Eli Schwartz

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When a team is debating investing resources into an SEO effort, they will (and should) inevitably ask the right question around the expected ROI. The common approach to SEO forecasting is to use search volume from a tool like Ahrefs, SEMrush or Google’s Keyword Planner and to then layer on an expected conversion rate from search to clicks to the site. Since these tools mostly use exact match (rolling up spelling differences), the forecast will include a grossed up estimate to account for searches that contain the keyword but are not exact matches.

I used this method a decade ago and I think now it should be considered somewhat obsolete. Here are 5 new ways to estimate volume and potential ROI for your effort.

  • Ads on Google  – By far running an ads campaign on Google is the easiest to get an accurate gauge of potential search volume AND ROI. If you were to use the keywords you hoped to be able to generate traffic on and sent that traffic to a replica of the SEO page you are planning to build, you will have immediate benchmarks.

    Google will tell you what your maximum budget would be if you removed the financial shackles and that is likely a good sense of how much search volume there is for your chosen keywords. More importantly the conversion rate you see from these paid channels should be similar to what you might get from organic considering that they are the same people from search engines.

    To truly maximize the value of this test you can also test potential SEO meta in the ads by putting your title in the headline field and your meta description in the subheadline. You will get immediate feedback on your value prop that you plan to use without the need of waiting for the SEO efforts to scale.

  • Traffic Estimation  – Use a traffic estimation tool like Ahrefs, Semrush or Similarweb to look at possible competitor websites and make assumptions on how you might get the same traffic. These don’t have to be direct competitors; rather they should be search competitors. If users are going to Wikipedia for their answers now, look at the traffic of that Wikipedia page. The same goes for any other informational website that you will be competing with for your targeted topics.

    The traffic you get from these tools might be a total addressable market, so you can’t assume that you will get all the traffic. Apply an expected penetration percentage and this will be the gross traffic number to use in your revenue forecasts.

  • Branded keywords – Find the biggest brands in your topic space and use their estimated traffic (from the same tools above) as a predictor of total demand for the product. This is very specific so message me if I can help calculate if for you, but here’s an example.

    If you are building a product in the real estate space and want to estimate total traffic you might look at how much traffic there is for the keyword “zillow” and then gross that up by a brand non-brand split. In my opinion, it would be fair to at least double the number you find.

  • Facebook interest categories – this is a bit of a different idea since it is not exactly search volume, but you will be using it to estimate total addressable market. Use the Facebook Ads tool see how many people are interested in a particular topic and that would be your TAM for search volume. You will still need to pick keywords, but at least you know what the upper limit my be.
  • Google Search Console – This is a bit of a chicken and egg issue because if you don’t have search volume yet, there won’t be anything to see here. However, if you are lucky enough to have accidental SEO traffic then the impression volumes you see for keywords (on the first page) will be accurate impressions to what the search demand truly is.

    Using the keywords you already have search traffic on, you would then use a search tool to find additional keywords and make assumptions on traffic based on the keyword volumes you know.

As is apparent from all of these ideas, SEO forecasting is very fuzzy and an art form rather than a precise science. In my years doing SEO, I have never ever seen an SEO forecast match the reality. Either the numbers miss for a variety of reasons or they are successful beyond any prediction.  

Regardless, businesses can’t make investment decisions without forecasts on ROI. To be fair, other channels also rely on fuzzy forecasts – TV anyone? – but SEO ends up being even more opaque because there is very little information that is publicly shared and considered to be rock solid reliable.

Unlike an advertising channel where the ad network (Google Ads included) are incentivized to share performance data, there is no good reason that Google search would share organic forecasts. Therefore, we need to operate somewhat in the dark with our hands tied behind our backs. That aside if you do your job right, you will hopefully blow your forecasts out of the water.

These five ideas are just seeds to hopefully get you started with ways you can estimate search potential without having to rely on methods that were never that reliable even when they were common practice. If you have other ways of estimating and forecasting search potential I would love to hear your ideas.