For many, American Eagle Outfitters is one of the first brands that comes to mind when thinking about retail stores at the local mall. Many may even remember receiving print catalogs from the brand in their mailbox going as far back as 1977. However, AEO has spent a significant amount of time scaling beyond its retail footprint to become a full-fledged e-commerce machine. The digital presence the brand built comes from a considerable investment in organic search, led by James Patterson, Senior SEO Manager for AEO. James came to American Eagle Outfitters in 2016, excited to run a core SEO team built to work at scale after spending seven years in agencies. While the company has expanded over the years to include more than 1,000 retail locations, organic search has been at the heart of its digital transformation. Botify recently hosted a fireside chat with James to discuss managing an enterprise website and team at scale.
When approaching organic search – like any other marketing channel – it’s essential to know your ultimate goal. Do you care more about branding initiatives such as awareness in the overall market or conversions/revenue? According to James, SEO can play both roles very strongly, “At AEO, we typically bucket ourselves in the acquisition role, which drives our decisions a fair share. But, sometimes we do have to advocate for the awareness play within the company.”
The more extensive conversation also depends on where SEO sits inside an organization, whether inside the performance marketing team, the content team, or a product function. Wherever the role sits, it’s crucial to understand how organic search projects tie back to the overall business and tell a story that shows the impact of small changes and large projects. “Having business understanding makes you a better SEO professional,” James said. ”The more you can tie what you’re doing to the business goals and make that happen, it will always make you better at your job.”
Of course, this is much easier for an in-house team to manage than an agency partner. “On the agency side, you write a beautiful requirements document, and you hand that off [for someone else to implement].” James continued to stress the importance of being an in-house SEO and how the responsibility you have to your organization broadens versus being a part of an external agency team. “On the in-house side, you’re required to be the champion to power what you know will make the biggest impact for the business.”
“For us,” James starts, “we know Google is hitting us mostly at the CDN/server layer. This provides different response times and experiences for the customer. There can potentially be very different status codes for a page that the bot sees versus the human. Those are the types of things we have to keep an eye on or build a safe sandbox around.” James also defines the idea of safe sandboxing as “creating an environment where you can feel safe about all of the decisions you can’t control and how they impact your production site.”
Sandboxing then becomes an essential component of your web stack because it allows you to test the potential impact of changes before on-page optimization. “A great example is a Product Page. You can ensure that the template has the correct Schema.org code implemented so that, no matter what description your writers use, search engines will always see it as the Product Description and not just some text on the page. You can then work in a parallel path to educate the writers on how to write SEO-friendly Product Descriptions.”
When you only have a small number of URLs, on-page optimization for a single page can yield the most significant returns. When you’ve got more content on your site, site-level changes like CMS or site architecture can significantly impact the bottom line. However, when you move past that “one million URL” mark, you need to look at the server or CDN level more to make significant, sustainable impacts on your business goals.
One of the hottest topics in the SEO community throughout 2021 continues to be Core Web Vitals. James, however, doesn’t think that it will make the impact that some believe it will. One of the concerns SEOs have on the tactical level with Core Web Vitals is how that will affect the AMPs they’ve worked to create. When we asked James about the role he saw AMPs playing onward, he responded that “Google has been trying to force-feed AMP on everyone for a while now. While the base idea behind AMP pages makes much sense, there are other ways to do this other than AMP. Dynamic rendering is one solution that Google started to accept as valid back in 2018.”
One of James’s biggest focuses during his chat was that enterprise websites have numerous rendering options and that the decision is a personal one for each organization. There is no one-size-fits-all solution:
“Dynamic rendering allows you to send different HTML to the bot than you do the human users. However, this is a very tricky thing to get right, so you need to dive into this conversation with a full understanding of your current challenges, internal capabilities, and budgets for moving to something like dynamic rendering. There will always be a “cost” when it comes to moving to dynamic rendering. Either you will need significant bandwidth from your internal teams to implement it, which will pull them away from other projects that could be completed, or there will be a direct financial cost if you outsource this to a third-party.”
Your website’s current speed and the speed you want your website to get to are essential parts of any rendering decisions. Creating internal standards can help, but many external services are crucial to other teams, such as munchkins that allow email tracking or ad conversion trackers. There aren’t any universal metrics that trackers – like cookies or pixels – hold themselves accountable to. “If you’re a retail website, you already have too many pixels on your website,” laughs James. “I don’t know of any third parties that honestly care enough to adhere to these standards. They just want their data and ad dollars. It is really up to you, and hopefully, you can partner with Engineering to advocate for the need to establish speed metrics as legitimate KPIs by which site decisions are made.”
Much of the success for the SEO team at AEO has been through partnerships forged with other departments. One of the tips James provided is just talking to other groups to learn their problems and process. The more you can learn about the internal process, the easier it is to collaborate for later projects where you might need their help. After all, enterprise websites often require the support of teams outside of just marketing.
James noted that a tactic for SEOs when working with different teams is to provide as much information upfront as possible when trying to get the buy-in for more significant SEO fixes. “Engineers love documentation,” he starts. For something like Core Web Vitals, “I’d start with a few analysis tools to help you get a sense of all of the things that are impacting your speed scores. Chrome Lighthouse and Google Page Speed Insights are great free tools to get you started.” James continued that you should run reports on multiple URLs across your template types and, “once you run different URLs from each of your different template types, you have this inventory of issues. You can turn them over to Web Development to get some great solutions and documentation on how to fix some of these issues.”
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