SEO is top of the funnel and is the assist on a conversion

Within marketing teams the most attention both good and bad is paid to the initiatives that cost significant sums of money. There will be frequent executive check-ins, quarterly reviews, detailed reporting and of course an attribution system that relies on something a lot more sophisticated that a gut belief. In fact, the entire company wide attribution system might be tightly tuned to have a deep line of sight into all paid efforts at the expense of other channels.

In this world view, organic search channels could end up with the short end of the stick both from a resourcing standpoint and on attribution. Everyone sort of has a belief that SEO works and is overall beneficial to the bottom but there’s not as strong of a drive to understand exactly how the traffic performs. Without accurate reporting executives and SEO teams could end falling back on useless metrics like rankings.

Even worse, a natural consequence is that when budgets are tight the channel that “kind of” works will fall behind the channel or channels with deep visibility. This leaves SEO teams always strapped for resources and scrambling to prove their efforts are worthwhile. In a weird script twist, the paid team only has to defend their budgets not their jobs while the SEO team without the budget has more existential issues.  

I think the root of this issue comes from a fundamental lack of understanding of where SEO fits in the marketing mix. Unlike a performance channel which is designed to go direct to conversion, SEO is a hybrid between branding and performance traffic. Judging it purely as a brand channel would overlook the tremendous impact it will have on the bottom line, but at the same time it can’t be viewed as just a performance channel.

SEO in the marketing mix?

By its very nature SEO will typically live a lot higher in the buyer funnel and in many cases users will not have any buying intent whatsoever. Stepping back from being marketers for a moment and thinking about our own search activities, much of it is just research and curiosity. Queries about weather, information, sports scores, stock prices and the link have no commercial intent.

On the flip side, organic traffic on the brand name will be a lot lower in the funnel, but to be totally honest, its not really even organic traffic. A brand should rank for its own brand name or something is very wrong.

The real SEO

True SEO efforts will have a site earning significant visibility on the long tail – the types of words that it would be hardly profitable to put paid dollars behind simply because it would take too long to convert. As the user moves down the funnel, their queries will skew closer to head terms or this is when they might engage with paid advertising.

Once the user gets to the bottom of the funnel and has buyer intent, they are more likely to click a paid ad – either on the brand name or retargeting on another site. A last click driven attribution system will then give 100% of the conversion credit to paid channel and completely discount all the organic clicks that happened over the prior time period.

Organic is an assist

Applying this to a sports metaphor, that last click might be the basketball slam dunk or the hockey goal, but it was all the other prior clicks that set up the perfect sequence for someone to bring the ball or puck home.

In reality, changing attribution systems is complex and unlikely to happen in a short period of time just because someone wants to. However, there is still no excuse for not having a better view on the performance of the organic channel and why to invest more into it. To that end, executives need to be aware of where SEO fits in the funnel and manage expectations accordingly.

To illustrate this with an example, let’s look at someone using search to plan a vacation.

The first query might be very general just to get ideas.

As they move further down the funnel they settle on a place to travel.

Assuming they know the dates they want to travel they start exploring transportation.

They also check out their hotel options.

Throughout this entire process they may have visited many various sites from local chambers of commerce, review sites, hotel sites, online travel agencies and aggregators.

As they finally decide on their options and get any necessary traveling partners on board, they are ready to purchase. They search directly for the site where they found the best deal.

If a paid ad comes up first, so be it; they are clicking. In the last click attribution world most less sophisticated sites use,  all of the credit would have gone to that very last click. The potentially months- worth of effort on planning that vacation through various pathways would have all fallen by the wayside from an attribution standpoint.

Multi-touch attribution is the goal

The ultimate goal of every site should be to use a multi-touch attribution model, but getting to this ideal is not as simple as changing a t-shirt. There is a significant amount of effort to gather data, build data lakes, test out models and buy the tools necessary to support the process.

There may never be a perfect way to attribute organic traffic, but at least with the knowledge of where SEO traffic really fits in the marketing mix, the best integrated marketing strategy can be built. SEO should carry the baton on all the deeper research efforts, but the baton can be passed to performance channel when customers are ready to pull out their credit cards.