Mastering The Art Of In-House SEO [2024 Edition]

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Mastering The Art Of In-House SEO [2024 Edition]

I’ve received so many questions about advancing an in-house career lately.

All answers can be found in an extensive guide I wrote in 2020. Since I have collected more experience working with some of the best tech companies in the world, I decided to spend another ~10 hours rewriting and updating this post. In my humble opinion, this is still the best in-house SEO guide on the web.

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In-house SEO is a skill you can learn and develop.

The most successful people I encountered had a strong sense for working on the right things, crisp communication skills and the ability to find solutions for important problems. They mastered skills to solve problems related to buy-in, resourcing, prioritization, and getting teams on the same page – no matter if they were managers or individual contributors.

Over my own +10-year in-house career at Atlassian, G2, and Shopify, I was able to climb the ranks from technical SEO expert to vice president. Along the way, I learned how to develop in-house skills and observed what great looks like from ultra-successful people.

The following collection of principles, frameworks, and experiences will tremendously shortcut your learning curve.

Don’t just take my word for it. This guide features generous input from:

The 5 Key Challenges Of In-House SEO

Being successful at in-house SEO all comes down to impact, and to make an impact, you need resources. The best plans, audits, and tricks don’t matter if you cannot execute them.

Jordan Silton:

The best in-house SEOs are able to influence and drive strategy. It’s no longer enough to do an SEO audit, keyword research or a competitive assessment and hand it over. This applies to agencies, too, the handover is a thing of the past. True progress and success in SEO today is a lot more about alignment and impact. More than ever, figuring out what to do is table stakes. Those that are successful get stuff done.

The biggest challenge in SEO is not knowing what to do but to get things done. The most successful companies ship, learn, and iterate fast to succeed with users and Google’s machine learning-driven algorithms.

Jackie Chu:

There are a lot of wins to being an in-house SEO, but you need to be just as mindful about growing your soft skills as your tech ones. Even if you’re somehow able to get huge wins without buy-in, if you don’t make it a priority to evangelize the team and your work it’s unlikely you will continue to find support in the company. And you’ll never get the chance to do edge SEO if your site isn’t even getting the basics right 🙂.

Getting resources like money and people to ship optimizations is a problem we can break down into five sub-problems:

1. Robust Business Cases

The number one thing (!) holding SEOs back from having an impact is making robust business cases for their recommendations.

SEOs commonly get too wrapped up in technical, nerdy details. Instead, they need to think like more product managers who talk to customers, prioritize features, and break their impact down all the way to revenue.

Twitter poll reveals the biggest perceived challenges with resourcing:

  • SEO isn’t a company priority
  • Leadership “doesn’t get it”
  • SEOs have a hard time showing value

But, the last point really hits the nail on the head: Almost any problem is SEO can be traced back to poor demonstration of ROI.

Early in my in-house career, I felt defensive when decision-makers wouldn’t fund my recommendations. “But it says to do this in the Google guidelines!” Later, I understood.

When I became a decision-maker with budget responsibility, I realized the importance of strong business cases to gain long-term trust and invest resources thoughtfully. It’s not just a tool for alignment but to double-check that you really thought things through.

The characteristics of a good SEO business case are:

  • Clarity about the problem you’re trying to solve and why it’s important.
  • Strong logic around issues and solutions.
  • Good reasons for working on this project at that time instead of something else.
  • A visible line from organic traffic to revenue.
  • A list of what’s needed to make it happen.
  • An action plan with timings.
  • Success criteria/metrics.

You can write business cases down into a written doc or spreadsheet, but they must answer the biggest questions.

Now, SEO is a complicated discipline between art and science. Its black-box nature and time to impact for some optimizations make projections difficult.

SEO A/B tests and measuring leading indicators (Googlebot server hits, impressions, ranks) can help increase confidence and gauge impact early. But it takes a lot of transparency about where recommendations come from and what to expect to create long-term trust.

A very elegant way to tackle big projects with high resource demands is to ship a small version manually.

