The SEO feasibility report: When SEO is a good idea and when it isn’t

This is a guest post by Paul Burani from Clicksharp Marketing, a very sharp search marketer I met in NY

In the search engine world, it’s easy to think in terms of black and white.  Some traffic you pay for, some you don’t.  There’s page one, and there’s everything else.  And of course we use the terms “black hat” and “white hat” SEO to differentiate the practices which push (or exceed) the limits of what is deemed acceptable by each search engine’s terms of service.

This view often creates a temptation to pursue Search Engine Optimization at all costs, when in fact it may be an ill-advised strategy.  What would lead a CEO, marketing manager, publisher or webmaster to make a dubious investment in SEO?  In many cases, this is based on the simplistic notion that clicks from Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising come at a significant price, whereas in organic search, they cost nothing.

The idea that SEO is free is patently false.

What you’re not paying in Cost Per Click (CPC), you’re paying in time: the time required to generate and/or syndicate content, format your markup properly, research competitors, and stay current on trends in search engine algorithms.  We all know that time is money.  And if you’re outsourcing any of the above, you’re paying money on top of that money.

So whereas in PPC you build your campaigns around a certain monthly ad budget, with SEO your budget is effectively measured in content and not dollars.  Writing more content and creating more pages increases the reach of your site.  It broadens the spectrum of keyword queries for which you can be reasonably competitive — from the high traffic core keywords to the “long tail” terms with comparatively low volumes but high upside (in the form of conversion potential).  This creates a very powerful virtuous cycle:

• Googlebot and other search engine crawlers have more content to crawl, and begin to view your domain more favorably.

• A growing number of unique users find your site through their own natural search behavior.

• A certain percentage of these users link to you in the process of generating their own content.

• Your steadily growing network of inbound links improves your authority in search engines, indirectly improving your crawl rate, your search engine visibility, and the overall stature of your website on the internet.

If you haven’t yet gained any key insights from your PPC campaigns, SEO may not be as valuable.

Another myth about SEO is that it’s a dark science, driven by a small handful of hyper-intelligent individuals who stand around a bubbling cauldron sipping nerve tonic, talking about how much smarter they are than Google.

That’s far from the case.  While it is true that an SEO campaign is driven by basic competencies in content generation, keyword and competitor research, server dynamics, usability and so on — ultimately SEO is about running a business.  The same way an offline business might invest in a billboard placement to pull in new customers, search engines are simply a newer medium for practicing all the same rules of business.  Thanks to all its campaign administration tools, and support from the major search engines, PPC tends to be more generally embraced as a business development tool.  For instance, measuring and enhancing Return On Investment (ROI) in PPC has evolved much more quickly than in SEO.  Maybe that’s why the industry doesn’t consider Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to be a part of the broad strategies of Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Making the transition from PPC to SEO, however, is easier than you think.

If a PPC campaign is well-designed to attract a wide variety of clientele, and has been running long enough to have statistically-significant volumes of impressions, clicks and conversions, the next step is to skim the cream off the top of the campaign and create the foundation for an SEO campaign.

Imagine you’re running your favorite analytics program, looking at a list of all your PPC keywords, sorted by conversion rate.  Once you’ve filtered out a few outliers with inadequate sample sizes (go back to your Statistics 101 textbook if need be), you find maybe a dozen keywords that are significantly outperforming the overall campaign.  (Note: in PPC/SEO-speak, both single words and multiple-word phrases are referred to as keywords.)

These keywords now become the bedrock of your campaign to migrate business potential from PPC to SEO — we’ll call them the Dynamic Dozen.  Your copywriters are instructed to create content which repeatedly brings the Dynamic Dozen to prominence.  Your developer or webmaster organizes supporting elements of the markup (e.g. title tags, alt tags, meta descriptions, etc) accordingly.  Your PR firm (or guerilla link builders) generate inbound links using the Dynamic Dozen as rotated anchor text.

You’re acting on a very simple premise: once upon a time, the people who searched for those core half-dozen terms found you and became customers — and other people would do the same, regardless of whether they found you in the sponsored results or the organic results.

