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December 23, 2010

Key items to ensure a successful SEO project in a large complex business

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1.   Training for the SEO team and SEO practitioners

Most large businesses have an internal SEO team, sometimes even bigger that the agency itself actually.

For the agency, the challenge is to show added value to the existing considerable knowledge base of the in-house SEO team. For these guys, it’s about putting their trust into an external agency.

To do that, both parties need to speak the same language. Different SEOs sometime call the same thing different names: What is a key landing page? What do you mean by a primary keyword? What is the canonical version of the URL?

But the real challenge is when the in-house SEO team’s assumptions or current knowledge differs from the SEO agency.

The best way we have found to solve all these issues is to get all the SEO specialists into SEO Training. This is the best place to start laying the ground work and make sure the client and the agency are on the same page and speaking the same language.

2.   Decipher the decision making process

In many large corporations, the SEO team is a drop in an ocean of decision making and information streams. Often, a change on the website needs to be approved by Marketing, IT, Legal, Sales, Customer Experience etc. By the time the decision has been made, the SEO benefits of the implementation may be long gone.

Knowing and confirming roles and responsibilities is key, as well as ensuring the proper signoff processes exist to ensure a successful and timely implementation.

3.   SEO education and awareness – for stakeholders, areas impacted by SEO and areas that could impact SEO

You will probably smile and think “Ah yeah, I remember that, painful…”, and it is. A common problem in many SEO project is “misunderstandings”.

It usually happens when some key information is not being properly transferred to the other parties, and it’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the result of a lack of understanding between different SEO stakeholders. This usually ends up with the exact opposite of the intended outcome, and usually requires twice as much effort to get fixed.

Raise awareness around the different areas that will impact SEO. If required, perform a quick audit of the organisation to understand who does what exactly, and educate them to show what impact these people can have on SEO.

Establishing a good level of understanding of SEO with the different stakeholders is the key to successful SEO projects. The improved level of understanding will not only allow stakeholders to know what to communicate, but also to ensure that critical information is also shared with their SEO agency.

4.   Clear SEO ownership

One of the major problems with SEO is that it is still largely underestimated in large corporations. This results in SEO decision making process split between different departments turning SEO project management into a challenge. To ensure the success of your project, the responsibility for increasing SEO traffic should belong to one area of the business.

Ensure that the SEO project belongs to the SEO team. If this cannot be done, integrate SEO into the KPIs of the relevant stakeholders to ensure the SEO strategy gets implemented.

5.   Relevant SEO KPI’s allocated to SEO owners

The SEO project should always be measured on relevant KPIs, allocated to the most relevant person.

If your website is split amongst dozens of different highly competitive sections, then you may want to report on each section individually.

The important SEO KPIs are always:

  • Search Engine Visibility on non-brand keywords
  • Organic traffic on non-brand keywords
  • Indexed pages
  • External inbound links

Additional KPIs may also be:

  • Pageviews, for websites monetised with ads
  • E-commerce conversion rate, for e-commerce sites
  • Goal conversion rates, for institutional websites
  • Other consumption metrics such as time on site or pages per visitor

6.   Follow best practice project management

If you want to get things done, don’t do them yourself. Get organised. SEO project work best when the roles and responsibilities are clearly defined among stakeholders, and when a steering committee is organised to discuss all SEO decisions going forward. To manage your SEO project, you can use a project management solution or a good ol’ spreadsheet including:

  • Client item number
  • Developer item number(if different)
  • Priority
  • Source (reference to the original document with the recommendation)
  • Heading
  • Issue
  • Recommendation
  • Effort (H/M/L)
  • Effectiveness (H/M/L)
  • Status
  • Date
  • Responsibility
  • Hours to implement
  • Cost (if any)
  • Validation from client (Y/N)
  • Date of delivery
  • SEO Agency comments / sign-off
  • Developer comments
  • Client comments / sign-off

7.   Set-up the project to succeed – adequate budgets, resourcing and profile

Resourcing and budgets will define how the project will get implemented. Communicating the initial budgets to the SEO agency will help them prioritise items, based on their experience and on the complexity of the recommendations. Tell them how many resources will be allocated to the different tasks.

8.   Build a business case and identify return on investment

Once all the recommendations have been made, the challenge is generally for the client to present these recommendations to the approval hierarchy to get budget and get them implemented.

A strong business case can help pass that hurdle. Create multiple scenarios from worse to best case, estimate the gain in rankings, and based on the best click-through rate study you can find, estimate the potential gain in traffic. If you know how much a visit is worth, then you can estimate a range of additional revenues depending on the various scenarios. For more information check out Des Odell’s blog post on calculating ROI for SEO.

