By Heather Physioc
28 Dec 2020

SEO Maturity: How to Grow Search at Your Company

SEO Strategy

It is a mistake to assume a company is knowledgeable, bought in, and motivated to execute search work simply because they have an SEO department or have signed a contract to pay for search services. Yet search professionals try to race full speed ahead, dumping laundry lists of recommendations in their clients’ laps, and we’re surprised when the work doesn’t get implemented.

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Brands start at all different points of maturity and knowledge in relation to search. Even clients with advanced knowledge may have organizational challenges that create barriers to implementing the work. Identifying where your client falls on a maturity curve can help you tailor communication and recommendations to meet them where they are and increase the likelihood that search will be implemented successfully.

Introducing a maturity model for the search industry

Maturity models were originally developed for the U.S. Department of Defense and later popularized by Six Sigma methodologies. Maturity models are designed to measure the ability of an organization to continuously improve in a practice. They help you diagnose the current maturity of the business in a certain area and help identify where to focus efforts in order to evolve to the next stage on the maturity curve. It’s a powerful tool for meeting the client where they are and understanding how to come alongside them and move forward together.

There are a number of different maturity models that use different language, but most maturity models follow a pattern something like this:

Maturity model stages image

For search, we can think about a maturity model two ways. One is the actual technical implementation of search best practices — How is the brand implementing SEO? Exceptional, advanced, just the basics, nothing at all, or even counterproductively? This can help you figure out what kinds of projects to activate.

The second way is the organizational maturity around search engine optimization as a marketing program. Is the brand aligned to the importance of organic search, allocating budget and personnel appropriately, and systematically integrating search into marketing efforts? This can help identify the most important institutional challenges needing to be solved that might otherwise block the implementation of your work.

Maturity in technical search capabilities

First, let’s dive into a maturity model for search knowledge and capabilities. We measure an organization on several important criteria that contribute to the success of SEO:

  • Collaboration - how well relevant stakeholders integrate and collaborate to do the best work possible — including within the organization; and between the organization and service providers
  • Mobility - how mobile friendly and optimized the brand is
  • Technical - how consistently foundational technical best practices are implemented and maintained
  • Content - how integrated is the organic search in relation to the digital content marketing practice and process
  • On-page - how limited or extensive on-page optimization is for the brand’s content
  • Off-page - the breadth and depth of the brand’s off-site optimization, including link building, local listings, social profiles, and other non-site assets
  • New technology - the appetite for and adoption of new technology that impacts search, such as voice search, AMP, even structured data
  • Analytics - how data-centric the organization is, ranging from not measured and managed at all, to rearview mirror performance reporting, to entirely data driven in search decision making

Stages of search capabilities maturity

We assign each of the aforementioned criteria to one of these stages:

  • Stage 0 (Counterproductive) - The brand is engaging in harmful or damaging SEO practices.
  • Stage 1 (Nonexistent) - There is no discernible SEO strategy or tactical implementation, and search is an all-new program for the brand.
  • Stage 2 (Tactical) - The brand may be doing some basic SEO best practices, but it tends to be ad hoc with little structure or planning. The skills and the work meet minimum industry standards, but work is fairly basic and not cohesive.
  • Stage 3 (Strategic) - The brand is aligned to the value of SEO and makes an effort to dedicate resources to implementing best practices and staying current and bake it into key initiatives. Search implementation is more cohesive and strategic.
  • Stage 4 (Practice) - Inclusion of SEO is an expectation for most of the brand’s marketing initiatives, if not mandatory. Not only are they implementing basic best practices but also actively testing and iterating new techniques to improve their search presence. They use performance of past initiatives to drive next steps.
  • Stage 5 (Culture) - At this stage, brands are operating as if SEO is part of their marketing DNA. They have resources and processes in place and are knowledgeable and committed to learning more, their processes are continually reviewed and optimized, and their SEO program is evolving as the industry evolves. They are seeking cutting-edge, new SEO opportunities to test.

Search capabilities maturity model

While this maturity model has been peer reviewed by a number of respected SEO’s in the industry, it is a fluid, living document designed to evolve as our industry does. If necessary, evolve this to your own reality as well.

Choosing projects based on a client’s maturity capabilities 

For a brand starting on the lower end of the maturity scale, you may not recommend starting with advanced work like AMP and visual search technology, or even detailed Schema markup or extensive targeted link building campaigns. You may have to start with the basics like securing the site, cleaning up information architecture, and fixing title tags and meta descriptions.

For a brand starting on the higher end of the maturity scale, you wouldn’t want to waste their time recommending the basics — they’ve probably already done them. You're better off finding new and innovative opportunities to do great search work that they haven’t already mastered.

Technical capabilities and knowledge helps decide what SEO projects you should implement, but it doesn’t address why search work is frequently stalled instead of implemented. The real obstacles aren’t so simple as checking “SEO best practices” boxes.

