Erik Bowitz, Sr. Search Engine Optimization Specialist at Tektronix, sat down with Humans of Marketing to talk about the journey from his first job at a bootstrapped startup, to his current role at a large company with a long history in its industry. He also spoke to us about his appreciation for the independent SEOs who share their hard-won knowledge with others, and the importance of being a little more human in our online interactions.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Christine Schrader: I would love to start out at the beginning. I will say that I really enjoyed your LinkedIn description, which is, “I do SEO well.” That’s pretty good. How did you get started in marketing? And then walk me through how you got to where you are today.
Erik Bowitz: Like a lot of SEOs, I started out more content focused. I was working part time for a startup based out of Taipei, Taiwan, it was a really small team. It was authentically bootstrapped, no big venture capital or anything, and obviously not a big budget for paid advertising. Very early on, they made a strategic business decision to focus on organic traffic and growing it via SEO, so I very quickly went from a part time content writer and editor into SEO.
The company was a software service that helped people build their resumes. There was a tool and then attached to it was a CMS where we published resume-writing and job-hunting resources. I was starting with that and learning about the industry, because prior to that, I didn’t have that much experience with resumes or job hunting in particular. To learn the subject matter, to write about it well in long-form content or to provide downloadable resources and checklists, it all set me up well to be able to transition from just focusing on content to marketing that content.
Then obviously, content marketing has such a massive overlap with SEO today, so that’s how I got into the SEO role to begin with, and it just snowballed from there. This was six plus years ago, and I think at that time, the cause and effect of actions taken in terms of website optimizations were much easier to read. You could do something one day and then see a result within the same week, and you were more easily able to measure the effect of your actions. So we were able to scale really quickly in a short period of time.
That company, their first product, Resume Companion, grew to just over 150,000 organic sessions monthly, and then they rebranded and launched a sister tool called The Resume Genius, which is currently their flagship product, and that was pushing a half million organic sessions a month.
Erik: Very early on, I got hooked on the drug that is SEO and I’ve been able to see the direct financial impact that growing SEO can have on a business, especially a business that’s tough up for cash flow like a bootstrap startup. I’ve been a believer ever since.
Christine: Almost uniformly in the stories we hear, you sort of dip your toe in SEO, and then you get sucked in to how many insights, how much intelligence you can get out of the data. I would love to hear a little bit about what inspires you. As a marketer, as an SEO, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Erik: Once you achieve that feeling of success, once you’re able to grow a website’s traffic significantly and see the impact on the business, you always want to return to that place. It’s a good feeling to be part of a team, and to be contributing to a very visible, measurable bottom line impact on a business. That’s the drive. Let’s say you have a personal site you start on your own, going from five visits a month to hitting that first hundred clicks, and then shooting for 1,000, and then shooting for 10,000, you’re always setting new goals.
Then of course, you don’t always achieve them, right? Career paths are not always linear and success is usually not easily forecast. You definitely have your downs and your failures, but if anything, I think those make you appreciate the successes and make you more driven to try to achieve those again.
Pretty much any project that I’ve gotten my hands on in the past, I’ve looked for opportunity. That’s the optimization part of SEO. The first part is understanding how search engines work, and then it’s about improving upon your existing product to optimize to rank better and get more traffic. A good analogy would be looking for gemstones in the rough. If you’re in a field, and you pick something up and maybe it’s set in a different non-precious rock, like granite, and it’s dirty, maybe you can acknowledge there’s some value, but that value has not been fully optimized. The stone hasn’t been cut from the source rock. It hasn’t been cleaned. It hasn’t been polished, and it hasn’t been set in jewelry, so it hasn’t reached its maximum potential.
I think good SEOs try to view websites in a similar light, like a project to be molded and polished and optimized so that it can achieve its maximum potential.
Christine: You have a way with the metaphor, which I appreciate.
Erik: That’s my thing. That’s the skill that I’ve received compliments for. That’s my superpower.
