Fewer than 20% of Senior SEOs hold their positions beyond 2 years before changing jobs. Juxtapose this with the lengthy time it can take for SEO programs to be executed, and SEOs (and the organizations that employ them) are in a crunch.
For over 18 years, 97th Floor teams have worked alongside brilliant organic-forward CMOs and SEO leaders on some of the internet’s most complicated websites including Adobe, Symantec, Oracle, Zoom, etc.—and here are the top challenges these experts face:
- Balancing organic growth potential and execution viability. Comprehending and prioritizing opportunities with sites of this size and complexity.
- Effectively convincing top-level leadership of organic potential. Efficiently communicating dev teams of product-level impact on organic.
- Building content and link authority at scale.
We get it—we’re currently facing these challenges right now as you read this. But we’ve also discovered methods, tools, and practices to overcome these—and we’ve compiled them into this playbook that’ll make titanic SEO tasks more tasteful.
Reading this playbook, you'll walk away with templates and tools we've never before released publicly; and new implementation and communication techniques to fire up your SEO strategy.
Understand Status Quo
James Clear famously says: "We fall to the level of our systems." When it comes to SEO at this scale, everything falls to the level of site architecture.
Our SEO experts offer three exploratory exercises.
You’ve undoubtedly run these before, but we strongly recommend a site architecture review on an at least quarterly basis.
- Explore your site as a crawler - Use a tool like ScreamingFrog or Sitebulb to visualize page depth, discovering what subfolders and pages are where.
- Look at URL makeup - URL structure doesn’t just show us the breadcrumb folders - it reveals information about how the site delivers content.
- Experience your site as a first-time user - Is the site easy to use? Are their breadcrumbs as you dive into specific sections? This simple exercise can be the most revealing in understanding the landscape of your site.
Site segments or categories may seem obvious based on your product/service offering; in other cases, segmentation requires more brain power.
Topical or product splits are most common. In the case of Ancestry, they have a few diverse "products'' including DNA Testing and Ancestry Tree mapping. In addition, their "products" are databases. (The "Surname" database is so gargantuan that it requires its own crawl.)
Product offering alignment looks at the same products by their commonality. Under Armour may split their site by footwear vs. activewear or by sport.
In larger companies, we’ve seen organizational structures impact an SEO’s decision on segmentation. Each sub-organization may have entirely different marketing/dev teams handling their many offerings, perhaps due to acquisitions or the sheer size of the company. In these cases, it makes sense to segment accordingly to match each of those different departmental processes.
However you're currently segmenting your website...consider segmenting it even more to make crawling, indexing (and really everything else) easier to manage.
If you’ve segmented your site as described above, you’re ready to begin prioritizing audits.
It’s impossible to fully audit your website without the help of tools—and we use just about all of them. Tools like Moz, Ahrefs, Semrush, Conductor, etc. provide the symptomatic data needed to dive deeper. That said, no tool can completely provide the context of what should be prioritized and what will move the needle. There needs to be a manual and investigative human touch to utilize the data, which is what we do at 97th Floor.
97th Floor uses a workflow for site audits, conforming the cadence of each audit to the business goals and site structure of each client.
No matter what site segment you begin in, we recommend that the first step in each audit is to find out if a site is being indexed. Without indexation, no SEO tactic can make your pages rank.
Crystal CarterHead of SEO Communications at Wix
Once you’ve gone through your site with a fine-toothed comb, the last piece of the status quo puzzle is understanding how well it’s showing up on the SERPs.
As all SEO roads lead to (ideally the top of) the SERP, tracking your performance is essential for you to:
1. Assess the impact of your efforts and
2. Identify new opportunities and avenues for success.
To get the most out of your rank tracking, we recommend an expertly tailored keyword segmentation strategy.
Enterprise sites often involve hundreds of products, thousands of pages, and multiple locations. If you’re tracking hundreds of thousands of keywords without meaningful segmentation, you're facing torrents of data with no way to spot useful patterns and trends — you simply can't make sense of what you see.
After you’ve reviewed your site’s underlying architecture, evaluated its segmentation, conducted a thorough audit, and now have a laundry list of things to do, consider how to align your keyword tracking in a way that lets you monitor these individual efforts. For example:
Match your keyword segments to your site segments. If Under Armour is splitting their site by footwear vs. activewear, they should be grouping their keywords by footwear and activewear to assess the search visibility of these product categories separately.
Create segments for landing pages, subdomains, and other important URLs. If you’re rolling out new pages or setting up redirects, these segments will let you know if the right keywords are ranking for the right pages. If you’re fixing crawl issues or making substantial on-page changes, they’ll show you any resulting increases (or decreases) in rank.
Group keywords by location. Even if you’re not servicing brick-and-mortar businesses, tracking in and grouping keywords by different locations will help you understand the nuances in your various search markets.
