Episode 25: Rebekah Baggs and Chris Corak, Onward - Integrating Content Strategy and SEO

August 14, 2019

This week, Kristina discovers that user-centered SEO isn’t just some magic you sprinkle on finished web copy right before hitting publish. After clashing on projects and stepping on each others’ toes, Chris Corak (an SEO) and Rebekah Baggs (a content and UX strategist) found smarter ways to integrate their work and create helpful, relevant web experiences that are search-engine friendly, too.

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About this week’s guests

Rebekah Baggs

Rebekah Baggs is a content and UX expert who has spent the past 15 years working with teams to overcome some of their toughest web and collaboration problems. Her consultancy, Onward, is committed to helping people bridge the gap between content, design, and technical SEO. She’s led projects for clients like Colonial Life and United Way, guest lectures at Arizona State University, and has been invited to share her thoughts on the Adobe blog, InVision, and Moz Whiteboard Friday.

Chris Corak

Chris Corak has been obsessed with making SEO more helpful since 2001. At his consultancy, Onward, Chris helps people understand search intent to bridge the gap between UX, content, and technical SEO. His human-centered SEO approach has helped clients like Avnet, Olive Garden, and Colonial Life keep up with ever-changing search engine algorithms. He also guest lectures at Arizona State University—go Devils!



Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello again. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com, and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.


Hello and welcome back. Thanks for joining me once again on The Content Strategy Podcast. Today I have not one but two lovely guests on the podcast. It’s Rebekah and Chris. Hi Rebekah, hi Chris.

Rebekah: Hello.

Chris: Hi.

Kristina: Let me tell you a little bit about Rebekah and Chris. Rebekah Baggs is a content and UX expert who has spent the past 15 years working with teams to overcome some of their toughest web and collaboration problems. Chris Corak has been obsessed with making SEO more helpful since 2001. At their consultancy, ONWARD, they help people understand search intent, and bridge the gap between content, design, and technical SEO.

Welcome my friends.

Chris: Hey, thanks so much for having us.

Rebekah: Yeah.

Kristina: You have so much to tell me and I have so much to learn, and I just can’t wait. So you came and spoke at Confab.

Rebekah: Oh man. It was so fun.

Chris: People were so nice. We had such a good time.

Rebekah: Yeah.

Kristina: You are so nice and people had a good time because of you.

Rebekah: And the cake.

Kristina: And the cake, always the cake. People flipped out about your session on content strategy and SEO being friends, and I wanted to have you on the podcast to hear a little bit more about that. Because SEO, I think, is a topic that often gets overlooked when we are talking about content strategy, and it’s really important to make that content useful and usable and findable and all that good stuff.

But before we dig into that topic, I’d like to hear a little bit about you, and your respective journeys to your roles in the content strategy universe.

Rebekah: Yeah, totally.

Chris: You want to go first?

Rebekah: Sure, dude. I think like most people’s, mine was really winding and unintentional. When I was in school, I was totally going to be an immigration lawyer, and then I actually went and worked with the lawyer in the summer and I was like, nope, that’s canceled. Canceled. [laughs]

Kristina: It’s like, that’s like I did it. I was going to be a school teacher at one point.

Rebekah: Oh?

Kristina: I think I literally—oh yeah. I think I spent about an hour and a half in a high school classroom and I was just like, “I’m out.”

Rebekah: I could see you, though. Maybe for like a guest teacher.

Kristina: I was just like, “This is nothing like that Michelle Pfeiffer movie.” I’m not … no. Yeah.

Rebekah: I had Matlock in my mind … nothing like it, you know. Matlock was so cool. Anyways, but I started working at a school paper and at the school paper I was exposed to the editorial process, and I would work with the ad team to help and try to bridge the gap between the journalist who really hated the ad team and wanted to make sure that the ads didn’t mess up the tone of the story or all of these different things.

And then I started working with business owners who didn’t know how to work with the ad team to figure out, “Hey, you’re trying to reach college students. You know, what do they care about?” And helping them shift what they wanted to say in their ads in a way that made sense for college students. And that led me to think, this is pretty fun.

