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SEO 31 min read

How does an SEO department in a digital-agency work?

Analyzing the structure and processes of a British agency in collaboration with Ciarán Ó Muiris, Head of SEO, Mayfly Internet Marketing
How does an SEO department in a digital-agency work? The main picture
Ekaterina Hordiienko
Research Editor at Serpstat
Mayfly is a full-service digital marketing agency, based in Liverpool and specializes in SEO services, social media marketing, web design and development, and pay-per-click advertising services.

For insight into how a full-scale agency is organized and operates, we asked our expert about the structure and services they provide and the specifics of clients' requests and expectations.

Meet our guest expert

With eight years of experience in search engine optimization, attending business events, and advising local businesses on SEO, Ciarán Ó Muiris is a professional in the digital marketing industry.
Ciarán Ó Muiris
Ciarán Ó Muiris

The most common hierarchy organizational charts for digital agencies

Both small and large agencies follow structured processes guided by existing organizational structures. A typical agency structure consists of various departments working together to accomplish specific tasks to achieve the desired and best-expected result. A marketing department, an account services team, a media team, a creative team, a finance team, a client services team, a digital marketing department, a production department, a traffic department, and a project management team will all be involved.

In agencies, hierarchy systems are used to organize teams according to responsibilities. Additionally, the hierarchy outlines the roles and reporting criteria. An agency hierarchy can be viewed in two ways: organically and mechanistically. Power is centralized, and formal relationships are created among team members through the mechanistic hierarchy. The best environments for mechanistic organizations are stable, austere environments. Management integrates the activities of clearly defined departments through formal channels and meetings. 
Mechanistic structure
As a rule, the organic structure promotes cross-divisional collaboration in order to prevent slowing down a company's processes. Organic models are usually flat and use cross-hierarchical and cross-functional teams, along with a comprehensive communication network that features lateral and upward communication in addition to downward communication. 

Consulting firms are a suitable example of organizations with organic structures. The needs of a customer change as the business environment changes and consulting firms respond to those needs as they arise. Choosing an organic structure allows consulting firms to respond to change quickly and address their customers' needs.
Organic structure
Three types of hierarchy organizational charts are most commonly used for agencies: the traditional model, the matrix model, and the pod model.

The Traditional Model

In large agencies, offering a variety of services, this is the most common way of organizing. In the model, many employees are managed through centralized command detailing everyone's reporting lines. Despite its benefits for agencies offering specialized services, this model creates a lack of collaboration between departments.
The Traditional model in SEO agency

The Matrix Model

Using a matrix structure, traditional divisions and their heads are allowed flexibility to form cross-divisional teams by blending mechanistic and organic structures. Full-service agencies are able to meet their clients' needs without having to create or experience large communication barriers between divisions. It aims to combine organic and mechanistic hierarchies to the best of its ability. It has the disadvantage that sometimes it is unclear who should be reported to.
The Matrix model in SEO agency

The Pod Structure

There are several distinct types of pods, including Account Managers, Project Managers, Strategists, and PR Specialists. For example, an SEO Specialist, Copywriter, PPC Specialist, and Designer might make up a pod, as could a PR Specialist and Copywriter. A more organic approach has been taken by eliminating traditional account managers. 

Team leads within the agency can delegate tasks to other team members when necessary. With this model, senior posts are basically eliminated, approval times are reduced, creativity is encouraged, and friendly accountability is increased.
The Pod model in SEO agency
At Mayfly we have more of a pod system. We are a small agency and whilst an element of the hierarchy does exist here (obviously our Director leads the way, and our SEO team has a three-tier hierarchy to it with myself directing SEO services), we generally don’t pay too much attention to things like job titles or the political structures that exist in larger agencies.
Our Director leads the way and ultimately everyone else reports to him. He dips in and out of various projects, both internally and with the client. 

