Written Perry Bernard for Forge Online.
The concept of affordability is a little bit confusing, in my opinion, and seems to be connected with the monthly cost. That’s not really how I would calculate affordability of a product like SEO services.
To me, affordability relates mainly to profitability, but I understand why business owners can’t get past the up-front cost issue and it seems like a bit of a ‘gamble’. If I were the business owner deciding how much to spend on SEO work on their website, I would ponder these questions:
- What can I afford to pay as part of my regular cash flow with no returns
- What is the probable return on investment
- How long will I have to run a campaign for it to become profitable
I suspect the biggest issue with SEO services providers is that there are too many dodgy characters, so the chances that a business has been bitten (or feel that they have) has been a bit high. I qualified that with the perception element because I think there’s also a bit of a gap between expectation and reality, which leads to the feeling that SEO doesn’t work, or can’t work. But there have definitely been a few scammers in the mix.
The movement of SEO work to off-shore suppliers makes this even more likely, because it would be extremely difficult to hold those suppliers accountable if the campaign turned out to be a fizzer. But how often does this actually happen? Truth is, SEO does always have a risk factor attached, and although service providers might have great intentions and do everything by the book, a campaign might still fail to gain traction. The reasons behind this can be complicated, but here are a few reasons why an SEO campaign doesn’t become profitable:
Active Search Market Size:
The actual active search market is smaller than expected. SEO relies entirely on active search. In other words: if there are few people using Google (or other search engines) for what you have to offer, then the search market won’t deliver you many website visits, even if you were ranked #1.
Design Barriers or Resistance to Change:
The client doesn’t want the SEO provider to make visible changes to the website that affect design or layout. This is a very common one. In my relatively short SEO career I have certainly had the instruction “make it rank #1 but don’t change anything on my website”. A little bit the same as being told to take the car to the shops but don’t use the wheels. Yes, it’s possible, by maybe using a tow truck, but the simplest and cheapest way to get the car to the shop is definitely via driving it. And you may have the added complication that the owner of the car says “only use as much money as the price for petrol to do the same thing”. You get the picture, I’m sure.
Lack of Understanding Around Conversion:
The client may have unrealistic expectations of what rank might provide, or are focusing on a very narrow portion of the market. This often happens when the client instructs the SEO specialist to gain rank for a handful of keywords only. After all, there are 500 searches for these 5 keywords! It kindof relates to the first point, but while the search market isn’t small, the client’s approach to it is. Campaigns need to be holistic and have a much broader approach to rank. Yes, the client’s website does need to be ranked on Google’s 1st page to get a share of traffic, but a share is all it will be. If there are 100 searches per month for a keyword phrase, then being ranked #1 for that does not necessarily (actually, I will boldly say: never) gets that website 100 visitors. It only gains a portion of those clicks. Maybe only 10. Of which 2% might call or make a purchase, or send an email enquiry. So that single #1 rank gains the client 2 new customers every 10 months. That’s a little depressing. So does that mean #1 rank means nothing? No, it still means a lot, it just has to be across very many keywords, not just a handful.
Lack of Knowledge or Skills:
Another possible reason for the failure of a campaign is that the service provider simply doesn’t know what they are doing. Mistakes are costly, and a very common mistake is doing too little. I’ve seen websites where clients have paid for SEO work for months, yet on examination of the site and its link structures, social media connections, citations, and so forth, I only see mild evidence of a campaign. That is not at all unusual. Operators that do this get away with it because they rely on their client’s generous trust. And sadly, after a few failed campaigns like that, it leads to those clients forming a feeling of distrust in all SEO providers. We all see the emails every day from SEO providers wanting us to sign up to their service, and many New Zealand business owners now regard them with disgust. A hated industry to some. And frankly I can completely understand that!
Expectation is also an issue. The cost of a campaign has to be amortized over a fairly long period, simply because of the nature of how SEO works. It’s possible to launch a fully optimised website and yet have it gain very little traffic over periods of up to a year or even more, depending on how competitive the industry is. In a high competition environment, website campaign age becomes a significant contributing factor to rank, and patience is advised. The client expecting results within 3 months of starting their campaign may well see it as a failure after month 4 with no significant gains in leads or business, yet a cancelled campaign might take real effect after month 6, or even month 12 and which the client may well attribute to something else. Perhaps they think “lucky I got rid of that SEO provider, because after I fired them things started to improve”. Imagine if the investment in work had continued how it may have benefited the business after 24 months! My advice for business owners in cases like this is: Ensure your SEO provider can demonstrate where they have made the effort and estimate what timeframe it may take effect in.
Indicators of Success:
What are the indicators of a successful SEO campaign? Ultimately, it’s profitability and return on investment. If a market can deliver $50,000 worth of business per annum if you capture the maximum clicks and conversions, then is paying an SEO firm $1000 per month for 24 months going to ensure ROI? That depends on the business, and how long it takes to reach that turnover figure, plus every case is different. Although rank is the vehicle for success, a trustworthy SEO company will tell you that this is not the true goal. That can be frustrating for a business owner. A lot of the time, that #1 position on a particular keyword phrase is more about ego than profit. Using the example from above, if the $50,000 per annum turnover took 3 years to achieve after a 2 year SEO campaign, many business owners would have been discouraged from continuing, because it’s probable that after a 24 month campaign they had spent $24,000 but only turned over maybe $25,000. No positive ROI yet and they probably deemed the campaign a failure already after 12 months.
Hiring an SEO Provider:
When you are thinking about hiring an SEO provider, what timeframe do you have in mind for reaching positive ROI and is it realistic? My experience is that campaigns shorter than 6 months on mature websites are almost never in positive ROI territory. I’ve only once experienced executing a campaign and achieved positive ROI in under 3 months. Yes, it’s possible for a website to improve dramatically by way of %, but that in itself is often a ruse and likely to be on a new website. Going from 1 conversion per month to 7 conversions per month is a 700% improvement, but if the net profit was $30 per conversion (total extra net = $210) and the campaign cost $1000 this is clearly not a positive ROI so the % gain really shouldn’t be what impresses you. I often see SEO companies boasting crazy % gain figures like this that are just nonsense, and they are typical of websites that were poorly optimised or otherwise never properly exposed to search engine crawlers in the first place. Too easy for the SEO provider to claim success.
So these points lead me to emphasise this:
Affordable SEO is the SEO that a) fits into your cash flow for up to 12 or even 18 months or more without positive ROI, and b) improves conversions and provides a long-term (18month+) sustainable condition that does provide positive ROI.
I have purposefully not mentioned a figure.
As a footnote:
What’s the single biggest risk with SEO? Not investing in it. If you don’t have an organic growth plan, then in 24 months’ time your business will probably still not be capturing much of the market. This is a likely recipe for failure.
What’s the next biggest risk with SEO? Investing in it. As the business owner you minimise the risk by dealing with an SEO company that says they want to provide you with positive ROI as a priority over rank, can demonstrate how they are going to put that into action, plan for a long term campaign, and happily give you the tools to measure it.