When it comes to marketing your business online, it's not long before the issue of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) pops up. Since Google's domination of the online search space, the ability to get yourself onto that "First page" of results is seen as an absolute necessity for many.
But is it, and probably more importantly, is it actually cost-effective to achieve? I've recently been doing a lot of work on website metrics for a number of different organisations involved in e-commerce. Some of which put considerable sums into SEO campaigns. The facts of these metrics are sobering.

In 2012 Company A, a business selling outdoor clothing online signed up to an SEO campaign costing £1,000 per month. Within two months the visitors to the website increased from 1,000 per week to 3,000. Brilliant! Well, yes, however a closer peek under the covers reveals a less impressive statistic than a three-fold increase in visitors. Of those pre-SEO 1,000 visitors the business managed to convert around 6% of them into buying something of an average value of just over £50.

Two months into the campaign and this conversion dropped to a shade over 2% and a year into the process (with weekly visitor numbers of around 5,000) this dropped further to around 1.3%. So do the sums: Without the SEO the website developed £3,000 of sales per week at a 35% margin = £4,200 profit per month. A year after the campaign the website produced £3,250 of sales per week leaving a monthly profit of £4,550 minus the campaign cost leaves us with £3,550 - £650 less profit per month!

Pure search engine generated traffic will also tend to have a higher bounce rate than other sources, spend less time on the site and have lower page views per visit.

And Company A is not a unique case. I've seen the same phenomena played out in varying degrees repeated over multiple websites created by different agencies using different SEO organisations. So what is going on here?

I believe that the answer is actually quite simple when you consider the process. If I am in the business of selling pens and I work really hard in ensuring that I appear on the first page of Google for the search term, "Pens" then it stands to reason that my listing will be seen by thousands if not millions of people every single day and with a bit of luck, a few of them will actually click it. Good times!

However, the actual need of those searchers is very varied – are they after fountain pens? Felt tip pens? Hell, they might even be after sheep pens! And say that the pens you have are actually the pens the searcher is after – what's your chance of actually flogging something? Well, if they are branded and competitively priced, you have a chance. If they are your own brand then you may struggle to convincingly differentiate yourself by the website alone.

The answer? No shortcuts, just good old brand optimisation. Establish your values and communicate them effectively through whatever channels you've selected to create end-user want. Done well the searcher will then be searching for your specific brand and not just a commodity product. SEO can be an effective part of your online strategy – but it is only a part and a total reliance on it to build your business is likely to end in frustration.

Article by John Tait of Lazy Grace.

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