How to Get Executive Buy-In for SEO Projects: A Q&A with Brainly's VP of Growth Murat Yatağan
Brainly is an online learning community that every month reaches more than 300 million unique users across 35 countries. Students, parents, and teachers visit Brainly to share their knowledge and solve problems as a community. Recently, the search specialists at OnCrawl featured Brainly as a case study on the use of data for getting executive buy-in for SEO projects.
I sat down with Murat Yatağan, Brainly’s Vice President for Growth, to hear how this buy-in allowed Brainly to transform its internal linking strategy.
Q. Helping students learn is an important mission, but how does Brainly’s business work, how does it make money?
Brainly is the world's largest online learning community, combining together students, parents, and teachers that need help in learning. They are seeking to get step-by-step explanations from others so that they leave frustration and move to understanding.
What Brainly does is provide an extensive, expanding knowledge base full of explanations for these frequently asked questions in a collaborative way so that it fosters community. How we monetize it, we have this ad-supported premium model. At the same time, we’re developing a marketplace ecosystem that provides enhanced learning capacities like test preparation.
Q. You're the VP of Growth. What is your team structure and are there dedicated SEO resources?
That's a really exciting topic! I want to articulate how SEO functions in Brainly and that, I hope, will inspire people about organizing SEO for empowering their product and their teams.
At Brainly, SEO is not a responsibility that is assigned to a specific, dedicated team. We really want everyone, every team, to use SEO as an instrument and as a tool towards reaching their goals instead of just doing SEO in their own shell. That's why we have an SEO Center of Excellence. It’s a small team — just an analyst and myself. What we do is govern the company-wide SEO strategy, keep this strategy up-to-date, and empower the product and content teams with strategic cooperation.
We have multiple search engine optimizers in multiple teams. Teams have their own issue analysts and/or managers based on their needs. One example can be outreach and another can be on-page optimization.
They get help from the SEO Center of Excellence when choosing which problem to tackle. There are a hundred things they can do, but this is where we help with aligning projects with company goals and SEO tactics and SEO operations.
Then we also have an SEO infra team and their purpose is to build automated data analysis, systems, create dashboards, and provide reliable data sources so we can enable all these search engine optimizers.
This, we believe, is the system that Brainly can use the best. I would like to put it this way, Brainly’s biggest traffic source is organic search. All the features and products we build on top of this model get their gas from organic search. If we can actually get the most out of it, then it will benefit the company revenue. The SEO Center of Excellence empowers each team so they can autonomously work.
Otherwise, it just becomes an encapsulated SEO team and then it's hard to use it as an instrument and tool for team goals. It just creates its own goals. In many companies, I can see that it's also digressing away from company targets. They go to their own SEO-specific targets. And that's what we are not doing in Brainly.
Q. How did Brainly discover that they might have an issue with their internal link structure? Can you walk us through that diagnostic process?
The first stage of the discovery was mainly based on intuition and experience. The possibilities for organic growth depend on a few elements and knowing that internal linking was one of them is extremely beneficial. That intuition allowed us to understand what types of pages get this better signal and how do we channel the signal to different page types. That enabled us to first segment our website and gave us a really good understanding of what can be wrong or right.
The second stage was conducting a very targeted audit for specific page segmentations. We challenged that intuitive hypothesis with data and we found that this data was backing us up.
We moved forward by using server logs, crawls, and organic traffic. The triangulation of this helped us to analyze what might be the root cause of a few issues that we saw in our audits.
Q. What did you see that was concerning and how did you then get buy-in to do something about it?
We segmented these page types — question pages, subject pages, archive pages, profile pages — and started running the crawl analysis. We saw that profile pages were getting 60% of the internal links. Our hypothesis was that those internal links matter for ranking.
The profile pages are super-important for users. They give information about the expert’s level, how many answers that person provided, and some more stats. But from a search engine point of view — and a marketing point of view —profile pages have no value because we don't generate any traffic at all with them. But we were sending all the signals that search engines can understand that these are most valuable. So there was something wrong.
Q. But there are hundreds of other initiatives that are going on in the organization that require attention. How did you translate that to buy-in?
Oh, that's a really good question. We know that a significant part of the traffic we monetize originates from organic search. We know that comes from these question page types.
Our first idea was if we can show a metric specifically for Brainly that identifies the characteristic of a ranking page, then that will strengthen our argument. It was clear that better ranking-performing pages have more internal links. That was my assumption and I was able to show it.
