The Cost of Search Engine Optimization:

bivalvegrainInternet and Web Development

Nov 18, 2013 (4 years and 6 months ago)


For many site owners, the question is
not whether to invest in search engine
optimization (SEO), but rather when
to make the investment. Frequently
the decision is made to wait until
after a Web site design or redesign is
complete before addressing the need
for search engine optimization. Whether
this decision is made because of an
aggressive project timeline or simply
because of budget limitations, the fact
remains the same – organic search
engine visibility is often treated as an
The Cost of Search Engine
As a Post Launch Initiative
By Paul Elliott

Search & Media / Analytics & Optimization

While to many it may not seem like a major deal to put off
search engine optimization until Web development is complete,
the reality of the situation is that it can be a much more costly
approach. In the following article, I have outlined some of the
major issues associated with this approach and the true costs of
delaying search engine optimization until the post-launch phase.
To experts in the combination of art and science that is SEO; it
is taken for granted that search engine performance is highly
contingent on many factors. These include Web site design,
technical infrastructure, Web site content (marketing and
informational copy plus “behind the scenes” tagging), and offsite
optimization (primarily involving link popularity development
and enhancement). When some of these factors are ignored,
it is unlikely that optimal organic search engine visibility will be
achieved, especially in competitive industries. Yet, it remains
extremely common for companies of all sizes to skip critical
steps in the process, or at least put those on the “backburner”
until the other aspects of Web development have been
One problem is that many traditional SEO or marketing firms
provide their services in a vacuum. They are not actually
involved in the design / development of the site or in the
implementation of their SEO recommendations. Instead, they
simply provide search engine optimization recommendations
in document form. Because of this approach, they are not
always aware of the incremental expenses - comprised of both
direct and indirect costs that are incurred by postponing the
implementation of search engine optimization.

As a full service interactive agency, Rosetta has unique
experience in measuring the true costs associated with a
non-integrated SEO effort in direct comparison to those of
our clients who include SEO as part of the initial scope of the
design or redesign effort.
Direct Costs:
The primary direct costs associated with post site launch
optimization stem from the rework that is often necessary. In
most cases, decisions that are made during the design and
development processes are not in alignment with or inclusive of
search engine optimization best practices.

Technical Infrastructure:
There are many aspects of a site’s technical infrastructure
that can have a significant impact on search engine
performance. Therefore, the ideal approach is to follow
search engine optimization best practices at the time of initial
site development. Otherwise, it is highly likely that additional
work and significant expenditure will be needed at the time of
optimization to rectify previously made decisions that preclude
optimal search engine performance.
Typical Points for Rework Include:
URL structure – an optimized URL typically includes

targeted keywords, a shortened length, and only alpha numeric
character, which may or may not have been requirements during
the site design or redesign phase.
Canonical URLs – multiple versions of the same page

existing on multiple URLs are often allowed to be crawled and
indexed by search engines. SEO efforts are required to focus
efforts on a single version of the page
Directory structure – SEO calls for a clean directory

structure with descriptive folder names and concerted
efforts to minimize the “depth” of pages within the
design hierarchy
Use of JavaScript, Flash, or AJAX – SEO recommendations

often include directions to externalize JavaScript code to
ensure it is non-obtrusive to the spidering process. Additionally,
rich Internet applications (RIAs) such as those that use Flash
and AJAX require additional content to be presented in a
format legible to search engine spiders (as well as to disability

