SEO Maturity Model - Search Enginuity Clay Fisher

All organizations, big and small, go through a SEO maturation process. Many start with a rough plan to make a website search engine friendly, have a little success, and start to invest more resources into SEO. After a number of years, proven processes are established, sustainable success is realized, and companies reach a mature state of SEO. Small companies, where the SEO manager may also be the web developer often reach a mature state quicker than large organizations where constant coordination, education, and process management is needed to reach that elusive level. Where is your organization? Well, the model below will help you evaluate where you are and where you need to go.

I’ve adapted the commonly used capability maturity model (CMM) used in the IT space to evaluate SEO effectiveness in organizations. I’ve found (and hope you do to) this model to be very useful in identifying where an organization currently is and where it needs to go to reach a mature state of SEO effectiveness.

Background

Before we jump into the model, let’s review the basics. What is a maturity model? Wikipedia has a simple and concise explanation:

A maturity model is a structured collection of elements that describe certain aspects of maturity in an organization. A maturity model may provide, for example:

- A place to start
- The benefit of a community’s prior experiences
- A common language and a shared vision
- A framework for prioritizing actions
- A way to define what improvement means for your organization.

A maturity model can be used as a benchmark for assessing different organizations for equivalent comparison. The model describes the maturity of the company based upon the project the company is handling and the related clients.

And what makes up a maturity model? Well, there are five components that Wikipedia has also covered well:

The CMM involves the following aspects:

- Maturity Levels: It is a layered framework providing a progression to the discipline needed to engage in continuous improvement (It is important to state here that an organization develops the ability to assess the impact of a new practice, technology, or tool on their activity. Hence it is not a matter of adopting these, rather it is a matter of determining how innovative efforts influence existing practices. This really empowers projects, teams, and organizations by giving them the foundation to support reasoned choice.)
- Key Process Areas: A Key Process Area (KPA) identifies a cluster of related activities that, when performed collectively, achieve a set of goals considered important.
- Goals: The goals of a key process area summarize the states that must exist for that key process area to have been implemented in an effective and lasting way. The extent to which the goals have been accomplished is an indicator of how much capability the organization has established at that maturity level. The goals signify the scope, boundaries, and intent of each key process area.
- Common Features: Common features include practices that implement and institutionalize a key process area. These five types of common features include: Commitment to Perform, Ability to Perform, Activities Performed, Measurement and Analysis, and Verifying Implementation.
- Key Practices: The key practices describe the elements of infrastructure and practice that contribute most effectively to the implementation and institutionalization of the key process areas.

In summary, a maturity model is a tool to objectively assess a company’s processes and provide a clear roadmap of where the company needs to go to reach a mature / efficient / successful / world-class state.

The SEO Maturity Model

To the good stuff. The outline below will give you an idea of what makes up each level or stage of the SEO maturity model, what to look for within your organization, and how to make the leap to the proceeding stage.

Stage 1: Initial / Ad-hoc

Ah, the early days of search engine optimization (and sadly still too many organizations today). This stage identifies organizations where SEO is done on an inconsistent and erratic basis. There is no coherent strategy and the site is usually optimized in a haphazard way; well after the initial development. Organizations at this stage have very little SEO knowledge and are unable to plan for future SEO projects or quantify SEO investments.

Characteristics:

  • Reactive: SEO projects are done after the product/website has been launched, typically to help drive traffic when ad budgets start running out.
  • No formal management processes: No management practices or processes exist to implement or manage SEO.
  • Dispersed SEO knowledge: Members of the IT dept and a couple of people from product may have basic SEO knowledge.

Functional Expertise & Involvement:

  • Marketing: Non-existent
  • Product: Individual ad-hoc
  • Technology: Individual ad-hoc
  • QA: Non-existent
  • Content: Non-existent

If you’ve found that your organization is at this stage than you have your work cut out for you. It’s time to scheduled meetings with the product, technology, and marketing teams to begin mapping out an SEO roadmap (initially focusing on making sure the site is search engine friendly) that not only includes site-side projects but a communication and education strategy, a basic reporting framework, and a simple process for project implementation. Read through the next four stages to get a sense of where you need to go.

Stage 2: Repeatable

At the repeatable stage, SEO is typically performed on a project-by-project basis with successes repeated whenever possible. The knowledge may still be limited within the organization to one or two product/IT people serving as resident experts. A basic reporting framework such as a cost/benefit analysis that includes incremental traffic increases may be developed.

Characteristics:

  • Proactive & Reactive: Future product initiatives have an SEO component but most projects are designed to fix existing holes.
  • No formal management processes: No management practices or processes exist to implement or manage SEO.
  • Central SEO knowledge: Usually a person within IT or marketing will be designated the SEO expert for the organization.
  • Project-by-project basis: SEO continues to be ‘bolted on’ to existing projects. It is not a driver for project conceptualization

Functional Expertise & Involvement:

  • Marketing: Identifies needs and projects. SEO may be a goal or major business objectives (MBO’s) the group is evaluated on.
  • Product: Supports marketing through project implementation
  • Technology: Supports marketing through project implementation
  • QA: Supports marketing through project implementation
  • Content: Supports marketing through project implementation

If you find your organization stuck at this stage it’s time to bring in some outside help or hire an SEO manager. The ideal firm/person will help implement a long-term strategy based on sound market research, establish formal processes, and develop an effective reporting framework that showcases SEO’s value to the organization.

