Forging a fine-tuned SEO machine
Building or improving an SEO team at a company is a huge challenge. When they take the perspective of creating systems, instead of just hiring people, the right things to do become more obvious. In this article, I explain how to build an SEO organization.
The key to building any successful organization in a company is to create systems and optimize them. It’s not enough to hire people, you need to build a machine.
This article is a guide for building a strong SEO organization from scratch or improving an existing one fundamentally. But while reading you will find that it applies to almost any team. SEO is a good example because it’s very reliant on the collaboration with other teams. Thus, being successful in SEO in 2018 can only come from building organizational systems.
We know systems from eco-systems in biology, but there’s a better another analogy fits much better: machines.
The building blocks of an SEO machine
Every piece of a machine needs to have a purpose, otherwise, it’s useless. Every machine also has three key components without which it cannot work: input, process, output.
The easiest way to build a machine is to start by defining the output and then reverse engineer back to the input. In other words: start with the goal and then find out what you need to achieve it.
We will build out machine from the following parts:
Defining the right goal for SEO
How to position SEO
Building the right team
Building bridges to other organizations
Evangelization of SEO
Defining the right goal for SEO
Everything starts with a goal. Most startups “just want more organic traffic”, but that doesn’t cut it. Instead, SEO needs to provide clear, measurable business value and as such it makes sense to derive SEO goals from business goals.
“More traffic” is not a goal; “+30% conversion from organic traffic YoY” is.
You should also ask yourself the philosophical question "What does success in SEO look like?” Is it an increase in organic traffic, more conversions or building a team? Going down that trail helps you understand your focus and set realistic expectations for everyone.
Once the goal and priorities are clear, you can reverse engineer everything from there: resources, investment, time, content, backlink strategy, technical strategy, etc. Make sure the goal is visible in the company, either through an SEO page in your knowledge management system, through a blog article, or in another form of documentation. Everybody in the company should know it, especially SEO team members.
Reporting/monitoring is vital because it helps you understand how close to achieving your goal you are. At a minimum level, I recommend two formats:
A weekly meeting with the SEO team, analysts, and other stakeholders (e.g. paid team, Growth team, product marketers, etc.) to discuss and measure progress. In this meeting, you want to measure your weekly progression towards your yearly goal, discuss general WoW and YoY performance.
A bi-weekly or monthly SEO report that’s sent out to the key stakeholders – even the CEO if SEO is a crucial channel for the company – to give a high-level overview of performance and current projects.
Both formats should be prepared by the SEO analyst. She should not only pull the numbers but also understand current projects and priorities. It’s not enough to see where things are going, you also need to know why.
Members of the SEO team should use reporting/monitoring to understand what colleagues are and they themselves are doing. At the same time, it’s a great opportunity to show and discuss progress, problems, and plans (“3 P’s”).
For the SEO lead the weekly meeting is a lifeline to see whether things are going well or not and what the cause of possible problems is (more under “removing roadblock”). If there are yearly and quarterly goals, it’s important to get a weekly pulse in order to either pivot the strategy, ask for more resources or manage expectations early on.
Defining goal and setting up monitoring/reporting processes complete the output part of the machine. Now we can understand what we need to get there.
How to position SEO
Once the goal is clear and monitoring/reporting is set up, the organization needs to be put in the right position to set it up for success. This is where we move from Output to Input.
One of the biggest questions about SEO teams is where they should be positioned in the company structure. It’s an important question because it decides over success and failure. If misplaced, SEO doesn’t get the necessary resources and build the right pipelines.
The best answer to where SEO should live depends on the business model. B2B vs. B2C is not a good filter since some SaaS companies can use their product to scale SEO (to a degree), for example, Trello (boards) or Typeform (templates).
As I wrote in “A better approach to keyword research for Content Marketing”:
SEO for large vs. small sites is very different, not only from a technical but from a content perspective. Large sites can capitalize on their product inventory or user-generated content for SEO. Sites like Airbnb, Pinterest, Facebook, eBay, or Eventbrite have a big natural contingent of pages that they can target all sorts of queries with.
But small sites that cannot scale in the same fashion and rely much more on Content Marketing. Think of companies like DollarShaveClub, Salesforce, Hubspot, Mailchimp, Buffer, and many Shopify stores. The problem-driven keyword research process is more suited for them than others, even though not exclusive.
I’ve seen three constellations to positioning SEO within a company structure.
