This Seattle nerve center is the hub of the daily online interaction between more than 8,000 auto dealerships across the U.S.A. and Canada, and the Internet public in the local communities that surround them.
Cross the street from the NFL play-action and you’ll step onto “virtual playing field” of Cobalt, an ADP company. Cobalt has mastered the art, science and sport of search engine marketing in a league as broad as the entire automotive industry. Their search marketing playbook is run daily with all eyes on the same goal: to help auto dealers across the country engage more effectively via online marketing and SEO, and to help you discover a great deal on a car, and buy it. Cobalt plays to win!
The Special Teams’ coach and offensive strategist for this team of over 600 online marketing professionals is Cobalt’s Sr. SEO Manager, Dana Melick, a veteran marketer behind search engines like Singingfish (a multimedia search engine acquired by AOL in 2003), agencies like Avenue A, where he managed their SEO biz dev, and Covario, an SEO automation company. The “Defensive Line” coach, guarding against adverse “play-action” that can result from inadvertent fouls or fumbles that may produce negative user reviews, is Cobalt Reputation Manager, Jason Davis (see our “People” profile on “SEO Turn Signals.”)
We huddled up for a pre-game “ShopTalk”with these Seattle All-Stars on how Cobalt is applying the best practices of SEO and SEO-RM (for Reputation Management) on a massive scale. If you are entirely new to “industrial-strength SEO,” consider this your “Learner’s Permit.” if you are already behind the wheel and accelerating into more advanced SEO, here’s your “Fuel-injected, Turbo Boost!” Drivers, start your search engines.
Seattle24x7: Thanks for giving us the inside track on auto dealer SEO, Dana. Is Seattle the center point of Cobalt’s search marketing across the U.S.A. and Canada?
Dana: Yes. Here in Seattle we staff about 800 professionals in online marketing. We’re a part of ADP’s Dealer Services Digital Marketing Group. ADP itself is headquartered back east.
Seattle24x7: How many Websites are you helping to market?
Dana: The company itself manages about 8,000 websites. We have a number of relationships with manufacturers like GM, Hyundai, VW, and others, where we manage a majority, if not all, of their dealers’ websites for them. For the SEO department, we manage somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 websites. Of those 6,000, we break that into two service offerings.
Our Core Website Solution business model is to provide a website solution for dealers. With this service, we provide optimization services on the homepage. We make sure they rank for their dealer name, the manufacturer they represent, and the geography in which they’re selling their cars. When someone buys our Core Website Solution, the site itself is optimized from a template perspective, and then we have an SEO Specialist optimize the homepage from a set of criteria.
Generally we focus on optimizing for those geographies that will drive more traffic and more value for dealers. The other side of the house is for dealers seeking full-site optimization. That’s what we call “PowerSEO.
Seattle24x7: How many professionals do you have on the team?
Dana: Cobalt employs about 800 people. We’ve got a big development team, a significant technical support team, and a fairly large business intelligence team. That’s one of the values of the business – because we manage so many auto dealerships, we have the largest automotive data warehouse in the world, which provides a lot of insight into what’s going on in the car industry.
Seattle24x7: Impressive! Since you focus so intently on Local SEO, how have you adapted to Google’s ongoing changes in their Local platform? Has this been a challenge for you?
Dana: Yes, it’s been a really big challenge. Because of the way Google has set it up its local Maps, and now Google+ Local pages…the changes are everpresent. One of our greatest challenges is how we can best manage that. It is definitely a moving target.
For our Core Service, we set up a verification of their Google+ Local pages. And for those who use our PowerSEO service, we go beyond the verification and actually optimize the listing. We work with Localeze to get Local citations verified and synced up.
One challenge with Google and the auto industry is that dealers have relied on a single address, even though they have different businesses and brands. For example, one sells Saab, one sells Kia—and each has different showrooms. Google doesn’t like that. They may send a postcard, but that often looks like junk mail. So our clients look at us, and ask, “Why aren’t you managing this?” We tell them, “This part is outside our control. We can make changes to certain things, but we have to request changes through Google for others.”
Seattle24x7: What advice do you have for resolving those situations where there are multiple businesses sharing the same mailing address? Do you recommend establishing secondary addresses?
Dana: You’ve got to have secondary addresses, and phone numbers. Put a mailbox somewhere! Otherwise, Google just won’t allow it. In some instances, we get these business listings extracted from each other, and yet, a couple months later, they’re combined together again. We don’t have control over why Google did it, but the client is upset about it.
Seattle24x7: Beyond Local citations, what is the extent of linkbuilding you do with PowerSEO?
Dana: We do a lot of other off-page linkbuilding, and the focus is obviously either auto industry-related, or local. We have some network sites, but we really try to go for the local aspect of it. In other words, we talk with the dealer and ask them who their local business partners are, what sponsorships do they support in their local area, who do they do business with…. Better business bureau, chamber of commerce, all of those things.
Seattle24x7: What are the Key Performance Indicators in the auto industry?
