4 Lessons I Learned Building an SEO Program From Scratch

This is a story by Chris Rydburg, trust us…he’s awesome.

First, if you helped me along my crazy path of starting an SEO program or mentoring me at all, thank you. It is important to recognize you first and foremost. 

Context, not Content is Key

When I started the SEO program at my former company, I’d previously done content strategy/SEO for a Fortune 100 company in a doer capacity. 

I thought I knew everything. While I did know a bit about SEO, I had no context as to how my new organization ran and operated. 

I immediately tried to make sweeping content, technology and organizational changes. 

Despite SEO generating millions more in revenue and traffic my first year, I wasn’t regarded as a hero. I had burned a lot of bridges with my peers to get those results because I didn’t take the time to learn how the company functioned, why we did the things we did or how to solve problems through collaboration. 

This alone set our program back probably two years from where it should be, because in year two, I had to focus all of my time on fixing those relationships, not “doing the SEO.” 

My advice to anyone starting an in-house program: take the time to understand why your organization thinks the way they do, ask questions instead of dictating answers and get to know your peers across other disciplines first, especially before trying to make sweeping changes.

Project Your Potential Business Impact

One of the most frustrating parts of SEO for a C-Suite or VP is the same old question of “if we do x, what is going to be the ROI?” It depends, right?

Most SEOs aren’t able to answer this question. Because of this, budgets and resources tend to favor Paid Media channels. Senior leaders understand advertising more than they understand SEO.

If you are running an in-house SEO program, you have to get good at projections. I credit Jeremy Rivera for teaching me the value of projections. If you haven’t checked out his project on SEOArcade, you should. 

Multiply by twelve for an annualized SEO projection.

The formula for projecting your SEO ROI is easy: search volume x average click through rate per position x CVR x value of that conversion x 12 (for annualized projections).

There’s adjustments you can make like seasonality etc, but that’s 70% of the way there and a whole lot better than “it depends”. If you rank for x keyword in position 3, you will generate x amount of revenue per year. That’s what VPs want.

Make a spreadsheet of all of the terms you are trying to rank for and take it to a business analyst or an executive director of marketing and you’ll get people to listen to you.

One last tip on this one: figure out what Google thinks you are a subject matter expert. Not what company WANTS to be a subject matter expert in. Divide up your keywords into different topical categories and see how long (on average) each keyword takes to rank. 

When we did this at my former company (in the YMYL space) we got completely different results based on topic, not on keyword difficulty. 

Use Keywords to Make Business Decisions

Have you ever seen a preview of a product or a piece of content and immediately knew it wasn’t going to resonate with consumers? I know I have. 

As an SEO, you have an incredible opportunity to help businesses understand how people talk about their problems, the intent behind those problems and what your organization can do to fix those problems.

Sometimes the answer is content, sometimes it’s a landing page, but if you are looking for the true payoff look no further than product/services. 

If you’re offering a product that fixes a problem customers don’t even know they have, you aren’t going to have a successful product. If you launch a bunch of content to promote said product, you aren’t going to have a successful content strategy because business intent and user intent don’t intersect.

My advice for in-house SEOs: get to know your product and your business development people. Once you’ve established trust, you can bring your observations to the table and help your organization reach a much wider audience by launching products or services people will actually crave.

In my mind, SEO has always been 2 parts psychology and 1 part technical. If you are leaning in too hard on the technical, you are missing an opportunity to have a greater impact on your company.

This kind of thinking makes you more than just the head of SEO. This kind of thinking makes you an invaluable piece of your organization’s strategic planning.

Hire People Better than You

The reality is the quirky brilliance of the person who starts up an in-house SEO program only goes so far. I firmly believe it is your job to hire people better than you.

I’ve learned a lot of leaders are fearful their employees are going to outshine them. This causes them to lead out of fear rather than out love. What a massive mistake. 

I’d argue, if your employees are winning awards and getting kudos more than you, you’ve done your job as a leader. 

You need to hire people who are going to grow the discipline far greater than you ever could alone and you shouldn’t be afraid of that.I was fortunate enough to have a brilliant team of SEOs. Each of them are going to be rockstars in this industry.

As a leader of a program, you need to make sure of two things: that you’ve put your people in positions to grow their passions and that you can challenge them to grow beyond you in each of those areas. 

If you push your team to do better than you have done, it opens up their career opportunities and it also opens up your own. Eventually, if you’ve done your job right, your people should be given the keys to the SEO bus. You should be either in a higher position in the same company (because you followed the first three recommendations) or you’ve earned the opportunity to go somewhere else to start something new.

In this way, the cycle can start again. 

If you hire people better than you, you leave a legacy rather than a vacancy.

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