September 21, 2009

Why Your SEO Is Underperforming – And You Are Underpaid

(Read in entirety at Search Engine Land. Published 2009)

Those of you who’ve heard me speak at industry conferences (SMX, AdTech, ACCM, SES, know I believe there is a strong disconnect between the opportunity natural search practitioners see (or instinctively understand) and how organizations resource and value natural search. The primary cause is that natural search practitioners have lacked a proper metrics-based business framework with which to have more powerful business conversations. Lacking this framework, the natural search opportunity fails to convince executives (internal or external) to allocate needed resources. As a consequence, natural search performance suffers, and sadly, your contribution goes under-recognized in the eyes of the organization.

I hope to help. I love measuring things. Looking for patterns. Questioning. Concluding. Experimenting. Learning. Then doing it all over (and developing products that automate those processes). I very much view natural search as a form of direct marketing. One my professional aspirations is to help elevate natural search from that of “black art” to a genuine business discipline capable of producing sustainable results more predictably (OK, I have ambitious tendencies). And as my company and colleagues would attest, I am a firm believer in the old management truism “you can only successfully manage what you have successfully measured.”

What I want to offer is this: How to systematically improve your natural search performance. More specifically, how metrics can help you win the resources needed to grow your channel; how to calculate them; which metrics matter; how to shape them into powerful business conversations; how to evaluate the smorgasbord of SEO tactics available to you, and their effectiveness at driving performance for you. When your CEO knocks on your door demanding you double your search performance in 6 months, I want you to know how to assess the feasibility and requirements of achieving that objective—or at the very least, how to tell your CEO what is more attainable and why.

Let’s get started.

The natural search opportunity

Allow me to humor you with some industry facts:

  • Search, as an industry, is growing from a $12B industry in 2007 to a $25B industry in 2011—100% growth in just 4 years (SEMPO)
  • CPC costs are on the rise—Google’s average CPC rose 15% last year
  • Consumers click on natural listings 85% of the time according to research (from Forrester)
  • Meanwhile marketers spend 85% of their search budgets on paid search (according to Marketing Sherpa)
  • 56% of Google queries have 0 paid ads placed (each of those queries present 10 “non-paid” or natural search results (or for the forward thinking, “ads”) on the results page) (according to comScore)

Clearly, natural search presents marketers with a much bigger pool of potential consumers—each of which can be acquired much more profitably than by any other means.

But as practitioners, how do we normally communicate this opportunity? Most search geeks (I mean that lovingly and inclusively) default to tactic talk and irrelevant metrics: begging for an hour of IT or copywriting or mechanizing to modify HTML elements on templates, H1 tags, page titles, or add links, or rewrite a URL or two. Then you get shot down because when pressed for “what’s it worth,” you start fumbling for something impressive to say (“um… thousands! Maybe millions” are gems I’ve heard over the years). And when that fails you resort to “leap-of-faith” arguments that CFO’s just don’t buy – or at least not for very much money. The standard SEO metrics you do share have no connection with business—you know what I mean. Things like PageRank flow, inbound links, keyword density, engine distribution, ego term rankings.

And that’s the nub of our issue. Winning the Darwinian resource struggle requires not that we lose our passion or faith in search, but that we realize it; and I am saying that we realize it by first talking business metrics before we talk implementation tactics.

Show me the money

Ultimately if we want resources allocated towards SEO work, we must be able to communicate the value of that work in return on investment (ROI) or return on ad spend (ROAS) language. That seems simple enough. Yet the reality of measuring natural search is complicated by the long-tail and distributed nature of natural search.

How do you define what is actually incremental traffic or sales? One month you get three visits for a long tail phrase. Next month you get just one. Did market demand decrease? Or did your rankings decrease? Or did both stay constant while other SERP page competition stole your traffic? And practically speaking, how can you possibly care about such small volumes? You don’t worry about the height or width of each blade of grass in your lawn (I hope). Yet successful search channels are comprised of just that: hundreds of thousands (or millions) of non-brand phrases each acquiring handfuls of searchers every month for various pages of your website.

In addition to the scale issue, many factors impact natural search performance, and many stakeholders are likely influencing what the engines are seeing and responding to. Can you correlate gains or losses to specific site changes? Or is your performance driven by an invisible hand of unnoticeable activities—perhaps the combined effort of user interface enhancements and keyword-rich copywriting tempered by new AJAX navigation schemes, all of which may have been deployed at various times over the past quarter or year. It’s complicated!

So our challenge is this: not only must we speak in ROI/ROAS business language, but we must also understand what’s driving performance currently, what the level of effort put forth has been, and communicate how we expect actions to contribute towards that positive ROI/ROAS we see.

That said, here is a framework of progressive metrics we have developed that take many of these factors into account in order to drive a stronger natural search business conversation:

  • Market opportunity
  • Clickthrough rate
  • Traffic acquisition cost
  • Keyword coverage
  • Non-brand reach
  • Landing page placement
  • Landing page yield
  • Incremental traffic / revenue
  • Return on investment / return on ad spend

In my next few installments, I will walk through each metric, how we derive them, their relationship to each other, and how to use them in a practical manner.

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