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The Art of Big Corporate SEO

Yes. It does exist. Small businesses are not the only ones that decide SEO and SEM are right for them (even though it’s mostly out of necessity). Even Fortune 500 companies need SEO love too. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to work with/for them, then you know rules of Corporate SEO are radically different from the rules of small/mid-size business SEO and SEM.

I’ve walked into Corporate SEO battle more than a couple times, and each time I walk away bruised, scarred, and a little shell-shocked. As it is a new year, I thought it was time to stop the endless moaning about the black hole, soul-crushing gravity that is big, corporate SEO and offer up some ways to navigate through this minefield from my own experience and the experience of other SEOs who’ve shed blood on the same field.

I won’t go so far as to say this is the “Play Book” for Corporate SEO, but, without question, when you finish this you’ll have added years of battle-hardened experience all from the comfort of your desk.

Corporate SEO Art of War

A Bifurcation the Size of the Grand Canyon

Just how different is big corporate SEO? Different enough that we have to shed the illusion that corporate SEO is, more or less, the same as small business SEO scaled up by factor of 100. It’s true, their sites are monstrous, their sites do a lot of complicated things that cause complex problems, but in no way shape or form is the mental state the same as a small business’ mindset. To over-generalize and sweep broadly, small businesses are hungry (both figuratively and literally). If it means they have to chew broken glass while crawling across fire to get more business in the door and be more profitable, they’ll do it. They might even ask for seconds if it meant they could squeeze more from each penny.

Whereas, Corporation X isn’t as hungry (again, both figuratively and literally). Maybe they’ve seen a shrinking market share, maybe the CEO did a search and didn’t see their company in first position for a business-centric keyword, or maybe they just want to solidify their standing and stronghold on the SERPs, effectively putting their foot on the throat of everyone else. Whatever the case may be, it’s enough to say that urgency isn’t prime motivating factor. The point here is that in Big Corporate SEO you have to know that 9 times out of 10 you’re dealing with a glacier, drowning in lumpy bureaucracy. It’s thick, wild, and you’re definitely going to get some on you.

Prepare yourself mentally to move slowly and patiently at every turn. Prepare your timelines for being protracted; if you think something should take 4 weeks, expect and plan for 6 to 8 weeks. This is precisely what David Harry’s The Art of War SEO Style is getting at. Small, nimble, guerrilla-like SMBs able to capitalize by moving quickly, exploiting the large, lumbering giants’ weaknesses, and applying strategy to successfully beat others to the punch.

Dave Harry; "As someone that deals with both SMBs and Corp. types, I agree that the smaller, more nimble SMBs have an advantage in many ways. In fact, I have had experiences where each department (comms, social, PPC etc..) are actually in competition with each other and a cohesive plan is hard to come by."

The Corporate Organizational Structure

Successful SEO implementation often results because of a strong corporate organizational structure. How times have we heard the clichéd stories from the Corporate World where ten people are all tasked to oversee the same project and not one of them is the clear owner? Or simply too many stake-holder departments and “objectives” that have to be met, each one jockeying for position? Exactly.

A strong corporate organizational structure is indicative of success. If there can be one clear stake-holder for the project, one person claims responsibility and communicates with all other departments, the project’s probability of success is high.

Why? For starters, the SEO strategy is not being manipulated by multiple departments each trying to achieve it’s own ends (i.e. prominence position, branding objectives, etc.). A strong structure can dictate there will be one clear line of communication that flows through a single point, and internal bantering is done behind the scenes to present you with a single, unified voice of the company. It presents you and your SEO strategy someone within the corporate structure taking the responsibility of the project.

Explaining and Executing Your Plan

Before you can earn trust, you need to be able to explain what you do and how you plan to do it. And, yet, it goes beyond that. I’ve found in every single Big Corporate company interview, that talking confidently and presenting a fearless attitude has won out every time. It’s not exactly a punch in the face, but it is. It’s about calling their kid ugly, letting them know why it’s ugly, and then telling them how make that kid a star.

This comes down to researching and believing that your skills will get the job done. This approach might not work for everyone or be for everyone. It takes a certain personality and type of SEO to pull this off successfully. The real trick is to know who you’re dealing with; talk with people that have met with them for business before, talk with those that initiated the talks with the client. They might be the “speak softly, carry a big stick” type.

Now you have your foot in the door. As Rob Woods, Senior Online Marketing Manager for Reinvent, put it, “the most important skill is being able to present a plan convincingly.” This is echoed by Glenn Gabe in his post A Barrier to Success for Large-Scale SEO, Why Compromise Can Often Mean Failure, as he says:

"…there is usually a second meeting to discuss the roadmap and to form a plan of attack for executing those projects. In my opinion, this meeting is critically important, and can make or break an SEO initiative"

It is absolutely essential. Your plan of action must be decisive, air-tight and, to the best of your ability, SNAFU-free. Big corporate SEO is a lot of front-loaded work for the SEO, meaning that 80% of the work is done before a single drop of optimization is done on-site/off-site. To use Glenn’s term, you have to create, put the pieces in place, and orchestrate the SEO roadmap. The last 20% of the work is largely watching your plan go into action and monitoring progress.

Communicating CEO SEO at Big Round Tables

This is neither unique nor isolated to Corporate SEO, we’ve all dealt with this one no matter the size of the business: explaining there is no magic pixie dust to SEO. It’s applying the right strategies and best practices. It’s grinding and waiting.

