Making The Business Case For SEO
So what’s the ROI on this SEO program you’re recommending? How much revenue upside is there? What will it cost? How does this stack up against the fourteen other projects we’re working on right now?
Are these questions familiar to you? They are to me. I hear them in my sleep. I have had to answer each of them at some point (and most more than once) when making SEO recommendations both in-house and to clients. As SEO continues to grow as a viable marketing channel, you need to be prepared to answer these questions as well. Why?
Every SEO effort requires changes to your company’s website. And every time you change a website, it not only costs money, but also requires valuable engineering resources that could be doing something else. So, if you’re considering recommending SEO at your company, it’s important to think about the impact your SEO efforts might have for the business in real dollar terms. This is driven by the fact that product and engineering managers need to prioritize engineering resources to be sure that, at any given time, they are being used to drive the maximum value for the company.
The larger the company, the bigger an issue this becomes. In multi-product companies, the scope of this issue is greatly expanded. In large, multi-product companies like Yahoo!, the scale and scope can be daunting. Nothing gets put on a product road map without a business case, and the more compelling a business case, the higher the priority on the product road map. The good news is that the same practices that allow us to succeed in large, multi-product companies, also apply to small and mid-sized companies just as readily.
Here are some things you can do to help sell your SEO efforts to management or clients:
Value your traffic. It’s important to have a notion of what a click from a search engine user might have on your website. At Yahoo!, we use the notion of Lifetime Value to help us value web activity across a large number of web properties with vastly different business models. In principle, this does not have to be a complex exercise, but it can get as complicated as you let it. The idea is to quantify the revenue generated by a user over the lifetime of that user, and to discount that revenue stream back to the present. Use whatever data you have and then refine the model as you learn more. Where you don’t have data, use your best estimate, but make sure to note your assumptions and challenge them often.
Mind the gap. Once you know what a click is worth, you’ll want to quantify potential results from SEO. A few different approaches, have worked for us. At one end of the spectrum is where we build a predictive ‘clickspace’ model, using a targeted keyword list combined with some competitive ranking analysis and search volume data. The resulting number-crunching tells us how many clicks separate us from our various competitors at any given time, showing us where our competitive “gaps” are.
We use these gaps to measure the opportunity in clicks, and then dollars, that an SEO program could help us capture. This is a very expensive exercise, and not everyone is set up to do this. At the other end of the spectrum is what we call the “30% rule.” In the absence of any research, data or discipline, simply project your existing traffic, assuming you can measure it, increasing at a rate of 30% per year, plug that into your valuation model, and off you go (I recommend using this approach only as a last resort). Of course, there are many reasonable choices between these two models. Use commercially available data sources like ComScore, Hitwise, and Complete to compare their search volume data to your actual traffic.
Prioritize your projects. At some point, any proposed SEO work boils down to a list of projects that need to be executed. Be prepared to prioritize them. All of them. The reason is that they won’t all get done at once, and sometimes may not get done at all. Keep in mind that the degree to which you can prioritize will likely affect your success. In the end, managers are not likely to remember which projects were implemented and which were not, so prioritizing gives you the best chance of SEO success. Use the data that you have – search volume and lifetime value, to guide your prioritization efforts.
Be (a little) conservative. Assume you will be accountable to the business case you build. Try to balance your need to get your project prioritized with the likelihood of actually achieving significant results. This will help you build credibility, as nobody likes to be sold a ‘bill of goods’. I can vividly remember one SEO plan that I projected very aggressively so it would get done. It did, and when the implementation yielded less than stellar results, not only did I get an earful from the engineering community, but it took more than a year to restore my credibility with them.
Reward your team and key players. Every win in SEO is significant. Be sure to latch onto any successes and celebrate them. Whatever you do, don’t take any credit! Instead, when any SEO work is done, praise the product and engineering resources responsible for implementing changes. Take excerpts from emails where you see positive results recognized, and circulate them around the organization. Hang onto these! They will serve as currency for your next SEO business case, which you will no doubt need shortly.
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