One of the first jobs I have to do as a consultant going into an SEO engagement is to debunk the myth that SEO is “free.” SEO has never been, nor will it ever be, free traffic. It takes work, and that comes at a cost. You need to hire staff or allocate internal resources to manage your SEO efforts. You need to enlist an SEO firm or consultant to help identify the opportunities and prioritize them, navigate the minefields, and up-skill your internal team. You need to outfit your in-house team with on the tools of the trade (SEOmoz Pro, Internet Marketing Ninjas, etc.), send them to the conferences (all the SMX conferences, of course!), provide them with training intensives (e.g., SEOClass, SEOTraining), and various other professional development and networking opportunities.
If you are paying an SEO firm or contractor, the cost is obvious. But the time you allocate your internal folks to SEO — and this includes the IT team, web designers, copywriters, project managers, as well as in-house SEO specialists — must be quantified and factored in, too. Then there are the “soft” costs that are harder to measure, including:
- The missed opportunity cost — Failing to optimize everything leads to lost sales. It’s hard to know how much, and which things accounted for what. John Wanamaker famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half!”. According to an iProspect study, over 66 percent of SEO recommendations go unimplemented a year later. What if that 66 percent represented the good half that John Wanamaker alluded to!
- The time-to-market cost — They say all good things take time, but the inordinate amount of time it takes for large companies to implement SEO initiatives equates to a serious amount of lost traffic. A major online retailer of outdoor gear spent over 1000 hours of IT time implementing URL rewrites and they couldn’t even finish implementing them all! How would you know this in advance? It’s really tough. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could flip a switch and be optimized?
- The cost of competing priorities — By asking your IT team to dedicate time to extensive SEO initiatives, you change their focus. What if one of their other — now displaced — priorities was more mission critical to the business than you or they realized? Having them take their eye off the ball could lead to disastrous consequences.
This all sounds very fuzzy, doesn’t it? Hard to quantify, hard to prove in advance. This is SEO’s “Achilles heel,” and why paid search usually wins over natural search in the budget battles, receiving the lion’s share of the search marketing budget. This is a travesty, considering the searcher’s primary focus on the natural results and the fact that a searcher interprets a natural listing as an implied endorsement by the search engine.
The allure of paid search is strong in part because of its predictability, but I’m convinced that natural search trumps paid search in overall opportunity. And besides, with paid search, the moment you stop paying is the moment you stop receiving the traffic. Stop investing in SEO and the traffic drop-off will come too, but it won’t be as dramatic and sudden as for paid search.
With uncertainty comes risk, and your natural rankings are full of uncertainty, and therefore risk. There’s no guarantee that a dollar invested into SEO will net 10 or 20 dollars in return. So take heed, SEO firms: de-risk your SEO offering and you will have the secret to success. Granted, you can’t control the engines’ natural ranking algorithms; however, you can introduce more predictability and accountability into your SEO. But it’s going to cost you. And it may require a paradigm shift, to a pay-for-performance pricing model for SEO services. SEO firms are starting to embrace alternative payment models, as evidenced by the session on this topic coming to SMX Advanced in June. Indeed, we at Netconcepts have performance-based pricing for our GravityStream technology platform — natural search traffic on a cost-per-click basis.
After expending some serious effort and cash too, you may finally find yourself ranking for some highly competitive terms, receiving traffic that you aren’t “paying for” like you would be for paid search. However, getting there was not free, and guess what? — neither is staying there. Now that you have that top spot, you have to keep it — against others who are forever trying to outrank you. This is especially true if the words you are ranking for are competitive. You are still going to need someone to build links for you and keep up with the changing SEO landscape and search engine algorithm updates.
Wouldn’t it be great if natural search traffic were free and never ending? Like manna from Heaven… Yet, SEO requires continuing investment. Invest in SEO as an ongoing marketing channel and your natural rankings will surely rise over time. Treat SEO as a one-time project, or dedicate insufficient resources, and you court obsolescence.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.