Christine: There you go. I would love to actually hear, and this is sort of a corollary, how do you communicate around SEO with the rest of your organization? How do you go about teaching people and bringing them on board in terms of search and its use?
Erik: We try to schedule regular 101 sessions. We have things like all-day marketing events for the marketing department, particularly for the people making the content. In those types of events, there are a lot of team-building activities planned, and then different subject matter experts present what they’re working on. Outside of that, I believe we’re in the process of scheduling even larger educational sessions, where we get people from outside of the marketing organization to join us and learn about a wide array of different subjects, like paid advertising, analytics reporting, and SEO.
In terms of daily work, Conductor has been pretty integral in helping us communicate the importance of some of the projects we’re working on. Conductor Searchlight’s visibility reporting functionality is really nice, because for lay people, being able to see ranking and ranking spread and distribution of keywords in a visual way is really helpful.
We practice this Toyota business process here, where we create these, essentially war rooms, where we just pin a whole bunch of stuff to the walls so management can walk through and very quickly get a snapshot of progress and what’s being worked on. We have a whole bunch of printouts from Conductor up there to help communicate what we’re doing with SEO and and what we’d like to do.
Christine: Are there specific teams that are successfully brought in on utilizing search insights?
Erik: We’ve recently been revisiting how we are generating our content. It’s been a decentralized process. At Tektronix we have a lot of very knowledgeable people. There are a lot of highly experienced engineers working here, so we have a really deep well of potential content but we also have product people, marketing people, events people. So we have content coming in the form of very technical written guides, we have video, social media, all these things to take into account, and recently we’ve been trying to take a couple of steps back.
We’re trying to better strategize the keywords from which our content is created, so instead of a 10-headed dragon working independently, with people creating content based off of very small bits of data or personal ideas, we’re trying to get a more data-driven process in place where we do actual keyword research around industry-relevant keywords and questions that customers might have. We’re trying to segment things into early stage intent, top-of-funnel stuff, all the way down to purchase intent, bottom-of-funnel-type keywords and then trying to develop content to meet those different search intents.
Christine: Very cool. Tell me about what you’re working on right now that you’re most excited about.
Erik: We went to our parent company for an SEO hackathon. I realize it doesn’t fully match the definition of a hackathon—the connotation of hacking is kind of negative, and it’s done really quickly and sometimes in a dirty fashion, but this was a very white hat, by the book kind of thing. They brought in Vanessa Fox, who worked at Google for quite a while.
Erik: They brought her in to help shed some light on best practices, and then we had a week of really intense prototyping, iterating, and publishing. Tektronix is a very large business, so normally processes and projects can take a very long time to develop—you have a lot of stakeholders, and you need buy-in and what not—but this hackathon event was a breath of fresh air because it was very much about understanding a best practice, identifying a gap, and then making a change, within a day.
That was really exciting for me personally, to have the opportunity to just go in and make changes and not worry so much about various stakeholders asking questions. That was really exciting. We made the changes, they tracked our ranking over time, and then they’ll award a trophy to the team that did the best.
But in terms of what we’re currently working on, we’re in the process of migrating our website from Drupal to Sitecore. We have over 100,000 pages, and we have regional sub-domains around the world, so it’s a behemoth of an undertaking. Obviously, with stuff like that there’s a lot of risk, but in terms of SEO, there’s also a lot of potential to grow. You have an opportunity to do things differently, and hopefully you can make some changes for the good and that’s reflected in traffic afterwards.
Christine: Yeah, I think that feels like a huge vote of confidence, too, right? Like that level of confidence and investment would be very exciting in any organization. What are you most proud of having worked on?
Erik: I’m happy when I see traffic growth. At startups, I’ve had a lot of transparency into accounting and sales. Google Analytics was hooked up with conversion so once you filtered down to organic, you could see how much money was made as a result of that organic traffic, and that was really exciting.
