If you’re an SEO like me, you probably spent at least a year or two at an agency where you worked with other experienced SEOs. On large teams, there’s always someone to learn from, bounce ideas off of, or to help finish projects on time.
But what happens when the SEO team is just you? This is the question I had when, after several years agency-side, I moved in-house to be the first and only SEO the organization ever had.
More than three years later, I’m still a team of one. I had to figure out how to accomplish my goals without the built-in support of an established team, and although there are challenges, being the only SEO is an opportunity to flex your knowledge, develop the practices that will bring the organization into the digital age, and maybe even grow your own team.
Here’s how I get things done, and hopefully some of these practices will be helpful for you as well!
How and why some organizations start with just one SEO
Many “legacy” organizations are going through a digital transformation: transitioning from traditional media to a digital presence by investing in their websites and digital specialists. The pandemic likely accelerated this process, and these groups will be hiring their first dedicated SEOs.
This is how I was hired. The Nature Conservancy is one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the world, with offices in dozens of countries and thousands of employees. One SEO. Yet this is fairly advanced — most nonprofits have zero*.
*Sidenote: If you are a nonprofit SEO I would love to connect!
One of the first digital transformation hires was the analytics director, Jenny. Jenny’s mission was to find opportunities to grow the site. Almost immediately, she saw that half of the website’s traffic is from organic search. So she asked, “Who manages search here?” Turns out, no one. She believed that if the website was important, the organization needed to invest in it. And that meant a strategy for search.
Jenny needed to highlight how beneficial an SEO would be. She built an analytics dashboard for the CMO, who was from a traditional media background. His first question was, “What’s organic search?”
Yes, really. Then he had a lightbulb moment: “Oh, so Google! Wow, that’s all our traffic?”
And a new SEO position was funded.
A rough start
Unfortunately, this realization came at a less than ideal time. The Nature Conservancy was in the middle of this digital transformation, starting to heavily invest in digital marketing, building a team, thinking strategically about the website, and the CMS was shutting down. They scrambled to find a new CMS and execute a site migration.
No worries, they thought, the web developer vendor will handle SEO. Their contract included this line item: “SEO industry best practices for relaunch”.
If your stomach just clenched, imagine how I felt when, during an interview, my soon-to-be-boss excitedly said, “You might have noticed that the website looks a little different today. Our relaunch went live this morning!”
Yes, they went through a site migration while hiring for an SEO. They celebrated with cake.
Teams without an SEO don’t know what they don’t know, and they’ll make mistakes that you will be responsible for fixing. Until that moment, I had been thinking that I’d be setting the SEO strategy for the future of the organization, help the website emerge as an authority and a leader in the nonprofit space, and contribute to my personal goal of furthering the mission. Instead, my first several months on the job would be cleaning up the migration.
When I started, there were hundreds of errors across the site. It was slow, there were no dedicated SEO fields in the CMS, and there were broken links everywhere. Worse, there was no SEO guidance for content creators, meaning each new page created more errors.
So, how did I start to move the needle on over 2,000 pages that were published with zero thought towards SEO? I had to triage: there was no way I could fix all the issues myself, so my priority was slowing the rate at which new, problematic pages were published.
The solo SEO process
Step 1: Make friends on other teams and find your evangelists
When you’re the only SEO, especially if you’re also the first, it might seem like no one at your organization understands your job. But someone, somewhere, does — at least a little. You just need to find them.
And when you do, don’t immediately ask for favors or demand they change how they do their jobs. Approach your new friend with empathy, interest, and understanding. Start by learning how you can help them do their jobs.
You don’t need people skills to be an amazing SEO, but an SEO with unparalleled diplomacy skills and innate customer empathy is a force to be reckoned with.
My first friends were on the analytics team. Obviously I had Jenny, the analytics director, and I also had Leigh Ann, an amazing analytics architect. She had been with The Nature Conservancy for 20 years and knew how desperate the site was for SEO guidance. Chances were if I was annoyed at an issue, she had been annoyed at it for years. She was thrilled some of these issues were finally being addressed, and I was thrilled I had current and historical data to back up my recommendations.
My second friends were the developers. When you’re the only SEO, you’re the default expert on both content and technical SEO. I give the developers a heads up on what the content team has planned that might require their involvement and, more importantly, educate the content team on the level of effort required for seemingly small tasks. This not only helps me directly, it also increases understanding and keeps relationships smooth across teams.
One unexpected friend I made early on was Rachel, a marketer with the Florida chapter. She worked with SEOs in a previous role and understood the value of organic search. She reached out to me after a training, wanting to collaborate. Together we created a new page specifically designed to bring in organic traffic.
The topic was mangroves, trees that grow in coastal saltwater that provide important habitat for animals and protect communities from storm impacts. The Florida chapter talked quite a bit about mangroves but didn’t have a dedicated page for them. I sent Rachel some keywords, questions, and examples of mangrove content and she built a new page. We collaborated on every element. We both wanted to show how SEO could improve the kind of content most marketers were creating.
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