Who Are You Optimizing For?

First, let me come right out and say it: why do SEO and SEM people always have to prove which is more important? Why can’t we just all be search people? A well-defined search program should utilize both SEO and SEM tactics to provide maximum coverage and exposure to the right person at the right time, to maximize your revenue. I do not believe that SEO and SEM should be optimized separately from each other; in fact, there should be open sharing and examination of your overall search strategy. With that said, each practice has its own needs and methods that may be unique to it. Still, remember that the goal is to maximize your revenue by investing smartly. This means that you should invest in traffic that will convert at the maximum value for you.

Search optimization—particularly SEO—is traditionally thought of as improving the rankings of pages. Therefore, pages are optimized for search engines. My personal opinion on this is that if this is your only objective, you are doomed to fail. The simple fact is that the engines are changing every day. There are no “rules,” just best practices that have been adopted because they show positive results in rankings and can have positive results for the end user. To me, it’s not how much traffic you get that counts, but what you do with the traffic.

Your goals in improving search results should include positive impacts to your customers, and ultimately, positive impacts to your revenue streams. Optimizing entry pages for SEO is about improving the flow of traffic into your site to achieve a positive outcome for both your customers and your business. Users arriving from search should have an even better customer experience than those who enter through your home page. Search analytics are just as much about what happens on your site as what drives people to your site.

On top of all this, the online world has brought us an overwhelming multitude of information points. SEO in particular moves at such a rapid pace of change that keeping up with changes in the algorithms is practically impossible. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, claims Google uses over 200 ranking factors to establish what shows up on every organic search result (http://searchengineland.com/schmidt-listing-googles-200-ranking-factors-would-revealbusiness-secrets-51065). On top of this, there are over 500 tweaks made to the algorithm every year—more than one change per day. Optimizing to the engines is not a game you can win, but optimizing to people and their behaviors is.

Relevancy can also have an impact on paid search. Google AdWords (the largest of the paid search options) measures relevancy through Quality Score, a metric that takes into account the click-through rate (CTR) of the keyword, the historical CTR of all ads and keywords in your account, the CTR of the display URL in the ad group, the quality of your landing page, the relevance of the keyword both in the ad group and to the search query, and other factors. The better your Quality Score is during each search, the less you will pay per click. It should also be noted that the Quality Score used to determine the cost per click is generated for every search and is not a direct reflection of the Quality Score you see in AdWords (http://adwords.google.com/support/aw/bin/answer.py?hl=en

Beyond this, the real power of paid search is that you have full control over the user experience: everything from what copy and text the users will see to what pages they will be directed to. You can control the time of day results will be displayed, and you can even target specific device types (mobile or desktop) or geographies (particular cities or countries). The amount of direct and immediate control you have over your paid search campaigns means a greater opportunity to optimize and improve results. Site search can vary from site to site. How effective is your site search? How frequently is your site search used? There are a great deal of data points specific to search; the challenge is figuring out what points need to be used to answer specific sets of questions. Data only has value if it enables someone to do something.

For those of you used to practicing website measurement through Google Analytics or other clickstream tools, there will be some familiarity, though search analytics also use off-site factors, as well as user experience (UX) and information architecture (IA) factors. Some are paid and some are free, but the most important things to consider will be which tools enable you to make insights that help you meet your business needs, and which ones you feel most comfortable using. Sometimes the free options can be just as good as an enterprise-level paid option, and whenever possible.

Search analytics requires a bit of psychology; because we are dealing with words and people, we are given partial insights into our users’ thoughts. Think of a search box as a word association test. People provide a word or a group of words describing or identifying what they are looking for. The engine’s job is to interpret the user’s intent and match that word or words to the page or pages it thinks will best serve the user.

Further, a great deal of data aggregation is carried out to identify patterns that groups of searchers follow. At times you may need to make some assumptions. When you find this to be the case, I strongly urge you to use surveys to help eliminate this guesswork. Qualitative data can go a long way. For example, you can ask people on the page with the highest abandonment rate, “What are you looking for?”

When you need to make an educated guess, it’s important to remember it is just a guess. It can act as a starting place, but it’s only ever a hypothesis. Be prepared to follow a different avenue if it turns out that you are wrong. Like a good detective, you should be able to use your analytics to eventually answer questions or support theories you may have, but until you have supporting data, your hypothesis will only ever be an unproven guess. Also, because people change, you will never be able to stop measuring your site if you plan on improving sales and the user experience.



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