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SEO Culture

SEO Burnout: 10 Possible Causes & Solutions

 min read
April 24, 2020
Kameron Jenkins
Director of Content & Brand Marketing

Are you feeling burned out?

If so, you're not alone.

For me, burnout happened fairly early in my SEO career. I was exhausted with the amount of work there was to do with no detectable reward. The needle wasn't moving, my clients would complain, and the work would continue to pile up -- a recipe for burnout.

But that's not the only case of burnout I experienced. At other times, it happened because I felt I was "yelling into a void" -- my efforts at evangelizing SEO throughout my organization were falling on deaf ears. At other times, it was because I felt I wasn't technical enough or didn't speak at enough conferences.

Burnout isn't unique to the SEO industry, but SEO does have *unique stressors that are worth talking about.

Maybe some of them will resonate with you.

*In addition to the ten called out below, I recently posed the question to SEOs on Twitter and received a ton of great insights and advice. You can check out the full thread here.

1. Nothing is guaranteed

It's in the name -- an SEO's job is to optimize websites for a search engine's highly sophisticated algorithm that not even Google's own engineers fully understand.

Google's algorithm not only comprises hundreds of ranking factors (or thousands, depending on how you classify them). Google's algorithm is also enhanced by machine learning like RankBrain and BERT, and aided by human quality raters who, although they have no direct control over how pages rank, help provide feedback on whether Google's search results are improving.

Because Google is constantly trying to improve search results, we're going to experience a lot of fluctuation, which can, in turn, cause a lot of uneasiness (for ourselves and our bosses/clients). That's why many SEOs will tell you that instead of chasing the algorithm, we should be chasing what it's trying to achieve -- searcher satisfaction. But that's not always black-and-white, and we find that tactics that work well on one site can have no measurable impact on others.

When SEOs are doing everything "right" and still aren't seeing the desired results, it's a recipe for burnout.

What can we do about this?

One possible remedy is thinking about volatility as an opportunity.

In a recent webinar that was all about volatility, T-Mobile's SEO Manager Shawn Huber said, "The constant change of the industry is what I love about SEO. There's always something to learn about, or some way to try a new strategy or tactic to see if you can improve your rankings."

Tim Resnik, Head of SEO at Walmart, agreed, adding that "you can't chase the change and react to it each time. You have to stick to your core SEO principles… listen to the numbers, take action based on the data -- test, iterate, and keep moving forward."

In a field where nothing is guaranteed, embracing the volatility can be one good way to counter burnout.

2. We're responsible for outcomes without the necessary input

In her book The Executive SEO Playbook, Jessica Bowman explains that "everyone needs to do SEO, but the only people who have it on their performance review goals are members of the SEO team."

What does that mean exactly?

It means that many companies haven't integrated SEO throughout their organization, which leaves room for non-SEO teams to impact SEO metrics. Every day, non-SEOs make decisions without first considering the SEO ramifications. Many of those decisions lead to lost organic search traffic that has a huge impact on the company's bottom line.

Where does this leave the SEO? In a state of constantly fixing issues they could have prevented in the first place if they only had a seat at the table.

For me, it's being responsible for outcomes without having commensurate input. Process would make it better, in my case.

-- Daniela 🌺 LaFave (@daniela_lafave) April 18, 2020

This isn't true for all SEOs, of course. Some SEOs are lucky enough to work for SEO-mature organizations. Forrester refers to these as "Optimizers," and they comprise just 14% of all enterprise organizations. These SEOs are either embedded into content and product teams or work closely with them to ensure search engine best practices are considered before decisions are made.

Without this type of organizational maturity and setup though, the SEO's job becomes constantly putting out fires rather than proactively pursuing growth -- a job that can quickly become exhausting.

(2/2) The pieces that can really meaningfully impact organic *growth* - content, content marketing, social media, branding, etc. - are separate teams. The solution in this case would be to earn a seat at those tables, but that's not always easy to do.

-- Fiona Riedel (@fionamichelle17) April 17, 2020

What can we do about this?

I recently asked SEOs on Twitter what some of their biggest problems were, and this one (unsurprisingly) came up quite a bit. Merkle SEO Manager Christian Collett had some good advice though. Essentially, when it comes to convincing non-SEOs of the importance of taking SEO into consideration when making decisions, the proof is in the pudding.

Showing biz value of SEO by the page type or section of the site those teams control & care about (e.g. show the pdp team pdp specific data)

-- Christian Collett (@Csqrd1124) April 3, 2020

When your executive team sees how leaving SEO out of the equation is hurting your traffic and revenue, they'll probably be more likely to start involving you sooner.

3. Results often come slowly and unclearly

"SEO is a marathon, not a sprint."

How many times have you said that before?

One thing that SEOs realize early on in their careers is that their efforts may not bear fruit for weeks, months, or even years (depending on what you're working toward and what you're up against).

This is a problem. When humans are exposed to rewarding stimuli, the brain responds by releasing dopamine, and we respond by seeking more of that thing. In the context of work, if we see the payoff of our efforts, we'll naturally be motivated to keep going. This means that the opposite is also true. When we work without reward, we'll likely become unmotivated to keep going.

