Being Effective in Big Business SEO Auditing [Guest Post]

**Note from John - This is a guest post by James Carson, Digital Marketing Manager at Bauer Media. He works on content strategy and SEO on a number of high trafficked sites including heatworld and Grazia Daily.

In my career I’ve worked for in-house for three businesses with staff numbering in the hundreds or even thousands: Holiday Extras, SEGA and Bauer Media. Furthermore, I’ve had the added benefit of working for an SEO agency.

I watched Tom Critchlow’s presentation on Big Business SEO at Search Love London back in October and it was music to my ears. SEO in big business is tough, and I thought I’d be able to add to the mix through my own experiences.

Big and ‘Slow’ vs. Small and ‘Agile’

One of the most memorable things about working in an agency (which was around 40 people at the time) was the speed at which decisions were taken and dealt with. If you had an idea in a meeting, you could literally go back to your desk and make it happen.

On the other side of the fence, in big business, it’s no secret that it takes rather longer to reach decisions, and indeed enact change. But it’s imperative for agency staff to remember: no matter how many nimble ninjas you have, those who pay the bills probably aren’t going to be quite as fast.

Indeed being too hasty can even work against you. If you deliver a brief before the client is ready for it, then you could experience the pain of sitting around waiting for them to ‘do something’, before entering a spiral of progressive despair. This can often be damaging for relations, and it’s a fairly common reason for clients to get fired.

A Developer’s Job is Never Done

The demands of technology on almost all big businesses create huge demands on development teams. It doesn’t really matter how ‘understaffed’ they are – a developer’s job can never be finished, because there will almost certainly be another improvement or tweak around the corner. Any new product, technology upgrade, digital marketing requirement or change in brand vision or strategy will normally involve the web development team. Development demands are always high – and everything must be prioritised.

Where SEO Sits in Development Priorities

In big business, development prioritisation is usually based on perceived affect the development will have on the bottom line. Unless they are spending plenty on Research and Development, then speculative developments rarely occur – big companies are not all like Apple or Google. This means that SEO development will go into a queue like everything else. Of course, many people work SEO into wider changes, but there just comes times when you need to put through an overall SEO audit. To get it further along the pipeline, you should take the following steps:

Client Contact Due Diligence

The first step you must undertake is due diligence on the client contact. In rare occasions an agency may sign a deal where there client contact isn’t clear about the development process, or about to leave the company, which can make things extremely tough.

Disastrous Scenario:

Consider that if you have a client contact that is unfamiliar with the in-house development process – say a digital marketer who is new to the company. In this case a disastrous scenario can unfold: the client contact may have commissioned the work independently of the in-house development team. The audit is then taken by the agency and delivered to the development team without consideration of the lengthy development queue.

The Product / Delivery Manager will more than likely be fairly annoyed at the lack of consultation, and so in the worst case the audit could find its way to the back of the queue simply due to politics. It would be particularly disastrous if there was significant development work to be undertaken in an area other than SEO that had already been scheduled.

Disaster Avoidance:

The key to avoiding this scenario is to get familiar with the client’s development process. If you can, it will be best to get a meeting or call with the client’s Product Manager or Development Lead. If this isn’t possible in a reasonable time frame, you must ensure the client contact is familiar with the company development process. It’s worth asking the following questions (without being patronising!):
  • How hectic is the development schedule – is it particularly crowded for the next month (from when the audit is delivered)?
  • Where will the audit sit in the development schedule?
  • Is there any other work in the schedule that may benefit from having our insight added?
  • Is the development schedule flexible to allow sprints (see below) or just one large audit?
  • Will the development team definitely undertake all work within the audit document, or will it be reviewed by the development lead?
Pro tip - Get firm answers in writing and you’ll have something to fall back on should the client not do as promised.

Additionally, it is worth having access to a client’s project management tool so you can see what’s in the queue (you may have to sign an NDA to do this, which can slow things down). If you can’t get this, find out when the development sits in the schedule and when the earliest possible live date is.

Quantify the Return on Investment

If the RoI of your proposed development cannot be quantified, then it’s quite possible the Product Manager will leave it languishing at the back of a queue. It is essential that you give projections for the effect of your work. If you can, then it is best to present the effect that this will have on the client’s bottom line. Sam Crocker presented on this at last September’s BrightonSEO.

To quantify RoI, it’s best to gain access to the client’s analytics package, Webmaster Tools and request data such as sales figures (again, an NDA may be required).

