For Large-Scale SEO, Why Compromise Can Often Mean Failure

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Achieving success in SEO is hard.  For many businesses, SEO is often a long process that first involves assessing and identifying weaknesses for a given site, working to remedy those problems as quickly as possible, and then forming a longer-term strategy for increasing rankings, targeted traffic, and ultimately conversions from organic search.  This is a challenge for any size organization, but it’s exponentially more complex for large businesses.

Larger companies might contain several divisions and many key internal players that will be involved with the initiative.  During my career, I’ve had a unique opportunity to experience this dynamic from several viewpoints.  Specifically, I’ve led SEO in-house at several organizations, I’ve been part of a global interactive agency helping large brands with SEO, and I’ve also helped many companies as a consultant.  This means I’ve had to deal with the internal battles and compromises that an in-house SEO faces, while also being on “the outside” as an agency and consultant.  Based on this experience, I can usually tell within a short period of time whether a specific SEO initiative will be successful or if it won’t move the needle.  Unfortunately, the failures in SEO that I’ve witnessed are typically based on various negotiations that take place internally and the resulting compromises that are agreed upon.

The Barriers, The Players, and The Compromises

When I begin helping new clients with SEO, I typically conduct a thorough SEO Audit, which produces a remediation plan and SEO roadmap.  The roadmap is the list of all projects that need to be completed in priority order.  There are times that the final audit presentation is 30-40 slides in length, and then there are more extreme cases where it’s over 70 or 80 slides.  After the audit is presented to my client’s core team, a second meeting is usually held to create a plan of attack for fixing any serious structural problems and then tackling the rest of the projects that make up the SEO roadmap.

-This meeting is typically where it gets interesting.-

For larger businesses, you might have 10-15 people attend the meeting to represent their given department or function.  To me, this meeting is critically important, as I’ve seen several SEO initiatives fall apart at this stage (at least from my perspective).  There are times I leave this meeting energized knowing that we are going to move at light speed and have a great chance of success.  But there are also times I leave the meeting knowing it’s going to be a long, tough road for my client, SEO-wise.

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What Compromise Looks Like

As the various players go back and forth during the meeting, with what sometimes looks like a twisted game of SEO poker, negotiations start and compromises are made.  There are times those compromises are minor, but there are also times those compromises are big enough to completely derail an SEO effort.  The problem is that there might be key people involved that are unfamiliar with SEO, and they don’t know the extreme impact that those compromises could have.  It might seem like a nice gesture in Corporate America to acquiesce, but from my perspective, certain compromises set the SEO team up for failure.  And I despise failure.

For example, maybe the group agrees to tackle content optimization in Q1, but the massive canonicalization problem can’t be addressed until Q3 or Q4.  Or how about you can fix the navigation and internal linking structure in Q1, but you’re told that you can’t fix the thousands of URL’s that randomly change until Q2 or Q3.  Don’t laugh, I had to deal with this specific issue on a large scale (impacting millions of pages in total, and tens of thousands of URL’s that could change at any given time).  Or how about agreeing to a robust content generation strategy, but each piece of content must pass through two internal committees (which will essentially water down the effectiveness of the content.)  Needless to say, many of the compromises that take place won’t work well SEO-wise.  You might simply end up spinning your wheels.

Below, I’ve included a graphic showing how you can start with a robust SEO roadmap (based on an audit) and how negotiations and compromise water down the effectiveness of the entire initiative.

The Compromise Funnel Shows Your Chance of Success in SEO

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A Critical Decision for SEO’s – Do You Want To Build Friends or Do You Want To Build Success?

There’s a critical decision that needs to be made by SEO’s leading large-scale initiatives.  The inherent problem with SEO is that you will inevitably ruffle some feathers in an organization (and that’s putting it nicely).  This includes potential issues with your technology team, designers, copywriters, brand managers, PR directors, salespeople, etc.  And many of the people involved are critical to the success of the effort (they comprise the critical last mile for SEO.)

