Posted by willcritchlow
What would you say if I told you that the average SEO at a big company has been waiting over six months for their highest priority technical change and doesn’t anticipate seeing it deployed for at least another six months? (40+% have been waiting over a year).
If you work in that kind of environment, there’s a good chance you’re not surprised, and if you’ve worked as a consultant and your experience is anything like mine, you might even be asking yourself “is that all?” It’s such a common challenge, and it’s so core to our fundamental goal of making a real difference for our clients, that the ability to effect change has even made it into Distilled’s core values.
Challenges in this area are a growing problem for big companies. As startups in particular come to grips with continuous deployment and similar approaches that bring agility to their processes, big companies risk being left behind on an aging technology stack.
The stats I opened with came from surveying a range of SEOs at big companies — a couple of dozen people responsible for billions of pageviews/month. I put together a survey form, sought out suitable people to respond — from mine and Distilled’s extended network — and then focused in on those managing big sites.
I’m still very interested in hearing more thoughts on this topic by the way, so if you haven’t shared your experiences with me, you can still go ahead and do that:
If I get tons of new data, I’ll happily return to update this post.
My goal was to hear more about the real problems faced by enterprise SEOs and to collate that information for all of you so that we can all become more effective. To do this, I asked:
- What is the technical change you are most desperate to make to your site that's been difficult to get done?
- How long have you been waiting for this change?
- When do you anticipate you will finally see it live?
- What is holding it up?
- How big of a problem is this kind of thing for your organization?
Breakdown of the responses
Here’s how long people have been waiting for the technical change they are most desperate to get implemented (42% have been waiting longer than a year):
And most (58%) don’t anticipate seeing that change live for at least another 6 months:
Why does this happen?
The most common reasons given for the inability to get their top priority changes made were:
- Marketing team priorities fall behind those of other teams (53%)
- The change they want is “not possible” with current platform (37%)
- Every change has to pass through a long dev backlog (32%)
The full range of answers can be mainly bucketed into two big reasons:
- Difficulty in proving the value in advance or making the business case
- Legacy technology or outdated processes hampering progress
Is it a big deal?
While the most common response was that it was “just” a serious frustration, almost half of the people I spoke to (47%) reported that inability to make these kinds of changes is stopping their team hitting their objectives or cramping the performance of the whole company:
Given the scale of company we are talking about here, this is incredible — especially for the fifth of people who said it’s cramping the performance of the whole company. That turns it from some geek thing into a burning issue for senior leadership.
What should we do about it?
1. Get better at consulting (even in-house)
The quickest win (which can feel like cheating) is to improve our personal consulting, persuasion, and communication skills. Getting things done sometimes comes down to making our case more effectively — either with more data or with a better argument. Some resources that you might find useful here include:
- Our consulting skills module in DistilledU (warning: paywall)
- Other things we’ve written:
- Bestselling books:
2. Make better business cases
One specific part of consulting skills that is particularly important in getting things done in big orgs is the ability to build a business case. This requires financial/data analysis skills, but it’s important to remember that it’s not enough to make an Excel model — you also need to tell the story (see some of the resources above).
I spoke on this subject a couple of years ago at our San Diego SearchLove conference in 2013 in a talk about technical (slides here, video here [behind a paywall — if you don’t have a DistilledU account, you can use this link to get access to that video for free]). I talked about:
- Winning hearts as well as minds — with descriptions of your vision, competitor comparisons, proof that customers care etc.
- Preparing like you are going to have to go into a meeting with Jeff Bezos (I love some of the stories here and you should particularly read about Steve Yegge’s experiences)
We’re getting really excited about the kinds of business cases we are able to build with split-testing. When you can present data like this, it gets way easier to get things done:
3. Make things better over time
All of the problems I’ve talked about here are compounded by technical debt. A great goal for enterprise/in-house folks is to build the flywheels and to do the things now that will make all of this easier in the future. Upgrading core infrastructure, getting towards continuous integration and fast deployment, and improving slow processes all have long-term ROI.
In particular, getting in place tools like tag management move many kinds of change directly into the hands of the marketing team. This is again our thinking behind building our ODN tool — in addition to building business cases, it’s designed to get changes live in the interim until they can be fully built-out into the back-end.
I think my best general recommendations in this area are to start with the lean startup — I had read some articles about it, but it was only when I saw Eric Ries speak (before I’d read the book) that I truly “got it” about what he was calling an MVP which is actually closer to what Rand called marketing first than it is to building an ugly prototype. This image explains it well:
Great illustration explaining Minimum Viable Product: Build a slice across, instead of one layer at a time #UX pic.twitter.com/7FShBZ9rHe
— Scott Kerr (@scott_kerr) 28 October 2014
Some more resources:
- HBR on the lean startup
- The lean enterprise (lean principles within a big company)
- Lean startup applied to SEO by @the_timallen
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments — and don’t forget that if you are in charge of search for a big site, I’d still love to hear your experiences in the survey:
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