How to master the art of inhouse SEO
Over my 10 year career, I was lucky to observe the skills and strategies that distinguish successful in-house SEOs from the unsuccessful ones. You read that right, in-house SEO is a skill. Those who master it drive rapid growth. Those who don't are left behind.
Over my 10 year career, I was lucky to observe the skills and strategies that distinguish successful inhouse SEOs from the unsuccessful ones. You read that right: inhouse SEO is a skill. Those who master it drive rapid growth - those who don't are left behind. In this article, I share what I learned, so you're not part of the latter.
In SEO, what you know doesn't matter as much as what you ship. The problem with shipping is that many inhouse SEOs don't have enough resources, leadership buy-in, and support to drive significant results.
Hearing about the same problems over and over led me to write this guide for inhouse SEOs and share some of my experience in solving them.
We'll start with the fundamental differences between in-house and agency because many SEOs make that transition in their careers and find themselves lost at first. We'll then address the 3 major problems of in-house SEO directly with causes and solutions for each. We'll wrap it up with getting people excited about SEO in Evangelizing SEO inhouse.
At this point, a big thank you to my friends Jackie Chu, Matt Howells-Barby, and Igal Stolpner for their contributions to this article.
In-house and agency SEO are different games
In the agency, you go broad. You're exposed to lots of sites, see many different problems, and gain wide experience. It's a great point to start an SEO career because you get such a good grasp of various issues, industries, and companies.
The challenges on the agency side are account management, pitching, and getting things over the finish line. Giving SEO recommendations is not enough. You need to sell them, respond to clients' asks, and push them to execute. Some clients execute fast, a lot of clients don't.
You also need to understand what clients want and what they need. These two are not always the same. But at the end of the day, the easiest way to retain clients is to make your client (the person, not the company) successful.
In-house, you go deep. You focus on a single site (maybe a few), understand the product and market deeply, and immerse yourself in a vertical. That's where you become an expert in a space and can make a significant impact. When working for a company, you own a bigger part of the process, take a closer look at competitors, and have more time to think about the big problems.
The in-house side's challenges are red tape, getting resources, and being tried to a company strategy. Many SEOs suffer from resource-constraints and need to fight to get things shipped.
The part that will follow you on both sides is pitching and selling. You either pitch a client or your boss. So, you might as well get good at it. Keep this in mind because it will come back over and over in this guide.
Jared Gardner from Qualtrics and I recently spoke about the transition from agency to inhouse on a Tech Bound podcast episode.
When transitioning from agency to inhouse, the main pain point I found is not waiting for approval to move forward. Consultants want to make sure they're transparent in their work because they often get billed by the hour. When you work at a company, you take more ownership of projects from end to end.
Another difference is execution speed. On the agency side, you wrap up packages of recommendations and give them to the client. Sometimes, you handhold throughout the execution, but when the recommendation is made, you can focus on other things or clients. Inhouse, you have to stay on top of your asks even after they shipped.
Nonetheless, agencies are great training grounds for SEOs. Once you transition to inhouse, you'll encounter 3 major problems that are all interconnected.
The 3 biggest in-house SEO problems and solutions
The biggest problem in SEO is not knowing what to do but to get things done. The most successful companies ship, learn and iterate fast to succeed in Google's machine learning-driven algorithms. To get things done, you need resources, buy-in, and show value.
Problem 1: Not enough resources
SEOs notoriously rely on engineers, writers, and designers to drive results. One of the most significant pain points in inhouse SEO is not having enough of these resources.
I recently asked my Twitter followers why they think that's the case and got a lot of engagement. The biggest recurring complaints were that SEO doesn't have priority in companies, leadership "doesn't get it", and SEOs are having a hard time showing value.
I faced these challenges in many companies. There is no perfect remedy, but I learned what to do about each and every one of these problems over time.
Cause 1: Companies want to see results fast, but SEO takes time to become impactful.
Cause 2: Engineers/designers/writers have other priorities.
Cause 3: The business doesn't see the need to invest in SEO.
Solution 1: In my experience, resource scarcity for SEOs is often the result of poor or no business cases. SEOs ask for things but are traditionally not good at showing how it could drive revenue.
