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Rankable – The Dos & Don’ts of Enterprise SEO | iPullRank

In this edition of Rankable, we are joined by Jesse McDonald, Global SEO Strategist at IBM.

Our discussion revolved around the dos & don’ts of enterprise-level SEO, how it differs from ‘regular’ SEO, and more. 

Jesse gave us a deep dive into the most important factors of successfully implementing enterprise-level SEO strategies, from an in-house SEO perspective, as well as an SEO agency perspective. 

Check out our “Ultimate Guide to Modern Enterprise SEO” to learn more about how enterprise SEO differs from ‘regular’ SEO.

Video Transcription

Jarrett Thomas: 

And we are live and we are back. Thank you everyone for joining, happy Friday! I’ll be your host today, Jarrett Thomas, senior account executive at iPullRank. I’m joined by esteemed guests and colleagues. I have managing director Mike King to the right of me. We have Christopher Hart who is director of revenue and a good friend of mine who is a global SEO strategies at IBM, Jesse McDonald. How are you guys doing? How’s it going, gents? 

Jesse McDonald:

Good. How are you?

Christopher Hart:

Happy to be here. 

Jarrett Thomas: 

Ya, with everything going on we’re happy to be here. Appreciate it. So thank you all for joining us today. You could be anywhere in the world, but you’re joining us today. Rankable for those who are just joining for the first time, this is our live podcast segment that we do weekly, biweekly sometimes, and today the discussion is going to be on the do’s and don’ts enterprise SEO. So before we start, let me just give out a quick disclaimer. These thoughts today are of Jesse’s own thoughts, as a brand of the person, and not the thoughts of IBM, the organization. So let’s just throw that out there. 

Mike King:

Not endorsed by Big Blue.

Jesse McDonald:

I’m contractually obligated to say that every time I open my mouth

Jarrett Thomas: 

And before we begin and get to the fun topic that we’re going to get into today, we’d love to know from everybody listening and joining us today, curious to know if anybody out there is working at enterprise SEO right now, if you don’t mind, could you just drop a yes or thumbs up if you are, and then we’ll get going.

Right. So just to start it off. So what is an enterprise company? So how do we basically define the enterprise company is any brand over $1 billion in revenue that has multiple national locations and headquarters, and really what we want to do today is really talk about the differences of being part of enterprise SEO versus being a part of a midsize organization. And I’d love to start off with you Jesse, to kind of understand what are some of the biggest challenges, SEO working for enterprise versus a midsize organization.

Jesse McDonald:

So one of the biggest challenges with enterprise SEO, especially in-house where I’m at is that you end up dealing a lot more, like your job ends up being more of the explaining business. So you’re not necessarily in the trenches changing canonicals or, you know, H1s, H2s, whatever you’re actually going in and saying, okay, this is what’s right for the page. How do we get it done? 

So you’re dealing more interpersonally, you’re dealing more with the politics of, you know, a particular business unit, and how that encompasses overall the general business itself and trying to get things done to make things better. So it’s very much like a larger conversation. Most of the time, we were talking right before this, 90% of the job is kind of interpersonal relationship management. So, which can be tough. It can be super tough, but definitely more rewarding when you get things done.

Jarrett Thomas: 

Yeah. It’s a delicate balancing act there. 

Jesse McDonald:

Yeah. Yeah. Most definitely. 

Christopher Hart:

Do you find, it’s still kind of surprising to some degree how much baseline education you still have to do even at very large organizations and, you know, with executives that are highly intellectual, why I spoke still having to lean in on that education and evangelize conversation.

Jesse McDonald:

A little bit. I mean, at IBM, we’re actually really lucky because SEO, isn’t something that you necessarily have to explain. Everyone knows about it pretty much. So anyone you encounter, it’s more of clarifying the correct way to do it, instead of saying, you know, this is important. 

Sometimes you get a, you know, this is an important element and this is why we can’t do, you know, whatever this is going on, but usually there’s not much pushback. It’s usually like, okay, cool. Let’s move forward with that. But it’s a lot more like clarifying the details as opposed to explaining the ‘what is’.

Christopher Hart:

Right, right. Makes sense. 