If you have a public facing product that allows SEO to scale, say reviews like Yelp or listings like AirBNB, SEO needs to be integrated into the Product organization. It’s crucial. The team has to be part of the product team and the SEO lead should report to the CTO (or CPO).
Any company with a degree of UGC (user generated content) or inventory must be built without SEO in mind. Scalable SEO products mostly occur in companies with consumer focus. Only in some cases is there an angle for a B2B company, e.g. Trello.
If you rely on Content Marketing to drive SEO, like Hubspot or certain products of Atlassian (e.g. Jira), the SEO team often sits in Marketing. This is the worst approach of all three, but sometimes unavoidable.
In this case, SEO relies much more on resources from design, writers, PR/brand, IT, developers, etc. and often has to compete for them. Thus, success stands and falls with allocating enough resources to SEO and creating shared KPIs to create a sense of responsibility for other teams.
Cross-functional Growth teams
The fastest growing companies drive growth with dedicated teams that own user acquisition, retention, and monetization. In this case, SEO lives under user-acquisition but shares many touch points with retention as well.
This is the approach I personally find the most fruitful because SEO is not just a user-acquisition channel. It can have a big impact on retention as well by using keyword research to identify keywords that indicate problems with the product, intents to churn, or missing features.
As part of the Growth team, SEO is often much more involved in experimentation and gets vital analyst, design, and developer resources.
Keep in mind that every organizational structure looks different*.
*And, by the way, my charts are not complete. They’re missing departments like finance, which are not crucial to understanding the optimal position of SEO in a company.
Building the right Team
Once the optimal position for SEO in the company is found, it’s time to put a team together, which is also part of Input.
At the very least, you need an SEO manager. I see a lot of single SEO managers who get an agency budget, but that’s hardly ever an ideal situation. Either SEO is part of your business and you do it right. Then you need to make adequate investments. Or it’s not and then it’s easier to have a developer or copywriter fix a few page titles and write some copy so you rank for your brand keywords.
That being said, the optimal constellation once again depends on whether SEO is integrated into Product or not.
Integrated SEO teams
If your SEO organization is integrated, the focus on technical SEO is much higher. The number of technical SEOs you hire depends on how many fields of technical SEO are important for your product. It can and should be as many as 3-5, if you have to do mobile SEO + App Store Optimization, regular migration work, implement structured data, internationalize a site, local SEO, regular technical audits, etc, as I outlined in
“Creating an SEO strategy from scratch”.
A Content SEO or link builder doesn’t hurt, depending on how much content you create. Even companies that scale SEO with the product often need some content, whether just on the blog or on category pages and other editorial parts of the site. On the link building side, however, it’s often enough to just get things going.
Having an SEO analyst is really important to constantly monitor the site and efforts. I’ve seen SEO analysts live in SEO teams or in a broader analytics team. As long as the role is dedicated and not shared across 3 teams, both ways can work.
The SEO lead should remove roadblocks, as described below, define the roadmap, and build bridges to other departments. In some cases, the SEO lead can also act as project manager or Scrum master, but a dedicated person is almost always a better idea.
Non-integrated SEO teams
If your SEO team is not integrated and (self-created) content plays a bigger role, the SEO organization stands and falls with writers. In best case, they’re part of the SEO team. Having content creators isolated from the SEO team is a bad idea. It’s easier to hire SEO writers and let them do other editorial tasks than hiring general writers and have them write “SEO content”.*
*That being said, I don’t like the notion of “SEO content” and “normal content”. Every content should work well on search engines and often it does with the right positive constraints.
Building great teams is not just a question of hiring. It’s also about fine-tuning responsibilities, processes, and developing people. All these tasks fall into the SEO Lead’s lap.
Responsibilities and processes are something that should be informed by 1on1s, performance reviews, monitoring, and performance. It comes down to how team members manage their time, how they estimate efforts for projects and the outcomes. This sometimes takes a while because you need to turn the machine on to understand whether it works as predicted or not. After all, we’re still dealing with people here and the machine is just an analogy. Understand that it’s not about assessing how good or bad someone is at their job – that’s a whole other discussion – but how well they’re able to do their job.
One helpful exercise is to improve efficiency is letting team members forecast the effort and impact of their OKRs and then measure against the real outcome at the end of a quarter. This leads to a much better understanding over time.
