The Challenge Of Justifying Enterprise SEO

It all comes down to money.

Face it: You can talk about executive buy-in, cultural shift and managing expectations. But if the C-Suite doesn’t see a return on investment, SEO is dead within the enterprise.

So you need a way to measure and justify SEO activities.

To do that, you must deal with two challenges:

  1. Attribution: SEO generates organic clicks. Visits that start with organic clicks often end with exits. Especially on big sites that aren’t always retail-driven. Somehow you have to close the attribution loop.
  2. Illustration: Whatever data you deliver has to speak to the reader in 5 seconds. If it doesn’t, you’ll fail.

These are the gating problems for SEO in any big organization. Everything else falls into line, if you can solve them. Demonstrate that SEO generates $$ and:

  • SEO becomes an IT team priority;
  • The creative team gets clear direction from the top;
  • Content suddenly becomes a worthwhile investment;
  • You continue to get paid.

Small Organizations, Too

I know what you’re thinking: Ian, you just described the issues any company faces, big or small.

Well, not exactly. The CEO of a small company has the luxury of going by gut feel now and then. Chances are, she’ll meet the SEO team periodically, peek at the rankings and the traffic reports, and make decisions based on how she feels about SEO efforts.

In a big organization, though, the CEO can’t do that. She doesn’t have time to look at the SEO campaign. For her, SEO is a line item: Dollars out, dollars in.

In a small organization, good SEO data clinches an ongoing argument. In a big one, it is the argument.

Attribution: E-commerce

Say you’re running an e-commerce site. You sell pliers. All of your customers search for ‘pliers’, see you in the rankings, click your organic listing and then make a purchase right away. That’s an easy analytics problem: The first click generates the sale, which is an easy conversion to track.

In that case, attribution is a cinch, because each sale is 100% attributable to your organic search result. In rainbow-farting unicorn world, all your analytics are like this.

In reality, they’re not. Your data’s messy as heck. A typical sale may happen like this:

  1. Frank finds you via a blog, visits your site, and leaves.
  2. Frank searches for your product by name, clicks on a paid search result, visits your site, and leaves again.
  3. Frank searches for your product by type (‘pliers’), finds your organic ranking, visits your site, bookmarks the page and leaves.
  4. Later, Frank clicks the bookmark and makes his purchase: $300 for gold-plated pliers

If you’re using first-click attribution, the blog gets all the credit. If you’re using last-click attribution, ‘bookmark’ or ‘direct’ gets all the credit. SEO (and PPC) are left out in the cold.

You need to prove that SEO was part of this transaction path. Lucky for you, analytics providers know your pain:

  • Google Analytics’ multi-channel funnels let you see where other channels ‘assisted’ in a sale.
  • Coremetrics shows 30-day attribution for all channels, so that you can see sales attributable to clicks in the last month.
  • Omniture and others have varying levels of support for attribution, as well. Some require manual setup, some don’t, so talk to the provider (and get proof!) before you choose one.

With full attribution, you can see where organic search impacts paid, for example:

attribution analysis

Overlap between organic and paid search

The above diagram alone might persuade a VP of marketing that, no matter how many sales they get from PPC, they still need SEO, too.

But you still have to persuade the CEO. And there’s another problem.

Attribution: The Lead-Based Site

Up to now, I’ve talked about e-commerce. But what if your site’s totally based on lead generation? If someone visits your site, fills out a form, ends up in SalesForce or Siebel CRM software, and then goes to a completely different team at the company, attribution gets harder.

If visitors just pick up the phone, it gets even more difficult.

But you can still do it.

To make this work, you need three pieces of data:

  • The number of Web leads that become customers.
  • The average lifetime value of a customer (LTV).
  • The referring source, even if it’s a phone call.

If you’ve got a form on your site, track each form completion as having generated a lead. Then the math is:

Leads generated * lead-to-customer conversion rate * LTV = value generated

So, if you generated 10,000 leads, and 10% of those leads become customers, and each customer has a $100 lifetime value:

10,000 * .1 * 100 = $100,000

If 10% of those leads came from SEO, then SEO was worth $10,000 in cold, hard cash.

