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Intro to SEO Operations: Lessons from The Executive SEO Playbook

I have a confession to make. I’ve been trying to force SEO operations and cross-channel integration across Perficient Digital and other agencies for nearly seven years. The truth is that I have failed (more than I care to admit). In all this time, I’ve put in so much effort to help others* understand what SEO is and why it is not a best practice, but a must-do activity. The results of my futile attempts were often panicked fire drills caused by negligence, growing tensions between siloed teams, and compounding technical SEO debt.
*Others consist of internal and external project managers, account managers, scrum masters, developers, content, UX, web designers, paid search, social media, CRO, salespeople, and client stakeholders…basically everyone.
In my experience, true SEO integration only seemed to be adopted when the following happened:

1. Friendships and strategic alliances were formed

Will Ferrell Did We Just Become Best Friends GIF from Willferrell GIFs

As an extrovert, I’ve been lucky to rely on #1 and have been mostly successful with building strategic and collaborative partnerships to earn buy-in for integration.

2. SEO was already a top priority

If SEO is a top business priority for your organization or client, congratulations! You have a magical “unicorn” client. I bet you never have 404 errors and don’t have to pay for advertising either.

3. Sh** hit the fan (💩 happens)

Smokey the Bear: Only you can prevent SEO fires
#2 can be a rare occurrence and typically a result of #3, since SEO tends to become a top priority only once something awful has already happened.
I’ve tried to prevent and put out so many fires, I’m slowly turning into Smokey the Bear. Thankfully, there’s a better way to integrate SEO using the methodologies and strategies outlined in Jessica Bowman’s, The Executive SEO Playbook: How to Integrate SEO Company-Wide for Increased Profitability. I read her book to learn how to establish systematic SEO operations and help reluctant organizations move away from reactive SEO and embrace proactive SEO. I found The Executive SEO Playbook highly relevant and hope you find the takeaways from the first seven chapters as helpful as I did.

Making the Business Case for SEO Operations

Regardless if you’re a small to mid-size business or a Fortune 500 organization, the key difference between being labeled an “SEO Avoider” compared to the superior “SEO Pacesetter” is first and foremost, SEO operations. The other differentiator is determined by whether or not non-SEO stakeholders who influence SEO understand how, why, and when to pursue SEO.

The Pacesetters Mantra: “Don’t make bots figure it out!”

When you successfully integrate SEO into overall business operations, the organic search team will have more time to stop reacting to fire drills and start focusing on strategic and holistic campaigns that contribute to the bottom-line. Non-SEO teams also can benefit from SEO operations. Here are just some of the advantages an entire organization can gain with time:

Figure 1: Key Benefits of SEO Integration

The Pareto Principle of SEO

Since SEO doesn’t operate in a silo, SEO operations must strategically align with business operations and fit into non-SEO team processes. For the system to work, everyone must be held to metric-driven accountabilities and aligned expectations. Everyone should also have the necessary skills and toolkits to do their jobs effectively.
These toolkits serve to account for the 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle which generally means that 20% of the effort drives 80% of the impact. When applied to SEO operations, the 80/20 rule states that everyone knows how to do 20% of SEO that makes 80% impact for their role.

The Modes and Seasons of SEO Operations

Understanding the three modes of operations can help you detect whether you’re operating as an SEO Avoider or transitioning into a Pacesetter.

1. 20/80 Chase Mode

20% of time doing SEO and 80% of time putting out fires or chasing defects.

2. 20/80 Migration Mode

20% of time doing SEO and 80% of time evangelizing, selling, and integrating SEO into processes.

3. 20/80 Impact Mode

20% of time evangelizing, training, monitoring, and consulting with non-SEO teams and 80% of time on strategic and advanced SEO projects.

Figure 2: The Three Modes of SEO Operations

Transforming from an SEO Avoider into a Pacesetter doesn’t happen overnight. The journey passes through four key phases or seasons before reaching synergy.

