SEO OKRs: How to Set Actionable SEO Goals

Cara Bowles    By under SEO.

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are more than simply a name for goals and metrics, which every business has. Instead, OKRs form a business framework that informs business strategy in more fundamental ways.

The OKR framework is designed to infuse transparency, focus, and alignment to business strategy. It organizes workers and tasks around common objectives.

An OKR takes each individual business goal and defines an Objective, which is the principal goal, and up to five Key Results, which each measure progress towards the objective.

Additionally, each OKR may also have Initiatives, which describe the actionable work that needs to be done in order to drive progress on Key Results.

A series of rules hone the OKR framework so that employees can easily prioritize, align, focus, and measure their work.

A principal benefit of the OKR framework is that it also shifts attention from mere output to achieving outcomes.

In this post, we'll talk about how to use OKR framework, and how to define actionable goals for SEO that achieve meaningful business results.

Clarifying Objectives, Key Results, and Initiatives

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Before we talk about OKR strategy, let's start by clarifying how to tell the difference between Objectives, Key Results, and Initiatives.

Objectives

An Objective is best thought of as a destination, a goal to achieve. To define an Objective, you ask where you want to go. An Objective is a desired state of being for your business, not a specific metric or task.

Key Results

A Key Result is a metric, a measurable quantity that has a current starting point and a target end value that measures progress towards an Objective. To define your Key Results, ask how you will know you are getting where you want to go. Every one Objective can have up to five Key Results.

If your Key Results are correctly chosen, then achieving them will achieve your Objective. A common failure of business strategy is to focus on metrics that can be achieved without achieving any business Objectives.

Initiatives

Initiatives are specific tasks or a description of the work needed in order to influence Key Results. If a task doesn't influence a Key Result, it's not an Initiative for that OKR, and it is generally a wasted effort. To define your initiatives, ask what you will do to get where you are going.

Why Use OKRs?

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The OKR framework puts to use the principle that "what gets measured gets managed." A study conducted on Sears call centers found that a very minimal implementation of OKRs lifted sales by 8.5 percent.

OKR shifts the focus of a business from simply measuring output and KPIs to achieving outcomes. By giving focus, transparency, and alignment to business strategy and operations, it can shift the culture of a business to one where employees are more engaged with their work.

OKR Cadences

OKRs have a cadence, or timeframe. At the Company level, OKRs typically have a cadence of a year. At the level of a group within the business, OKRs typically have a cadence of one quarter. In the SEO industry, a cadence of a quarter is typically the best fit.

Aligning OKRs With Mission And Vision Using An "Ultimate OKR"

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For an OKR to have business value it should align with your business's mission and vision. The way most businesses state their mission and vision, it's not always obvious how to choose OKRs in service of mission and vision.

One technique for simplifying this is reframing a business's mission and vision as an "ultimate OKR." An ultimate OKR is a sort of penultimate Objective and its Key Results built around a goal set some 10, 15, or 25 years in the future, after which a business could claim to have achieved its ultimate purpose.

By defining an ultimate Objective along with the ultimate Key Results needed to achieve it, it's easier to see how to break the ultimate Objective down into smaller Objectives and the Key Results needed to achieve them.

An Ultimate SEO Objective might be something like "become the most successful source of content on the web about cats" with Key Results such as "rank on the front page for the top 100 most popular cat-related searches" and "successfully add 1 out of every 10 visitors to an email list."

How To Decide On OKRs

The OKR framework typically assumes a company will set roughly three or five OKRs each year, and this approach can be subdivided within each department.

Wherever possible, an OKR workshop involving all key stakeholders is ideal. Ideally, any team leaders who answer to you will collect input from their teams about what their goals should be. All the team leads can then get together to discuss how to distill all of these down into about three to five OKRs for the year.

Of course, management may also hand a specific goal or goals to the SEO team. These goals will rarely be so refined that they can simply be adopted as useful OKRs without input and discussion within your own team, however. Sometimes management may actually hand you a Key Result as if it were an Objective, in which case you will need to decide what Objective to tie to it in order to keep the work grounded.

What Makes A Useful Objective?

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The most useful Objectives will be aligned, of high impact, and time-bound.

Aligned

An Objective is aligned if it supports your team's ultimate Objective and any goals that have been assigned by higher management. Group Objectives are always subordinate to Company Objectives and must directly support them.

High Impact

An Objective is high in impact if achieving it makes a noticeable difference. The principle "anything worth doing is worth doing poorly" applies here. This means that even if your Objective is achieved in the least ideal way, it will still have noticeable positive repercussions on the business as a whole.

Time-Bound

An Objective is not ongoing. It has an endpoint. There is a deliverable and it must be delivered within a specified timeframe. i.e. increase organic, consistent SEO traffic 200% in 24 months. This allows your team to prioritize and to readjust if your team hasn't been successfully contributing to the company's larger Objectives, or if those Objectives change.

