One of the top struggles faced by SEOs is not getting the buy-in and budget they need to execute their projects.
SEOs often feel that they’re not taken seriously, can sometimes be siloed away from the rest of the business, and in some cases, treated as a cost center rather than a profit center.
That can all change with OKRs.
To learn more, I chatted with Garrett Mehrguth, CEO of Directive and SEO OKR advocate.
OKR stands for “objectives and key results.” It’s a framework for setting goals that virtually everyone can use — SEOs, content marketers, digital marketers… you can even use it in your personal life.
To understand the OKR, you need to understand its two main components:
💡 What’s the difference between an OKR and a KPI? The main difference is that OKRs are centered on a specific goal you’d like to achieve in a period of time (e.g. a quarter), while KPIs typically measure ongoing work or processes that are already in place.
Garrett told me that, in his experience, SEO work typically involves weekly work and monthly reporting, but with OKRs, you’re switching that to quarterly strategies, monthly data analysis, and bi-weekly updates.
“OKRs allow you to go upward to management and say ‘Here’s what I’m going to be accomplishing over the next 90 days for you. Every two weeks you’re going to know exactly what I did and why I did it. Every 30 days you’re going to know the result of what I did. And every 90 days you’re going to know whether or not I accomplished my objective.’”
So, why does he believe so wholeheartedly in OKRs for SEO?
“By setting an objective and key results, you can stop being transactional, stop pivoting, and finally start being impactful enough to charge a premium for your work.”
If OKRs are that powerful, it’s important that we understand how to set them ourselves.
So what do SEO OKRs look like in practice?
“Say your boss or your client tells you they need 200 MQLs next quarter,” said Garrett.
💡 MQL stands for “marketing qualified lead” and is a common acronym for businesses that operate on a lead generation basis, like the ones Garrett and the team at Directive work with. MQLs are leads that are likely to become a customer, but not quite ready to buy.
“In response to that goal, you might set your key result as 30 pieces of content, 200 links, and 1 new infrastructure change. Those key results should have a 1:1 correlation with hitting your objective.”
In other words, don’t pick anything as a key result that won’t help you achieve your objective.
At this point, you may be wondering “how is an MQL an SEO goal?”
Traditionally, SEO goals have been centered around rankings and traffic. While there’s nothing wrong with keeping track of traditional SEO metrics like that, it’s important to remember that SEO is a means to an end. It’s a tool that your boss or your client is paying for in order to achieve some business outcome.
It’s important to attach SEO work to larger business goals because, as Garrett told me, “when you work on things that aren’t connected to your business goals, you devalue yourself.”
If we want to show our true value as SEOs, we need to align our work with the goals of the larger organization.
When it comes to SEO work, practitioners tend to operate on one of two main frameworks: sprints and OKRs.
Like we’ve talked about, OKRs tend to involve long-term (often quarterly) planning. Sprints, on the other hand, involve executing work in short, iterative periods (often two weeks).
So, is one better than the other? Let’s take a look.
The concept of “sprints” comes from the agile methodology.
💡 Agile is a set of principles, drawn from the Agile Manifesto, for managing the development of software.
One of agile’s core values is “responding to change over following a plan.” In other words, rather than having a set plan for building a product that you don’t deviate from, you place a higher priority on allowing room for change.
Sprints is how they accomplish this. These short, typically two-week periods allow developers to break up a larger project (e.g. building a product) into smaller chunks.
Not only do the smaller chunks make the larger product more manageable. It also means development teams deliver work on a more frequent basis, which in turn allows them to get feedback and iterate more than they would have been able to with a rigid plan.
So what does that have to do with SEO?
Some SEOs have adopted the agile methodology and work in sprints because they report to Product (rather than marketing) and work alongside development teams.
Rather than growth goals, in many cases, their goals are centered around ensuring that the “product” the development team is building (e.g. an e-commerce experience) is crawlable, indexable, and overall optimized for searchers and search engine bots.
💡 Related resource: Where Does SEO Live? Tips For Structuring A Successful Enterprise SEO Team
But there are also those SEOs who have growth goals and work with performance marketing teams. For these SEOs, sprints may not be the right choice.
If your performance as an SEO is being judged on KPIs like traffic, conversions, and revenue, and you don’t report to a Product team, you’ll definitely want to consider OKRs.
OKRs prevent you from pivoting too quickly, and pivoting too quickly, according to Garrett, is one of the worst things SEOs with growth goals can do.
“While pivoting quickly can be a strength when your organization is just starting out, it can become your weakness as you grow. For example, if you’re meeting and planning work on a weekly basis, you may identify a fire and come up with a plan for putting it out one week, but because you meet again the next week, another fire is identified before you even have a chance to fully put out the first one.”
It’s the complete opposite with OKRs.
“With OKRs, you decide what you want to accomplish in the next 90 days and stick to it. This means you worry less about what’s happening day-to-day. The truth is that many of the day-to-day things we think are important aren’t actually the most impactful. So if you decide that you want to create lasting change that not only fixes what you have today but sets you up for success tomorrow, you need OKRs. This gets you out of your reactivity and into proactive planning. OKRs allow you to think bigger.”
And when you think bigger, you get more done. Garrett put it to me like this:
“People do the work that fits in their reporting cadence. For example, we’re doing 150 pieces of content for our learning system, Institute. I might not set a goal like that if I had just 14 days to do it. In that case, I might be tempted to say ‘let’s just try to do one or two pieces per week.’ But if I know I have 90 days, I’m more comfortable setting that big goal and sticking to it.”
