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In-House SEO with Laura Lippay of Yahoo! – 5 Question Interview

OneDegree: When should an organization start considering moving their SEO in-house?

LL: Each and every situation is different. It does seem though that in-house SEO has been the trend the last few years. This is possibly due to a number of factors, not excluding independent black hat SEOs finding it harder to make the kind of money they did a few years back, companies becoming more privy to what SEO is, how targeted it is, and what it can do, and organic search marketing taking on a more integrated role in companies’ overall marketing strategies rather than being seen as some magical weird science that should be kept far away from traditional marketing campaigns. 

Overall there are multiple factors to take into consideration if you’re thinking about bringing SEO in-house, primarily revolving around what you’re selling, how many moving parts your company and your website have, what your ROI on a full time SEO employee or team would be, and even the size of the company or the project(s).  I’m a firm believer in In-House SEO for large corporations with online businesses, mostly for the fact that in-house SEOs spend 40 hours a week in the trenches with the teams building trust and getting to intimately know the people, the company system & process abilities and limitations, the product, the product space, the competitive space, and even potential industry innovations on the horizon that can be tapped into. 

It takes a focused, dedicated, sociable, and persistent person to weave themselves into the moving parts of the company and constantly follow up and keep all players (engineering, designers, product managers, marketers, etc) working together towards a common goal of getting visibility in Search results. At a large corporation with an abundance of people and moving parts it is harder to get that engrained if you don’t have an in-house SEO person or team in there every day building those relationships. 

I’ve covered this topic in much more detail, including potential advantages and disadvantages for small and large companies in Part 1 of The Ultimate Guide to In-House SEO: When to Hire In-House vs. Contracted SEO, and of course if anyone has any questions or needs some help with the idea feel free to get in touch with me.

OD: In your experience, is there a particular area of an organization or type of role that is a good one to start to take on (or train up for) SEO tasks?

LL: I usually see three primary types of SEOs: those with a web development background, those with a marketing background, and those with a social/community background (or more often a social focus more than a “background” per se).  The best of all worlds is to have a team with a good understanding of all three areas. You’ll need the web dev expertise to tackle the code & technical side of SEO – the meat of what search engines spiders are eating on a daily basis.  You’ll need the marketing expertise in order to take SEO beyond the code and work it into Search Marketing, balancing organic SEO efforts with paid, and with other marketing channels including offline. You’ll want the social media edge to break beyond just visibility in Search, involving your product in relevant communities, which in turn can help the SEO efforts (along with brand affinity, customer service, and product insights).

Now, if you could only hire ONE person, I’m not going to lie to you, it is very hard to find someone with an actionable, working understanding of all three of those areas.  You might want to consult with someone like Jessica Bowman to determine which strengths your company needs to benefit from the most before you hire.

If you hire someone with a good understand of marketing & social media but no hands-on background in web dev, you could shoot yourself in the foot with a great marketing and community plan but a product that search engines can’t crawl well. 

If you hire someone with the web dev background, but no marketing experience, you might have a well-developed website that search engines can crawl and even rank well, but miss out on strategic opportunities to target specific markets, enhance marketing campaigns with Search, balance PPC & SEO effectively, etc. 

So it may depend on what your needs really are, and of course it’s ok if you start with an SEO with strength in one certain area and hire more later to cover other areas, or hire a contractor to take care of where your SEO needs help.

Because SEO works cross-functionally, covering marketing, engineering, business development, design, etc, it could live in different places in the org.  Most SEOs I’ve talked to roll up into Marketing, then Engineering, then Product. I’ve rolled up into all three and found advantages in each area. Wherever it sits in the org, it is *very* important that the execs there are “believers” in SEO, meaning they’ll support your needs in that part of the org as well as helping you to get buy-in and accountability in other parts of the org where you’ll need.  More on potential org structures in Part 2 of The Ultimate Guide to In-House SEO: What Does the In-House Org Structure Look Like?

OD: What are some reasons that in-house SEO gets off to a slow or unsuccessful start?  What’s the best remedy?

LL: Number one reason: lack of buy-in.  If your boss doesn’t understand what you do and/or doesn’t throw the necessary support your way, you’re in for a long, hard battle.  Part of the In-House SEO’s role is to constantly educate all of the people who have anything to do with publishing or promoting the website, and more often than not that also means educating your own manager.  They need to be able to decipher your magical weird SEO speak and understand the business value you can provide and what type of support you need in order to see the fruits of your labor, whether that is implementing a brand new CMS, changing the business model for editorial content, or even just getting your foot in the door at other parts of the company. 

