Your boss cares about reporting more than you do
Reporting is a form of communication, and communication solves all problems
Welcome back to another SEO MBA email - an email newsletter all about leadership, management and consulting skills for SEO professionals. Thanks for all the interest in the course beta - we were way oversubscribed. I’m hoping to have the full course out by end of year. Stay tuned.
When I worked at Distilled we used to say “Communication solves all problems”. Communication is a key skill. But how do you get better at communication? Yes, better slides help. But communication comes in many forms.
Reporting is a form of communication. And it’s often relegated to the “status quo” inside organizations. We report this way because we’ve always reported this way.
When I speak to people in “head of SEO” type roles I typically get a resigned look and a “someday maybe” attitude to improving reporting.
But when I speak to CEOs and SVP types - I typically get a much more pointed need. A list of specific and urgent pain points like: “Why doesn’t our reporting separate out high revenue keywords from low revenue keywords?”.
This fundamental disconnect causes a lot of anguish.. If there’s only one thing you take away from this it’s that you’re probably not caring enough about your reporting relative to how much your boss cares about it.
It’s not uncommon for me to add value inside an organization simply by creating an “executive view” of SEO - something that provides them with a clearer and more condensed view of SEO performance - and brings SEO in line with how other parts of the business report.
Now here’s one thing that’s true - executives are often bad at asking specifically for what they want. And so the head of SEO hears something - maybe secondhand - like “the CEO wants us to improve our SEO reports”.
This kind of nebulous and open-ended task is hard to prioritize and it’s hard to do well because it’s very ill-defined… So it gets de-prioritized or neglected. Causing the executive layer to lose trust and confidence in the SEO team.
So how do you do better reporting? Here’s some ideas.
Discover Pain Points
Step 1 is to literally discover the pain points. You should refuse to work on a project without a scope, or rather, more politely create a scope for it - which means saying “Great, I’ll work on improving reporting first I’m going to sit down with the CEO, CFO and CMO and see what their paint points are”.
Sometimes you need to literally ask the stupid questions to get the real insights. What do you want to see in our SEO report? I can guarantee that the executive team has strong opinions.
Listening is a super power and the focus in this kind of business ethnography is to listen very carefully to both what’s said and what’s not said.
When, inevitably, someone asks for something that’s impossible, your task at this point is not to interject and tell them it’s impossible, but to try and understand why they’re asking for it. What’s the real pain point or need? Why do they need to see that data? What will they do with the data once they have it?
Listening to what’s not said is also enlightening and requires a bit more experience - but reflecting on what’s not asked for will help you know how to focus. Remember executive presence is about being compelling, credible and clear. Clear and concise reporting is much more effective than the kitchen sink.
Listen Carefully for Specific Asks
When you’re surveying the organization for these pain points be sure to listen carefully for specific, concrete asks. Just like impossible asks, your first instinct might be to ignore them (“that feels too specific - why wouldn’t I include the macro view or all of the data points?”) but again - your job is to listen closely and observe the specific ask.
When you hear something specific - typically the easy thing to do is actually include it in the report. This might seem like a no brainer but the trick is NOT to generalize, over complicate or abstract away the ask - but to literally include the ask.
Often you’ll get a satisfied executive and you can iterate in the future but ignoring their direct ask is dangerous.
Sidenote: a good habit to build is to stop and carefully think every time an executive asks for something that doesn’t quite make sense to you. What context do they have that you don’t have that means this ask is important or logical? This line of thinking can often reveal better situational awareness for what the wider business cares about.
Revenue Revenue Revenue
It should go without saying but…. I’m gonna say it because it’s the most important thing. SEO reporting has to report on revenue (or sometimes a direct proxy for revenue like MQLs or bookings - but ONLY where the whole business reports this way).
When you think you’ve done this - ask yourself if you’ve given the revenue piece enough prominence.
When reporting on revenue it’s crucial to attempt to distinguish between “all revenue generated by organic traffic” and “all revenue generated by deliberate SEO activity”
This might be as simple as separating brand and non-brand revenue (through some proxy of landing page). Or it could be as simple as reporting on a distinct subset of pages directly that the SEO team helped build or own.
Remember from getting buy-in requires executive empathy:
Organic traffic is often presented as a monolithic stable thing that goes up or down. I suspect many CEOs have a secret (sometimes not so secret!) suspicion that if they put their SEO investment to zero not that much would change. Many SEOs don’t bother to first justify the value of the SEO team (note this is NOT the same as justifying the value of organic traffic). This can be as simple as keeping a log of explicit “we did X and saw $Y” that shows explicit value for the SEO investment.
For extra credit - sit down with the CFO and ensure that your revenue metrics are in line with how they report on revenue. Depending on the business you might want to include margin or LTV or some other business-agreed financial metric.
Don’t use SEO Metrics
I’ve never seen an SEO report that wouldn’t be improved by removing some SEO-specific metrics.
Here are some things that executives typically don’t care much about:
Share of voice of keyword rankings
Top 3 rankings vs top 10 rankings
Number of answer boxes
Stop and think very carefully about including any metrics that are SEO-specific and not widely understood by the business. I’m not saying remove any reference to them but typically you can and should remove most of them.
Some of the best reports I’ve seen are literally *just* traffic and revenue, sliced multiple different ways. It’s a single obsession on business outcomes - and an understanding that SEO metrics are not relevant at the executive level.
Segment by Business Unit, Not Page Type
SEOs typically think in terms of page templates. Homepage, category pages, product pages. That kind of thing.
This is a useful way of thinking and reporting! We typically run initiatives at the product level aimed at a specific page type. And keyword intents are often aligned to page type - so there’s lots of insights and value to be gained by separating out by page type.
But unfortunately the CEO doesn’t care.
Typically the wider business reports on business unit or type of revenue, not page type.
Let’s imagine we’re the head of SEO for Etsy for a second. We’re probably obsessed with page types, things like:
But is this how the CEO thinks about the Etsy business? I doubt it. Some ideas about how you might segment the business:
By size of seller:
Tier 1 sellers
Tier 2 sellers
Tier 3 sellers
Or by international market,
Or by category:
Or by revenue type:
Or by buyer type:
Without insider info I have no idea what Etsy values - but the point is there are many different ways of slicing revenue that the business cares about that are NOT slicing by page type.
If your reporting is putting page type front and center then you’re likely not being as relevant for the executive layer as you want to be. Pay attention to how the C-suite segments the business and see how you can better align your SEO reporting.
Source Every Data Point
Labeling your data clearly is critically important (we talked about that before here) and especially important for executives unfamiliar with SEO.
Good reporting typically includes some competitor view and in the same report you might report on traffic as an actuals number (from analytics) and traffic as a proxy metric (from SEMrush).
Ensure that both data points are very clearly labeled. Otherwise you can lose credibility in your data when the CEO has to ask why these two “traffic” numbers aren’t the same.
Clean & consistent design
I’ll likely talk about this in more detail in the future but for now, please know that the way you design your reports is critically important. How you label your charts and your tables matters.
Visual hierarchy matters.
Make sure the most important thing looks like the most important thing.
Every SEO report I’ve seen can be improved by adding some whitespace, removing some clutter and ensuring that the data is labelled clearly.
Re-read this post on chart and table design and apply it to your reporting.
So, Reporting is Important
So maybe today is a good day to re-evaluate your reporting. When was the last time you updated the format? When was the last time you asked the executive team what they wanted to see?
I’m going to talk about reporting again soon - what challenges do you have in creating reporting? If you want to share your reporting setup (with anonymized numbers obviously) I will provide some feedback for you - just hit reply.