Joost de Valk: Hey everyone, welcome to yet another episode of the Yoast SEO podcast. Today, we are joined by an industry friend, Kevin Indig, the director of SEO for Shopify. Is that the correct title Kevin? Because you only just moved there. 

Kevin Indig: That’s right. Yeah I joined in December and that’s the right title.

Joost de Valk: You joined in December. So you’ve been there for four months. Can you take us along a bit on what your road has been to this role? 

Kevin Indig: Yes, absolutely. Shopify is one of the companies where onboarding takes a little while and some say that you never fully onboard, right? That you never get to a hundred percent. It’s probably a myth. I think that’s pretty accurate. There is a lot to learn, which is amazing. I consider myself somebody who enjoys getting a lot of input and storing all that. I take a lot of notes. There’s a lot of input at Shopify. We have our internal podcasts with Toby and other people from the company. Most often Harley, the president. We have a full kind of internal Wiki where you can read about anything that’s going on in the company. We have lots of articles and just other stuff that we could over time. 

My first week on Fridays, I was so smoked. I couldn’t read anything. So there’s a lot to learn a lot to do. But it’s a ton of fun. Shopify is a very principled company, very thorough and very committed, very mission driven. It’s a lot of fun. I worked at Atlassian a couple of years ago and it reminds me a lot, it’s the same type of engineering culture. So it’s a good time. 

Joost de Valk: Cool! And as you said, you worked at Atlassian, what other companies have you worked at? You worked at G2 before you were at Shopify I think?

Kevin Indig: Yeah, that’s right. G2, a B2B marketplace for software. That was a fantastic experience. Before that I spent a couple of years at Atlassian. Before that I had a short stint at Dailymotion, which was a YouTube competitor. They were bought by a conglomerate and then they closed the office and I wanted to stay in the Bay area so that’s why I left the company. Before that actually I worked for Search Metrics which I’m sure many from the SEO universe are familiar with. 

Joost de Valk:  Yes it’s a very small world in a way. I keep running into the same people at the same companies all the time. And it’s funny because I’ve definitely interacted with the Dailymotion API online. I’ve used Search Metrics. I use Jira on a daily basis and I’m not really sure if I’m happy with that, but I do. So I keep running into all your products. I don’t know what that is.

Kevin explaining his passion for SEO

Kevin Indig: I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily my products. I had the pleasure of helping them grow. But yeah, it was very fortunate in my career, very exposed to different types of companies and business models. Even at Search Metrics, I had the opportunity to work with large brands and companies like eBay, for example, or Pinterest. I think that was a huge accelerator of my understanding of SEO and of my career, because I had the chance to do open-heart surgery at some of the largest, most trusted and reputable brands out there. It’s just a different experience you collect, because when you work on such a site, the insights you get, the kind of experiments you can run, really help shape your understanding.

Joost de Valk: Yeah, I have the same experience. So I’ve worked on eBay as well, I think about a decade before you. That’s why I have all these grey hairs. And later on at The Guardian. I’ve explained it to some other SEOs, it’s like doing SEO with God mode on. Because you can make basically everything rank, if you focus on the single page. But you’re never focusing on a single thing, you’re focusing on how can I make this bucket of a thousand keywords do better? Or how can I test this bucket versus that bucket? It’s a completely different world than what most people see as SEO, I think. 

Kevin Indig: Yeah and that’s exactly what I’m so passionate about. It’s that kind of systems thinking or looking at systems, instead of saying: Hey, here are 10 keywords that are crucial for the business, how can we get them on page one? Every business has some of their core keywords that are really important, but this idea of systematically looking at a site that’s what I find that is so much more fascinating and interesting. 

How Kevin starts an SEO process

Joost de Valk: Where do you start with a process like that? Is there a given spot where you always start?

