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Gain the competitive edge with SEO

Gain the competitive edge with SEO Craig MacDonald

How much is the word "cheap airfare" worth in the United States? The answer is about $8 million, according to comScore Marketer Search Data, December 2007. A word like "laptop" is worth about $35 to 40 million. "Car insurance" is estimated to be worth more than $50 million per year. And this is just the conversion value of the top organic listings.

Organic listings continue to account for the majority of the clicks, with between 75 and 85 percent of all clicks going to organic results depending on which study you read. Add in the PPC results, and these figures can be adjusted up by another 15 to 25 percent.

The value of search is rarely questioned nowadays. So as more and more consumers go to Google and Yahoo to research everything they do -- from restaurants where they eat to the houses they buy -- the option to invest heavily in search engine optimization (SEO) is no longer a choice; it is a necessity. Not focusing on building processes to dominate organic rankings is a very costly brand management error in every market. 

The challenge, particularly for larger brands, is how to build a scalable and predictable approach for managing organic rankings -- how to raise awareness, how to leverage the opportunity, how to instill the key processes and how to execute the work.

The focus of this article is the best practices in building out scalable SEO processes. The information below is based on the experience of some of the largest global brand managers in the market. Also discussed below are results attained by these major brands and how what they learned can be used to predict future outcomes from SEO.

The complexity of building SEO for large brands
Excelling at SEO involves both good news and bad news for a large company with its many brands, websites and locations in multiple countries. The good news is that a large brand site, with its linking and content, has every right to be at the top of the organic listings based on the way the search engine algorithms work.

The bad news is that exposing that content to the engines usually requires close coordination between personnel in the organization's IT and marketing departments as well as the agencies being used. With worldwide offices, this gets complicated.

Also, the engines are increasing the sophistication and complexity of what SEO means. SEO is no longer just based on text analysis. In the age of universal search, SEO-based brand promotion has to include the way images, videos and text are added to the site to ensure visibility and relevance to key search terms used by consumers.

In addition, there are ever increasing ways that the engines are returning relevant information to end users through specialized return results such as News, Travel and Maps. Each category has unique ways to determine which organic ads are shown and therefore command the lion's share of the consumer's attention. 

A common response from large organizations is to hire an SEO expert to act as an internal advocate and consultant to the brands on SEO-related issues. Given the size of these organizations, the number of parts of the organization that require communication and the complexity of the problem, this approach is rarely effective or efficient.

SEO requires a holistic approach -- one no different from the management of traditional corporate processes like customer relationship management (CRM). It would be unthinkable in this day and age to "hire someone to do CRM" as organizations have a healthy respect for the fact that CRM is a process and a way of thinking. CRM is a way of life for large enterprises. SEO should be the same. 

Here's a way to manage it.

Next page >>

Building a Center of Excellence
A successful approach is the concept of driving SEO-best practices around technical construction, content management and link strategy into the brand management function itself at both the product and geo-marketing levels in large companies. Essentially, this requires anyone who touches the site -- marketing and web management -- to be held accountable for SEO-related results. This is very similar to the "Center of Excellence" concept used to drive CRM best practices.

What is involved? Most Center of Excellence initiatives start with a preliminary 90- to 180-day project. With respect to SEO, the purpose of this is to:

  • Select a section of the website and execute the initial optimization of that site section.

  • Document the process from keyword research, keyword selection, site design, etc., and make the information on the implemented processes available to others in the organization through a knowledge-sharing system like a wiki.

  • Develop a certification program for those who go through the process that can be used to certify other knowledge workers for future projects.

  • Identify key metrics of success and document achievement toward those metrics for the initial project (basic improvements to "crawl-ability," content, link strategy on the site, rank changes on the engines, increase in traffic, increase in conversions, etc.).

  • Pinpoint the technologies necessary to deploy the program at scale across the organization, and identify changes that need to be made to existing technologies (usually the web analytics systems) to track results from organic in the context of the program.