At the risk of offending some people with this statement, I think SEOs need to take more responsibility for presenting their requests. It's easy to point fingers but hard to ask yourself why other teams have different priorities? Maybe - not always - it's because we haven't done a good enough job at showing why SEO should be a higher priority.
Seasoned in-house experts know that the key to getting attention is to make a connection between your ask and revenue. "Speak Dollar". The actual challenge for SEOs is to show the impact of traffic on revenue accurately. That is the issue.
I will follow up with an in-depth post about how to build an "SEO revenue impact model" because there are many dependencies on business model, industry, and product.
For example, most businesses are either sales or product-driven. It's easier to understand the relationship between traffic and product sign-ups, which ultimately leads to revenue because there is no hard wall between leads and transactions. In sales-driven companies, SEO drives MQLs. That means there's a gap between what Marketing delivers and closing deals for which SEOs cannot be responsible. In that case, it's smarter to frame goals in terms of leads than revenue.
As you see, there is always an angle to frame your goals so you can actually take agency over them. But SEOs often don't spend enough time understanding how the business makes money and aligning their goals toward that.
The next step is figuring out how SEO recommendations impact traffic as a whole. As I mentioned, this is a whole guide in itself (subscribe to Tech Bound to make sure you get it in your inbox when I publish it). However, the most important questions to answer when projecting traffic are:
- Do your SEO recommendations impact a specific page type or many?
- Can you predict how much potential search volume the suggestion might capture?
- Has a competitor done something similar, and can you abstract traffic from them?
From there, you can abstract and project how much traffic you can potentially drive and what the impact business may be. It's never perfect, but it doesn't have to be. Check out the full guide to projecting traffic and revenue to learn how to do that.
A big part of the art of in-house SEO is to balance managed expectations with a convincing business case. You can never guarantee traffic in SEO, so manage your stakeholders' expectations. Only because you can't guarantee something, it doesn't mean it won't happen. Solid reasoning and some form of "math" that shows how to get to the results can excite leadership enough to give you resources. It's like math class in school: just showing the result isn't enough - you need to show how you got there.
Solution 2: One way to make sure you get resources is to show an immediate impact in the first 30 days of joining a company. You have a window of opportunity. It's your entry ticket to more resources. The more significant the effect you can show, the more resources you get because you have proven that you can do it. If you missed that window, go for small wins to get resources for larger ones. It's very powerful to say, "look, we saw a positive result here. Imagine what we could do with even more resources!?"
Solution 3: Find out who holds power in the company (Sales or Product), learn what they need and help them get it. In most cases, it'll be sign-ups or leads but sometimes it's finding a great candidate for a key role or getting feedback on something. Seek these opportunities to be helpful. It tends to pay off.
Build strong relationships with the leaders of those teams. Meet for coffee or lunch, understand who they are, talk about their goals. Some call it "playing the game", but I think it's simply about building genuine relationships and working toward a common goal. Those connections can be game-changers.
Matt Barby knows why.
“Working in-house is very different to working agency size. Similarly, working at a 40 person startup is a world away from a 4,000 employee enterprise org. That said, there are some common truths that apply. Here’s the thing… it doesn’t matter if you have the correct solution to a problem. What matters most is that you know how to sell the idea internally, get the resources you need to support the solution, and how (and when) to use leverage you have in the process. The last part of this is particularly important. Building social capital is talked about a lot, and that’s exactly what I’m referring to with using leverage. One of the ways that I see many people inside companies going wrong (and then often feeling frustrated) is that they choose the wrong hill to die on. Sometimes you have to let your idea die in order to build some leverage that you can use elsewhere. Any time you use your influence and accumulated leverage to get something you need, you need to either focus on building more for the future or be ok with passing on some other things you need. If you’ve ever looked at someone in a senior management position and wondered, “how did this person get to where they are? I know so much more than they do!” … well, the likelihood is that that they’re much better at selling than you are. No matter what role you’re operating in within a company, you need to be a salesperson; the difference between this and a client-facing role where you’re actually selling an idea to an external client is that you’re selling to your peers. Learn this and you’ll get far.”— Matt Howells-Barby, Snr. Director of Acquisition at HubSpot and co-founder of TrafficThinkTank
Solution 4: Find the person that gets things done in the company and learn from them how to do it. It doesn't matter in which team that person works. Just find them and understand how they do it, so you can imitate them.