As for the SEO team, there is a three-tier structure: a Head of SEO, a mid-level senior SEO known as an “SEO specialist”, and a junior SEO known as an “SEO executive”. The SEO pod also includes an Internet Marketer who works on many SEO projects, and who is also involved in other pods. Even the Director will be involved in some SEO projects, especially during the onboarding phase. The SEO pod also includes a Designer/Developer and a Copywriter.

Then you have the Web Design pod, which consists of the aforementioned Internet Marketer, the Designer/Developer, our Director likes to get involved on these, potentially a copywriter too. I or one of my SEO colleagues can often live in a Web Design pod too if SEO strategy is required for site structure design or if some SEO execution tasks are required around the website launch.
— Ciarán Ó Muiris
The pod model makes many processes more efficient by reducing the amount of time wasted on tasks that are not related to the project. With everyone working on the same projects every day, there is no need for a hierarchy or for senior positions. 

The goal of different agencies is to combine departments to shorten the communication chain and improve departmental interaction and the client experience using different approaches. However, this is primarily a management goal, as various departments often have positions that require specialized skill sets (e.g., SEO specialists).

As such, it would be difficult for someone from another department (e.g., Marketing) to manage them effectively. Conversely, a technical specialist (e.g., Head of SEO) would not be able to lead managers effectively but could develop an effective system for their department.
Our PPC pod is much smaller and generally consists of one to two: the Internet Marketer, and the Director who might keep an eye on things. 

Finally, we have the Social Media pod. This team also consists of a core of three Social Media Managers who all work together, and there is less of a hierarchy there. Our Director, as you know who loves to be involved in things, also sits in that pod as a point of contact or reference to either the social media team or the client.

We typically don’t have account managers, and each of the SEO, PPC, or Social Media teams can be involved in elements of account management work.

I believe that our organizational model makes us more efficient as time isn’t wasted on meaningless tasks and both the communication chain and approval times are minimal. There is a lot of crossover between projects, so we’re usually all on the same wavelength, too. If and when we grow as an agency, then perhaps we may need some elements of a traditional model such as more defined hierarchies, but we are a bit away from that, and I don’t see any downsides to how it is at this moment. 
—Ciarán Ó Muiris

Which are the main positions in an SEO department?

According to the agency's organizational structure, there are a variety of positions available. There are various levels of positions, from the management team to junior employees, all serving the same purpose: to fulfill client requests and to grow the agency's business. Here are a few examples of main positions in digital agencies.

  • Decisions and administration are handled by the management team, which is composed of top-level managers (board of directors).

  • A middle-level manager is a leader under the top-level manager who is responsible for translating decisions and executing them. Additionally, they assist their subordinates (creative directors, SEO specialists, product/project managers, accounting managers, brand and marketing managers, head of customer service, and head of technology).

  • The activities of the company are carried out by junior-level employees on a day-to-day basis. Their primary responsibility is to assist company customers or clients with their requests, develop long-term relationships with clients and connect with key stakeholders and business executives. In order to deliver the sort service properly and effectively, they ensure that the right information about the client's requirements is collected. They are involved in all aspects of production, including marketing, designing, and delivering (account executives, creative teams, designers, and SEO consultants).

What Any SEO Specialist Should Know: SEO Skills From Junior To Senior [+ Infographics]

Your agency can also hire SEO freelancers on a contract basis. Their services may be provided on a per-project or retainer basis.

The specific roles within an agency can vary greatly and even people in the same role can have different goals, skills, and responsibilities. Agency roles have the same responsibilities regardless of the title. Many digital agencies offer web design and development, in addition to digital marketing services. Ciarán describes the way they structure the agency:
Currently, we have seven full-time staff. Mayfly Internet Marketing consists of the Director, a core SEO team of three people (the Head of SEO which is myself, an SEO Specialist, and an SEO Executive), one Internet Marketer who is involved in SEO, PPC, and web design projects, and could be considered the fourth member of the SEO team, as well as a Social Media team consisting of three Social Media Marketers.

We also have long-standing relationships with a couple of trusted freelance web designers/developers as well as a copywriter, who can also be considered members of the Mayfly team.

What services do the agencies provide?

