Agile SEO - Infrastructure Innovation by Iteration


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Originally presented on the "The Really Complicated Technical SEO Infrastructure Issues" panel at SMX Advanced 2011 in Seattle, Washington. The panel included Maile Ohye of Google, Todd Nemet of Nine by Blue, and was moderated by Vanessa Fox of Search Engine Land.

This presentation is a quick introduction to Agile SEO development, a methodology that can help you deliver more value to your customers more quickly. We'll take a look at a few of REI's SEO technical infrastructure optimizations, as well as see what the results were from making these optimizations.

One of the controversial points of discussion in the presentation was REI's use of the "rel=canonical" <link> element to reduce duplicate content caused by pagination.

Download the slide show and see the speaker notes for more information.

You can learn more about Jonathon Colman at

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  • Hello, I’m Jonathon Colman, the in-house SEO for REI. We’re a nation-wide retailer of great gear and clothing that help you have fun outdoors. Visit us at or stop by our Flagship store while you’re here in Seattle for SMX Advanced – it’s downtown just off the interstate.Today I’ll be talking about Agile, a development methodology that can help you deliver more value to your customers more quickly, as well as showing examples of some of our SEO infrastructure accomplishments on One of the most popular forms of Agile development is called Scrum, a word taken from rugby – are there any rugby fans in the room? Great – you’ll be happy to know that I’m exclusively using photos of the New Zealand All Blacks to support my metaphor. Why? Because New Zealand is awesome. Any fans of hot guys in rugby outfits? Great – there will be a lot of those, too. Let’s jump in! Feel free to tweet at me or follow-up afterwards at – thanks!
  • This is one of my favorite infographics from Rand over at SEOmoz. And if you’re an in-house SEO, it describes the reality of your situation. Companies hire you to increase their business, and then you end up spending most of your time convincing the business to let you do our job. At best, developers are distrustful of you, creative teams think you’re all about keyword spam, and management thinks that organic traffic is “free”.
  • So you do the research, study the data, determine a business case for implementing improvements, figure out the best practices… and you feel pretty good about yourself for being so driven, so data-centric – the veritable love-child of Matt Cutts, Duane Forrester, and Danny Sullivan.
  • But then nothing happens. The business is working on other projects in a waterfall fashion and can’t get around to working on yours. Waterfall projects can take a lot of time – years or more – and a lot of people. And during that long, single development cycle, nothing gets delivered to customers until the very end. And then the business turns its attentions elsewhere, to the Next Big Thing. Meanwhile, your simplest SEO projects end up going nowhere, let alone the big, technical infrastructure problems.The important thing to understand is that no one’s “wrong” here. There’s no fault – just inefficiencies and a lack of true focus on the customer. But here’s the good news: You don’t have to FAIL – you don’t have to wait until everything’s perfect to do SEO and get valuable infrastructural features into your customers’ hands.
  • When your business learns to do many small projects at once instead of just one big project, then your customers begin to see value immediately, followed by iterations occurring in regular cycles. Instead of launching a huge project riddled with errors that never get fixed, you deliver small projects as part of a self-organizing team every 2-4 weeks. Customers get more of what they want, more quickly than they would have otherwise. It’s OK if there are issues or revisions that need to take place later on because you have the ability to iterate over multiple development cycles… Iterating is what Agile development is all about!So: this isn’t meant to be a true primer of Agile. If there’s enough interest, however, let’s make sure that we pitch SMX for an Agile SEO session in the future, as I truly believe it’s the best thing to happen to our industry in years.But for now, let’s take a quick look at some of the value that has delivered to customers using this development methodology…
  • Here’s a page of tents on Or, rather, here’s one of the 20 total pages of tents that we have. As you can imagine, being an outdoor retailer, we sell a lot of tents – about 400 of them at any given moment. How are users, let alone search engines, supposed to figure out what the most relevant tents are that best suit their needs?In this case, our Agile development team – over a series of several iterations – used the rel=canonical &lt;link&gt; element to help search engines understand what we consider to be a unique set of search results versus a re-ordered or re-sorted set of results that were fundamentally the same. So any URLs that are produced when the customer uses our UI widgets to sort or show a different amount of items per page are rel=canonicaled to our default options. Ha, is “rel=canonical” a verb now?Likewise, we currently use rel=canonical for pagination in order to reduce duplication of content. We’ve recently learned that this is not best practice, however, so we’ll iterate again to use the rel=canonical &lt;link&gt; element to properly handle pagination. In this case, Maile Ohye of Google states that best practice is to point from each individual paginated page to a “view all” page. The beauty of Agile is that we’re able to code and roll-out these changes very quickly, usually over the course of a few weeks.We’ve also enhanced deep, specific crawling into our site by building out a set of product attribute-driven “faceted navigation” options. These links help users filter from all of the results they might happen to land on to just the ones that make sense for them and help meet their goals. Let’s take a closer look at these…
  • This was a challenging infrastructure project that we accomplished using Agile. With a small team that focused exclusively on faceted navigation, we were able to completely re-work our product navigation to support filtering by what we call “facets” or product attributes. Then, over a hand-full of development cycles, we were able to work in multi-select, which is great for the user trying to choose from a large assortment. And even more great features are coming soon. Again, the advantage to developing with an Agile methodology is that the user gets the value of these iterations right now rather than having to wait months or years to start using them.On the SEO-specific side, we implemented hProduct microformats across our product catalog to get “Rich Snippets” as well as canonical &lt;link&gt; elements across products and categories to reduce duplicate content. And because our development cycles are short enough to allow for plenty of iteration, there’s even more good stuff on the way {cough} {cough}.
