How to build an enterprise SEO team
In 2022, 10.03 million viewers tuned in to watch the NFL Draft.
Because everyone knows that winning is a result of teamwork.
The NFL Draft supplies a team with talent that has the potential to reshape teams to win more. Coaches pick the talent that fits their style of play and improves the team positively.
If you’re an enterprise SEO Director, think of yourself as a coach. You’re building the right SEO team that will not only help you scale but will fit within your company’s org structure.
Today’s enterprise SEO teams are different from teams of the past: They’re more agile, technical, cross-functional and efficient.
That means enterprise SEO teams must learn to play nice in the same sandbox as the dev, editorial and product marketing teams.
Enterprise SEO teams need to overcome the pitfalls of competing priorities and “us versus them” thinking to establish a shared mindset to create the best customer experience.
As Ren Lacerda, Head of SEO at Carmax, shared with me:
- “The company recognized the strategic value of SEO – beyond the clicks and sales it produces – and we are fortunate to count on significant resources. The soul of our approach is that we believe that to win in SEO is a matter of ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ where it’s rarely one single action that produces results, but the collection of many, many actions focused on creating the best customer experience on the SERPs we are targeting that will bring us the most market share on Google SERPs.”
With my 12+ years of experience scaling enterprise SEO teams, plus the 24 SEO leads I surveyed, here is the insight into how I and others build enterprise SEO teams.
How many people do you have on your enterprise SEO team?
The answer depends on your enterprise SEO brand portfolio.
For example, when I worked with Bloomin Brands with 5+ brands, each brand had its own product lead who would create pods of channel-specific experts. So, there were only two people on the SEO team that supported all the brands with heavy dependence on agencies.
However, when I worked with Hearst Magazine, we had 10 people with one SEO expert for every 1-3 brands or markets.
You’ve got to tread lightly, though. As Ramesh Singh, Head of SEO at Great Learning, shared:
- “There is a lot of pressure on the in-house SEO team to perform and contribute to the overall revenue. If you do not have enough resources in your team to manage different aspects, you will fall short of achieving the goals.”
When I asked the 24 SEO Directors, VPs and Heads, here’s the response:
- 12 out of 24 shared their SEO team consists of 5-10 people.
- 2 out of the 24 shared their SEO team consists of 10-15 people.
- 21 out of 24 said they have a budget to expand their SEO team next year.
My general rule of thumb is for every three brands or websites, one SEO person to lead the enterprise SEO strategy.
What job title do you hire for first on your enterprise SEO team?
Martin MacDonald, Founder of MOGMedia, and previous Head of SEO & Content Marketing at Expedia Group, Orbitz Worldwide, shared how he chose his first SEO hire.
- “I built internal teams for clients as a service, team structure, process and its nuances are specialist subjects of mine. While no two situations are unique, typically, the first senior SEO member will, by necessity, be at a strategist level but must be able to get their hands dirty and do some execution work. A general-purpose non-specialist SEO executive is typically the second hire to share the workload with the strategist. Still, from there on, it’s totally unique: based on existing company structure, resources, and availability.”
Based on my survey of 24 enterprise SEO leaders:
- 11 out of 24 said they would hire an SEO Generalist for their first SEO role.
- 8 out of 24 said they would hire a Content SEO Specialist for their first SEO.
- Only 5 out of 24 said they would hire a Technical SEO Specialist.
Here is typically how you see enterprise SEO leads kick off hiring.
Again, it depends on your company’s business model and the skillset gaps you’re working with.
Before hiring, I recommend you review this SEO Skill Gap Analysis for each team member. You can use this to help create a business use case for the additional headcount.
Should SEO sit under Product or Marketing?
Before I dive into the enterprise SEO team org structure, it’s important to think about where SEO sits within the overall company org chart.
In my experience, enterprise SEO teams often rotate between Sales, Product Marketing, and Marketing.
Personally, I have not seen success when SEO teams sit under Sales or Product Marketing. Here’s why.
Sales teams are driven by forecasts and hard numbers that are then driven by leads or revenue. While SEO is meant to drive revenue, SEO professionals don’t have control over what happens after a person lands on the website. SEO teams choose the wrong tactics to go after just to hit revenue goals.
Product Marketing teams are driven by voice, tone, and branding of the product for the best customer experience. While SEO teams focus on the same goals, SEO professionals can overlook essential tactics.
David Bell, CEO at Previsible.io, breaks it down for us here:
- “The most effective ways I’ve seen teams build are by category or expertise. This depends on what type of business we’re talking about and whether SEO is under Marketing or Product in the org structure. With websites over a million pages, the likelihood of SEO sitting within the product is greater.
- If SEO is under marketing, you’ll most often see the team broken up by category, i.e., an SEO for all furniture and another for all electronics on an e-commerce site. This also may be a good fit for publishers broken out by content category. Under this model, those SEOs will be focused mostly on content SEO and on-page of their respective category.
