SEO At the Enterprise Level–A Major Flop

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When I hear SEO, I think of brilliant quantitative guys shut-up in an apartment somewhere running A/B split tests and writing link-bait.

Search Engine Optimization is the way companies make it easy for customers to find their website using Google. Because search engines don’t publish their algorithms, SEO is mostly reverse-engineering.

Despite the guessing game, SEO produces quantifiable results. In a down economy, evaluating success by the numbers becomes even more important.

The very nature of SEO–unknown, constantly changing, and unethical spam tactics–seems diametrically opposed to enterprise culture. So I interviewed Stephan Spencer,  president and founder of Netconcepts. Major clients include Cabela’s, HSN, AOL,, Zappos, and Discovery Channel, among others.

What’s your experience with large enterprise and SEO?

When it comes to SEO, enterprise companies don’t seem to care or are clueless or both. For example, ConocoPhillips is #5 in the Fortune 500. Search Google for their brands like “76” and the top 10 results don’t look like anything relevant. The top result is indeed the correct site, but it doesn’t seem that way from the search listing or the site itself — doesn’t even seem like it’s connected to ConocoPhillips from the domain name or from the look of the home page once you get there. That home page is a joke as far as SEO is concerned. There’s no text on it. Not even the brand names. Here’s what the site looks like to Google.

If I’m an enterprise, should I care about SEO?

It depends–but especially for large retailers,  SEO is important. It’s sites like Bizrate, eBay, and Nexttag that keep showing up in the top of Google when searching for Long Tail queries like “yellow queen size flannel sheets”.

These results suck. Where are the brands/enterprises that carry this merchandise? Where is JCPenney? Target? LL Bean? Lands End? They might be advertising through PPC, but 85% of consumers click on the natural listings.

The problem is, these brands are not reaching us where we are at, or on our terms. They are failing to engage the masses of niche markets – at a time when they can hardly afford not to. Instead they’re spending ad dollars on intrusive or avoidable advertising media (PPC, display). The culprit here is difficulty of execution with traditional SEO.

Why is this?

Enterprise and SEO is like cognitive dissonance–SEO is nimble, experimental, dynamic, continuously iterating, never-ending process. A complete anathema to enterprise IT which is project focused, do it and forget it.

There’s also an internal disconnect because SEO crosses IT and marketing. Example: changing from horrible URL’s–super long, no keywords in the URL–to cleaner, shorter URLs is a marketing driven initiative but entirely reliant on IT execution.

Part of the problem lies in that the Fortune 500 enterprises rely on their ad agencies for the “interactive” stuff but the agencies don’t know how to integrate SEO requirements with branding.

Lastly, websites are seldom built with SEO in mind; developers/programmers didn’t know what they didn’t know. It’s much like a house where the electrical wasn’t thought about until years later–a major mult-year project to redo it.

What are some examples of good and bad enterprise SEO?

EMC has a country selector as their homepage. But if you look in the Google cache, they bypassed the country selector so Google indexed the US site. Contrast that with Lenovo–nothing appears in the cache. When you search Google for “” their homepage is not the first result. If you don’t know SEO, this would never occur to you.

Examples of companies handling SEO well: Cabela’s (search Google for “hunting socks” for example). Another is CheapTickets (search for “disneyland tickets“).

Cottonelle is an example of a major recognized enterprise/brand failing to account for natural search. The Cottonelle site is all Flash and not friendly to spiders. Home Depot is another example, they have they have faceted (“guided”) navigation which offers “infinite filtering” and the rampant duplicate content that results is a very big SEO problem (i.e. it results in duplicate content filtering and PageRank dilution). More on this phenomenon.

Okay–let’s say I’m an enterprise company, and I want to start an SEO initiative–where do I start?

First thing–what are your constraints? No sense hiring a firm to tell you things you can’t implement.

We did some consulting with a company in the kitchen small appliances industry. They called themselves “kitchen electrics”–but although everyone searches for “appliances” they wouldn’t move away from “electrics” on their website. Very frustrating.

Second–get references from partners who are doing well in SEO. Always get references.

Third–decide whether you’re going to bring SEO inhouse, or outsource it. There’s positives and negatives to both approaches.

At Netconcepts, we created a proxy server to rewrite webpages to be more search engine friendly–the enterprise builds their site, then tells the search engine bots to look at our proxy. We clean up the URLs, the data, etc to make it SEO optomized, without huge internal IT projects. It allows sites like Cabela’s to completely outsource SEO.

I also interviewed Jessica Bowman who advises companies how to launch an in-house SEO initiative:

Why does SEO in house fail?

