landmine safety and handed them out to little kids in Northern Thailand. It was an incredibly amazing experience.

We started looking at how we could reach younger generations, specifically in Southeast Asia who used internet cafes. We worked with host governments to create websites with malaria safety and preparation because what we found was that the younger generations of Southeast Asians were less likely to be living with their grandparents who would know how to do these things and they would be spending more time in internet cafes. We wanted to reach them where they were and essentially that’s how I got into SEO and search.

I grew up in California and we use a term called crunchy, which means very kind of lefty, very kind of hippy, very kind of tree-hugging. I was this crazy crunchy army dude. But I found myself doing these kinds of humanitarian operations, which were incredibly fulfilling.

How did you come work at Red Hat?

I worked in an agency in North Carolina and, at the time, it was one of the larger SEO agencies in the world and it was called, um, he had a couple of names like ranking market smart, but I got to work with some luminaries like Garrett French and Jenny Halasz. To be perfectly honest, Jenny Halasz is one of the people to blame for my love of technical SEO. She really changed the course of my life and I love and respect her dearly. Also, I worked with Casie Gillette so there’s this core group of people who used to work together who’ve done really amazing things. It’s so nice to see Jenny’s and Casie’s star rising.

I then got recruited out to Los Angeles for a startup called, Wassup. It was a search engine for video games, so I took that position as the Marketing Director and that was the first time I got inside the guts of an actual search engine. Looking at how things rank, why do they rank, what are the knobs and levers that create relevancy signals? I think that I was a really bad Director of Marketing because it was my first job out of an agency. I can’t say that I was any good at it, but the part that really stuck was being able to look at this body of content on video games and being able to work on relevancy signals, user experience, and building a unique search experience for that particular audience.

When that started and didn’t take hold, I did some more agency work. I did some inhouse work and all of that I loved, but Red Hat came calling and they were looking for somebody who knew SEO but also had worked inside of a search engine. I was kind of that one person in North Carolina who really had that experience. Six and a half years later, I’m still at Red Hat and I love it.

What does your work at Red Hat involve and what does your day-to-day look like?

Red Hat is in the business of selling free software, which at first sounds kind of dumb, but it is an open-source software company with operating systems such as Linux distribution, Red Hat Enterprise, cloud and platform operations and middleware.

All of our software is open source. You can essentially download the bits and use it if you’ve got the chops. The way we make money is through subscriptions. If you like the service, support, security updates and all these kinds of things, you renew the subscription and you can continue to get all this access.

What that does is it makes me incredibly customer-obsessed, because one of the things I look at is, do users’ search experiences translate into happier customers? Generally, happier customers are more likely to renew, so I work on the Red Hat Customer Portal where users get information such as troubleshooting, migration or installation. Our content is very task-oriented. My primary job is to help people find the information that they’re looking for as quickly as possible and that includes SEO, UI, UX and site search. I’m less of an SEO and more into findability so that our users can accomplish their goals when using our site.

You mentioned being customer-obsessed, are you involved in communicating customer requirements to development and engineering teams?

I work with front-end development on UI and UX. Our CMS is primarily Drupal and our secondary CMS is AsciiDoc, which is a totally different type of CMS. So I work with Drupal developers, I work with AsciiDoc developers and I also work with our content strategists.

I also work with platform engineers, customer service support and we do what’s called Knowledge Centred Solutions (KCS). We take the words of the customer when they’re looking at when they interact with our support staff, and then we take the words of the customer and translate that into solution content.

I easily work with 8 to 10 different organizations and because of where I’m situated, I’m kind of a one-person agency where I also work with, I work with, I work with a lot of different organizations. So I interact with different development teams, design teams, marketing teams and content strategy and creation teams. It makes me feel important, which is nice.

Are there any particular challenges that you’ve encountered working with development teams?

I primarily work on the development side because when you’re managing a body of close to a million pieces of content, it’s really not worth my time to help people rank for a particular set of terms. A lot of what I do is architectural, working on templates, site speed, code bloat, caching and all of these different aspects that scale across the entire platform. That really gets me close to the developers and the development strategy.

I think my biggest challenge is really prioritization. I’ve been lucky at Red Hat because I really can’t say that I’ve had a bad experience with people not getting SEO, which I’ve had in other places. They already see the value and then part of the prioritization is about how much value are we going to get? How much is this going to increase our relevancy or our expertise, authority and trustworthiness? I’ve already been harping on at them about EAT and we’re kind of getting around to that mode of thinking. How do we send expertise and authority signals?

For me, I think the tricky thing is being able to see the pipeline of projects and being able to communicate where my projects need to flow inside that project flow?

Is there any internal conflict you experience when it comes to prioritisation?