Kevin Indig: Follow the money, baby! It’s always revenue, right? It’s always a bottom line. Always figuring out how to make an impact. There are lots of whens and ifs to that, right? It has to be sustainable and you don’t want to stray into any dark patterns, black hat tactics, and all that kind of stuff. That’s also a way to drive money, but not for a long time. That’s where I start. What drives money? What has the biggest impact? From there, you venture into the biggest opportunities and the biggest potential. Whether that’s from a keyword perspective or it’s from a content perspective, what types of content, different types of pages, but it really depends on the business model from there.

Then I distinguish between three types of businesses out there in the world. There are aggregators like Google or Facebook and Amazon. They basically channel and they bundle demand, which gives them control over supply. The internet enabled them to do that with a zero marginal cost and basically free distribution.

On the other side are integrators. Really good examples for that are New York Times, Disney maybe Apple to some degree. Those companies are the best practices for unique and extremely valuable content, and they really care all about their relationship with the customer.

And then there’s a third type of companies which becomes increasingly more successful. Those are platforms like a Stripe or like a Shopify. They enable other businesses to do the best work possible. Maybe Yoast is a good example for that too, maybe to a degree.

The interesting thing is that the approach for SEO, growth, anything is fundamentally different when it comes to aggregators and integrators. I would consider most SaaS companies to be integrators with some exceptions. Atlassian was a mix of both. You had, for example Jira which was marketed predominantly with a SaaS like, or integrator approach, but then you also had a Trello with millions of public instances, which follows more of an aggregator model.

Those are the two kinds of mental models that I apply, when it comes to opportunities and how to approach SEO once you identify how to make money. 

Joost de Valk: Okay. So let’s distinguish between the two. If you have either one of them, as you said, most companies will probably be more on the integrator side because none of them are big enough to be aggregators that are not killed by Google. If you are on the integrator side, that means that you have to really value your relationship to your customer. How do you work that stuff into a keyword strategy, into SEO? 

Kevin Indig: Yes, that’s a very good question. You’re absolutely right, ratio for the customer is crucial, but the content and the product you provide are also crucial.

So the thing with integrators is that they have a clear product-market fit. There’s no doubt about that. Like Disney, one of the hottest companies out there right now from so many different angles and maybe it’s also because I’m a huge fan, so maybe I’m a bit biased, but they’re doing a fantastic job.

The launch of Disney+, has been.. I think I’m not sure if we yet acknowledged how big of a business move that actually was. It seems a bit like the follower strategy when you compare it to Netflix or HBO. But in the grand scheme of things, that Disney ecosystem and how they place Disney+ into that is just absolutely phenomenal.

To make that a bit more tangible. A SaaS company when it comes to content, they have to ask themselves: Hey, are we really creating the best content in the world or not? I would argue that we are at a point where there’s not a lot of in between anymore. It’s a real winner takes it all. You either have the best content out there or you don’t, and then you have to get there. 

That’s the level that we have achieved and it’s for various reasons. One is that the barrier to entry is lower than ever. Anybody can create content whether that’s audio or video written content anyway, anybody can distribute it. And at the same time, Google is a zero sum game. There are only 10 results. There’s a bit of variance in some sort of features. Sometimes there are eight, sometimes there are 12, but let’s just stick to the average which I would say is still 10 results. That means there’s only 10 winners for any given keyword. That limits the number of winners tremendously. We also know that there is a power curve. Meaning that the top results get by far the most clicks. So if you don’t have the best content you can’t win and you cannot build a solid relationship with the customer in an integrator or SaaS concept.

Alternatives for Google’s search engine

Joost de Valk: In many ways that’s also the problem, because we only have one real search engine left for most of these things. As I said pre-show, you just wrote an article about Neeva, a new search engine that’s coming up. It might actually be good if we had a couple more search engines that drive traffic to people so that we could have some different results. Because it’s sometimes shocking to me, and I’d love to hear your opinion, that we’re all in such a Google world. 

Kevin Indig: Yeah, it is truly shocking. I think a moment that I realized that recently, was when I tried out Neeva and I was like, the user interface looks a bit different. But I wasn’t really able to pinpoint what exactly looked different or why it felt so foreign. Then I realized it was just simply because I’ve been using Google for the last 10 years. I don’t know how many times a day, it could be a hundred times or 50 times a day. 

