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Handling Search Marketing in Large Organizations

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I tell people I have the best job at AOL. Seriously, I do. First, it is never dull. Second, I get to work with just about everyone in the entire company. Third, I can show tangible, positive results as to how our efforts contribute to the bottom line in the new AOL "audience growth" (fancy way for saying free portal) strategy.

My team is responsible for search engine marketing, both organic search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search engine marketing (SEM). Our goal is to drive new traffic into the free content areas of AOL and its brands, such as MapQuest, AIM, TMZ.com and Netscape. Now, while SEO and SEM are both search marketing, the strategies are worlds apart. We're talking about more than 50 different brands and products, hundreds of millions of web pages, different conversion metrics and different strategies.

This will be a three-part article going over how we look at both organic and paid search. In the first article, I will touch on the high level points of how we are organized for both. In part two I will cover details of SEO and in part three I will cover the details of SEM.

The question I am asked most often is how do you handle SEO/SEM in large organizations? The first step is to understand their differences, and play on their strengths.

SEM – Central Management

Why do we manage SEM centrally rather than letting the different business units manage their own budgets and their own paid search campaigns? Well, it can lead to a number of problems such as:

  • Supporting the areas that do not provide the highest return or are not that strategic to the business – We do not support every channel/product in paid search. The budget is managed centrally in order to look at the company holistically and determine where best to invest. The decision is based on priority properties, strategic initiatives, revenue goals, projected ROI and available search engine inventory. For example, traffic might be limited based on CPC thresholds for a particular product/channel or the search demand/volume may not be there.
  • Bidding each other up/direct competition – Businesses like Moviefone/AOL Music/AOL Television or AOL YellowPages/CityGuide/Mapquest all have intersecting people/subjects. Central management of keyword selection and bidding prevents us from stepping on our own toes.
  • Communication breakdown – It's necessary to work with the sales team, finance and internal promotion to understand where to best invest dollars based on inventory sold, as well as what is the CPC threshold based on revenue/expenses of the site in order to meet a positive ROI. That in turn needs to be mashed up with the other marketing support/promotion (eg in-house banners, home page promotion, other marketing efforts) to make sure SEM is not over-delivering and we are no longer able to monetize.

At the end of the day, it is a lot to take on if it is being handled in individual silos. It is just not efficient.

SEO – Large Cross Functional Effort

Unlike paid search campaigns, SEO is more effective when the responsibility is distributed. When I started the SEO effort, one of my executives asked me what I needed in terms of a team. He asked if I needed 25 people? 50 people? 100 people? I laughed a little and said I didn't need a fiefdom. What I needed was top/down support because SEO is something I firmly believed (and still believe) needed to be in the company's DNA.

The fact of the matter is that most everyone at AOL plays a role in SEO, whether they are in programming, design, product, publishing, sales, finance, marketing, executive (...you get the drift). If we are going to be successful at the audience/free portal model, all of these people must understand their role. There are just too many people in D.C., New York, California, Colorado, Bangalore, Dublin and other parts of the world that are touching, changing, publishing, removing, or designing pages to try to control it from one group.

The biggest hurdle, and the first hurdle that I recommend people tackle, is getting executive buy-in. If you don't have that in a large organization, you are sunk. We know all too well that people are bombarded every day by deadlines, new projects, or some other fire drill. That makes it difficult to get their attention to focus on something new and unfamiliar, like SEO.

The other fact of the matter is that people do not like change. So couple that with the fire drills and you have a recipe for failure.

Last year, AOL had hundreds of projects on its roadmap. We needed to develop a solid case as to why the company should dedicate time, energy and resources against SEO, instead of focusing on any of the hundreds of other projects. Not only that, but in order to execute, we needed people across the organization – with no direct reporting line into my team – to do the work. That meant we had to start building these relationships and becoming a "change agent" of sorts across the entire company.

Not an easy task, but you have to love a challenge...

The best thing we could do (and you can do) in this case is to look at the business strategy and financial goals. AOL laid down the gauntlet last year saying it was no longer going to be an ISP-only business. We were losing paying members and losing traffic as a result. At the end of the day, we needed to find a way to grow audience, which is what many companies are trying to do with their own online business, whether it is large or small.

Laying Out the Case

It's important to pull a couple of key metrics together to lay out the basics. We know that the number one thing people do on the Web is use search engines. Why? Because people want what they want, when they want it. If we can deliver our relevant content or products to people in SERPs at the point in time they are searching for that type of information, half the battle is won.

A few other key points:

  • On an average day, about 94 million American adults use the Internet. Of that, nearly 60 million use search engines daily
  • 73 percent of all online transactions start with search engines
  • There is a 50 percent drop-off in CTR from position one to position two on the first page. You lose over 50 percent of search traffic after page one. But getting there isn't easy. More than 3.5 billion Web sites compete for the top slots, but only fractions of a percent reach the first page

So, you gather this type of information together, tie it into the overall company strategy, and make it relatable to executives. As the person or team responsible for SEO, you must understand that there is only so much you can do. There is no use banging your head against the wall trying to get middle management or development to pay attention to you when they are getting bombarded from all sides.

Ultimately you need to let the executives make the hard decisions. Remember that your executives need to answer for overall results for the company at the end of the day. If the company is really serious about growing its audience and increasing numbers, then the best you can do is lay out a solid business case as to why SEO is an integral component of that strategy and get executive support.

As a matter of fact, it's important to not only get executive support, but make sure they are vocal about it. Once you get top-down support, it makes it much easier to start rallying the company behind the effort.

In my next article, I will explore the ways we set up the organization to be successful at SEO. I'll look at building a large cross-functional team, creating accountability, prioritization, defining tactics, creating transparency and increasing consistency.

Melanie Mitchell is the Vice President of SEO/SEM at AOL. Melanie has over eight years of experience in web site promotion and over six years experience in search marketing for major sites across several industries including travel, local, entertainment, ecommerce, news and sports. She has managed SEO and PPC campaigns both in-house and from the agency side.

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