Yes, you read the title right. My company recently performed extensive search engine optimization on a client website, and the results were staggering. Within a month, organic search traffic had dropped by over 60%. Inbound leads from organic search had dropped by over 50%. And the client was absolutely thrilled with the results.
So when is less organic search traffic better? And when are fewer leads from organic traffic better?
Less traffic from organic search traffic can be better when the site attracts the wrong kind of traffic, and fewer leads can better when the site attracts the wrong kind of leads.
To give you some background, this particular client offered a highly-specialized service to B2B companies. The reputation of the company and the quality of the service commanded a high dollar figure per engagement. They were THE major player in an industry that they had practically invented. However, their prior search engine optimization company did not factor in any of these very important considerations whilst optimizing the website.
The firm in question was clearly from the “traffic-at-any-cost” school of search engine optimization, and they never engaged the client with the type of questions that you would expect from a real business partner, including the most basic questions, such as “Who is your target market?” They were not a marketing partner – they were a traffic delivery mechanism. They were not actively involved in the client’s success, because to them, increased organic search traffic was the sole measure of success.
They certainly were not lacking in technical skill – they were able to deliver quality rankings for competitive keyphrases. And the methodology was not suspect, as all techniques were well within the terms of service of all major search engines. So what exactly was the client justified in complaining about?
It turns out they had plenty of legitimate complaints. Although rankings and organic search traffic were up, sales were down. Additionally, web form leads were coming in and the phones were ringing, but nothing was closing. The sales staff was spending a lot of time following up on leads that were, quite frankly, junk. Outbound prospecting had come to a standstill because salespeople had marching orders to follow up on inbound leads, which were certainly abundant.
After a brief analysis, it quickly became clear what the root of the problem was. The prior search engine optimization company, with their “traffic trumps all” mentality, had turned the site into a magnet for do-it-yourselfers, small firms or individuals with very low budgets, and visitors looking for free advice.
In their quest to obtain the most organic search traffic possible, the prior search engine optimization company had erred with the most fundamental building blocks of the campaign – keyphrase selection. Instead of carefully selecting keyphrases that were suitable to attract the high-end clientele that the client was accustomed to, they successfully (in the sense that they achieved high rankings) targeted keyphrases with modifiers such as “free,” “advice,” and “ideas.” All of these keyphrases were immensely popular, all of these keyphrases were difficult to achieve high rankings for, and all of these keyphrases should not have been utilized in the campaign in the first place.
When you optimize for low-quality phrases (“low-quality” obviously means different things, depending on a company’s goals) you receive low-quality organic search traffic in return. When low-quality traffic submits a form lead from a website, it stands to reason that the lead itself will also likely be low-quality. This was, of course, exactly what was happening to our client.
After our analysis, we broke the news to the client that the campaign had been fundamentally flawed. They were not happy to hear this news, but it did match up with their experience. We also told them quite frankly that moving forward, we would be emphasizing traffic quality over quantity, and by extension, lead quality over quantity. They were quickly convinced that organic search traffic was not the most important metric in a search engine optimization campaign, and were excited about a new, ROI-based approach.
Luckily, we did not have to throw out all of the work from the previous firm. They had laid a solid foundation in terms of tactics, which allowed us to recalibrate the keyphrases and realize results in a very short amount of time.
So, to revisit our accomplishments, organic search traffic decreased by 60%, leads were cut in half, and sales increased dramatically. The slowing pace of the incoming leads was more than offset by the quality of the leads – many leads derived from the Fortune 500 companies with whom this client was accustomed to working. Previously, visitors from these desired companies had been turned off by keyphrase modifiers such as “free” – they were serious people looking for a serious solution and they recognized that what they needed was not going to be free.
For too many people, including practitioners, search engine optimization has a very strict meaning – acquire rankings and traffic from related keyphrases. Until more companies realize that search engine optimization is a marketing tool to be judged and evaluated just like any other, there will be countless examples of campaigns deemed a huge success by those who worked on them, but as failures by those who have to deal with the aftermath.
“I want to be number one on Google for (insert hyper-competitive keyphrase here).”