If this is all generated via phone calls, then you don’t have a form to track. Instead, set up multiple phone lines (you’re an enterprise, you can do this). Change the phone number on your site based on the referrer (organic, paid search, etc). Then track calls as they come into your CRM software. Now you can track each call as a lead, and use the same formula.

A lead-based site is trickier than an e-commerce site. But it’s still totally possible to track and justify an SEO investment. You just have to do the math.

Illustration: The CEO’s Attention Span

I’m a CEO. I have the attention span of a spastic gnat. Between clients, finances, meetings, and whatever I choked down for lunch rumbling its way through my digestive tract, I may or may not have 5 full seconds to give your data.

And I manage a teeny, tiny little company.

If you’re going to make a strong argument to the CEO of a big, big company, think about speed limit signs:

speed limit signs

Designers make these signs communicate their message while you whip by at 60kph or 50mph. They’re simple. They’re clear. They grab attention. That’s it.

Do the same with your SEO data. You did all the work on attribution. Now, illustrate it. Use the simplest possible diagram, and whatever you do, don’t rely on a spreadsheet, ’cause no one’s going to read it. I’m no artist, but I’ve found something like this can work:

sales from seo

A simple chart showing last-click and assisted SEO sales

It works because:

  • The numbers are right there. Total sales. Last click sales. ‘Assisted’ sales. Worst case, you need provide a key as to what those values mean.
  • It’ll work if projected. My smallest font size is 30 points. So if someone decides to grab my chart and throw it into (gasp) Powerpoint without asking, it’ll still be readable.
  • It tells the whole story. I could leave out the total sales. That would be prettier. But I don’t want to make anyone do any math.
  • It saves the explanation for later. Don’t worry about specific keywords, or SEO changes, or the like unless you’re asked. Do provide that data to the VP or marketing or your direct supervisor/client.

It Ain’t Easy

Yeah, this is pretty complicated. It requires math and stuff. But, if you want to earn the big bucks on the big sites, you need to work on it. Get going, and justify!

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO


About The Author: is Chief Marketing Curmudgeon and President at Portent, Inc, a firm he started in 1995. Portent is a full-service internet marketing company whose services include SEO, SEM and strategic consulting.

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  • Leigh

    Great post, many thanks. However, I was a little confused with your comment under Attribution Ecommerce: “If you’re using last-click attribution, ‘bookmark’ or ‘direct’ gets all the credit. SEO (and PPC) are left out in the cold.” I am of the understanding that within Google Analytics there’s an exception to Direct’s attribution, namely credit is attributed to direct, if the visit has never come via a non-direct source in the past.

  • Mohd Shahnawaz

    You answered billion dollar question about how to convince Corporates to invest in SEO as they bring in majority of clicks and ROI.

    Btw which softtware did you use to do the visuals and graphs any tips?

  • Ian Lurie

    Hi Leigh,

    As far as I know, Google Analytics uses last-click attribution. But even if there’s an exception for ‘Direct’, there are still all the other referral sources. You want an accurate picture of those referrers, and last-click won’t give it to you.

    Hope this helps!


  • Ian Lurie

    Hi Mohd,

    I used Excel for the ‘donut’ graph. The other one’s straight from Google Analytics.


  • Bharati

    Yes rightly said it ain’t easy even if you have all the data but sometimes if you have to depend on the client for data it still gets tougher…

    We have worked out the following method for the calculations by answering these following questions:

    How many visits received from search engines? Let us denote this as – a

    How many enquiries received via the website form or calls received from visitors after visiting the site which they found via search engines? Let us denote this as – b

    The no of enquiries thus received got converted to sales? Let us denote this as – c

    The amount of profit from these invoices drawn as in (c)? Let us denote this as – d

    The cost of SEO monthly / annually depends on what basis you are calculating ? Let us denote this as – e

    I suggest the ROI to be calculated half yearly or annually as this gives a clear idea.
    Hence , (assuming you keep the period of the calculation the same for all the metrics)

    ROI = (d – e) / e * 100


    ROI = ( Annual Profit from the sales which were achieved via the Enquires from search engines – The annual cost of SEO for the website) divide upon (The annual cost of SEO for the website) multiplied by 100

  • Levi Spires

    This is great information for an Internet marketing sales process.


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