Managing Expectations by finding Good Comparisons
The theory of "Believable Big Numbers"
Welcome back to the SEO MBA - a resource for SEO professionals to level up their career. It turns out that the SEO MBA is going to be a bigger part of my 2022 income than I planned, so I’m starting to focus my efforts more directly and more intentionally.
If you’re interested in the insider baseball and behind-the-scenes of building the email list and the course check out the new SEO MBA ship’s log with some key milestones and stats. Or, if you’re interested in corporate workshops and group course buys - I put together a dedicated corporate workshops page with pricing and options.
The second course all about client management will hopefully go live sometime in the next two months!
Ok, this week - managing expectations.
Let’s say that you’re working with a new pet insurance business. Which of these numbers is most useful?
Pet insurance keywords have an aggregate 1.6M searches a month
PetInsurance.com, operated by Nationwide - a 100 year old insurance company - has 563k organic visits a month
Trupanion, a 22 year old company, and the first North American pet insurance provider to become licensed to provide its own underwriting - has 256k organic visits a month
Pumpkin.care, a new pet insurance brand that launched in 2020, has 1.3M organic visits a month.
Spot Pet Insurance, a new pet insurance brand that launched in 2020, has 32k organic visits a month.
Well it depends, obviously, but let’s look at what it depends on shall we?
My best guess is that Pumpkin or Spot are good reference points. They both launched into the pet insurance market in 2020 (note that the y-axes are wildly different which is why it’s two charts not one!):
That’s quite a range - I’m not sure you can get away with telling your boss/client that you’ll get to somewhere between 30,000 and 1.3m visits / month after two years.
Finding a good analog, a good comparison, allows you to manage expectations. Instead of just throwing our hands up in the air and saying “it depends!”, let's try to dig a bit deeper and align expectations. This is one chart that might be useful:
Already we start to be able to choose a path - are we more like an 89 person team/company or a 30 person team/company?
Using Comparisons to Inform Resources
A good comparison enables you to make decisions about resources. It allows you to create a mental model for “if we invest X, we might get Y return”.
For example - looking at content production over time for Pumpkin and Spot1:
Pumpkin has 485 pages and averages 21 new URLs / month.
Spot has 238 pages and averages 4 new URLs / month.
Even further - we can use our comparison to advocate for investing in the way we want. “Make good content!” won’t get us very far if we can’t back it up. So you might do an analysis like this:
You could obviously take that analysis further than a single piece of content but you get the point - clearly Pumpkin is investing more heavily into their content.
The key here is that if we’re asked what our SEO projection looks like for this new pet insurance brand we can give some guardrails depending on:
How much are we going to be investing in content? (both volume and quality)
How much are we going to be investing in PR / content marketing / link building?
Now, we start to get a working mental model for how to get results. This is our job as experts - not to tell the client that it depends and nerd out about 100 ranking factors - but instead to reduce complexity and provide clarity.
By providing a framework to connect level of investment to results we bring clarity to the conversation.
Comparisons not Competitors
Here’s another example - this time from my own consulting work. In this example it’s a B2B SAAS client I’m working with - instead of choosing a competitor, I choose a comparison.
Here’s the slide where I’m comparing them to a similar B2B SAAS site with similar headcount and similar funding - in a similar technical space but not a direct competitor:
This chart is followed up with a clear link between resources and results:
The key point here is not just to look at direct competitors - but to find useful comparisons.
The Power of Believable Big Numbers
When we’re asked to estimate growth, the typical approach is to look at keywords, estimate some ranking positions and model out traffic. This approach is valid but it has two specific flaws:
It doesn’t connect results to investment - you’re just throwing out numbers without showing how results depends on our level of investment
It doesn’t show growth over time
Instead, choosing an appropriate comparison (or set of comparisons) addresses these flaws:
It allows us to directly connect results to investment and resources. “If we are able to produce 400 pieces of content then we might achieve X results”
It allows us to extrapolate results over time to both show a realistic growth path, AND a big number over the 1-2 year time horizon
This provides what I call a “Believable Big Number” to an executive - something to anchor to that they believe is a possible target. Crucially - this is NOT the same thing as a direct forecast of results. The believable big number is often a 1-2 year time horizon, not a 3-6 month goal. So it allows us to be pragmatic about short term forecasts, while ensuring everyone is excited about the big opportunity ahead of us.
And it’s believable because you’ve shown evidence of it working in the wild.
So next time you find yourself managing expectations and trying to forecast growth, don’t just look at the data, and don’t just look at direct competitors - but look for comparisons. Finding examples of situations and companies that have “done it before” will help us believe we can achieve a big number, while also providing a blueprint for investment.
This allows us to manage expectations with confidence and allows us to remove our personal opinion from the conversation - as we saw in the last email The Consultant’s Stance, the goal is not to tell people what to do, but to clearly show them the opportunity and together build an investment plan.
Ahrefs is a great tool for analyzing this “content over time” because they have “first seen date” for URLs on a given site.