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Forecasting for SEO: Often Inaccurate but Crucial for Investments

It turns out Forecasting for SEO is time consuming and often inaccurate. However, SEO’s do spend a lot of time on it, because Forecasting appears to be crucial to increase investment.

Last week we and Linkdex spoke to a group of SEO’s and did a survey here on State of Digital, to get an understanding of industry opinion on Forecasting for SEO. I am now happy to share with you what we learned. I knew that lots of people were spending lots of time forecasting, I also knew that with competitor activity, alongside all of the variables within the space, it was incredibly difficult to forecast accurately and I equally felt as though forecasting was becoming increasingly important to secure increased channel investment or win pitches.

Fortunately, I was not alone.

We discovered that 78% of the respondents (both agency and in-house SEOs across a range of levels) at least sometimes forecast SEO activity with a dedicated 18% always forecasting against activity. Interestingly, only 4% responded that they never forecast activity; a figure which, had I done this only a few years ago I imagine would have been much higher.

I forecast the output of my activity and-or receive forecasts from partners-1

With all of us forecasting away like Michael Fish the question remains…why? And are we good at it?

Our very own Paddy Moogan (Aira) believes the importance of Forecasting depends on what it’s for:

“The importance of Forecasting varies a lot from client to client. Some clients really need you to do forecasting in order to get budget sign-off from their bosses whilst others don’t worry too much. If forecasting is important to a client and it’s required to get sign-off on an idea or campaign, then I feel it is important. “

It seems as though the reason we love to forecast is because we need to put our money where our mouths are, with 64% responding that financial decisions are affected by forecasts. (64% either agree or strongly agree that it’s critical to winning a pitch and 65% believe that detailed forecasting allows us to increase channel investments). Essentially, important financial decisions are being made based on our forecasts.

Is it malapropos then, that only 1 in 4 felt as though forecast results were close to actual outcomes?

Forecasting results are often close to actual outcomes

Mark Jackson (Vizion Interactive) (find him on Twitter) believes Forecasting is important, but practically impossible if you want to do it right:

“Forecasting specific results is very challenging, if not impossible. As much as we might like to think that SEO is akin to an assembly line approach, where you do A, B and C and get D result, it simply doesn’t work that way; at least, not under most circumstances (there are still some easy wins out there if, for example, a site has technical roadblocks to their success).”

That forecasting is difficult is no secret, (in fact 92% of those who answered the survey questions either agreed or strongly agreed that it is time consuming) of course it is. We’re operating in an industry where we’re optimising against thousands of ranking metrics which are constantly in flux, alongside all of our competitor activity, against ever changing ad formats and where every other piece of marketing activity, from TV to tradeshows, equally has an impact organic traffic. And I know I’m not the only one who has legitimately discussed the weather in a meeting about not hitting targets.

Daniel Bianchini (White.net) underscribes the dualism we’re in when it comes to Forecasting:

“Forecasting for SEO can be a double-edged sword. If done well, and understood it can be powerful, but conducted badly, it can be very damaging. With so many different factors and changing variables within SEO, forecasting can be very difficult to predict.”

Ultimately, we’re all in agreement that forecasting is crucial; both for internal goals and to justify investment. The new necessity for forecasting is symptomatic of an industry growing up and that makes me want to hug everyone who has ever optimised a title tag. We can make it easier, we can make it faster, we can continue to get better at it and learn from our not close to actual outcomes, however it will never be completely accurate; and we like it that way, because the fact that we operate in such an ever changing, multi touch, multi discipline channel is why we bloody love it.

We didn’t just do a survey, we also talked to several different experts in the industry, amongst which several State of Digital bloggers, we will share their thoughts in a different post later. For now we are very interested in your ideas: is Forecasting worth it for you? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!



Kirsty Hulse is Head of SEO Best Practice at Linkdex and has six years experience defining search strategies for some of the world's biggest brands, as well as small E-commerce start ups.
  • damian

    I work client side, and I’ll say this – being bad at forecasting is not an excuse not to do it. This is a costly business, both in paying an agency and in internal developement time, and if someone cannot give me an idea of the effect of some work then I assume they are either too inexperienced to be trusted or they themselves lack faith in what they are proposing. This standard applies everywhere across business and there’s no reason why organic practitioners should be different. The converse is true as well – if I’m an agency and I’ve got a good track record of being able to forecast and deliver, I’m calling up all of these clients and asking them to give me testimonials around that. Trust is valuable.

    And the ‘not being aware of technical setup’ isn’t an excuse, either. If we as clients are going to be more demanding, then agencies should be more picky about how and who they work with as well. You never know, it might lead to better relationships and better results

    • Kirsty Hulse

      yes absolutely – there’s no doubt that forecasting is crucial to justify investment in advance; and, as is the case with any other channel, a forecast is never 100% accurate, more an indication of expected outcome and a goal for everyone to mutually strive towards

  • Part of our KPI set is this years traffic (visitors) compared to last years. We forecast this years traffic with a mark-up calculated from our content strategy plan. Forecasting have been proven difficult, however, since we implemented a content strategie plan the forecasting has become more reliable.