The relationship between SEO professionals and developers is one typified by frustration and misunderstanding.
From an SEO perspective, it can be difficult to communicate the value and importance of search-related initiatives and to get them prioritized in development pipelines.
From a developer’s point of view, SEO can seem like a never-ending source of tickets and annoyance that delays them from delivering their work on time.
As web technologies become more advanced, SEO is becoming more technically sophisticated, which means it is increasingly important that we actively examine ways to work more harmoniously with development teams.
Over the past few months, I’ve been speaking with some of the most experienced and respected people in SEO and digital marketing to find out how they’ve built and nurtured relationships with development and engineering teams to achieve success.
In this post, I’m going to share some of the best insights from these conversations.
1. Heal the Wounds Left by Bad SEO Experiences
While a large part of SEO is now focused on meeting the user intent of searchers with high-quality content, developers and other teams may still have a lingering mistrust of SEO pros.
The days of keyword stuffing and bulk link buying are no longer seen as popular or sustainable SEO practices by most, but it may take time and relationship building for an SEO to win the trust of developers because of their prior experiences.
At a previous job, JP Sherman, Manager of Search and Findability from Red Hat, needed to gain the trust of developers who had been burnt by a bad SEO agency.
Rather than going into the business and making demands of the developers about what needed to be changed from an SEO perspective, Sherman made a point sitting down with the company’s developers to establish their common goals and put a plan in place to achieve these while overcoming shared frustrations with the website.
After a year of this approach, he managed to build a level of trust with the development team and turned an audience of skeptics into SEO advocates.
2. Involve Developers by Hosting a Hackathon
One novel way to get developers interested and engaged with SEO initiatives is by hosting a hackathon.
Polly Pospelova, Head of Search at Delete, organized a hackathon and invited the agency’s developers to participate.
The sole aim of the hackathon was to get a perfect score in Lighthouse for the agency’s own website.
The event was a massive success, as the developers were not only able to achieve a score of 100 in Lighthouse but this shared objective laid the blueprint for speed optimization work that Pospelova was able to roll to many of Delete’s clients.
Pospelova’s hackathon is an inspiring and original example of how SEO and marketing pros can work successfully with developers by working to achieve a common goal.
3. Embed Yourself in Your Client’s Organization
From an agency’s perspective, it often isn’t enough to simply provide a list of SEO recommendations off the back of an audit and expect these to be actioned by the client’s developers.
Without clear explanations and prioritization of your SEO recommendations backed by a close understanding of the client’s business, there is a fair chance your suggestions will get lost amongst other priorities.
Arnout Hellemans, Consultant at OnlineMarketThink, suggests making an effort to embed agency staff within their client’s organization for a fruitful long-term relationship.
He’s spoken with agencies who send their staff out to work from their client’s offices for a couple of days every now and again.
Rather than the relationship, largely existing only Slack and emails, the agencies are able to build much stronger relationships with their client’s developers by sitting with them and better understanding their priorities, challenges, and ways of working.
4. Pick Your Battles Carefully
While it’s clearly important for SEO pros to build strong relationships with developers, it can also pay to be strategic in terms of the recommendations that you push to be actioned.
It’s often the case that there are large numbers of actions resulting from an audit, but are all of them going to have the same impact?
Areej AbuAli, Technical SEO Manager at Zoopla, said it’s important to avoid overwhelming developers with too many recommendations at once.
She learned the hard way that it is beneficial to focus on getting the mission-critical items prioritized in development pipelines and actioned first before moving on to less pressing recommendations.
This approach helps to ensure that you’re maximizing your SEO impact, while not overwhelming developers with tickets of varying importance.
5. Become a Bridge Between the Technical and Commercial
Being able to understand and empathize with both commercial and technical challenges and frustrations is another way that SEO professionals can work effectively with developers.
It’s important to become a bridge between the technical and commercial aspects of the business, according to Ecommerce Consultant Luke Carthy.
Have regular meetings with the business’s developers to empathize with the challenges that they face in order to help overcome shared pain points, Carthy suggested.
Doing so can help to put long term solutions in place and increase the chance of forming strong working relationships.
In his example, he listened closely to the company’s developers and raised their frustrations with the managing director so they were able to completely redevelop the site and stop papering over cracks with short-term solutions.
6. Upgrade Your Technical Skills
Your ability to work with development teams as an SEO professional is going to greatly improve the more you’re able to speak their language and understand the challenges they face.
It’s one thing to be able to identify technical issues impacting the crawling and indexing of a website by search engines and raise that with a developer.
However, it’s far more valuable if you can debug technical issues and propose well-reasoned solutions after:
- Evaluating the pros and cons of different approaches.
- Taking into account the circumstances of the website, business and available resources.
AbuAli said it’s important to upskill and hone technical skills. This will help you move faster analyzing large datasets as an SEO.
Improving your technical skills and better understanding of how the web works will empower you to have more productive conversations with developers.
This leaves less room for misunderstanding and leads to more agile decision making.
7. Establish Yourself as a Trusted Authority
Another crucial component to building trust and a healthy relationship with development teams is to show yourself to be knowledgeable in your field.
Actively promote ongoing education on SEO topics that are relevant to the business.
At Red Hat, Sherman hosts regular presentations and in-person meetings, and writes documentation to encourage discussion and interest within development teams who wouldn’t otherwise be keeping up to date with SEO developments.
He aims to lay out the case for making SEO improvements in advance of search engine changes (like mobile-first indexing) through knowledge-sharing sessions.
When this work is then prioritized, Sherman makes sure he backs this up with internal guidance and documentation that is ready to share with the relevant people.
Sherman also acknowledged that it can be frustrating when SEO recommendations aren’t prioritized or actioned but sometimes it’s important to understand that your suggestions are necessarily going to be the best thing for the website or business to do at that time.
8. Get SEO Involved from the Beginning
One common frustration between SEO professionals and developers is that the former gets involved far too late on projects.
This is an annoyance for developers because they are likely going to receive a lot of last-minute SEO related tasks that they don’t necessarily see the benefit of completing.
From an SEO point of view, being involved too late on in a project will mean we are forced to fight fires and make last-minute development requests to avert disaster impacting a website’s organic performance.
Chris Green, Head of Marketing Innovation at Footprint Digital, said it’s important to get SEO considerations into projects from their inception rather than as an afterthought.
After completing hundreds of migrations, Green has acknowledged that SEO pros aren’t usually the most popular people on projects.
But this can be averted by making compromises and focusing on the tasks that are critical to organic performance and technical health rather than adding to the developers workloads for the sake of SEO best practice.
For example, during a migration SEO pros should be prioritizing things like 301s, crawl budget optimization’, and breadcrumbs rather than social media icon alt tags, minimum word counts, and rel=”next” and rel=”prev”.
Share Your Experiences
I hope this post has featured a helpful selection of ideas to help you work more effectively with development teams.
I would be keen to continue the discussion in the comments below. Share your experiences, approaches, and tips about what’s worked and hasn’t worked for you.