SEO in Large Organizations: Managing Expectations, Defining Success

This article is based on a live webcast presented on Search Marketing Now by Bruce Clay.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on SEO for large businesses. Part Two is SEO in Large Organizations: Tactics for Successful Implementation.

Small and medium business websites are much easier to optimize for search than large business websites, although they still do have a lot in common. Large organizations have additional challenges to consider when they decide to embark on an SEO project.

There are 12 key areas where large organizations build their search engine marketing initiatives, and in so doing they can define a methodology that can be used to succeed. We’ll cover those areas as well as four key tactics companies must use when structuring large business services.

Key Area 1: Find an SEO Champion

Large business SEO needs a champion or it simply will not work. It is really the first key area in all large customer projects because without this spokesperson and shepherd within the organization, the project is undefended and lifeless. Usually this person comes from marketing but it doesn’t always. You start with one strong voice and move forward from there. It is the champion that helps guide and hold expectations consistent, and is the spokesperson for success. They help keep the project’s momentum and refuse to let it die.

You are possibly the champion for your organization.

Key Area 2: Pain Precedes Action

Large business usually needs to feel “pain” in order to take action. It is generally pressure from competitors or the addition of new employees who have seen it work in the past that serves as a catalyst to change. Stagnation occurs because there is often financial pressure to minimize expenses and focus on short-term ad results that prevents companies from investing into SEO. In today’s economic climate and with growing performance pressures, companies can hardly afford to ignore those potential clients that search for non-branded generic terms. Unfortunately the demand influences expectations and patience is not present. The large business must be made to realize the “pain” of not investing in SEO far outweighs the time and cost.

Too often SEO is left as just part of someone’s job in addition to all their other duties. That’s a recipe for failure in a large organization.

Branded terms are not enough.

Key Area 3: Education

Large business projects require across-the-board training of key management, influencers, and implementation staff in order to gain momentum and share a common language and belief that the project is beneficial. Until this is done you cannot relate or even speak the same language with those you will count on for support. Expectations are set here – and without common expectations projects will fail. Mismatched expectations between the people doing the project and the people watching the project are one of the biggest points of failure in any SEO project.

Sharing knowledge is the first step to sharing realistic expectations, leading to actionable shared goals – a necessary step to measuring success. Once people understand something they can support it, until then it often ignored. SEO is marketing at a strategic and tactical level, but crosses into the IT technical space. SEO is the optimization of whatever a search engine indexes (technical), and the optimization of what search engine users see (marketing), and thus the training is a cross-discipline effort. It’s often a good idea to keep the education updated quarterly.

Key Area 4: Prove the Benefits

You need to show that business pains (poor online conversions, low traffic, etc.) can be treated by SEO, and that SEO offers many synergistic benefits. However, you can’t compromise. Too often we tell people that they must do 20 specific things in order to rank and they only want to do 10 of them. That will lead to project failure and it’s important that is made clear.

Showing the benefits may require case studies, tests, or pure academic traffic and revenue projections. Of all of these, the latter is the first to be requested and believed (numbers don’t lie, right?) and they are perhaps realistic – but they take time to be realized. Begin setting expectations early on. You can actually show that SEO is cheaper than PPC in the long run.

Most SEO projects have difficulty maintaining momentum because the expectation unrealistically remains as “instant results”, and when the project fails to have instant return, the team loses enthusiasm and you hear SEO “just won’t work here”. SEO is one of the few “takes time and never ends” projects within a company, and it takes a different perspective to embrace the patience and commitment required of this project. Three months is not a reasonable expectation for significant changes on any large project.

Key Area 5: Keyword Traffic Estimates

You must have a method of defining traffic goals. Base yours on what you can measure. With Google behavior-biased search, long-tail keywords are the only truly effective traffic strategy. Google is keeping track of your searches and biasing your later queries by your earlier queries. Essentially, every search becomes long tail, since it’s been modified by the ones previous to it. Because of this automatic personalization, rankings you see in your reports may not be the rankings that everyone sees. Analytics becomes less effective the more specialized the query becomes. You need to do more segmentation as a result.

