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Flying Solo: The One-Person In-House SEO Team
As in an-house SEO specialist, you may well find yourself solely responsible for your company’s search engine marketing. It is not uncommon for an organization to limit their human investment in SEO to a single individual, particularly for new web ventures or where existing search marketing efforts are just being brought in-house. The challenge facing a solo SEO is, of course, producing positive results without a great deal of specialist support.
Whether you are working as a member of the marketing team, attached to the IT department, or are singularly autonomous, both search strategy and tactical execution are likely to fall on your plate. For all but the smallest websites, this will rapidly result in an enormous work-load; in addition to the time required to stay on top of developments in your field. Effective management of your time, tasks and your organization’s expectations is critical if you are to have any success at all without committing all of your waking hours to SEO.
For those who manage or are already part of an honest-to-goodness team, I urge you to keep reading. Introducing efficiencies that help improve the life a single in-house SEO can prove equally beneficial to individuals on an SEO team.
Delegate tasks where possible
Being successful in search marketing, and in particular organic SEO, involves co-opting the talents of individuals in diverse roles in order to perform work that will benefit SEO. For example, once you have identified that the non-www form of your website needs to be redirected to the www form, someone in IT will have to make that change.
The solo in-house SEO, however, may have to extend this principle to include what would normally be considered specialist SEO tasks, simply to lighten the load. Best practices demand that every new page generated be assigned, at minimum, a unique title tag and meta description – is there a in-house copywriter that might be suited to this task? This will substantially free up your time if there are a large number of pages being produced daily (and a writer might actually be better at, um, writing, than you).
Any specialist tasks that you may wish to delegate will almost certainly involve training a surrogate so these tasks can be performed competently. While this in itself will require a time commitment on your part, this expenditure must be measured against the time this will potentially save you in the future. If you are spending an hour a day tagging pages, and it takes a day to train a copywriter to do this, you will start to see a positive return on your investment in under two weeks!
If you are a control freak this may, of course, require some attitude adjustment. But, if you are a control freak, you may encounter other problems working in an industry predicated on trying to manipulate something you do not have control over – search engine rankings. Good luck with that.
Outsource where possible
As you start tackling your task list, you may find there are jobs that need to be done in support of SEO for which your organization either lacks the skills internally, or where in-house resources are inadequate to accomplish these tasks in a timely fashion. Depending on your budget and the magnitude of what needs to be undertaken, you may be able to outsource some of these components.
In support of PPC, for example, outsourcing landing page design (and even testing) may be a cost-effective mechanism for improving the ROI of paid search. Similarly, programming tasks such as custom script development or CMS modifications may be most expeditiously accomplished by contracting out the work.
While it might seem counter-intuitive to outsource some search marketing as part of an in-house SEO program, this indeed might be the case where this program is a fledgling one, or there is simply too much for one person to take on. All things being equal, paid search is the most obvious candidate for outsourcing, both because immediate ROI is easier to calculate and monitor compared to organic search, and because organic search success relies more heavily on leveraging the cooperation of disparate in-house stakeholders. Needless to say, if you have been brought on board to manage paid search, then the opposite will be true.
Automate where possible
There are often several possible realms where efficiencies can be introduced by automating either recurring tasks or reporting. To the former, simple on-site SEO such as creating headings, titles, meta data or even image alt attributes might be automated by programmatically pushing database fields to the appropriate on-page locations. For reporting, look for opportunities where configuring analytics reports might obviate the need for manual data extraction, or where tools might be developed or purchased to track rankings, back links or other statistical SEO data.
As in the case of de facto task delegation, automating processes might require you to put in a bit of dedicated time up front, but save you a lot of effort in the long run.
Here is a very common real-life scenario. A company has just taken the plunge and committed to an in-house SEO program, and management (largely uninformed about how SEO works) wants a projection on the financial impact of improved search engine rankings in the next quarter (or year, or whatever). There’s no been prior investment in SEO, so rankings are virtually non-existent, as are (in consequence) traffic or conversion numbers associated with organic search.
