Calls to Action and SEO

A long time ago, my friend Peter told me the number one rule in marketing is MPABS: most people are basically stupid. Needless to say, I laughed at his remark. It seemed, well, silly. I was working in medical genetics labs back then, so I had very little interest in marketing.

Here I am, years later, touting Peter’s silly, little rule. When it comes to SEO (define) and user behavior, MPABS has been a very useful rule to follow.

It’s the Conversion, Not the Search Engine Position

I’ve always found it confusing that people believe top search engine positions are a mark of success in an SEO campaign. The ultimate goal isn’t to gain top positions, but to encourage people to visit your site and take a desired call to action. In other words, the goal is to convert visitors into buyers, which is why I rely on Web analytics data rather than Web positioning data.

With all types of search behavior (querying, browsing, scanning, berrypicking, etc.), Web site owners want users to take a desired action. That’s where Peter’s MPABS rule comes into play. Whenever site visitors view any page on a site, the calls to action have to be obvious. Top search engine visibility is useless if site visitors don’t know what to do next.

Primary and Secondary Calls to Action

Whenever I come up with a site architecture, part of the process is to determine each page’s primary and secondary calls to action.

Let’s use an e-commerce site as an example. The obvious primary call to action is “add to cart.” That call to action must be in the center of the page, above the fold, and formatted in a different color or with graphics (to call attention to it without being obnoxious). Site visitors shouldn’t have any problem finding or clicking an “add to cart” button.

However, shoppers might not be ready to click “add to cart.” The product in the desired size or dimensions may not be in stock. The color might not be the one the shopper wants. Maybe the shopper doesn’t want a shirt that’s dry clean only.

In this situation, shoppers might return to a category/gallery page and engage in pogo-sticking to find a desired product. Unfortunately, according to Jared Spool, forcing users to pogo-stick greatly decreases the chance a site will convert the shopper.

Secondary calls to action are therefore a great information architecture solution. Not only do they decrease pogo-sticking, they’ll communicate to search engines that all of the product (or service) site pages are important.

Examples of Secondary Calls to Action

In our e-commerce example, if a size or color isn’t available, Web site owners can place related or alternative products on the right side of the page. Of course, the alternative product photos won’t be as large or as prominent as the main product photo. So visitors are encouraged to take the primary call to action. Alternate thumbnail photos should be easily seen on the page without forcing people to scroll.

The up-sell is another type of secondary call to action. If someone purchases a pair of pants, she may be interested in related products, such as a belt or matching socks. Up-sell links are usually placed on the right side or bottom of a product page (as long as the page content is small).

One way to test the MPABS rule is to conduct an 8-10 second usability test. Show participants a product page for only 8-10 seconds, then ask them what the page is trying to accomplish. If participants don’t answer with the primary call to action right away, that call to action is too subtle. Participants should mention the secondary calls to action as well. An affordance test will also provide some of this information.

If the calls to action are obvious to site visitors, they should be obvious to search engines. Of course, search engine spiders won’t click “add to cart,” but they’ll see how related pages link to each other.

Balancing Calls to Action

I see so many optimized sites on which cross-linking is out of control. Many search optimizers try to cross-link all pages on a site to communicate that every page on a site is important. Overdoing a cross-linking structure doesn’t achieve the desired results. Sure, search engine spiders can discover the pages through the crawling process and the site maps. However, the pages cease to be focused on related products and services. Desired calls to action get lost in the process. Remember, search engine visibility is useless if visitors don’t take desired calls to action.

Balance is key. If site visitors feel forced into taking a desired call to action too quickly, they’ll likely leave the site. Visitors won’t click “add to cart” or “subscribe” without understanding the clear benefits of taking the call to action.

On the flip side, if visitors aren’t encouraged to take a desired call to action on key pages throughout a site, Web site owners might also lose sales and conversions. The MPABS rule applies.

Any search optimizer who specializes in site architecture should understand how to create this balance for a wide variety of sites.


Of course, I don’t really believe most people are basically stupid. That’s one reason I initially snickered at Peter’s observation. But I do understand what he meant by it. Something that’s obvious to a Web site owner may not be obvious to site visitors or search engines.

When you create a Web site, think about what you’re communicating to site visitors and search engine spiders. When keyword phrases, navigation, and calls to action are apparent to targeted personas, including the search engine persona, everyone wins.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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