The Role of SEO in Growth
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is one of the biggest levers that a business can use within their acquisition strategy as part of their Growth goals.
You’re likely familiar with the different Growth frameworks like AARRR (Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral, Revenue). It all start with Acquisition. Getting users familiar with your product by visiting them on your site or in app. One of the biggest channels to do that is through organic search traffic. Over the last years I’ve led different marketing and growth (SEO) teams that were focused on driving as much (relevant) traffic as possible from search. Here’s what I’ve learned.
TLDR; SEO teams are part of a growth organization to drive additional (free) traffic & visibility in organic search to boost the business. They apply content/link/keyword research, technical audits, content creation and the ability to do massive PR/Awareness/Brand campaigns to help boost this. The best SEO teams are formed by being cross functional (designer, content, SEO, engineer).
The most support they’ll need is from tools, budget and from their C-level (top down). With all of this they can do a great job in helping you create beautiful new products, run experimentation and apply massive data sets on helping to grow the business. They’re not focused on old skool SEO: chasing links, creating scrappy content. But by supporting other teams and leveraging their ideas to build out new ways to boost organic search visibility.
Where does SEO fit into the bigger growth picture
In most ‘new’ companies where they have a Growth team the SEO team is one out a few teams. Usually the others are related to other marketing channels (paid/referrals) or one of the other parts of the funnel (retention/lifecycle). Something that all these Growth teams have in common is that they’re all focused on 1 thing: helping the company grow as fast as possible by enabling more data and new opportunities.
How SEO can contribute to Growth?
New Customers: People are still searching everywhere on the internet and SEO sometimes goes outside of the regular boundaries of just a search engine like Google/Bing/Yahoo. Think about Quora, Instagram, Facebook or how you make things really visible on YouTube. An SEO team is basically as much as possible going after users that haven’t explored the product/service that you’re building.
Brand Traffic/ Increasing CLTV: Some companies just live of, of searches that have a deep brand intent (think Apple, Airbnb) as people are already familiar with their product/service and likely already have an account or have an account. That’s why these teams are more focused on making sure that the user within the industry/niche is able to re-find their products as much as possible to increase their brand traffic and with that their lifetime value (CLTV).
Improving Organic Search Visibility
So how do these teams really drive Growth for their companies and how is that process any different?
How can you apply experimentation?
The more advanced you get the more SEO is already integrated into the product so the more time you’ll likely have to invest in figuring out what can really help move your metrics. For bigger sites with a lot of traffic these days that’s becoming easier as you can use SEO Experimentation to figure out what’s working or not (caveat, you need a robust setup for this, and more than 5k+ visitors from search daily). But you’ll be able to learn over time what implementations work and which ones don’t by applying different variations to a page.
“It’s about the scale..”
So far this seems like your regular SEO process, right? In most cases it is, what is making it more complicated is that you work in incredibly fast moving companies, usually in an industry that is moving even faster. Try to keep up with that while you’re scaling resources, growing the team and also trying to push your metrics through the roof. That’s making the biggest difference with other companies. You’ll have the scale of something that is growing and you’ll have to make sure that SEO is growing at least just as fast.
What can you be improving? / What can you be working on?
- Keyword Research: Do you know what your audience is searching for? Start here, you want to know if you’re ranking for certain terms within your niche but you also want to know more about your opportunity. The bigger your site is, it likely will big if you have a growth team, the more work you can put into this to figure out what the potential is.
- Technical Audit: Have you identified if everything is being indexed on your site as it should and if all the technical/product implementations that you can think of are implemented? Likely not. There is usually a ton of opportunity here to either improve link structures internally or to add the proper tagging to the pages that you care about.
- Analytics & Reporting: You’re part of a bigger organization, I bet you need to report up to show progress, opportunity and what you can do to make an impact on all these numbers. In some organizations this also means that you’re responsible for the (web) analytics instrumentation.
- Competitive/Link Research: Want kind of links and mentions do you really need to beat the competition? Are your current links clean, what opportunities for content and media mentions are there? Can you go after them on your own? Do you need your PR & Marketing team to get this done? All questions that need to be answered that you can help with as an SEO team. In most organizations you have way better insights into what’s happening in your niche and where potential opportunities for content are. Use your keyword research & analytics/reporting data from the previous steps to take this forward.