Jesse McDonald:

Sometimes there’s a, well, that’s not actually important to SEO. You may think it is, but it’s not. But that’s probably the weirdest cases.

Jarrett Thomas: 

I was gonna ask, how do you deal with that in that instance, right? You want to get something done? They’re saying like, Hey, we’ll push it back further down the line, but it’s something that you absolutely need to get done this quarter. How does that pan out?

Jesse McDonald:

That’s where our team kind of works together and says, okay, this is actually important. This isn’t actually important. So let’s figure out where it actually works in our pipeline. Cause basically the way it works is there are individual business units within IBM. And they all kind of work individually. And my team works as the actual corporate marketing side of things. So we are allocated time to each individual business unit to go in and help, you know, their pages of the site that they run and maintain. 

Mike King:

So like an internal agency.

Jesse McDonald:

Pretty muchy, you’re basically like an internal consultant. So I would go in and say, okay, these pages that you’re doing are conflicting with this business unit, we need to get together and figure out who owns what or how to merge them the most efficiently. So really you end up doing a lot of, you know, no meta keywords on a big deal, don’t worry about that. And a lot of, no, I’m not writing your meta descriptions for you, but I mean, it really depends. 

And that’s where it comes into play that if you have a good interpersonal relationship with people, it’s easier to get things done. So it’s a mixture of working with what the business unit has on their plate versus what you need done. So a good example of something that we ran into not too long ago, some canonicals are messed up on some pages, Google’s figuring them out on their own, but it’s still something that we need to actually fix and get done so that Google doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting there. We’re actually informing them, but it’s lower on the totem pole because it is being corrected on its own. 

So you kind of start looking at more things like that. Whereas when I worked at a smaller agency, a page with a hundred, or a site with a hundred pages was like, all right, let’s just go in and fix it, whatever that’s going to take like two hours, maybe. So it’s a lot more time allocation and interpersonal relationships.

Mike King:

Yeah. A lot of the enterprise brands that we work with they’ll have something they call a center of excellence, which is like, it sounds like what your team is similar to, where it’s like, they kind of float across all lines of business. And they’re trying to get people to actually talk to each other and also lay some guidelines for how they’re going to do SEO across the business at large. And it’s always interesting to me when we’re brought in, because it’s like, okay, you got these people that are experts in the brand itself, but there’s still a need for some heavy lifting from an outside partner. 

And as I understand it and don’t let me put words in the mouth of IBM, but from other people that I’ve known that have worked there, you guys are far less likely to use external partners for this type of work. And it’s a lot of like, you know, the heavy lifting is on you to make stuff like this. Is that right?

Jesse McDonald:

Kind of, our team has an external partnership that we utilize just to get more, you know, different perspectives on the team, get some more bodies working, because you know, the team that we work with is probably a little bit more affordable to partner with an agency as opposed to hiring internally. So it’s kind of half, half. Um, and then simultaneously that gives us the ability to spread out a little bit more, stay unified, but then work with the business units to get the stuff done that needs to get done. So we kind of act as the consultant source of truth and trying to convey that and keep that consistent across the board. 

Mike King:

Gotcha. Cool.

Jarrett Thomas: 

Also curious, that’s a good segue because all three of you guys have worked here capacity when on the enterprise side, as well as the agency, I would love to know some of those differences or what are the preference there? What are the differences as working in-house as an enterprise organization and working on the agency side and which ones, you know, they all present their own challenges, but which one, what’s your experience a bit?

Jesse McDonald:

So with me, I started at an agency. I worked at an Austin local agency that works very much in local SEO. So that’s where I cut my teeth, and did that for four and a half years. Two of those years I was director of SEO at the company itself. So leading a team of about six people. So really working in that hyper-focused sort of mentality and there you’re doing a little bit of everything. 

My team was writing content, pushing out to social a little bit. But like maintaining the website itself, our clients were hosted on our own dedicated server. So we had to become pretty much experts in that. So dealing with the actual hosting company itself, trying to do as much of it as you can, you know, diving into SQL databases, correcting those types of errors. I had one server that had the HTTPS port open when none of our sites had SQL back in the day or SSL back in the day.