In-house SEO is undergoing many of the struggles usability went through several years ago. It took companies several years to learn how to integrate usability into their product development. That same maturing process is happening with in-house SEO.

Companies fail in three areas:

  1. Companies hire the wrong people. They try to save costs by hiring cheaply, but many of these novices struggle to pull off results and may not have managed large projects solo yet. There are also many SEOs who are great at providing recommendations, but lack experience in the challenges involved from recommendation-to-execution. I had two calls this week from companies saying, “We hired someone and our traffic fell.”
  2. SEO person isn’t involved throughout the development process. There are many places in the development life cycle where things can go wrong, and SEO needs to be a stakeholder throughout the process to make sure that things go live search engine friendly. One thing I see happening a lot is that a company adds a change for SEO, but that might be later removed by someone who didn’t understand the SEO benefits. At a minimum, SEO should be reviewing the project plan to identify where SEO needs to be involved, wireframes and page designs, and page specifications to give SEO technical requirements to programmers.
  3. There’s a human side of SEO. In house experts sometimes struggle to integrate their expertise into the enterprise workflow and secure long-term buy-in from everyone involved in the website. There is also a challenge that, in most companies, SEO sits in marketing–or occasionally in product management and these roles are not typically involved in development at the level that SEO needs to be integrated. Consistently, the companies I work with find the best results when their SEO person sits in the IT department. If you’re in marketing, it can still work, you just have to set up the right touch points with IT to ensure that everything goes live search engine friendly the first time it is launched.
  • Programmer Helper

    Good Information about SEO.

    • Arshad

      i love seo and that is why i blog about it .

  • weatherman

    When I hear SEO, I think snake-oil. The whole industry is tainted by the stink of pseudo-science. Go to the SEO conference in NY and you’ll see every Tom, Dick and Guido with their own special recipe of SEO that’s guaranteed to beat the competition. I call shenanigans on the whole industry.♦

    • tappingcreativity

      While you are calling shenanigan’s, your competitors who are using SEO are eating your lunch.

    • Ryan Fish

      I too have the same instinct. I think the site’s content should speak for itself and we shouldn’t spend our entire time making a turd look like an organic, dark chocolate brownie.

      That being said, if you write or build a website you want people to see it, and you want it to appear pleasing and efficient to them.

    • Terry

      You are on the money with your thoughts on SEO. Just another avenue for scammers and hucksters to display their wares (snake oil that is).

  • Sandra G

    There are SEO companies to hire, like SEOmoz, and others to avoid, like in almost every industry, there will be some shady people. Some have had great results and are highly respected. If you go with someone to do SEO, always check their portfolio and call their clients.

    • Aaron S.

      Excellent post and I totally agree. If you can talk the talk you better be able to walk the walk.


  • Christopher Olson

    I still don’t get how people can ignore SEO in their sites. Everybody can get their foot in the door with some unique content. Those who complain that content ruins the look and feel of a site need to re-evaluate their design skills.

  • Andrew

    SEO is very important, especially if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on PPC. Make sure you remember to have unique description meta tags that are relevant to your title and content.

  • Curbob

    SEO isn’t easy but it works, just using a couple SEO basics, I’ve taken the website for the company I work for from page 20 on google to #1 and #4 on two terms that have millions of searches. SEO helped alot it also helped that it seems many of our competition isn’t using SEO

  • wayne golliday

    It just goes to show that even the large companies with their million dollar SEO budgets can still fail badly at SEO.

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  • mas2124

    This is a great post and the interview sheds a lot of light on SEO for businesses. I agree that SEO is huge, and even though it may seem daunting or like there is not really one right answer, that does not mean we shouldn’t pursue SEO for our companies or even that there aren’t certain fundamental keys that everyone could easily follow: repeat relevant and highly searched terms throughout your site content, don’t overwhelm your site with ads, include key terms in your page titles, etc, etc, etc.

    I do, however, think that Mr. Spencer is writing SEM off too quickly (because it’s in his better interest do so). Of course if money is an issue (as it is with so many people and companies these days), getting clicks for your organic listings is a benefit because it’s free. Bulking up your SEO, however, is not free. Also, even if 85% of people click on organic ads (and that percentage is debatable), the conversion rate on those clicks is actually lower than the conversion rate for clicks on paid search ads, when the query is a term you are bidding on in your PPC campaigns. It’s amazing what being able to tailor the content of the results can do for your business, if you do a good job.

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  • Ben Yoskovitz

    I’ve found smaller companies are more eager to leverage SEO and recognize it’s value.