I’d say it’s kind of all of the above. It’s more friction that leads to polish. It’s kind of like sandpaper. I’m sure the block of wood doesn’t like being sanded, but the end product is generally nice. The way that I look at it is it’s a force multiplier. It makes what they’re doing better.

I’ll give you a really good example. Across the organization, we got emails that we were put in the mobile-first index in January. Then internal questions became, what is the mobile-first index? A lot of my time was spent explaining what mobile-first indexing is and why it’s important and why Google is doing this?

Then it became very clear, I had been talking about site speed as a critical thing that we needed to improve at that time. Up until then, it wasn’t really a priority, but now we could actually see the effects of the mobile-first index and the effect that it had on our rankings, our traffic and all these different things. So site speed became bumped up in prioritisation.

So there’s a challenge where I try to lay out the case before something happens and so at times when they decide to move there, the recommendations are there, the documentation is already there, the reasons are already there. It’s like, “JP, now we need to do this.” And I’m like, “Ok, here’s 20 pages that I’ve written about this.”

I think it’s one of the things that could cause frustration because it’s easy to think why didn’t you listen to me? But at the same time, I also understand that the site also needs to work, so my recommendations aren’t always going to be the best thing to do at that time.

Another thing and this isn’t on the development side but more on the content side, is that a lot of different organizations are switching to this type of content delivery called modular content. I kind of fall back to using my metaphors about bikes because I love cycling. For example, if you’re creating content about how to change a front bike brake, across the brands it’s very similar and it’s generally a Shimano bike brake versus a Fuji bike brake versus a Crank Brothers brake, the process is generally the same.

It’s the same way to install a particular piece of software. When you have version one through to version 10, you end up with a lot of unintentional duplicate content. So we created this module on how to install X and this one module is its own living documents, which gets brought into what we’re calling assemblies of here’s how to install X in version one products. We use schema to let Google know that this is part of and contains, so we don’t face the duplicate content issues and we’re able to consolidate our content and not rewrite them 10 times.

On the content strategy side, it’s how do we architect this? How do we template this? How do we use structured markup and how does this reduce our content load to reduce the chance of duplicate content? I get brought into a lot of these conversations to solve these kinds of really fascinating problems. The good thing is that I generally get brought in at the very beginning, so they’re baked into the process rather than, okay, we built this thing, JP, now press the SEO button.

How do you get brought into these projects so early on? Is it about building up trust within different teams?

I’d say about 40% of what I do is SEO, 40% of what I do is site search and then 20% is inhouse evangelism. I am really active in presenting on search, Google and findability topics or even things like describing to people what word2vec means and what it is.

A real quick aside, for those of you who don’t work in the search field, word2vec is the frequency and proximity of a word to another word. 10 years ago, open source was nowhere near Microsoft, but now Microsoft is adopting open source. So now you see Microsoft as the topical word, open source is next to it. It’s around it, it’s closer and it’s more frequent. So that’s kind of word2vec in a nutshell.

I totally lost my train of thought after that. I do a lot of presentations internally, so what that does is it kind of establishes me as a source of information. I really don’t consider myself to be an expert, I just consider myself to be a curious enthusiast. I need to create these relationships and this level of authority so I get people from different organizations, different countries asking me, “I want to do X. How can you help me? How can you help people find this?” Over the course of several years, I’ve built up a level of trust and now I tell people, if you ever think about how people are going to find this, please contact me.

How exactly do you go about teaching people about SEO? Is it in-person meetings or providing documentation

A lot of both, because generally, people hear that Google is doing something. I don’t know if you know Jaris Mitchell and Lauren Pritchett. They’re my peers on different sites, but we all get together and one of the things that we do is through our audiences, we teach, we send out emails, we send out our internal documentation and sometimes we set up a lunch and learn. We buy them food and we talk to them for a while. Then, once that information trickles out, people come to me and say, “I saw this thing about mobile-first indexing. Can you talk to me more about it?” It’s like going back to my days in PSYOP, it’s about information dissemination what are the most effective channels in order to reach my target audience with the information that they can use.

Are people generally interested in the information you’re sharing?

I have found my experience at Red Hat to be incredibly accommodating. These are forward-thinking, collaborative people that I work with. At Red Hat, we have this thing called the open decision framework. It’s actually on GitHub if you look for it. The open decision framework is a process by which, we had our meetings, we had large decision-making processes and so it allows for debate. It allows for the friction that I talked about, but also kind of keeps in mind that everyone has a voice, everyone has an opinion about how things need to get done. It’s a very collaborative, very open process.

In previous positions, there have been sticks in the mud. I’m not going to name any names, but one of the jobs I worked at previously was a large international retailer and my second experience of working with site search. The development team had worked with an agency before who were just garbage. They were one of those SEO agencies that would build a custom dynamic page for every single keyword that they could grab with their little grubby hands in Google Analytics. It was horrible and so our rankings tanked, our authority tanked and we got rid of the agency and they brought me on board.

