SEO creates more problems than it fixes

Just before I left on vacation I had an executive make that comment to me after explaining some of the issues that we found on the site.   This is actually more common of a response than you think.

SEO, unlike many other forms of marketing requires you to look at many facets of the web site and ask what can turn out to be hard questions and choices for many companies.
The reality is most web sites suck and are not built with consumers in mind but to showcase business units, egos or products.  Many of the people who create them have no idea of how to sell anything.  We can’t blame the developers since they are only laying the code that enables the features and functions identified by the information architects, web strategists and marketing teams.  These are the people who believe they need to boast about how good they are while not bothering to think about how a consumer might actually want to interact with their content.
Here are some other issues I have recently faced:

Hierarchical Navigation

Most sites are built around the assumption that a visitor would only come to the home page.  We commonly have this conversation with large brands.  We are told If someone wants a “big red widget” they know we are the leader so they will come to www.bigcompanysite.com and start interacting with us.
When we look at their analytics we can often see a significant decrease in traffic t the home page but overall site visitors are the same or increasing.  When we look at most common point of entries it is often a popular product or category of product with anywhere from 10 to 60% of the entire site traffic going to a set of internal pages from search engines.
When this is explained to the client they get frustrated and simply state they don’t have the time or resources to fix the content and navigation at the lower levers and put not on the wish list for the next update.

Template Changes

I have been preaching for years about the economies of scale that can be realized if we can make some of the most fundamental changes to we page templates. I have publicly presented examples from IBM where a single template update in the US which was implemented in 100 countries resulted in the local market page for that keyword phrase ranking in the top three position in over 50 countries with a month resulting in a exponential increase in traffic.
When we present these and the supporting content as well as the business case we are presented with anger and a myriad of excuses that you would not believe.   The most common after “our standards won’t allow that change” is “our developers are too busy adding new bells and whistles that they can’t make the template changes” and on goes the battle.
So why are we plagued by this lack of support for change in both thinking like a consumer as well as developing sites that will generate exponential traffic at a cost significantly lower than any other form of marketing?

The most common reasons I have identified are:

Lack of Understanding:
This lack of understanding ranges from fundamentals of consumer behavior, ecommerce best practices to the basics of search optimization.  Developers often build segments of the site independent of each other to specifications and requirements  – more of this is happening with rapid prototyping and agile computing techniques.
Organizations must start integrating the development process with key QA check points to ensure that the site is developed with the original goals in mind.

Lack of Concept Police:

Another example, a few years back I was brought in as a web marketing consultant on an information hub site.  The primary revenue streams were to be banners followed by selling and up selling publications and additional information along 40+ topical interest areas.  As the large agency was presenting the first set of pages for the site everyone was oohing and ahhing over how beautiful the site looked and how fast it was loading.  Since it was the first meeting I was in and they were not ready for me I was quietly squirming in my char.  The CEO of the company noticed my obvious displeasure and asked me if something was wrong.   I simply asked “where will the banners go?” and the room was dead silent –  the creative director quickly responded “Well there is obviously no room on the page” and I, somewhat stunned, responded “but that is how they plan to make money”.  More silence followed by frustration by the developers.

We moved on to the database team which showed the schema.  Once they presented I guess I winced a few times during the presentation prompting the CEO to ask me, sort of sarcastically, if I also had problem with the database structure.  I asked the database agency where were the 40 fields to capture topical interest as well as the dynamic triggers to map to new content to interests which could generate a list of names to ping to tell them there was new content in their area if interest.  I explained to the database developers that upselling known interested prospects was the second form of revenue.
The moral of the story, where was no one on any of the teams who was ensuring the site matched the original objectives for making money.  In the end, they lost months working with people who only wanted to create something pretty rather than functional that helped achieve the business goals.

Organizations must be brutal in their enforcement of the business of objectives of the site.  If you do not you will end up with millions of pages which don’t work hard to achieve the goals set forth to justify its existence.

Lack of Integration:

Quite often all of the representative teams and disciplines are separate and none of them work together making it impossible to ensure a synchronized message.  Often the search team comes in at the end to “fix” the site to rank well rather than in the beginning to ensure what is developed will be friendly with search engines. This is the true money savings and force multiplier companies need.  Integrating search into the workflow as well as analytics will increase the effectiveness of sites exponentially.

We have worked with large companies like Samsung to integrate content, analytics and visitor flow into the development process which not only yields benefits in the main market like the US but to any market where the end result is deployed regardless of language.

Unwillingness to Change Process or Precedent:

This is a wide segment ranging from a simple unwillingness to change  – lets just keep Frankensteining the site until it looks like Jed Clampet’s old shack in the woods without any thought to how the precedent or process is negatively impacting the site.  Too few people will speak of about things they know are wrong especially in today’s climate.
At least a dozen times a week I am told about some rule or regulation that prevents a change on the site yet no one can produce the documentation or who make the rule.  In the majority of the cases when the reason there is an issue is articulated to the approving authority the change gets made.   At IBM about four years ago the Web Effectiveness team and I reviewed the Style Guide and identified well over 100 changes to the styles and writing rules to make them more search friendly. In the end, of the 100 recommended changes, only a handful needed more justification and for those we could not give enough justification for they were granting exceptions to those BU’s who believe it was the right thing to do.  Once we had definitive proof from the test we make the case and got even the most rigid rules changed.

Arrogance

A few years back I had a heated debate about the most logical pathway of visitors to the site and what their intentions were.  The lead Information Architect actually told me to shut up and leave the meeting.  As I looked rather stunned he went on to explain to me that he had a PhD in consumer behaviors and Usability and knew what was best for the site.  About six months later the site was updated to take out those lab proven best practices and replaced with good ole common sense and pathway analysis proven navigation and content.

The net is that we need to all stop and take a deep breath.  All web owners should adopt one of David Ogilvy’s mandated in his agency “We sell or else” – and I believe much of the crap and stupidly that goes into web sites an optimization programs will be eliminated since job one will be moving product and how to do that the most effective way possible.

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  • I’d leave a comment, but I would just be singing to the choir…

  • Lee Moore

    You have to love these stories !! In our daily lives trying to get our own company to pay attention and invest we often forget we are not alone in these struggles. So refreshing knowing we are not alone banging our heads.