This is Part 2 in a series about SEO project management. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.
My intent with this section is not to articulate any sort of one-size-fits-all SEO strategy, because such a thing simply doesn’t exist in any actionable form, but, rather, to explain some of the associated issues that are going to affect which project management methodologies are used and how they’re applied. You’ve probably seen ads where marketing companies say they’ll provide SEO services for $200 per month. Having reviewed many such services myself, I can say that, at this price point, what you’re usually going to get is a pre-formulated package of specific items like X number of blog posts, articles, and so forth, which are all done the same way for each and ever client. In the case where a business may be close to the tipping point in ranking, it is possible that such a formulaic approach might be all they need to tip the scales in their favor. In my mind, that’s really just a nailed-down business process rather than a strategy, because a strategy to achieve a particular result has to be specific to that result. If it’s generic, then I consider it to be a conceptual approach – not an actual strategy. It also doesn’t meet the industry definition of a project.
In most moderately competitive industries, the people that I encounter who’ve tried such offerings generally didn’t get the results they hoped for. This could be because they bought SEO services rather than SEO solutions. In other words, they paid someone to come do some plumbing and carpentry, but not to actually build them a house. Unfortunately, customers really don’t have any way of knowing whether what’s being proposed by a potential provider is going to work or not. How is a customer to tell whether the technical lingo in fancy looking Power Point presentations represents an actual bona fide SEO solution that’s going to create results, or just a bunch of paid hours keeping someone busy? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this which is why it’s important to select real business partners who have a vested interest in your long-term success. Let’s dig into some nuances of SEO strategy a bit further.
To begin, boiler-plate programs may not meet the commonly-held definition of a project since you are simply paying someone to provide a predefined commodity service that they sell the exact same way to anyone that asks. Within the field of project management, we refer to this as manufacturing since you’re simply following an existing process that you do the same way each time. Is your company and situation exactly the same as everyone else’s? The question to ask yourself is whether you expect to beat a medium to high level of competition with a low-dollar service that does the same thing for everyone. I am not, by any stretch, disparaging this approach. In the right situations, boiler-plate services can achieve results. They may even create a good foundation on top of which more advanced services can be built. You just have to be careful in setting your expectations based on the level of competition and the degree to which the approach has been customized for your particular business. In moderate to high competition situations, a custom SEO approach will almost always be needed.
When you get right down to it, the goal of SEO is to help a website to achieve organic rank in search engines so that you get more traffic to your website, which leads to more customers and more revenue for your business. As a business owner, that’s the result you’re after. If that’s the case, why do many companies sell standard list of pre-defined services? Because people keep buying it, hoping that it will work. Whether their service works or not, a single month’s payment covers their cost of having acquired you as a customer, so they come out ahead whether you keep paying them or not. When your business model is mass-production, your focus is different than when you cater to a small number of clients determined to grow their business successfully. As an SEO service provider, when you are working with such clients in your local area, you need to concern yourself with establishing a reputation for quality.
An SEO strategy is not simply developing a standard business process and using it the same way for everyone, knowing that it’s going to produce variable results for different clients since their situations are different. A strategy requires looking at what it’s really going to take to rank a given website based on the competition and, at a high level, mapping out the pieces involved. Several hours are needed to perform such an assessment. Due to the rapid evolution of ranking algorithms and the resulting adaptations made by SEO experts, any SEO strategy should be understood to be conceptual and that changes will be made over the course of the project.
Insofar as what project management methodologies to apply, traditional waterfall models that try to map the whole out from start to finish may lack the flexibility required for moderate to high level competition situations where the effort can span several months or longer and require adjustments at each step. At minimum, you’d be facing the high probably that two particular risks are going to manifest at any time without notice. These are search engine algorithm changes and additional actions taken by competitors. More iterative project management approaches should be considered.
Timeline and Milestones
Assuming that you aren’t simply following a manufacturing blue-print which follows a rote schedule, SEO is going to occur over a period of phases during which you will see website rankings fluctuate greatly. A process called the “Google dance” often takes 2-3 weeks for things to occur, during which time you will almost always see your website rank drop initially – sometimes quite dramatically – and then fluctuate for a short period of time. This is completely normal, is no cause for alarm, and can take a month or longer at times. After this period, if your SEO was successful, your website will return to a higher position than it was before. Your SEO activities should be organized around these cycles.
