SEO Success: Sign of a Healthy Corporate Culture

First published July 9, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’ve been working with companies on SEO for over a decade now, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed: all things being equal, healthy companies with great cultures seem to do much better in organic search results. And by organic success, I mean the good, white-hat, Matt Cutts-approved kind of success. I bet that if you found the companies that do well in organic search, you’d also find companies that Jim Collins (author of “Built to Last” and “Good to Great”) would be proud of. This correlation can’t be coincidence, so I’ve outlined some reasons why this might be so:

Flatter and more-responsive organizations. Working on SEO is like taking your Web site to the doctor: a good SEO consultant will tell you what you have to do, but the hard work is up to you. Companies that listen and respond will do better than companies that justify, finger-point and go on the defensive. Healthy companies look for ways to improve; dysfunctional companies offer reasons why improvement is impossible. Companies that refuse to do the heavy lifting required to whip their site into shape generally are equally negligent in other areas of their business.

Better communication channels. SEO is by nature a cross-functional exercise. It involves many different departments, all working together toward a common goal. This approach is well within the comfort zone of healthy organizations, but totally foreign to dysfunctional ones. An SEO initiative severely tests the communication and cooperative capabilities of an organization. It requires marketing, IT, product managers and often legal to all work together, and the faster they can do this, the more positive the results will be. SEO is not a one-shot tactic. In the most competitive categories, it’s a full-out and ongoing war. The companies that can respond and adapt quickly will win that war. The ones mired in bureaucracy and butt-covering will inevitably sink in the rankings.

Healthy community connections. The new era of digital communications requires companies to be engaged in an ongoing dialogue with their community of customers. Great companies do this instinctively. Bad companies put up huge corporate communication barricades, keeping the angry hordes at bay. Because much of this dialogue happens online, these dialogues tend to generate reams of content and links. Raving customers generate link love; angry customers generate link hate and reputation management problems. A company that can effectively engage in conversations with customers will find a natural lift in organic rankings is often the result.

Efficient execution habits. Companies that keep a clean house do better organically than companies that keep skeletons in the closet. Both approaches are symptomatic of the company’s overall approach to business. Highly effective companies constantly upgrade systems and infrastructure, both in their organizations and their online presence. They invest in best of breed tools and technology. And they are able to quickly prioritize and executive as the landscape shifts. Again, a clean technical online infrastructure makes SEO much, much easier.

Executives that “get it.” C-level executives who make SEO a priority realize that the marketing landscape is shifting quickly. They’ve been paying attention to customer behavioral trends and have committed to being proactive rather than reactive. This usually indicates well-placed intelligence gathering “antennae” and feedback loops. It also indicates an executive who isn’t hopelessly mired in “old-boy” thinking and outdated command and control management models.

Corporate pride. Content might not be the sole king anymore (SEO is more of an oligarchy now) but it’s still part of the ruling class. Great cultures tend to engender pride that naturally precipitates an explosion of content. People blog about where they work, people tweet and product managers enthuse verbosely about what they’re working on. All of this generates great, searchable content online.

Companies get the SEO rankings they deserve. I’m guessing that if you asked any SEO consultant in the world, they’ll tell you their favorite clients are the ones that are the easiest to work with: clients who listen, are proactive and for whom continual improvement is a religion. Based on what I’ve seen in the past decade, this attitude extends beyond the SEO team (indeed, it has to) and permeates the entire culture. There are those who game the system and gain undeserved rankings, but more and more, “organic” rankings are just that: rankings that come from the very nature of the company and how they conduct themselves in the marketplace.

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