Author: Petra Kis-Herczegh
Planning and implementing the right SEO approach can make or break your campaign’s success, regardless of the type of business you work for. You need to recognize that each business—be it a local cafe, growing tech startup, or well-known eCommerce brand—has unique characteristics and requirements when it comes to SEO. And, while the fundamental tactics and techniques might not change as much, the strategy you develop for each of these businesses can differ dramatically and should be tailored to their individual goals.
Although some roles may be more industry-specific, SEOs are likely to work with various types of businesses throughout their careers. This also means that you need to develop the right skills and mindset to approach strategy conversations with a diverse range of clients and stakeholders.
The reality is that creating customized strategies for every business you work with can be time-consuming, particularly if you work at an SEO agency where you might be managing multiple clients. Additionally, SEOs often work with an insufficient amount of information and impatient clients, which can lead us to rely on what we believe works, leading to what I call the SEO experience trap—a set-and-forget-it mindset that can affect even the most experienced professionals.
In this article, I’ll briefly discuss the experience trap, along with the conversations you need to have with stakeholders to ensure that your SEO strategy actually brings in business.
Table of contents:
The SEO experience trap
Experience can be a double-edged sword in SEO. While it is a great asset, it can also be a disadvantage if you rely too much on your past experiences and don’t take the time to think critically and ask questions.
I’ve not only been there myself, but I’ve also seen many experienced SEO professionals make mistakes because they assumed that what worked in the past will also work for the next client or situation. Mindlessly following our competitors can also lead us into the same trap.
Applying a good strategy for the wrong business is the same as developing a bad strategy, and it’s something you can easily avoid by learning how to have better conversations about SEO strategy with your stakeholders.
To avoid the experience trap, it’s important to focus on developing soft skills, such as critical thinking, listening, understanding, and effective communication. This will help you ask the right questions, which means you can have more fruitful conversations and effectively develop strategies that are tailored to each client’s unique needs.
A lack of resource, strategy, and scaling processes are three of the top challenges SEOs face, according to Search Engine Journal’s 2023 State of SEO survey. These blockers can cause implementation challenges and result in failing to achieve the expected impact.
When we look closely at the top issues mentioned (resources, strategy, and scaling processes), none of these are exclusive to SEO. As much as we like to blame algorithm updates, the core problems you’re likely to face have nothing to do with technology: They are all related to operational challenges, which come down to your ability to deal with human beings. That’s where soft skills—especially the ability to not shy away from tough conversations—can be crucial to success.
To help you approach strategy conversations with decision makers, we will focus on three core areas to explore:
By discussing and understanding these areas when you develop a strategy, you can not only save your future self from a huge headache, but also be more effective and efficient throughout the campaign, which means you can feel more confident that you’re delivering results.
This is why—if any of these topics are neglected as part of the early stage conversations—it’s best to go back to the drawing board and start again.
Evaluating resources for your SEO strategy
Resource allocation is a critical consideration for any successful SEO strategy. It’s about managing three components: people, time, and money. You could visualize these as equal parts of a triangle in which your project will need to be split between all three components. In SEO, you’ll sometimes face a shortage of all three, which can make our jobs challenging.
This triangle of resources means that if one of the elements is missing, the other two suffer as well— you might need to make up for the missing element(s) one way or another. Too little budget can result in allocating a lot more time and people resources, and those extra resources can cost the business even more money over the long run.
Let’s say you work for a retailer with hundreds of physical locations that need to be managed and updated. You can either pay for a tool and/or an agency that helps manage these for you (which will save you time and people resources) or you can decide to manage this in-house, which means that you might need a full team and time allocated towards this project.
If you decide to manage everything in-house, you might find that local SEO is eating up so much of your time that either other areas of SEO get neglected, which could mean that your business is now actually losing out on revenue.
If you need to carry out technical audits after every sprint, the same logic applies: Are you going to pay for a tool and analyze the site yourself, or perhaps you want to outsource certain tasks to a freelancer so you can allocate time to other high-value areas?
Now this doesn’t mean that you should outsource and pay for tools every single time, but it does mean that you need to find the right balance within these three resource areas, depending on your project’s needs and your client’s (or your own) available resources.
It’s also worth remembering that an overly generous budget (yes, there’s such a thing) can also be problematic: Throughout my enterprise SEO career, I’ve seen teams (including SEO) rush to create and complete projects at the end of the fiscal year with the primary purpose of clearing out their “leftover” budget. When this remaining budget isn’t spent, it is likely to be taken away the following year or reallocated to a different channel, which makes internal budget conversations competitive and not conducive to SEO. While you won’t always be in a position to change this, being aware of these politics can help you be more realistic with your planning.