    And in my business – recruitment – it’s growing quite popular. Companies do recognize the fact that job seekers are using search engines (namely Google) more and more for job hunting (whether they do so passively or actively) and very few companies leverage SEO to attract people. It’s definitely a growing trend in HR / recruiting.

  • Hugo

    I spend most of my waking hours either working on an enterprise SEO program or pitching an SEO program to a Fortune 1000 company.

    I’d say that, more or less, for every one example of a big company ignoring and/or failing at SEO, there’s another company that’s making huge strides in the right direction.

    And remember that, like happiness, SEO is a direction not a destination!

    • weatherman

      spoken like a true snake-oil salesman

  • Andrew Shotland

    SEO is a leap of faith like any other marketing tactic. That said it’s probably more reliable than many other marketing tactics and can have an amazing ROI. The challenge with enterprise SEO is that for most companies it is often not part of a strategy. Usually it’s treated as just another tactic that needs to be bolted onto the hundreds of other priorities – and treated like snake oil.

  • twitch

    My question is this: If you hire an SEO company — why do most of the SEO companies have very little traffic? Shouldn’t their traffic be high or is it that their SEO tactics only apply to OTHER websites?

    • Vengu

      Haa why dont all doctors have aids??


      That’s because SEO is still unknown to many internet users.

      Most people search “entertainment” , “shopping” , “obama” , “paris hilton” , “sports” etc…

      And a website to have many visits it needs to have a lot of content, and SEO sites have less and it’s also focused on SEO which again is not common to all.

  • Warren Schirtzinger

    I don’t understand why anyone would pay money for SEO. It’s so easy, it’s like falling off a log.

    For example, I have no training or experience in SEO and all I did was follow a few tips that I found for free on the Internet. And now I show up #2 on Google (out of over 30 million sites!!!) when you search for “high tech marketing.” It was a near-brainless exercise that anyone could do in a few hours.

    anyone want to buy the golden gate bridge?

    • Stanford

      @Warren Schirtzinger:

      Why would anyone pay someone else to wash their car? It’s so easy.

      For example, I took a sponge and some soap, and next thing I knew my car was clean!

    • Nick Man

      @Warren Schirtzinger:

      Google Trends does not even carry any data on “high tech marketing”. Your shooting blind.

      If your nice to Aaron, maybe he’ll hook you up with a copy of his book ;)

    • Sekhar Ravinutala

      Not to take away from your achievement (which is great), but ranking high is relatively easy if you have the keyword (or part of it) in your domain name. You obviously can’t do that with all the keywords.

  • aaron wall

    @Warren Schirtzinger
    Nice ranking, though does anybody care? Do you rank for anything competitive that gets real search volume?

  • Jeff

    Great info, thanks for posting on the front page of TechCrunch for those of us who don’t usually read TechCrunchIT. Its got me thinking about my own employer and how they are doing with SEO.

  • C vos man

    PageRank is largely based on backlinks, and the SEO’s featured in this article just scored bigtime.

    The definition of an SEO: someone who knows the real value of a link.

  • alquma
  • Shawn Drewry

    Natural SEO is just keeping your content fresh with relevant links. That’s all :-)

    • John Adams

      I totally agree with this. SEO is about writing great content for the audience, refreshing it regularly.

  • Vengu

    ” The Maybelline site is all Flash and not friendly to spiders.”

    You may want to check on that mate! Search engines can off course index flash content!

    • Tom

      Well of course the page can be indexed, it’s a matter of what gets included. If all that is indexed on the page is a reference to an swf file, what good does that get you. Yes, Google announced last year that they can “read” flash now, but that’s still only text in flash files. If, like many do, the words in the flash file are part of an image, it doesn’t get read.

      And indexable or able to read certainly doesn’t equal friendly.

      • Stephan Spencer

        I’ll chime in here too. Tom is right on the money. And indeed, Google has made great strides in extracting text from Flash files. However, Flash “documents” are nonetheless at a disadvantage in the search engines compared to their HTML counterparts because of Flash’s absence of semantic markup. Without the contextual cues of what is a heading vs. a subhead vs. body copy etc., spiders can’t accurately weight more heavily the more important text in the Flash file. In addition, many times what appears to be text in a Flash movie is actually art; it may have started as text but was converted to outlines then further manipulated graphically by the designer. The bottom line: although Flash can provide an engaging user and brand experience, it hampers SEO.



    No one is searching for the term “high tech marketing”. Start ranking for “vegas flights” and then we’ll talk.


    Oh and Aaron Wall, correct me if I’m wrong, but no SEO value in these No follow links right.

  • Ajax Jones

    So are there any SEO agencies that provide a money back guarantee?

    • Vengu

      Search for “SEO money back” in google :-)

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