The key to running a successful large-scale Web site with a focus on organic search traffic is scale. It is obvious that a site with millions of products cannot be manually managed on a product-by-product basis. You would need a staff of over 1,000 employees and a cost center far beyond anything feasible.
A fair-sized team for an in-house SEO department should, at minimum, consist of one director, one manager, one analytics expert and a strong tie into your public relations team. A team of this size should be able to efficiently drive forward even a site with massive scale.
The team should also be capable of working with other departments to educate co-workers on the value of SEO. When SEO is a large unknown, many people will resist it at first. Getting buy-in from the various stakeholders can make or break your search plans. Getting your co-workers to understand why things work the way they do will get them to fight for you. They will be your eyes and ears, especially when you have a really small team.
Write the Way Your Customers Search
To accomplish an SEO task of epic proportions, you must first start small, and slice your site into two main areas: page types and categories. An example of different page types would be the difference between a category page and a product page. These pages will usually be constructed differently and should allow you to utilize different SEO practices, including writing logical page titles that target your particular search audience based on their searching behaviors.
I recommend looking at tools like Google Trends, so that you can easily identify simple category naming mistakes. For example, the choice between naming a category "MP3 Players" vs. "Digital Media Players" can mean a difference from 7 clicks a day to thousands of clicks per day.
From a keyword perspective, it is imperative that short, distinct product names are used. Search engines will index the page with the exact keywords you have on the page, of course. Many retailers make the mistake of trying to optimize the page for the full manufacturer's product name. For example, a digital camera reseller might use "Nikon D40 Digital Camera with G-II 18-55mm Lens." Not many searchers will ever type this query into Google.
The best product name for this would be Nikon D40. This process can be automated fairly easily, since the manufacturers name and model are already in your database. The extra descriptors should be put in the product description content area. This simple fix can mean as much as a 30-percent lift in organic traffic.
Look Behind the Scenes
Another extremely common pitfall is sloppy code generation. Take a look at any large site and you will see machine-generated white spaces, poorly closed tables, div tags and my favorite, meaningless comment tags. This usually is creating extra code that has no real value and will make the page load time longer, which is not a good user experience. In general, if you pay attention to the minute details, they will add up to big successes in the long run.
Data center setup is a show-stopper; it's amazing what your operations department is capable of unintentionally messing up. In some cases, I have seen operations block spiders because they were coming into the site too often. Another common operations nightmare is IP-based redirection to single nodes, when they route spider traffic to a slower subset of servers. When that happens, it will indicate a much higher latency to Google, and can possibly damage your rankings. If you think about it, why would Google want to rank a site that is going to provide an extremely slow user experience when a faster one is right around the corner?
Measure Your Results
Once you start getting things underway, it is critically important to track your progress. With extremely large sites, this can be a very difficult task, but it can also start with something as simple as a spreadsheet with a small sample of your keywords. If you are using an outside vendor for Web analytics, you will quickly find that their ability to handle your specific needs will be scarce. Therefore, a custom metrics strategy will become a high priority and you could be pouring an incredible amount of money into this project.
When it comes to analytics, be prepared to scale immediately. You will quickly find that when you combine traffic, ranking samples, and revenue and conversion data together, it becomes almost unmanageable. Thus, a large-scale database is necessary – so don't skimp out!
Go for the best, or you will be frustrated with speed, availability and data loss problems. Consider hiring a business intelligence expert to come in and build this system. The specific level of knowledge required to design and maintain this type of system is massive and should not be taken lightly.
Building an in-house SEO team can be a daunting task, especially for large organizations. With proper planning, the experience becomes more manageable, and success becomes more likely. The important thing to remember when planning such a big project is to start small, and pay attention to the smaller details within the larger project.
Aaron Shear is off this week. Today's column ran earlier on Search Engine Watch.