Conversations in Search: Michelle Wilding-Baker

Michelle Wilding-Baker is Head of Digital & Content at Freesat

Michelle Wilding-Baker has been practicing technical and content based SEO for agencies, clients and as a freelancer for the last decade.

Graduating from Western Sydney University in 2009, Michelle has been blazing a trail in digital marketing, transforming business fortunes. 

When Michelle is not leading SEO for Freesat as Head of Digital and Content she can be found enjoying wine and cheese with friends or walking her blue Frenchie puppy.

This post is part of a series called ‘Conversations in Search’. I discuss the current state of SEO practice with other SEO experts and discover their views on the future of SEO.

Damien: Hey, Michelle, I hope you’re well? Thanks for taking the time I know you’ve just started a new role. Before we get into the SEO questions, how are you?

Michelle: I’m good, thanks. I’m very fortunate work-wise, where I am quite busy with lots to get done and I can do this remotely. I’m spending time with my husband, Te, and we also got a French bulldog puppy, Illarion (AKA “Lari”), in February, just before the corona hit which turned out to be divine timing. He loves me working from home non-stop. It is like having a child and juggling different types of commitments, but we’re happily managing these changes.

I recently joined Freesat in February, and I inherited a website and a lot of projects, and there’s also new visions and new projects. We’re doing a site migration, we launched a brand campaign and just, you know, a great new team of kind and talented folk to collaborate with, so I’m either setting everything up, tweaking performance or leading my team.

Damien: Tell us about your career progression, how you’ve got to where you are now?

Michelle: I graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Studies (Journalism), and it was during the GFC, global financial crisis, and it actually reminds me of now because there’s a lot of economic uncertainty. 

I came out of uni top of the class, first-class honours, Dean’s merit award, and I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald, I had about 70 pieces in my portfolio; I was your grade-A student, and it was hard to get a job because everyone was redundant. 

Fairfax had just axed 4,000 journalists, so when I came out of uni, it was challenging even with my portfolio of writing. I got a job within three months working for an advertising agency as a copywriter / proofreader to build up my editing experience, and I did that for a year. 

Then I joined a content marketing agency working across brands like Expedia, Subaru, ReachLocal and AMEX to name a few, and I picked up a lot of SEO; that’s when the Panda algorithm dropped around 2011. Then I was freelancing, I had my own business, ‘Oh Mishy’, for about two years full-time in Australia. I wrote for lots of print magazines, online and produced/edited video content.

Then I worked for another creative advertising agency predominately on ALDI Australia, and then I joined a UK digital marketing agency Fresh Egg where I was leading their inbound marketing division in the Aussie office, and then Brexit occurred.

That gave me a life realisation. I was with my boyfriend, Te, (who is now my husband) for about three years, and he would say, ‘let’s move overseas, let’s move abroad,’ and of course, I wanted to with all my heart, but it’s terrifying packing up your life.

He moved to Australia when he was 16 from New Zealand, and he had been there for ten years. I was nearing the big 3-0, our flat was up for lease, and someone hit my car. Nothing was holding us back, and we felt complacent. I hate being stagnant, career-wise, and as a person, so I set the ambitious goal to secure a role in the UK and leave Sydney in less than three months. After several rounds of interviewing on video calls at 2am, the Telegraph offered me an SEO & Content Marketing Manager role. Within a year I had exceeded all business targets and was promoted to Head of SEO & Content.

Throughout it, the critical thing is to diversify your skillset. These days, you can’t just have one skill, it’s incredible how you can move around in your career. I encourage students to think about digital. Even in journalism, it’s evolved from just writing walls of text that naturally suit a print newspaper/magazine environment. Offline does not fit online; you need to ensure content is tailored for the medium; easily digestible using sub-heads and bullet points or lists. Students therefore also need to pick up on-page SEO and understand from a technical point of view how everything can be crawled, indexed and and ranked.

A lot of journalists now put their content on their own social feeds to build their own voice and the publications brand; it’s just an evolution that you’re expected to amplify your content by social media and wear many hats.

I love social media during the day, but at night, I like to switch off, I want to disconnect. I don’t personally use Facebook and haven’t for years. I only use Business Manager for ads and managing organic. I do however use Twitter; I keep up with a lot of SEO and marketing updates, and funnily enough, a lot of friends are in the space filling up my feed or WhatsApp alerts. So SEO is a bit of a lifestyle interest and I’m quite immersed in it.

Damien: Going back to when you’re in Australia, and you’re making that choice to up sticks to move internationally, what made you feel confident in doing that?