Solution 5: Develop strong storytelling skills. Getting buy-in is the result of sound reasoning and also excitement (more about that in the next chapter). The skill of telling encapsulating stories (selling) is for life. When it comes to getting buy-in from leadership for your SEO strategy, sometimes good storytelling can be more exciting than showing the perfect monetary value of an SEO recommendation.
One person who knows a thing or two about that is Jackie Chu.
Although I think there's definitely a floor people need to reach in tech SEO, I think having strong soft skills around leadership, storytelling and executive presence are critical to an in-house SEO's success. The reality is a lot of times, enterprise sites are really not even doing the basics correctly, and that's because getting something seemingly "small" like title tags, or hreflang changed at scale can be a significant investment when you consider things like having multiple services, translation needs, surface area owners, legal considerations and more.
Even outside of your SEO growth work, you do a considerable amount of SEO defense work that's spent guard railing things like new product launches, migrations, or rebranding. You have to be a strong communicator to fairly articulate tradeoffs that are being made while striving to maintain rapport and a good relationship with your peers. When I see in house SEOs struggle, they're sadly often right about the SEO problem, and the real problem is they're struggling with the resourcing, buy-in, and prioritization. This is where being a strong communicator and storyteller is especially helpful - to help de-escalate the inevitable points of conflict that occurs between teams working on the same project with different incentives.
There are a lot of wins to being an in-house SEO, but you need to be just as mindful about growing your soft skills as your tech ones. Even if you're somehow able to get huge wins without buy-in, if you don't make it a priority to evangelize the team and your work its unlikely you will continue to find support in the company. And you'll never get the chance to do edge SEO if your site isn't even getting the basics right 🙂.— Jackie Chu, Global SEO Lead @ Uber
Problem 2: Technical SEO lives in Marketing instead of Product
The issue with SEO and organizational design is related to the problem of scarce resources. The point made is that SEOs don't get resources because they live under Marketing, but engineering teams live under Product. The disconnect can lead to different roadmaps, but in my experience, these problems can be overcome.
I went into a lot more detail about organizational design for SEO in Forging a fine-tuned SEO machine.
Cause 1: Some executives confuse SEO with Content Marketing and place SEO under Marketing as a result.
Cause 2: Corporates often see traffic as a marketing metric and "top of the funnel".
Cause 3: Most companies don't have dedicated Growth teams that combine marketing with engineering teams.
Solution 1: "SEO" and "Technical SEO" are different, and that difference has been growing over time. "SEOs" are most often generalists, but for large sites, you need dedicated technical SEOs. In best case, Technical SEO lives under Product and Content Marketing under Marketing. Sometimes, an SEO Director of VP of SEO can lead technical SEO and Content Marketing teams, as in my case. Reality is that this is often not the case.
As a solution, product-driven companies (inventory-driven sites) should push for Growth teams with SEOs. Sales-driven companies should go with Content Marketing or a hybrid approach.
Igal Stolpner is hugely successful at investing.com, in part because he understands that.
"The key to success as an inhouse SEO is becoming part of the process. In most companies, Product or R&D are running the roadmap. As an in-house SEO, you want to make sure that you are right in the middle of that process and that no significant changes or launches are going over your head.
Of course, no matter how well you are incorporated in that process, from time to time you will get push backs by other departments. As a rule of thumb, long-term SEO success is in line with the product's quality and prioritizing the end user's experience. Often, business and sales teams will push towards the contrary, favoring business opportunities over other things. In this case, the in-house SEO becomes the gatekeeper. Google guidelines, 3rd party case studies, and other published claims are all to be used to protect the relevant assets from bad decisions. Stay relevant, back things up, be meaningful."— Igal Stolpner, VP of Growth and SEO at investing.com
If the organization isn't set up like that naturally, you can try to push for it, but it's tedious and the success rate low. The key is to show the pain over the current constellation over and over.
