Within large organizations where SEO efforts belong to a dedicated team, there’s a common misconception that SEO is an action that needs to be conducted as one-time event during a product process. It may be that products “need to be cleared with the SEO team” or once they are complete the are “sent to SEO” as if SEO just need to sprinkled like seasoning.
SEO is not marketing
Part of the reason that there are those who think SEO needs to happen at the end of a product building process is because SEO is considered to be marketing instead of product or engineering. Typically, when a product is ready to be launched it is shipped over to a product marketing team to create a marketing plan who then place responsibility with the marketing team to generate users. While at times product marketers might be participate in the product creation phase, it would never occur to anyone to bring traditional marketers into the tent at that time. There’s likely not much that a paid, email, or brand marketer might add to the product plan.
This is not the case at all for SEO. This misconception to bring SEO in at the end is founded on a common lack of understanding of what SEO is. Before understanding what SEO is, it’s important to clarify what it is not.
SEO is not magic – if there is no search interest for a particular topic, no amount of SEO can create search volume. There’s also no silver bullet to ever guarantee that a page or site will generate search traffic. Apply SEO processes to something does not equate to generating traffic.
SEO is not a singular task – How to optimize a page or site will vary widely depending on what is being optimized. Therefore there is no allowed time frame for how much SEO efforts there can be or should be.
SEO does not operate in a vacuum – The very processes of optimizing a page or site for search is not an independent action which can be divorced from everything else that goes into writing content, constructing a site and laying out a page.
With this in mind, it’s easy to elaborate what SEO is in the context of building something new. SEO is a process of building in best practices for how a piece of content or website will get the highest visibility and traffic from search engines. These best practices could be anything from doing research on what the best way to word content might be, how lengthy content should be, and even the grade level of the content.
These best practices can’t be sprinkled in after the content is already written. Sending something over to another team for an SEO approval after the fact is a recipe for creating internal conflict. The SEO team will provide recommendations that will make the product team who initiated request feel like the SEO team is creating unnecessary bottlenecks.
On the engineering side, sending something over the SEO team after the fact is even worse. Finding out that a page or website will not generate any search traffic after hundreds of hours have been invested is not ideal. The engineering team might want to shoot the messenger – the SEO team, but that will not change the reality.
The solution is to incorporate SEO best practices at every stage in any process. If search traffic is at all a priority knowing what the best practices for achieving that traffic should be paramount to include before it’s too late. Some of the decisions I have seen made prior to even knowing about the product have either caused expensive redos or have forced the product and engineering teams to accept that they will unlikely ever see search traffic to their pages.
One example was where a product intended to drive all of its users from organic search was built using client side scripting. It had not occurred to the team to check with anyone knowledgeable on SEO until the product had been completed – one year after it started!
The solutions offered at that time were to rebuild entirely, use a headless browser or create static versions of some of the content. All of these options were considered to be too expensive and they would be fixed in the beta version of the product. It took six years to revamp the product for SEO! Since the product didn’t generate any search traffic, it was unable to get the engineering resources it needed to fix the product. It was caught in a vicious cycle that would have been avoided had the product been built right from the start.
Where SEO can help
Some of the areas where the SEO team can provide input early on might be very simple at the outset but complex later on. These are some examples:
URL structure – there are best practices on URL’s that can be incorporated as the product is being built, but after launch this can be very complicated
Content structure – Knowing what content will achieve the most visibility from search before content is written is a lot better than writing content for search that will not generate traffic.
Forecasting – Many times product managers will make unrealistic forecasts for how much search traffic might utilize a particular product, but they may lack the knowledge to understand the inputs of their forecast. Partnering with someone who spends all of their working day in search could help them build a more bulletproof estimation on growth potential.
Engineering choices- As a product is being scoped this is the time when engineers weigh in on how they suggest the product be built. If there is an approach that is not friendly to search engines, someone knowledgeable about SEO could encourage it to be rejected immediately. This will allow the product and engineering teams to focus only on solutions that will achieve their desired objectives.
SEO is an optimization and debugging process just like software engineering. The same way a product can’t be built and never debugged SEO should be a constant at all phases of development. Understanding that SEO is a process that contains a touch of engineering, product and marketing should lead to a different approach and expectations of SEO.