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SEO Sales Projection Flaws

December 02, 2015

What you will learn: Why it is impossible to make accurate sales projections for an SEO campaign.

Who should read this article: Company and marketing leadership.

Beware of Agencies Making Sales Projections

Sales projections for SEO rely on magic, not facts.

Top-flight SEO companies deliver revenue increases to clients — often game-changing increases — but they never make revenue promises. This is the high-level problem with revenue projections:

Suppose you interview a veteran sales candidate promising to bring $1 million in new business in the first year. Would you believe it? Would you hire the individual with a six-figure guaranteed salary based on that claim?

Most prudent businesses would answer no and no. Yet — many of these same businesses would fall hook, line and sinker for similar claims made by SEO agencies promising “x” dollars of revenue as a result of the campaign they are pitching.

In SEO, just as in sales, there are too many variables and unknowns to make accurate sales projections. Reputable SEO agencies know this and do not make sales projections. Not so reputable agencies dangle revenue projections as bait to get companies to sign up for a campaign, but these projections are always and unavoidably based on faulty data — these projections may as well be numbers picked out of a hat.

You probably know intuitively why a salesperson’s extravagant revenue claim is flawed, but you may not be as familiar with the nuances of SEO. Let’s look in detail at why the “data” underlying SEO sales projection is flawed.

Flawed Data Point 1: Estimated Google Keyword Search Volume

Suppose Google reports a target keyword as having a search volume of 100,000. Can you project sales from this? — No, and it’s not even close. Here’s why:

  • Google’s volume data are estimates only.
  • These searches include people looking for jobs, looking to sell your company something, competitors analyzing your website, people manually checking Google rank and positions, bots and scripts that search Google to scrape data, and many other behaviors that have nothing to do with buying your products or services.
  • How much of the estimated volume consists of people interested in buying your products and services? No way on earth to tell.

Flawed Data Point 2: Google Rank and Position Data

Suppose you are told that the SEO company can get you to the promised land, ranking first or second for a given keyword, and you will haul in “x” dollars in revenue. Credible? Not by a country mile. Here’s why:

  • Ranking data is not reliable. Searchers see different rankings for identical searches based on their search history, geo location, the device they are using, whether they are logged into Google, and a number of other variables that cannot be projected.
  • There are a number of search-ranking position tools on the market. They are all scraper services that violate Google’s terms of service, and — the data they provide is just as inaccurate as someone doing a manual search (see the above bullet point).
  • If ranking data comes straight from the Google Search Console, it is still next to useless. Data samples consist of 1,000 keywords you have no choice in selecting; thus, if you have 3,000 relevant keywords with search volume in your keyword strategy, you will be lucky to find 100 in Google’s sample of 1,000. Furthermore, the sample of 1,000 keywords is in constant flux, so your list will change depending on the day you get it. Within the sample, you will see Google acknowledges that rankings vary, because it assigns decimals (e.g., 3.4) to its number. Finally, the sample data is only shown over a sliding window of 90 days. Not enough to hang your hat on for a revenue projection, wouldn’t you say?

Flawed Data Point 3: Estimated Click-through Rate (CTR) by Google Rank or Position

Click-throughs are not cut-and-dried.

In the past, many companies have produced reports and studies to claim an average traffic share (or CTR) for each of Google’s top 10 positions. See here and here for examples. Whatever value this data once had, it has far less today, if any. Here’s why:

Today, Google’s SERPs (search engine results pages) are loaded with PPC ads, product ads, news, images, the knowledge graph, Local Pack (highlighting local search results), structured data results (highlighting content with specific information), and other elements in addition to plain, old organic search results listings.

On top of that, Google is continually testing new layouts, such as the local carousel, which changes regular results position and visibility.

In short, with so many types of SERP layouts and variables, there is no way to predict traffic share from each position.

Flawed Data Point 4: Estimated Rank Improvement Amount

If an SEO company projects sales based on improving your ranking from “a” to “b,” the projection can be dismissed based on what you’ve already read: the ranking data is unreliable to the point of being useless for this purpose.

Flawed Data Point 5: Estimated Rank Improvement Timeframe

If you can’t predict the ranking improvement, you can’t predict the time it will take to achieve the improvement. A sales projection based on a ranking improvement timeline sounds scientific, but in reality is piling flawed data on top of flawed data. A Ouija Board would be equally scientific to this!

Flawed Data Point 6A: E-Commerce Conversion Rate

The first problem with sales projections based on conversion rates: the SEO company has no control over conversion rates. If the projection is based on an incremental increase in conversions as a result of the SEO campaign, issues that make the projection unreliable include:

  • How accurately was the conversion rate calculated?
  • Over what time period was the conversion rate sampled?
  • Did the website change during the sample timeframe?
  • Are website changes planned?
  • Does seasonality affect conversion rates?
  • Does product inventory affect conversion rates?
  • Does pricing affect conversion rates?
  • Do special offers affect conversion rates?
  • Are phone orders included in the calculations?

Again, we see far too many variables to make accurate projections of e-commerce revenue.

Flawed Data Point 6B: Lead Generation Conversion Rate

If projections for e-commerce conversion rates are spotty, those for lead generation websites are spotty times 10. Here’s why:

  • How accurately was the conversion rate calculated?
  • Over what period of time was the conversion rate sampled?
  • Did the website change during the sample timeframe?
  • Are website changes planned?
  • Are all form submissions tracked?
  • Can form submissions be tracked back to the SEO source?
  • Does the website have plain text email addresses? If so, emails cannot be conclusively tied back to SEO.
  • Are phone inquiries tracked? If not, lead data and conversion rates are not accurate.
  • Are form and phone leads validated? If they are tracked and not validated, conversion rates will be significantly overestimated.

Flawed Data Point 7: Leads to Sales

This is yet another area where the SEO company has no control. How efficiently leads are converted into sales depends on a number of factors that defy sales projection resulting from an SEO campaign:

  • Form lead capture — Is someone checking all form submissions and following up quickly? Leads generated from the campaign could be neglected and lost.
  • Phone lead capture — Is someone handling all phone leads quickly and expertly? If not, leads will be lost.
  • Quality of the lead — Are leads hot, warm, or cold?
  • Quality of the opportunity — The experience of the sales rep, offer, product/service features, pricing, contract terms, differentiators, availability, proximity and many other factors determine whether a lead will be closed.
  • Relationship issues — Even when all the factors noted just above are favorable, relationship issues can torpedo even a perfectly setup sale.

These 7 Flaws Are Only the Beginning

Hopefully you are now seeing why sales projections based on SEO campaigns are so shaky, and why reputable SEO companies do not go down that road — but wait, there’s more.

To make a complete projection, the SEO company must scrutinize all of the data discussed above — for each targeted keyword in the campaign.

Considering a typical SEO campaign can target hundreds to thousands of keywords, the task of identifying, let alone analyzing, this much data is prohibitively expensive for an SEO company to undertake, especially if it is done for a company not yet even a client.

What You Can Expect from an SEO Company Upfront

Reputable SEO companies display their revenue-generating capabilities by supplying client references for campaigns of a similar nature in terms of scope, market position and objective. In addition, an SEO company is likely to produce revenue growth if it adheres to industry best practices, has a documented process for campaign management, and transparency all the way down the line, from strategy to execution to reporting.

Keep in mind: astute companies put more stock in a veteran sales candidate promising to work hard and use all the techniques learned over years in the trenches, to one promising $1 million of revenue in year one. 

The same holds true for an SEO company: it just makes sense.

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