You’d think conversion optimization and SEO should play together nicely, right?
In theory, conversion optimization aims to improve the user experience, which, conveniently, is what Google wants to do as well with their top search results. Therefore, the more you test and improve your site, the higher it should appear in the rankings. You get more traffic, more conversions, more money – in an endless hockey stick shaped cycle.
Of course, it’s not so simple.
There are issues that I’ve heard marketers bring up where there can be a conflict between CRO and SEO. In addition, in silo’d teams or with limited budgets, there can be tradeoffs and decisions to be made between investing in CRO or SEO. Finally, a lot depends on execution – how you test and optimize your website matters.
I talked to people who have years of experience in growth, SEO, and optimization to figure out where the intersection is between CRO and SEO. How do you balance traffic acquisition with conversion optimization?
CRO and SEO: The Perfect Couple?
CRO and SEO should work together perfectly. There shouldn’t be a conflict.
It’s in Google’s self interest to provide the best search experience for the user. So they update their algorithms religiously to try to do that. And recent trends have placed on page UX factors higher in importance that old factors like keyword density. When an optimizer increases the page speed, that generally helps search rankings as well, because people like fast pages and Google knows this contributes to a better experience.
CRO, in most cases, doesn’t conflict with SEO; rather they complement each other.
The classic example of this is the question of whether to write for humans or for Google bots. Well, as Google’s algorithms have advanced, the two end up being quite the same. Keyword stuffing thankfully becomes ridiculous in the eyes of Google (as well as the reader) and you should write for the humans that are buying the stuff you’re selling.
Even if you look at it from a high level, there shouldn’t be an inherent conflict between SEO and testing. Google has its own testing tool. Google runs A/B tests. Why would they penalize what they not only do but offer as a service?
Google Doesn’t Want to Penalize Better UX
Okay, so there’s the intuitive argument that SEO and CRO should get along. Still a lot of marketers don’t believe it – or they’re at least skeptical about some of the technical aspects of testing and SEO.
Basically, there’s no reason to worry that A/B testing will mess up your coveted rankings. Especially if you’re following some clear and simple rules…
Follow Google’s “Rules” For Testing
It’s not as common as it used to be, but people use to worry a lot about A/B testing ruining rankings. What they worried about, generally, were these four things:
- Content cloaking
- URL and content duplication
- Wrong kind of redirect
- Web loading concerns
Second, content duplication shouldn’t be a concern either. As Paras Chopra put it in an article from few years ago:
If you’re worried, you can use a canonical tag.
Third, just avoid 301 (permanent) redirects. Use 302 instead.
Finally, page speed. This is the only real concern, but it still shouldn’t be an issue in most cases.
In summary, testing is fine, even encouraged, but you just have to follow some basic rules:
- No cloaking.
- Use rel=“canonical”.
- Use 302s, not 301s.
- Only run the experiment as long as necessary.
Does it matter whether you’re running client-side or server-side experiments? According to Matt Cutts, no. On a HackerNews thread a few years ago he said, “You can do A/B testing via either server-side or client-side technology. In both cases, don’t do anything special or different for Googlebot. Treat Googlebot just like any other user and don’t hard-code our user-agent or IP address.”
Anything else, just read this official statement from Google on A/B testing. There’s really not much to worry about if you follow some simple rules.
Traffic Without Conversions is Worthless
You know all about vanity metrics, and how you shouldn’t be obsessed with them.
Twitter followers, downloads, page views – they mean nothing if people aren’t converting and paying you.
So there are the cases where SEO isn’t as meaningful and you should be focusing on higher impact areas, such as optimizing your current traffic.
For example, if the keywords you’re ranking for are super irrelevant to your value proposition, there’s an inherent mismatch that will be hard to optimize, at least on page. You can usually tell this is the case when your SEO traffic converts well below other acquisition channels. If you’re running tests and getting lifts everywhere else but organic, your keywords aren’t high intent.
Now, irrelevant traffic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not hurting your revenue. But it shouldn’t be a roadblock for increasing revenue per visitor via running tests.
Also note that often, organic traffic is one of the highest converting channels. Due to Google’s increasingly sophisticated algorithms, intent and match are usually pretty high.
Where’s The Conflict, Then?
What happens when you fall out of Google’s Number One Spot? It can be quite detrimental to growth. Considering position #1 has been shown to get 33% of traffic, you can lose a lot of potential customers
Now, as we’ve seen, there aren’t supposed to be conflicts between SEO and CRO. But, in reality, do conflicts ever exist. I asked Rand Fishkin, and he said only sometimes does that occur…
For a real world example, take LawnStarter. They get a lot of SEO traffic for people searching for local lawn care companies, so losing any traction on Google is quite detrimental to their acquisition. Could they A/B test a more benefits driven value proposition? Yes, but there are certain keywords that have to remain in the H1 tag, so there’s the realistic prospect of losing traffic if they change it out for a clearer, benefit driven headline.
Ryan Farley, co-founder of LawnStarter, told me that, while Google’s algorithm may be progressing in certain ways, it’s still not perfectly aligned with the best user experience…
With a myopic focus on conversion rate optimization, it’s hard to balance these and make an informed decision. For example, if the increase in traffic volume and conversion volume from ranking higher has a better revenue than a version with a higher conversion rate, it’s pretty obvious you should go with the higher revenue version.
As Himanshu Sharma from Optimize Smart said, “In order to truly optimize revenue you need to focus on increasing average order value and number of transactions for each of your market segment, product categories and other portfolios of outcomes.”
But, you know, you shouldn’t be optimizing for conversion rate anyway.
