You know you need to invest in SEO, but you’re just one person. So how are you supposed to handle everything from on-page optimization to link building and content creation?
Most companies figure out pretty quickly that proper SEO requires a team of professionals – each with different areas of expertise – working together to improve organic search visibility. But building a team is often easier said than done.
That’s why I’m breaking down everything from the core competencies that every SEO team needs to how teams should be structured at different types of organizations.
If you’re struggling to put together the most effective SEO team for your company, read on for tips and best practices based on my experiences.
The 4 Core Competencies of an SEO Team
Because every company is different, every team’s SEO needs are going to be different. Unfortunately, there’s no single team structure that’s going to work for every business.
So rather than tell you “You should hire an SEO strategist,” I want to start with the core competencies that every SEO team must have — and I want to encourage you to think about your team in terms of making sure that these roles are covered, rather than hiring for specific job titles.
1) SEO Team Lead
Your team’s SEO lead is its head honcho. Basically, your lead has the ultimate responsibility for setting the course of their department’s work.
As with all leadership roles, it’s a double-edged sword. With great power comes great responsibility! If the program is successful, the SEO lead gets primary credit for the win. If it fails, however, that failure sits squarely on that person's shoulders.
Choosing someone with project management and leadership experience is more important than appointing a lead with deeply technical experience. This role requires a person who can move a project from strategy, manage execution, and troubleshoot along the way. They also need to be a people person and know how to delegate.
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2) Data Analyst
In addition to a team lead, you need a numbers person.
Essentially, this is the role that monitors the impact of your SEO activities. Are your rankings improving for target keywords? Is your overall organic search visibility improving, in terms of the total number of keywords for which you’re ranking? You won’t know if someone isn’t keeping an eye on your KPIs.
A good data analyst won’t just be able to tell you how the program is doing overall. They’ll be able to drill down to measure the performance of specific SEO tactics, often by using sophisticated analytics programs to better understand individual strategies.
Next up is the strategist role. It is the responsibility of the strategist to be constantly monitoring changes happening in the industry in order to recommend new tactics to the SEO lead.
For example, if the strategist learns of an algorithm update, they might watch to see how others in their space are handling it before making an informed suggestion to the team’s leader.
Ideally, the strategist is able to access and interpret data produced by the team's data analyst to advise on changes that should be made. If a tactic they expected to produce results is falling flat, they may suggest to the SEO lead that they stop working on it in order to shift resources elsewhere (though the final decision on whether or not to make the move still lies with the program’s lead).
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4) SEO Tactician
Tacticians are your boots-on-the-ground SEO workers.
Say, for example, you’ve decided to run a broken link-building campaign. The SEO lead may authorize the program, the data analyst may suggest target websites, and the strategist may decide how and when sites should be contacted as part of the campaign.
But it’s the SEO tactician who's actually out there, emailing websites to ask them to update their broken links with a suggested resource. Depending on how large your team is and what your primary SEO strategies are, you might have tacticians who specialize in different SEO plays, such as link building versus content creation.
Regardless of how you build your program, SEO can’t just be theory. It has to be something that you’re executing on a regular basis. The tactician role is the key to moving from theory to practice to take advantage of the full benefits of SEO.
Building Your SEO Team
Now, don’t read the above and assume that I’m saying you need to go out and hire four people for your SEO team. Remember, we’re talking about filling roles — not desks.
The specific way you cover each of these roles will depend on your business’ size and its stage of growth. If you’re just starting out, you might cover all these roles by hiring an SEO agency or partnering with contractors. If you’re a huge multinational company, you might need a few hundred tacticians to make an impact.
Because the way your SEO team is built is likely to evolve as you grow, let’s look at how teams might be structured at every stage.
How to Structure an SEO Team for Your Startup Business
You might be a new company or maybe you’ve never invested in SEO before. Whatever the case may be, one of your best moves early on is to invest in creating a lot of content, because that content is what’s going to drive links (as long as you do it well).
But you must also work on links, on-page SEO and social – and probably don’t have an unlimited budget at this point – so you’ll be best served by working with either agencies or contractors.
- SEO agencies are more expensive, but they're also more hands-off. When you work with an agency, you get to take advantage of the expertise they’ve gained working with businesses that are similar to yours. If you don’t have the time to find and manage contractors, or if you don’t have the knowledge needed to fill the SEO lead role yourself, hiring an agency like Single Grain is a smart choice.