The long-term nature of SEO can also cause our bosses and clients to become impatient. As digital marketing professional George Abbott said:

I think part of the issue is SEO doesn't have the immediate(ish) results that you can see like Email, PPC and social ads.

-- George Abbott (@gabbott) April 17, 2020

On top of that, when we do see fluctuations, it can be difficult to determine the cause. Are we seeing more organic search traffic because of seasonality? Did we lose rank position because we changed the navigation or because we changed the content?

Additionally, many organizations tend to have a tough time attaching SEO success to revenue. This means that the true business impact of SEO is unclear for many.

What can we do about this?

In my experience, having big goals and micro goals is important for combatting this type of burnout. For example, if your only goal is to dominate the SERPs for keywords across an entire category, you're going to feel defeated. Instead, try breaking your big goals into smaller milestones. Then, set goals for each of those milestones.

Kevin Kapezi, in-house SEO specialist at Experian, had this to say:

I think it happens as we're pretty much in the results business and when the rewards aren't easily visible it's easy to get distracted from what will yield long-term results. Keeping an eye on the end goal is key I guess and pacing yourself, while taking pride is small victories

-- Kevin_K90 (@Kevin_K90) April 17, 2020

The revenue question is also a big one. While this might be easier in the e-commerce category where purchases are made for a specific amount on the site itself, it can be much harder for publishers and service-based businesses. It's a big reason why we're prioritizing making revenue data more accessible in our platform. In general, I would say that whenever possible, try to translate your SEO success into figures your execs will care about, AKA dollars and cents.

4. SEO crosses many disciplines, so striving for mastery is exhausting

An outsider would probably have a difficult time articulating what exactly SEOs do simply by reading our conversations on Twitter or our articles in Search Engine Journal.

Why? Because SEO touches so many different disciplines, you have just as many SEOs talking about content as you do JavaScript or marketing or links or NAP or patents or Python or analytics or machine learning… you get the idea.

The truth is, everyone's just trying to find the tools and skills that'll help them do their jobs efficiently, but the second we start to feel responsible for learning everything (even the skills we don't need to perform our job duties), we can quickly get overwhelmed.

What can we do about this?

The best advice I've received to combat this type of burnout is to pick a niche. Avoid the temptation to be all things to all people. Instead, focus on what you're good at, what you enjoy, and what you need to do to perform your job (or the job you want). Putting pressure on yourself to know the rest will just make you feel bad.

5. Constant change and information overload

If there's anything SEOs are used to, it's change. SEOs are living with a constant state of volatility caused by algorithm updates, SERP layout changes, changes from without (competing websites), and changes from within (devs, designers, content, etc. teams are always making changes to the website).

With all this change comes an intense pressure to keep pace or fall behind. When you start to feel like you can't go a day without logging into Twitter or reading the SEO publications, that's when burnout can set in.

What can we do about this?

A simple way to combat this type of burnout (as well as others!) is to take time out and do something else, as Beth Barnham suggests:

Information overload can be overwhelming. My solution is to take time out and do something else, creative or active. Helps me to come back with a fresh set of eyes and more ideas!

-- Beth Barnham (@bethbarnham) April 17, 2020

Many of us love SEO, but too much of even a good thing can be overwhelming and even stifle our productivity. When we take mental breaks, we're much more likely to come back refreshed and more ready to tackle SEO problems than we were before.

6. Keeping up with the Joneses

In her article Are Any of These 3 Things Draining Your Passion for SEO? (which I highly recommend), Casie Gillette discusses the pressure that SEOs often feel to be everything to everyone, and compare yourself to others. She calls this "keeping up with the Joneses" syndrome.

SEO Matt Davies echoed that same sentiment, saying:

There's a lot of "keeping up with the Jones'" in SEO, as in most marketing. So many people marketing themselves as hard as any of their clients, chasing that "thought leader" status.

Most people will struggle to keep up, leading to ye olde "imposter sydrome" & burnout.

-- Matt Davies (@matt_davies) April 19, 2020

As if we didn't already put enough pressure on ourselves, there are some in the SEO community who can be critical of other people's work and opinions. While there are many amazing, helpful people in the SEO community, I know plenty of people (myself included) who have been sent into "I'm not good enough" territory by a disparaging comment.

Eric Wu, who works on product growth at Honey, says that while it may not be true of a bulk of SEOs, there's enough of this to make things more unpleasant than in other disciplines he's worked in:

As a person fortunate enough to split my time among other disciplines, the thing that drains me the most is the constant misinformation, overly confident personalities, and the people who are just looking to prove they're an "expert" to everyone else.

-- Eric Wu ❤️💐 (@eywu) April 18, 2020

What can we do about this?

I think the SEO community as a whole would benefit from asking "is this helpful?" and "is this kind?" more often.

When you see/hear a "noob" comment, remember that you were once there yourself. Be a guide to those people and help them grow, because criticism is only going to dull their spark for SEO.