The reason SEO often leads to conflict is simple.  If a site is in bad shape SEO-wise, then your audit could end up revealing many problems.  When the audit is presented, a company can either understand that change has to happen and take action, or they can start pointing fingers.  That’s especially true if the company is spending a lot of money on paid efforts since SEO is not strong.

So, as you shine a light on various problems you encounter SEO-wise, you might have a critical decision to make.  Should you aim to be nice to everyone, make compromises, and possibly fail, or will you drive forward, push for change, rub some people the wrong way, but have a greater chance of success?  I’ve always chosen the latter, but that’s me.  There are many people that choose the former, and remain frustrated as their rankings and traffic in organic search suffer.  But, they have lots of friends internally, since they were nice to everyone.  Let’s face it, change is uncomfortable for most people.  And digital marketing will continually change the way businesses work and the way leaders must think.

For example, there’s an incredibly memorable debate I had with a Director of Branding about some changes to the homepage of a large site (for a large brand).  It went something like this:

Director: Over my dead body will you be putting that new content and links on my homepage.

Me: Yes I am, and it’s going live in the next release (about 2 weeks from now).

Director: No, it’s not.  It doesn’t match our branding. It won’t go live. {now standing up}

Me: Your search engine rankings are non-existent and we have 35 pages of changes to the site, based on the audit I conducted. This is the first of many changes and it’s going live in the next release.

Director: What, do you think everyone is searching Google right now for everything they need??

Me: (Now holding up keyword research) For the categories we are targeting, they sure are.  Here’s the data.  This is part of the reason we’re making the changes on the homepage.

This went on for about an hour.  I won this specific battle, primarily since this was a massive SEO initiative that was going to have a profound effect on the business at hand.  I also had clearance from the highest levels of the organization to make any changes I needed to in order to fix the current SEO situation.  From my perspective, this was war (against poor rankings and bad SEO, not necessarily people).  That said, I knew some people’s feelings could be collateral damage, which was an unfortunate reality.

Precogs for SEO – Boots on the Ground

There’s one thing I learned very early on in digital marketing.  You’re only as good as the implementation.  That means a solid strategy means nothing unless it’s executed properly.  When you need to make massive changes to a large-scale website, you need close-to-flawless execution.  You also need to be very close to the execution of those changes, as many of the changes will be completed by people that aren’t familiar with SEO.  For example, a large-scale migration and redesign could have a lot of moving parts.  There are dozens of opportunities for changes to be implemented incorrectly.  It’s not because the people involved want to implement the changes incorrectly. They just aren’t familiar with SEO.

Based on how important execution is, I find it’s advantageous to understand as much as possible how a specific company’s development and release schedule works.  For example, who will be implementing the changes, how fast are those changes typically completed, and how often are there glitches during the process.   This can help you predict the future (or at least understand what you’re in for as changes are completed).  In order to do this, you’ll need access to a precog, like in Minority Report.   Don’t laugh, you might already have one in your own organization.

Precogs for SEO Will Often Reveal The Truth About Future Implementation

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One way to truly get a feel for how an organization works (development-wise) is to speak with the right person.  And that’s not necessarily the CMO, the CTO, or the Director of Technology.  Instead, it’s often the Project Manager (PM).  That’s right, PM’s know how projects get executed, how fast changes can be implemented, and how much pain you will need to go through to get things done.  They are your SEO precogs.  If you want the pulse of the website and technical organization, ask the PM’s.  You might find that you refine your implementation plan based on your conversations with them.  Remember, you want the truth at this stage, and in my experience, PM’s will give you the truth (partly since it directly impacts their day to day work).

A Note About Agencies and Consultants

If you are assisting a company as part of an agency or as a consultant, then you have another level of complexity to deal with.  As an outsider, there’s a good chance you won’t have direct access to the people involved on a regular basis.  And don’t underestimate the power of being able to directly walk into someone’s office.  In addition, you probably won’t have access to the website, in order make direct changes.  So, your success depends on internal resources at the company at hand.  This simply means that although you might be in the driver’s seat strategy-wise, you’re in the back seat (or trunk) implementation-wise.  This is just another reason to speak with the precogs before you begin tackling large-scale SEO efforts.

