Pace Layers of SEO
Understanding power and constraints
Welcome back to another SEO MBA email - this is a long one and it’s fleshing out a concept I’ve been developing as part of my upcoming course on client management. The first two beta cohorts are done and I’m just about to start shooting video so that course should be out soon!
When I worked at Distilled (the SEO agency I worked at from 2008 - 2012, now acquired by Brainlabs) one of the most consistently surprising things was our ability to retain, and even delight clients, without actually generating impressive results.
I’m not saying that we never got results, just that it surprised me when clients stuck around even when results weren’t “up and to the right”.
When I was younger, my working mental model for how agencies worked is that if you’re not getting results, you get fired. Turns out the reality is… a bit more complicated than that.
In fact the same is true of working inside a big company. It’s easy to look around at other teams who don’t immediately contribute value to the organization and think your work matters more than theirs does. But you’d be wrong.
Getting to the bottom of this requires thinking a bit more deeply about value.
Enter, Pace Layers
Stewart Brand created the model of pace layers to describe change inside complex systems. It breaks civilization into 6 layers. The top layers move faster, while the bottom layers move more slowly:
The core idea is that the top layers get all the attention, while the bottom layers hold all the power. From Steward Brand:
“Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.”
This simple mental model starts to gain some power as we understand not just each layer on its own but also how the layers interact. It’s not a perfect model for understanding organizations with all their bureaucracy, but it’s a good starting point.
Organizational Pace Layers
Clay Parker Jones recently wrote up a great post reconciling various models of organizational pace layers. When you add them up there’s some recurring themes. In particular, I like Alfred Chandler's 1962 definitions of Strategy, Structure, and Tactics:
Strategy: The plan for the allocation of resources to anticipated demand.
Structure: The design for putting the enterprise’s existing resources against current demand.
Tactics: The efficient and steady use of current resources whose allocation had already been decided.
What I like about this mental model for organizations is that it creates a clear sense of pace layers, of how the organization changes at different time scales:
Yadda yadda yadda. This is all theoretical. Why should I care? Ok, hang on, I'm getting there. Here’s one reason you should care:
Slow layers hold all the power
As you get more senior in your career you start to see this notion of pace layers everywhere. Decisions made about quarterly budgets play by different rules than decisions about annual budgets. Decisions on building teams need to be measured and evaluated differently than decisions to onboard a new agency partner.
If you’re reading this newsletter I hope it’s obvious by now that if you want to get budget and buy-in for your work, you need to go where the power lies. This requires engaging with your company or client at deeper pace layers. If you really want to influence the organization you’re working for you need to understand pace layers.
And understanding pace layers requires understanding negative feedback loops.
Negative Feedback Loops
SEO can be a frustrating discipline. Pushing organizations to invest in slow-moving, technical, cross-functional initiatives - often without the formal authority to demand those teams actually assign resources and budget to your initiatives.
Knowing what to do is not enough - the real battle is persuading the organization to get it done. And it’s hard to change organizations.
Many times SEOs struggle with this frustration. It can feel personal. “Am I presenting the right business case?” and “How can I prove the case for investment if I can’t get anything done in the first place?”.
I find it’s reassuring to know that this is how organizations are supposed to work.
The pace layers concept starts to help us - as we gain a mental model not just for the different layers of the organization but how the various layers interact with each other. From Stewart Brand’s model:
The very purpose of the lower layers is to constrain, provide consistency and integrate shocks. To regulate change. To constrain. This feels frustrating if all you’re looking at is the fast layers!
From Stewart Brand:
“the total effect of the pace layers is that they provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing negative feedback throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.”
When facing resistance at the fast layers the answer is not always to push harder but to go deeper to understand where the resistance is really coming from. To address deeper pace layers.
Tom, I thought you were done with the theory and you were gonna get somewhere here? Ok, ok, ok. There’s some examples coming! Let’s get specific.
SEO Pace Layers
Now that we have a grounding in pace layers, let’s explore how you might map SEO activities to pace layers. I’m sure there are many ways to do it - here’s one version I made:
Let’s look at the layers one by one:
FASHION: Tests and actions [Timeframe: 1-2 weeks]
This is the fastest layer and where we spend most of our immediate attention. What recommendations are we making right now? Let me write this JIRA ticket. Let me analyze some keywords. Let’s test some title tags.
