Usability and SEO ROI

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Usability & Search Engine Optimization Share the Same Problem: How to Define Return On Investment

A recent post by Search Engine Optimization (SEO) guru Bruce Clay discussed the difficulty of providing an estimate of SEO Return On Investment (ROI) for CFOs of companies. The issue is most CFO’s demand an ROI estimate for search engine optimization prior to an engagement, but as Bruce point’s out in his article this is actually not possible.

Usability ROI

As with SEO (which I consider a close-cousin to usability by the way) usability shares the exact same ROI problem. Although CFOs want and need ROI, it is not ethical or wise to provide a guaranteed ROI prior to the commencement of a project, simply because there is not enough information, or control, to accurately estimate the usability impact on ROI.

There are 4 reasons why an accurate ROI is not possible:

  1. An assessment of the severity of the usability issues facing the web site or application must be conducted. This assessment IS the usability project, including understanding Personas, Critical Tasks, and conducting a Heuristic Evaluation, and much more. Without this information any usability company guaranteeing an ROI is just guessing.
  2. The company that requests the usability study may not be able to do all the recommended usability changes. Often, due to business or technical issues not all of the usability recommendations needed to produce the ROI are able to be executed. This means money (or in this case ROI) is left on the table. Without the ability to have all recommendations made, it’s unlikely an expected usability ROI will be accomplished.
  3. ROI is compromised if other critical departments that influence the customer experience are not involved. Most often, a usability project is requested by a particular division in a company. However, other divisions that directly impact the experience (thus ROI) are often not involved. Their inability or unwillingness to make changes will impact the anticipated ROI. As an example, think in this case of a Marketing department wanting web site usability improvements to increase sales. If however, the back-end sales systems that are controlled by a different department are not engaged, the full benefit of usability improvements to increase sales, and thus ROI, may not happen.
  4. The online environment is constantly changing, and estimates based on historical data cannot forecast future ROI with accuracy. Consider the changes in the economy in the past year, would you be willing to estimate the ROI of improved sales from usability improvements for that same Marketing department I mentioned earlier if you knew their traffic, or the type of visitors to their web site would be severely changed?

For all of these reasons, and more, it’s unethical, and unwise, to provide a guaranteed ROI for usability improvements. The reality is usability improvements can and do significantly improve ROI for companies every day, it’s just that guaranteeing an ROI upfront prior to conducting usability audits is not possible, nor advisable.

So, what do you say to the CFO who’s asking about ROI?

First, provide the CFO with the above reasons why an ROI estimate is not possible prior to the commencement of the usability project. Be prepared, this may not be accepted, after all the CFO and most likely the rest of the company are held to very precise and unyielding goals in terms of numbers.

Next, talk about some examples of ROI that were accomplished from prior engagements. In the past, when I was consulting I would often mention specific examples of ROI gained, but without mentioning the name of the client (unless I had permission to use their name of course). Nothing sells like success, and mentioning other usability success stories can add weight to the argument that the usability project will be successful, but without a guaranteed ROI up-front.

I used to mention that doing nothing was the only guarantee, a guarantee of the same results. This is the same as the sage old advice that doing something over and over again, but expecting different results, is not logical. By conducting the usability project, change, and thus different (better) results are possible.

Finally, understand that CFO’s of a necessity must live by numbers, and ROI numbers are sometimes required prior to project approval. You may find that sometimes it’s necessary to walk away from the project, because ROI is a pass/fail and without it the CFO is unwilling to conduct the project.

If the CFO insists that an ROI is required, it may be tempting to start throwing out a range of ROI estimates that might be possible. Speaking from experience I can tell you this only opens the door for the CFO to start pinning exact numbers down. It’s a no-win situation if you start down this path. If you hope that the CFO won’t remember the ROI at the end of the project, or that unusual circumstances may result in the numbers being set aside, don’t count on it. The odds are whatever number you promised won’t be met, and thus you will not be trusted, and worse, bad word-of-mouth may start spreading at the executive level. Worse, your manager allies in the company may have a negative perception placed on them, causing them to be far less trustful of usability in the future, again generating bad word-of-mouth.

Conclusion: Don’t Estimate Usability ROI.

CFOs will want ROI, and sometimes a usability project will not be approved without it. My recommendation is to not try to guess at ROI. Instead, explain why ROI is almost impossible to guarantee, then use the opportunity to educate the CFO from examples of ROI gained from prior usability engagements.

Do you have favorite techniques for demonstrating the value of usability without a guaranteed ROI? If so, please share them in the comments!

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Craig, there may be a few ways to calculate ROI for both HUMAN and SEARCH ENGINE usability:

    1) Set Up a Limited A/B Test — If you are a usability consultant or practitioner, keep the assignment small, yet measurable…such as a user centric design test of a single landing page against another. Results can be measured in real-time in a head to head test which can reveal a winner. Hopefully, landing page design A that underwent a user centric design test (and then had the design improved based on user feedback) will perform better than landing page B whose design did not have the benefit of user input.

    2) Reverse Engineer a Top Performing SEO Site to Uncover Search Engine Usability Secrets — There are several free SEO usability tools online such as websitegrader.com that can be leveraged to compare a website showing up on page one for a specific term and, say, page five. By quickly comparing each site’s code, indexed pages, inbound links, etc., you can see why a search engine might be ranking one site over another. By comparing the revenues of two parent companies who are competing for the same keyword, one can make general correlations between SEO performance and company profitability.

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