A 5-step framework to scale your content operations and SEO


Don’t lie.

Show of hands. 

How many times have you uttered the following in the last year alone? 

  • “I can’t find any good writers.”
  • “No one can create content as well as me.”
  • “Content marketing / SEO doesn’t work in our niche.”
  • “That agency just doesn’t understand our unique POV.”
  • “I can’t publish more than X articles/mo without quality dropping.”

Probably all of them at one point. Amiright? 

No fingers pointed. I’ve used them all, too.

But here’s the thing you need to recognize about these oft-repeated clichés: 

They’re excuses. All of them.

Excuses and lies we tell ourselves to simultaneously:

  • Puff up our ego.
  • Avoid doing the hard work of learning how to systemize and build processes and delegate effectively.

Here’s why you’re your own worst enemy when it comes to scaling content creation and SEO, and how to solve it so you get back on track ASAP.

You are your own worst SEO enemy – here’s why (and how to fix it)

The truth hurts sometimes.

And when it comes to content operations, the faster you recognize that you’re the problem, the quicker you’ll get to crushing your next revenue target.

Companies often fail to scale because they lack content operational systems that underpin the creativity layered on top.

Instead, too many teams still operate under this false assumption that they’ll luck out and the perfect unicorn writer or marketer or [insert rockstar role here] will fall into their laps, solving all of their problems in one fell swoop.

You know, the ones that just get “it.” 

Without ever bothering to figure out what “it” is, or how to document “it,” or how to specifically recruit and train for “it” so that “it” happens like clockwork, 24/7, 365.

Diagnosing this problem is difficult unless you’ve seen it happen before. So here are the clues to look for:

  • You routinely hit self-imposed “glass ceilings.” Quality drops like a rock every time you push quantity or volume up.
  • Your editors are rewriting everything your writers deliver because it “doesn’t sound right” or “isn’t as good” as they can make it.
  • You have constant issues finding new writers because it takes too long for your most expensive and senior people to review writers. So, instead of hiring only the top 1% of candidates, you’re stuck hiring the top 10% and having to weed through the 9% of junk left over). 
  • Your team members give contradicting feedback to new hires because each would describe subjective elements like voice and tone in completely different ways. 
  • Your editors spend multiple hours editing one piece because they have to correct basic image formatting or update primary sources, which means their weekly output is only a tiny fraction of what it could or should be.

Does any of this sound familiar yet?

It should. 

And the biggest problem is that these surface-level issues sabotage your SEO success by killing output, slaughtering velocity, and maiming morale.

But don’t stress. 

After seeing these issues routinely play out over the last decade (and making the same mistakes ourselves countless times), we’ve been able to come up with a helpful framework to optimize operations.

Here’s an overview graphic, and then we’ll dig into each section in detail. 

1. Role specialization

The best writers make bad editors and terrible content managers.

Why?

Because the best writers thrive on ingenuity, saying the same thing multiple times in multiple ways. 

Editors should be the opposite, in constant pursuit of consistency and uniformity. 

Meanwhile, managers are the glue that keeps the other two’s big-picture goals and day-to-day actions aligned.

In other words, completely different skill sets that too many teams try to force into one individual.

It’s the Michael Scott problem. Great paper salesman. Funny television character. Awful regional manager.

Roll back a few centuries, and the solution comes from the unlikeliest of places: the military.

The brigade management system even influenced the organization of professional kitchens. 

It provides the flexibility and coordination to create hundreds of items, all in sync, within minutes of each other, so that all of your table’s food comes out simultaneously with different preparations.

Culinary definition of brigade system

Content teams should be organized in the same fashion.

This starts with separating your writers, editors, and managers. 

From there, as you grow in both stature and resources, you continue adding specializations to master each small piece of the much larger content operation machine – like a giant factory assembly line.

Content team structure

It would help if you also had a well-defined workflow where:

  • The strategists work on strategy.
  • The planners plan.
  • The writers write.
  • The editors edit.
  • The producers coordinate. 

You can add designers, videos, and distribution specialists to the mix as you grow.

