eBay SEO: an Interview with Dennis Goedegebuure

Hi All, Dennis G.We thought we’d share with you excerpts of a great interview that the head of eBay’s SEO team, Dennis Goedegebuure, has recently done with SEOBook about in-house SEO best practices, a lot of which is also relevant to smaller sites.  You can read the full article here.

Some of our European based affiliates will have met Dennis, as he was with us at the a4uexpo in Amsterdam last year and being from Amsterdam, he was responsible for taking us to all the bars!  Finally, if you’d like a chance to ask Dennis a question yourself, post it in the comments section and we’ll get him to answer them in a future post.

Happy reading!

You do SEO for one of the largest online websites and yet you also run a few of your own websites. How would you compare the differences between your enterprise level efforts and what the average SEO experiences working on smaller websites?

I use my own websites to test small tweaks or new techniques in the broadest definition of Internet Marketing. I’m learning everyday from other people online. It’s important to make sure you are not being focused on one traffic source too much, and not to become too specialized.

On large scale, enterprise websites it’s extremely important to think about the long term impact of certain changes. A site like eBay is like an oil tanker at sea. Where you can make fast changes on your smaller website, which can be easily rolled back, on a large site like eBay, the product roll out process is much more complex. As eBay has been a large target for phishing in the past, a great number of extra security checks are required.

For enterprise websites you would need additional skill set to be more effective. Where in the smaller websites you can rely on getting your requirements in using your technical skills talking with developers, in the larger organization you would need to manage projects and resource allocation through other managers. Those managers might have different incentives or maybe even a different political agenda. Getting your work done in that environment requires the in-house SEO to have a lot of persistence and patience.

You mentioned that people should not be too focused on any 1 traffic source online. What are some of the best things smaller businesses can do to help lessen their reliance on search? What types of businesses & products work best with leveraging eBay as a source of customers?

Link building in the broadest form. Even no-follow links will help any small business to grow in traffic. We as SEO’s are so focused on the link as a means to improve rankings, where we have forgotten the real function of a link. A link is “linking” two documents to each other for easy navigation of the user. Links are good for generating traffic. Getting more links to your pages/site, will generate more traffic. Early this year I gained a link from Valleywag to my blog. Looking back at 2009, this single link was the second source traffic to my site!

Furthermore, think about StumbleUpon. Stumbleupon can still drive a significant amount of good traffic to your site, as long as your pages are tagged in the right category in SU. I’ve sent the post from Darren Rowse, Why StumbleUpon Sends more Traffic Than Digg, to a number of starting entrepreneurs. Also Brent Csutoras had a more recent post this year how StumbleUpon is one of his major sources of traffic. Read for yourself at: The Stumble Effect: StumbleUpon Hits the Big Leagues.

“StumbleUpon is the gift that keeps on giving” I always say. One of my sites gets hit almost once a month’s with a peak of traffic from SU, (see picture below). This can be a great way of lowering the reliance of your site on search as the main source of traffic.   What all success metrics do you look at when evaluating general changes to a site of that scale?

Traffic. Traffic and conversions.

I don’t believe rankings will tell you a whole lot, as this varies too much across data centers, personal search or location based on IP targeting. Rankings can only be directional, not actionable. At eBay, the majority of traffic is on long tail keywords. The amount of keywords that we are getting traffic on, is so large, that we hardly be able to track any of the positions. So I sometimes do some rank checking with your rank checker, but only from home not from the corporate IP address. But with rankings comes traffic. So even if Rankings are not a leading indicator of your success, rankings will produce the traffic which is your objective.

Estimating traffic impact of any changes on a small site is difficult, but you can easily manage the risk rolling back any of the changes. On a large scale site, it’s much more difficult to roll back any changes in infrastructure. Even test results on my own site generally will not be a good proxy of the impact similar changes will have on the larger eBay sites.

This is where search engine guidelines and user experience will come in. Taking the long term strategic approach, we don’t want to lose rankings and we don’t want to lose traffic. What is good for our users, most of the time will be good for search engine rankings.

When you run a site that large, is there any easy way to phase in tests while minimizing risks?

No. As product life cycles are fairly long compared to other, smaller websites, there is less opportunity to test on the core site. And even if you can run a test, we have to keep in mind that more than 1.5 million people rely on their eBay sales for their primary source of income. We service these people to make sure they are successful. Driving traffic to their items for sale is our most important objective.

Now, that does not mean we don’t do test at all. We have a number of initiatives where we test, and luckily I have a VP who used to run the Natural Search channel. He understands how important testing is. We get a lot of freedom to deploy smaller initiatives off the core platform to do some testing. Actually these test projects are paying for themselves as the revenue derived from the test sites outweigh the costs in the long run.

One example of our test projects, the New-Pulse (currently we are having some smaller issues with the cronjobs, will be fixed soon) was a way to tap into the wisdom of the crowds of successful bloggers. My intention for the project was to have blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget do what they do best; bring the newest gadgets to their readers, and we analyze what products will become winners. I published about the project here, after I got questions how it worked at the Jane&Robot session in San Francisco. This particular project gave me a lot of new ideas what I can do with our internal data, and how to leverage the broader data streams that you can find all over the net.

Small anecdote; based on the insights from the New Pulse, I found out there is an active knitting community who knit socks during the months of October, calling it Socktoberfest. Pictures of the socks are being shared on Flickr. Here you can see how I picked up this trend.   When a lot of your content ends up being user generated, how do you encourage your users to optimize it to help bring in more search exposure?