Developing people professionally and personally is absolutely crucial nowadays. One way to improve skills is courses and education, whether in-person or online. Another is to implement weekly meetings in which every member presents something she learned, is working on, or would like to learn. This also brings the team closer together.
I can only recommend having conversation with your team members in which you discuss their ambitions if you’re a manager because it adds so much to happiness and satisfaction. People who enjoy their work are not only more efficient but also more creative. Thus, it’s a goal more than worth pursuing.
A good manager fixes roadblock. She’s not supposed to make sure her team can do its best work, instead of doing the work herself (only in certain cases). It's one of a manager’s most important tasks, besides creating the strategy and setting priorities. In the machine analogy, removing roadblock would be mitigating friction and bottlenecks so the machine can run smoother. It’s process optimization.
How do you do it?
Look at the problems your team encounters when analyzing or implementing a project. Why are goals not met? Do the issues stem from missing knowledge or information, dependencies on other teams, budget, or infrastructural issues (like the CMS)?
Map out the steps it takes to complete a task and see where problems occur. A problem can often be solved and clarified by dissecting it into its smallest pieces.
Leverage 1on1s to proactively discuss bottlenecks and roadblock, as a manager and as a contributor.
Most of the time, you see the symptoms of a problem but not the cause. As you can imagine, only fixing symptoms doesn’t solve the problem. In order to find the root cause of a problem, one technique I like is the 5-whys as described by Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System:
Repeating “why” five times, like this, can help uncover the root problem and correct it. If this procedure were not carried through, one might simply replace the fuse of the pump shaft. In that case, the problems would recur within a few months. The Toyota production system has been built on the practice and evolution of this scientific approach. By asking and answering “why” five times, we can get to the real cause of the problem, which is often hidden behind more obvious symptoms.
(“The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries)
Building bridges to other organizations
SEO has become too broad to live in isolation; cooperation with other teams, like developers, analysts, writers, etc. has become vital. Thus, it’s important for the SEO lead to build bridges to other teams, especially when SEO is not integrated. There are two ways to build bridges: ongoing collaboration and cross-functional teams.
Ongoing collaboration is composed by creating regular meetings with the SEO team and others, placing members of the SEO teams in other teams’ meetings, and finding shared goals/KPIs.
Cross-functional teams are another way to strengthen the connection between separate teams and focus on projects. A tip I can give you is not to wait for cross-functional teams to form themselves, but to be proactive about them. Putting together and leading a cross-functional team can even accelerate a career.
The connection on the team lead level is equally important. The SEO lead should work very closely together with the developer lead, product lead, PPC lead, etc. Peer 1on1s and meetings with all team leads help to foster a shared understanding of goals, progress, and problems.
To build bridges, it’s not enough to build trust. You also need ongoing communication and a shared understanding that a certain action is beneficial for both parties.
Evangelization of SEO throughout the company
In many companies, SEO has to fight for recognition, awareness, and resources. This is, once again, even more so the case when SEO is not integrated. The culprit lies in the nature of SEO. It’s not an exact science, deals with a rapidly changing environment, and has become very complex (I wrote about that in “The time to take SEO beyond Google is now”). Workshops, showcases, and office hours are helpful tools to create the awareness necessary to get the resources you need.
Workshops are a good way to give people in other organizations the chance to ask questions to improve their understanding of SEO. They can be tied to SEO in general, or specific topics for teams: SEO for writers, technical SEO for developers, or link building for PR teams.
Helping others to help you is such an underrated way to get more resources and support! Create champions outside of your organization. Teach teams different parts of SEO, depending on whether they’re developers, writers, or designers.
Showcasing successful projects helps you to prove people that you’re there to help. Create presentations, write Emails, or write internal blog posts. Whatever helps you to communicate and describe SEO success.
Office hours are times in which you answer any question people have about SEO. Block, for example, an hour in a meeting room and invite the most important stakeholders to come and ask whatever is on their mind. That fosters the connection to such stakeholders and evangelizes SEO.
Evangelization is not easy, but it can make your life that much easier. That completes the process part of our machine.
A fine-tuned SEO machine: Input > Process > Output
Forging a fine-tuned SEO machine takes time, patience, and constant recalibration. But, in the end, it’s the best way to achieve the goals you set out to.
Combining the three parts of our “SEO machine” gives us a good template for creating an SEO organization (or any other type). Especially for team leads, this perspective should be very helpful and easy to combine with the SEO strategy I outlined in “Creating an SEO strategy from scratch”.