One of the benefits of working in an agency/consultancy setting is that many of the search engine optimization (SEO) projects coming in the door are attached to other service offerings. Some would argue this, in fact, makes things more difficult, requiring an additional layer of meetings and necessitating compromises on both sides -- potentially creating friction between departments.
This can be the case when more than one agency is servicing a client, or when the development work is done in-house. In both instances, this can lead to less willingness to strike an accord. However, when an agency goes through these types of meetings, it is incrementally increasing the value it offers to all-in-one clients by growing and learning together and developing more streamlined processes each time a new project comes in the door.
In my new role as manager of SEO at Brulant, Inc., I have stepped into a practice integration process that has the goal of even further streamlining the mix between SEO and applications development. Brulant has a large Microsoft practice, an equally sizable IBM practice, and a whole additional team of Java developers working in concert with the interactive and search teams. To create a search-engine-friendly Web site while using IBM Websphere or Microsoft.Net coding, there must be customized SEO baked in at the earliest possible stages. The more sites built, the more this process becomes an agency best practice.
Let's delve into where SEO belongs in a work plan and specify some of the considerations that must be weighed during the Discovery, Define, Design, and Build phases.
The discovery phase should lay the foundation for any successful Web site. This is when marketing teams meet to determine target market demographics, analyze historical performance indicators, identify real and perceived competitors, and establish branding goals. Does SEO belong here? You bet it does. In fact, one could argue that the kind of research an SEO team does in preparation for site optimization would weave-in and strengthen traditional market and competition analysis.
In many cases, marketing and C-level executives have a perception of their competition that may not be very accurate in terms of search engine marketing. Coca Cola executives may not consider that "Cost of living allowance" may, in fact, compete with them on searches for "Cola," for example. Having an SEO specialist involved in the discovery phase of a Web design project can help identify additional content areas that will be needed.
When defining the architecture and layout of a Web site, the SEO team again should be involved. Often, usability experts are highly involved in this phase, and rightfully so. In many cases, the usability experts alone are enough to layout a site in a search-friendly manner. So often, we have the same goal in mind (positive user experience -- which search engines happen to love), but having both perspectives will only enhance the final product.
Perhaps the most important facet of the design phase, when it comes to SEO, is the URL structure and internal navigation scheme. Again, if these decisions can be affected by a seasoned SEO professional, it will be far more likely that the eventual content and pages will rank well in search engines.
The define phase is where the SEO team is likely to use the competitive data and keyword research to craft a high-level SEO strategy. Keywords will be bucketed into semantic groups, allowing for recommendations as to the number of sections or pages a site should include in the design phase. Creative types will often refer to this process as "theme-boarding."
Agencies use different work plan structures, and some would clump the design and build phases together. By separating these two areas, one can get more granular with SEO considerations and their place within the process. In my experience, the design phase is the time to clearly outline the site map and wireframes. Again, this is probably nothing new to anyone who's worked in a design firm. However, it's vital to understand the value SEO can bring to this process and is understood and preferably utilized.
When creating site maps as well as wireframes, developers should consider all the possible relationships between various sections of the Web site. Emphasizing the importance of this veers strongly toward usability and is a nice tie-in between SEO and the users' ultimate experience when navigating the site. Again, many developers are thinking, "Duh, of course we will consider the relationships between content." However, they will undoubtedly look at those relationships differently from someone trained more on the SEO side. Synergies created by having these dual points-of-view really help when it comes to the final product.
At this point, most of the hard work has been done. Ideally, the design team and the SEO team have reached an accord with the layout of the site, including, for example, providing areas for text content, providing an HTML version of Flash-only pages, and utilizing "clean" navigation structures.
One recommendation here is to ensure that the content created is forwarded to the SEO team for optimization on a piecemeal basis. Not only will this keep the workflow going on "both sides," but it also will allow for high-level changes to the copywriters' style or any inconsistencies, should they be needed. Continued interaction until actual Web site launch will be paramount to success.
This process can, of course, be utilized when dealing with multiple agencies, but chances are the communication process will be tougher, and the long-term benefits of having the teams work together won't be as apparent as when different practices team up to develop an integrated marketing plan under one roof. The most important takeaway: Adhere to an SEO-inclusive design strategy to avoid major redesigns down the line. You don't want to wait until your brand new site isn't ranking for even the most basic searches.