Justifying SEO budgets requested more and more

Published on 6 December 2022, updated on 15 December 2022

Marc Swann is the Search Director at Glass Digital. His focus is on ensuring the SEO team delivers the results clients expect.

How do you usually approach pitching to eCommerce clients?

Our approach is heavily consultative, as it has to be when pitching something like SEO. Initial approaches to prospective clients are usually data led, so including elements such as:

  • Snapshots of recent organic performance.
  • Highlighting individual or a collection of predominately technical SEO-related issues.
  • Snapshots of the impact of Google updates if the website is regularly impacted by them.

However, it is important that when we initially approach people that we don’t simply rely on highlighting faults as we understand that highlighting faults is often much easier than fixing faults. 

The offer of a full audit alongside examples of results we have achieved is often enough to get our foot in the door. Really at this stage, we’re letting the prospects know the only thing they’ll be sacrificing for a second opinion is a bit of their time.

Audits usually comprise of the following elements:

  • Competitor report
  • Current performance vs. competitors
  • Opportunity analysis
  • How we approach technical SEO
  • Prospects technical SEO issues
  • How we approach content development
  • Prospects content opportunities
  • How we approach outreach / link building
  • Examples of coverage we’ve secured
  • Prospect outreach opportunities
  • Case studies
  • Proposal

The aim of the audit is to pack in as much value, for free, as we can and ultimately build trust with the prospect, backed by proof of our knowledge and results. 

Do you use forecasting for pitching or upselling processes?

There is a point in most pitches or upsells when the question about return on investment appears. Therefore, being able to forecast is something we have to do in most cases. Obviously, forecasting in SEO is difficult given that most of the metrics you need to do it are not accurate (search volume, CTR, # keywords, etc.).

With this in mind, we often brand our forecasting an “opportunity analysis” as this allows us to re-frame the idea that it is a forecast or prediction and move the prospect towards the traffic and revenue potential, should we succeed.

We approach it by first gathering a set of commercially relevant keywords where the prospect does not rank in traffic-driving positions. At this point, we can do one of two things. One version of what we often do is to put these keywords into a keyword list in Ahrefs to get the current traffic share for all domains.

This then gives us an indication of what 1% of traffic share looks like for those keywords. Based on this, we can then put forward scenarios such as “if you gain X% of traffic share for these keywords, based on your current conversion rate and AOV you could make X.”

This approach relies completely on the accuracy of Ahrefs, and with that data not utilizing 100% reliable data in terms of search volume and CTR, there is always going to be a difference between the forecast and reality.

Our second method is to download the same set of keywords alongside finding out the client’s average CTR for each position in the top 10, from their existing search console data. We can then use the search volume from the keyword list and the CTR to gauge what increases in rankings might mean from a traffic and revenue perspective.

Similar to the first approach this improves CTR accuracy but still relies on inaccurate search volume data. 

Our main aim at this stage is to show the prospect that the channel is a viable investment and that the returns are there should we be successful in implementing our strategy.

What are the 3 main SEO challenges your eCommerce clients are facing?

Challenge #1: Current economic climate

The biggest current challenge for our SEO clients relates to the direction the UK economy is heading in and trying to fight against lowering search volumes, low consumer confidence, and therefore lowering conversion rates. This is especially challenging in non-essential retail sectors.

The challenge for us is to identify areas of opportunity where clients can claw back some conversions in the face of this decline and implement strategies to take advantage of this. A few clients have also mentioned problems due to the strength of the dollar vs. the pound as supply chain costs go up due to this.

Challenge #2: Getting things done

A more generic challenge is getting changes relating to SEO strategies live on a client’s website. Getting things done. SEO is a unique channel in terms of its resource requirement on the client side.

Most marketing channels need little involvement with development teams outside of tagging (which can often bypass development with the likes of GTM) however SEO can be quite development intensive.

Most clients have existing development workflows, projects, and sprints that are already planned in, and therefore it is often a struggle for our recommended work to muscle in on these workflows to enact necessary changes for SEO.

These changes can be anything from projects that help Core Web Vitals metrics to altering page templates to facilitate optimized content.

This challenge scales with the size of the client. The bigger the business, the more stressed and pre-planned the development team schedules look to be.
This can often lead to a lack of progress on the SEO project so it is important we are able to effectively communicate the value of your proposed changes to the client and to those who are planning the work for development teams.

Challenge #3: Amazon

I remember back in 2009 having conversations with clients about Amazon slowly growing and taking market share and most of those clients not being too concerned and not seeing Amazon as a direct competitor.

Fast forward 13 years and not only is Amazon dominating most retail sectors in the UK and US but a lot of those websites are now selling their products on Amazon.

On the SEO side it can be difficult to truly break into top 3 positions due to the likes of Amazon, Ebay and to a certain extent in the UK, Argos. We track a number of keywords across different client sectors and market share is often always dominated by these players, across the keyword groups below of which there are over 14,000 tracked keywords.

  • Homeware
  • Baby Safety Products
  • Sports & Fitness
  • Outdoors
  • Fashion

Amazon maintains an average 12% traffic share and is in the top 3 traffic share positions across each category. Most small to mid-size retailers now find themselves in a David & Goliath battle with Amazon.

What is a recent more specific challenge that you had to overcome in an SEO campaign for eCommerce?

Recently we had an issue with a new client who saw their keyword rankings and subsequent organic traffic plummet by over 90% across all markets outside of the US. The site was multi-lingual and we noticed that Google was not listening to hreflang tags and choosing to always list the US version of a page.

