It’s SEO Budget Planning Season

It’s the fourth quarter and you’re probably being asked to put together a budget plan for the new year. This is not at all an unusual request if you’re in the paid search or media space. And while it’s not as typical on the SEO side, it’s increasingly becoming expected, especially as SEO continues to be treated as another marketing channel and less as an IT effort.

The challenge on the SEO side is that there’s less concrete information to base estimates on so there’s a lot more reliance on educated guesses. To further complicate matters, there’s no way to definitively determine where the search engines are going to go. I don’t necessarily mean that you may fall on the wrong side of Panda- and Penguin-like updates (which one could argue is your own fault), but rather learning something unexpected like all the best practices for changing a domain are no longer as effective as they once used to be.

So how do you prepare a budget plan for SEO? At the very least, look at the trends in the data you have access to and adjust your previous plan accordingly.

On-Site SEO

Many are exaggerating the demise of on-site SEO, but I’m of the opinion that it is just getting harder. There’s still a lot of value to be had from a well-structured site with comprehensive content. I base this assertion on the results of SEO engagements that were primarily on-site focused. For example, here’s the traffic trend for one site (the Y-axis is hidden, but we’re talking about tens of thousands of monthly visits here). Comparing the trend to the activities I can clearly see that the on-site efforts were having the desired effect.

On-site SEO can still drive traffic.

Simultaneously, I noticed that tactics earlier in the year had a greater proportionate impact than tactics later in the year. So the question of budget planning, in this case, is: can my future efforts scale without an increase in budget?

Assess Competitors

In addition to looking at my efforts over the past year, I need to look at competitors. If competitors are spending more on their SEO efforts then I may have to as well. Of course, I can’t really determine a competitor’s SEO spend, but I can infer it from their activities.

Did I see that the number of quality pages on a competitor’s site increased significantly in the last year? Have they launched a blog? Has their activity on social networks increased? Some of these changes may not have been directly prompted by SEO efforts, but they may need to be countered by my SEO efforts if my clients aren’t already engaged in the same activities.

Broaden Your Target Audience

As engagement metrics continue to provide increasingly important signals to search engines, it’s worth considering expanding the definition of the target audience. That doesn’t just mean finding more customers, but rather targeting people whose actions have the potential to make a site more visible to customers in the search engine results pages (SERPs). For example, if my client’s primary customer is the 25 to 34-year-old male, it might not make sense to create content that pokes fun at them. But what if that effort attracts the likes of mommy bloggers happy to laugh (lovingly of course) at their husbands? Their engagement (links, shares, brand mentions) could boost a site’s visibility in the SERPs for the primary audience. So, for my plan, does this mean shifting my focus (same budget) or adding a new target segment (additional budget)?

Recognize Shifts in Social Media Popularity

Digg’s slow demise has been covered extensively over the years, but Digg’s change in popularity is not unusual. Sites come and go so if you’re using any as a promotional tool, its best to plan ahead for those that might not continue to be as effective as they once were. For this sort of research, I use’s visitor data. Here are some highlights:

The big surprise for me is StumbleUpon. While 6 million unique visitors a month is still impressive, the rapid decline is worrisome (see graph below).

Social media sites come and go. Is StumbleUpon on the way out?

Pinterest’s growth is no surprise, but Tumblr’s is to me (I’m not a big user – my bad for not staying on top of it). To further complicate matters, some emerging sites are fundamentally different than what’s declining so I may not be able to use the foundation I’ve already built: e.g., my comprehensive assets and well-defined promotion plan for StumbleUpon aren’t likely to translate well to Pinterest. Again, do I transfer focus of my current budget (no more money needed) or augment current efforts (more money needed)?

Acknowledge the Nature of Growth Rates

It’s a reality of websites and companies in general that growth rates slow over time. A startup can grow 1,000 percent year-over-year while a more mature company may be limited to growth of just 10 percent no matter how well all the cylinders fire. And that’s OK. A company growing 1,000 percent may still be unprofitable whereas 10 percent growth at a mature company could translate into millions of dollars. If I can back my planned budget into a CPA metric then the budget decision comes down to selecting a target CPA, e.g., keeping my budget flat while projecting more traffic automatically means a lower CPA, which is hard to argue against.

I have no doubt that nine out of 10 people that are tasked with planning for next year would rather be doing something else. But I also think that if forced to answer honestly those same nine people would admit that the effort is valuable as it forces them to think strategically. The dread most of us feel for planning can be reduced somewhat by looking forward to the end results of the work. Happy new year (planning)!

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