Multichannel Search Strategies: Creating a SEO Dynasty
For an online retailer, there's no greater accomplishment than being in the No. 1 spot on Google for a lucrative keyword or keyword phrase like "computer," "flights to Las Vegas" or "used cars." These listings can be worth tens of millions of dollars. And search volumes continue to grow faster — 17 percent, according to Covario's annual survey — than any other market channel except social media. The opportunity remains in organic search. As search permeates mobile, TV and all consumer devices, the need to excel at search engine optimization has never been greater.
The costs, however, associated with driving SEO results continue to climb for a host of reasons, including the following:
• Google's new "Google Instant" functionality is a not-so-subtle attempt to push organic search off the radar for consumers, forcing budgets to pay-per-click programs.
• The competition for high-value keywords continues to be intense. The amount of time and resources necessary to stay ahead of the competition requires more investment.
• The channels for SEO are expanding, forcing marketers to build far more scalable systems to manage the many different channels through which searches are delivered.
So, how do marketers get and maintain a sustainable edge in SEO to take advantage of the opportunities, and at the same time control the risks and costs? How do they build a SEO dynasty?
Building a Sustainable Infrastructure for Search
For retailers, the days of treating SEO as a three-month project or a discretionary investment are over. Sustained investment and, specifically, investing in building out a scalable infrastructure for managing SEO have become a must. The following is a list of the key processes and infrastructure initiatives that retailers are building to ensure they can deliver consistent, growing and scalable SEO services:
Integrated SEO. SEO used to be conducted by specialized practitioners who acted in a vacuum. Today, it's a rare company that hasn't integrated SEO either into their web development or web marketing teams. This integration ensures that SEO is built into all websites from the beginning, and that ongoing optimization is done with the least amount of hassle.
Use of SEO technologies is exploding. The need to build scalable and efficient SEO programs has driven a spate of innovation in technological solutions for managing SEO programs. From keyword research to auditing and reporting technologies to proxy management environments, the use of technology is a must for maintaining and sustaining a competitive SEO advantage. Being proficient at identifying both the category-defining and long-tail terms requires the use of technology to automate everything in sight.
Most organizations are spending between 20 percent to 25 percent of their SEO budget on technologies to do reporting, data collection and overall SEO management. This number will grow to 30 percent to 40 percent in the next two years to three years as additional technologies for automation come online, and as the need to drive efficiencies grows.
Continuing to leverage SEO agencies. In a recent independent research report titled The State of Interactive Agencies, Forrester Research noted that among a panel of 84 global interactive marketers whose companies currently work with at least one agency for interactive services, 51 percent outsource SEO/organic search work to their agencies. But not all SEO agencies are created equal. Specialist SEO agencies, for example, have upped their games in managing SEO in the following key ways:
• There are a small number of agencies that have combined technology and personnel to drive scalable performance — already established as a must.
• Specialist agencies have gotten better at project management and managing SEO delivery risk. As a result, they're far more likely than they were two years ago to enter into performance deals instead of retainers, which better align incentives.
This isn't the case for web development agencies, most of which continue to view SEO as an adjunct to a web development project. Therefore, they sign limited-scope statements of work that end when a site project is completed. SEO gains then degrade within three months to six months, and the investment in SEO has to be refinanced and started over.
In short, building a SEO dynasty will continue to require use of specialist SEO agencies, as web development SEO issues are fundamental, view-of-the-world projects.
Management through centralization. Companies that have the most successful SEO programs, particularly e-commerce retailers, have centralized their programs. These programs are run from web marketing or e-commerce divisions — not IT. The program's leader is at the director- or vice president-level, and the amount of staff varies based on the scope of the site. Usually, however, there are two to three experts who work with specialists embedded in each of the business units or web properties who are responsible for dotted-line reporting to the central team and the business unit marketing team. This centralization effort has one goal: to ensure focus on SEO.
These systems are employed by the most advanced SEO marketers out there. However, this isn't enough to ensure a SEO dynasty. There are several factors that still need to be addressed.
What Still Hasn't
Although strides have been made in managing scalable SEO programs, there's more to come. Even cutting-edge programs haven't nailed the following issues:
Content management systems are clueless when it comes to SEO. A review of Gartner Group's analysis of content management system (CMS) vendors — the key components in the web content process — reveals almost no discussion of their SEO capabilities. Why? CMS' are sold to IT managers; IT doesn't care about SEO. Therefore, CMS' don't care about differentiating SEO. There's no technical reason why CMS' can't provide well-optimized pages. Fixing this requires holding IT accountable for SEO, a foreign concept in most organizations.
Link building defies scalability. Link building is critical to SEO programs, but there's no scalable way to do it other than the research and measurement of link equity. The importance of this issue and the lack of an automated solution is why marketers must invest so heavily on technology in other areas. Therefore, employees' time is spent on this process and the rest of the SEO infrastructure runs at a low cost.
SEO talent scarcity. Two years ago, finding and being able to afford SEO talent was problematic. Even in the midst of the recession, SEO talent is still scarce and expensive. The supply has increased, but the growth in SEO has outstripped the demand. What many retailers concede is that their goal cannot be the mass hiring of expensive, fickle and scarce SEO experts. Rather, retailers are building systems so the talent necessary to operate SEO programs can be culled from less specialized labor.
In-house or not? Should your SEO dynasty be run in-house or outsourced. If SEO accounts for more than 40 percent of the traffic coming to your site, it's a core channel and it should not be outsourced. If SEO accounts for less than 20 percent of your site's traffic, it should be outsourced. And if you're somewhere in between, the decision becomes more complex. The answer usually depends on whether you need external expertise to grow the channel quickly before it's eventually brought in-house.
So, there's more work to do, but the rewards of a SEO dynasty are so lucrative that the work will be worth it. Remember, the concept of creating a SEO dynasty is the goal. Brands and marketers that have a competitive advantage in SEO will lay a foundation for web traffic and overall brand awareness that will be hard to beat. ROI
Craig Macdonald is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at search marketing solutions provider Covario. Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.