While the role of milestones in a more agile project management framework is a bit different than in a waterfall approach, there will almost always be certain things that need to be done early. It’s quite likely this will include such things as on-site website optimization, social media profile creation and optimization, and other such fairly standard activities that might need to be performed prior to moving on to content marketing and other activities, depending on your SEO expert’s analysis and recommendations.
In SEO, we are trying to woo Google to like our website. Like any romance, sometimes it requires more work and determination than you expected, and we aren’t in control of the timing. We have to take things as they come and be fluid. This can present a challenge in asset allocation for larger SEO firms that follow an IT governance structure such as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) and want to perform demand management. Resource scheduling is difficult when you don’t know when the next round of activity will need to commence.
Enter the SEO Expert
The role of your SEO expert is to guide you through these shark-infested waters to help you get your website ranked in the way that hopefully results in great long term results. This requires an intuitive understanding of SEO, an ability to assess risk, the application of technical skills, and the ability to keep things organized and on-track. Where the average lay-person will go wrong is mistakenly thinking the actual application of technical skills are the difficult part of SEO. In fact, once you know those things, they’re the easy part.
You are paying a real SEO expert for knowing what’s actually going to work, and for having the kind of understanding needed to adapt as required throughout the course of the campaign. In practice, what a real SEO expert does may appear on the surface to be very similar to what a low-dollar provider might have done. For example, both might perform some content marketing such as writing blog posts as part of the engagement. The difference lays in the nuances of both how and when the techniques are applied and how it’s all knitted together. You may end up with just a bunch of digital tidbits floating in cyberspace, or you may get a well-orchestrated cohesive framework unique to your business that shows Google that you’re the real deal.
With Google’s algorithmic updates happening on such a constant basis now, everything that you think you know is subject to change without notice. On any given day, you may be waking up to an entirely new set of rules. The SEO expert is on top of these changes and will make adjustments as needed based on knowledge that isn’t publicly available.
People want to know what they’re going to actually get. This is just human nature, and it’s the reason that standardized services are so easily sold. They readily cater to the basic human desire to eliminate uncertainty. It seems more of a “sure thing” when you’re told that you’re going to get A, B and C, and you can cancel at any time. I take the view, though, that’s it’s crucial to be crystal clear that the one and only primary deliverable of an SEO project is an improved search engine rank, and other secondarily deliverables may be provided as needed over the course of the project. Such secondary deliverables may include the creation or optimization of such things as:
- Social media profiles
- Social engagement campaigns
- Primary business websites
- eBooks and other digital content
Every project is unique; no two clients need exactly the same thing. The thing about these secondary deliverables is that they may well change over the course of the project, and they should not be recorded as obligations. Note that this will be in direct contradiction to the approach taken by firms that take a mass-production approach.
This is the crucial difference between generic SEO that gives everyone the same thing and a customized SEO plan. With a customized SEO plan, the focus is on achieving rank – not checking off boxes for doing work and hoping maybe it helps boost rank. Secondary deliverables are going to be a natural result of the SEO process, but they should not be its focus. Trying to nail them down in advance and put them into a contract is setting both the customer and the SEO agency up for serious heartburn when the dynamic changing environment necessitates a shift in the approach or timing. This is a very realistic scenario that is best avoided by letting your customer know up front that while you may advise them on your activities over the course of the project, no specific secondary deliverables are guaranteed to be provided because your goal is to help increase their rank, not to create digital artifacts for their own sake. The right customer will understand this and value having a professional in their corner with the know-how to make that happen.
It really comes down to whether the customer is focused on an improved website ranking and trusts you to do what’s needed, or whether they’re more concerned about secondary deliverables that may not lead to increased ranking if they’re set in stone. Unfortunately, many customers will have had prior experiences with the second scenario and thus have it in their minds that’s what they need to ask for simply because it’s all that they know. Their prior experience shapes what they think working with an SEO professional should look like. Unfortunately, that way of thinking will undermine their success so the SEO provider may need to re-educate their customer prior to beginning work.
This concludes part 2 in this series about SEO project management that will be continued.