Anyway, I think I agree with you. I think there’s not a lot of diversity in search out there. And most players so far are basically trying to out Google Google, which you will not be able to do right.

There’s this concept out there of a business mode, which basically describes competitive advantages that businesses can build. Google has a ton of strong modes that I would argue, you cannot outspend Google really. The amount of data that Google has, integrations and all that kind of stuff. I don’t see a search company really coming close to that. So Neeva is an interesting counterbalance because it is not a product that tries to come around with greater features. Even though it has some really cool new features, but it has a different monetization model, right?

It is an ad free search engine that you will eventually pay for. Probably under $10, which the founder said. I think it’s very interesting. I think it fits into the zeitgeist. You see the New York Times switching to subscriptions, you see many others Wallstreet Journal and so on, I think Financial Times as well. There are good examples of great publishers that switched to subscriptions. The SaaS model is more successful than ever. 

So I think we’re reaching a time where people might be more prone to pay for services again, instead of taking ads. So I think Neeva is interesting because the experience is very smooth, you don’t have ads. At the same time, they don’t face the same struggle that Google faces, which is that Google is basically a victim of its own success. 

So Google I would consider probably the most successful startup in history. I don’t know another company that has consistently the same growth year over year. 20% every time, it is absolutely outstanding. And yet, they’re a victim of their own success because they were predominantly on one source of revenue. Over 80% of revenue still comes from search ads and Google failed to diversify those income streams. 

Now they’re slowly turning it around. Google cloud has a bigger impact on our total revenue. And YouTube also pushes subscriptions forward. So even Google tries in some corners to go down the subscription route because they realize that ads are basically a losing game, right? You can only make more money through ads if you show more ads. So the user experience suffers and at some point you’re just trying to squeeze out drops. It’s really a race to the bottom of my mind. 

So that’s the challenge that Google faces. Neeva doesn’t have that challenge. They can rely on subscription revenue to be fair. They’re still in alpha mode, right? So the verdict is still out, but I love that concept. I think that they actually have a chance to become a legit alternative to Google. 

How the SEO world becomes more interesting as a whole

Joost de Valk: One of the things I was playing with in my mind was, what if Apple bought Neeva? I think Apple doing a subscription type search engine would be everything the web needs in many ways, because you need a powerful player to play against Google. Microsoft has been trying this for years under utterly failing by doing what you’re saying indeed by continuously trying to out Google Google, which is just stupid. Even all the changes to Bing webmaster tools make it look more like Google search console, and I’m just going: why?!

I see that and I’m just hoping for something like that to happen. For someone to really up the ante. When you say Google is the most successful startup, I think the only other company that comes close is Amazon. Who have in many ways also become the search engine for e-commerce. They both have the same result in that they are both, in a way, ultimately capitalistic in that they are driving to zero margins for all their vendors. 

Kevin Indig: Yes, it is a challenge. And I agree with you. I think Amazon is probably one of the few companies that has reached a similar level. You could group Facebook into it as well. But yeah, it’s interesting from so many different perspectives. From one perspective, yes, it’s the same concept where aggregators eventually squeeze suppliers because they own demand. That’s the playbook. Whether they willfully squeeze suppliers or not. I think that’s debatable. I don’t subscribe to the whole Google is evil and Amazon just wants to kill everyone. Yet the reality is that as a merchant on Amazon, you compete with a ton of other merchants, just one click away. Which in part is why Shopify was born, it’s the counterbalance to aggregators, right? Shopify is a platform, trying to empower single merchants. 

At the same time what is also very interesting is the dynamics between Amazon and Google.  Amazon is still one of the biggest spenders on Google Ads, but also dominates e-commerce, which Google has always been trying to figure out but never really got it to work. Now Amazon is also becoming one of the biggest ad marketplaces or ad platforms. So the dynamics are shifting, and that is interesting and important for a couple of reasons.