- When SEO is under Product, the focus is more on hiring for expertise or discipline. The main roles under this model are thought leader/strategist, lead SEO, and analyst roles – generally in that order. You’d expect the people you hire there to have experience in technical and content SEO, but it varies depending on the business needs. These SEOs will likely have to work across categories or properties as the website is large enough that it’s needed.”
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4 examples of enterprise SEO team org structures
When thinking about my team structure, I start with my goals and then build for the outcome. Also, you want your team structure to complement the business model.
1. Hierarchical structure
Here's an example of an enterprise SEO team org following the traditional hierarchy approach.
These hierarchical structures (also known as tall or vertical team structures) are an older example of the corporate food chain. This approach feeds into the "us vs. them" mentality that SEO Directors and VPs set out to avoid.
These structures cause silos and bureaucracy. With SEO, you need to be fast and agile. I don't recommend this org structure.
2. Pod structure
Pod structures are popular with Product Marketing and DevOps teams because it creates a classic cross-functional team approach to tackling campaigns and tasks.
However, for pod structures to work on an SEO team, you need a bigger team size. Tory Gray, CEO of The Gray Dot Company, shared that she was "[a] Growth Product Manager, which encompassed SEO (embedded on an OBT, or objective-based team. I was on the "growth" team alongside resources from the product, email, social, etc. This was cool but ultimately hard to pull off for an org of our size (relatively small)."
Here is an example of a pod SEO team org structure I've seen in the past at enterprise companies.
Each pod has complementary roles:
- Lead: Responsible for driving the big-picture strategy, planning, and coordinating between teams. This typically sits with the SEO Manager or SEO Director in coordination with cross-functional managers (i.e., Product Marketing Manager).
- Producers: The artist behind the quality execution and creativity. This sits with the Specialists with review from the Managers in partnership with the copywriters, engineers, and designers.
- Analysts: The analytical mindset ensures measurement is in place for before and after results. This sits with the Specialists and Managers for review.
This is an approach that Andrew Edgar, Director of SEO at Technology Advice, takes with his team. Edgar shares:
- "Our SEO team works with engineering, creative, and editorial. For engineering, our team utilizes Jira tickets to submit issues/initiatives. As an advocate of SEO and my team, I meet with the Director of our engineering team to ensure our initiatives see the light of day. For editorial, my team meets with the managing editor of the specific site at least once a month. During these meetings, they discuss keywords, topics, and initiatives. This is a collaborative meeting of equals. Both roles are trying to improve the visibility of content. The SEO team will bring ideas for new topics, content optimizations, and refreshes and report on the keyword ranking of key terms. The editor, in turn, will give insight into audience needs and future potential topics that need keyword research. For creative, our team will work alongside editorial and engineering to design pages or key assets. We do this by supporting editorial with creative briefs."
Here is an example of how this pod SEO org structure might work across teams.
Quincy Smith, Head of SEO at Springboard, has a product manager on his team to take the coordination off the SEO leads plate. Smith shares:
- "Every team has an intake form that links to their Asana board so any person or team can submit requests. In addition, each team has a dedicated Slack channel for quicker FAQs. For projects that span teams, we assign a PM who manages everything in terms of progress and updates. If the project is ongoing (like content and SEO), then we share a dedicated workspace and Slack channel for regular communication."
Also, enterprise SEO teams often act like an in-house SEO agency. Pod structures are common at SEO agencies, as Jessica James, Head of SEO Operations at BuiltVisibile, shared.
- "We have separate DPR and content teams who work alongside SEO. The SEO team is mainly responsible for strategy and technical. We have a pod structure, with 3 pods, each led by a senior consultant, who line manages 2-3 consultants, each with their own executive or senior executive supporting their accounts. Depending on what's planned for each account, the pods collaborate to support one another across all accounts.
- Each consultant leads 2-3 accounts under the supervision of their senior consultant. They are the strategic and technical lead, with executives in the account team responsible for much of the execution and the consultants focusing more on overarching strategy. Senior consultants are responsible for upskilling and mentoring their pods, supporting sales, product development and innovation, and marketing."
3. Brand, product, vertical or market structure
Structuring your enterprise SEO team by brand, product or vertical is the most common approach across companies.
For instance, Kyle Faber, Head of SEO at Snark Digital, shared:
- "As Director of SEO at a major publisher, I built the team based on publication/brand, so there were SEO managers for each brand that partnered with editorial and an SEO analyst who worked alongside me with engineering/product on technical SEO."
And, he's not alone. Brian Wood, Senior Director of SEO at Houzz, organizes his SEO team similarly:
- "Our site covers multiple verticals that in our competitors are separate sites, so my team is built with a manager for each vertical and additional support as makes sense for the strategy of each vertical. Some resources are shared, like eng PM."
Here is an example of what a brand, product, vertical or market SEO team org structure might look like.
4. Hybrid structure
The hybrid enterprise SEO team structure combines the best of multiple org structures for the "dream team."
The hybrid approach is my preferred method because let's face it, most enterprise SEO teams are reliant on shared resources.
