SEO isn’t a Technical Problem, it’s a People Problem

This post was prompted by a book I recently read - The Secrets of Consulting by Gerald M. Weinberg; I don't want to talk too much about the book here, but I'd recommend you read it either if you are a consultant yourself (online marketing or otherwise) or if you hire consultants.

Weinburg talks about various 'laws of consulting' but the one which really hit home for me was this:

"No matter how it looks at first, it's always a people problem."

~ Gerald M. Weinburg

I think this was particularly interesting to me because we often get brought in to organisations to help with SEO 'problems'. The sort of problems that at first glance ought to be easy to fix. However, it's often harder than you might think.

"More often than not, SEO 'problems' are symptomatic of a larger people problem."

~ Me

Let's take a technical SEO issue as a starter for ten. Imagine an E-Commerce site suffering from duplicate content thanks to a poorly executed faceted navigation. From a technical perspective it's pretty easy to figure out an appropriate solution; but how easy is it to actually get the problem fixed?

It's a subtle difference, but an important one.

Writing up some documentation explaining how to fix the duplicate content issue is easy. But how do you get that documentation read? How do you go from the documentation being read to actually being actioned?

Those are people problems not technical problems.

The toughest challenges that SEOs face lie not in providing appropriate solutions; but in actually fixing problems.

These challenges become even more pronounced when we move away from 'pure' technical problems.

You've doubtlessly been asked the 'Why doesn't my site rank?' question countless times.

Earlier this year I wrote a post about Meatball Sundae wherein I argued that our answer to this sort of question probably ought to look something like this:

"Your product / service and site content is unremarkable. Your site doesn’t speak to your consumer. You’ve failed to engage with your audience."

Ouch! I'd probably elect not to word it in quite those terms, however the message is pretty clear. If you want your site to rank you will need to make big changes.

How do you get big changes like that actioned?

You'll need to do a lot more than create some nice documents. You'll need to influence people.

Whether you're dealing with large or small projects, getting the changes you'd like to see actioned will likely mean influencing people across the business. Here are some of the common 'people problems' myself and my colleagues have encountered at various levels within businesses and some of the tactics we've used to influence change:


Board Level / C-Level - Managing Directors, Chief Executive Officers etc.

Winning over Board Level / C-Level execs is a sure-fire way to ensure that your plans come to fruition - on the occasions where we have managed to get a meeting (even if it is really brief) with people at this level it's resulted in huge, positive changes for the project. But it's easier said than done, particularly if your project isn't even on their radar.

Common 'people problems' at the C-level - No one knows or cares about your project...

The rules of engagement:

1) Figure out what they care about and explain how your project feeds into that

Think meaningful metrics. Increased revenue, increased profit, likely return on investment. Increased indexation is unlikely to float anyone's boat.

2) Speak their language.

Now is definitely not the time to be bamboozling anyone with jargon. This isn't just about using plain English, this is about using the same terminology as them.

Check out this Whiteboard Friday from Marshall Simmonds for further tips and advice on this.

3) Follow up

Keep on top of communication and deliverables. Ought to go without saying :)



Sometimes going straight to the top might not be possible or even advisable - no one likes to feel like someone's gone over their head. Middle-managers are important because they'll be likely to have the ear of the C-Level Execs; for example they may already attend meetings with the C-Levels and probably already have a relationship with them.

Common 'people problems' at middle-management level - I'm reticent to support this project as I'm not convinced it will really deliver results...

The rules of engagement:

1) Treat it like a first date, not a one night stand

You really want to build a good working relationship with these middle-managers. What are they finding tough right now? How can you help? Do they understand the project? Do they have everything they need to convince others that this is definitely the way to go?

2) Dig a little deeper

What do others in the business care about right now? What's the message from the top? How do others in the business feel about that?

3) Make them look brilliant in front of their boss

Regardless of whether or not your middle-manager is outwardly ambitious, making them look brilliant in front of their bosses is a great move.


Your Peers

If you're in-house, these are probably people who work in your department who are on the same management level as you. If you're working agency-side, these are probably the people who you have the most direct day-to-day contact with - they are your in-house equivalent.

Working with your peers can be great; however, in some instances power-struggles and conflict can ensue.

Common 'people problems' with your peers - Conflict and / or resistance to work together as a team...

The rules of engagement:

1) *Really* get to know them

These are the people that you ought to be meeting for lunch, drinking beers with etc. Your handling of them will probably differ a little from the middle-management as they'll (hopefully) be less hierarchical barriers. These are the people that you want frank, open and honest discussions with. If they disagree with you, you need to know about it and be able to discuss how to come to an agreement and get things back on track.

2) Share knowledge & support them

What have they done previously which worked well? What didn't work so well? Take the time to make sure you're sharing knowledge. Remember that you are on the same team. If they need help you need them to feel like they can come to you and you will support them.

3) Communication solves all problems

Seriously. You should be communicating with these people a lot.

Also make sure you're communicating in the way which works best for them. Face-to-face and phone are great for catching up, but also think about integrating with their work-flow systems. Do they use something like Trello or Basecamp? If so, why aren't you?


Working across functions

Search marketing projects have a habit of touching lots of different functions within a business, from the product team, to customer care, to PR and beyond so you'll need to find a way to work together.

Common 'people problems' across functions - What's in it for me? This is just adding to my workload...

The rules of engagement:

1) Communicate the benefits & find a way for many functions to 'win'

Hopefully your project will also benefit the various other functions involved. If not - frankly it is unlikely to get off the ground.

Figure out a way for your project to add value to all of the functions that it touches. For example - can you help push through some technical changes that will help this department? If the department is under-resourced can you help them pitch for more budget / more staff etc?

2) Acknowledge the challenges & help provide solutions

With the best will in the world, your project is likely to cause problems for some other functions. Don't attempt to gloss over those problems, instead acknowledge them and try to find some solutions.

3) Recognise the contribution of other functions publicly

When other functions deliver for you (and your project) make sure you take the time to thank them and give them the recognition they deserve. Remember 'make them look brilliant in front of their boss'? That definitely works here too.


Junior Team Members

These are people who perhaps report into you or your boss if you're working in-house; or if you're working agency side these are likely to be people who report into your client contact. These people will likely be responsible for the lion's share of the actual work which will see your project succeed or fail; so you'll need to keep them motivated and excited about the project even when the going gets tough.

Common 'people problems' with junior team members - Failing to meet deadlines / Issues with the quality of work delivered / Poor motivation / Low morale...

The rules of engagement:

1) Allow them to 'own' key elements of the project

It's really hard to care about anything that you're not ultimately responsible for. By giving junior members of staff ownership of key elements of a project, you're not only saying that you trust them to deliver for you; you're also giving them an excellent development opportunity.

2) Praise in public, feedback in private

Offering public praise and recognition for a job well done is really important. Conversely if things aren't going so well be sure to feedback in private.

3) Play to people's strengths / interests & divide up the least exciting tasks equally

Typically the person who is most interested in taking on a certain set of tasks will be the person who is best able to deliver them. However, with any given project there's likely to be a set of tasks which aren't so sexy. Make sure these tasks are divided up equally rather than lumping all of the least exciting tasks on one individual.


By recognising some of the 'people problems' associated with projects, we've found ourselves far better positioned to actually fix SEO issues within companies as opposed to just suggesting appropriate solutions.

I'd love to hear your experiences too - do you have any tips / tactics for solving people problems you'd care to share?

Alternatively, if you've got a 'people problem' right now and you're struggling to fix it do let me know - either leave me a comment below, or if you'd rather not make it public, then drop me an email - you'll find my address at the bottom of this page.


Image credits

Fix, Influence

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