Once the initial project is completed, two important outcomes have to occur. First, the program has to be sanctified by the senior marketing leadership as a priority and as something other brands need to embrace. The metrics from the initial project (e.g., indicators of SEO-health for the site, rank analysis and conversion analysis) need to be benchmarked for other sites and goals for improvement set systematically. Brand and geo-marketing managers need to be held accountable for improvements once the initial benchmarking is completed and for getting their groups certified on best practices.  

Second, the work on the initial site needs to be expanded to continue improvements. Most organizations experience degradation in SEO performance after about 90 to 120 days. This is why SEO is most effective as an ongoing process. Degradation is usually the result of competitive action. Search marketing is a zero sum game: There is a finite amount of inventory available and being successful at SEO comes at the expense of a less able competitor. Competitors will notice improvements and respond. 

The Center of Excellence concept is designed to be scalable as it is viral. It builds the best practices into the daily processes of the employees working on the site and ensures they are educated, motivated and measured to excel at SEO. 

Let's see how it works.

Studying the Center of Excellence approach
To determine the effectiveness of this approach, Covario conducted a study between March 1 and October 15, 2007 with approximately 300 global brands to measure how leveraging the Center of Excellence concept improves performance. More than 85 percent of the brands involved in the study belong to Fortune 500 companies with their websites operating in multiple languages and on many search engines.

The goal of the study was to assess whether the metrics that had been built to measure SEO health of the websites could be used to predict results in rank improvement on the major U.S. search engines (Google, Yahoo, and MSN). The study used changes in rank for the participating Fortune 500 brands as the metric of success. 

The results were impressive. To help educate the SEO knowledge workers in the brand and geo-marketing divisions, a proprietary technology titled Covario Organic Search Insight developed by my company, Covario, Inc., was used to identify what aspects of the sites were well optimized on 48 different criteria. 

Changes to these site factors were then statistically measured against changes to rank on the engines. During this study period, the average brand experienced an improvement in its average rank position for the keyword it was trying to optimize by 4.5 rankings.

To put this into context, on "cheap airfares," moving from position five to position one on the engines means a difference of $2.5 million in commerce per year, based on analysis of data from comScore Marketer Search Data.

Most importantly, the relationship between the changes made to the websites during the test period had a very strong statistical relationship to changes in rank on the search engines. This means that the statistical links discovered by Covario can be used to predict improvements that other sites may experience given similar changes. This is key as ROI on SEO for these organizations can be reasonably estimated, helping to justify the expense of the programs. 

What is more, the reactions of the engines were very different. Google was 15 times as sensitive to technical issues as Yahoo, and twice as sensitive as compared to MSN. Specifically, Google was far more reactive to link improvement strategies than Yahoo or Microsoft -- by eight to 10 times. Yahoo was much more reactive to changes in content than Google or MSN -- up to 50 percent more reactive than Google.

The reactions are part of the complexity that many large advertisers find hard to corral. However, with the right processes in place, insights like these can be used to determine which aspects of the site will provide the best ROI for brands and geo's by engine, by product, by site, etc. This is a great example of the development of the science of SEO, which presents large advertisers (and their vast, complicated web properties) a process-driven, data-based method to manage their brands' presence on the organic side of search engine marketing, and do so in a scalable and efficient way.

So how do this information and the Center of Excellence for SEO concept get actualized in a large company? Let's see.

Putting SEO into practice
SEO daunts many organizations because they get paralyzed by the number of things they could do, and do not know which two to three things they should do to drive the best results per engine. This is the big challenge organizations have -- the prioritization of the work and building that prioritization into the web management process. 

The study above suggests a solution to this problem. With empirical evidence on what drives SEO ranking results and understanding the differentiation by engine from operational website changes, large companies can ensure that results can be driven in the short term while their long-term continued improvement is also scheduled and managed.