- Content Creation: If you have the ability to create content for potential new users or landing pages then this is over time where you’ll be spending a lot of time as you can target more search queries and potential users through this way. I see more and more teams be a big part of the content strategy for their company. Instead of blindly chasing users you can help other teams by guiding them towards user queries.
Structuring an SEO Team
How do you set up an SEO team and how can it help you drive more growth? We’ll go a bit more in depth into what’s needed for an SEO team to achieve it goals and what’s need in an organization to achieve that?
Growth Hacking, Growth Marketing, Brand, IT, Engineering Acquisition, where do you sit?
A hot discussion when you talk about SEO teams, where do they sit in the organization. This will be different depending on the company. If you’re a pure web player you’ll likely sit in a different part of the business then if you’re a hardware organization. For most new style SEO teams it means that they’re part of the actual Growth team as they contribute to driving more acquisition for the brand. As they’re cross functional in most cases they’ll have the ability to be independent and have the power and responsibility to change everything that is needed in order to achieve SEO growth (in a natural way, this obviously doesn’t mean spamming).
What does an SEO team work on within Growth?
At every company this will be different, wasn’t that a useful answer. But it’s true. At The Next Web my team was doing all sorts of Marketing things, but our SEO team was very focused on the technical side of things. No surprise as the content piece of SEO was already taken care of by our excellent editorial team. For most teams it will mean that they’re working on the technical setup of the site/platform. This means that they’re working on fixing architecture and making sure that everything is implemented as it should.
What roles should an SEO team have?
One word is going to be key here: cross functional. The best teams I’ve seen working on SEO are formed by specialist in SEO and engineers, content people and designers. When you get them in one room they can create amazing products & content that will help drive more organic search traffic. Let’s list down why you need them:
- SEO Specialist: Its job title doesn’t have to be specialist, it can be Manager, Lead, whatever. The point is that this person should lead the team and identify the opportunity based on the data that is available. Either that be data on potential traffic from search, current rankings data or technical audits.
- Engineer/Developer: Companies that will have an SEO team, mostly find themselves working on a big site which means that changes will likely need to be made in an effort to help the site. That’s why you need great developers to make changes for you.
- Designer: Depending on your other teams, in combination with Marketing for example, it might not always be necessary to have a designer full time on staff. But you want to make sure that the content or features that you put out in the open will look amazing. Not sure what your design skills are, but mine are not on their level (unfortunately).
- Content: SEO needs content, either in the form of great articles, blog posts, translations, optimized headlines, you name it. You can’t live without a great copywriter who can come up with creative ways to formulate what you want.
How can other teams help?
It’s not a sole effort and you’ll likely fail if you try to fix SEO on your own in a big company. Simply because you can’t get enough done that will have an impact on the bottom line. In the bigger companies also while you’re working as a cross functional team it’s incredibly important to also use the knowledge, tools + resources of other teams to help them push SEO forward.
They will likely have more domain knowledge in multiple areas, can help you with creating more content or might be able to support running campaigns (most SEO teams that I see sit in Growth, not in a Brand Marketing team).
What defines success for an SEO team?
Help drive the business goals move forward while increasing the (relevant) organic search visibility as possible. You want to drive relevant traffic eventually that helps your business. We all want to rank for the terms: YouTube, Facebook and Google (true story, something for another blog post) but in the end it’s all about driving the revenue forward for a business. That’s likely what your boss finds most interesting to hear. How much additional revenue you drove for them, if you make that goal it will likely mean success.
But how is that defined for the SEO team?
The main goal for an SEO is driving more relevant traffic from organic search. But behind that goal are many more KPIs that drive towards that goal but won’t have an impact on the business. The teams that I worked with were closely monitoring dozens of other KPIs (crawl stats, link stats, quality of pages, errors, etc.) to make sure that nothing was hurting the main goal for the team.
Earlier this year I wrote a blog post about using the right metrics and what metrics to look at when analyzing SEO performance.
Creating and managing the roadmap for search
What should you be working on?
You can work on many things, how I tend to look at this is three different areas. Depending on the business there might be some other functions that you need to think about too. But in most cases these three cover most of it.
- Product: This is everything related to your site that needs to be fixed, you might need additional pages. You might need to do an extensive technical audit to fix all the flaws on your site or you need a new site at all or change your URL structure. Chance that you need at least 1 developer for all of this, about 100% in order to be successful.
