CRO and SEO: SEM Civil War

civil war n. A state of hostility or conflict between elements within an organization.

Alright, so search marketing isn't really an "organization" but there is a certain hostility within its ranks. It's the war of the acronyms and funding. For years there have been articles, studies, and conference panels surrounding the debate of paid search versus organic search. That rivalry is rather ancient now considering the new kids on the block: CRO, SMO, and LPO. Who will win the war? Simple. If any one side wins the war in your organization, you are the loser.

What is CRO?

conversion rate optimization

Did you recognize that term? It's the newest kid on the block. Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) is simply focusing on the conversion as the core metric when optimizing any particular page. I personally see this as an offshoot of Landing Page Optimization (LPO) and is sometimes seen as just another way of saying LPO. Most people see LPO/CRO as just for PPC campaigns, but anyone that assumes that is missing some great information they could be using in their SEO efforts.

There is a CRO Chat once a week on Twitter, run by Ion Interactive. Ion is a tool provider and their main product, LiveBall, is a system to allow marketers within your organization to develop and test landing pages without involving IT. It is a nice system set up and Ion's team members are champions for CRO. They invited me to participate this week, and the topic was SEO and CRO.

Some of questions posed were:

  • In what ways do #CRO and #SEO help and/or hurt each other?
  • When #CRO and #SEO hinder each other, how do you prioritize?
  • Who should drive your #CRO and #SEO strategy? One person, or multiple people working together?

Conversion Rate Optimization and SEO

My own answers seemed to center around one thing: CRO and SEO should never hurt or hinder each other.

SEOs focus is typically ranking for targeted queries in search engines. In the big battle of PPC vs SEO, remember that what is learned in PPC about what queries are most searched for and highest converting can be applied to SEO efforts. Just like PPC, the information gleaned from CRO testing should be applied to SEO optimization. This would ensure that the page the user lands on is focused on giving them the right information for conversion. Comparing these any two parts of online marketing and optimization is (forgive me) like comparing apple and oranges.

SEO is a long term, slow moving process based on rules that are constantly changing. SEO should always be a priority because it is the foundation of your website. Without an SEO optimized site, you will be constantly paying for traffic through offline marketing or paid online sources. You can't benefit from a site that no one can find!

Onsite SEO has two basic parts: code optimization, which has little to do with what the user sees, and internal structure which can only be aided by CRO. Internal structure is optimized for the search engines (SEs), but the SEs are looking for simple structure that users will respond to (read: what makes them convert). Search engines are becoming increasingly about the user experience on your site and therefore so should you.

Now, SEO (onsite and general link building) alone is not going to produce immediate results in most cases. It takes time, and much of the work in SEO is very backend code based. While a good SEO knows to balance focus on search engines and users, there are still plenty of sites out there that are missing the point that if the site isn't converting, the site/page optimization was a waste. Which led to this statement during CROchat:

Blanket statement I know, sorry. Please note that this is said for most businesses that see a conversion as a form, a sale, or a link. The conversion can be anything, as long as it's your business's goal. There are businesses in which traffic is their "conversion" because they make money off of impression based advertising (as pointed out to me by Sandra Niehaus).

I would assume then that their conversion would be time on site or bounce rate. There is always a metric to focus on when testing that can be used as the conversion. In fact, if you are using Google Analytics, there is an option to use Time on Site as a goal.

alternate goals google analytics

Links can even be a conversion. One topic that was discussed was Linkbait vs Conversion-bait content. If you are doing link bait, the conversion is to get a link, so these two are one and the same. A piece of link bait that drives traffic, but no links is a failed campaign. Links are an integral part of SEO, and the more organic the better. Traditional methods of linking are slowing becoming more discounted as they are exploited. This is why social media (SMO) and CRO are so important to SEO efforts. SEO can no longer stand on its own, and neither can any other part of online marketing. Everyone has to work together on a combined strategy for the best results.

Applying CRO to SEO

"Great" you say, "but how do I use CRO for SEO?"