9.   Expectation management

The business needs to understand that SEO is a medium to long term strategy but with recurring benefits and a high ROI.

Tell them: You will not be number 1 tomorrow and anyone who guarantees rankings should be shown to the door. However, based on the assumptions made, your search engine visibility should increase by X% etc. Which is best? The latter really, but again, this requires some level of understanding from the different stakeholders. Managing expectations is of critical importance.

The beauty of SEO is that the investment can last for some time, and that the cost of acquisition of your traffic is only a tiny fraction of what it would cost you to get the same level via paid search or other media, and with a good ROI.

10.  SEO to be built in from the start

This is kind of obvious, but how many times do you receive a call from a prospective client, telling you they are about to go live with their new site and that they would like to do SEO on their site once live? WHY???

Integrating SEO in the design of a new website makes things a lot easier and allows you to hit the ground running when the new site goes live.

11.  SEO team sign-off for all changes to the website

As defined earlier, a clear decision making process is essential for the SEO project. Make sure the SEO team signs off on every task; this will add another layer of quality and control.

12.  Follow a clearly defined , detailed and tested SEO methodology

How many times have you received an email telling you: “Top 10 rankings or your money back.” ? “Trust us”

One key aspect that makes a difference between a “faith” buy and a good SEO is a proven methodology. There is a reason why things are done in a certain order.

A clear and methodological SEO methodology will ensure that your site goes through a rigorous audit and then ongoing SEO iterations.

13.  Keep tweaking the SEO strategy and methodology based on changes to search engine algorithms

Good methodologies are constantly updated to take into account recent algorithm changes and other factors. One of the challenges in the SEO industry is that nearly every day brings a new change to the process. The best SEO agencies will refresh their SEO strategies and its different recommendations based on these latest changes on a regular basis. This is just as important as staff staying up to date technically with SEO and the methodology.

14.  Build SEO tasks and checkpoints into business processes – as SEO now touches many points in a business, SEO needs to be built into the DNA of the business

In large organisations, many people can have a positive impact on SEO. From public relations to marketing, keywords to advertising.

15.  Provide detailed and transparent SEO traffic and ranking reporting and SEO project reporting

Like a trader following stock prices, the SEO team should be monitoring all key performance indicators.

Receiving a monthly report is a minimum, and will ensure that the client can communicate the results to the different stakeholders in the organisation on a regular basis. This is useful to keep SEO in everyone’s mind, increasing awareness on the recent achievements and outcomes.

For the SEO team, getting weekly analytics updates is also helpful to ensure that as a minimum, the website’s traffic gets looked at on a weekly basis by specialists.

Finally, create alerts for low organic traffic or low conversions to ensure that the relevant stakeholders are immediately informed if something wrong happens on the site.

16.  Go for quick wins to show early progress and build momentum

The bigger, the more complicated, the longer it takes to implement, the more money it will cost your client in implementation. By the time you get all the required decision makers to sign-off on the principle, the business case, the implementation budget, it’s already next year.

Go for quickwins. On large websites especially, a simple change can make a huge difference. Select the recommendations with high effectiveness and low effort, and get them implemented first.

17.  Only follow white hat ethical SEO

Obviously. How would you look if after 6 months of implementation, your client site gets taken out the index? No need to spam, white hat SEO is more effective in the long run.

18.  Get the underlying architecture right

This is the base to all good websites. Google even tells us this. Spend time working on the information architecture.

Review all the different templates meticulously. These may be rolled out to thousands if not millions of pages, if you get all these right, this is a win.

19.  Aim for optimum balance between SEO, usability, conversion rate and business requirements

We have heard this so many times, but SEO is not the opposite of usability. Actually, if you make a website search friendly, you are effectively helping the user finding the relevant pages quicker, hence improving the site usability. Every good SEO knows that usability needs to be taken into account for every recommendation. There are always clever ways of making sure both can be achieved.

Conversion rate is also extremely important and can be the link between SEO and useability. Always remember the objective of your site.

20. Don’t try to beat the algorithm, rather aim to outperform ranking competitors and be the least imperfect

Rankings are based on an algorithm, which looks at what is “normal” in a set of data. For example, is website 1 or 2 words? Depending on how it is used this might determine what is normal. Likewise you cannot beat the algorithm so you try to be the least imperfect, i.e. more normal than your competitors.

SEO is a never ending race. Your competitors and the algorithm are constantly changing. Maintaining rankings is easier than getting them in the first place, but still requires ongoing effort, especially in areas which are highly competitive.

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