Stage 3: Defined

At this stage a SEO project roadmap has been agreed upon and projects are split between new projects designed to capitalize on keyword market opportunities (i.e. developing content targeting blue widgets which generate 50k queries a month) and fixing weaknesses in the existing website. We also see the emergence of defined management processes and the implementation of best practices throughout the organization.

Characteristics:

  • Proactive & Reactive: Projects are split between new projects designed to capitalize on keyword market opportunities and fixing weaknesses in the existing website (i.e. re-writing URLs to make the site search engine friendly).
  • Management processes: Management processes exist but no company-wide standards & enforcement. For example, IT has agreed to implement your recommendations but continually pushes them out or leaves pieces out with no consequences.
  • Central SEO knowledge: There is a dedicated resource providing SEO expertise.

Functional Expertise & Involvement:

  • Marketing: Identifies needs and works with product & technology to define processes. Have SEO major business objectives (MBO’s)
  • Product: Supports marketing through project and process implementation
  • Technology: Supports marketing through project and process implementation
  • QA: Supports marketing through project and process implementation
  • Content: Supports marketing through project and process implementation

Many organizations find themselves at this stage through the help of a consultant or dedicated SEO manager. Often senior management has endorsed SEO and understands its value to the organization; however, the responsibility and knowledge of SEO remains in a silo under a specific group (i.e. marketing).

Stage 4: Managed & Measured

The upper echelon of SEO effectiveness, stage 4 represents an organization that has made SEO a focal point of the business. Typically, organizations at this stage have been focusing on SEO for a number of years and clearly understand its impact on their business. They have a dedicated SEO team or agency and each functional group has SEO goals or MBO’s.

Another key characteristic of this stage is the use of sound research and reporting to drive decision making. Organizations at this stage take a rigorous quantitative approach to evaluate performance and future projects. Because they have built up a certain level of experience they can accurately forecast SEO performance and effectiveness.

Characteristics:

  • Complete integration: SEO is a component of all product initiatives. SEO is actively considered for all new projects and specific projects are designed to capitalize on keyword market opportunities.
  • Company-wide SEO knowledge: While there may be a dedicated team, most people throughout the organization understand the basics of SEO and how it impacts their functional group.
  • Management processes are standard practice: SEO management processes are baked into all functional group processes and rigorously enforced.

Functional Expertise & Involvement:

  • Marketing: Identifies needs & projects. Have SEO MBO’s.
  • Product: Possesses an expertise and drives SEO through integration in overall strategy. Have SEO MBO’s and specific projects on their roadmap.
  • Tech: Possesses an expertise and drives SEO through project implementation. Have SEO MBO’s and work closely with product and marketing to ensure projects are properly implemented.
  • QA: Supports SEO through project implementation. Have SEO MBO’s and continually ensure pages are built properly through SEO best practices and guidelines.
  • Content: Supports SEO through project implementation. Have SEO MBO’s and develop content to address specific keyword markets. Further, the content team is well versed in SEO linking strategies.

If your company is at this stage than you’re in a great position. For the SEO manager, project management becomes easier and the focus shifts to developing long-term strategies, maintaining communication and education, and researching new growth opportunities. A comprehensive reporting framework will often be developed that not only shows traffic and rankings but SEO’s total value to the organization. Reports will show paid and organic search overlap, the halo effect of SEO on other media, and key consumer behavior metrics that help drive the organization’s overall strategy.

Stage 5: Optimized

Stage 5 represents the old wise sage of SEO maturity and is the level many of us strive to reach. While sharing many of the characteristics of stage 4, the one difference is the commitment to continually evaluate and improve processes. The Internet, and SEO in particular, is extremely dynamic with search engines adding new features, changing policies, and tweaking their algorithms on a regular basis. Organizations with flexible and continually improving processes are able to adapt more quickly and maintain their competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Characteristics:

  • Complete integration
  • Management processes are continually improved
  • Company-wide SEO knowledge

Functional Expertise & Involvement:

  • Marketing: Identifies needs & projects. Have SEO MBO’s and works with the other functional groups to improve processes.
  • Product: Possesses an expertise and drives SEO through integration in overall strategy. Have SEO MBO’s and specific projects on their roadmap. Works with other functional groups to improve processes.
  • Tech: Possesses an expertise and drives SEO through project implementation. Have SEO MBO’s and work closely with product and marketing to ensure projects are properly implemented. Works with other functional groups to improve processes.
  • QA: Supports SEO through project implementation. Have SEO MBO’s and continually ensure pages are built properly through SEO best practices and guidelines. Works with other functional groups to improve processes.
  • Content: Supports SEO through project implementation. Have SEO MBO’s and develop content to address specific keyword markets. Further, the content team is well versed in SEO linking strategies. Works with other functional groups to improve processes.

Because SEO is completely integrated within the organization and processes are continually improved, innovation is much more likely. Organizations at this stage often sit on the cutting edge of SEO; they’re processes are so fluid that they can constantly test new initiatives, stay ahead of the curve, and quickly adapt to changes in the marketplace.

Progressing from one stage to the next will take time. There are a number of factors at play and in the coming weeks I’ll share some of my tips. I’ll also touch on what the value is to your organization of moving from one stage to the next. Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed or email list.

Finally, I’d love your feedback on the challenges you’ve experienced and how this framework does or does not fit your organization.

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