In larger teams, processes and prioritization are typically the biggest challenges. Although blame is frequently placed on budget limitations, the real issue is often inefficiencies in the process. This is why scaling efficient processes can really help improve prioritization.
Resource challenges for enterprise SEO
Generally speaking, one of the advantages of working for an enterprise is having access to significant resources, but that can also create a highly political environment internally, where different marketing channels compete with each other for those resources—from budget and prioritization to headcount.
This tends to be highly inefficient for SEO outcomes, as there are rarely any optimizations that don’t support other channels. In terms of project implementation there’s usually very little that SEO fully owns: IT, brand, PR, product, and content are just a few of the teams that we heavily rely on. That’s why internal politics often hurt SEO budgets and can also make it challenging to spend that budget efficiently.
For example, with well-known household or luxury brands, the brand team (and their budgets) often sit at the top of the hierarchy. The justification for that, of course, is that it’s the brand that the customers are after, therefore maintaining the brand image is the essence of the business.
This often results in the majority of the available budget being spent on brand campaigns, leaving very little left for the website and organic campaigns. However, one point that sometimes goes overlooked is that brand awareness can also be built within the SERPs. Similar to traditional, out-of-home advertisements, seeing the same domain pop up for a lot of unbranded queries means that users will probably start to recognize your brand more.
As an additional point, it’s just as important to start building out your online presence so that search engines start to understand your business, which can pay dividends when you create new pages (i.e., they may get indexed more quickly because search engines are already regularly crawling your content, or you might receive more visibility for relevant searches because they understand your connection to the query).
So, while creating brand campaigns to build emotional connections with your audience can be highly valuable, companies often miss out on huge opportunities to reach new audiences and attract more visitors to their website.
As an additional example, let’s say a brand spends millions every year on TV campaigns and the main goal of their ads is to build and maintain a relationship with their target audience.
If this campaign doesn’t account for the searches that occur (i.e., searches for products or services shown in the ad) when potential customers see the ad, and your brand isn’t also spending resources to ensure that digital assets can be easily linked to and that the website can be found for these searches, than all that brand campaign budget spent was a lot less successful than it could’ve been. If only the brand team would’ve involved SEOs from the planning stage.
Resource challenges for SMBs pursuing SEO
In smaller businesses, budget and people are often the scarce resource. In this setting, budgets for digital marketing—especially for organic traffic—may be highly scrutinized or non-existent.
As a result, SEOs may need to wear multiple hats, including IT, development, design, and content, to plan and implement initiatives. While having direct access to owners or directors can be beneficial when it comes to sounding the alarm to get things prioritized or implemented, workload can quickly add up and budgets can remain limited even if the list of things to optimize continues to grow.
Whether you’re working with a large or small business, managing resources is critical for SEO success. By understanding the limitations and advantages of each resource, you can build a strategy that will effectively allocate them for the best results.
Resource questions to ask your stakeholders
Like I mentioned above, the resources you're managing here are money, people, and time. Below are three general questions that address each of those resources. You can use them as a jumping-off point with your clients/stakeholders to learn more about the resources available for SEO:
How much budget is available and who controls it?
While this question might sound obvious, most people often shy away from it or leave for later discussions, which stops you from developing a strong strategy. Get to the point to understand what you are working with: Clients sometimes like to avoid this topic too, as if disclosing this information will somehow hurt them, so make sure to establish credibility and provide enough context for this question.
When talking about budget, it is important to understand whether you’re talking about already assigned budgets or if you still need to build a business case to get approval from the board. Also, make sure to understand the process around getting signatures approved. Is the SEO team in full control of the budget or does a CMO, CTO, or procurement need to be involved in order to kick things off? Understanding these steps will help with your planning and allow you to set more realistic timelines and goals.
What teams will likely get involved with the SEO campaign?
This is a very broad question, but depending on the client, it may be a good idea to start understanding internal relationships from day one. How do the teams currently work together and what is the process for introducing new projects and getting stakeholders involved? Perhaps your SEO strategy is heavily reliant on content and outreach, for example, in that case, you will want to establish a good relationship with the content, social media, brand, and PR teams.
Understanding internal dynamics, team hierarchy, and politics will help prepare you to deal with challenges along the way and to plan how and when to engage with the right teams.
What are the short- and long-term objectives of the business?
That’s right, you should ask about the objectives of the business, rather than SEO objectives. That’s because at the end of the day, your main decision makers will look at how much your strategy contributed to the overall goals of the company. At this stage, it can be helpful to use some sort of maturity analysis that will help you contextualize both the current state and the future goals of the business.
