Welcome to this first part in a series about SEO project management and some factors that make it different from what some customers and project managers alike may have encountered.  As a Raleigh SEO service provider and certified project management professional working in the IT field, over the years I’ve managed a wide variety of information technology projects including both big projects such as multi-million dollar system installations, the relocation of large corporate data centers, IT in new construction of 30+ corporate buildings, live football TV broadcasts, and of course software and infrastructure projects such as web development in everything from ASP.NET and WordPress to custom Linux sites using API’s to manage legacy systems.  Out of it all, I think that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has to be the slipperiest type of project to get your hands around because there are certain things which are virtually impossible to put numbers to with the kind of precision you might expect from other types of projects.  Before we talk about project management, though, let’s make sure you know what SEO is.

Search Engine Optimization

SEO strategy is about getting websites to rank in Google, Yahoo, Bing etc. so that a given website will show up near the top of the search results.  SEO methods have different nuances based on whether you’re selling services to local home-owners, products on the Internet, or electronic books on Amazon, and not all SEO experts are equally versed in these slightly different disciplines.  At present, we focus on Local SEO services that connect local businesses with nearby customers.

Origins of Project Management

It’s generally held that project management, at least as most people think of it with a traditional waterfall approach to planning, was born in the construction industry to provide a structured process to follow in first developing a design, and then building what you put down on paper.  Once you had a design and developed the specifications, it became possible to nail down exactly what things had to happen in what order to finish construction on schedule and within budget.  The catch is that it was all predicated on the idea of being able to accurately depict the duration of work streams and obtain hard bids for the labor and materials based on knowing exactly how much you need of every component.  The thing to keep in mind about construction is that once you finish putting in the last nail or screw and pass inspection, that’s when you’re finished. 

Suppose, though, that you were supposed to not only build some houses, but win a quality award that you can’t control whether you get or not.  All you can do is try to understand what they look for, do your best to give that to them, and then cross your fingers.  Now, suppose that you didn’t get the award on your first pass, but that you know you’ll have another shot at it in a week, if you can figure out how to make them like your house better than the others, who are also trying to make their better than yours as you try to out-do each other a constant competitive struggle.  That’s SEO.

Why SEO Project Management Has to Be Different

First, the desired end result of search engine optimization – improved website rankings – occurs at the whim and mercy of commercial search engines that do what they do in order to make money.  They’ll rank your website when and if they feel like it based primarily on automated analyses.  It isn’t under anyone’s control but Google’s.  SEO is simply a deliberate attempt to woo their favor with things that experience tells us that they usually like. 

The good news is that with experience, we can often at least guestimate how long it’s probably going to take to rank a website at least on page one for a given search term or keyword, and we can often guess at the level of effort required as well, but what we can’t do is say either of those things with any guaranteed certainty. 

Second, you aren’t putting up a building on a fixed plot of land.  You’re working in a dynamically changing landscape that’s not only highly competitive where people may try to out-do you with every step you take, but the very rules of the game itself are subject to change without notice.  Search engine algorithm updates are constant, so every day you can be waking up to a new set of rules.

SEO Risk Management

A key activity within project management is risk management, the purpose of which is to identify and assess potential risks and present options to the decision maker on how that risk might be addressed, so that the decision maker can decide what level of risk they are willing to accept and allocate any additional resources that may be needed to mitigate that potential risk.  Within SEO, there is an ever-present risk that the project may take longer and cost more than anticipated since results occur at the whim of Google, and there is furthermore a risk that Google (or Yahoo or Bing) may, at any time, decide that they think you broke their rules and delete your website from their search engine entirely, a process called de-indexing.  This is potentially disastrous for a business that relies on inbound leads through organic search results.

Were this risk to manifest, the website in question would no longer appear in search results.  If you previously held a top ranking, you wouldn’t be anywhere to be found which would mean inbound customers would stop coming.  They would no longer be finding you online through organic search.  At minimum, your costs would increase greatly since you’d have to replace that free traffic with paid traffic, but even that might not generate sufficient volume to sustain your business at its previous level.  Simply put, the effects could be devastating.

Additionally, in creating any sort of digital content, there is always the associated theoretical possibility that someone might decide they think they have grounds for a lawsuit.  In hiring an SEO professional, realize that they are probably going to create and publish content on your behalf.  Because you’re the one that wants it done, you have a choice to make.  You can either:

  1. Review literally everything before it’s done at a much higher cost due to the time required for so much back and forth communication and changes, or,
  2. Accept that’s how it is up front, assume any legal risk, and give your SEO professional the green-light to create and publish content.

This particular risk can be partially mitigated by using various tools such as those at http://www.copyscape.com

If you do want to include such reviews as part of your project cost, you need to understand:

  1. What it is that you hope to accomplish;
  2. Who’s going to conduct the review;
  3. What standards you’ll apply;
  4. How they’re going to actually determine whether the content meets those standards;
  5. What will happen if they don’t;
  6. Whether it’s worth what it’s going to cost you both in terms of the labor to perform those tasks within your company as well as the additional cost with your SEO provider. 

In other words, is it really just something that you think you want to do in order to make yourself feel better while slowing down the project and increasing the cost, or are you actually going to perform a thorough and proper analysis at the level that would be required to have the effect of appreciably reducing risk?  Very few customers will have either the budget or expertise required in order to undertake successfully this due to the level of effort involved, the cost, and the fact that they’ll invariably end up holding up the project. 

Virtually all SEO companies will call out that the paying customer accepts any and all such risk.  That’s just how it is, but the likelihood of this happening is reduced tremendously by relying on local providers who have a true vested interest in seeing you succeed. 

SEO Work Breakdown Structure

A work breakdown structure is simply a structured grouping that depicts the individual tasks needed to create the final end result.  That’s possible to create once you have plans for a building and a firm commitment on exactly what you’re going to build and how you’re going to build it.  SEO, though, by its very nature is like performing surgery on a battlefield.  Everything is moving and changing around you, and what you thought you’d need to do next month might be very different when the time comes due to changes in both search engine algorithms and the competitive landscape itself.  When it comes to SEO, you aren’t just being paranoid.  They are, in fact, out to get you.  Your competitors will try to actively out-do you for top rankings when those top spots mean incoming customers for a business, and they may well do so right in the midst of your project.  Your project management methodology needs to be nimble and provide fluidity if you want to not only get to the top but stay there.

Is SEO Really a Project

People often use the term project management fairly loosely to refer to keeping things organized when you have something that you’re trying to accomplish, but there is a very specific definition of a project set forth by industry authorities.  Some people might debate where SEO is or isn’t really a project according to the definition – and potentially with good reason.  I submit that it depends on who’s doing the SEO and their approach.  If the SEO company is following a standard methodology in providing a set of services such as X number of articles each month, that may not meet the definition according to industry guidelines.  That particular scenario represents the application of a manufacturing process.  Not all SEO is like that, however.  In fact, I contend that true results-oriented SEO does, in fact, represent a project.  Each competitive situation will be unique and the path needed to achieve results will vary from one client or website to the next, as I’ll explore in more detail as this series continues.

This concludes the first installment in our series about SEO project management that will continue in a few days.

DISCLAIMER: No parties referenced in this post should be construed as supporting any statements made.  Links are provided only for the reader’s convenience should they wish to research these subjects further.  

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