As a startup that maybe had four people, they would get better rankings, get more traffic. More traffic would equate to more customers, and more customers equates to more revenue, and then that revenue can help fuel hiring new people. It’s obviously a team effort, but it did feel good being part of a really small team and helping that grow. Then the halo effect was that I got a lot of new really cool co-workers.
It’s nice to meet new people, and to learn about what they do. With startups, there’s that saying about wearing a lot of hats, as cliché as it is. Sometimes that means you’re forced to be more of a generalist, and then when you’re able to grow into a situation where you have more specialists joining your company or your team, that’s really rewarding on a professional level, because you’re working with people who really know what they’re doing. Maybe it’s a social media specialist, and they know things about social media you didn’t know existed. By working with these people, you can soak up a whole bunch of information. I think that makes you a better-equipped marketer.
Also, there are a lot of ways to grow your SEO. A lot of people get too fixated on like link building, for example, where you’re just trying to get that link from whatever site. Links are obviously important, but there are other ways. If you’re willing to get a little bit creative, you can generate a whole bunch of traffic and revenue by helping users. That’s why content is so important.
And when I say content, I think people default to thinking about random blog posts about random keywords, and that can definitely generate traffic. But with Resume Genius, they have since rebranded into a company called Teroco Software, but with those sites, most of that traffic came from the resource pages, which contained resume-writing advice and job-hunting advice. I actually had to learn about those things, and I authored a lot of those guides myself.
If you search my name in Google News, you’ll see me published as a Resume Expert on a whole bunch of websites. Knowing that there were free resources available, I felt good, because I thought it was a win-win situation. If people didn’t want to bother writing their own resume or doing their own cover letters or whatever, they could just use the paid tool and be done with it. But on the other hand, we were able to grow organic traffic and provide legitimate resources for job seekers. I think anyone would feel good about that. You’re not just helping your business grow, but you’re doing it in a way that is a value-add, rather than just tunnel vision, trying to get links and rank higher.
Christine: SEOs do have to become subject matter experts in many ways, even if they’re not writing the content, because you have to get in so deep. You’re doing that job well and looking for all that texture and different words and phrases, and what’s coming up, and what your competitors are doing, and all of those kinds of things, right? Like you’re very deep into it.
Erik: Yeah, I think that’s important. Some of that stuff could probably be mitigated by budget. If you had an insane amount of money to blow, I’m sure you could outsource all of your content. But especially on lean teams, or with startups, yeah, I think what probably differentiates a lot of more-effective marketers from those who aren’t that effective is the willingness to not just understand the industry, but by understanding the industry, also understand the user. If you understand the user, everything else falls into place. You can write content that satisfies their search intent, and then you theoretically rank better and get more traffic.
Today, it’s more important than ever. Everything starts online, so maybe in decades past, you could get by. You could run a business, make a product, or maybe sell a service and you could exist off of—boy, I don’t even know how they did it back then. Newspaper ads, or foot traffic.
Christine: Brands were able to say, “This is what you see, so this is what you have to want.”
Erik: Right, “Buy this, buy this.”
Christine: Now there’s freedom. So let me ask you, we’ve talked about the past, we’ve talked about the present. Tell me about something new you’re trying out or a skill you’re learning. How are you continuing to grow and develop professionally?
Erik: Our current site migration’s kind of our focal point at this point. When you have such a large website, it’s all hands on deck to see that project through to completion. Before that and after that a big focus has been and will be trying to grow our international traffic, which to me is super exciting.
Everything you can consume about SEO here is written for the way that Google ranks in North America, and the UK is pretty similar. But even then, if you’re trying to rank in Google in different countries, the algorithms will behave differently. The tolerance for some types of web spam are much lower in different places compared to more competitive markets like the US or the UK. I’m getting to talk with regional teams and trying to understand the nuances of how websites rank in their countries. It’s always fascinated me, and being able to be in a company that has offices all over the world, and being able to speak to these people, I’m learning a lot.
