How should SEO and dev teams work together?

August 18, 2021


Website optimization has become more technical, especially with Google’s Core Web Vitals update. Naturally, this means SEO and development teams need to be in sync. Kurt Lambert and Geoff Kerbis return to the show to talk about how SEO and dev teams should work together. In this conversation, we discuss:

  • where SEO work stops and dev work begins
  • how to structure SEO and dev teams
  • how to build trust between SEO and dev teams
  • technical optimizations to address Core Web Vitals issues

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to The Digital Marketing Troop, where we go in the trenches to help you learn more about digital marketing. I’m your host, John Tyreman, and I am joined today by two returning guests, Kurt Lambert, VP of SEO and Development Operations, and Geoff Kerbis, SEO Team Lead and Senior Account Manager at Silverback Strategies. Gentlemen, how are we doing today?

Geoff Kerbis:  Doing great, John.  Thanks for having us on. 

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, doing well. Thanks John. 

John Tyreman:  Awesome, well we are here to talk about SEO and development teams and how they should work together because you have to work together if you’re going to go farther together. And before we really dive into that topic I’ve got a bit of an icebreaker for you guys. I just recently went to the beach with my wife and family and we were able to leave the kids with the grandparents and sneak off to a little Tiki Bar, where we saw a cover band called Kleptoradio and they played a great mix of classic rock, punk, hip hop that just… like recognizable songs, but there are so many good cover bands out there. I’m curious, have you encountered a really, really good cover band?

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, actually just a few weeks ago, the bar for cover bands was set high for me. I was in Atlantic City, with my dad, we were at a casino just having some dinner and there just happened to be a YouTube cover band outside playing on the dock. And you could not convince me that wasn’t Bono out there. That was a hell of a show.

John Tyreman:  That’s awesome. Geoff, what about you?

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah. Being that I am in the Midwest, if you are a fan of the Chicago area, you probably have already heard of Rod Tuffcurls and The Bench Press, which is a wonderful cover band that does everything from Whitney Houston, all the way to the latest and greatest Katy Perry. They are, they’ve grown from this small little band that used to sell out college bars to now they’re selling out the House of Blues in Chicago on a monthly basis. And they do weddings too and a wild group, they wear baseball tees and short shorts while they’re performing, and just a grand old time of a cover band. I used to be an avid fan, but now I’ve moved a little bit away from their territory, but always trying to see them when I can.

John Tyreman:  Cover bands don’t get enough credit. so I just wanted to give him a little plug there. Well let’s dive into our topic today. So we’re here to talk about how SEO in development teams should work together. So Geoff, let’s start with you. Let’s start here. So for listeners who might not know, where is that line in the sand between SEOs and developers? Where does SEO work stop, and then development work begin?

Geoff Kerbis:  You know, as an example just point at Silverback, and how we normally go through this process. Normally when it comes to Silverback and when we start with an organization, we like to do an audit of the technical abilities of an organization’s digital presence. This includes looking at crawling, indexing, and ranking factors for any set. With that being said, really, where SEO is involved and I’ll use an analogy, is the SEO team is the pointer dog of a hunting group. We are really good at pointing out what is wrong with any form of a site. Whether that is maybe you have corrupt JavaScript that needs to be rectified. Maybe there’s an issue with your sitemap, where you’re not including sites that really shouldn’t be indexed, we’re great at doing that. Now, some of us are more talented than others when it comes to depth, and being able to rectify some of these instances, but while SEO is the pointer dog, Dev is the hunter, who is pulling the trigger. They are able to make sure that they’re taking the right shot, make sure that they are rectifying anything that they are finding that is broken, and keeping in mind the overall structure and ability to have a site that works in a cohesive manner, that doesn’t sacrifice SEO, or visibility. 

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, I love that analogy, Geoff, of SEO really being that pointer dog and really kind of surfacing what the opportunities are, and then really leaving it to the development team to kind of take those opportunities and have the experience and the expertise and the knowledge to actually do something with it. So having a really clear understanding for how the website was built, what platforms are being used, the CMS, the different settings there, what the hosting environment looks like. Because all these development related things, you know, it really plays a big part in SEO and having a really solid SEO foundation, really kind of carries over into all these different facets that are kind of behind the scenes of a website. And I think it’s unfair to expect an SEO to kind of be able to touch upon all that stuff and that’s where really the development team is a huge resource for kind of finding those opportunities and implementing them.

John Tyreman:  For companies who want to invest more in their website, and maybe they’re starting from scratch, maybe they’ve got some skills in house, but largely like an open play and how would you say that they should structure their SEO and development teams? I guess there’s multiple different ways you could go about that.

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, that’s a wonderful question John, and I think it is a relationship where you have to be hand in hand, and in constant communication, just like any good relationship. You have to be able to have the SEO team working to make sure that if they identify something they’re letting their dev resource, whether that is an agency or that is someone internally, be able to know what is the problem, why is it a problem and how immediate it needs to be fixed. And the reason why I bring up immediacy is sometimes we find dev things that are nice to haves, rather than the end of the world, and causing big issues from a visibility perspective. But all in all, it is just making sure that you have some form of a reliable communication system in place to ensure that things get taken care of, rather than just sitting there and staring at your dev team member with a little bit of hate in your eyes because it’s been a month, and they still haven’t done what you need to have done.

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, we’ve been in situations with clients where, you know, maybe in the past, the SEO person and the developer were the same individual. They were kind of trying to carry both sides of that operation. And it’s just, it’s a lot, you know, SEO is a full time job really kind of understanding what’s changing, what’s happening within the industry, what Google’s doing what direction are they moving in, certainly doing the research and building the strategy, you know, for your own company, you know, taking a look at what the other competitors are doing, and then really measuring the performance of all that. I mean that’s a lot for one person. And then if you’re also kind of layering on the development or the website management responsibilities on top of that, it’s just a lot to keep up with. And you know, looking at websites these days, they’re becoming more complex than ever, you know, really intricate ways that they’re structured, you know a lot of different sections, a lot of different content to manage. And you know, we just really want to make sure that there’s, you know, somebody looking at the website full time that it’s in good hands. So that’s why, you know, I think it is a really great idea to kind of have that marketing side where the SEO person is really a key part of the marketing team there and then, you know, a developer that’s kind of running things on the web team side as well. 

John Tyreman:  Yeah, it sounds like there’s… you both have mentioned this in a couple different ways but there’s got to be that level of trust between your SEO team and your development team regardless of how it’s configured, whether it’s in house, outsourced using contractors, etc. Geoff, you mentioned this or touched on how sometimes there’s a little bit of tension between SEO teams and development teams. Curious, from your perspective, what are some ways that SEOs and developers can build stronger relationships or build more trust?

Geoff Kerbis:  There are many instances where I might not really understand what it takes to be able to fix a piece of JavaScript on a site that is causing issues as far as moving time. So being able to be patient with one another and educate each other on, “Hey, this is why this is important, why can’t this be done? Is there an alternative, or what are you trying to make sure is a possibility for a search engine crawler?” And then on the other side, some of my most successful dev team relationships have been folks who are willing to come to my desk and say, Geoff, that’s not possible because X, Y and Z. Because of that, here are the alternatives of what we can do. These are, why they’re beneficial, these are why they’re not beneficial. Which would you like to do? Just making sure, and I go back to communication, because if you’re willing to communicate what is happening and why it can’t happen exactly how you’d like it to, that makes it a little bit easier for the SEO team to be able to recalibrate what their expectations and what the possible results could be.

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, I love that – education and communication. I think it’s easy in some cases where, you know, an SEO and a developer might be working together for the first time on a website, and an SEO starts the auditing process, and you know starts putting out recommendations or suggestions that can be done to the website, and you know if that line of communication and that level of education hasn’t been built already, the developer can kind of see things from the perspective that, “Oh the SEO person is really just pointing out things that are wrong with the website that I’ve been maintaining. I don’t like that. They’re making me look bad”. But instead if you really kind of take the time to talk about what the end goal looks like, what those objectives should be, I think it makes for a much smoother process, you know, really seeing, not just what the recommendations are but why we’re recommending them. Kind of talking about what Google’s doing, what a good user experience is on search engines. I think if you’re able to get on the same page from that standpoint, it really makes that relationship as strong as it possibly can be.

John Tyreman:  Kurt, do you have any examples of maybe a project that went really well because of communication like that or, you know, can you give us some examples about cadence or techniques or best practices?

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, I mean it’s actually something that’s still kind of relevant. We talked about it on the previous podcast with core web vitals. I mean this was a new thing that Google just kind of put out there for everybody. And so we were initially kind of caught off guard, and nobody really knew the best ways to approach it so it was truly a team effort between SEO and development. And so from our standpoint in SEO as we were kind of finding some ways to kind of make some improvements there, sending the developers some articles, sending them some test results or some examples, and the developers were really open to kind of having that information at their disposal, because we were all kind of like learning at the same time and really kind of going through it together. And I think it made for some, some really smooth opportunities to kind of get these core web vitals implementations out there.

John Tyreman:  Geoff, do you have any examples, off the top of your mind of how SEO teams and development teams have worked well together to foster that communication?