You will probably need to take an initial audit to assess how deep rooted any problems maybe. You can usually use the aforementioned data, combined with SeoMoz campaign tool (or whatever you use) and about an hour looking through the site.

Once you have done this, undertake a vertical keyword analysis and see where you client ranks; you should be able to project target rankings and thus predict traffic uplift. For pages which directly generate revenue, monetary uplift will be quantifiable through the uplift in traffic. Beware of pages that don’t generate quite as much revenue!

A caveat here is if the conversion process is also going to change – this is a complex factor which will make your projections more unpredictable, but hopefully the conversion process change should result in further positive uplift. Just be aware – this isn’t always the case after the live date! It’s also a good idea to seek as much data as you can from the agency you work for. Unless they are extremely new, they should have causes (audits) and effects (uplift data) from previous projects. These might not be in the particular vertical for the client you’re working for, but nonetheless they can serve as a guideline, particularly if you are implementing any similar changes.

Gain Content Management System Access

Understanding the client’s issues will almost always go further than simply auditing what appears on the front end, so understanding the back end is almost certainly going to carry great benefits. I’m amazed to have received requests to audit without being asked CMS access. Again, you may need an NDA to gain clearance, but it will bring significant benefits.

Many big companies have custom built backend systems – and it’s almost certain they will not be fully compliant with SEO or a perfect publishing process. If you simply point out in your document that an image does not have an alt tag, then it could turn out that while this option exists in the CMS, but the editor simply hasn’t added it. You then may find yourself requesting development which already exists. You should always try to look front and backend if required elements are missing.

If your client publishes a large amount of content (and as a big client they probably will), then it can also be worthwhile to understand editorial publishing process. If you find out their key problems with the system, you can often troubleshoot general CMS issues that would enhance the implementation of SEO. Consider that if the publishing process is already laborious and tedious, an editor may bypass SEO ‘nice to haves’ like meta descriptions and alt text. If they have not been well trained, they may not know where SEO options exist or why they matter. Make the editors happy with your proposals, and you’ll probably reap the rewards.

Sprint Your Development

Instead of putting everything together in one huge audit, it is normally better to use the more agile method of sprints. These are a series of mini audits which solve particular problems. A lot of company development teams are adopting the Scrum / Agile approach to web project management, so a sprint approach will match their work flow. However, you’ll need to check this and discuss the work flow with your client - in some cases they may prefer a larger audit document.

An example of implementing sprints is that you may find the site riddled with duplicate content, lack of proper titling syntax and poor keyword optimisation. It is normally better to treat these as separate elements, and then send through a sprint proposal. Once the sprint is released (they may be released simultaneously), you move onto the next sprint. Repeat the process until there are no more onsite optimisations to be made without adding functionality (as below).

The sprint method is preferable for the following reasons:

  • Developments will probably get through faster as they are leaner and cheaper to implement.
  • Developments can be made even though you are technically working on the overall spec, rather than having to wait until you are finished.
  • You can test and measure each stage of the development closely – monitoring its effects in crawl checkers (such as Webmaster Tools), rankings and thus bottom line.

What to Consider for New Page Types

If you reach the stage of removing all errors and optimising the current platform as best you can, then it’s probably time you started considering extra page types and functionality to further improve traffic. For instance, a new gallery system may be more beneficial to image search, or you might want to add profile pages to go alongside standard article templates. The key thing to understand about extra page types is that it probably isn’t as simple to implement for the client as it seems to you. It will definitely be a lot easier if you’ve followed the steps above.

Golden Rules for Extra Functionality

  • Do not propose extra functionality from the start unless the client has expressed a clear interest– it is expensive! Blue sky thinking is great, but consider added functionality as extra sprints which add icing to your nicely prepared cake.
  • Make sure you meet the Product Manager to discuss the enhancement.
    • They may consider your proposals are not compliant to current strategy or branding.
    • Gather feedback on cost and feasibility in the current platform.
  • Remember that even if you add the page type through development, there will also be the added action of publishing through that page type. This may take time for an editorial team to execute.


Clearly there’s a lot to consider, but big clients often mean big money, so it’s important to get it right. Consider the process:
  • Client due diligence
  • Quantify ROI
  • Gain CMS access
  • Sprint your developments
  • Use the Golden Rules for page types
If you have these lined up properly, and you are certain of client go live dates, then you could be onto a winner – and a very big winner it could be too. If you miss out one or more of these steps – then be warned, you could find yourself at the mercy of a lumbering dinosaur, who may turn carnivorous after periods of inaction.

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