Building Communities and Promoting Diversity in SEO with Areej AbuAli

women in tech SEO Areej AbuAli
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Let’s face it – the digital marketing industry doesn’t exactly have a…fantastic…track record when it comes to diversity. Yet positive change is happening.

One of the drivers of that positive change has been the Women in Tech SEO community. Founded in May 2019, it has recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, has over 3,000 members, and is actively working to help women pursue opportunities, grow their skills, and find confidence in an industry that has often left them feeling invisible.

Today, Garrett speaks with the founder of that community: Areej AbuAli. Areej is an SEO who has done just about everything in our space. In addition to being the Founder of Women in Tech SEO, she’s also the SEO Manager at Zoopla and a mentor at United Search

Whether you’re interested in promoting diversity or building a community of your own, this is an episode you’re not going to want to miss.

The highlights:

  • [1:54] Areej’s inspiration for starting the community.
  • [3:31] How the community has grown and changed over the past year.
  • [4:36] How to create an inclusive community.
  • [7:39] How to create a judgment-free zone.
  • [9:13] The impact of the Women in Tech SEO community.
  • [10:47] Goals for the future.
  • [12:20] Representing women of color.
  • [15:28] The impact of representation.
  • [19:52] Concrete steps for allies.
  • [22:01] Areej’s cause.

The insights:

Areej's inspiration for starting Women in Tech SEO

Areej says she started the community because she herself was struggling. After doing technical SEO for 6 years, she was really struggling with the conference circuit.
“The lineups always tended to look the same. Your typical type of white dudes. And I was like – no, I’m pretty sure there’s more of me.”
So, she went out to find those people.
“I really wanted the inspiration and motivation of having a network and a community around me. I couldn’t find anything specific that filled that criteria. I just decided to build the group myself.”
Areej says the group initially started off as a simple Facebook group.
“Then we started thinking we should start meeting up in London. Then it became more global. We also turned it into a Slack group. After tons of different initiatives that took place, it just kept growing and growing.”
Most importantly?
“It’s the idea of having a community, a network, where you’re not judged, where inclusivity is in place, and where we all help one another.”
The community now has spread to all four corners of the Earth.
“We have people from Singapore, India, Japan, Egypt. It was amazing to get to connect with different women from around the world. Not everyone has to necessarily be advanced in tech SEO. Even if you’re interested and want to learn, you’re more than welcome. It’s super exciting that we’ve all managed to find one another.”

How to Create an Inclusive Community

Areej recently won the inaugural Search Engine Land award for advancing diversity and inclusion in search marketing, so Garrett took a moment to talk to her about what it really takes to create an inclusive community where everyone felt welcome. 

She says one way is to resist the trend in our industry that tends to create communities only for people who are super advanced, or who have only been in the industry for a specific number of years, or who have spoken on the conference circuit.

“For us it’s always been…if you’re someone who identifies as a woman, and you have any form of interest in tech SEO, even if you’re a student, even if you’re someone who has been doing it for years and years, it doesn’t really matter. You’re more than welcome to join. You’re more than welcome to join for free. To listen, to contribute, to just be there.”

She says it’s also important to outline your community values.

women in tech seo values

For example, the Women in Tech SEO values help to convey that the community is a kind, judgment-free zone. 

“We want you to be comfortable and ask any questions you want. It’s within our values and within our group rules as well.”

She says this encourages people to ask all forms of questions.

“From, oh, this is how a page is rendering JavaScript to…I’m trying to do keyword research for the very first time and I have no idea how to start.”

She says that in their community, they don’t get responses like, “This is too easy,” or “refer back to this.” 

Why?

“Everyone’s on a different journey. Everyone’s on different levels. It might be someone who’s still starting out. It might be someone who has tons and tons of experience. It’s just about how it’s fostered and always ensuring that the values and the rules are enforced, and making sure everyone lives by those.”

She says she spends very little time on moderation as a result.

How to create a judgment-free zone

As little time as moderation takes, Areej does spend some time on it.
“Every now and then something happens and there needs to be a reminder of the rules and our values. Once a quarter. I’m quite strict, to be honest.”
She also looks out for people who are trying to use the community for their own purposes.
“If someone joins in right away and the first thing they want to do is share a spammy link, I remove them. I ensure everyone is leading by example.”
She says she also has a number of people who have been with the community from the start who also focus on leading by example.
“You can see the questions that are posted, how people communicate, how people respond to one another, and every now and then you know it’s this idea of reminding everyone of the values and the rules and what we have in place. It just makes everything feel organic and grow over time.”

The impact of the Women in Tech SEO community

At the community’s first anniversary, Areej asked for testimonials, and for stories about how women have felt being part of this group.

Much of the feedback she received revolved around getting the motivation and the encouragement to pitch for speaking.