There are basically two responses. You can dedicate a week or two coming up with complex formulas based on different keyword ranking and conversion scenarios, and produce a very pretty spreadsheet populated with numbers that are basically bunk. Or you can be honest: SEO efforts are just underway; there is no historical data that can be used to create meaningful predictive models, and any numbers I could come up would basically be bunk.
The benefit of the honest approach is, of course, that you are able to spend a couple of weeks productively employed on optimization tasks that will eventually impact your company’s bottom line, rather than delaying that success by wasting time in pointless speculation about those bottom-line improvements.
This is not to say that you should expect management to nod understandingly when you tell them that producing the report they desire is a waste of time: you obviously need to explain why. But if you are afraid to be forthright, you may not only find yourself wasting time, but find yourself in a very unpleasant meeting in three months’ time, trying to explain why the metrics fall far short of your bogus projections.
Taking the reins of a search marketing program is, in general, not for the timid, and this is doubly true if you are solely accountable for the success or failure of SEO efforts. In order to attain search engine success, you need to be prepared to argue for resources, counteract initiatives which may harm organic search, demand better SEO support from recalcitrant colleagues or company units, and autonomously prioritize (or even veto) tasks based on your knowledge and expertise.
This is why the word “aggressive” should be thought of as laudatory, rather than pejorative, in the context of an in-house SEO professional – that is, not one who possesses an abrasive personality, but an individual who is willing to fight for what is needed for success, without slavishly deferring to superiors when they impede progress.
Find time for professional development
You may believe that time spent catching up on blogs, participating in forums, reading books or attending conferences are secondary in importance to “real” SEO work, and that these activities must always be sacrificed (or delegated to off-work hours) in the face of an ever-increasing task list.
This is wrong-headed on two counts. First, if you fail to keep up on developments in the search marketing work, you will eventually miss out on opportunities to introduce efficiencies or re-prioritize your tasks based on new information. You may even find yourself laboring away on techniques that have since proven to be obsolete!
Second, you were hired to run in-house SEO at least in part because of your professional knowledge. In a field as dynamic as search engine marketing, that knowledge will rapidly prove obsolescent without dedicating time to stay on top of industry developments. You need to strike a balance with your other tasks, of course, but it is essential to carve out some time for professional development; and factually and forcefully respond to any colleague or superior who suggests such efforts are tantamount to slacking.
Always be tactical
When you are packing it in for the day, make a habit of asking yourself the question, “what did I do to improve SEO for my site today?” The answer should never be “nothing.”
Strategic planning does not improve your rankings. A day of keyword research will not improve the ROI of your paid search unless you apply it to a campaign. Participating in the world’s greatest meeting does not result in a great inbound link to your site.
Yes, planning is vital to future search engine success, and you may have no choice but to put together a report for the CMO – but, as the only SEO in the house, if you are not making active contributions to improving your search rankings, nobody else is. Always try to find an hour or two in the day to actually do something impactful, even if it is as small as redirecting a URL that 404s, adding an alt attribute to that new button, or responding to that blogger who is poised to link to you.
Not all in-house jobs are created equal
Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you know what is in store for you as an in-house SEO. This fictional job description is closely modeled on many real postings I have seen:
SEO specialist required for growing website. Responsibilities include on-page search engine optimization, inbound link development, PPC management, making HTML changes to the main website, developing PHP scripts, writing content for two blogs, creating landing pages and developing marketing campaigns.
One of the satisfying aspects of working as an in-house SEO is that the job is usually anything but monotonous, but the diversity of daily tasks can obviously be taken too far. At a certain point your chances of search success are going to decline in proportion to the breadth of your responsibilities. Taking on sole responsibility for an in-house SEO program is challenging enough: make sure the job is at least focused on SEO.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.