​How to start an in-house SEO program

Development · Jul 14, 2016

Maybe you gained your experience at an agency, or cut your teeth on freelance work—no matter how you got here, you are now an in-house SEO, in charge of Search Engine Optimization for your organization. Your job is to deliver a return on your company’s investment in you. 

Sounds pretty simple, but when you move from being an external vendor to a team member, the perspective shifts considerably. One of the biggest challenges is to know where to start. 

Plan your plan

If your experience is anything like mine was, odds are the only person you’re dealing with who knows anything about SEO will be the person who hired you. And they will want to know what you plan to do to drive results.

It’s day one. You’re in a new situation, with inside access you haven’t had before, so your first goal is to gather the information you need to develop your SEO strategy. Make a list of questions you want answered and for each one, explain briefly why that question is important. 

Plan to learn about your new company

  • Who are your customers? What are their needs?

  • Your success depends on whether the customers’ search journeys are leading to fulfilled needs. Every search is an attempt to fulfill a need, so understanding those needs is crucial.

  • What does your company do, against whom, and where?

  • You should probably know that stuff going into your interview!

  • What does your company offer, and to whom?

  • Who are your direct and indirect competitors in the search engine results? Get an initial understanding of the kinds of keywords to target, and what the competition is doing.

  • What are your company’s marketing plans?

  • What are the organization’s overall goals? Is there a social media program, or other digital activities that SEO should align with?

  • How does your company’s content end up online?

  • This is huge. Who will you need to work with? Who writes the copy? Which vendors are we reliant on? How do the back-end systems work, and who maintains them?

  • How does your team operate?

  • Who determines marketing budgets? Who determines priorities?

I like to think of this as the reconnaissance phase. The success of your SEO program depends on maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with the team that builds your web pages, so it’s good to understand what everyone does, who they report to, and how their teams define success. You’ll get buy-in from others if you can demonstrate that attention to SEO will contribute to their success.

Another bit of advice—meet everyone you can, and take an interest in what they do. And if you haven’t already done so, read How to Win Friends and Influence People. That title is a good way to think about what your job is. 

Plan your work

  • Determine your tool set.

  • What tools do you have at your disposal? What analytics platform is in use or needs to be added? What’s your budget? Will you require Enterprise SEO software? Is there an IT department you’ll need to deal with to get the tools you need?

  • Audit the site.

  • I love big Excel spreadsheets, so I list all the customer-facing pages and their relevant characteristics, with columns for comments or suggestions, like tagging practices, unreadable content, or design quirks. I also found it handy to include notes on who to contact regarding changes to the page. This workbook can be your foundation, where you can organize your work.

  • Educate the team.

  • The team needs to understand how the work they do impacts SEO performance and the customer’s search user experience, so how will you organize the sessions? Depending on how your team works, it may be worthwhile to develop specific training for different groups.

Down the road, you’ll need tools to measure performance, a framework to identify work required and assign priorities to those tasks, and people to carry out those tasks on your behalf. Your Day One Plan should account for all these needs. 

Plan how SEO will help your company and customers

Given that you’re hired to be the in-house expert on SEO, it’s not likely that your new boss will understand why you need all this information, so make it clear that you’ve got beneficial outcomes in mind.

  • Overall vision.

  • Start your plan with an overall vision—you intend to measure performance, analyze the data, and develop strategies to support your company’s goals. (Hopefully, customer satisfaction is one of those goals!) Ideally, it should be clear how each element of your plan supports this vision.

  • Priorities.

  • Likely, in your previous experience you’ve developed opinions about which SEO factors are the biggest priorities for driving results, but wait. As you gather your intelligence, aim to identify limitations as well as opportunities. You may discover you lack the resources to do something you find important. So this component of your plan involves identifying what can be done as well as what

  • should be done.

  • Roadmap.

  • All these components need to coalesce into a work plan involving specific tasks assigned to the right people. Use a Gantt chart to visualize what needs to be done by whom, and to illustrate which tasks are dependent on other tasks.

  • Strategy document.

  • Document your SEO strategy in a way that’s clear and accessible to your team members. My goal for these high-level, 30,000-foot view documents is to create something that clearly communicates what SEO involves, why we do it, how the team is set up to achieve the desired results, and how we’ll know if we’re succeeding—in a format that can be absorbed in a minute or two. Executives, management, and leadership will be the audience for this document.

Present this outline to management, and not only will you demonstrate that you know what needs to be done, but your boss and your colleagues can then help you with the next step: to find the right people to ask for each question.

There will be many unknowns at the outset, but if you plan your plan, you’ll feel confident about what you need to do.

Authored by:
Daniel Butterfield
Former Senior Performance Analyst, SEO