What I Learned When I Ran SEO for Walmart – Alok Jain

When it comes to SEO, I learned best practices at some of the largest retailers on earth. In fact, for almost three years (before leaving to start my own company) I was the head of SEO for Walmart.com. Nothing primes you for starting a content management platform quite like working for the planet’s largest retailer. I learned, very quickly, that part of my responsibility was evangelizing directly to Walmart’s board what I needed to do to increase SEO traffic.

Before Walmart, I spent several years at eBay, which was an extraordinary introduction to e-commerce, especially the content side of online retail. I’d always loved data, which made me a natural fit as a marketer and product engineer. There I learned a lot about multichannel retail, something that became very important when I moved over to Walmart.

Before I walked in the door, Walmart had a very limited focus on SEO. Its e-commerce site was still in its infancy, and they had very little by way of dedicated resources to online marketing. They brought me on because of my time at eBay, and I knew we had to focus on some immediate areas:

  • Improve site architecture to leverage existing content
  • Launch dynamic landing pages to tackle torso keywords
  • Increase consideration funnel engagement
  • Recode all site reviews and ratings so search engines could crawl them (at the time, they were buried underneath javascript)
  • Walmart’s Online Success Story

When I walked in the door, dedicated SEO resource allocation was (and this is true of a lot of retailers at the time even the 800-pound gorilla that is the world’s largest retailer) in the double digits.

We saw some quick wins, and that led to management trusting me with more and more resources over time. During my three years as head of SEO  Walmart SEO traffic grew 50% YoY, tripling while I was there Walmart.com’s once limited resources blossomed into a robust team and a multi-million dollar budget

Eventually, we launched aggressive, large-scale content initiatives including optimizing hundreds of thousands of product and category pages with blocks of copy compelling to both consumers and search engines.

How Was Walmart Different?

Because they are such a notable retailer, I get this question a lot. Of course, they are a strong brand with a robust and strong supply chain. When I walked in the door, their physical brick and mortar business was still responsible for 95% of their revenue. I had to educate leadership about why large scale content initiatives were going to be vital to their success in the future. The entire industry was already moving in that direction, but in those early days, it was a bit of a hard sell.

Making the Business Case for Good Content

SEO is a purely data-driven job and a very important one for brands and online retailers. The SEO manager touches many parts of the company the web development team, the marketing team, the product team, and may have to coordinate with one or more agencies. SEO managers face pressure from all sides competitors, leadership, and your own team. In many ways, you’re seen as the storefront’s gatekeeper, responsible for incoming traffic, conversion and, therefore, revenue.

Managing SEO means constantly measuring what works against what doesn’t. You’re always looking for the shortest distance between two points in this case, site visits to conversion. What isn’t working is always, 100% of the time, glaringly obvious. In my previous life, I knew that we had a foundational issue SKU pages were getting loaded by the thousands to Walmart.com with fundamental problems. This is hardly an industry secret. It’s a shared problem for all the big online retailers.

The question wasn’t so much identifying the problem, but how a single team could solve it. Most SEO managers have a big battle to conquer every day ask for more resources, support, and additional budget to manage the ongoing and consistent problem of bad content.

There’s no easy way to do this, but if you are an agency or internal, this toolkit can help you frame, and win, the “bad content” position for you and your team.

1. Educate Your Organization About Problems And Opportunities

While no one on the customer-facing side of the business would dispute the importance of the SEO role, that doesn’t mean that they understand it entirely. To get the buy in you need, give regular presentations at department meetings to show your colleagues the problem. If you want their support, they all need to know that the problem impacts the entire company, and not just you and your department.

2. Enlist Third Parties To Validate Your Problems And Solutions

Sometimes, the best way to make a case is to let someone else do the talking for you. Bring all the decision makers together in one room and let an informed agency state your case. Allow their solutions, in a sense, do the talking for you.

3. Think Politically

Because you touch so many different roles within the organization, make sure that you get buy-in and support from numerous sectors. In the early days, put a positive spin on as much as you can. Never underestimate the power of education. Develop the entire organization’s knowledge over time. You may need to draw resources from those other teams, especially if resource allocation is an issue. Embrace the cross-sectional nature of your job early on and develop as many positive relationships as possible.

4. Build An Achievable Test Plan

Set aside resources to update a scalable and manageable group of product pages. Use what resources you have internally to perfect them. Follow this protocol regularly and, eventually, those results will make the case for you. Good content is the answer to higher conversions. Taking this problem on incrementally provides an organizational platform from a resource perspective that you can build on over time. Remind yourself of these three steps start small, present wins, build credibility.

5. Define Your KPIs Early

Purchase history, click paths, and search data help you focus on the incremental changes that will lead to the fastest upticks in revenue and traffic. Those successes build and increase everyone’s confidence in your direction, helping you evangelize bigger changes. As a team define what success means early and keep consistent reports that tell you where and how you’re succeeding.

6. Be Prepared To Iterate And Deviate

Just as communication is important, so is experimentation. Remember data doesn’t lie. Tactics need to change, and things that may have worked for certain verticals and products may not work when with a different vertical. Be willing to try new things. Start with several different sample sets and measure them against each other. As soon as you see positive results, push harder.

7. Document and Distribute Positive Results

Don’t be humble about your wins. Communication is absolutely a part of the job. Every time your team hits an important milestone brag. Everyone in every organization loves good news. SEO is complex and dynamic it’s very hard to hit a moving target. When you do blast an email. Include the names of people both within your team as well as other members of the company who share a role in this particular success. No one will know you’re responsible for positive momentum unless you claim responsibility for it.

8. Scale For Larger Results

Success is your greatest teacher. Where you see success scale it, and scale it quickly. The advantage of the digital landscape is that you can, with the right publishing tool, make large-scale changes with a few clicks. Lay the foundation so that when the time is right, you can be precise, reactive, and aggressive.

My Last Word

Move quickly. It takes time to build big solutions for massive problems, but smart sellers should be trying and experimenting with new and different tactics, measuring success, and constantly innovating. Good luck!

Alok Jain is the co-founder and CEO of eZdia.com, a leader in the e-commerce content creation and analysis field. He previously served as the head of SEO for Walmart.com, and prior to that, he worked as an SEO business analyst for eBay.

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