SEO has always been focused on acquisition.
The marketing strategy, based on high rankings against keyword terms, is about gaining a steady flow of new visitors. If a site ranks better than competing sites, this steady stream of new visitors will advantage the top sites to the disadvantage of those sites beneath it.
The selling point of SEO is a strong one. The client gets a constant flow of new visitors and enjoys competitive advantage, just so long as they maintain rank.
A close partner of SEO is PPC. Like SEO, PPC delivers a stream of new visitors, and if you bid well, and have relevant advertisements, then you enjoy a competitive advantage. Unlike PPC, SEO does not cost per click, or, to be more accurate, it should cost a lot less per click once the SEOs fees are taken into account, so SEO has enjoyed a stronger selling point. Also, the organic search results typically have a higher level of trust from search engine users.
91% prefer using natural search results when looking to buy a product or service online".[Source: Tamar Search Attitudes Report, Tamar, July 2010]
Rain On The Parade
Either by coincidence or design, Google’s algorithm shifts have made SEO less of a sure proposition.
If you rank well, the upside is still there, but because the result is less certain than it used to be, and the work more involved than ever, the risk, and costs in general, have increased. The more risky SEO becomes in terms of getting results, the more Adwords looks attractive, as at least results are assured, so long as spend is sufficient.
Adwords is a brilliant system. For Google. It’s also a brilliant system for those advertisers who can find a niche that doesn’t suffer high levels of competition. The trouble is competition levels are typically high.
Because competition is high, and Adwords is an auction model, bid prices must rise. As bid prices rise, only those companies that can achieve ROI at high costs per click will be left bidding. The higher their ROI, the higher the bid prices can conceivably go. Their competitors, if they are to keep up, will do likewise.
So, the PPC advertiser focused on customer acquisition as a means of growing the company will be passing more and more of their profits to Google in the form of higher and higher click prices. If a company wants to grow by customer acquisition, via the search channel, then they’ll face higher and higher costs. It can be difficult to maintain ROI via PCC over time, which is why SEO is appealing. It’s little wonder Google has their guns pointed at SEO.
A fundamental problem with Adwords, and SEO in general, is that basing marketing success around customer acquisition alone is a poor long term strategy.
More on that point soon….
White-Hat SEO Is Dead
It’s surprising a term such as “white hat SEO” was ever taken seriously.
Any attempt to game a search engine’s algorithm, as far as the search engine is concerned, is going to be frowned upon by the search engine. What is gaming if it’s not reverse engineering the search engines ranking criteria and looking to gain a higher rank than a site would otherwise merit? Acquiring links, writing keyword-focused articles, for the purpose of gaining a higher rank in a search engine is an attempt at rank manipulation. The only thing that varies is the degree.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as far as marketers are concerned.
The search marketing industry line has been that so long as you avoided “bad behaviour”, your site stood a high chance of ranking well. Ask people for links. Find keywords with traffic. Publish pages focused on those topics. There used to more certainty of outcome.
If the outcome is not assured, then so long as a site is crawlable, why would you need an SEO? You just need to publish and see where Google ranks you. Unless the SEO is manipulating rank, then where is the value proposition over and above simply publishing crawlable content? Really, SEO is a polite way of saying “gaming the system”.
Those who let themselves be defined by Google can now be seen scrambling to redefine themselves. “Inbound marketers” is one term being used a lot. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, although you’d be hard pressed to call it Search Engine Optimization. It’s PR. It’s marketing. It’s content production. The side effect of such activity might be a high ranking in the search engines (wink, wink). It’s like Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is…...
A few years back, we predicted that the last SEOs standing would be blackhat, and that’s turned out to be true. The term SEO has been successfully co-opted and marginalized. You can still successfully game the system with disposable domains, by aggressively targeting keywords, and buying lot of links and/or building link networks, but there’s no way that’s compliant with Google’s definitions of acceptable use. It would be very difficult to sell that to a client without full disclosure. Even with full disclosure, I’m sure it’s a hard sell.
But I digress….
Optimization In The New Environment
The blackhats will continue on as usual. They never took direction from search engines, anyway.
Many SEOs are looking to blend a number of initiatives together to take the emphasis off search. Some call it inbound. In practice, it blends marketing, content production and PR. It's a lot less about algo hacking.
For it to work well, and to get great results in search, the SEO model needs to be turned on its head. It’s still about getting people to a site, but because the cost of getting people to a site has increased, every visitor must count. For this channel to maintain value, then more focus will go on what happens after the click.
If the offer is not right, and the path to that offer isn’t right, then it’s like having people turn up for a concert when the band hasn’t rehearsed. At the point the audience turns up, they must deliver what the audience wants, or the audience isn’t coming back. The bands popularity will quickly fade.
