SEOs vs. Devs or SEOs and Devs? – Julia Logan

Have you ever battled to get SEO fixes done by a developer who just didn’t ‘get it’?

Or are you a developer who has always wondered: What is it that SEO folk actually do?

You’re not alone – and this very topic was the subject of a brilliant talk by Julia Logan – also known as ‘IrishWonder’ – at an Optimisey SEO event.

Below is the video, transcript and downloadable version of Julia’s slide deck.

If – once you’ve enjoyed all that – it leaves you eager for more of this sort of thing, you should grab your free place at the next Optimisey event.

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Video & Slides

Download Julia’s slides: SEOs vs Devs – Julia Logan’s talk at Optimisey (1MB PDF)


OK everybody so a word of warning this talk might offend some people.

It might even get rude a few times, some of you may want to jump off the bridge kill themselves… I don’t know drink themselves to death whatever after this so… try not to.

But anyways let’s get started.

The initial idea of this talk came up after this tweet by Chris Green a few months back where he was asking people about their opinions about the following statement:

“You have to be a web developer to be any good at tech SEO” and the answers obviously are: totally; it helps; doesn’t really matter.

Now let’s do this. Those of you who think ‘obviously’? Who would answer obviously – raise your hands. Okay… one person thinks obviously yeah.

‘Utter bull’ raise your hands okay one person does think that – it’s possible.

‘It helps’ who thinks it helps? Okay say half the audience thinks it actually helps.

And ‘doesn’t really matter’ I think what people think it doesn’t really matter.

Okay so you might be interested what I actually answered to this. Here’s what I have answered:

SEOs and Developers horror stories

It does help if you can speak the same language with the developers and understand their challenges and what it takes for tasks to be accomplished.

So basically technical SEO means that you are reviewing the technical side of things on the site and you’re coming up with a list of things that you want fixed and the developers are supposed to work through that list that you made for them and fix whatever you tell them to fix.

It probably helps, in my opinion, if you could actually tell them something that would be non just understandable, sound like not some complete gibberish off the ceiling… well whatever but basically that’s what I’m thinking: it does help if you speak the same language.

Many of you have your own horror stories about communicating with the developers, having conflicts with the developers, having issues getting things changed, implemented, fixed and so on and so on.

This is such a good time around Halloween quite a few posts like this have been circulating around.

This is one button by Dan Taylor who has collected stories from different SEO’s and made a post with 37 examples.

This is another one by Alex T’Challa that’s 19 more stories.

Well basically if I ask any of you you could probably come up with a few more of your own and these you know… I tell you what these get really painful to read after a few of those. Especially if you can relate this to the stuff that you’ve dealt with in your experience. This gets really painful.

Yes Halloween is probably a great time for these stories.

Before we proceed any further – can I ask you about your actual background? Raise your hands if you have done anything related to web development before becoming an SEO?

So a few people are supposedly pretty technical. It’s probably safe to assume – yes, okay raise your hands if you come from a completely non-technical background?

Okay so quite a few people – majority of people come from a non-technical background.

THe early years of seo

How are you finding this? Yeah okay, okay, all right, all right… so historically people who were the first ones to get into SEO tended to be more technical because SEO as a discipline exists only for 20 odd years.

Before that, when the Internet had just become relatively popular, gained some mainstream audience, people used to put up sites.

Nobody was even thinking about SEO – and only then only a bit later – people were starting to think about how to make those sites that they were building more popular, found by the users, get the traffic to those sites.

And then monetization came. And that was an extra factor in making people think really hard about getting more traffic, getting more eyes onto their sites.

So traditionally quite a few SEOs tended to be, you know, the first generation of SEOs tended to be pretty technical. But then things changed.

[tweetshare tweet=”As SEO became a discipline of its own quite a few people who had nothing to do with building sites entered SEO and there were different disciplines being created every day. – @irishwonder speaking at #Optimisey” username=”Optimisey”]

  • you would never have outreach;
  • you would not have digital PR;
  • you would not have content writing
  • you would never have this that’s whatever… analytics it all used to be the job of one person.

And traditionally we as SEOs tended to own the project, tended to control every aspect of our sites: being built, being promoted, being linked, being updated – everything that needed to be done about that site everything in its lifecycle.

