SEO in the business hierarchy
In 2004, SEO as a discipline was perceived as some kind of dark art performed behind the scenes. This “SEO voodoo” had minimal effect on a website and nothing to do with the actual business. Some people bought some links on more or less shady corners of the web and miraculously the Google rankings shot up.
Fast forward to 2023, we still don’t have proper jetpacks, flying cars or hoverboards, but modern SEO is a far cry from 20 years ago. Today, SEO is about:ContentUXTrust And other “new” elements.
Yet we’re not yet fully there. We haven’t yet arrived at a place where SEO clearly informs every part of the business like:
If you’re lucky, you have an SEO team within your company. This already puts you ahead of the competition in many cases.
Most organizations have marketing and sales teams – even small businesses with limited resources, but SEO is not as mainstream.
So where do we place SEO responsibilities within an organization to ensure the best results?Why do businesses still struggle to add SEO to their hierarchy?
Some startups and local businesses may even need external input when it comes to organic search opportunities. But oftentimes, the marketing, tech or PR team (or person) has to implement the SEO advice.
Other departments often encroach on or thwart SEO efforts – at times by accident or, in some cases, due to assumed superiority.
So where do we insert SEO expertise to achieve the best results?
You need to establish a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to SEO that does not treat the still relatively new discipline as separate and place it at the far end of business concerns.
The earlier you take SEO into account the better for the whole business.
Just don’t overdo it. Don’t make your business a “one-trick pony” dependent on often volatile Google traffic.
Given the current realities, companies often “forget” SEO until it’s too late.
Having an external SEO consultant, agency or some foster child type of in-house SEO who can’t introduce sweeping changes across a larger organization is futile.
We may end up with an outcast type of situation where SEO is a mere afterthought that often forces the SEO expert to bend the rules to get any results.When to start SEO? At the start!
Over the years I have seen many futile attempts to sprinkle a little SEO after everything else was done. Plenty of #SEOhorrorstories, such as: A relaunch of the website that completely ignores SEO? Still happens.“Forgetting” to add redirects to new URLs while the old ones just result in 404 errors? Check!Shiny website designs that made designers happy but did not even have enough space for content, let alone content optimization? Been there.
I’ve seen these and more follies – you name it! Unfortunately, some organizations fail to realize that you can’t wait until everything else is done and perform SEO like some cosmetic surgery.
The earlier you add SEO considerations to business planning the better:What is your product, and how do you name it? Is there an actual market for it? Do “people also ask” for it on Google already? Is there a lot of competition for that type of offer in your area? Is it better to create a new name you can then promote to generate demand?Do you have educational content about your industry?
Get the daily newsletter search marketers rely on.Is SEO at the lowest level of the hierarchy?
SEO often gets treated as being at the lowest level of the business hierarchy. It happens especially with an independent consultant or freelance SEO.
The SEO may be perceived as a stranger trying to meddle with senior team members who have spent years climbing the career ladders within a company.
In the worst case, SEO is on the bottom rung.
Of course, a structure like this is doomed to fail. The business eventually suffers.
Without organic traffic, a growing dependence on paid search efforts will significantly impact marketing budgets. (And don’t get me started on click fraud!)Putting SEO ‘everywhere’
Modern SEO is a multidisciplinary approach that requires input throughout the whole business structure.
We can’t just put SEO on the outskirts of a project or inside a silo to limit its scope. Ideally, SEO insights should inform most other teams. Data from other business areas could improve your SEO approach.
This type of multidisciplinary SEO approach has been highlighted by seasoned SEO agency founder Olaf Kopp who published a straightforward albeit intriguing view of the SEO impact on other teams.
He inspired me to write this article by what he said in a LinkedIn post:
“SEOs should act more and more as an interface to all departments responsible for communication.”
He added a well-structured visualization of how SEO can relate to other teams. Let’s look at it before we dive into each team’s responsibilities:
Market research is at the start and also a wonderful example. Ideally, you perform surveys, ask people about their needs and go out in the wild to find out what’s happening.
How do people use your product? If you don’t have one yet, what pain points do they have with existing ones?
These insights are invaluable also for SEO. They can get translated into keywords or the questions can be used directly for content by providing answers.
Likewise, keyword research performed by SEO experts can inform and inspire market research as a whole.
As an SEO, I typically offer both market and keyword research, but I am aware that my skills and capabilities are fairly limited.
I can’t go out and meet potential customers to see how they use a vacuum cleaner. I only look at searches people perform, existing websites, and products already on the market.
Thus, personally, I’d add an arrow showing in both directions here.
Marketing in general is a huge discipline by itself. Depending on the company and its size it may be a plethora of things, including: Trade fairs.CRM.Email newsletters.Social media ads.Customer (service) feedback.
Many companies are tempted to add SEO as just another part of the marketing mix, which reinforces the silo approach I mentioned earlier and leads to missed opportunities.
I often encounter this issue when working with large companies.
First, seemingly everybody could interfere with my work while my feedback remain unheard. I might never get any feedback unless it was a negative one indicating “we can’t do that.”
