Is your martech leadership failing on SEO? Probably.

July 30, 2019 by Scott Brinker


Sorry, but odds are you’re failing at SEO and probably don’t even realize it.

The Executive SEO Playbook

That was the cold splash of water in the face that I got talking with Jessica Bowman, owner of enterprise SEO consultancy SEO Inhouse, author of The Executive SEO Playbook, and an editor-at-large for Search Engine Land. Jessica is pretty much the world’s leading expert when it comes to running successful SEO at large enterprise companies.

Frankly, SEO is not a subject that has received a lot of attention the martech and marketing operations community — certainly not the attention it deserves when you realize (a)how important it still is to marketing in a digital world and (b) how far beyond the “SEO team” good SEO practices need to be managed.

We’re going to rectify this at the upcoming MarTech conference, where Jessica will deliver both a breakout session, An SEO Framework for Marketing Operations & Technology Leadership, and an optional half-day workshop, Optimizing SEO Operations for Marketing Leaders.

But in advance of that, Jessica agreed to the following Q&A with me to address some of the common questions that an otherwise well-versed marketing technology leader might have about enterprise SEO.

If I’m a senior marketing executive, I might be inclined to think, “Sure, SEO is important, but it’s just one of the responsibilities of my website team.” What am I likely missing?

The thing about SEO that executives do not realize is that SEO teams don’t actually “do” most of the SEO at a large company. They do a lot of work to determine what needs to be done, but in reality, it’s what other teams “do” that most directly impacts SEO. And if it’s done wrong can hurt SEO and revenue.

Every single day, everyone touching the website is doing SEO, whether they know it or not.

Every single day, everyone touching the website is doing SEO, whether they know it or not. They are either making multi-million dollar decisions that help SEO or hurt it. This includes every role touching the site or influencing any mentions and links on third-party sites.

The only exception is the people/teams only working on things not in search engines (e.g., checkout pages and pages behind a form or login screen). Everyone else is doing SEO and making million-dollar decisions to help or hurt SEO — without necessarily any knowledge of how to account for it in their decision-making process. And that should be scary to an executive.

The biggest challenge companies face with SEO is that hierarchically, the SEO team is often lower than the managers of the teams they need to “do” SEO. As a result, they don’t get the amount of respect they need to get other teams to do their share of SEO.

Because of this, SEO teams need executive champions to get teams who are unknowingly influencing SEO every day on board with doing what needs to happen for SEO. It’s not just an executive saying, “We all need to SEO.” There is more to it than this and most executives are not ushering in SEO in such a way that actually drives the right changes in knowledge, standard processes, accountabilities and behavior for the long haul.

If executives are not aware of what is needed for SEO, they often end up advocating the exact opposite of what the SEO channel needs to both maintain and grow SEO revenue.

Here’s an example from one of my clients. In SEO, most keywords need more content on pages to rank high. This requires changes in design and content. Yet many teams that control these aspects of the website are not even including SEO teams in meetings or requirements where decision are made to do things like reduce content on pages. As a result, a decision was made to reduce content to the point that SEO would be negatively impacted by 50% or more.

I’ve heard that if you just produce good content, Google kind of takes care of SEO for you. Is this totally naive? Why?

Yes, this is completely naive. (Ed: Thanks.)

Large companies have dozens to hundreds of people impacting SEO every single day. The problem is they don’t know it. As a result, they make multi-million dollar SEO decisions, without even thinking about SEO. Sometimes those decisions are good for SEO, more often they’re not.

I just spent two weeks onsite with a client training teams company-wide, and the biggest ah-ha’s by everyone, particularly those not on the content team were:

  • “I didn’t know how much I impact SEO” was said by pretty much everyone in every role. It’s far bigger than just good content.
  • “I didn’t realize how making one small decision can snowball into huge SEO problems.” We walked through decision after decision by almost every team working on the website that has systematically killed SEO traffic over a few years, just because no one thought to account for SEO, nor had the skills to do so.

What SEO entails is huge, far bigger than people realize. I have identified ten pillars of SEO at enterprise-level companies. When I walk executives through these ten pillars, they begin to realize SEO is far bigger than just content.

What is even more surprising to everyone in training is that each role impacts 3-10 pillars in pretty much every decision they make — you cannot say, “I’m a writer, so I only influence pillar #2, which is about content.”

Below are the ten pillars of SEO in what I call the F2R Framework (F2R meaning “Force to Reckon With”):

10 Pillars of SEO by Jessica Bowman

Is this just about optimizing for Google web search with content, design and technical decisions, or are there other channels that should consider SEO, too?

SEO teams focus on search engines, but what’s needed for SEO is content. Adding the right content for SEO will improve your Google Adwords scores too, resulting in lower cost-per-click rates in your paid search marketing.

As far as what other channels are doing, they can absolutely help with SEO. When we look at social media, they could do things to help get links to the page that the business wants to rank higher.

Another example is the public relations team, who can also help get links to the site in ways that will help SEO with just a few tweaks in what they’re doing.

Too often, PR teams simply end up getting links to the homepage, instead of pages the company is trying to rank high.

Perhaps they wouldn’t consider pushing for links to help SEO for the top tier publications, but some lower tier publications may be easier for getting links to specific sections in the site and certain keywords in the content.

Too often, PR teams simply end up getting links to the homepage, instead of pages the company is trying to rank high in search engines. Unfortunately, this happens for one simple reason: PR teams are not considering URLs and keywords that the SEO channel is trying to rank high in search engines.

How should I think about connecting SEO with the rest of my marketing stack and marketing operations?

