John Wanamaker, known as one of the pioneers of marketing, famously said:
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
And, although he said this sometime before his passing in 1922, this is still true in 2018 when trying to measure return on investment on your money spend on SEO.
We can measure the ROI of our PPC campaigns, our Facebook ads, even our LinkedIn investment, yet our SEO budgets are capped to what we think we can afford to lose – or how else could we explain that we are happily spending millions on SEM ads while our SEO investment is only a fraction: on one and the same platform, Google, where a large portion of users don’t even know the difference between a paid search ad and an organic search result!
Navigating the ROI of SEO spend is further muddied by a market that is flooded with and SEO consultant in every corner, all claiming that they can optimise your site’s search rankings without being able to provide any actual data to prove which of their efforts, if any, made how much of a difference in rankings or traffic to your site.
What if there was new technology that managed SEO like SEM and measured performance like any other channel?
1. The measure of SEO ROI
eCommerce businesses are frustrated about their SEO spend. Yet, they can measure the performance of their advertising spend on “Paid Search”. They can tell what their CPC, CPA and ROI down to keyword level is – but with SEO, they find themselves in the dark. We know that SEO is a good investment; I mean, who wouldn’t want to appear in one of Google’s top spots? Businesses are bending over backwards and spending big bucks on securing position 1 in SEM, while position 1 in SEO is left to hope and a prayer with a lot less cash behind it.
“The best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google Search results,”
they say – and nowadays, most users wouldn’t even scroll to the bottom half of page one, which is why a business might spend millions per month on their SEM, “but only bankroll their SEO with 20K” and do the latter hesitantly. It’s because they don’t have exact proof of results to motivate a higher spend.
Part of the problem is that Google has no interest in giving immediate feedback on website SEO changes to protect the ranking algorithm from being tested out. Nowadays, Google does not even provide the general information of which keyword led to how much revenue on your site. While Google gives you impression, click and position data within the Google Search Console, and this data does appear in Google Analytics, it is not adequately accessible with eCommerce conversion and revenue data within the very same Google Analytics interface. This supports an industry of SEO consultants that work with secondary metrics like “ranking changes” or “SEO visibility” to measure their success in a “before vs. after” manner – while often being unable to read a simple web analytics performance report.
Crazy SEO stuff I’ve seen:
- An ASX-listed pure-play online company with more than $3B market cap that only has a one-person in-house SEO team “working” across a dozen websites
- An ASX-listed retail brand, an Australian icon, spending $20,000/month with an SEO agency that provided nothing else but monthly reporting and “SEO advice from time to time.”
- A company spending $10M/year on SEM didn’t want to spend $100k of this budget (or 1%) on an SEO service for a guaranteed CPA, because they were so used to not measuring the ROI for SEO, that their SEM and SEO budgets were wholly independent. They could not get their head around shifting the budget from one to another, even if that meant missing out on 2x the number of sales.
2. Anyone can be an SEO consultant?
While there are Google AdWords courses and other certifications for SEM Consultants, practically anyone who can read a blog post can qualify to call themselves an SEO Consultant. In fact, there is no real way of vetting just how qualified someone may be in the SEO field.
If you Google “how to become an SEO expert”, the first Google suggestion ends the sentence with “in 48 hrs”, which says it all: https://www.locationrebel.com/become-an-seo-freelancer/
Would you want to hire someone with only 48 hours of experience?
While it’s actually a pretty decent blog post, with sound advice and good resources, the bad thing about SEO Consultancy is that anyone can be an SEO Consultant by talking SEO, not doing it. This is because doing on-page SEO requires changes to the website or content and will always involve the tech team to implement your recommendations. Getting them to implement the proposed website changes for SEO is a hard ask. With no real way to measure the ROI, there is no business case, back to square one again. This also means there’s always a good excuse why the SEO strategy doesn’t show the right results.
It’s a similar story for off-page SEO. It’s all about link building, but Google never gives immediate feedback on any SEO changes (otherwise, you could test out the different elements of Google’s ranking algorithm with a series of quick individual changes to your site or backlink profile). So, there’s always an excuse that “things take time”. Or, your link building would work great if only the on-page optimisation recommendations were followed by the tech team.” You guessed it; square one again!
Crazy SEO stuff I’ve seen:
- An accomplished SEO consultant knows their way around Google Analytics. E.g. working with organic search traffic report data without considering brand vs. generic keyword traffic performance. Every SEO consultant. All the time. (Tip: While Google Analytics shows 95-98% of organic search traffic under the keyword “not provided”, you can easily use the remaining 2-5% where you see the keyword to calculate Brand KW vs. Non-brand KW performance and extrapolate onto the total “population” with a simple statistical significance test)
- Accomplished SEO experts not knowing their way around Excel (the simplest tool for any data analysis)
3. Outdated SEO advice
Those who are touting themselves as an “SEO consultant” are flooding the web with their “expert” SEO optimisation advice – but most of the time it’s just copying what others have already written. And let’s face it, if you do have unique, valuable knowledge about SEO optimisation, would you publish an article listing this information for free on the web for everyone to see? or would you instead employ this tactic on your own website? If everyone does the same thing, then what you are doing on your site doesn’t give you an advantage anymore. Let’s compare this with a runners analogy: If you found an excellent new training method, would you keep it to yourself to run faster than everyone else in the next race? Or would you write about it so everyone can do it and lose your competitive edge?
Unless you’re in the business of writing books about training methods, you would keep this valuable information close to your chest. And to be frank, those who do write books about their winning strategies are usually the same people who don’t use or need them anymore, which means they’re probably already outdated.
