Is SEO Worth It?
Why the SEO industry needs to get better at understanding both the cost and return of SEO work
Welcome back to the SEO MBA - a newsletter and course designed to explore the intersection of SEO and business skills. This week, strong opinions.
There’s a problem of accountability in the SEO industry.
I’m going to use a viral tweet to illustrate the problem - I’m not dunking on the author (tweets are always context free, especially viral ones) but I think it’s symptomatic of a very specific problem within the industry.
The central problem is understanding what “SEO investment” actually looks like. A $10,000 (or even $10k / month) investment in SEO is typically framed as an investment in an SEO agency / consultant / team.
But to see SEO results you need more than SEO investment - SEO relies on product, technology and content. It’s a hybrid, complex domain that is interdependent on other resources, teams and outputs.
The SEO industry is guilty of surface level thinking. I see things like this on agency websites:
You can’t compare SEO investment with paid media investment and you can’t measure the ROI of SEO without understanding the full investment required.
And let’s be clear - SEO is an investment in a way that paid media is not. The timeline for investment and returns looks very different.
I’m not saying that SEO is a bad investment. But as an industry we need to get better at properly accounting for our work and understanding that SEO is expensive.
How Things Work
When you see folks exclaiming that “SEO only gets a fraction of the investment of paid media” you need to get a better mental model for how it all works. The lazy, simplistic model looks like this: “zomg, SEO drives loads of revenue, why does it get a fraction of the paid media investment?!”
But you have to work harder than this; there’s more going on. Let’s take paid media for example:
When you look more closely at what paid media needs to succeed you need to include things like analytics, asset creation, optimizing landing pages, technology fees, and more. Yes the lion's share is likely media spend but there’s more going on.
Note how some portion of these might be handled by an agency - most notably managing the media spend, managing the ads, creating assets. In some instances landing pages will also be created by the paid media agency, sometimes it’ll be handled in house.
This graph is not drawn to scale (important!) but you get the idea - when you look at the “full accounting” of what paid media needs you see there’s a mixture of hard cash (media spend), fees (agency fees) and resource commitments (making landing pages, installing conversion codes etc) that are spread between in-house and agencies.
The same is true for SEO. Let’s look more closely at what SEO takes:
The SEO strategy work is only a tiny fraction of “what SEO costs”. After all, every SEO recommendation requires some other team to execute it. The more you spend on SEO strategy the more you need to spend on product, engineering and content. Everything has a resource ask or cost associated with it - whether it’s investing in product, technology, content, analytics and more.
A “full accounting” of SEO investment is necessary. Again - these resources can be shared across in-house (typically the development work) and agencies (typically the SEO strategy and content work).
These charts are very much not to scale. Every company is going to need their own blend of resources and investment - and that’s the point! It’s essential to get closer to the true cost of our recommendations. When we ignore the full cost of SEO investment we’re seen as short sighted and lacking in strategic vision to really understand what SEO takes.
It’s harder to scale SEO than paid media
Part of the reason that companies find it easier to invest millions in paid media than $10k / month in SEO is that companies under-invest in product and content. They’re not well equipped to handle an SEO investment because they don’t have the necessary resources in place.
Paid media investment expands externally - spending more money on paid media typically expands into more agency fees, more agency resources and of course more media spend. It’s typically easy enough to scale paid media.
SEO investment expands internally - spending more money on SEO typically expands into more internal resources needed. Because of this, even relatively modest investments in SEO can balloon into large internal resource asks.
I don’t think that most companies under-invest in SEO. I think most companies under-invest in product (specifically front-end development) and content.
Investing in Product is Expensive
The SEO industry runs on a culture of audits. Whether you work in-house or at an agency the prevailing culture is running SEO audits and creating lists of technical recommendations aligned to best practices.
I’ve talked before about the mindset shift from one-time audits to continual investment. When you look at what the SEO program requires, many large companies can - and should - justify having a dedicated product squad for SEO work.
But a single product team - let’s estimate 6-8 full time staff including PM - can easily cost $1-2m / year. (This post goes into the topic a bit more though honestly I think their numbers are low).
Investing in Content is Expensive
Just like the audit culture leads to shallow thinking and understanding of product work, keyword research and content strategy is often shallow and simplistic.
How many times have I seen SEO agencies recommend we “write content” with a list of KWs or content topics?
When you’re working with a large organization, developing content is hard, slow and expensive. Even more so if the org is not used to producing content. There’s a great deck from content strategist Steve Bryant here that breaks down just how much work is involved in getting a large enterprise company to create content from a standing start:
Looks expensive to me.
The faster you can realize that producing content requires resources from Ops, Dev, Editorial, Marketing, Legal etc the more quickly you can realize that SEO is not cheap. Content is not cheap.
Calculating the ROI of SEO is hard (impossible?)
Ok, so SEO is expensive. Can we calculate the ROI of SEO? Should we even bother?
Calculating the ROI of SEO is very hard. Perhaps impossible for some companies. Content investment is shared between marketing, editorial and SEO. Product initiatives are shared across teams. The company works on site speed - how much of that investment should be attributed to SEO? What portion of the content investment is allocated to SEO?
Because SEO is a complex system and we share resources with other teams it’s incredibly hard to nail down the true final cost of SEO.
