Selling SEO to the C-Suite

“Search sits at the core of online behavior. People spend more time on the Internet than watching TV. What customers put in the search bar is the expression of intent”, said Seth Besmertnik, CEO of Conductor, and presenter at the SEO in the Boardroom: Tangible Search Metrics session at SES New York. The session emphasized the importance of executive buy-in when it comes to investing in organic search, and a wealth of tips on how to go about winning it.


A Compelling Case for Investment in Organic Search

“SEO is about optimizing content so people can find it. Many people play a role in various stages of creating content, yet SEO often has no functional ownership of this process. It is imperative to get the C-suite engaged”, said Besmertnik. Before traveling down the path of strategy and implementation, you must first sell the C-Suite on making the investment in SEO.

Organic search is the indisputable leader in driving traffic that will convert to a website. Yet, it remains among of the lowest funding priorities when it comes to the website or marketing budget. Search marketing often attracts more of the budget, despite the fact that organic search delivers a higher rate of lead to close conversion than paid search, referral, social media, or outbound marketing.


Despite the facts, “organic search remains the most under-funded activity in web marketing”, said Besmertnik. He referenced data provided by Forrester and comScore indicating that allocation of search engine budgets is upside down.

While a mere 8 percent of search engine clicks come from paid search, 89 percent of the search budget is invested in search engine marketing. Conversely, while 92 percent of search engine clicks are organic in origin, a mere 11 percent of the search engine budget is invested in organic search.


Besmertnik shared that when his organization inquired, organizations would reveal how little they invest in organic search. He used an example of a $100,000 per month budget where 10 percent spend on organic would be considered high, a mere 1 percent of the budget allocated to organic SEO is more the norm.

This could be discouraging to those championing SEO to the leadership team within their own organization, or that of a client. Fortunately, the facts are in the favor of SEO as a qualified investment. It is just a matter of communicating them to the right people, in a way they will understand and can respond to.

Speak Their Language

Besmertnik explained, “most technical SEO professionals fail to communicate effectively with CEOs. They dive into details about link profiles, canonical URLs, missing alt tags, etc.” A technical discussion creates a technical barrier. Resist the temptation to dazzle them with terms you may use as a technician of your craft and focus instead on terms management is familiar with and understands.

One of the easiest ways to sell anything to the CEO, CFO, CMO, CTO, CIO or any other C-level executive, is to communicate with data. At the executive level, hype and industry trends mean very little until they directly impact the competitive edge and profitability of an organization.

Use Data to Demonstrate SEO Performance

To appeal to bottom-line focused executives, performance and ROI of any investment will be more heavily scrutinized than anywhere else in the organization. Which works to your advantage, when you are prepared to sell SEO.

A million people die, it’s a statistic, one person dies and its tragic. The same applies to keywords. CEOs actually care about keywords, perhaps even including the CEO’s name. Provide granular data that enables them to identify goals and view performance.

And, never forget there is a lot of ego and emotion invested in succeeding. Besmertnik reminds us that leadership, across the board, does not want to be beat by their competition or out-performed.

SEO is on the Rise

SEO as a skillset is on the rise. The number of SEO jobs increasing over the past year or two. And, Besmertnik shared that Conductor tracks the number of people on LinkedIn with SEO in their title or description – that number has jumped from 250,000 professionals in 2011, to 500,000 professionals in 2012.

In fact, some CEOs and executives from the C-Suite may consider themselves to be the SEO. For executives and other professionals who believe they know more than then they really do, satiate their desire to be engaged with frequent sharing of information, the way they want to see it. Or, educate them on focus of big picture for results, not just granular performance of one specific keyword.

Moderator Simon Heseltine, Director of SEO at AOL, suggested, “when the CEO or other executives show interest in being more hands-on, offer them two options to participate, based on how to be involved if they wish to be.”

ROI and Revenue

Once you’ve sold the C-Suite on SEO, it will command budgetary investment as long as it delivers. Demonstrating ROI is an imperative when it comes to organic search.

As Besmertnik explains, even if you removed every hint of organic search traffic, you’d still get some level of search traffic. So, measuring performance can be as easy as subtracting the revenue generated by doing “nothing” from the revenue generated to determine ROI of SEO.

