What to Do When Your SEO Project Stalls

    May 1, 2006

Your SEO project is drifting, and you’re getting angry, because your customers can’t find your site, and your competitors are circling like jackals. What do you do?

Last week, Mr. Frog was watching a video of one of Search Guru Kevin Lee’s two-day seminars on Search Engine Optimization recorded back in September 2005. One of the most intriguing parts of Kevin’s lecture occurs in the “Major Organic Search Mistakes” section, when Kevin has a chance to evaluate the search engine friendliness of sites belonging to audience attendees in what he calls a “quickie site audit.” This analysis was done live in fromt of the entire audience, and focused on changes that would improve the site’s SEO.

One of the sites Kevin looked at belonged to a big insurance company which, to put it kindly, was a mess. It suffered from two very serious, very basic SEO errors: 1) having a site architecture that used HTML Frames and 2) having a navigational scheme that used Javascript flyout menus. These bad news was that these two flaws made the site almost invisible to the search engines, but the good news was that both of these fixes could be fixed in a matter of days, if not hours, by any coder who knew HTML and was willing to move over the content to a new structure.

After watching this video, I imagined that the first thing that the attendee did after the seminar ended was rush back to the office, call a quick meeting with her IT department, and get her site’s problems fixed pronto. By now, I mused, the big insurance site is probably well-ranked with the engines, orders and inquiries are flowing in, and all is happy in insurance-land.

To reality-check this imaginary happy ending, I went to the Web site to see the code changes, and here’s where the story goes sour: amazingly, more than five months after this company learned exactly what was wrong with its Website, not a single line of code had been changed!

There’s no way for me to know why the insurance company never fixed its Web site. But all too often, the reason that so many sites remain in such poor states of optimization has nothing to do with a lack of knowledge on the part of the staff and management. Instead, it’s a failure to execute on this knowledge, which is a sure sign of a broken, disconnected organization. All too often, this disconnect isn’t hard to locate, because in many large organizations, management/marketing and IT don’t communicate very well.

Management vs. IT on the Good Ship Enterprise

All too often, senior managers seem to regard themselves as white-shirted Commanders who stand above deck, plotting the organization’s course and scanning the distant horizons for signs of heavy weather. To them, the IT department is the organizational equivalent of the Engine Room, an oily, dirty place filled with pipes, hissing steam, and sweaty technicians.

Similarly, “the geeks in the engine room” inherently distrust the white-shirted captains, whose incessant commands for “more speed!” are always threatening to blow the main ship’s boilers to Kingdom Come, and whose style of interaction seems to be limited to rapid-fire orders barked through a brass speaking tube.

So who’s really running the ship? Well, both groups, of course. Without the managers on deck, the ship would steam in circles until it wrecked itself on the rocks; without the geeks in the engine room, the ship would lie dead in the water. But there’s a natural tension that exists between managers and IT, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon, so it’s important to understand this dynamic before you venture down the ladder into the engine room with your carefully thought out Website optimization plan.

Don’t Blow a Gasket

Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve hired an SEO consultant, seen one of Kevin’s seminars, attended sessions at SES, or have taught yourself enough about SEO to know exactly what you need to do to make your Website search-engine friendly. You’re even willing to make the necessary code changes yourself. But for reasons you can’t really explain, your requests to your IT department for an FTP password have been overlooked for weeks, six days ago, your IT Director rescheduled your all-important meeting because of “unexpected issues related to the latest kernel upgrade” and your follow-up email of last Friday hasn’t been answered.

Your SEO project is drifting, and you’re getting angry, because your customers can’t find your site, and your competitors are circling like jackals. Before you race down to your IT Director’s office and throw a fit, take a deep breath and consider the fact that, for any self-respecting IT department, giving the “keys to the castle” to somebody “up on deck” doesn’t exactly make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Because if anybody messes up, and Russian hackers manage to replace your Website with an X-rated picture of Paris Hilton, it’s IT, not you, which is going to take the blame.