Checking your rankings in the search engines for the Dynamic Dozen might seem like a worthy benchmark for success, but it’s important not to give too much credibility to this metric.  A better strategy is to become very friendly with your analytics program, and monitor your search engine traffic on a regular basis.  Trends in absolute numbers of unique visits will give you a very general idea of the SEO campaign’s progress, but for a more objective view, ask yourself questions such as:

• How much traffic is being generated specifically by the Dynamic Dozen (including phrases that contain any of the these terms)?

• The people who reach my site through these keywords, do they develop a better-than-average relationship with the site content?  Do I see a lower bounce rate, higher pageviews per visit, growth in repeat visits?

• Are the Dynamic Dozen converting at the same rate as they were in PPC?

• Here’s the million dollar question — for the amount of time and money I’ve invested in SEO, is my organic search traffic reaching the same rate overall ROI as it was in PPC?

How would I begin to estimate the cost of an SEO campaign?

Understanding the return on your SEO investment can be tricky, but as always, you have a lot of objective data to use to your advantage.

1. Costs. Come up with a reasonable estimate of the value of one hour of time for each of the key people involved: copy writers, webmasters, link builders, etc.  There are a variety of very cheap (or free) time tracking tools which facilitate this kind of record-keeping.  Add to this any costs for submission and/or syndication.

2.Assign value to conversions. These numbers can usually be input directly into your analytics program.  If you’re selling product directly, the value is measured in profits.  If a conversion is represented by something less concrete, such as a white paper download, use your own business data to calculate the rate how many white paper downloads it takes to generate one new customer — and how much that new customer is worth.

3. Competition. You can set a reasonable benchmark for ROI by isolating a few key competitors and studying their SEO campaigns.  Count up all the inbound links pointing to an important page on their site (you might also apply a filter such as PageRank, to account for the varying levels of inbound link quality).  Using your own human resources as a model, estimate how much it would cost to create and promote that content, and divide by the number of inbound links.

Once you’ve accomplished this, an objective view of ROI is your reward, and you’re essentially left with one of two results.

1. The ROI is lower than what you’ve observed for your PPC (or lower than what management has required).  In this event, you’ll need to return to your analytics software, extract the laggard keywords, and adapt both existing and new content toward better performance for these terms.

2. The ROI is higher — and which case you’ve earned a pat on the back.  You now have a mandate to return to the C-level executives asking for more budget.  Or if they don’t want to invest in marketing, maybe they’d like to invest in a big bonus for their new marketing guru.

There are many compelling reasons to invest in SEO.  Though it is not as “free” as many people believe, much of the intelligence needed to manage your campaign already exists in the form of PPC data.  Transferring these assets to the organic search channel, and measuring their impact on the bottom line, are a viable marketing strategy for many businesses competing in the digital economy.

So when is this a good idea, and when is it not?  Consider these criteria:

• Are you prepared to spend human resources, as well as your marketing budget, on SEO?

• Can you come up with an ongoing list of themes to use for developing new content?

• Have you gained a clear understanding of which keywords are convert your website’s visitors into customers?

• Do you regularly use your analytics software to measure your marketing investments?

• Do you have a good sense of which competitors are doing the same thing?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you may not yet be ready for the spoils of Search Engine Optimization. But if you believe your marketing agenda is prepared to meet these challenges head-on, the upside is yours for the taking.

[Editor's note: BTW, don't miss my interview at Meetinnovators :-)]

7 replies
  1. Jason Green
    Jason Green says:

    The thing they fail to see is that using someone in house is still costing the same amout of money, and maybe even more that running a ad campaign on google. A full time SEO person may cost around 30k, using 30k on google adwords would generate a significant amount of traffic.

    Reply
  2. Jon Roberts
    Jon Roberts says:

    A very interesting article. I would like to ask the question, forgive me if I am a little nieve! In light of what you have stated in this article – SEO is never free, I would be interested to hear your views on what brings the better ROI: Link building or content building? I know that for a good campaign, these go hand in hand, but if push came to shove which is the better?

    Reply
  3. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:

    Jon – Getting links to your site is the most important factor at the moment. Unfortunately, it is far easier and more cost effective to acquire links if you create compelling content. So, I recommend you write great content and promote it to attract links.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply