The Covid Effect: SEO Spends Increase 30% Across Industry in 2021

Digital marketing investments were heavily re-deployed due to COVID-19. SEO benefited from this shift. But hiring struggles and an increasingly complex field also fueled the spend.

I talk to quite a few agencies, both large and small. Most have benefited from the COVID-19 related budget shifts that occurred over the last 12-18 months. In my talks and anecdotally, I estimate approximately a 30% increase in SEO budgets across the industry at large, primarily realized this year. There was an initial decrease early during Covid as the pandemic froze investments and furloughed teams and agencies, but the bounce back has been quick. In some sectors, such as B2B, the SEO budget increase trends even higher.

SEO Embraces the Shift

There aren’t many events in our recent history that compare to COVID-19. It has had tremendous impact across all fields of life, and its effect on digital marketing is also notable. During the worst days of the pandemic (now hopefully behind us?) marketers froze budgets, layed off whole teams and departments, and cancelled contracts. But then the recovery ensued, and this year we saw budgets shifting from paid media channels over to owned and earned channels, and SEO was a key choice. While paid search took a hit across the board, it’s safe to say it also rebounded relatively quickly and by no means did it stop growing. But the growth on the paid search side slowed. Although I’m not as close to it, I imagine other paid media channels such as display were hurt, too.

In speaking with agencies across the board, from independent shops to large global agencies, average increases appear to be around 30% in client investments to SEO work. But there’s more to the story than only the pandemic forcing dollars away from paid media.

SEO is Simply More Complex Than Ever

It’s getting to the point with SEO that its complexity prevents non-subject experts from even understanding it adequately. Just this week I had conversations with veteran digital folks who, a) didn’t really understand why a large company would even need SEO, and b) thought it was so commoditized there wasn’t anything to do aside from … well, nothing I guess? Even explaining differentiators between SEO agencies, or toolsets or technical SEO vs content strategy gets quite difficult without going into entities, Google’s Knowledge Graph, structured data and JavaScript and Core Vitals. Seriously, try having a conversation about what makes one agency better than another in SEO, with someone that doesn’t really know what SEO is about today. It’s fun.

This complexity is both a blessing and curse. It’s a blessing, because it means the field is growing, the industry is thriving, and the demand is increasing. But it’s a curse because it means there’s a widening gap in knowledge between the non-SEO standard user (or even digital marketer) and the subject matter expert. 

Complexity Drives Investment

The complexity of SEO, growing and increasing in velocity over the last several years, also drives demand. With myriad specific challenges and opportunities across technology stacks, industries and competitors, the universe of SEO creates huge opportunity but comes with daunting complexity. This has been driving increased spending in SEO among the enterprise. In specific industries such as B2B, it’s been a sea change over the last two or three years.

Quick Aside: B2B SEO

Having worked on SEO in the B2B space with companies like VMware, Adobe and Samsung, I’ve seen first hand the swift adoption of this channel in the industry. There’s an interesting phased deployment that’s happened:

  • Ecommerce rapidly adopted SEO and invested heavily early on the web
  • This was fueled by commercial interests due to the effectiveness of SEO, as well as massive competition and the need for competitive advantage
  • B2B was slow to adopt nearly all performance digital marketing capabilities, and SEO was probably the slowest of them all
  • Having been late to the game, SEO represented tremendous opportunity for B2B brands and was relatively untapped
  • This investment by B2B into SEO was always going to happen, but it took years after ecommerce to see it more widespread
  • We’re starting to see widespread SEO adoption by the B2B space, especially over the last 3-4 years

A Huge Factor: Attrition and Hiring Challenges

We’ve never seen attrition like we have in 2021, across all industries, and this is probably magnified for agencies. There’s been a continual revolving door at many companies as SEO experts seek better opportunities (and not just SEO, but all digital roles). How this has impacted salaries across the board is a subject for another post, but the punchline is easy: everyone is earning more than ever before. Salary banding at every level has seen significant increases. What a SEO specialist made in 2018 isn’t near a competitive rate anymore. Today’s entry level SEO makes what an associate manager made in 2018.

Attrition and job changes created resourcing pressure within companies, and increasingly they reached out to agencies and consultants for support. Staff augmentation was probably a big driver of demand, not only subject expertise.

Conclusions: 30% Increase in SEO Spending Isn’t Only ‘Cuz Covid

Not only ‘cuz Covid … ‘cuz I talk real good.

The combination of COVID-19 and rising complexity in SEO has fueled demand over the last year. It’s safe to say this is the most notable increase in SEO spending industry wide in the last 3-5 years. The question is, will it last?

This is where the complexity factor weighs in. The sheer diversity of things you can do in SEO means it’s never going to get easier. This drives investment, not only in technology and agencies, but in departments and in-house teams within brands. I think it’s safe to say SEO is both hot and getting hotter.

Which brings me to my final question: is SEO dead yet?

Would love to hear your thoughts, experiences and insights.

Photo by Marco Verch CC license