So everything was being cashed in Google that way. And every ranking tanked for literally everything. So I had to spend the next 48 hours basically straight figuring out what was going on and working with an outside company to do that. So that was a lot of my job there on top of managing people, moving into another agency, less of that, but I’m doing more account management, I’m doing more actual SEO work itself, still on kind of that consulting sort of space, which is what the biggest change was from agency A to B. 

So telling a client, you know, this is what you need to do to fix your site, moving on from there now, IBM, it’s more of the still on the consulting side, working more directly with a business unit and giving them the feedback of, you know, here’s what you need to do. Also, you know, they’re making new pages or targeting new things. They’re asking me for advice. So I would say the biggest jump is going in from doing everything yourself to then moving into someone else doing it. And you have to understand how to work with them better that way.

Christopher Hart:

Yeah. I was in the exact opposite direction. I was in-house for a good number of years. And that really gave me an opportunity to become an expert on the set of topics relevant to that business, and then see how all of that technology to bring it all together. So in order to become effective in the enterprise, I had to become very friendly with developers and understand the framework in which they were working. I had to understand vendor relations and why internal search wasn’t parallel and working well to communicate internally or how ad server things and compile and all these different divisions that have been traditionally set up in separate ways. 

I was part of a unit that had to figure out you’re constantly moving across each of those groups learning as well as being, and it was lucky that it was a publishing company because everybody knows I can’t spell, but it became great working with people who had such a passion for creating amazing content. You just had to kind of help educate them that you’re not just writing for a print product anymore. You’re writing for a larger world thing and then bring that all together. 

And then having moved into agency space, like we talked earlier, suddenly in the agency space, your eyes get wide open to the crazy number of distinct individual issues everybody is working on. So you really can educate, you know, accelerate your learning that way. 

Mike King:

Yeah, definitely. Yeah. My experience is a little, you know, all over the place because I worked at Microsoft for a short time, I worked for some small agencies, some big agencies. So my first agency was a lot like what Jesse was saying where it’s like, we just had the entire site and it’s like, you fix everything, you know, you get like direct FTP access and you just optimize everything. 

So when I started working at bigger agencies, this idea of just like writing about SEO rather than doing it was so foreign to me. But, my experience working at a Publicis was a lot more like what you guys are describing where it’s like, I was the only SEO person. So I had to convince people to involve me in projects because otherwise SEO would be, they would hit me up like the day before something launches and be like, Hey Mike, he pressed the SEO button. And I’m like, yeah, that’s not how any of this works.

And so, you know, that’s what it seems like when, I mean, obviously we work with enterprise brands, so like we’re having to navigate those types of interpersonal relationships without being on site everyday. Although everyone is right now, but you know, when I worked at Publicis, it was very much like, okay, let me get lunch with this person. Let me find out what they’re up to. Cause otherwise they’re not going to know what I do or how I do it and why I need to be involved earlier on. So yeah, it’s definitely a lot of education and a lot of making friends, buying beers and things like that, so that you get included in things.

Jarrett Thomas: 

Makes sense. I’m curious to hear from all three of you guys too, like for somebody who’s just getting into the enterprise SEO space, what are some of the advice or what’s some of the do’s and the don’ts that you guys would recommend or offer advice for somebody just starting out in enterprise brands similar to IBM.

Jesse McDonald:

The biggest don’t would be don’t be a jerk. I mean, because it is so interpersonal, like building relationships, go talk to people. If you’ve been in the SEO space and gone to things like PubCon for any amount of time, you definitely know my good buddy, Keith, who also works with me, that man is the king of making friends. First day at IBM, we walked around the office where I work and everyone was saying hey to him. And I mean, literally he has so much trust within the company itself. That he’s a great example. He’d just walk around, meet people, even if they’re not in the BU that you’re working on. 

And that way you’re building up what I’ve always called social currency. Then you’re going to have more people on your side, the more people that trust you, the more you can get done, and just listen to people. So get good at those kinds of interpersonal skills on top of that, just know your basics, and don’t quit learning. That’s the biggest portion of it  and have the mentality that you’re always wrong until you prove yourself right. Because then you won’t have an ego behind your decisions. You’ll just make smart decisions. 

Jarrett Thomas: 

I think that’s the great point. 

