Google’s algorithm is constantly changing. We’re the experts in search engine optimization and it even keeps us on our toes.
We aren’t fortune tellers. And you aren’t, either. But with the right approach, you can get close (and prepare for what’s coming in SEO).
That’s where SEO forecasting comes in.
What is SEO Forecasting?
First, a quick definition:
SEO forecasting is the process of using historical data to estimate the impact of your future SEO efforts.
To make an SEO forecast, marketers use first- and third-party data. This includes:
- Monthly organic traffic
- Traffic value
- Organic traffic growth
- Click-through rates
- Keyword rankings
- Keyword search volume
- Backlink data
Pretty much every industry uses historical data to make predictions about sales, revenue performance, growth, etc. With SEO forecasting, the same basic principles apply, but with an emphasis on search engine optimization.
What Can Forecasting Do for You?
If you’re wondering, “Why is SEO forecasting important?” The answer is simple.
At its best, SEO forecasting can help you make informed decisions about:
- What efforts to prioritize (e.g., blog topics to focus on, pages/anchor text to build links to)
- How long it takes to reach certain goals
- What kind of investment you need (in terms of time and resources) to achieve results
- How effective your current strategies are relative to your online competitors
- Potential opportunities you might not know about
- How your SEO strategy impacts website traffic over time
- Its eventual impact on top-line revenue
SEO is a long-term investment, similar to compounding interest. It’s hard for decision-makers to grasp when there isn’t data to back it up. This is especially true when they don’t understand SEO and its value.
Internally, SEO forecasts help you get buy-in from stakeholders and upper management. And they align their expectations with the Marketing team’s reality.
Let’s say the exec board wants to see a 33% improvement in organic traffic over the next year. Your forecasts across multiple data sources tell you your current output and investment levels would produce about 20% growth.
When Marketing presents SEO data, leaders have two options:
- Meet them in the middle on expectations and performance targets
- Up the budget for link building and content marketing to meet that 33% goal
This prevents a lot of frustration when it comes time to review every quarter or half-year.
What Can’t it Do?
When forecasting SEO performance, there will always be some margin of error. Its main purpose is to help you set reasonable expectations and measurable goals backed by real data.
But that data has limitations. The adage that “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results” rings true when you use SEO forecasting.
- Search engine rankings are subject to dozens of uncontrollable factors. For one, Google keeps its actual ranking factors a secret. For another, they’re constantly changing. Search trends, algorithm updates, and user behavior all impact rankings.
- It won’t tell you how to improve SEO. Forecasting doesn’t give you the step-by-step instructions on what strategies will work best for your business or website. That part is up to you and your team.
- SEO tools have limited data. Plenty of keywords look like they have 0-10 search volume (and many literally say “not enough data”). People type all sorts of phrases and words into Google, and it’s impossible for any SEO software to capture that.
To show you what we mean, let’s break down a keyword using our favorite tool, Ahrefs.
When we search for “top link building agency,” it shows up having 0-10 search traffic. It couldn’t even return results.
Upon looking the keyword up, there are indeed 583,000,000 results, several companies running ads, and plenty of articles about the best link building services out there (ranked).
We promise you, it’s getting organic search traffic (just like millions of other phrases unavailable on a keyword research tool).
So, why is it like this?
Because Ahrefs is only able to capture the “exact match” search volume data for this phrase. They don’t have access to the semantic meaning and infinite related phrases that people might use when searching for services like this.
Now… If you’ve been targeting that keyword for a while, you might be able to forecast future traffic using Google Search Console data.
But the bottom line remains the same: tools can only give you a fraction of what’s actually out there.
SEO Forecasting Tools
Speaking of tools, there are plenty. Here’s a quick rundown on the main ones you’ll need and what they do:
- Google Analytics — Your website data hub and reporting system. You’ll use it for all your website-level forecasting.
- Google Search Console — Provides site and keyword performance metrics like CTR, impression share, etc. for keyword forecasting.
- Google Trends — A great way to get insights into search trends. You won’t use it to make predictions per se, but you can use it to look for topical opportunities.
- Ahrefs — Powers your keyword research and comes with a handy traffic potential estimator. You will need to understand keyword difficulty, competing pages, and the extent of your rankings and performance.
- seoClarity — Automates the process of creating SEO forecasts with custom dashboards and AI-driven backend.
- Advanced Web Rankings (AWR) — A great tool for competitor analysis and keyword discovery, plus their Organic CTR History tool provides keyword-level CTR data.
- Excel/Google Sheets — A great way to start playing with your data. You’ll use it for basic statistical analysis and simple predictive models.
- Python/Power BI — If you want to go deeper and use more advanced predictive models, these are the tools for you.
How to Create SEO Forecasts
Creating basic forecasts is quite straightforward. In-depth insights require advanced data models, but you don’t have to be a data scientist to get started.
1. Gather historical data.
You’ll pull your website’s exact keyword and traffic data from Google Analytics under Organic Search.
Create and save a report. Then, download it (making sure to adjust it for each month and remove bot traffic).
You can also take historical performance from other channels (i.e., PPC) to get a fuller picture of your overall search performance.
2. Identify key trends and patterns.
The two main things you want to look for are outliers (anomalies) and seasonality. It isn’t enough to look at historical traffic numbers; you also need to identify the key drivers of growth or regression.
COVID-19 is the perfect example. In 2020, tons of ecommerce sites saw unprecedented growth and traffic. Everyone was stuck at home, and that meant ordering more things online.
It’d be ridiculous to think that the same level of growth would happen every year in the future.
