What does an SEO specialist actually do?

In this new feature for Mumbrella, we take a look inside the working lives of people whose job titles often result in confused looks at parties. This week, we speak to James Hanley, a senior digital manager at Resolution @ PHD.

What do you actually do?

I head up SEO for the Volkswagen Group Australia and Electrolux Group Australia accounts, with strategy spanning across search, analytics and conversion rate optimisation.

I’m a morning person, so I like to come in around 7am – 8am. I feel like my best work comes when it’s quiet and no one is around. A lot of big idea thinking happens here.

Once our team starts to roll in, we will map out the day to ensure everyone has the tools and information they need to do their tasks for the day.

I normally spend one day a week at my clients’ offices. It allows search and analytics to stay top of mind with the digital managers and marketers. It also gives them a chance to ask any questions or check-in with our team. Education is key for what we do.

Emails flow all day – whether it’s from clients, the creative agencies we work with or the media teams at PHD. I try to get back to them within the day and manage delivery for the same week usually.

I try and block out one to two hours in my calendar to review work from my team or work on deliverables myself. 


As much as there are hundreds of ranking factors that contribute to organic search performance that we manage and optimise, a misconception is that we only work with search engine platforms and nothing more.

Website and the search journey are essential steps in the consumer funnel and our responsibilities span far beyond page keyword optimisation. A brand website is like a digital brochure for your product or service. It would be a disaster to send millions of dollars’ worth of display or SEM to a landing page and then completely disregard what users did when they landed on site.

Our team is responsible for ensuring that our clients’ web assets effectively and efficiently educate and convert consumers.

How do you measure success?

Our KPIs are typically are measured by how well a brand’s website (and other digital assets) rankings perform for a range of search keywords, the volume of traffic and users to the brand’s website from organic search clicks, and how positively the user engages with the onsite content and triggers a conversion.

Success looks like higher performing rankings for a larger number of relevant key search queries. This results in higher potential organic traffic, driving users to browse through the site and trigger more online conversions.

We get teams excited about contributing and achieving these results. We share the success together. The only people who should know the brand better than us, is the client – they already have the answers, we help them execute.

How can the industry improve?

To drive greater search performance, we need to step away from the standard keyword optimisation and look further into innovative processes.

I certainly think that we, in SEO, can’t continue to rely on content being “King”. The smaller brands and sites face a goliath of a challenge when competing with content powerhouses like “how to” sites and comparison/aggregate platforms.

To do this, there needs to be a bigger investment from clients to trial, test and support the development of these technology initiatives. Accelerated mobile pages, conversion rate optimisation and usability testing are all ways we can improve the user journey.

Initially, the development costs can be heavy, but it’s worth it.

What motivates you?

Seeing others have the “ah ha, I get it” moment is really great to see. It makes me happy knowing we’ve not only delivered successful projects, but the reason we did it and why it worked, makes sense to clients and our team mates across media.

Fortunately for me, SEO comes across as a mystic skill set and a realm of unknown with search algorithms. It is inestimable for most. So, I’m always happy when our clients are interested (and impressed) in what we’re doing and want to achieve results. We just need to make sure we relay the fact that search is essential for every brand, to be successful in a digital world.

What’s the hardest part of the job?

I find I am unable to listen to music when I work, so I can’t take advantage of the global office etiquette understanding of, “Ah, bugger, his headphones are in. He must be busy. I’ll come back.”

Instead, it’s “Hey Jim… quick one for ya.”

Pro tip: it’s never a “quick one”.

And in terms of challenges in your role?

A challenge we definitely face is managing performance expectations with partners and clients. It is key to understand that results aren’t always going to be instant (sometimes taking weeks to see a shift).

Another challenge, which I try to conceptualise for those more junior, is that you have the ability to paint any picture you want when it comes to analytics and performance. It may seem simple to leave out a negative statistic or skip over a certain channel performance, but it helps no one. We have a responsibility to deliver the truest view we can at all times.

What would you tell your junior self, just starting out?

SEO takes time and investment. So learn to push back and don’t burn yourself out.

Don’t be afraid to make your role whatever you want it to be. As long as you are delivering results for your clients.

Oh, also, there will be HEAPS of open bars with this gig. Calm down.

James Hanley is senior digital manager at Resolution @ PHD.

If you would like to contribute to this feature, please contact Josie Tutty at josie@mumbrella.com.au.


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