Why So Many Companies Fail At Enterprise SEO

A well-defined brand no longer guarantees search placement. It is only through enterprise-level cultural changes, informed by a close monitoring of search evolution, that sustained SEO success can occur.

Yes, brands are still a very strong signal when it comes to ranking, however, recent advancements like “authorship rank” and Search Plus Your World have hyper-focused our promotion strategies.

A presumption of entitlement drives many legacy brands to complacency. Too often, we see an organization enjoy a few years of strong search results and then relax into “we’ve got that covered” mode, allowing its focus, vital resources and attention to shift to other initiatives.

But it is essential for any in-house marketer/SEO/embedded strategist to push past the corporate ego and bureaucracy to assess and identify changing technical / editorial barriers while protecting the protocol vital to traffic success.

Who’s Watching The Watchers?

The first sign of internal SEO procedures breaking down is often a competitor doing it better, faster and using your own assets. Nothing gets your boss’ attention faster than a competitor outranking you with your own ideas or content—not necessarily via scraping or syndication, but by rewriting or covering popular stories with better optimization.

Sometimes getting beaten is a simple misstep—a missed title tag on your part—but it could also be indicative of larger problems with your content creation process, from execution of best practices to keyword research to XML sitemap inclusion.

In SEO, all roads lead back to editorial. Content producers (who already have plenty to do) find and amplify the voice of a company, guarding the brand’s editorial integrity. But the days of search engine optimization responsibilities falling to another department are long gone.

In this age, content teams are expected to fully understand their audience. In fact, audience cultivation is their obligation. This means content producers must perform regular keyword research around their topics, identifying search and seasonal trends, monitoring news and user behavior and integrating the data back into the workflow, style guides and processes.

A lot of this information is already well known. For example, ask anyone on the editorial team and I’m sure they’ll know if readers use the search phrase “picture” over “photo.” But they can do more.

That’s not to say the SEO specialists shouldn’t be involved as well. SEO advisers can still educate and guide the process. But if keyword research isn’t decentralized, a bottleneck of tremendous proportions can effectively kill this critical step in strategy.

Empowering content producers to mine data raises the internal collective understanding of the audience and how users seek out and interact with a topic. Leveraging readily-available industry data and using it to optimize digital assets is much more effective as a core responsibility than an add-on feature.

Education Is The Basis Of Economic Success

Search awareness works best when raised and maintained by an ongoing, dedicated training and educational schedule. Editorial teams gain and lose new people, design teams are typically on the edge of innovation, tech is making the site better, faster, stronger and so on. But all sectors need regular updates on the micro and macro search strategies that the enterprise seeks to employ.

As an organization, mandatory quarterly or even monthly training sessions or informal SEO meetings keep information fresh and at the forefront. These sessions provide opportunities to talk about industry changes (and there are plenty) as well as tactical responses.

This is the responsibility of the in-house SEO expert. If he or she isn’t constantly “reminding” his or her fellow colleagues why search is always important, SEO—and the poor search director as well—will be forgotten.

Monthly search ranking reports, daily and weekly emails highlighting real-time examples of what worked and what didn’t are just a few of the ways to get in front of those responsible for optimization.

A good SEO will decentralize the process and yet must still be retained at a level above or in-line with tech or marketing, to spearhead projects, stay abreast of changes and aid the teams engaging in massive keyword research projects. SEO directors should be invited to key stakeholder meetings, and be on design and tech’s launch cycle email lists.

While I’m a strong advocate of institutionalizing SEO—educating and holding *everyone* accountable for SEO as it pertains to his/her role and responsibility in the organization—this shouldn’t come at the cost of bureaucratization of the SEO process.

Search engine optimization isn’t an option; it’s a mandate. Those companies that understand this tenant and bake it into their DNA are the very companies your boss emails you about when she’s trolling around on her iPad on Sunday morning.

As organizations grow, attention to procedure and discipline become even more important so that critical steps aren’t overlooked. It’s OK to move content as long as it’s done correctly. Using 301 or rel=canonical seems easy to many of us and yet, too often, entire sections are reduced to vapor due to a missed step.

Being involved and advising on quality assurance methodology, via checklists and education, is the best insurance policy against future mistakes.

SEO vs. Everyone Else

There are instances when decisions are made against best practices and may take precedence over SEO.  This is natural and not necessarily a bad thing. However these decisions must be made fully understanding the consequences.