This layer is most effective when it’s unfettered to try new ideas, to be free to move quickly. We’re moving fast, but not always in the right direction…
COMMERCE: Results [Timeframe: 1-3 months]
This is where the rubber meets the road. How are we driving immediate business value? Obviously not everything we try works, but we always need a close eye on the goals and targets in front of us. How is revenue trending? What is driving value today? How do we optimize and invest behind what’s working?
This layer is most effective when we have rock solid analytics and great analysis of what’s working.
INFRASTRUCTURE: Processes & systems [Timeframe: 6-12 months]
What systems and processes support the above layers? This is where everything from tooling to SEO quality assurance lives. Where does all our data live - can we create a data warehouse? How does content go live on the site, do we have a documented process?
SEO infrastructure is successful when it supports the above two layers with enough resources enabled to get the right things done.
GOVERNANCE: Budgets & Buy-in [Timeframe: 1-2 years]
Just because we have budget today doesn’t mean we’ll have budget tomorrow. Governance is where questions about team size, resource allocation and budgets sit. Are we allocating the right level of resources against SEO? Does SEO sit in the right part of the organization?
Governance is most effective when SEO has clear reporting lines, access to cross functional teams, clear ownership and executive sponsors.
CULTURE: Internal SEO Culture [Timeframe: 2-5 years]
What if everything else is in place and we’re still having a hard time? Maybe it’s because SEO just isn’t considered a priority. The internal perception of SEO colors everything - from budgets to priorities. Just because everything is in place on paper doesn’t mean that things will actually run smoothly.
This layer is most effective if a wide range of people inside the org understand why SEO is valuable AND understand a simple mental model of what SEO involves, specifically for this organization.
NATURE: Industry SEO Culture [Timeframe: 5-10 years]
How important is SEO to the specific niche and industry that you’re in? How much do competitors invest in SEO? What kind of approach to SEO do similar businesses take? If we hire a new CMO from a competitor what will be their perception and understanding of SEO?
This layer is most effective when we can tell stories, case studies and examples showing how SEO is perceived, and invested in, across similar businesses. (See last email’s note on finding good comparisons for more on this)
We made it through all the layers! Now, let’s look at some real examples.
Consulting Fast & Slow
Here’s two examples, they’re both lightly fictionalized but deeply rooted in real experiences from my own consulting work. Hopefully you’ll recognize some of these.
Worked Example A: Facing resistance
Imagine you’re working with Nordstrom, trying to improve SEO. Unfortunately SEO traffic has been roughly flat for years and your list of SEO recommendations is just sitting on a shelf. No one is prioritizing your work.
What do you do? How can we add value in this situation?
Well, firstly it’s important to note that this is a wrong situation to be in! When we made our recommendations either:
They didn’t have resources available to implement our recommendations, in which case, why did we make a bunch of recommendations? Or,
They had resources available but after seeing our recommendations decided not to prioritize them, in which case something feels off about how we presented our ideas.
The first way out of this situation is to properly understand what else the teams are working on. If we’re making recommendations to the product team, what else are the product team working on right now? What’s on their roadmap? This will give us a good sense of prioritization and focus.
Once we understand that, there’s broadly two ways to add value. We can try harder to drive our changes through (fast layers) and we can look for deeper change (slow layers).
Do you know the 3 most important things to focus on? Does everyone else? Creating focus can help get things moving - or at least ensure that you’re getting the high impact things done.
How can you better articulate the value of your recommendations? If everyone knows the value of your recommendations they’ll be more likely to implement them. We can’t just recommend things, we have to clearly present the business opportunity (ideally in revenue).
Can we more clearly explain, visualize or scope our recommendations? Sometimes things stall because there’s a lack of clarity. I’ve found better explanations (e.g. a loom video), better specs (e.g. a JIRA ticket) or better visualizations (e.g. a figma mockup) can all help move things along.
How is our reporting and data integrity? Do we have a robust dashboard and reporting setup that allows us to show the value of SEO? Is the report designed in a format that senior stakeholders care about?
