What is an SEO product manager?

What is an SEO product manager?

SEO product managers are the teammate you never knew you needed. It’s also a role in-house teams cannot live without.

SEO product managers are the teammates you never knew you needed. In-house SEO teams also can’t live without them. 

In this article, we will cover what an SEO product manager does, the skills needed to become one, and where the role sits within the organization.

What is an SEO product manager?

At a high level, an SEO product manager (PM) helps teams optimize features and functionalities on a website so that it’s discoverable by search engines and humans alike. 

This role is uniquely positioned to empathize with and understand two important types of customers: 

  • Search engine bots (i.e., Googlebot) that crawl websites.
  • Prospective customers who visit websites looking for information or products. 

SEO product management is a form of specialization within product management since it requires experience in and knowledge of search engine optimization. The role differs from that of an SEO manager in two main ways, as SEO PMs:

  • Maintain a roadmap and partner with other product managers, engineers and delivery leads to execute SEO roadmap initiatives.  
  • Operate in software tools like Jira and Confluence, writing SEO requirements and maintaining detailed product requirements for SEO initiatives.  

On a day-to-day level, the SEO PM helps make sure any necessary SEO requirements are incorporated into the technical work being done by functional teams in terms of how a feature gets built (or coded) so that it’s “SEO-friendly” for search engines and humans. 

Before we go any further, let’s take a quick step back and orient around “what is product management” since the practice itself has only recently come about in the last two decades. 

“While product management has existed in one form or another for a number of decades, the ‘product manager’ title only started picking up steam less than 20 years ago.” Sherif Mansour, a product manager at Atlassian, one of the foremost tools used by agile teams, explains.

“A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.” 

In this way, product management is a highly integrated, cross-functional role in an organization. The same is true for SEO. “The reality is, every single day, everyone touching the website is doing SEO, whether they know it or not,” explains Jessica Bowman, enterprise consultant of SEO Inhouse. 

Therefore, a large part of an SEO product manager’s role is guiding and advising teammates on SEO best practices, which include:

  • Defining the KPIs that matter most to the business and advising on the SEO leading indicators of organic growth. 
  • Articulating concepts like the signals influencing ranking factors and how major search engines, including Google, define a good user experience (beyond bounce rate).

They collaborate with other teams to get work across the finish line and, in the process, make those around them better at SEO too.  

I would be remiss if I did not mention that with the existence of an SEO product manager, “SEO as a product” should also be embraced.

This means treating search engine optimization as an aspect of the business where a product manager is dedicated to growing organic traffic and revenue by defining the vision, high-level problems, and what success looks like. (Buckle up, friends, I plan to elaborate on this topic in future articles.)  

What’s the difference between an SEO manager, an SEO product manager, and a project manager? 

I hope I didn’t just lose you. The roles sound similar, especially when you abbreviate the “PM.” This chart should help clarify things: 

SEO product manager SEO manager Project manager
– SEO expertise.
– Manages a roadmap of SEO initiatives.
– Writes SEO requirements in tickets for engineering and other teams to execute.
– SEO expertise.
– Operates strategically and tactically depending upon available resources.
– SEO expertise not required. 
– Facilitates projects from idea to completion, organizing teams and stakeholders via (meetings, requirements, deadlines, communicating status and performance, and troubleshooting). 

The big differences between an SEO PM and an SEO manager involve ownership of a product roadmap and operational function.

SEO product managers own a roadmap of features and fixes where the initiatives range from ad hoc technical fixes (bugs) to building features that improve the foundational aspects of SEO like: 

  • Internal linking.
  • The amount of content on the site.
  • Googlebot’s ability to crawl and index the site.
  • User experience.
  • Speed and web vitals. 

Think of it like having a set of offensive and defensive plays in your playbook.

In a given calendar year where engineering and product teams are releasing updates to the site, ideally, a product manager wants to have some initiatives that (offensively) grow the business. That said, they also need to manage the reality of fundamental (defensive) things like shoring up tech debt or dedicating a quarter or two to a platform upgrade.  