Figure 3: The Four Seasons of SEO Operations

Just like dating, everything is always interesting and exciting at the very beginning – this is the start of Courtship or Season 1. That excitement quickly turns into falling in love or The Honeymoon Season. Once the honeymoon phase fades and reality starts to set in, priorities shift. In Reality, or Season 3, compromises are made and problems go ignored or completely avoided. Season 4 is exactly when The Force to Reckon With (F2R) methodology needs to be implemented to spark the second honeymoon before sailing off into the sunset.

The Force to Reckon With (F2R) Framework

Jessica Bowman’s F2R or Force to Reckon With Framework is the step-by-step methodology that represents The 10 Pillars of SEO essential for process integration. Pillars 1 – 6 are considered tactical and are applied to implement SEO strategies. Pillars 7 – 10 measure the effectiveness of how your organization manages the implementation of pillars 1 – 6. Although the SEO strategies pillars are relatively easy-to-adopt, pillars 7 – 10 are not. The SEO Operations pillars are considered an untapped gold mine with the potential for massive competitive advantage, yet often get the least attention at the enterprise level, where they matter most.

Pillar #7: The SEO Team

Throughout all the seasons and phases to becoming an SEO Pacesetter, the SEO team must first be set up for success before integrating organic search across an organization’s operations. As SEOs, we must metaphorically put on our oxygen mask first before helping others. If the SEO team doesn’t have the fundamentals and necessary skills in place, the other teams won’t be able to either.

Pillar #8: Non-SEO Teams

Pillar 8 is about turning non-SEO stakeholders into “SEO Forward Thinkers” rather than SEO experts. SEO Forward Thinkers consist of non-SEOs who:

  • Collaborate with the SEO team and consider them a strategic partner
  • Receive effective training from the SEO team
  • Understand when to bring the SEO team in for opportunity and risk assessments
  • Don’t need to rely on the SEO team for everything

I know that it’s not easy, but you can slowly build your SEO army through fundamentals training, consistent collaboration, and lots of patience. If anyone wants to get started with learning SEO independently, check out my recommended SEO 101 resources.

Pillar #9: Processes

Pillar 9 outlines the systems that will govern how all the other pillars will be implemented into your existing tried-and-true processes. This pillar is by far the most challenging to adopt for organizations of any size. It requires weaving SEO into your current development life cycle and other repeatable processes impacting web visibility.

Integrating SEO into the Agile Methodology

The majority of my projects use a traditional agile sprint process or a hybrid approach to Waterfall and agile workflows. The agile methodology is set up to be flexible enough for iterative refinement and adaptation to integrate SEO. This becomes far easier when the SEO team is defined as an owner and required participant in ceremonies in all aspects of the project workflow from sprint planning and UAT to sprint reviews and launch.

Figure 5: The Agile Development Process

Pillar #10: Metrics

The final pillar represents more than just traditional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure and evaluate your organic search efforts. Pillar 10 is specifically about “SEO Operations Metrics” (SOMs). These metrics are designed to tell you how and if you are progressing on activities that will move the SEO-specific KPIs forward.

Part I Key Takeaways

  • SEO is a must-do activity, not a favor to cash in on.
  • SEO operations is the key difference between being labeled an SEO Avoider versus an SEO Pacesetter
  • The Pareto Principle of SEO operations states that everyone knows how to do 20% of SEO that makes 80% impact for their role.
  • Avoiders operate in the 20/80 Chase Mode spending 80% of their time putting out fires and only 20% of time on SEO strategy.
  • Pacesetters operate in the 20/80 Impact Mode spending 20% training and consulting with non-SEO teams and 80% on SEO strategy.
  • Jessica Bowman’s Force to Reckon With Framework is the step-by-step methodology representing the ten pillars of SEO operations essential for process integration.
  • SEO teams are responsible for helping non-SEO teams transform into SEO Forward Thinkers.

Click here for part II in this blog series that covers my commentary on the second half of the book.


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Renee Girard

Renee Girard is a Senior Organic Search Strategist and SEO Lead with nearly 8 years of agency experience at Perficient Digital out of the Milwaukee office. She leads SEO strategy for SMB to Fortune 1000 and Global 2000 enterprise clients and speaks at local universities and nationwide digital marketing events.

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