Conversion Optimization Is The New SEO

Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. As we begin a new decade in search, we face a parallel truism: great search marketing is 1% about getting the click and 99% about what you do next.

Starting here in 2010, conversion optimization is the new SEO.

To be sure, SEO is still important and still evolving. There are still plenty of companies that need to adopt its best practices. SEO isn’t dead. But among the giants of SEO, there is a growing restlessness for the next mountain to conquer.

That mountain rises beyond the SERP and beyond the click.

SEOMoz’s Rand Fishkin recently declared that conversion optimization is the most underused and highest ROI activity in the marketing department. Predicting that 2010 is the Year of Conversion Rate Optimization, he wrote, “Online businesses can generate so much revenue from this… 2010 is the year, simply because it’s an inflection point for companies to assess their spend and where they derive value.”

SEO and conversion optimization are a lot alike

Conversion optimization and SEO both thrive at the tumultuous intersection of marketing, IT and customer operations. SEO professionals are experts at navigating this technical and political tempest. They are part engineer, part creative and part strategist—all bundled together in the role of a front-line change agent.

Those same talents, honed over the past decade, are exactly what’s needed deeper in the funnel.

Conversion optimization, like SEO, isn’t a one-shot project. It’s an integral part of the new marketing. The most valuable players will do more than optimize a landing page or run a good A/B test themselves. They will help organizations absorb conversion optimization into their culture and operational rhythm.

Good SEO practitioners know that short-cuts aren’t the answer. Sure, almost anyone can “optimize” a single page’s conversion rate by eliminating all choices and brow-beating visitors with misleading promises. You can myopically increase conversions that way—but at a terrible cost to brand, reputation and customer goodwill. Such black hat conversion optimization, like black hat SEO, isn’t worth the price for legitimate businesses.

(That is one of the reasons I prefer the phrase post-click marketing—it suggests a broader regard for user experiences and long-term relationships.)

Like SEO, conversion optimization is data-driven. Web analytics remain your greatest ally, but you must roll up your sleeves and dig deeper into user behavior. Segmentation analysis becomes even more crucial. How do different segments interact with you, and how can you optimize their particular experiences? Carry that through to revenue (or at least quality-scored leads).

Ultimately, in both SEO and conversion optimization, content is king. Don’t let technicalities overshadow what really matters: compelling value propositions and meaningful brand experiences. In SEO, this wins you links; in conversion optimization, it wins you customers.

But SEO and conversion optimization are different too

SEO often prides itself on minimizing the need for PPC search advertising. While that’s a noble achievement in traffic generation, conversion optimization actually flourishes with paid search, for reasons we’ll examine below. So the first step is to clear away any paid media prejudices.

Combined with PPC, conversion optimization enables highly controlled experimentation. Turn on traffic for a specific keyword, with a particular ad, to a matching landing page, and run well-defined tests with a minimum of confounding variables—and do it in a matter of hours. Iterate quickly. If a problem arises, or you strike gold, react instantly. Test, test, test.

Of course, SEO traffic can be optimized too. But take full advantage of the control PPC offers you.

In SEO, the atomic unit of experimentation is the blog post. In conversion optimization, it’s a matched PPC ad and landing page. While most organizations can now blog nimbly, producing coordinated landing pages may still be a slog. It doesn’t have to be: optimize the process, not just the pages.

Conversion optimization extends beyond a single page. SEO usually avoids breaking up content into multiple steps. However, you may find that multi-step landing pages convert better, because they engage respondents in a mutually productive dialogue and facilitate segmentation (they’re also called “conversion paths” for a reason).

While SEO encourages open publication of everything—that great new report you produced makes excellent link bait—conversion optimization often benefits from dangling valuable content as an incentive to convert. A landing page offering your report, in exchange for a name and email address, can still be link bait, but there’s clearly some trade-off.

Furthermore, some conversion-oriented landing pages shouldn’t be indexed by search engines at all. If you’re experimenting with special offers, or running campaigns with short expirations, you want the prerogative to change them or turn them off without leaving residual expectations out in the wild. For limited promotions, the meta robot tags you probably want are “follow, noindex.”

Dream building instead of link building

The driving goal of SEO is link building. At the risk of sounding schmaltzy, the driving goal of conversion optimization is dream building.

You want to get in the mind of individual prospects, starting from their very first search query to learn something new, solve a problem, or satisfy a desire—a need that you can fulfill. That is the stirring of a dream in their consciousness. Everything you do from that point forward—every touchpoint, every landing page, every follow-up email—should help make that dream real.

Success in conversion optimization is when a prospect rejoices, “Wow, this is exactly what I was looking for!” A dream come true.

It’s harder than link building. But it’s a worthy mountain to climb.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Scott Brinker is the president and CTO of ion interactive, a leading provider of post-click marketing software and services. He is also a co-editor of the Post-Click Marketing Blog.

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