Solution 2: Educating the whole company, from designer to sales, engineers, and writers about SEO, can also make a big impact.
When I was part of Atlassian, I realized that I'd never have enough resources to do all the things I wanted. So, I went out on an education campaign to make the whole company smarter in SEO. I ran many workshops with engineers, designers, and content creators to show them how little changes in their work can make an impact. I created the clichéd checklists, presented at all-hands, and kept beating the SEO drum. I created a lot of internal documentation in Confluence (our "wiki), so people have reference material and can learn at their own pace.
Most importantly, I tracked results and showed them to the people who drove them. This kind of feedback loop motivated them to keep going and do more. Sometimes, it was just a keyword that improved in rankings. Other times, it was a milestone we achieved and celebrated together. It got them excited. You'd be surprised how much you can achieve with that strategy.
Educating others scales your knowledge and impact.
Solution 4: Sometimes, the best solution is to leave the company. It sounds harsh but if you keep hitting organizational limits repeatedly, join a different company. Not every battle is worth fighting.
Problem 3: SEOs can't show the value of SEO
Showing the (monetary) value of SEO is tricky because you can't promise a result, but that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do. On the contrary.
Cause 1: Last touch attribution. Many businesses measure impact based on the last action of a visitor. That's tricky for SEO because users visit a site several times over a certain period until they convert.
Cause 2: Missing understanding of how the business makes money. Many SEOs don't understand all the factors that go into revenue generation.
Cause 3: Too much focus on vanity metrics. Traffic, rankings, and SEO Visibility are helpful, but a means to an end. Too often, I see SEOs stopping there and not looking at conversions and revenue.
Solution 1: A big step toward showing the impact of SEO is comparing first-touch with last-touch attribution. If you do your job right, you'll prove a much larger impact from first-touch. However, that means you need an attribution model in place, and creating one is very difficult.
Out-of-the-box attribution models are often not that good but better than nothing. Beta versions of Google Analytics and Hubspot seem to go in the right direction. I also think we'll figure proper first-touch attribution out with the advance of machine learning. If you don't have an analytics or data science team to attribute conversions correctly, go with an out-of-the-box solution or steer the conversation away from attribution.
Solution 2: Measure the conversions on certain pages (if you have a centralized site). Not every business needs a full-blown attribution model. Sometimes, it's enough to say "we get x conversions on these pages, and they get y traffic from SEO". That can be enough to prove the monetary value of SEO. It's also one reason why I think SEOs are more successful in industries like e-commerce: it's easier to measure conversions.
Solution 3: Play the competitor card. You can bypass the value question by showing what competitors do. For that, you need to have a competitor who's bigger or better than you. Otherwise, the point can backfire.
Solution 4: Don't sell traffic, sell revenue. If you make traffic or rankings your goal, it'll be harder to get resources than revenue or leads.
Evangelizing SEO inhouse
Evangelizing SEO inhouse is about getting people excited about SEO, just like Guy Kawasaki gets people excited about Canva as evangelist. Excitement can solve many problems, from resource constraints to leadership buy-in. But how do you do it?
Define a clear SEO strategy
Clarity is a strong ally of strategy and execution. The better people understand what you plan to do, and how you reach your goals, the easier they can back you up or give you feedback.
I wrote a guide about defining an SEO Strategy from scratch a while ago (see the web story with a summary of the key points below). I still very much hold on to the 7 key attributes: vision-driven, feasible, tactical, progressive, robust, relevant, considerate. However, this part of the guide is about the "how" rather than the "what", so I can show you how to make a strategy clear.
How to set up an SEO roadmap
Your SEO roadmap is a blueprint for what things get done when. I'm serious when I say that the clearer your roadmap is, the higher your chances of executing it. That's where we come back to selling and pitching: formulating a clear ask is the first step to getting more resources.
A roadmap also creates predictability, which makes it possible to measure effort against returns. This is not just valuable for you, but also your manager and might spare you some uncomfortable conversations.
