Measuring success and KPIs in SEO - why 60% of SEO projects fail, and what you can do about it

How many SEO projects succeed?

Not so long ago Aleady Solis created a Twitter poll asking asking "What percentage of the SEO Processes/Projects/Initiative that you work at end up having the "agreed/expected outcome" & are seen as a "success" by the client/stakeholders?" With some 250 SEO professionals responding the poll, roughly three out of five (that's 60%) SEOs replied that they fail to meet expectations more than half the time. And even with the rest the risk of failing to meet expected outcome was likely to happen with one out of every three projects. And only a small group of SEOs managed to deliver what they promised most of the time.

In short the results are nothing new. SEO has had a bad name and reputation from the beginning because of it's varying performance. Fortunately there are number of ways to increase the likelyhood of success in SEO projects. But first one must understand why so many projects fail.

Why so many SEO projects fail to meet expectations?

None of the above does not equal that the SEO does not delivery the results (it does, I know it more than well).

Nor does it mean that the SEO people responding the poll would have been bad SEOs. Most likely the experience level followed a bell curve - with some really good and some really bad SEOs, most falling down in between.

Based on my own personal experience (of 20+ years in the industry) I would say that the reason for such low success ratio is two-fold.

First, a lot of the above results correlate the fact that many of us doing SEO are forced (by customers or management) to agree KPIs and expectations we know are unrealistic.

Second, many of the SEO projects are poorly defined, complex and massive. And when working with poorly defined, big and complex entities, you often time end up with complex and unexpected results.

Within this post I will cover only the prior.

Why understanding the customer type improves SEO success rate?

I would classify SEO customers into three categories:

My standard pitch with every new project has for the past 15 years been that "I give no guarantees whatsoever that we reach position X on keyword Z, as it not in my control. Instead I guarantee that I will do my best to increase the odds of reaching best possible SERPs within gived resources. Even on best scenario it will take at least 3-6 months for some results to show up, but most likely it will take 12-36 months for full blown effect to start kicking in." I know it is not much of a pitch, but it is an honest pitch and it has given me a number of good longterm customer relationships over the two decades. Basically a lot of it boils down to understanding that there are things I control (the quality of my own work),and there are things which I do not control (how search engines rank the page, when the change happens, the competitors SEO efforts etc).

As much I would love to work only with customers who truly understand SEO, the harsh reality is that many potential customers fall into two prior groups of holy grail seekers and fairytale believers.

The fairy tale believers are probably the easiest customer group to deal with. Once you give them a big dose of reality, they will move onto somebody who tells them what they want to hear.

The distinction between holy grail seekers and those who truly understand SEO is much harder to pick as both of these types begin with "I fully understand the requirements of SEO, and agree with what you are saying" statements. But as weeks turn into months, the pressure at client/stakeholders end starts to increase. And that is when you ultimately discover the type of customer type you are dealing with. Those seeking for the holy grail usually give up in 3-6 months of no-progress, whereas those understanding SEO are in it for the long run.

One of the customers I had the pleasure of working in the past was a Managing Country Director of global tech company. Our honeymoon started with the usual "I fully understand what you are saying" and mutual respect and trust. After three months the manager insisted setting up some hard KPI metrics to measure SEO progress and results for the board. Nothing bad in there, and thus I suggested some operational KPI metrics like the number of outreach per month, number of pages improved etc. stuff that really shows the hard work and progress that is being put to get the results. The set of suggested KPIs was not to managers liking, and he insisted a set of strategic KPI metrics, like number of sales through specific channel and average position for the targeted keywords. Needles to say,none of those metrics measured how good or bad of a job I and SEO team beneath me was doing to deliver the results. It was only measuring whether or not we had reached the desired outcome on a timespan that was totally unrealistic.

I could have walked out at that point. But being a realist I also understood that I would be a fool to walk out. Timeline of when (and if) Google starts to reward all the hard work is not in my control. Change could happen tomorrow, or it might take 12 months. So I took a change (but I also made sure that my differing opinion about the timing of strategic KPIs was written down in black and white). Three months later my contract was terminated and everyone on SEO team got sacked because we failed to provide the KPI results the manager had single handedly set. Even though I lost this gamble, I walked out with some extra 20K of reward in my pocket for the extra months I stayed working. The last I checked on that company they are still very much in the dark ages. SEO folks come and gone, all facing the same fate of starting from anew, but never really getting to the point of completing anything significant because the timespan to make result that stick is simply too short.

On the other end of stream are customers who truly get SEO. If narrowing down to really big customers who have seen SEO success with me, I have used on approximately 4.7 years working with each. They invest on SEO on the long run, they understand the nature of the beast, and are not expecting immediate strategic results.

SEO success begins with understanding the proper timeline

It is true that from business perspective SEO exists and is done only for return of investment. If SEO does not bring in profit, then doing SEO is a bad business decision.

But the main difference from those who truly succeed and those who fail comes from having different expecations on timelines.

The fairy tale believers are looking for quick and easy (and often times dirty/desperate) hacks to get rich quickly. They are looking at timeline of few months tops. Sadly, hardly any real SEO related change that would stick permanently happen so quickly.

Holy grail seekers are bit of the same, but they are less open about their goals and expectations. On average they give 6-12 months to turn the tide. Sadly, once again this is often times too little to provide guaranteed results. At six month mark things can swing either way - you could have reached the edge of turning point, or you could still be digging your way out of the pit.

And then there are the customers who understand what SEO is all about. They acknowledge that there are no fast and easy golden tickets. They understand that SEO is lot like weight loss or any other 'self improvement' project. If you expect results fast, then you will fail. If you try to get instant results, then you will fail. If you give up working, then you will fail. But if you keep on working the issues in reasonable sized chunks, month after month, year after year, then eventually there will be guaranteed success. They say that the key to success in weight loss is understanding that it is not a diet but a lifestyle. The same holds true for SEO too.

And SEO success ends with keeping focus on proper KPI metrics

The other side of the success story are KPI metrics. Doing SEO efforts without any kind of trackback is same as throwing money into endless pit. But at the same one also should acknowledge that though SEO can have both operational and strategic KPI metrics, the latter apply only on the long run. If going back to the previous analogy of weight loss, what matters in the beginning is keeping track of the operational things. That you eat a healthy diet x times a day, that you eat and burn calories on good ratio, that you rest enough etc. If you start looking at the strategic KPI metrics (such as 'have I lost weight and how much') too early and/or too often, then you are guaranteed to fail before any true results start to build up.

When is the right time to switch from operational KPI metrics into strategic KPI metrics? I would say that once every 3 months is a good period to check the direction things are heading at. When and if there are distinct signs of uphill movement for at least two consecutive periods, then a switch from operational KPI metrics to strategic KPI metrics is IMHO recommendable shift. Until then the foucus should be all about the operational KPI metrics and building up the foundation.

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