For several years, I did the in-house search marketing tracks at the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York, but I asked Danny Sullivan to give me different session this year, on organic search benchmarking, which I posted on yesterday. I still wanted to sit in on the in-house session, however, because my co-author, Bill Hunt, and Marshall Simmonds of the New York Times always do a terrific job. I took some notes for those of you unable to make it.
Bill and Marshall presented before the audience got a chance to ask questions of them, and of Tanya Vaughan of Hewlett-Packard, and Brendan Hart of National Geographic.
Bill Hunt, CEO of Global Strategies International, a search consulting firm, was up first. Bill urged listeners to focus prove the concept of SEO by using the missed opportunity matrix (which we discuss in our book, Search Engine Marketing, Inc.). The missed opportunity matrix takes the targeted keywords, along with the number of searches for each one, and projects what percentage of that volume should be coming to your site if you were getting your fair share. That’s the traffic to expect after you conduct your organic search campaign. By using conversion rate and the monetary value of each transaction (online or offline), you can place a cash value on every missed conversion—that’s what your campaign can return to your firm. Bill noted that especially “if you are a top brand, you should get a large share of what you’re missing” in that matrix.
Bill also recommended that larger companies centralize for success. “There are hundreds of people but you need to isolate the ones that matter the most. I notice that the people in corporate marketing have never met the Web team. Get all these people together. Re-purpose your ads into video. Optimize your press releases. Get everyone together. Do a trip report after this conference. In a large organization you must segment the program—corporate level programs, group level, and brand level. At IBM, we held a meeting on search marketing—six years ago we would get three people, but now we max out the conference line.
Bill advised companies who sell multiple products within the same product category to “do your research at the group level—do all of shampoo at one time” but to “do keywords and optimization page-by-page” at the brand level.
Whenever he begins a search marketing consultation, Bill’s team conducts a full site audit and shares it with the key members of the client’s team. Bill advises, “Sit your exec down and do searches and let him see your competitors outrank you.” Bill also told attendees to “Focus on standards and best practices—it can take a while, but once it is done it has a huge impact. Don’t chase the algorithm—by the time you get it implemented the search engines have moved on.”
Next was Marshall Simmonds, Chief Search Strategist at the New York Times and CEO of Defense Search strategies. Marshall described how hard it can be to get top newspaper writers to change their writing styles, but it’s critical to help a newspaper to optimize its search marketing. Marshall came to the New York Times in the about.com acquisition, and he explained that no matter how long you work on organic search—six years and counting at about.com—there’s always more you can do. He got a 49% increase in about.com’s search traffic last year, despite how well they were doing going into the year.
With Marshall’s clients, he feels its important to set up search evangelists at each firm, such as the Boston Globe, TV Guide, and the New York Times. The evangelist’s job is 80% communication and 20% SEO. Marshall says, “We have to pick a person from each department who is responsible for disseminating information and is accountable for results.”
Marshall advises to work incrementally—take what you can get. “We made a small change that doubled traffic in one department—the only one that would listen to us—and we then used that to show the rest.” He’s a big advocate of small changes, such as using checklists, “Perform separate training sessions with separate checklists for technical staff, design, editorial—one page to print out. If you can get the IT people to update your content management system so that pages are not published until certain fields are filled, that’s a clear win. It’s hard to do when you are in a big company but over time it has a big effect.”
Marshall warned against over-reliance on consultants, saying, “Hire someone to train your in-house team. When the consultant leaves, you have an SEO department and infrastructure in place.”
Several interesting questions came up during the Q&A session:
How have you gotten IT to buy in?
Tanya: “It boils down to going after the same objective. I’ve been denied a lot of IT requests but a lot of them that I think is more important they have come around but it takes time to understand why they are resisting. I would love to use subdomains but I do understand their resistance.”
Marshall: “Put together your wish list and get into that queue. What do I want now and what do I want a year from now? With one of our customers we know we will do nothing but clean up messes. Once, the IT department decided to put meta refreshes across the site and we had to clean it up. Some IT departments will do whatever you want because they know that it works. It’s a matter of triage. Get it all in front of them and give lots and lots of credit that IT made it happen when credit is due.”
Is there frustration in putting together justification for SEO as opposed to traditional media buys?
