The 4 Levels of SEO (Company-Level)

This is a concept that I came up with recently, after being inspired by Matt Mullenweg’s concept of the 5 levels of “distributed work”. I really enjoyed this article on the topic as well. Everyone is talking about remote work these days due to the effects of COVID-19. 

There are striking parallels between typical company attitudes toward distributed workforces and SEO. Many companies give lip service to remote work, but they won’t commit to empowering employees with the freedom to do it. 

It’s the same with SEO. They give lip service to doing SEO, but they don’t really commit to it or go about it in an effective and advantageous way. Hence, the “4 Levels of SEO”.

SEO Level 0

Companies at Level 0 don’t care about SEO. They don’t know what it is, and they don’t do it. ‘Nuff said.

SEO Level 1

At Level 1, people think about SEO from time to time. It is occasionally considered. Marketing managers, writers, or developers will ask for “help with SEO” after a website or webpage is published. They might install Google Search Console and fix 404 errors. 

At this level, SEO is something that you do to the technical end of your website. It’s thought of as a few changes to the HTML here and there. Did you install a sitemap.xml? Good! SEO is done.

Level 1 companies don’t put any work into organic search content, and they don’t have anyone working on backlink acquisition. If a technical fix is too hard to implement, or if it interferes with other priorities, it doesn’t get done. And there is definitely no overarching SEO strategy. 

It usually falls on the plate of someone already doing other marketing tasks, since there is no in-house dedicated SEO person, or even an SEO agency working on it.

SEO Level 1 looks like:

  • An after-the-fact consideration
  • Something to handle with a few easy technical fixes
  • No strategy
  • No one is dedicated to working on it

SEO Level 2

When a company graduates to level 2, SEO is actually getting done. But it’s not a core marketing competency. Companies at this level have an agency or inhouse person working on it.

You’ll create some keyword-centric content, and people are aware of the importance of backlinks. SEO is taken into consideration for website architecture decisions and other marketing discussions. 

At this level, companies have analytics put in place where people measure the traffic and conversions that come through organic search. Since some resources are being employed to improve the organic search presence, there is often progress.

But at this level, SEO work is not pursued aggressively, nor is it taken as seriously as other marketing channels. The SEO person or agency doesn’t have clout with the executive team, and it isn’t taken as seriously as the marketing channels that the company relies on. Other competing marketing efforts could include paid advertising, outbound sales, or partner referrals. 

SEO Level 2 looks like:

  • SEO is invested in, but not a core marketing competency
  • There is an SEO agency or one full-time, in-house employee working on it
  • There is keyword-centric content creation, and some link building
  • The company’s SEO campaign is not dominating, but is growing slowly

Breaking Past the Level 2 Glass Ceiling

I’ve done search engine optimization at companies in levels 1 and 2. Anyone who works in this capacity knows how incredibly frustrating it can be when you don’t have buy in for your initiatives.

By definition, SEO is competitive. And when you have well-funded, well-oiled machines competing against you in the SERPs, you eventually hit a wall that can seem impossible to move beyond. Good luck hitting #1 for your industry head term without an aggressive link acquisition campaign.

For me, this frustration boiled over into anger sometimes. I would scream in my head, “Why don’t they get it?!!!” Working on SEO at a Level 1 or 2 company can sometimes feel like bashing your head against the wall over and over and over and over and over and over…

Now that I know how to navigate organizations and influence decisions, this all seems but an unhappy memory. My heart goes out to the thousands of SEO professionals who work under these circumstances.

For executives, Level 2 is a deceptive place. By hiring an agency or a full-time in-house employee, they think that they’re giving SEO a fair shake. They’re testing it out. They’re giving it a chance to prove ROI.

And in a certain sense, this is fair and logical. You start a paid advertising campaign budget at $5,000 per month. When you get a provable return, you up the spend to $10,000 per month. Then once the ROI proves out there, you move it up to $20,000 per month. Then to $50,000. Then $100,000. And so on.

Of course the problem with SEO is that it’s much slower, and the analytics aren’t quite as honed in as they are for online advertising. Google and Facebook advertising (which together account for 50% of all online ad spend) have marvelous trackability. You put a dollar in, and you get a dollar out. It’s all very easy to see.

So while I can relate to that mindset, it’s entirely short-sighted. I’ve seen companies that spend $300,000 per month in Google and Bing ads not invest one penny in SEO. Seriously?

It’s 2020 – SEO has been around for a while. It’s a proven and scalable marketing tactic. Google is the backbone of the internet, and SEO has been on the radar for at least 10 years. There have been people doing it since the dawn of search engines, 25 years ago.

The decision to invest in SEO really comes down to two things: your industry and your knowledge. In some industries, particularly in B2B marketing, there isn’t anyone Googling their products or services. In which case SEO would not be a good fit.

For industries that have search volume, the main obstacle is knowledge about SEO, or rather, the lack thereof. Because, as I pointed out in my “Start Here” article, small teams – even one-man teams – of people are creating million-dollar websites from nothing in 12 months or less. All from SEO.

Level 2 companies never get these kinds of results. Ever. Because they don’t properly prioritize SEO.

One of the things that drives me crazy about many SEO agencies, or any marketing agency doing SEO services, is that they don’t take their own medicine. So many of them don’t use SEO to get their own clients. In some cases, this can be legitimate (like if you cater to a weird niche with no search volume), but in most cases, it’s just hypocritical. 

Why are you getting most of your clients from cold email or networking if you’re an expert in SEO?

My advice to anyone looking for an SEO agency is to see if they do SEO for themselves. Why would you hire a Level 2 SEO Company to do your SEO? It just doesn’t make sense.