Christopher Hart:

I was gonna add to that last little piece is that anytime you show up and no matter how smart you are or how much you know, you always have to be prepared to receive somebody else’s opinion or position from their perspective, then be open to learning something new. One of the cool things about our community is if you show up willing to listen and want to learn, a majority of people will gladly share and be like, if you show up to hi, you know, on the rockstar, guru, greatest thing, my stuff doesn’t stay well.

Mike King:

Oh, so that’s my problem.

Christopher Hart:

I’m not going to comment on that.

Jarrett Thomas: 

No comment, no question. How about you, Mike? What do you think of the top don’ts right now for enterprise for a person doing enterprise SEO?

Mike King:

I mean, I think what everyone is saying is it is very much an interpersonal thing, but you also can’t discount the skillset that’s required and what’s always been effective for me is like learning more about what it is that other people do. So like if I didn’t have a development background, it would have been important for me to like, understand the basics of development so that I can speak more of that person’s language, because what I’ve found is the more that I go in their direction, the more likely to come into my direction. 

So again, just going back to when I worked at Publicis, I didn’t really have much of an experience in broader marketing. At that point I was like, okay, well, I’m in this world where I’m working with a bunch of Don Drapers and I don’t really understand where they’re coming from. So, I did a lot of research and really looked to understand more about the different components of ad agencies. And that made me just way more effective at my job. So I would just say like, learning more about what it is and other people do so that you can speak more of their language.

Jarrett Thomas: 

Absolutely. I think those are some great points that you guys brought up. Cause I know me not being an SEO, so to speak, and come in, being a newcomer to the space. I think the general perception of SEO is the guy in the corner is not necessarily involved with the marketing team. He’s in a dark room, he’s making some stuff happen, but you don’t know what he does. And I think that’s what Jesse and you guys brought up, which is really important that you have to have those personality skills because the guys I’ve worked with when I was at big brands, I never knew who the SEO guy was, barely seen him. He might come in on a Friday or something like that. 

So I think that’s really important to have those connections, understand what other people are doing, that help you and your goal. So that’s super important. And the dos, what do you guys think are the top dos? What is something that you would tell somebody or look out for or to implement day one? If they were coming as an enterprise SEO,

Christopher Hart:

Don’t dress like a beginner SEO. 

Jarrett Thomas: 

Yo, what’s up with that shirt.

Christopher Hart:

This is definitely not a beginner SEO shirt. The beginner SEO wardrobe is like a white shirt, khaki pants and black velcro sneakers, do not dress like that. When I started SEO, that’s what people want. It was brand new. It was in the early nineties.

So there was, you know, there was that point of, you didn’t know who it was. It was as if it was as if it was just a pure technical thing. Now, your SEO has to have business savvy. You have to have, you know, technical acumen, you have to have political politics, interpersonal skills, right? You are definitely a Swiss army knife for your organization. No doubt about it. And a nice shirt helps. 

Jesse McDonald:

Don’t show up in a Dragon Ball  Z shirt. I was going to say my biggest do and it works big or small or whatever. Take a look at what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Make sure to focus on what you’re good at, but really try to dive into what you’re not good at. So if you’re good at content writing and not technical, try to at least understand technical, try to be kind of a Jack of all trades, because then you become more helpful. You become more valuable and then, you know, more people will work with you, trust you and you have more options down the road. So that’s always been my biggest thing, never stop learning and take a look at what you’re not good at and try and dive deep into it. It’s scary and you’re going to fail and you’re going to look stupid sometimes, but that’s okay. Just let yourself look dumb in front of people and you’ll be okay. 

Mike King:

Yeah. That’s essentially what I was going to say to, you know, be more of like the T-shaped marketer and never stopped researching and seeing what other people are doing. You know, one of the big things in the enterprise environment is like a business case for whatever it is you’re trying to do. And so the more that you have, like case studies, the more that you can show, whether it’s like competing brands or other brands of your size doing these things, the better you are going to be at like convincing people to do what you want to do in addition to the interpersonal skill stuff. So, you know, there’s just so much going on, especially in the SEO community where people are sharing this type of information. So stay mindful of that.

