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Is it time to appoint a chief search and conversion officer?

11th Sep 2014
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Search and conversion are both crucial to successful online marketing but so infrequently the two are married. Sometimes, they’re not even talking. And when they do, it can feel like they’re not speaking the same language.

Only two years ago, Forrester reported that for every $100 spent by businesses on traffic-driving disciplines (ads, search-engine optimisation, pay-per-click, etc) only a single dollar was spent on converting website visits into sales when the web traffic arrived.

Part of the problem is that the origins of the two elements, which now fit together, are very different. A decade ago, search-engine optimisation (SEO) was the marketing buzzword and was about to become a line item on corporate budgets. Google had been in existence for six years and was accelerating the sophistication of its ranking algorithms to put the brakes on link spammers and make genuine sites more prominent (rather than those that simply copied content from other sites). It subsequently launched personalised searches in 2005.

As that marketing buzzword, SEO lay squarely in the domain of marketers, who were mainly concerned with channels to market and search terms in general use. Their goal was, and is, to drive traffic to their company’s website.

But what if those visitors to the website don’t buy anything once they’re there, or even ‘bounce back’, i.e. leave the website immediately on arrival there? How do marketers know whether their successful (and sometimes expensive) SEO efforts are actually converted into sales?

Conversion, on the other hand, remains embryonic in the UK at least, even today. It tends to be the preserve of technology teams and website builders due to its origins in technology, analytics and an understanding of how servers work.

The parties responsible for each – marketing for SEO and technology for conversion – still rarely talk to each other.

A hybrid beast

We are a long way off a happy partnership of search and conversion. To ensure search budgets are maximised, thought needs to be given on how to convert these opportunities. It’s no longer enough to simply drive the traffic to websites; it’s all about converting them into sales. SEO and conversion can no longer function effectively if they remain in separate siloes.

It’s time now to think of search & conversion (S&C) as a single entity and get marketing and technology departments working together. It’s not about a scary new acronym; it’s about efficiencies of scale, maximising budgets and making sure websites are working as hard as they can.

The problem currently is that heads of acquisition typically come from one of the two branches – search (marketing) or conversion. In one instance, the head of acquisition I worked with also happened to be the company’s SEO lead. This company’s SEO was best in class – lots of web traffic from the target demographic – but still sales were not great.

The company’s biggest problem was that its conversion performance didn’t match its SEO. The company simply didn’t have the knowledge about how each visitor had arrived at its website and so couldn’t optimise the website experience to boost sales. Unfortunately, still this particular manager didn’t recognise the issue was outside his current remit; he simply couldn’t see beyond SEO as the be-all and end-all of the company’s sales results.

CS&CO – the much needed new member of the c-suite

We need – and are likely – to see a new breed of acquisition manager emerge over the next year or so and join the c-suite: the chief S&C officer (CS&CO). In the short-term, the CS&CO will originate in either marketing or technology but have a strong interest in the other and how the two need to work together.

The CS&CO will act as the overseer of the entire website and work to bring the siloes of SEO and conversion together. It is tempting for those who’ve forged their careers in either discipline to stay within their comfort zones but this will no longer make them effective. The CS&CO will encourage the cross-pollination of skills between the two teams and develop an understanding of how each needs to support the other.

Working together, they can start to question and understand why a competitor with the same volume of web traffic generates more or higher-value sales. The next step takes analytics beyond business intelligence (BI), which simply describes what has happened; the integrated team can start to develop insights into the specific changes they need to make to increase profits. For example, they might discover that a particular product has a high purchase rate when its page is visited but it’s not easy to find; it might mean making that product a prominent feature of the homepage or dedicating some paid search budget.

Good examples

There are, of course, great examples of companies, such as Amazon, that have already achieved value by seeing S&C as a single entity rather than conversion as a separate area and an afterthought to SEO.

The difference this approach can make is significant.  Profitability improves on average around 10 per cent, with increases of up to 20 per cent not unheard of.

As we have seen, SEO has come far in a decade. Conversion now needs to join it, not only as a line item in the corporate budget but as part of the same strategy to increase profit.

Greig Holbrook is managing director of Oban Multilingual.

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