Search engine optimization is a straightforward process of aiding search engines in best understanding the content of a website so it can garner the maximum visibility in search results. Like anything in technology, there is a set of best practices which need to be implemented correctly to help the machines that power the crawling, ranking and discovery algorithms. In a small organization or on a simple website these best practices are easy to follow and implement. The person implementing the best practices might even have access to the content management system to do it themselves.
As an organization grows or a site becomes more complex, following one set of guidelines means there will be tradeoffs in another part of the company or on the website. This is what is typically termed enterprise SEO, but I prefer the more descriptive: SEO at Scale.
The rules and guidelines are the same for every site regardless of whether it has ten or a million pages. Every site, regardless of size, and in-fact every page needs to have optimized meta data, great content, and good backlinks that vouch for the site. A site like WashingtonPost.com doesn’t get a pass for thin content just because it has a great brand nor does Amazon.com get away with weak meta data.
What is SEO at Scale?
SEO at scale is really differentiated from plain-vanilla SEO in the execution of optimization efforts. Following best practices, implementing sitewide changes, and getting organizational buy-in is easy in small companies or on simple websites. (For this entire post, I am defining simple websites as a website that has a very clean architecture. A homepage with a few subpages that might have a few of their own subpages. A blog is a great example of a simple website: there is a homepage and then every subsequent page is organized by date with maybe a few tags thrown in.)
Quite the opposite is true at larger organizations and/or on complex websites. Making changes in this environment is akin to turning an aircraft carrier. From a company culture perspective, the keys to change may be shared within different departments and even small changes might require consensus across those various stakeholders. Something as simple as a title tag update might require the approval of various product and engineering managers, roles that if they existed in smaller organizations certainly wouldn’t have multiple people with that job title.
Once a change is approved, the actual rollout is directed in a standard engineering queue which is designed to keep websites and products bug-free by forcing all code changes into a process driven system. In this system there are many touchpoints which make SEO incredibly difficult and actually cede advantages on search to smaller more nimble organizations. (Tangential note: if you are competing on search with a large competitor, know that you have the advantage as they can never adopt change as fast as a smaller company).
Large company process
Large companies have things like dedicated sprints which hold back even small SEO changes from ever being released on the fly unless they clear the bar for a hotfix. There could be multiple layers of QA requiring the approval and understanding of engineers to even know what they are looking for in order to clear a change for release. However, for anyone working on SEO in a large organization nothing is as frustrating as the dreaded prioritization roadmap.
Any change, even a small one that requires engineering time, must beat out other engineering requests in order to make into a quarterly planning roadmap. This means that whomever is codifying that roadmap must believe that the SEO effort will be as impactful as something else that it might bump off of the roadmap. If the person making the SEO request can’t articulate the importance of that ask, it will never have a chance of making it into a roadmap. The only chance of a change happening will require an engineer having “extra” time, and no good engineer will intentionally allow that to happen!
In this environment, the key skill of an SEO cannot be just their creative and analytical abilities, but they also need to political and diplomatic. The person leading SEO-at-scale needs to have even stronger SEO abilities as they will need to articulate the what, why and how in a setting that could be potentially hostile to SEO asks. They will need to know when an SEO best practice is really a key requirement or just a good to have. They will have to be a key player in the horse-trading, back scratching and negotiating that happens in any big company.
Depending on the culture, they may even need to be a data whiz who can participate in a data-driven conversation about what matters most to the organization. Further complicating this requirement, data might not even be readily available. Key data might be locked up due to security necessities and only accessible via a request process. A great SEO will know how to operate within the confines of data they can readily access at their fingertips while still knowing how to effectively manipulate the data that the organization requires. Small companies might have one system of record such as Google Analytics while larger companies will have multiple that each serve a different purpose.
On the people side, there are also some pretty big differences between big and small companies. Smaller companies will have direct points of contact for specific requests and when those contacts transition out of the organization, they will be replaced by another single individual. The same cannot be said at larger organizations where reorganizations might happen multiple times per year, people leave, and their responsibilities shift to multiple people or new people come in to roles that had not existed before. The owners and leaders of various functions might be in different offices that could even by a flight away, and building a relationship requires being a pro at virtual communication.
An SEO could take months selling an effort to an individual or whole team only to have that team no longer able to implement the requirements when the right time comes. Again, an SEO with strong soft skills will be able to thrive in this environment as they will find the new right contact and build a new relationship.
On the flip side, there are some amazing advantages to being able to do SEO at scale. At a smaller organization, the SEO may be capped in their career unless they move to another function while an SEO at a large company could continue to get promoted as their impact grows. If SEO efforts can grow in importance, the team focused on SEO will grow and the prospect of being in leadership becomes an option.
Larger organizations provide more opportunities for continuous learning and the SEO might find that they can explore new responsibilities without giving up their current ones. The greatest benefit is really the ability to get true SEO learnings not available at smaller companies. With a website that is relatively small, it will be nearly impossible to ever get statistical significance from an SEO test while larger websites afford many opportunities for testing and experimentation.
The complexity of a large website is really the best teacher of all. Knowing what the best practice around site hierarchy pales in comparison to actually learning what works best on a million-page website. For a smaller website, international SEO might be limited to translating a contact page while at larger website it might mean translating a full website into ten different languages. International opens up a whole new realm of testing and learning as the SEO team now needs to contend with keywords in languages they don’t know, competitors in other cultures, and a new set of rules around search engine discovery especially when it comes to content duplicated across languages or countries. For the right person, this is not a challenge, but an opportunity.
From a search engine perspective, SEO is the same for every website, but the effort that it takes to get there will vary widely depending on the complexity of the website and company. While many might think that brands get a leg up in search, and it’s very possible they do, that only happens when all other factors are even. Given the hoops that large companies need to jump through to produce the same result as a small company, this is far from guaranteed.
As anyone that has ever worked on SEO at scale knows, getting to the ideal state on all SEO factors is like climbing a mountain, at night, in a snowstorm. You know the peak is somewhere up there, and you just need to keep trudging forward and while it might take a long time to get there, if you stay the course you will get there. Everyone else might be on to the next mountain, but you feel a heroic sense of accomplishment at completing something that took monumental effort.