If, for example, you need engineering and design resources to build lead generation tools, you could build and test an MVP with a turnkey third-party solution first. If the results are promising, you have a stronger base to ask for in-house resources.

Advice: Find a person who gets things done in the company and learn from them how to do it.

2. Business Model Differences

The type of site decides what resources you need and how you can make a business case.

Impact projections are easier for Aggregators and high-trafficked sites than Integrators since the former typically has a lot more pages and can get to test results faster.

An aggregator like G2, for example, has very different levers that are much more tied to the product than marketing. An Integrator like Ramp, on the other hand, needs mostly marketing resources to drive impact.

Aggregators can leverage the power of network effects that result from consolidating demand. They benefit from aggregated instead of self-created “inventory”: products, users, businesses, or ads. That lends itself to technical SEO and product-led growth loops, as I describe in How Social Networks Drive Billions of Search Visits with SEO.

Working for an integrator, you have to either pick a company to work for that has strong buy-in with SEO or be strategic in how you prioritize and sequence projects.

You cannot change the nature of growth levers, but you can create trust with results by targeting low-hanging fruit and high-confidence projects.

The more results you deliver, the more leeway you get on time-to-results. That’s why shipping optimizations with a fast and strong impact first is a smart idea.

The way you “enter” a company also makes a big difference. If you can prove your ability to drive results within your first 30 days, the rest of your tenure goes that much smoother.

Jackie Chu:

Even outside of your SEO growth work, you do a considerable amount of SEO defense work that’s spent guard-railing things like new product launches, migrations, or rebranding. You have to be a strong communicator to fairly articulate tradeoffs that are being made while striving to maintain rapport and a good relationship with your peers.

When I see in-house SEOs struggle, they’re sadly often right about the SEO problem, and the real problem is they’re struggling with resourcing, buy-in, and prioritization. This is where being a strong communicator and storyteller is especially helpful – to help de-escalate the inevitable points of conflict that occur between teams working on the same project with different incentives.

Companies selling products with large contract values often rely on human input for attribution and take months to close deals, which can blur the impact of SEO.

Along the way, leads can have many touchpoints across paid and organic channels with a company. Since paid teams have better data (e.g., keyword referrers) and faster feedback loops, they often overpower revenue attribution.

Comparing the last with the first touch can reveal eye-opening differences in revenue attribution and show how important it is to choose the right model.

Overindexing on advertising can cost a company a lot of money if the same results would come in with much lower spend. But you have to show that story in conversion and spend data to convince stakeholders.

Another solution can be to frame SEO as a brand marketing channel that drives exposure instead of direct revenue or focus on revenue contribution/margin instead of relative revenue. A different way to look at SEO can help decision-makers justify the investment.

Advice: Lean into technical SEO when working at an aggregator and content marketing for an Integrator.

3. Slow And Fuzzy Impact

Some optimizations have a slow and broad impact over time, making it harder to attribute a dollar value.

For example, we all know building a strong brand is important for SEO, but there are so many things involved that it’s next to impossible to make a business case for it.

The most important questions to navigate varying time-to-impact are:

  • How easily can you test the optimization on a small scale?
  • Across how many pages can you scale the optimization without manual effort?
  • Has a competitor done something similar?
  • How hard is the optimization to implement?

The longer something takes and the harder it is to implement, the lower you should generally prioritize it unless it has a very high traffic impact and you have lots of leverage to ship it.

Advice: Strong storytelling skills can get buy-in despite blurry numbers. Decision-makers respond strongly to stakes – the consequences of not doing something.

Being able to paint a picture of the risk can open doors, but they quickly close when things don’t work out. So, you better have a way to show that your suggestion helped.

Jackie Chu:

Having strong soft skills around leadership, storytelling and executive presence are critical to an in-house SEO’s success. The reality is a lot of times, enterprise sites are really not even doing the basics correctly, and that’s because getting something seemingly ‘small’ like title tags, or hreflang changed at scale can be a significant investment when you consider things like having multiple services, translation needs, surface area owners, legal considerations and more.

