SEO product management: Key framework and fundamentals
Two qualities are at the core of what makes a great SEO product manager:
- Critical thinking.
This article will cover how to think critically and creatively in the following areas of SEO product management:
- Fundamentals for SEO product managers.
- Methodologies for prioritizing an SEO roadmap and SEO backlog.
- How to write an effective SEO ticket.
Fundamentals for SEO product managers
These fundamental tips can help SEO product managers (PMs) accomplish day-to-day tasks while strategizing for the future:
Trust but verify
When validating technical SEO work done in the code, don’t assume everything has been implemented correctly.
Make time to verify it with your own eyes. This is why demos and showcases are critical to the agile process.
Keep a document of when fixes went live
A quick reference document for internal feature releases helps you quickly see when something new went into production.
A step up from there (at the ninja level) is creating tabs for referencing internal/external impactful updates to the business that might impact customer experience or algorithm updates related to your industry or the type of domain you’re working on.
Train yourself to think 18-24 months down the line for every feature and improvement you launch
In that amount of time, you’ll be able to:
- Launch a first version of an initiative.
- Begin to gather input and feedback to measure its success directionally.
- Scope the next phase of improvements.
SEO is a long-play process. Being able to have projected metrics will you explain this to colleagues or superiors who might get impatient with the results of your hard work.
Stay abreast of the latest marketing, tech and SEO, but keep it in perspective
You can always test out new concepts but don’t over-invest in them or dedicate your entire roadmap to a shiny new object at the expense of dialing in the SEO fundamentals. (Looking at you, AI and ChatGPT.)
Create and circulate an SEO playbook for your organizations
As the SEO PM, you will provide guidance on technical SEO elements. As soon as you can, create your organization’s SEO playbook documenting everything, including:
- The environment types your site(s) are on.
- Any history of migrations.
- Pagination or URL structure preferences.
This way, you have a source of truth for developers and other PMs to reference related to SEO elements.
Never stop improving your ability to write clear, concise SEO tickets. If a ticket isn’t clear, then it’s confusing.
A confused engineer does not take action. Be the teammate that makes the engineering and project coordinators look good and get things done. (More on this below.)
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Methodologies for prioritizing an SEO roadmap and backlog of SEO work
One approach to creating an SEO roadmap is referencing an operational framework.
Here, the “pillars of SEO” are prioritized in terms of business importance and the technical and content opportunities on the website. This conceptualizes the investment areas that will move the needle on SEO performance.
Then you can layer the work into quarterly timeframes working backward from a known period of maintenance or planned code freeze. (Another point of importance regarding planning your projects 18-24 months out, as mentioned earlier.)
What issues to prioritize
It’s safe to say most SEO tools return site audits prioritizing fixes and improvements by severity in three main buckets:
- Errors: Critical blockers that keep the site from being properly crawled and indexed.
- Warnings: Issues to be aware of and prioritize fixing when resources allow.
- Notices: Issues to be aware of but do not impact the site meaningfully.
This is a limited view because it doesn’t necessarily take into account what’s important to the business, let alone how Googlebot is actually crawling the site.
SEO work gets done when it’s categorized, making it easy to understand and execute.
This is what demonstrates results to the business, not because a tool says a million pages are returning a 404 error (All together now, “trust but verify.”)
For an SEO PM, optimizing for search is the product. Thus, the areas of priority include improvements to:
- Crawling and indexing of the site.
- Internal linking.
- Site performance/speed.
- Amount of optimized content.
- Rankings and visibility .
You might wonder why I didn’t put “rankings” at the top of the list. While rankings are a great visual result to show leadership, it’s a directional metric compared to organic traffic and revenue.
Because at the enterprise level, SEO performance boils down to two main KPIs: traffic and revenue. These KPIs are the lifeblood of large ecommerce sites, generating income and growing a healthy mix of new and returning customers.
Larger sites need to execute SEO improvements at scale. A framework that balances the inputs of SEO severity with business initiatives is the starting point for the criteria used to guide prioritization at scale:
|Est. traffic impact / risk||If improving an existing URL, what does an estimated 1-5% increase in organic traffic look like? Alternatively, what does losing 5%+ of traffic look like?|
|Est. revenue impact / risk||Use the formula Traffic x CRO x AOV to estimate sales; the return on investment.|
|Est. SEO impact||How does this fix or improvement impact our SEO performance (low, medium, high)?|
|Est. level of investment / sizing||Estimate the development time involved (small, medium, large)|
Furthermore, categorizing the times by tier allows an SEO team to collectively weigh in and determine the Tier 1 initiatives that will move the needle.
Tier 2 and 3 then serve as the start of our backlog, where we prioritize initiatives by traffic and revenue impact.
Agility in prioritization
While we may start with our framework of tiered SEO initiatives, we will always need to accommodate ad hoc work and fixes based on their impact against the existing roadmap items.
Anytime a new crawl is generated, it can pick up any number of things, from regression issues to new site errors. Additionally, whenever a new code release is pushed live, it can break other aspects of the site or code.
SEO PMs must do a lot of pre-work validating the issues they find on the site. The key is to be able to document reproducing the error. If you can’t reproduce it for an engineer, it’s unlikely the issue will actually get fixed.
Since this is largely how SEO works, when prioritizing an SEO roadmap, it’s essential to plan for addressing a balance of features and known issues.
This is basically a proactive and reactive strategy. In a given calendar year, you’ll need a mix of initiatives that earn traffic and drive user acquisition and ones that tackle technical debt.