Taking on an enterprise site is a huge endeavor, which is why you should have a rank tracker that can support large-scale SEO with ease. We use STAT Search Analytics as it helps us manage the tracking needs of multiple enterprise sites.
Uncover Growth Opportunity
After a thorough study of your site and current rankings, your next quest is to find opportunities to boost organic traffic on your site. It’s not a question of whether you will find opportunities, it’s a matter of gathering all potential opportunities and learning to prioritize.
Ranking Potential Report
It’s a short-sighted approach to only look for opportunities on a keyword level—each of your pages could be ranking for dozens of keywords. 97th Floor has built a Ranking Potential
Report tool that uncovers which of your URL’s have the shortest ramp to traffic increases.
The Ranking Potential Report takes otherwise common keyword data and displays it in actionable and revealing ways. The process allows SEOs to readily see how many pages are on a site, how many keywords each page ranks for, what positions these keywords hold, and most importantly where immediate opportunities are.
Possibly more important, the Ranking Potential Report displays opportunities in a way that key stakeholders can understand. It's a highly effective tool for leveraging support for leadership because they can see the vision and potential.
Curious about your site's potential? Request a Ranking Potential Report here.
Ahrefs' Top Pages Report
Ahrefs is another great tool for finding growth opportunities, particularly keywords. Here's how:
- Google like your buyer - Consider what types of questions your customer is asking at the middle and bottom of your funnel. Throw a couple of these into Google and find a top-ranking article on the topic.
- Pull a top pages report in Ahrefs - Grab the URL for the article(s) you found and put it in Ahrefs. The resulting report tells you about referring pages, page rank, backlinks, and what the page ranks for. Now terminate the tail end of the URL you are working with to isolate the site’s blog. The Ahrefs report now shows that the blog is ranking for hundreds of thousands of keywords.Scroll down and select “Top Pages” in left column. Now you’re looking at the top keyword for every page on the site.
- Filter your keywords - In Ahrefs, use the filters along the top ribbon in your report to include or exclude keywords. Use other logic options as appropriate to keep only non-branded, relevant keywords.
By now you should have a manageably-sized and curated list of keywords.
Search individual keywords in the keyword explorer to find difficulty scoring and complete your search for keyword ideas.
Give Content A Home
Enterprise sites face the ultimate challenge when it comes to content— managing quality at scale. Both programmatic and non-programmatic pages need attention in different ways.
Programmatic content is created from a data source. For companies like Airbnb, this looks like programmatic pages with a series of data pulls from an index.
To succeed here, you must craft page structure so that newly created pages are consistent for end users. We’re not just talking about how it looks and where the image goes versus where the text goes. There are lots of page elements to consider, in addition to the user experience on a given page.
For templated pages, consider:
- Title tags
- Images and multimedia
- Paragraphed content
- Meta data
But how do you scale programmatic pages for a massive site? Projects of this size are near- impossible to scale and atrociously expensive.
AI-assisted content presents an alternative.
While we’re not suggesting that you let AI write for you, SEOs should be open to ways that AI tools can share the load.
AI can identify trends and keywords to focus on, generate topics, uncover what competitors are saying and identify high-value content for your audiences. It can analyze tremendous amounts of data—even open-ended data—with speed and efficiency, delivering key insights to decision makers before a decision is made.
AI-assisted content is limited to smaller quantities and requires review by content teams. Still, consider where you might plug AI into programmatic content. Perhaps an outline—getting started can be so difficult—could speed up the writing process and put content hours ahead.
Non-programmatic pages will require more time and attention. Reserve these limited VIP spots for core pages—maybe starting with the top 100 or so. These pages deserve a manual review and in-depth optimizations.
And what’s the best way to generate non-programmatic content? The answer is a blend of two things that 97th Floor excels at: keyword data analysis and consumer personas.
97th Floor uses Palomar, a patent-pending software for analyzing contextual, semantic data in real-time. Palomar’s SERP Intelligence crawls through all competing web content and, after thorough analysis, will not only tell you what to speak about but how to speak about it.
After semantic analysis and keyword research, marketers need to pair this data with in-depth persona research to ensure the content serves both crawlers and end users.
Most marketers have personas but never use them. Often, personas are old, assumptive, and too generalized to impact decision-making. 97th Floor has mastered the persona creation process and this particular, concerted effort has led to not only our most successful campaigns, but also to our most creative and exciting campaigns to run.
97th Floor recently took on a client facing unfounded public criticism and negative press, desperately in need of reputation management. We learned from Semantic Analysis in Palomar that a specific thought leader’s writing was negatively impacting public sentiment. We learned from SparkToro where specifically our audience was consuming this content. Our content teams knew that in order to rank on this issue and correct the misinformation, we had to debunk what was coming from these sources. Over the course of ten months, this research-backed content helped pull our client towards a positive public sentiment. Without this intelligence, our content could not have correctly identified and addressed the issues threatening our client.