My Recommendations for Dealing With Large-Scale SEO Initiatives

Based on my experience, here are some recommendations that can help you avoid failure when driving change in SEO:

  • Understand how the company works before starting.  Speak with as many people involved before developing the SEO roadmap.  And as I explained above, definitely speak with the Project Manager(s) that will be helping you.
  • Educate the team as much as possible so compromise doesn’t kill your efforts.  The more that people understand how each change can impact SEO (and in what order), the easier it will be for you.  By doing this, you can cut down on compromises that just don’t make sense SEO-wise.
  • Show the financial impact of making changes.  I firmly believe that you should always bring data to a meeting. If not, you can debate opinion until the cows come home and nothing will ever get accomplished.  Showing the potential financial impact of your SEO efforts can win people over.
  • If you’re part of an agency or if you’re a consultant, you’ll need an SEO champion that’s in-house.  Without someone driving the initiative internally, you’ll have a hard time succeeding.
  • Make your decision, build more friends or build SEO success.  You must make a hard decision and choose your path.  Understand that your work will impact several departments and many people within those departments.  Some won’t be happy with you.  Feelings will be hurt. It’s a necessary reality.
  • Form a solid communication plan.  You should clearly communicate any changes taking place SEO-wise, as well as report on the results promptly.  Be transparent and let the data speak for itself.  Win over the naysayers.

Summary – Don’t Back Down

The more SEO projects you work on, the more you will run into the various situations I mentioned above.  Large-scale SEO is rarely a simple process.  Instead, it’s a multifaceted, long-term process that impacts several departments and many people within those departments.  Negotiation and compromise will occur, but you need to make sure they don’t derail your initiative.  You should understand that you can make a serious impact at your organization (or for your client), but you will probably have to make some tough decisions before you succeed.  Don’t back down.  Stand up for SEO.  It can pay off for your company, your clients, and yourself.

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  • Moosa Hemani

    Love this article and the way you presented that Director and SEO Talk! This is hell real!

    if one wanted to be nice to everyone then the chances of success are very low so lets enter through the exit door and win the game. This may seems a bit unethical in the starting but once you start showing the results everything comes to you nicely by he time.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks Moosa. I’m glad you liked the post. In my experience, nice doesn’t always translate to success (unfortunately). There are times that change has to happen and that will sometimes rub people the wrong way. But you’re right. Showing the positive results can help win people over.

  • Zach09thomas

    Best SEJ article I’ve ever read.

  • DanaLookadoo

    Agree, an excellent article, and timely. I’m currently dealing with a client wants to launch a redesign without an SEO audit, a process in which design is the lead driver rather than audience and keyword research.

    I find that if upper management doesn’t have a search-centric focus in their decision making, then SEO is just a line item, slapped on like patchwork. When, instead, SEO should be the core of the foundation upon which a site is built.

    One of the most serious mistakes for long-term online success is when corporations believe SEO can wait until after launch of a redesign.

    Stop. Wait. Research. Do the audit first!

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks Dana. I definitely don’t envy the situation you are in now, but I’ve been there too (many times). You are absolutely correct about upper management needing to have a search-centric focus. If you get clearance from the highest levels to drive SEO, it makes the process much easier.

      Regarding SEO being a line item, that is too often the case. An SEO audit should absolutely be the first thing completed before a design is even in the concept stage! I’d love to hear how this goes for you.

  • Michael Martinez

    We had a saying at my last agency position: “No SEO campaign survives contact with the client.”

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Michael. Being on “the outside” as an agency or consultant definitely brings its challenges (to say the least). It really take a unique client that wants (or needs) change in order for SEO to become a priority. If you don’t have that, then your agency saying speaks the truth! 🙂

  • Doc Sheldon

    Dynamite article, Glenn! I’ve faced similar situations as a consultant in another field (not SEO), and it was a rude awakening when I realized that the initiative was going to fail, due to the resistance from the people that would have most benefited from its success. On one occasion, I had to tell the CEO that I was pulling out, if I couldn’t have some teeth to back me up.

