5 principles of an ideal SEO team structure
There is a method to (re)structuring an SEO team. In this article, I explain the 5 guiding principles to keep in mind.
A couple of weeks after joining G2 as VP of SEO and Content, I started thinking about my team structure. The org design had room for improvement. It wouldn’t take long before I learned a fundamental lesson about team structures that served me well ever since: design for goals, not people.
Good org design is a skill that can be learned and mastered. There is a method to structuring a team or designing an organization that’s based on principles. You might read this article to learn about hiring as a first-time manager, but even for seasoned executives it’s important to get a refresher on what good hiring and team structure looks like.
As (SEO) leaders, building a team that drives results is as important as the craft itself. Team structure can make or break performance because the team is an extension of the leader. It’s a way to scale the impact of an individual. That’s why, to be successful, leaders need to lean on their team to find problems and solutions, define the strategy, and execute.
In Forging a fine-tuned SEO machine, I cover where inhouse SEO teams are best situated based on the business model of a company. In this post, I focus more on the specific roles in a strong SEO team and how it’s structured.
Know what success of the SEO team looks like
The biggest trap when building an SEO team or redesigning an SEO org is to think that you need one member of each focus area in SEO: content marketing, technical SEO, analytics, and link building. That’s the dogmatic approach, but the way you want to think about it is in first principles.
Thinking in first principles means starting with the goal and then working your way backward to input. What are you trying to achieve and what type of skills do you need for that? In essence, build your structure around driving outcomes in the context of the business model.
Working from the goal backward, the first of five principles, starts with knowing what success for the SEO team looks like. Before writing any job description, you should define success metrics for your team so you can define why each role is critical.
This first principle is so important because the difinition of success is not static. It’s fluid. Success isn’t the same in five years. In fact, it can quickly change based on consumer behavior changes, economic environment, or company strategy. Just think about how the pandemic changed priorities for many (most?) business over night.
Embrace the business model
The second principle is to make sure you structure your team for the business model of the company you work for. Every business model has different SEO growth levers and they’re connected to the type of business.
On the internet, we can distinguish between five core business models:
We can simplify this even more to sites that can scale with inventory or UGC (user-generated content) like Ecommerce or Marketplaces and sites that scale through their own content like publishers and SaaS companies. I refer to the former as aggregators and the latter as integrators.
Prioritize roles around growth levers
The third principle for designing an SEO org is to prioritize the roles you hire around growth levers. You need to know what tactics and strategies lead to results.
SEO is one of the few scalable growth channels but levers looks different for aggregators vs. integrators. As a result, you need different skill sets for each. Aggregator SEO is heavier on the technical SEO side and deals with UGC quality, indexing, schema, and crawling. Integrators, on the other hand, drive impact with content marketing, focusing on linkable assets, long-form content, video, and “thought leadership” content.
As a result, aggregators should over index on technical SEO and integrators on content marketers or SEOs with a strong content focus.
Understand the opportunity
Understanding the opportunity you’re going after as an (SEO) team is the fourth principle. Before making a call in the ideal structure, you should know your strategy and, most importantly, opportunity size.
Together with the definition of success, an understanding of growth levers, and priorities, the total opportunity is the defining factor of team size. You can express the opportunity in (organic) traffic but revenue will get help you get attention from the right people much faster. Alternatively, use a north star metric if your organization follows one but don’t forget to describe the TAM.
Get the sequencing right
Lastly, the fifth principle is about the right sequencing. In other words, don’t start with the job descriptions before know what success looks like. Don’t outline the total opportunity size before understanding how the business grows and makes money. There is a good reason I sorted each of the five principles.
Following the wrong sequence of principles causes extra work and delays the team structure process. On the other hand, getting it right will push you to define a coherent strategy and clarify all your actions, not just hiring and team structure. Your roadmap, reporting, goal setting, and execution will be smoother. You’ll get more buy-in because other managers and stakeholders see that your strategy comes fom first-principles and makes sense in the context.
Note that even when you inherit a team, jumping to conclusions too quickly is a trap. At G2, my impulse was to work with what I had instead of thinking about what I need. Luckily, my manager helped me see the flaw in my thinking and put me on the right path before I did any damage.
You probably realized by now that all principles are interconnected. They build on top of each other:
You cannot understand the business model without knowing its goals (and your team’s goals), you cannot understand the levers without understanding the business model, and so forth.
I want to point out another aspect of the five guiding principles I listed in this article: they’re not unique to SEO. Whether you’re structuring for Growth or another craft, the five principles are universal.
Lastly, you might have noticed that I didn’t prescribe any specific team structure and there is a good reason for that: it doesn’t exist. There is only an optimal structure for the current time and situation. Context changes and so do priorities. In fact, sicking to the same structure for too long can be detrimental if it slows you down in a new context.