“We have a Speakers Hub on our website now. Over 200 speakers. We encourage conference organizers to reach out directly to some of the brilliant women who are in our community who are interested in speaking.”

women in tech seo speakers
“We’ve had tons of women who weren’t speakers before, and then got motivated to be first-time speakers and apply to other conferences.”
Areej also speaks of mentorship programs that happened over the summer.
“Both mentors and mentees felt super-empowered, coming out of it. [We had] mentors who didn’t realize they could actually mentor someone, and then mentees who got to learn tons from their mentors.”

Goals for the future

Covid has derailed some Women in Tech SEO initiatives like it has derailed just about everything else, but Areej is still working on a lot of projects.
“Before Covid, we were having tons of events that were taking place in London. I wanted to start growing out and having different chapters around the world in some of the big cities, collaborating with partners over there, to ensure that we have meet-ups happening.”
While waiting for Covid to end, they’re having plenty of virtual meetups and workshops, as well as giving training to people within the community. She’s also partnering up with different organizations and conferences.
“We have lots of amazing members, so we [ask ourselves] how to amplify them more. That would be one of the main things I want to focus on for next year.”

Representing women of color

Even Areej, who is a Person of Color herself, initially had some struggles when it came to representing Women of Color.
“I started doing this interview series where every week we had a new Women in Tech SEO interview. After maybe ten of them I realized – there are far too many white women featured on that. That’s not great. That’s the opposite of everything we’re talking about.”
How did she solve the problem?
“I was super honest. I wrote in the community. I wrote on Twitter. I said: we need more diversity and we need more representation and to be amplifying these women in our interviews.
She even paused her interviews until she had lined up enough women of color and enough women from diverse backgrounds. She stresses that diversity isn’t just skin color.
“It’s age. Background. Country and language.”
She really stresses the way honesty impacts the process.
“It’s standing up and assessing what you’ve done so far, looking at the events you’ve held and looking at the articles you’ve published, being critical of yourself, and asking for help if it doesn’t feel like what you’re achieving is diverse enough. Then it’s okay to go and ask to connect me to more women who can join us and who can speak with us and who can be part of this community.
She says it’s something we can all do more of.

The impact of representation

Areej describes her own struggles as she tried to find the motivation to pitch to speak. It was seeing a woman like her, Jamie Alberico, at Search Love London that inspired her, back in 2018. 

“I was just so inspired to see a brilliant woman being completely herself and talking about tech SEO. I saw that talk, and I thought: that’s it. I’m going to pitch to speak in the next Brighton SEO.”

She’d been putting it off for a long time.

“I wasn’t encouraged to do it. A case of imposter syndrome. But I did my pitch, and I got through. I spent 6 months preparing for that talk. I was so stressed out. But it went really well. And I guess once you do one of them, then it feels much easier moving forward.”

Yet she does admit she can still get stressed doing these talks…or podcasts! 

“I never hear or watch myself back ever again. But you know, it encourages a lot of other people to do it when they see themselves represented. It was Hannah Smith and Briony Gunsen, two brilliant women, who helped me with my pitch and helped me when I was prepping my talk.

Now that I’m in this position, how can I help and give back to others that want to be first-time speakers?”

She cautions women against dismissing what they have to say just because they think everyone knows what they know already.

“No. This is your own experience. This makes it very unique. That’s what makes the different talks unique. If you share your story and you share your own experiences alongside it, it makes it unique and relatable to others.”

Concrete steps for allies

If you’re interested in helping to improve the industry’s track record with diversity, Areej says there are two things you can do. The first: amplification.
“Take the time to amplify others and really take the time to help promote them.”
The second?
“Give up your seat every now and then. If you’re someone who is already a well-seasoned speaker, who is already really well-known in the industry, you don’t need to say yes to every single opportunity. Instead, every time, consider whether this is an opportunity you really need, or if you can give up your seat to someone who would benefit from it much more.”
She says you can also take the time to ask some questions.
“When you’re asked to speak somewhere, or when you’re asked to join a company, ask them what diversity in leadership looks like for them. What’s the rest of the panel looking like? If you’re part of a lineup that’s only 10% women, that’s on you because you haven’t done anything about it and you haven’t recommended others.”

What's your right now cause?

Areej invites our readers to check out United Search.

United Search

“I’m honored to be one of the mentors, and I’m really excited to see how it’s going to help shape our industry. Right now they’re working with lots of different partners and conferences, to have specific guidelines, to ensure there are rules in place, and to help mentor tons of underrepresented people which will hopefully mean in the next year or two we can start seeing a lot more diversity throughout the industry.”

United Search is actively looking for both mentors and mentees, so check it out.

Connect with Areej AbuAli

Want to keep tabs on the latest developments in Areej’s work? 

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Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

women in tech SEO Areej AbuAli

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