For first few years of my search engine optimization life, I preached the tenet that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. In essence, I saw my job in SEO to be very clearly defined: If you do what I tell you to do, you will enjoy great search engine rankings and lots of great targeted free traffic. What's that, you say? Your conversion rate is terrible? All this new traffic doesn't equal new revenue? Converting the traffic into revenue was the client's responsibility, not mine. If a Web site wasn't conducive to conversion or the user had trouble using the shopping cart, I wasn't responsible. I was just the SEO guy, right?
But now, that particular paradigm is outdated. You can be the world's greatest at SEO, but if your clients aren't getting a decent return on investment from what they spend on you, I almost guarantee they won't renew for year two. Not only are you doing your clients a disservice, but you're tarnishing the reputation of yourself and your agency, not to mention losing future revenue.
I propose that we redefine SEO. Rather than merely driving relevant traffic, I think SEO should be the practice of generating and converting organic search engine traffic, measuring it by raw traffic, ranking numbers, conversion rate, and new revenue year over year.
In other words, we need to lead the horse to water and convince him he's thirsty.
One possibility is to use a multivariate approach in hopes of creating a more fully - optimized shopping experience for natural traffic. If you're not familiar with multivariate testing, think of it as a/b split testing on steroids. With multivariate testing, you can define as many elements on a page as you'd like and rotate as many different creatives in those slots as you like. A good multivariate tool will load up every conceivable combination of those elements, gather the data over a set time period and report back to you on which combination converted the best.
For example, did you ever notice how most brand traffic lands on your home page? Even product terms that contain branded verbiage often get a home page ranking ahead of a product page. Most home pages are pretty generic and usually run creative speaking to a straight brand message or weekly deal. How do you refine that on the fly to positively impact conversion? With a good multivariate tool, it's relatively simple.
Some tools have the ability to recognize a search engine referral and identify the search term to define the creative displayed in the marketing modules on the home page. SEO managers then populate the "hero image" with a product related to the search and then load the complimentary products into the secondary marketing modules. The test also can involve different hero creative.
For example, if a buyer lands on the home page after a search for headphones, the SEO agency can then analyze the effectiveness of three possible hero images: a guy wearing headphones, a girl wearing headphones and some headphones by themselves. All three images are loaded into the tool. After a couple of weeks, we have hard data telling us what combination or technique was most successful in converting natural search traffic into buyers.
As the search world becomes increasingly more complex, SEO agencies can no longer point to large traffic numbers to justify pay checks and consulting fees. We need to address the business of conversion and revenue, and multivariate testing is an excellent way to see how much bang you're getting for your SEO budget. By adapting to this new SEO milieu, our campaigns will be more streamlined than ever. Look into multivariate testing, and start holding your SEO agency or consultant to specific success criteria, beyond just raw natural search referrals.