Lee Odden

3 Ways Companies Sabotage Their SEO Investment

SEOCompanies invest thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars per month into improving their natural search engine visibility. At times, certain influences or perspectives occasionally evolve to work directly against the efforts of the professional SEO consultant.  Here I’ll describe three scenarios and hopefully help companies avoid the unfortunate expense of sabotaging their own SEO investment.

1. Redesigning web sites or changing content management systems without a SEO migration plan. At a recent conference I met a web design type who asked what I do. I replied that I own a SEO consulting company. His reply, “Ah, keyword stuffing”. While this was most likely an attempt at humor, my reply was more typical: “Thanks to web designers/developers, SEOs are busier than ever.”  “Do you do web design?” says the humorist.  My reply was common for most SEO agencies: “It’s not our focus, but I have web dev talent on staff to fix issues caused by design agencies that make client web sites nearly invisible to search engines.”

Most web design or redesign projects are executed on specifications. In many cases, those specifications emphasize front end design and user experience elements as well as back end content management and administration features. What most web design specifications do not include is attention to how search engines will interact with the web site or how a re-design will impact current search engine visibility.

The result for a web site redesign or change in content management system that does not consider implications for search engines can be disastrous. When changes are made to a web site, it can affect overall content organization, navigation, past SEO efforts of content, syntax of file names and a host of other web page elements.

When search engines crawl web sites, they make copies of web pages and links. Changing web pages and links without redirecting in the right way can be confusing to search engines.

When the search engine revisits a web site expecting to find pages and links where there are none (because file names have changed) the resulting “404 Not Found” errors send a signal to the engines that the content no longer exists. That means the pages can be removed from the index and become no longer available to people searching for your products and services.

Time and time again, when I explain the consequences of making major changes to a web site design and/or content management system, web designers and site owners alike respond with, “I never thought about that”.  The consequences of having significant portions of a web site unavailable in the search engines can mean a drop in visitors and sales – a potentially expensive situation.

The solution to this unintentional sabotage is to implement a SEO migration plan that will help mitigate any negative effects of a major site change. If a web site and the links from other sites pointing to that web site have been known to a search engine for any notable amount of time, then there is a certain equity that has been built up. Changing content and links essentially sabotages that equity and can result in plummeting search visibility.

2. Focusing SEO efforts on keyword phrases based on marketing materials. As companies become increasingly aware of the value from being easily found on major search engines, they being to incorporate the advice so easily available online, in books and at conferences.

Keywords are the core of how search marketing works since they are what consumers search for and use to discover content. Keyword phrases are also how search engines understand content for indexing and sorting search results.

A common self-sabotage related to keywords is when companies focus their web site’s keyword optimization on phrases derived from marketing materials, product data sheets and from internal staff and not based on the search phrases potential customers actually use when searching.

Why is optimizing content with keywords from marketing materials, executives or employees, sabotage?  Just because words are an accurate description of a company’s products and services, doesn’t mean those words are used by prospects when searching a search engine.

A simple survey of sales people or customer service employees can identify whether customers use different language to describe a company’s products’ features, benefits and problems they solve.

Brainstorming keywords from existing marketing materials, executives, brand and product managers, customers and even competitor web sites is a great starting point.  However, the resulting keyword phrases represent speculation about what it is that people actually type into a search box when they’re looking for what the company offers.

Keyword research is a critical part of getting results from search engine optimization of a company web site. Leaving keyword generation up to such speculation is a crap shoot. It’s important to leverage keyword research tools that harvest the searches or queries that people make when they use search engines.  The results can be very enlightening.

One company that I worked with a while back thought “telemarketing outsourcing” was their money phrase. The executives were set on that phrase because it’s what people in their company and industry used to describe the solutions the company specialized in. However, “telemarketing outsourcing” wasn’t the phrase that buying customers were searching on most often.

After doing keyword research and testing, it was determined that “call center outsourcing” was higher in demand and more relevant to what the company offered. As such, the ability for this phrase to generate revenue was much higher than the first phrase used so often by industry insiders.

Don’t leave keyword research to chance. Follow a keyword strategy when keyword glossaries are developed and as part of the ongoing content marketing efforts. Be optimized and found for phrases that are important to your customers.  Spend time monitoring web analytics data for keyword based conversions and make changes with on-page optimization accordingly.

3. Approaching SEO exclusively as a web development task and not a marketing effort.   When I started doing SEO in the late nineties, it was the IT or webmasters of the world that implemented site optimization efforts.

Because many web sites did not use content management systems, adding content or making any changes to company web sites was up to IT staff. Also, links were not as important as a signal influencing rankings. As a result, companies perceived Search Engine Optimization as a web development “fix”.

While conducting code and server side optimization efforts along with on-page keyword optimization is definitely a starting point in using SEO to improve a web site’s performance in search engines, it’s just that – a start.