Crazy SEO stuff I’ve seen:
- Sound advice? The CEO of a company rejected an SEO method that was proven to work across a wide range of websites after consulting with the in-house “SEO expert” about “His qualifications?” He was a former marketing intern with a total of 1 year of work experience who had been promoted to SEO specialist with no other previous experience (he could cite a lot of blog posts, though!)
- Cliched advice? “You have a very spammy backlink profile, and we need to do an in-depth link audit and a thorough link clean-up.” – Said almost every single newly appointed SEO Agency, ever.
4. OMG, there was a Google Algorithm change!
Google constantly updates and optimises its ranking algorithms. Why? Well, to stay on top of changes in website creation, to deploy their own structural index improvements, and to fight SEO spam tactics (it’s a bit like cat and mouse, with ‘black hat’ SEO trying to game the Google algorithms with fake signals, and Google trying to catch up by adapting the algorithm, to figure out what are fake signals and what are not).
To get a good overview of the myriad of algorithm changes over the years, check this out: https://moz.com/google-algorithm-change
The issue with most blog posts on algorithm changes (and everyone in the SEO community commenting on those changes) is that they make a huge fuss about the change and the number (or %) of pages they manage that are affected, but nobody really goes into detail about what these changes mean practically. What has changed in terms of ranking factors and what website owners have to be aware of and should change.
Check out https://moz.com/google-algorithm-change – one of the highest quality SEO sites – and you still see a lot of jargon and no real *actionable* insights for most Google algorithm updates.
Crazy SEO stuff I’ve seen:
- “There’s been a Google algorithm update”. With no further information as to what part of the SEO ranking factors might have been affected. All over the web. On all SEO blogs. All the time.
- https://searchengineland.com/googles-august-first-core-algorithm-update-who-did-it-impact-and-how-much-303538: Sistrix shared some of the early data, saying, “The majority of changes can be seen for YMYL-sites and even there we generally only see an uplift or loss of a few percentage points.” I followed up with Sistrix, which responded that “Mostly health and finance pages have been affected by this update… But also, as you can see on the lists, e-commerces, educational as well as dubious automotive websites got their share of movement,” Juan GonzÃ¡lez from Sistrix told me.
- Thank you, Juan, now we know everything.
5. An SEO consultant can often use Google penalties and scare tactics
Google is very strict about its code of conduct, and eBusinesses can be liable to pay penalties – in the form of a drop in Google rankings or being dropped from the index entirely if they severely overstep the mark.
However, you have to do something seriously wrong on a large scale to incur a “Google penalty”. Most of the time, when an SEO Consultant talks about “Google penalties” it’s really about Google’s algorithms having been slightly updated, and some websites are now ranking a bit better for some search queries, while others now rank a bit worse.
There are billions of websites out there, and every website competes with millions of others for Google page 1, or even position 1, rankings for the keywords that are important for each individual business. A drop in traffic by 20% can happen by just dropping an average of 2-3 positions quickly. But in the mind of an “SEO Consultant”, it’s always referred to as “penalties.” Let’s use another runner’s analogy, shall we? Imagine you entered a race last year, and among 100 runners you came first, “but this year, running against the same runners as last time, came in 2nd or 3rd “or you didn’t even make it to the final – is that a penalty? No, the other runners just outran you, and you need to up your game and pick up the pace next time.
This being said, penalties are still used as a great scare tactic in SEO: Since you cannot measure ROI correctly, you have to convince your clients (or employer) otherwise to implement changes or that you are a better SEO “Con” than others. The most efficient way is to wave the “Google penalty” stick: “If you don’t do this, you’re not in line with Google best-practices, so there is the risk of getting a penalty”. Or even better, when it comes to the competition: “Oh no, I would not advise doing what these guys say, this is against Google best-practice, and you’ll risk getting a penalty!”.
Crazy SEO Stuff I’ve Seen:
- Cliched advice “You have a very spammy backlink profile, and we need to do an in-depth link audit and a thorough link clean-up so you don’t risk a future Google penalty,” said almost every single newly appointed SEO agency ever.
- The “Google Panda algorithm penalty“. We know that Google motivated this algorithm change to “lower the rank of low-quality sites or thin sites, particularly content farms, and return higher-quality sites near the top of the search results”. But, does anyone mention that the most crucial change of Google Panda was to introduce, and then to gradually finetune, a “link decay” factor? What really happened is that Google started discounting the value of your internal links, and if you had a lot of them linking to each other back and forth, you just didn’t get as much value out of them as before. So, your rankings dropped. But for most of the websites, there was no “penalty” involved. No drop from the index, no downgrading by “X” number of rankings, just an adjustment of how Google sees the relevance of your page compared to your competitors in the light of the new “link decay factor” of the Google Panda algorithm change. And if you had a lot of pages on your site with not a lot of content but a lot of links back and forth, you lost more positions against competitors who had not yet found out how to boost low-quality pages with internal linking and more of those pages.
Alternatives to an SEO Consultant | Technology that does give ROI for your SEO spend
It’s an SEO jungle out there, and it can be challenging for companies to motivate SEO spend if they can’t deliver the data they need to prove a return on investment. It’s the nature of the business to believe that money well-spent must be well motivated by numbers in black and white that can prove this.
Rather than relying on an SEO Consultant, eCommerce businesses would do better to treat SEO as any other performance channel and find solutions that supply them with web analytics reporting detailing the ROI of their SEO investment. That way, they can measure the benefits of their spend and begin to close the enormous chasm that has developed between their SEM and SEO investment without spending as much money as they do on SEM.