Search engine optimization (SEO) can drive a huge return on investment if you’re successful at two things:
- Getting your content to appear in the top 3 spots for a variety of buying-related search terms.
- Converting the visitors who find your content via Google search into new customers.
If you’ve read any of the glowing success stories SEO agencies share about their customers, you probably already know that SEO can be worth it for many companies.
But you also probably know that SEO is a long-term strategy with uncertain results. Perhaps you’ve heard of companies who have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into SEO and have seen little to no increase in leads coming from their website.
If you’re trying to decide whether investing in SEO is worth it for your business right now, you need a decision framework.
In this article, I’ll walk you through a six-factor decision framework to determine whether it makes sense to invest in SEO right now.
SEO is one of the most scalable and cost-effective marketing channels available, but many business owners are unsure when it makes the most sense to invest in SEO. I’ll help you figure out whether you’re ready, and if you’re not, what to do to build a strong foundation for a future SEO campaign. I’ll also share some stats to help you gauge the average cost for good SEO services.
Here are the six factors:
- Your growth goals
- Volume of search traffic in your niche
- Competitiveness of the most valuable keywords in your category
- Your digital assets/website maturity
- Your business maturity
- Your budget
I’ll go into each one in detail. Additionally, I’ll share three marketing strategies that might be a good fit if you’re not ready for SEO.
Your growth goals: Do you have time to wait for SEO results?
It takes time to see significant improvements to your search engine rankings, even if you have a strong website. With a domain authority (DA) of 60 or higher, it can still take six months to get your first No. 1 ranking. If your site’s DA is between 30 and 60, it’s more likely going to take at least nine months, and if you’re a new website with really weak DA (below 30), it could take up to a year before you start to rank on the first page and see any significant organic traffic boost from your efforts.
If you need to see a significant uptick in your inbound lead volume or monthly recurring revenue (MRR) sooner than six months, SEO is not going to help with that. So if you’re going to run out of runway if you don’t turn things around in six or even nine months, don’t worry about SEO yet. There will be time for it later.
As long as you can afford to wait six months to see results, it may be worth it, but you need to consider the other five factors.
Search activity related to your problem-solution
Some companies shouldn’t invest in SEO because there’s simply not enough search activity related to their business. This usually happens with innovative products or services that have little to no competition, and limited awareness of the problem and/or solution among the target market. So it’s crucial to determine whether the search activity is high enough to make an investment in SEO worth it before you go any further.
Even if you’re in a well-established industry where your target audience is aware of your solution, it’s possible that there’s not enough search volume if your potential customers aren’t in the habit of looking for your solution online or wouldn’t trust the results if they did. And yes, there are markets where this is the case. They’re typically very relationship-based fields, like lobbying, public relations, or real estate. (Although more and more, people in these fields are beginning to realize there’s likely a service/product that can help them with anything they do.)
To figure out how much search volume there is for valuable keywords in your niche, you need to use a keyword research tool. I recommend ahrefs’ free keyword generator tool. You can get 150 results for free — you don’t even need to sign in.
Start by brainstorming the kind of phrases your target audience would use to look for a solution like yours.
- [industry] tools/software/solutions
- [Industry] service/consultant/agency
- How to [do what you do]
- Alternatives to [your biggest competitor]
You can also just start with the most basic word or phrase related to what you do and just see what the top searches are. Don’t forget to flip over to the “questions” tab.
For more details about how to do basic keyword research, see this Ahrefs’ blog post.
How much search volume is enough?
At a minimum, you should be able to find at least 10 keywords (with unique SERPS) with a minimum of 30 searches per month.
What’s a SERP? SERP stands for search engine results page — it’s what you see when you run the search for a particular keyword in Google in an incognito browser. (It’s important to use incognito because your online activity that’s tracked in your regular browser can sway the organic search results Google shows you.)
If there are dozens of keywords showing 0-10 volume in Ahrefs, that could still be worth it, because Ahrefs grossly underestimates search volumes, especially for long-tail keywords, since there’s a lot of variation in how the phrase is actually typed in.
Do the searchers seem to have buying intent?
Not all keywords related to your problem are worth going after. For example, there are several terms that seem like they’d be good terms for me, a B2B content writer and SEO strategist, to go after, like:
- business copywriter (300)
- freelance seo writer (100)
However, when I review the SERP, I’m not sure if the majority of people Googling these phrases are trying to hire a copywriter or SEO writer or if they’re trying to become one. Since I’m not in the business of teaching people how to become a copywriter, both of these terms might be duds for me.