When you see/hear something you don't agree with, remember how much of SEO is subjective. When "it depends" is practically our mantra, it's important to leave room for nuance and avoid correcting others when we don't have all the context. An amazing example of how to be inclusive and create a safe space for SEOs is Areej AbuAli and her Women in Tech SEO community. Follow them for a better idea of what it looks like to be supportive of your fellow SEOs.

7. Overloaded and under-resourced

Having too much to do is definitely not unique to the SEO industry, but it's definitely common. Why is this?

To reference the Forrester study again, SEO-immature organizations dedicate fewer resources to SEO, leading to much smaller teams. When you consider that SEO-immature organizations comprise 86% of all enterprise companies, it's understandable that a majority of SEOs feel like they're completely drowning in work, a common cause of burnout.

Pt. 1 - I just recently experienced this and have some points.

Fighting to create an SEO culture is exhausting, fighting for resources you should have and trying 3x as hard to get results will suck the wind out of you

After 5 years, I just had enough...

-- Martin Kelly (@MartinKSEO) April 19, 2020

What can we do about this?

In a perfect world, every SEO would be able to get the resources and time they need, because having more time to dedicate to your work is almost always going to produce a better result.

The solution for me would be less clients per SEO. It'd give me more time to diagnose, strategize, and connect with clients. We all want to feel like we're doing impactful work and we're connecting with our clients in a meaningful way.

-- Fable McDonald ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ★彡 (@McFableton) April 18, 2020

This isn't always possible though, and despite an SEO's best efforts at making the business case for more resources, they may still not get what they need. In this case, the only real solution may be to seek out an organization that places a higher priority on SEO.

8. Monotony that leads to boredom

This may not be true of all SEOs, but many SEOs can start to feel that their jobs are monotonous, leading to boredom, difficulty focusing, and ultimately, burnout.

You may work at an agency that only takes on clients in a certain vertical, or work in-house on the same website every day. The problems may start to all look the same, so SEO becomes less challenging and less interesting every day.

What can we do about this?

Interestingly, I got two seemingly opposing pieces of advice that I think are equally valid solutions to the problem of boredom.

Some SEOs may be reinvigorated by learning a new skill or coming up with a fresh strategy:

For me, burnout equals (or feels a lot like) boredom. I'm not sure which comes first, but for me, the solution is typically a fresh stamp in my SEO passport - like a new strategy, new perspective/angle, or a new skill that gets me excited about search all over again.

-- Emily Brady (@Plotboilers) April 18, 2020

While others might be able to renew their passion for SEO by going back to the basics they know -- the things that made them fall in love with SEO in the first place:

j/k - that's a great question! For me it's some form of going back to the basics, refreshing documentation, doing a re-audit, or if it's closely tied to just a personal burnout definitely some form of a break/exercise/talking to others for support etc

-- Dan Shure (@dan_shure) April 17, 2020

9. The pressure to be famous

Have you ever thought that you should speak at more conferences, be on more podcasts (or start one), Tweet more, or pursue a column in one of the popular search engine publications?

There are plenty of good reasons to do those things. For one, they can help you engage and form tighter bonds with others in the SEO community. Building up your network of SEOs outside of your own organization can help you get fresh ideas and even be a source of referrals. Building up your public presence can also help you attract more clients if you run a business or freelance.

The problem comes when building up your public presence seems like something you have to do, and you get discouraged when it seems like you're not doing enough to get that visibility.

What can we do about this?

When we start to feel this type of discouragement, I think it's important to ask ourselves why we want these things in the first place.

More often than not, at least for me, I find that discouragement happens because I've started to want those things for the wrong reasons. Let's all try to focus more on the community we're building than how many Twitter followers we have.

10. Bosses & clients who just don't understand

When SEO confuses even day-to-day practitioners, you know it's exponentially worse for non-practitioners, AKA your bosses and clients.

This problem is only exasperated by the fact that SEO results (at least the ones your executive team cares about) can take a while to see.

You might know that you're doing a good job, but if your bosses or clients still aren't happy (especially since our brains tend to overemphasize the negative), it can really dull your passion for the job, as Rebekah Dunne says:

I think achieving amazing things and having your client or boss saying it's not good enough constantly can really burn you out. Not just physically but your passion for the job too.

-- Rebekah Dunne (@RebekahDunne) April 18, 2020

What can we do about this?

As discouraging as this can be, it can be a great opportunity for education. For example, in past jobs, I held SEO trainings for our internal, non-SEO teams. I did this initially because I was frustrated that people were either ignoring or spreading misinformation about SEO, but I actually ended up loving it. Plus, the added facetime can help you build good rapport with your non-SEO teammates and clients. Win-win.

We're in this together

On top of these ten common causes of burnout in the SEO industry, at the time of writing this, we're also in the midst of one of the worst pandemics the world has ever seen. Many of the companies we work for are scrambling to bounce back, and many SEOs have sadly been laid off or furloughed. I have no doubt that many of us are feeling more burned out than ever before.

To deal with the stressors of SEO and the volatile time we're in, community is more important now than ever. If you need to talk, my DMs are open. I'd also encourage you to reach out to other SEOs you might know to share what you're going through -- chances are, they're going through (or have been through) some of the same things.

Let's remember, we're in this together.

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