- Contractors are less expensive to work with than agencies (usually). They also give you a greater level of control over what’s being done on your campaigns since you can pick and choose contractors who specialize in your strategies. Every agency, on the other hand, has its own approach to SEO. If you choose one that talks a big game but doesn’t actually know what they're doing, you might be stuck paying out a contract for work that doesn’t really move the needle for you. Bringing on contractors may also make more sense if you plan to transition some of them to your own in-house team as your company grows.
Whether you choose to hire an agency or partner with contractors, make sure all four of the roles described above are covered. With agencies, this is pretty much guaranteed (although it’s still important to understand exactly what your contract covers). With contractors, you may need to play a more active role in managing your SEO program.
Bringing Your SEO In-House
As your company grows, bringing your SEO team in-house makes sense. For example, maybe you have enough consistent work to bring on full-time employees (which is often cheaper than paying the per-hour rate of agencies or high-level contractors for the same number of hours). Or maybe you plan to implement a more diverse set of strategies than your agency can offer.
Whatever the specifics of your situation are, it may be helpful for you to see how SEO works within larger organizations. As an example, back when I worked as an SEO strategist at Defy Media — which owned properties like CollegeHumor and Funny or Die — we actually had a couple hundred employees on the SEO team.
The way it was set up was that there was an SEO lead who hired strategists (like me) to come up with the ideas that would be put into action by the tacticians (sound familiar?).
The tactician was the one actually doing the outreach and working with editorial, because Defy was a media company doing volume plays. They were cranking out tons of articles every single day, so it made sense to have this huge team behind them extracting maximum SEO value out of their work.
If you aren’t a media publisher, Defy’s structure might not make sense for you. But what they did well was find the gaps. They looked at what others in their industry were doing and they figured out what kind of team they needed to build in order to take advantage of the gaps they saw. You can — and should — do the same.
As another example of filling gaps, at Single Grain we have a person on the SEO team who’s dedicated to refreshing content. They’re full-time; that’s all they do. Because what we’ve found is that, even when we do get good traffic from new articles, it dies down eventually. Just because we spent the time to get the organic traffic doesn’t mean it’s going to stay forever. Refreshing the content periodically helps us keep the traffic up over time.
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We’re testing this approach with our Marketing School podcast content right now. Right after each episode airs, we’ll have someone write up a blog post that’s maybe 800-1,000 words, based on the content that was shared. Then we’ll check about 90 days later to see if the article is doing well or not. If it is, we’ll expand it into a couple of 2,000-4,000 word articles. That’s literally all this team member does, and it’s had a huge impact on our SEO performance.
This matters because what most businesses don’t get about creating content for SEO purposes is that it isn’t just about getting leads from content (though that’s a great benefit, too). Once your content starts ranking, it’s easier to get other pages to rank. That creates opportunities to get your middle- and bottom-of-funnel content ranked — and that’s what’s really going to drive conversions for you.
Your gaps might be different. Every company needs to think about links, for example, but if you’re General Motors or Ford, you probably already have a ton of links pointing to your site. That’s not a gap for you the way it might be for another company that’s just getting started. Once you figure out where gaps exist for you to make an impact, you’ll be able to determine the best approach for building your in-house SEO team.
Going Global with Your SEO Team
One final consideration, as your SEO program grows to maturity, is geographic coverage. Neil Patel, for example, structures his team by region.
He’ll create his own content in the U.S., and he’ll do his own SEO on that work, but then he has people in Brazil, India, Germany, France and Japan who are helping him translate his content and SEO strategies for local audiences.
Neil’s approach is that, for any region he targets that’s non-English speaking, he’ll get a native language speaker on the ground to help out. That may not matter to you if you’re only based in one market, but if you work with international customers, meet them where they are by making sure your SEO program covers their specific needs.
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Building the Right SEO Team for Your Company
I’ve given you some examples here, but don’t think you have to do what I’m doing to be successful with SEO. There’s no single blueprint that’s appropriate for every company. If you try to copy someone else, you’re copying a template that’s been built on their unique needs, audience, resources and industry.
Instead, start small. Figure out what the easiest, cheapest way is to cover all of the four core competencies of an SEO team, based on your company’s needs. You can always go bigger or move your SEO team in-house. But if you go too big too quickly, you risk wasting resources or losing support for SEO within your organization.