Unbundled & Commoditized: The future of SEO careers?
Why emerging roles like “SEO product manager” and “Content Ops” are interesting
Welcome back to the SEO MBA. This is part 2 of a mini series on SEO careers. In part 1 we looked at senior career progression and why there are no VP SEO jobs. In this piece we’re going to explore some mid-career moves
Labels Matter, Buckets Matter
When I worked at Google my job title was “product marketing manager - level 3” and I was formally part of the marketing organization. My base salary was $135k. If I’d been a level 3 member of the product organization though I might have earned over $300k extra a year…
Labels matter - especially when transitioning between companies. They can signal seniority, salary and responsibility. And buckets matter - which part of the organization you’re in can dictate salary ranges, promotion schedules and which promotions you’re allowed to apply for.
I’ve been in the room when executives are discussing potential hires and they use phrases like “they’re an SEO manager right now, are they ready for a director role?” or “they’re a director right now, it’s going to be a hard sell to get them approved for a VP role” or “they’re a technical SEO right now, can they handle a product manager role?”.
Early in your career it’s ok to ignore job titles but the more senior you are in your career, and the higher your ambitions are, the more you need to care about job titles and which bucket of the organization you’re in.
And “SEO” as a label is increasingly generic and commoditized…
SEO is Commoditized & Being Unbundled
SEO is maturing - and as such it’s getting commoditized. Heather Physioc has a great presentation Competitive Advantage in a Commoditized Industry where she shows that 73% of SEOs believe organic search is highly or moderately commoditized:
As the SEO industry faces commoditization I predict we’ll see the following trends:
SEO increasingly becoming a skill, not a discipline - with companies choosing to hire “a PM who knows some SEO” or “a marketing manager who knows SEO” vs hiring a dedicated SEO role
SEO roles becoming specialized and unbundled into things like “technical SEO” or “content SEO” as “SEO” becomes too broad and companies are more mature in knowing what kind of SEO they need
Agencies & consultants will see strong demand as they are able to satisfy a specific SEO need or oversee a specific project, but…
Generic SEO agencies will struggle in a commoditized market without strong differentiated positioning and we’ll increasingly see SEO agencies with a tight focus and area of expertise
SEO is the sum of other disciplines
The problem with SEO is that it’s inherently cross functional - it’s the sum of other disciplines. I’m not saying that SEO-traffic is not important or that SEO is going away, but that the strategic activities you undertake to achieve business-level goals are usually not owned by SEO practitioners.
Rather, it’s the product and content teams that produce the outputs that drive SEO outcomes. We talked about this last time when looking at VP SEO roles and building out product and editorial teams to support SEO initiatives - good SEO strategy requires DOING something and SEOs as advisors are rarely directly overseeing the doing work.
The role of SEO in most organizations is to be an advisor or consultant - setting strategy, advising on roadmap and direction but rarely directly overseeing execution.
This is why soft skills, consulting skills and getting buy-in and budget matters so much! Whether you’re working in-house or at an agency, SEO is inherently a consultative role.
And there are plenty of mid-level SEO roles available - the industry is growing and certainly right now the market favors the job seeker. But as we looked at last week, there are very few senior SEO roles available. In 2021 (soon to be 2022!) I don’t think that being “an SEO” is a viable long term career strategy if you want to achieve VP level and above.
So even if you’re not ready for the VP level role yet there might be mid-level career moves you can make that set you up correctly for the future.
New Labels, New Buckets
SEOs are often outsiders. Regardless of whether they sit inside product or marketing (the two most common homes) the SEO team needs to work “across party lines” and interface directly with multiple different teams and multiple different parts of the organization.
If SEO is inside the product org they’re off to the side - and need to interface with marketing and editorial. This is unusual and the rest of the product team doesn’t know how to work well with marketing.
If SEO is inside the marketing org they’re off to the side - and need to interface with the product and engineering teams. This is unusual and the rest of the marketing team doesn’t know how to work well with product.
Labels matter. Buckets matter.
If we take as given that the SEO team is small and has a ceiling, then to get on the path to a VP role it’s important to get “inside” another team. To become a formal member of their hierarchy and to be seen as legitimate for those VP roles.
The most common VP level roles for SEO professionals are VP product, VP Growth/Marketing and VP Content.
As you look at these VP roles you should consider how to more formally assimilate yourself into those parts of the organization - to be seen as “legitimate” and considered for those senior roles you need to have spent time formally working in those areas.
Expanding SEO into marketing/growth and overseeing more channels is the most straightforward and well established of the three so I’m going to skip talking about that one and instead focus on two newer emerging roles:
SEO Product Manager
Let’s take a look:
SEO Product Manager
Even if SEO formally lives inside the product org chart - it’s usually kind of “dangling off the side”. It’s not uncommon to have SEO as the only team inside product that doesn’t have it’s own PM and squad…
Here I drew an org chart the way many organizations think of it:
But I’m increasingly seeing opportunities for more technical SEOs to move away from being “dangling off to the side” and to formally gain the PM job title.
This has two key advantages:
It likely comes with more direct buy-in and more resources to get things done (maybe your own product team!)
You formally gain the job title of “product manager” with associated salary, promotion opportunities etc
These roles are (anecdotally) increasingly common - for example take a look at this job description: senior product manager, SEO at Shutterstock or product manager, SEO at Zocdoc. These both appear to be “proper” PM roles that require both PM and SEO experience.
For product-driven tech companies getting a formal PM role can really open up a career.
On the other side of the equation, for organizations where content is a core competency - content ops is an interesting path to follow.
One of the challenges for SEO professionals is trying to tell editorial and content folks what do do without having a formalized background in journalism, editorial or content…
So the emerging role of content ops is interesting and worth considering. As Gather Content define it:
ContentOps is the combination of people, process and technology that are required to produce, distribute and maintain content in an organisation.
Content Ops is an emerging role so there’s little standardization but I think we are increasingly going to see roles dedicated to overseeing the production of content at a more senior and strategic level than a content producer. Content Ops essentially owns the full publishing process from editorial all the way through to technology and plumbing.
SEOs are uniquely well suited to this role - and honestly many SEOs have alreadsy been doing this for some time!
But the key is that for companies where content is “in charge” this role can help you become formally integrated into the content organization. For example this role from Medium: Content Operations Lead.
In a similar way, for news organizations - getting the prestigious “editor” title can be very important and the NYT has started hiring “SEO editors”.
Listen, careers are weird and take many a winding road! There are far more opportunities, labels and paths to take than just these - the point of this post is not to be proscriptive (I mean, I have very firmly opted out of formalized job titles and hierarchy so don’t trust me to talk about careers!). But rather I want to open your eyes to some potential pathways, especially those that have line of sight to senior levels. Not closing down SEO ambitions, but rather to open up new forks in the road and present a broader spectrum of possibilities.
What you do with it is up to you.