A digital agency has a team of experts who use technology to connect with your target audience, rather than using traditional marketing methods like billboards and newspaper ads. Digital agencies can provide the following services:

  1. Developing services: website building, maintenance and hosting, CRM implementation, platform, and data migration;
  2. Services related to design: UI/UX design, wireframing (the layout of an interface for key pages), graphic and website design, and animations;
  3. Research services: competitors identification and comparison, market overview, traffic analysis, sales funnel strategy, consulting and strategizing, customer pain point analysis, brand positioning, process automation, etc.
  4. Marketing services: content creation and optimization, marketing campaigns, creation of a portrait of buyers' personas, branding, press releases, and PR, lead nurturing (building relationships at every stage of the sales process), SEO.
Full-service digital marketing agencies handle all aspects of a company's online presence. Others may specialize in very specific marketing services like SEO or website development.

Using an SEO company if you don't have an in-house team can help you grow your business. With keyword research, link building, content creation, and other services, SEO companies improve your website’s visibility in search results.

 Ciarán Ó Muiris explained the core services in the Mayfly agency functions:
Our core services are web design and development, SEO services, and social media marketing services. We also provide PPC marketing services for some clients. We work with a variety of small and medium businesses, local, national and international. Our client base is incredibly varied. It's like one big melting pot!

On the SEO side of things, we've got everything from law firms to entertainment companies and cleaning services franchises to waste management companies.

In what areas should an SEO company specialize?

Agency processes vary based on the approach used. It is possible to identify such an approach by specialization — for example, SEO, content/copywriting, social media marketing, search engine marketing, or email marketing. According to the business line: promotion of medical sites, real estate, e-commerce, etc. There is also the option of specializing by business approach: promoting enterprise or small-medium business clients.

Some of the primary services that SEO agencies provide include:

  • Keyword research and keyword mapping;
  • Developing link-building strategies and searching for qualified backlinks;
  • SEO audit (from meta and HTML tags optimization to loading time);
  • Site redesign, interlinking, and structure;
  • Redirections, optimizing the robots.txt file, sitemaps, and adding new pages;
  • Metadata and SERP features optimization for more visible snippet's performance;
  • Revise your meta tags (title, meta description, title H1, H2, etc.);
  • Content optimization (images, videos, documents).
In the case of digital marketing agencies, this could include website content creation, PR, link earning, social media marketing, email outreach, re-targeting, and search engine marketing using paid results.

Depending on their SEO needs, clients may require help in a particular area. In the case of restaurants, for example, a small business with a strong focus on local customers may require local search assistance. Additionally, some companies may need help optimizing mobile search websites since the Google algorithm change favors mobile-friendly sites. An SEO agency will also apply an approach to analysis and strategy design customized to the client's unique competitive position.
Our SEO team provides services depending on the client. For some larger clients with in-house marketing staff, our services would involve more consulting work with a client-side decision maker (e.g., owner or marketing manager). Along with an element of 'managed SEO services' consisting of everything from strategy to execution.

In general, for smaller clients, it's more solely a "fully managed SEO service" where we manage the entire project for them and collaborate with them on some aspects while reporting back to them.
In most cases, we built our client's websites, so we have complete creative control over them, and development work can be implemented relatively quickly.

We focus on technical and content-led SEO services and consulting, as opposed to link building (though we do work on elements of this, it is not our primary focus). Local, e-commerce and small to medium business SEO could be considered our specialties, as opposed to enterprise international or news SEO.
—Ciarán Ó Muiris

Processes inside the agency and within the SEO department

Depending on the specialization, processes can include communication with clients, onboarding, SEO practices, audit, planning, and support. There are main stages that a digital marketing agency must complete:
Processes in online marketing agency
The first contact phase is preceded by many other actions focusing on attracting the right audience. If your company is brand new, you will likely choose a specific area, decide which services you want to offer, develop your online presence and start a portfolio to prove your capabilities to new clients, which often means gathering examples of past work, collecting testimonials, and building a portfolio.