Given the nature of SEO, where there’s always a possibility of a code release breaking existing site functionality, SEO PMs rigorously prioritize the SEO roadmap and execute it alongside other PMs through what’s known as agile scrum methodology, a project management system that relies on incremental development.

A helpful framework to use to articulate SEO initiatives is the 10 pillars of SEO developed by Bowman of SEO Inhouse. 

10 pillars of SEO

This framework is especially useful at the enterprise level, where SEO PMs are often both educating and advocating for technical SEO initiatives.

It illustrates and compartmentalizes the main concepts of SEO to other teams. And can also serve as a resource for categorizing priority initiatives.   

SEO managers, on the other hand, still reference this framework, but their role is an ancillary one compared to the core roles involved in an agile scrum methodology. Scrum has three roles:

  • The product manager (or owner).
  • The scrum master.
  • The development team members. 
Your perfect development team

Notice how every role here is working on the website but what’s absent is a representative of SEO.

You see, while an SEO manager is not an integral part of the agile process, by design, an SEO product manager is.

Therefore, the challenge SEO managers often face is actually getting SEO priorities onto a roadmap. They’re essentially on the outside of this process looking in.  

Ability to write requirements with SEO recommendations 

In my previous life as an SEO manager, I documented an SEO issue and provided recommendations to the development team or marketing lead with an export of impacted URLs.

But it wasn’t until I was in the role of a product manager that I was in the driver’s seat of ensuring SEO requirements were factored in and that engineers work off of Jira tickets. They don’t work off of an SEO audit or an export from any SEO enterprise tools. 

Specifically, an SEO PM is on hand during grooming sessions as an advisor, listening for areas where SEO should be considered and helping document technical SEO recommendations so that SEO best practices are part of the building process. 

The discipline of product management is in creating clear requirements for other teams to execute. With each ticket they write, the SEO PM articulates “what” the search engine needs to be able to consume and engineering determines “how” best to deliver on those requirements. 

Operational function 

Think of it this way – a priority for an SEO manager might be fixing the 404 errors in a craw, whereas an SEO PM looks at that same initiative and says, “Okay, what teams do I need to partner with to address the broader business issue that’s causing the 404 errors?” 

One targets the issue. The other has more leeway to target the source to prevent the issue from continuing.

Given the nature of development teams operating within an agile framework, the schedule is dictated by sprint cycles.

Within a sprint (which can be either one or two weeks in length) are daily rituals like team stand-ups, grooming sessions, retrospectives, and showcases.

There is a lot of day-to-day involvement that demands dedication and teamwork to continuously address roadblocks and meet sprint goals and deadlines.  

Active participation in those duties alone is a significant difference to how an SEO manager spends their day. (In future articles of this series, I’ll dive further into this aspect by comparing the job descriptions between the two, since I’ve also seen the terms “search product manager” and “digital PM” used to describe this role.)

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What skills and qualities are needed to become an SEO PM?

If you’re currently an SEO manager, project manager or product manager, it’s possible to move into an SEO product manager role since you’re tangential to the discipline.

To get started, you’ll need to do a self-assessment to determine how and where to uplevel your skill sets.  

Since SEO product management is a specialization of product management, these are some of the balance of skills you’ll need: 

Hard skills Soft skills
Working knowledge and experience in: 
– Technical SEO
– Content SEO
– Product management 
– Agile principles 
– Tools: Jira, Confluence, Roadmunk, etc.
– Ability to use data to build quantitative business cases
– Project management
– Effective communication
– Organized
– Ability to influence
– Distill complex problems or concepts into simple terms or action steps
– Creative problem-solving and ability to manage and operate through ambiguity
– Enthusiasm
– Ability to guide teams toward seeking a solution
– Business acumen
– Adaptability 
– Critical thinking 
– Problem-solving
– Ability to rigorously prioritize initiativesWillingness to learn
– Empathy 
– Grit and tenacity

In most cases, you're either an SEO adopting the operating framework of product management or a strong product manager learning to apply SEO principles to supercharge and expedite your approach. 

