An SEO strategy flywheel to win leadership buy-in and drive results


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30-second summary:

  • From my experience, every SEO has struggled to get buy-in on a recommendation at some point
  • An SEO’s job has changed a lot in a decade. Now, prioritization is mandatory for success
  • To have proper prioritization in your roadmap, you need a framework that builds in opportunity analysis, discovery, and measurement
  • It can be challenging to win-over stakeholders because there is skepticism against advertisers—and SEOs can have competing interests if we don’t get early buy-in and speak in terms of business KPIs rather than SEO KPIs
  • The SEO Strategy Flywheel outlined below is your ticket to unlocking SEO roadmaps that get implemented

In today’s SEO industry, human challenges far exceed technical challenges. Our job as SEOs has evolved dramatically in the last 10 years. To show value a decade ago, SEOs manually audited sites and created a laundry list of SEO action items to fix. Prioritization wasn’t imperative to success because marketing teams were limited, websites were smaller, and SEO didn’t have an obvious home…should SEO live with development, content, creative, or marketing? As we love to say, “it depends.” 

In the decade since we’ve learned that SEO does require meaningful prioritization to get buy-in from all stakeholders. Prioritization is now mandatory for two reasons:

  1. Resources are finite—as SKUs and sites grow, the SEO resources usually don’t
  2. Tools have replaced the need for manual audits but cannot replace human expertise in prioritizing against business needs and objectives

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, even says this on Reddit:

As an SEO, a part of your role is to take all of the possible optimizations and figure out which ones are worth spending time on. Any SEO tool will spit out 10s or 100s of “recommendations”, most of those are going to be irrelevant to your site’s visibility in search. Finding the items that make sense to work on takes experience.

However, modern SEO success also requires more than just excellent prioritization. We’ve agreed on a common belief that regardless of where SEO sits within an organization, it is marketing! SEO = marketing. And, whether we like it or not, that makes us as SEOs advertisers. SEOs = advertisers.

Unfortunately, I have bad news for you: people despise advertisers, according to Gallup polls.

Advertisers aren't people's favorite

So this presents obvious challenges for us as we try to win over folks like business executives, developers, content writers, etc., with this inherent bias against us as advertisers. 

Introducing: The SEO strategy flywheel

The SEO strategy flywheel was hard-fought through my personal experience. The best part is that this flywheel can be used by in-house SEOs, freelancers, and agencies! 

As Myriam Jessier says to SEOs, “Heart surgeons use checklists. You are not above them.”

To take this further, we are not above process either – and in today’s world, the process must go beyond traditional SEO expertise. SEOs must use processes to overcome human and technical challenges. Processes can feel mundane, boring, and possibly even robotic. Far too often have I witnessed SEOs painfully living in chaos with no defined roadmaps, processes, or regular workflow cadence. But the truth is: we are not above process and it does not turn us into robots. 

Rather, creating process makes us more human. It eliminates the need to focus on “survival” tactics and reserves bandwidth to focus on more impactful strategic initiatives. 

Having a team and various stakeholders commit to a process improves efficiency, allows for more collaboration, and ensures we can see our recommendations implemented. 

Introduction to the SEO strategy flywheel

1. Opportunity analysis – Build confident humility into your process

Step one is our opportunity to reassess our strategic vision, layered against the new competitive landscape from the previous quarter. 

Too often, we as SEOs are either too stubborn in our strategic vision or too passive to make recommendations that may be experimental or challenging to get approved. This leads to either armchair-quarterback syndrome where you’re blinded by hubris or imposter syndrome where you’re too meek to make difficult cases compelling. The goldilocks spot is what Adam Grant calls, “Confident Humility” in his book ‘Think Again’

The opportunity analysis commits all teams to consistently review site performance, and analyze and prepare for any industry/vertical change. In short, the opportunity analysis forces confident humility. And confident humility is how we get better—quarter after quarter. 

Most important in the opportunity analysis is to ensure that there is an “outside” perspective from another SEO expert to ensure that your findings are sound. At Brainlabs, this includes check-ins and QA with the Group Account Director and VP of SEO. This outside perspective allows us to help narrow in on the most impactful findings for our recommendations. 

Tips

  • Doing an audit, you will find someone somewhere along the line made a mistake (for example, unimplemented content, wrongly implemented schema, and the other). Make sure to rectify this before the Discovery Meeting where you recap findings so you don’t burn a bridge with an important stakeholder like a developer. 
  • Always put the opportunity in business KPIs, not SEO KPIs. 