You’ll start attracting new prospects to your SEO agency with a combination of inbound and outbound marketing strategies.
In fact, problems often occur within the team and with the customer when implementing a project, not due to technologies. Personal relationships are essential in business. To build a good working relationship, clarify expectations with your internal and external teams. This will create a context where the agency and the client can ask questions and align with each other.

During our interview with Ciarán, we asked him how often and what form of communication he uses with customers:
Well, as for how often, I'm going to give you a typical SEO answer: "it depends". As for what form, my favorite is via our project management software, Asana. This allows our correspondence to be tracked efficiently according to task, project, etc.

Everything is visible and easy to access for everyone working on the project. Of course, we use email, but my preference is that once onboarded, we shift most of our communication there. Depending on the client, we may meet in person; we have regular phone and video calls.
Transparency is a vital characteristic of a digital agency. SEO companies must provide comprehensive reports on their work each month so that clients are sure they will obtain their benefits and use ethical SEO strategies. At this point, consider using a custom reporting platform instead of e-mails with separate documents that require version control. Reports from the agency should demonstrate how the company's efforts have contributed to improving critical performance areas.
Want to try Serpstat for reporting? You can easily discuss your tasks with our specialists!

Share reports with clients or anyone, even without Serpstat account, use custom branding and white-label to strengthen your brand.
A data-driven digital agency can give the client not just user behavior information, but also a wealth of insights. In Mayfly, this is what reporting looks like:
We typically produce formal reports on a monthly basis. We tend to err on the "keeping things simple side" because our clients are busy people and generally only want to know the most important stuff. My experience has taught me that less is definitely more when it comes to reporting.

My team and I provide commentary on our progress against defined KPIs, critical SEO issues, work completed this month, work scheduled for next month, as well as any interesting opportunities. Our reporting dashboard itself includes many things you'll find at other SEO agencies, such as search visibility, organic traffic figures, and information on the most important search queries relevant to their site.
Although deciding which keywords to target is crucial to creating a successful SEO campaign, there is more to it. As time goes on, marketers need to be able to keep track of multiple SEO metrics and report them back to management and clients.

SEO reports are more complex and longer, while SEO reporting dashboards only provide a brief, live overview of specific vital metrics. SEO reporting dashboards are helpful because they give website owners insights into their performance in the SERPs. They can also warn that an essential SEO metric needs to be addressed. An SEO reporting dashboard can track various metrics, such as organic traffic, visibility, conversions, time spent on site, backlinks, and more.

You will find the template made for the website opensea.io with the main metrics from the Serpstat Custom report via this link

White Label SEO Reports For Freelancers And Agencies

The Head of SEO at Mayfly shared his approach:
As a fan of keeping things simple and focusing on the bottom line, I primarily map project progress to organic traffic and conversions. There are of course many other metrics used internally, as well as with clients, that serve to provide further context, like the position tracking visibility metric in Serpstat for example.
A common issue that SEO and online marketers face is when clients have unrealistic expectations about the results of their campaigns. Many experts in the field work to help the client comprehend all aspects of the campaign so that their expectations are managed before the actual work starts.

It would be best to keep a few things in mind to deal with customers' unrealistic requirements. Here are a few key points: 
  • SEO agencies can't guarantee top rankings, but they can give you a realistic projection of the results that can be achieved.
  • SEO is a long-term investment that requires ongoing work from the client and the SEO expert.
  • SEO is mostly a behind-the-scenes type of service. Clients should be willing to listen to feedback and advice to understand the SEO process better.
A few words from Ciaran Ó Muiris:
You have to remember that some clients might often only have a fraction of the understanding of SEO that you do, a misinformed understanding, or none at all. That's OK and that's part of the job, so you need to be prepared for some pretty unrealistic expectations.

