Mastering In-House SEO: The 2024 Guide

  • June 21, 2024
  • SEO
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I have recently received numerous inquiries regarding the progression of an in-house career.

All the answers can be found in a comprehensive guide I authored back in 2020. Since then, I have amassed even more experience collaborating with some of the most esteemed tech companies globally. This prompted me to spend an additional 10 hours refining and updating this guide. In my considered view, this remains the preeminent in-house SEO manual available online.

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In-house SEO is a nuanced skill that can be learned and developed over time.

The individuals I have seen succeed in this field possess a keen aptitude for identifying and focusing on critical tasks, coupled with excellent communication skills and the knack for resolving significant issues. They have mastered essential skills such as securing buy-in, resource allocation, prioritization, and unifying team efforts, regardless of their role as managers or individual contributors.

With more than a decade of in-house expertise at companies such as Atlassian, G2, and Shopify, I progressed from a technical SEO expert to a vice president. Throughout this journey, I refined my in-house skills and observed the traits that define exceptional professionals.

The subsequent collection of principles, frameworks, and experiences can significantly accelerate your learning curve.

Don’t simply rely on my perspective. This guide features valuable contributions from industry experts:

The 5 Key Challenges Of In-House SEO

Success in in-house SEO is fundamentally about creating impact, and to create an impact, you need resources. Even the most impressive strategies, audits, and techniques are meaningless if you cannot implement them.

Jordan Silton:

The most effective in-house SEOs influence and drive strategy. It’s no longer sufficient to conduct an SEO audit, keyword research, or competitive assessment and hand over the findings. This holds true for agencies as well; the era of handovers is over. Modern SEO success is increasingly about alignment and making a tangible impact. Today, simply identifying the actions needed is the bare minimum. Those who succeed are the ones who execute effectively.

The primary challenge in SEO is not knowing what to do, but actually getting it done. The most successful companies rapidly develop, learn, and iterate to meet user needs and adapt to Google’s machine learning-driven algorithms.

Jackie Chu:

While there are numerous benefits to being an in-house SEO, it is crucial to develop both soft and technical skills. Even if you achieve significant successes without buy-in, failing to prioritize team advocacy can result in the loss of company support. Moreover, you will miss out on advanced SEO opportunities if your site does not adhere to fundamental SEO principles.

Securing resources such as funding and personnel for optimization projects often breaks down into five key sub-challenges:

1. Robust Business Cases

The foremost impediment to SEO impact is the ability to create solid business cases for recommendations.

SEOs frequently get entangled in technical details. They need to adopt a product manager’s mindset, engaging with customers, prioritizing features, and demonstrating a clear path to revenue.

A Twitter poll highlights the perceived challenges with resourcing:

  • SEO isn’t a company priority
  • Leadership “doesn’t get it”
  • SEOs struggle to show value

The final point is particularly pertinent: many SEO challenges stem from inadequate demonstration of ROI.

Earlier in my career, I felt defensive when decision-makers rejected my recommendations. I often thought, “But it says to do this in the Google guidelines!” I later realized the importance of crafting robust business cases.

As a decision-maker with budget authority, I understood that strong business cases are fundamental to gaining long-term trust and wisely investing resources. These cases are essential for alignment and ensuring thorough consideration of solutions.

A strong SEO business case should include:

  • Clearly defining the problem and its importance.
  • Logical issue and solution analysis.
  • Compelling reasons for prioritizing this project over others.
  • Direct correlation between organic traffic and revenue.
  • List of necessary resources.
  • Action plan with timelines.
  • Success metrics.

Business cases can be documented in written forms or spreadsheets but must address the fundamental questions.

Given that SEO encompasses art and science, its opaque nature and delayed impact can make projections challenging.

SEO A/B tests and analyzing leading indicators like Googlebot server hits, impressions, and rankings can bolster confidence and assess impact early. Transparency regarding recommendation origins and expectations is crucial for fostering long-term trust.

A practical approach for large projects with substantial resource demands is to launch a small-scale version manually.

For instance, if developing lead generation tools requires engineering and design resources, first build and test a minimum viable product (MVP) with a third-party solution. Positive results strengthen your case for in-house resources.

Advice: Identify a colleague known for getting things done and learn from their approach.