And it’s hard to properly nail down the value of SEO. That said, you certainly can’t do this:
This is from a blog post from a well respected agency and I’ve seen similar things parodied around many times.
Of course the SEO team is not responsible for 100% of organic revenue. What about branded search? What about investing in new landing pages that benefit conversion, paid media and SEO?
It’s this kind of simplistic thinking that gets SEO marginalized by the C-suite. It’s incredibly rare for the SEO team to be fully responsible for ALL organic revenue.
The inability for in-house SEO teams to demonstrate a measure of “SEO influenced organic revenue” is the root of why in-house teams struggle to get buy-in and budget for their work..
Instead we need to more closely look at what portion of organic revenue do we believe deliberate SEO investment can influence?
When the SEO industry looks at paid media we tend to have a simplistic view of dollars spent, revenue generated. And for smaller businesses that might be true. But large scale advertising and paid media has been more sophisticated than that for a long time.
And certainly paid media teams have been more sophisticated than SEO teams at measuring incrementality.
Large brands have been studying and quantifying incremental return for a while, and in an era of ad fraud and tracking issues it’s more important than ever. Consider this little case study that found:
“pausing Google Brand Search resulted in a 25% decrease in combined Paid+Organic conversions with a 99% confidence interval.”
Paid media has been forcing themselves to be accountable for measuring incremental conversions and SEO needs to follow suit.
I liked this post from the CMO of Realtor.com:
“Invested in martech that uses experimentation, tv panels and data science to understand the true incremental visits” - Sounds expensive. Sounds useful.
Who’s doing this in the SEO industry?
Measuring incrementality will come in part from more diligence around linking revenue gains to specific initiatives (distinct from *all* organic revenue) and also partially from advances in technology (e.g. measuring uplift via SEO split testing).
As an industry we have some catching up to do.
Make the business case
If you want to become more senior and get access to the C-suite of an organization you’re going to need to look beyond the silos of SEO, product, content and marketing to look at the full accounting and incrementality of your work.
Recommending a large product investment? What is the full cost and impact?
Recommending a large investment in content? What is the full cost and impact?
How much is this project going to cost? What is the revenue impact across all channels?
When you get senior enough it’s no longer enough to make recommendations and add tickets to the dev queue. You need to actually put together a business case and investment plan for your work - and you need to have a “full accounting” mindset of what it’s going to take.
Once you start thinking this way you can start to create SEO strategies that are more credible for executive teams and get bigger budgets and more buy-in for your work.
I want to come back to the tweet at the top of the post. The reason it frustrated me is because it’s symptomatic of a widespread issue with the SEO industry - we’re guilty of not looking hard enough at the cost of our recommendations.
Audit culture is getting us stuck in the mode of throwing recommendations at the development team without understanding the cost.
And surface level understanding of how content works means we throw a list of topics at an editorial team without understanding how content is made.
It’s our job to get under the surface. To look more closely at the costs and the return - to get a full accounting of what it will take and an incremental view of organic revenue return.
If you care more about how much it costs in both dollars and resources, and you measure return more closely as SEO-influenced revenue you’ll be able to get more budget and buy-in for your work.
After all, SEO has a great ROI!
Postscript: The original tweet above is from Eli Schwartz - someone I deeply respect (go buy Eli’s book!). And I got sign off on this post from him. I have no desire to dunk on him but the tweet teed up my post nicely. In our dialogue Eli said:
“The motivation for my tweet was hearing from multiple CMO's with multi-million dollar performance marketing budgets that they had an expectation that SEO is free traffic and therefore undeserving of any real investment.
Essentially I find that when suggesting SEO investments the listening party is working their way up from $0 in their mind, whereas this is obviously never the case with advertising.”
Certainly that’s a frustrating place to start education from and I’ve found myself in similar positions. I think the answer is for our industry to get closer to revenue AND cost discussions - to get better at educating and analyzing incrementality and SEO-influenced revenue.
Some years ago I had the good fortune of being part of a team of incredibly talented marketers and data scientists that supported an enterprise apparel brand on SEO. In order to have our technical and content recommendations even be considered for implementation by their engineering team, we had to conduct a thorough "opportunity sizing" and present them with our findings. If our forecasts couldn't demonstrate that a proposed project of ours would result in enough of an incremental lift in website visits or revenue, that project had approximately zero chance of being implemented.
Approaching SEO recommendations with the concepts laid out in this article can absolutely increase their utility, and likelihood of being implemented. And I think it can also motivate one to advocate only for SEO tactics whose effectiveness can be proven with data, rather than pushing for certain SEO efforts because they're commonly accepted "best practices".
Thank you for the great article!
I was interviewed by a tax firm in Los Angeles who spend close to 1M on paid ads. I recommended they take a deep look at SEO and organic ROI, I asked them if ever measured the ROI of SEO, they said they never considered looking from that perspective because paid ads gets them 6M from 1M spend. I asked them what if they invested just 50k on SEO and measured it? They thought that would be a waste of 50k. To them it was a gamble, but they are happy to spend twice as much on paid ads. I should have shown them this article. If you don't measure the ROI of SEO how will your company know its true costs? It blows my mind that C-Suite folks are this narrow minded.