Search engines respond favorably to web sites that publish new content and acquire new links on an ongoing basis. And here’s a secret, wink wink: People do too.  Adding new content gives both customers and search engine bots a reason to come back.  Promoting new content on the social web and through other traditional online marketing channels like Email, RSS, Forums and advertising creates awareness, which can attract links. Links can drive traffic and serve as a signal to search engines which can result in increased search engine visibility.

“Tuning up” a web site by making it more search engine friendly technically and with keywords in content is absolutely helpful and important. Stopping there is sabotaging the web site’s ability to maintain results and continue to improve any competitive advantage.

Billions of documents are indexed and who knows how many are served as search results every day. Search results are not limited to web pages either, including blog posts, images, video, news and other types of content.  The competition for those top 10 organic positions isn’t getting less.

It’s like losing weight and staying fit. Of course you amp things up to lose pounds but you don’t stop there. As diet and exercise are important to get and stay healthy, so are new content and links to stay healthy in the search results. The mixture of each can vary by person for weight loss and by web site for SEO.

Are all or most web design agencies guilty of creating or re-designing non-search friendly web sites? I’d say in this day in age, no.  Awareness levels have increased substantially in the past 10 years, but new web sites are launched every day causing business owners to scratch their heads after a few months and wonder where the search traffic is.

The key is to get tuned up and then continue a program of new content creation, optimization and promotion using web analytics to measure effectiveness and make recommendations for continuous refinement.

Don’t sabotage your web site’s search engine marketing performance by focusing solely on the web design/development aspects of web site optimization. Factor in the need to create and promote content, measuring results and scaling up what’s working and phasing out what doesn’t. Marketing on an ongoing basis essential for effective SEO results. That’s what the competition is doing and to be competitive, ongoing content creation, promotion and search analytics are a must for most web sites.

Are you a business or web design agency that unknowingly sabotaged your SEO opportunity? Please share your experiences in the comments.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. In re: 2, I actually recommend that companies do keyword research prior to developing their marketing materials. Even when the materials are paper or brochures or trade booths, the terms people use in search engines are indicative of the terms people use to describe the product. There is value in having the ‘paper’ promotional materials match the website, certainly, and by starting both with the same keyword glossary they create a better harmony across their communications efforts.

    • That’s great advice Julie. Really makes for integrated marketing when keywords align with marketing messages on and offline.

  2. Avatar Robert Auguste says


    Even though SEO is growing, is it difficult to convince large companies who are ingrained in hours of consumer research, acronyms, and marketing plans to step back and relate to consumers? You hear,”I have an idea or a profile.” But come web design they are cautious and feel they are the experts. I am only speaking and asking about F500’s and public companies.

    Would love to hear more insight.

    • Robert, that’s a good point and demonstrates the need to get top level support.

      There’s no better way to do that than to show the potential loss of revenue and potential increase from handling things properly.

      Provide examples of other companies making bad decisions and the consequences is a start.

      Then forecast your own profit/loss scenario as well based on analytics, search metrics and conversion data.

      Nothing speaks louder to top level management than $.

      • Avatar Derek | Hong Kong says

        Working with the larger companies will always require you to be able to show how their bottom line will increase. Like Lee says above, use examples of other companies in their field to illustrate how revenue could be lost. Hopefully this will lead them to chuckle at their competitors, and give you the upper hand.

        With big companies, offer to work directly with their ad agency if they use one (sometimes a headache, but can lead to more leads from the ad agency as well).


  3. Avatar Steen Seo Öhman says

    Great post … #1 is very important and often forgotten.

    #2 it should be the other way around … keyword research should be incorporated in the offline marketing.

    • Streen, the point of #2 is that companies focus on SEO keyword generation from their marketing rather than what consumers actually search on.

      You also make a good point as Julie did, that keyword research could be incorporated into offline marketing.

  4. This is usually the most difficult battle (corporate side) for me – convincing the visual design team to relinquish some of the visual “must haves” in favor of a more search friendly design. I believe that you CAN do both… have a visually appealing and search friendly site. There just needs to be give and take on both sides, and the on-page and general SEO aspects should be built into the design, not an afterthought… you have your work cut out for you there.

    “Build it and they will come” is not a strategy or simply does not work, you need for the site to be found easily, AND to be appealing, current, and rich enough to convert. I mean, conversion is the goal, right?

    Great post!! I am sure a lot of people can relate to this.

    Jim Summer
    tweet: @seo_web_design

    • Jim, I think one of the important questions to ask the web team and site owner is, “how do you plan on driving traffic to the web site?”. If attracting visitors from organic search is an expectation, then it’s a no brainer to create a business case for getting the design team to incorporate SEO tactics – if not completely, at least some kind of compromise.

