SEO Management in 10 Words… Part 1
If you run an SEO operation in-house or at an agency, you’ll know that building an excellent SEO practice that can continually generate winning results is no mean feat. To my mind there are three main challenges that lie in your path:
- With SEO staff in such high demand you can find your team in a state of constant flux as ambitious people move on to pastures new.
- As SEO evolves the tactics and systems you have built your SEO practice on may no longer cut the mustard and change in how you operate becomes essential.
- SEO’s movement towards the mainstream of marketing and the way it spans several traditional company departments (PR, IT, Marketing, Sales, Finance, Legal) means more and more potential SEO stakeholders within your company or clients. Each additional voice will increase the level of complexity and compromise needed to of run your SEO practice successfully.
These challenges will not go away, and no SEO team is immune to them. In my opinion, the best way to overcome these challenges and to encourage sustainable growth in your SEO team is through the development of a culture focused on commitment to producing a great service for your company or clients.
At Tesco, Terry Leahy spent years building a culture that propelled the supermarket from a middle-of-the-road british brand to a world-leading behemoth. His recent book, “Management in 10 Words” describes the core principles which he based this culture on; it’s an excellent read and I would encourage anyone with an interest in marketing to spend some time on it.
At Performics, we have over 700 search specialists in 30 countries. Making them work in exactly the same way would be nigh on impossible, and would destroy the local element of our practice. What makes us one team is our culture, which we try to replicate in each office. Based on this experience of working in a successful international search team, and with apologies to Mr Leahy, I’ll attempt to sum up the 10 words that describe a thriving SEO practice, and how, as the manager of said practice, you can build the kind of winning culture that will help your team be successful.
There’s a well known saying “that opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one”. You’ll often hear this when there are too many stakeholders trying to have their say on a project. However, take this metaphor another step further; if you don’t have an arsehole, then you’re full of shit! What I’m trying to say is that good SEOs will have an opinion on everything, and the strength of these opinions is a good barometer of the person’s enthusiasm for SEO in general.
We are all aware that SEO isn’t an exact science, and with the exception of some issues around indexation, there are no definitive right and wrong answers. If there are SEOs in your team who don’t have an opinion on hot topics such as the best way to acquire links, or whether negative factors in the algorithm are a good thing, then why are they doing SEO? Even worse, do they have an opinion and are scared to voice it in front of everyone else?
To build a successful practice, it is vital to provide a regular forum for opinions to be aired on all aspects of your SEO practice and current engagements. Even more importantly, never belittle someone’s opinion. Deconstruct and explain why you disagree, but never make someone feel bad for voicing their thoughts.
If your team regularly voice their opinions, you’ll be challenged and you’ll often find yourself mediating debates, but you’ll know you are cultivating a group of passionate and enthusiastic SEOs – the kind of thing clients and employers love to see.
This is really a crucial element in building a best-of-breed SEO team. Having curious SEOs can often seem like a bit of a burden; it might be hard to keep them focused on getting through their day to day tasks, but it’s important to look past this to the massive benefits curiosity brings.
Curiosity leads SEOs down all sorts of dark and winding alleys, but more often than not, the nuggets of information mined from these investigations can be of vital importance to improving overall performance. Perhaps of equal importance is the fact that curious SEOs often produce insights which delight clients or colleagues; leading to their increased reliance upon your team.
A practical example of curiosity in action would be regular reports. Some SEOs are happy to send through reports and merely describe trends in results, excellent SEOs will really dive into the data behind them and not rest until they can account for what is causing the trends to occur. This sounds like a trivial point, and curiosity is often absent from reports as we all hate compiling them, but think about it: a client doesn’t need to be told traffic from generic keywords increased if there is already a graph that illustrates traffic. At best, the client will stop reading report summaries as they offer little of value, at worst they will feel patronised and annoyed.
To make sure curiosity is encouraged; don’t allow your team to send a report without reading the executive summary first. If it simply contains a description of the data, reject it and ask them to explain in a few bullet points what caused the trends. You should also provide regular training on how to interrogate and analyse data if you expect people in your team to act upon their curiosity. If someone has no idea about how to penetrate a dashboard full of numbers their curiosity to understand is likely to be blunted from the start.
Sometimes you may feel exasperated that someone on your team can spend so long on one report, or one set of recommendations, but ultimately curious SEOs will produce better insights into things like “what causes our competitors to rank so well?”, “what’s the best piece of content on a current topic” or “how can our reports be improved?” In short, curious SEOs, despite often being harder to manage, are awesome.