Dana: Inventory searches is a very high indicator of a motivated purchase. The more inventory searches dealers get on their website, the more business opportunity they have. From the dealer’s perspective, they’re looking for leads. So tracking phone calls, emails, and visits to the Hours and Directions page is very important to them. Lastly, high numbers of Website visits are a strong indicator of intent.
Seattle24x7: Now that Social has become so pervasive, how do you fold it into the mix?
Dana: We put processes in place so that people will write reviews when they buy cars, and post their reviews on third-party review sites. If it’s a less than positive review, we have the dealer respond, in a professional fashion. We have a service we provide, called Reputation Management, which is a significant issue for car dealers.
Seattle24x7: How do you contend with negative reviews?
Dana: We’ve got what we call PICs, or Professional Improvement Consultants. They’re there to help the dealer manage their business more effectively. They help the dealer leverage what they’re doing with the services we’re providing to make more money. For example, they’ll go in and say, “Look, your reviews are an indicator of what’s happening in your business, not just online.”
Seattle24x7: So, are you able to track repeat visitors as a means of personalizing business with your customers? In other words, if you can see someone’s been to a website four or five times, the dealer could change the pitch, the price or the message?
Dana: Yes, part of what we do is Retargeting. If we’ve seen someone has been to a website more than once, we’ll retarget them, both on our own site and on other sites—if the dealer has signed up for that service. We usually do this through contextual banner advertising.
Seattle24x7: When you place these search engine listings, do you augment the content at all for keyword density or LSI?
Dana: We have LSI as top of mind, but the focus is—because we manage so many websites, and there’s such a potential to have duplicate content, or extremely similar content—we’ve got sixty people doing a lot of writing (there are 60 people doing this in the SEO department), trying to localize the content as much as possible
Seattle24x7: Have you integrated Schema.org formatting into your SEO?
Dana: Schema.org is something we’ve been working on for a while now with our Websites, and we’re going to be making even more updates with that in the very near future.
Seattle24x7: What do you think is the least understood thing about this process—that when you’re doing a great job, your clients come to understand?
Dana: There’s still a lot of education about digital marketing that needs to happen in the automobile industry. Many dealers are still thinking in terms of leads only. How many phone calls did we get, how many emails? For those that really understand more of what’s happening, from a digital and an overall marketing perspective, it’s really about how all of it works together— how we can take what they’re doing traditionally and combine it with all the “Search steps.” Paid search, organic, email marketing, retargeting. We want to show them that when they work with us, there is a significant impact on their business.
Seattle24x7: If you were to single any one of these things out, what would you say is moving the needle the most, just in terms of SEO?
Dana: You know, I think the biggest impact that we’re seeing is coming from Social, and Google+ Local. Those are the two things that we see having the biggest impact on getting listings, rankings, and traffic.
Seattle24x7: How would you compare Google vs. Bing, in this department? What about Yahoo, and its recent moves?
Dana: I think everything about Yahoo is TBD—we’ll have to wait and see. As for Bing, we do like what they’re doing, especially the tools that they’re providing, from an SEO perspective. We’ll continue to make sure our clients’ information is showing up in Bing, but it’s Bing’s job to make sure people are using their search engine in the first place.
Seattle24x7: Cobalt has truly distinguished itself from the rest. It has emerged in a class by itself!
Dana: The thing that I find most exciting is the big group we have around here. It’s one of the largest SEO departments that I’m aware of, and we come from so many different backgrounds, it’s amazing. With all the data we have around us, it’s just a fun environment to practice SEO in. As you know, there’s no one right way to do all of this, so to have this many people to bounce ideas off each other and share best practices, it’s really great.
Seattle24x7: From a recruitment standpoint, what kind of people are you looking for? What sort of in-house training do you do with new recruits?
Dana: Well, the first thing they have to show us is that they can write. For both sides of the house—home page SEO or full-site SEO—in either case, they need to be able to write well. We want to be able to see how they analyze a website from an SEO perspective, so we do have them run through a couple of examples—like, “Here’s some text, rewrite it to make it more effective,” or, “Here’s a site, tell us the top X number of things you’d do to it to improve rankings and referrals.” That’s our core evaluation. Then, particularly for the PowerSEO section, we dig more into their client service capabilities, because that’s a position where they’re speaking to our clients on a regular basis.
Seattle24x7: What sort of ongoing training do you do, as new changes come about in the search engines?
Dana: We provide both Webinar training, and internal training. A lot of this information we dig up ourselves. For example, when the ten pack of snippets started coming out a year ago, we started doing some analysis about it: where was Google grabbing this information from? Where’s the title coming from? Where’s the description coming from? Why are they grabbing these titles and these pages? Now, with this large group of websites we manage.
Seattle24x7: What would you summarize is your most formidable challenge?
Dana: The biggest challenge we have here is scale. We’ve got a development team that’s focused solely on our SEO services and developing our own tools in-house. We’ve tried but we cannot find anybody else capable of supporting us. [24×7]
Visit Cobalt online at http://www.cobalt.com