4. Weak Social Capital

Credibility, likeability, and respect matter when working with humans. People are more likely to trust your recommendations when you have a proven track record or respect from important people at the company.

Weak social capital in the form of favors and how well people perceive you, in general, has an impact on your ability to ship as well.

Matt Howell-Barby:

Here’s the thing… it doesn’t matter if you have the correct solution to a problem. What matters most is that you know how to sell the idea internally, get the resources you need to support the solution, and how (and when) to use leverage you have in the process. The last part of this is particularly important.

Advice: Find out who holds power in the company, learn what they need, and help them get it. Sometimes, it’s non-craft-specific things like finding a great candidate for a key role or contacts at another company. Other times, it’s an opportunity or risk a person or team wasn’t aware of previously.

Jordan Silton:

The best in-house SEOs are well-liked and pulled into initiatives because people like to work with them. It’s not enough to be the smartest person in the room, or the “expert”, or a technical superstar.

In-house SEO is about being part of a team. You can make yourself a checkpoint or gate to ensure everything is above board, but that slows things down and doesn’t accelerate progress. Success is how much you can accomplish, not how many mistakes you can catch.

Build strong relationships with the leaders of those teams. Meet for coffee or lunch, understand who they are, and talk about their goals.

Some call it “playing the game,” but I think it’s simply about building genuine relationships and working toward a common goal.

Matt Barby:

One of the ways that I see many people inside companies going wrong (and then often feeling frustrated) is that they choose the wrong hill to die on. Sometimes you have to let your idea die in order to build some leverage that you can use elsewhere. Any time you use your influence and accumulated leverage to get something you need, you need to either focus on building more for the future or be ok with passing on some other things you need.

If you’ve ever looked at someone in a senior management position and wondered, ‘how did this person get to where they are? I know so much more than they do!’… Well, the likelihood is that they’re much better at selling than you are. No matter what role you’re operating in within a company, you need to be a salesperson; the difference between this and a client-facing role where you’re actually selling an idea to an external client is that you’re selling to your peers. Learn this and you’ll get far.

SEO teams often lack resources when they live under marketing, while engineering teams live under product.

For most companies, SEO under marketing makes sense because they drive SEO with self-generated content and tools (Integrators).

But, SEO has to be in the product org at Aggregators for maximal impact since the business impact of SEO is proportional to the number of indexable pages on a domain.

Product-led growth companies, which are always Aggregators, should push for growth teams with SEOs under product. Sales-driven companies should use content marketing or a hybrid approach.

Igal Stolpner:

The key to success as an inhouse SEO is becoming part of the process. In most companies, Product or R&D are running the roadmap. As an in-house SEO, you want to make sure that you are right in the middle of that process and that no significant changes or launches are going over your head.

Advice: Go on an education tour across the company, especially for teams you depend on.

When I was part of Atlassian, I realized I’d never have enough resources to do all the things I wanted.

So, I ran workshops with engineers, designers, and content creators to show them how little changes in their work can make an impact.

I shared SEO checklists, presented at all-hands, and kept beating the SEO drum. I wrote a lot of internal documentation in Confluence (our “wiki”), so people have reference material and can learn at their own pace.

Most importantly, I tracked results and showed them to the people who drove them. This kind of feedback loop motivates and builds an appetite for more.

In-House And Agency SEO Are Different Games

The biggest difference between agency and in-house work is the scope.

In agencies, you go broad. Inhouse, you go deep.

Agency work exposes you to many sites and problems. It’s a great point to start an SEO career because you get such a good grasp of various issues, industries, and companies.

The challenges are winning clients, managing accounts, and getting clients to implement your recommendations. What clients want and what they need are not always the same, which you need to juggle.

In-house, you focus on a single site (maybe a few) and deeply immerse yourself in the product and market. You develop vertical expertise and own a bigger part of the process. The challenges are overcoming red tape, getting resources, and prioritizing the right work.