Look, I don’t want to bag on companies not going all-in on SEO. It’s not in the budget for a lot of small companies. And if the founders don’t have this skillset, then they hire it out, and you have to start somewhere.

My purpose here is to expand your vision of what is possible through SEO. Whether you can fulfill that vision, or how fast you chase it, is up to you.

The good news is that if you’re reading this, you’re either already at Level 3 or above, or you want to get there. And the difference between a Level 3 SEO company and a Level 2 SEO Company is millions of dollars in profit. Literally.

SEO Level 3

SEO Level 3 companies are great at SEO. SEO is a core marketing competency for the company. They have multiple people working full-time on it, plus many other team members involved.

At this level, your website is ranking #1 for multiple industry head terms, and your organic search campaign brings you loads of traffic. If you have a good conversion and monetization strategy in place, you should be growing the business significantly.

A Level 3 SEO Campaign has multiple in-house writers (or freelancers) pumping out good, keyword-centric content all the time. You have full-time people (or an outside agency) dedicated to link building. The website is fully indexed by search engines and technical issues get fixed quickly, if they happen much at all. Site speed is good too.

At this level, SEO strategy is core to company growth, and SEO people are important stakeholders in marketing decisions. Non-marketing executives may consult SEO people from time to time as well.

In my opinion, every company that has a website and decent keyword search volume should try to operate at SEO Level 3. If people are searching for you on Google, why not show up there? 

Boosting SEO presence should be an especially important goal for companies that invest heavily in Google ads.

If you are already advertising profitably with Google ads, all that you have to do is target the exact same keywords with SEO that you are already targeting with PPC. You’ll increase revenue and, once your SEO campaign is working, you could taper down your PPC keyword ad spend, shift that budget to remarketing ads, or even just keep it in place and enjoy higher profitability.

For most tech and ecommerce companies, operating at Level 3 SEO may be all that you want or need. But once they taste those delicious SEO profits, some companies double down even more on search marketing.

SEO Level 3 looks like:

  • SEO is a core marketing competency
  • Multiple full-time, in-house employees work on it
  • Lots of keyword-centric content creation
  • Dedicated personnel and/or resources for backlink acquisition
  • The SEO campaign is dominating, taking multiple position 1 keyword rankings for difficult, industry head terms

SEO Level 4

SEO Level 4 is the holy grail of search awesomeness. Companies operating at this level boast SEO as not only a core marketing competency, but as a core business strategy

NerdWallet and Red Ventures come to mind. These are billion-dollar marketing companies that use SEO as a core growth strategy. They may monetize their website traffic in a variety of ways, but a majority of that traffic is coming from Google. 

Level 4 tech companies include Canva and Hubspot. Locally here in Utah, LucidChart is a tech company that I know that has done exceptionally well through SEO from their early days.

Canva is an interesting SEO case study that is getting a lot of attention in the search marketing world these days. (Foundation wrote a really in-depth article on Canva’s strategy here.) In short, SEO was the main marketing strategy that Canva used to grow and recently achieve a $6B valuation. 

At Level 4 companies, you see SEO headed up by someone on the executive team, usually a “VP of Search” or “Chief Search Officer”. (It could be a CMO with an SEO background.) Multiple teams of people work on SEO, and there are many specialists. Technical SEO, content strategy, outreach people, and PR people all contribute to SEO. 

Millions or even billions of dollars are at stake if search engine optimization goes wrong.

Companies operating at this level acquire strategically-important expired domains and websites regularly. This either adds more web properties to the company’s portfolio, or the acquired domains and websites get redirected into the core company website to boost it’s growth even faster. 

At companies like these, you see individuals pioneering new SEO techniques, processes, and software. There is some secret sauce here and it gives a competitive advantage.

SEO Level 4 looks like:

  • SEO is a core business strategy
  • Multiple in-house teams working on it
  • Many different SEO specialists work on those teams
  • Someone on the executive team is heading up the SEO efforts
  • Company acquires strategically important domains and websites
  • SEO innovations are common

Moving Your SEO Level Up

As I mentioned before, it probably doesn’t make sense for most companies to get to Level 4. But it’s worth mentioning because you can follow Level 4 companies to learn new strategies and tactics, and even poach talent from them. 

And, I might add, SEO methodology can applied to multiple platforms, including:

  • YouTube
  • Amazon
  • The App Store
  • Google Play
  • Quora
  • Yelp
  • Craigslist
  • Zillow
  • TripAdvisor

And on and on…

Craiglist might be a little outdated, but I had to include it because I actually got my start in SEO working for a company that was gaming the Craigslist algorithm to always stay on top. Ha ha, those were the days. For the record, AirBNB also got its start through a Craiglist growth hack. I’m just sayin’.

Even if you’re not pursuing a multi-vertical SEO strategy, (ie just focusing on Google SEO, like most of us do), you can still use organic growth techniques and content marketing in a variety of ways. 

Organic search content can be repurposed for social media. Also vice-versa: create a transcript from your videos and podcasts, repurpose them, and now you have stuff that can rank in Google. You can also use your knowledge of SEO principles to rank your podcast higher on iTunes and Spotify, and use link building outreach tactics to increase your followers for your podcast.

Once you understand this stuff, you can mix and match the tactics and applications in a variety of ways. 

You can operate with Level 4 SEO knowledge, even if you don’t have the resources to match Level 4 companies. That’s why I say you should be following Level 4 companies, particularly if there are any in your industry. 

If you’re not at the level that you would like to be at now, you can always improve. We are all in different stages of our journey, both in business and life. I hope that this article inspires you in your journey. 

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