Paradigm Shift Needed for SEO Budgets

Some people “get it”. Most people don’t.

How much should an SEO effort cost, and what all goes into an effort, after all?

When a prospect reaches out to me for the first time, and they’re contemplating getting into SEO for the first time, I make it a point to not be stingy with my time. I want to help educate, so that they can make an educated decision on what they should be doing with SEO (if anything) based on their unique circumstances.
Is there potential to realize a solid ROI? Do they have the time and/or money to see this through, in the right manner? Are they looking for a quick fix? (those do happen, but – more often than not – this will be an effort that needs to be considered a long-term engagement/investment).

In today’s post, I’m going to try and help realign folks with the reality of SEO, and where I think it fits, in the grand (marketing) schema scheme of things.

First – let’s talk about what SEO is and what SEO is not.

What it is –

In my opinion, it’s a vehicle in which you can reach your target audience at the best time….when they are actively searching and in research/consideration phase of the purchasing journey. Even if you’re strictly a brand marketer, you have to care about search (reputation management?). And, for my money, it can be the most efficient way to generate awareness, and directly drive consideration/leads and sales.
It can also be a lot of work and quite expensive. And, BONUS, there is no guarantee that it’ll work and certainly no guarantee that it’ll work “within the next two months”, if that was your expectation.

SEO has evolved to a multi-disciplinary approach encompassing areas of content marketing/blogging, technical site structure, research to understand best practices/competitiveness within your market, PR/Influencer Outreach, social media management, conversion rate optimization/usability/accessibility, and synergistic approaches for SEO/PPC integration. Does this sound like it should be “cheap”?

With that said, I often see folks who “get it” and understand the long-term commitment required who are realizing significant value from what we call SEO. We have a client, right now, who is realizing over $650,000 per month “worth of” organic search traffic PER MONTH (Source: SEM Rush data: this is what it is estimated it would cost to buy the traffic – via AdWords – on a monthly basis, if they had to replace what they’re otherwise getting “naturally”). Even when you review their Google Analytics, you can see how much organic traffic they are actually getting (not “projected to get”, which is what SEM Rush does), and – with a $1.00 per visit valuation, they are getting $300,000 per month worth of organic search traffic. *AdWords cost-per-click for their Industry varies with broad keywords going for $2-$3 cost per click, and competitive keywords running over $50.00 per click. So, the $1.00 valuation is being extremely fair.

What it is not –

More often than not, SEO is not a “quick fix”. Unless you’ve managed to do something that is not allow the bots to crawl your website as effectively/efficiently as it should (i.e.: your URL structure is a disaster, you’ve created a ton of duplicate content and are in need of canonical tags, or – gulp – you’re simply excluding good pages from being crawled/indexed through meta or robots.txt exclusions), SEO is going to take a while.
How long? It sincerely depends on your competitive set, and what may be required for your specific issues/challenges. For this reason alone, “packaged SEO” does not usually make any sense (I say “usually”, because sometimes small businesses have no other recourse but to find the most affordable SEO program that they can reasonably implement).

Now that we know the basics of what it is and what it is not, let me now share with you why I believe a paradigm shift is in order.
Prior to my joining Lycos in February of 2000, I worked in traditional media (print/television/radio) in advertising sales. My experience in print is what I’ll be referencing mostly, but the same could be said for other media.

People “get” print, radio and television advertising. And by “people”, I mean most average business owners, and folks who simply have not have enough exposure to digital. These folks understand that in order to get into print, radio or television, you’re going to need to do other things outside of the hard costs of actually buying the media placement. You’re going to need to craft ads. And, effective ads, at that. No sense in paying thousands of dollars in media spend, only to promote a truly sucky advertisement. You need to have a reason that people might want to look at your ad, listen to your ad or watch your ad. And, most people understand the basic differences in a “good ad” versus a “bad” ad.
This kind of logic seems to fly right out of the window, when it comes to SEO.

In SEO, it’s not just “doing it”. It’s finding the right folks to handle the strategic side of this and it’s putting in significant time and/or money into the development of a quality website, quality content and the optimization of efforts, over time.

