By Anirban Saha

The ROI of an Enterprise SEO Program

Here at iQuanti, we see search engine optimization like any other marketing program. Investing in SEO should provide a positive return – the same standard to which marketers hold paid search, display, and remarketing.

The main caveat to keep in mind with SEO is that ROI is rarely immediate. What will improve quickly are search-related performance indicators – and these take time to produce positive financial returns. Ultimately, the timeline for search ROI will vary based on what you are trying to achieve.

When you are setting expectations from an SEO program, consider the following.

Identify the Goal of Your SEO Program

Start with your business goals for the year. Where does your website feature in those goals?

Because SEO can greatly impact website performance, it should be a consideration in any program involving your website.

One example from our practice at iQuanti is a large credit card provider whose main goal is new account activations. The key to their developing an ROI model for SEO is to start with the high-level goal – acquisitions, in this case – and work backward.

The company knows the average approval rate and average lifetime value for each card. From these numbers, the dollar value of each application can be calculated. Their SEO program is then designed around achieving a particular number of applications per year.

An alternative to acquisitions is building brand awareness – i.e., increasing the amount of traffic that reaches your site. Another iQuanti client, a forex payment provider, is aiming to leverage SEO for this purpose.

In their ROI model, what matters is the value of their traffic. The challenge is that not every visitor offers the same value – but the company does know how its conversion rates break down by content category.

Their goal for SEO, therefore, is to grow traffic to certain sections of their content portal. The conversions from this traffic can be calculated by category, and the traffic’s value can be assigned accurately.

In both cases, the value of the SEO program is identified upfront. Only then can it be weighed against the investment required.

Set Timelines for SEO Impact

The time required to achieve a return on SEO depends on many variables. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Your website’s link profile
  • The content you have published on your site
  • Your attention to SEO hygiene
  • How well-known your brand is in the market
  • The competition – and how aggressive they are with SEO
  • Your customer base

Bear in mind that, with so many factors in play, SEO results are not always quick. With new clients, our process follows these steps:

SEO Gap Analysis à SEO Strategy à Implementations à Changes indexed by search engines à Rank improvements à Traffic improvements à Conversion growth à Revenue impact

All of these steps take time – particularly if your site requires a lot of technical optimization, or if your backlink profile requires cleanup. ROI will, therefore, also take time to be fully realized. In most implementations, it picks up the pace only gradually.

When the timeline for SEO improvements is hard to pinpoint, can you make a financial plan around your SEO efforts? Yes – as long as you have the right forecasting tools in place.

Develop a Forecast with Milestones

Forecasts are essential to long-term SEO planning. Irrespective of whether you have hired an SEO agency or are managing SEO internally, aim to develop forecasts that account for both your SEO inputs and the resulting impact on your search ranking.

SEO forecasts should also estimate traffic and conversion increases. Using your internal conversion metrics, you can then identify the dollar value of the program and determine whether the investment pencils out.

The forecast should be for at least a year – a short-term outlook doesn’t make a lot of sense in SEO. At the same time, you can’t wait until year-end to know whether the SEO program is working. For this reason, the forecast should be broken down into monthly or quarterly milestones.

Depending on the complexity of your organization, you may want to produce different forecasts for different budgeting levels. As we often remind our clients, even maintaining the status quo requires some investment – to both keep up SEO hygiene and counter the competition.

By nature, forecasts will be imperfect. Any forecast includes a lot of assumptions, and SEO’s ultimate impact is impossible to guarantee. Any assumptions you do make, such as your conversion metrics, should be rational and make business sense.

Count All Investments that the SEO Program Requires

One assumption that is easy to overshoot – but is also foundational to calculating ROI – is the investment that’s required. After all, the salaries of your SEO team, or the fees charged by your SEO agency, will not be the only expenses involved.

Other investments include:

  • The cost of the tools you need
  • Payments made to key collaborators (content writers, editors, UX designers, etc.)
  • The expense of technical implementations (e.g., a new CMS)
  • Link-building costs (directory listings, outreach, etc.)

While calculating the ROI of SEO, you must consider these under-the-radar investments. One compelling reason to work with an agency is that they can quote you for these items upfront. Run your own SEO program and you risk getting surprised by hidden costs down the line.

Measure the (Fully Loaded) ROI

Here, you will want to refer to the forecast you developed – and, in particular, the milestones you created.

At the outset of an SEO project, you’ll need to establish a baseline using the following metrics:

  • Current investments into the website
  • Current traffic and conversions
  • SEO metrics like keyword footprint, current ranks, backlink portfolio, etc.
  • Current returns from the website

With the help of this baseline, you should measure your SEO program’s impact at an agreed-upon frequency and compare it with the forecasted milestones.

This is where your forecast really adds value: if you identify a gap, you can course-correct before you get too far off course. Regular check-ins are essential to ensuring your SEO program generates predictable, positive results.

What’s key is determining what your business goals are and whether SEO can contribute to achieving those goals.

It’s true that no one can guarantee any specific outcomes from SEO. But, based on some logical assumptions, one can estimate the impact of an SEO program. Yes, there are caveats and risks – but generating impact requires bold action. If you’re willing to take the necessary steps to make your SEO efforts successful, you can generate returns beyond the search channel.