Yes, you read the title right. My company recently performed extensive search engine optimization on a client website, and the results were staggering. Within a month, organic search traffic had dropped by over 60%. Inbound leads from organic search had dropped by over 50%. And the client was absolutely thrilled with the results.
So when is less organic search traffic better? And when are fewer leads from organic traffic better?
Less traffic from organic search traffic can be better when the site attracts the wrong kind of traffic, and fewer leads can better when the site attracts the wrong kind of leads.
To give you some background, this particular client offered a highly-specialized service to B2B companies. The reputation of the company and the quality of the service commanded a high dollar figure per engagement. They were THE major player in an industry that they had practically invented. However, their prior search engine optimization company did not factor in any of these very important considerations whilst optimizing the website.
The firm in question was clearly from the "traffic-at-any-cost" school of search engine optimization, and they never engaged the client with the type of questions that you would expect from a real business partner, including the most basic questions, such as "Who is your target market?" They were not a marketing partner - they were a traffic delivery mechanism. They were not actively involved in the client's success, because to them, increased organic search traffic was the sole measure of success.
They certainly were not lacking in technical skill - they were able to deliver quality rankings for competitive keyphrases. And the methodology was not suspect, as all techniques were well within the terms of service of all major search engines. So what exactly was the client justified in complaining about?
It turns out they had plenty of legitimate complaints. Although rankings and organic search traffic were up, sales were down. Additionally, web form leads were coming in and the phones were ringing, but nothing was closing. The sales staff was spending a lot of time following up on leads that were, quite frankly, junk. Outbound prospecting had come to a standstill because salespeople had marching orders to follow up on inbound leads, which were certainly abundant.
After a brief analysis, it quickly became clear what the root of the problem was. The prior search engine optimization company, with their "traffic trumps all" mentality, had turned the site into a magnet for do-it-yourselfers, small firms or individuals with very low budgets, and visitors looking for free advice.
In their quest to obtain the most organic search traffic possible, the prior search engine optimization company had erred with the most fundamental building blocks of the campaign – keyphrase selection. Instead of carefully selecting keyphrases that were suitable to attract the high-end clientele that the client was accustomed to, they successfully (in the sense that they achieved high rankings) targeted keyphrases with modifiers such as "free," "advice," and "ideas." All of these keyphrases were immensely popular, all of these keyphrases were difficult to achieve high rankings for, and all of these keyphrases should not have been utilized in the campaign in the first place.
When you optimize for low-quality phrases ("low-quality" obviously means different things, depending on a company's goals) you receive low-quality organic search traffic in return. When low-quality traffic submits a form lead from a website, it stands to reason that the lead itself will also likely be low-quality. This was, of course, exactly what was happening to our client.
After our analysis, we broke the news to the client that the campaign had been fundamentally flawed. They were not happy to hear this news, but it did match up with their experience. We also told them quite frankly that moving forward, we would be emphasizing traffic quality over quantity, and by extension, lead quality over quantity. They were quickly convinced that organic search traffic was not the most important metric in a search engine optimization campaign, and were excited about a new, ROI-based approach.
Luckily, we did not have to throw out all of the work from the previous firm. They had laid a solid foundation in terms of tactics, which allowed us to recalibrate the keyphrases and realize results in a very short amount of time.
So, to revisit our accomplishments, organic search traffic decreased by 60%, leads were cut in half, and sales increased dramatically. The slowing pace of the incoming leads was more than offset by the quality of the leads - many leads derived from the Fortune 500 companies with whom this client was accustomed to working. Previously, visitors from these desired companies had been turned off by keyphrase modifiers such as "free" - they were serious people looking for a serious solution and they recognized that what they needed was not going to be free.
For too many people, including practitioners, search engine optimization has a very strict meaning - acquire rankings and traffic from related keyphrases. Until more companies realize that search engine optimization is a marketing tool to be judged and evaluated just like any other, there will be countless examples of campaigns deemed a huge success by those who worked on them, but as failures by those who have to deal with the aftermath.
(C) Medium Blue 2011.