Before we get to the everyone’s favorite collector of white tigers and facial tattoos, it is important to set the stage with another heavyweight.
“Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”
- Eric Schmidt, Former Google CEO and current Chairman of the Board, Google.
For the last five years or so, the role of Director of Search and other prominent Enterprise SEO titles within big brands was the easiest way in the world to collect an outsized paycheck. You didn’t even need a college education.
As such, relatively junior SEO’s with very little context were at the helms of some surprisingly large enterprises. We have seen big brand SEO leads whose previous job titles were “Starbucks Barrista” and “Paintball Referee”.
With the “Too Big To Fail SEO Era” behind us in addition to Panda Updates and Search Quality Improvements flying out of Mountain View fast and furiously, there has never been a more treacherous time to be sitting atop the enterprise value of a large company’s search assets.
When It All Goes Wrong
When you are the owner/webmaster of JohnnysFruitStand.com and you lose fifty-percent of your search traffic, it will hurt. You may even have to close your business, as so many did after the first wave of Panda assessments began rolling out in February 2011.
It is painful to rely so heavily on Google for your livelihood and no one should diminish the pain and suffering of those sole proprietors and small businesses that took it on the chin as “collateral damage” to Panda.
When you are deeply rooted in the managerial Org Chart of a major enterprise and one of your SEO theses is off or an algorithmic update catches you with your pants down, not only are you going to probably lose your job, but the repercussions are systemic. A fifty-percent loss in search traffic could mean hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue lost, layoffs in your business, and maybe even layoffs upstream through your supply chain.
As we have seen more and more lately, the latter is happening at a higher frequency. Often we are brought in to assess the damage and deliver a way out. Other times we are brought in to assess the business by the financial institution that could give everyone (well, everyone but the guy/team who was asleep at the wheel) a lifeline.
However, the one painful trend we see emerging is that much of this damage is brought on by the hubris of the big brand in-house SEO team that thought they were untouchable.
Getting Back On Track
“Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”
- Mike Tyson, former Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World
The absolute worst thing you can do as a major contributor to user, customer, or audience acquisition is to be caught off-guard.
Your multi-billion dollar brand might organically shake out a hundred high-quality links, a thousand global influencer shares, and a hundred thousand branded search terms a day, but that is not an excuse to spend your day planning your family vacation.
If anything, you should be using that time to prepare the contingency plans for the day that Google punches you in the mouth.
As we all know from Fight Club, “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
How Defensible Is Your Search Traffic
As people have heard me say for almost a decade now, search engines are the scoreboard of the Internet. I have never heard of a class killing, 800lb gorilla, community-beloved website or product that has not ranked atop or near the top of their search market place over a meaningful period of time.
From time to time, Google will leave one or two stranded as they are not infallible, but they always catch up to the relevant trend.
To understand how that scoreboard is compiled, you …as the SEO wunderkind…have had to learn about every signal source on the web that the engines consider. You have had to learn social media, public relations, content creation, web analytics, conversion rate optimization, web design, user experience, etc….all in the name of groking how Google orders its index.
Have you ever let one of these facets stray out of the bounds of search engine best practices without forcing a business decision to be made in the process? If you have, Mike Tyson wants to talk to you.
Education Is Fundamental
For many big brand SEO’s, a good defense is the offense and that is a perfectly valid strategy. At some point, no amount of you tinkering with the site architecture or training product managers and editorial staff is going to substantively lift the site’s traffic profile. You are doing all those things so nothing they do substantively tanks the site’s traffic profile.
Institutional knowledge is a huge component of defensibility, as is the communication of risk factors. If everyone wakes up one day and the business got thrashed by Panda because you slept on the risk awareness of a huge content migration, feature roll-out, link-building campaign, you have not earned your paycheck.
If you outlined the risk and a business decision was made to move ahead, you did your job. At that juncture, your job is to move forward and help unwind the risk so that the business can return to a position of defense. It will be painful for everyone, but it will not be a surprise. The worst thing in the world to a major enterprise is an unfortunate surprise.
Tell The Truth
This is not time to cover your rear. The best way to cover your rear is never to put the business in a bad position due to lack of preparation. The truth is an absolute defense.
Be accountable for your actions and complicity. You will not be able to lead anyone anywhere if they can’t trust you. Too often, we see SEO’s fabricate some new algorithm that was coincidentally overweighted to all the things they dropped the ball on.
Generally, people think search engines are voodoo. De-mystify Search and articulate where things broke or could break. Similarly, those who can best articulate the relatively simple concepts of Enterprise SEO often get the most buy-in.
Aim At Your 15m Target
If the business is hit hard by a search algorithm update, due to the nature of search, everyone will have a theory about what happened and how to emerge. Do not get lost in chaos. Take inventory of the moving parts and start executing on things you know will improve the state of affairs.
Big business cultures have their own inertia and you need to get things moving back in the right direction, slowly but surely. Getting a few quick wins on the board will get you the cultural confidence to enact and execute the bolder items in your contingency plan.
By consistently focusing on getting from Point A to Point Z in a methodical manner, you are working how the algorithm would work and also building credibility.
Communicate To The Engines
Matt Cutts (or the army of filters and staff buffering Matt) probably won’t read your plea for help if you are JohnnysFruitStand.com. However, if you are a major brand that got caught out as collateral damage, or even sinned and strayed from the Webmaster Guidelines, you can probably bend their ear.
It is nearly as important for the engines to have you in their index for the queries you are relevant for as they are to your business. Even though sites like BMW and J.C. Penney have strayed, they were inevitably let back in because not having them in Google’s index made Google’s index less relevant.
While you may get your day in court, so to speak, do not waste it or make the engines look bad in the process. Acknowledge your previous actions, atone for them, and include evidence that you have corrected them. Do not be a whiner and absolutely do not try to fight them in the press.
Do Not Let It Happen Again
Mistakes happen. To the extent your site’s performance was hindered due to specific actions, learn from those actions.
No matter what anyone says, SEO is a lot of trial and error, even at the Enterprise level. If you are not testing, you are not trying and any good company culture understands that. Just make sure your contingency plan(s) in place if the tests turn negative.
At the end of the day, the number of advantages to being the SEO guy (or gal) at a big brand far outweigh the potential catastrophe lurking in the tall grass at all times.
While there is a lot you can do to make your search traffic stream more defensible on a day to day basis so you do not ever have to enact your contingency plans, never operate without them at arms reach. You are only ever one knob turn in Mountain View from a tail wind turning into a headwind.
Image from Wikipedia page for Mike Tyson, used under Creative Commons.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.