Wisdom from the Trenches: An Interview with BloomNation’s Eric Wu on SEO, Product, and Marketing

Julie Goodman May 10 2017

This is cheesy but true. It takes a village of phenomenal people to “raise” and train good digital and search marketers.

As SEOs, Product Managers, and Social Media strategists, our work is not created alone in a vacuum. We don’t simply apply a static set of best practices and hope for the best. We need to go out and meet people. Exchange stories with our peers. Sit down for learning sessions with our Jedi masters.

Learning from SEO experts

Good old Otto said it best

There’s a reason why optimized websites with killer user experience and relevant content are created through countless tests, constructive mistakes, and with the sweat of many.

Okay, I’m about to brag. At Portent, we know some brilliant folks and exceptional human beings from this industry. In this new Q&A blog series, we hope to share valuable lessons from the trenches with insights ranging from little nuggets to full-on revelation learned along the way and shared generously by our village of phenomenal people.

In this inaugural post, we introduce you to Eric Wu. Currently Eric is the VP of Product at BloomNation, the world’s largest online marketplace connecting you to the best local flower shops and independent floral designers. (Be forewarned, they also have one of those super sleek homepages featuring a nice HTML5 background video that makes you want to order all the flowers.)

Since 2000, Eric has worked in-house in a variety of industries for some of the internet’s most popular websites including Edmunds.com, YP.com, Realtor.com, eHow.com, Livestrong.com and Spin.com just to name a few. Evolving with the digital space, he’s also been called a great many things, including Product Manager, Growth Hacker, Marketing Technologist. Blah, blah blah. I simply refer to him as one of my mentors.

What you need to know is this:

  • Everyone can point to a few people (maybe one) and say “yep, this person has influenced my career” in many ways That is Eric.
  • When I get thrown a curve ball at work and I need a consigliere I call Eric.
  • If I get a ton of cool stickers and awesome schwag at a conference I think about sharing with Eric.
  • If I had to recruit a group to battle Voldemort Eric would be on my A-Team.

You get the picture. Eric is good people.

What’s your current role and what do you do?

Eric Wu:
(I’m) VP of Product and Growth at BloomNation. We’re a marketplace for florists as well as a SAAS platform that powers local florists’ websites.

My main responsibilities are:

  • Building out user experience for consumers and florists
  • Growing traffic to the marketplace to drive more traffic and orders for individual florists’ sites.

Organic search is a primary acquisition channel because like many bootstrap start-ups, we don’t have a large marketing budget to spend on radio, PPC or TV ads. So SEO is important.

How does your SEO strategy differ between your marketplace (main BloomNation site) vs. individual florists’ sites?

Eric Wu:
From a keyword perspective, the marketplace and florists’ websites have terms in common but from a “use case” perspective, the sites are very different. Since SEO is about optimizing for user experience, we have different approaches and strategies in play for the marketplace and florists’ websites.

  • On the marketplace site, the user intent is more about “shopping around” and finding the best arrangement from the best local florist, that can deliver at a specific time frame for the best price. Users might be comparison shopping.
  • On the local florist site, the user is either referred or knows the brand. Or they may have a very specific task in mind (e.g. funeral, sympathy type of arrangements). [A user coming to the local floral site] is going to have a different journey through the site than in the marketplace.

Can you share some specific examples of how these strategies look in practice?

Eric Wu:

We have seen Google and Bing treat local searches very differently than other type of e-commerce. For example, in the SERPs we typically see:

    Local pack and local knowledge graph content
    Some aggregator content (e.g. Yelp result or TimeOut article) that might be talking about best florists in local area. This is where the BloomNation marketplace site can really help capture those aggregator content type positions.

Because Google and Bing SERPs are displaying local pack and local knowledge graph content, we focus on making sure florists’ sites have leveraged local business schema (i.e. holiday hours). For example, Mother’s Day is coming up so we want to highlight to Google that a specific florist is open on Sunday so the users stay informed. From a marketplace standpoint we make sure we leverage schema but the aim is different and less of a focus.

A lot of the SEO strategies you’ve shared appear to stem from “use case” and user intent/experience rather than links or keywords. And what do you mean by “use case”?

Eric Wu:
When I say we “optimize for different use cases,” we put ourselves in the shoes of our users. We (brainstorm) different “job stories.”

  • The reason why someone is doing something
  • What scenario they’re in
  • The questions they are trying to solve
  • What tasks they’re trying to accomplish

We then combine these different use cases and job stories with analytics and the behavior that we collect from the marketplace and local florists’ sites.

