How To Work With Four Common SEO Leadership Styles

I’ve had the pleasure of working on SEO in a variety of companies both in house and, frequently, through casual advice to other companies. After eight years in the business, I’m convinced that the success of search for an in-house person hinges on their ability to work within a leader’s approach to search. This is due to the interdepartmental cooperation needed to effectively run search as well as the fluid nature of our business.

What follows are four extreme leadership caricatures, vis-a-vis search, and recommendations on how to most effectively work search into an organization within a specific leadership perspective regarding search leadership styles.

Hands Off Leaders

Hands Off_shutterstock

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The hands-off leader is usually old school and has been successful either prior to the advent of the Interweb or through other online channels such as highly measureable PPC, email or display. Mr. Hands Off probably still has an AOL email address for personal use.

In these organizations, search probably doesn’t exist as a function, and if it does, it’s probably grouped under an entry level PPC or display person. The Hands Off leader has either never decided to push search as a channel or worse (and more likely), has proactively chosen to steer clear of it.

How To Manage Hands Off

This is actually a great opportunity for a search marketer – as the Hands Off leader probably has built a successful business ripe with low hanging search fruit. Your challenge, here, is to get some early easy wins and report metrics up as widely and as high as possible.

Use business metrics such as ROI, cost of sales, cost of acquisition etc., to compare search against other channels. Search will (almost) always outperform.

The biggest challenge in a Hands Off organization is the cross-departmental cooperation that must happen for most search efforts to be effective.

Conquer this by over communicating and always awarding the success of those aforementioned business metrics to other departments. It’s amazing how you can make friends by turning cost centers into profit centers.

Confidently Ignorant

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The Confidently Ignorant leader is a garbled mess of buzzwords and directives. This leader is usually someone who has worked at, but not on an online property and wouldn’t know the difference between a canonical tag and a magic wand.

While she speaks confidently of GoogleJuice, the nuance between linkbait and spam is a mystery to Confidently Ignorant. You’ve never heard her say, “I don’t know,” but she frequently spouts off on dated information she picked up at a networking event that was trendy months or years ago. “We need more Pinterest Juice!”

Usually, nothing substantial ever really happens under Confidently Ignorant.

How To Manage Confidently Ignorant

The good news is that Confidently Ignorant knows that search is important – just not what to do about it. The primary challenge, here, is to focus on those things that do move the needle and minimize the garbage. Use Confidently Ignorant’s bluster to gather resources across departments to push through your search agenda.

Managing in this organization requires a disciplined approach to project management, i.e., identify business objectives before a project is undertaken and then regularly go back and post-mortem every project. This provides you with a structure to demonstrate (privately) that Confidently Ignorant’s  pet project that she crammed through wasn’t a great investment.

In fact, over time, these post-mortems, may serve to simultaneously educate and bore her with the technical details of search. Victory. Unlike every other situation – ascribe search success directly to Confidently Ignorant (instead of the departments who actually did the work) to garner further support for projects you want to undertake.

Aspiring Growth


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The Aspiring Growth leader often runs a start-up, is confident that his product is desperately needed and is certain that the Interweb will deliver a flood of business; he’s just not sure how. Aspiring Growth has picked up a few things here or there, but knows what he doesn’t know. He is admittedly (and appropriately) focused on his area of expertise (usually building out a product that people don’t even know they need yet.)

Additionally, he has limited understanding of the time and competitive factors around search – i.e., it’s going to take a lot more time and resources to get traffic for “mesothelioma lawyer” than “pink fuzzy bunny slippers.” He probably thinks of search in terms of ranking reports.

How To Manage Aspiring Growth

Aspiring Growth needs a lesson in reality. I’ve found that the best way to work with Aspiring Growth leaders is to overwhelm them with education around the technical and tactical components of search, communicating this early on and often. This does two things:  1) grounds them in reality that search isn’t an immediate payoff, and 2) bores them with the details. This provides them with the confidence to let you do your job, while they return to what they do best.

Aspiring Growth is highly susceptible to unscrupulous or just really bad search and Web development agencies, and you may find yourself spending most of your effort unraveling legacy issues that were offshored.

SEO Maven


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The SEO Maven leaders are few and far between. She’s probably has a high-end technical degree and sold her first business, that she coded entirely on her own.

The SEO Maven has inculcated search best practices across the organization, does nothing at all to the site without A/B/C/D/E . . . testing, and has created some impressive in-house reporting tools that she replaced Google Analytics with because she’s paranoid about sharing site data. She could probably sell these tools to the agency world, but would never consider it as she’s too focused on using them to build her business.

How To Manage the SEO Maven

This is both a hard and easy place to be as an in-house search marketer. First, there is no way you are going to be the search subject-matter expert, so eat a humility pill every day at breakfast. However, working for the SEO Maven minimizes the political battles and interdepartmental struggles that so frequently occur otherwise when dealing with search.

In SEO Maven organizations, “what have you done for me lately” is the overriding perspective. Test, test, test. Be creative and then test again. These businesses are the ultimate training grounds for search marketers – if someone was getting out of college who wanted to get into the business, this is where I’d recommend they go (especially instead of the agency route.)

Due to the connected nature of our business, highly political corporate cultures tend to flounder in their search efforts while focused, nimble companies often succeed. While we may bemoan this reality, as search marketers, learning to function within the leadership and political structure of our organization is a necessarily skill.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO


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

    “Aspiring Growth is highly susceptible to unscrupulous or just really bad
    search and Web development agencies, and you may find yourself spending
    most of your effort unraveling legacy issues that were offshored.”

    I’ve definitely dealt with a few of those managers before. They knew they needed it and just went for the most cost effective option…not necessarily the best option. It’s no small feat to unravel what has been done AND explain to this manager why you have to undo all that “good SEO” he paid for once already.

  • Hal Fast

    Pretty insightful analysis Conrad. You seem to have the four styles down pat. btw; you wouldn’t happen to be bi-polar are you? Maybe that explains it. LOL! Just kidding, and great write up! day1charitydonation

  • chris

    Love this article! I have worked for all four management styles. I would add to the SEO Maven management style that often, this type of manager will tell you exactly how to do your job, based on his/her previous experience and results, even if his/her tactics are not necessarily the best. “We need more links! How many links have we gotten today?!”

  • Eric Muhanji

    Nice analysis of characters we come across in the profession!

  • sharithurow

    Hi there-

    I have a #5: the SEO who genuinely, honestly believes that he/she knows SEO but really doesn’t. I’m dealing with one right now who does not know when to 301 or 404, and who does not get the big picture (focus is purely on rankings).

    I understand that SEO professionals have differing methodologies, and that’s fine because if we all agreed with each other? We wouldn’t learn anything. But I find dealing with this type of SEO more frustrating than the other four.

    In fact, when I train companies, the in-house SEO often skips a good portion of the training and then comes into the room after a few hours. And because he/she didn’t get the right context, he/she asks a lot of questions that would have been easily answered if the person would have participated in the entire training in the first place.

    That’s why I make the Intro to SEO part of training mandatory so that we all use the same vocabulary and the same context.

  • Kent Yunk

    Nice perspective Conrad, as always. Sometimes you find yourself as the leader and end up being all 4 without knowing it. Careful who you step on while climbing to the top. All kidding aside I have worked with many of these management styles and one thing shines over all the rest and that is to focus on real results. Much harder to dispute the data.


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