Working within SEO, I have come across my fair share of developers. Most have been open-minded, curious, cooperative and generally helpful, but I have also met some who have made the technical part of my job more difficult. Developers who believe that they understand how something works because they read a blog post or product owners who oppose SEO recommendations with the argument «as a user, I want to be able to …».
As an SEO expert, you will occasionally get into this type of discussion – especially with developers who have been around since SEO was mostly about link building and keyword density. There are many reasons why cooperation isn’t always without friction. I have heard developers being accused of not listening, saying «it can’t be done» often and that they are not letting the SEO expert into the planning or development work. The developers’ perspective might be that SEOs do not understand how the systems work, the CMS limitations, or that they can’t code.
Organic traffic is an important source of traffic for many sites, and a possible result of this type of miscommunication is that updates are rolled out without considering SEO. As a consequence, it takes a while before the problem is discovered, even longer before it is fixed and updated – and in the meantime, the site loses traffic and revenue. The process of finding, troubleshooting, and resolving the issue may take months, especially in larger organizations with lots of people involved and sizable backlogs. During the time spent on problem-solving, the organization pays for the lack of communication with a loss of revenue.
When collaboration works well, there is often a close dialogue between the departments. However, some work is often required to reach this point. In my experience, the following five steps are a good start.
1. Think of Google as a user
In many cases, SEO adaptations are the same thing as making the site user-friendly. For example, both mobile usability and loading times are part of Google’s algorithms. There is a greater overlap between SEO and usability than ever before and, based on my own experience, I think most developers put a large emphasis on user-friendliness. This doesn’t mean that you should take for granted that the development team understands how SEO works.
In many organizations, UX and development are done in the same team, leading to close collaboration and shorter lead times. SEO, on the other hand, is placed under the marketing department, which has limited insight into the development work.
The role of SEO is not just about maximizing traffic – it’s also about driving the right traffic. For visitors to find the right pages, Google needs to be able to read and understand the content of every page. Thus, building your site for both visitors and search engines should always be part of the accessibility discussions.
2. Involve each other
Involving each other at the right time often leads to more efficient work and a reduced overall workload. I have previously seen other departments making requests to IT on the grounds that something would improve SEO, even though what was in fact proposed had little effect (or sometimes even a negative effect) on how effectively the site could be crawled. Fortunately, this has usually caught our attention in time, and we have been able to stop it before it went into production.
I have also experienced being able to make smaller additions to existing orders instead of making them separately, which has saved both time and resources. In other words, communication throughout the development process means that a long list of fixes can be avoided right before a release. Or worse – after an update has been released to production.
3. Ask open-ended questions
At a former client, SEO was part of an agile team together with developers, UX and an editor. Prior to this, everyone was trained in agile work, where one of the most important lessons I learned was to always specify what we want to solve, rather than how. By working like this we avoided locking ourselves into a specific solution.
I recently came across this way of thinking again when two of my colleagues gave a lecture on the benefits of improved cooperation between SEO and UX. One question to the audience was «what are you doing to improve collaboration?». One of the answers was «I ask open-ended questions. I explain what I need and ask them how they would solve it.» By approaching a problem from different perspectives, we can find better solutions together – and keep in mind that the counter-question «what problem are you trying to solve?» can be a great way to start a dialogue!
4. Help each other with priorities
The steady evolution of search makes it difficult to predict the result of a specific change, especially since we often make several updates at the same time, and that it takes a while before they have an effect. However, one of the worst motivations an SEO can give is «because it’s good for SEO».
There is usually little room to spare in the IT backlog and priorities have to be made. Often, business cases and sales estimates are required to prioritize initiatives and to convince those affected both upstream and downstream in the organization. It is, however, difficult to estimate and measure the impact of specific initiatives when the results depend on external factors that constantly change. Instead, I wish we could focus on the user experience by talking about digital accessibility, ease of use and information architecture. By jointly discussing and documenting the expected impact and difficulty of implementation, it’s easier to prioritize and set more realistic expectations.
5. Prioritize knowledge exchange
Whether you want to drive more traffic or improve the user experience, the goal of everyone involved is to make sure the site is successful. SEOs with some knowledge of development can do a better job.
In organizations where I have a clear picture of how things are connected and how information flows, I have better been able to pinpoint potential solutions that help the developers and frees up their time for something else. Understanding how difficult something is to implement provides opportunities for improving priorities or proposing alternative solutions.
The same goes for developers with SEO insights. Knowing the basics of crawling and indexing makes it easier to see where problems may arise and quickly establish a dialogue about how issues can be solved.
The biggest challenge with technical SEO at present is to stay up to date on all changes, new frameworks, web apps and technologies. Just as web developers must stay up to date on how they are used, SEOs must stay up to date on how it affects the search engines’ ability to read and interpret the information. Our industry is constantly changing, and by prioritizing knowledge exchange we help each other stay abreast.
To steer clear of traffic and revenue loss online, businesses must not involve SEOs as a last resort after something has already gone wrong – but instead promote collaboration and ongoing knowledge exchange, where potential solutions can be discussed at an early stage. Closer collaboration between SEO and development will save both time and money.
Developers who know about SEO best practices have the opportunity to build and launch updates faster and with less involvement from the market department. The best SEO expert is the one who gets improvements through that produce results – and an SEO that understands the development team’s processes and priorities will create more efficient orders that are rapidly integrated into the roadmap.
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