An Interview with Topher Kohan – SEO Coordinator for CNN.com
I had the pleasure of meeting Topher Kohan in Las Vegas at Pubcon 2009. We didn’t get a chance to talk shop but I instinctively knew that Topher was the kinda guy whose brain I wanted to pick. He is the SEO Coordinator at CNN.com, a news site with astronomical amounts of both text and video content. If that doesn’t give someone serious SEO street cred then I don’t know what does.
I finally got a chance to catch up with Topher and ask him a few questions about his profession and craft.
How did you get started in SEO?
When I was in school at the Art Institute of Atlanta, I took a class with a teacher named Aarron Walter (author of “Building Findable Websites”), and he really turned me on to the power of SEO and the skills that I could take from being a Web developer and apply to being a SEO.
Are there certain aspects of SEO that interest you more than others?
Organic SEO is what I love to do. I cut my teeth on and kind of made a regional name for myself by specializing in SEO for midlevel nonprofits.
They have no budget to spend on search marketing, so I had to really do a kick-ass job at the organic side of it all so they could get the biggest return for the work I was doing for them.
CNN.com recently did a major site redesign. What were some of the challenges you encountered with such a massive project. Also, did you work close with the designers and developers to make sure SEO best practices were considered and implemented?
Let me start by saying that, yes, I was involved with this from the wireframe stages all the way through the launch of the final code.
Our developers and designers really have a grasp on how important SEO can be because of the great work we did on the 2008 elections. So getting them to take the extra steps and do the extra work to add in the SEO things I needed was not that hard. Without that groundwork, though, it would have been really tough to convince them that it was worth the effort.
That said, there were challenges to be overcome, like knowing that it is OK to lose a battle or two and not get 1,005 things I need as long as I got the really important stuff included. I could have dug my heels in and been a big a-hole about it, but the best plan was to really push for the must-haves and make sure the second-tier stuff was added to the post-launch sprint list.
Things like the canonical tag or adding no index/no follow to the search
results pages are important SEO items to include on the new site but it was
not imperative to have for launch day. Once they understand that the things
you are fighting for are really the things you need, from an SEO point of
view, on launch day then there is a much better chance to get them included
on the day the site goes live.
Post-launch, it was all about showing the ROI on the work to make sure that the next time I need the developers or designers to help me out, there is management buy-in. That is there a good set of SEO tools like Raven really saved my butt.
You occasionally get interviewed on CNN and also have your video blog on CNN.com. Did you ever imagine yourself going in front of the camera on a major news network? What’s that like?
Never in my life did I think I would be on CNN or TV in general. Growing up, I had a very severe speech impediment, which took a lot of effort for me to overcome and work through. So the fact that I am asked to speak on-camera or at a conference still scares the crap out of me most of the time, but once I start talking, usually, it is all good.
What’s it like? Well, once you are done being scared, it is freaking COOL! I love doing my video blog every month, and I jump at every chance I get to be an on-air expert for the network. LOL.
Google has been making a lot of updates to their search engine in the past couple of months. What kind of impact do you think those changes will have on SEO in 2010? And more specifically, large content-rich sites like CNN.com?
With the advent of things like real-time and personalized search results, we have to do a better SEO job of making sure our content is available to the largest possible group of people.
Keyword research will be more important for non-breaking news content than ever before.
I also see that video and using semantic markup around video (like Yahoo, Search Monkey or Facebook share) will play a bigger and bigger role in how we do SEO in general.
Good, well-written, search-friendly content will always rank well in Google. The next step is to have it rank well for the topics you want it to rank for. This will happen with the use of semantic markup and really spending time making sure you have the good, solid SEO stuff done and done correctly.
The other big thing that we will be looking at is how to best track SEO successes now that, I believe, ranking reports could be less accurate and harder to run without some level of personalization seeping in. I am really looking forward to seeing what the SEO tool makers do to assure me that this is not happening or, if it is, that it is happening at such a low level that it won’t affect the results I use.
In regards to Raven and managing your in-house SEO campaigns, which tools have been the most useful for you?
I love the SERP tools so much. I use them for running subsets of my keyword-ranking reports. I also use them to manage my rather large keyword set.
The reporting functions, so I can brand them and have a great-looking report to send to executives, are a huge thing for me.