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Pro SEO Tip: Make love, not war with your dev team

Want to have the ability to upload thousands of optimized title tags in one fell swoop? Or add custom SEO tools to your company’s CMS? Or build complicated redirect logic to nip a myriad of potential canonical/duplicate content issues at the bud? Want to truly scale your SEO and take it to previously unforeseen heights?

There’s a dev team for that. And it’s probably sitting right under your nose.

In my experience, most in-house dev teams – particularly at large organizations – have the programming, server admin, and database admin capabilities to achieve some truly profound SEO implementation. Unfortunately, it’s also been my experience that many in-house, agency, and freelance SEO leaders fail to fully tap into these capabilities for a variety of reasons, none the least of which is anadversarial approach to communicating with the individual members – including executive leaders – of said team.

Granted, making friends with a dev team can be a daunting and potentially complex task depending on the size of your organization and depth of it’s technological underpinnings, so I figured I’d share some techniques that have paid dividends for me:

  1. Have some respect – Seriously, if I had a nickle for every time I heard an SEO bad-mouth a developer or development team either in person or in the Twittersphere I probably wouldn’t have too much money since I’d need to accumulate 2,000 nickles to make $100, but I digress…my point is that just because you know your way around an htaccess file, some javascript, and a handful of PHP functions doesn’t mean that you fully grasp the complexity of maintaining a large, data-driven web portal. Moreover, even though certain coding conventions seem like obvious missteps from your SEO-centric viewpoint, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other non-SEO-related factors that are potentially complicating the situation. Therefore, it’s better to address dev-related SEO opportunities respectfully and with a spirit of collaboration and cooperation than it is to go in guns blazing with a healthy dose of condescension. 
  2. Remember that SEO isn’t always (e.g. almost never is) the No. 1 priority – Heresy, I know. But the fact of the matter is that – for example – if a new code release creates problems with the checkout functionality or slows down page load speed (or creates a myriad of other potentially business critical issues) addressing said issue is going to trump your needs. So instead of escalating SEO-related dev requirements to the executive team prematurely (or unnecessarily) start by working directly with the developer(s) and the product/project management team to understand what the current priorities are and where there might be some open time slots where your SEO tweaks can fit into the overarching plan.
  3. Remember that usability trumps SEO – Even worse heresy, I know. Yet while it’s seemingly counter intuitive, I’ve found that giving ground – and some case completely giving way – on decisions that might not be 100% SEO friendly is the most sure-fire way to earn the trust and respect of your dev team (and your product team, and your design/creative team, and your C-level executives). And you know what? More often than not, what you will find is that those elements you gave ground/way on don’t end up being as “make or break” as you thought they would be and/or as that supposed SEO guru/blogger/thought leader said they would be. Moreover, your willingness to not always make it about you will help ensure that when you do raise the red flag on truly critical SEO facets folks will take time to listen and comply.
  4. Learn to code, learn to manage a server(s), and learn to manage database structures – Few things will be more humbling, liberating, and empowering. The perspective you will gain will be profound, and best of all, you’ll be a in a much better position to understand exactly what your site(s) and your dev team are up to as well as being in a much better position to lucidly explain your needs and desires.
  5. Give your team explicit and public-facing credit when things go right – saw a big increase in SEO visits or revenue that were at least partially attributed to dev implementation? Made it through a major site redesign and/or CMS migration with no major SEO hiccups? Etc, and so forth? Make it a point to give your team a healthy dose of praise. And don’t just praise them directly. Make sure to also give your bosses and your bosses’ bosses the heads up via email and/or in-person, so that the dev folks know that you’ve got their back and that you plan in sharing the success. This is yet another way to get serious buy-in and collaboration.

And if all else fails, I hear that the occasional round of drinks doesn’t hurt ; )




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  • http://twitter.com/seoteky jayson bagio

    Respect…that’s the most important thing…I worked as a head SEO for a company back then, they got well seasoned web developers there. Our boss asked me to teach his dev team SEO. With respect, I was able to connect to them even if I am just 25 and they are 40 to 50 years old..

    • hugoguzman

      Ain’t it the truth, Jayson! Respect is key in all facets of life and it comes in particularly handy when establishing rapport and trust with an enterprise-caliber dev team. Thanks for chiming in!

      • http://www.nickeubanks.com/ Nick Eubanks

        I just wanted to jump in and really reinforce my beliefs here. I have the extreme pleasure of working very closely with my whole dev team, and the nuances of marketing and the large gap between their technical knowledge and my own was a stumbling block at first – but has now become a complimentary relationship.

        We all have the respect to know when to ask the other, and the empathy to hear out one’s reasons and beliefs even when we don’t agree (which often results in not agreeing at first, and later coming to a more effective amicable agreement.

        This point is still understated and under-appreciated. Thanks Hugo.

        • hugoguzman

          Thanks for sharing, Nick! And you make a fantastic point about the synthesis that can occur when the two sides approach initial disagreements amicably and with an open mind.

  • http://twitter.com/dancristo Dan Cristo

    Great points there, Hugo.

    I think SEOs have burned some bridges in the past with devs. More than once I’ve known SEOs who insist devs redesign massive chunks of the site to make ‘s or some minor on-page element more SEO friendly. They have no idea how much effort it takes to do minor changes in many cases. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of devs despise SEOs for that reason.

    I also think basic SEO is common knowledge for most devs and creative shops these days. Because of that, they want to bill their sites as “seo friendly” which of course when an SEO comes along they feel threatened and try to prove the devs or creatives don’t know a think about SEO. I’ll label one, “Turf Wars”.

    • hugoguzman

      Great point, Dan! Your example is a good one because it helps outline one of the failures that many enterprising SEOs are plagued by; they don’t know how to properly form an empirical business valuation that calculates the level of effort involved in changing something like H2s for all pages (e.g. the number of employee or billable dev hours) vs. the actual business upside (e.g. the number of visits, conversions, revenue dollars, etc.) that making such a change would drive. In many of these cases the SEO upside is minimal compared to amount of effort involved, and yet the SEO will continue to demand it based on an unfounded appeal to SEO purity. I call this “SEO in a vacuum” syndrome.

  • http://twitter.com/bencken Jeremy Bencken

    I started my career in sw development and I agree that devs deserve respect, but I think often its the SEO team that starts off with a deficit. In my experience, the best way to earn it is to reframe some of the conversations.

    Don’t let “usability” mean “anything marketing thinks looks nice.” Redefine it in terms of time on site, bounce, or conversion, goals everyone can agree to. If you lead the charge with A/B tests or live tests via services like usertesting.com, you can usually get everyone to align toward those goals.

    “Learn to code, learn to manage a server(s), and learn to manage database structures.” Amen. You should have enough technical depth to know when dev is overlooking an easier way to accomplish whatever you’re asking for. When you bring creative, simpler solutions to the table, everyone’s happier.

    • hugoguzman

      Thanks for swinging by to chime in, Jeremy! There’s no doubt that framing conversations the right way (e.g. with empirical and technical rigor) can pay off in a big way.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    “Remember that usability trumps SEO.” This is important advice to take. If you are redesigning a site or just uploading a new piece of content, you need to make sure that whatever you publish on the web provides a good user experience. Look for opportunities and optimize where possible for SEO, just make sure that what you publish make sense to people, not just the search engine spiders.