How is our SEO QA process? Do we have robust monitoring setup across the site to prevent future issues and drops?
Do we have clear, and documented processes for key workflows - e.g. content production, expiring products, new fashion seasons?
What is the level of education, awareness and buy-in for SEO across the org? Can we design education or training programs for various teams that will allow us to build more allies?
Is there a clear SEO strategic roadmap? Beyond the immediate changes in front of us do we have a clear 12-18 month plan for investing in SEO? Can we create
Not being able to get things done is, clearly, frustrating. But there are always alternatives. When you consider the slower pace layers there are always ways to create value, bring clarity and focus to the strategy and ensure that stakeholders are aligned and educated.
Worked Example B: Results without access
Ok, now let’s imagine a kind of opposite situation. You’re working with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and you’re getting things done. Working directly with their web development agency you’re shipping changes and seeing results. But, you don’t have much communication with your primary point of contact - in fact, you’ve never met your point of contact’s boss.
How might this relationship end badly?
Firstly, it’s important to understand that this isn’t immediately a bad situation per se…. It’s great to be getting things done and delivering value! But, it’s important to recognize that the relationship is fragile. If our point of contact quits, or if there’s an algorithm update or some other unexpected situation - our ability to survive is weakened if we don’t have good communication and good access to the organization, even if we’re delivering results.
Here’s two example ways the project could go wrong:
Yes, we’re delivering results. But are we providing value for everyone? A client like the AMNH has many different stakeholders - yes they care about ticket sales and visitors to the museum, but they also care about their working scientists, their education program, their donors. Just because we’re increasing rankings and traffic are we truly delivering value?
Even if we’re shipping changes and getting things done - what might be looming? When I worked with the AMNH many years ago we were in this exact situation - delivering changes at a fast pace, but without knowing that there was a full website rebuild (new CMS, new content, the works) that we were not involved with. Ouch.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, without enough access and clear lines of communication there are broadly speaking two things to try:
Understanding your point of contact. What’s their day to day? What else are they working on? Why is our contact limited? Can we get 1:1 time with them instead of being in group meetings? What are they stressed/nervous/excited about?
Understanding the organization more deeply. What are the big 3 strategic priorities right now? Who holds all the power internally? What big initiatives are being worked on?
Essentially you can think of this situation as being unblocked in the fast layers, and blocked in the slow layers. So it’s important to not be complacent and only focus on the immediate - we need to keep pushing to understand and get access to the lower layers.
Honestly, it’s still kind of surprising to me that both these clients are at risk. It constantly amazes me that it’s possible to get a client like Nordstroms to continually extend and renew your contract despite a lack of meaningful results at the top layers, while a client like AMNH might decide to end the contract despite a clear track record of getting things done.
Different players for different layers
This email, despite already being too long(!), isn’t long enough to fully explore the art of client management (or stakeholder management if you’re client side). But it matters.
Let’s return to 2011, I’m working at the SEO agency Distilled. I’m still confused as to why clients renew our contract despite us not seeing great results.
The key is to realize that retaining clients isn’t just a function of results (the top layers) but it’s a function of clarity and confidence (the bottom layers). Just because your point of contact is likely deeply embedded in the top layers doesn’t mean that’s where the power is…
Different players for different layers. We need to be communicating with and working at ALL layers if we want to be seen as a strategic, valuable partner. And the longer we work with a client the less likely that immediate results matter - and the more likely that it matters how we build a sustainable growing SEO practice, complete with strong culture, infrastructure and governance.
The different layers have real value to organizations, but they’re measured differently with different stakeholders.
In Summary, Onions
Honestly, to survive at senior levels of SEO I think you have to obsess over organizational design, power structures and pace layers. Different kinds of value, the interplay between layers. You learn to see constraints and pushback as natural parts of the lower layers - designed to regulate change.
If you work in-house, paying attention to the lower layers is how you get promoted, expand your head count and secure bigger budgets.
If you work at an agency, paying attention to your client’s lower layers is how you retain, expand and upsell your client and build long term working relationships - able to weather rocky periods and shocks.
Or maybe SEOs (and ogres) are just like onions.