“Focus on web accessibility alongside other SEO tactics – they tend to all tackle similar issues” – Interview with Diane Kulseth

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Diane Kulseth is a senior SEO consultant at Siteimprove. Read my recent talk with her where we discussed her career, passion for SEO and web accessibility, the challenges she sees in both, and much more! 

What do you do professionally? How is it connected to SEO?

Currently, I work for a software company that has an SEO product. 

A lot of my work is talking to current and prospective customers about how they approach SEO, how they may do it in the future, and what they may be looking to change. It’s also talking about the capabilities and where my company’s software may help. 

On the other side, I’m working with our product teams to keep up to date with what’s changing in SEO and make sure that we are building features and capabilities within the tool that reflect where search as a whole is going. 

I don’t do as much day-to-day SEO right now, but it’s a lot of helping people with their SEO and helping build a product.

What is your professional background?

I was introduced to SEO when I was still in college, which was over a decade ago. I graduated with a degree in marketing and had actually been mentored by someone who said that you don’t need any specialized degree in SEO. But of course, SEO wasn’t even a degree at that point.

I went to intern at a marketing agency and learned a bit about SEO there by starting to take on some clients of my own. 

Over the next decade, I evolved in different roles that were centered around digital marketing strategy, building campaigns for SEO, paid search, and other initiatives. But every time, the roles kept coming back to SEO as the area where I loved spending the most time. 

What do you find the most appealing in SEO?

SEO combines a lot of different things. People see a lot of technical aspects of SEO, but you also need to be creative in your approach. 

Certainly, you can do a lot of technical fixes. But sometimes, to achieve the best rankings and results for your client or your own website, you need a touch of creativity and curiosity to try different things and see what works best for that website. 

So I like that SEO lets me be very technical, but I can also use my creativity.

So would you say you’re more of a technical person, or do you prefer the creative aspect of SEO?

In the early part of my career, I’d say it was definitely more about creativity in, for example, content writing. But now, as I’ve gotten further in my career, I have become fascinated by the technical aspects and the different things they allow us to do.

Of course, it can be challenging to uncover different issues and figure out the right fixes, but I really enjoy solving these puzzles.

What does your typical workday look like?

I usually start with a morning meeting, whether it’s with my team or the global SEO team. We talk through our work for the day or what we plan to do in the next couple of weeks. This gives us a good foundation for the day. 

Then, for a lot of the day, I’m in calls with my colleagues who are sales reps on the team. We talk about how we are going to approach a call with a prospective customer. 

This includes trying to understand their needs, if they’ve looked at any other SEO tools, and their understanding of SEO – whether they have a lot of experience or are fairly new to it, which helps us determine what way to speak to them about SEO. 

I will usually have a call or two where I’m helping our sales team go through the tool and answer any questions of the prospective customers. For example, I explain how our tool compares to another tool and how it works when you have people on the team who don’t know much about SEO. 

Do you prefer working from home or going to the office?

We have an office for those located in Minneapolis and generally in Minnesota. I’m an extrovert, so I like being in the office a lot. In addition, we have an on-site chef who makes delicious lunch meals for us – I really enjoy that. 

My company operates in a hybrid, flexible model now, so we can work from home as much as needed, and I think it will continue even after the pandemic. I like that ability to be at home when I want to be at home, but also be at the office when I want to be there. 

How has the pandemic affected the way you work?

Before the pandemic, we rarely worked from home. The pandemic has really shifted that and made it into something that we simply had to do. 

Also, when we started going into the hybrid model, it opened up the opportunity for us to not only recruit people from the Minneapolis area but also look for them more broadly, across the US and even in South America or Canada. It’s been very valuable as it let us open the pool of candidates and meet new people who you would normally not work with because they don’t live in the area. 

Is there any advice you can give someone who is just starting their career in SEO or thinking about starting?

My main piece of advice that I’ve gotten throughout my career would be to get a WordPress website or some other easy-to-build site, like Squarespace

Host it on your own domain and then try different things with SEO. Start by taking one of the many beginners’ guides you can find online, such as MOZ’s, and write content – try different things and see what works. 

For example, try something where you focus on your titles, descriptions and see how it works. Then compare it to when you write content and don’t focus on them. Finally, aim to build your analytical skills to understand what’s happening with the search engines and how that pertains to the website that you’re working on. 

It’s probably the easiest way to get some of that hands-on experience.

Can you think of any good resources for beginners that you would recommend? 

Someone I’ve been following a lot lately is Kristina Azarenko. She has a great approach to being a beginner in SEO. 

I would follow #SEOchat, which is on Thursdays. It can be really helpful regardless of your level of knowledge, and they tend to talk about a very specific topic so that later you are able to address it. You don’t even need to participate, just tune in and follow it on Twitter. 

Do you follow any experts on social media? Who inspires you the most?

Though I’m not on Twitter a whole lot, I follow plenty of people, such as Carolyn Lyden and Barry Schwartz – he always shares a lot of up-to-date information on SEO – and a lot of the folks on #SEOChat.

And certainly, Areej from Women in Tech SEO always has some great perspectives that I like to follow. 

Speaking of Women in Tech SEO – how did you get into the community?

I think I first started seeing it pop up as hashtags on Linkedin and Twitter. They had their in-person Women in Tech SEO fest – I thought it was really neat, and I recognized some of the speakers. I found it cool that there was something specific to women in SEO. 

So I started researching the community a little bit, found the website, then the Slack channel, and at that point, I signed up to learn more. That would have been early 2020, I think, a bit before the pandemic hit. 

Would you say that it’s harder for women to grow their careers in the SEO industry?

I see women who are killing it in SEO and doing amazing things. But also, there is a much smaller group of women than the men who are, at least publicly, doing well in SEO. 

