SEO has matured to a point at which most companies have at least one SEO, but our community hardly talks about the unique obstacles in-house SEOs face and how to overcome them. Those challenges involve politics, resource scarcity, technical limitations, and more.
Just like SEO consulting, enterprise SEOs need more than just subject expertise. Knowing how to play the political game, budgeting and indirect management are just as important. In this article, you will get to know the solutions for the biggest problems of in-house SEOs. Besides my own, I reached out to my friends Micah (Zendesk), Jim (former GoDaddy), and Brendan (Eventbrite) to share their experience as well.
The Problem is Not Missing Knowledge, But Implementation
It is very frustrating to know what to do, but not being able to do it. It is like a doctor who has a remedy, but the patient cannot afford it. We often feel the same way as in-house SEOs. We know doing x will increase y, but it either can’t be implemented or interferes with someone else’s interests. Sometimes a recommendation can be implemented but takes too long to be worth the effort.
It’s like a doctor who has a remedy, but the patient cannot afford it.
Ask 100 in-house SEOs about their biggest problems and 99 of them will agree on the same ones. “Outdated mindset, not having internal resources, [and] technical limitations” are the core obstacles, according to Micah Fisher-Kirshner, Head of SEO at Zendesk.
Jim Christian, CEO of Blush Digital and former Head of SEO at GoDaddy, paints a similar picture: ”Proving the value of SEO [and] overcoming DEV bottlenecks”.
Or ask 442 enterprise SEOs and come to the same result, like the enterprise SEO survey done by Conductor.
The last question to answer before we dive in is “Why would anyone join a company that puts up such limitations?” There are two reasons. One, you are new to the company and couldn’t see the mess before you joined. Sometimes obstacles are hard to see from the outside. Second, you are the victim of sudden changes within the company. That can be budget cuts, people cuts, internal reorganizations or a new content management system. However got you into the situation, let’s talk about what you can do.
Obstacle 1: Lack of Resources
Being short of engineers, content creators or money is the biggest reason for failure. I have encountered it as an in-house SEO and as a consultant. It is a big problem and often connected to obstacle #3 because in some cases the reason for missing resources is that SEO isn’t deemed important enough to justify the spend.
What To Do When You Have No Engineering Resources for SEO
When you have no engineers to implement your recommendations, look outwards. What can you do outside of your website that has an impact on important (landing) pages? Most often the solution is content marketing. The goals are to a) raise brand awareness to increase organic traffic, b) create “natural” backlinks and c) make content assets that could be implemented on your site at some point in time in the future.
I don’t want to get too deep into explaining how to do content marketing. You find more than enough about the topic on the web and this blog of course. Focus your efforts on assets that can be shared on other sites and on social media:
Your job is more focused on content marketing than technical SEO in this case, but that is okay because what counts in the end is the impact you make and if you reach your (business) goals. You should create enough valuable assets in the process to fill your landing page, once you have more developer resources. You are making an impact in the present and save up for the future. If you are wondering where to place those content assets if you don’t have technical resources, focus on guest blogging and look at the paragraph “What to do when your CMS doesn’t leave any room for SEO”.
The best way to solve this issue is to get an exclusive developer just for SEO if that is an option.
A common belief amongst management is that the core DEV team(s) can handle any and all requests. The reality, in most cases, is that SEO projects get attached as subtasks to a bigger project and ‘goes along for the ride’. The solution to this problem was to incorporate a full-time DEV member on the SEO team. This developer could easily navigate the websites deployment cycle and get our projects out in days where the same requests would take weeks or months to deploy.
What to Do When Nobody Can Create Content for SEO
What about the opposite case, when you have technical resources but no one for content? You try to get outside resources to create content for you! Other than for development, you don’t need in-house expertise to create content, just subject expertise.
An outside resource can be a contractor, say from Upwork or another freelancer platform, but it can also be someone in the company but outside of your team. Find allies to create content with you, like product managers, PR or social media managers. You will have to convince them of the value of SEO, which I outline further down the article. SEO has the advantage of being a very holistic discipline with many touch points to others. Good content produced once can be used for other channels as well but avoid copy-pasting.