SEO is both a horizontal and vertical function. Too many executives and people throughout the organization see SEO as vertical and so everyone considers it “the SEO team’s job.” In reality, SEO needs span across most roles and most technologies.

SEO teams can lead the strategy and serve as a center of excellence, but they cannot actually do most SEO tasks. It’s everyone else working on the website that control the levers.

It’s up to executives to provide the right incentives for those teams to do, and keep doing, good SEO. Yet, too often executives give the “rah-rah we’re going to all do this” speech, but then people won’t even show up for training. How is each team going to do their 20% of SEO that makes 80% of the impact SEO when they won’t even take the time to learn it?

Executives need to give the right direction and hold people accountable. Without this, poor SEO will result in subpar revenue and waste a lot of resources.

Executives need to give the right direction and hold people accountable. Without this, poor SEO will result in subpar revenue and waste a lot of resources with reworking of designs, content, and code.

As for as the marketing tools stack, everything placed on the website or used to make the website function should be evaluated through an SEO lens.

Much like you vet everything through security requirements, legal requirements, and performance requirements, you need SEO vetting too. In reality, few tools work for SEO out of the box and require customizations, especially in a complex, enterprise world. You need to know what you’re getting into so you choose a tool that, with your resources and constraints, you’re able to customize for great SEO in your environment.

Everything placed on the website or used to make the website function needs to be evaluated through an SEO lens.

Are there certain marketing technologies I should be using for SEO? Or marketing technologies in my stack I should make sure are properly supporting SEO?

Yes, there are things that should be in a company’s stack for SEO. There are many SEO tools that should be used by development teams, QA testing teams, writers and the SEO team. The problem I see in most companies is that these teams aren’t using what’s already purchased and available.

Why aren’t teams using the right SEO tools? Because they’re not required to. That is a problem that executives must solve for great SEO. Too often executives don’t know the risks of different roles skipping SEO tasks.

I look for the root cause of SEO obstacles. Consistently, it’s middle management.

When I go into a company to evaluate an SEO program, I look for the root cause of SEO obstacles. Consistently, it’s middle management because of what executives did not do, say, or hold them accountable for. At the end of the day, middle management must ensure their teams are using the technologies available to deliver optimal SEO for their team’s role.

Every role company-wide — including executives — must know their 20% of SEO that makes 80% of the impact. Then, they have to actually do it.

Now, if your SEO is growing nonetheless, you might be an “SEO skater.” An SEO skater is what we call a company who is skating by. They are not managing the operational side of SEO well, but SEO traffic is still growing because of the size of their site and equity of their brand. But SEO revenues are not growing at nearly the trajectory they could be.

As the head of marketing operations or the CMO, how should I evaluate our SEO capabilities? How do I measure success?

As an executive who doesn’t really know SEO, it can be hard. In my book, The Executive SEO Playbook, I include a simple quiz to quickly determine if you’re an SEO Pacesetter or Avoider. What’s surprising to most companies is that it doesn’t matter how great your SEO team’s skills are. It’s your SEO operations company-wide that determine if you’re a pacesetter or an avoider.

Take the quiz for your organization (click for a larger version):

SEO Operations Quiz

Were you a bona fide SEO Pacesetter?

If yes, yay for you! However, most of you will find you’re an SEO Avoider. From here, you now know that you need to integrate SEO company-wide, across every role. Only executives can make this happen and keep it happening every day, in every project.

Any other common mistakes or missed opportunities you see marketing leaders making with SEO?

There really is only one: accountability for doing SEO company-wide. Master this, and everything else will fall into place.

Keeping SEO happening in all roles is the challenge. I find executives do say the right things when it’s time to get everyone doing SEO, but from there, things get derailed. Only executives can keep SEO activities and prioritization on track, but they have to manage departments to do so.

In my workshop at MarTech, we’ll talk about what executives should be doing to keep SEO happening company-wide and each role’s accountabilities.

SEO as a practice has been around for more than two decades. What’s the future hold for this discipline?

Google’s business model is changing, really fast, and companies need to start tweaking their SEO program in order to take advantage of it. I spoke about this at my SMX Advanced keynote, your readers can watch the webinar recording here.

In a nutshell, Google is taking on the entire transaction on Google.com: search, research, and conversion. This applies to most industries. Google has been slowly building out all the modules and components and is now slowly integrating them into their search results. At an increasing pace, Google is taking users to pages within Google.com for the conversion, rather than to other sites.

If you are not doing what it takes to appear in the Google modules and components, your visibility will be almost non-existent.

The bottom line is that if you are not doing what it takes to appear in the Google modules and components that feature sites, your visibility for millions of searches will be almost non-existent.

I am concerned about many companies’ SEO programs because they’re not doing what it takes to gain visibility in Google’s new search results. Things that have traditionally been nice-to-have in SEO, the icing on the cake, now must become a core competency. These impact how we code, design, and write content.

And here is the problem: even if your SEO team knows about this, they can do nothing about it. It’s what development, UX designers, and writers do to the site that will get you into Google’s modules — or keep you out.

SEO is something executives need to take to the finish line. Executives and leaders need to have a clear plan of action for how to manage SEO across the organization — and not only through the SEO team.

Great SEO is not going to come out of just the SEO team. It must happen company-wide.

A big thanks to Jessica for this interview! I’m really looking forward to her SEO workshop and session at MarTech next month. Readers: Just a reminder that the early bird “beta” rate for MarTech tickets expires August 17 — reserve your seat now.

This post originally appeared on chiefmartec.com and was re-posted here with permission from the author. 

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