/How to Diagnose Your SEO Client’s Search Maturity

How to Diagnose Your SEO Client’s Search Maturity

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Posted by HeatherPhysioc

One of the biggest mistakes I see (and am guilty of making) is assuming a client is knowledgeable, bought-in, and motivated to execute search work simply because they agreed to pay us to do it. We start trucking full-speed ahead, dumping recommendations in their laps, and are surprised when the work doesn’t get implemented.

We put the cart before the horse. It’s easy to forget that clients start at different points of maturity and knowledge levels about search, and even clients with advanced knowledge may have organizational challenges that create barriers to implementing the work. Identifying where your client falls on a maturity curve can help you better tailor communication and recommendations to meet them where they are, and increase the likelihood that your work will be implemented.

How mature is your client?

No, not emotional maturity. Search practice maturity. This article will present a search maturity model, and provide guidance on how to diagnose where your client falls on that maturity spectrum.

This is where maturity models can help. Originally developed for the Department of Defense, and later popularized by Six Sigma methodologies, maturity models are designed to measure the ability of an organization to continuously improve in a practice. They help you diagnose the current maturity of the business in a certain area, and help identify where to focus efforts to evolve to the next stage on the maturity curve. It’s a powerful tool for meeting the client where they are, and understanding how to move forward together with them.

There are a number of different maturity models you can research online that use different language, but most maturity models follow a pattern something like this:

Stage 1 – Ad Hoc & Developing
Stage 2 – Reactive & Repeatable
Stage 3 – Strategic & Defined
Stage 4 – Managed & Measured
Stage 5 – Efficient & Optimizing

For search, we can think about a maturity model two ways.

One is the actual technical implementation of search best practices — is the client implementing exceptional, advanced SEO, just the basics, nothing at all, or even operating counterproductively? This can help you figure out what kinds of projects make the most sense to activate.

The second way is the organizational maturity around search engine optimization as a marketing program. Is the client aligned to the importance of organic search, allocating budget and personnel appropriately, and systematically integrating search into marketing efforts? This can help you identify the most important institutional challenges to solve for that can otherwise block the implementation of your work.

Technical SEO capabilities maturity

First, let’s dive into a maturity model for search knowledge and capabilities.

SEO capabilities criteria

We measure an organization on several important criteria that contribute to the success of SEO:

Collaboration – how well relevant stakeholders integrate and collaborate to do the best work possible, including inside the organization, and between the organization and the service providers.
Mobility – how mobile-friendly and optimized the brand is.
Technical – how consistently foundational technical best practices are implemented and maintained.
Content – how integrated organic search is into the digital content marketing practice and process.
On-page – how limited or extensive on-page optimization is for the brand’s content.
Off-page – the breadth and depth of the brand’s off-site optimization, including link-building, local listings, social profiles and other non-site assets.
New technology -the appetite for and adoption of new technology that impacts search, such as voice search, AMP, even structured data.
Analytics – how data-centric the organization is, ranging from not managed and measured at all, to rearview mirror performance reporting, to entirely data-driven in search decision-making.

Search Capabilities Score Card

Click the image to see the full-size version.

While this maturity model has been peer reviewed by a number of respected SEO peers in the industry (special thanks to Kim Jones at Seer Interactive, Stephanie Briggs at Briggsby, John Doherty at Credo, Dan Shure at Evolving SEO, and Blake Denman at Rickety Roo for your time and expertise), it is a fluid, living document designed to evolve as our industry does. If necessary, evolve this to your own reality as well.

You can download a Google Sheets copy of this maturity model here to begin using it with your client.

Download the maturity model

Why Stage 0?

In this search capabilities maturity model, I added an unconventional “Stage 0 – Counterproductive,” because organic search is unique in that they could do real damage and be at a deficit, not just at a baseline of zero.

In a scenario like this, the client has no collaboration inside the company or with the partner agency to do smart search work. Content may be thin, weak, duplicative, spun, or over-optimized. Perhaps their mobile experience is nonexistent or very poor. Maybe they’re even engaging in black hat SEO practices, and they have link-related or other penalties.

Choosing projects based on a client’s capabilities maturity

For a client that is starting on the lower end of the maturity scale, you may not recommend starting with advanced work like AMP and visual search technology, or even detailed Schema markup or extensive targeted link-building campaigns. You may have to start with the basics like securing the site, cleaning up information architecture, and fixing title tags and meta descriptions.

For a client that is starting on the higher end of the maturity scale, you wouldn’t want to waste their time recommending the basics — they’ve probably already done them. You’re better off finding new and innovative opportunities to do great search work they haven’t already mastered.

But we’re just getting started…

But technical capabilities and knowledge are only beginning to scratch the surface with clients. This starts to solve for what you should implement, but doesn’t touch why it’s so hard to get your work implemented. The real problems tend to be a lot squishier, and aren’t so simple as checking some SEO best practices boxes.


Clickbank Ad Rotator

How mature is your client’s search practice?

The real challenges to implementation tend to be organizational, people, integration, and process problems. Conducting a search maturity assessment with your client can be eye-opening as to what needs to be solved internally before great search work can be implemented and start reaping the rewards. Pair this with the technical capabilities maturity model above, and you have a powerhouse of knowledge and tools to help your client.