He presented the following equation to illustrate:

SEO Revenue
– Revenue You’d Get From Doing Nothing
= ROI from SEO Investment

The following grid was presented by Besmertnik to gauge ROI of SEO.


The top right if the chart represents the highest ROI. The bottom left represents the lowest ROI.

To be even more accurate, calculate costs of SEO that impact other roles and outcomes (cost of talent, crossover of data utilized for Paid search, programming, design, etc.) which expand the perceived value of investments made in natural search to the organization.

KPIs and Milestones

Search ranking data may not be enough to demonstrate SEO performance. To increase understanding, Besmertnik suggests referencing specific KPIs and milestones, such as how many keywords appear on page one of SERPs, rank, URLs appearing in search, competitive comparison an positioning, as well as notations of events that impact search performance (server upgrades, impact of Panda, Penguin, etc.).

Engage the C-Suite

The session could have stopped there, but there was much more ground to cover. Chuck Price, CEO of Measurable SEO, jumped right into SEO in the Boardroom. He began his presentation by emphasizing that success in SEO no longer merely means being at the top of Page 1. Although SERPs are still a good indicator of success, you cannot judge overall success by these metrics alone.

Synchronize Business and SEO

“Business and SEO must be in sync. No buy-in, no sale,” Price said. “If you cannot achieve buy-in from C-Suite, you will not attract the budget to execute your awesome marketing plan.”

He began the discussion asking “Remember when it was easy to demonstrate SEO value?” It used to be Page 1 Ranking = Success. Today, rankings and traffic need to yield measurable improvement in revenues and profits. Price used several key topics to illustrate exactly how SEO can positively impact the bottom line.

SEO is Multi-Faceted

Price credited Eric Schmidt of Google, author of “The New Digital Age”, due to be released on April 23, 2013 with the quote “Authorship is the next big thing”. Price explained that essentially authorship = rankings, lack of authorship = anonymity.

Price emphasizes ranking on the long tail, not just head phrases. He also mentioned the value of other assets, explaining an optimized photo can now get more clicks than a page when properly optimized.

He encourages SEO professionals to tap into visibility metrics to identify top content in order to replicate and expand it, and identify the weakest content to be eliminated or revamped. In the context of referrals, Price recommends identifying “most linked to” content and marketing it to attract organic referrals.

Price also offered a stream of valuable tips.

How to Promote Consensus Around SEO

  • Find a Cheerleader: Leverage social media, relationships to create an internal champion for your cause.
  • Objections are inevitable: Be prepared to show ROI with Plan A, have a back-up Plan B and C if budget is an issue.
  • Neutralize Naysayers: People don’t like change. Seek someone that person trusts to help you win them over.
  • Offer Metrics-Based Engagement: No performance, no payment.
  • Show you have their best interest in mind: Develop a track-record of generous contributions, and be prepared to remind them of your contribution and attention.
  • Timing is Everything: Getting it right means asking lots of questions and offering the right solution at the right time.
  • Don’t Abandon Good Ideas: If your ideas don’t get buy-in the first time, it doesn’t mean they were bad ideas. Be prepared to try later, or adapt to circumstances.
  • Make Proposal Simple and Clear: Present proposals on a single page, perhaps with a link to the details. This increases understanding of the offer.
  • Co-Create the Solution with the C-Suite: Sometimes you need to approach the project as a team, be prepared to collaborate your way to a solution.
  • Best Outcomes from Relationships and Team Collaboration: All parties are more likely to be on board with the plan, and make sure it happens.
  • What’s in it For Me: Articulate how they will benefit from the proposed solution.
  • Manage What You Measure: Invest in what will directly impact how you will measure success (rank, keywords, landing pages, organic traffic, etc.)

Price stated that he believes that achieving the top of Page 1 may require deviation from Webmaster guidelines and the risk of a penalty by Google. I would add that the comfort level with this approach may vary by organization.

3 Tools for Measuring SEO

There were three tools mentioned by Price that SEO pros may find useful:


SEO ROI and Cost of Customer Acquisition Calculator


SEO ROI Calculator


Custom Reports – SEO Dashboard via Jill Whalen

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