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SEO is like Building a Cathedral

Building an enterprise website is a lot like building a cathedral: you need to start renovating before you’ve completed construction. Cathedrals historically have taken a hundred years to construct, enough time for even the best stone mason’s work to demand some repair. So, too, is your corporate, resource, journalistic, or ecommerce website. It’s time for you to take some of the equity out of your own personal cathedral and start spending it right away on making all of your online content Google compliant.

In the last few months I have been retained by a number of clients to help some very large sites, with thousands of pages, bring their websites back inline with Google’s best practices: namely making sure that each and every page sports a unique page title, a unique description, as well as unique body content. What’s more, it seems like more SEO and SEM consultants are recommending that their clients completely remove all their meta tags from all the pages of the their sites.

Finally, every consultant is harping on the importance of social signals in the form of an engaged and engaging social media campaign (and site integration) as well.  How many engaged Likes, followers, pinners, and subscribers do you have?  How are you making their lives a better place vis-a-vis you and your brand?

One law firm I know has hired a former newspaper editor in order to go through the thousands pages of ad hoc content that they have pieced together over the last decade and turn it all into content that is as appealing to humans and visitors as it had been in the past to Google spiders and bots. Why are companies spending tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on basically rewriting their entire websites? To beat their competitors. It’s pretty easy to see how your competitors are doing by signing up for services like Audienti or Moz and plugging in the URL of your own site and the sites of your competitors.

These tools will break down each website into how your site performs based on the keywords you probably already associate with your brand versus how your site and its pages actually performs based on the keywords that your site actually contains. These tools will count the number of links flowing into your site versus links that are flowing out–and from where: .com, .net,. org, or even the prized .edu and .gov addresses.

These tools will also check your site for things that are presumably very important to Google organic Search (yes, Bing, too, but what’s good for Google is good for Bing). What this means is that not all links are made the same. Different sites and different links have different authorities. In the past, the combined authority of each page of each site would be its Google PageRank.

Today, without a reliable PageRank, other sites, including Moz, have created their own ranking systems, including MozRank.  Like Google’s PageRank, these rankings are really tracked page-by-page instead of site-by-site; however, a lot can be discovered when you take the hundreds, thousands, or millions of pages that are collected under the umbrella of a website — the combined ranking of that site based on all its collected pages — and compare those numbers and performance to your competitor when everything starts to make sense.  And, when I mention your competitors, I am both including the competitors you know about — the folks you’re always racing against — but I am also including the emergent competitors who are performing well in your space, possibly without you even knowing (and presumably stealing your rightful spaces when someone searches for you on Google or Bing).

These tools also check your site speed and site performance as well. Google does care very much about things besides keywords, site architecture, and backlinks. You heard it here first: if your site struggles to keep up with the visitors that Google passes off to you, then Google will either not increase that load volume or it’ll ratchet back, lowering your results in search to the point where Google can be certain that your site’s performance, quickness, and response will match Google’s world-renown speediness. So, you can hire as many SEO gurus and optimize your site until the cows come home; but, if you don’t spend some of that money on the back end: optimizing CSS and JavaScript, making your site appealing to mobile users, making sure your site is cached both in software and in hardware, while also making sure you have sufficient bandwidth, a very quick ping to the backbone, and very low latency, then Google will deprioritize your content from the first or second search result to the third or lower. Google’s tell? Well, check out Google’s very own PageSpeed suite of tools (yes, Google wants you to get the lead out!).

And in a world where there is only so much money, even if those limited budgets seem infinite, why are websites spending tens and hundreds of thousands — millions? — when they could be spending that money with Google AdWords (or Facebook, Bing, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, etc) on contextual online advertising?

Organic search performance is a gift that keeps on giving.

Additionally, presumably what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: anything done to improve organic search result performance will also curry favor with Google, especially site-responsiveness and speed.

In the 5,940 days since Google was given to the world on September 4, 1998, Google has remained inscrutable. All we can see is the behavior, after the fact, of changes that Google makes to its search engine algorithms. From Google Hummingbird to the Penguins to the Pandas to Pigeon to Google Pirate, Google has constantly changed the way it indexes and delivers its search results in order to try to keep us all honest: to vanquish spam and black hat SEO practices in order to try to make Google organic search results as egalitarian and valuable as possible.

Most websites–even the top-performing behemoths–have cobbled their websites piecemeal over time. Their sites have been produced page-by-page, link-by-link, headline-by-headline, and title-by-title. Too many content management services (CMS) were not designed strategically or extensibly. Now, too many of these proprietary systems are held together with spit and baling wire.

The companies I am working with have decided that unless they’re willing to invest in thoroughly editing — oftentimes rewriting — the entire book they call their website they will become unreadable to Google.

A good majority of the work these editors and SEO experts are doing is undoing all of the SEO tricks that these companies have tried over the years, many of which did work for a while; however, these same gray hat and black hat schemes now come across as violations of Google’s current standard. As a result, these rewrites are, in many ways, the equivalent of a makeover. Going to an SEO stylist to get rid of that embarrassing haircut (a mullet, really?) and those embarrassing clothes (an aloha shirt, really?) and replacing them with what Google really wants (actually it’s the same thing my Catholic Boys School wanted as well): hair cut above the collar and over the ears, a button down shirt, nice slacks, and a pair of oxford shoes.

Okay, not really. But what Google doesn’t want is outlaws. Google would prefer law-abiding preppies in blue blazers, white button-down and khaki pants over the kind of search strategy that’s always looking for the next big — the next snake oil cure. Snake oil might work in a big way for a little while, but it would end up not being worth the risk. As we all have discovered, thanks to Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon, and Pirate; the cost of getting banned from Google (or getting kicked way past page 2) is not worth the price of taking the Google equivalent of Lance Armstrong’s performance-enhancement drugs. If you Google dope, you might win a few world class races, but you just might end up being drummed out of the corps.

These companies I am working with are smart: they’re doing their site reformations in response to the threats posed by their closest competitors and a competitive search space rather than because they’ve been locked out by Google. Either way, rewriting everything you’ve ever written on your entire corporate site is daunting and expensive, both in time, talent, and treasure. These companies, your competitors, are willing to do it the right way. You should consider it, too.  Don’t worry, it can be a long-term investment. Since Google really only cares about you page-by-page, start with your most popular and lucrative pages and then go from there.

And, if you don’t know where to start, you should check out the soup-to-nuts book on how to do corporate and enterprise-level SEO and SEM, Search Engine Marketing, Inc.: Driving Search Traffic to Your Company’s Website. It’s in its 3rd edition and written by my friends and colleagues, Mike Moran and Bill Hunt. They won’t steer you wrong.

Good luck and go git ’em, Tiger!


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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

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