  • Here’s a filtered result set where the customer has selected several facets, winnowing down those 400 tents to just 3. But also note that I’ve multi-selected two facets in just a single attribute: brand of tent. So in this search result set, we see tents from both REI and Big Agnes that meet the customer’s specifications.So instead of forcing the customer to drill down to Big Agnes tents and then pogo-stick their way back up only to drill down again to REI tents, they can see both assortments at the same time.Now, a lot of retailers provide this functionality. But the point is that this is a daunting infrastructure project to do in waterfall-style, especially when taking additional SEO requirements and acceptance criteria into consideration – likely they would be dropped. Working in an Agile context, however, we were able to develop the original functionality and iterate multiple times over a short development cycle. This allowed us to ship finished portions of the final functionality to users quickly – they didn’t have to wait until we had completed the entire project.
  • Here’s a snapshot of the impact that this work had. As our facets started being picked up by search engines, we were able to use parameters so as to indicate where the valuable, unique content was actually located. Google and Yahoo both allow us to tell them which parameters have value and which ones should be ignored.For the specific product attribute facets that we built out, we’ve instructed Google to not ignore them. Working alongside the rel=canonical &lt;link&gt; element, this helps us to promote only the most specific, relevant pages in search while removing the duplicate, non-relevant cruft.Along the way, we built sustainable tools and infrastructure that allow us to act dynamically be flexible with how the customer sorts and filters products.
  • We were able to use our XML sitemap to specify all of the new authoritative facet URLs to search engines and saw rapid crawling and indexation. Overall, we increased indexation over 3x, according to Google Webmaster Tools.By the way, here’s a quick tip: if you’re not tracking this sort of thing daily and recording it somewhere for off-line analysis, you should – it’s immensely helpful for tracking the impact of your infrastructure work, especially once you’ve got year-over-year data. You can use the API to do this to a certain degree or just keep a simple daily record via copy-and-paste – that’s what I do first thing each morning.
  • Google’s told us for years that we should always do what’s best for the user and they’ll take care of the rest with their algorithm. But with faceted navigation schemes that operated on dynamic frameworks, SEOs were often punished for doing what’s best for the user – allowing them to sort and filter on their own instead of forcing them into our pre-determined hierarchy – with high rates of duplicate content. In fact, I remember Maile talking with Adam Audette about this issue two years ago on stage at this very conference.So: by using a smart balance of 301 redirects from deprecated URLs, rel=canonical &lt;link&gt; elements on our new category pages, and more specific &lt;title&gt; elements and &lt;meta descriptions&gt; for faceted results, we were able to reduce duplicate content by 96%. Now, more often than ever before, customers who utilize long-tail queries are entering our site on facets of product that best meet their needs. They don’t have to enter at the top and sort and filter their way to the very bottom.
  • Likewise, we also performed several iterations to improve our site performance from a page load time perspective. Like Google, we think that slow load times have a significant (and negative) impact on customer experience. So we approached this from a UX-centric perspective rather than from a search marketing-exclusive one, but the benefits are obvious. Google’s stated that site performance is an organic search ranking factor, especially in the top 1% of the most competitive queries.Doing performance optimization work is challenging and it’s hard to know where to begin. But even (relatively) simple optimizations like reducing HTTP requests, implementing caching, using CSS sprites, re-factoring JavaScript, and minifying your code can have a big impact. In our case, we saw a 25% improvement in our average page load time.
  • This performance optimization work resulted in an over 200% increase in our crawl budget, which you can see here. And remember that these are duplicate pages, because we took care of those earlier. This is an increase in the crawling of relevant content because Google feels that – with our increased capacity – we can handle the heavier load. Increased crawl has been shown to correlate with deeper crawling and, therefore, more longtail traffic.
  • In closing, I want to emphasize our vision of SEO success at REI or any large company, really: SEO is never done alone in a dark cubicle somewhere nor in an ivory tower. SEOs aren’t supposed to be gurus or rockstars and it hurts both our reputation and out ability to get work done when we’re seen as existing independently of others. We should never position ourselves as being gurus, rockstars, or saviors of our companies and organizations.Instead, SEO is best accomplished as part of a dynamic team that joins together…
  • …self-organizes and commits to releasing value to the customer and iterating on that value over short, dedicated development cycles…
  • And celebrates when the customer succeeds in their goals.Just remember:
  • What happens on the team stays on the team!
  • Thank you very much. I’m Jonathon Colman from REI and you can find me on Twitter at
  • Agile SEO - Infrastructure Innovation by Iteration

    1. AGILESEO Infrastructure Innovation by Iteration Jonathon Colman, in-house SEO for REI: Twitter @jcolman Source: Ross Land/Getty Images,
    2. Source: SEOmoz 4-essential-seo-infographics
    3. You’ve got strongmetrics, top-notchanalysis, a smartbusiness case, andbest practices forimplementation.Wow! You are anSEO Rockstar, baby.Source: Rugby Rebels, recommits-to-new-zealand-rugby/983.htm
    4. FAILSource: Ross Land/Getty Images Europe,
    5. Enter Agile – a way to deliver value tocustomers and get SEO done as part of a team. Source: Conversational Rugby,
    6. URL indexation from XML sitemaps
    7. Duplicate content reduction
    8. Performance: improving page load time
    9. Crawl budget: increase in crawling activity
    10. Stand as a team,Source: Ross Land/Getty Images,
    11. Work as a team,Source: Ross Land/Getty Images,
    12. Celebrate as a team, and…Source: Ross Land/Getty Images,
    13. What happens on the team stays on the team. Source: Ross Land/Getty Images,
    14. THANK YOU!Jonathon Colman, in-house SEO for REI: Twitter @jcolmanSource: Ross Land/Getty Images,