According to SEOclarity, the biggest challenge for in-house SEOs is developing the right content anyway. So you might as well embrace and focus more on it.
Another option is to find creative ways to leveraging user-generated content. How could your brand leverage your users/customers to create content? UGC can come in the shape of a community, guest articles on your blog, comments, or, if your company has a marketplace business model, be the main content itself.
What to Do When You Have No Budget for Tools
SEO Tools definitely make your life easier, but you can survive without them. Luckily, Google provides some very helpful tools for free, such as Search Console, Google Analytics, Keyword Planner and Google Trends. Bing’s Webmaster Tools provide additional information that the Search Console might not reveal. You can put together an ROI model completely for free, for example, just with the help of Search Console and Google’s Keyword Planner.
Free SEO tools are not enough to do your work well in the long-term, but they allow you to build out use cases to justify more budget. In the worst case, pay for a tool yourself, like SEMrush, so you can get to a point at which you have enough data to show the ROI by investing more into SEO. If there is one thing that justifies more budget, it is more profit.
What to Do When You Don’t Have Enough Time for SEO
You sometimes find yourself challenged with dealing with >1,000,000 pages or > 5 sites, which means you hardly have enough time to take care of everything. This is even tougher when you are the only SEO in your company.
The only way to overcome this obstacle is to evangelize SEO and spread knowledge to increase the positive impact of non-SEOs. The more your colleagues know about SEO, the better they can contribute. The goal is to have other people help you do the work. The question is “how to make your company smarter in terms of SEO”?
The first answer is by creating a platform where people can find knowledge. A powerful tool is a Wiki, like Confluence, that you can use to provide SEO knowledge within the company. In the same realms is internal blogging, which we do a lot at Atlassian. You can use a Wiki or good ol’ email, for example in the format of a monthly newsletter. It is important to create that content exclusively for the company and make it accessible for everyone at any time. If possible, make it mandatory for the onboarding process to consume that material.
The second answer is to proactively educate colleagues through workshops, presentations, and training. Cover all topics, from “What is SEO?” to “Technical SEO” and “SEO for writers”. Teach people hands-on how to do keyword research on their own, how to increase page speed and what great content is in workshops. Keep in mind that every company has employer churn, which means you should repeat SEO workshops in a certain cadence. To close the loop to the first answer, don’t forget to save all material from those trainings in one central place to which people have easy access.
In many cases, SEO teams are either understaffed, or you are alone in your role, and our profession is not well-suited for isolation. Sharing experience and information are vital for SEO. Our community lives from reverse engineering and taking that knowledge out into the world.
The solution to isolation is to be proactive about meeting other SEOs, when you are the only one at your company, for example at SEO meetups or conferences. Don’t hesitate to join Slack channels, like Online Geniuses, and Subreddits, like Big SEO, to seek exchange with the community.
Whatever your limitation is, the art is to focus on what you can do - not on what you can’t do.
It’s an important skill to know when I need to focus elsewhere because the time investment to convince others to do what I need will be too great.
Obstacle 2: Technical Limitations
Micah, head of SEO at Zendesk, agrees with me that there are three basic issues: “So, I have run into a whole variety of in-house issues in my decade-long career in SEO, if I had to narrow it down probably the main ones I’ve dealt with often fall into three categories:
An outdated mindset by others about SEO (which can be worse than having none at all).
Not having the internal resources for SEO work (probably the most common experience for any SEO).
Technical limitations that prevent the optimal SEO benefits.”
We have covered resource issues and will end the article with politics, but the second biggest problem I see for in-house SEO is technical limitations. They are especially frustrating because there is no short-term fix for the core problem. A survey conducted by SEOclarity indicates that the most efficient SEO tactic depends on company size but technical optimization seems to be the most effective one across the board. That makes technical limitations especially painful. There are workarounds, and in the following, we will cover them all.