Take "cheap airfare" again. For a travel company or an airline looking to optimize on this word, here is what the study would suggest for prioritization.

Focus first on content issues, meaning the usage of the word in the text on the pages in the site. These can be changed most rapidly by the agency or content managers and have a very significant effect on rank improvements. The study suggested the following:

  • Adding the words "cheap airfare" to the URL of the page being ranked will have the most significant effect on driving Google ranking -- i.e., something like: www.companyname.com/cheapairfare.html.

  • However, the study also showed that changes to the URL will have minimal effect on Yahoo ranking improvements. 

  • On the other hand, Yahoo reacted very strongly to the emphasis of words like "cheap airfare" in the content text on the site -- i.e, when the word is displayed as cheap airfare, CHEAP AIRFARE or cheap airfare. This had a smaller effect on driving Google rankings.

Content issues are also relatively easy to syndicate across a large site, particularly when the issues are made available to content managers. A best practice can be given to always emphasize the usage of "cheap airfare" in text, and to design URLs with the most important keyword that will drive traffic conversions.

The second area of focus should be on the link strategy; however, this is less simple to execute en masse across a large site. It is the quality, not the quantity, of links that matters.

What is a "quality link?" It is a link from a site or page that has a Page Rank (a statistical measure of relevancy that is available from Google on various pages) greater than three. So the question becomes: How does an organization drive multiple web managers to build a small number of links from pages with Page Ranks greater than three and distribute this information efficiently? 

This is an area of intense study. There are very sophisticated ways to implement link building and a number of companies that specialize in this, both agencies and specialty consultants. For a large site, deploying these solutions can be cost prohibitive.

The above study suggests that building links from a series of authoritative sources such as .gov or .edu. for "cheap airfare" in order to get a link from the FAA would be highly valuable but very difficult. A link from .edu would be easier. Also, Technorati and del.icio.us sites are good places to start. In the study, Google reacted very significantly to sites with links from these sources, as did MSN, so this is a straightforward way to get sites started in an efficient way to build links. Again, one to two high quality links are better than 1,000 poor quality links, and Covario's study results strongly support this assertion. 

The final step is to address the technical structure. This is listed last because technical issues usually deal with fundamental technical construction issues around site design. Changing these in large organizations is highly non-trivial and takes time and planning.

Technical issues can also be the most egregious as they may fundamentally prevent the mechanisms used by the engines to organize information from working. However, the above study provides guidelines on efforts that can be prioritized for the IT department or the web management team on how to deal with site issues and drive better rankings. There are essentially two major issues:

  • The first of these technical issues is URL structure. One of the components that the Center of Excellence must develop is a best practice on site URL structure. The Covario study showed that long URLs and URLs that use mechanisms to track visitors to the site (called dynamic parameters) confuse the engines and drive significant rank decreases on Google and MSN. Yahoo seems better able to deal with dynamic URLs.

  • The second of these issues is how the navigation is constructed, as the search engines use this to figure out how to find content on the site. Use of Java or Flash for the navigation prevents search engines from finding content. This was completely consistent across all engines in the study and is binary, so it's either a catastrophic failure or it works. 

The technical issues are not term-specific. If there are technical issues, it will impact any keywords that an organization is trying to optimize, not just "cheap airfare."

What is important for a large organization is making sure that the business case for determining whether or not making changes to site structure is worthwhile, and that the right process can be developed by the SEO Center of Excellence. This is a change and very valuable in getting the appropriate attention and results from, what are usually, overburdened IT teams.

The rewards of building these processes are vast as more consumers use search engines to find information about their brands and services. A brand that does not do this can be assured its competitors will, thereby influencing consumers on brand choice through one of the fastest growing, most effective advertising media available. Establishing competitive advantage through SEO is no longer a luxury -- it has shifted from avant-garde to de rigueur.  

Craig Macdonald is vice president of marketing and product management, Covario.


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