By Ben Sailer
20 Jun 2019

SEO Project Management and Actually Getting Stuff Done: A Case Study

Basic SEO

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One of the most common SEO challenges marketers face is getting their recommendations implemented. You figure out what will bring customers to your site, but when it comes time to actually put those tactics into practice, you’re met with anticlimactic indifference from your teammates. This often results in internal seething, and wondering what’s wrong with everyone around you who doesn’t seem to understand the importance of organic search — nor the value of your entire job. At all.

Here’s the plot twist: this might be your own fault.

Too often, marketers point blame for this at everyone except themselves, citing external roadblocks for why they can’t get things done. When responsibility for SEO isn’t evenly distributed, there might be some validity to those complaints, but that doesn’t absolve you from your responsibility to get results.

Fortunately, the inverse of this means your implementation problems are also within your power to solve. And it starts with developing your communication and project management skills.

SEO Project Management and Actually Getting Stuff Done: A Case Study

Let’s start with a personal case study to illustrate this point. In a time now past, our content department would sometimes struggle to get technical SEO changes made. We’d ask our development team when we could expect long-promised CMS updates, for example, and routinely hear some variation on, “Eventually.” In the meantime, we’d find ways to work around
limitations and do the best we could with what we had, but not without simmering frustration.

Now, in most cases, there were justifiable reasons why our developers couldn’t do everything we wanted — at least not quickly. Their backlog was literally years worth of projects deep, and our team couldn’t always be made a priority. That much was fair enough, but that wasn’t easy to remember when fingers were being pointed between content and development over who should be held more responsible when our SEO efforts started to sputter. It also wasn’t easy to understand how I could best help my team or our company as a junior-level staffer without much experience.

Our site had technical issues no one knew how to diagnose, and no amount of interdepartment bickering was going to save anyone’s jobs unless something changed fast. After reaching a point where push came to shove, we hired a leading digital marketing agency to get us back on track. When you’re spending considerable money for outside help, there’s no such thing as projects being put on the backburner. Finally, things were going to start to get done.

Sitting in on meetings with the agency team and putting their recommendations into practice was immensely helpful when it came to learning the SEO ropes. It wasn’t just an awesome learning experience in terms of developing a deeper understanding of how things work strategically and during execution, though. Sure, their expertise in executing the work itself was considerable, but they were equally skilled in managing expectations and helping everyone keep things on track between our side and theirs.

In short, they excelled at project management, and that, in turn, helped them excel at everything else.

Even if I didn’t realize it at the time, going from having effectively no substantive project management processes or platforms in place, to having actual tools and steps to follow, was nearly as game-changing as their actual technical recommendations. Not only that, but without having those plans in place, those initiatives wouldn’t have been executed nearly as well, and we probably wouldn’t have gotten the go-ahead on any bold moves in the future.

They understood exactly how to get buy-in on initiatives, and then manage projects effectively once they had the go-ahead. Those things might seem simple and easy to overlook, but the former isn’t simple at all, and the latter is massively unfortunate because it is so easy to take for granted.

If you want to do one thing when collaborating on large projects that can benefit your career while improving your quality of work — and often your life — picking up some basic project management skills is among the most impactful things you can do.

A Roadmap for Getting Around Emotionally-Driven Roadblocks

Not everyone in your organization is likely to understand the value of SEO like you do. In fact, depending on your role, not everyone in your own marketing department (or subteam within that department) might understand it either. That puts you in the position of needing to not only be the lead evangelist for organic search, but also the de facto project lead on those SEO initiatives — once you have convinced relevant stakeholders of their importance.

Before you can get to that point though, it’s your job to understand where other people’s objections — and you can assume there will be pushback sooner or later — are coming from. You’re not being paid to place blame or let excuses stop you from driving results. Not even if your complaints are legitimate. (Save it for the bar after work, if you must.)

This is where it helps to understand that your teammates probably aren’t against you, that other teams don’t see themselves in some sort of competition with yours, and that any resistance you might face isn’t coming from either of those places.

In reality, it’s more likely they’re busy with a lot of other things, and need to be persuaded to understand exactly how whatever you’re recommending is going to help. If your recommendations are going to force someone else to change how they work or correct something they’ve done, they might go on the defensive before considering whether your points
are valid. After all, being told, “You’re doing it wrong,” is never good to hear.

In either situation, you’ll need to know how to address both the practical and emotional reasoning for these reactions, as much as the pragmatic implications of what you’re asking for.