What To Do When Your CMS is Not SEO-Friendly
Content management systems can be so technically limited that you cannot make any changes. The reason can be that it is customized or even completely self-written and doesn’t have SEO functionality. Some CMS’s also just flat out have no SEO capabilities. This issue can be connected to not having engineering resources (see above) or too much technical debt (see below).
The solution here is an environment you can control, anything from a blog to a microsites and landing pages. In the worst case scenario, the blog can be on a subdomain and/or Medium, even though I recommend to post on your own blog first and then use the import function for Medium. It can be on WordPress or another platform, as long as you have full control over it. The upside of a solution like WordPress is that you can control the content on that platform and cover the technical side with plugins, plus you can make any changes yourself at any time.
What To Do When You Have Too Much Technical Debt for SEO
A couple of years ago, I consulted a big travel company in Germany that had so much technical debt that it needed 12 engineers just to keep the site alive. It was so loaded with technical debt that we could hardly implement any SEO recommendations.
Technical debt occurs when development is rushed, and sights have to be lowered. It leads to short-term compromises, which can blow up in the long-term. It is basically the cost of doing things fast instead of right.
As a consequence, high technical debt slows down your engineering team, until it is paralyzed. The solution is to get all stakeholders to agree to decrease technical debt first and then move on with other goals. It is a very similar situation to be in when you have no engineering resources, with the difference that you, as SEO, have to fight for decreasing the debt. If you have your own developer(s), they cannot help you. Instead, they should focus on decreasing technical debt as well. In the meantime focus on things you can do outside of the site, as described above.
Obstacle 3: Politics a.k.a. Interfering Interests
Politics are very powerful, in and outside of SEO. They can go so far that a company spends tens of thousands of dollars to bring in an agency just to back up an argument. Inside a company, politics should get you resources (and sometimes promoted). It is often not about manipulation a la House of Cards but more about making a point for SEO.
Oftentimes the hardest part of my job is communicating the value of SEO to the higher-ups. The numbers alone sometimes aren't enough. Even when we've had remarkable quarters, it amazes me how easy it's forgotten the next quarter.
One reason for stakeholder skepticism is the sheer nature of SEO, which doesn’t provide an immediate harvest of the crop. “SEO, unlike every other channel, doesn't have an immediate payout. Throughout my career projects and ideas were overturned or rejected because there wasn't a way to attribute value.” (Jim Christian)
What To Do When Executives Think SEO is Not Important
The solution to this problem lies in stories, pictures, and charts that show and prove the impact of SEO ($$$). As SEOs, we are also salesmen and our product is our ideas (recommendations). We are all salesmen in a way, as Peter Thiel notes in his great book “Zero to One”: “Sales is hidden: The best salespeople don’t reveal themselves as salespeople. Investment bankers sell businesses; people who sell ads are called „account executives“; people who sell customers work in „business development“; people who sell themselves are ‘politicians’”. The term sales often has a negative association, but it doesn’t have to be that. See it as a pitch.
How To Create An ROI Model to Prove the Monetary Value of SEO
Money makes the world go ‘round. It is the strongest argument in every business. If you can show stakeholders the monetary value, you are hard to argue with. For years, it has been a common tactic to use the CPC of a keyword and its search volume to determine its potential monetary worth.
To overcome this challenge my team and I developed a Keyword Database where our universe of keywords was combined with new customer acquisition, ROI estimates, and time estimates. We constantly refined the calculations to be within 2-5% of reality. This made it extremely easy to build a case for the projects that we wanted to create. It was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in my professional career.
The general formula to calculate the monetary value of keywords is “CPC x Search volume x CTR”. It is the cost you save when ranking organically, instead of paying for the keyword. We can get quite fancy when doing that with a custom click-curve (see above). It is very impressive to executives, and you learn a lot of helpful things along the way. I was inspired how to make your own, custom click curve with Google Search Console data by Alex Galea. Let me show you how:
Install the Search Analytics for Sheets app to import your Search Console data into Google Sheets.
In the app, select your site and enter “page” and “query” into the “Group By:” field. You can leave the rest on default. The date range is automatically set to 90 days.
Hit “request data”. From here you can either export the data to Excel or keep it in Google Sheets.
