Enterprise SEO is truly unique. While a larger company size may provide substantial leverage in many cases, it also creates some particular challenges.
At the recent SMX East conference, I watched a great panel covering this topic with Scott Nickels of Hearst Autos, Simon Heseltine of HP Enterprise, and Amber Fehrenbacher of Surety Bonds.
In today’s post, I’m going to summarize much of the wisdom they shared about enterprise SEO challenges and their approaches to overcoming these obstacles. I’ll also add a few of my own thoughts along the way.
Basic organizational structure
Large enterprise organizations often have many different product/service teams that focus on different offerings of the company. As a result, you can end up with many different ways that the SEO team can be set up:
- A centralized SEO team that interacts with the different product/service teams and provides them with guidance.
- Distributed SEO teams, where each product/service team has its own SEO resources.
- A combination of the two, where there is a centralized SEO team, but there are also SEO personnel in some or all of the product/service groups.
You may also have an agency in the mix. They may be working in an advisory capacity, or they may be the ones that are doing most of the auditing work, and your main task is to focus their efforts where you most need them.
Each of these scenarios brings its own challenges, and these can be broken down into two major categories:
1. Authority: Regardless of the structure, there is always a question of whether or not the recommendations of the SEO team will be followed. For example, if the SEO team makes some recommendations to a given product/service team, will those recommendations be followed, partially followed or totally ignored? This can happen in all three scenarios outlined above, but the dynamics of how you work through it vary depending on the people involved.
Adding to the challenge is that in many large enterprises, SEO is an important channel, but not the most important one. So sometimes, decisions will get made where SEO is treated as a secondary channel.
At Stone Temple (my company), we deal with some of the largest e-tail websites in the world, and what I’ve learned is that just because the SEO isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean their business is broken. You may have to live with some of this.
2. Standards: When there are many different parties involved, it can be hard to maintain a consistent approach across the organization. This is hardest when some or all of the product/service teams have their own SEO staffs, regardless of whether there also is a central group.
The worst case is when you get someone on one of the teams who really believes they know what they’re doing, and they don’t. But even if everyone is competent, people may prefer different approaches.
The best case downside of this is that you don’t succeed in establishing that there is a “best practice” that you want everyone to follow, and the good thing about established “best practices” is that everyone eventually learns what’s expected. The worst case, of course, is bad decisions and an SEO program spiraling out of control in the wrong direction.
Ignorance of SEO
Another big area is simple ignorance. Don’t take offense at this word. Ignorance simply means someone doesn’t know. Nonetheless, this is an issue. For example, senior managers can make sweeping decisions that blow up all your SEO all in one fell swoop. That’s no fun at all!
Or the dev team can make a platform decision that is SEO-hostile. Or they can build something using a new cool technology, such as Angular JS, and not implement it properly to support SEO.
These things can happen in any organization, of course, but it’s far more likely in an enterprise organization where it’s very difficult to monitor everything everyone is doing related to the website.
This is a hard one to defend against, unless you’re constantly educating and communicating everywhere you can about SEO — and this is one of the big recommendations made by all three speakers.
Related to the issue of ignorance is that of buy-in. Sometimes people may be aware of SEO, but they just don’t buy into it. They don’t want to invest in it, or they may not view it as a significant opportunity.
They may prefer to spend their dollars on PPC, or some other aspect of the business. Or they may think that Google is going to turn the entire search engine service into an ad platform and kill SEO altogether. (I’ve had that conversation before!)
Education and evangelism is the answer here, too. As Scott Nickels said, “bring your data” because it spells the “death of opinion.” Data is definitely your friend. In fact, you should be very thoughtful about how you assemble your data.
When you first get started in selling SEO project efforts, make a point of starting with well-defined projects where you’re confident that they will represent easy, quick wins. It’s OK if they’re small.
In fact, those small projects will be easier to sell, and if they get you a mini-case study, and get you DATA, that’s great. Be purposeful in how you systematically pull together data via easy wins before you try to pitch the larger, more complex project. Those early wins will give you the credibility you’ll need to step up to the next level.
As if those issues aren’t enough, enterprise SEO sites are often extremely complex. They can involve hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of pages. At Stone Temple, we’ve worked on sites that have run into the billions of pages!
But it doesn’t stop there. The company can have many different sites, each with many different subdomains. And a given site may have three, four, or even more CMSes (content management systems) involved as well — yes, I mean more than one CMS for a single site.
You can also be dealing with many different dev teams that use different approaches to coding. Some may be hot on Angular JS, and others may be saddled with a dated technical infrastructure that lacks any degree of modularity or flexibility.
Then there is sorting out who owns the decisions on what to do, as well as how decisions actually get made — these aren’t necessarily the same thing. Be prepared to spend a lot of time navigating these waters just to get to the point where you understand what to do, in terms of the decision-making process, and also the various site structures and what it takes to fix them.
Enough with the problems. It’s time to talk solutions. Unfortunately, there is no simple recipe. Here are the key points the speakers shared:
- Educate, educate educate. Ignorance is your enemy, so take every opportunity to help people understand SEO better. Spend time educating tech people, marketing people, product people, management and nearly anyone you can find who will listen.
- Be an evangelist. Education is a critical part of the plan, but don’t forget to continuously dig up examples of what SEO can do, and sell the value of your craft.
- Bring data and proof points. Data is your friend, so make as much use of it as you can to help with your education and evangelism efforts.
- Establish clear KPIs so everyone understands what the goals are. While data is good, so is establishing clear ways to define what success in your job looks like, and then, clear ways to measure it. Then, of course, make sure to hit those goals.
- Build relationships. All of these things are helped by having strong relationships. Socialize with people, buy them lunches, beers, talk family, sports, whatever it takes.
- Be technical, or be able to bring in tech help with ease. SEO professionals inevitably need to speak with developers, and this goes most easily if you’re technical yourself. If you aren’t, make sure you have a tech person who is by your side whenever you get into those dialogues.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Last, but not least, keep on communicating. That means listening at least as much as you talk, and then being very effective with each of the things that you have to say.
There are other areas that are important as well, such as being strong at project management and executing effectively. Since your resources may be limited (such as your access to dev resources), make your investment decisions wisely.
Make sure you get the most out of the limited access you have and don’t start with risky projects. Start with clear, safe ones that have a very high probability of delivering results that the business cares about (Most often, that means $$$$).
It’s also helpful to maintain a strong strategic focus, with a view on the long term. In this post, I’ve urged you to start small and deliver clear wins in the early going, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a long-term plan and a well-defined view of the big picture of what you’re trying to accomplish.
Last, but not least, be patient. Conflicting priorities, confusing organizational relationships and fighting for scarce resources are just some of the things that you’ll need to deal with on a daily basis.
At the end of it all, you might be asking, who’d want that job? I’ll explain it this way: At Stone Temple, we have eight core values hanging on the main hallway of our headquarters office. One of those values says “We are Change Agents.” The reason it’s there is because we take great pride, and get excited, when we’re able to help an organization evolve, change and get better at digital marketing and SEO.
It takes patience, strategy, social skills, technical expertise and smart planning. The importance of the wins you deliver as a change agent are just as important — maybe even more so — as that brilliant SEO idea. If that sounds like something you’d be excited about, then you might be just the person who should be an in-house SEO at a large enterprise.
Check out the slide decks from the “Enterprise SEOs, Unite!” session at SMX East 2016 below: