Forrester analyst and C3 2019 speaker Collin Colburn admits that no one’s found the silver bullet for measuring the ROI of SEO and organic marketing yet – but he’s got advice on different ways to start.
Conductor’s COO, Selina Eizik, sat down with Collin to find out why capturing the ROI of SEO is so hard, how leading companies approach SEO measurement, and why Collin thinks marketers should focus on SEO’s impact on brand, not just conversions.
Selina Eizik: When you look at paid media, advertising: companies have a pretty good handle on ROI. Historically that has not been the case with SEO and organic marketing. Why is that? What’s the challenge and why is it still a challenge heading into 2019?
Collin Colburn: Paid advertising – especially SEO’s frenemy, paid search – has benefited a great deal from being such a highly measurable channel. Marketers are easily able to track conversions from paid search, and paid search data can be rolled into any attribution model.
SEO has not had the same advantages – it is not as easy to track conversions from a click on organic search results, and SEO lacks data to be meaningfully used in an attribution model. This is still a challenge into 2019 because marketers are under greater pressure than ever to prove business impact from their marketing investments, but measurement for earned media channels, like SEO, is not easily tied back to business objectives.
Additionally, standard metrics for SEO measurement, like the number of visits to the website from organic search, are becoming less useful as Google and Bing attempt to keep customers within their environments by supplying “answers” rather than having the searcher click through to a website.
SE: Has anyone figured this out? How are leading companies thinking about this?
CC: No marketer has discovered the silver bullet yet! But some companies are thinking about this and looking at different ways to understand the value and impact of SEO. We see some leading companies looking at the impact SEO has on paid search, and vice versa.
For instance, we see more companies testing the right mix of buying keywords versus ranking for those same keywords. This is smart because it takes into account the cost of paid search, but also recognizes the value of ranking well within search results, and the possible value of doing both at the same time. Look for more companies to do evaluations like these in 2019!
You’ve said that SEO is one of the most critical acquisition tools for companies. In the midst of multidevice proliferation and ever-changing consumer habits, organic search remains the number one way that people find websites. And yet, despite its importance, SEO measurement is an enormous challenge for marketers. What’s the best way to measure SEO? How can companies know they’re getting something out of it?
Most companies say they cannot measure ROI from SEO. Often, that’s because they don’t know the true cost of their SEO efforts. That cost is difficult to measure since it is cross-functional in nature, and there is no associated media cost with it.
I think there are two main questions marketers should look to answer when measuring SEO: 1) How well did SEO help us reach our customers; 2) How does SEO impact the brand?
To answer question #1, metrics like rank, impressions, and traffic from organic search are helpful to understand how well SEO achieved reach. But I would also encourage marketers to get their hands dirty and run some tests to see if they are able to identify and track the number of new customers that SEO drove to their website.
Answering question #2 requires a little leap of faith from marketers. Marketers should look to do more qualitative research with their customers to understand how the content on the brand’s website helps them achieve their needs or challenges. Surveys, focus groups, and branding studies are all a few examples of techniques marketers can use to better understand the branding impact that SEO has – because it absolutely does. If a customer is getting an “answer” from the answer box in Google, there is likely some kind of intangible influence on the customer if they see the answer is from a trusted brand.
SE: Would you suggest that marketers use media metrics — like share of voice — to measure brand awareness?
CC: Share of voice is a good start. But I think there are three things I’d recommend measuring from a brand perspective:
SE: Do you assign relative value to organic/content marketing compared to a paid ad? For example: what’s more valuable, if a million people see your billboard at Yankee Stadium or if a million people read your article online?
CC: This is actually a mistake. Organic search and content marketing efforts (and all earned media, for that matter) should not be compared to paid advertising – this comparison hinders rather than helps a marketer and hurts the SEO industry.
Why? 1) It is near impossible to place a true, agreeable value on SEO or content marketing; 2) Paid advertising uses metrics that are not easy to compare to earned media; 3) Earned media can accomplish branding objectives better than paid media can – so marketers should be most focused on understanding the impact SEO has on brand, rather than on conversions.
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