Before we dig in, I want to note one important caveat: While this maturity model focuses heavily on organizational adoption and process, I don’t want to suggest that process and procedure are substitutes for using your actual brain. You still have to think critically and make hard choices when you execute a best-in-class search program, and often that requires solving all-new problems that didn’t exist before and therefore don’t have a formal process.

Search practice maturity criteria

We measure an organization on several important criteria that contribute to the success of SEO:

Process, policy, or procedure – Do documented, repeatable processes for inclusion of organic search exist, and are they continually improving? Is it an organizational policy to include organic search in marketing efforts? This can mean that the process of including organic search in marketing initiatives is defined as a clear series of actions or steps taken, including both developing organic search strategy and implementing SEO tactics.
Personnel resources & integration – Does the necessary talent exist at the organization or within the service provider’s scope? Personnel resources may include SEO professionals, as well as support staff such as developers, data analysts, and copywriters necessary to implement organic search successfully. Active resources may work independently in a disjointed manner or collaboratively in an integrated manner.
Knowledge & learning – Because search is a constantly evolving field, is the organization knowledgeable about search and committed to continuously learning? Information can include existing knowledge, past experience, or training in organic search strategy and tactics. It can also include a commitment to learning more, possibly through willingness to undertake trainings, attendance of conferences, regular consumption of learning materials, or staying current in industry news and trends.
Means, capacity, & capabilities – Does the organization budget appropriately for and prioritize the organic search program? Means, capacity and capabilities can include being scoped into a client contract, adequate budget being allocated to the work, adequate human resources being allocated to the work, the capacity to complete the work when measured against competing demands, and the prioritization of search work alongside competing demands.
Planning & preparation – Is organic search aligned to business goals, brand goals, and/or campaign goals? Is organic search proactively planned, reactive, or not included at all? This measure evaluates how frequently organic search efforts are included in marketing efforts for a brand. It also measures how frequently the work is included proactively and pre-planned, as opposed to reactively as an afterthought. Work may be aligned to or disconnected from the “big picture.”

Organizational search maturity

Click the image to see the full-size version.

You are here

Before you can know how to get where you want to go, you need to know where you are. It’s important to understand where the organization stands, and then where they need to be in the future. Going through the quantitative exercise of diagnosing their maturity can help everyone align to where to start.

You can use these scorecards to assess factors like leadership alignment to the value of search, employee availability and involvement, knowledge and training, process and standardization, their culture (or lack thereof) of data-driven problem-solving and continuous improvement, and even budget.

A collaborative exercise

This should be a deeper exercise than just punching numbers into a spreadsheet, and it certainly shouldn’t be a one-sided assessment from you as an outsider. It is much more valuable to ask several relevant people at multiple levels across the client organization to participate in this exercise, and can become much richer if you take the time to talk to people at various points in the process.

How to use the scorecard & diagnose maturity

Once you download the scorecards, follow these steps to begin the maturity assessment process.

Client-side distribution – Distribute surveys to relevant stakeholders on the client’s internal team. Ideally, these individuals serve at a variety of levels at the company and occupy a mix of roles relevant to the organic search practice. These could include CEO, CMO, Marketing VPs and directors, digital marketing coordinators, and in-house SEOs.
Agency-side distribution – Distribute surveys to relevant stakeholders on the agency team. Ideally, these individuals serve at a variety of levels at the agency and occupy a mix of roles relevant to the organic search practice. These could include digital marketing coordinators, client engagement specialists, analysts, digital copywriters, or SEO practitioners.
Assign a level of maturity to each criteria – Each survey participant can simply mark one “X” per category row in the column that most accurately reflects perception of the brand organization as it pertains to organic search. (For example, if the survey respondent feels that SEO process and procedure are non-existent based on the description, they can mark an “X” in the “Initial/Ad Hoc” column. Alternatively, if they feel they are extraordinarily advanced and efficient in their processes, they may mark the “X” in the “Efficient & Optimizing” column.)
Collect the surveys – Assign a point value of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 to the responses from left to right in the scorecard. Average the points to get a final score for each. (For example, if five client stakeholders score their SEO process and procedure as 3, 4, 2, 3, 3 respectively, the average score is 3 for that criteria.)
Comparing client to agency perception – You may also choose to ask survey respondents to denote whether they are client-side or agency-side so you can look at the data both in aggregate, and by client and agency separately, to determine if there is alignment or disagreement on where the brand falls on the maturity curve. This can be great material for discussion with the client that can open up conversations about why those differences in perception exist.

Screenshot of scorecard

Click the image to see the full-size version.

Even when an organization reaches Stage 5, your/their work is not done. Master-level organizations continue to refine and optimize their processes and capabilities.

There is no finish line to search maturity

There is a French culinary phrase, “mise en place,” that refers to having everything — ingredients, tools, recipe — in its place to begin cooking most successfully. There are several key ingredients to any successful project implementation: buy-in, process, knowledge and skills, capacity, planning, and more.

As your client evolves up the maturity curve, you will see and feel a transition from thinking about aspects only once a project is sliding off the rails, to including these things real-time and reactively, to anticipating these before every project and doing your due diligence to come prepared. Essentially, the client can move from not being able to spell “SEO” to making SEO a part of their DNA by moving up these maturity curves.

It is important to revisit the maturity model discussion periodically — I recommend doing so at least annually — to level-set and realign with the client. Conducting this exercise again can remind us to pause and reflect on all we have accomplished since the first scoring. It can also re-energize stakeholders to make even more progress in the upcoming year.

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