Michelle: Sometimes, you have to bet on yourself. I had a great job, supporting family, a buzzing social life, and lived for bodyboarding at the beach every weekend. From the outside, my life and my boyfriend’s at the time was perfect. We just felt like we weren’t growing as people. We would travel a bit abroad, and you come back home, and then it felt very routine like you’re stuck on a never-ending hamster wheel that’s culturally limiting. I’m half Maltese, and my dad is German, but I’ve grown up in Australia, born and raised. I just thought, you know what, I want to see my roots, where my grandparents grew up. This led us to get married in Malta in September 2018.

Michelle and Te Wilding Baker wedding
Michelle and Te Wilding-Baker Wedding

I think it’s just that drive to always do better and evolve and see the world because had we not, we would probably wake up one day and think ‘I wish I did that.’ So many people buy a house and have kids, but they haven’t travelled the world. We’ve been blessed to do a lot of that. When we moved to London, we thought it would just be for a year and then we’d go back home, but we’ve been fine without our family, and friends. There are things like WhatsApp, email, FaceTime which fortunately keep us connected. And London weather? You adapt. The winter is a trade off for being so close to the Mediterranean!

Damien: How did work-life change when you got your first job in the UK? Did it meet your expectations?

Michelle: Yeah, it was very fast-paced. It was an in-house role. That was very interesting because I hadn’t worked in-house. I was always freelancing or working as a specialist for an agency. I believe I had the skill set because I think that agency-side is excellent. After all, you’re a sponge when you’re young, and you learn as much as you can and absorb all of the cutting-edge techniques and best practise, and then you can manage and run departments in-house with that knowledge and experience.

My last role in Australia is where I picked up hardcore technical SEO for the previous two years because I worked so closely with the tech SEO team. That influenced me to see the technical side of SEO because I think SEO is very broad and a lot of the time you’re either on the content side or a technical side. I’m thankful to call myself a hybrid.

I like to say my experience is broad but deep. When I wanted to move on from the Telegraph, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was interviewing for Head of SEO roles getting through up to four-round gauntlets to final interview stages with big brands or national publications, and I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m just going to relive the last three years of my life’.

I love SEO, but at the same time, I didn’t want to just stay in that box. Because I love the variety of focusing on the customer, crafting content journeys and smashing acquisition. Consulting independently for a year and now this role for me at Freesat is fantastic, it’s everything I wanted and I’m still involved on the tech side. 

The remit is Head of Digital and Content. What I mean by saying it’s broad but deep is I do classify myself as a specialist yet I’m present across all digital channels.

I’ve been there, mapping redirects, performing and implementing technical SEO audits and writing the content and promoting it across owned, paid and earned channels. I’ve done that for ten years. I appreciate that I’ve always rolled my sleeves up doing actual specialist work in favour of just managing accounts with no real understanding. I’ve got that T-zone title.

Damien: I think that’s important, Michelle. The breadth and depth of experience you’ve built must help you see and think about the bigger picture of channel marketing?

Michelle: Exactly. I wanted to get out of the single-channel box. Although at the Telegraph, I was Head of SEO and Content, everyone still felt it was just SEO. Content is the heart of every channel. It’s not one channel; it drives the channels. My remit is great, as I shape all the digital marketing channel strategies, and then the content side is extensive. It’s everything. It’s the website, and it’s our editorial on the site, on our TV box UI, the app, newsletters, it’s the social media and amplification, eCommerce, acquisition and lead generation. It’s massive, but I love it because I can just move around, know what levers to pull and when, and there’s a lot of variety. PPC results are extremely quick and SEO is long-burn, so you have to prioritise effectively to maximise on channel benefits.

Damien: Tell us a little bit about Freesat?

Michelle: Freesat is a satellite TV broadcasting platform, and a free to air provider. It is a one-stop-shop and is flexible for people looking to make smarter decisions when it comes to television. If they want a free to air option that’s 4k high quality you’ve got us; there are over 180 channels with leading on demand players and apps. However, you can also top up your viewing as you wish by adding on paid additions like Netflix without being locked into long and pricey contracts. What I also resonate with is that one of our brand pillars is being ‘Telly experts’.

We know what our customers enjoy watching as we stay abreast with new shows and can simultaneously access anonymised TV data to see what people are watching and correlate viewership with our marketing activity. It’s like having GA on our set top boxes. For example, if we pushed out some social media announcing a new TV series or promoted an exclusive interview, an article or email coverage — then we can see a spike in TV viewership for that show. When we do our channel activity, we can see if it’s impactful or not, if people are engaged. It’s a great test bed and can help us fine tune certain inventory or messaging to match what our audience cares about and what content they enjoy most.