If you really think about it, the last I would say probably 8 to 10 years, we’ve been suffering under legit consumer platforms stagnation. There was not a lot of movement out there because all the big platforms killed all the upstarts or bought them. Facebook and Snapchat are good examples. I think Google and YouTube and then Facebook and Instagram are great examples and who knows how many other platforms would have had, if the big companies wouldn’t have bought them, integrated them, or sunsetted them. And now, through TikTok  which is a platform that had to come from Asia, that’s slowly starting to break up the ecosystem a little bit. And Twitter all of a sudden is shipping new features. Clubhouse is coming out of nowhere. LinkedIn is launching some features. 

So it’s becoming more interesting as a whole. It’s important for us as SEOs because it provides more environments to drive traffic from. But also just for startups in general, because if the ways you can grow are too concentrated, you very quickly get into these winner-take-it-all or zero-sum games which are just very hard to win and you need to force or buy your way in, sometimes. So it’s an exciting time, is what I’m trying to say. 

Joost de Valk: Yeah, I agree. It’s very cool to see all these changes go. Honestly, while I don’t really understand TikTok, I do like Clubhouse. My kids love TikTok and I have enough grey hairs now that I can say that it’s their thing and not mine. But I look at it and I keep on thinking, how can it be that this is the thing that grows and all these other things don’t. That’s probably the part where you’re right, because this is the one that didn’t get bought. 

Kevin Indig: Yes it didn’t get bought. Also, it fits the zeitgeist once again, pretty well. It’s a short form video format, which Google by the way, tries to eliminate as well with some of their web stories. It’s difficult to kickstart. They’re trying to force their way in, but it’s short form stories, it’s meme culture to the finest. 

I remember when I was in college, it was almost 15 years ago, I would sit in the back of the class if there was a boring class and I would stare at cat memes and laugh my butt off. And all my peers were like, dude, what are you looking at cat pictures for? They were not on this kind of meme bandwagon yet. But I was fully hooked. I recognize that same kind of behavior on TikToK. It’s also remix culture, which you haven’t found that much before. Now on TikToK. people record themselves and their reactions just to other videos, or they take a video and remix it and make it something new. A very interesting approach. There are really cool videos out there of the original founders of Musical.ly and it’s fascinating how they set the culture and understand teens and where they add and all the challenges, it’s amazing to watch.

Long story short, to bring this back to an SEO context. I think that’s another challenge or maybe the challenge of a trend that we see, which is the change from text to video and audio. That’s actually something that Google is very aware of. I wrote this long article about their keynote on the IO conference in 2019, where they very deliberately and explicitly said that they see some of the bigger trends out there. One of them is the change from text to images and videos in more richer formats. You see that in the search results as well, where you see more and more videos. You have this new moments video feature that Google displaced. And I would argue, I don’t have the data for it yet, but I would argue that even a lot of featured snippets might be replaced with video over time, because it’s just a much more accessible format that’s easier to consume in many cases.

I think TikTok fits that trend and that bill just perfectly and now all the other platforms are trying to find their format in that. 

Joost de Valk: It’s funny because what Google is trying to do is to get people to highlight the moments in the video that people want to see. So these clips that they allow you to highlight in YouTube most easily. It’s just a way for consumers to, once again, tell them exactly where the good stuff is because they can’t figure it out themselves. It is a really interesting thing to look at, but I think it’s very powerful. We’ve been looking at it. Recently I had Phil Nottingham on the show and we talked about video SEO for a while. We’re working with him on improving some of this stuff that we do at Yoast ourselves. 

And actually what drives me nuts is that Google puts out the schema for these clips and all these video platforms don’t jump on it. They just look at it and think maybe we’ll implement that. And I’m just, why not? Why aren’t you doing this? Here you get the chance to be on par with YouTube in the search results, and you’re not taking it. You’re not just not helping yourself. You’re also not helping your customers.

