The challenges big businesses face in delivering results in organic search are becoming pretty consistent. Companies like Airbnb are disrupting their industries by being more agile than their more established counterparts – and the need to be reactive is more important in search than any other discipline.
That’s not to suggest smaller operations are immune from the same issues, but enterprise-level companies can (or believe they can) coast on brand equity and above-the-line advertising, while SMBs that become mired in the same white tape aren’t likely to survive in search – much less thrive.
Below are the three key issues that SEO departments working in and with big organizations will have to overcome if they are going to stay relevant in 2015.
1. Making On-Site Changes
Development queues are not new, but they are more of a stumbling block than ever before because links are getting harder to come by, and in the past businesses that couldn’t make changes to their websites could overcompensate by acquiring more links. It just isn’t possible to acquire the same number of links in 2015 without a huge budget, and even then, the return (in number of links) on investment is usually significantly smaller than can be driven through outreach to on-site content and creative.
This is part of the reason that big businesses have been so reliant on press releases to gain backlinks to their websites– they do not require anyone else’s input to implement.
Unfortunately it’s not possible to avoid making changes to a website forever if a business wants to remain relevant. Mobile-friendly design and architecture will become a prerequisite for search this year, with a migration to https:// not far behind. For many companies it will fall squarely on the shoulders of the SEO department to make the business case for these changes.
More importantly, on-site engagement is the single most important factor in how a website is ranked, according to Searchmetrics’ 2014 Ranking Factors Study, and something that absolutely requires input from designers, developers, information architects, content writers, et al to implement.
What Can Be Done?
The fact that we can’t drive the same number of links anymore is not the issue here – number of links acquired just doesn’t correlate with strong returns from SEO.
I’m predicting technical SEO will make a comeback in 2015 as more and more businesses move away from link acquisition as a default strategy. Investment in content marketing will increase, but technical architecture will have to take its seat at the table if enterprise-level businesses want to compete with increasingly dominant websites such as Amazon who will always have more backlinks than anyone else.
Tools like Google’s Data Highlighter supply SEOs with ways to potentially influence search rankings without input from a developer – the Knowledge Graph/Knowledge Vault is likely to become more prominent over the course of the year, and optimizing for this (through Freebase until March and Wikidata afterward) can also improve visibility significantly.
Optimizing for local search is also a significant opportunity for big businesses with a large number of physical locations. Building citations is a must and can provide demonstrable results, and is something that is relatively easy to get started with.
The business case for mobile does not rely on search rankings alone. Online shopping on mobile has overtaken desktop and Google is helping marketers to understand mobile’s place in the path to purchase.
2. SEO and PR Exist in Silos
Link-building is now PR. For many companies now the business of link acquisition is conducted solely by the PR department that runs blogger communications and social promotion as well as press relations. For an SEO professional or agency in charge of a backlink profile this can be a recipe for disaster if left unchecked.
For the most part, PR activity is exactly what Google wants to see, as well as what drives results – more so than traditional link-building. The bigger problem is SEOs and content marketers can be shut out, especially in mature businesses where the PR department has potentially been active for decades. We’ve been slaves to Google’s algorithm updates for years and as a consequence we’ve become incredibly adaptable: the SEO industry has gone from guest posting and syndication to building really cool things and writing great content in a couple of years. We’re now doing PR to build links in the same way that enterprise-level companies have been doing PR for many years.
What Can Be Done?
SEOs need to make the effort to educate their PR counterparts, whether that’s their client’s PR team, an external agency, or their in-house PR staff. Personally I’ve delivered more workshops aiming to integrate clients’ own PR and SEO teams than any other training, and it has invariably been enterprise-level companies where this has been the biggest problem.
In some cases teams are already functioning in relative harmony, but it’s vital that PR professionals are kept in the know about Google guidelines in order to avoid having to undo their efforts. Use the disavow file to negate links that shouldn’t have been built: this is enough to avoid and/or recover from manual actions and algorithmic updates – messaging your PR team’s contacts in order to get links manually removed is guaranteed to upset the site owner or your colleagues.
Ask the PR team what their KPIs consist of: the chances are good that as an SEO you will be able to help them reach their targets. The days of Advertising Value Equivalency – measurement of column inches – are long behind us. Circulation is fine, but SEOs are pros at measuring eyeballs. What’s more, letting PR teams know how much their placements contribute to the bottom line using conversions in analytics will help them make a case for the things they need.
In return, your PR colleagues are often the gatekeepers to contacts working at the biggest site on the Internet. They are measured on achieving coverage where potential customers will see it, and it’s links from sites that are on brand, with the right target audience, that really drive search performance.
3. Lack of Search Data
Working in an industry where more traditional organizations have not always understood the value we have added, beyond the keyword traffic that we included in our reports, we are seeing a real shift in the way SEO justifies its seat at the table now that we simply do not have access to that data anymore. Agencies and in-house professionals are getting fully on-board with other disciplines like content marketing, social media, and the aforementioned PR, and the deliverables are becoming a justification in their own right – links aren’t just a means to an end anymore.
Traffic source data is likely to become more difficult to get hold of due to the increasing prevalence of apps, mobile, and SSL/HTTPS, so this is only going to get worse.
What Can Be Done?
The granularity of keyword traffic was necessary when the people signing the checks didn’t understand how our output was influencing that. The fact that search rankings improved based on the poor blogger outreach and article syndication the SEO industry was conducting was inexplicable.
It’s still possible to calculate your click-through rate for keywords using Google Webmaster Tools data, but the lack of keyword data in Google Analytics has forced us, as an industry, to become much more commercial. We’re now reporting on the metrics we actually need to influence in order to drive search performance: bounce rates, time on site, conversion rates. It’s the responsibility of the SEO department to send targeted search traffic to websites, and in my experience CMOs are much more on board with that.
Segmenting organic search traffic by landing page allows you to understand where users are entering your site. Try conducting keyword research to find out what those pages should be relevant for (the more keywords, the better) and rank checking to find out whether that page is appearing. Search volume data has been misleading us for years – take the keywords that you think will help users in making a decision to purchase your products – it’s no longer about ranking for one large keyword, but ranking for as many search intents as are relevant.
Despite the challenges, it should be massively rewarding for search professionals to work with big businesses. Google’s infamous brand bias means that well-known companies should naturally perform well in search; the resource afforded to SEO at enterprise level allows us to do some really cool things; and the ability to invest in other media such as TV that will drive brand awareness means there can be an abundance of organic traffic.
The primary challenge for SEO professionals working in corporate structures is implementing agile working practices. Getting established teams such as PR on your side as well as navigating through compliance and legal can require a sea change that can be slow to take effect, and as a result people skills are often underrated in an enterprise SEO environment. Learning to deal with teams who aren’t used to SEO is the key to driving organic performance in 2015 and beyond.