SEO creates more problems than it fixes

Just before I left on vacation, an executive made that comment after explaining some of the issues we found on the site. This is a more common response than you think.

SEO, unlike many other forms of marketing, requires you to examine many facets of the website and ask what can turn out to be difficult questions and choices for many companies.  The reality is most web sites suck and are not built with consumers in mind but to showcase business units, egos or products. As many of the CEOs have referred to them, digital business cards and brochures. Many people who create them do not know how to sell anything.  We can’t blame the developers since they only lay the code that enables the features and functions identified by the information architects, web strategists, and marketing teams.  These people believe they need to boast about how good they are while not considering how consumers might want to interact with their content.
Here are some other issues I have recently faced:

Hierarchical Navigation

Most sites are built around the assumption that a visitor would only come to the home page.  We commonly have this conversation with large brands. We are told If someone wants a “big red widget,” they know we are the leader, so they will come to and start interacting with us.
When we look at their analytics, we can often see a significant decrease in traffic to the home page, but overall, site visitors are the same or increasing. The most common point of entry is often a popular product or category of product, with anywhere from 10 to 60% of the entire site traffic going to a set of internal pages from search engines.
When this is explained to the client, they get frustrated and simply state they don’t have the time or resources to fix the content and navigation at the lower levers. They put it not on the wish list for the next update.

Template Changes

I have been preaching for years about the economies of scale that can be realized if we can make some of the most fundamental changes to our web page templates. I have publicly presented examples from IBM where a single template update in the US, implemented in 100 countries, resulted in the local market page for that keyword phrase ranking in the top three positions in over 50 countries within a month, resulting in an exponential increase in traffic.
When we present these, the supporting content, and the business case, we are met with anger and a myriad of excuses that you would not believe. The most common after “our standards won’t allow that change” is “our developers are too busy adding new bells and whistles that they can’t make the template changes,” and on goes the battle.
So why are we plagued by this lack of support for change in thinking like a consumer and developing sites that will generate exponential traffic at a cost significantly lower than any other form of marketing?

The most common reasons I have identified are:

Lack of Understanding:
This lack of understanding ranges from the fundamentals of consumer behavior and e-commerce best practices to the basics of search optimization. Developers often build segments of the site independent of each other to specifications and requirements – more of this is happening with rapid prototyping and agile computing techniques.
Organizations must start integrating the development process with key QA checkpoints to ensure the site is developed according to its original goals.

Lack of Concept Police:

Another example: I was hired as a web marketing consultant on an information hub site. The primary revenue streams would be ad banners, cross-selling, and upselling books and publications, retargeted with college courses in 40+ topical interest areas. The business goals were aligned entirely around these revenue streams. 

As the large agency presented the first set of pages for the site, everyone was oohing and ahhing over how beautiful the site looked and how fast it was loading.  Since it was my first team meeting and they were not ready for me, I was quietly squirming in my chair.  The CMO of the new entity noticed my obvious displeasure and asked me if something was wrong. I wondered if your revenue model has changed since we last spoke.  She responded no it is the same and asked me why I was asking.  I pointed to the screen and asked, “Where will the ad banners and cross-sell blocks go?” and the room was dead silent – the creative director quickly responded, “Well, there is no room on the page,” and I, somewhat stunned, responded, “But that is how they plan to make money.”  More silence followed by frustration by the developers.

We moved on to the database team, which showed the data schema.  Once they presented, I guess I winced a few times during the presentation, prompting the CMO to ask me, sort of sarcastically, if I also had a problem with the database structure.  I asked the database agency where the 40 fields were to capture topical interest and the dynamic triggers to map new content to interests. The content flow and targeted marketing could generate a list of names to ping to tell them there was new content in their area of interest.  I explained to the database developers that upselling known interested prospects was the second form of revenue, and we should start with the retargeting, cross, and upsell models and work our way out.  

The moral of the story is that no one on any of the teams ensured the site matched the original objectives for making money.  Everyone was focused on their part of the development making it brilliant that they lost sight of the integration aspects.  Ultimately, they lost months working with people who only wanted to create something pretty rather than functional that helped achieve the business goals.

Organizations must be brutal in their enforcement of the site’s business objectives. If you do not, you will end up with millions of pages that don’t work hard to achieve the goals set forth to justify their existence.

Lack of Integration:

Quite often, all of the representative teams and disciplines are separate, and none work together, making it impossible to ensure a synchronized message. Often the search team comes in at the end to “fix” the site to rank well rather than in the beginning to ensure what is developed will be friendly with search engines. This is the true money savings and force multiplier companies need. Integrating search into the workflow and analytics will exponentially increase site effectiveness.

We have worked with large companies like Samsung to integrate content, analytics, and visitor flow into the development process, which benefits not only the main market, the US, but also any market where the end result is deployed regardless of language.

Unwillingness to Change Process or Precedent:

This is a wide segment ranging from a simple unwillingness to change  – let us just keep Frankensteining the site until it looks like Jed Clampet’s old shack in the woods without any thought to how the precedent or process is negatively impacting the business.  Too few people will speak of about things they know are wrong, especially in today’s climate.
At least a dozen times a week I am told about some rule or regulation that prevents a change on the site yet no one can produce the documentation or who made the rule.  In the majority of cases, when the reason there is an issue is articulated to the approving authority, the change gets made.  At IBM, about four years ago, the Web Effectiveness team and I reviewed the Style Guide and identified over 100 changes to the styles and writing rules to make them more search-friendly. In the end, of the 100 recommended changes, only a handful needed more justification and for those we could not give enough justification for they were granting exceptions to those BU’s who believe it was the right thing to do.  Once we had definitive proof from the test, we made the case and got even the most rigid rules changed.


I have had heated debates about the most logical pathway for site visitors and their intentions.  The lead Information Architect told me to shut up and leave the meeting.  As I looked rather stunned he went on to explain to me that he had a PhD in consumer behaviors and usability and knew what was best for the site.  About six months later, the site was updated to replace those lab-proven best practices and replaced those identified from good common sense and pathway analysis-proven navigation and content.

The net is that we must stop and take a deep breath.  All web owners should adopt one of David Ogilvy’s mandates in his agency, “We sell or else” – and I believe much of the crap and stupidity that goes into websites and optimization programs will be eliminated since job one will be selling things and how to do that the most effective way possible.

2 Replies to “SEO creates more problems than it fixes”

  1. You have to love these stories !! In our daily lives trying to get our own company to pay attention and invest we often forget we are not alone in these struggles. So refreshing knowing we are not alone banging our heads.

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