Lee Odden

Investing vs. Wasting Budget on SEO

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, SEO

Website TrafficCompanies that seek to expand their market reach to growing populations of customers spending time online have turned in significant numbers to search and social media as marketing channels. The world of search and social as an intersection with content marketing is quickly emerging as well.

The pro of all that attention and budget is that companies are finding increasingly effective ways to engage with customers and grow business revenue. The con is that many companies categorize half-hearted or incomplete search and social efforts as ineffective or irrelevant.

Marketers are tasked with finding technologies and communication platforms that will grow the business and keep the brand ahead of the competition. The tendency for industry media to idolize the latest digital marketing tactics creates unrealistic expectations or worse, tentative investments in tactics like SEO without actually being committed to what it takes to be successful.

If you’re an Online Marketer, you might have heard requests like: “Our competitors and several smaller companies that we don’t even consider big enough to be competition are all over Google and we’re not. This month, you need to find a way to optimize our site to increase our Google rankings.”

Another example: “We need to engage a consultant, but there’s not a lot of budget. So let’s test it (SEO or Social Media Marketing) out and if they can shows results, we can increase the budget.”

Yet another example: “We’re launching a new website and we need to optimize it to drive traffic. Forecast how many sales we’ll get from the SEO starting from month one and through the  year.”

It’s reasonable to expect a return on a marketing investment, but tactics like SEO require a commitment to content, links and continued attention to web analytics and conversion optimization for improved performance.  If an online marketer within a company is tasked with engaging outside help from a SEO consultant or digital marketer, it’s important to understand that commitment so expectations with business leaders can be managed.

As a consultant, nothing is worse than seeing a SEO program just start to gain momentum (especially after the client side marketer has overcome the hurdles of getting internal buy-in) only to have someone from the C-Suite look at a balance sheet and say: “We’ve invested $X on SEO over the past 3 months on the new website and we’ve only had 2 leads?  We’re wasting our time and money on SEO, since it doesn’t work.”

Experienced marketers from B2B to online ecommerce sites understand that with a new website, it can take quite a few months to build up the content and links required to get Google’s attention in the search results. Even after persistent SEO efforts with content and link acquisition deliver traffic to the site, the content and lead gen or product offers must be compelling enough to convert those visitors to leads or sales.

Launching a new website in a competitive category means even more time to see the same kind of search visibility as competitors that have been actively engaging SEO tactics for 3, 5 or even 10 years.  In fact, SEO alone on a new website to drive traffic makes little sense. Consultants should inform client side marketers of that and provide other marketing options for what will drive traffic to the site and how SEO efforts can work in concert with Social Media, Online PR, Email, PPC and other Online Advertising.

I’ve often told business owners and marketers that if they want to reap the rewards of dominant search visibility, they need to commit to content and links indefinitely. Otherwise, don’t bother and drive site traffic through other means. SEO is an investment and the way we consult, works holistically with how a business publishes and promotes content online. Expectations should be managed with proper competitive analysis, benchmark reporting, forecasting and ongoing analysis of performance.  A tentative approach always results in tentative results.

Of course I am an advocate of SEO since we’ve helped numerous companies generate significant revenue over the past 10 years, but I can empathize with business managers that only look at spreadsheets without understanding timeframes. I can also understand the pressures marketers have at generating new business with slim budgets and not necessarily understanding the specific mechanics of what goes into a competitive SEO effort.  It’s only through education and raising awareness that these barriers can be overcome.

If you’re a corporate marketer that has invested in SEO and not see the results you’d been promised or expected, how did you handle it? How have you overcome internal disconnects about how SEO can work with your company? How have you managed expectations?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Lee – Hallelujah. As a marketing professional whose firm specializes in SEO, let me tell you, this is a great post. SEO is a crucial part of marketing your business but it can be a very slow-burning process, which can be difficult for businesses and managers to get on board with. With things like Twitter and Facebook, instant gratification is what we’ve become used to and it can be hard to accept that some processes may take actual months to yield results. That said, those results are much longer-lasting and can translate to drastic increases in exposure and sales. Keep up the great writing!

    • Those new websites with immediate customer acquisition needs can leverage other content based marketing efforts in a search friendly way so there’s no reason for a new company to have to wait 6 months before seeing new business inquiries online.

      That’s part of expectations management with SEO. SEO has its time and place and as you say, real time output and effect is what people are getting hooked on vs. long term, sustainable and higher ROI outcomes from strategic SEO. Thank you for the comment.

  2. The biggest problem is in convincing the client that everything takes time, like you’ve mentioned.

    The big keywords take more time than ever to deliver results but an impatient client will pull the plug just before a campaign takes off; the smaller ones do show results quickly but don’t generate enough traffic to justify the price for the service.

    I’m still learning to communicate the importance of a balance in expectations to clients, but I believe that it’ll take care of itself as clients become more experienced and educated in our line of work.

    Thank you for a very insightful post!

