SEO as a Change Process

In a previous article, Baking SEO Into The Workflow, we took a look at the problems faced by in-house SEOs. Most of those problems occur because SEO forces a change in work process. Change - any change - is often met with resistance.

We received a lot of great feedback on that post, so we thought we'd delve a little deeper into this topic.

The Change Process

Change managers highlight three crucial factors in any change process:

  • Start at the top
  • Address the human side
  • Approach change systematically

"Any significant transformation creates “people issues.” New leaders will be asked to step up, jobs will be changed, new skills and capabilities must be developed, and employees will be uncertain and resistant. Dealing with these issues on a reactive, case-by-case basis puts speed, morale, and results at risk. A formal approach for managing change — beginning with the leadership team and then engaging key stakeholders and leaders — should be developed early, and adapted often as change moves through the organization. This demands as much data collection and analysis, planning, and implementation discipline as does a redesign of strategy, systems, or processes.".

Let's take these ideas and apply them to the world of professional SEO.

Management Strategy

Start at the top.

Management buy in is also the most crucial element. Without their support, it's unlikely you'll get anything else done at the lower levels. That's why change processes start at the top. So, how specifically does one approach getting management on-side?


First, do a complete audit of the existing website and web strategy, and make a list of the problem areas that need changing. Order this list in terms of importance. i.e. crucial changes, nice to have, phase one, phase two, etc. Also make a note of how easy, or how difficult, each item is to implement. Think of it as a proposal, which is really what it is. This type of analysis will show that you're serious, organized and thorough.

Management are going to be looking for you to deliver more benefit than it costs to provide that benefit. If you can show you'll achieve this, you're half way there.

Sell It

Use factors such as competitive advantage and disadvantage. Show them where their competitors - specifically their SEO savvy competitors - rank. Estimate the level of search engine traffic their competitors receive.

Create value propositions. Try to get management to place a value on each visitor. What is the opportunity to get in-front of a customer worth to them? How much does it cost to get that same attention via existing channels, such as direct marketing, print, radio or television advertising? Compare this with the cost of implementing your strategy. Show them how they can both save money, and get more return.

Managers also want to get some idea of the following factors:

  • What is the cost?
  • What is the time to delivery?
  • What should your performance metrics/kpi be?

Be prepared to answer such questions.

Use case studies. Show before and after situations where seo has made a remarkable difference. Something that has been tried and proven carries less risk than the new and different. Remember, SEO is probably going to sound new and different to all but the most web savvy organizations.

Get management to commit to your strategy on a point by point basis. Insist that you'll only be able to deliver outcomes if this strategy is followed. Outline the risks of removing any element.

This achieves two things: it gets them to commit to your course of action. They'll back you if you receive push back from designers, developers and writers. Secondly, it provides a get out of jail free card. If you miss KPIs because you couldn't achieve all of the strategy i.e. the other areas pushed back, you can show them why you couldn't deliver.

The Human Side

You go into a meeting.

There is one of you, there is a small team of designers, and there's a manager who thinks he needs SEO, but doesn't have an understanding of what is actually involved. So how do you tell them that their strategy is all wrong, to stop building everything in Flash, and start designing to your exact specifications?

You could use the direct approach: "Listen up! Your strategy is all wrong, stop building everything in Flash, and start designing to my exact specifications!" A tough road, but if your daddy owns the company - certainly worth a shot :)

More likely, however, the design team has more authority than the SEO, especially if you're new to the job.

Softly Softly, Catchee Monkey

There's an apt British phrase: "Softly Softly, Catchee Monkey".

It means play it gently and carefully in order to achieve the outcome you seek.

If you lack sufficient authority to get your way on all decisions, as is the case with most SEOs who work within large organizations, then the softly, softly approach might be more likely to produce results than the my-way-or-the-highway approach.

Consider how people react to change. How did you feel when you were forced to adapt to change? Empathy goes a long way.

For example, try putting yourself in the designers shoes.

She may have graduated from a graphic design course. During her years of study, SEO wasn't mentioned once. She has been working as a web designer for a few years, and she's acutely aware that web design is a very poor second cousin to print design. In print, the designer has free reign, and can specify everything to their exact requirements. The colors, the size, the fonts, the look and feel.

On the web, however, she has to think about how her design is going to display on different screen sizes, how the colors are going to look on various monitors, and how different browsers are going to render the layout. She has to incorporate widgets and forms from the developers. She's got to present to management in a few weeks time. The top manager, who controls her bonus, likes to be wowed by cool, cutting edge designs. She jumping through all these crazy hoops that get in the way of her graphic vision.

Then in walks this new SEO guy and demands she retool the site so a search engine spider can see it.

