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Proving ROI for Search-Engine Optimization

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Search-engine optimization (SEO) provides several return on investment (ROI) measures that can have a positive impact on a company's bottom line far more visibly than most marketing tactics.

Yet, despite all the potential and the many SEO success stories, it can still be surprisingly difficult to make a case for investment in this marketing tactic.

The work involved in SEO is less tangible than in some other areas of marketing investment, such as an eye-catching Flash video for your website or a print campaign that's bursting with color and rich imagery. For marketers who place such value on visibility, it's on us to clearly illustrate how SEO delivers results.

Because SEO is Web-based, it is inherently suited to detailed tracking. Ask product managers for the cost-per-conversion on their latest radio campaign, and the airwaves will be silent.

That's not to disparage a healthy media mix, but think of investing in SEO as an opportunity to define new benchmarks for ROI on your company's marketing spend. But, as with any statistics, the tricky part is being careful not to compare apples with oranges.


Your key ROI metrics will depend on your marketing objectives. For example, the Wyndham Hotel Group sells franchise rights for several hotel brands, including Ramada, Super 8, Howard Johnson, and Travelodge. Its online strategy is straightforward: Reach potential franchisees during their pre-purchase online research using its hotel franchise website to inform and collect leads.

Driven largely by SEO and search-engine marketing, the company recorded a 600% increase in lead generation year over year. With an average sale price of more than $1 million per franchise, the additional sales arising from those leads sent the ROI of its online marketing effort through the roof.

For Sun Life Financial and the communications team behind SunLife.com, the same success metrics don't apply. The team manages Sun Life's corporate presence, an umbrella site that links to 10 Sun Life Web properties, each devoted to its local market.

SunLife.com serves as a gateway to help customers access the appropriate regional site for product and account information. The site also provides comprehensive corporate information for shareholders, analysts, the media, and potential employees.

"Building Sun Life's online presence through SEO was a key measure in our Web strategy. Our early SEO success has helped us justify the investment in SunLife.com and encourage our digital colleagues around the world to invest the time in implementing an SEO strategy," says Sabita Singh, director of Digital Communications at Sun Life.

Given that goal, key ROI metrics included inbound links from traditional sites as well as from social-media sites, search rankings for targeted search phrases, and traffic referrals to Sun Life properties.

With that data, the team can measure awareness on key issues such as retirement trends. As for potential customers, rather than track lead conversions the team leverages SEO strength to refer traffic to Sun Life's country-specific sites.

Whether it's e-commerce, lead generation, or consumer awareness, your marketing goals will determine the best ROI metrics on an SEO effort. That said, here are six components that almost always find their way into a business case for the effectiveness of SEO.

1. Top Search Rankings

It's likely no surprise that you need to know how you rank in search engines to assess the effectiveness of your SEO efforts. Establish a monthly report for your rankings in Google, Yahoo, and MSN. Track your leading competitors at the same time to find out who is aggressively targeting SEO.

Sun Life monitors a group of more than 200 keywords monthly. Its custom SEO report also shows how many rankings rose and how many fell from the prior month, and the rankings of key competitors for the same search phrases.

That report was particularly useful following the redesign of SunLife.com. An emphasis on SEO resulted in a 13% increase in first-place search rankings within a month of the site relaunch.

Whichever reporting method you use, look at the phrases where your Web page ranks near the top. Consider trying to boost those rankings by fine-tuning your internal links to that page or through new promotional strategies for that content.

"Start by looking at key search phrases that are highly relevant to your organization," suggests Singh. "Look for existing search positions that could drive a lot more traffic through a small improvement, such as improving a No. 11 ranking so that it shows up on the first page of search results." Slow but steady wins the race, and deliberate, incremental improvements will pay off over time.

2. Conversion Rates

We all want Web traffic, but how do you know whether you've got high-quality Web traffic? Conversion data will tell you which visitors are performing the desired actions on your site, such as downloading a whitepaper, completing an online purchase, or joining your opt-in communications list.

First, map all the possible conversion activities. A common mistake is to associate value only with the "buy now" action, such as the Contact Me Now form or something similar.

But what about all the actions that are an important part of engagement in the buying process, such as downloading key documents, joining a webinar, or joining an email list?

You want to assign some relative value to all those actions and capture that in your conversion tracking and ROI reporting. With that information, you're in a position to track the keywords or search phrases that offer the best conversion rates.

We're getting into some pretty granular tracking here, and you may want to consider a solution that goes beyond standard Web analytics, such as Eloqua. Such solutions will help you build a rich user profile of your visitors over time, and they provide all the tools you'll need for lead scoring and automated outbound marketing.

As for SEO, look at how your landing pages handle the traffic that is sent to your site. A low conversion rate for a landing page may indicate that the site visitor was looking for something and didn't find it. If a page ranks high for a search phrase but has a 90% bounce rate, you may be missing a great opportunity to modify that content and convert traffic better.

3. Top Keywords or Phrases

Any Web-server or Web-analytics package will track the actual search phrases that brought visitors to your site from search engines. That is valuable data for fine-tuning your online-marketing efforts.

We like to pretend that our keyword targeting is a precise process, but the truth is we're often surprised by some of the long-tail search phrases that bring traffic. Those fortuitous wins offer opportunities to further build on those positions and perhaps increase the stream of traffic.

Perhaps you're targeting phrases around "identity theft software" on your site, but what actually brings more traffic (and high-converting traffic) is a page referencing some "identity theft statistics."

Without giving up the site-wide focus on software phrases, you can bolster your statistics page by focusing more exclusively on the phrases that bring search traffic to the page.

Want to experiment with new search phrases and see what type of traffic those will bring? Rather than alter your SEO strategy, consider bidding on those phrases through a pay-per-click advertising campaign.

4. Inbound Links

Tracking inbound links is a critical part of any online marketing effort. Link-building is a vital part of the SEO effort, and the business benefit of it is not only improved search-engine relevancy but also the actual traffic those links bring.

Of course, all links are not created equal. It's a mistake to view inbound links as a simple numbers game. One high-quality link from a respected, relevant site can be worth hundreds from less-relevant Web properties.

In our work with the Sun Life team, we devised a custom link-scoring method that accounts for several criteria, including regional focus, industry focus, page relevance, link-text relevance, and more.

"By analyzing links at this level, we have a shared understanding for which links are most valuable, and we can refine our approach and targeting of our link-building efforts," says Singh.

There are many automated tools that can help with link monitoring, or you can use some useful websites such as Yahoo's Site Explorer. You can also use Google's or Technorati's search tools to find out who is linking to you, and you should search within Twitter as well.

Inbound traffic is one important way to measure link quality. Which links referred the most visitors? If you can cross-reference that data with conversion rates to determine the quality of the traffic stream, even better. Next, revise your link-building strategy to generate additional links from those top referrals.

5. Search Engine Referrals

A steady flow of traffic from search engines is a good indicator of a successful SEO campaign. Consider the following key dimensions:

  • How much of your site's traffic comes from search engines?
  • Is that number increasing steadily?
  • Is that number rising in relation to direct traffic?

Each month, compare the percentage of search-driven traffic with the percentage of direct traffic to see the interplay between the two.

Also, with sufficient data, you'll want to compare year-over-year results to note the rise and fall of potential cyclical patterns. The volume of search referrals is important, but when you see a jump in referrals relative to other sources of traffic, it's a good sign that something in your SEO approach is working.

6. Social-Media References

There's a place for social media in any SEO strategy. Even the most niche, B2B-focused site can benefit from the areas of the Web where potential customers are discussing relevant products or services. But you won't know if your strategy is working unless you track the results.

That can be tricky without some automated tools, and you may want to investigate social-media monitoring software such as Radian6. It allows you to scan blogs, video-sharing sites, online forums, and microblogging services such as Twitter.

You can track specific keywords, including brand names and URLs. You'll want to track volume from key social-media channels. If viral video is part of your linkbait strategy, monitor YouTube carefully to see whether you're attracting attention.

With this type of report, there are two key factors to consider:

  1. Timeliness: Once a month isn't sufficient; you'll want to stay on top of what's happening and ideally join the conversation as it happens.
  2. Context: Inbound links and traffic are lovely, but what if they are triggered by consumer complaints or noisy protests in social-media circles? Scanning the numbers isn't enough; you'll occasionally want to drill deeper to see what people are saying about your brand.

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Dan Skeen is practice lead of Traffic Generation Solutions at Quarry Integrated Communications (www.quarry.com). His areas of expertise include social media optimization and search engine optimization. Reach Dan via 519-743-4300, ext. 2493, ordskeen@quarry.com.

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