Still, as Rand mentioned, there’s almost always (90%+ of cases) an easy way to compromise. It’s not “this-vs-that” as much as it is a need to think creatively and satisfy both the search engines and your customers.
Missing Test Assets
Here’s an actual concern: if you’re running tests on elements that get a lot of SEO traffic, and you delete them (as you would) when you implement the new version, you risk losing traffic.
A guest writer on Moz’s blog put it this way:
“From an SEO perspective, when you delete an image of my face that was outperformed by a cute model, you create a void for Google. If Google tries to rescan an asset you deleted, your servers produces a 404 error telling Google the page, image, or video does not exist.
That product image you tested may show up number one in Google’s image results to bring you 100 visitors per month. Remove the image and Google will remove it from the search results causing you to miss the 100 uniques (and probably decent sales because the visitor is searching for the product).
I like to keep most test assets (videos, images, and audio) alive for these reasons. The only exceptions are unique pages setup solely for a test, which I delete then 301 redirect back to the control. We don’t want Google paying attention to these test pages remember. The deletion is more from my OCD for a clean system rather than a strategic purpose. As long as you canonicalize and use noindex, you’re fine.”
Again, it’s important to keep your test assets, at least in the case of archiving and learning. But for SEO purposes, canonicalize and use noindex and you’ve got nothin’ to worry about.
When Product Reviews Hurt Conversions
Though, in this case I want to say that it’s a matter of execution. If reviews are lowing your conversions because you have terrible reviews – well, fix the shit that’s wrong and get better reviews. Right? Use it as a valuable form of qualitative data.
And if, for some reason, they are serving as a distraction, then you need to implement them better. There are a million ways to use testimonials to increase conversions.
A Balancing Act
Benjamin Beck, Growth at RoverPass, is well-versed in both conversion optimization and SEO. In his past, he worked at larger companies with more silo’d approaches to marketer, and found there could be a little bit of a tradeoff or a balancing act to maximize long term growth. How he put it…
How Can CRO and SEO Work Together?
Clearly, there are ways for the one-two punch of CRO and SEO to work together, even in large, segmented organizations. Benjamin Beck, who has worked at large and small companies and as a consultant, gives his experience with how things are usually set up…
Okay, so teams are usually segmented by goal. But is that a good or a bad thing for overall growth? Are there conflicts of interest that arise?
Outside of segmented teams, SEO and CRO working together is really not hard to imagine. After all, we’ve seen they usually help each other out. It’s important then, not to neglect one or the other. As Rand put it…
By the way, if your SEO and conversion optimization teams actually, you know, communicate, you can break down some barriers and really accomplish things on both fronts. For example, V9SEO explained how they use the 3 main search queries to help with conversion optimization…
“As an SEO, I’m all about queries. There are three main types of queries, each backed by a particular user intent:
- Navigational query – searching for the name of a website. Intent: to get to a specific website.
- Informational query – searching for information on a given topic. Intent: to learn about something.
- Transactional query – searching for a product or service to purchase. Intent: to buy.
Those three types of queries affect conversion optimization. A conversion optimizer must understand the intent of the user who is landing on a certain page, to know 1) what conversion action would be most appropriate, 2) what conversion action is most likely to elicit a conversion, and 3) the best method of persuading the user to convert.”
CRO and SEO are linked in many ways. Bridging the gap between divided teams and sharing data such as the above help both marketing techniques thrive.
The Future of SEO and CRO
This article, by nature, is ephemeral. Google’s algorithms are constantly updating, so it’s possible that in 2 years (or 2 months), much of the issues raised above won’t exist. It’s also possible that a slew of new issues will arise.
But even the current state of SEO and optimization is pretty optimistic. When I asked Rand Fishkin about how SEO and CRO can complement each other, he said they absolutely can do that:
As for predicting the future, I’m no clairvoyant. Despite hundreds of articles being published each year with new predictions for various industries, it’s impossible for anyone to predict with any certainty where things will go.
That said, there are certain things today that indicate a change in the general direction of what’s been referred to as “search experience optimization.”
This broadly means that SEO and CRO will clash less and less, and what’s good for one will benefit the other. Benjamin Beck actually sees things headed that direction as well. He also believes the future will bring an increased investment in conversion optimization because saturation is making SEO a crowded and timely/expensive channel…
Search Experience Optimization
Mike Templeman, writing for Forbes this February, said that the era of search engine optimization is over. What’s risen to replace it, also with the SEO acronym, is ‘search experience optimization.’ Why? As he said:
His suggestions for the future include “asking questions, and providing answers” and “embracing mobile.” The implications are great for the customer experience in general. The example he gave was that the search term “snow tires” has evolved into, “what are the best snow tires for a 2008 Ford F150?”
Therefore, the companies that answer questions for their customers are winning search rankings. This, in general, implies that you should stop worrying about the number of times you mention your keyword and focus more on helping your customers find what they’re looking for.
Conversion optimization and search engine optimization, while not completely aligned at all times, are by no means enemies. In fact, investing in conversion optimization should and often does increase rankings. Likewise, a strategic approach to SEO increases conversion volume and target visitors.
The few issues that remain – keywords in H1 tags, reviews that hurt conversions but help SEO, and missing test elements – are all easy to overcome. In addition, there’s no rational reason to fear that A/B testing will hurt your SEO. Rather, it’s encouraged by Google to provide a better user experience (which is what they’re looking to deliver, too).
The biggest hurdles, as usual, appear to be organizational. Teams with disparate goals and a lack of communication cannot fail to fall short of their potential. Focus on a collaborate approach to growth optimization and you’ll flourish, both in conversions and SEO acquisition.