How does SEO product management define results?

Where a product manager might be focused on delivering a feature or making customer improvements, SEO PMs are focused on SEO metrics.

In my experience in enterprise SEO ecommerce, there are two core KPIs:

  • Organic sales or revenue.
  • Organic sessions or visits.

So, primarily, SEO PMs are focused on protecting and improving organic revenue and traffic for the business. The results themselves are measured incrementally as improvements are published on the website. 

Prioritization is at the heart of product management

Within SEO, prioritization is a learned skill. It comes from years of experience auditing sites, prioritizing the issues, implementing fixes and measuring the results.

As for technical SEO, most enterprise tools categorize site issues by errors, warnings and notifications. Errors are considered critical issues where something is broken or crawlers cannot access your pages.

Seasoned SEOs marry business priorities with technical fixes that can be implemented and will move the needle. 

Product managers, on the other hand, aim to prioritize features and enhancements – essentially ideas – using customer data, scope confidence level, and business impact.  

Perhaps a misconception about “SEO fixes” is that they all improve traffic. Not true. There are secondary KPIs related to creating SEO improvements that are foundational in nature. These create operational efficiencies as opposed to driving organic traffic. 

For example, programmatically defining title tags to be contained to less than 60 characters so they don’t get truncated in the SERP. Does that improvement increase organic traffic? Not directly. It’s more of a best practice. 

An important concept to understand is that there is never one silver bullet initiative that results in online riches. If there were, everyone (and every affiliate site) would be doing it. 

The nature of SEO is that it’s organic. It occurs naturally and over time.

SEO is an acquisition channel and the growth opportunity lies in delivering compounding improvements over time. The attractive part about SEO is that once the improvements are live, all things being equal, the estimated benefits continue year after year.  

Helping other teams improve upon the SEO foundation

The satisfaction in product management comes from collaboration and teamwork with other teams to build and get things done. As an SEO product manager, you get to directly contribute to that process because you're advising, educating and empowering different teams about their contributions to SEO. 

In practice, this looks like feature documentation outlining SEO requirements for search engines or best practices for coding elements on a page to be search engine friendly. It also means helping engineers understand tradeoffs that impact SEO when dealing with things like pagination, URL parameters, and internal links. 

SEO PMs can bring data that can help inform decision-making. Search data can help merchandisers at ecommerce brands understand product seasonality. It can help copy teams include words or phrases used during the discovery phase. 

SEO data is about what real people are searching for and when. SEO PMs are uniquely equipped to articulate that level of customer insight with internal teams to put the customer at the core. 

Where does the SEO product manager sit within the organization? 

The short answer is – it depends on who hires you and where their team sits. As previously mentioned, the discipline of product management is still a young one and therefore, team size and structure are still evolving. 

In my experience, I’ve been a part of the product vertical as an executing PM, and other times a part of the SEO team that was part of a larger, digital customer experience team responsible for the online experience. 

Fundamentally though, it doesn’t really matter where the role sits because product management (and SEO, really) is a cross-functional discipline.

This means SEO PMs, just like regular product managers, find success in cultivating cross-functional partnerships with the goal of getting things done. 

Product management responsibilities expand and contract based on the org size

Smaller companies typically need product managers that handle a variety of areas. Whereas in larger enterprise-level companies, a big part of product management is learning to navigate the organization. There are also more product managers with specific areas of responsibility for growing and scaling an aspect of the business. 

For example, enterprise brands can have dedicated product managers for the front-end website, internal search and navigation, the cart or “checkout” experience (especially ecommerce brands), content assets, the mobile app, and, as you can see more recently, SEO.   

In his 20+ years in product management, thought leader and practitioner Itamar Gilad describes three common PM role issues. He writes, “...many companies are still figuring out the basics, including the role of PMs, their reporting line, and relationship with other disciplines.”