Jarrett Thomas: 

Absolutely.I think we’ve got two questions from the guests and from people watching home, you have one from my good friend at botify, Kameron. What hard skills would you recommend cultivating for someone who only worked on smaller websites, who wants to transition to work in a larger enterprise sites. It’s a great question.

Jesse McDonald:

Oh, that is good. So that was something that I faced when I started moving on from kind of that smaller mom and pop shop, local SEO to bigger, million page websites was that that sort of thing can become very overwhelming, running a crawl on a 3 million page website and being like, okay, where do I start? So I would say that, that’s the thing that helped me out the most was figuring out, you know, how do I identify patterns and trends and things that aren’t working correctly so that you don’t have to necessarily dive into 3 million individual pages. You can actually find the things that might be more of a, fixing one spot, it fixes everywhere sort of thing. 

So looking at those types of crawls with whatever tool you actually use and understanding how to read them efficiently, that helped me tremendously. You know, a few months of doing that, then getting comfortable with it. Game-changer, It used to be that I could run a crawl in two minutes and now I’ve run one that has to do for three, four days.

Christopher Hart:

Yeah. I mean, anytime you could have, could apply scalable to whatever you do, right? Data parsing, data analysis, solution engineering, solution implementation. When you’re in the enterprise, you need to make sure that your top priority project you’re working on has just as much value for the least valuable person in the enterprise as well. Right? You can’t just leave people out. You have to make sure everything gets applicable. And when you just create one off solutions, it just gets way too convoluted. And before you know it, you’ve got your own set of unique problems of trying to remember when and where I think they’re actually connected and then you suddenly get lost.

Mike King:

Yeah, I would add onto that. I mean, I’m basically saying the same thing, like coming up with scalable solutions, but aren’t skills wise. I think you either need to learn the basics of coding or you have to learn the skill set involved in product management. And so what I mean by that is because, you know, either you can code and you can build something simple just to show how your ideas scale, or you are able to communicate it in a way that developers are able to engineer it and that skillset is effectively product management. So I think one of those two things is a good way for you to figure out how to make whatever your solutions scale, and also know if the thing doesn’t scale.

Jesse McDonald:

Another thing I would add to that also is simultaneously learn to prioritize. So what actually matters while yes, everything in SEO matters to some degree, some things matter more than others. So learning how to prioritize those will help tremendously in an enterprise situation simultaneously understanding how to speak SEO to an executive and talking about how, what you did translates to dollars. Huge. And that’s the biggest value add that you can have as an SEO in an enterprise, especially in-house situations, because executives care about dollars. So you have to make sure that you translate it to that.

Mike King:

Yeah. Back to the business cases. Totally. And also we have a great question from Nicole. Hope I’m pronouncing it right. And apologies if I’m not, but she says, I’m always thinking about blind spots and what to ask other SEOs. What’s been your biggest blind spot that you have figured out in the last three months.

Jesse McDonald:

So for me, I’ve been on paternity leave for three months, so it’s being a dad. But let’s say before that, cause I’ve been at IBM right at a year. Um, my biggest blind spots were more in the actual applying what my knowledge to an enterprise solution, but simultaneously working with the business unit I’m in and learning what it actually does. I’ll say it, I typically work with the cloud business unit, which is one of our biggest ones. 

So I spent a lot of time diving into our cloud business unit and saying, okay, what is our offering? What does this do? What do we help? How do our products connect with each other? How do they connect with other business units and becoming a very lightweight version of an SME for our cloud products so that I could have those intelligent conversations and make those decisions. So that’s one of the things I’ve been working on the most since starting IBM, I’m doing okay at it. It’s kind of tough, but that’s where the interpersonal stuff comes in because I have several people on that team where I can go, Hey,am I thinking the right way about this? And they can either tell me if I am or not. So that’s been my thing.

Christopher Hart:

An area that we run into often in servicing clients and it still is kind of odd that it happens even with large enterprise groups is, you ask me, do you understand your audience? Do you understand audience segmentation, personas and stuff like that? And a lot of people go, yeah, we have marketing stuff and great, share it. And it’s very short. It’s not built out to understand the individual in a way of great scale, how and why they want to talk to people, personas, persona development, tone, voice, intent, channel communication. 