2. Discovery meeting – Get buy-in from stakeholders early

The most collaborative part of the process is my personal favorite and the most influential: the discovery meeting. The discovery meeting is our time to build relationships with all stakeholders—and understand available resources and appetite for change. Put simply, robots can’t build relationships–that’s still something we have over any SEO auditing technology. 

Having meaningful questions to ask stakeholders is part of the reason why the Opportunity Analysis is the first step—you don’t want to go to this meeting empty-handed. The questions I like to ask can be grouped into 4 buckets: Partnership, Business, Industry/SEO, and Resources. While templated questions are a great start, you should always tweak the questions to be relevant to the brand. 

Example questions include:

Partnership: 

  • What project has been your favorite so far? Should we do more of that?

Business: 

  • Are there any changes in your industry or business that can/will impact the website or marketing efforts? 

SEO:

  • Is there anything in the backlog of projects that you’re excited about? What can we provide to make a case for implementation?

Resources: 

  • With the economic uncertainty, will resources stay the same on your side? 

Tips

  • This meeting can be folded into a QBR-esque meeting or, if you can swing the time, it can stand alone on its own, which is my preference. 
  • Invite stakeholders from multiple teams to get perspective (for example, developers, execs, content, brand marketing, and other relevant members)
  • If time allows, have a mock call to ensure that the questions and presentation are well-crafted and the team is comfortable delivering them.

3. SEO roadmap creation – Put rubber to the road

Most SEOs try to skip directly to this step first. But—be warned from my experience—it is a costly mistake (in both time and political capital). Beginning your SEO project with a roadmap results in a long list of unprioritized recommendations and little implementation, and the end result is a loss of trust and frustration with stakeholders. 

The roadmap, when preceded by proper opportunity analysis and an effective Discovery meeting, will successfully accomplish three things:

  1. Lay out projects with enough detail for early buy-in
  2. Identify participants for each activity to avoid a collective action problem
  3. Act as an activity log which makes measurement easier

The sheet below is an example of an SEO quarterly roadmap. We define each project and quantify the impact on the business using relevant SEO KPIs and business terms (outlined in pink). 

Next, we include a RACI model (outlined in blue) to define project participants by who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. 

Lastly, once the Roadmap is approved we add the middle Project Status section (outlined in black), and track each activity so we can measure pre- and post-implementation success. 

Tips

  • Exercise ongoing confident humility with the roadmap and know when to pivot a project
  • Continuously update the roadmap and use this to guide status calls
  • Use the roadmap to define resource allocation and project management—that is, new projects to be added must be done in place of something else

4. Implementation – Get sh*t done

While site implementation may fall to different teams, the important part is being able to assess who needs approval for which implementations early on. That way, by the time each recommendation is finalized then it can immediately be ready for implementation. 

Tips

  • Since you have a roadmap with defined timelines, get development tickets submitted early so the implementation team can prepare resources for them in an upcoming sprint
  • QA all implementations to ensure that the final result matches your recommendation
  • Use a site change tracker tool to see when stuff gets implemented

5. Measurement – Identify winning efforts to scale

Step five is where this framework turns into a flywheel: Measurement. Having an activity log in your roadmap allows you to easily identify pre- and post-implementation impacts. Being able to tie performance back to a specific subset of optimizations allows you to scale those efforts to yield the compounding effects of SEO. 

There’s no better way to win influence over a site’s development team than by following up and sharing the results of their work.  Make sure they see the post-implementation report and watch how easily SEO projects get added to the development roadmap in future sprints!

Tips

  • Make sure implementation dates are accurate (including site adjustments)
  • Ensure to account for seasonality in your analysis
  • Track pre and post-measurement from the soonest crawl date after implementation, rather than implementation itself as it can take upwards of three months for a page to be recrawled
  • Use an SEO A/B testing tool for testing ranking/traffic impact—like SearchPilot for large sites—and/or a conversion testing tool like Google Optimize to test for engagement/conversion impact
  • Set up tracking for SEO KPIs as early as possible to get enough pre-implementation data

Process = Success

The SEO strategy flywheel allows you to dedicate your SEO team’s time and resources to SEO rather than reactively resolving prioritization conflicts. Committing to this process builds confident humility into your work, gets stakeholder buy-in early, and easily allows you to scale winning efforts. I encourage you to modify this process to fit in with your existing workflows and share your modifications with others in the comments for inspiration. 

Next quarter’s planning is right around the corner—go get it!


Travis Tallent is the VP, SEO at Brainlabs overseeing the SEO product to ensure account teams have the right talent, tools, tech, and process to do their jobs well. Travis spends time enjoying nature, playing saxophone in a local band, and volunteering for LGBTQ+ organizations. Follow Travis on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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