That’s an interesting approach. Very different than your typical “keyword research” and “we want to rank #1” answer. Can you tell me more about the analytics tools used on your sites and how you capture your user behavior data?

Eric Wu:
We mainly use GA (Google Analytics). We configure GA to capture behavior data, user journey info and heat mapping insights like the data found with tools like Mixpanel or Hot Jar. Things get pricey so we try to maximize existing tools.

We also consider transactional data that is collected from the marketplace and florists’ platforms. What are users buying? Who they are buying from? We try to leverage as much of the enhanced commerce features as possible on Google Analytics like pathing flows, click engagements, impressions (associated with different page types).

We don’t ignore keywords. We just do our research a little differently. We read a lot of our verified reviews on BloomNation and florists’ websites. We like to see which keywords attracted the users to the sites. We apply natural language processing to the reviews to understand:

  • What do users want?
  • Why did they have a good experience?
  • Why they might have had a bad experience?

Then we take all of that “keyword data” to inform how to build out our next products. Where are the next big opportunities for growth? In other words, what are the new “job stories.” These are the types of nuanced experiences of the flower buying journey that we are not going to find in traditional keyword research or ranking data.

That’s a lot of data to share and visualize. What do you use for reporting? Data Studios? Tableau?

Eric Wu:
We use RJ Metrics (https://rjmetrics.com/) to do our reporting. I like to call them a start-up-friendly version of Tableau. We use Data Studio to share our email marketing data.

How do you measure SEO success? What’s in your (monthly/weekly) SEO Reports?

Eric Wu:
We measure SEO success a little differently. We use Casual Impact. We use it to determine the impact of our SEO implementations. E-commerce (in general) and specifically the flower business is riddled with seasonal data. Casual Impact allows to weed out seasonality. Building out robust SEO testing platform requires a lot of resources so when we test, it’s not a true SEO A/B testing. We use our tests to identify potential opportunities that can help us create a soft roll out. After we collect some directional data, we then use that to do an aggressive roll out.

SEO is easily siloed or considered at the last minute during projects. How do you prevent that from happening?

Eric Wu:
Make sure you have a solid technical foundation and understanding. You don’t have to be a developer but you need to understand technical SEO. At many online businesses, engineers are the folks that ultimately stand at the frontlines and get things done. They’re respected. Build a good relationship with your engineers. Engage with them. Discuss best practice, ask questions or talk through problems you are trying to solve. Insert yourself in the conversation. Get involved.

People within the organization also need to understand that SEO is cross functional. SEOs do more than advising on the right keywords or proper HTML tags. I have seen problems emerge when SEO is outside of or far removed from the Product Management teams or when SEO is only seen as a Marketing function.

There are many benefits when SEOs are within or closely connected with Product:

  • SEOs are more engaged with front-end development teams and can help drive decisions that enhance user experience or usability
  • SEOs help with the analysis of and decisions regarding “consumer paths” and “user journeys.”
  • SEOs usually have more authority and wider access to all parts of the website and product. SEOs are not just relegated to a small section of “marketing landing pages” or only helping to make decisions on how to get users to the website.

I want to delve a little deeper into something you’ve been mentioning throughout our talk. Earlier you spoke about “use cases” and gathering “user behavior” data to help shape your SEO strategies (as opposed to link building or keywords). Just now, you were talking about SEOs being more successful/effective when it’s closely tied to or working within the Product org. Within our industry and at many companies, SEO is within the Marketing department. What is your take?

Eric Wu:

SEO is cross functional. It touches every part of the website. I see SEO as a Product Management function (and not) exclusively as a Marketing function.

Yes, there is stuff you have to do on the technical SEO side:

  • Make sure your internal linking structure is optimized
  • Clean up erroring pages
  • Assess whether JavaScript usage is in line with best practices
  • Etc.

But at the end of the day, I don’t care if you build the best (cleanest) optimized site. If you have crappy user experience and your site does not provide a relevant customer experience, you are not going to succeed and Google will most likely rank your site poorly.

When I’ve worked as a consultant, many companies often ask, “how can I make my SEO Team more successful”? I like to tell those folks that SEOs should report into Engineering or Product teams because they are usually focused (on) providing/improving the experiential aspects of the business. Many Marketing teams usually focus on acquiring customers (i.e. traffic) and telling those customers what you have vs. creating the experience. Also, most Marketing orgs don’t have engineering resources or have limited engineering resources that work on a few landing pages. So when SEOs need the resources to make changes across the entire site, this becomes problematic. Or when SEOs need to curate user experience or change functions that are related to core site experiences, they cannot because they are not within the chain of command. When Product Teams do not have SEO specialists, they are sometimes steered in the wrong direction. Many Product folks assume people are coming from the homepage or customers are following a specific path. Unlike SEOs, they often do not think of search engines in addition to users.

