How to build an SEO roadmap that delivers impact
Posted by Luci Wood on July 7, 2020
SEO is often likened to a marathon, rather than a sprint. Unlike a traditional time-bound marketing campaign, SEO requires constant attention and work. Creating an SEO roadmap helps keep focus in check, supports cross-team collaboration, and can be a powerful tool for retaining clients.
What do we mean by ‘roadmap’?
Just as architectural drawings and blueprints serve as a guide for building a house, so do roadmaps act as a ‘single source of truth’ for guiding SEO activities. A roadmap is simply a plan that details the planned projects and activities to be undertaken. Whilst roadmaps are typically more flexible than blueprints, both are built with an overarching goal in mind.
Why build an SEO roadmap?
Building an SEO roadmap isn’t only useful for you and your direct team – it can help you engage people across the business, and in turn, accelerate progress towards your overarching goal.
1. It helps people understand the value of their work
A roadmap is more than the sum of its parts. In a world that glorifies ‘busy’, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important. The roadmap acts as an anchor point for connecting individuals and their tasks to the overarching goal. It offers the proverbial ‘50,000 feet view’, not just for management, but having an accessible roadmap that is visible to all on a daily basis, helps people see the importance of their work as part of a greater vision.
2. It helps you say no
Another affliction of our ‘always on’ society is that you’re unlikely to go through your day without encountering a conflict of some kind – that might come in the form of ad hoc requests, new marketing campaigns or product features, opinions from stakeholders and so on. It’s impossible to do everything and to please everyone. Your roadmap is your key weapon in saying “no”, or at least negotiating a compromise.
3. It helps you align your priorities to a goal
By setting out your roadmap to align with your ‘North Star Goal’ (more on this later), you have clearly set out what your priorities are, and you’re better equipped to communicate the knock-on effect that such incoming ad hoc requests will have on the timeline of your roadmap, and ultimately, your key goal.
4. It can help you retain clients
For agencies and freelancers client retention is paramount, and nothing is more frustrating to a client than feeling like their agency isn’t aligned with their vision. Worse still is working with an agency who doesn’t have a clear plan and turns to the client for ideas and direction constantly.
A collaborative roadmap enables a client to understand the strategy behind recommendations, to see a clear timeline of when such projects are scheduled, and to feed into it any insight that may help or hinder progress. Clients like to understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ behind the roadmap, as it empowers them in relaying information and progress confidently to other stakeholders. When those stakeholders have a clear understanding of what we’re doing and why, coupled with clear goals and regular progress updates, they are much more likely to buy into the roadmap and want to see it continue.
Building your SEO roadmap
The first step in building out a stellar roadmap is to take a step back and consider why you’re doing it and what you’re hoping to achieve.
Just as you’d plan to have a north-facing kitchen to brighten up a morning coffee, or a South-facing patio area if you enjoy soaking up those glorious rays of afternoon sunshine in the garden, the ‘success’ of your new home relies on how well it matches up to your own way of living.
Roadmaps are similar – it pays to consider what’s really important to your business before making a start. What are the key business objectives that you want to support through SEO activities? What other marketing activities will run concurrently with SEO that might impact your data (such as a big ‘above the line’ campaign or a push on PPC)?
Doing your research (the audit)
Think of this as your soil test: no-one wants the realisation that they’ve built a house on sand. In order to know which projects and tasks to add to the roadmap, you’ll first need to understand what issues need addressing across your site(s) and how critical these are to either contributing to organic growth.
Therefore, the best place to start when building a roadmap is with a full audit of your site. As with building a house, creating strong foundations for a site determines the success of activity that follows, so begin with reviewing your technical setup. To help you out, here’s the link to a basic technical audit checklist from the Blue Array Academy. Make sure to create a copy for yourself before getting stuck in!
You’ll also want to audit your content to see what’s performing well vs not. You can create a ‘keyword gap analysis’ to see how your site stacks up against competitors in terms of organic keyword visibility (SEMRush is a great tool for this).
It’s also a good idea to take stock of your current backlink profile (using a tool like Majestic or Ahrefs) and compare it to your competitors. Whilst not a metric to be considered in isolation, this can give you a good feel for setting expectations in terms of how challenging it may or may not be to overtake competitors.
Who needs to be involved?
Unless a website is especially small, it’s very much the exception that an SEO strategy can be delivered by a single person. Between making technical changes to the site, to creating compelling copy, there’s usually a set of people involved from across the business, each with their own motivations, priorities and interdependencies.
Bringing all of these moving parts together usually falls to either the person responsible for SEO (sometimes the sole SEO in the business) or a project manager (if they’re not the same person). It’s not necessarily an easy task, but having a clear roadmap and assigned responsibilities can go a long way in ensuring that things, as much as possible, get done on your time and your terms.
So how do you decide who needs to be involved? Well, assuming you’ve completed your audit of the site, you should now have a few ideas as to what the key issues are, and where your biggest opportunities lie. You may find it helpful to categorise these issues and opportunities – ‘technical’, ‘links’, ‘content’, for instance. This should help you identify who the key stakeholders are going to be.
It’s a good idea to loop these stakeholders in once you’ve added some meat to the ‘bones’ of your roadmap structure, as you may find you need to move some tasks around depending on other priorities within the business. Try to aim to have your technical issues addressed first, these are the foundations of your house, and without them, the rest won’t perform as expected. The best content in the world won’t do your business much good if search engines can’t crawl and index it!