Kevin Indig: Yeah, I totally agree. If you look at all the YouTube competitors, they all changed their business models over time. It’s the same thing with Google. There is no YouTube in YouTube. I can say, I worked at Dailymotion, we looked at it in depth. We spent a lot of time there and money into looking does YouTube get an unfair advantage or how can we potentially beat them? At some point due to the network effects and the modes that they have built for themselves, it’s just impossible at this point. But I agree with you. It’s still a tremendous chance. 

If you think about it, this reminds me a lot of the situation that we had when Google started to show images in organic search. There was a time that that was not the case. It’s long ago, a lot of people might not remember, but there was a time when vertical searches still had walls between them. News, images, all that kind of stuff. Then Google started to show images. 

I remember I was working on the agency side at the time. We were thinking about, Hey, this is basically a way to crack the top three results. If there’s an image carousel or even a single image shown at the top. It’s the same with video. In a lot of cases, it’s a way that if you cannot organically compete, you can compete on another platform, on YouTube, and rank highly and get a ton of clicks. It’s a bit of a different environment because it’s hard to convert people from that video. So in that sense it’s different. But it fosters tremendous opportunity and SEOs and companies need to rethink that, right? So whenever Google makes these bigger changes and these tectonic shifts, it shuffles the cards because it levels the playing field. Then it’s a race of who can figure it out the fastest, not just from an algorithm perspective, but from a sheer execution perspective. Who can set up a production studio? Who can record these videos? And there’s a lot of potential out there. 

We saw this, for example, at G2. For more and more software keywords, Google would show videos. Some of these videos were five years old, recorded with a phone camera, just a guy in front of the whiteboard explaining some stuff. You can easily beat that, but the execution part that’s really difficult. And then figuring out how to get people from that video back to your site to convert that is also really difficult. I see that as a big part of the future, when it comes to SEO, it’s richer formats and figuring out how to run a coherent strategy, where they go hand-in-hand with organic results and paid results at the same time. 

How Shopify merchants can use video for SEO

Joost de Valk: Now let’s bring that, exactly what you’re just saying, to Shopify. How would a merchant on Shopify do that? Does that mean that they’ll have to make product videos? 

Kevin Indig: That’s such a good question. I love how you bring that back. And to a degree I would say yes. I think one thing that I’ve clearly seen is that the merchants who can display their products in the best ways, are more likely to win. 

So it’s not just about high definition, high quality product shots, but also shots from different angles and maybe a video too. There’s some really cool videos, I think Nike does that pretty well. They don’t just show a person wearing the piece, but the person moves around a little bit and twists and turns and walks. If you think about it, it’s a bit weird. I don’t know how they shoot these videos, but as a consumer, I love it. Cause I can see how the product really changes when you wear it and how it looks and feels. So I think that will definitely give you an advantage. 

But from a merchant perspective there’s another challenge that merchants face and that’s the zero sum game nature of Google, right? Not everybody can rank at the top for men’s sneakers or women’s dresses or that kind of stuff. Merchants need to figure out what kind of niche or vertical they can really truly dominate. From there, honestly, I would say video is fantastic for e-commerce, streaming is fantastic for e-commerce. 

There’s this store in Frankfurt, Germany, my family lives in Germany. I was born and raised there. My mom goes to the store where they sell some designer pieces, a bit more expensive. When the pandemic broke out the store owner recorded Instagram stories every day, like maybe 10 in a row, just showing new products, wearing them displaying and explaining and blah, blah, blah. That was so well done and that’s exactly how I think merchants should think.

Provide an almost like interactive experience, show maybe even how the product is being created, show what it looks like, how people use it, obviously, depending on your products. This is so much easier to do in video. So that’s why I’m saying yes, because I think video is a fantastic format to play a product and eventually integrate on your product landing pages or homepage to then also get the SEO benefit.

The way Shopify sees the success of its merchants 

Joost de Valk: So Shopify has seen pretty big growth in the last year or so. From the outside in, the numbers look ridiculous. A lot of those stores must not have all that much potential. At the same time, there are probably stores between there that’ll become really big. Do you look at it like that from within Shopify or do you just view every merchandise as equal? Or how do you look at all those merchants? 