I don’t believe this one needs a lot of explanation, clearly having a culture in which people are encouraged to innovate is a good thing. However, how do you bring this culture about? Innovations often take up a lot of time and we’re all busy people.
As a team leader, one thing you should be focused on is pain points within your standard procedures. Pain points (e.g. overly manual excel reports) don’t seem so bad if they aren’t a part of your day-to-day, but they frustrate your staff, sometimes to the point where they want to leave their role. Given the technology available to SEOs, any repetitive task can and should be automated or streamlined.
It’s important to acknowledge that as team leader you might not be the only person who can come up with a solution to the problem; at regular meetings we discuss problems we’re encountering in our day to day work and try to brainstorm ways of sorting them out. This should foster a culture in which SEOs recognise when an innovation needs to be made Ultimately, the dream is to create a team that continually makes itself more efficient through innovation.. As team leader your job is to flag these innovations to clients and stakeholders as evidence that you are working hard to deliver as much bang-for–their-buck as possible. Being able to plough 50% of reporting time into content marketing or copywriting is going to be music to their ears because money is being spent where it makes a real difference.
Obviously it’s necessary to foster a culture in which people are encouraged to understand all aspects of SEO; you could do this through publishing a weekly reading list, or setting up a forum for people in your team to post things they have read and found useful.
What’s more important is that you understand your clients, or the internal stakeholders upon whom your team depends. It’s important to find out exactly what success looks like to them. Never assume that it is purely ranking, traffic and sales.
I have worked on numerous engagements where the really important people, the people who sign the cheques, didn’t judge SEO in the same way as the client contact. To them, it might be ranking #1 for a term they search on their own computer, which you don’t believe is a priority. Now you could go in for all this “client education” stuff, but chances are you won’t get enough face time with people beyond the client contact… it’s better to accept that this obscure keyword is important to the company and address it ASAP, so you can move onto the real meaty SEO goals set within the client contact.
When it comes to putting team members in front of clients, the good ones will be the ones who focus on asking the right questions, and discovering the crucial idiosyncrasies only the client could tell them.
Similarly, don’t just allow your team to assume that keywords with the most search volume are the most important. If you take time to understand which client products make the most margin, or whether the client has a warehouse of product that’s about to go out of date, you could help them achieve a result that makes them look awesome to their superiors. What’s going to make your client happier: ranking #1 for “blue widget”, a term that gets 10,000 searches / month, but which they have no stock of, or ranking #1 for “red widgets” which only gets 1,000 searches a month, yet the client has been tasked to sell as much stock as possible as a new version is in production?
As a manager, understanding staff is also important. Do you really know the SEOs that work for you? Do you know if their circumstances changed recently? Is their commute good or bad? Have you talked about something other than SEO with them? Can you remember why they wanted to join your team? If you don’t understand what motivates and affects your staff, you are likely to find it harder to get the best from them.
When you’re providing a specialist service like SEO, your deep knowledge of the topic and your ability to “make SEO happen” represent the real value you offer. As the expert(s), if you aren’t driving the agenda with regard to your SEO project, what is the point of you being involved? Clients will question the value of your offering if you are not the architect of a roadmap which plots a path from brief to success.
For your team, it’s important to stress that a sign of good client service involves sending a lot of emails containing the phrase “it’s already been done”. These emails are proof you are ahead of the client’s expectations. If your team is constantly completing tasks sent through by the client, you have lost control of the SEO plan and this will have to be addressed quickly.
A proactive attitude to SEO drives many of the other 10 characteristics of a good SEO team; proactive folks tend to be opinionated, curious, eager to share and innovative. These people also tend to be eager, and you’ll sometimes find people being proactive, yet not really achieving much of value because their efforts are misguided.
One simple solution for this is to flag issues which need further investigation or work on a continual basis during catch-ups or team meetings. You could even maintain a list of “topics / problems for investigation”. Whilst these tasks are not specifically assigned to people, it does provide a focus for the members of your team that want to be proactive and start on something without being asked to specifically. To further encourage this culture, it is good to reward proactive team members publically.
Clients / colleagues will love a team that appears to be thinking and acting one-step ahead of them. Being able to say “we already started / tried / completed that” vindicates their decision to engage you as a specialist resource, and increases the likelihood of retention.
In part 2 I’ll look at the final 5 characteristics of a successful SEO team and provide more tips on how to foster & develop these within your practice. In the meantime it would be great to know what you think goes into building a great SEO culture.