🚦 Ruthless Prioritization in SEO
How to prioritise your SEO strategies like a product manager
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The problem with traditional SEO strategies is that we practice ruthful prioritization.
SEO strategies prioritise our top-level recommendations perhaps once every 3-6 months and isolation from the rest of the business.
To work effectively in product and engineering teams, SEOs need to practice the craft of ruthless prioritisation.
This means that prioritization of SEO recommendations is a team sport that happens continuously daily, weekly and monthly basis.
In this newsletter, we are going to cover the following:
😴 Ruthful prioritization in SEO
🚦 Ruthless prioritization in product
🥞 Strategy building blocks
3️⃣ Three Principles of Prioritization
🤹♀️ Prioritization is a Skill
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😴 Ruthful prioritization in SEO
As SEOs were trained to use high, medium and low to prioritise our recommendations. Usually, in a Google Sheets or project management tool.
In many organisations, prioritization of SEO recommendations usually happens once every 3 - 6 months. When a monthly health check or quarterly large audit is completed.
A list of actions is put together, prioritised from high to low, and then never followed up on again. Unless you work with the product and development team to turn them into Jira tickets (even then, they may sit in a Jira development backlog)
I call this ruthful prioritization.
This traditional way of working as an SEO would mean that in a product and engineering team is that most SEO recommendations would never get done.
Ruthful prioritization means the SEO is sequencing work in isolation from the rest of the business and other teams’ prioritised plans.
I’ve discussed this isolation as a symptom that you are disconnected from the rest of the business in the SEO Discovery newsletter.
From my experience, prioritization requires both discovery and strategy to be effective; it must be relative to the wider business goals. Otherwise, you’re just playing with t-shirt sizes or numbers.
The other problem is that the recommendations you put together are also complex and need questions answered and decisions made to get them actually implemented.
This means that an SEO needs to work alongside the product and engineering team to ensure complexity doesn’t slow down the delivery of the work.
The reality is that in a product and development team, an SEO needs to be prioritising continuously and ruthlessly to help get things done.
🚦 Ruthless prioritization in product
Prioritisation is doing work that is the most important first. When building a product or service, this means sequencing work that will maximise outcomes.
In product teams, the craft of prioritizing initiatives or recommendations is not a one-off exercise but a continuous neverending process that happens daily, weekly and monthly.
They continuously ask questions throughout the life-cycle of any product:
What should we be working on?
In what order should we build our initiatives?
When can initiatives be executed?
Also, the act of prioritization is not just down to the product manager but, in fact, a team sport. At DeepCrawl, I constantly worked with a team of developers and designers to prioritise initiatives and oppurtunities on a roadmap.
Brandon Chu, VP of Product Acceleration at Shopify, echoes this in his article on ruthless prioritization:
“…the craft of making prioritization decisions is one of the most difficult skills to impart on teams because of how complex those decisions can become, and while it’s usually a core responsibility of product managers, I’ve found that the best teams are the ones where everyone is maniacally prioritizing towards the same goal, and doing so in a way that’s consistent with each other.”
Brandon Chu, VP Product Acceleration Shopify
Working at DeepCrawl and now with client teams have taught me that ruthless prioritization is really about applying three principles of prioritization in an SEO Strategy.
🥞 Strategy building blocks
In SEO Strategy Stack, I provided a framework to help SEO professionals diagnose and debug any SEO strategy.
If we visualise any strategy, then it would be made up of these building blocks:
📁 Initiatives: The key themes of your strategy; when these are successfully completed, your team can overcome the business challenge and drive results.
📃 Opportunities: These make up your initiatives; when these are completed, your initiative can be marked as done.
✔️ Tasks: These make up your opportunities; they are the details needed to complete each opportunity and initiative.
When working in product and engineering teams, and executing SEO strategies, I’ve found that you need to prioritise each of these strategy building blocks.
This means you need to do two main activities when ruthlessly prioritising:
🧩 Prioritise between initiatives
🌀 Prioritise within initiatives
If you don’t, then I’ve found it will impact your ability to get things done. I call this continuous ruthless prioritisation the three principles of prioritization.