If a US version did not exist, Google was presented with a 404, even though there was a page available for the other markets.

Our first test to try and overcome this was to see if, when we created a US version for a page, it was selected by Google and ranked – which turned out to be the case. We initially thought this was an issue with their firewall, only allowing traffic from the US. However, that was not the case.

Eventually, we managed to narrow it down to a custom PHP script in WordPress that was using Geo-IP location detection and serving content based on that. There were no excludes on Google IP addresses and with Google crawling predominantly from the US, only US content was being served to Google.

Removing the script entirely quickly resulted in keywords returning in all non-US markets, hreflang tags being recognized and organic traffic climbing.

Can you give me an example of a successful SEO campaign for an eCommerce client? Which were the main tactics and challenges?

We began working with a UK sport & fitness retailer in May 2022 who had migrated from Magento to Shopify 8 months prior. Unfortunately, that migration did not go well and we found ourselves in a position where front-page keywords had declined by 63%.

The move to Shopify had essentially buried their category (or collections in Shopify lingo) pages, turning a large chunk of them into orphan pages, only accessible via the XML sitemap. With hundreds of these pages in play our strategy was to increase the relevancy of these pages through content and ensure their discoverability was vastly improved with a program of internal linking.

Over the course of 5 months, we optimized our way through over 200 collection pages, built out the main navigation to improve collection discoverability, and built in-collection sub-linking structures to help collections further down the structure.

Within 3 months of those projects completing we saw the following impact on keyword rankings:

  • 3,405 additional front-page keywords, an increase of 98%
  • 686 additional top 3 keywords, an increase of 93%
  • A +171% increase in SEO visibility

At the present moment, we are only halfway through the optimization project, so we are expecting significantly more growth as we head into peak trading season.

In this example, the challenge was simply arresting the decline in traffic-driving keywords in a short period of time. Our initial technical work identified that the main issue with the migration was the discoverability of category pages, which had gone from relatively high up the site structure, to discoverable mainly through the XML sitemap.

The site did not originally have content on these category pages and therefore relied entirely on being discovered via navigation. Our approach was therefore to increase discoverability by navigational changes and build relevancy through content and internal linking. By understanding the product type priorities of the business, we were able to optimize collections in the order of importance to the business (this was mainly bikes & footwear). 

What have you noticed in terms of search behaviour trends within your 2022 campaigns?

The most obvious trend we have seen across a number of our clients, especially those we would class as non-essential retail, is a reduction in search volume vs. both 2020, 2021, and in some cases 2019.

There are outliers to this in industries that are either more suited to the current economic climate, for example, we have a client who sells blankets which has seen a significant increase in search activity since the cost of living crisis.

Overall though there is a reduction in volume and in conversion rates which, as mentioned earlier, means we are having to identify new areas of opportunity from an SEO perspective, to try and balance these reductions with growth.

We often measure the percentage of organic traffic and revenue acquired vs. the previous year for clients to see if we are ahead or behind the growth curve and with a number of non-essential retail clients we can see that while we have managed to get close to the previous year’s traffic levels, even with volume reductions, revenue is much more of a struggle given the climate.

Have eCommerce clients’ needs or requests changed over the past months, given the economic shifts? If yes, how?

There’s no doubt that retailers are feeling the pinch as consumers tighten their belts, and this presents risks for most marketing agencies when it comes to justifying the value of their services. SEO is a channel that is often more at risk when times are hard, and marketing budgets are scrutinized.

SEO performance can ultimately be maintained in the short and even medium term without a recurring spend associated with it, unlike something like paid search where once ad spend stops, performance disappears.

So certainly justifying expenditure in SEO is something that we have seen requested more and not seeing it as a luxury in harder times. Ultimately, those that are able to fulfill their SEO strategies through the hard times will be in much stronger positions when the economy eventually turns positive.

Another common request is a push to do more, can we find more search opportunities? This is something we have been proactively recommending, looking at expanding keyword targeting across key sectors and product types.

How do you approach SEO budgets in eCommerce in the context of 2023?

Ultimately, our aim is to approach budgets as we always have done. For us, this means focusing on what needs to be done to produce results and working that backwards to arrive at a budget. If you start with the budget then you ultimately end up watering down your strategy, which has a negative impact on results and the negotiated budget is ultimately a failed experiment.

We often equate SEO to the act of getting fit. You need to hit the gym regularly, do the right amount of exercise, ensure your nutrition is spot on, and more importantly ensure you are consistent with this over an extended period of time.

If you start skimping on your meals or the intensity of your training (a.k.a cut corners by reducing budget and therefore completed work) then you won’t get the results you set out for.

Obviously, this is easier said than done, especially if retailers have less budget to play with in 2023, which is likely to be the case. In these instances, we will be looking to sell the long-term value of the SEO channel, showing the value of getting it right vs. other channels that we might deem “luxury” channels.

As an agency, it is also beneficial for us to make sure our processes are as efficient as possible. If we are able to reduce the time a specific client task takes by 30% without sacrificing quality, then those savings can be fed through to clients to help with budget constraints.

Have you noticed any differences between different industries under the eCommerce sector, in terms of search behavior trends? 

Certainly related to Covid, we have. In the early days of Covid in 2020, a client who sells wholesale catering equipment and supplies saw an astronomical increase in traffic and revenue for toilet roll. As wholesalers, they don’t usually sell B2C however, after seeing the demand, they allowed for this. The search volume increase and decrease in a short period of time was one of the more extreme examples of the impact of covid on search behavior, growing from 12,000 searches per month in February 2020 to over 600,000 the next month.


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