New search features, updated Google algorithms, global pandemics massively impacting consumer behaviours - all of these make SEO fairly unpredictable at times. But, in the words of Henri Poincare, "It is far better to foresee, even without certainty, than not to foresee at all.”
However, many struggle to forecast in a plausible way, and this issue has become even more pronounced as search professionals navigate the uncertainty of the new normal.
We conducted research in 2019 which revealed some of the most frequent issues that SEOs grapple with when forecasting for clients. Our survey found that three out of four forecast at least monthly, yet, despite this regularity, there seem to be many problems with the process of developing accurate and attainable data for future outcomes. For example, many respondents report lacking either the tools, data, knowledge, or time to forecast effectively.
But SEO agencies have to be able to realistically determine goals and prove ROI to acquire and retain clients.
So, how can you overcome these common forecasting limitations to better communicate the value of SEO, and ultimately close more deals?
We’ve identified 10 frequent SEO Forecasting issues and the scenarios in which they might impact your agency, as well as some resources which can help you develop the right tools and management practises to forecast effectively.
A key finding of our research is that there is often a disconnect between what clients want to see in a forecast, and what SEO agencies can realistically provide. This leads to feeling forced to predict outcomes which they suspect are not really deliverable or accurately addressed.
There are different issues at play here:
If a client is demanding specific, hard-to-reach goals that you feel aren’t realistically attainable, it’s your job to set more reasonable expectations. Maybe their senior executives have growth goals that are aligned with their investors’ needs, instead of market demand - whatever the source of their inflated projections is, identify it and make sure they understand what objectives are and are not achievable, prior to agreeing the scope of the project.
Fortunately, this is not a common problem, but it is one which you need to be aware of. Don’t commit to something you can’t deliver - your client might thank you now, but they won’t be when they see the performance results later.
A forecast is only as strong as its data. Without the right data, it’s impossible to validate the hypothesis of your predictive model and make SEO specialists confident in the accuracy of their projections.
When clients can’t provide adequate historical data, or give search professionals access to the right data for building forecasts, the results are bound to be inaccurate.
You could commit to undeliverable goals, or fail to convince the client of the value of investing in SEO altogether. This is why it’s important to have relevant, clean data to produce the most accurate forecasts possible.
Furthermore, many SEOs are put under increased pressure by being asked to deliver results within an unrealistic timeframe. This overestimation of capabilities is a direct result of failing to set achievable targets, and lacking the appropriate data to project campaign impact.
According to the research we conducted as part of our “Forecasting Nightmares” report, a third of SEO professionals feel they don’t receive enough support to accurately forecast.
So what type of support do SEOs need to create better models? Internally, departments should be aligned to pull in data from various sources, and externally, clients should be involved in the forecasting process to aid transparency.
Here are some examples of what that help might look like:
There seems to be a lack of support from senior executives when it comes to SEO forecasting. It may be that the C-suite is unaware of the challenges SEO specialists are facing, and this keeps them from implementing effective support systems.
However, when accurate forecasts are made a top-down priority, executives can ensure that all team members have the resources they need and that departments are aligned around data sharing.
SEOs should have an open line of communication with clients when developing forecasts, and collect any data needed to forecast accurately. For example, informing the end customer about the impact that changes to Google’s algorithms can have on an SEO campaign.
If you set expectations from the start that Google will always change something, let them know you’re prepared to conduct the data modelling accordingly, and communicate any changes along the way, then everyone knows what to expect, and clients will be on board when changes do need to be made.
It’s possible that this feeling of needing additional support is also linked to customers not having access to the inputs—the full breadth of data that goes into creating forecasts, and the assumptions that were made to achieve the results. Without this information, the client has to infer the relationship between the final outcome and the cost of the campaign themselves.
So data-sharing goes both ways when agencies are trying to set achievable targets for SEO campaigns and help clients understand the ROI of investing in search.
In addition to having support from internal and external departments, accurate forecasting also requires that search professionals have access to the right tools and data. Yet our research shows that SEOs feel they haven’t invested enough in the appropriate tools to facilitate this process, while others cite incomplete client data or time constraints as the primary barrier to producing accurate forecasts.
