6 Things I Learned About Building An In-House SEO Team

The first six years of my SEO career were spent in the same in-house SEO team. During that time, the team underwent many changes, evolving and adapting in an endless pursuit of the most effective way of operating.

At first, we were a small, junior team working largely in a silo.

But by 2020, we were a team of seven, including senior and specialist roles. We were fully integrated into the digital department via processes and ways of working.

From my first days in SEO through to my time as part of the leadership team, I was part of all of the ups and downs and learned a lot about what is needed to prove the value of investing in SEO – and making that investment pay off.

Here are the most important lessons I learned.

1. Nothing Happens Without Buy-In

If you take one thing from this article, make sure it’s this: It doesn’t matter how good you are, or how desperately you need more hands on deck.

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You will not get the opportunity to grow your team or increase your budget without buy-in from the people who can give you those things.

For this, you need credibility.

This comes over time, from good subject knowledge, insights, judgment, and the ability to demonstrate these qualities consistently.

But there are things you can do to put yourself in a strong position to accelerate building this reputation.

2. Structure Is Your Friend

First of all, you need structure in three key areas:

  • Reliable data and a consistent approach to reporting.
  • A comprehensive, prioritized strategy based on full site audits, outlining what you’ll be working on, and, vitally, what you can’t tackle yet (due to dependencies, budget, or resource).
  • A regular cadence of communicating your progress.

A bonus of creating this structure around your SEO program is that it has the potential to protect you from unexpected changes in your organization.

For example, if there are changes in the leadership of your department with new managers looking to assert their own approach, a solid footing and a clear plan often mean a stronger rationale is needed for any upheaval.

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And it could even create an opportunity for your team to grow in influence and accelerate its evolution.

3. You’ve Got To ‘Move The Needle’

The next thing you need is a track record.

This can feel unattainable if you’re overwhelmed and understaffed.

Attempting to make progress in all areas, spreading yourself too thin, and ultimately failing to make a real impact anywhere will not prove you need more resources to anyone but yourself.

Instead, communicate to your managers about the projects you will be prioritizing, and explicitly call out the areas you won’t be working on due to capacity limitations.

With a more focused scope, you can then demonstrate the impact you can make with an appropriate workload and allow them to infer the return they could get from investing in the SEO team.

This step allows more projects to be worked on simultaneously.

4. Build A Compelling Business Case

You must also be able to capitalize on this foundation, asking for what you need and persuading people to give it to you.

SEO is, by nature, expansive and ever-growing. It can be difficult to know whether you’re genuinely under-resourced, or just overwhelmed by the endless possibilities and threads to pull at.

By estimating the potential return on investment of the projects that added capacity would unlock, you’ll be able to confirm that you genuinely need more people and make a strong case for expanding your team.

Of course, as with many aspects of SEO, ROI can be complicated and difficult to calculate. Results can’t be guaranteed in the same way as they can for other digital marketing channels.

In addition, many of the initiatives we need to work on aren’t necessarily about incremental growth, but rather following best practices and protecting performance long-term.

Two main tactics helped us to put some numbers to the projects we knew were important, and to prove the need to increase capacity.

Present Projected ROI As A Range

In the best-case scenario, what impact could this activity have?

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What if it has a more modest result than expected?

The reality will likely be somewhere in between, but communicating a range of outcomes allows you to be transparent and truthful without overpromising or underselling the potential results.

For example, one approach would be:

  • Define the list of keywords your project will affect.
  • For each term, project the potential clicks by multiplying the monthly search volume and estimated click-through rate at different positions (eg. three positions higher; five positions higher).
  • Subtract any current traffic driven by these terms from these projected totals to calculate an upper and lower estimate of traffic uplift.
  • Optionally, apply conversion rates and average spend figures to calculate revenue uplift.

Calculate The Cost Of Doing Nothing Or The Opposite Of ROI

If a project’s aim is to protect SEO performance from future algorithm updates or to stay ahead of your competitors, use the same approach outlined above, but based on loss of position.