Try this: Select the major keywords that do NOT contain your brand. Select 2-, 3- and 4-word phrases (about 60% of all queries are 3 or more words). Then determine the potential monthly queries for each word using a keyword traffic estimator tool (Google keyword tool, Wordtracker, Keyword Discovery, or our new SEOToolSet). Take 5% of that number as that is the click-through-rate (CTR) for ranking position 5. Assume that you might be able to get half of your keywords to the top 5, so take half of that number. Then multiply that number by 4 to account for long-tail keyword queries. Essentially, the number you’ll end up with is the same as taking the total queries per month for a keyword search and multiplying it by 0.1.

Key Area 6: Know Where You Are

In order to go on a journey, you have to know both where you are going and where you are starting from. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t plan where you’re going. First you need to figure out where you’re ranking and then drop all your branded terms out (if you’re not ranking for your branded terms, that’s an even bigger problem.)

Analyze your current traffic levels and average rankings (using tools and analytics data) for the same non-branded keywords as in Key Area 5. When you view the current traffic you will commonly find that you are at a fraction of the number from Key Area 5. It is common that your potential traffic over your current levels will reach many multiples of your current levels (3 to 10 times is often reachable when dealing with non-branded keywords), although your mileage may vary. Please remember that your analytics may be a bit misleading because of Google using your prior search queries to refine the results for your latest query.

Key Area 7: It Takes as Long as it Takes

Set reasonable expectations on time, rankings, traffic and return. There will need to be some caution applied here since many companies are used to a rapid return on their ad spend (PPC takes only days at most). SEO is an investment, not an instant return. You cannot buy organic traffic – to be a relevant subject matter expert you actually do need to be a relevant subject matter expert, and that cannot be bought (more on this later). SEO is more like market share than ad buys–you don’t simply buy a couple of ads and dominate the entire market. The traffic will ultimately be reasonable per Key Area 6, but how long until you will see those results is a complex issue.

Growth is determined by many things including:

  • Changes by the search engines (450 times a year)
  • Changes by the competition
  • Speed of implementation of the SEO changes within your site
  • Technology (CMS, Server Speed, page technology, domain age)

The changes are steady, progressive and cumulative. Impossible words take longer, and there are more than 200 variables in the search engines’ algorithms. You will again need to monitor progress carefully and frequently using tools and analytics data and management will want regular reports on progress.

Key Area 8: Get Expert Help – Enhance Your Team

There are a lot of sources of information and help out there. You can get it from outside consultants, by hiring people, from going to conventions and talking to experts. If you’re just getting started, you may want to take advantage of all of those, but you have to do it smartly. Not every avenue is the same quality.

If you already know everything, and all of your staff knows everything, and management understands you when you speak SEO and is cooperating, and you have nothing to do other than to watch the search engines and pay attention to their changes, then you have no need to get help. Otherwise you will want to enhance your team with SEO consultants that are in tune with the changes being made and who are willing to work with you on knowledge transfer and education.

Most SEOs in the industry are too busy only doing, and do not spend time studying the future of search, As a result they simply do not see what is planned for release, essentially forcing you to be a slow follower of your competition. You must understand the changes that behavioral- and intent-based search as well as auto-localization plays in the SEO of the future, and not focus only on Title tags and a bit of content.

As a warning, do not bother to get expert help if you do not have the time or commitment to implement the changes. Assume that for each hour a competent SEO works that you will have on average four to eight hours of implementation, perhaps more in complex environments. It is also important that any use of a SEO consultant include continual knowledge transfer to support the ongoing training and support of an involved project.

Key Area 9: Be A Subject Matter Expert

Google has a huge job. They have built up a reputation and an expectation that when a person does a search, they will return not just a good answer but the very best answer–the most expert, the most relevant content. The algorithm is essentially a mathematical representation of how Google tries to determine expertise.

You are inherently an expert on your brand, but how would search engine software know what that means unless you explain it? To be an expert takes expert-level content that is properly presented, and to have other sites “vote” for you with inbound testimonial links earned by that content. But how much content is too much? The “natural” page size has to be based upon your peers – if the top pages each have 500 words or more, then your 200-word page isn’t very much of an expert by comparison. (This is why Flash sites haven’t done well historically, by the way. Search engines often cannot read the content in a Flash file.)

As the Web matures you will need to add engagement objects to further expand the content types used on your site… videos, maps, and feeds all contribute to the content and help with ranking and traffic.

