The baseline problem in SEO forecasting
Faulty SEO baselines lead to unrealistic forecasts.
Unpredictable factors (Google updates, competitors, SERP landscape changes) make SEO forecasting tricky, but nothing leads to unrealistic goals more as the SEO baseline problem.
📃The challenge: SEOs often take last year’s performance as a baseline when forecasting, but that’s growth on growth. As a result, SEO teams over-forecast their impact, miss goals and set themselves up for failure.
Other than most marketing channels, SEO is different:
Besides the basics, it’s like investing, where you develop hypotheses on as much data as you can but can’t control the outcome.
Advertising channels are much more predictable because companies control the strongest driver of growth, $ spend.
The baseline problem in SEO
Finding a clean baseline in SEO is impossible because the myriad of uncontrollable factors complicate the differentiation between incremental and baseline impact. Think of separating the egg yolk from the white when you crack an egg.
Baseline = a starting point for comparison; the traffic you get even when doing nothing
Incremental growth = net-new growth you get from shipping optimizations (eg title optimization for category pages)
The SEO baseline problem doesn’t get much awareness. SEOs will either use last year’s traffic as baseline, set lower growth goals or refuse to sign up for goals because “SEO is a black box” - both don’t resonate well with leadership.
🧩Example: Leadership asks you for a bottom-up forecast of SEO traffic for 2023.
You start by looking at last year’s numbers: At the end of February 2022, you optimized titles for your category pages and got an incremental 40 visits in March on top of the 100 you had in February, bringing you to a total of 140 for March.
Since you achieved a stunning +40% Y/Y growth rate in 2022, you sign up for another +40% in 2023.
You multiply every month in 2022 with 1.4 and submit the results as forecast for 2023.
A few months into the new year, you wildly miss your numbers.
What happened here: You didn’t take into account the effort in 2022 you put in to get to +40%. You took last year’s baseline + incremental growth as the new baseline, but you can’t repeat the same things you did in 2022 to drive SEO growth. You need to develop new levers, which get harder the more optimized your site becomes.
How to work around the SEO baseline problem
🔬The problem cannot be perfectly solved but mitigated in 3 ways:
Tracking incremental work
Iterating from a starting point
Two critical aspects to keep in mind with each of the 3 mitigations are tracking the right metrics and differentiating between scalable and unscalable levers.
The right metrics reflect non-branded organic traffic and conversions.
Since you cannot track conversions back to keywords in SEO, you have to define the percentage of branded vs. non-branded traffic to each page / subdirectory.
Forecasting should include scalable and unscalable SEO levers. Scalable levers are things you can create or optimize infinitely (theoretically); unscalable levers have a ceiling of SEO traffic growth.
Title optimization (unscalable) vs. new content (scalable)
Internal links (unscalable) vs. backlinks (scalable)
CWV (unscalable) vs. new microsites (scalable)
1/ Track incremental work
You can refine your SEO baseline over time by tracking and separating what incremental work you do every year and subtracting it from the total performance to get to a baseline.
Say you were able to ship 5 projects last year (I hope it’s more) that drove an incremental +1,000 visits on top of a baseline of 10,000 you had the year prior. Your incremental is 1,000, your total is 11,000 visits, and your baseline is 10,000.
The key is keeping track of changes and measuring incremental growth from changes.
Track before / after SEO metrics (sessions, clicks, CTR, conversions) when rolling out changes to pages, subdirectories and domains. Ideally, run a/b test where you reverse changes to account for other factors in a test, but not every team has the capacity for that. At the very least, track the before / after growth you’re seeing.
Use a change log to keep track of changes, which is a sheet where every member of the SEO team adds traffic-impacting changes they ship. It can be as simple as having a column for date, description, estimated impact, actual impact, and a link to more information (on a Trello / Monday / Asana / Confluence board).
2/ Compare markets
A way to measure relative incrementality is by tracking SEO performance against a site or directory you don’t optimize.
Example: Comparing SEO performance in a core market with a country where you optimize nothing and the domain lives on a ccTLD.
Example 2: Compare a category of products or content that’s untouched with an optimized one.
The downside is that sitewide factors can impact directories, and you have to account for authority signals like backlinks when comparing separate geo markets.
3/ Iterate from a starting point
If you’re starting at a company with no context about incremental growth, the best option you have is to define a baseline of organic traffic and conversions to your best abilities and iterate from there.
Example: Say you start a new position as head of SEO and need to hire a team from scratch. It's unclear if and who has done any site optimization in the past, but the site you work on has some organic traffic. In this case, it’s best to make a judgment call and do better next year.
The key is managing expectations with leadership that forecasts might be off and must be adjusted on a regular basis.