Many SEO specialists report not having the right tools at their disposal, but what are the “right” tools? It may be that agencies need a larger toolbox in order to get all the necessary data for accurate SEO forecasting, and are being limited by the capabilities of their toolset.
Conversely, the majority of SEOs don’t have a single, specialist tool to fit all their needs. Instead, most use 3 or more tools to generate forecasts, making the process more complex and inefficient to carry out.
The lack of investment in specialised tools leads to digital marketers often to rely on tools which are not purpose-built, like Excel. There’s a lot more time and effort built in when using applications like these, because they’re not designed to help with SEO processes specifically. Having one tool to handle all SEO forecasting needs would help these companies save time and energy, which can then be spent on implementing campaigns.
Sometimes, agencies are also constrained by the quality of the data provided by their clients. If a client can’t provide access to all of their datasets (due to security measures, for example), or if they simply don’t have enough historical data available, then search professionals will be limited in how accurate a forecast they can produce from this data.
Pressure from clients can sometimes make SEOs commit to undeliverable goals, but unrealistic client deadlines can also negatively impact the quality of forecasts. When working to tight time constraints, specialists are often forced to compromise on the amount of time spent compiling thorough research, leading to inaccurate results.
However, research can be carried out faster with the right forecasting tools. So, while it’s important to set realistic project deadlines, many SEO specialists feel they could invest more in this area to increase company efficiency and still deliver accurate SEO forecasts.
These problems all go hand-in-hand with the issue of organisational support. If senior executives make forecasting a company-wide priority, it’s likely that agencies will invest in better tools and allocate more time to developing realistic forecasts.
Many of the SEOs we’ve interviewed claim that calculating the ROI of SEO would be easier if they had the right tools. Yet investment in these tools is unlikely to come without SEOs being able to produce results - the results which they need these tools in order to produce! It’s a frustrating paradox.
Even though they are expected to plausibly forecast SEO, roughly a quarter of SEO professionals feel they haven’t received enough training. In fact, more than a sixth (17%) of respondents said they have not received any forecasting training at all in their career, in our 2019 study. Especially with complex projects that require multiple forecast scenarios, specialists with limited training may struggle to produce sufficient (or even accurate) results.
However, this lack of educational support might also be put down to an agency not having a reliable, clear, and trustworthy forecasting methodology for SEO professionals to follow.
A critical part of this procedure should be learning about clients’ businesses, in order for specialists to accurately assess the data points that matter most to them.
Every company has unique goals and growth patterns, so the best data points to use for forecasting will vary from client to client - but search professionals need to be aware of these differences in order to create the most accurate forecasts possible.
SEO is an industry that started with a “black magic” vibe—which is a vibe even consciously perpetuated by some professionals in order to justify their existence to clients. The result, however, is that most customers do not know what exactly goes into creating a successful campaign, and this may be the reason why the demand for the forecasts is so low.
Clients may be aware that SEO forecasting is important, but they don’t completely understand it, and therefore rarely ask their agencies for it.
Forecasting is treated as a “nice-to-have” rather than a “must-have,” suggesting that search specialists should be more proactive in publicising the business value which forecasting can drive for their clients.
Helping clients understand the value of forecasting can be crucial to the success of your projects. Our survey showed that SEOs believe that forecasts help them identify inefficiencies in their clients’ business strategies, set clear and achievable campaign goals, and create a system of accountability that drives positive client relationships. Furthermore, more than one in four respondents say that forecasting helps them get additional investment from clients - allowing SEOs, in turn, to invest in better forecasting tools.
Not only do search specialists feel limited by lack of investment in the right tools, but many also report not having a tool that caters to all SEO needs. There are multiple data points, clients’ historical data, seasonal trends, and changing SERP features to take into account, and using multiple tools to track these can make forecasting an unnecessarily clunky process.
One reason for relying on multiple tools might be a desire for certainty. Specialists might not trust or be satisfied with the results from one tool alone, and feel the need to compare data across different platforms to be sure they’re presenting an accurate scenario.
However, having a single, integrated forecasting solution can both save agencies time and money, and improve specialists’ confidence in their own projections.
Considering some of the SEO forecasting issues we’ve already mentioned - like specialists not trusting their own models, or lacking the necessary data points to deliver an accurate forecast - it’s no surprise that only a few SEO professionals believe forecasting to be an effective use of their time.
