SEO At the Enterprise Level–A Major Flop

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.