Being able to quantify the benefit of increasing your capacity not only helps communicate the value of the work your team does (and could do) but also helps to build your authority and credibility.

Incidentally, it is also very valuable when jostling for prioritization with e.g. your organization’s development team!

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Hire The Right People

So you’ve got approval to increase your headcount. Now what?

Depending on the salary you can offer, you’ll need to be realistic about the level of experience you can expect from applicants.

With this, your business case, and strategy in mind, start to put together a job description with the types of responsibilities the role will involve.

When hiring for more junior positions, consider whether specific SEO experience is really vital.

It’s possible to learn SEO on the job, but the qualities that set someone up to develop into a great SEO practitioner – curiosity, a love of learning and problem-solving, resilience, diplomacy – can be much harder to teach.

For roles requiring more experience, you still need to ensure you’re looking for the softer skills above, but you should also set tasks that require candidates to demonstrate the requisite skills and subject knowledge for the responsibilities they’ll be taking on.

It’s vital to ensure that the interviewers are qualified to make that assessment – bring in experts from outside of your organization if necessary.

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Attempting to gauge the extent of a candidate’s expertise when it exceeds that of the interviewers is next to impossible, and one bad hire can create really sticky situations that are very difficult to resolve.

It can be deceptively difficult to find candidates who balance existing experience and knowledge with a receptiveness to further learning and the humility required to truly collaborate – in the words of Dan Patmore, Senior Group SEO Manager at Sainsbury’s Group,

“Some SEOs want to be right. I want people who want to learn.”

Above all, keep the importance of internal buy-in at the forefront of your mind when bringing anyone new into your team.

Is this someone who can add to the credibility and authority of your team within the business, instill confidence in your leadership team, and foster cross-functional collaboration?

Or is there a risk that they could damage your team’s reputation and relationships?

Leading A Growing Team

There are hundreds of books dedicated to how to manage teams.

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But for me, the ultimate aim of developing a team is for it to become more than the sum of its parts.

The way the individuals in the team work together should elevate everyone above and beyond the skills and abilities they each bring on their own.

Shared Values

The approach required to achieve this is consistent with the approach to hiring, outlined above: prioritizing values above all else, approaching SEO as an ongoing learning experience, and emphasizing the importance of honesty and collaboration.

In order to create this environment, you need to practice mentorship over micromanagement, focusing on developing and guiding your colleagues through their careers, and running a fulfilled and effective team in which individuals feel valued.

This is especially important in SEO teams, as many of the qualities that make somebody well-suited to this discipline can also make them resistant to more overbearing leadership.

Lifelong learners tend to like to question assumptions and arrive at their own conclusions and problem-solvers like to improve processes rather than be forced to do things how they’ve always been done.

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And those with inherent curiosity like to be allowed to investigate tangents and uncover new insights.

Stifling these instincts in favor of having more control over your team will not only make them miserable, but you’ll also lose out on their ideas and perspectives (and miss opportunities).

Alignment

So how do you make sure everyone is pulling in the right direction?

Like everything else, this comes down to buy-in, except this time, you need to gain buy-in from the SEO team itself. In practice, this means you should:

  • Be transparent in sharing your strategy with your team, the same way you would share it with more senior stakeholders.
  • As individuals in the team grow in experience and bring their own valuable perspectives and areas of expertise, involve them in the creation of the strategy.
  • Make sure everyone knows where the focus is, what the aims are and why. Agree on expectations for outcomes and milestones, including deadlines. This structure is essential for keeping things on track while allowing creativity.
  • Maintain a backlog of projects to be scoped and prioritized later. This allows your team to bring new ideas to you and be heard, without derailing current priorities.

Ultimately, my north star for building and leading a team always comes down to trust. I want to hire people whom I can trust and I want to earn theirs in return.

I want to encourage my team to trust each other, and I want everyone to feel like they are trusted.

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If you can pull this off, you end up with a team that works collaboratively towards shared goals, challenges themselves to be their best, develops their own strengths and specialties, learns from each other, and generates ideas and innovations that will evolve your SEO program for the future.

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