Sunday, February 17, 2008

Measuring Search Optimization Success

When I first got involved in search optimization it was all about placing favorably for certain terms. That's what clients wanted and that's what competent search optimizers delivered. Injury lawyer in Chicago, no problem you'll be in the top 3 for your handful of target terms in a few weeks, 2 - 3 months tops. Selling cars in Madison...same as above. Furniture in Detroit...we've got you covered.

That's all changed over the past 6 or 7 years but unfortunately there are still some business owners/managers that think where they place in the search results for a handful of terms is the best form of measurement of the overall successfulness of a search optimization campaign. I don't fault the business owners or managers, after all, odds are search marketing is only a small segment of what they are responsible for and as anyone in the industry will tell you you can't be a part time search optimizer and be on the top of the search game, it's just not possible. Search is arguably one of the most dynamic, fast changing fields in existence today and it's not reasonable to expect the average business owner or manager to have the time to dedicate to search they would need to in order to keep up with what's working and what's not.

Case in point, I had the pleasure of speaking with a friend (George) last week that runs his own business and for the past 5 years has been working with a search optimization company. He got in touch with me to ask if I could take a look at his agreement with them as it is coming up for renewal in March. He sent me a copy of his contract and 10 minutes in I already knew it was time for him to sever his relationship with them and find someone new to work with.

The contract was obviously written 5 years ago and hasn't been touched since. I won't go into every last detail but when I see things like "monthly submission to 300 search engines" I don't even need to read further, it's time to cancel. The basic outline of the contract was this company would "do a bunch of stuff" that would cause the client to place in the top 10 for 15 "strategic" terms. Before I jumped to conclusions I called my George with a few questions. I thought maybe the contract was just old and maybe the actual work/relationship had progressed with the times and was broader in nature than what was in the contract. I asked the following...

Me - Are you on page one in Google for these terms?
George - On the reports they send we are but I don't always see our site when I look myself.

Me -Who chose the 15 terms?
George - The vendor. When the contract started we paid them to do keyword research.

Me - Has the agreement always been for the same terms?
George - The terms changed once 3 years ago. They said some of our initial terms were more competitive and we would have to pay more to keep our spot. We said no so they did some research and replaced 5 of the terms with longer phrases.

Me - How's the traffic from these terms been over the years?
George - I'm not sure.

Me - Are these terms still generating sales / providing positive ROI?
George - Our Internet sales gross more than we pay the vendor so yes.

Me - Are you sure the sales are coming from the terms the vendor picked for you?
George - No, I just assumed they were.

Me - What analytics package are you using?
George - Ana who?

At that point I had heard enough and told George it was time to cancel the contract. It was obvious to me that the vendor he was using was doing little more than billing him for rankings they may or may have have influenced and even if they were directly involved in achieving those rankings they were focussed on all the wrong things.

I told George it was time to focus on outcomes and not actions. I asked George, search aside, what was a success metric in his business. "Customers", he said, "customers". He went on to explain the the the lifetime value of his customers was through the roof. His average customer purchased from him an average of 7 times per year and remained a customer for just under 4 years. George knew almost to the dollar what an average customer was worth in terms of profit.

I explained to George that in terms of his search program the outcome to focus on is customers. Not where he ranked for what, how many search engines he was being submitted to, how many links he was getting or how much content was being added to his site. Some of that stuff is important but at the end of the day if it's not bringing in new customers it doesn't mean a thing.

My advice to George was to find a search company that would focus on the outcome that was important to his business, customers. Odds are company he ends up working with will add content to his site, change some things on the site around and do some link building as well. All that's fine and needed for a successful search program but to George it's no what is important. When George looks over the report provided by his new search company I told him to skip everything else and look for the outcome that's important to him - how many new customers did the search program bring to your business?

The definition of success in relation to search for each business may be unique but what to look for is not - outcomes matter, actions do not. Don't get distracted by the actions or hung up on where you rank for a given term - focus on the desired outcome, whatever that may be for your business.