Add another column right next to “Position” and call it “Position (rounded)”. In the field, use the ROUND function and select the cell next to it on the left. It will round the position to the next integer, which will later give us a clear CTR / position.
Select all (ctrl + a) and create a pivot table (data > pivot table).
For the rows, you select “Position (rounded)”, for the values “CTR”. Make sure to select “average” under “summarize by” for the CTR.
What you now have is already very close to the final click curve.
If you like to you can go ahead and copy paste (values only) the first ten positions, or however many you want your click-curve to have, to another cell.
Create a line chart out of the table you just pasted over and show the data labels - et voila! You have a usable click-curve to show around.
Now we want to finish the model by applying that click-curve to find out the monetary worth of a keyword. For that, you want to compile a list of keywords you want to rank for and get their search volume from Google Keyword Planner or another tool of your choice.
I like to use SEMrush’s Keyword Difficulty tool to quickly get the search volume for a list of keywords. It doesn’t give you the CPC, but you can still get that from Google’s Keyword Planner.
Paste your keywords with search volume and CPC into the spreadsheet. I like to give optimistic, realistic and conservative scenarios to manage expectations. That means optimistically you would rank on position #1, realistically on #5 and conservatively on #8. Those are just the rankings I like to pick for my scenarios. You can pick whatever you like, as long as you disclose it to your audience.
Multiply the search volume of a keyword with the CPC and CTR for the respective rankings. So for the first keyword’s optimistic scenario, I multiplied the search volume with the CPC and then CTR for #1.
This list with 3 different scenarios should convince most stakeholders of the value of SEO.
I recommend you to repeat this process 2-4x a year. Your rankings and keyword strategy change and so does your click-curve and ROI model.
How to Evangelize SEO to Executives
“Nothing hampers me more than having to go through layers of red tape to get a page up or modify a live page”. (Micah)
There are two things outside an ROI calculation you can do to convince executives of the need for SEO. First, evangelize SEO through workshops and trainings exclusively for executives. You have to speak a different language when explaining SEO to managers vs. makers. Focus more on the macro perspective, competitors and business impact. Show people how much goes into being successful in SEO.
Second, show results often. Propagate every SEO win, no matter how small.
By getting into a regular rhythm of sharing Google Data Studio reports with the company, I found that people were much more likely to remember our numbers simply because I made them so easy to access and interpret. By sharing it on a bi-weekly cadence, we were able to communicate the value of SEO and actually make it stick. When it came time to request more resources, it was a much easier sell.
As I mentioned in the paragraph “what to do when you don’t have enough time for SEO”, newsletters and dashboard are a good way to show results and get people excited. However, don’t overdo it with the dashboard, especially for executives. If it is overloaded, it will feel like an airplane cockpit, and nobody will look at it.
What To Do When Other Departments Compete with Your Interests
Departments have different interests that sometimes conflict with SEO. Just think of SEM going for the same keywords as SEO. I already mentioned the positive aspects of SEO being so holistic, but there are also negative sides. Design, UX, developers, SEM, Social Media and PR are just some of the teams you might collide with. Sometimes you compete for resources, sometimes for clicks.
The best solution is to come together and agree on shared goals, e.g., Objective Key Results (OKRs). In my experience, SEM and SEO either hate or love each other. One proven way to align the two teams is to get executives to agree on optimizing for conversion efficiency. That means bringing in the most conversions for the smallest budget possible. SEM would target keywords the company is not yet ranking organically for and turn the spend down for keywords that are covered by SEO.
Tl;dr: Show the Money and Make People Smarter
In-house SEO faces unique challenges that can be overcome by mastering three skills: proving monetary value, making people smarter and focusing on what can be done.
Sometimes it takes a little creativity, sometimes it takes a little luck, but it definitely takes one thing: perseverance. In my whole career, I have never seen a case in which the mentioned hurdles were overcome easy. It takes a bit of grit, but know that a) you’re not the only one with that problem, b) it is not a death sentence and it c) if you keep at it you’ll eventually crack the nut.