4 Lessons from The Internet's Giants
SEO’s never been a very simple game—there’s a reason most small-to-medium sized companies outsource the bulk of it. But what about the largest sites in the world? The ones with millions of pages and hundreds of developers. Simply put, these sites only get more complex with their size.
We’ve interviewed the SEO experts managing these behemoths to uncover the strategies specific to them. This is not your tips-n-tricks, “how to growth-hack your site” kind of article—let’s dive in.
1. Build Credibility
Questions we’re answering:
- How do I get other departments to support SEO efforts?
- What strategy should I take with educating other departments about SEO?
"There are more people and constant change at a large organization, so we’re always educating and building our credibility. Just as you find things running well with one team, they’ll reorganize. Figuring out how to best work with other teams will always be part of the business."
- John Crockett, Director of SEO at Ancestry
Credibility with other departments will be the foundation for all future efforts—when working on large-scale websites, an SEO leader will often act more as a salesperson pitching SEO strategies internally, than a roll-up-your-sleeves practitioner. It’s no surprise that a large organization has frequent turnover, but don’t let that constant change deter you from building and rebuilding relationships with other teams.
As you have these conversations, consider the following:
- Get Specific
Consider how each department touches SEO and then tailor your conversations accordingly. Speak to the specifics of their function to build credibility and show each team their crucial part in SEO. A broad elevator pitch may work for small companies, but at large organizations people’s roles are focused. You should be too.
- Use Data
Find the right data to support you. Show, don’t just tell. Utilize competitive analysis, analytics, and any other data point that will help show the data behind what you’re doing (again, in the context that the business unit will care about).
- Consider Timing
Communicate early and often. John Crockett is the SEO Director at Ancestry, a website that consistently generates new pages and has over a billion pages on their website. He shares that he finds success by having these conversations when people first start. When people are fresh, they still have processes and priorities to figure out. Having an early conversation about how their role touches SEO will help build SEO consideration into their processes from the beginning.
Pro Tip: Always be on the lookout for contacts in other departments that champion your work. These are your evangelizers and will help immensely when you’re trying to get your projects prioritized.
2. Get Leadership Onboard
Questions we’re answering:
- Why should companies invest in SEO instead of something else?
- How do I show leadership that there is ROI in SEO?
- How do I help align top SEO priorities with leadership’s top-level goals?
A deep understanding of top leadership’s goals is critical. For many leaders, SEO by nature is not on their agenda, so it is your responsibility to connect how SEO supports the goals they already do have. Crockett says, “At the end of the day, we need to translate those metrics into what’s of greatest concern to those teams.”
Pro Tip: Take the goals of the executive team and articulate how you’ve aligned your SEO KPIs with those in language that’s meaningful to THEM. Educate them so SEO can become a common priority.
Kaleb Gilliland is the Director of Development at Pro Athlete. Pro Athlete manages 4 sporting goods websites that together have over 6.5 million pages to manage. Gilliland shares, “Sometimes SEO isn’t deemed valuable from a business standpoint because you can’t see tangible results immediately.” John Crockett adds that “SEO is measured bets on what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. We’re only one part of that. We have to worry about how Google’s going to interpret new initiatives. We also have to worry about what our industry competitors are doing. We have to worry about what our search competitors are doing. So sometimes it makes it harder to make the case that SEO should be prioritized from a resource standpoint.”
How can you prove the payoff? Crockett shares “Sometimes, you have to iterate your way into things. Don’t jump right into the huge thing that’s going to cost millions of dollars and take half our development resources for the year. You know that’s not going to be feasible. So it's finding ways to step into this until it proves itself, then you can open the floodgates because you’ve proven the value in smaller ways.”
Start with low-risk opportunities and work your way into bigger projects. Document successes and failures along the way. Use whatever analytics you’ve got because, with a website of massive scale, just a 5% increase in organic traffic can easily translate to massive revenue increases. These numbers will show that the ROI for SEO is worth the patience it takes to get to those results.
Pro Tip: Crockett shares, “Anybody can understand the value of getting free traffic, (free meaning there’s not a per-impression expense) and that this traffic has longevity. Show how traffic is leading to revenue.”
A tool like Ahrefs allows you to pull the traffic value for your website. That essentially takes what you are organically ranking for and compares it to how much you would have to spend via ads to show up in those same SERPs. Airbnb saved an estimated $4.8 million this last month. People.com saved an estimated $12.2 million this last month. These numbers are a powerful illustration of how SEO can translate into saving money and making money.
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3. Collaborate With Development
Questions we’re answering:
- Development is expensive. Why should SEO be a priority for dev?
- How do I get the dev support needed to make my SEO successful?
“SEO should create a partnership with development…It’s not just a business handoff of requirements. It’s not two separate teams. It’s one team doing different things to accomplish the same goal.”