Rob Woods: “my other big challenge is communicating how slow SEO can be. Can’t rank overnight. I find CEOs have unrealistic expectations of how easy SEO is. I’ve had ‘we want 5 of the results on the first page…be #1 for every term we want to rank for’… etc.” It’s another big hurdle, one that even if it is broached numerous times (before the planning stage and during the planning, and throughout site optimization) and explained ad nauseum, still never manages to be understood or sorted out.

I can’t say I’ve found a solution for this one yet, except that you apply patience and keep explaining. Then explain some more. As far as expectations, you have to set them early and often. It might be overly-cautious, but I would scour any/all contracts for performance guarantees and remove them. Performance guarantees with regard to SERP position, lead generation, or traffic increases only serve the purposes of getting you fired faster and helping their lawyers. The only expectation you can set is that you will apply diligent research and practice to their website and that this will leave the site in a better place than when you found it.

Meeting Halfway Until You Can’t

Glenn’s post (Full Search Engine Journal Post) focused solely on the compromise in big corporate SEO as a barrier to success. It’s one I’ve struggled with personally: where do you draw the line between gracious compromise for the sake of load-sharing and ease of implementation and hitting your plan’s self-destruct button? Compromise can, and usually does, kill SEO implementation and strategy.

I think that Glenn hit the nail on the head: you have to stand up for SEO and the strategy at hand. My philosophy on this: compromise where you have to, and kick them in the teeth (nicely of course) when it threatens your SEO. What this really comes down to is choosing your battles to win the war.

Let the insignificant things slide, meaning you can cave on them, but strike when the compromise threatens your SEO. If you attempt to be staunch in every small thing, you’ll end spinning your wheels. Sure, you might end up with stellar results in the end, but who the hell is going to want to work with you again? However, if you let the client call the shots, cave on every single decision, and alter your SEO strategy, you should pack your bags and call the game. And, as Glen suggests, the best teacher for this is experience. After a time, you’ll begin to see where a decision here leads to a snowball there.

IT: The Master of Small Worlds

Most small businesses don’t have a full-on IT (Information Technology) department (a.k.a. The Gatekeepers of the Website). Big corporations do. IT is your best friend or your worst enemy. If you can nuzzle in good and deep with the IT department, SEO implementation is breeze. If, on the other hand, IT feels threatened by you and your plans, your life will become a living hell.

IT is, and always will be, the Master of Small Worlds. Navigating through IT is never easy, and each IT is a different animal unto itself. Generally speaking, they are resistant to change, don’t like “open” anything, and don’t want to be bothered by nit-picky items like URL structures, redirects, code-clean up, etc. They will fight tooth-and-nail to keep the status quo on the site, and will often argue that your implementations will cause “security vulnerabilities”.

The only solution I’ve found thus far to handling the Master of Small Worlds is to have upper-level players in the corporation give you carte blanche with respect to your SEO strategy and plan. Nonetheless, you should make every attempt at getting them on your side to help with ease of implementation.

Go Forth Into Battle

This is not the end all, be all of Big Corporate SEO, but merely a primer for the largest hurdles and obstacles that separate it from small/mid-size business SEO. Because, quite honestly, it’s a whole new ballgame.

The SEO is largely the same, but politics of optimization are infinitely more complex. Whether this arises from the need for upper/mid-level players having to assert their dominance in order to feel important by inserting themselves as “a part of the process” in order to get the proverbial “pat-on-the-back“, or they believe your SEO suggestions “threaten the brand“, “distort the essence of the brand” (another way to flex micro-management control), or they just felt like an SEO program was the thing to do because everyone else is doing it, who is to say? But, not understanding it, not at least recognizing the dynamics of Corporate SEO before you deal with them, is an even graver mistake.

This is also not to suggest that every experience in big corporate SEO will be a bad one. Of course you hear about horror stories first and most often, but good experiences are out there. Many SEOs out there have had them, myself included. It is my sincere hope that this post, and the advice of other experienced SEOs, helps you see the minefield, helps you navigate the minefield, and ultimately, helps you rock your SEO on some big corporate sites.



  1. Gustavo February 3, 2011

    This post describes thoroughly what happens in corporate SEO…

    When reading it, I just felt a big relief, thinking that I’m not the only one person who has experienced some of the situations that makes corporate SEO an art 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Ross Monaghan February 3, 2011

    Anthony, great post! You nailed it on the head…I have had my fair share of corporate battering ;). What I found to be an instrumental piece in moving forward was educate, educate and educate again. There seems to be this typical occurrence each year in corporate…here are are few dollars…go develop a site with this remaining budget prior to the end of they year. No thought about purpose, or what exactly they were out to build. That being said, once you educate them on what the SEO grind really entails…things start to click slowly. And education does not simply end with the business leader, it needs to include IT or sometimes Global IT when the site targets internationally. That is my 2 cents from my experience…thoroughly enjoyed the post mate!

  3. mike July 8, 2011

    Hi Andrew,

    Excellent article. Very timely for me. Most of my experience has been with small businesses and am now dealing with a behemoth. You’ve discussed pretty much every issue that i’m dealing with and have suggested great solutions. Thank you.

    I would be interested in speaking with you regarding potential consulting work.

    Please let me know if you are interested.



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