How I Built my In-House SEO Dream Team

It’s no secret that one of the biggest challenges facing us SEOs almost on a daily basis is to constantly and tirelessly attempt to work synonymously with the web development department/team. Am I right, or am I right?!

A power struggle, conflict in priorities, lack of understanding of the importance of SEO… The list goes on.

However you want to label it, for many in-house and agency SEOs, it’s a constant battle.

Ensuring SEO has a loud and well-resonating voice within the website development space is no small feat.

In this blog post, I’m going to talk you through how I’ve managed to smash this stigma and break away from the cliché SEO/development working culture.

First, let me talk you through my awesome team structure..

My team is awesome. No, I’m not just saying this because they might be reading this. It’s genuinely the dogs bollocks.

Why? Well, I work seamlessly with the web development team. In fact, not only have I a permanent SEO seat at the table when web dev is on the agenda, I single-handedly manage the entire web development operation. I’m also the product owner too and I report directly in to the MD.

Yup, that’s right. I’m an SEO and I spec tickets, I set the priorities, scope the roadmap and I make it my responsibility to ensure web developers have an SEO-first and a customer-first mindset when approaching development projects.

I’m also wholly responsible for the website and as I can always relate every change I make back to growth and KPIs (I’ll get to this later), it means I’ve no to very little resistance to extravagant proposals and major, transformative requests.

Why my team structure works so freakin’ brilliantly

They understand why it’s so essential to consider SEO right at the inception of a project, the benefits of doing so, the risks and losses of not and much more.

It’s a beautifully slick way of working. It makes for a great working relationship and it’s super-efficient too.

Dare I say it? The web devs even enjoy learning and getting dirty with SEO. They relish integrating SEO where required and baking it in to the core of all development tasks.

What’s even better is that as a team we work together super-well too. For example – I’m no developer, but I know exactly what I need in regards to spec, SEO requirements, features etc.

The developers aren’t SEO experts as such either (although their knowledge is bettering all the time), but they know how to write code that ensures SEO friendliness and compliance at the front end.

They can build JS solutions that won’t cloak or blur any HTML for bots and won’t bog down performance etc.

It’s a damn near perfect working structure from an SEO’s perspective. UX, CRO and SEO are prioritised above the nerds of the codebase (although code efficiency is still very important).

Anyway, you get the picture. Enough gloating, let me get to the meat of this post!

When webdev run the show / call the shots

It’s commonplace for us SEO experts to only get our hands on a web development project once it’s either already launched (and traffic/sales takes a nosedive) or its days away from being pushed live.

Whatever the situation, in most cases this is simply too late. It often results in a product with inferior SEO underpinnings or (at best in this case) backtracking and peeling back much of the ‘chassis’ of the project and ham-fisting in the best SEO structure we can.

This is a classic case of web dev calling the shots. As a consequence, working this way hurts SEO from achieving it’s maximum potential. It causes delays, increases costs, hemorrhages revenue… The list goes on.

It hits its hardest when a website migration is in flux and it can cause absolute carnage.

It’s a dangerous and risky way of working, but it can be turned around..

Without further ado, let’s get into fixing this cliché shit-show!

1] Become more than just a SEO

The first step in working towards building your SEO dream team structure starts with you and how you position yourself within the business. You need to be more to the organisation than just an SEO specialist.

You’ve got to position yourself as the product manager/owner (product being the website in this context). You’ve got to think, talk and pay close attention to the KPI that really matter and make a difference.

In fact, you need to relate everything you do back to those performance pillars to have a real impact. In summary you need to think commercially when addressing stakeholders. I can’t stress this point enough as it’s so important.

Technical wins and accomplishments will fail to impress here. No matter how monumental they may appear.

The technical stuff often falls on deaf ears if you can’t demonstrate how it’s going to make and/or save money.

KPI and commercial-speak will make people stop, look and listen

Let’s be honest – whether you’re working for a not-for-profit charity or a business with a shit ton of investment that wants an unreasonable return on its cash; all businesses are in existence to make money or at least save it.

If you can relate your SEO strategy back to key business KPIs then senior management are much more likely to pay attention and take SEO (and what you’re doing) seriously.

The more seriously the business begins to take SEO, the louder voice you’ll have when going toe to toe with web development.

Try this…

Noticed that SEO traffic has dropped? If you can, relate that traffic drop to one or more KPI losses (reduction in sales, increase cost of sale due to ramping up PPC to fill the gap etc.). These can be powerful findings that can ensure the necessary decision makers you want will be paying attention.