Other factors to look out for include:
- Seasonal shopping trends
- Google algorithm updates
- The news cycle
- Major industry events
3. Use an SEO forecasting tool.
Depending on your data infrastructure, ability to code, and level of insight you want, there are three levels to SEO forecasting:
- Use an automated tool or basic platform features
- Build statistical forecasts in Google Sheets or Excel
- Run scripts or advanced data models in Python or R
Tools like seoClarity have automated forecasting features. They’ll use your historical performance data to generate estimated future traffic numbers across keywords and pages.
Then, they’ll put it into easy-to-read pages like this:
Creating visualizations in Google Sheets will be more accurate and insightful, but it requires you to build your own model using linear regression, exponential smoothing, moving averages, trendlines, or other statistical methods.
If you know Python, forecasting future organic traffic growth can be a lot more accurate. Ahrefs has a Traffic Forecast Notebook and Traffic Value Forecasting Notebook you can use to build and run your own models.
You can build predictive models for your own site with them.
You can even use them to predict competitor traffic, which is typically difficult (since you can’t access their Google Analytics accounts).
Compare traffic to a competitor using the 2 Site Traffic Forecast Notebook.
Or, compare traffic value using the 2 Site Traffic Value Forecasting Notebook.
Keyword forecasting is a lot more straightforward. The basic formula is as follows:
Keyword Performance = Search Volume x Average CTR
Follow these steps to get started with keyword forecasting:
1. Collect keyword data.
Start with a list of keywords your site already ranks for and another of target keywords for new topics you don’t yet rank for.
For each keyword, you’ll need the following metrics:
- Search volume
- Keyword difficulty
- Current ranking position (for terms you rank for)
- URL ranking for the search term
- Current traffic
- Search intent
- Click-through rate (CTR)
You’ll use Ahrefs or Semrush to get your keyword difficulty score, search intent, and other keyword-related information. GSC doesn’t have this data.
2. Estimate search volume based on average CTR.
You can access CTR and keyword volume data in Google Search Console.
The main limitation to this is you’ll only be able to look at performance for one keyword at a time. In reality, your pages will all rank for multiple keywords.
You’ll also run into the problem of using basic CTR curve models that probably won’t represent your whole site.
If you integrate Google Search Console with Ahrefs, Ahrefs will actually create a custom CTR curve.
If you want to estimate a competitor’s keyword performance or an unknown keyword, you can use Advanced Web Rankings’s Organic CTR History tool. This is perfect for evaluating the potential ROI of one specific keyword.
Once you know your CTR, just plug it into the above mentioned equation.
For example, let’s say you currently rank #8 for a keyword with a search volume of 1,000. You’re hoping to rank #3, which has a CTR of 20%.
Estimated Performance = 1,000 x 20% = 200 visits per month
That’s how much traffic you can expect to get from boosting that keyword to that position.
3. Project leads/revenue.
Most SEOs stop after they know how much traffic they’ll probably get. Upper-level executives need more than traffic numbers.
They need to know what that traffic will mean for the bottom line. To do this, you’ll need to know your website conversion rate, lead conversion rate from your website, average order value, and customer lifetime value.
From there, it’s basic math.
- Estimated Leads = Estimated Organic Traffic x Website Conversion Rate
- Estimated Sales Revenue = Estimated Leads x Lead Conversion Rate x Average Order Value
- ROI = (Estimated Sales Revenue – Customer Acquisition Cost)/Customer Acquisition Cost
- For long-term ROI, use Customer Lifetime Value to calculate sales revenue instead of AOV.
Once you have all of these numbers, it’ll be easier to justify your SEO budget and get executive buy-in for new initiatives.
4. Use the Search Volume estimate.
If you don’t want to do any fancy shmancy forecasting, you can use Ahrefs’s Traffic Potential estimate.
This metric tells you how much traffic the #1 page receives from all the pages it ranks for, including that #1 keyword. It’ll also give you the URL of that page.
You won’t be able to figure out granular estimates like, “What if we moved up 2 positions?”. But you can get an idea of the total potential traffic your target page could be getting if it ranked #1.
You can run the same ROI calculation and decide whether it’s worth it to pursue that keyword more aggressively.
SEO Forecasting: What to Avoid
SEO growth forecasting can be a powerful tool for decision-making. But you have to pay attention to situational factors. And you have to remember that SEO is a continuously changing landscape.
Relying too heavily on an SEO forecasting tool
We love our SEO tools, and we can’t live without them. But relying too heavily on them is like deciding not to study for a test because your smart friend said they’ll give you the answers.
SEO requires an iterative, agile approach. It’s about making incremental improvements that contribute to the big picture over time.
Ignoring other factors for search engine rankings
Google has 200+ ranking factors. Beyond the technical aspects, your business’s entire existence will impact how well you rank in SERPs.
Your product, sales numbers, brand awareness, social media engagement, reviews, business development, and customer service will all play a role in how often customers search for you on Google. They also impact how much site visitors will actually trust your content.
These aren’t direct factors, but they certainly factor into your site’s authority equation.
Looking too far ahead
When you forecast SEO growth, the worst thing you could do is make predictions too far into the future.
SEO moves and changes quickly, so making accurate predictions more than 6 months out is a lot less likely.
You can set goals for 6 months or a year out, but don’t be married to them. And have shorter-term goals you can adjust if needed.
Doing it alone
We’re gonna be real with you. Running this on your own is incredibly demanding. And bringing it in-house is incredibly expensive.
Your life is 100x easier working with someone who knows what they’re doing.