You Can Go Your Own Way: How to Get Things Done When You’re the Only SEO
If you’re an SEO like me, you probably spent at least a year or two at an agency where you worked with other experienced SEOs. On large teams, there’s always someone to learn from, bounce ideas off of, or to help finish projects on time.
But what happens when the SEO team is just you? This is the question I had when, after several years agency-side, I moved in-house to be the first and only SEO the organization ever had.
More than three years later, I’m still a team of one. I had to figure out how to accomplish my goals without the built-in support of an established team, and although there are challenges, being the only SEO is an opportunity to flex your knowledge, develop the practices that will bring the organization into the digital age, and maybe even grow your own team.
Here’s how I get things done, and hopefully some of these practices will be helpful for you as well!
How and why some organizations start with just one SEO
Many “legacy” organizations are going through a digital transformation: transitioning from traditional media to a digital presence by investing in their websites and digital specialists. The pandemic likely accelerated this process, and these groups will be hiring their first dedicated SEOs.
This is how I was hired. The Nature Conservancy is one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the world, with offices in dozens of countries and thousands of employees. One SEO. Yet this is fairly advanced — most nonprofits have zero*.
*Sidenote: If you are a nonprofit SEO I would love to connect!
One of the first digital transformation hires was the analytics director, Jenny. Jenny’s mission was to find opportunities to grow the site. Almost immediately, she saw that half of the website’s traffic is from organic search. So she asked, “Who manages search here?” Turns out, no one. She believed that if the website was important, the organization needed to invest in it. And that meant a strategy for search.
Jenny needed to highlight how beneficial an SEO would be. She built an analytics dashboard for the CMO, who was from a traditional media background. His first question was, “What’s organic search?”
Yes, really. Then he had a lightbulb moment: “Oh, so Google! Wow, that’s all our traffic?”
And a new SEO position was funded.
A rough start
Unfortunately, this realization came at a less than ideal time. The Nature Conservancy was in the middle of this digital transformation, starting to heavily invest in digital marketing, building a team, thinking strategically about the website, and the CMS was shutting down. They scrambled to find a new CMS and execute a site migration.
No worries, they thought, the web developer vendor will handle SEO. Their contract included this line item: “SEO industry best practices for relaunch”.
If your stomach just clenched, imagine how I felt when, during an interview, my soon-to-be-boss excitedly said, “You might have noticed that the website looks a little different today. Our relaunch went live this morning!”
Yes, they went through a site migration while hiring for an SEO. They celebrated with cake.
Teams without an SEO don’t know what they don’t know, and they’ll make mistakes that you will be responsible for fixing. Until that moment, I had been thinking that I’d be setting the SEO strategy for the future of the organization, help the website emerge as an authority and a leader in the nonprofit space, and contribute to my personal goal of furthering the mission. Instead, my first several months on the job would be cleaning up the migration.
When I started, there were hundreds of errors across the site. It was slow, there were no dedicated SEO fields in the CMS, and there were broken links everywhere. Worse, there was no SEO guidance for content creators, meaning each new page created more errors.
So, how did I start to move the needle on over 2,000 pages that were published with zero thought towards SEO? I had to triage: there was no way I could fix all the issues myself, so my priority was slowing the rate at which new, problematic pages were published.
The solo SEO process
Step 1: Make friends on other teams and find your evangelists
When you’re the only SEO, especially if you’re also the first, it might seem like no one at your organization understands your job. But someone, somewhere, does — at least a little. You just need to find them.
And when you do, don’t immediately ask for favors or demand they change how they do their jobs. Approach your new friend with empathy, interest, and understanding. Start by learning how you can help them do their jobs.
You don’t need people skills to be an amazing SEO, but an SEO with unparalleled diplomacy skills and innate customer empathy is a force to be reckoned with.
— Eli Schwartz (@5le) February 11, 2022
My first friends were on the analytics team. Obviously I had Jenny, the analytics director, and I also had Leigh Ann, an amazing analytics architect. She had been with The Nature Conservancy for 20 years and knew how desperate the site was for SEO guidance. Chances were if I was annoyed at an issue, she had been annoyed at it for years. She was thrilled some of these issues were finally being addressed, and I was thrilled I had current and historical data to back up my recommendations.
My second friends were the developers. When you’re the only SEO, you’re the default expert on both content and technical SEO. I give the developers a heads up on what the content team has planned that might require their involvement and, more importantly, educate the content team on the level of effort required for seemingly small tasks. This not only helps me directly, it also increases understanding and keeps relationships smooth across teams.
One unexpected friend I made early on was Rachel, a marketer with the Florida chapter. She worked with SEOs in a previous role and understood the value of organic search. She reached out to me after a training, wanting to collaborate. Together we created a new page specifically designed to bring in organic traffic.
The topic was mangroves, trees that grow in coastal saltwater that provide important habitat for animals and protect communities from storm impacts. The Florida chapter talked quite a bit about mangroves but didn’t have a dedicated page for them. I sent Rachel some keywords, questions, and examples of mangrove content and she built a new page. We collaborated on every element. We both wanted to show how SEO could improve the kind of content most marketers were creating.
A persistent notion among marketers is that their pages are primarily seen because they’re promoted. While the page was shared on social media and in an email, within a few weeks, it was ranking for our target keyword. Six months later, 85% of the traffic to that page was from organic search. I made sure to give that page — and Rachel — a shout out, both to give her credit and to show other marketers the kind of success SEO can bring. She also shares the success of the page with other marketers and is a valuable SEO evangelist.
