SEO Usability Vacuum

5 Nov

That SEO and usability don’t flourish in a vacuum has been on my mind lately. Sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum. If there’s nobody to hear your pearls of SEO wisdom do they make a sound? The sound of silence sends no sales. Four cases of constructive complaining follow.

Case #1 – Hire Experts + Stop Listening = Profit? No!

I helped grow a startup e-retailer from nothing to three million in annual sales. The company sold to new owners who kept me on for SEO services but took away my keys to the site because they wanted to do all web work in-house. No problem- I work this way (via intermediary) sometimes. Though I’d informed them of redesign best practices, they chose to ignore it all;  the hasty series of redesigns and half-rebrands erased years of SEO and usability progress. I spent a few months frantically trying to implement remedial measures but they heeded nothing I said or sent. We parted ways less than a year after the company switched hands. In a few short months they went from hero to zero in Google. Why would you spend good money on a company and then tank it? Conversely, the people who sold the company hired me to do SEO and usability work for a new endeavor. Its sales are growing. SEO and usability are processes, not events; they don’t exist in a vacuum.

Case #2 – Second Verse, Similar to the First, But Better Outcome!

seo results graph

SERP trends: often cyclical over longer periods

The chart to the right shows long-term cycles of a  different SEO effort, underfunded and unfortunately not paired with a good usability effort.  The company rakes in millions every year and would hugely benefit from doubling, tripling or quadrupling their SEO spend. I tell them this every year and sometimes spend time cobbling together metrics to back it up. …Which led to a smart realignment of the campaign scope a few years ago. The effort went from about 10% funding to 25% funding, but we’re still overreaching the budget. Part of the problem is the size of the company; they’re huge. Big boats don’t turn on a dime. A properly funded campaign would smooth out those valleys, and the peaks would be, literally, off the charts.

Because of a third-party payment solution, this client is also unable to give me ideal, actionable analytics data tying actual sales to each keyword. I’m left measuring the ranking of SERP listings, a comparatively bush-league measure of success. I’m also sometimes unable to appropriately geo-target longer tail search phrases (usually a good tactic in underfunded efforts) because most of the campaign consists of more competitive generic keywords. (They have their reasons, but it’s still frustrating. Good thing I like a challenge, and complaining!) I have neither budget nor latitude to increase the usability of landing pages so some of the most trafficked pages on the site lack a cohesive design with calls to action and good user direction. Though I know it’s not true, sometimes this client’s actions tell me they’re happier with countless second and third SERP rankings instead of focusing on the first SERP. My voice is necessarily muddled by the relative vacuum, but it’s getting better all the time and I’m still able to do some good work. I am optimistic.

Google SEO vs Bing and Yahoo SEO

SERP ranks different in Google Bing Yahoo

Eating crow in Bing and Yahoo is fine if you’re doing well in Google

This other graph for the same client, though only tenuously related, needed a place to live in the blogosphere. Many of the campaign’s most broad metrics have been sluggish, flat or even slowly tanking over the past year because they cover all three major search engines as a whole. The chart at right (click it for a larger version) shows that SERP listings have been tanking in Bing and Yahoo, while Google’s doing alright. My SEO work will often please Google more than Bing and Yahoo, and this account exhibits the extreme of that trend. Because Google is responsible for the vast majority of searches performed in the US, I’ve never wasted much effort focusing on the other search engines. So while I likely won’t get more budget to play with, I have a Q1 2013 plan to address some of the issues. Ping me in six months if you want an update.

Case #3 – SEO & Usability Are Processes, Not Events.

There’s a reason SEO practitioners display results in charts with various metrics in one axis and time in the other; SEO is a process, not an event. This next tale bit of complaining deals with the one-night stand of SEO gigs. It’s my first one and I feel dirty – too ashamed to post a picture because a filthy picture is worth a thousand guilty words.  Because of stipulations tied to the funding of this project I was informed that I had to complete all SEO work and training in one month. I interjected, “But….” Nope. One month. I could not get keys to the server so I sent over a long list of Drupal modules essential for SEO like nodewords, xml sitemap, seo-friendly urls, etc. After a month I was still left with a CMS that wouldn’t even allow me to insert title tags or descriptions. It’s been over three months and I’m just now getting close to the finish line. It would have been a huge payday for one month’s work, but I knew better. It’s still a decent payout for a third of a year, so I’m happy. I’ve educated and empowered the client enough to ensure continued SEO success in the future.

Case #4 – SEO & Usability Success!

Google Experiments

A/B/X Testing and Google Experiments = More Bang For Your Buck

Most of my clients do listen, especially those I hand pick (vs. clients from agencies.) Case in point, to compliment SEO efforts I’ve really been leaning on A/B/X testing and Google Experiments. I try to convey that people should not be making decisions about design, SEO, brand, etc. when we can actually measure our audience and do what works best for them. After all isn’t that what any organization wants? The results (and data) speak for themselves.

If you have a very usable site with poor SEO, people won’t find your site. If I use SEO to build your audience, but your website sucks, you’re not going to get as much bang for your SEO buck. Usability is the science of making things not suck. SEO makes search robots happy. Usability makes people happy. The marriage of the two equals high ROI. This last image (above) shows how one little four week experiment caused visitors to be twice as likely to convert into customers. It cost very little to run that experiment and it paid for itself in one day. The rest is gravy. That it’s difficult to convince companies to invest in SEO and usability never ceases to amaze me, but I won’t stop trying (or complaining.) Thanks for reading.

Dan Dreifort makes money for companies and reads. If people paid him to read more he might stop helping companies make so much money. He’s currently proofreading (and loving) a book called When the Biomass Hits The Wind Turbine. It’s available in self-published form from Amazon for a few more months before its re-released and becomes all famous and stuff on the Daily Show and whatever awful show Oprah’s doing these days.

2 Responses to “SEO Usability Vacuum”

  1. nathan November 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    Wow – really enjoyed your post… We ( company i work for ) just meet with some sales people from Hibu and they were eager to take on everything – website design , seo optimization and keyword/adwords campaigns and advertising… Me being the skeptic with sales people and one who likes to know exactly what people are doing and see real $$$ results, left the meeting feeling I might use them for the adwords campaign and cam e up with a budget of around $500 -don’t really know how but that is what we agreed on.. My question is this – We are a local Gym and there are only 3 other gyms in the area… My thought process is since we are a location specific service we are already in the top 3 when someone searchs for a gym in their city… I see more of a need for a great user experience than any SEO or ADWORDS campaign because those looking for a gym are already finding us and if they aren’t then they can’t spell ‘gym’ or their ‘city’ correctly-lol Please help clarify if you feel i’m right in saying that our energy should be #1 user experience and content then #2 seo and adwords… Does that sound right for a service based business who clients are local only!
    thanks – Great post!!!

    • dandreifort November 19, 2012 at 12:16 am #

      Thanks Nathan. I agree with your line of thought for sure. If a gym site in a three-horse town is already above the fold first SERP for the big-money phrases then your next priority should be user experience. Once your site is the easiest to navigate, prettiest and most helpful of the lot, you can start looking for some good niche search phrases for your area or surrounding geos. Play the field though, and put a few bucks into PPC, and a gym could really benefit from a social networking push too. (Check-in specials on foursquare, facebook-only coupons, twitter hashtag bs, etc.) Good luck!

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Ethan McCarty

Digital strategy | Social business | People-centric biznology

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