Quick Catch Up with Ahmed Khalifa – In House SEO at Schuh
I’ve always worked agency side in SEO and imagine that working client side would be a completely different experience. So I’m always keen to talk to people about their experiences in house. I met Ahmed Khalifa at SMX London back in May. He works in house for Schuh, where he carries out SEO on http://www.schuh.co.uk/ and http://www.branch309.co.uk/. Ahmed answered a few questions for me about his experience in house, the challenges he faces working for a big brand and how his job in house compares to his previous roles agency side.
How did you get started in SEO?
It was actually an accident that I ended up in SEO. When you study BA Sports Management and Masters in International Marketing Management, it doesn’t exactly set you up for a career in digital marketing. My first job after uni was within a content and eCommerce role for a small local home store retailer in Scotland, who also manages various online eCommerce platforms such as the store’s official website, eBay stores and Amazon stores. It is there which got me to understand the importance of writing the right type of contents in order to attract traffic. I got very curious about how search engines work and tried various methods to help increase traffic to certain product pages ahead of the competitors. I’ve done a lot of experimenting on what’s the best titles and product descriptions to write for various products, which varied from home ware and kitchenware, to designer watches and perfumes.
I then went on to do some digital marketing for the same company, which got me into it at a deeper. Again, there was a lot of experimenting, particularly on the social media aide about the tactics to use. At that time, I didn’t think social media would have any impact on SEO…how times have changed. It is this experience which eventually got me a role as a digital marketing manager for a publication company in Berlin which meant I had the opportunity to work in affiliate, social media, copywriting as well as SEO. This followed by a role as an SEO Engineer for a digital marketing agency down in the south of England, which was the first time I really focused 100% in SEO and it was also my first agency job. In the end, I furthered my career even more by moving here to Schuh.
You’re currently working at Schuh? How does working in house compare to working agency side?
It’s definitely a different experience, but one which I enjoy. Working in-house allows you to focus 100% on the brand’s objectives and organise strong long-term strategy to help achieve them. One of my worries with agencies is that you never know whether clients will stick with you for a long-term or not. Even if you do a good job for them, they may still decide to have a change of heart and move elsewhere. And the limited time to work on certain clients does not make things any easier. Some people quite enjoyed the opportunity of working with different clients in different industries. I did at first but I much prefer to focus on one exciting brand where you are less likely to repeat the same thing over and over again.
The one thing I do miss about working in an agency is the experience of working with fellow SEO experts, where you can have discussions, share some opinions and brainstorm some ideas together. It’s something that was really useful at my last role in an agency, where I can just easily turn around from my desk and have a discussion with a few of my ex-colleagues. Although I don’t have this luxury at Schuh, I am lucky enough to have access with experts from a number of fields who you don’t normally find at a typical agency: Marketing, Brand Marketing, Merchandising, Buyers, Customer Services, PR, eCommerce, Store Management, etc. Each of these departments can have an impact in SEO and I’m lucky enough to be able to talk to any of them with ease.
Schuh’s a huge brand – what benefits and disadvantages does that bring to you as the SEO?
Being a big brand definitely has its benefits. I’m lucky enough that most people would recognise the brand so it’s easier (but not necessarily easy) to create a buzz that small businesses may struggle doing. The strong brand image also helps me to build relationships with various stakeholders who will have some kind of positive impact on Schuh and this will naturally help to create various online signals. As you can probably guess, our website can only benefit from that.
These attention can also come at a price as one little slip-up can be very costly. The footwear industry is incredibly competitive and it’s not a place where you can take your eyes of the game as the competition can heat up. Sure, it’s easy to sit back and let the big brand mentality do all the hard work, but that won’t get you anywhere. There are plenty of other brands out there who are putting together plans to take some of your traffic.
What’s the biggest challenge in your role?
