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The business value of your SEO employee’s “side projects”

This is a guest post by Dan Cristo, a colleague and personal friend of mine. Dan is the Director of SEO at Catalyst Search Marketing. His blog can be found at http://dancristo.com. He’s easily accessible on Twitter @dancristo or via email dan [at] dancristo.com

If you’re an SEO in corporate America, it’s likely that one of your top goals is to go from day-to-day execution to some sort of management position. In my experience, the best way to make that happen has been to stand out and make yourself in invaluable. This post is going to show you how to stand out, and how to make yourself invaluable through the use of side projects and freelance jobs.

What Do You Mean, “Side Projects”?
By 2007, I had already been doing SEO for a few years. Even so, my skills were average, my theory was a little outdated and I was new to the agency world. I was also engaged (to my now wife) and because we were planning on getting married in a few months, she begun taking birth control.

(I know we’re getting a little personal here, but that’s ok. You’ll see why we went there in a second.)

She needed to be reminded daily to take her pill, so I tried sending her text messages to remind her, but I soon forgot to do so. This glaring need for reminders sparked an idea for a website called TextReminders.net. A simple web app that send scheduled, recurring text reminders. This was my first side project, and at the time I didn’t have any idea how important these types of side projects were going to be to my career.

Why are Side Projects Important for SEOs?
You might expect me to say that side projects are important because you can practice your SEO or test new theories. While that’s true, that’s not what makes them so valuable in my opinion.

The real value side projects have is in that they force you to solve problems yourself; problems you wouldn’t normally want to spend the time learning how to solve, but ones that you’ll likely run into with clients at some point in your career. For example, my second project was an ambitious video sharing platform (like video Twitter on steroids). Learning about video, content management systems and the like was difficult, but because I wanted to make this project succeed, I spent long hours learning about video players and codecs. Something I would have never done normally, but my passion for making this startup succeed forced me to push through and figure it out.

Note: This is the key takeaway of the entire post – Side projects making learning and overcoming problems enjoyable. You couldn’t pay me enough money to spend months learning about video SEO, yet I’d do it for free if I needed to figure it out for a side project.

Sure enough, last year I started with a new agency as organic tech director, and my first task was to troubleshoot a client that made heavy use of video on their site. Seriously? Yep! I was able to jump right in, evaluate the situation and make a recommendation on the spot. That was a heck of a first impression at a new job, and situations like that have come up time and again. My experience from side projects has allowed me to solve problems before I face them in the corporate world.

Bring the Innovation!
Every company in the modern world values innovation. As an SEO, you’ve chosen an industry rooted in it, and if you want to rise above the rest, you’re going to have to constantly bring it. For example, most SEOs hate link building. It’s pretty much the bane of our existence. So, how did I turn a much-hated task into a fun and effective project for our team?

I once again turned to my video sharing project. I knew that video was an extremely engaging platform, so contacting webmasters with personalized videos via Twitter became a much more exciting and effective way of performing webmaster outreach. It didn’t take long for me to push video into other areas of the company: sales pitches, employee directories, training. Soon the company gave the ok to invest in some decent video equipment, and now we’ve got a little studio setup on site. Once a week the team does a video shoot where we record training videos for the other SEOs in the company.

Note for Managers: If you want your team to stand out, empower them to become trainers for the other groups

My most recent side project was never meant to be useful to me as an SEO. The site is a tool for bloggers who want to automatically retweet their friends blog posts, not exactly something I can use for SEO. However, as membership on the site grew, I realized that I was actually creating a network of thousands of bloggers. Now in the world where rankings are made up of content and links, it didn’t take me long to see the value of having a network of bloggers this large.

As SEO agencies look to scale link building for their clients, they’re going to have to rely on networks like mine. And because I’ve spent the last 2 months working on this side project – simply because it seemed like a fun venture – I’ve now got a valuable asset that my agency can use over and over again.

Moreover, I now have experience working with the Twitter API, which is going to come in handy when I need to execute upcoming link building ideas using Twitter.

Show Your Employer the Money:
There are times when an employer may feel uncomfortable with you working on a side project. They may think that your attention is on your project, and not your job. They may be worried that your start-up will actually become a company, and that you’ll subsequently leave. For one reason or another, insecurities are common to managers who don’t see the value your entrepreneurial efforts bring to the company. So that’s where you need to show them the money. Show them how side projects make you more innovative, experienced and ultimately better at your job.

For the Employers in the Room:
Managers need to be careful how they respond to employees that work on side projects. You’ve got to know that a side project is usually something very important to the employee, because they’ve invested time, effort and money into it. For this reason, try to positive about the idea, even if you’re not thrilled with it at first glance.