A designer chooses Flash over HTML for better UX on the new photo gallery? Tech wants AJAX over HTML 5? So be it, as long as everyone involved is aware that it comes at the cost of search ranking.

An editor wants a clever headline that’s eye catching for homepage visitors but doesn’t contain targeted keyword phrases? Fair enough, as long as the choice is made understanding it is no longer a true search opportunity. To be clear, SEO should not come at the cost of editorial integrity. Content first, SEO second. 

This is where the institutionalization of SEO is critical from top to bottom.

Under a strong SEO culture, the first question out of upper management’s or a project manager’s mouth after hearing an initial pitch is “sounds good, but what effect will that have on ranking?”

It is better to build search protocol at all levels rather than retrofitting a project in later stages when resources are fully allocated and attention to SEO is a burden.

The Battle For Budget & Resources

Business cycles naturally draw attention away from SEO.  Social activities, for example, have siphoned resources, budgets and attention away from SEO, much to the dismay of search professionals and the demise of traffic. Make no mistake: search is still the most valuable traffic you can earn.

As my colleague Brian Provost pointed out in his Ultimate Guide to Enterprise SEO, this is about real money. SEO cannot happen in a financial vacuum. Sure it can be bootstrapped, but the process requires a dedicated and permanent budget.

With a modest investment comes better analysis, which gives way to a clearer understanding of customer wants/needs and behavior. Data is gold, but if you’re not measuring it, it doesn’t exist.

It’s The Little Things: Execution = SEO Win

Keeping up with best practices—the seemingly never-ending quest of the SEO cat and mouse game — takes the lion’s share of effort and attention, but must be done strategically. If SEOs took every Google press release to tech and editorial teams, we’d soon be ignored and could even suffer a backlash.

Still, it’s those hungry sites that use the little things — every release, new angles and tech options — as an opportunity for improvement, not a burden, that see the most return on investment.

Ultimately, it’s our job to weigh the level of importance of new discoveries, the timing and how to present new strategies to the enterprise. I’ve found that quick and easy wins with early adopters that we can execute and measure against are the way to win hearts and minds. Creativity is a must.

Last Spring, Powermapper reported changes to page title length. Counts now top out around 70 characters. Normally this may not seem newsworthy, but 5 extra characters can be the difference between branding appearing in a SERP or getting ellipse’d… definitely worth the effort.

Another example: rel=author is an absolute a pain to implement and certainly doesn’t scale (Really?! I have to walk 30+ editors through creating their Google+ profiles?) But it’s worth it.

Reports are starting to come in showing solid increases in CTRs.


rel=author Joost de Valk

Google’s frequent moving of the goal posts is a good thing.

Most of the time it’s productive – improves the search product, new opportunities to leverage assets, levels the playing field and definitely keeps our world interesting – (not to mention it gives us all job security). Then there are the more complex issues such as attempting to figure out how to optimize in a Search Plus Your World, world. Again though, interesting times.

Ultimately the rules are the same for all sites, no matter the URL or brand. In the last few years, I’ve witnessed many scrappy sites that adapt and adopt much faster and keep dedicated resources on standby to take advantage of every new opportunity. All too often it’s the bigger, slower organizations that are losing pace, lulled into complacency based on past performance.

Maintaining SEO efforts through buy-in and advocacy from upper management and tech resources for quick implementation and frequent updates and training put even the biggest companies in a position to maintain ranking and traffic.

The enterprise organization that can execute quickly across the entire network gives its content the best possible chance for placement and ongoing success.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO


About The Author: is the founder and CEO of Define Media Group, the enterprise audience development and search marketing company. He consults with top brands worldwide and is a leader in digital marketing and search. Marshall was responsible for building About.com into the most successful content network on the Internet and from 2005-2010 he was the Chief Search Strategist for the New York Times Company.

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  • http://www.metronet.no Trond Lyngbø

    Nice one, Marshall! :-)

  • http://www.daviddemille.com daveydemille

    Great article. It’s interesting that traditional media companies are switching over to duplicate titles to cater to both humans and robots. I appreciate that you also mention shared responsibility and how creating a company culture that embraces SEO is important to overall success.

  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    Great stuff Marshall. What particularly resonated with me are the little things that fail to be acted upon in an enterprise environment, especially in light of the “SEO vs. everyone else” tension. “Little” graphical or textual changes for non-SEO marketing reasons are, in my experience, far more likely to be made than similarly small changes for SEO purposes. This is often, in part, an SEO institutional failure, in that the case for ROI has not been properly made, or the general importance of search visibility and the means to improve it has not been sufficiently communicated to executive stakeholders. But just as often it is decision makers prioritizing what they know and trust, regardless of their level of comfort with SEO.

