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Google Developer Advocate Martin Splitt On The Record

By Site Strategics
June 22, 2020

Our special guest for episode 359 of the award-winning EDGE of the Web podcast was Martin Splitt, Developer Advocate at Google. Host Erin Sparks spoke with Martin about how to rank well on Google by developing a top-notch website and content. Here’s what we learned: 


Martin Splitt: His Background and Experience

Martin Splitt on EDGE of the Web with Erin Sparks

Martin Splitt is a developer advocate on the Webmaster Trends Analyst team at Google Switzerland. In this role, he helps developers and content creators build great content on the web. He is involved with the W3C as well as the global web and JavaScript developer community (check out his JavaScript SEO video series), working to keep the web open. Martin, along with Gary Illyes and John Mueller, are working hard in communication with the web world, sharing information regarding how Google looks at the web and their insights at Google Webmaster Trends. Be sure to check out Martin’s SEO Mythbusting video series as well. Finally, Martin also hosts live Q&A sessions about SEO and JavaScript, and you can see those sessions if you just go to YouTube and search for JavaScript SEO Office Hours.

A big part of Martin’s day-to-day work is communicating through all those different videos he is in, which does take up a lot of time because everything has to be thoroughly researched ahead of time to make sure the content is accurate. And determining what to say is no easy task, given how often and how quickly things change at Google, especially in relation to Search. In addition to communication, he plays a role in helping maintain and update a lot of Google documentation. Martin even gets involved in a good amount of code work to fix bugs, as well as consults with other teams on new feature integrations and so forth. In other words, a significant chunk of his work is behind the scenes and not even visible.

Martin has been a software engineer for many years in a variety of fields, including web development. While coding always held some amount of interest for him, especially when it involved researching how to solve tricky problems, what really gets him excited is the educational aspect of sharing what he knows to help others, as well as learning from others and building on their knowledge. He became a Google Developer Expert and was doing a good deal of public speaking, and eventually, Google reached out to him to see if he was interested in the Google Developer Advocate position in Zurich. Needles was a perfect fit for him—creative problem solving and sharing his work with others. And to fulfill that role inside a company to which everyone turns when they need to find information on the web was very exciting. He was surprised Google wanted him in the role because he wasn’t an SEO expert, but they wanted him because of his web development and JavaScript expertise and knew he’d be able to work in the SEO aspect and then be able to speak the right language to web developers to help them better understand SEO and its importance.


Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave

One of the challenges in the field is how web development has become divorced for so many in the SEO and digital marketing fields. Remember the days when everything around having a website was handled by a single person called a webmaster? That title simply doesn’t apply anymore. Everything has become so broad and yet intertwined, so now companies have an “ops team” for a website that’s just about maintaining functionality, then a front-end developer, a back-end developer, a content editor, a content marketer, an SEO, someone for web marketing, someone for paid advertising and paid search, and so on. As things have broadened out, all manner of specializations have naturally developed, but they don’t always integrate as well as would be helpful. In some ways this makes things easier because people can specialize in certain things and not have to know everything. But then people start asking what’s more important—technical SEO or content or design or link building? But that’s like asking whether a steering wheel is more important than the motor of a car. There has to be “cross pollination” between the specializations to end up with a good whole. 

As Martin put it in one presentation he made to developers: SEO without great content is just polishing a turd. But if he had been presenting to content people, the reverse is also true: Great content without SEO is also polishing a turd, because what’s the point of great content if it can’t be discovered through search engines?

When it comes to the tangled web we weave, you also have to understand what “crawling” that web means. An old-school analogy for understanding crawling is when you make a telephone call to someone to get some information you know they have. If you were hired to be a human crawler of the web, you’d be assigned a URL to visit and gather the information it contains. The search engines accomplish this not with human crawlers but with spider bots.


Crawling and Indexing

When it comes to the tangled web we weave, you also have to understand what “crawling” that web means. And old-school analogy for understanding crawling is when you make a telephone call to someone to get some information you know they have. If you were a hired to be a human crawler of the web, you’d be assigned a URL to visit and gather the information it contains. The search engines accomplish this not with human crawlers but with spider bots. 