This isn’t the place to do a deep dive on Google’s ranking signals, because that’s a complicated and controversial subject. It likely includes things like your click-through rate, the amount of time visitors spend on your page, and how quickly they return to Google (called a u-turn). But I’ll just say that you can assume that what Google shows in the top 10 results is what the algorithm has determined are the best web pages to satisfy the intent of the searcher. In a few cases, Google has it totally wrong and you can tell, but in the case of the two searches above, it’s unclear.
Compare that to the search term “saas content writer.” The first page of the SERP is split half and half between articles about “how to write SaaS content” and landing pages for copywriters (or copywriting agencies) who are advertising their services. The intent is still mixed, but enough writers are showing up on the first page that I think that might be a good play for me. But I’d still have to evaluate the next factor to know for sure.
Competitiveness of the most valuable keywords in your category
Let’s look at the Ahrefs free Keyword Generator again. Notice the little colored square with a number in it under the heading KD in the Ahrefs tool? That KD stands for keyword difficulty on a scale of 1 to 100, 100 being the most competitive, most difficult to rank for.
In general, you want to go after terms that have a score below 30. If your website is strong and you can invest in building individual links to individual articles, you can probably win some of the 40s and 50s. Anything above 60 is not worth going after until you’re several years into your SEO campaign and you really know what works for your business, and you’re confident that the stuff you put out will earn backlinks organically (because of its inherent superiority to all of the existing resources).
There are a ton of terms related to “SEO agency” that I could go after, but they’re incredibly competitive (because everyone in the industry knows how to crush it at SEO) so I won’t be doing that anytime soon.
If you’re not finding enough terms with a good combination of decent volume and low difficulty, that should be a red flag for you. It could take a while for you to see a positive return on investment from SEO.
Here’s an Ahrefs screenshot showing the high level of competition for keywords in the CRM software space.
But even if you’re in a very competitive niche like CRM software, it’s STILL possible to find great opportunities. Take “salesforce alternatives” for example:
I would consider all of those great bottom of the funnel keywords with buying intent — a great opportunity to grab up some top organic search rankings with minimal effort and investment.
Your digital assets/website maturity/marketing history
If you’re just getting started building your marketing engine, it might be a little early for you to invest in SEO because your website and other digital marketing assets may not be sophisticated enough to serve your long-term needs as a company. Here are some things to consider.
Do you have a functional website with a good user experience that you expect to serve you for at least the next two years? Or do you expect to completely revamp it within that timeline? By functional, I mean that customers can educate themselves about your product or service AND can easily sign up for a free trial, contact your sales team, or request a demo.
If you’re going to completely redesign your website within 2 years, don’t waste any money on SEO because you could lose all your progress with the redesign (especially if you built the current site with Wix or Squarespace and you anticipate needing a custom build in the future).
Have you done any pay-per-click (PPC) Google ad campaigns or Facebook ad campaigns? If so, have you identified which target keywords actually convert visitors into customers? This isn’t necessary for SEO to end up being worth it, but this is a nice way to assure yourself that ranking organically for those same terms will lead to conversions, and thus increased revenue.
Even if you haven’t run any such campaigns yourself, it can be helpful to check to see if your competitors are already advertising for those keywords. If they are, it’s a pretty safe bet that those keywords have been successful for them. (In the screenshot below, you can see that software providers Salesforce and Pipedrive and a review site called Top10.com are all paying money to show up in search results for the phrase “real estate crm.” Those are PPC campaigns.)
Your business maturity
Your overall business maturity should also play into your decision about whether to invest in SEO. Two of the biggest considerations are product-market fit and your team.
Does your website have a proven ability to convert customers? Do you know your value proposition and the exact pain points you solve for your ideal customer profile?
This is commonly overlooked! Or at least, not well understood. Essentially, you should use other more direct forms of marketing and selling to figure out your product’s positioning before investing in SEO because it’s easier to pivot and experiment with those formats. You can change your sales pitch between each customer you meet with and you can easily gauge their interest just by talking to them. In contrast, with SEO it might take three to six months to see whether your article can even rank on the first page, and then if you aren’t seeing conversions, you don’t know if it’s because your messaging is off or if it’s because the people searching this term actually had far less buying intent than you thought. There are too many variables with SEO and it’s too slow and expensive to be doing that kind of experimentation.