It’s usually the first thing we hear in terms of search engine optimization – a company wants to be in that coveted top spot on Google, Yahoo!, Ask, and MSN. No matter the industry or specialty, when companies approach us with their desired goals for an SEO campaign, it’s usually all about improving their rankings and positions – and often nothing else. Yes, achieving first page rankings or top spots on the search engines is an incredibly desirable accomplishment to many companies who want immediate and noticeable results. But with such a considerable investment in an SEO campaign, you’d think companies in need of search engine optimization services would also be concerned with their overall ROI, especially in light of the current economy.
Vastly improved (or even #1) rankings are rather easy to achieve in an SEO campaign, even by a novice search engine optimization company. I once wrote an article demonstrating that top rankings were simple – and proved it by optimizing the article for the phrase “Leprechaun Repellent”. To this day, that article, on various sites, takes up nine of the top ten spots on Google for the ridiculous phrase. The obvious question, then, is what those rankings ultimately accomplish. And so we peel back the layers of the onion until we get there.
The First Layer – Rankings
Rankings, rankings, rankings. This is by far the most popular metric for any SEO campaign. Occasionally, a search engine optimization company may not be concerned with your bottom line because it can offer guarantees and focus exclusively on achieving this goal (even though, as in the ‘Leprechaun’ example above, it’s really not getting you anywhere significant in the long run).
Rankings by themselves mean little, and the problem with companies obsessed over rankings is that it doesn’t demonstrate the usefulness of search engine optimization. For a company website, high rankings are great (and impressive for an SEO campaign), but they are just the first layer of the onion. As any good search engine optimization company will demonstrate, our goal is (and yours should be) to bring and/or improve the levels of high quality traffic to your website, meaning visitors who come to your website via a search are already reasonably interested in your products or services.
The Second Layer – Search-Engine Referred Traffic
Increasing search-referred traffic is not a perfect metric because, if visitors are not converting on your website, there’s not a big value proposition to be had. Alone, the metric relies heavily on the right keyphrase selection by your search engine optimization company during the beginning phases of your SEO campaign.
Say that a farming supply company who wanted to be number one on Google for “affordable farming equipment” decided to try a different tactic while attempting to improve its search-engine referred traffic. If the website had been optimized for ‘Britney Spears,’ for example, traffic levels would undoubtedly be high (if the site ranked well for the term – admittedly a huge challenge), but few visitors would be converting, and business, in turn, would be far from booming. Visitors will jump ship immediately and serve as an immediate reminder of the negative impact that poor phrase selection by your search engine optimization company can have on your long-term ROI.
The Third Layer – Take Rate
Essentially, the take rate refers to the number or percentage of search-referred visitors showing interest in your products or demos (your POA or Point-of-Action). The take rate merely signifies a visitor who demonstrates an interest in your POA, for example, by clicking on a “Contact Us” link. The data you’re gauging here is simply overall interest, since not all of the visitors will follow through and actually convert.
Fortunately, there are ways to improve your take rate during the SEO campaign – making the point-of-action blatant and clear on every page is usually the most effective (but overlooked) method. Collaborating with your search engine optimization company to make certain that the primary POA on your website is indeed the most desirable action that a visitor can take is of paramount importance.
The Fourth Layer – Conversion
The Fifth Layer – Offsite Metrics
If a client allows it, we like to get involved in the nitty-gritty of offsite metrics as part of the SEO campaign. Though the usual search engine optimization company doesn’t go this far into the process, this area alone proves invaluable to demonstrating your ROI.
By analyzing offline metrics on a granular level, your search engine optimization company can examine and report on your average dollar sale for search-referred traffic, the average dollar value of each search-referred lead, the average lifetime value of each search-referred lead, and much, much more.
A software system is usually required to report the data acquired during your SEO campaign; we use Salesforce, a leading CRM (customer relationship management) solution that can be implemented to track these statistics for you. Though it requires diligence to analyze (as well as follow leads from cradle to grave), your company can analyze which engines attracted the most visitors, which keyphrases were the most profitable, the value of customers, and retention levels.
More than Rankings
All layers of the onion, so to speak, are important to an SEO campaign, but the closer you get to the actual dollar return, the more accurate your assessment of success or failure will be. Rankings alone are no indication of success. For that matter, neither is search-referred traffic if the visitors don’t take an action on the site that can lead to a sale. And when the lead finally comes in, there is no way to track the value unless you follow up with offline metrics to determine exactly how much leads from your website are worth.