Key roles within content team

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2. Content quality checklists

This shouldn’t be a trick question, but it often is:

How would you define “good” content?

Everyone talks about the importance of “good” content. Yet, no one can define it the same. 

Ask 10 people in your organization, and you’ll get 10 different answers.

As you can expect, that answer is not good enough.

Sorry to be blunt. But the longer you fly without radar keeping you on track, the better your odds of a crash landing.

Documenting a specific quality checklist is the bare minimum that needs to happen right now. Not tomorrow or next week.

And in it, you should define the overall structure of most content, along with the nitty-gritty details for each sub-section – from word counts to source preferences to image criteria.

Example of an overall content checklist

The more fleshed out this starting point, the faster you’ll:

  • Train writers.
  • Reduce editing time.
  • Drive up ROI (better results for less investment).

The second lesson here is to show, don’t tell.

A good example is your acceptable angles. 

Be specific, laying out the ones you like or don’t like, and listing resources to show writers, editors, senior management, clients, or whoever, exactly what these things should look like.

Examples of hooks and angles

We’re talking OCD levels of organization here because it gets everyone on the same page. 

And when everyone is on the same page, your life becomes easier. 

Hiring and firing become almost automatic. Everyone knows the expectations and is aligned. The number of dumb questions or stupid arguments evaporates into thin air.

Who knows. You might even get your weekends back to yourself!

The trickle-down effects are magical.

Our senior editors have a one-hour guideline. 

They should not spend longer than one hour editing an article. Because if so, that means the writer screwed up. So the problems should be flagged and sent back to them.

Then, we can review an editor’s time across multiple pieces (or clients or writers) and spot operational issues at a moment’s notice. 

Too little time spent editing might mean those writers are due a pay increase, while too long spent editing would signal the opposite. 

Content workflow time-tracking

3. Standardized templates, briefs and outlines

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But no content or SEO manager can control the results you’re looking for.

Rankings, traffic, leads, and customers are all lagging indicators. They are generated months or even years after doing all the actual work.

That means we need to turn our attention to the leading indicators instead. 

Exhibit A. What should you write about? 

Well, the answer is whatever people are already looking for! 

Analyzing search intent helps you understand what people want to read or learn when they type in a specific query. The good news is that Google literally tells you these answers. 

Start with People Also Ask questions after typing in a query:

People also ask section in SERPs

Next, look up Related Searches at the bottom of the SERP to see how the recommendations might line up together to start forming sections with the body of each piece.

Related searches section in SERPs

You’ll start noticing patterns when you do this a lot across dozens, if not hundreds, of queries in your space.

For instance, check out the Table of Contents from these Investopedia pieces on compound interest and promissory notes.

Table of contents for personal finance articles

Almost the same structure! 

Now, you have your first content template.

These are consistent article structures you can use for different queries (think: “what is…”-style queries that might apply across multiple topics or verticals). 

And it also means you can start standardizing article structures across hundreds to thousands. 

So if you had 1,000 topics to produce content on over the next year, those could probably be boiled down into 10 groups of 100. 

One template now might apply to each of those 10 groups (so 10 templates).

From there, you’ll eventually standardize content briefs, which will form the backbone of your writers’ outlines because they spoon-feed them everything from the subheads to the keywords and even word counts at each stage. 

Imagine we’re about to write an article on “content planning.” 

Your content brief would be pulled together by referencing all of these different points of information:

  • People Also Ask questions.
  • Related Searches.
  • Reading some of the best content already ranking.
  • Semantic keywords from content graders.
  • And more.

Standardizing the content planning process like this will make your writers love you because they no longer have to stare at a blank white screen trying to conjure up some fluff.

Your editors will love you because they know exactly how the content should look, read, and sound.

Your SEOs or marketers will love you because you’re performing that difficult balancing act of producing interesting content that will still rank well.

And your bosses, clients or whoever is paying the bill will love you because what you initially planned in the early stages is pretty much exactly what the finished product will look like at the end of the day.

Composite image of Gantt chart content outline and published blog post

And when you do this consistently over months and years, your ultimate success will be virtually guaranteed. 

It’s just a matter of how quickly the Google gods reward your good work.