This didn’t really matter too much in the past when it was relatively cheap to position in the SERPs. If you received a lot of slightly off-topic traffic, big deal, it’s not like it cost anything. Or much. These days, because it’s growing ever more costly to position, we’re increasingly challenged by the “growth by acquisition” problem.
Consider optimizing in two areas, if you haven’t already.
1. Offer Optimization
We know that if searchers don’t find what they what, they click back. The click back presents two problems. One, you just wasted time and money getting that visitor to your site. Secondly, it’s likely that Google is measuring click-backs in order to help determine relevancy.
How do you know if your offer is relevant to users?
The time-tested way is to examine a couple of the 4ps. Product, price, position, and place. Place doesn’t matter so much, as we’re talking about the internet, although if you’ve got some local-centric product or service, then it’s a good idea to focus on it. Promotion is what SEOs do. They get people over the threshold.
However, two areas worth paying attention to are product and price. In order to optimize product, we need to ask some fundamental questions:
- Does the customer want this product or service?
- What needs does it satisfy? Is this obvious within a few seconds of viewing the page?
- What features does it have to meet these needs? Are these explained?
- Are there any features you've missed out? Have you explained all the features that meet the need?
- Are you including costly features that the customer won't actually use?
- How and where will the customer use it?
- What does it look like? How will customers experience it?
- What size(s), color(s) should it be?
- What is it to be called?
- How is it branded?
- How is it differentiated versus your competitors?
- What is the most it can cost to provide, and still be sold sufficiently profitably?
SEOs are only going to have so much control over these aspects, especially if they’re working for a client. However, it still pays to ask these questions, regardless. If the client can’t answer them, then you may be dealing with a client who has no strategic advantage over competitors. They are likely running a me-too site. Such sites are difficult to position from scratch.
Even older sites that were at one point highly differentiated have slid into an unprofitable me too status as large sites like Amazon & eBay offer a catalog which grows deeper by the day.
Unless you're pretty aggressive, taking on me-too sites will make your life difficult in terms of SEO, so thinking about strategic advantage can be a good way to screen clients. If they have no underlying business advantage, ask yourself if you really want to be doing SEO for these people?
In terms of price:
- What is the value of the product or service to the buyer?
- Are there established price points for products or services in this area?
- Is the customer price sensitive? Will a small decrease in price gain you extra market share? Or will a small increase be indiscernible, and so gain you extra profit margin?
- What discounts should be offered to trade customers, or to other specific segments of your market?
- How will your price compare with your competitors?
Again, even if you have little or no control over these aspects, then it still pays to ask the questions. You're looking for underlying business advantage that you can leverage.
Once we’ve optimized the offer, we then look at conversion.
2. Conversion Optimization
There’s the obvious conversion most search marketers know about. People arrive at a landing page. Some people buy what’s on offer, and some leave. So, total conversions/number of views x 100 equals the conversion rate.
However, when it comes to SEO, it’s not just about the conversion rate of a landing page. Unlike PPC, you don’t have precise control over the entry page. So, optimizing for conversion is about looking at every single page on which people enter your site, and optimizing each page as if it were an entry point.
What do you want people to do when they land on your page?
Have a desired action in mind for every page. It might be a sign-up. It might be to encourage a bookmark. It might be to buy something. It might be to tweet. Whatever it is, we need to make the terms of engagement, for the visitor, clear for each page - with a big, yellow highlight on the term “engagement”! Remember, Google are likely looking at bounce-back rates. So, there is a conversion rate for every single page on your site, and they’re likely all different.
Think about the shopping cart process. Is a buyer, particularly a mobile buyer, going to wade through multiple forms? Or could the sale be made in as few clicks as possible? Would integrating Paypal or Amazon payments lift your conversion rates? What’s your site speed like? The faster, the better, obviously. A lot of conversion is about streamlining things - from processes, to navigation to site speed.
At this point, a lot of people will be wondering how to measure and quantify all this. How to track track conversion funnels across a big site. It’s true, it’s difficult. It many cases, it’s pretty much impossible to get adequate sample sizes.
However, that’s not a good reason to avoid conversion optimization. You can measure it in broad terms, and get more incremental as time goes on. A change across pages, a change in paths, can lead to small changes on those pages and paths, even changes that are difficult to spot, but there is sufficient evidence that companies who employ conversion optimization can enjoy significant gains, especially if they haven't focused on these areas in the past.
While you could quantify every step of the way, and some companies certainly do, there’s probably a lot of easy wins that can be gained merely by following these two general concepts - optimizing the offer and then optimizing (streamlining) the pages and paths that lead to that offer. If something is obscure, make it obvious. If you want the visitor to do something, make sure the desired action is writ-large. If something is slow, make it faster.
Do it across every offer, page and path in your site and watch the results.
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