But as more people entered the industry things have changed and people tend to be responsible for their particular area of activity which may or may not have anything to do with the technical side of things and the actual website development.

[tweetshare tweet=”So the reasons for conflicts or – to put it more mildly – misunderstandings between developers and SEOs is a pretty obvious. In my opinion given this sort of background some SEOs are technically… take it for what you will… but technically clueless. – @irishwonder at #Optimisey” username=”Optimisey”]

Yeah it might mean that you don’t know how to hand-code an HTML page, it might mean that whenever you’re doing an audit you’re coming up with something that the developers are just laughing their asses of reading, it might mean anything.

But yeah let’s face it some of us are pretty clueless basically.

As I was driven here by a taxi driver – he’s been going around in circles for a good 10 minutes – and that’s why I got here late and Andrew was getting really worried, really anxious!

So basically what that means is there was somebody really incompetent. You would expect the taxi driver to actually know how to do their job. You would expect to see he knows actually knows what it is that they are talking about.

Unfortunately this is not always the case.

CLueless developers & CLueless SEOs

How many SEOs do you personally know that have been obviously, very obviously talking out of their asses?

I mean let’s let’s call it for what it is because this happens, this actually happens.

Some people just pretend they know something or some people think they know something but to somebody more knowledgeable it sounds like an utter…

Some developers are pretty clueless too, so let’s let’s even it out a bit. Don’t get all offended and don’t get ready to throw all your heavy objects into me or something because it’s not just you – it’s them as well. It’s both sides of the story. Both sides of the game. Both can be pretty clueless.

Like how many times have you implemented these really cool on-site changes that were bound to have a positive impact on the site’s rankings only to see next morning a site update being rolled out by web developers, wiping your wonderful changes out altogether?

What’s that if it’s not clueless? That is pretty clueless right?

How many times would you require something and you ready for a developer – in a proper language, using proper terms that should be understandable to send developers – only to have them do something completely opposite of what you asked? That happens too.

So yeah but back to SEOs being clueless – yeah I’m gonna really rub it in yeah I’m gonna be yeah like I warned you – whenever you’re auditing a site do you actually understand the CMS that you’re auditing? Do you understand the back-end of that site? Do you understand how it works? Do you understand – let’s make the simplest example – WordPress? Do you understand the components that go into WordPress? And where the content resides and how its being pulled and what’s the database? And what happens if something wrong goes in that database? And what happens if some script is not working as its supposed to work? And what happens if you change something or if the developer changes something in the template? What pages are going to be affected? What pages are connected to each other? What’s going on with that whole CMS? Do you understand all of that?!

Okay… that’s WordPress… that’s the most typical case. That’s like – I don’t know 56% of the web… I just chewed that number of the top of my head might be more might be less – but yeah approximately half of the web is on WordPress.

What if it’s some obscure CMS? Custom built in-house by a team of a certain company that runs their sites? And nobody ever has heard about that CMS? Now yeah… that does make it a little bit more complicated doesn’t it!

So do you understand the inner workings of that particular system?

If you do not understand how are you going to fix it? How are you going to tell the developers what to do to achieve the result that you want? How are you going to ensure that what they do is actually what you mean them to do and not bluntly changing the titles of all the pages instead of just certain sections of the site and so on and so on…

Add value – don’t get replaced by artificial intellegence

Yeah just just an example do you understand how much is affected by the issues that you’re reporting? Most of us use tools to do SEO audits, technical audits but any tool that we are using is only as good as the person using it.

You can’t just fire up ScreamingFrog or DeepCrawl or something else and expect that it’s gonna do your job for you. You’ve gotta know what it is that you’re doing or you’re gonna come up with a useless report.

[tweetshare tweet=”Do you want AI to replace you? Then don’t add anything to the reports the tools spit out at you – that’s the surefire way to make yourselves redundant to make yourselves no longer needed. – @irishwonder speaking at an #Optimisey event” username=”Optimisey”]

SEO is not just interpreting the results of the tools.

Okay I’m even taking this a step further than some as others are actually willing to go.

Some SEOs would just copy you the results from the tool and just send it over as a report. Yeah I’ve seen those. You may know some of those as well.