I feel like I’m just kind of dipping my toes in because it’s not even just Google. We have different search engines in different countries that behave entirely different. Baidu in China, Naver in Korea. And even Google, when I was living in Taiwan, I noticed the results, the rich snippets and the knowledge graphs, the way the SERP is delivered, was completely different than what I would see in America.
So I’m trying to wrap my head around all that and strategize with the team to help grow those international channels. There’s a ton of opportunity there, but it’s a huge challenge. Not only are there different search engines, but they’re in different languages, so you’re really dependent on your team members to help you out.
You have to communicate to them, SEO best practices as you know them for Google in the United States, and then help try to make sure that’s not lost in translation as it’s passed down to different marcomms in different regions with different search engines, in different languages. There are going to be a lot of struggles, but it’s really exciting to me.
Christine: The first time I saw a Baidu search engine results page, my mind like exploded like the emoji with the exploding mind. There’s so much happening.
Erik: I think we’re so used to a really clean aesthetic, and a minimalist design philosophy. Not in everything, of course, but with Google and companies like Apple, I think we’ve fully embraced that and become used to it. And then you see in other places sometimes there’s a cultural preference for more is better.
Christine: But in some ways, you see that being reflected back in Google right now, with zero-click searching. Baidu has everything right in front of you, Baidu is scraping pages and creating its own thing. You see that somewhat reflected in Google now, trying to give us immediate gratification on the SERP.
Erik: It’ll be interesting to see what happens, because I’ve also read that some tech companies, including Google are being investigated regarding monopolies. I definitely did see Rand’s report on zero-click searches, and the reactions to it. It’s really hard to come out with new information or a unique perspective in SEO, I feel like it always triggers some sort of very polarized response.
But regardless of whether you think it’s right or wrong, that was definitely eye-opening, the amount of searches that don’t get any clicks, and how much Google’s been able to monopolize the search space. I mean, whatever, it’s theirs, right? So can’t get too upset about it.
Christine: Well, one of the things we like to ask people for this series is, who do you trust in terms of thought leaders? What do you read, watch, or listen to, to get new ideas, or stay on top of trends?
Erik: I like to follow all types of SEOs, where it bleeds from white hat, to black hat, and everything in between. There are a lot of small bloggers who don’t have big budgets and don’t have domains with massive domain authority, so they can’t depend on those legacy strengths to rank. I find that a lot of these smaller guys, and they’re all around the world, they’re testing way more, because they have to.
They can’t just publish a new page and have it instantly rank and instantly bring in traffic because it’s inheriting root domain authority. They’re creating brand new sites and trying to figure out how best to get things indexed quickly and how to really growth hack organic search and grow traffic as much as possible. They have their own Facebook groups, some of them have blogs.
That’s where I would say the leading edge of SEO is. These guys are daily testing the limit of what you can get away with in Google, and they oftentimes pay the price. But that’s why I like to follow them, because you’re learning from other peoples’ mistakes. When you’re working for a big brand, you have to be careful, you’ve got to be cognizant of liabilities and whatnot, so I like following those guys, the small time bloggers.
If you’re a marketer, we want to know your story. We would love to consider you for Conductor’s weekly feature, Humans of Marketing.
Erik: I don’t know if you guys know Glen Allsopp, he has detailed.com and gaps.com. If I had to name one person that I think has been the most influential, it would probably be him. He was one of those guys who was doing a lot of that small time testing, and now he’s doing enterprise-level SEO blogging. He’s digging through massive amounts of data, and he’s always sharing really exciting information regarding the state of the industry, how enterprise sites are ranking in Google, and it’s always very, very detailed. I don’t think he’s published a post yet that’s under 4,000 words.
Christine: I would love to hear—what’s one piece of advice you would give a marketer just getting started?
