The Real Cost of SEO: It’s Not Budget, It’s Believers!

First published January 26, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Not too long ago, I was moderating a panel of search marketing experts who were comparing the merits of sponsored search and organic search optimization. We were unanimous in our support of organic optimization; none of us could think of an individual case where the cost- effectiveness of organic didn’t far exceed every other marketing channel our clients had tried. From the audience came the question, “If organic optimization is so effective, why isn’t it a more common strategy?”

Great question. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t an easy one.


Requirement One: Corporate Understanding

The problem with organic optimization is that it can’t be owned by any one department in a larger organization. While a sponsored campaign can be launched by a single department–or by an individual, for that matter–with no impact on any other department, organic optimization needs buy-in throughout an organization. This is why we generally see the best optimization on sites where C-level executives are close to the front lines, believers in optimization, and can give a single go-ahead that will open the required doors for organic optimization to happen. The bigger the organization, the more unlikely it is that this will happen.

Usually, the need for organic optimization is recognized by someone in the marketing department. Here’s the typical scenario: marketing has been convinced to try sponsored search. They’re generally happy with the results, but then they read an article or attend a conference where someone (and I happen to be a prime culprit) tells them that 70 percent of the clicks actually happen in the organic results. “Wait a minute,” they say. “I’m spending $4.28 a click and I could get more traffic with a free listing?” They immediately run to the nearest computer and see how they rank for the terms they’re currently buying. Nothing on the first page, or the second, or the third. Ah, there they are! Number 48 for their term–stuck in no-man’s land.


Requirement Two: A Friendly IT Department

In the next step, the marketing guy usually visits the IT department, which has technical ownership of the company Web site, and begins with the question, “How come we don’t rank on the search engines? What’s wrong with our site?”

You want to create a sworn IT enemy for life? This is the way to do it. And if this doesn’t work, follow up with the comment, “If you guys can’t do it, we’ll have to find someone who can.” This is generally where my company comes in, right in the middle of a vicious turf war between marketing and IT.


Requirement Three: No Sacred Cows

Now, the SEO experts (that would be us) start saying that the Flash on the front page has to go. Suddenly, marketing is not so sure. “We love that Flash, and it cost us a lot of money!”

It gets worse. The entire navigation structure of the site has to change, we need a lot more content, we’re going to want to create separate topic areas for our main offerings, we have to reconfigure our CMS, and we have to strip out all the Javascript we have on every page and reference it as an external .js file. Suddenly, marketing is second-guessing us, IT is up in arms, legal is having a fit because none of the additional content required has been vetted, and the C-level executives are wondering what the hell hit them.


Requirement Four: Champions with Perseverance and Thick Skins

At this point, our marketing champion, who got the whole ball rolling, is on everybody’s most- wanted list, and not in a good way. Everybody’s thinking, “You know, on second thought, maybe it would just be easier to stick to our sponsored search campaign.”

There is a cost to doing SEO. It’s not the budget required, which is minimal relative to other marketing initiatives. It’s the time and patience required on the part of one person to get the buy-in that’s needed to make SEO happen. That’s a price that many companies have been unwilling to pay up to now.


The Payoff

Let me give you some reasons why it’s worth it:

  • What’s good for a search engine is good for humans. The changes that make your site easier to index are almost always changes your visitors will appreciate as well. More content, less unnecessary Flash, standard navigation options and cleaner code will bring you in line with long-standing usability guidelines.
  • Organic traffic is not dependent on budget. This traffic base goes on, day after day, whether you’re topping up your AdWords account or not.
  • Organic optimization gets less painful as time goes on. Once you make the commitment, the painful part can be over relatively soon, but you’ll be reaping the benefits for years to come.
  • You’ll reach a whole new market segment. People tend to look at organic listings when they’re in the research phase, higher in the buying funnel. This gives you the chance to intercept consumers earlier and build a relationship that can last a long time.
    Ode to an Ex-Client

    I’d like to close off with a painful real-world example to prove my point. We had the CEO of a company bring us on to help with organic optimization. But rather than pave the way for success, he threw us to the lions and quickly exited the scene. We identified the issues keeping the company from higher visibility on the search engines, outlined our recommendations, and handed them over to the IT team for implementation.

    And there our suggestions sat, and sat, and sat. Meanwhile, the IT team pursued its own agenda, spinning its wheels on minutiae while ignoring the fundamental issues that had already been identified. Our frustration level rose, as did the CEO’s, who was wondering why there was no improvement. Guess who the internal IT team pointed the finger at? Eventually, we parted ways with the client. We couldn’t win, and the client was getting no value from recommendations that no one would follow.

    Wee usually monitor activity for a period of time following the termination of a contract. Eventually, this client did get around to doing one or two of the things we recommended. These were relatively easy fixes, but the results were dramatic: a 448 percent increase in visibility in the organic listings. Of course, at this point, no one remembers who made the original recommendation. All they’ll remember is that they only saw improvement after they got rid of their SEO company.

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