So basically interpreting those results is already a step forward but as an SEO you should be going even more steps further and you should be connecting the results that you’ve just got from the tool that you have interpreted to the actual purpose of the site, to the actual strategy that the site is pursuing, to the actual user behaviour expected on that site. Not just spitting out PDFs which some tools so handily generate for you.

Do you understand the effort required to fix the issues that you are reporting? Like for example say this URL is affected by the issue – okay what’s the scale of that issue? Do you just fix one URL? Probably not – especially if it’s a CMS behind that site – so you probably need to find what else is affected.

You probably need to and the tool might or might not do this for you – you need to estimate all the patterns that go so the issue that you’re finding. You need to estimate what amount of work it actually takes to fix the issue because – let’s face it – just saying ‘Okay I don’t like how this looks we need to make it look like this’ it doesn’t really cut it, and then you will have conflicts with the developers.

If you are going to spit out something like that in your change requirements, what you actually need to do is estimate what it would take the developer. You do not have to be a programmer or a developer yourself necessarily but you at least should have an idea of what it takes to actually fix whatever it is you’re asking to fix or change or whatever or new functionality that you’re trying to get them to implement.

One example: I had a wonderful client who had no in-house developers and he had this sort of startup site which was relying on leads from the organic search, paid search whatever coming to his sites and booking his services through that site.

And he’s had a third-party agency build him this site, third-party web development agency and it’s a whole long rant about the quality of those developers and how poorly that agency was managed and how they suck at doing their job and how they don’t even track their progress and how they don’t even understand the dependencies between different tasks and how they think they are doing the right job when they are doing completely the opposite.

You can see that was a real pain point right? So yeah that was a really painful project.

I kept at it for a year then I quit – simply because it was taking its toll on my mental and physical health. That’s how many conflicts I was having with those clueless developers.

Now to make matters even worse those developers like to give my non-technical client quotes like ‘Oh it will take 10 man hours to fix this issue’.

What would I do? I would sit down and write a quick script. I wouldn’t call myself a developer or programmer or anything like this but I’m lucky enough to know a little bit of Ruby – just enough to hack up some quick script or another just to prove a concept or something like this – so I would hack it up.

And I mean if I’m not a developer and it takes me half an hour to hack up a script – admittedly not connected to the database, admittedly not really using the actual data used by the site and the data that the developers would have to use – but as proof of concept it takes me half an hour.

How the hell is it going to take you ten man-hours?!

So I don’t know how badly they ripped off my client before I came into picture and before I started working for him but that’s how bad it gets.

THe ROI of SEO fixes

Basically you need to understand that the person hiring you for the job might very well be completely non-technical. His budget is your payment. His budget is your salary.

If you’re in-house and save them their budget they might not immediately thank you for it because they might not even understand what’s happening but you’re taking good care of your client and of yourselves.

And you’re taking good care of those developers too because you’re showing to them that not every single piece of that they approve we’ll pass and that trains them to be that’s a day job, more ethical, more honest with the people they are working for and so on and so on and so on.

So what’s the ROI of debt fix if you are proposing a list of say 20 items? And that’s me being really generous it might go up to a hundred items.

Whatever it is – if you are proposing a list of items do you prioritize them? Do you understand a bit for yourself that if they change this and this, this is gonna have immediate effect on the rankings on the traffic; on the user experience and so on and so on and so on – versus it might ‘just look nicer’.

Yeah ‘What’s the ROI?’ – I mean sometimes it’s kind of difficult to count the ROI – simply because you don’t know unless it’s your own project and you act as both the site owner and the developer and the SEO and the user experience person and the customer support and the products development supplies this.

That basically unless you control everything you can’t be responsible – so basically you think that these changes are going to make that site rank really well but you can’t really guarantee that Google will not come up with some drastic algorithm change tomorrow that’s one factor that no SEO can control not only for our own sites.

What do SEOs actually do?

Let’s admit it that clueless developers won’t wipe out the whole site; that the server won’t crash if two people visit the site simultaneously; that somebody is not gonna hack that site using the vulnerability that sat there unchecked for 10 years or more and so on and so on and so on and so on right?

So you can’t really be held responsible but at least you can estimate the theoretical effect of the changes that you are proposing if everything else goes fine.

Actually for the above reasons that I just listed I would never accept a job where somebody tells me ‘Well we don’t really have the budget right now but let’s make it so we pay you a certain percentage of our income when we start ranking’.

