[this post originally appeared on my Medium profile]
Over the past years, I’ve worked for numerous SEO agencies and consultancies. I was always on the consulting side of the business, helping out all types of companies: from big name startups to F500 enterprises. In 2016 I’ve changed sides to take my first role as in-house SEO @Dailymotion in Palo Alto. By being responsible for getting there now and learning from what I’ve seen at other companies, I was exposed to quite a lot successful in-house SEO models. I want to share those findings with you so that you may not have to go all the way.
When I’m talking about an “optimal SEO setup”, what I really mean is how SEO is handled and executed within a company (setup), so that it reaches its goals as efficiently as possible (optimal). The setup does not necessarily indicate how serious a company takes SEO, where it’s hung up in the hierarchy (Marketing, IT, product development, etc.) or how many people are doing it. It’s about the processes that should be in place, to guarantee high-quality SEO.
Every website is different
Before we look at the processes, there is one realization that helps tremendously: individuality.
I have a huge passion for fitness. In the fitness world, nutrition is a huge success factor and a heavily debated topic, but people agree on one fact: nutrition is very individual. We have bodies with different size, weight, heritage, diseases, genetics, minds, etc. so we cannot prescribe the same nutrition for everyone.
The same applies to websites. Websites have different sizes, ages, industries, conversions, KPIs, etc. That’s why you can’t apply the same methods you’ve learned to every website. Once you have that epiphany, you’ve made a big step towards becoming a good SEO.
And now, the processes.
If you don’t test how changes affect the impact on your site, you’re just following dogmas. Challenge your beliefs. Why?
- We don’t know all ranking factors and their weight in the different algorithms, so we mostly have to work based on assumption and correlative studies. An exception for this are the few publicly confirmed ranking factors from Google: https and site speed. In fact, it’s impossible to find out all ranking factors, because we cannot isolate them 100% to measure their exact impact.
- Ranking factors and their weight constantly change.
- Starting as a new SEO today, you’re being presented with an overload of articles about ranking factors, so it’s easy to fall into dogmatic believe that these are the true factors. Only a few companies actually conduct recurring ranking factor studies, among them Searchmetrics, Moz andBacklinko. This is not to blame newcomers at all — it took me a long time myself to realize that you should constantly question the status quo.
- Google likes to hint at certain things being factors and seed some confusion, well aware the SEO community picks it up.
- Different ranking factors might be applied to different websites / industries. Can you rate the quality of an e-commerce vs. a B2B site with the same factors? In some instances yes, but surely not in everyone. So why would Google use the same ranking factors for every website? This is just one theory of many that indicate the individual differences between websites.
What it all comes down to is: Every company / website deals with individual challenges and therefore you cannot apply the same approach to SEO to every company / website. You need to rebuild it from the ground up.
And that’s why you have to test. You need to figure out how common SEO factors impact your site: How high is the impact of changing the meta-title? What happens if we double page speed? Does Bounce Rate really correlate with our traffic? How much can we increase profit by creating category pages?
You need to ask yourself these questions, set up a test environment / framework and find out the answers. Once you have them, you can easily request more budget or justify any strategy, simply by having data that proves the ROI.
SEO is worthless if it doesn’t contribute to the business goals. Whether that’s direct or indirect is a matter of tolerance, but there has to be a positive impact. This is a numbers game, so here are a couple of processes you should get started to make use of these numbers:
- Define and agree on KPIs. KPIs are a science on their own, but here is the rundown: Derive them from your business goals and agree with your boss on KPIs you measure. Reporting them weekly and spread them as wide throughout the company as possible. Comment on your KPIs either directly to people, in a newsletter format or on the reporting itself: explain to people what is happening and why.
- Set up a reporting. The reporting should be tailored to your audience, in best case you create several: one for executives, one for engineers, one for content people, etc. Send it out every week and hold people accountable to read it and act upon it.
- Constantly measure releases against KPIs. That’s what I meant in the first point when I wrote about how you should constantly test, measure and refine. When your tech team releases an update, bug fix or new feature, make sure to look at how traffic and other KPIs change and document those changes.
- Measure traffic, user signals, crawl errors, indexation, and keyword rankings. Shouldn’t need much explanation. With user signals, I mean CTR from search results, bounce rate, pages / session and session time. If you want to take it up a notch, combine web analytics, GWMTs and ranking tracker data into one big dashboard and look at it almost every day.
There are so many things you could (and should) measure, but they depend on your site. Every site is different, remember?
Documentation is important for two reasons:
- It’s the way to knowledge preservation
- It helps you to learn from your past
Both play a huge role in successful SEO throughout a company. Imagine you just joined a company as new Head of SEO: a proper documentation will help you get up to speed in maybe 25% of the time you’d need if you had to reconstruct the SEO history yourself.
It will also show you what worked and what didn’t in the past. You can then either challenge those results and test again or prevent burning budget.
Finally, it also serves as a hub for other people in your company to find test results, historic data and other facts about SEO. If you have an archive or information hub, you can easily steer people there to find any answer they’re looking for.
For your future success, it’s very important to follow a data-driven approach to SEO. Not because I think it’s the right way to go, but because data doesn’t lie. If you change your internal linking and see no effect, then either something went wrong or it simply wasn’t effective. What’s important is to know what is going on. Don’t be blind, be data-driven.