      I agree with you in that you can have a visually appealing and search engine friendly web site.

      It all boils down to a properly thought out web strategy. If companies are buying web design services without thinking through the marketing of the website, then they may as well put a kick me sign on their back.

  5. Example: A killer app loaded with dynamic URLS which are not human readable, countless redirects, no site search feature, no ability to blog or add comments, no ‘Share This’ feature to send folks to that page, sloppy design which breaks money making links due to new file names (but replaced with custom 404 error message) and more. This adds up to no strong placement on organic search results and inability to send people there in today’s social media world.

    I look for ‘valuable’ links to attach to tweets and FB wall messages. Site architects need to factor in from the ground up, SEO, plus the new Google search permutations which emerged since January 2009.

    • Lola, you’re describing a typical design scenario that simply doesn’t count on organic search as a traffic driver.

      It’s like sending out a print catalog with a padlock on it.

      You bring up a very good point and touch on the topic of another post I have under wraps which follows a similar theme, but is focused on social media.

      Not only should new site designs and redesigns consider SEO factors but social media friendliness as well.

  6. Lee-

    Thanks for putting this thoughtful post together. You make a solid point when it comes to finding out how the client intends to get traffic to the “new” site. This can be an internal mindset challenge.

    A ‘products driven’ organization (focused on what they offer the marketplace) may not be as open to some of your ideas as a ‘marketing focused’ organization (emphasis on marketing first, products second). It seems to me that a company that is sold on marketing (central strategy) is more open to outside expertise guiding or even leading website efforts that are traditionally left to the IT Department.

    Post like this, taken to heart, can save a lot of heartache, and money, thanks for sharing your expertise!

  7. Avatar Brian Ratzker says

    The points you make in this post are good but I certainly have run into this mindset much less these days. I think that web developers are more educated in SEO now and this post just brought back memories to the challenges we used to face all the time. I can’t imagine the types of web developers companies use that still think like this.

    P.S. You might want to run a spell check.

    • Thanks Brian. It’s not always the web developer/designer – it’s often the company that hires them or the client/agency side account manager. I agree that more web designers are familiar with SEO, but there’s a big difference between familiar and being on top of what’s current. It boils down to awareness, education and being able to demonstrate the effect of ignoring SEO in the design/re-design process. Lip service to SEO via title tags isn’t going to cut it (for example).

      re: spell check, damn! That’s what I get for writing on a plane half asleep, yet inspired. All fixed now.

  8. Writing on a plane half asleep probably accounts for a large percentage of time you get to spend blogging Lee 🙂

  9. Don’t forget those that overwrite optimized pages because they didn’t think to download the new pages before making updates.

  10. The worst thing in Redesigning web sites is when the URLs changes and you don’t make a 301 redirect. You lost all the PR of internal pages.

  11. Another great post,Lee. Point 3 could be the other way around too, seeing it only as a marketing function and using a cms system that is seo unfriendly for example. As far as keyword research goes, you and Julie will love this. SEO savvy Company X sells thumb drives. Keyword research shows phrase ‘USB thumb drive’ has huge demand. Company X puts USB thumb drive on the packaging instead of just ‘thumb drive’ and sales soar. I’m sure there are hundreds more of these stories but the point is keyword research is like having thousands of people in a focus group. Why wouldn’t you use it first for any marketing research?

  12. Great post. One of the main problems I find with clients, especially design orientated clients.

  13. I have recently made your blog required reading for myself, and I don’t know how you do it, but I very often feel like you are speaking to exactly the kinds of challenges we are working through. #1 is what keeps me thinking about work long after I’ve left the office, and #2 is what I spend most of my time at work discussing with colleagues. The question I have is: how can I convince marketers that while the flash banner that takes up three quarters of the page looks cool, having more static content and therefore a more search friendly site would actually be cooler because it would drive more of the right type of traffic to our site?

    • We appreciate your readership a great deal Nicole! I’m glad the info is useful.

      The way to convince brand focused marketers to add more search friendly elements is through examples and data. Many marketers get caught up in the “cool” factor of interactive and creative marketing elements.

      Bring it back to objectives and show examples of your own or others that demonstrate the added bottom line value from making marketing content search engine friendly.

      If you don’t have examples, then it might be worth doing some A/B testing of sorts. Or compare two microsite performance in search – one that’s all Flash and no SEO and one that still includes Flash but contains content and inbound links that search engines can rank easily.

      I’ll make sure you have my contact info and am happy to provide any additional insight you need.

  14. Hey Lee, Great article explaining the ways a company can pull the plug on their online marketing strategy unknowingly. It may be a good idea as suggested by a few readers already to make changes to the company website according to the keywords rather than the other way. This is a straighter and clearer route.

  15. Thank you for this very informative article. I really appreciated the comparison of website SEO to weightloss in people – that is a great way to explain it!