The part that will follow you on both sides is pitching and selling. You either pitch a client or your boss. So, you might as well get good at it. Keep this in mind because it will come back over and over in this guide.

Matt Howell-Barby:

Working in-house is very different to working agency-side. Similarly, working at a 40 person startup is a world away from a 4,000 employee enterprise org. That said, there are some common truths that apply.

Transitioning

When transitioning from agency to in-house, two traps to avoid are waiting for approval and execution speed.

Consultants need to be very transparent with their work and bill by the hour, but in-house work takes faster execution and decision-making.

Inhouse, you need to ship projects end-to-end, while agency consultants switch focus once recommendations are packaged and delivered. Many consultants experience a “culture shock” when switching to an in-house role.

In-House SEO As A Manager Vs. IC

Your experience and focus point vary based on whether you have management responsibility or not.

Oftentimes, your career will lead you from individual contributor (IC) to manager. With that jump, your in-house experience changes tremendously.

Jordan Silton:

Not every in-house SEO role is the same. Some are truly individual contributor technical analyst roles that are similar to agency life. Others are closer to product managers and are embedded with engineers on agile/scrum teams.

Still others are more senior and strategic and need to be able to influence across the organization well beyond product and marketing teams. And finally there are lots of content roles that sometimes are connecting and other times are quite separate from technical in-house teams. In house SEO is not one thing.

One of the most important skills for contributors is working on the right projects and doing good work.

It’s easy to have too much on your plate if you don’t push back. But pushing back elegantly is a skill in itself.

Share your priorities with your manager and let them redefine them instead of saying yes to everything. Hold them accountable for giving you impactful projects you can build your career on.

Not every task has to be exciting, but a big part of tour work should clearly ladder up to strategically important initiatives.

Managers, on the other hand, need leadership and management skills.

Leadership is the art of persuading people to do something. You don’t need to have direct reports to demonstrate this skill, by the way. Management is the process of setting the right goals, hiring the right people, and executing well.

At Shopify, we used a framework to collect the main tasks of managers:

  • Aim -> strategy.
  • Assemble -> hiring.
  • Achieve -> execution.

Keep in mind that not everyone is cut out or wants to be a manager. I have promoted several contributors to managers who regretted their choice shortly after. The best companies open contributor tracks up to the highest levels and define clear career paths.

The idea of internal advocacy work is to educate and motivate people so well about SEO they want to contribute. Advocacy is a hard but effective way to scale SEO throughout a company without a large team.

Positively reinforce contributions from outside the SEO team with recognition on messengers, email, or internal wikis to incentivize more “good” behavior.

At Atlassian, we had the saying, “Do good work and talk about it.”

A big part of advocacy is regular and irregular progress updates.

  • Weekly reports with progress updates for close stakeholders and monthly reports for broader organization members create alignment and spark questions.
  • Ad-hoc memos with insights that benefit the whole company invite others to problem-solve with you.
  • Annual or semi-annual reports with state-of-SEO overview can set the tone for future strategies and address decision-makers at a time they think about budget and resource allocation. Include broad trends, call out teams and individuals who support SEO and highlight threats. Release annual reports in time for (next year) planning.

Bottom Line: Ship Career-Making Projects

In-house SEO is a skill you can improve by deflecting distractions, being thoughtful about your (meta) work outside the craft work, and working on company-making projects.

Some projects that made my (inhouse) career:

  • Turning the organic traffic trend on Dailymotion around.
  • Countless migrations, kickstarting a community, growing blog traffic, and growing the third-party app marketplace at Atlassian.
  • Landing several big bets that grew organic traffic and hiring an A-class team at G2.
  • Restructuring the SEO org, bringing on a-class talent, and unifying domains at Shopify.

Luck certainly plays a role, but it’s even more important to keep an eye out for big, promising projects and fully lean into them. None of those projects would have mattered on paper. They only mattered because they shipped.

Of course, I worked on many projects that didn’t work out and failed many times.


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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