There are a few possible reasons for this:
One solution to this problem is to maintain transparent communications with clients throughout the acquisition process. This way, SEOs will gain access to the most robust business data and insights possible to build accurate forecasts, and customers will better understand the complexity of the forecasting process and the value that it brings.
Forecasting regularly is important for predicting the effect of things like seasonality on a particular company’s SEO. But, because forecasting is a complex process, and one that is essential to marketers’ customer acquisition strategy, it also needs to be efficient.
The vast majority of SEO professionals forecast monthly, or even more frequently - so why do they feel the need to forecast with such regularity?
SEO professionals often have to manage a large volume of customer proposals, so the amount of time that is spent forecasting has to be shortened. This means either making the forecasting process less thorough (not an ideal solution), or finding opportunities to increase efficiency - something which would also help search professionals view forecasting as a better investment of their time.
One of the biggest SEO forecasting issues that our survey revealed is the ability to accurately account for seasonality, with many of our clients saying this holds them back from accurately forecasting SEO.
Seasonality entails many difficulties for forecasters, like having to consider the day of the week on which Christmas falls in a particular year, or economic factors that might influence the length of the holiday shopping season. Accurately accounting for seasonality also requires SEOs to have access to the right historical data from clients to establish effective baselines for the future.
However, many search professionals report that creating forecasts for some industries is consistently more challenging than others, even when seasonal factors aren’t the primary issue.
So why do SEOs find these industries the most difficult to accurately forecast for?
In this industry, there are privacy concerns that can influence the availability of search volume data. That means it’s more challenging to research for relevant data, and there are fewer internal client data points to work with.
Furthermore, the typical seasonal trends don’t apply to the healthcare industry. Instead, traffic volumes can depend on a complex variety of external factors, ranging from global pandemics to industry regulation and political legislation.
These types of B2B businesses are often built on referrals and established personal relationships, so their customers are less likely to start their interaction with the company through a search engine, when compared to a traditional B2C enterprise.
This makes it difficult for SEOs to research and find relevant forecasting data to build accurate models, and also makes it harder to communicate the ROI of investing in SEO when pitching forecasts to potential clients.
Accurate SEO forecasting is a particular challenge in the retail market, given that it’s a fast-moving domain. That means people are constantly changing what they search for, and there are more short-lived fads that are hard to account for when modelling. For example, the sudden interest in “fidget spinners” was nearly impossible to forecast.
While the retail industry is well-known for its seasonality, and its peaks and dips are usually therefore easy to track, this unpredictability of retail fashions and fads (combined with changes in seasonal market forces themselves) makes it one of the trickiest domains for forecasters to operate in.
We found that many search professionals find it hard to calculate the actual value of SEO. Especially when compared to the accuracy of a PPC campaign, which is much easier to quantify, specialists may struggle to present SEO as a financially viable alternative for clients to invest in.
Again, this links back to the need for accurate forecasts, since when agencies are selling an SEO campaign, they have to be able to confidently show how they will achieve the stated results.
With that being said, the nearly one-third of respondents who struggle to forecast accurately can be seen as the final chain in the causal link we’ve seen that connects all of these SEO forecasting issues. In addition to lacking the tools, time or data that they need to produce accurate forecasts, this struggle may also be a consequence of previous experience with less-than-accurate forecasts.
For example, maybe they've projected results that were never achieved, because they may have made unrealistically optimistic or ambitious promises to their customers, or because campaign parameters were changed mid-project. This undermines SEO professionals’ confidence in the forecasting process itself, and this in turn perpetuates other forecasting issues, like failing to dedicate enough time or resources to this crucial aspect of an SEO agency’s operations.
Our research shows that forecasting continues to be a major part of SEO professionals’ lives, even though many agencies still experience problems with the process of forecasting.
SEO professionals are sometimes pressured into making forecasts, even when they know it’s inaccurate, and often their efforts aren’t supported with enough data, time, training, or the proper tools to forecast effectively. Despite forecasting regularly, the process is still inefficient in some crucial areas, and critically, its business value is frequently unrealised by clients and search professionals alike.
This is potentially limiting all stakeholders from taking advantage of the full benefits which accurate SEO forecasting offers: for agencies, to prove the ROI of SEO, acquire new clients and improve their forecasting capabilities; for clients, to efficiently allocate marketing spend and realistically align SEO efforts with other business objectives.
