SEO, Search Engine Optimization, is an area that every online website needs to think about. The idea is that the more traffic you can get to your website, the more products you’ll sell. Just because you can lead a horse to water doesn’t mean you can make him drink. What a great opportunity to product manage your website and ask why about SEO.
When you’re building a website, you have four primary channels by which you get traffic (visitors) to your site:
- Direct Traffic – people who type in the URL (address) of a page on your website directly into their browser.
- Referral Traffic – people who are sent to a URL on your website from another website (usually by clicking on a link).
- Paid Search Traffic – people who click on an advertisement that you run (on other websites) to reach a URL on your site.
- Organic Search Traffic – people who use a search engine (like Bing or Google) to try and find an answer to a question, who then click on a link to a URL on your website within the search engine results.
[Note that the graph above combines #3 and #4 into one channel of traffic, as the source of about 1/3 of the traffic for this website.]
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is collectively the set of activities you do to increase (“optimize”) the amount of traffic you get from organic search (#4 above). SEO has at best a second-order effect on the other three channels from which you may get traffic – they are effectively unaffected by your SEO activities.
There are entire companies, in fact an entire industry, built to help companies increase the traffic they get from “organic” search. It is called “organic” search based on the premise that search engine algorithms will determine (through their own proprietary algorithms) the “best” results for any given search. Like nature, this can be influenced by you, but is out of your control – hence “organic.” This is in contrast to paid search, where you are directly controlling when someone comes to your site (by clicking on an advertisement that you paid for).
Since SEO is such a large topic, even though this is a longer article, it only scratches the surface. This article focuses on the decision making you would do (and the measurements needed to support those decisions). It does not attempt to be a one-stop-shop for all of your SEO needs.
SEO Has ROI (or Does It?)
People who promote their SEO services will tell you – build it, and they will come. What you do with the traffic once it arrives is up to you – SEO just gets people to show up. Makes for a good movie, but it doesn’t always work that way. This is where product management can help.
You want the right people to show up, not just anyone. In keeping with the baseball analogy, applied to the web: your website is the stadium. The games are free. Your SEO efforts get people to show up at the stadium. But you’re not selling tickets. The only way you make money is if people buy hot dogs or pennants or peanuts. You have products for sale at the stadium and you want people who will buy them to show up. You don’t get any value from just filling the seats.
If the people who show up don’t buy anything, it’s as worthless as if no one ever came in the first place.
I’ve worked with a client in the past who had a project that successfully increased the number of visitors to one of their websites by over 30% for several months, resulting in almost no change in the amount of products they sold during that period. An SEO-only person would say “hey, the people showed up, I did my job,” but a product manager is acutely aware that this was an exercise in futility.
Perhaps the people who showed up had no intention of buying anything. That would be consistent with the data my client collected. Perhaps something intrinsic to the website prevented the new visitors from purchasing (while allowing a consistent percentage of the previous visitors to continue making purchases). To the best of my knowledge, the data needed to perform that root cause analysis was not available.
When you’re product managing your website, you are responsible not only for getting people to your website, but also for getting them to convert their presence into purchases.
Measuring SEO – Easy Versus Important
The challenge in any measurement activity is determining what to measure. There always seem to be a bunch of things that are easy to measure, and a handful of things that are important to measure. When you’re lucky, there’s some overlap. The challenge is to resist the urge to measure stuff just because it is easy – you’re making work for yourself – both in taking the measurements and in reviewing the measurements.
To select the right measurements for your website, you first have to understand your goals. Assume that your goal is to sell products, profitably. This is the driver for your “bottom line measurements” – at the end of the day, how is your product (website) performing? If you aren’t measuring revenue and profits, you won’t know if you’ve filled your stadium with “empty chairs” who don’t buy any peanuts.
You also have to understand the buying processes that users (website visitors) use to make purchases from you. One way to characterize the buying process is to look at the process from the perspective of the user, who goes through the following stages of activity:
- Identify a need to solve a problem (possibly by purchasing a product).
- Discover possible solutions to the identified problem (possibly products that solve the problem).
- Compare solutions (products) and decide which to implement (purchase).
- Solve the problem (purchase and use the product).
- Re-evaluate the solution (product).