Here are a few tips for handling employees side projects:
- Encourage at all times:
Even if the project doesn’t really have clear business benefit, you still want to encourage them to keep trying. A side project is like a little baby. Even if the baby is ugly, you still need to be gentle with the parents.

- Be constructive:
The project itself may have some flaws, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Try to add some constructive feedback. If the employee sees that you welcome new ideas, they’ll be more willing to bounce crazy ideas off you in the future. One of those may lead to a promotion for the both of you.

- Encourage innovation on company time:
Google splits up their employees time in a  70/20/10 split. 70% spent on core job functions, 20% on related ideas or projects, and 10% on un-related ideas or personal projects that interest them. So if you were a search engineer at Google, you’d spend 70% of your time tweaking the search algorithm, 20% of your time creating a new Maps API and 10% of your time could be spent programming cars that drive themselves. This sort of break down keeps employees fresh, creative and loyal.

If you can’t split your employees time up in that way, try to introduce a company-wide contest related to their job function. Perhaps give away tickets to an SEO event to the one who can get the highest ranking for a keyword phase, or show the highest ROI for a client. You’ll be surprised at the creative things an employee will do win a contest.

- Support Innnovation from the Top Down:
Consider having the company sponsor the best new idea your group can come up with. For example, ask employees for innovative, job related ideas. Once a month the most innovative idea will be chosen, and a task force will work on making that idea happen. Perhaps a small budget can be allocated as well. At the end of the day the employees get to see their ideas turn into reality, and the company owns a number of innovative ideas and projects. If you’re skeptical if this model is worth following, try researching how Twitter got started. You’ll find innovation is just waiting to come out if you’ll give it a chance.

Wrapping it up:
Both companies and employees tend to restrict themselves when it comes non-work related tasks. Don’t. Recognize that non-work related projects give experience, cultivate creativity and most importantly, they allow you to fail in ways that don’t affect your core job functions. With that failure comes the type of learning that will help you stand out.

Have you started a side project? Have you told your employer about it? What was their reaction? Tell us about your experience in the comments section.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://twitter.com/hyderali_ Hyder

    Good post dan,

    Yes, I’ve side projects i.e my own seo blog & didn’t revealed it to my employer because they may think as you said concentrating more my blog rather than focussing on client site. The tips you shared are really good & one must consider them if they want their employees to retain.

  • http://www.theoceanagency.com Mike – Chicago SEO guy

    I think the Google model is a great one here. When employees are allowed to have a creative outlet, it opens them up to new ideas, and, I ‘d argue, makes them more effective employees.

    Some managers might discourage side-projects, but with that type of thinking, you probably aren’t going to retain the best kind of employees anyway.

    Thanks for writing this post. Very much reflects my own thoughts on the issue.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the feedback, Mike! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  • http://newerthguide.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel Alzaga

    I’m employee of a small marketing firm. I have some side projects but it seems that they’re not that happy about it.

    • Anonymous

      Sorry to hear that, Nathaniel.

  • http://www.kingrosales.com Calgary Internet Marketing

    Hi Hugo, well said. I believe its important that an SEO have side projects. I started SEO while freelancing before college. Employers should realize that these side projects provides you with education they don’t have to pay for. I don’t think its necessary to indulge them with every detail, but let them know that you’re passion bleeds past 9 – 5. As long as it doesn’t interfere with your work, I think its ok.

    • Anonymous

      Glad you enjoyed the piece and I definitely agree with your point of view!

  • Marco Gutierrez

    Couldn’t agree more to all of the post. I am a vivid example of the guy that after college didnt know much about where my education was going to take me. My background is Advertising and marketing, and had worked in customer service and sales most of my life.

    With that said…

    I started working on my own projects three years ago developing a website to engage the holistic culture in Costa Rica, so that they could have a site to meet other people with same interests.

    Doing so I had to force my self to learn to make websites on my own. (at this time I was in Arizona in a small town in the middle of the dessert 1.15 mins away from civilization) Took me a while but the experience of going to blogs, pulling info off the sleeve and getting in touch with people that new about the subject, gave me the tools and knowledge I needed to be where I am at this point in my life.

    Then came the little bit of coding I know, the use of Joomla and related sites, installing blogs, learning about SQL to keep a database, logo design, and all that takes to create a site…..and of course learn about SEO.

    When I went for my first interview after graduating from School, to an Internet marketing company, they saw a guy very enthusiastic with the SEO world, website development and entrepreneur. They happily welcomed me in and gave me a shape of an SEO, the figure aint finished since I keep learning everyday, and molding my self even more.

    It does pay to have your own hobbies and babies, even if they are ugly, or dont make it, like it was my case..but learned to much about them that I wont be afraid to try it again.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for sharing that great anecdote, Marco. Keep on keepin’ on!