If there's a fan in the office, it will soon be covered in something unpleasant.

How To Make SEO Fit In

One way is to not do anything.

Not every battle is worth winning. For example, lets say you're working in house at an agency, and the work is for an external client. The client wants a spectacular site, because he wants to impress his colleges and boss. The designer is happy to design it, because she might win an award. The client hasn't specified seo as a delivery requirement, as the clients customers usually find them by word of mouth, not via search engines. Is SEO really important here?

No, it's not.

The best approach, when SEO comes late in the piece, might be to inform the manager in charge of delivery that this site is unlikely to receive much in the way of traffic from search engines in it's existing form. You could specify changes, but is that really in the best interests of everyone? Does the cost/benefit stack up at this late stage?

Insist the person with the authority makes that call. If the client comes back latter and wants to know why their site isn't showing up in search engines, you can refer back to the meeting. Most intelligent people will come to their own conclusions that their process needs to change.

But lets say SEO is something the client wants, but is not knowledgeable enough to know that their web strategy won't deliver it.

If you're experiencing a lot of resistance, try splitting the work into phases. Make phase one low impact. If it's a Flash site, or some other major SEO headache, how about suggesting they add a print -friendly version of the site, with a link from the home page?

The designer will probably go for it, because in her head, the only people likely to see a print version are those who have already seen her flash version. They are simply choosing to print it out. You know better, of course. This is the version search visitors will see. Once these pages start drawing traffic, you then have some leverage for Phase Two. You've demonstrated the power of SEO, and if only they did more of what you request, then they'll get more search visitors.

Their call.

Once you can demonstrate proof of concept, you're on track to winning the war.

Natural Synergies

In my earlier article, I recommended that you keep a look out for natural synergies. Thankfully, not all designers are flash loving design heads. Web design trends have, thankfully, moved away from graphic-heavy approaches, and have moved towards providing ease of use and utility.

Suggest incorporating SEO-friendly elements that are also design elements. Examples include breadcrumb navigation, site organization and hierarchy, most important pages closest to the front, duplicate navigation schemes if the main navigation scheme is uncrawlable, and using Google site maps. None of these elements interfere with look and feel too much.

Attend the meetings where they map out site structure. If the structure is designed with SEO in mind, a lot of other elements fall naturally into place. Emphasize the fact you need to be brought in early, not late, on site design decisions.

Content Writers

In the web industry, content writers are most likely to slot into one of two schools of thought.

One is journalism. Journalism often consists of a top down approach, or inverted pyramid.

"The "pyramid" can also be drawn as a triangle. The triangle's broad base at the top of the figure represents the most substantial, interesting, and important information the writer means to convey. The triangle's orientation is meant to illustrate that this kind of material should head the article, while the tapered lower portion illustrates that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance"

The second is copy writing. Copy writing differs from journalistic styles in that the writing is crafted to elicit a specific response from the reader, rather than to simply inform. There is often a specific objective the copywriter needs to fulfill, and every word is likely to be carefully deliberated over.


A side complication is legal. Lawyers, as a profession, tend to be risk adverse. Their job, in this context, is to prevent libelous, defamatory, or untruthful copy from being published, which could expose the the company to financial risk.

There's no simple advice I can give on how to get around legal. They carry a lot of weight. Just be aware of the legal requirement, and keep in mind that the "aggressive link baiting technique" you had planned might not be an appropriate strategy for this particular company ;)

Will It Blend?

The easiest road is with the journalists. They are trying to answer the questions Who,' 'when', 'where', 'what' and 'how' . Try to frame your SEO requests in this language.

For example., say if your keyword term is "buy house in San Francisco". A reporter could work this into his copy by asking the "what" question, s in "what is happening?" e.g. "Recently, people looking to buy a house in San Francisco have had to contend with...." etc etc.

This is very much an on-going education process, but it helps if you're already talking their language. Provide them a list of keywords, and specific examples of how they can be incorporated into the article formats they already use. Writers might actually like you feeding them article and story topics. It makes their task a little easier. Try to think of ways you can frame your keyword research as article topic suggestions, or article research.

In terms of structure, try and devise templates that encourage SEO friendly formats i.e. short paragraphs with big headings to break up the copy. You could also argue this increases readability and usability.

Have designers and developers code the templates so related articles are suggested automatically. Include a related articles section. Build the SEO right into the article structure, so that a lot of the SEO happens without the writer having to think about it.

Guidelines For Developers

Developers are used to working to guidelines and specifications, so try and work SEO requirements into these documents.