What Makes A Useful Key Result?

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A key result is a clearly defined change in a metric, and the most useful key metrics are high impact, specific, and within influence.

High Impact

Just like a good Objective, a good Key Result is high in impact. Subjectively, this means that moving the needle on this metric is something everyone will feel. The impact should be important enough that it hardly needs to be sussed out using statistical analysis to be noticed. A high impact Key Result is movement on a metric that will influence many other important business metrics.

Specific

Key results at the team level should be focused and have a limited scope. They should be tied to larger company Key Results, but they should be granular enough for a team to move them on their own. An SEO team probably shouldn't be setting Key Results as broad as moving online revenue a certain amount, since many things besides SEO labor can impact positively or negatively.

Within Influence

A Key Result is not an Initiative, so it is not a task or something that you do. A Key Result is a metric that you can influence but that you can't just do. You wouldn't, for example, set 100 blog posts as a Key Result. One hundred blog posts is an Initiative. Instead, you would set a Key Result of, for example, 1,000 new daily visitors from search, then set an Initiative of 100 new blog posts, hopefully informed by the number of search visits past blog posts have brought.

What Makes A Useful Initiative?

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An Initiative isn't a metric but a deliverable or task. The best Initiatives are specific and within control.

Specific

Initiatives should have a very clearly defined scope and whoever owns the Initiative should know exactly what they need to accomplish. Where Objectives use unspecific verbs like "improve" or "increase," Initiatives must use very specific verbs like "write," "release," "publish," and so on.

Within Control

An Initiative is something you have total control over. In a perfect world, this would mean that an Initiative isn't dependent on anybody or anything else. Whoever has ownership of the Initiative can be held directly responsible for completing it or not. An Initiative is a deliverable, like a blog post, an audit, a number of emails sent, or completed SEO metadata for a specific group of pages. This can't be said for OKRs as a whole, since a team can complete all of their Initiatives and find that the Key Results weren't influenced as much as intended, and the Objective wasn't met as a result.

Influences Key Results

Initiatives should be chosen so that they influence Key Results as directly as possible. If there is no reason to expect an Initiative to impact Key Results, it shouldn't be viewed as an Initiative. Some business tasks aren't Initiatives and that's okay. Maintenance and similar business tasks are important, but they should be seen as necessary tasks to support Initiatives, not as Initiatives themselves. This distinction provides clarity to a business's priorities so that labor doesn't get lost on "busy work."

Initiatives Are Concrete Tasks With Hypothetical Impacts

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Initiatives are what make OKRs actionable. Unlike Objectives, they aren't a statement about where you want your business to go. Unlike Key Results, they can't be defined in a way where meeting them guarantees you will reach your Objective.

An Initiative is a task rooted in a hypothesis that completing the Initiative will influence your Key Results. You select Initiatives based on your best educated guess about what work will have the biggest impact on Key Results.

Initiatives are where OKRs get most iterative. You don't need to wait for the end of a quarter or year to look at the data and determine whether your Initiatives are moving your Key Results. This can be done regularly so that Initiatives can be revised or replaced, and more efficient ways to move Key Results can be identified.

Having OKRs as well Initiatives provides clarity because OKRs let you see what you have achieved while Initiatives tell you what you did. This distinction can tell you whether the work you are doing is actually helping you achieve business goals, so that you can revise the work if it isn't contributing towards OKRs.

Separating out Initiatives from OKRs also allows you to maintain consistent business goals while remaining flexible and agile with the actual work that you do. Without this distinction, a business can be "agile" in a counterproductive way, adapting to short term changes in the industry but without maintaining any clear long term goals or identity.

How OKRs Change The Way You Speak To Clients Or Management About SEO

It's fairly standard for SEO reporting to be built around weekly work and monthly reporting. Unfortunately, this often results in no clear long term objectives or strategies. The impacts of SEO are mostly long term and cumulative. It's rare that an SEO can significantly influence metrics within a single month. The effects of SEO work often won't be felt until two months after the work is done, sometimes longer.

Without long term goals, SEOs often get stuck putting out weekly fires, usually encountering new ones before the week is even up, and end up doing very reactive work. Reactive work is sometimes necessary, but it often gets in the way of work that moves you towards meaningful business goals. When reactive work dominates, it leads to a mindset where there is always a new emergency to deal with and never time to focus on more meaningful tasks.

The most significant change you will encounter when you start adopting OKR is that every 90 days you will set a new Objective. You will identify Key Results, metrics that, if achieved, will ensure your Objective is completed. Now, in an effort to move the Key Results, instead of either sending a generic report or scrambling to decide which metrics to focus on, you can report every 30 days on your Key Results for the month, and Initiatives you completed.

By focusing on the outcomes of your work, without discounting the work you did in an effort to reach those objectives, the OKR business framework provides transparency, focus, and alignment to the work you perform and the way you report it. Use this method to keep stakeholders invested in how your work is designed to achieve results.