SEO: Test and Experimentation in Agency Practice

In all industries training, learning and development are an important part of helping staff to keep skills up to date and allow for continued professional growth. With SEO and in particular the more technical aspects of this marketing discipline, test and experimentation is a critical part of learning and development due to the scientific method necessarily applied at times which may look a little like this:

  • Undesirable symptoms of site performance are observed
  • Contributing variables are examined
  • An hypothesis is formed
  • Test against the hypothesis and revise or recommend accordingly

..but there are inherent difficulties. We don’t work in lab conditions with cleanly isolated variables. Whilst some clients may trust in an agent’s experience and track record to allow pioneering implementations this may not always be the case. So how do we incorporate test and experimentation into an independent agency business for the benefit of staff, clients and the business performance as a whole? At theMediaFlow we have a small online retail business which we treat just like a client business which allows all staff to test theories and experiment with different approaches in an uninhibited way, but we wanted a wider perspective on how other independent agencies approach this too.

We spoke to Kev Strong from Mediaworks, Dan Sharp from Screamingfrog and Nevyana Karakasheva of Optilocal to get their views on the role, importance and pitfalls of test and experimentation for employees.

The key question when considering test and experimentation as a part of learning and development, is why is it important for junior staff? Kev Strong answered this simply with ‘I find that test and experimentation is imperative when it comes to search and day-to-day offline tasks,’ and Strong highlights that it is easy to fall into the habit of opting for tried and tested methods over dedicating time to experimentation, going on to explain why these habits arise, ‘I think a lot of this is down to the fact that the days of forum questions and answers are gone. Nowadays, I simply use Google, as someone else has more than likely already answered my query.’ However, Nevyana Karakasheva points to the dangers of not experimenting ‘In order to understand the real mechanism of things one is to get out there and test the given scenario on his own. Taking someone else’s conclusions or theories at face value negatively affects work quality, productivity and practically kills all attempts for innovation.’ And Karakasheva thinks that test and experimentation plays a vital role to the junior staff member. ‘they should feel free enough to work independently, to explore and learn on their own in order to be able to contribute with unique point of view that will be based on personal experience and testing’ Dan Sharp takes this one step further highlighting the importance of experimentation plays throughout an SEO career and not just during more junior roles, ‘I certainly believe learning through experimentation and testing is really valuable, not just for juniors but seasoned professionals as well. Learning should be a continuous process, as things change and there’s plenty of new things to try.’

 There is no point testing something that cannot be applied to help yourself, your clients and your colleagues work better, faster and smarter

So, although test and experimentation are clearly important aspects for all, not just junior staff, the next challenge faced by any SEO company is the age old problem of time and money. For example, as Sharp points out ‘I am a firm believer in trial and error and there are many things you can’t *test* with a client, so it’s important to be able to do it elsewhere,’ but this takes time away from other important aspects of your working day so we asked how Sharp and Strong tackled this in their day to day working lives. At Mediaworks it is standard practice to allot training time to staff to watch webinars and read up on topics and Strong points out that ‘We try to encourage experimentation during our day-to-day work. We’ve dabbled with Hack Day-type away days and, while they were successful for the creation of our internal toolsets and process improvement, I don’t think they affected SEO too much.’ But, in business, experimentation cannot be done for its own sake, there has to be an end goal and as Strong tells us, ‘everything we do has to be seen as a benefit to the client and/or the company. There is no point testing something that cannot be applied to help yourself, your clients and your colleagues work better, faster and smarter.  A case in point is my multiple-hop 301 checker: this started off as a solution to a client problem that has sped up our entire internal 301 implementation process.’ However, Optilocal take a more tailored approach to training thinking that ‘testing and experimenting is not a method that everyone would feel comfortable using thus we prefer to assign such tasks to junior staff members that are willing to take on the challenge, that have analytical minds and are eager to accomplish more than  what their daily routine requires.’ Not only this but Nevyana Karakasheva feels that the pretesting process can be just as important as experimentation for junior staff ‘members of the different teams gather to brainstorm new ideas and future testing scenarios. In those sessions the trainees are also invited to participate and are actively involved in the discussions. We have found that integrating the junior staff in those pretesting meetings helps the trainees keep an open mind’

It’s always wise to test yourself and come to your own insights and conclusions rather than just listening to what everyone else says

Dan Sharp also makes a good point on the value of experimentation even when things seem tried and tested as ‘Screamingfrog allocate some time each month to allow for testing. For example, we did a lot of testing around what happens to individual links when they are put into a disavow file, then removed from the disavow etc. Will they pass weight again when removed? Our findings were different to those we had seen widely publicised elsewhere, so it’s always wise to test yourself and come to your own insights and conclusions rather than just listening to what everyone else says.’

Establishing that test and experimentation are a necessity for development is well and good but once we have found the time for a little test and experimentation how is the best way to approach this exercise? Strong tells us that at Mediaworks everyone is encouraged to ‘think outside the box, let their creativity flow and simply try something new. This could be anything from trying to automate a process in Excel to figuring out if a particular idea will improve the speed of return for a client.’

For Karakasheva a lot of the value of experimentation is in the space for junior staff to ‘not to be afraid to speak their mind, even if they are to question the status quo.’ With this in mind there is space for managers and junior staff to work and learn together. As Nevyana Karakasheva states, ‘Managers should allow/request constant feedback by their trainees as to what their observations are, what they think could be improved and eventually let them work in that direction.’

 Taking someone else’s conclusions or theories at face value negatively affects work quality

So, it’s clear that the role of test and experimentation has a key role to play in the growth of both individuals and the industry as a whole but how can you convince others of this when trying to create a business case to present to a leadership team? Sharp suggests that a great way to do this is to appeal to the benefits for the client by ‘presenting a case of experiments you’d like to test and relate them back (if possible) to why this might be of benefit to current clients or those in the future. I’d actually hope many wouldn’t need to go that far, as the benefits of experiential learning should be pretty clear for most.’

Whereas Kev Strong falls to the common sense of keeping yourself at the forefront of your game and points to how rapidly SEO has changed over the last two years, ‘If you do not train your staff accordingly, allow them to test and implement new ways of doing things, your business will fall behind.’ After all ‘If you don’t know something that the client does, then why should they pay you for your services?’

So there it is, many reasons for making test and experimentation a higher priority for your entire SEO business. Not least of which are growth and development both personally, for the industry and, of course, just trying to stay ahead of the game.

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Aug 11 2014
Nichola Stott
Nichola Stott

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