Step 2: Provide SEO education every day
It doesn’t matter if you work with hundreds of SEOs or you’re the only SEO, every SEO role involves a good amount of education. The field changes frequently, new clients and stakeholders have varying levels of understanding (or worse, outdated ideas), and websites and priorities change. You need to keep up with the field and communicate changes and best practices simply and effectively.
When a Client asks you if you can “SEO this page” pic.twitter.com/DvNJc3tVO4
— Robert “Bert” Berousek (@RAABstatus) January 31, 2022
Agency clients expect their vendors to be consultants, but when you’re in-house, it can be easy to forget to treat your colleagues and superiors like a client. And when you’re the only one with SEO expertise, everyone has questions. It’s your job to not only answer their questions, but also to be proactive.
Being the only SEO means speaking up and asserting your knowledge. Within my first two months, I conducted an SEO 101 training open to anyone at the organization. I covered what SEO is, what it means for content creators, busted myths, walked through what a SERP looks like, how to optimize pages using our CMS, and highlighted examples of pages that were already doing a great job. I ended the training by giving attendees steps for conducting their own research, and offering to help anyone creating new content. (Giving out candy doesn’t hurt, either.)
Of course, not everyone is going to react well to someone who comes in and tells them the way they’ve been doing things this whole time is wrong. Naturally, you’ll encounter resistance. That’s okay — focus on those who do want to work with you, and minimize conflict with everyone else. Results, hopefully, will speak for themselves.
You get to choose the SEO hill you die on. Figure out what’s going to move the needle the most at your organization. Understand when to fight and when to let something go in order to appease that higher up you just can’t win over right now.
Step 3: Do (at least some of) the work yourself
One of the biggest culture shocks moving in-house was the level of bureaucracy standing in my way. The larger the organization, the more hurdles you’ll have to jump. Sometimes it takes half a dozen people to approve a title tag change and content owners are sometimes always too busy to fix their broken links. I quickly realized there would be times I’d need to just do things myself.
[awaiting final ED review]
— Shit Nonprofits Say (@nonprofitssay) October 7, 2019
If your SEO agency experience ever involved providing recommendations to your point of contact and then wondering why almost nothing got implemented, you may have no idea how long it takes to actually do the work you’re recommending, or what very real barriers your client faces. I didn’t when I was with agencies.
At The Nature Conservancy, I tried everything I could think of to encourage content owners to fix their issues: meeting one-on-one with them, sending emails with step-by-step instructions, even setting up automated email reminders. They just didn’t have the time.
So, I started making some of the changes myself. I’d remove a few broken links on one page, update title tags and meta descriptions on another, and worked with my team’s writer (who was willing to pitch in) to update content. It’s important to not be too busy, proud, or afraid to do the work.
Thankful for the weekend, and the opportunity to do the work that was assigned to me in all of this week’s meetings.
— Shit Nonprofits Say (@nonprofitssay) August 23, 2019
If you’re thinking this is time consuming, you’re right. If content owners didn’t have the time to manage a dozen pages, how could I manage thousands? Right when I was starting to resign myself to spending Saturdays doing all the stuff I was recommending so we could start seeing results, we hired a production manager, Lane. He quickly made a sizable dent in our backlogged work.*
*In the never-ending cycle that is nonprofit work, Lane’s plate is now also overloaded.
I was lucky that we had the budget to hire Lane, but what if we didn’t? It would have been unrealistic and unfair for me to actually spend my weekends implementing optimizations across thousands of pages. If anyone is in this position now, build a case for hiring someone. Estimate the time it would take to implement your recommendations, and the cost of not implementing as much as you can. Use the metrics that matter to the powers that be, and show how SEO contributes to their own goals. Ask your advocates for help, especially if they might have some insights you don’t.
In the meantime, protect your priorities: Block off time on your calendar for focused work (and use it), enforce no-meeting Fridays, don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good” or “done”, learn how to say “no” to tasks that don’t fit your priorities, and recognize and admit to your limits.
In essence, do the work, but don’t actually work through your weekends!
Step 4: Find your community
It can be a bit lonely and isolating to be the only SEO at your organization. Who do you go to for a gut check, a proofread, or to ask a dumb question without judgment when you’re the only SEO? You need to find your community outside your employer.
First and foremost, you don’t need to have every answer immediately. “I don’t know, let me find out” is an acceptable answer. You can Google answers to the questions you’re asked, or you can find people to ask.
Former colleagues, former classmates in similar positions, website forums, even Twitter hashtags can be a good community. Women in Tech SEO is a wonderful, global community for women in the field. I also had some success reaching out to others in similar positions at related companies. There are SEO podcasts, YouTube videos, webinars, conferences, and online courses to learn from.
No matter where you find your community, don’t just take: remember to help others as much as they help you.
Why it’s actually great to be the only SEO
Being the only specialist at a company comes with unique challenges, as outlined here. But there are some wonderful benefits to being the only SEO on your team.
The wow factor
Chances are, your colleagues and superiors are learning a TON from you. I regularly hear things along the lines of, “Wow, I never knew we needed to do this!” or “This is hugely helpful!” for simple best practices.
Your colleagues can be extremely happy you’re on the team. Like Leigh Ann, the analytics architect, who had spent years measuring metrics that no one had been working on. And Rachel, from the Florida chapter, who got to show her boss results from our collaboration.
It feels good
When there’s no one else who knows SEO at your organization, there’s also no one to disagree with you! But in addition, if you’re the only SEO on the team, your company may be low on digital expertise, maybe even transitioning from traditional media to a digital presence. You get to genuinely help bring an organization into the digital future and show how SEO can have incredible results.