In my opinion, OKRs and sprints aren’t mutually exclusive, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other.
OKRs and sprints are both tools. And as we know, every tool serves a different purpose.
Generally, sprints are good for reactive fixes, putting out fires, and optimizing the ongoing work of agile development teams.
OKRs, on the other hand, are great for proactive long-term growth strategies, especially for those organizations that have already solved many of the fires, bugs, and other issues that needed to be fixed.
The main point Garrett wanted to drive home is that by setting big goals that are tied to business outcomes, SEOs are more likely to make a bigger impact, and consequently, get the trust, appreciation, and resources they deserve.
OKRs are great as long as the objectives are attainable, but identifying and pushing back on unrealistic goals isn’t always common in SEO.
Garrett gave me this example.
“Let’s say a client comes to us and they’re currently at 50,000 visitors per month, but they want to get to 125,000 within the next year. The first thing you want to do before saying yes is figure out their total addressable market. If you know they’re targeting senior-level IT professionals at companies with over 100 seats, go to LinkedIn Sales Navigator and find how many people fit that criteria. You may find that there are only 20,000 of them. In that case, you need to go back to your client to adjust goals.”
In other words, the number one mistake people make when setting objectives is just saying yes to whatever their client or boss wants. This is a mistake, according to Garrett, because “upper management doesn’t actually know what the SEO objectives should be. That’s the SEO’s job. If you don’t do this legwork and adjust goals so that they’re more realistic, you’re set up to fail.”
Don’t say yes to organic traffic goals (or any other SEO goals for that matter) that don’t realistically line up with your business and the market you’re serving.
Speaking of goals, one of the top things SEO practitioners struggle with is getting buy-in for their projects. That often happens because they struggle to connect their projects to larger business objectives.
While setting the right OKRs can help with this, executives have a big responsibility here as well, according to Garrett.
“Executives often ask practitioners to make a business case for whatever project they want approval for without giving the practitioner a template from which to create the business case. For example, at Directive, we focus on metrics like LTV and CAC. That means I need to make sure my team knows our rates of MQL to SQL, SQL to Opp, Lifetime Value of a Customer, and more. Only then does my team have the tools they need to make a sufficient business case.”
💡 LTV stands for “lifetime value” of a customer and CAC stands for “customer acquisition costs.” Learn more about LTV and CAC from Directive’s Glossary.
When SEOs end up “in the weeds” and focusing on tactics that are disjointed from business goals, Garrett believes this happens because “they haven’t been given a model like this to do anything different.”
If you’re an SEO, ask your executive team for the metrics you need to build your business cases. If you’re an executive, be willing to share these metrics with your SEO team if you want to understand the true return on your SEO investment.
One of the most common challenges I hear from SEOs is that they’re under-valued, and consequently, under-resourced.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“If you’re being real,” said Garrett, “and you look at all your channels: paid social, Google Ads, organic search… SEO, intrinsically, has the highest rate of return of any channel.”
One of the main reasons for that, he said, is that it’s the only channel with increasing returns.
“Paid search actually has diminishing returns because every time a new competitor enters a market, CPC goes up. Your gross margin erodes from your paid search channel every day. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do PPC, but that also doesn’t make this any less true.”
SEO, on the other hand, operates on what Garrett called a “sunk cost model.”
“Every net new thing from something you’ve already stopped paying for is pure value. Every new lead you derive from a piece of content you’ve already written results in marginal increases over time because it’ll keep adding value after the cost has been covered.”
So, if SEO has the highest rate of return of any channel, why is it neglected?
The only logical explanation for this is that many executives simply aren’t aware of the ROI of SEO.
“Every organization in the world needs to do financial modeling so that they realize that SEO deserves to be funded better,” said Garrett.
“If you have $25,000 to spend, you should be looking to your best channels and investing there. If you look at them all, you should be spending exponentially more on organic because I guarantee you organic search gets you greater returns than anything else.”
When SEOs learn to reframe their work as the primary source of revenue for their business, they can quickly become the most valuable person in the room.
When you start proving your value as an SEO in dollars and cents, expect your executives to respond by wanting to allocate more budget to you.
At that point, Garrett told me, the struggle then becomes knowing how to spend more money on SEO — a foreign concept to many executives and SEOs alike.
But that’s where OKRs come into play again.
“When you get more investment, increase your objectives! Then, start looking at what additional resources (tools, people, etc.) you need to be able to meet the key results.”
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that increasing spend is just for paid media, or that you just have to do the best with the limited resources you have.
“Instead of folding,” Garrett said, “show your boss how well you’re doing! Don’t be content with not enough resources. Show your boss why you deserve more! That’s really the next step I see for the SEO industry.”
When I asked Garrett what he recommended as next steps for SEOs who want to learn how to show the dollar value of their efforts, he recommended LTV CAC analysis.
“If you can get nothing else, get [your company or your client’s] LTV. Then ask how many customers they got last month. I’ve never had a problem getting those two pieces of information. From there, you should be able to calculate everything else.”
And if you work in e-commerce, rather than lead generation, it should actually be a bit easier for you to attach revenue to your work since purchases are made directly on site.
When we set big goals, stick to them, and show the business value they produced, as Garrett says, “we’ll quickly become the most valuable person in the room.”
Cheers to that!