After 10 consecutive crawls of 6 million pages, we saw that higher-performing pages have a higher average number of internal links. And that was really like a strong argument for us to move forward.
Of course, there were many other projects. But we can say that this project wasn't low-hanging fruit. It was more like this is super-obvious and I have a good solution-space for that. We can see that there is a correlation. So this was really building up my case in general.
Q. So, you show this to the executives and say, “if we want to rank in the top 10, we need a lot of internal links pointing to our pages that matter. We've wasted a lot of this internal linking directing to profile pages that aren’t impactful for the business.” The executive team responds, “that's a great insight, Murat, how do we change it?” How did you execute on that?
That's exactly how it happened. The execution was, first making it meaningful and showing them something they can measure. I don't believe we should pitch ideas that are pure intuition with just speculation behind it. So that's why, at a high level, we focused on clicks from the organic search. We were saying “this is our North-Star metric for this project” and when we do these steps, it will be going up.
We also created these checkpoint metrics for people like product owners and engineers. For example, the average number of internal links towards question pages, so that we ensure the shift of PageRank flow goes from profile pages to question pages. And then the number of newly-discovered question pages and an average number of impressions of all crawl pages.
In summary, I want to increase the number of pages that are being discovered every day because we expand our knowledge base. I want any important pages that are updated to be crawled again. And that I believe we'll be doing with the internal link restructuring.
Q. You got your executive team excited, you've charted a path with what metrics you expect to move an estimate of by how much. Once you had this buy-in, what were the steps you needed to take to move the project forward and how did that go?
That was one of the best experiences I had in Brainly, this turning moment of how SEO was being perceived in Brainly and how we changed it.
So let me give you a little bit more about this one. We clearly demonstrated the issue together with all groups of collaborators. They all needed to be on board. What we tried to do is give them foundational knowledge instead of just writing specifications. We actually made this case by using quantitative metrics. And it makes a big difference.
The project's logic and feasibility showed that we know exactly what to do to get to success. And we always pointed to this big picture when we were executing with the product owner. Instead of just saying “internal links” and specifying all the technical details, we say this is the restructuring work and this is how, in the big picture, it's going to help the e-learning product you are driving. This was communication semantics at the level of the product owner.
We adjusted the semantics to engineers by running technical workshops to help them understand why they are doing these modifications and why they are important. This enabled them to come up with their own solutions that were considerably better than our recommended solutions.
Nobody was asked to execute some black box stuff about SEO. Everyone was invited to find a solution and they came up with their own contribution. That was the best-case scenario we wanted to see.
Q. You've taken us through your journey here from setting up metrics to bringing technical teams on the journey. Let's talk about results, did you see a meaningful acceleration?
We over-delivered on our initial guesstimation. When it comes to this project’s North-Star metric, it was extremely hard to forecast correctly. At Brainly we have millions of extremely specific longtail queries. It's not like you know the exact search volumes or your rankings. I set a challenging target which was a 15% increase in year-over-year monthly unique user growth. My estimation was, because it's a six-million-page website, it would take a long time — maybe a few quarters.
I was maybe over-pessimistic about the crawl capacities, but I really believed that there would be an impact. The results were 30% better than our guesstimation — and we reached this number after only three weeks.
In SEO terms, 90% of our question pages improved their internal linking by 20% and all crawl rates increased around 30% to 40%. Internal links are now going 99% to the question pages. And question pages generate 98% of organic traffic, which is more than 90% of our revenue.
Q. What advice would you give to people who are struggling to get buy-in for SEO?
Defining your SEO health metrics is very important. Not everything can be your health metrics, but a few things. For example, we created two internal Brainly-specific metrics. These are triangulations of different metrics. So, first of all, define them and keep monitoring them.
Then creating actionable insights out of your monitoring and creating your cases on top of these findings. You need to articulate your case with relevant semantics to your audience — leveling-up to C-suite or adjusting the level to product owners. But always keeping your project aligned with company goals.
Harmonizing your case with the team that you are going to cooperate with is important. You need to understand their goals. You can't just steal the other team's time; you need to cooperate with them.
So, as a takeaway, I will say challenge your intuition with data, align with company-level goals, be very specific, and use generic semantics. If you keep your goals only at an SEO-specific level, that will not motivate other teams and will not help you be aligned with company goals.
Murat’s insights into Brainly’s data-focused approach to SEO decision-making offers lessons to anyone hoping to improve their product performance. Take an evidence-based approach to testing hypotheses, get buy-in by addressing issues from the perspective of business goals, and then let the data empower the people responsible for executing the plan.