Erik: The first thing would be to be patient, because it’s tough right now, I think. You used to be able to do things and measure the impact very easily, so that you could learn through trial and error and experimentation on a small scale. But today, Google’s become so good, their algorithms have become so advanced. There are built in delays, for example.
Let’s say you guys find a resource particularly valuable, and you link to it in your blog. The person who published it, they’re not necessarily going to be able to see any direct impact from that link to that page in a definitive time window. It could be a week, a month, two months, depending on the size of their site, how often these links are being crawled, the existing authority, the total length of the page in terms of words and keywords. All these things taken into account, it’s really hard to learn for yourself. I think it’s tough.
I think the only way around it—and it sucks, I don’t want to say it, because I think a lot of people say this without thinking about the practicality of it, but—I think it would be beneficial to anyone getting into SEO to find a good mentor, someone who’s been able to experiment and fail and measure a cause and effect over time, especially when it was easier to see.
They’ll already have a deep set of ingrained beliefs. They’ll know what works and what doesn’t, even though today it’s harder to measure. If you could find a mentor who has that experience, you’re going to save yourself a lot of mistakes that you’d otherwise have to make to get to that proficiency level.
It’s tough though. Gurus aren’t just going around seeking out Padawans to give free advice, to, right? So the advice to find a mentor, I don’t know how valuable that is, but I think it’s worth saying just so people can keep it in mind. So if the opportunity arises and you’re cognizant of the fact that it’s important to try to find a mentor to be an effective SEO today, then should you be fortunate enough to have that opportunity, you’ll know to jump on it. And that opportunity could be in the form of a job or an internship, or even just a friendship that’s been developed through an online community. If I could go back and change anything, it would be to try to find that earlier. It’s kind of like getting that boost up in Mario Kart. You run it over, and it’s like turbo speed, you can advance so fast compared to trudging through things all by yourself.
Christine: What do you do outside of work that makes you a better marketer? Something that gives you a different perspective that’s totally unrelated to what you do on the job?
Erik: Any marketer worth their salt will have at least one side project. I don’t mean that in the sense that they’re trying to get away from their employer, but I think it’s important to have a passion project or testing ground to hone your skills. As an SEO, for example, that means having multiple websites in different industries with different types of content where you can publish and try out things that you’re reading or learning.
They’re like little case studies that you can use to educate yourself. I guess you have to be a bit of a nerd to find that a pleasurable way to spend your free time, but it’s similar to designers, right? If you’re into design, you’re probably into art, and in your free time, you’d probably do some form of art. I don’t think anyone could argue that doesn’t in some way make you a better professional at work.
So I like testing, creating sites, and taking little nuggets that are gleaned from other authorities in the space, and then trying to see if I can replicate their success and see what I can learn. At the end of the day, regardless of your profession or what type of marketer you are, it’s important to step back once in a while and get out of the echo chamber and have a solid work-life balance so you can stay fresh and motivated when you’re actually doing your job.
Christine: I absolutely agree. What makes Tektronix a special place to work as a marketer?
Erik: It’s an old company with a very strong positive reputation, and if there’s one thing that Google does repeat about rank insights and what sites deserve to rank, it’s having a good online reputation, about demonstrating EAT, Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness. Stepping in to help market their site is worlds easier than trying to be a marketer for a site that isn’t recognized as a leader in its industry or in its vertical.
It’s nice to be working at Tektronix and to have that established authority. Even just trying to get the attention of people, trying to communicate with other people in your space, having a reputable brand makes my job as a marketer that much easier.
And then when it comes down to actually actioning tasks to achieve goals, having strong teams is important. No one marketer, whether you’re into content, or social media, or technical SEO, no one of those things by themselves can really grow a company too far. Things need to work in a complementary fashion. Tektronix has been able to attract a really intelligent and hardworking workforce, at least in my department. That makes things easier, too.