Education and influence

Without direct reports, product managers largely lead by influence and collaboration.

For SEO PMs, in particular, a key piece of their operational capability is in having mechanisms to continuously train and empower internal teams on the basics of SEO and how their role helps or hurts SEO performance. 

A huge misconception is that SEO teams only do SEO and that SEO “just happens.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Definitions and tools of the trade

To become an SEO product manager, you need to be familiar with the nomenclature and rituals of product management (as well as, of course, SEO).

Here are a few terms to familiarize yourself with to get your feet wet on the product side. 

  • Agile: A methodology that allows teams to efficiently manage a process by breaking it down into parts. In other words, a structured and iterative approach to project management and product development. 
  • Scrum (or agile scrum): A type of framework that consists of meetings, roles, and tools to help teams working on complex projects collaborate and better structure and manage their workload.
  • Sprint planning: A meeting where engineering teams, product managers and any business stakeholders attend to review tickets for an upcoming sprint. 
  • Sprint: A one- or two-week defined period of work where engineering teams pick up pre-determined work in the form of Jira tickets to be completed within that time frame. Efficiency is the name of the game.  
  • Stand-up: Designed to quickly inform everyone of what’s going on across the team, daily stand-ups are rituals with agile teams where engineers and product delivery managers get a quick check of assigned tasks, blockers or questions. 
  • Showcase/demo (a.k.a., iteration review): Part of the agile ritual where teams that have been building demonstrate to business stakeholders the final product or completed aspects of a given ticket. 
  • MVP: Stands for “minimum viable product,” which is basically the first round version of a multi-phased project that you aim to publish to begin the iterative feedback loop of improvement.
  • Spike: Designed to be a quick investigation ticket with the aim of gathering more data points or feedback to better scope the initiative and go-forward path. 
  • Sizing or level of effort (LOE): An estimate from cross-functional teams (engineering, UX, etc.) on what the level of effort will be to complete the task. The sizing ranges at each company are articulated differently. It can be a “t-shirt size”(small, medium, large) or a range (high, medium, low).

Tools and resources used by product managers

Here’s a basic list of the tools used by product managers and the value provided:

  • Slack/ WebEx/ Microsoft Teams: Internal communication, especially remote teams.
  • Jira and Confluence: For tickets and documentation.
  • Trello, Asana: Keeping track of tasks.
  • Adobe Analytics: Organization’s source of truth for data. SEOs use this too.
  • Quantum Metric 
  • Roadmunk: Collaborating and sharing product roadmaps. 
  • Miro: Online brainstorming collaboration tool. 
  • Admin login to the software platform the enterprise website is hosted on.
  • PMs that oversee an app will use Firebase or AppsFollow.

In addition to the tools above, SEO PMs will use:

  • Google Analytics. 
  • Google Search Console (to view the information Google has about your site).
  • Google Trends, a free resource to glean insight on trending search terms and topics.
  • Botify, Screaming Frog, Sitebulb, or other web crawlers. 
  • Semrush, Ahrefs, STAT, Moz, etc., to monitor keyword fluctuations and trends.
  • Tableau, for data consolidation and visualization. 
  • SEO Radar, for monitoring based on specific needs of the business.

What they’re reading: 

  • TechCrunch.
  • Insider Intelligence (eMarketer). 

Newsletters they’re subscribed to: 

  • SEO MBA.
  • The SEO Sprint. 
  • Marie Haynes Consulting.
  • Search Engine Land.  

SEO product managers help drive organic growth

Did we just become best friends? 

SEO PMs can help you grow your business organically and, in the process, make other teammates around them better at accounting for SEO. It takes dedication, investment and teamwork. 

Both SEO PM and SEO manager roles function as an advisor to cross-functional teams building and working on the website by providing technical guidance and SEO requirements.

But it’s the SEO product managers who are more hands-on, writing product requirements and documentation. Their level of involvement throughout the entire sprint cycle also sets this role apart from an SEO manager. 

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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