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Is the ROI on SEO worth the money?

When you search for “SEO ROI” on Google you find a number of straightforward articles about how to calculate the value of your investment, most of which boil down to the simple “divide your profits by your costs.” If you are trying to decide if you should invest in SEO at all, this is spectacularly unhelpful. In this article, I try to get down to the essential factors you should consider when exploring SEO. My list has six items on it – if I’ve missed anything, please leave a comment below!

Six things you’ll want to consider about SEO ROI:

  1. Time to Value

  2. Time vs Money when creating content – DIY vs Pay a Professional

  3. Importance of your website to generating leads/sales

  4. Ability to track web traffic

  5. Tracking Your Conversions

  6. Competitors’ strategies

Time to Value

You’ve heard that it takes time to get results with SEO. How long does it take for SEO vs SEM? You can pay for ads and get results immediately, while optimizing for search is going to take three to six months, at least, to show results.  What this means for you as a business owner is that you must be willing to pay, upfront, for benefits that you won’t realize immediately. That’s one major reason SEO is such a difficult choice for so many small business owners; money is always tight, and the margin of error is so small. 

Why does SEO take so long?  That’s another article, but the short version is search engines like Google prioritize content published from established domains/websites. It takes time to build up trust in a new website, and trust is established by consistently creating content relevant to your target audience. The upside is that SEO delivers results long after you’ve created your content.  Stop paying for ads, and traffic from ads stops, immediately.  High-quality content will bring customers to your site for years after it has been posted.  

Do It Yourself (DIY) or hire someone to do your SEO for you? 

Let’s look at the DIY side first. What does it take to DIY SEO?

For SEO to work, you’ll need to post high-quality content, regularly. This allows search engines to recognize you as an authority who should be trusted.  Expect to spend 4 hours a week writing excellent, helpful articles that inform readers and build trust. If that’s not possible, you’ll need to find someone who can create exactly that kind of content for you. 

Whether you write yourself or contract that out, you will need to plan your SEO campaign. Your goal is to build rankings around the keywords and phrases that will bring the right traffic to your site, and ensure that excellent keyword research is informing the content. 

Keyword research ensures you understand which phrases people use when they are searching for what you are selling. Don’t misunderstand; this is about ensuring you don’t miss potential customers, and not about “how many SEO keywords should I use.” 

There are many tools for SEO research; they are built for marketing professionals, not casual users. Most have a free or inexpensive entry-level tier, though, which gives you some access to the wealth of knowledge they contain. When you factor in teaching yourself new tools, creating content, and managing your website’s technical elements, you can spend a lot of time on SEO. 

Backlinks are another element search engines consider when they rank your site – how many other trustworthy sites are linking to you?  Building a network of backlinks is time-consuming and can be expensive; most DIY SEO efforts rely on creating excellent, link-worthy content to generate backlinks.  

What does professional search engine optimization entail?

SEO was a $50 billion business in 2021, so if you are asking “does SEO really work” then that number alone should be the answer. SEO agencies can handle everything: keyword research, content creation, technical optimization, and securing backlinks.  Agencies will generally require a six-month (or longer) contract, and you can expect to pay from $3,500 – $10,000 per month, depending on the agency.  You’ll get a personal representative backed by a team to manage your SEO; the best agencies will work closely with you to ensure that you get full value for your money.  

Not enough time, not enough money.

This is the fundamental challenge of SEO today for startups and small businesses – it takes too much time to DIY, and costs too much to pay the professionals.  Agencies can charge as much as they do because 1) SEO has a lot of moving parts, and 2) the ROI can be tremendous.  Would you spend $50,000 to increase your sales by $250,000?  Of course, you would – if you knew for a fact that it was going to work.  Turn that around and ask if you’d spend 100 hours of work to increase your sales by $250,000?  Again, of course, you would!  But the risk that you spend that time or money and don’t see the returns is hard to quantify.  

There is a new and growing middle ground: Sage SEO makes SEO affordable, approachable, and easy. Sage SEO is a great way to get started when you are looking for organic traffic – they do a lot of the heavy lifting while providing you with the tools you need to understand how SEO works. 

Importance of your website to generating leads/sales  

For some businesses, their website is the place where they make most of their money.  Other businesses just have an online presence as a formality and don’t need to worry about driving traffic there. SEO shines with businesses that solve problems – problems that people search for solutions to. On the small end, think about a local brick-and-mortar pizza parlor; they need to own their local SEO, so that when someone searches for “pizza near me” they are at the top of the page.  Larger businesses that solve problems through software also want to be on the front page for their solution – think tax preparation software. In the USA every April there’s a rush to google ‘Free online tax returns’, and you can bet that companies like TurboTax and H&R Block spend a lot of money on SEO to try to get the first result.  