So when I graduated, I got a job at a corporate magazine, and it was about ethics and compliance. Very, very exciting topic. But I learned even more about the editorial process and all of the planning and coordination that goes on in the backend to make a magazine happen. And I liked it, I liked it a lot. But then, I got fired.

Kristina: Oh, we all got fired from that magazine job at one point or another.

Rebekah: Yeah, that sucked. And then I found myself in a really small local software company that was trying to be like Salesforce, but smaller. And I didn’t know what I was doing there, and I was supposed to be doing marketing, which I just wasn’t the best at. But the lead developer kept bringing me in on conversations, like “Hey, we’re really struggling with this feature. No one knows how to use it.” And at first I was just supposed to make these help videos to tell people how to use this really complex functionality. And then I was like, “Dudes, what if we just make it easier and more intuitive to use?”

And they were like, “Yeah, let’s do that.” So we would sit and figure it out. I had no idea what UX was. I had just no idea what I was doing. To me, I was just still doing marketing. And so we worked on that, and I had a great mentor and friend in that developer that I met, he actually went on to work in UX at Tesla. And he set me on a path from there, I ended up in agency land, where I met Chris. And I was working as an official content strategist, because I met Sara Wachter-Boettcher, who was leading Phoenix Content Strategy at the time. And she’s like, “You know, what you’re doing is a thing that people call ‘content strategy.’” And I was like, “No way.”

So I started calling myself a content strategist, I ended up leading a content strategy team and I met Chris …

Chris: Yeah.

Rebekah: … who worked in SEO at the same agency at the time.

Chris: Totally.

Rebekah: That’s it, that’s how I got there. How about you, man?

Chris: My path. I was in college, I had done a few internships. The last one I did was, there was a family friend, two people who were starting their own business, and they agreed to let me be their intern.

Kristina: Yeah, suckers. [laughs]

Chris: Yeah, and the business they were starting was a digital marketing company and agency, and one of the things they tasked me with, in addition to doing manual things like taking the garbage out and setting up phone systems was, “Hey, we think this search engine optimization thing’s going to be something, will you go try to figure it out for us?” And it just kind of clicked with me.

I really liked it, I liked how useful it was, and it felt like you were being productive and helping people find things more easily online, opposed to other forms of marketing that might feel kind of pushy. People are literally asking for this information, and you’re just helping them get to it. I guess somehow, I got closer to the world of content when I think I realized along the way, somewhere halfway into my career, that probably 80 or 90% of the things I was recommending were not getting implemented, which is a big bummer and makes you feel like your work isn’t being considered or very effective.

But I was kind of realizing that I think a lot of the people I was talking to were on the marketing side, and they really didn’t have ultimate control over the website, and that might’ve sat with UX people or a development team, or content folks. And I feel like since then I’ve been trying to get closer to that point of creation, where things are researched and designed, and somewhere in there I met Rebekah at the same agency.

Rebekah: Yeah. It was funny.

Kristina: Funny and fateful.

Chris: Yeah, totally.

Kristina: So I actually want to ask Chris just a little bit more about some of the early work that you did in SEO and search engine optimization. I know when I was first sort of working on this thing called the internet, and we were all trying to figure out what that meant and what we were doing, that there was this big situation between black hat SEOs and white hat SEOs.

Chris: Yeah.

Kristina: Are you familiar with this?

Chris: Yes.

Kristina: Okay, so were you a black hat SEO or white hat?

Chris: Definitely not. Definitely not. Yeah, I was always trying to be on the good side and do positive things and not be the one’s trying to manipulate the system. But before Google got really good at identifying the difference between somebody trying to be unnatural and spammy and people who are just trying to make decent things, they let a lot of that slip through the cracks. And I think that’s what caused a giant mess on the internet. Right?

Kristina: Oh, that was part of it.

Chris: Yep. So it’s really comforting to know that they’ve, not that it’s fully figured out, but that along the way they got a lot better at detecting when people are trying to game the system or not.

Kristina: So one thing that I know is that when you were both starting to work together at the agency, there was some, there was some tension, there were some clashing agendas. You want to talk about that a little bit?