[When I joined] the development staff were like, “Oh geez, another one of these people!” so rather than, you know, walk in and put up my hands on my hips and say, “I am the God of SEO and you need to do what I say!”, I said, “Okay, let’s talk about, what our common goals are because you guys have been here for a long time”. They wanted a reliable, stable, fast website that converts. And I’m like, “Fantastic! Let’s build some tasks around these goals and I stopped talking about SEO and started talking about user experience, but using my technical SEO knowledge, knowing my platform knowledge, knowing my keyword knowledge. I used all these different things to assist them in doing what they wanted to do.

We identified areas where there was code bloat, removed them, did some externalization and modification. Rather than walking in and saying, “I’m an SEO expert and all I care about is Google.”, It’s more like I care about the users and I care about you. After a year of that, you know, they trusted me and it was like if JP says something, there’s generally going to be a reason why he’s saying that, so let’s listen to him. And so this audience of sceptical people who are pissed off changed into advocates and saying, “We all have the same goals, let’s work together. It doesn’t matter what we call it.”.

It took a whole year to get to that point. I would like to say that I am a fairly persuasive person, but maybe it says more about that agency. Maybe they were that bad, that the trust level, the bar was so low.

Do you have any SEO disaster stories you can share with us?

With the same [eCommerce] company, part of my responsibilities was working with our inventory managers and our product managers to make sure that we were balancing our inventory buys, our product buys versus rankings and traffic levels. Part of it was more about supply chain management optimization as opposed to SEO.

I became friends with my counterparts at another large competitor, an eCommerce company, and he and I would have these monthly contests where we’d pick a keyword and see who can rank better. Whoever won, was sent a case of beer by the other person.

We decided that we needed to up our game, so we decided that we’re going to go for some really top tier keywords and I’ll say that I was working for a bicycle retailer. We had never ranked for the term on page one for bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes or kids bikes. You’re competing with Amazon at this point. I noticed that when you’re looking at these particular SERPs, it’s like “Road Bikes – [brand]”, “Mountain Bikes – [brand]”. I’m like, “This is garbage!”, so I started including things like reliable, durable, affordable bikes for kids, for road bikes. I started optimising for emotion, intent and audience – the marketing part in search marketing.

Within three months, we were number one for road bikes. We were number one for kids bikes. We were number one for mountain bikes. I continued this and then we’re getting crazy traffic and our conversion optimization was really good. I got called into the CEO’s office and I’m sitting there like, “I did this, I’m proud of myself.” and he starts yelling at me like, “We are out of kids bikes. We cannot sell kid’s bikes because we are out, our supplies are gone.” I’m like, “No, that’s a good problem to have.” And then I started laughing and he goes, “This is no laughing matter.” So I had talked to our suppliers and managers and I felt like I’d done everything right. I’d done my job, but my CEO was like, “Don’t you ever do this again? If you ever do something stupid like this…” I just thought, “Okay, it might be time to look for other opportunities.”

It turns out that our inventory managers, they didn’t think that I could do it. Then, when I did they were like, “Holy crap! We’ve got to blame somebody.” I was really upset at that point, but again, it becomes another data point in my own learning curve.

There is a bit of schadenfreude involved. I check the rankings every once in a while and like a year ago they collapsed. They actually went [back to using] old metadata. They went back to an old strategy and they just collapsed. They’re not even on the first page anymore. So I will admit to a little bit of schadenfreude there.

I’ve been pretty lucky on the tech SEO side. There really hasn’t been a lot of catastrophes, there hasn’t been a lot of robots disallowing everything. On the agency side, especially in the early days of SEO, you’d find crazy things like meta refreshes all over the place and doorway pages and mirrored sites. It was like every new client that we had, there was this kickoff with where we had to ask them if there were any problems that we had to solve. That baptism of fire really prepared me for being an inhouse SEO where I have control over my own universe. If I can control my universe and not have any surprises then that’s where I like to live.

Does working on site search give you more empathy for search engines like Google

Absolutely. I think because I now have some experience in optimization, seeing how small changes in metadata or relevancy tuning can make things go crazy. I have a lot of empathy for Google because it’s really hard and I can be just as snarky as the next person and be like, “Oh Google, you messed this up! Hahaha! Look at you! You’re supposed to be so bright!” Then I look at my own site and I think maybe I should be nicer.

For me, the biggest thing that I get from working on site search is understanding how hard intent detection actually is and parsing language in a way that reveals intent. That’s really hard. When you have a search engine, for example, which is built on an open source search platform like Solar.

