It’s not unusual for prospects to be under the mistaken impression that natural search (SEO) is free. It takes ongoing investment, that investment comes at a cost, and that cost has to be budgeted for. But while these prospects are trying to hire our firm they are also sending us a very mixed message: “We don’t have any budget for SEO”. These words make any SEO want to scream. It’s like trying to hire a construction company to build your company a new headquarters and informing them in your first meeting “Just so you know, we aren’t likely to have the money to pay you.” This tells me that my and my colleagues’ time – and expertise – are not being truly valued. Maybe it stems from the misguided notion that they are entitled to the traffic – it’s their right and anything blocking them from their rightful share of free traffic can and should be swept aside. Simply throw a few dollars at the problem (i.e. buy the minimum number of SEO consulting hours required) and make it go away. Then the tide of “free” traffic will wash over them for years to come. It’s my job, and the job of my sales team, to convince them that SEO is an ongoing investment, that it must be resourced properly, and – this is the most important part of all – that they should pay us for value received rather than hours clocked. You can’t blame them for being stuck in the dollars-for-hours paradigm when that paradigm is pervasive: it’s the modus operandi for accountants, lawyers, and consultants of all sorts. Tell me the minimum number of hours I need to buy from you in order for you to complete my tax return, to draw up a new legal contract, to retool my business process. The euphemism for this is: “Can’t you just get us some quick wins on the board??” It’s time to think differently, folks! If you put a dollar in, and you can get 8 dollars back, you should beg, borrow and steal as much as you can to keep putting dollars in. Keep plowing money in – as long as you feel confident that you will get a good return on your investment. There are hard costs and soft costs to which you must allocate budget. The hard costs include hiring staff, allocating internal resources, engaging an SEO firm, and outfitting your in-house team with on the tools of the trade (SEOmoz Pro, Internet Marketing Ninjas, SMX and SES conference registrations, SEOClass, SEOTraining SEMPO, etc.). There are soft costs associated with SEO too, which are fuzzier and harder to define than the hard costs. These include the missed opportunity cost, time-to-market cost, and the cost of competing opportunities. For more on these, read my Search Engine Land article. Getting to the top of the rankings isn’t free. And guess what? Neither is staying there. Keep that budget up year after year. Making a “one time investment” in SEO is a recipe for failure.
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