by Mac 

April 9, 2021

Every SEO will work with developers at some point in their career. Unfortunately, many SEOs will also end up having bad experiences with developers when trying to work together. This primarily impacts in-house SEOs, but you might also experience it as an SEO that works at an agency. We don’t believe that relationships with developers need to be contentious. If you can work together and understand what each party wants, you’ll find that you have better success. We’ve worked with a lot of developers over the years, and we’ll share our views on how to work together in a manner that benefits everyone.

SEO and Developer Rivalry

There’s a few reasons the rivalry exists and there can often be bad blood.A lot of it comes down to misunderstanding and previous experiences. I’d lay it out as such:

  • Previous bad experience
    • SEO is Snake Oil
    • Devs are lazy
  • Lack of understanding
    • SEOs think everything is easy
    • Devs think SEO recommendations don’t impact anything
  • SEO work is boring
  • Miscommunication

How then should you approach working with developers and can you have an environment where you work together? Of course you can. These are the key elements to forming a good relationship with developers:

  • Find Common Ground
  • Clear Communication
  • Mutual Understanding
  • Share the Credit
  • Build Rapport

Understanding Developer and SEO Pain Points

In many cases, developers’ issues with SEOs are not unfounded and can have merit. Unfortunately, the SEO industry IS filled with snake oil sellers who don’t accomplish what they claim and peddle bad information. Additionally as SEOs, it’s easy to come in and say X needs to be done without fully understanding what sort of undertaking that is. 

For example, if you’ve ever looked at the dev tools coverage report that shows the total amount of unused code on a page, it’s easy to just say that devs should remove that code because the site will be faster. However, that entails a lot of work and it will take a lot of time, especially if the files are complex or you’re using standard libraries like jquery. Devs would need to go through each page type to identify what code was unused, what code was actually used but didn’t flag because it needed an interaction, and more. In most cases, it really isn’t worth it, but as an SEO, we can easily say it’s a high priority without realizing what a massive undertaking that can be. 

The truth is that SEO work is boring. If you’re a developer, you probably don’t want to change the site’s heading structure because it’s a boring and dull task (it’s boring creating it on the SEO side also). Everyone wants to do something that they enjoy, or at the least they want to understand why something should be done.

Solving the Developer and SEO Pain Points

As you can see, it’s not a surprise that sometimes the dev/seo relationship is strained or just volatile in general. Unless you’re working with a complete jerk, this relationship can be mutually beneficial. At the end of the day, both devs and SEOs want success in their role. If you work together, you have a better chance of having that success.  

Find common ground

I have two main in-house experiences. The first company had developers that didn’t own smartphones trying to code mobile websites. They also thought they were designers (they weren’t). This led to a lot of clashing because when I and the other SEOs would tell them that things needed to be changed, it was taken as a personal attack. You could tell them that URLs that were just a string of numbers needed changed and they’d start screaming at you. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they actually cried. Nothing ever got done and as time went on the site continued to lose ground to competitors. 

My second experience was thankfully different. I had just left that toxic environment mentioned above and was ready to go through it again. Thankfully that was not the case. While the new developers were wary of me because I was an SEO (they thought SEO was snake oil due to bad experiences), we ended up getting along fairly well. Why?

In talking with them, I conveyed what I wanted done and why it was important. It just so happened to be related to page speed improvements. The developers were very focused on site performance and it was important to them, so page speed was a way to connect. Because we had a specific common interest, they were more than willing to help with this project. After that, as long as I gave them my reasons for what I wanted done and could explain why, they were willing to help me accomplish those goals. It went from the developers thinking all SEO was snake oil, to understanding that SEO had actual merit on some issues. 

Clear Communication and Mutual Understanding

Clear communication is a key component of finding that common ground. If you want the devs to implement a change you’ve requested, you need to explain why it’s important and what result you want to see. In the page speed example above I told them I wanted image sizes to be reduced and the file format changed to JPEG because the PNGs were unnecessary. I expected to see lower load times and a higher conversion rate as a result. While it helped the devs cared about the site performance, they also knew that I had a clear reason for tasking them with additional work.

I’ve also had cases where a junior SEO was unable to adequately explain why they wanted something changed. The end result was the developers thought that the junior SEO didn’t really know what they were talking about, and didn’t think the change was worth it. This changed once an adequate explanation was given.

Communicating what you want and the results you expect to see is also critical in overcoming developers aversions to boring work. If you know that completely a boring task is actually going to lead to a decent payoff, you’re more likely to do that work. Instead of telling a developer to change all the titles to the ones you made because they include targeted keywords, tell them that you expect to see an increase in click-through rates and a slight ranking bump, which means that the site will gain more visitors and potentially increase conversions. Now that boring work has a purpose and actually leads to something valuable.

Once the task is done and you’ve seen the results, share that with the developers. You want them to know that the work they did actually mattered and wasn’t just a boring task. As this continues to happen and you show that you’re not selling snake oil, they’ll be more inclined to work with you.

Sharing the credit and building rapport

As I said before, both developers and SEOs want to be successful in the work they do When the developers help you get a job done and you’re reporting on the results, call them out for their help. The truth is without the developers helping you, you’re not going to get anywhere. All the SEO ideas in the world don’t matter if they never make it past the request phase.

When you share the credit, you’re helping the developers share in that success you’ve found. That’s going to help you build rapport and when you have another project in the future, they will be more likely to work with you. By tying your work with theirs, you’ll have created a mutually beneficial relationship. 

Other Considerations

Search Mentor Kenny also has some important takeaways, especially as he does some development work.

We have a dev squad we work with closely but there are other dev teams that we don’t always work with but sometimes need to. Each time we do, we have to develop a relationship with them even though we’re all on the same team.

Prioritization can be a pain point even after all that as dev teams have multiple stakeholders pushing their own projects and so you’ll have to make sure your project is actually worth pursuing, aka has significant value.  

Also it’s important to understand the dev teams process so that you can come in quickly and present ideas for a project / story that fits in with how things work. First thing I had to learn and something I’m still doing is understanding how the website works so I can write a story that is actually achievable and doesn’t require the devs to have to investigate on their own which can just eat up more time.

An Agency Note

If you’re an SEO working at an agency, the above still applies, but usually you won’t face the same situations. Working with third party devs or client devs means that someone else usually has to deal with getting stuff done. You’re job is primarily to offer up the issues and the opportunities to be tackled. The main thing you should keep in mind is to document what gets done and what doesn’t. If the devs don’t do the work despite being told the value of the task, it’s not on you. However, do try and support your point of contact in their interactions with developers. I often speak to developers on behalf of a client in order to back them up or fully convince them on why certain tasks should be done. Remember, a happy client is one who likely stays with you.

Conclusion

Your success as an SEO in large part depends on the developers. By building a good relationship, you’ll end up getting more done and you won’t have to deal with a bad work environment. Work together, share the credit, and let the good times roll. 

About the author 

Mac

Mac is one of the Search Mentors. His first experience with SEO was badmouthing a CS 1.6 clan on a public forum and getting caught when they googled their name. Oops. Mac's been involved in SEO in various capacities for 10 years, but is primarily involved in technical SEO. He doesn't show his face because his company probably wouldn't like that he does other SEO related things.

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