Kevin Indig: It’s interesting because we look at merchants as in that there are different types of merchants. One principle that I found across all areas of business, whether it’s SaaS companies, SEO keywords, or merchants, is that you find power curves. Power curves mean non-linear distributions, meaning there’s a small group that owns a big piece of the pie. And then there’s a large group that owns a small piece of the pie. You have the same with the short head and long tail in SEO. SaaS companies consolidate, right? There’s this explosion where you have thousands of SaaS companies, but most of them are small integrations and a few of them are huge platforms. The same happens in the merchant universe where obviously you have some players like the Allbirds, Gymshark who are vastly successful global brands and they get a lot of market share in the respective vertical. 

At the same time you have this long tail of smaller merchants who still have a great business. I’m saying we look at different merchants because not every merchant aspires to become a global brand. A lot of merchants are just local businesses who want to sell online. And that is easy to underestimate. How big that layer of the cake is of small local merchants who want to sell to a relatively narrow target group and who now just bring their business online, especially during the pandemic. That trend is huge. We’ve seen the numbers and it’s something that basically jumps 10 years into the future. It’s not a bell curve type of distribution where it comes back down again. This is a leap forward that then just continues to grow linearly as before.

Joost de Valk: One of the things that I find very interesting looking here locally, I get the question an awful lot: WooCommerce or Shopify? For obvious reasons. People are just building their shop. They’re asking me like, what should I do for SEO? And I’m like: the first thing you should probably do is just be yourself and show why I should buy from my local store. Because I know you, so I want to see you. That’s one of the things that I think a lot of these things actually do wrong, is that they try to become Amazon instead of trying to be that local brand. 

Kevin Indig: You’re absolutely spot on, 100%. They’re trying to commoditize supply. But that doesn’t work, right? Because as you said, before the pandemic you step in the front door of your local baker and maybe your local mom and pop shop and carpenter and whatnot. These are people or businesses you build relationships with. In some cases your father or mother bought from those same businesses, you grew up as a child remembering those businesses. They went to the baker and he gave you like a, I dunno, like a free, small little croissant. It’s these kind of little memories and all these things that you want to bring online now.

That’s interesting because we’re at this inflection point right now where the world basically makes a big leap toward being digital and living online. The first step in that leap, you see it with remote companies as well, is to just try to mirror what you did offline and that doesn’t work as well. You need to create, you need to represent yourself in a new way. That’s exactly what you’re talking about and it’s a bit of a missed opportunity to highlight your history. To highlight yourself. Why you do this type of stuff, how you create the product. 

Think about a local merchant if they explain to me the material they use to stitch together the shoes and all that kind of stuff, I find that very interesting and I find that very appealing. So there’s a lot of potential that I don’t think most merchants harvest yet. 

Shopify’s growth during the pandemic

Joost de Valk: Yeah there is loads of potential. What we’ve seen is with all these shops coming online, is a huge growth in e-commerce as part of the web. You might have seen or not have seen, I do this twice a year, this overview of the biggest CMS’s on the planet. And you just see Shopify and WooCommerce, both have gigantic growth within that.

Now, admittedly those only look at like the top 10 million websites in the world. So they only look at the most trafficked sites. Not a whole lot of Shopify shops will not show up in that ranking, so you’ve probably grown harder than what that reflects. But it is interesting to see that even in that top 10 million sites, the number of e-commerce sites has just grown exponentially.

So much more of our time spent online is spent shopping now than it was before. I’m very curious where this’ll go after and when we can all go outside again. You’re in the States, so you’ve probably been vaccinated already or close to, we’re a bit away from that, unfortunately.

Kevin Indig: Yeah it’s a shame. We will get there. It’s interesting because it is our mission at Shopify to make e-commerce better for everyone. I would love to show people how much we live that internally and show all the crazy stories that we tell and data that we show to make it really explicit.