How mature is your search practice?

The real challenges to implementation tend to be organizational — people, processes, and integration problems. Conducting a search maturity assessment helps identify what needs to be solved internally before great search work can be implemented. Pair this with the technical capabilities maturity model above, and you have a wealth of knowledge and tools to mature your search program.

While this maturity model focuses heavily on organizational adoption and process, the process and procedure alone are not substitutes for critical thinking and decision making. You still have to consider impacts and make hard choices when you execute a best-in-class search program, and often that requires solving all-new problems that didn’t exist before and therefore don’t have a formal process.

Search practice maturity criteria

We measure an organization on several important criteria that contribute to the success of SEO:

  1. Process, policy, or procedure - Do documented, repeatable processes for inclusion of organic search exist, and are they continually improving? Is it an organizational policy to include organic search in marketing efforts? This can mean that the process of including organic search in marketing initiatives is defined as a clear series of actions or steps taken, including both developing organic search strategy and implementing SEO tactics.
  2. Personnel resources & integration - Does the necessary talent exist at the organization or within the service provider’s scope? Personnel resources may include SEO professionals, as well as support staff such as developers, data analysts, and copywriters necessary to implement organic search successfully. Active resources may work independently in a disjointed manner or collaboratively in an integrated manner.
  3. Knowledge & learning - Because search evolves constantly, is the organization knowledgeable about search and committed to continuously learning? Information can include existing knowledge, past experience, or training in organic search strategy and tactics. It can also include a commitment to learning more, possibly through willingness to undertake training, attend conferences, research and learn, and stay current in industry news and trends.
  4. Means, capacity, & capabilities - Does the organization budget appropriately for and prioritize the organic search program? Means, capacity, and capabilities can include being scoped into a contract, adequate budget or human resources being allocated to the work, the capacity and prioritization of search among competing demands.
  5. Planning & preparation - Is organic search aligned to business goals, brand goals, and/or campaign goals? Is organic search proactively planned, reactive, or not included at all? This measure evaluates how frequently organic search efforts are included in marketing efforts for a brand. It also measures how frequently the work is included as a policy, rather than as an afterthought. Work may be aligned to or disconnected from the "big picture."

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Stages of organizational search maturity

Stage 1 - Initial & ad hoc

At this stage, the company’s application of search may be nonexistent, unstable, or uncontrolled. There may be rare and small SEO efforts, but they are entirely ad hoc and inconsistent and retrofitted to the work after the fact, at best. They tend to lack any discernible goal orientation. If SEO exists, it is disconnected from larger goals and not integrated with any other practices across the organization. The brand may be just beginning the search practice for the first time.

Stage 2 - Repeatable but reactive

These organizations are at least doing some search basics, though there is no rigorous use or enforcement of it. It is very reactive and in the moment while projects are being implemented; it is rarely planned, and often SEO is applied as an afterthought. They are executing only in the moment, or when it’s too late to do the highest-caliber search work, but they are making an effort. SEO efforts may be loosely aimed at goals, but it is unlikely to be tied to larger business objectives. (Most of my client relationships have started here.)

Stage 3 - Defined & understood

These organizations have begun documenting processes and are satisfactorily competent in search. They have minimum standards for search best practices and process is developing. Many people inside and outside the organization understand that search is important and are taking steps to integrate. There is a clear search strategy that aligns to organizational goals and processes. Search planning happens prior to activating projects.

Stage 4 - Managed & capable

These organizations have proactive, predictable implementation of search work. They have quality-focused rules for products and processes, and can quickly detect and correct missteps. They have clearly defined processes for integration, implementation, and oversight, but are flexible enough to adapt to a range of conditions without sacrificing quality. These organizations consider search part of their “way of life.”

Stage 5 - Efficient & optimizing

Organizations at this stage have a strong mastery of search and efficiently implementing it as a matter of policy. They have cross-organizational integration and proactively work to strengthen their search performance. They are always improving the process through incremental or innovative change. They review and analyze their process and implementation to keep optimizing. These organizations could potentially be considered market leading or innovative.

To know where you’re going, you must know where you are.

Before you can know how to get where you want to go, you need to know where you are. It's important to understand where the organization stands and then where you need to be in the future. Going through the quantitative exercise of diagnosing their maturity can help everyone align on where to start.

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You can use a survey to assess factors like leadership alignment to the value of search, employee availability and involvement, knowledge and training, process and standardization, their culture (or lack thereof) of data-driven problem-solving and continuous improvement, and even budget.

This should be a deeper exercise than simply punching numbers into a spreadsheet, and it should not be a one-sided assessment. Instead, ask several relevant people at multiple levels and disciplines across the organization to participate. Outcomes are richer when incorporating perspective from others at various points in the process.

How to use the survey and scorecard to diagnose organizational search maturity

Follow these steps to begin the maturity assessment process.

