SEO is a vast and complex practice, part art and part science. Managing an SEO team usually means that you’re taking on the world with some talented people.
So, how can you lead an SEO team effectively, helping to grow their skill sets in the right direction?
And, critically, how can you keep your team motivated in a world (wide web) of smoke and mirrors?
Focus on the big picture
Legacy SEO metrics, like ranking positions, are often overly emphasized due to SEO’s historical legacy. Yet, Google’s dynamic search algorithms render them outdated.
Focusing on minute ranking shifts can demotivate your team and divert energy from results-driven work in the evolving landscape.
In SEO, small questions can drain resources as they involve numerous variables. Investing in positive actions like content creation and on-site improvements is often wiser. Redirect practical-minded SEO experts toward results-driven tasks.
While some may enjoy deep analysis, your top performers can’t generate results while dissecting minor ranking changes. Consider a separate role if such analysis is necessary, and budget accordingly.
You can still set SEO KPIs and meet targets without fixating on rankings. Assess organic traffic to specific pages and which keywords are driving them. Identify successful pages and optimize by expanding on top-performing keywords.
Work with Google’s algorithms, don’t fight them.
Set traffic goals. Identify high-traffic keywords and fill content gaps with new pages or posts. Increase relevant SEO traffic, revenue, and conversions. Prioritize growth over chasing highly competitive keywords for vanity ranking positions.
Ranking KPIs are impractical and limiting. Get those conversions in, whichever way is easiest.
The path to success in business (outside of SEO, even outside of marketing) is the path of least resistance.
Dig deeper: How to determine the SEO metrics that matter
Don’t pigeonhole your staff
SEO is a diverse field. Content production, CMS tweaks, analytics setups, reporting, coding – it’s all there.
As such, particularly with your junior staff members, don’t pigeonhole them. Create a diverse portfolio of advancement options.
Maybe some of these bright young minds have the gift of the gab and will advance toward a digital PR or networking specialization.
Some may love to write. Some members of your team may develop a highly technical aptitude and may evolve beyond the basics of data, such as Microsoft Excel. These people will help you automate processes and drive efficiencies, so if they want to learn SQL or Python, foster that learning experience.
You never know when you might need your custom Python-based crawlers for specific use cases (information retrieval isn’t dead yet). You never know when you might need a structured interior data warehouse to store that data. Data is your lifeblood.
This doesn’t mean you can just let people do whatever they like. The core competencies of SEO must be covered. However, if a staff member demonstrates a strong passion for knowledge, which may bolster the efficiency of your department, look to encourage that thirst for learning.
You can also leverage your team’s expertise to benefit other departments. Share your team’s knowledge and skills to aid in various tasks, making them invaluable assets.
Show the wider organization just how valuable and adaptable your team can be. Very few teams or departments can match an SEO team in terms of simultaneous techno-creative breadth and depth of talent. This is something to champion.
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Don’t get trapped in the messy data format loop
Picture this: You’ve harnessed crawl data and AI content generation to address missing content. Traditional checklists no longer suffice for your ambitious projects. You’ve linked multiple spreadsheets to create a robust activity tracker, saving your company significant database management costs.
Two months later, everything is in tatters. Somehow, certain formulas have come out of alignment.
The rows and columns of your intertwined sheets are fundamentally misaligned. The wrong snippets have been uploaded to the wrong pages. Everything is a mess.
This hasn’t happened because your SEO team is incompetent. This has happened because you are using the wrong tools for the job.
SEOs are so adept at ninja-bashing solutions together on a shoestring budget. It’s an Achilles heel to look out for.
Spreadsheets are great for isolated data interrogation projects, but they’re very poor to utilize as an ongoing structure and warehouse for your work and data.
Though useful for ad hoc analysis, spreadsheets lack robust data controls, which can be problematic when creating dedicated processes.
Know when to transition from spreadsheets to databases to avoid complexity that’s hard to reverse-engineer. Failure to do so can risk client satisfaction and potential product sales.
Prioritize your team’s sanity and invest in technical education when needed to prevent costly mistakes.
Dig deeper: How to build a winning SEO tool stack
Showcase your team’s success
This is common to teams that provide an invisible or interior-only facing service. Similar advice holds for project management teams streamlining processes. While developers and designers can visually display success, it’s challenging for SEO teams.
To boost your SEO team’s morale, showcase their achievements in meetings and through micro-showcases directly to team members.
Often, an SEO person will release an audit or some internal analysis, which helps shape and drive success. But it’s usually the account managers and account directors (sometimes even sales staff) who receive the positive outcome feedback.
Don’t forget to feed that positivity back to the individual team member. Show them the results of their work directly, one-to-one. Help them understand that the invisible service they provide, while somewhat intangible, holds intrinsic value to your organization.
This is hugely overlooked and is usually more effective than buying people the odd pizza as a work-late incentive. Bring the success home to the root, and no one will be disappointed.
Take time to teach
If you are a ground-up manager with relevant skills, don’t hesitate to pass these on.
As a manager, your duty is no longer to be the sole shooting star but to ensure your team operates as effectively as possible. This means giving up the rockstar boots and leading your team by example.
Spread your unique learnings and sensibilities through your team. Bring them the knowledge they thirst for and invest in their learning.
Ideally, your goal should be that your team technically surpasses you, at which point you can pass the torch to the next generation.
Your value is now the smooth operation of your SEO team. Your team won’t operate with maximum competitive effect unless you are willing to pass on your learnings.
Lead via influence rather than hierarchical downforce
This point is raised specifically with regard to my own career. I have found that being seen as a senior peer rather than a “boss” is an extremely effective way to operate within SEO teams.
If you can avoid the hammer of authority, you should do so. Being a boss isn’t all about making demands. It’s about inspiring your team, and often that’s easier to do on a level playing field.
SEO teams are comprised of multi-talented individuals, often very technically capable. If you can help to show them the ropes and direct them via influence, that will go a long way.
Avoid applying hierarchical downforce, as it will cause egos to flare. Lead your team to success rather than stipulating your commandments.
SEO thrives on collaboration, not silos. You must work with your team openly to succeed.
In teams with such diverse skill sets, this is of supreme importance. It’s easy for technical individuals to feel they are worth more than those on the creative side.
By contrast, the reverse is also true. Discipline-diverse teams can be tricky to manage. However, if you strike the right balance, the rewards are unparalleled.
Nurturing talent and motivation in your SEO team
Effective leadership and management of an SEO team require a shift in focus from outdated ranking metrics to meaningful KPIs and fostering a diverse range of talents.
You can enhance team efficiency and client satisfaction by recognizing the potential for individual growth within the team and providing the right tools for the job.