Damien: You said before that you’re a digital librarian, what is it, and what does that mean?

Michelle: I termed that a long time ago. You know, my mum, she thinks I work at Google, and I’m a journalist, but that’s not the case. I believe we have to surface content for people, and so, being a librarian is about trying to get websites to position one, or dare I say it now zero, and ultimately help people find the right content they’re looking for to match their intent. That’s what I mean by the digital librarian.

Damien: Brands need to make a balance these days between just going after what you term as a perhaps a vanity metric of I want more traffic with giving a holistic experience to their users. How do they do that best?

Michelle: In my experiences, it’s about setting targets for the team so that you and your people are measured, and we all know the impact of what we’re doing. If you’re going to use these old school tactics, you can get to number one pretty easy, but that’s not the challenge anymore. It’s maintaining position one/featured snippets and that visibility once you get there. I would prefer less traffic and higher converting, engaged traffic. Traffic in isolation is a vanity metric. Unless you’ve got another metric to layer over it and give it meaning, it’s a bit superfluous. You can fake traffic growth if you really want to, or get traffic for irrelevant terms that drives no real benefit to your users.

I like scroll depth, and that’s a good thing with certain analytics platforms, you can measure how far down people are engaging with your content. Even just the classic pages per session to see if and how users are moving around. What type of content is it? Are they visiting products or help pages? It’s just really about serving your customer needs.

I think that’s interesting because people continue to revisit our site when they’ve acquired a Freesat box, and they’ll read our TV Guide, Showcase, which is our editorial recommender. We pick the best TV shows and films each day on what to watch. It depends on the journey. When people do arrive at the FAQ section, then it can help us improve performance as they give us feedback. It varies because we have got such a large funnel, you’ve got upper funnel editorial content right down to the converting, purchasing the box, or upgrading to the latest 4k box for the latest features, and then the loyalty of revisiting our Editorial content.

Damien: Thinking about the move to no-click searches, where answers appear in the search results page. How do you sell the value of no-click search results to stakeholders?

Michelle: That’s where the search experience is going in reality. Google’s core purpose is to ensure that users are getting answers as quickly as possible, whether you click through or not. That’s fine, and it does mean that from an SEO perspective, you just need to be a little bit clever and adapt. Probably a year ago, I was looking for a new table, so I think the query I started with was ‘tables’, which as a generic head term ‘tables’ was like 40,000, but when you put ‘IKEA tables’, it was double the average monthly search volume, and that’s a great example of ‘leading brand’ search. The fact that people would search IKEA first rather than just tables at a higher volume doesn’t always happen. Usually, it’s the head generic term, and then a brand head term. It’s essential to invest in your brand well.

Damien: The impact of brand and people loving your brand enough to include it in their otherwise broad query means you need to be remarkable.

Michelle: Yes, I would say so. There’s only so much you can do with broad generic queries. Of course, you want to be visible for and answer as many relevant questions as possible, but it’s essential to go after the ones that relate to your business or purpose, and not just rank for anything as it’s not going to be very engaging for users. If it results in a subpar experience for the user, Google is probably likely to say, ‘You know what, that sort of query, we’re not going to furnish you as the result if you don’t have something compelling to offer.’

Damien: Thinking about your move towards technical SEO, what is it that appealed to you, and where do you want to broaden your knowledge?

Michelle: Yeah, I mean, this was probably seven years ago that I picked up technical SEO. What’s important is learning more about how the web works as it helps you be more effective as a high fraction of marketeers you work with don’t realise how much technical SEO issues can affect your SEO visibility and digital performance in general.

I taught myself to code when I was 12 years old, just basic HTML and CSS from Neopets and Myspace days. It opened my mind, especially having to learn about how classifications from the Panda algorithm reinforces the importance of creating great content. I know a lot about technical SEO; however, I wouldn’t say I’m at the developer level, but when it gets too deep, I understand enough to brief development and project teams. You can’t know absolutely everything, and that’s okay.

Damien: Where would you say in terms of technical SEO, you want to explore more that you want to get a greater depth?

Michelle: I’m always learning, for example, about JavaScript, server and client-side rendering and its value for SEO results. I find those fascinating areas. Everyone talks about crawl budget, but then they’re not looking at page bloat enough. We need to think more about the cost of the scripts and technologies we use on search. I’m implementing a new cookie management tool and the techniques chosen to classify categories, set block/drop cookie and pixel consent rules via html JS rewrites or GTM scripts is the difference of many seconds; so I’m having a lot of fun with our web dev agency who ‘gets’ SEO.

