Developers Evangelizing SEO Technical SEO

SEOs & Developers: 7 Tips for Working Better Together & Getting Your Projects Implemented

yellow gears

SEOs sit at the intersection of many teams — marketing, editorial, PR, user experience, and engineering. That interdisciplinarity requires that we not only know about those other disciplines and how they affect the KPIs we care about. We also need to know how to communicate and collaborate with our friends in those fields.  

But that’s often easier said than done. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose redirect project didn’t get done before launch because it wasn’t a priority or who has waited years to finally get permission to update canonicals.   

When we’re short on time, have competing priorities, and often don’t even work in the same department, it can be difficult to come together to tackle critical SEO projects. 

SEOs and developers in particular need to work together because in many cases, although the SEO team will identify the issues and opportunities, it’s the engineering team that has to execute them.

So how can we work together to ensure our SEO projects get handled?

1. Consider their time and resources

Before you submit your first ticket, it’s important to take the time to consider your engineering team’s time and resources. 

Ask questions like:

  • How many people are working on the team? 
  • What other projects are they working on right now?
  • What are their goals and priorities for the current development cycle? For the quarter?

Asking these types of questions will help orient you so that you’ll understand when to make requests and also how (e.g. submitting large projects vs. breaking the ask into smaller chunks). 

According to Uber’s SEO Lead Jackie Chu, engineering hours are notoriously scarce, so avoid asking for a huge project without considering their resources unless you want an instant “no.”

2. Know the difference between features and bugs

There are generally two sides to the SEO coin: proactively pursuing opportunities for growth and fixing issues that prevent growth. 

That’s the difference between features and bugs.

You’re almost guaranteed to get bugs fixed faster than features, which is why Jackie also recommends separating those projects out instead of bundling them.

What are some examples of bugs? Things like:

  • Server errors
  • Browser or device compatibility issues
  • Very slow page speeds

And the like generally fall into that category.

3. Get leadership buy-in first

What motivates you to do what you do at work? It’s likely that you perform the tasks that you do because you’re trying to achieve an objective set by your boss or the wider leadership team at your organization.

It’s the same for your development team.

For that reason, it can be beneficial to make the business case for your SEO projects to senior leadership first. Then, once you have buy-in, make your request to the development team.

However, the exact process will depend heavily on your organizational setup. 

When I asked Digital Marketing Consultant Natalie Arney whether it was important if directives come from managers & execs, she said that it can depend on who typically assigns SEO tasks, whether there are project or product managers involved, and whether the SEO team is an agency or in-house.

Jackie Chu also added that the bigger the project, the more likely you’ll need executive buy-in. Smaller projects may not require that extra legwork.

4. Break silos

How effectively you’re able to work with your development team will depend a lot on how openly you’re able to communicate with them.

I’ve personally worked with organizations where the development team was an impenetrable fortress by design. The idea was to protect their time, but the unintended byproduct was that SEO requests never made it onto their radar.

In other cases, although SEO teams work alongside development teams, the department lines are rigid and don’t foster collaboration.

Some organizations have solved this problem by integrating SEO into their development teams.

We talk about that in more detail in Where Does SEO Live? Tips for Structuring a Successful Enterprise SEO Team

SEO's role on product teams

If integrating SEO onto your engineering teams isn’t in the cards, then try meeting with your developers directly for brainstorming sessions rather than going through a middleman.

5. Learn to speak their language

It’s unlikely that you’ll get your requests implemented if the development team doesn’t understand what you’re asking. It’s also much easier to get requests approved if you frame them in a language your engineers will understand from the get-go.

For this reason, many SEOs who said they had good relationships with their development teams suggested putting the work in to understand the world devs live in and the language they speak.

For example, familiarize yourself with an agile development cycle, if that’s how your development team operates. Understand terms such as:

  • Scrum
  • Sprints
  • Acceptance Testing 
  • Epics / User Stories 
  • Kanban 
  • Product Owner 

You’ll not only want to know what terms like these mean, but also how they change the way you need to work with your engineering team. You can find a thorough list of agile development terms here

How you position your SEO asks is equally important. 

Cooper Hollmaier, SEO at REI, explained that he often frames these conversations as customer problems rather than SEO problems. That’s because the developer’s goal is most often going to be delivering the best experience for people. By framing SEO problems as customer problems, and describing search engine bots as another type of customer/visitor, it’ll be more obvious that SEOs and developers are working toward the same goal.

Others commented that they’ve had success reframing SEO issues as site health issues, another thing development teams will definitely care about.

When it comes to speaking the development team’s language, some SEOs even recommended learning how to code. When I asked whether coding skills were a “nice to have” or required, one product manager responded that certain skills definitely made his job easier.

Someone else commented that a development background makes it easier for SEOs to understand what is and isn’t possible. This knowledge can make for requests that are better received by the development team, and therefore more likely to get implemented.

The minimum viable knowledge SEOs will need to have of web development is going to depend heavily on the organization and unique goals, but all SEOs should at least have the ability to speak to developers in a language they can understand. If you’re interested in learning more about that, Lily Ray has a great list of common SEO requests and what details web developers need from you in order to effectively execute them.

6. Describe, don’t prescribe

When you need development help for an SEO project, you tell your developer exactly what you need to be done, right? 

Not so fast.

It can feel natural to want to prescribe your desired solution to the person who needs to carry it out, but when it comes to developers, that method can backfire, causing tension.

Instead, respect their expertise by describing the problem. Jayna Grassel, Director of Marketing Services at Bounteous, explains that this works because developers are natural troubleshooters.

In addition to describing the problem, it can be helpful to describe your objective. Go beyond explaining the issue to explain why it’s a problem worth solving. Why is it important to you? To the company?

Cooper Hollmaier echoed that sentiment, saying that instead of prescribing the solution, he’ll describe the friction he’s trying to alleviate, and that tends to be much more effective.

So, want your SEO projects implemented? Trust your development team’s expertise and focus on describing what problem you’re trying to solve and why it’s important.

7. Keep the conversation going

You’ve effectively secured your development team’s time and gotten them to complete your project. Your job is done, right?

Not quite!

Your development team will want to know that the time and resources they invested in your project were well spent, which is why reporting can be so crucial, as Jackie Chu pointed out.

Sharing results with your development team can:

  • Make it easier to get future SEO projects approved
  • Validate your expertise
  • Show your appreciation for their hard work 

For more on using reporting to improve the feedback loop with your engineering team, Ben Goodsell (Founder of Tight Ship Consulting) and Clara Li (Product Manager at GrubHub) wrote up a great list of tips you can use. 

Reporting isn’t the only way to keep the conversation going though. You can also improve relationships with your development team by creating avenues for discussion. Try setting up a Slack channel where you can discuss articles and news, or setting up recurring meetings to cover topics in-depth.

Even if you don’t sit in the same department as your development team, you can still create relationships and share best practices so that you’re already on the same page before a need comes up, making it much easier to get projects approved and implemented. 

There’s definitely a learning curve to working with developers if you’ve never done it before, but learning what motivates them and how they operate can be critical to getting your SEO projects implemented. 

Respect their expertise, know what drives them, and work on fostering positive two-way conversations for the best chance of success.

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