Do you have a content marketing manager? In-house web development? Writers? You’ll have to pay a lot more to find an SEO company who will handle everything for you. If you’re eventually going to make these hires, wait until you have these people before you invest in SEO.
Managing an SEO agency is time-consuming. If you’re a CEO, it’s unrealistic to think you can manage a relationship with an SEO agency/consultant who is creating content for you every month (think about reviewing multiple 3,000-word blog posts each month, with each requiring an hour long interview with you) all by yourself and not end up being the roadblock that keeps them from being able to get anything published. You’ll need to have someone on your team who has the capacity to manage the agency’s SEO efforts.
Can you afford SEO right now? I’ll walk you through some average costs for doing SEO in-house versus hiring an agency. After reading those, pick the option that would make sense for you and multiply the costs by 6 to 12 based on the time to ROI I outlined at the beginning for your website maturity. That’s the timeframe for when you might start to see enough leads to break even, and after that, it’ll start to more than pay for the cost of ongoing content creation.
How much does SEO Cost? Estimated costs for in-house versus agency
I break down the cost of SEO in another post, but here are some sample prices of monthly retainers from around the web.
- SimpleTiger: $5K – $30K
- Coalition Technologies: $1,500-$3,000/month
- Me: $5K
Can you find SEO help for cheaper than this? Absolutely. But anyone offering SEO services for less than $1,000 a month is probably using outdated SEO techniques that are unlikely to significant improve your website rankings.
If you want to do it yourself with some freelance help, here are some of the costs you might need to consider in addition to the cost of your own time:
- $500 a pop for articles (…even at that price, finding good writers is tough)
- $150/hour for a technical SEO consultant
Note that you need to have someone who can put at least 40 hours a month into managing this (not including the time it takes them to educate themselves with a content marketing course if they’re not already an SEO expert).
If you want to do SEO entirely in-house, you need a full-time content marketer. In the U.S. the average salary for a talented content marketer is around $80,000 in 2024. But it can be hard to find someone with both technical SEO expertise and writing skills, and you’re still going to need to pay for link building services or PR campaigns. Agencies include these services in their fees, and they have relationships with reputable link building agencies and you do NOT want to mess with the wrong kind of link building.
What to invest in instead? 3 ideas
If you’ve worked through the decision-framework I outlined and it doesn’t make sense for you to invest in SEO right now, there are a lot of other smart digital marketing strategies you should consider that can help you lay the groundwork for a future SEO strategy.
Some great options include:
- Sales enablement content: I’ve had so many companies contact me about writing blog posts for them when they have almost no sales assets to equip their sales team. Sales enablement content includes things like buying guides, case studies, white papers, one-pagers, pitch decks, etc. — the stuff that explains exactly what your product/service does/is to the people who are ready to buy, but just need to make sure you’re a good fit.
- Email marketing: If you have a healthy email list, hiring a good copywriter to write sales emails for you could improve your conversion rate.
- Public relations: Small businesses often overlook relatively easy PR opportunities, like sending a basic press release to their local newspapers when they achieve business milestones like securing venture capital funding, opening a new location, buying a facility, or launching a groundbreaking product. These PR campaigns can generate media coverage, which can create backlinks to your website. More backlinks will usually help boost your domain authority. And there are some PR agencies, such as Stacker, that are exclusively focused on helping you boost your domain authority with earned media.
Ready to invest in SEO?
So, is SEO worth it for you, right now? Here’s what needs to be true for you before you invest in SEO:
- Your target audience needs to be searching for your solution online.
- You need to have the runway and budget to pay for high quality content creation for at least six months without seeing a dime of ROI.
- Your website needs to be able to convert visitors into leads, and you don’t anticipate a massive redesign of your website for at least two years.
- You need to be clear on your product or service positioning — so that the leads you can bring in from SEO have a high likelihood of becoming good customers for you.
- Your team needs to have the capacity to manage an external SEO consultant or agency.
If all of these conditions are true, I can confidently say SEO will be worth it for you and you should start investing in it now.
Hire me to create an SEO strategy and generate content that lands you on page one
My monthly SEO strategy & content creation retainer includes the following services:
- Keyword Research & Strategy
- Content Creation (2 to 4 articles per month) with On-Page SEO
- Technical SEO Audit & Monitoring
- Link Building
- Rank Tracking
- Lead Generation
If you’re interested in growing your business through SEO, I hope you’ll reach out for a free consultation.