2] Identify a quick-win PoC that packs a big KPI hit

(FYI: POC = Proof of Concept). Think big wins that require as little effort as possible.

Sounds impossible on the surface but they can be found if you look in the right places within the business. This is where thinking beyond SEO can often pay dividends.

Getting this right can get you in earshot of senior business leaders, which is what you need to get SEO in the spotlight.

Try this…

Every client / website will be different but for me, SEO wasn’t the right place to look for a quick hard-hitting win. For me, it was CRO / UX.

In a previous role, I’d heard on the grapevine that customers constantly called customer services to complain of card payment issues. An intermittent fault that couldn’t be replicated or found by webdev.

To them, it was considered a waste of time to continue to try and find the bug. It was tossed aside and was filed under ‘not really a big deal and likely to be the customer at fault.’ (Sound familiar?)

Anyway, I wasn’t convinced. Long story short – I identified checkout error messages to be poorly written and only relayed WorldPay response codes to customers whenever there was a problem.

Now here’s where my proposed fix made its mark.

Instead of showing ‘Error XXXX : Please call Customer Services on…’ the website began to display ‘Invalid card number…’

Literally a £20,000 overnight increase in revenue. Simply recovering our losses from changing a single checkout message.

The Directors of the business loved it and this was the tipping point for me. Specifically this is where the leaders of the business began to associate digital growth with me over web development.

3] Demonstrate the clear distinctions between IT and Web Dev

It’s so important to make it clear to the business and stakeholders that there are clear and polarising differences between IT and Web Development.

Many organisations appear to group IT and Web Development together, which isn’t ideal and in most cases, isn’t correct either.

Through understanding the key differences between the two essential business operations, you’ll improve the company-wide understanding of how they each support the organisation and how it’s essential that they need to be seen and treated as independent functions.

It’s good practices to communicate these differences even within your own team

It’s also important to calve out this distinction even within the IT and Web Dev departments where you’re working.

You need to make it clear that you’re not encroaching on the IT Director/Manager’s role here. In fact, besides the website’s infrastructure (servers, cloud storage and whatnot) there’s very little crossover between the two.

You’re simply wanting to evolve and improve how Web Dev go about their development – not force a role or individual out of the company.

When explaining the differences between IT and web development to the wider business, the analogy I often use is a visit to a car dealership as many of us can relate to it.

The dealership houses a sales department, a showroom, parts desk, customer service department etc. IT’s role in this analogy is to ensure there’s power to the building, all equipment and services work correctly and everything’s fully operational etc.

Web development is the car showroom within the dealership. It’s purpose is to encourage people to get a closer look at new cars and gives sales persons the opportunities to approach visitors, negotiate and seal deals.

In summary webdev is tightly connected to sales. It’s a sales enabler. IT is a support function. Both essential to the business, both in the same building, but very different.

4] Capture powerful data that makes it impossible for Directors to say no

I’m treading dangerous ground here and I’m probably going to piss some people off, but I don’t feel I’m in the wrong for saying it.

Typically, web dev teams build with efficiency, speed and ease of development over and above UX and the business’ core KPIs.

In essence, how can I (the web developer) get this job done as easily and as quickly as possible?

Whether you’re using Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics an SEO tool or crawler; whatever it is, find the data goldmine and present your gold haul to the Directors of the business.

Here’s a golden (and personal) example…

I struck gold once when trawling through Google Analytics; specifically eyeballing site search data. I always knew search performance was poor (customers constantly told us it was shit), but I had to prove it.

Web dev weren’t interested in giving search the time of day. Why? Well, technically it worked (you throw in a part code, it returns the right product).

However, internal search should be much more than just an exact match tool.

It should account for misspellings, partial matches etc. It should have an effective and proven way to determine which products appear first and why. Our internal search didn’t.

In fact, no one in the business knew how search results are prioritised! However results were ordered, the experience was horrendous.

I also obsessed over a key consideration that was uncharted territory for web dev – UX.

Google Analytics made me aware of search queries with high volume but were reporting embarrassingly low conversion rates and high search exit rates. A clear indicator that something is amiss.

Now here’s the kicker. After grouping the top 50 under performing search terms (by unique searches) it was clear that over 40% of all internal searches yielded zero or poor/incorrect results.

Now when you consider that 80%+ visitors use internal search at least once during their session – that’s a seriously concerning set of numbers.