Step 2, discover possible solutions, is where SEO can help. One way people can discover solutions (and there are many others) is by using a search engine to discover solutions. Those people may search for phrases that describe their problem (“webcam not working with Skype”) or ask questions as if the search engine could solve their problem directly (“how do I make my webcam work with Skype?”). Some people will determine (or assume) that the problem is with their webcam, and that they need a new one. Those people will search for the solution they’ve already envisioned (“best webcam”), or combine steps 2 and 3, and search for comparison data (“webcam reviews”) or pricing data (“webcam deals”).
In addition to the goal-measurements (step 4), you’ll also want to include search-effectiveness measurements (step 2). Keep in mind that there are other factors at play in your website – not every visitor who searches has a propensity to buy, visitors who arrive may abandon your site because they don’t like your pricing, etc.
Measuring SEO Effectiveness
Keep in mind that you’re trying to sell products (profitably), and this particular effort is focused on improving organic search as a mechanism by which you attract customers to which to sell products (profitably). Your measurements should focus on these two aspects. Here are some things that are interesting to measure [note: the screenshots below are of Tyner Blain traffic - I won't share any client data - so these values are low compared to a successful eCommerce site - but they are illustrative.]:
Organic Search Engine Traffic
- How many visitors come to your site from search engines (and from which search engines?)?
- What are the keywords / phrases that visitors used to find your website?
- To which pages did the search engines direct the most traffic?
- What search terms sent traffic to which pages?
- SERP Ranking (Search Engine Results Page Ranking) – How high up is your result for one of your targeted keywords? Is it on the front page?
All of those measures, while easy to do (the screenshots above are from the free Google Analytics program), only tell you about how many people came to your stadium, they don’t give you any insight into peanut sales. You can use these measurements to provide feedback as you make changes in your SEO implementation – to determine if each change increases or reduces traffic (or fills seats).
You also need to know about the peanuts.
The specific financial measurements you make will depend on your strategy for how you engage your market. Are you a discounter, trying to maximize sales in the short term, with a transactional focus? Are you focused on the long term, building relationships, and maximizing the lifetime value of customers (better to sell more, later, than less, now)? Are you trying to gain market share, or maximize profits in a mature market? The specific ways you measure will vary, but some common measurements are:
- Conversion Percentage – how many of the people who come to your site end up purchasing (during that visit)?
- Number of Purchases – how many orders were placed?
- Average Order Value (AOV) – how much is each order “worth” in both revenue and profit?
- Lifetime Customer Value - how much is each customer “worth” in both revenue and profit?
The way you get real insights from these measurements is by combining them. Utilize the “SEO mechanics” measurements (above the peanuts) to slice or segment the financial measurements. Ask questions like “How many orders were placed by people who came to the site and landed on the webcam page?” or “What is the conversion percentage for people who came to the site by searching for best webcam?” or “How much revenue do we get from each keyword that sends organic traffic to our site?”
SEO Goals – Getting Actionable
Combining the results of the two forms of measurement (mechanics vs. revenue) will identify for you where you are getting the most value, and where you have the most opportunity to increase value. You’ll have to do analyses of “do I make one thing (page, keyword, etc) better, or do I try and make all things better?”
One technique that can help you reach those decisions is by noticing that most of the metrics you see follow power law (long tail) curves. Roughly speaking, 80% of your traffic will come from 20% of your keywords. 80% of your sales may be to 20% of your customers. 20% of your pages may generate 80% of your visits (or 80% of your revenue). You’ll have to “do the math” for each project to estimate the impact of those projects – and determine if your best bet is to improve a single page (a lot), or make a change to your site that improves all of the pages (a little).
You may find that your website is not sufficiently instrumented to make the measurements you need. My suggestion is to instrument your website first, and then try and improve it second. If you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen.
The current “state of the industry” for SEO has a hint of product management influence in it already – there’s some awareness that these sorts of aggregate statistics are limited in their ability to give you insight about your customers. Where SEO seems to be pushing today is in being able to segment the above data views against personas or market segments. This looks to me like an industry that is maturing beyond the elastic user problem that software development and user experience teams have been addressing for years. This approach will allow you to target your website development initiatives with an eye on the uniqueness of customers in different market segments.
SEO Product Management Conclusion
Search engine optimization is important. Focusing your efforts to improve your business, as it relates to search engines, is what is really important – and search engine optimization is how you get there. Discover the factors that have a bottom line impact, and then execute to address them. Don’t just assume that more traffic is better traffic.