    You’re spot on about finding the right person to talk to. There’s always someone that will give honest answers… the trick is to track that someone down, and use their knowledge without poisoning the well.

    @DanaLookadoo – I can’t imagine how your client can possibly expect you to lead them to Point B, without knowing either where Point A is, or if there’s even a path to Point B. Sounds like they’re in for a disappointing experience if they won’t heed your counsel.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Hey, thanks Doc. I enjoyed hearing about your consulting experience. The resistance phase is so tough, and you’re right, the ones resisting the most are sometimes the ones who would benefit the most!

      Regarding speaking with the precogs, finding someone who can give you the truth about how things work before you’re neck deep in the project is so important. For SEO, I’ve found PM’s to be great resources that can help on many levels. If you can’t find a precog, then you’ll be jumping in with very little knowledge of the landscape. And that can be dangerous.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  • Sami Makela

    Hi Glenn.
    Great article – highlights pains many of us share apparently.

    I find educating the client the key – but depending on how big the organization is – I find it also damn near impossible, unless you are very patient.. Showing financials works too but unless you have the commitment to make the changes you ask for it starts getting trickier – estimates are one thing but I think when faced with this kind of challenge all of us would prefer to simply show factual numbers – but its often a question of chicken or egg, who came first, do you have the mandate to make the changes that show the results..

    • Glenn Gabe

      Well said Sami. Education is key, but you need a group of people that want to be educated. I’ve found setting up dedicated training sessions works the best. A series of one hour sessions to various departments has worked well for me in the past.

      Regarding financials, if you can tie the potential financial upside of SEO directly to a person’s department (and their job), then you probably have a greater shot of it making an impact. That said, having clearance from the highest levels of an organization to drive SEO is probably the most important element. If you have that, you can potentially face a much easier path.

  • Matt Inertia

    Great post and so close to the bone for me. I really like what you say at the end about standing up for SEO.

    My advice, be super nice! Take people out for dinner, pat the right people on the back continuously, make those techies realise that you know your stuff and make the people who it matters to realise that you are here to make them more money, sales, hit targets etc.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Great points Matt. If you can be nice, educate employees, and have success in SEO, then you’re obviously in great shape. I specifically like your point about working closely with the players in technology. A great developer can make $x, but a great developer that understands SEO can make $x + $y. 🙂

      That said, there are unfortunately times that you’ll need to be direct, push for change when people don’t want to change, and make decisions that rub some people the wrong way. In my expereince with large-scale SEO, that’s been a necessary reality. I don’t know if there has ever been a case where everyone involved was cheering for the SEO team when we walked in the door. 🙂

      Overall, I don’t think there’s a specific formula for success, since each organization is different (with regard to systems, technology, people, organizational structure, etc.) That’s why speaking with the precogs is so important when you are getting started.

      • Fred Sexton

        Great points Glenn. My default is always to be nice, maybe it’s just my personality. If that doesn’t work, then I go with data which has no emotions. Then I start asking a whole boat load of questions, trying not to do leading ones (can get into trouble here). I try to be like a lawyer asking questions to my own witness.

        For example:

        Me (being nice): Your home page title tag is just your company name.

        Them: What’s wrong with that. We like our company name.

        Me: What is your top keyword phrase you wish to rank for.

        Them: What is a keyword phrase.

        Me (internally): “AHHHHHHH”

        ect ect, getting more frustrated, eventually get to something like this:

        Me: These are the companies that you are competing against for your top keyword phrase. See how all of them not only have their company name in the home page title tag but they also have at least 1 keyword phrase.
        Do you see the difference?

  • mark rushworth

    I see this all of the time. theres always a conflict of brand or technology that stops seo being effectively implemented.

