SEO: Search Engine Optimists?

“I’m getting worried about search engine marketing (SEM),” wrote Rebecca Lieb, executive editor of ClickZ, in her What’s the Buzz? column a few weeks ago. “Irrational exuberance is beginning to emerge,” she added, and I agree with her. A new survey provides further evidence of how last year’s search engine skeptic has evolved into this year’s search engine optimist.

NetIQ WebTrends and iProspect surveyed over 800 marketing professionals and reported that:

  • 77 percent of users surveyed are currently using or evaluating paid search strategies.
  • 41 percent are actively running paid search campaigns.
  • 31 percent of users don’t measure their SEM activities at all.
  • 60 percent of those who do measure are only measuring basic click-through results and general traffic activity.
  • 27 percent are measuring through to conversion.
  • 11 percent are conducting detailed return on investment (ROI) analysis looking at revenue by search phrase and lifetime value.

The survey isn’t truly scientific because it’s a self-selected sample. It’s also probably skewed in favor of those marketing professionals interested in furthering their education and optimizing their Web marketing.

Still, it’s frightening to realize as hot as search is, so many are failing to maximize its potential. Conversion rates measure success, yet way too many Web marketers equate success with traffic. Every visit should end in a conversion!

Not every conversion needs to be a transaction, however. I’ve previously described the difference between macroactions (overall goals) and microactions (all the actions a visitor needs to take to achieve a macroaction). Not every visitor is in the same phase of the buying process; so what phase the person is in determines the different “conversion” metrics we define.

We sort our keywords by traffic potential, buying-process phase, explicitness of intent, and the persuasion scenario we’ve identified. Once the visitors are on the site, we ask our clients to measure and track many of the following metrics:

  • Where the visitor comes from
  • What the visitor knows
  • What the visitor sees
  • What the visitor engages with
  • What the visitor refers to others
  • What the visitor prints
  • Who the visitor is
  • Where the visitor goes
  • How to contact the visitor

This data helps us constantly improve the persuasion architecture of the Web site.

Fredrick Marckini, CEO of iProspect, explains the value of understanding intent this way:

The act of constructing a query requires more user participation, initiative, and involvement than surfing and clicking — the action that banner ads hope to interrupt. Instead, the behavior of search requires an Internet user to actually make a request using language — a request for an advertiser in most cases. The search engine user is actually engaged in seeking a purchase opportunity. The specific construction by a search engine user of a multi-keyword phrase can demonstrate significant conversion potential, e.g., ’buy cars online’ versus ’cars.’ The language they use in constructing that query will evidence different degrees of intent — but make no mistake, the act of constructing a query is the greatest indication of intent available on the Internet.

Regrettably, too few marketers understand the true significance and power of SEM. They mistakenly assume because some percentage of traffic converts they can ignore the traffic that does not. Similarly, early direct marketers focused on pushing their messages out to large audiences and only paid attention to what stuck. The strongest evolved into database marketers who focused as intently on people who didn’t buy as on those who did. Database marketers track what offers don’t work so they can study and optimize them. At best, the vast majority of Web marketers are mentally in the same place as the early direct marketers. Financially, however, they have a greater commitment.

It’s frightening to contemplate so many millions of dollars flushed away. The sad part is much of that money is considered well spent by the companies investing it. They see the ROI based on current conversion rates, without regard to what the ROI would be using persuasive architecture, then they set their anemic goals accordingly. Though the opportunity cost is staggering, management remains complacent. Worse, many are ignorant of the opportunity cost because they don’t know how to measure the opportunity and capture the sales. Regardless of their motivation, they’re obviously not well prepared to be thinking about the long-term viability of their companies. Besides, why would they want to upset the status quo with so many difficult questions?

One day a competitor will come along and invest the time and effort deliberately designing the persuasion architecture of its Web site. This competitor will learn from the intentional feedback loop created by defining metrics in the planning stage and engage in a process of continual conversion rate optimization. The competitor will learn how to provide an increasingly better experience to its visitors. When this upstart finally puts the complacent company out of business, it might explain it was simple because there was such a great deal of missed opportunity to exploit.

The bottom line is your prospects arrive at your Web site because they recognize a need, problem, or opportunity. They are telling you by the words they use and the scenarios they click through. They want you to provide a solution. Eventually, they will find that solution. The only question is whether it will be at your Web site. Are you really doing all you can to make sure you give your visitors what they want?

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