Our community of sellers is extremely smart in getting more traffic to their own items. Some of them are getting really creative, and have become good Internet Marketers themselves, without even knowing it.

If you are a seller at eBay, and you would like to become successful, you would do activities that resemble the activities of most SEO’s. Keyword research, title/headline construction, quality content in the item description, good pictures for the window shopper, and maybe even some social media on- and off eBay.

However, their success stands or falls with the tools that eBay provides the sellers. For years we have special tools for the sellers that have an eBay store. Custom categories, larger images, store descriptions at the top of the page, custom page title optimization tool. We have a number of help pages describing these functions. This reminds me I have to start a project to update these!

Furthermore, eBay has a top sellers outreach team. A former colleague of mine from the International Marketing team is now working on that team. She reaches out to me pro-actively to get top ranking factors or tips into their customer outreach scripts.

Next year, we will conduct a dedicated SEO best practice sharing session with the team in Salt Lake City to educate them on SEO. While we are there, we probably will be spending some time with our Customer service representatives to understand how they can help the community of sellers becoming more successful through integrating SEO into their listings.

People sell some of the most remarkable items on eBay, and sometimes items can generate quite a bit of buzz before the listing ends. When listings end for buzz-worthy and well linked to items is there any way to capture that built up equity?

Currently, we distinguish between 3 types of View Item Pages. Open, closed, Expired.

Open, means the item is still for sale, which can be between 1-30 days, depending on the sales format. We also have a format for store listings, which has a duration of good till cancelled.

Closed, means the item has just been closed, but will be available longer for review. The content lives in the database, and the page is still available on the same URL as before. We actually see that our community finds these pages very helpful in their purchasing process to look up historical prices.

Expired, means the item is no longer available for review. The URL will give a 404 error, displaying a message the item has ended or has been removed.

There have been some attempts to capture the link equity from the buzz-worthy eBay items in the past. A couple of years ago, a project was launched called: “Best of eBay”. This was essentially a digg-kinda site, where community could vote for the best and weirdest items. Unfortunately, the site was not designed with the eBay community in mind, and poorly marketed. It failed to live up to its expectations, and the project died.

You are right that there might be a good way of capturing more of the incoming link equity on the rare and buzz-worthy items. I recently even bought a book on eBay, which listed all the rare and viral items over the years. Thinking about all the links that went to the Virgin Marry Grilled Cheese Sandwich, makes me excited. Maybe not a lot of people will be searching every day on a sandwich that displays the Virgin Marry, but at least you can sell a lot of toasters around it!

I sometimes browse around the strange items that are for sale in search for link bait ideas. The strange eBay items are a perfect fit for pure white hat link bait. Just check out this Elvis Personally owned/worn Lion Claw Necklace that sold for almost $30K, or the auction of the popular PVRblog.com site, starting at $0.99, going for more than $12K.

For 2010, I might start a new pet project that will tap into the wealth of strange and funny items getting PR attention around the globe. IMHO as long as the project drives value for our customers, it will be successful in the search engines too. And will be a lot of fun to play around with.

You guys have more data than many search engines do. How do you leverage it help define your SEO strategy?

I really love the eBay data! I have made it my mission, and a pet project, to do more with this data in the future for eBay and the seller’s community.

The eBay site is not only a marketplace, where buyers and sellers can find each other for common or rare products; eBay is also very much a search engine which reflects shopping intent. This shopping search volume is accompanied with conversion data. Based on keywords, or product searches, we track what sells and what does not get sold. Our paid search colleagues are world class in building predictive models for the conversion rate per keyword. For over 5 years, the paid search teams have squeezed more efficiency out of the paid search budgets to get more for the same investment.

On top of this predictive modeling, the technology team has build our own paid search platform, which makes it easy to scale large amounts of keywords, optimizing for the highest ROI, across multiple countries and platforms. If you have large amounts of data, it will become more important to invest as a company in analytical and technical resources. You need the analytics to understand what the data can tell you, on which you can form actionable projects to drive more efficiency. You need technology investments to build the platforms to execute against the learning’s the data has told you.

One good example of this was the outbreak of the Zhu Zhu Pets as THE toy for the Xmas shopping season this year. A large number of online data providers have reported on the popularity of the little mechanical hamster right after Black Friday/Cyber Monday. I spotted an increase in search volume on the eBay site back in September, while digging through some internal eBay search data.

Thinking about your career path and how many things worked well for you, what were some of the keys to so many things falling into place for you? If a person wants to become an enterprise level SEO, what are the key things they should focus on learning & doing?

In 2005 I read the book: “Who Moved My cheese”. This changed my life in so many ways, as it changed my attitude towards change. Change is all around us. The way you react on changes around you can impact your success in a big way. One particular rule from the book that made me change myself and the path of my life is: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

I thought that was a wise lesson, and it got me to the point in my life where I’m currently at. I had the opportunity to move to the US for a job that I wanted. If I would have acted out of my fears, I probably would not have done it. But facing the fears, and what these really were, it became really clear for me that I always could return back to The Netherlands without losing too much. If you want to become an enterprise level SEO, you should do three things:

  1. Read the book: “Never eat alone” and start learning how to build connections and relationships asap!

  2. Learn from the tech teams how scaling large websites work, and about the problems which can arise from changing the infrastructure

  3. Keep learning more SEO on a daily basis.

Dennis Goedegebuure