Is SEO Worth the Cost & Effort?

A couple years ago I helped a friend set up a website, and tried to teach them SEO, but they never really took it to heart. Their page titles are not that descriptive, and their writing typically aims to be clever rather than direct. They have published just over 100 pages of content. I built a few links for them to help get them going, but their site has failed to achieve a critical mass. Over the last year their traffic has been precisely flat with about 20 unique visitors a day. It is hard to monetize a traffic stream that small.

About 2 months ago another friend set up a website in the exact same vertical. They published a small website and got it a few links to get the age clock going. About 2 weeks ago they expanded the site out to about 70 pages, which have since been indexed by Google. Rather than writing winding and non-descriptive content, each article on this site is on target and direct.

If anything the link profile for this site is inferior to the link profile for the older site, but this site is already getting 50 unique visitors per day. Many of these visitors come from page 2 of the search results, in international versions of Google, and/or for misspelled queries that this site ranks for (though the site does not have misspelled content on it). These rankings can be seen as signs of progress, and hint to future rankings the site will have for more competitive keywords.

The audience is still too small to monetize, but as this site ages and gains search engine trust, it will likely develop into a site with ~2,000 unique visitors a day.

One site was mapped out against the search traffic, has targeted descriptive page titles, and uses well structured categories. The other does not. And inside of a year the site that employs SEO will out-perform the other site 100 to 1. With similar backlinks, similar quantity and quality of content, similar domain names, and similar site designs the sites have 2 different outcomes. One is at best a hobby, whereas the other can (and will) grow to become a flourishing business.

Give me an average market participant who has a passion for a topic and I can help them dominate the search results. Whereas the person that knows 10x as much but ignores SEO advice will get stuck in the mud, failing to build a critical mass, not getting the exposure their knowledge and content deserve.

Published: December 8, 2008 by Aaron Wall in marketing


December 8, 2008 - 10:49am

Aaron, do you recommend adding a lot of pages at once (70 pages in this example), or would it have been best to add the content one or two pages at a time, or not matter at all? I always seem to come across this. I have content writing outsourced and so receive let's say 30 articles at a time. Should I add them all to my site straight away or over a month for example?

I'm fairly confident I know what I'm doing when mapping content to search traffic, but when is a good time to measure whether it's a success? When I create new sites I wonder whether they are on the right track, but it's difficult to know when the sites are so young.

Thanks for the post Aaron.


December 8, 2008 - 10:51am

Hi Justin
If you are talking a few hundred pages or less then adding them all at once should probably be fine...especially if you have done some link building and/or are planning on doing some link building.

December 8, 2008 - 1:49pm

I know this post is sort of specific to on-page SEO, but it reminded me of a post I wrote last year about the cost-effectiveness of basically buying SERPs.

I used a very specific example, but I think it's a fair point - SEO is cost-effective all the way around.

December 8, 2008 - 2:21pm

"Give me an average market participant who has a passion for a topic and I can help them dominate the search results. Whereas the person that knows 10x as much but ignores SEO advice will get stuck in the mud,"

Kind of a damning indictment against search engines that they miss the great content because the authors weren't SEO-aware. Yet Google say people should publish web pages as if search engines don't exist (yeah, right). That would be true if Google's algorithm wasn't so clunky.

December 8, 2008 - 3:14pm


I think of the old book "Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," where the poor guy gets unhinged thinking about the question "What is Quality?"

It's a hard question for people to answer, and even a harder answer for computers. It's asking a lot for Google to decide this.

Personally, I think SEO is part of quality. In today's environment, content needs to be findable. If you're not paying attention to that, you're not making an effective web site.

December 8, 2008 - 4:49pm

This post has me a little confused, Aaron - mostly because of the two "images" (where it says on-page SEO 5% vs. on-page SEO 50%).

I assume you're trying to say that, despite on-page SEO not being overly important, but links being the main thing to aim for (in the long run)....that in the beginning on-page SEO is extremely important to rank for long-tail phrases in order to get some kind of traffic and achieve that critical mass to get the site going, so that you can then launch linkbait content, etc.?

(I think (hope) I understand the basic message of this post..that being passionate about your topic is really important, but that it's a balancing act between being passionate about the topic and considering SEO instead of just believing that "content is king", "build it and they will come", etc....but the on-page 5% vs. 50% part confused me a bit!)


December 8, 2008 - 6:41pm

For short competitive queries the rankings are mostly determined by link anchor text, link authority, and domain trust scores and external votes.

For longtail search queries the on page content and on page optimization count much more (since there are fewer competing sites).

December 8, 2008 - 5:08pm

"I think of the old book "Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," where the poor guy gets unhinged thinking about the question "What is Quality?""

Quality (content) is what people are looking for. It's what search engines want to list in descending order in their search results. Quality is subjective but Google's algorithm assumes people will recognise quality and link to it, and it's link popularity algorithms that accept quality as the prime signal. "What is quality?" is the wrong question. We KNOW what it is. If we don't know what it is, what do blogs link to? Why does anyone link to anything (asides from SEO I'm talking about here)?

YET, somehow Google can't find this quality unless you learn the rules of on-page optimization and/or abuse its link popularity via link buying / trading (that Google is strictly against, yet you need to do it to get anywhere with Google - ehhh!?).

A total enthusiast who builds his own remote control cars and has a "how-to" website that is actually easy to understand to humans and well laid out for humans, but somehow gets over-looked by Google is the failure of Google, not the remote control enthusiast.

December 9, 2008 - 11:19am

AndrewL, Google can't find quality because people can't necessarily find it, and people can't find it because they use Google first. So it's self-reinforcing to an extent, it's always easier to rank if you rank already. So search engines have an inherent bias towards the "filthy linking rich", and the biggest sites rather than lone experts. I don't see this situation changing, until they manage to develop systems that are much closer to AI in their complexity.

December 10, 2008 - 12:26am

Don't get me wrong, I follow your blog, and I read everything that you write. But how did you come up with those percentages in the pie chart?

The Rabbit

December 10, 2008 - 7:56am

Those were just example number...not aiming to be perfect and precise across all keywords (as that would be impossible)... but more to be illustrative of how the algorithms are different for different types of search queries.

December 10, 2008 - 10:05am

@Ros, totally agree with you here:-

"Google can't find quality because people can't necessarily find it, and people can't find it because they use Google first."

You have to be proactive in getting these links in the first place i.e. soliciting for links which normally means a quid pro quo exchange of money / link / some other payment (which Google is against).

My point is that this is the big failure of Google that it's far too arbitrary in measuring quality (i.e. link popularity as one of the strongest signals).

It's a tough problem for any search engine but it needs to be solved.

December 10, 2008 - 2:43pm

They may not want to actually solve it though. Their business model relies on organic relevancy algorithms being too complex or expensive to influence such that most people would just rather buy the clicks from Google.

December 21, 2008 - 7:42am

So far I've been focusing on the long tail keywords and onpage optimization for sites that aren't in horribly competitive niches, or that are mainly interested in doing business in specific geographic area that area easier to rang for.

I get link requests a few times a week sometimes, but they all want two way links burried on hidden "resource" pages as if this were still 1998.

So I write them back and tell them why it's better to make keyword rich text links that are written into the context of the content of their site pages, and offer to do three, four or five way links with them that way. If I could find a few other people with enough diversity in their sites we could work somthing out like a link from a doctors office to an organic skin care products page that treats psoriasis to an alternative Native American medicine web site to a Native American Trading Post to something else etc.

I think that linking would be easier between maybe five different SEO/WebDesigner's who could agree to work together. If there were five here, and five there, and another five SEO/WebDesigners in another place - and just one contact from each went to represent each group and could meet at a convention or communicate some other way, then that would form a pretty good pool of sites contextually "close enough" to create loop links and one way links back and forth between each other.

I say five because that's the military heirarchy system used since Roman days. Four PFC's per Corporal. Four corporals per Sergeant, almost always 1 key representative for each five. As it's a proven system in existence for a few thousand years it's quite conceivabe that a few hundred different SEO/WebDesigners could work together this way.

January 6, 2009 - 6:39pm


I just signed up here quite simply to ask given this statement by you:
"Give me an average market participant who has a passion for a topic and I can help them dominate the search results."

... whether you actually do SEO work for websites and what the associated costs would be.


January 6, 2009 - 11:19pm

Hi Stella
I usually prefer to hire the passionate person rather than have them hire me. :)

I try not to do much traditional client work as it really does not pay enough to be worth doing (when compared against owning the sites yourself).

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