It will also give you an opportunity to ask follow up questions about other projects the business might be working on to achieve those goals. This will give you a good idea of their timelines, roadmap, and efforts allocated towards certain goals, which will be very helpful to to contextualize your implementation plan.
Planning to implement your SEO strategy
Implementing an SEO strategy can be a complex process: it usually starts with an audit, setting goals, creating a strategy, and developing a list of actions and prioritizing them based on impact, confidence, and effort (ICE) to create a roadmap.
However, challenges are very likely to arise during this phase. That’s why it’s crucial to prepare a strategy with the below considerations in mind, no matter the size or type of business you’re working with. To assess the implementation phase, it helps if you understand three areas:
Resource — This refers to the availability of money, people, and time (as discussed earlier).
Dependencies — These can be internal or external and refer to obstacles that may hinder your roadmap.
Blockers — These are high-risk dependencies that may prevent implementation altogether.
You can imagine implementation like a game of Tetris: The pieces are our resources, they come in all shapes and we have to arrange them to fill up one line at a time (kind of like how we must account for dependencies).
We have to navigate our resources and tasks accordingly. If we fail to do so or don’t pay attention, we end up with gaps, which prevent us from playing more as they build up. These gaps are the blockers in our strategy.
Understanding and addressing SEO dependencies
Since I’ve already explained resources in the section above, let’s dive into how dependencies can affect implementation. For example, the task of changing on-page SEO elements might be dependent on the development team first creating a new template that will allow the SEO and the content team to edit these elements, which can take time. This means that you would need to build more time into your roadmap and make sure that the new template gets prioritized.
Now, you might say, “This isn’t part of the strategy, this is just part of having successful implementation.” Unfortunately, everything is part of the strategy, because without implementing changes, your strategy won’t be successful.
And (to continue with our example) if you know that changing on-page elements will take a serious amount of effort, that already tells you a lot of information about the business you are working with—like how little ownership the SEO team currently has over the website, which will likely impact other parts of your strategy.
So even without having a full roadmap planned, it is important to have a conversation with the business about potential implementation plans in order to understand their situation. Failing to plan for and around dependencies can result in wasted resources, little to no impact, and potentially even losing that business as a client.
Adapting to blockers
Finally, be aware of blockers. They may occur due to budget constraints, competing priorities, internal politics, or other factors that prevent the necessary resources from getting allocated to the project.
To continue with our example above about being dependent on the development team creating a new template, this could easily become a blocker if it is not even on the product team’s roadmap to have templates created.
It’s important to be realistic about potential blockers and plan accordingly. In some cases, it may be necessary to adjust the project scope or timeline to accommodate these.
Keep in mind that blockers don’t mean that you have to give up on certain initiatives or objectives. However, they do mean that you might need a different approach. The sooner you can identify potential blockers and come up with a plan to address them, the faster you’ll be able to overcome them. It’s best to involve the relevant stakeholders early on in order to address any potential concerns and objections. This way, you can spare yourself from unpleasant surprises that can delay your roadmap.
Implementation questions to ask your client
All the resources and potential ROI would not mean a thing for an SEO strategy that can’t get implemented. Save yourself and your client time by asking them upfront:
What is the process for prioritization and who makes the final decisions?
Who owns and allocates the roadmap and the responsibilities?
How does implementation take place for the teams involved?
Are there sprints, content publishing calendars, etc. that you need to align to?
Understanding the implementation process and its challenges will help you create a strategy that can actually get executed, which is one of the most crucial steps in order to be able to talk about the third part, which is impact.
Assessing the potential impact of your SEO strategy
The whole point of creating an SEO strategy is to make a positive business impact. However, due to the nature of SEO, accurately forecasting the impact of your strategy can be a challenge. Thankfully, members of the SEO community have shared a number of free resources to forecast, measure, and report on impact.
Before you start taking advantage of any given resource, remember that using these tools inappropriately can cause more harm than benefit: The creators of these resources emphasize the importance of assessing the SEO impact on a business based on its unique characteristics rather than thoughtlessly following tools, industry benchmarks, or case studies.
When assessing the potential impact of an SEO strategy for your client or stakeholder, consider the following factors:
How popular is the brand/business?
First of all, even without looking at things like domain authority, just Google the brand name and check its Google Trends to answer the following questions:
- Does Google know this brand and consider it as the main entity for its name (i.e., does the brand have a knowledge panel)?
- Does the brand have its own topic or is it a search team within Google Trends?
- Is the popularity of the brand/search term growing or declining?
It goes without saying that brands that are already well known and trusted by Google could achieve SEO results by sometimes merely optimizing on-page elements or fixing technical issues. But, that doesn’t mean that the impact will be just as fast when they publish new content or focus on link building. Especially if they are facing crawl budget challenges, and are already well established and have highly authoritative links.
