Dealing With People – The Hardest Part Of SEO

The really hard part about search engine optimization isn’t the SEO itself but dealing with people within your organization who have (or should have) an impact on SEO. Optimizing H1s is easy. Dealing with people is hard. Really hard.

What follows are a series of the most important lessons I’ve (maybe) learned while dealing with MBAs, devs, product managers, designers and my own ego.

Don’t Think Everything Through

We’ve been trained through years of education, higher education (and for some of people,  worse – consulting gigs) to deliver beautifully polished, thoroughly thought-through project plans. We wrap these plans in detailed reports and colored coded timelines and then present them to key stakeholders. Nothing could be less effective.

These reports are inevitably met with questions you haven’t thoroughly thought through (or even considered), staffing limitations, technical impossibilities, competing priorities and political agendas. Avoid this by involving stakeholders as early as possible and having hard, messy conversations early in the process instead of at the end.

Don’t Design Anything

It’s very easy to have opinions on design. Remember what they say about opinions and leave your designers alone to be the professionals that they are.

Don’t Trust Salespeople Who Describe Easy Implementation

I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an easy, seamless implementation. Get your technical people talking to their technical people before you sign the contract. Good salespeople will push this for you. Bad salespeople will send you a contract first.

Don’t Assume Noobs Understand Anything

I once watched a new hire struggle for weeks until we had a coffee conversation about search and it became clear he didn’t know the difference between a title tag and an H1 and thought a sitemap was something optometrists used.

Bad hiring process for sure – but you can minimize this problem by pushing new hires through a search orientation, in which you lay out search fundamentals as well as your company’s overall search philosophy.

Don’t Think About Traffic

Ahhh the monthly UU count – that standardized pissing contest yardstick by which all sites are compared. The UU count is a hold over of the ad supported model. It (frequently) means nothing to your company’s business health.

Unless you are pushing Sealy Posturepedic display campaigns or have no ethical qualms in targeting poor college students with Chase Bank credit card ads,  UU’s are probably not the right yardstick for your business.

A retailer, for example should much rather increase converting traffic by 10% than doubling non-converting traffic. This has huge implications for your search strategy.

Don’t Hire People With A Blackhat Background

This is an unfair, broad-brush-stroke generalization, but people who have worked in a “we’re smarter than those massively capitalized search engines” mode have trouble leaving this perspective behind. This is true for both in-house and, even worse, consultant SEOs.

Yes, there are some (in fact many) of the search celebrities who once made tons of money pushing Viagra from Canada who have now been reborn as virginal white hats, but I fear an arrogance that just can’t be left behind.

Don’t Let People Who Did A Project Evaluate It

We have access to more data than we know what to do with. This means that with some good data mining, it’s rare that you can’t shape an analysis in whatever light you want to in order to impress your genius upon a boss.

Avoid this problem by clearly calling out success metrics, various data sources, and the evaluation time period at the onset of the project. Better yet, have all analysis performed by a dedicated, disinterested number cruncher. Speaking of which . . .

Don’t Hire Optimistic Analysts

Optimists make good cheerleaders and visionary CEOs – they make really poor analysts and financial prognosticators. We recently hired a full time analyst who is downright cranky – suspicious of all assumptions, critical of growth multiples, and highly skeptical of any hockey-stick graph that would put a smile on a VC’s face. Best hire ever!

Don’t Follow Ranking Reports

I’m still seeing business leaders obsess over ranking reports and search “tools” that sate the desire to compare rankings for specific terms despite personalization, social, constant changing SERP pages and the fact that this term-based focus can lead you down a very dangerous path.

One cranky day, I wrote a diatribe against ranking reports: Excuse me While I Have a Ranking Report Rant.

Don’t Use Consultants

I’ve made many unfriends (and been uninvited to a few conferences) for pushing businesses away from search agencies.