    Taken further, this can and have disastrous consequences for SEO efforts. Alas, I’ve been in many situations where not only “little” SEO tasks are sidelined, but big, important ones as well. With much at stake and finite resources, there’s inevitably a long list of bugs, improvements and innovations that executives are forced to prioritize when it comes to web design and development. Without a forceful and effective marketer on board advocating for these – and, as you say, continually educating stakeholders on the value and machinations of SEO – important search marketing tasks are likely to find themselves deferred for days, months and even years.

    I always find it amusing (tragically) that so many organizations have little difficulty in sustaining PPC spends with a demonstrably negative ROI, year after year, yet invest so little in SEO. And I think that’s because so many CMOs are suspicious of what they can’t directly count – again suggesting that a key role of an SEO in an enterprise environment is to make organic search ROI easy to understand. Most SEOs I know hate forecasting because by its nature its an exercise in fudging the numbers (I don’t know of anyone that can come remotely close to providing an accurate figure on the impact of moving a ranking for keyword X from #15 to #5). But I think it’s sometimes a necessary evil when it comes to getting the resources an enterprise SEO needs to get the job done.

  • http://rockfi.sh steveplunkett

    Nothing but #wisdom. Thanks for confirming many things.
    Integration of SEO at every level of digital innovation is crucial to staying ahead of the competition.
    from broad to specific, branded and unbranded.. organic has the highest conversion and lower cost.. IF.. integrated throughout the processes. IT can work very well and be very profitable for the enterprise across multi-national boundaries and locations. Which involves different versions of Google.. know them all, inform the client what’s different. document, audit, tie to cash register.. repeat.. weekly, monthly, quaterly. ranking reports and traffic gap analysis..

    3mins.. (it’s 7:57) then i’m on someone’s clock.. damn.. where is that quote..

    “There are instances when decisions are made against best practices and may take precedence over SEO. This is natural and not necessarily a bad thing. However these decisions must be made fully understanding the consequences.”

    two words.. DUE DILLIGENCE

    thanks again for the confirmation of many previous decisions in building enterprise level SEO teams.

    sr. search scientist

  • http://rockfi.sh steveplunkett

    all good comments are ruined by typos.. paisley’s internet law.


  • http://webmd.com roseberry

    I think anyone doing managing SEO at a large website will (or at least should) get a lot out of this. The only thing I’d add to Aaron’s comments (which are always spot on) is that working in enterprise SEO and pitching new tactics often means you HAVE TO have some prediction for performance. When implementing new tactics, upper management – no matter sold they are on optimization efforts – tend to want projections. They want to know how what you’re proposing is going to ultimately perform and what kind of traffic they can expect. This can be scary for a lot of SEO folks who are used to saying there is never any guarantee for ranking. While true, you can often build some projections off similar small tests and adjust to scale, or look at other sites that employ similar tactics and use hitwise, compete, etc. to try and gauge their success and adjust yours based on how similar or dissimilar. Or, look for case studies that others have published (like the rel=author one you mention in the post)

    It is scary, and often not that easy to measure and validate after the fact, but if you embrace it and trust the data you can really get a lot accomplished. And if you get used to it, it can even become a great way to prioritize your own time and efforts.

  • http://www.visiture.com Vi

    I completely agree that SEO education is pertinent, especially when in a big company and many don’t understand that everything that takes place online affects ranking (or perhaps it doesn’t, but it’s best to operate under the notion it *does*). I also agree with roseberry that you must often present projections, but I think expectation management is second nature to any good SEO. Great article, great read as always Aaron.

  • http://www.visiture.com Vi

    I completely agree that SEO education is pertinent, especially when in a big company and many don’t understand that everything that takes place online affects ranking (or perhaps it doesn’t, but it’s best to operate under the notion it *does*). I also agree with roseberry that you must often present projections, but I think expectation management is second nature to any good SEO. Great article, great read as always Marshall.

  • http://www.loudlaunch.com Toni Atkinson

    We are not Enterprise SEO but your post has given me “a new opportunity”. SEO has been exploding in many different directions and reading your ‘Execution=SEO Win’ reminds us to keep perspective and stay productive. No matter enterprise or very small, in your words, great content executed fast and correctly wins and we will eventually get to the others like Personal Search (or try too) Thanks for the re-focus tips!


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