Christine: Some companies are just good at hiring people, which is so important. Tell us about a typical day in your life. What does your morning routine look like? What are you working on throughout the day?
Erik: Like most SEOs, even though I should be checking my email first, I’m going straight to Conductor, and I’m looking at how rankings have changed from the previous week. We use some other tools that I’ll check too, because it’s always fun to get more data. Then I’m going in GA, checking traffic, Search Console as well. Although I’m not going in there too often these days, because we have a massive pile of errors that I’m trying to figure out how to get rid of, so I don’t really want to look at them. But yeah, days usually start off with analytics and seeing what keywords have moved where.
Then I look at emails, and then it’s about actually actioning tasks. I do try to stay on top of industry trends, so on a regular basis I’m visiting some of the bigger news publications like Search Engine Journal or Search Engine Watch. Especially if you see something on Twitter regarding ranking changes, it’s always a good idea to check those algorithm trackers to see when an update happened. You don’t want to be the SEO who wasn’t aware that there was a core algorithm update the day before.
Christine: Of course. Shifting gears a little bit—what song is on repeat for you right now?
Erik: I’ve been listening to a lot of Vaporwave. There are a lot of huge, hour-long playlists on Spotify or even YouTube, and it all kind of blends together. It’s generally lacking in vocals, and I don’t know if it’s because as an internet marketer, I find the sounds of like dial-up tones and like old computer startups cathartic. But definitely at work, what I’m listening to most these days are really long, super glitchy Vaporwave playlists.
Christine: I’m looking at Wikipedia’s entry on Vaporwave right now, and I’m going to have to do more digging in. It’s very interesting.
Erik: It’s cool, yeah, it’s definitely worth at least giving it a taste. It’s not for everyone, for sure. It’s not super exciting, but it’s definitely unique.
Christine: Very nice. Thank you, I feel like I’m learning something new, which I’m always a fan of. What is the weirdest work-appropriate thing you’ve ever Googled?
Erik: We’re an old company and our site’s massive, and then we also have a whole bunch of little subdomains. We’re always discovering new sites somehow. We could have stuff on subdomains that were created 10 years ago and just kind of forgotten about. So, the thing that I always feel a little bit weird googling is when I’m googling to try to find other properties of my company. Maybe we need to organize things better, but I think it’s inevitable over time, if you’re a large enough organization. People come and go, retire, whatever, and sometimes things get forgotten.
It’s not necessarily detrimental in any way, but as an internet marketer, you need to take stock of what you have, and so I actually do use Google to find all of our properties.
Christine: Yeah, that is weird. I have one more question for you. How would you describe your ideal marketing community?
Erik: I’m trying to think of an answer that’s not, “Well, be nice.” Because we work online so much in our community, so many of our communities are online, and naturally when people are online they behave differently. People are much more likely to be mean behind a keyboard, and I think that really turns a lot of people off. It only takes a few bad apples in a small community to taint the whole pool, or the perception of that industry. I wish people would be more cognizant of that
I do think it’s improving, and there are more and more SEO conventions and conferences, which helps. When people are able to meet face to face, it kind of forces you to not be mean. I want to attend more of those myself; that’s definitely something I’ve put in my development plan. If people meet more face to face, we become a bit more human, we get better at socializing, and it becomes more of an inclusive community.
Having a properly organized event where people show up in person, you’re getting more people from both genders, you’re getting different perspectives, you’re getting people from enterprise all the way down to really small affiliate marketers, and you’re getting to interact. The more that that sort of community where people are trying to help each other out can bleed into online, the better.
Helping each other out is not a zero sum game. Yes, if you’re in direct competition and you’ve been fighting for position with one competitor, maybe you might have some animosity towards them, if you share what’s working and what you’re working on, or things you’ve tested, that’s how we can all grow together.
The more people share, the better. A lot of people are under the impression that if they share something that’s working really well for them, that somehow that’s detrimental to their success, but I think that’s a false perception.