So, what tools and management systems do SEO agencies need to be able to overcome these issues?
Since some of the issues we’ve discussed are structural, they can be addressed at a communications level. One way to do this is by obtaining clarity in execution. For example, companies can adopt the “4 Disciplines of Execution” to help develop better outputs and improved agency-client relationships:
Most organisations have either no goals, or too many goals - neither of which will leave a lasting impression in employees’ minds. Managers need to clarify and finalise objectives with clients, before translating them into clear goals for teams to action.
Usually the tech and content departments work together closely within an agency, then sometimes the client’s marketing department or their own SEO department are also involved in forecasting. All of these stakeholders need to constantly communicate, and know who is responsible for which tasks, for objectives to be attainable.
Things shouldn’t be done simply for the sake of doing - every action should lead to the greater goal.
Managers and teams should know what contributes the most leverage and efficiency to achieving goals, so that time and resources can be allocated appropriately and all stakeholders can align on project workflows.
Make priorities clear to all stakeholders - having these clear objectives and communicating transparently with both the client and your internal teams throughout the forecasting process is the best way to ensure goals are achieved, like getting all the data needed for developing accurate forecasts.
Most people don’t know what their most important KPIs are, so they don’t measure or track the milestones that lead to goal accomplishment. This, in turn, leads to spending time on potentially less important tasks, while crucial processes get delayed. Have systems in place to monitor progress towards goals and establish the right metrics to track, so you can make sure time is being allocated correctly.
For example, if the objective is to reach a number 1 ranking for a particular term, with a target for additional traffic and conversions, then you’ll know what results you’re striving for, and be able to clearly communicate the outcomes. This is also why forecasting is so important in the first place - because it helps set these goals and determine which KPIs to track.
Most workers don’t meet with their manager enough to evaluate their progress. However, having goal-oriented alignment sessions with each team member will help ensure that the organisation is being driven efficiently towards its collective goals. Furthermore, each employee should know which KPIs they “own,” or are contributing towards, to increase accountability and track overall team performance.
The same is true of accountability between client and agency. If you have a clear goal and know what to measure, then the client will understand the success metrics and how you’re performing throughout the campaign, helping build more transparent relationships and increase end customer trust.
Other than overcoming structural issues, there is also a need for a thorough and transparent process for forecasting. We’ve developed a Forecasting module specifically designed to help SEOs create reliable proposals and establish proactive communications with clients, all while streamlining the use of various tools to increase efficiency.
Here’s a brief summary of how SEOmonitor’s Forecasting can support your proposal building process:
Display a deep understanding of the client’s industry by showing the results of keyword research and competitor overview analysis. The success of your pitch rides on choosing the right keywords, with the best supporting principles to justify them. This is coupled with choosing successful competitors in the same category to identify and validate opportunities for growth.
Establish the truth of their current SEO performance by splitting the organic traffic in branded and non-branded. (It’s only the non-brand traffic that is connected to and dependent on SEO.) This shows the client the actual lift generated by your efforts, and therefore the real value of investing in SEO.
Present a realistic forecast that can be easily understood and verified:
Compare the SEO budget and forecasted results to its equivalent in terms of PPC strategy expenditure. Bringing in this external comparison will show the worth and value that SEO brings, and it will also give clients a chance to research and assess the projected outcome.
Clients can be convinced that SEO is the way to go, but what makes them choose you? Answer their number one need, which is for quality service that’s transparent and effective. Provide a detailed explanation of how exactly your team will report to them on campaign progress, share information on data and assumptions, and ultimately achieve their KPIs and goals - essentially, assuring them that your team’s tasks will be aligned to their objectives.
SEO forecasting can be a reliable and transparent tool for SEO agencies to set achievable objectives for their campaigns and translate business results to their clients. However, there are still many issues with developing accurate forecasts which agencies need to overcome.
But, with the right tools, support systems and organisational structures in place, SEOs can forecast better and more efficiently, helping to increase client buy-in and foster a stronger forecasting culture within SEO agencies. This, in turn, will help strengthen your team’s ability to acquire new clients, and contribute to the growth of the SEO industry as a whole.