It's the responsibility of every SEO to focus on the activities that are going to have the greatest return, even if doing so means taking part in some uncomfortable meetings to justify your decisions.
If you're employed as an SEO, reporting is a task that you can't escape. In some cases, reporting fills a real purpose such as providing a measure of how closely you're hitting pre-defined goals, aka justifying your fees if you happen to work at an agency. Unfortunately, the time spent on reporting tends to balloon without a commensurate increase in value from the extra effort.
Yes, your management team or client is always right, but accepting new report requests or continuing to produce reports that no one looks at is not necessarily the right thing to do, although it certainly will avoid conflict. I believe it's the responsibility of every SEO, whether at an agency or not, to focus on the activities that are going to have the greatest return, even if doing so means taking part in some uncomfortable meetings to justify your decisions.
Call Attention to Limited Resources
From what I've seen, the go-to approach for reducing the time spent on reports is to demonstrate that such time is not being spent on actually improving site performance. There's a lot of validity to this assertion, and depending on your relationship with the client or position within a company, this approach might actually work.
The problem is that almost no one wants to give up something they've been getting even if they can't explicitly say why they need it. One way to soften the blow is to work out a trade of some sort - e.g., you'll do XYZ instead of the report. Be careful, as this can easily backfire - you could be asked why you aren't doing XYZ in addition to the report.
Stop Producing the Report (Without Telling Anyone)
Several months into an SEO campaign you'll likely have a good idea of which reports are being looked at and which reports are being filed away immediately. The most obvious sign is that a report that triggers questions is one to keep producing, whereas a report that is never the topic of discussion is likely of little real value to anyone.
Knowing that if you ask if a report should still be produced the answer will most likely be yes, one approach is to simply stop producing the report and see who notices. If you've selected properly, it could be months before someone asks about the report. While that can translate into a huge time savings, you better be in the position to produce the report on short notice (ideally the same day). This means continuing to gather the data even if you're not using it (e.g., rankings) and also having a template plus a process ready to go. Another thing to watch out for is what you're contractually obligated to provide. If the statement of work (SOW) is specific about deliverables, you don't want to violate it. However, if the report you're discontinuing was a result of a request that came up post-SOW, you'll likely be in the clear from a contract perspective.
Change the Report
Both of the options above are obvious wins for you, but the win for your client or manager is less obvious. A third option provides a clearer win-win for both sides, but it's also the hardest to achieve. The idea here is that you take the not-so-useful report and enhance it so that it provides value while still keeping the original report's roots so that the enhanced version makes for a good replacement.
Admittedly, this is harder to do than it initially sounds. One example that has worked for me is with an Excel-based ranking report that had thousands upon thousands of keywords. That's more data than anyone can quickly analyze and yet it took a long time to compile and QA. Instead, I reworked the keyword list to be a sampling (taking a random sample is a good place to start) of just 1,000 keywords that accurately represented performance across the site while requiring far less time to pull together.
Whatever approach you choose, be sure to consider the needs of others and play out in your head the potential consequences of your choice. If you're already in a tenuous situation, you don't want to make it worse, and if you're lucky enough to be trusted, it'd be a shame to abuse that trust.
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Marios Alexandrou is the East Coast Director of SEO for Steak's Search Marketing team and has a background in web development and project management. While he loathes to tell people just how long he's been working with computers, he will admit that his first computer had just 16KB of memory.
His SEO experience includes work with both in-house and agency teams ranging from one-man shows to 20+ dedicated SEO strategists. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and across multiple industries including hospitality, financial services, publishing, and healthcare. He particularly likes to use his combination of skills to identify ways to scale SEO activities through process standardization and automation.
In addition to writing about SEO for ClickZ, Marios also writes on the broader area of Internet marketing for Infolific.
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August 21, 2014