Rebekah: Yeah. So you know, I came on and I was supposed to be leading this content strategy team and there really wasn’t a practice around information architecture, or there was like one person sort of, you know, a junior person in UX, it wasn’t a big practice there. And so I was like, “We’re going to absorb this, and this is going to belong in content strategy.” And then all of a sudden on projects, I would see Chris making changes to the IA and I was like, this SEO ...

Chris: Hey dude, get out of here.

Rebekah: Like “Step off, do not optimize my categories. I want them to make sense to people and not robots.” And the more I got to know Chris, he has such a good heart and such good intention with work. I was like, “Okay, maybe he’s not a spammy, terrible person.” And the more I started listening to his process, I was like, “Oh, you are using keyword data as a form of user research, and you are someone I should probably be working with really closely.”

And so we actually moved our desks to sit back to back in the same area, and people were like, “You are not in the same department.”

Chris: “You’re not supposed to sit here.”

Rebekah: Yeah. And we were just like, “We just want to.” And so we started hanging out and collaborating on things, and I realized that a lot of the work that he was doing was actually information architecture, and he was doing it in a really methodical and thoughtful way, and that it made the work that I was doing better because a lot of times I would try and advocate for something, you know, that we’d heard in some interviews, but we only had like eight interviews. And you know, a client or a business would say “That’s great, but you only talk to eight people. And so I don’t see why this is really important.” And then I would go talk to Chris and he could find search data that proved that this kind of content was really important, or people were asking these kinds of questions and we needed to be more transparent, or whatever it was. And he could give me numbers and percentages …

Chris: All the people searching for it.

Rebekah: Yeah. And so I was like, “This is cool.” And you’ve been doing that ever since.

Kristina: I will say, content strategists want and need the data. They want the data, they want the user research, and a lot of times that is not readily available for them, for whatever reason.

Rebekah: Yeah.

Kristina: So Chris, tell me about, when Rebekah was saying that you would were using SEO to help inform information architecture, tell me about what that looks like.

Chris: Yeah, so I think one of the important parts about our workflow and our process is understanding search intent. And so we’re using that as a form of research, where were studying very deep keyword sets of data, and trying to understand more about people and study the kinds of information they’re looking for. You know, with every word and modifier they’re adding to their keyword, they’re telling us more specifically what they’re looking for, what kind of questions they might have, or what factors might go into their decision.

Rebekah: And how they describe things. The words they use.

Chris: Yeah, totally. Yeah.

Kristina: So let me actually interrupt there for just a quick second. You’re talking about these deep keyword sets and taking a look at them. Where are you getting those keywords? How are you how are you pulling them up? What kind of constraints do you set to get the information you’re looking for? And then how, how do you actually go about analyzing them?

Chris: Yeah, so there’s Google’s main keyword tool is a waste of time. It’s mainly for paid advertising benefits, and they’re not showing you all of the more long-tail searches that people are looking for. The ones that are lower in search volume, but in aggregate could be hundreds or thousands of them. They’re showing you mainly the most popular things, but there’s a lot of good keyword tools that can scrape Google suggestions.

So you start typing something in Google, and there’s some suggestions that appear. These keyword tools are scraping all of that information. If you were starting to search for a term, and you did, you put the term in and you did “space A,” you might get a totally different set of keywords and Google suggestions than you would if you did B or C, and these tools, they’ll go through all of the alphabet, all the numbers, and in one click, say “Hey, here’s a thousand keywords around this topic with the search volume.” And so they’re grabbing all of that information for you pretty quickly.

You have to be, you know, pretty methodical about all the different root terms you’re starting with, and you’re trying to do some different variations or do some research that, what are some synonyms of this kind of stuff. Or maybe in user interviews, you understand a little bit more about an audience and can have some of that subject matter expertise that can inform some of that too.

But really, you’re using, there’s a lot of really good tools. Moz has a good tool, Keyword Explorer; Ubersuggest; there’s one that we like that I think is really easy to use, called KeywordTool.io.

Rebekah: Yeah.

