SEM Strategies for the Enterprise Life Cycle was a new panel for China. I’ve moderated Bill Hunt, CEO of Global Strategies on numerous panels at conferences throughout the world, but this time Bill was even more “on” than usual, offering up some great insights on what he called the “search maturity lifecycle.”
Bill and his team typically work with huge companies that operate on a global scale, maintaining dozens or even hundreds of web sites that must simultaneously put forward a unified corporate presence, yet also cater to the unique needs of different countries, regions or constituencies. Bill said that most companies who operate on a global scale typically progress through a similar process as they build out their search marketing efforts.
“The idea is that a company evolves through search,” he said. Search typically begins with a specific function or department in an organization. Initially, the search marketing campaign is project based, and often arises spontaneously and at random within an organization.
To achieve scale and become thoroughly integrated within an organization, a search marketing effort typically progresses along a multi-step path:
- Search becomes tactical: Search campaigns are executed in a targeted manner
- Search becomes strategic: A centralized solution with strategic objectives is widely adopted
- Search becomes integrated: Search is now considered to be critical to the organization and is deeply integrated into all aspects of the marketing mix at a global level
Bill said there are four steps to drive search at scale:
First, perform an audit of the current state of search marketing within an organization. Bill recommended using a multi-step checklist to look at basic elements of search friendly design, spiderability, algorithm compliance, coding issues and so on. At this point, it’s also important to also sell the idea of unified search marketing within an organization. A good way to do this, he said, is by using a “missed opportunity matrix” to encourage compliance with both a carrot and stick approach.
It’s important to focus on two key areas to maximize search ROI at scale: Identify search opportunities to maximize rankings, and then incorporate search into all ongoing web content development.
There are also several key enablers that can help embed search deeply within the DNA of an organization:
- Synchronize planing across all types of media, search and non-search
- Deploy global keyword management, with clear and specific “ownership” of critical keywords
- Create a keyword management database so people can know anywhere in the world where a keyword is running and have rules to prevent competition
- Identify and understand searcher and their needs in each locale that the organization operates in
The second step to driving search at scale is to identify standards and best practices that can be applied organization-wide. At this point, it’s also important to provide comprehensive training to all key stakeholders, and build a knowledge base of shared standards and learnings. Bill recommended using a simple wiki tool or a knowledge base tool—the important thing is to get the information in a single repository that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, who is involved in an organization’s search marketing efforts.
Third, you need to show continuous improvement and progress. “The only way to get more funding on search is to show that it’s actually working,” Bill said.
A good way to do this is to carry out an audit of individual web pages. Build a checklist that helps identify problem items, and provide best practice recommendations that ensure organizational & tactical alignment when pages are fixed, to avoid competition among similar groups.
Bill advocated a template approach to site design. Templates can mandate search friendly elements on a page while still offering content flexibility for each individual department, country or other group. Bill suggested requiring primary search terms that are universal to the organization (company name, brand name, etc). But it’s also important to ensure that a search engine can read and score a template-oriented page so that it gets prominence in search rankings.
Creating a template isn’t enough. Organizations need to understand their “web page production cycle”—the process by which pages get designed and implemented that’s similar to a “supply chain” chart used to describe manufacturing and distribution of real-world products. Color-code this production chart and note all of the places where search is impacted, and then educate each person or team about how the role they play and the changes they make to a page can impact search results.
“Web site production is like a car assembly line—few of those people have met, but they’re all interdependent on each other,” said Bill. The key is to make sure everyone works together to achieve a common goal and avoid having a myopic view of their role that might have a negative impact on the work of the entire team.
The fourth step is to prove the value of the program on a long-term, ongoing basis. To do this, it’s important to define and deploy a tool framework for analytics, management and reporting. Tools are crucial to a large-scale enterprise; without them, the effort to manually analyze the effectiveness of a search marketing campaign is just too great.
But deploying a set of tools isn’t in itself sufficient. You must also create search effectiveness metrics and scorecards. Bill said there are two types of metrics that are important:
- Diagnostic metrics: These indicators measure things like how many pages are indexed, the number of top ranking pages and so on, offering clues for improving an existing web site so that even more pages can rank well across a broader spectrum of keywords.
- Effectiveness metrics: Indicators that measure total traffic, traffic by search engine, keyword, organic SEO efforts, PPC campaigns and so on, offering a real-time glimpse of how the site is doing at the moment.
Bill ended by offering a tip from his long experience working with many organizations around the world. Most companies, he said, don’t measure the “delta” between paid and organic search campaigns—in other words, they treat them as separate efforts when in fact there are synergies to be gained by taking a holistic view of both. “It’s very rare that we see companies looking at data from both together,” he said, noting that the companies that do look at their overall efforts in a unified fashion tend to be more successful in their search marketing campaigns.
Marshall Simmonds, vice president of search strategy for the New York Times, works for an organization that is both large and geographically diverse. Marshall also heads up Define Search Strategies, a search marketing consultancy under the umbrella of the New York Times that works with many other large organizations.
Marshall focuses primarily on SEO efforts for web sites rather than working on the paid search aspect. He said that when he first starts working with a large enterprise on SEO, one of three questions typically arises:
- Are you a new web site?
- Are you an existing site, but just starting to think about SEO?
- We know that SEO works—what do we do to get to the next level?
Marshall said the key to success in any SEO effort for a large organization is to implement a consistent methodology, which he broke down into five components: Organize, analyze, educate, execute and track results. He then went on to describe how he put this methodology into action with the New York Times online.
When he first began working with the New York Times, after coming aboard with the Times’ acquisition of About.com, Marshall ran into a number challenges. The newspaper site had more than 11 million documents (but not exactly sure how many), a “registration wall” that required people to get a user name and password to access content (not to mention blocking search engine crawlers), journalists and editors who had no clue about SEO, a rigid IT department (who was also constantly arguing with the marketing department), an entrenched company ego, and above all, the challenge of getting the company to “get” search, overcoming an ingrained resistance to change.
So how did Marshall do it?
First, he went to each department and assigned ownership of SEO to an on-site manager. He engaged each group to analyze what needed to be done by breaking down tasks into prioritized buckets.
“It’s best to go for quick wins first to build momentum and buy-in,” he said. “One of the quickest wins you can have is to take your company name and put it at the end of a title tag.” This simple change puts the keywords for each page into the most prominent position, allowing the search engine to see the most important part of the title first.
Marshall also said that while technical modifications are important, education and coaching of people is key to success. “This is probably the most important thing we can do with working with a large organization,” he said. Educating “appropriately” is also key—what you tell the IT staff is going to be different from what you tell the marketing or editorial teams.
Integration is also key. Echoing Bill Hunt, Marshall said that SEO needs to be embedded into the DNA of an organization, and it has to be a part of the day-to-day workflow of everyone who has an impact on search, at the time content is produced rather than after the fact.
Marshall also reiterated Bill’s point that it was crucial to establish metrics, and then make an effort to communicate success. “Both executives and Wall Street understand metrics,” he said. Showcasing the success of a search marketing effort creates a win for all stakeholders.