Here's a sample guideline. There is some overlap here with design, so split them up accordingly:

  1. Use descriptive file names. i.e. dog.jpg, as opposed to image568765.jpg.
  2. Include title and meta description tag in all templates. Auto - populate fields from teh templates i.e. document title - where no over-ride exists.
  3. Use CSS to control font sizes, particularly header tags.
  4. Links should, wherever possible, include keywords
  5. Titles should use text, as opposed to graphics.
  6. Specify an alt tag for images
  7. Create a Google Site Map
  8. Use the following URL format: domain/page-title-name
  9. Avoid frames. If using frames, use the the noframes tag
  10. Create a custom 404 page that links to the site's main pages, or sitemap.

I'm sure there are plenty of other rules you can think of, and depending on how co-operative the developer is, there is a lot more detail you could go into. I find that the shorter the checklist, the more likely developers are to incorporate the changes required. Long lists just create headaches, so often go ignored.

Make sure they do the important things, and don't sweat the small stuff. At least, not in your first week!

Real Life

In real life, things are never this simple.

Humans are messy and complicated creatures, so there are few hard and fast rules, nor is there a prescription you can follow. Be flexible. Be aware. Communicate. A lot. Hopefully, the ideas above will help you formulate your own approach.

You're not alone. Most professional SEOs know exactly what you're going through :)

Related Reading

Published: December 5, 2008 by A Reader in seo tips


December 5, 2008 - 7:31pm

Nice follow-up Peter. You are right - as an in-house, it is all about proof-of-concept and getting buy-in from the top down. I use the SEOBook Rank Checker as one of my standard reporting elements to achieve this - I created a single list of targeted keywords, and run the Rank Checker twice a month. After collecting 6 months of data, I compiled it and submitted up the chain, and suddenly all the C-Levels knew where we stood in engines...and they were happy to see that everything was moving the right direction. I couple this with some monthly data on traffic patterns and conversions, and have shown them that I can offer the lowest cost-per-acquisition of any channel in the company. It has helped me survive two different staff reductions, and get green lights and less resistance when I suggest to do something. The suits know numbers, so I give them SEO in numbers. At this point, my designers and any other team members defer to me for search-readiness before any concept goes to the web, so though it takes time, it is worth the fight to prove the point. Makes going to work much more fun.

December 5, 2008 - 11:47pm

Peter, please continue with the series of posts related to SEO Management, they are great. They have clear a lot of the questions I had related to this subject.

I Have a couple questions related to putting SEO in numbers for management:

-How to estimate the level of search engine traffic competitors receive?

-How to show cost-per-acquisition on SEO as compared to any other channel in the company: PPC, E-mail, etc.?

December 8, 2008 - 2:14pm

"-How to estimate the level of search engine traffic competitors receive?"
I don't tend to dwell on this, unless it is something where I am really trailing...instead, I try to pose our position in the SERPs against theirs, and then comment on typical search volumes usually found for each result. For instance if you are top3, you can show how much more traffic you tend to receive than if you are in the #8 or #10 slot. You can also use some tools like SpyFu to see what the competition is doing in paid, do link checks, page counts and so on. I know which of my competitors are actively trying to beat me in search - so I report that, and stick to that. I tell them who is spending time and money to come after us, and they decide if it is worth fighting or not. But I don't guess at their traffic - I only comment on their activity.
"-How to show cost-per-acquisition on SEO as compared to any other channel in the company: PPC, E-mail, etc.?"
Depending on how you track spends, this is pretty easy. Direct mail has some definitive costs attached - at a minimum, you have creative, printing, postage. Organic development is usually just a fraction of my salary (I'll write and build whatever I need), and any paid stuff I already know it can be almost free when everything is set up correctly. I don't lump in hosting, and domains only cost pennies if I need new ones.
I compare the cost to get a direct mail campaign launched to the cost of an organic effort. I then look at the conversion rates for each effort - measure the success of each. Almost invariably, the cost I incur for the leads I obtain is much less than what any other channel or effort would incur to get the same returns. It always costs less to build organically - so I use analytics to be able to prove this point, and show my value.
Good analytics are the key to making this work. The suits usually appreciate that SEO is happening, as long as it is cost-controlled. Draw a straight line to a profitability you can communicate, and you create job security.

December 8, 2008 - 9:49pm


Thanks :)

I concur with the excellent suggestions offered by Martypants.

Measurement of traffic is an inexact science, but try running an Adwords campaign against the terms they rank well for. You could also use, and similar tools to get ballpark figures.

Marketing departments should have cost per acquisition/inquiry metrics for their existing channels.

December 8, 2008 - 9:51pm


The suits know numbers, so I give them SEO in numbers

Nice one :) It always helps to put things in their language, as opposed to the cryptic language of the SEO conference, eh....

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