4. Guidelines and sources

Shades of gray are only for cheesy romance novels and even worse movies.

They have no business in a high-performing content machine.

Take voice and tone preferences. Once again, ask 10 people, and you’ll get ten different answers.

So here’s an easy tip. Sometimes, seeing what you don’t like makes it easier to understand what you do like.

Take the following sentence: 

Sample sentence

It’s fine. Not great. Kinda generic and boring. But fine.

Now, rewrite that sentence like this:

✅ “This company is just the latest in a long line to be gobbled up by the massive hosting conglomerate, Endurance International Group (EIG). Or, as it’s also known, Where Good Web Hosts Go to Die.”

Over the top? Probably. 

Some might like it, some might not. The vivid language (“gobbled up”) and power words (“Go to Die”) would be great for a conversational or satirical brand, perhaps not for a formal medical one, though.

A good example to model is Mailchimp’s extensive documentation

From there, you’ll also want to create guides for everything from vocabulary to terminology. 

These are the words, phrases or expressions that your brand uses, unique to your point of view on the industry, that would be different than other direct or indirect competitors. 

For instance, do you prefer:

  • “Profile picture” or “avatar”?
  • “Example” or “use case”?
  • “Click” or “press”?

It doesn’t matter which one you select. It only matters that you pick one, are consistent, and clear up this gray area for your writing and editing teams. 

This supporting documentation should clear up all the intangible or unwritten principles your team already practices – even if they aren’t aware of it.

Last but not least, you should create a list of resources your writers can use, and a list of resources they should not reference (because they have published inaccurate, misleading, confusing, inconsistent, or otherwise untrustworthy information).

Sample document - Resources for content research and linking

Stamp out all unwritten or intangible items, one by one, day after day, like a big game of Whack-a-Mole, and pretty soon, the only shades of grey left are the questionable kinky ones in your free time.

5. Batch and parallel processes

Let’s end at the beginning.

The brigade system helps professional kitchens deliver multiple dishes to the same table simultaneously, all cooked to perfection.

They do that by working in batch and parallel processes. 

Imagine a line cook at the grill. They might be preparing five different cuts of steak for five different tables at five different temperatures with five different cook times. 

Sounds exhausting, right?

So exhausting that they can’t also be cooking pastries or prepping salads at the same time. That’s role specialization in step one above. 

Now imagine that 10 different people in a kitchen are each doing their own version of this at the same time. 

Visualization of the brigade system in professional kitchens

Taking this back to content operations, it means you might have one team of people (writers, editors, SEOs, designers, etc.) working on one content project while at the same time another team of people (writers, editors, SEOs, designers, etc.) is working on another one.

As the leader of this chaos choreography, your job is to have the right teams in place with the right systems so that your output and quality stay high, even if a bunch of people are working on different things simultaneously. 

Tracker for content projects

Now, instead of micromanaging or meddling or trying to control every little detail, you can step back and oversee from a high level while still making subtle tweaks along the way to key stages of the assembly line.

Scale content creation and SEO in 5 key steps

Content is subjective at the end of the day.

You might like short, snappy, snarky sentences. But your boss might prefer formal, flowery, and factual.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is that you – and the rest of the people you work with – are all on the same page. 

This seemingly simple yet little-practiced point often derails content projects daily and sabotages your SEO results over the long term. 

Start by optimizing your content operations with the following five steps:

  • Specializing roles within your larger production workflow,
  • Solidifying quality standards and examples that illustrate each point,
  • Standardizing how production should flow from idea to template to brief to finished product,
  • Documenting supporting guidelines and sources to clear up intangibles,
  • Implementing batch and parallel processes so everyone knows what they should do at every moment.
5-step content operations framework explained

It isn’t always easy or fun. It’ll take some getting used to. 

But it’s ultimately the only way to break through your self-imposed barriers and generate the long-term success you deserve.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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About the author

Brad Smith

Brad Smith owns three content marketing companies, and has been featured in publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Business Insider, and The Next Web. Each week, he shares first-hand experience and growth strategies behind some of the web’s fastest growing brands.

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