You can also think of this in terms of a library metaphor. The “crawling” part is when a library goes out and acquires books to put on the shelves of the library. But acquiring books is only the first step of the process. The library then has to make sure they understand what the book is about in order to catalog it so that it can be found when someone is looking for a source of information about a particular topic. But that process of determining what content is about for the world wide web is more nuanced than most people think. If a website’s title is “Cooking for Cats,” you still don’t know for sure what that means. It could be recipes for cat food, or maybe recipes for cats that have certain allergies or other medical conditions, or maybe it’s just pictures of cats in kitchens, or a series of comics about a bunch of cats who run a restaurant. A good librarian is going to be able to refer to their index to hone in on which books they have that address the specific topic you want to know about. On the web, this is easier for the bots to do if the content is structured properly with HTML in terms of titles and subtitles and so forth.


When a Website’s Coding Gets in the Way

Problems arise if a website coding gets in the way of the spider bots crawling the web and prevents them from being able to properly understand what your content is about and index it so it can be easily called up when someone is looking for information on that topic. Site speed can also be a hindrance. You’ve got the HTML that provides the structure of web page, CSS that affects the appearance of the web page, and you’ve got JavaScript that controls the dynamic areas and actions of a web page. JavaScript can greatly enhance a site both in terms of functionality and SEO, but it can also become a hindrance when not deployed well. 

Martin is quick to admit how impressed he is at people’s ability to build things that break in many different ways. And the problems tend to be very unique to each site. One common issue is when people try to be clever and their cleverness backfires on them. For example, sometimes people think they’re doing themselves a favor or helping things by blocking a bot from accessing a site’s JavaScript, but if JavaScript is an essential part of rendering the HTML of the page or the site, then they’ve effectively blocked their site from being crawled or indexed. 

Sometimes developers who work without SEOs get so focused on the technologies and bells and whistles that they forget some of the basics, so you end up with a bunch of different pages with the same title or same meta-descriptions, or fail to have clear links to other things that are important to the overall pictures—just a bunch of things that get in the way of the search engine easily figuring out what a page is about and where it fits in the index. Or something like the next bit of an article doesn’t appear until the user clicks a read more button. That “hidden” content literally doesn’t exist until that button is clicked. That’s a problem because the crawler can only access what’s full loaded. The crawler cannot engage in user interactions like clicking the “read more” button, so to the crawler that additional content simply doesn’t exist.


How JavaScript Can Help SEO

Sometimes people aren’t able to immediately put their structured data schema into their pages’ HTML, but it’s not hard to write a bit of JavaScript and have it in Google Tag Manager that will pull out of the pages what’s needed for structured data and then have it applied to the page. However, this only works well when there is total consistency of the different elements from page to page (like product pages) where, for example, the H3 element is always the product name, and the product image is always in a particular place, as well the product price. This is a great way to ensure that your page content and structured data are always in sync with each other. And the code is very simple. This was a topic we also just covered with Paul Lovell in episode 357: Structured Data Via GTM


The Relationship Between Developers and SEOs

Speaking of the tangled webs we weave, it’s worth noting where some of the hang-ups happen in the relationship between SEOs and developers. One thing that would help a lot would be a mutual understanding of when and how often changes can be testable. This is important because the sooner something can be tested then the sooner actionable feedback can take place, and this is all in order to avoid going live something that doesn’t work and then everyone is screaming at each other, including the business owner. And make sure the developers have existing testing tools that will help them test things as they develop them. How the SEOs communicate with the developers is important as well. There needs to be regular, good communication—not just yelling when something is broken. And be sure to celebrate success not just with the SEOs but also with the developers, because they’re just as important to whatever successes are achieved. 

SEOs and content managers tend to “cry wolf” too much with developers by making it sound like some relatively minor issue is going to make everything go up in flames, but the smart developers who know it won’t are just going to be very annoyed with those kinds of dramatics. 

Developers should also be included in some way with the marketing team and SEO. They will have perspectives that can be very helpful to shaping the marketing and show how their work can help. If they don’t work together, then they will always be speaking completely different languages and getting in each other’s way. And then they simply won’t ask each other what something means when the other camp talks about it, so you can see how these divided camps are just perpetuated.


New Podcast: Search Off the Record

Search Off the Record is a brand-new podcast featuring Martin Splitt, Gary Illyes, and John Meuller. It’s a very well-produced show that was suggested by their video producer, who thought it made sense to have a podcast on top of the different videos their doing. They’re having a lot of fun with this new channel, laughing a lot along the way, but also talking about a lot of interesting tidbits that don’t get covered in any of their other communication efforts and channels. It’s a way for them to talk about what they’re working on, even if those things never see the light of day or are still a ways away from being ready. 

Connect with Martin Splitt

Twitter: @g33konaut (https://twitter.com/g33konaut

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/martinsplitt 

Related content: https://goo.gle/js-seo-basics

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