Chris: And that gets all that information for you, and the idea is you’re doing research around a certain topic, and you’re scanning that keyword data looking to identify themes of intent. Just common things that you think people are looking for.

Rebekah: Yeah. A couple of things that were weird to me about that is I had this big misconception around long-tail search data when I first met Chris. I had just heard long-tail search data, and I think I had just assumed it meant really long searches. Like when people search like they’re naturally speaking. And that isn’t what long-tail search data means. Long-tail search data means they’re lower in search volume. So it’s not the most popular one, maybe people are only searching this one, two, three times. It’s not a popular phrase or way of searching for things.

But when you have, you’re looking at this as a person, you can start to identify themes. Like saying, oh, this is like this. So you can start to identify, the way people are modifying this search around, say, life insurance, has to do with, they’re trying to understand the different terms. And they might search that in a ton of different ways, and so in aggregate, all these different, very unique, low search volume keywords, when you put them all together as a related topic or theme, you’re like, “There’s a ton of people.”

Chris: Yeah, they amount to something very significant.

Rebekah: Yeah. Yeah. So that was cool for me to see how Chris was grouping those things. And I think I also thought that there should be some sort of magical tool. I was like, “There has to be something that just can identify these bodies of intent.” And there really is no substitution for just looking at that as a person, and saying, “Okay, you know, in aggregate, what do all these kind of maybe seemingly disparate things mean” Is there a related topic here?”

Kristina: Yeah, that was actually my question about whether or not that analysis was happening automatically with some magical tool, or if this was actually a manual thing where it was eyes on the data thinking, so that there’s not, it’s not just the science of the robots pulling stuff, but it’s also the art of knowing what you’re looking for. Is that right?

Rebekah: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, totally. And I think there’s some tools out there that kind of partly get there, like some machine learning tools, but everything I’ve tried out just really isn’t that helpful, and is no match for just your personal time invested into it. And it just takes a lot of time. It’s a, you want to pull your hair out a little bit. You might be, just depends on the popularity or the scope of the thing you’re researching, but you’re definitely into thousands of different keywords, and scanning them yourself and looking for those themes.

Rebekah: And there’s definitely shortcuts and like pivot table things you can do to make that process go faster, but it’s so worthwhile. I’ve really felt like it’s worth the time we put in it. It’s definitely doable, especially if you start with being really smart around the root keywords that you’re investigating. Maybe you’re not doing this for everything, but you’re doing it where the biggest opportunity lies, or where the biggest gaps in user experience or in search visibility are in whatever project you’re working on. And that’s been really cool.

Chris: And so, so in the end you’ve identified all these themes in your different forms of intent, and you’re kind of using that as a checklist to challenging yourself. How are we satisfying these forms of intent on our site, in our content, and just the user experience overall? And you start quickly identifying, “Oh, here’s a few really important topics that people really need information around, and we don’t cover them at all. Maybe these are new pages we should add to the information architecture.” And it kind of starts giving you ideas like that.

Rebekah: Yeah, totally.

Kristina: Yeah. So, so that was what I was going to ask. So it really sounds like this research can inform a couple of things. I mean, first it can inform the language that you’re choosing. Your word choice, how you’re talking about specific things. Another is how people are, you know, from a topical perspective, how they’re grouping things together, how they’re prioritizing the information that they’re looking for, and so on.

And then I wonder, do you work with any, because this seems like the kind of thing that content marketers would be like, “Oh yes, this will help us identify the kinds of things that we need to feature on our blogs, or send out in email newsletters, or create videos on or whatever.” Are you using it to inform that at all, or are you strictly UX practitioners?

Rebekah: We definitely have in the past, Chris can speak to that. Definitely have in the past. I think now we use it much more, not so much UX, because a lot of the people that come to us are marketers who are working on improving their website. They’re like evergreen content, so it’s not so much the blog as it is the website, and we use it for that.

Chris: Yeah, so. You’re totally right though. It can totally inform ideas like that. I think in the content marketing kind of world, maybe you’re identifying more singular topics that you might find are important to people, and writing about them. And on the more natural site—

Rebekah: On the organic search side.