It’s been interesting to see how women have advanced in their careers and SEO. I think it can be challenging to get the right mentorship opportunities for SEO and grow in your career as a digital marketer. I believe Women in Tech SEO really helps bridge that and allows women to learn from one another. 

There is that mentality in SEO that women don’t need any extra help. There are men in SEO and in the digital space as a whole that don’t see the issues that women encounter in the SEO space. 

It’s great that Women in Tech SEO provide that space where women can be themselves, express what they’re struggling with, what they are learning, and get feedback from other women without any judgment around “Well, you should know what the answer is” or “That’s not actually an issue.” Women are listened to in the community and get fair feedback. 

I agree – I see that women on the Slack channel you mentioned are really helpful, even if someone asks a basic question. 

Absolutely. It’s common for women and men to forget about different things relating to SEO. There are a variety of tactics that you can focus on based on your specialization in SEO – you might completely forget something or not even think about it. 

So I love the fact that the community is just very open, and they may say, “You might not have thought about this but make sure you remember to put your keyword here” or “Check for any broken links” or anything it may be. I think it’s nice that there is this judgment-free zone. 

Onto your workshop topic – accessibility. Can you introduce the topic a bit? Why did you choose it, and how is it important?

Before I started in SEO, I was helping with web accessibility, such as helping to make PDF documents more accessible for the state government that I was working with. So it’s something that I’ve also been fascinated by, and I saw many similarities when I jumped into SEO as my career field. 

Today, we see Google focus on user experience and overall page experience – that was certainly the case with some of their updates this summer. 

Another thing I see is Google tracking a lot about accessibility in its Lighthouse tools. For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to encourage websites to start looking at accessibility because it is good for page experience. 

But it also helps prepare people in case Google does use any of that data they’ve collected on accessibility in their algorithm in the future. 

I work for a company with a product around accessibility, so there is a lot of support for me talking about the topic. Accessibility is something people don’t often think about – they think, “There is no one that’s blind that is gonna be visiting my website” – and that may be the case. 

But there are also people who suffered a concussion and can’t navigate the website the way they would have before. Or someone may fall and break their wrist – it may be hard to use a mouse if the dominant hand is broken. Of course, they can use their keyboard, but is your business’ website easy to navigate without a mouse? 

If you look at it from this perspective, it becomes evident that anyone can experience an issue with accessibility in their life. If not right now, maybe when they get older, and their hands get shaky when they try to use a phone or computer. 

Therefore, it makes sense to focus on web accessibility alongside other SEO tactics – they tend to all tackle similar issues. 

What do you hope people remember from your workshop? What do you want them to understand?

One thing I would want people to learn from it is, much like SEO, accessibility is about following web best practices and building a strong site. If you do that well, accessibility will not be as much of an issue. 

Accessibility does not have to be difficult, much like SEO. There are some challenging aspects that would be best addressed by web developers. At the same time, there are things that everyday web users can do to improve the accessibility of a website. 

What I hope to address is: “You don’t have to be a web developer to make positive changes to your website.” I will discuss a few simple things that people can do to positively impact their website and make it more accessible to everyday users.

What are the biggest challenges in your field?

Often, the biggest challenge I see is getting leadership to buy into SEO or accessibility, or even both. People see SEO as something that doesn’t cost media dollars like paid search does, so they think, “It’s something that we can do for free.” 

But this is not the case with SEO – you still need tools and people to make these changes. It’s not free. Working with clients and helping them communicate the value of SEO and what it can do for their business has been really important.

What are some common SEO problems that you see on your clients’ websites?

One thing I notice is there has been a lot of focus on imagery for websites. The imagery is beautiful, but if not enough stress is put on compressing those images or loading them properly, it does weigh on page speed, which is what the search engines have been focusing on. 

While I have not seen any websites take a large hit as a result of those changes, I have seen websites have a harder time ranking because those images can take so long to load. Or many web pages, especially homepages, include carousels where people can flip through different images about the services or products they offer – it can impact the overall functionality of a website and how their users consume information. 

I have been encouraging customers to ensure images and carousels are loading effectively so people can see what they are but still navigate past them if they need to.

What are your go-to resources to use in your daily work? 

Well, I do work for an SEO tool, and that can be fun! But apart from that, I can’t go anywhere without ScreamingFrog and love using Google Data Studio, especially when I start integrating with different data tools like BigQuery. It’s hard for me to pull myself away when I get stuck in Data Studio because I love all the possibilities of what happens in there. 

I recently saw a blog post that showed how you can have scheduled crawls in ScreamingFrog turn into regular updated audits within Data Studio. I kind of laughed because I thought, “Wow, that’s combining two of my favorite tools, and I’m never gonna get out of them!”. 

What are your professional plans for the upcoming months?

That’s a good question! One of the biggest things I’m trying to spend more time on is learning about product management, how it impacts SEO and how you can look at SEO as a product within an organization. I see a lot of organizations heading in that direction. 

Also, I’m trying to improve my web development skills. I’ve done a couple of courses on HTML and CSS, and now I’m working on building up more of my JavaScript skills. While it is not required to learn code to do SEO well, it’s definitely an area to venture into. With me talking about SEO and accessibility and how they overlap, the more I can learn about code, the more I can speak to some of those changes that need to happen on both sides. 

Interesting – so where would you say it’s best to start learning to code?

I would recommend checking out SheCodes as they have my favorite coding workshops for women. You learn how to build specific products, and they have a very supportive community. I created my own landing page with HTML, CSS, and JS – I liked having a project and being able to show something tangible that I put together.

Hi! I’m Bartosz, founder and Head of SEO @ Onely. Thank you for trusting us with your valuable time and I hope that you found the answers to your questions in this blogpost.

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