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Digital Sleuths: On the trail of better SEO hygiene


Like most big companies, Google’s hunt for good talent produces a stream of help wanted signs on its website. Yet the search engine king had people scratching their heads last summer when the company began recruiting a technical SEO program manager.

Google looking for help keeping its own digital house clean?

Heresy, right?

Wrong. Google recognizes something other big branded companies often overlook: SEO hygiene teams play an essential role in protecting hard-fought SEO visibility and revenue. They are the digital sleuths who are gatekeepers for the architecture, design, development and maintenance of engaging, informative websites. They’re the bug hunters, the broken code fixers and the front line in making sure your company gets a true and continuing return on its SEO investment.

It may not be sexy, but it’s one of the biggest factors in making sure your SEO foundation doesn’t crumble as you build content, links and other features on top.

Digital hygiene is a collection of work that focuses on the technical and structural elements of a website. The focal point when dealing with SEO hygiene is how you connect these technical and structural elements to SEO requirements. Some of the requirements are provided by Google (Webmaster guidelines), while others are set by internal standards for a company (regularly checking HTML status codes, content targeting, etc).

What’s my spend cost for SEO hygiene?

Companies both big and small often ask just how much time and money should be invested in digital hygiene. Think of it like brushing your teeth, flossing and getting regular dental checkups; if you don’t, the ensuing root canal will be much more painful.

For smaller companies, there’s no easy answer as to how often you repeat your digital cleaning routine. Resources and the frequency of changes you make to your website play a big role in answering that question. The reality is, nine times out of ten, if I’m talking to a start-up, I tell them to ignore SEO. Have some start-ups built themselves off of SEO? Sure. But it’s hard to do. Startups have limited resources, and SEO requires constantly flexing technical muscle to stay in shape.

Are they worth it for large enterprises? A recent Forrester Research report  found a “representative global organization” of 6,000 employees with 80 full-time marketing employees employs two full-time SEO workers for a total cost of about $285,000 annually, on average.

Salary costs are hard to chart as a return on investment versus marketing initiatives, because SEO isn’t just about calculating the average SEO cost per acquisition. It’s a game of risk mitigation. Large organizations often have thousands of web pages, and someone invariably will be rewriting code on some of them. That person may block Web crawlers during the changes or forget to add or remove tags on the page. The job of your hygiene sleuths is to figure out what’s broken and fix it before there’s serious impact to your revenue or visibility.

Breaking Google’s rules, even if the legitimate goal was to boost visibility, can have a similar effect. Intentional or not, you’re in the penalty box.


Take the case of Party City. Last March, the company accidentally no-indexed a portion of its website, causing pages to disappear completely from Google search results. SEO visibility plunged 50%, to 132,700 from 254,095. The company found the mistake after three or four days of invisibility, whereas a more lax posture on digital hygiene might have identified the error after four or five weeks.

In this case, you’d have to look at lost revenue over the downtime days and then chart out potential losses that would have occurred over the longer period. But remember, too, that there are likely to be many cases where a fix was made immediately. On the flip side, rebuilding SEO after you lose it might require hiring additional resources.

Our team sees many different approaches to these particular challenges. In my opinion, it’s a mistake to assume that once you have SEO in place you don’t need to perform constant maintenance. It’s key to ensure whatever positive results you’ve realized are not lost to competitors, either through mistakes on your company’s part or improvements made by your peers.

Heal thyself, worship Google later

During my previous tenure at eBay as head of SEO and Content Development, with each Google update our analytics teams would pour over the results and conduct a postmortem on its impact. That’s where most company execs feel like they’re getting the biggest bang for their buck from SEO teams.

It’s true that there’s always a race to stay ahead of Google’s next update. If you miss one hurdle, chances are you’ll trip up on one or two others. Prioritizing changes and maintaining focus should be at the forefront of any strategy.

But focusing solely on Google is akin to asking ‘What would Jesus do?’  Bracelets with the phrase were popular in the 1990s, but did they result in converting people to Christianity? The goal of digital hygiene is to focus on your base, making sure you have great visibility and discipline to deliver on company initiatives.

Companies like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Consumer Watchdog are right in arguing that every organization should focus on what’s best for users. These websites, like others, have attempted to drive campaigns to get Google to make changes like the inclusion of reviews in search results.

Getting back to digital sleuths, you’ve got to fix what’s already broken before thinking about what Google may or may not be doing. For instance, during my time at eBay, the Spanish and Italian websites contained flaws in title tags, poorly developed internal linking structures and other issues that, no matter how often Google strategic thinking was applied, there were no gains. Nothing matters with Google if you don’t get your own house in order first.

In an ever-changing search landscape, we’re continuously exposed to new tactics that highlight the need to continually parse data. Things like negative SEO (spammy links, negative reviews) If you’re not using the information available to you, your company can suffer real damage.

What you should look for in an SEO leader

In short, with SEO hygiene someone always has to be looking at the business and how it is structured to address challenges. You simply can’t make the assumption that every company has the same technical resources or aptitude for making improvements. A person who leads SEO within a company needs to understands both product management and technical implementation. In a shameless plug for the Searchmetrics Suite, digital hygiene starts with good error-reporting, and our Visibility Guard offers unique configurability for page-level URL crawls and opt-in alerts.

If you don’t have a digital sleuth, the obvious starting point for great SEO hygiene is Google Webmaster Tools, which can check your average site loading time. This number is important in determining winners from also-rans. The top 10 sites load in 1.16 seconds on desktop and 1.1 seconds on mobile, according to our 2015 Ranking Factors Study. The top 30 log in at 1.20 second and 1.17 seconds respectively for desktop and mobile.

As Google and other search engines place more emphasis on mobile search, the “friendliness” of your mobile site also becomes more important. Everything from responsive web design to uniform mobile font sizes can make or break your visibility ranking.