Here's the process to set your SEO roadmap up:
- Define your goals
- Add Objectives and Key Results
- Project traffic returns
- Align with stakeholders
- Track and report results
Define your goals
Your goals must lead up to your manager's goals, which are commonly MQLs or revenue. At the very top of your strategy should be a number that reflects business impact or at least traffic you plan to bring in over the year.
One thing I learned the hard way is to renegotiate your goals when you're sure you'll miss them. In reality, no goal is set in stone, and holding on to it for vanity reasons doesn't help anyone. I recommend having at least a semi-annual check-in with your manager to see if you're on track or not and adjust accordingly.
Objectives and Key Results
Break annual goals down into OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and leave some capacity to be agile when you have to be. If you're new to the concept, it will take a couple of cycles to get used to it.
Objectives are the big projects that help you achieve your goals, such as creating content or optimizing a page template. Key results are the measurable milestones that get you there: a specific number of organic traffic, rankings, web vitals, ... You name it.
It's crucial to be detail-oriented when defining tactics or specs. A stake through the heart of success is asking for something like "fix 404s". Instead, you need to clarify requirements, ideal states, and what success looks like.
Project traffic returns
Again, this will be a whole guide. The key point about traffic projections is that they don't have to be perfectly accurate, but you need to show how you got there. An example would be you suggesting an optimization to a page template and projecting a ranking increase by one position or a traffic increase by 10% and then connect it to the impact on revenue. That's the type of thinking you need to develop, refine, and apply.
Mind you that it's not your fault SEO isn't perfectly predictable. It's just your fault if you haven't managed expectations against potential ROI.
It's vital to regularly meet with important stakeholders (sales, engineering, other marketing teams, Product, etc.) to show them where you are, what you need, and what they need.
Here is a not-so-secret secret: the earlier you include the teams you rely on for getting things done, the higher your chances to be successful. They can not only help you to scope out a request and define all requests properly, but you also get them invested in the process, maybe even excited!
Track and report results
The best way to do quality assurance for SEO is in a staging environment or sandbox. If that's not possible, you can QA live, but you should get commitment from the engineering team to fix any bugs or problems you find.
Make sure that everything was shipped according to your expectations and agreed upon specs. Then, monitor, document, and report the results.
That leads me to the next point.
Results create excitement. That's why feedback loops are key for evangelizing SEO. You need to show the company that what you and others are doing has an impact with regular reporting. Send them out via email, create Google docs, or use an internal wiki like Confluence.
In my experience, you need 3 types of reports:
- Weekly/monthly reporting
- Ad-hoc reporting
- Annual reporting
I suggest you send a weekly reporting to close stakeholders like other SEOs, your team, or your boss. Create a monthly reporting for a broader group, such as c-suite, engineering, design, or editorial teams, depending on whether SEO lives under Product or Marketing.
Weekly and monthly reports should contain progress against your goals, the most critical metrics, and comments on the numbers. Every number should be compared week-over-week, month-over-month, and year-over-year for context.
You need to create an ad-hoc for problems like a traffic drop, audits, or competitive analyses in some cases. You need to have one place for such reports, so they're easy to find for everyone, and refer to them in your weekly, monthly, and annual reports.
Once a year (or once every 6 months), I suggest you create a macro-level report in which you zoom out and comment on the bigger trends. In this reporting, you show how you performed against your goals, why you succeed/failed, what needs to be improved strategically, and the impact of SEO on the business.
One mistake I made in the past is releasing such macro reports too late in the year when most strategies are already set in stone. Make sure you know when next-year planning happens in the company and prepare your report to be released about 2 weeks before planning starts.
Inhouse SEO is a skill
Inhouse SEO is something you have to learn, work on, and refine over time. Thinking you just join a company and all you have to do is run a strong SEO audit is a mistake. That's only the first step.
In future guides, I'm planning to cover how to succeed as SEO manager, including hiring and managing people. If you want to make sure to get notified when these guides go live, sign up for Tech Bound.
Also make sure to read the complete guide to projecting traffic and revenue from SEO.
Please share your opinion and experience in the comment section below.