3️⃣ Three Principles of Prioritization
The three principles of prioritization are used to ruthlessly prioritise work between and within initiatives.
The three principles of prioritization are as follows:
🗼 Principle 1: Prioritize initiatives
🏠 Principle 2: Prioritize opportunities
📋 Principle 3: Prioritize tasks
Let’s dig into each principle and discuss managing each building block.
🗼 Principle 1: Prioritizing initiatives
Principle 1 is all about ensuring you sequence your SEO initiatives correctly and maximise the team’s resources to drive results for the business.
When prioritizing initiatives, it is really asking a variety of questions, including:
Which SEO initiative will be implemented first?
Is it based on the impact and effort of all the opportunities underneath?
What is the capacity of the team to execute each initiative?
Unfortunately, the process of answering these questions isn’t always straightforward. An SEO needs to be able to take into account multiple different factors to prioritise initiatives in a strategy.
The challenge for any company is that these factors will continuously change throughout the day, month and quarter. New information and data will constantly be made available, which can change the order and sequence of your big bets.
Sequencing any bet is about working with your product and engineering team to make sure that any resource constraints are taken into account when prioritising.
Think about some of these initiative examples below:
New design vs re-platforming: Do you prioritise improving the web performance, UX and content by improving your landing page design on a React website or by moving to a web framework like Next.js?
Title tag system vs building out new page templates: Do you prioritise resources to create a new title tag system to enable teams to make changes without dev resources or create a new page template to capture a new market?
New navigation vs build content hub framework: Do you prioritise dev and design team resource on improving the navigation or build a content hub framework that allows the content team to build out topic clusters?
These questions aren’t easy to answer without context, information and data from different teams. The delivery of these initiatives can be easily delayed if:
The businesses priorities change
Team members leave, or
Market or customer behaviour shifts
How do product teams manage initiatives?
So, how do product teams manage initiatives and how do they communicate these changes to the team?
These Now/Next/Later roadmaps allow product teams to move easily and sequence initiative cards full of information.
Since working at DeePCrawl, I’ve used this roadmap to communicate initiative progress. I’ve found using this style of road mapping allows me to:
Easily change the order of initiatives
Create a “prototype” of the strategy and show it to the team for feedback
Set expectations on what is being worked on now vs later
Help teams focus on what initiatives are a priority
Keep other stakeholders quickly updated on the progress of the team
It means I don’t have to fiddle with Gantt charts in Google Sheets or explain an SEO PM can easily and seemly prioritise the order of their projects.
🏠 Principle 2: Prioritizing Opportunities
Principle 2 is all about ensuring the opportunities within an initiative are always being prioritised.
The reality is that when you are working in product, engineering and design teams is that everyone will always spot new oppurtunities.
Prioritizing opportunities within initiatives is chaos.
The longer you spend trying to get an initiative completed, the more oppurtunities will be spotted by the team and the more complex it will become.
As an SEO and SEO PM, it is your job to help guide the team and bring order to the chaos by prioritising oppurtunities.
As SEOs or SE PMs, we need to do that by using simple prioritization frameworks and constantly asking a simple questions.
Is this oppurtunity helping achieve the goal of the initiative?
Remember, when all your priority oppurtunities are implemented, your initiative can be marked as done. When that happens, it should help overcome the key problem or challenge which drives results for the business.
When (not if) new oppurtunities pop up; you need to be able to make a decision if they are helping to achieve the goal of the initiative.
Think about how to prioritise oppurtunities from these examples:
✍️ Content hub framework: When building page templates to scale topic clusters, the team needs to know which order to build landing pages, guides, FAQs, glossaries, etc.
⚙️ Building title tag system: When creating the title tag system in the customer platform, the team want to expand the system and functionality to include a variety of page templates which are less of a business priority.
📜 Migrating to a new JS framework: When migrating to a new JS framework like Next.js, the development team highlights the business team's need to decide on the public site, lead gen forms and the platform.
