Secret Sauce and Snake Oil: Writing Monthly Reports in a Highly Contingent Environment

Clay Spinuzzi
2010 Written Communication  
At a search marketing company, each search engine optimization (SEO) specialist writes up to 10 to 12 complex 20-page monthly reports in the first ten business days of each month. These SEO specialists do not consider themselves to be writers, yet they generate these structurally and rhetorically complex reports as a matter of course, while negotiating a constantly changing landscape of a contingent, rapidly changing business sector. Under these conditions, how did the SEO specialists manage to
more » ... write these reports so quickly and so well? What is the standing set of transformations that they enact in order to develop and produce these reports? And given the multiple contingencies, rapid changes, and high individual discretion at this organization-seemingly a recipe for discohesive practices-how did they maintain and develop this standing set of transformations in order to turn out consistent reports? In this article, I draw on writing, activity, and genre research (WAGR) to examine how Semoptco's SEO specialists produced monthly reports, specifically in terms of their constant networking, audience analysis, and ethos building. Finally, the author draws implications for applying WAGR to knowledge work organizations. In 2008, I spent 3 months studying how search engine optimization (SEO) specialists at Semoptco,1 a Web services company, coordinated and shared information. These specialists were not considered "writers" by their bosses, their coworkers, or themselves. And yet every month, each of the six SEO specialists wrote an 18-to 20-page report for each client they handled. A lot rested on each report: Semoptco wanted to retain and upsell clients, and clients in turn wanted to drive more people to their sites. Remarkably, each SEO specialist produced 10 to 12 such reports within the first ten business days of each month. They used the rest of the month to keep up with the fast-changing SEO landscape, build links to their customers' sites, analyze keyword performance, analyze clients' sites for flaws and opportunities, learn new tools and techniques, and communicate new findings to others. This work was all in addition to the research-and writing-heavy work of launching new clients' campaigns. These reports varied in content and complexity. On one end, Tier 3 clients received a "report card," a set of simple data tables showing how well each keyword was driving traffic to their site, along with action items for the client and Semoptco to take to improve keyword performance. On the other, Tier 1 clients received additional sections: an executive summary, campaign overview, detailed action items including opportunities, short-and long-term goals and objectives, and deep analysis including comparisons of keyword performance for the three major search engines as well as monthly meetings with the specialist. These reports and meetings demonstrated how well Semoptco was serving the client: how much traffic was being driven to the site and from what referring sites, how much of this traffic was being converted into sales (if applicable), how close keyword performance was to its stated goals. Together, they demonstrated the worth of Semoptco's services to the client, justifying further actions. Since SEO is a relatively new and highly customized industry with a rapidly changing landscape, specialists often encountered unprecedented issues. Consequently, they sometimes had to explain innovative analyses and argue for innovative courses of action. Under these conditions, how did the SEO specialists manage to write these reports so quickly and so well? What is the standing set of transformations (Spinuzzi, 2008) that they enact in order to develop and produce these reports? And given the multiple contingencies, rapid changes, and high individual discretion at Semoptco-seemingly a recipe for discohesive practiceshow did they maintain and develop this standing set of transformations in
doi:10.1177/0741088310380518 fatcat:7jinbb2vevesroi25t2dsc4jbq