Redefining Search Optimization

First published May 26, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

We search marketers use the word optimize a lot. We use it to talk about increasing our positions in the organic listings, or maximizing our bidding strategies, or fine-tuning our landing pages. Rarely, though, do we use it to talk about boosting a site’s overall user experience. And by turning a blind eye to the site side experience, we could be denying our clients a strategy that could provide the biggest lift of all.

An Eye Opening Experience We’re just wrapping up a usability study for a client who targets 18- to 35-year-olds. These are the most Web savvy people on the planet. In talking to a number of them and watching how they interacted with the site, some things became painfully obvious. First of all, a good portion of screen real estate was devoted to a flash banner that was repeated on every page. Above this banner were some vital navigation links. There were also some interactive features and conversion calls to action, primarily graphical in nature, incorporated into this banner.

Here’s what happened: Within a few seconds of entering the site, most users decided the flash banner was advertising and ignored it. In doing so, they ignored any navigation options that appeared in the top third of every page on the site. In fact, this aversion extended to pretty much anything that appeared to be graphical and interactive throughout their entire site session. The client spent the majority of their Web design budget in creating a series of interactive tools, some very useful, that usually appeared in these ignored areas of the page. But almost all the participants in the study went straight past these to the plain text and pictures portion of the site. Unfortunately, the client didn’t put the most attractive conversion triggers in this section. They were up above in the no-eyeball zone.

The Economic Argument Let’s say you have a sponsored search budget of about $100,000 per month. This generally produces about $250,000 in new business as measured by your success metrics. So, for every dollar you spend, you get a $2.50 return, or a 150 percent net gain.

Now, you could extensively manage your keyword baskets, use advanced bidding strategies, and aggressively reduce your PPC costs by 20 percent, dropping your budget from $100,000 to $80,000. For most companies, this type of ongoing management requires many hours of extra work each month. Let’s say it takes 10 extra hours a week for a person to which you pay $48,000 per year. To realize the $20,000 gain each month, your cost in additional resources is $1,000 (roughly 25 percent of your manager’s time), giving you a net gain of $19,000 monthly. Not a bad return on investment, right? At the end of 12 months, you’re up $228,000.

But let’s say you instead concentrate on improving conversion rates by tweaking the user experience. You undertake a one-time conversion improvement project at a cost of $30,000. By implementing the changes, you boost your conversion rates by the same 20 percent. This bumps the business realized monthly to $300,000. Your budget remains the same, so now every dollar you spend gets you a $3.00 return, or a 200 percent net gain.

The extra business adds up to $600,000 at the end of 12 months. Your one-time cost was $30,000, leaving you up $570,000 for the year, more than twice the return realized from aggressively managing the PPC expenses. Further, optimization will improve conversion rates from all traffic sources, not just your search traffic. And the cost is one time, not on going, although I would certainly recommend optimizing your conversion mechanisms on a periodical basis.

It’s a Matter of Perspective All too often, search marketers mechanically do what it is we do, without tying it to the client’s objectives. Case in point: We were recently talking to a prospect with a very large site that they sell advertising on. The client’s objective is to increase page views so they have more advertising inventory to sell. This site happens to have great brand loyalty, but there are some navigation issues to deal with.

In talking to the client, they mentioned that one of our competitors said that they were going to optimize the title tags and meta data on every one of the many thousands of pages on the site and asked if we were prepared to do the same. I replied that we could, but why? Wouldn’t it be better to optimize the pages with the best potential for traffic gains, and then take the remaining time to find ways to boost their average visitor session from 10 page views to 12 or 13? We calculated that even with a tremendously successful meta tag optimization campaign, they may realize a total traffic gain of a few percent points, while extending the visitor sessions would give a 20 to 30 percent boost in that vital page view inventory.

Sometimes, you have to step back a little to get the full picture. Step back, search marketers, step back.

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