Part of the reason for why we subscribe to that mission is because we think that e-commerce or trading and being a merchant is almost innate to being a human being. It goes back thousands of years ago, where humans started to form tribes to trade and form relationships and language to trade. So much of our development came from sheer trading, even the establishment of cities and all that kind of stuff. It’s deep! 

And we think that in this digital world this aspect of humanity is not represented accurately. Not to the degree that it should be. Basically everybody should be able to sell online and trade online and become a merchant if they want to and choose to. That’s the mission that Shopify subscribes to.

There’s a vast potential out there. I think it’s a huge market if you think about it from that perspective. We see that e-commerce is just growing altogether and that’s not just because of the pandemic. Sure, that’s an accelerator, but that trend had started before. We see all these new, interesting things like video e-commerce and streaming and all this kind of stuff come together. So it’s a very exciting time to be in. 

I’m excited to see how we’ll continue after the pandemic. My story is that a lot of people got a taste of what it’s like to order your groceries online, or buy pretty much everything online and get it delivered and shipped very quickly and efficiently. I think that most people will keep it that way because they realize how they save time, maybe even money, how they find the greatest selection of products. So it’s going to be a really interesting time. 

And yeah I’m in Chicago. I just got my first vaccine shot two weeks ago, getting the second one in another two weeks. So I’m very grateful for that. But also rooting for Europe to catch up I hope it will happen soon.

Joost de Valk: Yeah, I hope so too. It’s a bit annoying that we suddenly became last in class in a way. It’s not really where we want to be normally. It’s funny what you’re saying, because it reminds me of one of my all time favorite books about the web, the Cluetrain manifesto, which is very old by now. I think it’s from 1990 or something. It talks very much about marketplaces and how basically we moved marketplaces online, but one of the things that I find interesting in there, is that part of the discussion is always you have B2B and B2C. But what the Cluetrain manifesto said was like even in B2B, every relationship is still between humans. You’re always going to have to convince that human to buy something or to do something. Basically a lot of those lessons always apply to pretty much everything. 

How Kevin spends his time on SEO at Shopify 

How much of your time is spent at Shopify on content SEO versus on technical stuff? Is there a big difference?

Kevin Indig: Good question. I have a dedicated content SEO team and have a dedicated technical SEO team. To be fair, actually, we have a content SEO team for the English speaking markets, another one for non-English and then a technical SEO team. It varies from site to site. At Shopify, we have lots of sites. It’s not only Shopify.com. We have a lot of other ones as well. We have some sites that follow more of the integrator model and then a few that follow the aggregator model. We have Burst for example which aggregates ‘images”. It’s a stock photography platform, like a Pexels or Unsplash or so.

So the degree of technical SEO varies from site to site, both are important. I do see it as technical SEO really building a strong foundation and infrastructure that content can then be put on top of. Now as a SaaS like company, content is a huge driver of growth for us. But we also have a couple of other drivers. We were building some very impactful tools that are very important for us and that work really well. I think honestly, tools and widgets celebrate a little bit of a comeback  SEO. I remember when I started out, there was a way to drive backlinks and then it was this long period where nobody really invested in tools. Now I have the feeling that kind of comes back. 

We see some really good applications on the web with major value that drive links, but also traffic. We have a multitude of ways to grow. And technical SEO is ingrained and embedded in each and all of these, there’s a big mandate technical SEO has. Content is what we put on top there. There’s a lot going on in terms of content from various blocks that we have and other more I would say static formats that we employ and follow. I think we have a high fidelity when it comes to content and our keyword strategy. We look at it just the way that I described initially, we think about what has impact, what is very close to a potential merchant conversion? But then on the other hand, what are all the big problems that merchants are dealing with? And those are vast.

Those also depend on the platforms and channels that they distribute their products through. That can be Instagram, Google Ads, these kinds of marketing channels, but can also be the basics about how do you grow a business? How do you manage a business? How do you plan a business if you haven’t started it?