We have access to all of the knobs and levers to make ranking decisions and so we experiment with machine learning. We experiment with all of these with artificial boosts. We experiment with biases. We experiment on the UI and UX side, we experiment with knowledge graphs. One real example is when people search for a product, let’s say one of our products is called Satellite [inaudible] and when we would get a high volume of searches for just “satellite”.

While we’re building results based off of our content, we don’t know if they’re looking for troubleshooting, installation, migration or just to download. We have no idea based off of that one word. So we start calling them high volume, low intent and how do we solve that low intention problem? I built a knowledge graph that appears kind of like Google’s knowledge graph like when you search for an actor and they’re like, here’s a picture, here’s their birthday.

What we did is take a look at where people go after they search with “satellite” and then we populated our own knowledge graph with that kind of content. What we found was that when that knowledge graph appeared, we had a 60 to 70% clickthrough rate because we were essentially answering an implied question that the user may not have explicitly searched for. So looking at the positive space versus looking at the words, looking with the content and looking at the negative space of what aren’t people saying and what can I do to collect information about what they’re saying.

For example, let’s say people searching for the word “satellite”, 80% of them go to the download button. Then we take that information using some of the machine learnings. We can bubble up and maybe bias the download link into our SERP. It feels like squeezing a balloon. I get the same amount of contact. Once you squeeze one end, the other end gets bigger. So how do you make that more prominent? Overall it’s about connecting people to the information that they’re looking for, whether or not they explicitly say it or not.

How would you recommend people to improve site search if building their own knowledge graph isn’t a possibility?

That’s a real gap in the market. Site search isn’t something that a lot of people really talk about. The intention is basically like it’s a plug and play kind of situation and like, “Okay, now I’ve plugged in search and I plugged into the Analytics” they generally don’t look at it too deeply. There’s not a lot of good [site search solutions] on the enterprise level when you have teams, when you have relevancy engineers when you have developers, it’s not hard to build these things.

Part of my focus in the next year is to take some of the things that we’ve built and open source them. My goal by next year is to have an open-source version of our knowledge graph that will work on different CMSs, that will work on enterprise and small to medium-size businesses.

Honestly, there’s a little bit of selfishness happening here because, if I could open source it, then I would get a lot of different people looking at it and there’s a lot of people who are contributing ideas. By open-sourcing it, by connecting with the community who actually want to improve I can get a better product that is more useful to more people and that increases my level of expertise. That increases my level of knowledge and that ultimately allows me to do my job better. Honestly, Red Hat pays me. I don’t need to go off and branch off on some risky venture of some crazy plugin.

Do you have any advice for SEOs to help them work more efficiently with these other teams?

My one caveat is always, your mileage may vary. I’ve always been a very open, transparent and collaborative person. I don’t see SEO as a strategy, I see SEO as a tactic. It’s fine to have an SEO strategy, but that is not a business strategy. I think SEO is essentially a force multiplier. It makes the things that you do better. It connects people to information better, faster and more reliably. So when going into a fairly sceptical or hostile environment, I really try to step back and look at it from a very business-oriented perspective that connects to a human perspective.

I’ll bring back a little of my army experience. It’s like the people pack your parachutes. They are incredibly important people. You don’t want to piss them off. They are just as important as your direct action people. I view SEO as almost like a parachute packer or as somebody who takes a product, optimizes it to the point where it is clean, fast and flawless and deploys quickly.

I try to surround myself with smart people, areas that I am not as smart in. For example, Jamie Alberico if I have any JavaScript questions, I go to her. When I have questions about architecture, I go to Jenny Halasz, I go to Barry Adams. When I have questions on content strategy and conversion optimization, I talk to people like Casie Gillette. Humility, is the key thing, realizing that you’re not going to be an expert in everything. Like your presentation on automating SEO reporting. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to set aside some time to really focus on that because that’s going to save me so much time and it’s going to make everything better.”

I look at people who have their recognized expertise and I tried to build relationships with them so that overall the body of knowledge can increase. When people talk about site search, they’re like, “Oh, I’ll talk to JP!”. It’s super cliche, but a rising tide lifts all ships, so let’s not all build dams and levers.

My hypothesis is that when I’m working on site search, your site can be better than Google’s because they have to deal with everything. They have to make rules for everything. Your business doesn’t, and your business knows your customers, your buzz, your business has a relationship with customers and they generally know what they’re looking for. By focusing some effort and resources on site search, your site results can be better than Google’s. You have a much closer connection to the user and a closer connection to the content. While I think Google does things at scale really well, when it comes to like getting laser-focused on what your customers are looking for, you can be better than Google.

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A massive thank you to JP for being such a fantastic guest and teaching us so much about his wide and varied experiences working on internal search. You can find more episodes of Open Dialog here on the DeepCrawl Blog and make sure to be the first to find out about new episodes by joining our mailing list.

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