Big Sites + Big Brands = Big SEO Challenges

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2001 Conference, August 12-14, San Jose CA.

Big Web Sites and brands come with bigger challenges -- that was the main theme at the Big Sites and Big Brands Forum held at the recent Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose, CA.

The panel, comprising of marketing heads from big brand names and Search Engine Marketing firms, tackled the special issues impacting Web sites with thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of pages, large organizations with many layers of management, and reworking major brands into a successful SEO campaign.

The most common initial problems faced by Search Engine Marketing (SEM) specialists with large sites and brands were reiterated by the panelists:

* Lack of coordination or rivalries between departments of an organization
* Repetitive copy on page titles and meta descriptions
* Duplicate pages and mirror sites from multiple domains
* Bloated code. (HTML, CSS, Javascript)
* Lack of keyword market data
* Lack of monitoring traffic reports
* Unawareness of ROI capabilities
* Expectation of "overnight" results

"Uniformity through communication" is how Marshall Simmonds, Director of Search for - a network of topic-related sites - explained his strategy for optimizing one of the largest portals on the web today. With over 450 editors, or "guides" at who oversee 50,000 topics and over 1 million documents, Simmonds was responsible for helping them generate findable content about their topics on the Web.

Simmonds engineered a multi-pronged plan: provide each guide was provided with the same search engine-approved tools for content development, keep them all updated on the rules and regulations of the search engines, and develop centralized tools for communication and education. These included a regular newsletter, an SEO board (open forum where guides can post techniques and strategies), live online chat rooms, a search archive for specific articles on optimization, and a direct email address to Simmonds himself where guides could write and ask questions.

Communication goes beyond one's own department for effective site optimization, Simmonds pointed out. "You also have to get your IT department to understand what the SEO side is doing." The tech department, as is the case with many other companies, were also the initial optimizers of their Web site. Through establishing an open channel of communication with the tech department, Simmonds was able to de-emphasize the branding on the site (which was not a popularly searched keyword), clean up the code for quicker downloading, customize all of the individual pages for optimization, point people from the old site to the new one (while keeping the original intact), and receive regular reports to accurately see which guide sites were and weren't performing well.

Noel McMichael, President of the search engine optimization (SEO) firm, described the issues and barriers of optimizing sites for large organizations:

"Large organizations can come with lots of bureaucracy, with many different web efforts that are poorly coordinated... stepping on each other's toes." said McMichael. For even just a single web site, an organization can be having many different business units doing their own thing apart from the rest - running their own marketing campaigns for different sections of the site and crossing over into each other's territory. "For SEO, this can create a lot of problems." Without a centralized unit for SEO that all departments report to, Web sites for large organizations tend to suffer from a lack of even basic SEO effectiveness, sometimes even putting them in a worse position than had no SEO been done at all.

McMichael elaborated on one of the most glaring problems of large organizations - a lack keyword market data. "It stems from not understanding what their true keyword potential market is.", a problem usually centering with the organization's marketing department. "They have their own brand or keyword idea and don't understand what people are actually searching, despite their own branding guidelines." As an example, McMichael told of one client who insisted on the word "portables" in their keyword listings, over the far more popular "laptops."

To overcome these obstacles to SEO, McMichael says you should begin with reinforcing communications channels. Include IT people and Marketing in your planning sections, implement a "best practices" - basic standards and guidelines - that every company will pass on to its departments for whatever work is conducted on the site, and establish clear understanding of SEO goals and metrics and how they relate to business goals and metrics (both online and offline). As McMichael says, "Big businesses have more resources to measure success," so you should take full advantage of them. With big sites, management and organization plays a greater role for an SEO firm. McMichael often finds that domain name mismanagement to be a common problem with large organizations. "Many large sites have multiple domains, and usually by different departments publishing their own domain names... Establish an ordered structure of domains and subdomains within their own company."

John Tawadros, Director of Client Services & Technology for iProspect, explained that challenges for an Search Engine Marketing (SEM) specialist working with big brands come in two forms - internal and external.

"Internally, big brand companies all have their own goals, and they are not aligned to the SEM goals or, for that matter, the corporate goals."

Tawardros shared that big offline brands assume that it should be easy for their site to show up prominently. "But the field is more equal." he cautions. A small site that is well optimized can rival a big brand site for positioning or even popularity online. "Just because you're a big name doesn't mean as much to the Search engines."

On the external side, big brands have far more competition for keywords than other sites. Being well-known offline attracts many online competitors, both from other big companies and small companies. (Not to mention resellers who could be competing against their parent site.)

And branding online, Tawardros argues, is extremely important. According to iProspect's own Search Engine Branding Survey, the majority of consumers surveyed expected leading brands to hold top search listings, with 33% believing that those found in top spots ARE the big brands.

"There's a lot more at risk with a big brand; It's more important for a big brand to do well than a regular site," says Tawardros. "People who search by brand names are far more qualified than a product search."

For an inside look at how a big brand handles an SEM campaign in-house, Corey Clark, Head of eBay's International Marketing Team. outlined how his group's long-term campaign managed to convince the worldwide auction site to implement its own SEM strategy.

"We first brought all of our internet marketing partners together and focused on the ones that were 'search-specific.'" The next phase involved embarking on a "Internal Road Show," using simply a PowerPoint presentation and going from department to department over the next few months, gathering valuable feedback and learning from people in their own organization who had experience on SEM campaigns for other companies. "We gathered enthusiastic interest from every business unit that wanted to get SEM working for them and work with the team."

After putting together a plan for how to work SEM with various business units in the organization and eBay overall (which in itself took several months), the group then did a second roadshow, taking everybody's input and feeding off the enthusiasm. "By this time the buzz was rife and caught the interest of our executives." Well prepared and dealing with a now-interested executive committee, Clark's group outlined their SEM campaign needs for additional resources and personnel, those devoted to the SEM strategy from other areas of the organization (marketing, engineering, etc.). "It was clearly explained in dollars, resources, personnel, and value." said Clark. " The best way to make your point with executives is to measure ROI... The most powerful message we gave was showing how every dollar spent on SEM increased profit, and the new opportunities that came with it."

eBay did stress that like the majority of big brand sites, their SEM efforts still focus mostly on paid placement rather than actual SEO. "When it comes to natural optimization of the eBay site, we have a long ways to go."

With big Web sites and brands come bigger challenges, but opportunities are bigger as well. The key to pulling it off, as was echoed by the panelists, is to get the organization to focus on the long-term. "Big businesses have big expectations and want quick fixes," concluded McMichael, "but it's important to get them to focus on thinking long-term. SEM is a long-term strategy that should be an ongoing part of their regular operations... with continual keyword research. You can't just pay attention to it once or twice a year."

Grant Crowell is the CEO of Grantastic Designs, Inc., founded in 1993 in Honolulu. He has 15 combined years of experience in the fields print and online design, newspaper journalism, public relations, and publications. He is a featured speaker in conferences nationwide on banner design and marketing issues, and is a featured columnist for