I think this applies to anybody working in our industry, but getting everybody on-board to understand what SEO is about and get them to follow your methods is definitely a big challenge. It is up to us to provide the education and make them understand how it can make a huge difference to a site and how they can play a part in it too. It’s a real shame that the industry has a bad reputation and associates us with spam and malpractice, but that’s the barrier we have to overcome. It’s also crucial that they understand it’s a long-term project and it may take time until they see fruits of their labour (and mine).
What SEO tools do you use at Schuh? Which ones could you not live without?
It would probably be easier if I split it up in three sections:
1. Most people would use the classic tools: MajesticSEO, Moz tools, Screaming Frog Spider Tool and Searchmetrics. Nothing too special there but they all do a great job for me.
2. I couldn’t possibly ignore the browser add-ons/extensions. There are some fantastic tools which are available to download for free: Web Developer Tool, Wappalyzer, Quirk SearchStatus and Moz Quick Links are my main browser tools.
3. And then there are tools which you can via websites: webconfs.com and Virante.org both have a number of useful tools such as HTTP header check and Similar Page Checker. I like using MergeWords and UberSuggest to help me with my keyword research. Google Trends is also very under-rated and I would highly recommend everyone to use to check the keyword trends.
What’s the thing you’ve achieved at Schuh that you’re most proud of?
It’s not exactly complete yet but I’m quite proud to be part of a major redesign and the responsive site project for both Schuh and our sister site Branch309 which is happening at the moment. It’s not every day that you get to be a part of such a huge project and have some inputs into it, especially for a big brand like Schuh. It’s not just about the SEO side of things, but I do look at the UI and UX with my colleagues and share some opinions together. It’s definitely a new experience for me and unless there’s a new trend coming soon in our industry, this experience will probably not happen again at Schuh, at least not for a long time.
What do you think somebody trying to break into SEO now needs?
First thing first, you need to be really interested in how the Internet and digital media works, and of course have a decent understanding of the search engines industry (notice I said search engines in plural). I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to carry out various experiments during the early stages of my career. If you don’t have similar opportunity at your workplace, then start your own website/blog and get experimenting. It sounds so obvious but it can make a big difference if you manage and run your own website. This does not mean you should code your own website from the grounds up, but it would be a good idea to start your own WordPress blog, use plugins by Yoast and build it up from there.
I would also recommend that you get clued up on the basic by reading the Beginner’s Guide to SEO by Moz, stay up-to-date with the latest news from Search Engine Land and get involved in community by attending free events or conferences whenever possible. There are plenty of out there and you only have to visit Meetup.com to find the nearest digital marketing industry. I would be extremely surprised if you can’t one in your nearest city/town. Otherwise, free conferences like BrightonSEO are like a goldmine for beginners and experts alike.
And if you are worried about whether “SEO is dead”, you only have to visit http://isseodead.info/ to get your answer. Ok, it may not be the most reliable place to find your answer, but everybody should understand that SEO covers so many different disciples that I can’t see it being dead. It’s one of the few industry where you can develop a multitude of skills, be technical and creative at the same time, and it even offers plenty of room for growth, as you can easily develop your career either within the same industry or anywhere else in the digital world.
What advice would you give to someone considering a move from agency to client side?
I wouldn’t say it’s essential, but it really does help if you are, at the very least, interested about the brand and the industry that it operates in. Working for schuh, it has a great brand image, very popular brick-and-mortar shop, and the world of fashion and shoes is challenging but extremely exciting and it is constantly changing. That helped to make my job more interesting. If you are working for a company who operates in an industry which bores you and it doesn’t interest you, then you may struggle with your everyday work. It’s also important to point out that you might find yourself to be the only person with SEO knowledge in the team. While the opportunity to be in charge is an appealing one, you are expected to come up with all the answers when the situation arises.
More About Ahmed Khalifa
Ahmed is fascinated by all things digital and eCommerce, plus he already owns too many shoes. Outside of work, you may find him traveling to different places, cooking up a storm in the kitchen or doing some kind of sports activity. You can find him on Twitter and Google+