    • Glenn Gabe

      You’re right Mark, this is unfortunately the case at many larger organizations. The education piece I mentioned earlier can help, but ultimately you need the highest levels of the organization to enforce the SEO initiative. That helps greatly. 🙂

  • Andrew Shotland

    A lot of truth in this article. In my experience SEO audits of large sites typically expose not just hairy SEO problems, but often bring to light serious deficiencies with the non-SEO side of the site – broken/confusing navigation, whole sections of the site that are non-existent, UI from 1996 that is still live, etc. SEO audits typically show that most companies don’t use their own sites, which is a problem in and of itself.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Great points Andrew, and thank you for your comment. I’m a firm believer in conducting SEO audits before starting any SEO initiative. Without a clean and crawlable structure, you’re dead in the water. In addition, you can find so many other problems, including domain strategy problems, content optimization issues, canonical issues, site performance lags, website errors, etc. But all of that needs to be presented, which is where the human element comes into play. That’s where is gets interesting.

  • Hugo Guzman

    Thanks for the article, Gabe. I am now thinking about starting a site that is dedicate to giving enterprise SEO’s a place to tell share their craziest stories regarding exchanges with internal (or external) stakeholders.

    Reading your piece reminded me of some of the classic ones I’ve encountered over the years!

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks Hugo. I like your idea, and I’m sure you would get some very interesting stories! 🙂 Change is tough for a lot of people and it seems exponentially worse at larger companies and brands. That’s why so many big brands are behind SEO-wise.

  • alanbleiweiss

    Glenn! Dude! I should be jealous that such an outstanding, important and thought provoking article on the subject of SEO audits for enterprise didn’t come from me!

    I’m not though – instead, I’m going to just say “Perfectly written and dead on accurate” 🙂

    • Glenn Gabe

      Hey, thanks so much Alan. I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I had a feeling you would relate to this post (to say the least). 🙂

  • SEO Los Angeles

    It is rather interesting for me to read that blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and anything that is connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more soon.

  • Marc Bitanga

    SEO for large sites with equally large companies can be challenging for anyone. One of the challenges I originally found in the situations you’ve mentioned is that some stakeholders want to see results for themselves, not case studies on some other companies. I’ve found convincing a small sector within a large organization and getting some quick wins is one way to get the doubters on your side.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Those are good points Marc. The only problem is that sometimes the site in question is so large, and riddled with so many problems, that quick wins can’t occur without major changes. If you can get quick wins, then you’re absolutely right.

  • Johan Hedin

    Glenn nice article. I agree with what you have stated in this post. From having done SEO for big corporations to smaller ones, what I find the most challenging is the lack of flexibility among corporations. Usually the upper level is not very well educated which takes the project to a big educational curve which can be very time consuming. I believe for most SEO projects, setting the right expectations from start is a must for a long term relationshop./

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Johan. I agree with you. Many times there needs to be a lot of education before more people get on board with the SEO initiative. And that can definitely be time-consuming and challenging (depending on the size of the organization and how many people will be part of the training).

  • Anonymous

    great shared ideas and so informative I’ve ever read.

  • Melanie Phung

    Great article. Really resonated with me and the experiences I’m having. I keep compromising, hoping (obviously wrongly) that if I give an inch here, an inch there, that I’ll recoup that goodwill somewhere else along the line. But business doesn’t work that way. I get it, but obviously I don’t really *get* it since I haven’t mended my “nice” ways.

    Plus: I’ve realized that the more opportunity there appears to be for “easy wins” in a large organization, the more reasons there are that those holes still exist in the first place. If no one’s fixed it yet, it’s probably pretty hard to fix for reasons you can’t even imagine yet (and none of them technical).

    • Glenn Gabe

      Great points Melanie, especially your last point about why certain changes haven’t been implemented (because there are deeper problems in the organization). In addition, many large sites have so many moving parts (on the back end), that a change which might seem easy, isn’t at all.

      If you end up using a different approach (tougher) for your next SEO project, let me know how it goes for you. I’d love to hear about how that change impacted the success of the project.

  • Tarquin Sykes-Roebuck

    Great post. You mentioned meetings with maybe 15 people. That’s where all the biggest compromises are going to occur – you can’t please all the people all the time. If I see that on the horizon, I’d rather restructure for a series of smaller meetings with each group. If that’s possible, it gives you the opportunity to prepare material that targets the groups more tightly, and you stand a better chance of winning them over.