So we try to reflect all these aspects in our content and we source these ideas and keywords from various sources. We have web surveys from merchants. We have other ways to understand what merchants are dealing with. Then we have quantified data to just see what merchants consume most of the time. That’s how we look at content and technical SEO. 

What added SEO value Shopify offers merchants

Joost de Valk: Okay and when you talk about content SEO for shopify.com, is that the site itself and the other platforms you have, or is that content SEO for your merchants as well? 

Kevin Indig: It is predominantly for Shopify.com and the other sites that we have. A little piece of our time goes into merchant SEO as well, which is much more technical in nature. That’s where we want to empower merchants, not force them to do a certain thing, but give them options if possible. We have a couple of cool things coming out this year, which I’m really excited about, but at the end of the day, it’s really helping merchants navigate this zero-sum game that we talked about before.

Letting them build their shop the way that they want to. But then over time, we’ll also think about how we can give them valuable information to make their choices even better. At the end of the day, we want to get merchants to their first sale as quickly as possible, but from there also help them to build a sustainable business. That’s not just necessarily a site, unless that’s what you choose to do, then that’s fine as well. 

Joost de Valk: Would you describe that as one of your magic moments or however you call it within Shopify getting your first sale, is that an important metric for you?

Kevin Indig: Without a doubt. Absolutely. You see it in the app too. When you sell a product, you get this little ring and little kind of interaction there. That’s addictive to some merchants, which is amazing, right? You should make money and you should sell. That’s the core of the business. So yes, for us it’s definitely something that we look at and that we try to understand better. 

It’s almost like writing, the first sentence should get people to read the second sentence. We look at it the same way, how do you get from a first sale to a second sale, to your first 100 sales and all this kind of stuff. Obviously the more sustainable merchants sales are, the better they retain with Shopify. That’s the beauty about the platform model. It’s like the more successful merchants are, the more successful are we. We don’t have to worry about competition or anything like that. 

Joost de Valk: I think that’s the biggest distinguishing factor between a platform model where the success of your customers is your success and the Google model, where your customers are basically the one you’re squeezing.

I agree with what you said before about that, I don’t subscribe to Google as evil either. I don’t even think they’re coherent enough to be able to be evil. But it is very much that they have to squeeze some margins out of their customer to be successful. And for you, it’s very much the success of your users is your success. I think that is a really big driving difference in the long-term. I hope that form of business will win a bit more. But yeah, we’ll see where it goes. It’s definitely one of the reasons why I’m rooting for Shopify and WooCommerce to beat Amazon in many of these things.

Kevin Indig: Of course, and thanks Joost. There are lots of good solutions out there. I think it’s an interesting time because we see more traction to platform businesses in general. The same with Stripe, they have just announced another major funding round, and they’re valued at a lot of money right now. Rightfully so. They’re really building this kind of payment plumbing infrastructure for the internet. These companies are important, right? Not to toot our own horn too much, but it’s important to have different layers of society. 

You see the same thing in offline. You have a mall, especially here in the US malls are a kind of the only option sometimes, but in Europe, you have some malls and they have some mom and pop shops. You have some single stores, you have some single brands, smaller brands, and that ecosystem is important. Whenever that ecosystem gets completely out of balance, that’s when problems come up. 

It’s a fantastic time and in part the reason why I joined Shopify. I was very happy at G2 actually, but I saw all of this happening and I thought it was the chance of a lifetime, which is why I joined and I don’t regret it at all. 

Joost de Valk: No, I can understand. You get to work with another friend of mine and yourself as well, with Luc Levesque and another couple of brilliant people. So yeah I fully understand that. 

Kevin, I want to thank you. We’ve reached our time. I think I can talk to you for ages about all of this and we probably should, but not today. 

Kevin Indig: I would love to. 

Joost de Valk: So thank you and Hey everyone, if you’re listening, this is the Yoast SEO podcast. So you should subscribe in whatever your favorite podcast thingy is.

See you next time. Bye bye everyone. 



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