-John Crockett, Director of SEO at Ancestry
If your SEO-development relationship feels strained, you’re not alone. Frequently SEOs will find themselves in these scenarios:
- SEO optimizations aren’t prioritized by development
- SEO optimizations are deemed impossible because of site structure or templated/programmatically-generated pages
- Development sees getting pages live as what they need to do for SEO, but nothing more
From the perspective of the development team, they may have had new SEO leaders every few years, each with a laundry list of “urgent” changes they need to be fixed. Alternatively, they could have the same SEO leaders consistently for years but due to algorithm/industry changes, the strategy changes frequently. It can be exhausting for them.
Building a partnership with development will require education. Developers may not know why duplicate content is a problem or how impactful mobile speed can be on a site’s ability to rank. Trent Howard, Head of SEO at 97th Floor, suggests, “Consider making a list of all the different areas development touches SEO, then educate your dev team on why they are important. This will help alleviate the pain point of development feeling like SEO comes to them with a new priority every week. This doesn’t replace the importance of ongoing education, but it does demonstrate how vast SEO’s responsibilities are.”
But SEOs need to get educated, too. Crockett advises, “Understand a developer’s world enough to talk to them intelligently.” Research possibilities and find examples to share. Crockett continues, “I don’t get too much into the solution with them, but I do know enough coding and engineering to be prepared in those meetings with an idea of how we’d accomplish it. Doing the research has taken projects from being labeled as impossible to being done.” Be respectful of the developer’s expertise. Don’t over solve it, but come speaking their language to collaborate about new ways to approach the problem.
Pro Athlete Inc has found major success in getting SEO projects prioritized because of its unique team structure. Kristina Kuska, Head of Organic Search at Pro Athlete, shares, “One of our major successes at Pro Athlete is having development on the marketing team. Having developers who understand SEO changes, agree with them, and implement quickly has been invaluable.” Pro Athlete’s structure is heavily influenced by one of their founders who was a big advocate for SEO. Now SEO is baked into everything they do. Gilliard shares, “Development prioritizes projects that are going to keep SEO at the forefront of what we do. If people can’t find us, we’re going to have a hard time no matter what we’re selling or doing.”
Pro Tip: Find creative ways to link the development team closely with the SEO team. Maybe you can’t restructure your org, but try for a monthly collaboration meeting with all the decision-makers present. Set goals that encourage partnership and that lead to mutual benefits.
Whether development is on your team or not, a true partnership can be made if you can learn to speak their language and invest time educating on the benefits of prioritizing SEO.
4. Consistency Kills Chaos
Questions we’re answering:
- How do I stay on top of SEO when there are constantly new pages?
- Does SEO even make a difference for such a large website?
39% of people will stop engaging with a website if images won’t load or take too long to load (Hubspot), so don’t underestimate the power of chipping away at the mountain of SEO fixes you may find yourself with. Develop a system to be consistent with your SEO optimizations. John Crockett shares that he stays on top of SEO by considering three things:
- Identify the problems. There will always be problems and you can’t fix all of them on websites of this size.
- Prioritize those problems. There will be a huge list of things to do, but figure out what needs to be addressed first.
- Validate what’s been done. Have a retrospective view of all the changes to understand how to adjust your priorities.
Make sure SEO is considered for all future content creation. If SEO can be considered during creation, less of your time is eaten up going back and making fixes. Gilliland shares a counter point, “Don’t ignore the technical aspects of SEO with the sole focus on content. You can produce the greatest content in the world, but if someone can’t load it, what good is it?”
Pro Tip: For many large sites, pages are scaled programmatically, so in that process of automatically building pages, can SEO optimization be built in? Kuska shares that with their webpage generation “everything is structured to best SEO practices, but then we can also go in and optimize pages individually.” Pro Athlete was able to set up this structure to help them remove the chaos of needing bulk changes done to web pages.
When you have millions of pages on your website, it’s going to be impossible to rank for every page. Gilliland says, “You don’t have to have every page on your site ranking and Google crawling it all the time. You’ve got to define the things you want to rank for and make it clear what you want Google to choose for those keywords.” Rely on data to direct your decisions for what to prioritize. Then when you get the question of, “why aren’t we ranking for…[insert keyword]” you can confidently explain the strategy of targeting what’s most important.
Pro Tip: Remember that SEO is an ever-changing industry. Crockett shares, “What was best-practice in SEO 15, 10, even five years ago needs to be revamped, cleaned up, fixed, removed or redirected.” Don’t be afraid to go back and redo things, and to have the conversations explaining to other departments why it has to be fixed again.
Massive ≠ Monstrous
You know what’s at stake—the potential for massive revenue, massive brand exposure, improved user experience…the list goes on. But it’s highly unlikely that your organization understands, and unfortunately, we see many enterprise-level SEOs bounce from company to company seeking that perfect landing spot. Take these lessons and proactively build a culture of SEO priority within your org—align your goals to theirs, build up your interpersonal relationships, explore the full impact of SEO on their workload, and ease into a cycle of organic success.