Damien: What are the common SEO challenges that you find you and your team come across that make it tougher to get momentum for SEO change?

Michelle: When I’ve got an idea, or I feel strongly about something… just talking about it and the impact on the user, our digital footprints and how we can get cross-departments involved is often enough as we don’t really have red tape – provided tasks fit within timelines and budget. I find colleagues believe in the brand and the product value and we just want to do better. Generally, they’re quite open if I build a case study on wanting to try something, people are usually quite happy but we do prioritise. It is early days, but that is the culture, and that’s what attracted me to the role as well.

Damien: What are you and your team focused on at the moment?

Michelle: Right now our site is very flat. We are working on a new one and focusing our effort on the new website where we can surface content a little bit better and create topic clusters to build authority and appeal. I’m working through some great information architecture improvements, and briefing in improvements to help us to reduce the number of pages we have which are orphaned. Because not linking to pages makes it difficult to grow and promote the right experience for users.

It’s a cleaner experience for users, and they can move around more quickly and easily, they can navigate to where they want to, then we can use logic to surface elements, and present ‘your next best action’ or ‘If you’re reading this article read that’ or ‘where should you go to next?’.

Damien: Where are we as an industry right now?

Michelle: There’s still this battle raging between being a technical SEO or content SEO, and you need both. It’s not just about the content, authority and E-A-T, you can’t forget the tech, but it is. It’s as simple as having good, relevant content in a nicely presented interface and making sure it is technically sound. What I mean by that is, have a fast site, make sure it is crawlable and indexable, present your content in a way that’s easily digestible, make sure there is beautiful clean code and rich schema markup. Technical SEO sometimes has a bad rap or it’s too hard to get done, and it shouldn’t.

Damien: Many businesses try to improve their SEO position by building links. Google says link building is mostly against the rules. What are website owners to do?

Michelle: Our industry is full of a lot of people who just want to make fast cash and have these quick tactics to game the system because SEO is quite complex to understand if you’re on the outside, but then the website owner risks penalty from the search engines if they use more inferior practices.

On the other side of the fence… I’m very fortunate to know some of the most experienced SEOs who do in fact build links, whether it’s paid or naturally and they seem to be doing a good job because they generally know what they’re doing and/or they understand limits and thresholds of risk.

There’s definitely value in getting a website SEO audit and knowing what’s happened before to a website, to unpick any old bad practices, if they are there. If you don’t know something, SEO is quite complicated, so speak to someone you trust.

Damien: Where is the future of SEO?

Michelle: It is about user engagement. Having good content in search has become more about answering questions and being the best at it. The best can be having a fast site with richly marked up content, answering customer questions and enabling a great experience, it’s as simple as that. So SEOs should learn to collaborate more with cross-departments to achieve this.

From a corporate point of view… SEOs will excel if they can truly measure all aspects of the channel. What is the impact of efforts all the way through the funnel, on your customer base and on the business’ bottom line? How can SEO be used as an acquisition channel if you’re selling a product or service. It’s simple, and while most SEOs watch keyword volumes, this measured approach to proving value for customers is often overlooked. If you treat it as a performance marketing channel and demonstrate value, you’ll gain more attention from leadership teams, that’s for sure.

I spend a lot of my time outside of my day job as a judge for industry awards, spending many hours analysing entries, because I feel strongly about raising standards in the industry. We’ve discussed that there are fast and dirty tactics, and it’s vital to keep the industry’s reputation up and produce high-quality, forward-thinking work beyond just BAU tactics.

I’ve been a UK search judge for three years, but this year I’m a head judge at the Global Search Awards and Global Digital Excellence Awards, so I’m really excited about that I was supposed to be in New York for the event, but the ceremony is now in September.

It’s inspiring for me to see the work, the strategies, the implementation, what fellow judges think, and at what calibre the work is and if they are doing the right thing or not; if it genuinely is award-winning work. Is it pushing the envelope, is it being innovative? Is it being measured effectively? In today’s times, doing search and digital marketing is getting harder and harder and harder, so the quick win tactics don’t always work, so it’s about the long game. 

Doing the right thing, it does pay off. I like integrated work, and I think SEO works best when it’s not in isolation. People will put SEO in a little box like it’s the misfits of marketing, yet if you can marry SEO with all of your digital marketing channels, it’s going to unlock so much and work so much better. You get a lot more out of digital marketing, and you can be smart with it.

Damien: Michelle, thank you. I appreciate your time and look forward to catching up.

Follow Michelle on Twitter @ohMishy and learn more about Freesat.