Finally, SEOs need to consider various content types and where they will live on a site.
"Be attentive when scaling content to not put everything on a blog. You end up cannibalizing your own site this way, and not everything needs to go on the blog. A piece of content might be better as a support document, in a knowledge base, or as a product guide. Having a clear understanding of the full landscape of your digital footprint within your domain can ensure that you are supporting all of your digital output for a given topic."
Crystal CarterHead of SEO Communications at Wix
Manual, one-off link building campaigns are essential for going after specific “money” pages and keywords, especially for long-tail keywords with less competition. Guest posting can help in these individual URL scenarios, but they won't boost overall domain authority
Your best play for a massive site is to run large campaign-level link-building campaigns. We’re recommending full-funnel brand awareness campaigns that will earn organic links as you pull tons of visibility. But these aren't simple:
This kind of work is unpredictable and nuanced and requires skills not typical for SEO work. These kind of links require way more than technical consideration.
There's no way to force these campaigns. They are highly situational.
There's no formula for making these campaigns happen, but these principles put you in the best place for success:
Regularly Explore High-Value Data
Be curious. Ask yourself questions and go through the mental exercise of finding insights in data. These link building opportunities will not arrive pre-packaged. Be constantly exploring via Ahrefs' Content Explorer, Google Analytics, or any other source of valuable data. We recommend scheduling time daily or weekly to do this.
Sam OhVP of Marketing at Ahrefs
Focus on Audience
The heart of any successful marketing campaign is audience. You need a pure and dedicated understanding of your audience so that you know what they care most about and can create link building campaigns combining this persona knowledge with current events and opportunities. This is where all of our strongest brand and linking campaigns have come from, including this one for Revver (Formerly eFileCabinet.)
Revver is a document management software company that hired 97th Floor when they had no marketing team and were losing market share daily. Our campaigns were a success, but when Revver expressed that their trade show presence has been a little lackluster, we took that as a challenge.
The Rage Cage is an award winning full-funnel brand awareness campaign that drove the highest influx in MQLs in a single month, and drove the following:
- 800+ new contacts
- 2,000 + influenced contacts
- 100+ closed deals
Create a Think Tank
You need a group that understands the value of SEO that you can bounce ideas off of. This may include SEOs, but you can also extend this group to your PPC counterpart, to someone in development, or to a highly supportive leader.
Get everyone looking at the data, and exploring and refining opportunities.
Sam OhVP of Marketing at Ahrefs
Prioritization & Strategy Build
Once you’ve run your site audit and uncovered growth opportunities, you’ve likely got a long list of projects. Lean on the RICE scoring model to prioritize these without bias.
Developed by business communications software company Intercom, RICE is a model for quantifying and prioritizing projects. RICE is an acronym for four evaluation factors:
- Reach: How many users are affected by an initiative in a given time period.
- Impact: How significant the impact is for those affected.
- Confidence: How much credible data supports the reach and impact scores.
- Effort: Necessary investment of time and resources to complete the initiative.
You can then calculate a RICE score using this formula:
RICE Score = (Reach x Impact x Confidence)/Effort
Remember that RICE should not make prioritization decisions for you. It is just one of many tools for evaluating benefits against cost, empowering your team to grab impactful and realistic projects.
Getting leadership buy-in on the long game of SEO can be hard - especially when other channels are more quickly proven. We’ve got three tips to help you sell SEO strategy.
Tip 1: Find (or Recruit) an SEO Champion
You’ll be a whole person ahead if you have someone in leadership who believes in the massive potential of SEO. Which decision maker seems the most interested in SEO? Who can be a voice for SEO in decision-making meetings?
Identify this stakeholder and then involve them in your SEO work. Consider pitching this executive first, or otherwise involving them in your strategy development. Communicate with them often and be sincere in your efforts to collaborate with them.
This individual’s enthusiasm for SEO, strengthened by their invested time with you in strategy, can make all the difference in prioritizing SEO projects and getting you budget.
A 97th Floor survey of SEOs revealed that "not enough leadership support" is the biggest challenge SEOs face in getting projects moving. The second biggest obstacle, "not enough budget", is often a bi- product of leadership support.
Tip 2: Show Pain Points in Storytelling
To increase the resources coming towards SEO efforts, you need to create urgency by showing the consequences of neglecting SEO—the opportunity cost.
What’s the best way to show leadership the lost potential (read: revenue) of failing to start? We recommend a story in which your company is the hero and SEO is the guide.
In his book Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen, Donald Miller explains, "In stories, the hero is never the strongest character. Heroes are often ill-equipped and filled with self-doubt. The guide...has conquered the hero’s challenge in their own backstory."
