Are you making SEO Strategically Important?

Using strategic alignment to get more buy-in

Lights! Camera! …. action? I’ve got the setup ready to go and I’m recording course videos this week and next so we’re getting very close to launching the course. I feel excited and terrified all at once. Lots of learning new skills. Reminder: this is the SEO MBA - a newsletter exploring leadership & business skills for SEO professionals.


I’m kind of obsessed with Etsy’s quarterly earnings reports. They’re very clearly the best designed reports in town - and demonstrate just quite how deeply rooted design and aesthetics are inside the organization.

I mean who designs slides like this for wall street??

There’s only one problem of course - there’s no mention of SEO.

I looked through the last few quarterly earnings reports to see if I can understand what the strategic priorities are and there’s simply no mention of SEO.

Some back of the envelope math shows unbranded organic traffic contributing 15-20% of overall revenue. Something like $78m in Q2 20211.

So what gives?

Shiny Object Syndrome

Now, of course SEO feels more like an always on activity than a specific new strategic initiative. You don’t need to constantly remind wall street that SEO exists... Right?

Except - every organization has some version of this, whether it’s for quarterly earnings reports or just yearly strategic planning. There’s a focus on the “top 3-5 initiatives” and they tend to be new projects and big bets. In short: shiny objects.

And SEO is rarely one of them…

It’s unfortunate but true that “always on” initiatives tend to get de-prioritized and under-resourced.

So for example, if you’re working in-house at Etsy you more than likely are going to have a hard time getting resources and buy-in for your work. People might believe SEO is important, but is it “strategically important”? 

Aligning SEO with the Company Strategy

The point here is that if you want to get more buy-in, more resources and generally have an easier time getting things done then you should look for ways to make the SEO strategy agree with the company strategy.

(We talked about this a bit in getting buy-in requires executive empathy - notably that almost no companies maintain a distinct “SEO strategy” at the executive layer. Instead you need to ladder up through product or marketing goals and strategy.)

What you’re looking for is the additional weight you can bring to your initiatives by making them “strategically important”. Broadly speaking there’s two options here:

  1. Prioritize initiatives that ladder up to company strategy

  2. Position the things you want to do as supporting company strategy

Let’s take the Etsy example again - looking through their recent earnings reports it looks like they have strategic initiatives like2:

International expansion:

Improving on-site search:

And scaling up seller videos on product listings:

So, if I was leading SEO at Etsy I would be looking for opportunities to work on and position around these pillars. You can build social capital and influence internally by contributing directly to these initiatives (“hey we did an international audit and have identified some growth initiatives” or “here’s some product improvements to gain more exposure to our video content”)

But for things that aren’t directly supporting these initiatives it can still be useful to position them through these lenses.

  • Let’s say you want to work on core web vitals work. Can we be sure to include international sites as part of our analysis and strategy?

  • Let’s say we have some indexation issues we want to work on. Can we analyze how many video listings are impacted?

  • Let’s say we want to build new buying guide pages. Can we leverage the improved search intelligence to power those pages? Or might we be able to demonstrate that users who land on those pages have a very high rate of follow on internal search refinement?

Some of this might seem tangential or unrelated directly to the work you want to get done. But this is important and valuable work - not only are you more likely to get buy-in and resources for these projects because they support strategic initiatives, but you’re also positioning SEO as a function and team that can be strategically valuable.

That’s a really important position to be able to get to internally.

Ok, but I don’t work at Etsy?

Yes, yes I know. Why am I focusing so much on Etsy? Well aside from their nicely designed quarterly earnings reports it’s all readily accessible public information so it makes a nice tidy case study.

But every organization has a set of strategic priorities. And if you want to be seen as valuable at the executive layer of your organization you need to recognize what those key initiatives are and speak to them.

This requires a healthy amount of simply paying attention and listening.

In small companies priorities might shift and change frequently - and the company’s strategy may or may not be officially documented. So you might have to pay attention in meetings with the CEO to see what they get excited about, what they repeatedly mention.

In medium size companies priorities will shift less frequently and instead of tuning out you should pay close attention to things like quarterly all hands meetings, company wide planning sessions and so on. If there are updated company brand documents or strategy documents pay close attention.

In larger companies it might be paying attention to quarterly earnings reports (which unfortunately are often far more boring than Etsy’s). And it might be that each individual business unit has an all-hands meeting. There might not be a single set of company priorities as much as a set of OKRs that ladder up to the overall company strategy.

If you can’t articulate what the 3-5 company priorities are at any given time then you’d better find out. However you do it, it’s important work. Listening to the language used and the framing of these initiatives will help you use the same language and the same framing for your own initiatives.

Good luck,

Tom

1

Etsy’s Q2 Revenue was $529m. SEMrush says organic traffic is 16% of traffic, and 89% un-branded. So very rough back of the envelope says maybe SEO is ~14% of revenue? That’s $78m.

2

Note how nicely these slides are designed, and yet they mostly still follow the McKinsey style we walked through in the email about good presentations. Each slide has a clear descriptive statement as the headline, everything on the slide ladders up to and supports that statement.