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In House SEO for Big Brands / Big Sites

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How do you cope with doing search engine optimization for a company with tens of divisions, hundreds of products, thousands of Web pages and seemingly no way to bring order to the chaos? Where does the SEO process begin and end? That was the topic of discussion at the recent "In House: Big SEO" session at Search Engine Strategies in New York.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York, April 10-13, 2007.

While the actual SEO techniques between small sites and large sites do not necessarily change, the hurdles one has to clear can be worlds apart. One factor is of course the size of a site – small sites may contain a handful of pages whereas large corporate sites contain tens of thousands of pages (continuing to grow). Another factor is the amount of people that are actually involved with the development, maintenance and marketing of the site. With small sites, it typically consists of the business owner, a Web developer and an SEO, whereas with a large corporate site, hundreds could be involved in the process.

Therefore the key in dealing with these big brands/sites seems to consist of training foremost and then putting forth the best effort to automate the entire process through template and database optimization.

On board to help us gain a better understanding of how big brands and enormous sites handle SEO are Jeffrey Rohrs, president of Optiem, who moderated the session; and presenters Bill Hunt, CEO of Global Strategies International; and Marshall Simmonds, chief search strategist at the New York Times/About.com. Brendan Hart, director of customer acquisition at National Geographic and Tanya Vaughan, global SEO program manager at Hewlett-Packard were also available for Q&A.

Hunt began by focusing on ways to integrate SEO best practices into the organization at all the right levels. What are these best practices anyway? Sometimes it includes the simple things like optimizing title tags across all the site's pages, adding meta description tags that are unique to each page's topic, and so on. It may also involve more complicated things such as mod re-writes of bulky URLs that are either too long and/or un-crawlable or even the way the site templates are structured themselves.

One would then inquire as to what "levels" he is referring to. Most certainly the Web development team is included in this, but additionally the marketing team and even those who determine budgets should be involved in the process. In all practicality, SEO is a team effort so anyone who is involved with the Web site from those who design templates, all the way up to the CEO and everyone else in between should be involved.

SEO then becomes more of an evangelism effort where the main leader is not only training the team about best practices and techniques, but pushing the need for SEO in the first place. Often times all parties involved need to be convinced of the need for SEO. This is especially true of Web developers or programmers. One example Hunt shows in motivating the team to embrace search involves the competition factor – show how the competition currently outranks them. This can even be taken a step further in demonstrating the potential traffic that is being lost and even computing that into revenues that are not being realized.

Hunt also pointed out that with most large corporate sites, a template style of optimization is the norm. This means the templates themselves are optimized and then the database populates each page with the unique information relevant to that page. By identifying problems and training for best practices, the optimization process can take on a much smoother and sometimes even automated process as opposed to tackling one page at a time. Actual SEO work becomes minor and evangelization becomes key.

The evangelism process can take place through on-site training, a wiki or even an internal blog. It is also wise to introduce corporate marketing to the Web development team because most never meet in the real world. The bottom line is that if you train the right people from the right parts of your business well, the optimization process becomes much easier.

Hunt also recommends providing reports to show continuous improvement once the SEO strategy is in place. Part of this can include comparing lost opportunities in organic search compared to what is being spent for those same keywords in the paid search environment. Even more important is to show continuous improvement that lines up with the business goals and objectives of the SEO effort.

A real challenge for the New York Times is dealing with the large mass of content they produce, according to Simmonds. Because the Times is traditionally a print newspaper, there is a resistance to change within the infrastructure. Eighty percent of their effort focuses on educating internal staff on SEO best practices, while the remaining twenty percent involves hands-on work. He stresses that ongoing education is crucial. It is like nudging an iceberg in a different direction – it is difficult but can be accomplished.

Simmonds suggests looking for small changes that can make a big impact. One such example for them was simply moving the brand name from front of title tag to back, allowing keywords related to each individual page to have prominence.

Finally, he provides some advice on what big brands can do to implement an effective SEO strategy. They can hire professional SEOs or even bring in external team that can train internal people. He points out that typically the majority of resistance comes from executive management, IT or both.

David Wallace is CEO and founder of SearchRank, an original search engine optimization and marketing firm.

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