Bill: “The number one thing I heard at SES Munich is that they aren’t doing search because their agencies are not telling them to do search. If my trusted advisor is not telling me to do it, then why should I do it? It takes a rogue exec who trusts the data he sees to go outside the comfort zone. Search is not driven by any crazy variables like how many people are watching a TV show. We know roughly how large the opportunity is and we can use our metrics to see what actually happened. That makes marketing accountable. Because other forms of marketing are not accountable, search scares marketing people because if this brings in 20% of my leads on 1% of my budget how do I explain how I am wasting the rest of my budget?”
Do you specific tools to predict your results?
Marshall: “The golden triangle was a fantastic report but it causes people to say that if you are not in the top three, you won’t get any traffic. If you can get from page two to page one, [I say] mission accomplished. We aim for top ten placement. If we’re number ten vs. number two, there is a difference, but it is our goal to get on the first page. Yahoo! said number ten is the new number one because people scroll to the bottom of the page to get away from the ads. You might be optimizing for a keyword no one uses. Are we digging in the right place? Or is this a term we want to build up ourselves?”
Bill: “We took the Missed Opportunity Matrix and made our changes and got to number two and no one was clicking through. The problem was that if you look at the context of the searches, in this case, it was hotels in a specific location. Their description said they are the premiere resort in that city. 85% were looking for a cheap or discount qualifier—it did not match the searcher’s intent. They got a ranking for a second property for a cheap room to watch a NASCAR race—then the traffic started flowing. We’ve taken variations and segmented them—in Orlando it’s branded—they know where they want to stay. In Phoenix it’s all about resort and golf. How does our description compare to our competition? Brand affinity will take you to some point, but you must look at searcher intent.”
Tanya: “I question the accuracy of all the tools. When you see there are 500 searches for the most obscure words you’ve ever seen, then you question it. If I decide I want to optimize for laptop or notebook computers I can look at which one gets more. I don’t know that I should assume it really gets two million a month because none of them are fully accurate.”
Marshall: “You have to use multiple tools to look at Overture and Hitwise, WordTracker, your log files. You can’t rely on just one. That should be one of the jobs of an SEO specialist. Google said that 50% of Google’s searches are unique every day. Those tools don’t report that 50% that Google is talking about.”
Brendan: “We thought we should associate National Geographic with animals. We looked at all animal searches, but did we want to publish content on all animals? We looked at Hitwise and our log files and did a competitive analysis to see which terms are driving traffic—here is a core set of animals that we will start publishing for. Are we presenting this animal correctly for the copy we are using?”
What portion of your SEO recommendation is about creating more content rather than optimizing what you already have?
Tanya: “We have some high level pages with great link popularity that has no content—I have been pushing for more content on those pages. No one is searching for ‘adaptive enterprise’ so I have been encouraging content on existing pages that already are ranking well.”
Bill: “A lot of companies are creating microsites to avoid the bureaucracy. They are reaping the benefits but they can’t tell anybody because it will get stripped down because they are not following the corporate standards. In all my years of working at IBM, one of my proudest days saw a marketing manager reviewing a new set of brand pages and saying ‘These are far from search friendly.’ The mid-tier guys are pushing back and creating microsites. I am also seeing that when I am in front of C-levels: ‘Why don’t we think about these words when we name products and use the right words in our copy?’ Now they mandate looking at the content at the point of creation. Anyplace that a copywriter touches content, someone must sign off that it is SEO certified. Those companies see that the mountains of content they are creating are so valuable that they must do it right up front.”
Should a company bring everything in house and lose that unique perspective from a consultant?
Brendan: “I would say bring it in house. If you can scale the business then you have the core skill set. If you can build executive trust in the internal team, then go for it.”
Tanya: “My approach is the hybrid approach. Any company of any size needs an internal expert in SEO but there are a lot of agencies that pop up and say they are experts, but I see the value in having a consultant or agency that keeps abreast of everything going on in the search industry. So much is happening so fast that it can help to hear about things that worked with their other clients.”
Marshall: “I am a fan of in-house too. I now consult with companies to help them bring it in house. At TV Guide there are qualified people there. We are just there to validate. Don’t be afraid to go outside because management and IT needs to hear it from someone else.”
Marshall and Bill always do a great job on this session and Tanya and Brendan added interesting insights also.