If You Build It SEO-Friendly, They Will Come
“So I audited the website, made all kinds of great SEO recommendations, and nothing. None of them got implemented. Not a single one.”
Sound familiar? This story is told all too often, at search industry events, cocktail parties and around water coolers at web-based companies everywhere. It’s a story that starts with a VP hiring either a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) manager or agency, continues with the company spending a significant amount of resources to generate detailed recommendations to enhance the woeful state of SEO at the company’s website. But it almost always ends with the inability to close on these recommendations for one or more of a dozen reasons that now seem obvious through the 20/20 lens of hindsight.
Nobody left to mind the store
Often at the root of this problem is a lack of complete buy-in from all stakeholders in an organization, and frequently it’s either the CEO or the IT/web development group (CTO or equivalent) who’s not on board. However, at large, multi-product companies like Yahoo!, there is another dynamic we discovered that routinely derails even the most well thought out SEO plans. Especially at places like Yahoo!, where there are always a large number of concurrent initiatives within each property competing for a limited pool of engineering resources, it’s very challenging to actually find the bodies necessary to implement SEO recommendations, even if the recommendations are perfectly detailed and correctly prioritized.
It’s not because the proposed changes are not valuable or necessary. More often, it’s because the product team that built the site in the first place has since been disbanded and its members are now part of other teams working on other projects. Simply put, there’s noboby left to implement significant site changes. Bug fixes, sure. Mod re-writes, forget about it.
Stop the insanity
We all know logically that it is much cheaper and easier to build SEO into a development project, rather than to release it and retrofit it later. While this is a basic tenet of SEO, all of us routinely ignore it, building and releasing SEO-unfriendly sites, promising to go back and fix them later. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it. Some of you are doing it right now. Well, folks, it’s time to stop doing it.
Because Yahoo.com is one of the biggest sites on the ‘net, the economics of this dilemma are magnified to such a degree that forces us to behave differently. At some point last year, after repeated attempts to make and implement SEO recommendations on some of our larger properties, we decided that we were no longer going to fix what was broken. Rather, we made a very conscious choice to focus only on what is in development, ignoring the myriad of examples of disastrous SEO practices out there on our properties, choosing to replace them slowly over time with new, SEO-friendly product. We made this decision not because we’re disciplined or we have the bottom line in mind, but rather because of the resource-constrained nature of product development and the immense challenges it poses for SEO.
Making SEO work for you
Once we made this decision, it became obvious that we needed to build SEO into the product development cycle. I know of several people in our industry who figured this out a few years ago and built a business on it. The same rules apply here to us, and probably to you too. Some very smart folks in our company really dug into the development process and identified several critical touchpoints in the product development cycle where SEO goodness needs to be assessed and addressed.
The SEO touchpoints for you, your company, and your development cycle will vary, depending on the scale and scope of your efforts. We identified six touchpoints on our end, from product conception through post-launch, and developed customized SEO checklists to use at every stage. These checklists have our SEO managers evaluating SEO hotness at each stage in the development process. That means we have dedicated SEOs reviewing requirements documents and wireframes, and filing bugs with the engineering teams when things don’t look right. This is the time to file bugs, when engineers are working on the product, not after it’s released.
This approach aligns and integrates SEO with product development, the goal being to launch product that is already SEO friendly. This creates a mountain of work up front, but it will greatly enhance your chances of success moving forward, and over time your work will become much more efficient, and ultimately more effective. It takes patience, commitment, and perhaps most importantly, support from your executives.
If you try this approach, and I absolutely urge you to do so, I guarantee you will find product managers who will tell you things like “SEO is all well and good, but I’m not holding up my product launch for an SEO feature”. To which you can now say, “If you follow my process you won’t have to delay your launch for SEO, because it will be built right into your product”. Try telling that story around the water cooler.
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