Code cleanliness – while validated code will not

necessarily help to improve rankings, poorly formed code
that is difficult for the spiders to traverse can negatively
impact ranking performance.
Code ordering with CSS – the use of cascading

style sheets (CSS) enables the ordering of code
to present keyword-rich content to the search engines first,
followed by all of the code and superfluous page elements.
In addition, CSS helps to minimize the amount of code
needed to display a Web page, therefore reducing the code
to text ratio.
Titles, Meta tags, Header tags, and ALT tags (and their

corresponding placeholders in the database) – the basic
tenants of SEO are often ignored by developers who may
not have been tasked with this consideration. If not handled
in a proactive manner, adding these tags can be very time
consuming proposition, especially on large Web sites.
Design / Layout:
In a similar fashion to the technical infrastructure, layout
decisions that are made during the design and development
process can greatly impact the opportunity for search
engine performance. In order to avoid rework in this
area, a qualified search engine optimizer should be part
of the design process to review prototypes and provide
direction from the search engine perspective. Otherwise,
considerable investment will likely be required to alter the
site layout to support the requirements for search engine
Typical Points for Rework Include:
Navigational structure and placement – the use of

images as navigation elements are disruptive to search
engines spiders and limit the ability to use descriptive
anchor text within internal linking
Adequate space for HTML text content – many site

designers disregard the needs of the search engines when
developing a page, presenting in many cases only human-
visible images. HTML text content is required for a search
engine to be able to determine the true context of a Web
page and is also a usability best practice.
Use of images and Flash in place of text – same as

above, search engines cannot read Flash or images
By comparing four projects in which optimization was a
post-launch initiative to four projects in which optimization
was included in the initial scope of the design / redesign
effort, summary conclusions have been made for the
average incremental costs associated with site updates for
search engine optimization.
On average, the post-launch method of search engine
optimization led to incremental redesign project costs
of roughly 30%. To put that into perspective, the
incremental costs of updating the site layout and technical
infrastructure for optimization of a $250K Web site was
$75K. For larger, more complex sites, the cost is more
significant; $150K in site enhancements for a $500K Web
site project and $300K for a site that initially cost $1MM
to develop. Much, if not all, of this additional design and
development cost could have been eliminated if search
engine optimization had been made part of the initial
project scope, not an after thought.
Opportunity Costs:

In addition to the direct costs that are incurred when
optimizing a site in a post launch fashion, there are also
significant opportunity costs that should be factored into
the decision making process.
According to many studies, 60%-70% of searchers prefer
to click on organic listings over paid search listings. When
they do, over 60% of searchers don’t look past the first
page of search results, making first page search results
critical to online success. Therefore, without the right
SEO program, a great deal of opportunity to acquire new
customers is being missed.
Unfortunately, strong organic search engine performance
is not achieved over night. Even in ideal situations, the
process of spidering, indexing, and ranking takes time. For
a new site, one with a newly registered domain with no
existing link base and established Google PageRank™, the
process of ranking for competitive terms can take upwards
of six months. For existing sites with strong incoming links
and PageRank™, the process is expedited, but still takes

Optimistic Project Timeline for Post Launch Optimization:
Design or redesign project duration = 6 months
Post launch optimization project = 3 months
Optimization implementation = 3 months
Ranking adjustment latency = 3-6 months
(redesign vs. initial launch)
= 15-18 months
Realistic Project Timeline for Integrated Optimization:
Design or redesign project duration = 7 months
Post launch optimization project = 0 months
Optimization implementation = 0 months
Ranking adjustment latency = 3-6 months
(redesign vs. initial launch)
= 10-13 months
As illustrated above, the integrated approach to SEO, in
which optimization activities are embedded in the redesign
project scope, can shave roughly five months off of the
time that is required to achieve top organic search engine
listings. For the companies analyzed, the value of the direct
conversions from organic listings over a five month period
ranged from $625K to $2.2MM.
While postponing search engine optimization may seem
like a logical decision in light of timelines and overall
project budgets, the truth of the matter is that it can be
an incredibly costly decision. With additional direct costs
ranging from $75K to $300K and opportunity costs
ranging from $625k to $2.2MM, the total costs of waiting
are between $700K and $2.5MM.
Before moving forward with your next Web site design or
redesign effort, consider the direct and opportunity costs
associated with making search engine optimization a post-
launch initiative.