Ignoring the proliferation of hacks masquerading as search gurus, here’s why search should be an in-house function:

  • Given the potential downside, I’d only hire a consultant if I knew exactly what they were doing, and if I knew exactly what they were doing, I’d do it myself.
  • SEO touches so many parts of the organization – this is very hard to deal with as an in-house, and it’s almost impossible for an offsite third party.
  • SEO changes constantly, so it is vital to have search fundamentals baked into your ongoing marketing, content, and development cycles.
  • SEO done well is a constant process of testing and retesting and incorporating the learnings from these tests into the mental memory of the organization. This just can’t be accomplished from the outside.

Good reasons to use consultants:

  • If you really don’t know what you are doing and you want to bring someone in to train your staff (or to keep your staff up to speed on the cutting edge issues: “how should we think about the next iteration of Penguin?,” for example).
  • If you are doing a highly technical, infrequent change – like a complete change in back end infrastructure.
  • Getting a third party audit coupled with in-house training may serve to uncover some things your in-house group hasn’t thought of.
  • If you need someone to throw under the blackhat bus – some companies want an agency on record to take the fall when they are inevitably penalized. Remember JCPenney, anyone? SearchDex, the agency they threw under the bus, quickly pulled down their page listing their clients and now, almost two years later, still won’t ID a single client on its website.

Don’t Benchmark Competitors

Trying to emulate competitors will push you to be just as bad as they are. Instead, benchmark best practices (or creative approaches) outside your industry. I’ve written more about this here:  Aspirations of Incompetence:  Benchmarking Competitors.

Don’t Take Credit For Any SEO Successes

Bill Gurly from Benchmark Capital described search traffic to me as “free beer.” As the in-house SEO, you are in a unique position to apportion this keg of free beer across the organization. Nothing engenders more buy-in for the importance of search than public attribution for success.

So, as an in-house SEO, your golden rule is to never ever ever take any credit for anything good that ever happens with regards to search.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is the founder of Atticus Marketing - a search agency dedicated exclusively to the legal profession. Prior to Atticus, Conrad ran marketing for Urbanspoon and the legal directory Avvo, which rose from concept to market leader under his watch.

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  • Nick Stamoulis

    You make a great point about traffic. More visitors is good, more targeted visitors is better. What’s the point of having a ton of traffic if nothing comes of it? So many people get hung up on a number (we need to increase by 11.8%!) that they miss the bigger picture.

  • Matt Muncy

    Really great article! Loved the sections about involving
    stakeholders early, not believing easy integration sales pitches, and making
    consultants train your people. Thank you for this.

  • Pat Grady

    The pace of change can make agencies attractive, though I agree with your too many gurus perspective thoroughly. I’d also say that having an agency work on a performance basis (budget limit, paid % of sales) is a better motivating package that can clear away many (but certainly not all) of the prospective disadvantages of outsourcing. Then again, as an agency, I’m obviously biased (but self-aware).

  • Vittorio Aquino

    If I can add to this: Don’t Fixate on Numbers, but Look At Trends – I’ve been to endless meetings where managers fixate on why is adwords data not exact as analytics, why the total page views were less than 10 last Thursday. I believe that this is all a waste of time. These numbers are there to present trends, not for us to fixate on them. For some reason, convincing people to think laterally can be challenging at times.

  • Jeff McNeill

    The part about design is nonsense. Other items useful.

  • brad forster

    Quite Possibly The Best Analysis Of SEO Pitfalls One Could Face. Written Like a Boss!

  • Marc Peterson

    I really like the last point. Recently switching from an agency to in-house, I am learning to stay humble (even after big wins). The success we have created so far wouldn’t be possible without our copywriters and developers. Without them, I would be taking to an empty chair….

  • Dreida Kapp

    I am one those evil “consulting agencies” but I absolutely loved your point about not using one. Too often I am asked to do a job which should have me being a part of every department meeting within a company, not to mention tete a tete with the CEO & CFO on future company development strategies. Ofcourse I can’t integrate your social, online reputation with rankings and visitor behaviour then maximise your ROI on MY services when you don’t value it enough to create a full-time position for it.

  • Nat

    Great article. Love the point that you make about following ranking.
    Yes, ranking is somehow important but the more important one is publication. So many people are obsessed in ranking number, ‘must be on the first page’ or ‘must be top 10′ and so on. They just miss the point.


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