Prioritize features based on sprint time
Generally speaking, an SEO PM will want to prioritize any feature work (i.e., building a capability for users or internal teams) earlier in the calendar year. This can mean the difference between being able or unable to deliver a feature by a certain quarter.
I’ve mentioned before that agile sprints can be organized as one or two weeks in duration. And a lot happens within that time frame.
For example, if in a given quarter, your company’s sprint cadence is one week (Wednesday to Wednesday), you would be looking at ~12 weeks when engineering resources would be dedicated to picking up sprint work that could contain 1-2 SEO fixes (depending on the size). If it’s every two weeks, it’s more like ~6ish weeks of work.
Unless you have a dedicated engineering team, it’s more likely the case that the SEO work will be assigned to a cross-functional team responsible for backend or front-end work.
Every team has a velocity capacity for working on a group of tickets. Velocity is a metric that calculates how long all of the initiatives in a sprint take to complete against their original estimations.
This is important to realize because it means you cannot come to the table in September with a large initiative and think that it will get done before November when teams are preparing for, in the ecommerce world, a period of code freeze leading up to the end-of-year holiday shopping season.
The moral of the story is to prioritize your largest, most impactful and time-consuming initiative(s) first. That way, they have a fighting chance of getting them implemented.
How to write an effective SEO ticket
I’ve developed this framework as a guideline of what to include in your next SEO Jira ticket to make it clear what the issue is and what action should be taken.
Have another teammate review it for clarity. Print this out and put it on your office wall.
|Identify the ticket type and include it in the title||Bug: Element was previously working and now does not.|
Feature enhancement: Improvement would help Search Engines better understand, index and/or rank our pages.
Foundational fix: Building/enabling this functionality is a core competency of a strong SEO Program.
|User Story: Issue / Problem Statement||User Stories are typically written as: |
For product features: “As an SEO Manager, I would like to see X…”
For technical bugs: “As GoogleBot, I would like to see X…”
For human users/customers: “As a User, I would like to see X…”
Issue / Problem Statement
The issue was there is no KPI measurement in place for Link Module URLs.
If we set up a KPI data pipeline to monitor performance,
then we will be able to ascertain the true traffic and revenue impact of the Link Module across all pages,
resulting in the ability to estimate current and future enhancements (i.e., relevancy) and prioritize accordingly.
This can also be written as a hypothesis if you’re testing a technical SEO enhancement.
|Size and Scope||What is the number of URLs impacted? Sitewide? One URL? A group? Attach a spreadsheet with the info.|
|Business ImpactAssumptions/ Risks||Emphasize risks or loss of business (revenue, Visits, time etc.)|
“If we do not fix X, we risk losing Y (revenue, Visits).”
|Devices||mobile web, desktop, tablet|
|User Type||New vs. Returning visitors being impacted.|
|Illustrations||Include any screenshots with arrows or highlighted areas to illustrate the issue.|
|SEO Requirements or Recommendations||Outlines what technical SEO elements need to be fixed or addressed (allow the Dev team to define how).|
Recommendations can include a high-level approach and LOE.
Call out dependencies with other teams.
|Urgency: SEO Impact or Opportunity Size||Quantified in terms of page type and its importance to the business (by amount of Organic Traffic), or volume (by the quantity of URLs affected on the site.|
|AC / Acceptance Criteria||Try to have very clear AC for QA teams to be able to validate and/or partner with an SEO Lead to write test criteria.|
Approvals by the SEO team need to be done in the Jira ticket (not email or Slack) once a showcase or demo of the ticket has occurred.
Examples of effective and ineffective Jira tickets
A waiter would never give a cook a customer’s order that didn’t include details about how they want their steak cooked, particularly details they knew the cook would understand.
Providing SEO requirements to an engineer editing code should be no different.
Below are three examples of SEO tickets similar to the fairytale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Can you spot the ineffective ticket?
An effective ticket is one where a developer can quickly grasp the issue and readily take action.
This one has not enough information to take action:
This one has too much context and information. It’s unclear what to take action on.
Now, this one is just right.
Why do tickets need to be clear?
I chose the word “effective” because if you don’t adhere to these basic principles, you risk writing a subpar set of instructions to another team member that is confusing and cannot be actioned on swiftly. This is almost as egregious as emailing an SEO audit to an engineer with a list of issues and providing no further context.
SEOs, let me remind you when you’re writing a ticket, your audience is a developer followed by a QA (quality assurance) tester. He/she is sitting in front of their workstation, pulling up your ticket where they have a few days, maybe hours, to work on it during the given sprint.
They need to be able to read the ticket and take action.
They are not looking to be educated about SEO at that time. They are not hoping for a history lesson in SEO and are certainly not happy to go digging through your 90-page SEO audit to find the link to the list of URLs on that ticket.
Engineering time is precious and expensive, do not be the team/person responsible for wasting it!
Effective SEO tickets enable engineers and QA teams to do their work accurately and efficiently by being clear about the issue, listing the SEO requirements, and providing specific acceptance criteria so that the work passes QA and gets the green light status of “Ready for production.”
Thinking critically as an SEO product manager
Critical thinking skills are like a muscle; the more you use them, the stronger they get. It can be challenging when you’re at a junior level, so it’s important to keep applying yourself.
Being able to scrutinize your assumptions and hypotheses is an invaluable trait of critical thinking. Ask yourself, “Is the data I’m using truly validating the customer’s needs, or does it back up my opinion?”
It’s essential to be objective and evaluate all scenarios with as little bias toward the desired outcome.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said, “Healthy skepticism is the basis of all accurate information.”
This is an excellent application for developing the critical thinking skills needed to connect the dots between data, consumer behavior and the product features that see the light of day.
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