Whereas with traditional marketing, you might – for example – “optimize” your media buys, based on ratings that a particular show is having or the under delivery of expectations (projected reach was 100,000 and the ratings scorecard is showing that the “actual” reach was 50,000), SEO involves optimizing many facets of your web presence, including all of those things that I mentioned above (usability/conversion rate optimization, PR/Influencer Outreach, Blog/Social Media, content marketing, and all of the technical stuff that occurs).

As someone who has experienced it all, I can tell you that no one is busier “optimizing” marketing efforts than an SEO. There are many moving pieces.

So, why don’t people put serious budgets behind SEO?

When I worked in print, I worked with a suburban newspaper group that had a total subscriber base of somewhere around 27,000 people. Papers were mostly delivered 2x per week. I had some advertisers who spent around $20,000 per month to reach this audience. Keep in mind, just because we had 27,000 subscribers did not guarantee that each one of these were going to actually see the ad. Did they get their ad placed in the Main section? Sports? Lifestyle? All of these things impacted the actual reach. And, again, this was for a small suburban newspaper group in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The reach was limited to suburban areas within one DMA.

SEO? Not as limited.

Remember the client mentioned above? The one who – according to SEM Rush estimates – is getting over $650,000 per month worth of organic search traffic, from our efforts? When we started with them, I believe they had an estimated $50,000 per month “worth of” organic search traffic.
If I were to tell you that they were spending $100,000 per month on SEO, you might say “that’s a pretty good deal”! (they may not have felt that way the initial months of the engagement, as they’d be putting more money into SEO than they were getting back). If I were to tell you that it was actually ½ of that amount, you might say “bargain city, based on today’s values!”. If I were to tell you that actually they were spending less than even THAT amount, you would say “where do I sign up!”.

I mean, $25,000 per month for SEO that equates to $650,000 per month in value (or $300,000 per month, if you choose to use the Google Analytics $1.00 per visitor metric) is a pretty good deal, right? Unlike other traditional marketing that you might utilize, we’re not even placing any value on actual reach/frequency of people who have been exposed to the brand (seen them in the search results, but otherwise didn’t click, or perhaps typed their domain/website address into the address bar of their browser, without the click).

To look at it another way, this client spends over $150,000 per month on PPC marketing. And, for that, they are guaranteed to get exactly $150,000 per month “worth of” clicks. No more. No less.

But, here’s the kicker…
As mentioned previously, there are no guarantees. The “discount” here is similar to what you might expect when you’re buying into stocks. You feel very good about the company and its future, so you make the investment. Not with the intention of “cashing out” in 90 days, but with the intention that – long term – this company is going to grow. That doesn’t protect you from the fact that there are other influences that can impact the performance of the company, and your investment could go south. But, for those of you who invested in Apple years ago, you’re feeling pretty good, right about now.

Another consideration: the costs that you might pay an agency for SEO may not include “everything” that is required to truly be successful.
Your agency may very well be retained to own “everything” related to SEO. Perhaps they own content marketing efforts/marketing automation, PR, Social, Web Development, Web Design, Technical SEO, and PPC, but in most cases, they do not. You’re going to need to provide a head of marketing, perhaps web development staff, content writers, your PR agency, social media staff, etc. These are the types of things that need to be taken into consideration (“Who’s gonna do what?”). When scoping an SEO effort, all of these things should be considered, so that you can gain a true sense of costs and weight that against the possible value that could come from it, and make the decision if this is a good investment.

But, if you’re like me, you think that spending $20,000 per month on advertising in a suburban newspaper (or even $5,000 per month) is nowhere near “on par” with the possibility of worldwide reach, to specifically your target audience – at the time of them activity searching for your products/services. For those marketers who are currently buying radio and/or television, you know your media budgets are way in excess of this amount, not to mention the production costs for creative, design, video, etc. And, while we are held to a higher standard in digital marketing, and specifically SEO, there certainly is “some” value for brand lift from an SEO effort, right?

Why is it that we don’t see folks understanding that an investment of $20,000 (or more) on SEO is a worthy investment? Yeah, it’s not an amount that makes sense for small businesses. And, in fact, I would never recommend it to someone who needs immediate return (see above: spend $150,000 per month on guaranteed clicks). But, for those who “pass the smell test” (you have a website that has a sound presence and history, i.e.: links/authority), putting additional money into the curation of more/quality content, and all of the other elements associated with SEO “today” can drive significant return, especially when compared with what the same amount of money might buy you from print, radio or television.