So do you focus solely on user behavior and user experience and not do any link building or keyword research?

Eric Wu:
I don’t focus a lot on linking building or traditional keyword research but we have done it. It’s just not a priority for us. There are still many SEOs who do link building and keyword research. But I believe that if I’m providing the best customer experience, Google is going to recognize that too. I’m not saying linking building or keyword research is not important but it’s a lower priority for me. I feel like if you focus heavily on just linking building or keyword research, it’s a harder way of growing traffic or acquiring new customers for your site.

We don’t do traditional linking building. We have a PR Team who does PR placements for local florists. The PR team member is not a professional SEO. We don’t train her to do SEO but she is focused on getting real press and publicity. The PR team essentially reaches out to local journalists, publications, news station to get natural links, references, citations that come with normal buzz. I don’t worry about journalists using the right anchor text as long as there are citations that help direct our users to the appropriate place on our site (or channel) and maximizes their customer experience.

Some of our florists have less inbound links compared to some of our competitor florists’ sites. However, our florists outrank the competitor sites. I believe it’s because we provide a better customer experience and the site is better optimized.

Now for some rapid-fire Q&A to conclude. Who do you follow and which industry publications do you read regularly? Where do you go to for your industry news?

Eric Wu:
SERoundtable and Barry Schwartz.

I look forward to seeing comments or posts from industry folks like:

  • Mike King
  • Justin Briggs
  • Bill Slawski
  • Enrico Altavilla

Other people that I follow are:

  • Justin Kan
  • Sara Soueidan
  • Sarah Guo at Greylock

Besides meeting up with me, what is your favorite conference or industry gathering that you’ve attended? Who is your Jedi Master (mentor)?

Eric Wu:
SEOktoberfest.

I also read a lot of books. I’ll send you my Goodreads account.

My mentor is Robert “RSnake” Hansen

Please finish this sentence – “every great technical SEO audit should contain or start with”?

Eric Wu:
(The audit) should contain actionable recommendations that a developer can implement at the infrastructure or architectural level.

SEO Best Practices have changed through the years. Google has changed their search algorithm and measures of success (even just looking at these past 10 years). What does it take to succeed today? What’s your common advice to start-ups or clients?

Eric Wu:
Stay relevant and try to understand the goals of the product or the website you are working on. What kind of experiences are your users looking for? What is relevant to them? What problems are they trying to solve?

If you look at all of Google’s advice (even if specific best practices) have changed through time, their main message is about making users happy and providing a great user experience. So regardless of the current trends (e.g. apps, mobile, voice search, etc). the core is still the same. What speaks to your users? What are they trying to achieve?

Eric thank you for your time. I always appreciate Padawan/Jedi training sessions.

Fin.

Well that was a nice conversation, but what’s the big so what here? What’s the moral of this story? Are there any little nuggets of wisdom that we should try to file away?

  • Focus on optimizing for user experience and staying relevant.
  • Build a solid understanding of technical SEO. It’ll help you stay in the mix and talk to more folks within the organization (i.e. Developers).
  • SEO is cross functional (and not just a Marketing function). Your clients and your company need to understand that SEO touches on many parts of the website and product experience. Don’t get siloed.
  • Google Analytics can do a lot. Use your existing tools to the fullest.
  • Traditional A/B testing is sometimes not an option. Be scrappy and set up tests that give you directional data. Try a soft roll out before you commit to full implementations.
  • Rather than chasing rankings and making sure certain keywords are “covered” in your copy, look at user behavior. They will provide insights into your SEO strategy

That’s all for today folks. I hope you enjoyed listening in on this conversation, and that we’ll see you back for the next one.

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3 Comments

  1. Brad

    Brad

    Great interview Julie, I have to agree with Eric SEO is all about optimizing for user experience, then getting rewarded by Google with search Traffic.

  2. Hi Julie,
    That was a very interesting interview & surprising as well. Surprising, because I was expecting a different approach towards keywords from Eric. I was expecting some high end marketing tools as well. But the guy has a natural approach for SEO. He believes in the core of SEO-user experience. That’s really interesting.
    Overall, this was a great interview. Thanks a lot for sharing.

  3. brilliant interview.got lots of information.very helpful for my SEO techniques.

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