The Demise of the VP of SEO Role

Widespread layoffs across the tech sector have also hit SEO. Over the last 18 months there has been a marked decline in the job market for senior SEO leadership roles across in-house and agency landscapes, and this trend is persisting.

While not on the job market myself, I always keep an eye on open roles, and am exposed to frequent opportunities with my client and advising work. I noticed a decrease in senior level roles in SEO beginning late 2022. This trend also appears to be impacting SEM.

I’ve noticed while tracking open roles in SEO, and talking with clients, colleagues and friends, an astonishing drop in SEO roles being sourced at senior levels, and a glut at the manager and specialist levels. Companies are not currently investing in senior SEO leadership. The few roles at director and VP levels that do show are flooded with applicants. Companies not investing in this critical leadership level will not build sustainable, high performing SEO channels long term.

What is Driving the Sudden Decline of Senior SEO Roles?

We saw trends change during Covid, and I hate to even bring up a history here and mention that virus, but any account that includes the early 2020’s will no doubt need to.

Covid Factors

Covid pushed us into our homes and made us reflect on what drove our values, passions and personal lives. Millions moved, many from cities to towns like Bend (where I live), Jackson, Boise, and Austin, looking for a higher quality of life and release from the grinding commute. The work force was in control and job demand was high. As things transitioned back to “normal” again, and Return To Office (RTO) gained its unyielding grasp, the jobs being sourced changed too.

But it’s more complicated than that.

Economic Factors

We’re continually fighting and vulnerable to inflation, the economy is hammering new highs out one side of its mouth, while companies are laying off millions and a recession is whispering out the other side. We’re in a weird state of things in the global economy and several notable countries are in recession.

Everything has changed now that we can look back safely on the mask-obscured closed doors of Covid and scoff. Technology companies are axing jobs faster than AI can come up with new hallucinations. RTO is strongly back on top. Capitalism shows no signs of decrease. Companies need to increase efficiency while maximizing returns. No better channel to do that than SEO, right? Kinda, yeah, but there are factors at work, man.

The Commoditization of SEO

For one thing, SEO as a specialty has reached a level of mass adoption. I wrote before how the SEO rock star is fading away (thankfully) and it’s true. But in its place has come, the everyone’s an SEO guru phenomenon, which is way worse.

Early in its evolution, SEO knowledge was fringe, specialized and arcane (no, I don’t want to go back). Today it’s well known, institutionalized and common place, at least at the most basic levels. And while this is a good thing, it’s set forth an age of commoditization that’s only now coming into view.

SEO has been the hero of growth for at least the last 10 years.

More Economic Factors: Pricing Pressure

This commoditization of SEO has introduced pricing pressure on the agency side, notably with small businesses (I’m defining small business as $40 million in gross revenue and under). The typical price point for SEO retainers is likely to be 40-50% lower today compared to a few years ago, with 30-day out clauses expected and a max duration of three months. It’s not that the cost to perform SEO services has dramatically fallen, although technology has made it more efficient for those who know. It’s that there are infinity SEO agencies (I use that term loosely to signify the wide spectrum of quality one is likely to find in the industry) and one can always go find a cheaper option. Which is likely to bring results that reflect the price point, but I digress.

This generalization doesn’t apply to all agencies, brands, nor the SEO industry as a whole, but it’s a trend that’s noticeable. And thankfully I don’t run an agency anymore.

At the enterprise level it’s a different game. Even pre-Covid large brands became reticent to change once they had developed a relationship with a quality agency. Or had an agency of record tied to media. And unless their corporate mandate demanded RFPs every year (or even if they did), the brand didn’t want to change. This resulted in long-term SEO relationships with a brand and its agency of 3, 5, even 7 years or longer. This was unheard of perhaps ten years ago but is more common in enterprise SEO now. It’s harder than ever to pitch and win a large SEO deal because of this, and while RFPs are not a rarity, they’re more than ever a formality.

Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt

And yet there’s fear out there. Big, hairy, messy recession fear. The global war drum is beating faintly. AI is a looming threat to the status quo. Google isn’t the iron clad arbiter of quality search results any longer, rather they’re the AI-thirsty laggards devolving towards a defensive position. Harsh for effect, but they’re not leading in AI, a chink in the armor.

Companies proclaim, “If you return to the office we’ll give you snacks, foosball, perks, childcare, meals, a happy culture and environment a full time job with a lower salary than you deserve.” Perks are being slashed and SEO salaries are lower than they should be across all levels (I’ll write more about this in a future post). The perception of what it takes to perform high quality SEO in the workplace is off. And widespread layoffs across the tech sector have hit SEO roles at senior levels hard.

Maybe companies don’t believe SEO by itself is enough anymore. Job seekers need SEO plus something extra, like SEO + CRO, SEO + testing, SEO + content, or SEO + AI.

Roles are increasing “head of growth” types now that incorporate SEO with other channels. Which is fine and maybe as it should be, but companies will still need specialized SEO expertise in senior leadership positions. Companies need SEO leaders who know how to run teams, manage the channel, and communicate effectively to executive peers.

TL;DR – Why I Believe Senior SEO Roles are Dwindling

Companies are chasing growth and AI, but are not investing in senior SEO leadership. They’ve turned the screws on RTO while thinning senior SEO roles and riding hard the manager level who are left to hold the controls. Why pay a senior leader when you can hire someone to do keyword research and help desk SEO at a fraction of the cost? Well, there is a cost, a huge one, as many brands will come to find out when their SEO channels slowly deteriorate from lack of proper investment.

Boiled down to a TL;DR, this is why I believe VP SEO roles are currently out of fashion:

  1. SEO knowledge at the most basic level is now confirmed best practice and commonplace. This should be in the fiber of every CMS and product team, and while it’s not, that’s because the industry moves too slowly not because the knowledge isn’t everywhere and easy to access.
  2. Companies seeking to squeeze profits and efficiency are increasingly eliminating senior roles. SEO, being a channel that’s difficult to demonstrate clear ROI, is one of the first to be culled of talent.
  3. Most basic day to day SEO duties can be handled by less senior roles. The duty of the VP or senior director is to oversee the strategy, own the vision, and manage the team and channel, and this is harder to quantify and easier to cut. And a company doesn’t immediately see the negative impact.
  4. AI is coming for your dogs, cats and children. With uncertainty in the marketplace as to how and where AI can take a job from a person with a beating heart, it’s causing a holdout phenomenon where companies are waiting and cutting costs.
  5. Google’s infamous summer of algorithmic mania 2023 cut the legs off many sites reliant on SEO for their business model, and this increased FOMO to find another solution, fire the SEO leader, and search for the next silver bullet (which doesn’t exist, but don’t tell that to the C-suite at some companies).
  6. SEO toolsets have overtaken the industry promising automated SEO at huge cost, although rarely configured optimally nor utilized fully. These costs include long-term contracts that squeeze budgets yet are hard to unwind, a future topic itself.

This isn’t sustainable, and won’t persist forever, but for how long it’s impossible to say. And maybe it’s bringing up a good point to solve. Just what is the purpose of the VP of SEO role? We’ll explore that in a future piece.

What do you think? Are we seeing a trend or a permanent shift in the marketplace for SEO talent?

By the way, if you read this far, thank you! You might want to check out more about me. I work with a small set of clients, please reach out if you’re interested in talking.

1 thought on “The Demise of the VP of SEO Role”

  1. Excellent article! This echoes what I speak about at conferences and will elaborate in the third book of my Managing SEO series. I begin with a wish that the SEO function in large corporations needs to be moved higher in the org chart, ideally with a manager in the C-suite. “Chief Webmaster,” “Chief Web Success Officer,” or “Chief Website Officer” are possible titles and can be seen in LinkedIn searches.

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