The Uncanny Valley of SEO Strategy

Sometimes, bigger ideas are better

Welcome to the SEO MBA - an email newsletter all about leadership, management and consulting skills for SEO professionals written by me, Tom Critchlow. (And there’s an online course coming soon!)

Remember that 5-slide CEO presentation the other day? Well this is the first slide I ended up presenting:

The aim of this slide is to provide context for the pitch we’re about to make (“more investment in SEO”). I think there’s three interesting things about this slide.

Firstly - it anchors the relative scale of SEO growth. The top line in the chart has more than 3x the client’s organic traffic. That suggests a large upside is possible.

Secondly - it shows the timeframe of investment, you might reasonably conclude that it could take a year or two to catch up with the top line.

Thirdly - it suggests implicitly that if we continue to not invest in SEO then we will continue to decline relative to competitors.

I’ve seen a lot of SEO pitches over the years and many of them fall into what I call the “uncanny valley” of strategy - they’re compelling ideas that have real business upside but are pitched as small investments.

Medium-sized Strategy Falls in the Uncanny Valley

While you might think that a small investment for a big gain is the goal - in fact businesses tend to be wary of such ideas and tend to prefer large investments that lead to large gains.

This might sound counterintuitive but there’s a decision tax that companies pay - they can only effectively focus on a small number of strategic initiatives at once and you want your SEO initiative to be one of them. That requires correctly framing your idea as “a big idea”.

This is why you might find that where resources are currently allocated you are able to present ideas and get buy-in, but pitching for new resources fails. This is why I call it the uncanny valley.

If it’s a big enough idea to require additional resources or budgets but it’s not big enough to get buy-in and commitment across the organization then it’s in the uncanny valley.

This is true for in-house and agency folks but agency folks seem especially prone to this way of thinking - ending up frustrated with the client that they won’t make the investment that will lead to returns!

Bigger Pitches Please

To cross the uncanny valley you need your pitch to be big enough to make senior execs pay attention. They’re more likely to green-light an ambitious project that has a clear big return than a smaller average project.

This requires two things:

  1. Correctly framing your growth as yearly (or perhaps longer!). SEO is a compounding growth activity and should be presented as such. And it’s much more compelling to multiply your monthly numbers by 12, obviously.

  2. Correctly understanding the investment required - accounting for the resources you need

A common SEO request like “make the content better” is wishful thinking - not a strategy. Instead, you need to correctly understand the current system and pitch a complete accounting of what’s needed.

A Deeper Understanding of the Requirements Please

One of the common ways a CEO will poke holes in your pitch is to see ways your idea is going to take more money or resources than you think it will.

Let’s take a look at that request again - “make the content better”. Before you can pitch an improvement you need to understand the current system. Consider a path something like this:

And, if we’re investing significant budget into content, what are some of the costs we might want to include?

  • A new CMS?

  • Visual assets?

  • Additional keywords tracked in our rank tracker?

  • More editors *and* more writers?

  • Refreshing high value old content?

Only by considering the complete project across all aspects can we present a credible pitch to the CEO (who has a better bird’s eye view of the organization than we do). 

Timing Big Pitches

When you’re pitching for resources and budgets you should be mindful of how and when the organization makes decisions. Some businesses, especially smaller ones, operate on a fast cadence and have the ability to re-assign budgets frequently - but many larger businesses set budgets far in advance.

For these businesses it’s key to understand the key decision moments. Typically this is a monthly or quarterly executive meeting where important things are discussed - and you want to align your pitch to that meeting to have any hope of getting budget for your ideas.

Once Again: Monthly Data is a Trap

Just because every SEO tool presents keyword search volume as a monthly figure does not mean you should pitch traffic/revenue increases as such. Align your presentation to the way that your business thinks about budgets - the CEO cares far more about a $2.4m / year increase than a $200k / month increase.

If you’re frustrated that your client or boss won’t approve your budgets, try a bigger idea with a bigger budget - but don’t forget a full accounting of what it will take. 

Until next week,


PS: Here’s some homework: there are at least three key presentation rules I broke in the slide I shared above. Can you spot them? Next week we’re going to talk about how to make good presentations. I’m looking for some real example slides to analyze and improve. If you’re willing to share - please email me some slides! I’ll anonymize them and deconstruct them and improve them and we’ll take a look together.

PPS: I’m starting to build out the SEO MBA website: Not too much there yet but hopefully more soon!