Show that you understand company goals. Position SEO as a guide in your company's growth story. Communicate understanding for the leadership's concerns, and establish your own authority as an SEO expert who can help guide the company to greatness.
This authority can come from case studies, competitive research and analysis of market share, and education in SEO.
Tom CapperSenior Search Scientist at Moz
A strong way to introduce this lost opportunity is with competitive research.
(We have found that competitive comparison as quantified by market share is one of the most effective ways of demonstrating the opportunity cost of neglecting SEO—market analysis is one of the most important jobs of top-level leadership.)
Sam OhVP of Marketing at Ahrefs
You can also demonstrate the opportunity cost in terms of savings.
Crystal CarterHead of SEO Communications at Wix
Tip 3. Set Expectations
SEO is a long game. If you want to minimize the irritating, “are we there yet,” conversations, consider handing leadership a map.
Based on your strategy, identify what immediate wins (or signals) leadership can expect, and how long it will take for SEO efforts to reach the bottom line. Set expectations for reporting frequency and metrics.
Perhaps most importantly, acknowledge to leadership that SEO is impacted by many things that are not in an SEOs control.
John CrockettHead of SEO at Ancestry
It is imperative that you clarify the difference between branded and non-branded keywords. Distinguishing between the two will help you explain variation in traffic that is unrelated to your SEO work. Branded keywords are heavily dependent on external factors like PR, TV and advertising. Non-branded keywords are in the scope of SEO, so try to delineate and report the traffic, keywords and revenue for non-branded keywords.
By keeping goals specific, timelines clear, and confidently pitching SEO as an important strategy supported by your SEO stakeholder champion, you can win leadership favor and a signed check for your great work.
Working With Devs
Inevitably, you’ve discovered technical issues that are hampering your organic growth—and you need development to tackle these optimizations. But getting the ear and time of dev teams can be extremely challenging amongst all the non-SEO initiatives they’re tackling.
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 the extent of what they need to do for SEO
These five strategies can help reduce friction between SEO and dev to get projects rolling:
Tip 1: Embrace your development team's culture.
Don’t try to adjust development to your SEO-strategy. Adjust your technical strategy to be development-friendly.
Get curious about your dev team:
- What is development’s turnaround time on a project?
- How long are their sprints?
- Are there code freeze periods to be aware of?
- How much bandwidth does development have?
- What tools are they using to manage their projects? (Jira, etc.)
- How does development like to receive requests? Some developers have a POC with dev, some like email, some will want to meet.
Combining this newfound knowledge about your dev team’s operations with your RICE- empowered list of priorities, you’re ready to dance with development.
Tip 2: Become fluent in dev language.
Before sending over a list of optimizations, consider how devs thinks about implementation. To begin, they use a completely different vocabulary than you do. Optimizations? Let's try "bug."
John CrockettHead of SEO at Ancestry
Be respectful of the developer’s expertise. Don’t assume you know what a fix will require from them, but come speaking in their language to show you’re ready to collaborate.
Tip 3: Communicate in user stories.
Marketers are always creating stories for their audience. In this instance, devs are your audience. Structure the story using three components: user description, functionality, and benefit.
Here’s the formula:
As a [description of user] I want [functionality] so that [benefit].
“As a new or existing website visitor, I want to ensure text remains visible during the page load, so that I have a better user experience, especially if I’m on mobile device with a slow network.”
This reads a lot better than “make text visible while the page is loading,” and helps a developer understand why your requests are worth their extremely-limited time.
Tip 4: Get specific.
A developer’s kryptonite is scope creep—changes made to the project push schedule, budgets, or resource allocation—and every time more clarification is needed, deadlines are at risk.
Get clear by helping the developer know exactly what you need from start to finish—you’ll get more accurate estimates and preserve the relationship you’re working hard to build.
Tip 5: Provide examples.
Need a change and want it a certain way? Rather than trying to explain what you want, give development specific examples.
The best kinds of examples you can share are:
- Links with live examples of what you are looking to build
- Gifs of the motion, animation or effect
Developers think literally. They are also extremely busy. Make their job as easy as possible.
Pro Tip: Once a project is completed, share wins with the development team who helped you complete them. CC the boss. CC everyone. Get excited about the ways that SEO is improving customer experience and showcase how each person contributed.
Proving Long-Term Value
If you’re managing a massive site like this, you’re not new to SEO. You’ve worked on smaller sites and then slightly bigger sites and so on until you landed this gig managing an impressive site with huge traffic.
While you’ve got all the tools and experience to succeed, you cannot bring a small site mindset to a large site. Ironically, the larger the site, the more narrow your SEO focus needs to be.
Focus on the specific. Get in the details. Identify KPIs, set extremely specific base-lines, and focus on making incremental changes for (eventually) explosive results.