No. No you don’t do that. Simply because I have no control over all these things you are. I’m not responsible. How am I responsible?

But the developers have their own fears too they are afraid to be no longer needed if they build a perfect system.

Do you know how every developer thinks it’s their life goal to build a CMS, bespoke CMS of their own? Even if it’s the shittiest CMS ever? Even if it doesn’t comply to any rules? Even if it’s full of security issues? Ever seen that happening?

Yeah well sometimes they are also anxious because they think you’re telling them how to do their job and that makes them look bad. That makes them look incompetent and so on and so on and so on. So basically they have their own fears.

Here’s a quote from from John Mueller:

Basically the developers might not even understand what it is that you’re doing and what’s the purpose of you and why’d the clients or the employer has to spend their budget on you on top of them because they are so wonderful.

They built this shiny new site – it’s wonderful why do they need an SEO on top of them to tell them how to do their job?

So basically it’s your responsibility as an SEO to communicate what your purpose is and why you are telling them to do the things you are telling them to do.

And you need to also do some other things. Do what we can do to help.

First of all: learn to ask proper questions. If you don’t ask a proper question you don’t get a proper answer.

If you don’t learn to speak their language, if you don’t learn to think the way they are thinking, you won’t be able to ask a proper question so you won’t get a proper answer.

Learn a language

Learn a programming language. How many of you – please raise your hands – how many of you know at least HTML? Any other programming language? Okay that doesn’t count CSS but yeah I get your points – good yeah, all right.

So learn a programming language. It’ll help you tonnes.

It’ll get you in the frame of mind of developers. It will give you the idea of how they are thinking. It will give you the understanding of the inner workings of systems objects. That’s anything so these are some useful resources if you haven’t learnt HTML yet, try starting from that.

And after that it’s probably handy to learn things like PHP because that’s what many CMS’s are built on that’s what many sites are using. JavaScript because some clueless SEOs – which are otherwise reputable you would think they are proper reputable people – see a bit of JavaScript code on the page and they go ‘Oh no! That must be some sort of malware!’.

I’ve seen that happen – I’m not making this up! I don’t even make it up! I wish I was making this up…

Python and Ruby are really handy for when you want to model something; do a quick hack; do a proof of concept sort of script something like that.

So basically all these resources are free. There is no excuse to not at least try and learn something.

But my bit of advice to you is have yourself a goal. Have yourself an actual goal in mind.

Don’t just go there and learn this tag, that tag that operates this variable, this, that, that… it won’t do you any good. Have a purpose in mind.

Think of something that you’re actually want to build – even if it’s something really simple. Then you can make things more advanced as you go as you learn things but have a goal in mind, have an actual proper project that you want to build.

That’s when you would really find it easy to match the pieces together and actually see some use of what you’re doing other than just learning something in pure theory.

And how many times have you been brought in when a site has already been built? 99.999999 percent of the time right?

Okay so why don’t we just educate site owners or clients that before they want to redesign a site or before they want to build a site why don’t they let you work directly with the developers right from day one? Right from the day they are putting together the requirements for that site so that you could get your 5 cents in before everything goes wrong and you need to start fixing it.

And that’s the key to better understanding with the developers as well – if they see your role right from the start rather than you come in later and basically just sticking your nose into what they’ve done incorrectly – if you’re just working together right away from the very start that would make things so much easier.

Yeah I know… wishful thinking… doesn’t haven’t happen ever…

Yeah but at least right finally how many of you have sites of your own that you’re playing with in your spare time?

Oh my God people what the… what are you doing here?! Go home today, tomorrow over the weekend start a project. Domain’s don’t cost a whole fortune. You don’t have to buy a premium domain. Buy some simple cheap domain. Get it on a sale.

Domains are on sale at a few registrars just recently – get yourself one. Get yourself some some cheap hosting, might even be shared – doesn’t have to be a VPS with a bunch of advanced features right away – just get some really simple hosting, ten pounds a month maybe less.

Yeah it doesn’t cost much but how the hell are you recommending clients that they do this that and whatever else if you have never tried it? If you have never tested it? Do it first thing this week. I don’t know what time you get home today but tomorrow over the weekend start a project of your own. Do it or get the… out of this industry.

Questions, comments and heavy objects can be directed at me at any of these.


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