These are all base metrics – many campaigns are much more involved and use thousands of different data points. But if you are new to the conversion/ROI game and are thinking about hiring a search engine optimization company, make sure that its goal is to be attuned to your bottom line.
As a PPC management company, we are often called upon to “fix” PPC campaigns that are not performing at an acceptable level (or are not performing, period). What we often discover is that these campaigns cannot be “tweaked” into success, because they were not built on a solid foundation from the outset. Without taking the time to craft a clear PPC strategy before you even log in to Google AdWords or Bing for the first time, you are putting yourself at a severe disadvantage.
Below are some important initial considerations that are often missing from the PPC campaigns our company encounters.
What is your Point-of-Action (POA)?
This seems simple enough. What is it that you want people to do when they arrive at your site or your dedicated landing pages? Do you want them to fill out a contact form or would you prefer they pick up the phone and call your business? Do you have an online demo that you’d like people to try? POAs can take many forms, and there can be more than one desirable action that people can take once you have their attention. But which is the most desirable? Which is the most likely to lead to a sale?
A recent client of ours was sending PPC traffic to their website hoping to increase business, but the most prominent POA on their website steered visitors to sign up for their newsletter. Upon investigation, we discovered that this was actually only the fourth most desirable action – less important than persuading visitors to complete a contact form, call the business and download product specifications. Addressing these simple changes had a huge positive impact on the client’s PPC campaigns; however, thousands of dollars were wasted in the meantime.
Know Your Acceptable Cost-Per-Action (CPA)
A PPC management company is often asked to “rescue” PPC campaigns that have not established an acceptable cost-per-action. This is extremely difficult to do, except in the most basic branding-style campaigns. People are often deterred from coming up with an acceptable cost-per-action because the formula to determine it can be so complex and requires a great deal of data. What is the average sale? What is the internal sales conversion rate? What is the internal cost of the product or service? What is the desired profit margin?
However, it doesn’t have to be so complicated. If these numbers are not readily available, a quality PPC management company can help you come up with reasonable approximations that should give you a starting point. At this point, you can begin to collect the actual data required for a sophisticated analysis while knowing that your cost-per-action will not go through the roof. As the data begins to pour in, the cost-per-action figure can be honed according to the realities of the campaign, and you will save a great deal of money in the process.
Know Your Differentiators
Any quality PPC management company makes it a point to ask every new client this question prior to working on their campaigns: If you don’t know why people should choose your company, how will they know why they should choose your company? Whether you are sending people to your website or (often preferably) designated landing pages, you have a very short window of opportunity to explain to people why they should do business with you and not your competitors, who are only a few clicks away.
And when you are considering your differentiators, it’s important to consider what actually resonates with your clients, not what you assume should resonate with them. Our company recently held a discovery meeting with a new client, and we noted that the primary differentiator emphasized on the client’s landing pages and website was the fact that they had been in business for more than 25 years. When we asked if this was what really “sold” the company to potential clients, our client sat back and said, “You know, come to think of it – I don’t think our clients care about that at all. What really sells them is the ease of integration with our product.” Again, a few simple changes in approach paid huge dividends in their PPC campaigns.
Establish Your Budget
This tip seems like a no-brainer, but a good PPC management company will always ask you whether your goal is to get as many people to take the point-of-action using a fixed budget or if the budget is flexible as long as you are achieving a specific cost-per-action. The importance of this question cannot be overstated, because it calls for two distinct approaches in managing your PPC campaigns.
For instance, Client A may have a fixed budget of $10,000 per month, and this budget will not change in the foreseeable future. In this case, our company will try to get as many prospects as possible to take the POA at an increasingly lower cost for each – in other words, to “squeeze” as much out of that budget as possible. On the other hand, Client B may have a starting budget of $10,000 per month, but is willing to increase that budget substantially, as long as they are achieving their acceptable cost-per-action. The approach to these types of PPC campaigns is decidedly different – we are trying to dramatically increase the volume of prospects while maintaining an acceptable cost-per-action for each.
The common thread with each of the discussion points above is that they should all be considered and resolved before your company spends a single dime on its PPC campaigns. They will fundamentally shape your campaign and set it on a solid foundation geared for long-term success. This approach may take a bit longer to get the ball rolling, but when it starts rolling, it will almost certainly be in the right direction.