Talking about holistic marketing is one thing, performing it is another. Not every searcher is created equal and the searcher that clicks on an ad is not always in the same frame of mind as the searcher that clicks on an ad. In the same breath, I will also say that not every user is created equal in terms of demographics and internet usage. Everything we do is based on what the metrics tell us on the whole.

So I'll give you a few examples that I hope will spur ideas for your own campaigns.

Scenario 1: Day Care and Education

You are running a test of landing pages in your PPC campaign. Testing has identified that users are searching for "day care" but want to see information about "early childhood education" because they want to give their child the best education possible while they are at daycare. How do you change your day care page on the site that is ranking #1 for "day care" in your area to include information about early childhood education without hurting your ranking?

CRO Solution for SEO: First remember that there are a few key parts of a page when it comes to onsite SEO. Title tag, content, and internal links. There is also the issue of inbound link anchor text. If you users are searching for "day care" - focus your link building efforts on that term as well as the title tag. Give them what they are looking for initially.

As for internal links, test it with your paid traffic. Do visitors click on a link called "day care" more than "early childhood education." I'd guess the former, but only your visitors can tell you. I'd keep those focused on "day care" since testing showed that searchers look for day cares that are focused on early childhood education.

The main change will be to the text. Change the text to focus on early childhood education but keep the balance with "day care." Give the page a headline based on education, but the title tag and internal links should stay focused on day care.

Example SEO Elements
Slug: /day-care.php
Title: Day Care | Susan's Child Care Center
Headline: Education Centered Day Care
Starting Text: Day care should be more than just after school play time. At Susan's, we focus our time with your little one on early childhood education. While you are at work, your child will be working on a number of fun and interesting early childhood education objectives. Our trained and certified staff uses proven education curriculum targeted to your child's age group.
Internal Link Anchor: "Day Care"
External Link Anchor: "Day Care" and related

Scenario 2: Flash vs SEO

The Marketing team has done some testing on their own and has gotten approval from the executives to change the site into flash due to a higher conversion rate in paid search testing. As the company's SEO, you don't want them to ruin your work in the search engines. After doing a presentation that explains the issues with search engines and flash, and how much traffic comes in from the search engines, the VP of Marketing has tasked you with keeping your rankings and implementing the new design changes.

CRO Solution for SEO: First, breathe. Think this doesn't happen? It does all the time. This can work and make both sides happy.

Step 1: Ensure that all the pages on your site stay static. CRO may have proven that a flash splash element may convert better, but it's not a reason to have the site be one big flash file. Read more tips over at 10e20.

Step 2: Place the flash portion up top and integrate text below that. Flash can be used on a well SEO'd page, it just can't be the only element. Get a team of designers and coders together to balance the use of flash and static HTML. The users like the flash, so keep that above the fold. It can totally be the visual focus of the page.

Step 3: Utilize what you know about ranking factors to keep the page optimized. Keep the title tag the same as before, the slug should stay the same, and the text under the flash should be as good or better than it was before. Remember that some people won't be able to see flash, so the static HTML needs to be there for them.

Step 4: Keep link building as if there was no change. The addition of flash won't hurt what you've done here, and this is still the strongest component.

Step 5: Watch the load time on your page. Adding a flash element can hinder page size and load time.

Pieces of a Puzzle

Nothing in this line of work is easy. Understanding the complexities of paid search, the different platforms, and all the levers you can pull is tough, not to mention expensive if you get it wrong. SEO is tough because we are not mind readers, understanding what users and search engines want is not easy. Getting it right on one page and getting it to rank is even harder. CRO/LPO is a big guessing game with huge rewards if you have the patience and know what to test. And social? There are scores of people that still don't know what to do over there.

My point is, the next time you rant about PPC getting a bigger budget, or the SEO person changing everything around on you, take a step back. Remember that you all have a different focus. But in the end you are on the same team. Take your online marketing partner out to lunch and see what it is they can do for you with their knowledge, and what you can share with them.