- Content & Promotion: You’re going to need content, data or whatever describes what you do in your business, or your products. Sometimes this means working with third party data (marketplaces, ecommerce) or as a publisher with unique content that is written by editors. But the most important part after that is making sure that you can also promote it. I still have to see the first campaign go viral after just publishing it and not spreading the word to anybody. Stuff doesn’t go viral overnight and not without promotion. Period.
- Analytics & Reporting: You really think you know what your SEO traffic brings of value to your business. You probably don’t or you’re kidding yourself. SEO programs at big companies really do know their impact and do know what kind of value they’re bringing to the organization. So you need to make sure that you’re analyzing the right metrics, that you have the right tools for the other two areas to look for opportunities and that you can potentially forecast using that data to see what value you can bring in the future.
What other resources do you need?
- Tools: You can’t do everything yourself, you’ll need some tools for your technical audit (ScreamingFrog/Botify/Deepcrawl/SEORadar are my tools of preference in this area), you need to be able to find keywords (SERPmetrics/AuthorityLabs/Google Adwords Keyword Tool and you might need a tool that can keep track of your link data + outreach. That’s not even taking into account the easiest tools that you can be using Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. As we’re going to talk more about analytics in the next steps, this can’t be forgotten either. You want to have deep insights and hopefully an analyst on your side that you can work with to dive deep into the data.
- Budget: You’ll need a budget, for either tools, people to create content or anything that isn’t available in your company/organization. For most companies this means that most money will indeed be spend on their tools followed by content resources (copywriters, designers, videographers) as they can be the ones to create the stellar content that you need.
- Engineers: You bet that not only your own engineers will need to support but likely in a bigger organization and Growth organization they need to work with the other engineers that are part of a Growth organization.
- Teams: The other teams in your company can support you in many ways, these days in a bigger company I still meet people every week that are new to me but in some way can help with SEO. Either it be our receptionist (who turned out to be a great writer when I was in need) to your accounting team that can help you save budget on a tool, your infrastructure team to provide you with needed log files or anybody else that you might not work with directly.
- C Level/Internal: But most of all on top of the support that you need from others, you need a management team and anybody up to your manager to be aware of what SEO can do for a Growth strategy and what the things are that you’re working on that are moving the business forward. They’ll ask you about your goals so it only makes sense to tell them in return (they also pay your salary if you forgot) what you’re working on and how you think that is helping the overall strategy for the company/business.
How do you prioritize?
Based on the research that you’ve been doing you should know what’s missing in terms of features, content but mostly what kind of keywords are being used in your niche. Use that data even more, if you know what your volume is for these keywords you likely also know your current performance as you have that data in your own analytics platform and in Google Search Console/Bing Webmaster Tools. Get it?
The opposite side of this scale is that you now also know what the future opportunity is and where you’re not ranking. This means that you can regroup again and figure out where you should be focusing your efforts and prioritize.
But there is a second part, because this is only using the opportunity that you haven’t touched. In the end you also need to optimize your current assets (products/content). What you want to do there is also leave time for other efforts. How I think about is using three buckets (leverage existing resources, build new resources that you know work, build new resources that you have no clue about if they’ll work == experimentation).
How do you analyze results?
Focus as much on the business metrics as possible.That’s what counts for your team, the Growth team that you’re part of and the business. Still too often I hear SEOs talk about link value, # of earned links and other metrics that don’t provide any monetary value. In the end that’s what a business is based on.
So how do you analyze? How much traffic are you driving and what is it’s conversion rate that is closest to the monetary value that matters to your business (you’re a non profit, look at donations/donors). This will likely provide you with the numbers that people in your company (CEO/SVP/VP/Director/Manager) really cares about.
So in this piece we’ve talked about what role SEO can play in a Growth strategy and what an SEO team in Growth organizations looks like:
- SEO teams are part of a growth organization to drive additional (free) traffic & visibility in organic search to boost the business and with that can help boost Growth for most companies.
- The best SEO teams are formed by being cross functional (designer, content, SEO, engineer). The most support they’ll need is from tools, budget and from their C-level (top down).
- You want a team like this, make sure you hire top talent to run them but mostly that you give them the right support to work on. This shouldn’t be teams that are just managing a channel for your company, SEO teams can provide strategic & creative direction if you set them up the right way.
How have you set up SEO within your organization, what kind of people are working on your SEO and how are they helping contribute to your overall Growth strategy? Let us know your ideas on this subject and let’s discuss in the comments.