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Creating Buy-In For Technical SEO Debt

John Doherty —  March 5, 2013
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Over the last week and a half, I gave talks at Searchfest in Portland and MNSearch in Minneapolis about technical SEO. I pulled one over on both audiences though, as the real meat of the talks was about getting buy-in for making technical changes on your website (what I called technical SEO debt.

I defined technical SEO debt as:

A metaphor referring to the eventual consequences of poor or evolving architecture or SEO problems/dependencies within a website.

Both talks started with the statement that many sites need to quit focusing on linkbuilding and fix the technical debt that they owe on their websites. You see, every executive is busy and has their hands in multiple pots, so for any of the departments under them they need something to hang their hat on – rankings, traffic, revenue, whatever. For a lot of marketing managers or CMOs, who have only a very rudimentary understanding of SEO, that will be links, so they push for more links as that is what they understand. They think links will get them the money that they want, but we all know that is not true.

If links are all that mattered for SEO, then the sites in positions 6-8 in the below chart should rank at the top -

no more links

But they don’t. Link analysis would reveal this when analyzing the top 10 results of any SERP -

if links were enough

Technical debt runs rampant across the Internet, partially because of this insane focus on linkbuilding. Linkbuilding is sexy and important, I get it. But in the shift from page-centric to site-centric focuses by Google in the past couple years (favoring strong websites), technical SEO has become more and more important, yet it is still largely ignored. I even joked at Searchfest that I was glad that no linkbuilding session was occurring during my technical SEO session alongside Justin Briggs because no one would have attended our session.

Achieving Buy-In for Technical Changes

You have probably had someone, either a boss or client, say to you, “We need to know the ROI before we will allocate budget for this.” When you are working on the enterprise scale, we are not usually talking small budgets either, but rather at least in the 10s of thousands of dollars, and sometimes even higher than that.

Step 1: Potential Revenue Modeling

The first step to achieving buy-in for changes to dig into the technical debt on our sites is to model the potential ROI. This means:

* Identifying the keywords
* Identifying the debt and changes that should be made
* Identify the cost of making changes (effort needed to make the change times the developer hourly rate)
* Average conversion rate for that type of page
* Average amount of revenue per conversion

Once you have all of this, the model is:

roi model

Step 2: Pitch a Test

In these cases, I recommend pitching a test big enought to give statistically significant results (at least 30 data points), which will require only a portion of the budget needed to make changes across the site. This way, you can measure the results and pitch a more accurate revenue amount once all of the changes have been made.

An example that I gave was of a client where we added internal links and saw a good increase in rankings:

rankings increase

Then, based off that test, we were able to get buy-in to make more changes. We changed keyword targeting and saw another good jump:

hotels rising

ReModel and Repitch

Once your test has had time to process and the pages have all been recrawled, measure the results. Then, you can pitch to complete the rest of the changes, the remainder after the test, using:

1. Updated revenue per conversion
2. Updated conversion rate based on page type
3. Updated cost to fix (hours times developer hourly rate)

Here’s the model in case you missed it:

roi model


What are you waiting for? Start pitching and start making money!

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

4 responses to Creating Buy-In For Technical SEO Debt

  1. John – Your presentation in Minneapolis was full of great examples and approach to an area of SEO often swept under the rug and ignored. As you put it, “Stop worrying about links and fix your damn site!”. Thanks again for the sharing of intelligence and time with MnSearch, our org was impressed and grateful.

  2. On-site SEO is very underrated. Everyone focus so much on link building that they forget that links are not the only ranking factor. Personally, I was able to improve position of my website from 11th to 4th position for moderately competitive keyword by including keywords in url-s and main navigation menu. There’s no excuse for not improving your on-site SEO, unless you have to rebuild whole website.

  3. For me the problem is getting the client to understand that a designed site that is “SEO optimized” is a buzzword until on-site optimization has actually been carried out. Once you can get past that hurdle the penny usually drops.

  4. John, always a pleasure reading your REAL approach to SEO, nice and refreshing. We actually created Serperture for this exact reason, far too many websites getting money spent on them to acquire links and so forth, but having terrible technical foundations and therefore not reaping the full potential of the marketing spend on link acquisition. Linking will always be important, because it’s the wwW after all, but I definitely feel people should stop focusing so much on link building and go back to “basics”.