The reality is that in every initiative or project you work on, new oppurtunities will appear. Solve one problem; two more will take its place.
You need to be able to prioritise these ideas and keep the team focused.
How do product teams manage oppurtunities?
So, how do product teams work with engineers to execute these oppurtunities within initiatives? Usually in a product backlog, also known as a dev backlog.
At DeepCrawl, I actually learned to create two backlogs. One to get oppurtunities/tickets turned from raw to ready, and the actual dev backlog where tickets were pulled into sprints.
I still use this workflow today, and I’ve found it is one of the best ways to manage the chaos of discovering, planning and managing dev tickets.
The dual-track backlog framework allows me to:
Easily prioritise oppurtunities with developers
Work with designers, developers and product teams to align on a ticket
Quickly spot if oppurtunities need to be broken down
Help teams focus on what needs to be worked on next
Allows me to put low-priority oppurtunities in the “parking lot easily”
📋 Principle 3: Prioritizing Tasks
Principle 3 is all about prioritising tasks to get opportunities executed.
When working on oppurtunities with engineering and design teams, you need to be ready to help guide and prioritise the details within that oppurtunity.
For example, let’s take the building of new page templates.
You’ve identified that we need to design a new landing page, but what are the priority components that are going into that page? Do you prioritise adding internal link features in the sidebar, do you also want a new CTA banner, or capture emails using an e-book?
Although these seem like small decisions during the scoping and planning of oppurtunities within initiatives, the more complicated the idea, the more it slows down delivery.
Again just like oppurtunities, trying to deliver projects can be chaos as the team forms new ideas to solve problems (that is their job as developers, after all).
As an SEO or SEO PM, you must bring order to the chaos by guiding and prioritising any smaller tasks within oppurtunities when working with engineering and design teams.
You can do that by asking a simple question when scoping, discovering and planning out oppurtunities within an initiative:
Is this task absolutely necessary?
There will always be way more tasks that the team identify within each oppurtunity, which will slow down the delivery of your opportunities and your initiatives.
So you must keep on top of smaller details and help the team understand what is a must-have vs a should-have.
How do product teams manage tasks?
Product teams use a variety of different frameworks to prioritise tasks, including:
ICE Prioritization Framework
At DeepCrawl, I used these techniques to sit with development and design teams to prioritise page components on page templates. They were useful for quickly making decisions based on data and information from discovery tracks.
When we identified the priority tasks, we then reordered and reprioritised them in the product and development backlog as tickets.
Using these different frameworks to prioritise the “knitty gritty details” of oppurtunities allows me to:
Quickly identify high-priority tasks vs low priority tasks
Get oppurtunities executed by reducing low-priority tasks
Work with stakeholders to prioritise asks and not delay initiatives
Help guide and keep the team focused on delivering value
Add to an evergrowing list of ideas which can be used later on
🤹♀️ Prioritization is a Skill
It is important to understand that in product teams, ruthless prioritization is a skill.
Any SEO or SEO PM working in a product role must practice and apply it to real-life projects to improve. You’ll get things wrong, but you’ll notice patterns and get a “sense” of what work is worth prioritising.
Phew, that was a lot, so let’s recap:
Ruthful prioritization: Traditional SEO processes only prioritise work every 3-6 months in isolation of the rest of the business.
Ruthless prioritization: Product teams continuously prioritise work daily, weekly and monthly to make sure that they are maximising outcomes.
Strategy building blocks: Using the SEO Strategy Stack as a framework, any strategy comprises three building blocks initiatives, oppurtunities and tasks.
Three principles of prioritization: Ruthless prioritization is the craft of sequencing and ordering these building blocks to maximise outcomes.
Ruthless prioritization is a skill: The craft of ruthless prioritization within product teams is a skill, and needs to be practised to get a sense of the work.
Ruthless Prioritization - Brandon Chu
Product at hypergrowths - Ketki Duvvuru
Product roadmaps: context, sequence, schedule - Jason Yip
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