2. Business Model Differences

The site’s type dictates the necessary resources and business case structure.

Impact predictions are more accessible for Aggregators and high-traffic sites compared to Integrators, as the former typically have more pages and quicker test results.

For example, an aggregator like G2 has highly product-centric levers, whereas an integrator like Ramp relies primarily on marketing resources for impact.

Aggregators leverage network effects resulting from demand consolidation. They benefit from aggregated rather than self-created “inventory”: products, users, businesses, or ads. This favors technical SEO and product-led growth loops, as explained in “How Social Networks Drive Billions of Search Visits with SEO.”

When working with an integrator, either choose a company with strong SEO buy-in or strategically prioritize and sequence projects.

While you can’t alter growth levers’ nature, you can build trust with results by targeting easily achievable projects.

Demonstrating your impact within the first 30 days of joining a company can significantly improve your subsequent tenure.

Jackie Chu:

It’s essential to balance SEO growth tasks with SEO defense tasks, such as managing new product launches, migrations, or rebranding. Effective communication is vital to convey trade-offs and maintain good relationships with peers.

In-house SEOs often grapple with resourcing challenges, buy-in, and prioritization, even when they correctly identify SEO problems. Strong communication and storytelling skills are crucial to de-escalating conflicts between teams with differing incentives.

Products with high contract values often rely on human input for attribution, which can blur SEO impact.

Leads may interact with multiple paid and organic channels, and paid teams often have more data and faster feedback, influencing revenue attribution.

Comparing the last and first touchpoints can reveal significant differences in revenue attribution and the importance of choosing the right model.

Over-relying on advertising can be costly if SEO could achieve similar results with lower spending. Highlighting conversion and spend data can persuade stakeholders.

Alternatively, frame SEO as a brand marketing channel for exposure rather than direct revenue, or focus on revenue contributions/margins. Different perspectives can help justify the investment.

Advice: Emphasize technical SEO for aggregators and content marketing for integrators.

3. Slow And Fuzzy Impact

Some optimizations yield slow, broad impacts over time, making it challenging to quantify their dollar value.

For example, building a robust brand is crucial for SEO but involves many variables, making business cases difficult.

Key questions to address varying time-to-impact include:

  • Can the optimization be tested on a small scale?
  • How many pages can the optimization be scaled across without manual effort?
  • Has a competitor implemented a similar optimization?
  • How difficult is the optimization to implement?

Prioritize optimizations based on their implementation difficulty and potential traffic impact, focusing on high-leverage, quick-impact projects.

Advice: Strong storytelling skills can secure buy-in despite ambiguous numbers. Decision-makers respond to stakes – the consequences of inaction.

It’s essential to illustrate risks vividly, but have a plan to demonstrate the success of your suggestions.

Jackie Chu:

Strong leadership, storytelling, and executive presence are critical for in-house SEO success. Enterprise sites often struggle with basic SEO issues, as seemingly small changes like title tags or hreflang can require significant investments, considering multiple services, translation needs, and other factors.

4. Weak Social Capital

Credibility, likability, and respect significantly affect your ability to ship projects. Trust is more readily extended to those with a proven track record or respect from key company figures.

Weak social capital, encompassing favors and perceptions, also impacts your capability to execute.

Matt Howell-Barby:

It’s not enough to have the right solution; selling the idea internally, securing necessary resources, and leveraging influence is crucial. The timing and application of leverage are particularly important.

Advice: Understand who holds power in the company, identify their needs, and assist them. Sometimes this involves non-craft-specific tasks, and other times seizing opportunities or mitigating risks previously unnoticed.

Jordan Silton:

Effective in-house SEOs are well-liked and invited into initiatives due to their collaborative nature. Success is not about being the smartest or technical superstar but part of a team. Facilitating progress, rather than being a gatekeeper, is key.

Building strong relationships with team leaders involves understanding their goals and collaborating toward common objectives.

Matt Barby:

People often wonder how seemingly less knowledgeable individuals climb the corporate ladder. The answer usually lies in superior selling skills. Internal advocacy requires selling ideas to peers, much like pitching to external clients in a sales role. Mastering this skill is crucial for career advancement.

SEO teams often lack resources when placed under marketing, while engineering teams fall under the product department.