Warning: Proxy servers that serve different content to users than served to search engines are violating the Google quality guidelines and will be penalized. There are really no shortcuts when it comes to improving the quality of your website. SEO is an investment in your future, not a throw-away solution. Google discourages the proxy model. Using proxies to serve different content to the search engines than to users is a violation of the guidelines, and therefore proxies are automatically suspicious. Most businesses do not use proxies in a way that complies with Google’s guidelines and so they leave themselves open to penalties.

A proxy server is not automatically SEO, especially if it is not helping your site become a subject matter expert and if it is definitely violating the Google Quality Guidelines. While some proxy servers do it right, and some help you improve the overall quality of your non-proxy site, you should avoid any proxy server if they serve different content to a search engine than a user. This is mentioned since many major brands choose this solution without knowing if they are safe, and thus are intentionally placing themselves in harm’s way.

Key Area 10: Links Matter a Lot!

Links vote for your content as worthy reference material, thus you receive testimonial link value. Earned links are like gold to a search engine, and unearned links are worthless. Avoid buying links at all costs.

It is clear that Google is on the warpath against ALL firms selling links.

If you are buying links instead of earning the links then you will see your site ranking and traffic dropping. Taking the easy way out will harm your SEO efforts. Links should be earned by your expert content, so develop the content then make sure others know about it.

Key Area 11: Announce Your Content

Social discussions (such as public relations activities, press releases, blogs, newsletters, new content, and social media engagement) are all intertwined heavily. Social media is important not just for engagement and reputation management. As the world moves online, the most effective announcement is news, both formal and informal, and all of these communication and announcement channels are used to manage announcements, both good and bad. If I tell you about something, and you tell two friends, and they each tell two friends, and so on… you know how that works.

Social media is an announcement mechanism.

Key Area 12: Content is King – Still

Concentrate your theme-centric quality content to better establish yourself as an expert. Compelling and engaging content written for the appropriate audience in a natural format and linked to from the outside as a reference site is your main priority. Become the subject matter expert by having high-quality content. Compelling engaging text that is theme-centric, not keyword-centric is key to capture communities, not just individual searchers.

Avoid microsites as they dilute the focus, dilute the brand, redistribute and dilute the link equity. They disconnect related content by distributing it across many sites, and they are intentionally not synergistic with the remaining sites in the SEO project. In many cases you lose the ability to rank for long-tail keywords for the sake of targeting just one keyword. As the behavioral impact of multiple queries increases, so does the urgency of combining content within a site. Our SEO Siloing architecture becomes more important.

What’s Needed in an SEO Program – Key Tactics

Now, after in-house SEOs and outsourced agencies understand the key areas, it is intuitive that programs would be built around them. However, success cannot be achieved without investment in four key tactics:

  1. Tools – These include research tools, keyword tools, ranking monitors, analytics reports, and others in a uniform presentation. There is a difference between data and wisdom; however, you need to have the data in the first place in order to apply wisdom. Without it, you are flying blind, and the project will lose management support. You need tools and you need to make sure the tools are installed correctly and that you’re using them right. It’s been said 40 percent of analytic packages are installed incorrectly, which ruins the data.

  2. Training – A foundation laid by SEO training is critical to your success. You (usually by bringing in a vendor) must provide comprehensive training on SEO suitable to your needs, commonly via open-seating classroom sessions or on-site multiple-day sessions. This helps to establish uniform knowledge and realistic expectations, as well as momentum, across the organization. You can build your own in house training, you can go to conventions. But you don’t want to learn your SEO by telephone.

  3. Audits – Utilize the knowledge of the SEO. Consultants have seen many environments and have made a practice of knowing what the search engines like. An SEO Site Audit is a detailed report of the status of the site highlighting items needing repair, commonly from hundreds of items. And it is true that often an expert consultant’s report carries authoritative weight within an organization, compared to internal studies.

  4. Services – If you select a consultant, be sure that their services are tailored to the needs of your organization and site, complementing and supplementing your project staff and providing ongoing knowledge transfer. Nothing should be recommended by the SEO without your having a reasonable expectation that they will answer and educate you about the reasons for that recommendation.

By following these few methodology tasks, you can define success, manage expectations, and become a corporate hero.

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