Furthermore, your request, however important it might seem to you (and to anybody who cares about the overall health of your business), is probably #20 on a list of “Things That Should Have Been Fixed Last Month” that everyone in IT has been racing to fix for weeks. Someday – if all the new software works, if all the patches hold, and the Bulgarians don’t release a new version of the worm that almost took down the corporate E-mail gateway last month – IT will get around to fixing your code.

So you’ve got to be patient, but that’s no reason to lose steam. Yes, you have to resign yourself to the fact that IT doesn’t want “some marketing dweeb up on the 3rd floor” having full FTP write privileges, but don’t take it personally, don’t have a coronary, and don’t wait. Get busy working on the components of a solution that you can and do control: beginning with the all-important TITLE statement that will appear on the site’s home and subsidiary pages. Begin work on the optimized copy to replace your site’s old copy (that was lifted from a print brochure), research the keywords that belong in the site’s META description tag, and mock up the new navigational scheme that will leverage the power of Anchor Links.

Depending on your site’s architecture, you might even be able to create a fully-functional cached copy of your site on a local drive that can show off your changes. When these files are ready, submit them to IT as a set of attachments and CC your boss.

When All Else Fails, Give Face Time a Chance

A month has now gone by, you’ve done all your work, but your Website still hasn’t been optimized. You’ve complained to your boss, he’s promised to “mention it” to the IT Director the next time he sees him (most likely on the golf course), but with every passing second, your company’s Web site grows more and more invisible to the search engines, and competitors are starting to seriously eat your market share. You scratch your head in disbelief: why has your very small, very reasonable request for an FTP password been languishing in limbo for so long? And you’re growing so frustrated with the delay that you’re beginning to have strange thoughts about “jumping ship” yourself.

Before you do something irrevocable, it’s time to take one last trip down the ladder into the engine room, but this time, don’t bring a CD-ROM or a memo, and don’t even bother making an appointment with the IT Director. This time, you’re going down there alone.

You’ll have to invent some pretense for being down there, and it really doesn’t matter how absurd such a pretense is. Basically, you just need a prop — something to start up a conversation that has nothing to do with your real objective. Maybe you bought a new digital camera recently and can’t figure out how the menu system works or how to transfer pictures. Or you’re thinking of buying a new notebook — should it be an IBM or a Dell? Or you just came across an ancient floppy disk in your basement and want to know if there’s any way to transfer the data. It doesn’t matter what the conversation is about, as long as it’s about something that you and the IT folks share a common interest in, and it gives them an opportunity to show how much they know about the subject at hand. In this way, you can demonstrate that you respect their dominance of their native turf, which is the first step in establishing mutual respect. (Warning: don’t mention a thing about changing the code on your Website — your IT folks can smell a ruse a mile away. Only mention this topic if they bring it up (they probably won’t)).

Don’t expect to achieve your objectives on your first trip down to IT. Just spend twenty minutes chatting, disappear with a friendly wave, and come back again, perhaps the same time next week (Fridays after 6:00 PM are often a good time), bringing another small tech issue or conversation-starter that has nothing to do with your real reason for being there. Unless you behave like a total jerk, you might even wind up getting invited out for a beer with them. After a few pints, without you even having to mention it, odds are that one of your new friends will mention that they’re aware of your problem, and will either be taking steps to solve it or has already done so.

Finally, buy yourself a beer or buy a round for the IT department. Your new IT friends might continue to regard you as a “marketing dweeb,” but you’ve just accomplished one of the most important skills of being a Hacker, which is called “Social Engineering:” the method of using basic human charm to achieve the trust required for sensitive information to be passed to and fro. With your new FTP username and password in hand, you can now bring your Website up to speed, achieve better rankings, and lead your company’s steady course through the Search ecosphere.

Alternatively, you can use a top-down approach and ask the CEO if it is important for the company to show up high for “insert keyword that you could succeed with.” Then mention that you learned some hot tips for SEO and would like to share them with the entire IT team in a meeting. At least with senior management behind you, IT might make the time for a meeting and learn something at the same time.

That was easy, wasn’t it?

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Mr. Frog is a leading Search industry visionary. Mr. Frog is a member of the Did-it Search Marketing team which accompanies him to most major
marketing conferences.