And when it comes to SEO, a field many outside the industry still regard as snake oil, you’ll have to forgive your coworkers for their skepticism. So, treat pushback less like a challenge to your authority, and more like an opportunity to communicate why your recommendations will help the organization as a whole. Shift the focus away from asking someone to change, and instead ask them to do something that will drive real results.

You’ve Got the Green Light. What Happens Next?

Let’s say you’ve got the go-ahead on a major project that’s going to make all the difference for your organization’s SEO. Congratulations! You’ve now signed yourself up for the actual work of seeing the project through. Not just for the parts you’re responsible for, but likely also working with the whole team to ensure everyone has what they need to get things done.

Without clear processes in place, it’s easy for other team members to nod their head and say they’ll implement what you’ve asked for, only for your recommendations to disappear down a black hole of work requests.

I’ve found myself in a similar position in my current role at CoSchedule. Fortunately, there’s broad buy-in for the value of SEO here, so that much is usually easy (and when there is disagreement, what follows is generally a civil discussion and some sort of productive resolution). However, I’ve still had to hone my project management skills and put new workflow
processes into place, which was overwhelming at first.

When I was first getting my footing, I thought back to how that agency that first introduced me to success through project management executed their work. I referred to the processes I’d seen employed by project managers at the agencies I worked for after I’d moved on from that job, adapting what I’d learned as best as I could. You can consider me living proof: even if project management isn’t your forte, a successful approach can be as simple as mapping out tasks in a shared collaborative platform where everyone has visibility on who is doing what and when.

In fact, over the past quarter, we’ve managed to ship three large-scale SEO-driven content initiatives without missing a single deadline. We achieved this even while transitioning another team member into a content management role (and training them on SEO), and needing to shuffle priorities to make room for other non-SEO projects elsewhere in our organization.

Even when things have gotten hectic and despite unexpected roadblocks, clear processes have helped us stay productive. When we take care of the things we can control, the things we can’t tend to be much less disruptive.

You Don’t Have to Be a Project Manager to Play One in Real Life

Seriously. If I can do this as a “creative” and decidedly non-process oriented person (that just isn’t how my brain works), you can too.

This isn’t meant to oversimplify the complex and important work actual project managers do. But you’re probably not a project manager; rather, you’re a marketer who’s trying to get people organized enough to get things done — and if yours is like most marketing departments, this is like herding cats.

So, keep things simple and start small. The nuts and bolts of how you put a project management plan into place is another topic, but you can boil them down to three points:

1.  Figure out in which order each step in the process needs to be completed.
2. Determine how many workdays your teammates need for each step (then add two
days buffer).
3. Document everything in the project management tool you’re using.

Then, start applying this process to your actual SEO initiatives. If you don’t know where to start, determine which projects currently deliver the highest amount of value, or the types of projects you execute most often. In a lot of cases, these may be one and the same — for example, writing blog posts, updating product pages, creating guides, etc..

List each step in the process, determine who owns each one, build the workflow into your project management software, and iterate over time as you uncover better ways of executing processes.

When it comes to SEO, it’s best to have multiple team members with enough knowledge and competency to own different tasks, rather than leaning on a single individual contributor to be responsible for all things related to SEO. So, match tasks logically with team member’s strengths. Keyword research might rest with a strategist, a writer might own on-page implementation, and an outreach or PR specialist could take on off-site responsibilities.

If you have a team you can trust, you’ll need to simply ensure that each team member has the resources they need to complete their work, and check in with daily status meetings to confirm each piece is on track. This helps avoid inefficient siloing by keeping communication open when assigning the right specialist to the right task.

Get yourself acquainted with how to run meetings as well, too. This tiny amount of advice can carry you a shockingly long way toward getting buy-in for your projects. By showing you’re capable of creating processes that lead to as little work for other people as possible, taking on project oversight from start to finish, and ideally, running everything in a platform where
everyone gets full visibility into what’s getting worked on, it will be much easier to get others on board and get things done.

Best of all, the kind of success we’ve enjoyed isn’t far from reach for any other company; this simple framework of getting buy-in and implementing project management frameworks is something anyone can start implementing right now. Put in some hard work up front, and once you start racking up successes, you can build a flywheel that keeps those successes rolling.

And your change and project management skills will be at the core of it all.

Ben Sailer

Ben and the CoSchedule crew have project management down to a science.