Chris: On the organic search side of just the main website, it’s a little more complex of different forms of intent baked into larger topics too.

Kristina: So this is interesting because a lot of, I get a lot of pushback when I’m out on the road and speaking at conferences, specifically if you’re marketers, who are like, “Oh the website, blah, the website.” No, it’s all about, you know, this content that we’re distributing and sharing, and making public and promoting. And you know, the website is just sort of like a necessary evil.

You know, and even several years ago we were like, “Ah, the website is dead.” You know, nobody goes to the website anymore. And I’m just like, well then why are all these companies coming to us asking for help with their website? I mean, tell me about what you’re finding when marketers are working on the website wanting to improve it. Like, what are they using the website for? What is the role that that’s still playing in the customer journey?

Rebekah: Sure. So I think there’s a couple things. One is that articles can bring in traffic, right? But they’re not a silver bullet, and it takes a lot of work to sustain a really high-quality blog. And maybe you’ll come up with topics, especially if you do research ahead of time, that get a lot of attention. But it takes time, right? It takes time for Google to recognize a new page. Other people have to link to that article for it to really get visibility. And the thing is, is that they can’t compete with the visibility that the main pages on a well-recognized site with good domain authority can get.

Those pages are always going to rank higher, and so I think a lot of people in marketing end up caring about this kind of stuff because they need to reduce their paid search spend. They’re either pointing a lot of paid dollars towards these blog articles, or socials to promote them, and it’s expensive and costly. And it takes time to get the kind of traffic they need to really sustain their business, and so they’re like, all right, our natural site does pull in a lot of traffic. Maybe we should be better meeting the needs there. Maybe it can perform even better.

Chris: I think even politically too, if you want to go about changing the main site, that’s probably a harder thing to get everybody to rally around, versus creating a singular page on the blog of a new idea that you want to. And so sometimes it can be, I just have more control over here to be creating this kind of information too. But it feels like, for a lot of the clients that we work with, the core main website is the thing that gets visibility for the product or service that somebody is offering in large part, and whatever those pages are. And it becomes probably the primary or key way that someone’s found, and a lot of the articles end up being more of like a related or interesting point, maybe a little more in that early journey kind of phase. But that core website is so important for people. Maybe the exceptions are people who are publishers, who get their primary content from a blog. I think most organizations are getting most of their traffic actually from the core website.

Kristina: So tell me, what are some kind of common challenges that you see then when you step through the door and people are like “Oh, our website, it’s poorly written, or the way the information is organized is crappy, or our customer call center keeps telling us that nobody can find what they’re looking for on the site.” Like what do you see are the core problems behind some of those, what we will call “problem symptoms”?

Rebekah: Hmm, man.

Chris: That’s a good question.

Rebekah: It’s usually people and organizational things.

Kristina: It’s always the people.

Rebekah: Yeah, and it’s so tough, right? I think, Chris, feel free to chime in here.

Chris: Yeah.

Rebekah: A lot of times we see that the marketing team, it doesn’t work super closely with the user experience team. Maybe the pages were developed in a really rigid way that they can’t actually add to or modify the on-page content to better fill in those gaps. Or, the information architecture is super locked down and there’s no easy way to change that. Or they have a lot of trouble working with legal to say the kind of things they need to say that they know will meet their customers’ needs. And so they create these micro sites, either on their own URLs or on sub domains.

And so I think most commonly when we come into an organization, it’s because there’s a little bit of lack of knowledge about what it takes to do SEO. We’ve worked with clients who have really large international properties, and they want to fix SEO. They have these really lofty goals around organic traffic, but they have no workflow to make the changes to the page templates, to make the changes to the information architecture, to be able to pull that stuff off.

And all they want to focus on is just on-page content, which is a very small facet of overall SEO. Chris, would you add anything to that?

Chris: No, I think that’s very well said. And I think our favorite kinds of projects are, I mean we have clients where we’re trying to enhance an existing website, but it’s always the most fun, I think, when you get to be part of a redesign process, and maybe get to even rethink how some of those organizational aspects are handled, too.