I once asked the newsletter team to add links to content I created only to hear them say, “No, we have enough links already. You have to ask for them several weeks in advance.” When I did ask months in advance, I still did not get the links.
I could add more examples, but you get the point. Being the SEO outsider wasn’t a position that allowed me to align the SEO efforts with larger business objectives.
Again, the SEO person shouldn’t be the only one to inform and inspire the whole marketing team, it’s also vice versa.
The “real” marketers can help make SEO succeed when they don’t perceive it as a nuisance, threat or afterthought. Again, I’d rather add an arrow showing in both directions.
Sales should be obvious. How is it connected to SEO? Ideally, a key performance indicator of SEO success is sales or at least conversion metrics.
The customer journey is too long and complicated? You don’t want to rely on last-click attribution? You haven’t figured out more accurate metrics?
Then, at least give the SEO access to the raw data. They may be able to find some correlations:Did sales drop when traffic tanked? Did sales increase when the SEO campaign was launched? What drives sales outside of SEO?
Anything can be useful as feedback to the SEO specialist trying to go blindly in the right direction.
Also, listen to the SEO who will tell you that branded traffic may not increase sales or that very broad general audience keywords have merely informational intent and thus do not lead to sales either.
So again here we have an arrow pointing both ways.
The other teams are more self-explanatory so I will keep it short.
Content creation requires SEO input at least. What topics to cover?Which keywords to use in the headline or title? Which question “people also ask” to answer?
The content team – be it writers, photographers or illustrators – should speak with the SEO about what they are doing.
Newsletter covering a specific product? Please add these keywords and links!
Photos from the trade fair? Excellent! Please take photos of some influencers we can mention!
Using graphic novel-inspired artwork? Wonderful! Let us reach out to the geeks!
Guess which way the arrow points then!
Likewise, editors or publishers may be surprised at the input they get from SEO experts. They may find out that they are writing content for the wrong audience or just ignoring some parts of the sales funnel completely.
Usually, we tend to publish top-of-the-funnel content unless we take a closer look at content strategy.
PR is such a treasure trove to SEO practitioners. Often, we see PR and SEO teams working side by side with no significant cooperation between them. But there is a way to combine both efforts.
Search (and social media) ads can provide a wealth of information on demand, keywords and trends. Please share them with the SEO.
The SEO person can also give you many ideas on what to advertise based on organic demand.
UX has indeed been part of SEO for many years. It goes so far that some SEOs call themselves search experience optimizers.
Make sure that the SEO and UX people work closely together or end up with conflicting priorities and penalties at worst.
A redesign solely based on UX considerations may destroy your Google rankings. The information flow has to go both ways.
IT/dev teams have the highest risk of destroying years of SEO work. Ask an SEO before major changes to any “running system” you have established.
Also, be willing to improve existing systems based on SEO feedback. Pay attention to server speed, URL structure and third-party code libraries which can cause issues.SEO isn’t limited to communications-related tasks
Kopp stresses the communications teams as the most relevant for SEO.
But the SEO expert should be able to consult throughout the whole business process but stay outside the rigid hierarchy.
This enables other teams and experts to have as much positive impact on organic reach as possible.
Do you play chess? The SEO person is ideally the knight. Jumping in from outside in to help when needed and to receive feedback on where to go next.
Ideally, SEO starts at the product level. Product names are already keywords.
Marketing and sales are directly dependent on organic search traffic so neither department should ignore or overrule SEO decisions without taking the SEO expert’s advice into account.
SEO also affects content publishing and PR efforts in manifold ways. The technology behind the website is clearly subject to “technical SEO” considerations.
On the other hand design (hence UX) and technology teams also benefit from SEO input voiced as early as possible (before a redesign or technical changes).How to integrate SEO throughout the business process without losing sight of the bigger picture
Make the SEO specialist or content marketer (whatever you prefer the person to be called) as independent as needed. The person or team should be able to inform and consult the other teams throughout the company – not just the marketing department.
Don’t limit access to decision-making processes by establishing rigid hierarchies that depend on personal relations or top-down structures.
The SEO should be ideally able to report to the CEO or CTO directly not through a game of telephone or by talking to numerous superiors.
For larger companies, a project manager should be able to help. That person needs the necessary clout inside the business to assign tasks and priorities. Ideally, the SEO specialist should not be responsible for project management.
Believe it or not, the alternative is a potential deadlock. Once I had to ask permission from up to nine different “superiors” before being able to make a change or publish something within a larger international company. The actual work was done but different opinions and numerous change requests based on the perceived importance of each stakeholder in the hierarchy literally blocked progress.
So no, you can’t just push SEO into the geeky corner of technical changes. SEO has to inform the whole business process – the more input gets included the better the results. Kopp concludes:
“The former nerd child SEO, who conjures up rankings with some SEO magic, has to grow up and work as an internal consultant and salesperson.”
So it’s not just the business hierarchy that adapts and integrates the SEO practitioner. The SEO expert has to embrace all other teams and give up the limited technical perspective to succeed in the long run.