Overcoming the Power Dynamics of Hreflang Implementations

The past few weeks have been very frustrating, and most of it has been from trying to nurture a few projects stuck in limbo.  I did a few whiteboard sessions to identify the problems and how we might break through.  It seems simple: the company says they are losing $1 to $5 million a month due to SERP cannibalization and need a solution.  They have also tried to implement a solution internally or via an agency and have failed.  We demoed Hreflang Builder using their websites, showing that it can solve the problem almost immediately and that they love and want to implement it. Brilliant, this happened the majority of the time. Despite the excitement and a solution that could be implemented nearly immediately, we stopped.  

The barrier to a rapid hreflang implementation extends beyond the typical infrastructure chaos, project perfection paralysis, and territorial disputes into navigating and working within the power dynamics of the organization.   As we went through each delayed project, they all pointed to power struggles. The power struggle ranges from project ownership, ownership, making necessary changes, KPI alignment, budgeting, and the biggest challenge of all egos.  Lately, I have had to be more like a family therapist to help everyone see the other’s concerns and present a way forward in the best interest of their company.  You can have multiple of these situations simultaneously, but in the end, the only way forward is a champion higher in the organization that has the most to gain or lose if the problem is not fixed. 

Role Driven Implementations

We have seen a lot of change in who owns and, most importantly, who drives hreflang implementations.  We have written in the past that hreflang is a team sport that requires collaboration from multiple stakeholders to be successful.  The first sign of failure comes when these stakeholders are not aligned.  Without alignment and an executive stakeholder to motivate the team, companies will face significant challenges with implementation. 

Originally, our target focus was the Search Team and, more specifically, Global SEO managers, assuming they were the local project lead as hreflang was a “Google thing.”  Most of our inbound contacts were from the SEO team members I had met at a conference or those seeking a fairly painless way to implement hreflang.  This was often after identifying SERP cannibalization in rank reports or getting complaints that the wrong page was ranking in a local market. While good intentioned to solve the problem, as with most technical SEO issues, the team runs into conflicts with DevOps who may not have the resources or budget, want to build it, or are adverse to using a 3rd party solution.   

Our most successful projects have been Growth Team Driven Initiatives, with about three-quarters of our new contacts responsible for the global growth of website sales.   These are the projects where the person has identified the cost of the problem and they have the power to motivate others to play along to solve the problem quickly.  This relatively new role of “Growth Manager” is a cross-functional role that is responsible for growing revenue and profits.  They tend to be more successful in cutting through the process red tape since they drive revenue and often report to the C-Suite, which can nudge people to act. 

Of the hundreds of hreflang initiatives we have implemented, only one has ever been driven from the IT side.  The CTO reached out directly to understand the solution since they had spent significant time and money trying to build an internal solution that did not work.  He was mainly curious about how we could make it work when his brilliant team could not.   He is still the champion for the project and funds it from his budget despite the ongoing management belonging to the internal and agency SEO teams. 

Priority Driven Initiatives

Another big hurdle is trying to amplify the importance of the project and understand which team or executive’s KPIs have the greater importance.  I have often spoken of my experiences with the IT Line of Death concept.  It occurs when the technical teams have a long list of items selected for work, but only a few of them, above the imaginary line, will get done.  The ability to get implemented is a function of resources, Executive priorities, business value etc. 

Today was a great example.  The contract for a project has been signed for four months, and we have been using Sneaker Net to load the XML sitemaps onto the website.  The task for creating the host location and CDN workers to map the XML sitemaps has been inching up the priority list and finally made its way into the current sprint.  At the last minute, a senior executive demanded that the team focus on updating the size and location of their logo on the website, bumping hrelang to the next sprint.

There is no more significant demonstration of power dynamics than before Black Friday when the code is locked down, and many even prohibit employees from going to the website. It is understandable, as e-commerce sites need everything perfect for the onslaught of potential shoppers leading up to the holiday season, that they restrict any changes to the site from Halloween until after the first of the year. 

A Growth Manager identified a monthly loss of over $5 million across their North and South American regions. He wanted to fix this before the peak of the holiday shopping season.  We dropped everything and onboarded them into Hreflang Builder that same day, but the SEO team took over a month arguing something as simple as where to put the hreflang XML sitemaps.  They wanted the hreflang sitemaps put in each market vs. a central location. Unfortunately, this approach would require DevOps to implement a script to move the files.  However, DevOps does not have the resources to write a script due to the holiday code freeze, so they are pushing the project to early February.  In the end, the CMO did not want to lose $10 to $15 million in revenue and broke the stalemate, overriding both the SEO team and DevOps to get the files hosted using a cross-domain method and started immediately reaping the benefits.

Territorial & Decentralized Market Buy-in Initiative

Things can also get interesting when a market benefits from cannibalization, and implementing hreflang would take away that traffic.  Now, you would assume the teams would want the best for the overall company, but when they are held to performance goals at a market level, they don’t want to lose traffic, even if it has a high bounce rate.  This can result in territorial disputes, and we find that the beneficiary market will often try to delay the deployment by requiring briefing and approval from all markets.   It took over six months for one project to get approval from the individual market stakeholders. 

A similar power struggle occurs when brands are treated as individual market companies with their organizations or have franchise partners that manage market sites, and everyone needs to sign off on the final solution.  Another challenge in this category is local SEO agencies that have agreements to provide hreflang support and their “bespoke solution” for the market but are incapable of supporting all markets.  We have a multinational client where the EMEA team is using a European SEO agency to that has deployed a solution just for those markets and argued they were contractually bound to use their solution despite non-participating market cannibalization costing them between $1.4 and $5 million per month in lost revenue.

HiPPOs and Executive Spotlight-Driven Initiatives

This is often the most exciting type of power-driven by a senior executive who has been embarrassed by an even more senior executive seeing a different market website in the search results.  The organization goes into crisis mode for a few days to try and fix it.  In some cases, we can leverage it to break a log jam and get it deployed, as in the case above, but in others, one or more teams go through the motions to bide their time until the executive is distracted by another crisis.