On the other hand are companies that have very niche industries, like military hardware, or medical device manufacturers.  A good rule of thumb here is “if you don’t need your website to make money, don’t spend money on your website.”  If you just need a place for people to find your contact information and possibly post news releases and job openings, then the answer to the question “should I invest in SEO” is no.

If, on the other hand, you get leads from your website, or sell your product through your website, then SEO is something you want to think about.  Where do your customers come from?  

  • Do they find you because they are searching for your brand name?  

    • Try to own the top spot on google for your brand name.  

  • Do they find you because they are searching for what you do?

    • Try to own the top spots on google for commonly used search terms (keywords)

  • Do they find you because they search for who you are?

    • Try to own the top spot on google for your name, profession, or personal accomplishments

These are all areas where SEO can be worth the investment. If your customer profiles don’t fall into one of these categories, then SEO is probably not the right go-to-market strategy for you.

Ability to track web traffic

With social media advertising, you get some feedback immediately – how many people are clicking, and how much you’re paying per click. To calculate the ROI of SEO accurately, you need to do a lot more work. Unlike PPC (for example), SEO doesn’t have fixed costs associated with it, so you’ll need to know, in detail, how people are moving through your website on their way to making a purchase.  Imagine that someone comes to your site via a google search, reads an article or two, checks out your offerings, but doesn’t make a purchase.  When that same person returns (typing your company’s URL directly into their browser) how that sale is attributed will be different if you can’t identify them as a returning visitor.  At first glance, that sale would look like it came ‘direct,’ when in fact it was the organic search that brought them to you in the first place. 

Ask yourself – do I already have that level of nuanced understanding of my customer’s behavior?  And if the answer is no, prepare to acquire it, or you’ll be on the road to frustration with your SEO strategy. Many business owners have said something like “It’s been six months, and I guess we’re ranking higher on google for some keywords and we have more web traffic, but how do you know those people are coming because of SEO?”  It’s beyond the scope of this article to walk you through how to do this, but Google Analytics is your friend here.  

Tools like Google Analytics help you understand the various ways that customers find your website. Did they come from a social media post? an email campaign? paid ads? an organic search? Are they a returning visitor from 2 months ago and were waiting on more revenue before investing in your product or service? What pages did they browse on your website that led to the conversion or sale?

In fact, what is a conversion for you? I’m glad you asked.

Tracking your Conversions

If you take one thing and only one thing away from reading this article, it’s that tracking your conversion data is the make-or-break step of any business website.

The first step is understanding what a conversion is for your business. Here are a few common ones to consider:

  • Signing up for an email list

  • Scheduling a demo

  • Subscribing to paid content

  • Purchasing a software subscription

  • Downloading a case study or eBook

All of these actions are conversions for your website content. They all lead directly to product sales or to further qualifying marketing and sales leads for your business. 

Scheduling a demo is an obvious path toward a sale but having a customer provide you with their email address is also a conversion. This gives you an opportunity to send them more information about your product or service and build trust along the way.

A direct sale of your product or your software subscription is the holy grail of any website landing page. As a business, you need to understand how many sales you’re getting and from which acquisition channel they are coming. This provides you with critical data so you can invest more into the acquisition channels that are converting and less in the ones that don’t work for your business.

The tools to track this are largely free but require some ramp-up if you aren’t working with a software company like Sage SEO or a professional. Take a look at Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, and Google Ad Words to understand the types of conversion data available to you.

Competitors strategies

The final thing I’d suggest is that you look at the websites of your main competitors. You know who they are. Are they posting blogs on a regular schedule?  Does their website load quickly, and work as well on mobile as it does on desktop? Does their site have a clear architecture, with easy-to-follow links and easy-to-understand calls to action that stand out from the content?  If they do and you don’t, then you are definitely losing opportunities to them from organic traffic.  If they don’t, then two questions arise:

  1. Why don’t they?  Is the vertical you are in one that doesn’t lend itself to SEO?

  2. Is this an opportunity to take market share from them, by utilizing SEO before they do?

As I noted above, there are definitely verticals where SEO isn’t the right route to market – while being on the front page of google is nice, it can be a vanity metric unless it is adding to the bottom line.  

Final Thoughts

When you decide on SEO as a strategy, you’re committing your time and money for a year. If you invest in the planning phase by

  • learning what keywords are most important to your long-term business goals, 

  • understanding what your customers are looking for when they come to your site, 

  • being clear about how what you are selling solves their problem, and

  • Investing in the infrastructure required to track visitors closely 

then you can get the most out of your SEO investment. Remember that SEO requires discipline and attention to detail over time!  While it will take months to realize value, it can deliver that value for years. If you’re still not sure about SEO for your business, schedule a meeting with Sage SEO. We’ll be happy to get on a call, look at your business and use case, and advise if SEO is right for you.


I try to publish 2-3 articles a week on content topics like this one. My focus is on helping small businesses and startups achieve front page search rankings, no matter the size of your business or your online presence.

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