I’m sure I’m not the only SEO out there who’s been told something to the tune of “I don’t report into you so why should I (change those title tags, build that feature into our CMS, think differently about the way I form business linking partnerships, etc)?”  Did I mention patience comes in handy in this job? :) 

OD: What would you say should be on the work plan for the first year of a new in-house SEO team member?

LL: Securing buy-in and accountability with the teams you’ll be working with is first and foremost (and also usually an ongoing process). 

For your actual SEO program, first make sure you have the groundwork laid.  You’ll need an underlying working system for successful long term SEO: 

A) Reporting: In order to know whether your SEO efforts are successful you’ll need the right reporting setup.  Meaningful metrics, actionable reports, and an objective analysis all play a part in that.  A reporting system that can grow and change with the shifting waters of SEO and search marketing, including the ability to balance SEO with PPC and even hook into other marketing campaign metrics is important as well. 

B) CMS: Your content management system is the beating heart of your website.  If that CMS is pumping out bad blood, aka un-search-friendly pages, then you’ll spend a lot more time fixing stuff that could have been automated to begin with. When I mention automating SEO in your CMS I don’t mean that all of your SEO can be taken care of by spitting out search-friendly pages through a proper CMS, but instead just that some components of a search-friendly website can be automated to make everyone’s job easier.  Those automated components should also be over-writeable.  For example if my CMS automatically creates a certain search-friendly URL structure, I should be able to overwrite that with my own URL if I want to.

C) Process: Determine who your key players are (who do you need to be in tune with you in order to get proper implementation in place), what services you will provide, how you will provide them, and how often.  Get those people on your side and begin to get into your day-to-day groove.

D) Educate: Always. From day one until you leave the company and even after that you will be training, evangelizing and generally educating the people around you. Don’t be a know-it-all.  It is very likely you may not know the answer to – let’s say an engineering SEO issue – but sit down and hash it out with a smart web developer and together you can get to a successful outcome.  If you’re a know-it-all you wont progress as much as if you will if you can have meaningful brainstorming collaborations with those around you – the foundation for innovation.  Don’t hawk over SEO as if you and only you could understand our industry’s magical weirdness.  Remember you weren’t born knowing how to work your way around AJAX indexing issues, so don’t think the people around you can’t learn that as well.  In fact, the more resources and incentive you provide for people to learn as much as they can on their own, the easier your job will be.

E) Implement!  Here is the real action.  Maybe it’s just you doing all of the development, link relationships, even marketing plans, or maybe you only influence and support everyone else doing those things.  Whatever your situation, it helps to have all of the other groundwork in place before you can hope for successful *long-term* implementation and results.  Congratulations if you’ve made it this far – you’re truly an SEO superstar!

OD: As an in-house SEO team grows, how should division of labour fall?  Should there be different sub-teams for different activities or is everyone an SEO generalist?

LL: This is a great question. Again this depends on various factors (there’s that magical SEO stuff again, right)?  In my particular circumstance, because of the nature of a large organization that is changing, shrinking, growing, and people have come into and out of my teams, I’ve learned to tap into those people’s strengths, and figure out how to make up for any weaker areas in other ways.

For example, when I could hire only one person to work with the teams of almost two dozen of the biggest internet sites in their verticals, I chose someone who was strong in the web dev area, filled in the marketing and training side myself, and occasionally got the help of contractors when needed.  When I had an SEO who became naturally gifted in the social media side of things I let that person shine there and filled in the technical SEO side by ramping up on the engineering training and pulling help from technical SEOs in other parts of the company.

But because there is usually a pretty hard divide among marketing-type and engineering-type SEOs, I’ve found it helpful to have people/teams strong in both sides, ideally both reporting into Product, who work together with common priorities and objectives.  It has always been helpful to have a centralized team or figure who can control priorities and goals, and possibly even standards, training, processes and reporting. 

From there you can have constituents in different business units acting on those goals, using those processes and standards, and all looking at unified reporting from the same source. This is especially important since, as we all know, you can put 10 different SEOs in a room and ask them all the same question and get 10 different answers back. 

A very smart colleague at Yahoo named Jason Anello said something the other day that resonated with me and this whole “magical SEO” thing I keep referring to – that marketing is both an art and a science. Like the playground.  You know the playground will be there – Science.  But you don’t know who will be there, when they will be there, and who they’ll want to play with – Art.  As with SEO: you know the search engine is there – Science.  But who is searching, when are they searching and what are they searching for? Art (or magic). See it as you wish.

Be sure to check out Laura's panel at SES San Jose!  And if you can't make it to SES San Jose, check out this video of Laura: a Day in the Life of an In-house SEO