Written by Rachel Vandernick –
Digital marketing is about blending art and science, merging creative ideas with actionable, trackable steps.
But before tweaking your on-page content or restructuring your website, you need to know what’s working well already and where you have the potential for growth.
This is where search forecasting comes in.
What Is Search Forecasting?
Search forecasting is the practice of predicting what your organic traffic will look like.
All good SEO strategies start with hard data. That’s ultimately what should be shaping your next move – not best guesses and assumptions.
With data in hand, you’ll be able to predict what search traffic might look like for your business and use this to plan out your upcoming campaigns.
When working on organic traffic predictions, here are a few key details that you should keep in mind.
Focus On The Right Metrics
Beginning with keyword research is really the backbone of any SEO strategy.
You might think you know exactly what search phrases will be most beneficial for your business, but it’s best to set those assumptions aside in a separate column of your spreadsheet and look at the actual data.
There are dozens of possible metrics that you could look at when it comes to keyword data.
Regardless of the industry you’re working in or the type of content you’re working with, your research should include data or evidence on:
- Estimated search volume.
- Keyword difficulty.
- Your business’s current ranking position and the URL for that ranking for relevant keywords.
- Search intent.
- Click-through-rate (CTR) estimates.
- Intel on the type and quality of content ranking in your desired position.
- Related queries and your relative ranking position.
If you aren’t able to find data for some of this, your predictions won’t be as accurate but can still be valuable.
The most accessible piece will be search volume data – you need to know if your traffic goals match real user behavior in search results with the keywords you’re planning to use.
The rest of the metrics here will help you prioritize beyond search volume and come up with more realistic predictions.
They give you important insight into how competitive particular phrases are, where you stack up among the current players in search engine results pages (SERPs), and where there’s an opportunity for additional optimization to capitalize on changes in user intent.
Use Tools To Help You
You’re not expected to magic your keyword data out of thin air, and there’s only so much that your own site tracking can tell you.
Where other tools can tell you general keyword metrics, GSC will provide you with business-specific historical data to give you a good (internal) benchmark to work from.
Bot traffic can impact anything in GSC, and if you’re trying to rank for local results, the search volume is dependent on where a search is actually being made from in relation to the keyword being used.
Once you have everything together in a spreadsheet, though, averages will be enough for you to put together a reasonably confident prediction.
In many cases, search volume data is exaggerated due to combined estimates with similarly phrased keywords, so take this data with a grain of salt.
You may find this type of data is better used to calculate ad savings after capturing rankings as another data point of organic search return on investment (ROI).
Don’t Forget About Competitors
Moving outside of the keyword data specifically, you should be using competitive analysis as part of your overall traffic prediction.
Look at who already appears on page one of the SERPs that you want to be on.
Plug competitor URLs into keyword tools to see what they’re ranking for and, crucially, what they’re not ranking for. Combine some of this data with your own keyword research to find opportunities.
This is where knowing keyword difficulty can be helpful.
If competitors are ranking for phrases that have a good volume but low difficulty, there may be a chance for you to produce better, more helpful content and move above that competitor in SERPs.
This will naturally change some of your predictions for search volume if you can move up from page two or three to page one.
This is also the time to assess if some related queries might also have content updates or development opportunities.
Are your competitors still using a single-keyword-per-page strategy? (You would be surprised!)
This might be where you can make up some competitive ground by building keyword families.
Look At Seasonality And Trend Data
Whether you’re working on a year-long SEO strategy or a fixed-length campaign, understanding the seasonal pattern of both your business and keywords is essential.
One of the most important things to remember with seasonal traffic, and something that many people get wrong, is that your business’s busiest time of the year doesn’t always equal high search volume.
Customers don’t usually buy straight away, so you’ll often have weeks, even months, of lead time from high search volume to tangible sales increases.
Depending on what industry you work in, you may already work on this kind of accelerated marketing schedule. Retail is a prime example of this – fashion weeks in early fall are already debuting spring/summer lines for the following year.
And for most product businesses, you’ll be looking ahead to the holiday season around May or June, certainly no later than July to begin your planning.
It’s important to know what your search-to-sale lead time looks like because this will impact not only your predictions for search traffic but also the content strategy you put together based on these predictions.
Rolling out holiday gift guides in November in the hope that you’re going to rank instantly and make big sales within the first week because of good search engine rankings is simply not realistic.
(If that’s something you’re looking to do, paid advertising is going to be a better option.)
Tools like Google Trends can be helpful for getting overall estimates of when search volume starts to pick up for seasonal queries.
Use this data with what you know about your own business outputs to map out how far ahead of search increases you need to be putting out content and optimizing for jumps in traffic.
Not Everything Is Predictable
While we already know that we can’t account for mass changes to search algorithms or unexpected world events, there are also other unpredictable factors that need to be accounted for on a smaller scale.
Particularly in product-based businesses, other marketing efforts can have a positive or negative impact on your overall search predictions.
Products can quickly go viral on social media, even without any exhaustive marketing effort on your part.
When they do, search demand can significantly increase in ways that you were unprepared for.
And when you run those searches through SEO tools, they won’t be accounting for that unexpected rise in traffic.
Reactive versus predictive demand, particularly if you make a similar or dupe for a viral product, is almost impossible to plan for.
If you find yourself running into those situations, take this into account for search traffic predictions in future years where possible and reallocate your resources accordingly.
Why Is Search Forecasting Important?
Forecasting your organic traffic means that you have a rough idea of expected results if conditions stay as predicted.
It allows you to better allocate internal resources, budget for your upcoming campaigns and set internal benchmarks. This can cover everything from expected new traffic if rankings are captured to increased revenue based on current conversion rates.
Knowing this information ahead of time can be critical in getting stakeholder buy-in, particularly if you work in enterprise SEO and your growth goals are set once or twice a year.
If estimates don’t align with expectations, you have the leverage to ask for a revised goal or additional resources to make those expectations more achievable.
Of course, there needs to be a disclaimer here.
Wide-scale algorithm updates, a new website design, changes in user behavior and search trends, or even another round of “unprecedented times” will all have drastic effects on what search results look like in reality.
Those are almost impossible to plan for or predict the exact impact of.
But issues aside, SEO forecasting is still worth investing time into.
You don’t have to be a data scientist to predict your search traffic.
With the right tools and approaches, you can start to get a good picture of what you can expect to see in the coming months and set more realistic benchmarks for organic search growth.
The goal of predicting your organic search traffic is to help you make more informed decisions about your ongoing SEO strategy.
Opportunities are out there, you just have to find them.
You’ll always come up against obstacles with forecasting, and it will never be 100% accurate, but with solid data to back you up, you’ll have a good benchmark to work from to build a strategically-sound search marketing plan.
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