Rebekah: Yeah. But sometimes we really have experienced a lot of luck with clients where we kind of, especially user intent analysis, when you see what it takes to actually meet people’s intent and satisfy that intent, and talk about the multi-layered nature of SEO and how it is a part of information architecture and UX, as well as web content.

People have been really receptive to that in some cases, and been able to just make iterative improvements to their site and try it out. Maybe just around one or two product lines, where they’re going deeper in the information architecture on there, or adding some different features and functionality, and improving the web content in those couple areas.

Chris: Yeah, and maybe it’s the, I’m thinking of a couple of different clients, but maybe it’s the first time the UX team actually worked together with the marketing team, and we’re all solving a problem at the same time, which feels really great and productive.

Rebekah: Yeah. I can think of one client in particular where the UX team had told us, “This is the first time we’ve ever gotten in the room to actually plan out pages with the marketing team, and this feels so good.” And the marketing team kind of had the same feedback, and they were able to get to really quick wins, and little changes that they didn’t think were possible, or just hadn’t asked about, because they just weren’t in the same room talking about it. They’d never really discussed it before.

Kristina: You know, I know that our listeners are really sick and tired of me saying this, I’m sure. But isn’t that the number one job of the content strategist, is just to get people into the room, or connect those dots. Like, “Hey, you know what? You care about content, you care about content, you have different functions, but you both impact the content. Let’s sit down together and have a conversation.” People are just like, “What is this magic you are doing with us right now?”

Rebekah: Yeah.

Chris: So true. And as you were saying in the very beginning of the conversation, SEO is quite often left out of those conversations.

Rebekah: Always.

Chris: And so it feels great and productive to be able to insert it into the conversation and have it also be considered at the same time.

Rebekah: Yeah.

Kristina: That, I think, is such a challenge when it comes to workflow, right? Because I was just at, I’ve been talking a lot to folks who do UX design within the enterprise. And you know, they’re still saying, “Oh, we don’t get called to the table soon enough.” Or “Oh, we need to sit at the table and everybody comes to us at that last minute.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? You’re UX people. What about the content people? Nobody comes to us.”

Rebekah: Right?

Chris: Yeah.

Kristina: But you know, so that’s an interesting question when we’re talking about workflow in design, or in solving problems for digital environments. Like everybody says, you need to bring me to the table first. Well, maybe we do need 12 people at the table to start. But then you know, I don’t know, I guess it just kind of depends probably on company culture, and what the product or the website is that you’re working on.

But, I do think that the fact that the two of you in your consulting and your design practice, were able to identify so clearly that that relationship between content strategy, information architecture, and SEO, that all came around and centered on user intent, is really, really cool and very insightful.

Rebekah: Thanks.

Chris: That’s awesome, thank you.

Kristina: So if our listeners would like to find you two online, tell me where they can look.

Rebekah: Oh yeah, they could go to Onwardand.co.

Chris: Yeah.

Rebekah: That’s our little baby website.

Chris: We made a short link if anyone wants to check out our slides from our Confab talk. It is at bit.ly/seo-and-content-design, if you’re using dashes as word separators.

Rebekah: Yeah. And we have a download in there around understanding intent, too, that walks you step by step through that process we use, and then talks about different ways you can apply it to bring your SEO and web content and UX together.

Chris: Yeah.

Rebekah: So there’s that in there, and we’re also on the Twitters. I’m not the most prolific tweeter. But I’m there.

Chris: If anyone has any questions, yeah, to reach out, that would be awesome. We love talking to people.

Kristina: So what you’re saying is that you showed up to the podcast, not only with insights and jokes, but also with presents.

Rebekah: Ooh, I like the way you framed that.

Kristina: Wow, great. All those links will be in the show notes. So Rebekah and Chris, thank you so much for joining me today. You are lovely, intelligent, goodhearted folks, and it was a pleasure speaking with you.

Rebekah: Hey, thanks.

Chris: Thanks so much for having us.

Rebekah: Yeah, it was a real pleasure to be here.

Chris: Yeah, for sure.


Kristina: You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This broadcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks, and we’ll see you next time.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

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