For most companies, SEO under marketing makes sense due to reliance on self-generated content and tools. However, for aggregators, SEO should be within the product organization to maximize impact, proportional to the number of indexable pages.

Product-led growth companies, typically aggregators, should incorporate SEOs into product teams. Sales-driven companies may adopt content marketing or hybrid approaches.

Igal Stolpner:

As an in-house SEO, integrating into the process is crucial. Ensure you’re involved in significant changes or launches, typically managed by Product or R&D teams.

Advice: Conduct internal educational tours, especially with dependent teams.

At Atlassian, realizing resource limitations, I conducted workshops for engineers, designers, and content creators, demonstrating how small adjustments in their work could significantly impact SEO.

I shared SEO checklists, presented at all-hands meetings, and maintained consistent internal communication through Confluence (our “wiki”). I tracked and communicated results, fostering motivation and appetite for further improvements.

In-House And Agency SEO Are Different Games

The primary distinction between agency and in-house work is scope:

In agencies, breadth is key. In-house, depth is essential.

Agency work offers exposure to diverse sites and issues, making it an excellent starting point for SEO careers. Challenges include client acquisition, account management, and ensuring client implementation of recommendations. Balancing client needs and wants is also critical.

In-house work involves a deep immersion in a single site (or a few), developing vertical expertise, and owning a larger part of the process. Overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, securing resources, and prioritizing tasks are primary challenges.

Both roles require pitching and selling – to clients in agencies and to superiors in-house. Mastery of this skill is crucial and frequently revisited throughout this guide.

Matt Howell-Barby:

Working in-house differs significantly from agency work. Similarly, experiences vary greatly between a small startup and a large enterprise. However, some universal truths remain constant.

Transitioning

When transitioning from agency to in-house, avoid two common pitfalls: waiting for approval and speed of execution.

Consultants must be transparent and often bill by the hour, while in-house roles require faster execution and decision-making.

In-house roles necessitate end-to-end project execution, unlike consultants who shift focus after delivering recommendations. Many consultants face a “culture shock” when transitioning to in-house roles.

In-House SEO As A Manager Vs. IC

Your roles and focus differ significantly based on management responsibilities:

Typically, a career transitions from an individual contributor (IC) to a manager, altering your in-house experience accordingly.

Jordan Silton:

In-house SEO roles vary widely. Some focus on technical analysis, resembling agency roles, while others align closely with product management and embed within agile/scrum teams. Senior roles demand organizational influence beyond product and marketing teams, while content roles may intersect with or stand apart from technical teams. In-house SEO is multifaceted.

For contributors, the key skill is prioritizing impactful projects and producing quality work.

Avoid overwhelming workloads by pushing back strategically. Share priorities with your manager and delegate adjustments, ensuring strategic alignment of tasks.

While not every task will be exciting, significant portions should significantly contribute to key initiatives.

Managers require both leadership and management skills.

Leadership involves persuading people to act, a skill applicable even without direct reports. Management entails setting goals, hiring effectively, and executing plans.

At Shopify, we used the following framework to guide managerial tasks:

  • Aim -> strategy.
  • Assemble -> hiring.
  • Achieve -> execution.

Not everyone is suited for or desires management roles. I have promoted individuals who later regretted their choice. Leading companies offer comprehensive IC career tracks and defined advancement paths.

Internal advocacy work involves educating and motivating employees about SEO, fostering contributions without a large team.

Positively reinforce contributions from non-SEO team members through recognition on messengers, emails, or internal wikis, promoting more “good” behavior.

At Atlassian, we adhered to the motto, “Do good work and talk about it.”

Regular and irregular progress updates form a significant part of advocacy:

  • Weekly reports provide close stakeholders with progress updates, while monthly reports engage a broader audience, aligning and sparking curiosity.
  • Ad-hoc memos featuring company-wide insights invite collaborative problem-solving.
  • Annual or semi-annual reports outline SEO strategies and address decision-makers during budget and resource planning periods. Include trends, acknowledge supportive teams and individuals, and highlight threats. Release annual reports in time for future planning.

Bottom Line: Ship Career-Making Projects

Improving in-house SEO skills involves minimizing distractions, focusing

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