I've had plenty of the old "well can't you just sprinkle a few keywords on the page" response after having initial, in-depth SEO recommendations declined. This is common among owners or marketing personnel of a relatively small business. In such cases, you need to get off your SEO high horse and speak to the client in a way that they understand, whilst making sure that they're very clear on what it will take to get from A to B, without the jargon.
Working together, the client and the online marketing agency can communicate and strive for the best results. An SEO agency will evaluate where the company stands in terms of domain authority and then create an action plan to improve key performance indicators. Such specialists understand the difference between black, gray, and white hat SEO tactics

An SEO professional strives to increase website traffic and sales to generate more revenue, but this doesn't always align with what Google requires. Using black hat tactics can single-handedly destroy a company's reputation, ban a client's site from search engines, and negatively affect search rankings. Ethical SEO tactics that follow Google's guidelines and will not result in penalties are referred to as "white hat" strategies.
I've been involved in black, grey, and white hat SEO. In fact, my introduction to SEO was a grey hat one, with more black hat tactics being employed than white, which I began solely using since I had full say over strategic direction. So I've had a 360-degree view of the SEO landscape and therefore have a very acute understanding of what does and doesn't work, and use this expertise to the benefit of our clients.
—Ciarán Ó Muiris
The most successful SEO professionals are those who can see beyond the basic concepts, who are willing to learn from their mistakes, and who always keep the best interests of their company in mind. We also asked Ciarán about client requests to use black or gray hat SEO and PBN-related orders:
Generally, in my experience, clients are solely concerned with the end result, and probably don't know what black or grey hat SEO means. So their requests aren't so much about the way in which SEO may be carried out for them, but whether we as a provider of SEO services can contribute to their bottom line. That being said, as an SEO practitioner, I've always chosen to take the white-hat approach.

Like a lot of other SEOs, I've received my fair share of black and grey hat requests, not necessarily from clients, but from "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" type folk. I notice that it's not as much as, say, seven or eight years ago when I was starting out, but there's still a sizeable amount of that even in 2022.

No, I don't accept anything related to grey or black hat SEO, whether that's PBNs or anything else. That was something I was involved with when I was just starting out. I had no say in it at the time, and I'm glad not to have anything to do with it for a long time now.
SEO professionals should consider whether a tactic will help them achieve their goals and if it's worth the risk. This way, they can celebrate milestones, improve their approach, and enjoy the process for a lifetime.

Private Blog Network (PBN) As A Link Building Method: To Try Or Not To Try

It is even more important for SEO agencies to keep existing clients than to find new ones. Also, it costs less to retain clients than to find new ones, so your profits will increase. Small agencies must implement a structured process to ensure a natural flow to a long-term relationship after initial contact and acquisition. A larger agency also involves reducing churn rates and setting up suitable assumptions. The support stage is precious to keep your client.

To conclude, we will shortly discuss non-standard digital marketing approaches and significant concerns. Your job as an SEO expert is to ensure that your client's product or service is showcased to as many people as possible via organic search. This means optimizing everything on their pages and everything you can do on other websites' pages to maximize the results for your client.
I could write a short story about this, but if your readers want to take away one thing, let it be this. I can't count the amount of times, especially when I was more of a novice, where I've spent what felt like years scratching my head on an issue that turned out not to have much of a bearing on the success of the project. When I look back, there are so many things that I'd have done differently, if I had the awareness that I have now, having been in the game for about eight years.

The Pareto Principle applied to SEO can bring great results. As SEOs, we can often be perfectionists and want to optimize everything possible on the client's site, and implement a long list of recommendations or ideas that we might have. My advice is to put your efforts in places where they bring the highest ROI. Long audits and other forms of SEO work can sometimes get out of hand, so be sure to focus on the most important aspects of your project based on the available resources, and craft your strategy around those.

Conclusion

It was a brief description of the teamwork details, issues that arise when working in a digital marketing agency, and pieces of advice to improve your communication with clients. We introduced a specialist's significant challenges and exciting life hacks in this sphere and discovered how professionals could enhance their client success metrics. 

An experienced and responsible SEO company ensures success if customers understand their business goals, are ready to collaborate, and understand that SEO is a marathon, not a sprint.
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