    1. Distribute surveys - Distribute surveys to relevant stakeholders of the internal team. Ideally, these individuals serve at a variety of levels at the company and work in a variety of roles relevant to the organic search practice. These could include CEO, CMO, Marketing VPs and directors, digital marketing coordinators, and in-house SEOs. If the brand works with an agency, it may make sense to also distribute surveys to those partners. Again, these individuals should serve at a variety of levels at the agency and occupy a mix of roles relevant to the organic search practice. These could include digital marketing coordinators, client engagement specialists, analysts, digital copywriters, or SEO practitioners.
    2. Collect and score the surveys - Assign a point value of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 to the responses from left to right in the scorecard. Average the points to get a final score for each. (For example, if five client stakeholders score their SEO process and procedure as 3, 4, 2, 3, 3 respectively, the average score is 3 for that criteria.) Assess the brand’s organic search program maturity across all criteria in an aggregate sum, but also examine how the brand performs for each of the five key criteria. I also recommend sorting scores by question from highest to lowest and looking for patterns in the highest-rated and lowest-rated items.
    3. Evaluate open-ended responses - The richest learnings come from the open text responses within each category. These often provide context and insights the numbers alone cannot reveal. For example, we learned in one client’s maturity assessment that there was great discontent at the practitioner level around the amount of resources and talent needed, but not provided, to support a search program. In another, we learned that there was territorialism and conflict around the development of content. Anonymous quotes have been eye opening when we present our findings to executives.
    4. Recommend areas to focus and activities to undertake - Do not simply throw an exhaustive list of potential activities over the fence. Instead, recommend the most impactful area the brand should focus on in the upcoming year. Should they hone their efforts on developing and implementing processes? Should they undergo an internal educational campaign? Then, recommend specific activities that will advance the organization in that area. If internal buy-in is their main challenge, perhaps they should focus on sending regular updates to the organization about their initiatives and progress, develop case studies regularly to prove out successes and learnings, and create a measurement framework to prove the value and impact of their efforts.

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Choosing where to start

The goal of this maturity assessment is to determine where to aim and where to start. This means finding the brand’s strengths to capitalize upon, areas of competence that can be strengthened, weaknesses to improve upon, agreeing on areas to focus, and finally, how to get started tackling change together.

For a brand that is starting on the low end of the maturity scale, it is unrealistic to expect that they have connected all the dots between important stakeholders, that they have a clearly defined and repeatable process, and that their search program is a well-oiled machine. You must work together to solve underlying problems — like a lack of knowledge or adequate personnel — first, or you will struggle to get buy-in for the work or the resources to get it done.

Imagine a brand that is advanced in some areas, like process, planning, and capacity, but weaker in others, like knowledge and capacity. This might suggest that you need to focus efforts on an educational campaign to help the client prioritize the work and fit it into a busy queue.

For a brand that is already advanced across the board, your role instead may be to keep the machine running while also helping them spot areas to optimize, so they can keep iterating and perfecting the process. This client might also be ready for more advanced search strategies and tactical recommendations, or perhaps more robust integrations across additional disciplines.

One foot in front of the other

It’s rare that we overhaul everything and see a 180-degree change overnight. We tweak, test, learn, and iterate. A maturity model is a continuum, and brands must evolve from one step to the next. Skipping levels is not an option. Some may also call this a crawl-walk-run approach.

Your goal as their trusted search advisor is not to help them leap from Stage 2 to Stage 5. Instead, focus your efforts on how the brand can grow to the next stage over the next 12 months. As they progress up the maturity model, the length of time it takes to unlock the next level may grow longer than the phase before it.

Organizational search maturity graph

Even when an organization reaches Stage 5, your work is not done. Master-level organizations continue to refine and optimize their processes and capabilities.

There is no finish line to search maturity

There is a French culinary phrase, “mise en place,” that refers to having everything you need — ingredients, tools, a recipe — in place to cook most successfully. There are several key ingredients to any successful project implementation: buy-in, process, knowledge and skills, capacity, planning, and more.

As your brand evolves up the maturity curve, you will feel a transition from thinking about search only once a project is sliding off the rails, to including these recommendations real-time and reactively, to anticipating these before every project and doing your due diligence to come prepared. A brand can move from non-existent search to SEO becoming a part of their DNA.

It is important to revisit the maturity model discussion periodically — at least annually — to level set and realign with the organization. Conducting this exercise again can remind us to pause and reflect on all we have accomplished since the first scoring. It can also reenergize stakeholders to make even more progress in the upcoming year.

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Heather Physioc

Heather Physioc is Group Director of Discoverability at VMLY&R, including the Organic Search, Paid Search and Performance Content teams. VMLY&R Heather is a graduate of the University of Missouri in Columbia, with a bachelor's degree in strategic communication (advertising), and holds an Executive Master of Business Administration from Rockhurst University. She is an adjunct professor of digital marketing at the master's level at the University of Kansas.