There is a certain segment of the population that firmly believes the world is a black-and-white, cause-and-effect proposition. They believe that doing task X, directly and inescapably, leads to result Y.
They seem to believe that the world is easily whittled down into discrete segments that occur in a vacuum. That cause and effect are absolutes. That if you work hard, you will get rich. If you are nice, you will be successful. I suppose those folks sleep well at night. They live lives of quiet harmony and bliss, always doing what they believe is expected because that will always result in great achievement. It must be nice.
We SEOs generally don’t live in that world. We don’t believe that all you need to do are tasks X and Y to sell all of your inventory. That if you write a blog post to an expected standard, you will win the Pulitzer Prize (darn shame, that one!).
And more to the point, that if you optimize your website until you are done (whatever that means), there is no more work to be done, all of your visitors will convert, and all of your pages will rank #1 in search. In short, we don’t believe in perfection. Maybe that’s why I don’t sleep so well!
I have a good friend who’s a great SEO. She tells me about a recent meeting she had with an important, new client who represents a large online business.
The person she met with was the client company’s online marketing manager. She had done an initial audit of the client’s top 50 pages, identified several common problems across the pages, and had developed a list of recommendations on what they needed to do to get more unique visitors to their site from search (their target metric).
The client reviewed the recommendations list carefully, then stated that they only had a limited budget for SEO work (who doesn’t?). The client then asked the big question: if they only implemented recommendation #1, how many more unique users would that produce? She wanted a hard and fast number. How many more UUs would recommendation #1 produce, compared to recommendation #2?
Since they had an internal target number of new UUs they needed to achieve on a monthly basis (from executive management), how many would each of the recommendations produce, and what would each one cost so they could pick and choose which ones to implement in order to get to that exact number for the lowest investment cost? The client wanted specifics. As if there were honest specifics to offer.
Does this discussion sound familiar to you? If not the exact scenario, at least the theme? That we, as SEOs, can say with an absolute degree of certainty that doing task X will produce results Y? If I personally knew the answer to that question with certainty, my own rates would be far higher than they are today.
Why There’s No Certainty In SEO
The truth of the matter is that we cannot say with certainty how many new users will result from a particular optimization task (and yes, I know there are consultants out there who will happily give specific numbers, but their claims are as legitimate as Nessie photos). For the rest of us, legitimate, quantifiable certainty eludes us on many levels:
- We cannot know with certainty what Google truly wants as dictated in their algorithm, especially today – and tomorrow. We can make (hopefully) very good educated guesses, based on tried-and-true, successful campaigns in the past, but as they say in the financial industry, past performance does not guarantee future returns.
- We cannot know with certainty what Google’s next new, black-and-white animal-named, non-penalty, algo update might include, or what it might target.
- We cannot know with certainty what the competitors in the same space are doing to optimize their own websites, links, social media campaigns and content.
- We cannot know with certainty what the next big, external, local, regional, national, or world events might happen that influence our target market or industry, nor how much our target market even really wants the products or services we have to offer. After all, there’s not always a bottomless market for green widgets (or green widget management services).
In short, there are far too many variables at play here. The belief that SEO task X will instigate exact result Y (such as specific numbers of new UUs on a website) within such a multi-dimensional framework as the behavior of individual Internet users referred from results pages of search engines, whose algorithms, which take into account several hundreds of ranking factors, are literally changed several hundred times each year, is, well, absurd.
But Bean Counters Want To Know
Now, I do have to say I understand my friend’s client contact’s position in the matter. The marketing manager wasn’t likely being an absurd, difficult jerk just to make my SEO friend’s life difficult.
If that marketing manager was smart, she was likely anticipating the very same question being asked of her from her company’s executive management, and she wanted to get an answer that would satisfy them, or at a minimum, demonstrate that she was clever enough to ask about the issue on her own. I get that execs, especially the business bean counters, want demonstrable return on investment for their consultant fees paid.
But when that want becomes a requirement exhibited in a demand for specific results, as in “SEO task X will produce exactly 50,000 new UUs; task Y will add another 25,000 UUs; and task Z adds yet another 10,000 UUs, totaling the targeted 85,000 new UUs per month in the new quota,” someone eventually will have to recognize that someone else is pulling those numbers out of a hat. Eventually the truth is revealed.
It’s hardly different from quotas on sales teams. Setting a quota does not guarantee it’ll be met. It only means you have established the bar height you wish to achieve. You still need to invest the right number of resources to get to the bar. If people work hard but the economy tanks in your market, best of luck to the sales team when annual reviews come around. But if the economy unexpectedly flourishes in your market (or you manage to get a viral media frenzy started, which generates tons of free publicity), well, then, quota targets may be moot.
The hard but honest message to convey to clients is that there is uncertainty around the level of expected success that will be seen in an SEO campaign. Of course, there are SEO-compliance problems that can be identified and smart solutions to be implemented to remedy them. You can (and absolutely should) be creative with extending the client’s message to new markets, or change the marketing messaging to one with a stronger, more appealing tone, or promote new applications for an established product or service.
Expansion is the target, and spreading the word of that big news is the mission. But in terms of quantifying the predicted level of success by one particular optimization method, certainty is just not possible.
Well, there actually is one certainty that we can tell the clients they can count on. If they unwisely choose to not invest in SEO for optimizing their marketing campaign efforts for new audiences through search, this will guarantee failure.
While the client rests, their competition will continue to optimize their websites, create new social media campaigns, reinforce their traditional marketing campaigns with online support, and more. SEO is not a one-and-done job. It is an on-going series of identifying problems, implementing corrective measures, examining real-world results, and refining those efforts by starting the loop all over again.
The Hard Truth
If the world were as simple as “do X to get Y,” all of us would be rich, all products would be great, all marketing efforts would be perfectly successful, and, of course, this column would win the Pulitzer Prize. But superlatives can’t be universal, so if all that were true, none of us would be rich, all products would be the same, all marketing efforts would result in mediocrity, and there would be no prizes to be won.
It’s the unexpected and unknown variability in the world that leads to successes and failures, that allows for someone or something to stand head and shoulders above the crowd. That’s why we as SEOs are here, to help our clients rise above that mediocrity. The lack of certainty is a hard message to sell to our clients, but that’s the honest, real world truth. And, unfortunately, I won’t bother dusting off a spot on the fireplace mantle for that Pulitzer Prize, either. Too bad for me.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.