SEO BS: Avoiding And Responding To The Big Surprise

I recently encountered this tweet from Aidan Beanland, a Regional SEO Manager at Yahoo!:

When the SEO manager is the last to know about a new site section that’s already live –> big fat FAIL.

This is, unfortunately, such a common occurrence for SEO managers that it should have a name:  the Big Surprise (conveniently abbreviated as “BS”).  The new site section nobody thought to tell you about.  URLs nobody thought to redirect when file naming conventions were changed.  The “top secret” regional domain that materialized out of nowhere, providing Google with a neat duplicate of your site.

While it is unlikely that you will never encounter a Big Surprise when surfing your site, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce such incidents from occurring.  And when you are blindsided by a significant change to a website that undermines your SEO efforts, your response can both help avoid repeat performances and win allies for your cause.

BS risk reduction

The first step in avoiding unpleasant SEO surprises is early engagement with key stakeholders in your organization.  This engagement needs to be highly structured for, until you provide specifics, decision makers are unlikely to know which of their activities impact SEO and which do not.  Especially as in-house SEO efforts are getting underway, your colleagues are unlikely to know much about how SEO works, and part of your job is to instruct them.

So when you first approach managers, team leads or other decision-makers in each area that affects SEO, let them know exactly what issues they need to consult you about.  Keep this list succinct, especially to begin with:  it is better to have someone fully aware of five things critical for SEO than twenty-five things they will never remember.

The list of SEO-related issues you raise with each person will vary by department or area of responsibility; tailor your alert list accordingly, as per the examples below.

IT and server management:

  • Changes to existing URLs, including removal or addition of parameters
  • Any change in the domain environment, including domain acquisitions

Information architecture, usability and design:

  • Changes to global navigation or bread crumbs
  • Changes to display technology (e.g., modifications that employ Flash, Ajax or JavaScript)
  • Addition, deletion or redirection of pages

Marketing and merchandising:

  • Marketing or social media efforts that result in new spiderable content (especially when these are created on other networks that may not be on your radar)
  • Changes to affiliate program tracking or content delivery
  • Substantive changes to product lines being offered on an e-commerce site

Both for future reference and to drive the point home, follow up your meet-and-greet with a friendly but focused email, with bullet points just like the ones above.  This also gives you the opportunity to copy others in the same group (the more eyes that are open on your behalf, the merrier).  Rinse and repeat when new people – particularly managers and directors – join the company.

Corporate secrecy and the BS it can cause

I once approached a huddle composed of the Art Director and a bunch of designers.  “Nothing for you to see here, Bradley, this has no relation to SEO!”  Suitably chastened, I walked away.  Sure enough, a few days later came the Big Surprise:  an April Fools’ micro-site backing an outrageous “rumor” intended to go viral and cause a surge in traffic.  Yep, a big heap of inbound links – no relation to SEO, of course.

In the course of your discussions, let senior strategists know that your discretion can be assured.  You understand that, for a variety of reasons, foreknowledge of certain web-related initiatives needs to be restricted to key stakeholders – and that you are one of them.

Responding to the BS: one (but only one) free pass

It is Tuesday morning when, deep in the throes of keyword analysis, you receive a company-wide email from the CEO congratulating everyone on the new blog that has just been launched.  The one you have never seen before.  The Big Surprise.

Obviously, the first steps you need to take are remedial:  doing what you can to repair any damage that has occurred, or quickly capitalizing on any SEO benefits from a potentially lost opportunity.  Once any fires have been extinguished, turn your efforts towards preventing a repeat performance.

Do not panic, and do not let your ire get the best of you.  Keep in mind that the Big Surprise is almost never malevolent, and respond accordingly.  Unless your organization is populated by psychopaths intent on undermining your optimization efforts, any damage they have done to SEO is born of ignorance, not intent.

Put together a reasoned response, and amass any analytics data that demonstrates the impact of the Big Surprise on the company’s performance in search and, if at all possible, on the bottom line.  When you debrief those responsible on the consequences of their actions, keep the focus on lessons learned from the incident.  Provide one or more updates with more metrics.  By making your point civilly and backing it up with relevant numbers, your underlying message will not require spelling out:  don’t let it happen again.

If it does happen again, and you’ve taken both the proactive and reactive steps I’ve outlined, then you can reasonably expect to hold those responsible accountable.  Demanding that accountability is important, unless you want to see your SEO continually derailed by carelessness.  Typically, SEO efforts must be given visibility by its practitioners.  If an e-commerce website goes down for a day heads roll; if a site loses 1,000 inbound links because of URL rewrites, it may only illicit a shrug without a demonstration of why those lost links matter.

The good news: the BS diminishes over time

By continually educating key people in your organization about SEO, and by responding appropriately to SEO mishaps, you should see fewer and fewer Big Surprises in your future.  In the best of all possible worlds, you’ll be included in strategic decision-making processes, further diminishing the chance of tactical mistakes being made.  There will always be SEO-related issues on a website that have been overlooked, but they need not be a “big, fat FAIL.”

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is an SEO consultant specializing in organic search, and writes on search issues at his blog SEO Skeptic. He has worked in SEO since 2005, following ten years as a website designer.

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  • Jono Alderson

    Ah, very timely post!

    I’m new to a big agency that’s only recently started looking at the technical aspects of SEO, and I’ve been thrown in the deep end with a host of Big Surprises. I’ve put together a powerpoint presentation explaining the key areas in which we need to be involved, and several ‘flags’ for things which we should be brought in on.

    It’s frustrating to see so many rudimentary mistakes – but as you say, part of the job is education. I’m excited about gradually building bridges between design, development, client services, etc and SEO. It’ll become a well oiled machine!

  • nickstamoulis

    This is so very true and can all apply to in-house SEO and also an outsourced SEO partner…the common: “yeah a new site is going live next week, but should not affect your SEO work…”

  • Aidan Beanland

    Great article Aaron.

    The bigger the company (either in-house or as their SEO agency/consultant) the more challenging it is to be across every product decision. You’re also likely to face more staff churn which necessitates regular training.

    You’re correct that accountability is important to establish. Once product managers see how growing search referrals helps them meet their personal KPIs they’ll start coming to you first.

    I’d also add that turning a ‘BS’ nightmare into a ‘big fat WIN’ is the very best way to highlight what could have been achieved earlier, if things had been done right from the beginning.

    An experienced SEO’s glass is always half full of silver linings…

  • Duane Forrester

    Bingo – both Aaron and Aidan have nailed this point. keeping SEO in the dark is a bad, bad move. I recently struggled with this trying to get folks to understand the added cost by having us go back to suggest work after the fact.


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