The fix? An all-new search engine from a dedicated SaaS provider.

Something that web dev would have never suggested or wanted (why integrate a new search engine when the current one technically works just fine?)

Yes, technically it works providing the search query is near-perfect. But it doesn’t work for its user’s and it doesn’t make it easier for customers to buy online.

If it doesn’t work fir the customer – it doesn’t work. Period.

There are other key commercial benefits of an off-the-shelf search product too…

  • Integrating an ‘off the shelf’ solution would be faster than a custom build (less than half the time in fact)
  • Would require less development resource so other urgent developments could now be worked on in tandem
  • The cost to integrate the solution would drop significantly (less salaries tied in to the project)

Now, find me a Director / CEO that’s going to turn down those benefits over a bespoke solution?

5] Senior web dev in the mix? Work hard to get them on board

It’s not uncommon for your biggest push backs to working in an SEO-first environment will be from a senior web developer. I’ve seen it countless times over the years and it (can be) one of the trickiest relationships to crack.

For me, I’ve found the ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ attitude works well. Here are a few ideas that beared fruit for me.

Help to find bugs or help to find solutions

Every developer has at least a small fistful of bugs that they struggle to replicate and/or fix.

Got any intel that could help squash one or two of these? It’s a great way to get dialogue flowing and break down barriers.

Often speaking to customers or using session replay tools such as Mouseflow can give you a perspective that web dev may not have considered before.

Offer up handfuls of low hanging fruit suggestions that could work well

Juicy 404 errors / 500 errors with high hit counts. These are perfect as unwanted HTTP response codes sit in both SEO and web dev camps.

It can be a great way to yet again connect and begin building that essential relationship.

Run your website through PageSpeed Insights for more potential quick wins. If you can shave some time off from page load, it’s a win-win.

Maybe something as simple as removing a 3rd party script that’s no longer in use, for example.

Case studies and stats could be your secret weapon – use them to your advantage

WPO Stats and Think With Google are great places to start. It gives you the catalyst and ice breakers you may need to explain how building with SEO, mobile, speed etc in mind can yield real-world gains.

Again, sharing these case studies may help getting a senior web dev to take SEO more seriously and to think more laterally rather than purely from a development perspective.

Measure all wins when working collaboratively with a senior dev

Shaved 2 seconds off page load baselines? How has that helped conversion in monetary terms?

Conversion and abandonment rate improvements; how have these been impacted?

Adding crystal-clear, measurable and impressive wins to projects and tasks you’re working on collaboratively can be eye-opening for your senior dev and is a great way to demonstrate undeniable proof that working with an SEO mindset pays dividends. (Plus it makes them look good in the process.)

Ok great advice, but what if the senior dev just won’t budge?

When it boils down to it, as digital marketers we’re employed/hired/contracted to make a business money and possibly even save some too.

If trying to collaborate doesn’t work out the way you were expecting, you’ll need to go higher, which brings me on how to get the attention of decision makers and directors.

Resonate your challenges and wins with business execs

Whether both you and the senior developer end up getting on like a house on fire and share pints and pork scratchings at your local, or hate each other’s guts; nothing is likely to change officially until it’s signed off by someone more senior.

That’s why it’s also important to share your concerns, successes and challenges with one or more relevant Directors.

Introducing them to your strategy, problems you’re facing (and being able to demonstrate the impacts of your successes) is a surefire way to get them to take your ideas seriously and pay attention. Naturally this is an important step in securing the necessary changes to team structures.

6] Work with (don’t aim to replace) the senior dev

Now just so I’m clear here – yes, you’re wanting to throw a wrecking ball in to the siloed working habits of web development. However, you’re not wanting to kill off the role of the person in charge of development here.

The goal is to work WITH them. Not replace them.

The senior dev still needs to manage his team’s workload, priorities etc. it’s just the tasks themselves will need to evolve and adapt. Tickets will need to be much more customer-centric and less centered around the constructs of development.

So, to wrap-up and to bring this post to a close

The whole ethos of a SEO dream team is to continually consider and bake-in SEO into the core of everything you release online.

Whether it’s a full site migration, or updating a small fistful of product descriptions. The approach is identical.

A dream team encompasses the art of perfectly balancing website development, UX, SEO and CRO.

It’s a bastard to master – but when you get it just right – a beautiful dance emerges.

As digital marketers, we name this dance, ‘The Commercial Success Story‘.