    • “pull the plug just before a campaign takes off” yes Frank, that has to be one of the saddest moments. Especially if you’ve been through numerous, similar campaigns and have data to show the expected trend up.

      Part of the responsibility is on the consultant to identify whether the client’s business can generate a return based on the cost of SEO work within a reasonable amount of time. Other channels need to be considered and clever online PR combined with Social Media can boost traffic immediately, while contributing to longer term SEO success. Thank you for your insights!

  3. I completely agree. It is the hardest thing to make people understand that everything takes time.

  4. Lee, I’ve always enjoyed your writings, and this one is SUPER valuable. Thanks for putting this online so that I can point my customers to someone else’s words besides my own!!
    Valerie VanBooven RN BSN

  5. Avatar Adelaide SEO says

    Great article. It’s nice to know that Im not the only person that is struggling with these client requests. You have given me some great ideas as to how to discuss commitment with potential clients.

    • At first it might seem a struggle but it’s just the reality of what happens without an understanding of SEO as well as setting expectations.

    • People want instant results out of their online campaigns be it SEO driven or via the social media route. Most of these activities take really long time. However, the real challenge of SEOs is to prove their worth (and reason the investment made by these corporates) in a visible manner using some KPIs. That’s exactly where most people fail. In other words, getting on Google first page is not always the criteria but how much difference it made to the business – either as bottomline boost or brand image/awareness.

  6. Completely agree, Lee. Thanks for a great article. Many clients seem excited and totally committed at the beginning, but quickly start losing interest and patience. Its hard to keep them committed and willing participate.

    • Managing expectations from the start is essential. Some might avoid doing that too much so as not to scare the client away, but in the end, “under promise and over deliver” wins the day.

  7. Lee, Great write up! I’ve actually been lucky enough to enroll my past clients (references) in giving an explanation to new possible clients looking for references, which has definitely helped. The hardest selling point in SEO in my experience is advising that it is not an instant gratification solution. Thanks again, loved it.

    • Glad you liked the post Anthony. It’s unfortunate when companies invest their coveted marketing dollars only to away before allowing the program to be successful. Hopefully more awareness will prompt both consultants and marketers to do a better job of communicating.

  8. Great article, Thanks for posting

  9. You’re spot on, and understanding how SEO is driven by something other than just dollars is still missed by some of the decision makers. You hit the nail on the head with “We’ve invested $X on SEO over the past 3 months on the new website and we’ve only had 2 leads? We’re wasting our time and money on SEO, since it doesn’t work.” A little like driving half way to the store and turning around because you haven’t bought anything yet.

    • Exactly – it’s a bigger issue than most participants in SEO engagements are willing to admit. The agency has a big part of the responsibility to set and manage expectations. The client side marketer has a responsibility to communicate those expectations in an honest and reasonable way.

  10. well written …especially i liked this “SEO require a commitment to content, links and continued attention to web analytics and conversion optimization for improved performance. ”
    yes thats the SEO…

  11. Indeed a good post, i like how it ends with managing expectations, as this is key…

    Essentially the ROI from SEO is intense, with online stores open 24/7 – 365… users finding them through exact keyword query strings etc – knowing what they want.

    There are a lot of snake oil sales men out there, but then these guys will slowly but surely be phased out…

    Thanks for the read!


  12. I’m totally aligned with all of this – Thanks for the reinforcement and YES, SEO is an ongoing thing. It definitely starts to get results eventually, especially if you can make things go viral.

  13. I agree that there are many companies who are wasting their money in SEO but it is a fact that SEO can play a very important and effective part in any company’s growth

  14. I wanted to add to so many thoughts and valuable comments, but… Expectations is often the hardest, especially when a company has “worked” with an SEO before and said it’s “easy.” Turns out they bought links.

    The biggest mistake I’ve seen is agreeing to “got to get going now” and “no time for an SEO audit.” Such approach is a waste of time on both parts.

    Like your point about an ongoing commitment to content and link building. Bingo!

    • Thanks Dana. Ongoing commitment is the link with investment. No audit is flying blind and it makes you (or me at least) really wonder what thought process brings marketers to the point of spending money on something without direction or insight first. One attribute then of successful SEO practitioners is certainly persistence 🙂

  15. If you can show companies a real timeline and a plan that will deliver a good ROI then they will be more patient. A performance based SEO proposal which promises real measurements of success will get much more attention by companies.

    • Performance based SEO requires a very high degree of trust and competence on the client side as well as the agency. This is really not the case in most situations. If client side marketers had that competence, why would they outsource?

      There are far too many variables out of the agency’s control for performance based SEO. Copy can be overwritten, links changed, code removed, HTML & design changed.

      To get around this, SEOs build their own versions of the performance based client sites. That way they control all aspects of what influences SEO outcomes. The problem there of course, is that if the engagement goes bad, the SEO owns the lead gen sites, not the client.

      While we do have performance based metrics involved with some of our clients, we believe a combination of consulting, help with implementation and training make the best use of the investment. Clients can learn to do many things themselves and leverage the agency for strategy, analysis and oversight.