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, absolutely. I can speak directly to a few client relationships and one is looking directly at core web vitals. You know when escort said core web vitals, when I first came up, it was sort of this great unknown – how important is it going to be, what needs to be done. But as information started coming out more and more, I started to realize, “Wow. I am not the person to create these fixes”. There is someone who has to be on certain accounts that have the ability to truly understand what is happening and how it can be fixed and what is realistic and what is not. And we had a client who we found there were a large number of core web vitals that we’re going to get in the way, and being able to rank for some of the key phrases that they were going after within the education space. And this was a unique situation where their dev resources were not located in house. Instead, it was a different agency. So after getting the initial core web vitals on it, we took the time to work with a partner agency and have a sit down, of what is happening, why are we seeing these things, and what happened. And it was a, I don’t want to call it a humbling experience, but a truly educational experience and really being able to understand what were some of the unique things that were put in place by those who designed the site in order to, at their point in time, allow it to succeed in a pre core web vitals world. A result of this was, we actually were able to make sure that all of the errors that were identified were rectified, all of the pages on that site are now marked on good caliber and saw an increase in their search. This is prior to the core web vitals update being included in the algorithm, so we’ll see how that boost affects them in the near future. But it was nice to see that two teams were putting egos to the side of pointing fingers and be able to agree on what is best for the client and how can you make that possible.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, that’s a great example. And, you know, you both mentioned Google’s core web vitals as good case examples of how SEO and development teams can work better together. And we touched on this, on the last episode that we recorded together and if listeners are finding value out of this conversation, they should definitely go back and check that conversation out about core web vitals. We touched on it that some of the things that marketing leaders can do to implement solutions to address these core web vitals are fairly technical in nature. I’m curious, Kurt, well let’s start with you, what are some of the solutions that you’ve seen that help with factors like content loading, interactivity and cumulative layout shifts?

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, I think there’s definitely some straightforward things where you can look at your website, you can run it through something like Google PageSpeed Insights, and it’ll spit back what some opportunities that can be addressed in the short term. Certainly there’s a lot of these kind of larger lifts that might require you know a little bit more development support for sure. But one thing that comes to mind is just image optimization. It sounds really obvious that we want to have optimized images across the website just to kind of help things load as quickly as possible and everything like that, but it is something that we see quite a bit where, especially for larger sites, these images are just kind of getting uploaded and there hasn’t been much oversight into making sure that they’re kind of following a proper optimization plan. And that’s something that you could do, you know, either manually or use some tools to kind of automate that process, but it does make a really big difference. And it’s very kind of straightforward to see. Another thing too, is just really evaluating the different styling elements that you have on there:  the CSS, the JavaScript, you know, in some cases you might have to customize them a little bit, but another quick and easy thing would be, just kind of what we call minifying these files, taking out a lot of the whitespace. It saves a lot of time that browsers need to kind of read through each file and incrementally it really adds up to make an impact and to improving the overall page experience and core web vitals for sites.

Geoff Kerbis:  And I’ll just add on as a non expert, one of the things that I’ve seen constantly coming up is fonts that are used on the site. We have found that if you are using multiple styles of fonts that might be a little bit too large, that’s a very easy way to help Largest Contentful Paint scores come up, as well as in some cases CLS. There are also instances, and Kurt, I believe you mentioned this, depending on what platform you’re on, they’re asked to help speed up your overall score, whether that is WordPress and supposedly their thing is better coming for Shopify, but definitely Google is not being shy about pointing towards things that can be solutions in many instances. And they’re really trying. It’s given me very reminiscent feelings of when mobile indexing was coming up, and making sure that people are truly educated on what are the options and opportunities that are out there, and I have to think, which brings so much investment in making SEOs and dev teams aware of what’s wrong, that this is only going to be a very large update once it is complete, mid August.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, it sounds like it’s growing in importance that these teams need to work well together. I think we’ve touched on it, that there needs to be communication. I love the tools and examples that you both have laid out there, looking at Google PageSpeed Insights, optimizing images, minimizing files. Geoff, I loved your example of how multiple styles of fonts can impact that largest contentful paint. Now this has been really great guys, I know we’re coming up on our time now so if listeners want to connect with you and learn more about SEO and development and how those teams can work together, where can they find you?  Kurt, let’s start with you. 

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, thanks, John. I’m reachable via Twitter @kurtlambert, all one word, and then also on LinkedIn, Kurt-Lambert.

Geoff Kerbis:  I am reachable on Twitter as @runGeoffrun. That’s G-e-o-f-f. And you can also find me on LinkedIn at /GKerbis.

John Tyreman:  All right. Well gentlemen, thank you so much for your time, and we’ll talk to you next time on The Digital Marketing Troop.

Kurt Lambert:  Thanks so much for having us, John.

Geoff Kerbis:  Sounds great.

John Tyreman:  If you found this podcast episode insightful, please subscribe, tell a friend and leave a rating and review. And to learn more, head on over to where we have a wealth of digital marketing insights on our blog and Resource Center. We’ll see you next time on The Digital Marketing Troop.