What is the size of the site and how frequently is content refreshed?
The size of the site is a crucial consideration when it comes to technical SEO. For large sites, everything you plan has to scale and that means the number of issues can easily escalate as well. Content refreshes are similar: the higher the frequency, the more effort you need to spend on scaling your auditing process, otherwise you might end up chasing your own tail fixing issues.
Consider this: If you are working with a local cafe branch that has a five-page website and ten locations within the country, you probably won’t need to worry about technical SEO. As long as the site isn’t blocked from Google (neither for crawling or indexing), your resources are probably better spent focusing on local SEO.
Or, as another example, if you are working with an online marketplace that has no physical location, but has millions of pages with thousands of URLs that need to be refreshed (and more added daily), then your first instinct might be to look around into their technical SEO and crawl budget, and on-page optimization to support.
But, what if this marketplace is still fairly new and not so well known? While technical SEO is still important, you might want to consider digital PR and link building to help promote the website. Clearly, the site’s size and maintenance requirements will have a large influence over your SEO strategy’s ability to move the needle for your business.
Who are your competitors?
SEO doesn’t happen in a vacuum—your competition will greatly impact your results. Lidia Infante has an incredible resource on how to identify and better understand your SEO competitors, and it is certainly something that should be considered before you put together a strategy. Whether you are a huge brand or a small local business, as long as you live in a capitalist society, competition will always be there.
Because competitors vary based on how your business operates, it’s necessary to identify who, exactly, you’re competing with. Perhaps you are trying to help a business with physical locations improve its local presence online. In that case, local competitors come from the map pack. So, even if the franchise cafe you’re working for (in this example) aspires to have a similar look and feel as some other trendy well known coffee shop brand, it could easily be the case that your real competitors are local, family-owned cafes that are just around the corner from your franchise.
That’s not to say that you should ignore what your future potential competitors are doing, it’s simply worth keeping in mind that different areas of SEO will require you to look at different competitors.
Who is the target audience?
At the end of the day, even if you report on numbers, you need to remember that those numbers represent a group of people—an audience, customers, clients. And they think, they feel—and most importantly for us right now—they search, click, and convert. This conversion will create our impact.
Let’s take a private healthcare provider as an example. In the UK, people are entitled to free healthcare, which means that the most authoritative website in any topic about specific conditions will likely be the NHS (National Health Service). So, the target audience (people who would buy private healthcare in the UK) will likely either be thinking about the benefits of getting private healthcare over free healthcare or they have a condition that they cannot or don’t want to get treated by the NHS.
Understanding this is going to be crucial when thinking about strategy, because it will heavily influence content, site structure, and other parts of SEO. Let’s say you are looking at building out content for this client and restructuring their website. Do you want to focus your content and authority on conditions or symptoms? Or perhaps you want to focus more on departments and medical professionals? Will you prioritize local SEO for private hospitals?
Do your research and understand how the audience is thinking. Ask your client for information about the customer journey. What happens when someone contacts them, what’s the process like? Are customers usually well informed of their conditions before they get in touch? Now, what if this same private healthcare company also operates in the US and perhaps other parts of the world where there isn’t free healthcare to start with or there are other systems in place? One of the most crucial parts of getting international SEO right is to understand the cultural differences and how they impact user behavior.
“The salespeople in your business work directly with customers everyday. They are all too familiar with competing brands and the content gaps that dissuade potential clients. Their proximity to users with transactional intent means that their insights can be particularly useful for discovering unique, high-conversion content.” — Crystal Carter, head of SEO branding at Wix
The benefit of prioritizing your audience is that it helps you stay focused on the end goal and what users actually need from your business. There might be high search volume keywords and topics that are tempting to go after, but if you overlook your primary audience’s needs you can easily steer your strategy in the wrong direction. That not only means that it might be harder to rank for those topics, but even if you do, you might miss your target audience and won’t be able to generate conversions.
Avoid the SEO experience trap by asking questions and communicating clearly
Stay curious and keep asking questions.
Even just based on the few examples above, you can see how many different questions, scenarios, and approaches could arise. This is why it is so important to have open conversations with stakeholders and to focus on improving your soft skills, especially when it comes to critical thinking, listening, understanding, and communicating clearly.
Remember to always address the three areas within your discussions (resources, implementation, and potential impact) with stakeholders. By having honest conversations, you can gain more control over your strategy and avoid the experience trap. It will also help you establish effective communication with your clients and stakeholders, enabling you to better deal with unexpected scenarios.
Petra is an SEO consultant with a background of working in-house for B2C & B2B brands, TUI, Jack Wills, as well as enterprise software brands, Yext, and Botify. She is also an international conference speaker.