So It’s always a common exercise to when you’re moving in and working with an enterprise, take what they already think they know and know they know. And then adding in all the stuff you do around an SEO from an SEO perspective. Just recently, we had a scenario where we did a number of audience reports for a large franchise brand. And one of the comments was I’ve been here for 13 years. And I think I’ve learned more about my community and client base now from this perspective than I have over that time. So, as an SEO, you really do get to figure out the who, the how, and the why you want to talk to a person.

Mike King:

If I knew what my blind spots were, they wouldn’t be blind spots.

Christopher Hart:

Oh wow.

Jarrett Thomas: 

We have another question. We have a question from George and we also have a question, a followup question from Kameron. So the question from George though is other than page speed and mobile friendly, what kind of projects have brought the biggest traffic gains?

Jesse McDonald:

That one’s tough because it’s hard to push projects through. For me, I’ve been working a lot on improving how our tools interact and getting better data. So I would say getting better data has been the biggest improvement. When I go back, I know that it’s going to be more actual business unit work. So I’ll update you when that happens.

Mike King:

On my end, the ones that I’m seeing have the most impact as of late, beyond like your standard, Hey, why isn’t somebody setting up the right canonicals or someone block pages like the errors. Beyond those, I’m seeing things like improvements in internal linking structure. And also thinking about how to scalably get content on a page, those are the two things that act like the levers that dramatically improve most of the large sites that we work on.

Christopher Hart:

Yeah. One thing I’d like to add to that is working with enterprise or any organization. Like you can have a page that renders in a browser, but having that page render in an effective way so that the search engine understands what that page is about. A lot of first paint last call, all that stuff where people technologist is just like not thinking about it, but in many cases, the browser will render it. But the search engines aren’t always pulling it in. So figuring out how to take apart the technology and work with the dev team. So information is presented on render and makes an effective webpage for a search engine.

Jarrett Thomas: 

Yeah. Perfect. And we have the last question. I’m gonna close out with Kameron’s follow up question and she would love to know any tips around prioritizing SEO products

Jesse McDonald:

It’s gonna be a lot of looking at your resources. What do you actually have the capacity to do quickly and in a timely manner versus what kind of impact that’s going to make? So like I said earlier, we have a canonical issue with either pages not having the correct canonical or not having one at all, it’s resolving correctly. So it’s lower on the totem pole. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to fix it. It just means things like internal linking structure, updating content to be more search and user friendly, as opposed to them to appear more marketing speech. Those types of things are very high up. 

So you’re really looking at impact to actual rankings to dollars versus, you know, what are just something that we need to do to have a cleaner site.

Christopher Hart:

Yeah.  And, and don’t exist in your SEO project scope of just trying to solve low hanging fruit. If your SEO project is about solving low hanging fruit, then your high watermark is mediocrity, right? You need to have a BHAG in there, you need to have a big, huge, audacious goal and your project and aspiration marker that you could really uplevel the environment. You might not get it initially. You might have to solve a few low hanging fruits to earn some of that trust we’ve discussed, but you’ve got to move past that into the case of where you being an advocate and evangelizing for this thing, turns into a big project. Executives can sink their teeth on that, they can make substantive change for the organization. You’re changing it in many cases. 

Mike King:

I don’t have anything to add, I think they nailed it. 

Jarrett Thomas: 

Perfect. Well, I’m going to thank you. Thank you again, guys. Jesse, appreciate you for joining us and being a great guest on Rankable, man. We really feel like we need another one. Cause it’s so much more, it’s hard to get it in 30 minutes. Thank you for your continued support. We really appreciate it. We’ll definitely have another one in the upcoming weeks. We’ll be promoting and thank you again. Let’s please connect on LinkedIn. You can find me Jarrett Thomas, Michael King, Chris Hart, Jesse McDonald. Once again. Thank you again for joining Rankable. Have a great weekend guys and stay safe. Please wear your mask guys. Have a great one. Enjoy the weekend.

iPullRank is a digital marketing agency behind Fortune 500s’ winning strategies. We are a team of marketing experts who operate by the “PROUD” creed, which stands for being Proactive, Reliable, Outstanding, Useful and Determined. We’re the house that strategic, creative and technical professionals go to learn new strategies, POV’s, and to find a competitive edge.

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