“You will also be responsible for teaching the company the importance of SEO.”
Sound familiar? Today’s SEOs are tasked with so much more than simply handling the organic footprint of their company. They’re responsible for getting their entire organization to understand and appreciate the value of SEO. Their careers depend on how well they can do it. No pressure, right?
SEO legend Duane Forrester knows this problem well. With 20 years of experience working in SEO for giants like Microsoft, Bing, and most recently Yext, he’s climbed the SEO career ladder to the very top. And what has he learned? Being an SEO is freaking hard.
We sat down to talk about the future of the industry and how today’s new crop of SEO superstars can teach the value of SEO across their org.
Stephan: Let me ask you. Why do you think our industry, in general, does not get funded in the same way as our sisters or cousins in paid are funded?
Duane: Bottom line, we are downstream, getting after-the-fact data to prove the efforts of what we’ve done. And the instant SEOs step forward to prove what we did, there are also 14 other things that we discovered happened at the same time that could’ve contributed to a bump in rankings.
Sometimes we see a win we get to claim. We see content moved up two places in the rankings after an SEO initiative we pushed forward. But as we’re about to claim that win we find out that at the same time there was a partnership deal where our company partnered with a huge business that is an accessory to what we do and they’ve embedded links in their navigation over to our products. So that’s partly responsible for the win.
And in most cases, that doesn’t come out until you’re at a senior leadership team meeting and everybody’s putting their cards on the table saying, here’s what I did last month and here’s the effect of that.
So, knowing that’s the case, how do we stop that from happening aside from just being educators?
Every SEO job that I’ve interviewed for in my career I have been told, “You will also be responsible for teaching the entire company the importance of SEO.”
And SEOs struggle with this. They think, “Well, I’ll send around a Power Point presentation in my language and once everybody reads it, they’ll understand.”
It isn’t long before they realize this won’t work. If you don’t explain exactly how SEO affects each department in their language, you’ll lose their attention.
What SEOs need to do is sit down with sales, for example, and say, “You know, the work I do can affect whether you get a bonus this year or not.” You’ll get their attention then.
The real talent for an SEO trying to train their company on SEO’s importance, is knowing which pieces of their knowledge work with which groups in the organization.
Given that you only have a certain amount of time, which group do you have to convince to have the biggest impact?
I hate to reduce it this way but your executives have to be number one. Because executives can help build engagement throughout the rest of the organization.
If you say to the executive, “Look, we could take traffic up 80% year on year, will that be valuable to our organization?” Immediately that person’s looking at it and thinking, “Our goal is 40%, you’re going to double that, and that has X impact on revenue. Yeah, that’s valuable.”
Of course, SEOs should be prepared for the next question which is, “Are you sure you can do it?” You have to show execs the path you’ve designed to get there.
To your point, the only way to get organizational buy-in is to go up to the C-suite and then down from there. So how would you recommend someone who talks tech but maybe doesn’t talk exec to handle this?
So the way you’re going to approach this is to ask for a first meeting to understand the priorities of the executive.
It’s a multi-set of meetings then?
It is inevitably a multiple set of meetings because you have to come in humble. You should never presume that your priorities are anyone else’s priorities and you should never presume that because your focus is driving traffic and revenue, therefore everyone will understand how important that work is.
Executives are responsible for so many other things that make up the structure of an organization and a corporation that go way beyond SEO. There are some very good reasons why SEO gets siloed and why all of the marketing disciplines end up getting siloed.
Because marketing’s a support function. That’s essentially what it is. It does not unto itself breathe life into anything — it supports something that has come to life and it amplifies it.
So, when you approach an executive you’ll need a series of meetings to happen. The first meeting is your time to gather intelligence, listen to what they’re saying, take your notes and say, “Okay got it. I’ll go away and make sure the work I’m doing aligns with the right projects to get you to those goals.”
Then you set an expectation by saying I will follow up with you in X days or a week, whatever it is. And during that second meeting, I will show you the map of how we get to your goals with the work that I’m going to do.
You have to position yourself as another tool, a sharper tool in their toolbox. And when you do that and you give them that incentive you’ll find that they’ll reach for you more and more. Suddenly, you’ve proven the value of your field to them.
Duane Forrester on a panel at a past C3.
Do you make the executive aware of the liabilities of SEO actions?
So how do you define some of those in advance? How do you broach that sort of thing with the executive?
In my experience, when I had a global team of people, we approached our executives with a menu. We laid out options for them. If we do A, we’ll get X results. If we do B we’ll end up with Y results. Then we posed the choice to them. Pick which level of investment you want us to make and this is the outcome you’ll get.
Once you get your executives bought in, and behind your plans, then you can focus on proving SEO’s value to the rest of the organization. That is your entire life as an SEO. If you don’t wake up every single day asking yourself, “How do I make someone else a hero in my organization?,” you are failing to start your today correctly.
That is the nexus of SEO. Because I can assure you, the only thing we do is uncover problems and point them out and say here’s how you fix that. That’s no one’s favorite type of person.
I had a conversation with a project manager not too long ago and they said, “I’m used to being hated.” Because their job is to sit in a meeting and take direction from executives, translate those dates, put them in software and then it pops up on people’s calendars.
And those people might not have been in the meeting, they might not be aware but suddenly they have an action item with a due date on it and they don’t know where it came from, you know? And that can make someone unpopular. The same thing happens with SEOs.
That’s why the key to the castle is getting your internal teams to understand the value of SEO. For the SEO trying to grow his or her career today, my advice would be this: Know your space, know your place, know your audience and play to them. If you do that, buy-in will come.