Eli Schwartz, Growth Advisor at Product-Led SEO, supports this hybrid angle as he explained:
- "I hire SEO professionals that function as PMs for their business units, and they are responsible for all aspects of the product which will include eng decision, product, design, and marketing communication. When an SEO PM functions as a PM, they operate as a hub with eng, dev, editorial, and creative all as spokes whose time needs to be managed and allocated."
I've never had the budget or flexibility to scale a team larger than 3-5 team members. So, enterprise SEO leads are tied to hiring SEO Managers as generalists that support cross-functional teams.
Here is how I create a hybrid org structure for my enterprise SEO teams.
This approach allows your SEO team to be fully integrated across departments. Mordy Oberstein, Head of SEO Branding at Wix, takes a similar approach.
- "We heavily integrate with multiple product teams (mostly SEO, of course, and our performance team, but it can vary to consulting with the ecommerce product team, accessibility team, etc.). We offer direct feedback to anyone from the devs to the UX writers around the needs of SEOs for the product. At the same time, we're incredibly involved on the editorial side. We set the content guidelines around SEO topics so that when whatever team covers SEO as a topic, they understand how present the material. To that, we're constantly reviewing and editing all sorts of content related to SEO."
It's vital that an SEO team member participates in all conversations related to the brand and digital landscape. Casie Gillette, Sr. Director, Digital Marketing at KoMarketing, shares how this works:
- "Using public relations as an example, we will coordinate with them on byline pitching. As part of our link building process, we may try to secure guest posts, so it's important we aren't stepping on their toes or duplicating efforts. This may entail shared publication workbooks, monthly meetings, and byline reviews."
Why it's important to make a business use case for more SEO team members
When I connected with Laura Mathisen, Head of SEO at T-Mobile, she shared how important it is to make a business use case for the C-suite executives to help scale your team.
- "When I started at T-Mobile in 2019, there was one SEO professional, now we have 10 SEO team members. What we did:
1. Built a business case and vision of where we were and where we wanted the team to be in the next 3 years and evangelized it to senior leadership.
2. Hired some of the best SEO professionals in the country focused both on technical and content SEO (did not require a degree and opened up hiring nationwide).
3. Spent time educating from the C-suite down to the business managers on the value of SEO.
4. Began building process and governance."
Deanna Baldwin, Senior SEO Manager at DSW with previous experience at HSN, Chewy, and Royal Caribbean, went through the same experience. She shared:
- "I built our first dedicated SEO team. There were many considerations in determining my team structure: covering foundational SEO areas, setting us up to target our growth opportunities, and factoring in our company's overarching goals, strategies, and roadmaps. This led to my team consisting of an SEO analyst, technical SEO lead, and SEO content lead."
In my previous article on how to budget for enterprise SEO, I shared this budget ask request template to scale SEO team members.
So, how does your enterprise SEO team work with agencies?
I started working at agencies, and I'm incredibly grateful for it because I learned so much. The energy, pace, intelligence, and hands-on experience SEO professionals get from working at agencies are not measurable.
If you're leading an enterprise SEO team with the budget to hire an agency, I highly recommend hiring an agency.
Agencies can help fill the void for any skill gaps and improve the capacity your in-house enterprise SEO team can execute.
That's how Micah Fisher-Kirshner, VP of SEO and Content at Turn/RiverCaptial with previous experiences as the only SEO person at Zendesk, leans on SEO agencies. He stated:
- "Mostly I used external agencies for point service solutions, e.g., content promotion, content scaling given the lack of internal resources and need for speed on the SEO projects. I gave them directions for the goals, what I expected from them, how often we needed to check in, and where things were internally with the work we had."
When I worked with DeepCrawl's professional services, we depended on DeepCrawl for their technical SEO education. Jamie Indigo, Senior Technical SEO at DeepCrawl, shared how they do it.
- "We have client meetings where we present findings from the latest crawls. We have training sessions where we work with teaching agencies. We have clients who outsource their dev work to an external agency, so then it's everyone on a call working it out."
Or, you can utilize your SEO agency for lower-level projects like Laura Mathisen, Head of SEO at T-Mobile.
- "The in-house team focuses the most on strategy, planning, execution, and building relationships cross-functionally to get things done. The agency usually works on lower-level projects, including keyword research and audits. They are essential, though, especially since we've lost two folks recently. They can step in and fill the gap while we are on a hiring pause since we use a retainer."
To be a world-class enterprise SEO team, you need team players
The key to building a world-class enterprise SEO team is you need team players to work across departments.
The reality is until enterprise companies increase the budget to hire more SEO professionals, most enterprise SEO teams will be made up of generalists that can communicate SEO best practices to other teams.
So, as the coach leading the way, set your team up for success with documentation and establish trust for execution. As one person, you're not going to be in every meeting. And your team doesn't want you constantly watching you for instructions.
Give your team the flexibility to operate autonomously.
While documentation and process are essential, it's not a substitute for structuring your enterprise SEO team to align with your company's organization for better knowledge sharing and communication.
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