Building the structure
Think of this as the structural support of the house: the frame that enables you to add detail. Just as you might prefer oak beams to a steel frame, the way you build out the structure of this roadmap is up to you.
Personally, I prefer to use Google Sheets, plotting roadmaps out Gantt chart style, to show which projects and activities will be tackled each month and how many days each activity is expected to take. Google Sheets is ideal when you’re working with a client as it doesn’t require any special software licences and logins, and it allows you and the client to work collaboratively, add comments and move things around easily if need be. If you want to go all-out 3D CAD on your roadmap, go right ahead.
Here’s a typical roadmap we’d use at Blue Array:
There are a few other columns we like to include besides the task and the month. These are:
- Status: a simple data validation drop-down with conditional formatting to show if a task is pending, in progress, on hold or complete.
- Blue Array notes/link. Here we’ll add the link to a completed piece of work so that it’s really easy for a client to find.
- Client notes/links – the same principle as above.
- A RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) chart ensures we clearly outline the various roles of stakeholders in completing tasks or deliverables; everyone knows what’s expected of them.
- We often include a column that links out to key supporting evidence – this might be previous deliverables or research, announcements by Google, or perhaps a 3rd party report or article. We find this helps clients to better understand the ‘why’ behind recommendations, and the relevant data can be used internally to encourage buy-in from other stakeholders.
Keeping the roadmap laid out simply in this way allows both parties to take their respective tasks and add them to their own task management software, such as Trello, or to add tickets to Jira, for example.
If you’re working in-house, you may have project management software that negates the need for an additional spreadsheet, but I find having something holistic, where you can see the ‘overall vision’ and progress is motivating.
Deciding priorities, and compromises
In addition to the columns outlined above, we’ll sometimes include an ‘effort vs impact’ column, rating tasks as either low, medium or high in each category respectively. It’s important, particularly if the roadmap will be seen by those who are considerably removed from the detail of it, to have a way of understanding time required vs. value/uplift expected.
Whilst we typically order the roadmap tasks to ensure the key ‘needle movers’ are tackled first, this column can be helpful nonetheless for clients to understand the level of effort that might be required for each and prioritise accordingly.
The advantage of flexibility
Things don’t always go to plan; a stakeholder moves on, dev resources are diverted to a new project, a global pandemic threatens to squash the economy… it’s a never-ending list of possible interruptions. Whatever the shape and scale of the challenge, having flexibility within the roadmap offers one of the best buffers in terms of being able to pivot and adapt to the change.
Contingency time can be a very valuable asset, particularly for SEO. It gives you some breathing room to mitigate unexpected changes or delays. Exactly how much time you allow depends on your individual circumstances but 10% is usually a good starting point.
Ring-fenced contingency time could be used for:
- Testing time (this can be for anything from launching a new platform, making changes to page structure or hierarchy or migration planning).
- ‘Core update’ reviews. Whilst we all know that Google releases slight tweaks to their search algorithms that number in the hundreds every year, it can pay dividends to carve out time to check things over following a Core Update. Usually these are bi-annual, and announced in advance, so you’ve got a least a little warning. This is especially prudent if your site sits in a ‘Your Money or Your Life’ vertical, such as health or finance.
- Implementation reviews. This gives you an opportunity to take stock of what has been implemented (and what’s still outstanding) and, if needed, re-address priorities with your stakeholders. We like to review overall progress and performance at least once a quarter with clients (over and above our usual monthly reporting), but naturally, this can be much more frequent if you’re working through things quickly.
All this being said, don’t allow the flexibility to come at a cost to your initial framework. If you were to remove part or all of a load-bearing wall without reinforcing the structure, at best you’re facing sagging floors and windows and doors that stick. Worst case scenario, the house may actually collapse. Don’t allow the same to happen to your roadmap. Return to the audit results to ensure you’re still prioritising those needle movers.
Tracking & reporting on activities
Ah, reporting. The slightly less exciting, but nonetheless crucial element of your roadmap.
At Blue Array, we champion a ‘North Star Goal’. This celestially themed target gives both us as consultants, and our clients, a key point to work towards.
If there are ‘one-off’ tasks, the impact of these might be inputted directly into a column within the roadmap. Examples of this might include total organic entrances to a landing page over a set period of time, number of pages indexed over a set period of time, or whether a piece of coverage gained a follow or no follow backlink.
However, often this alone isn’t enough to get a good grasp on how things are progressing. For that reason, to visualise progress towards this goal, we’ll use Google Data Studio, which as you’d expect, is ideal for pulling in metrics from Google Analytics and Search Console.
A typical North Star progress report built in Google Data Studio.
Building an SEO roadmap is similar to building a house. It’s success lies in careful planning, collaboration and sometimes, the flexibility to compromise.
To ensure your roadmap is successful, keep in mind the following:
- Do your research first. A strong understanding of the most pressing current SEO issues on the site, together with a knowledge of the most impactful opportunities is paramount to planning a roadmap that will drive results.
- Ensure key stakeholders have a clear understanding of their roles in relation to the roadmap; getting buy-in across all parties is crucial to getting things done.
- Return to your roadmap regularly – are your upcoming tasks still relevant or have other projects taken precedence over them? Are there any new competitor threats or opportunities that might merit a slight pivot in strategy?
Whilst roadmaps aren’t unique to SEO, they play an important role in driving implementation.