Are SEOs Responsible For Rankings Or Money?


A few weeks back at SMX East I had the opportunity to attend the SEO Myths, Mistakes & The Madness of Crowds panel. During that panel, Matt McGee threw out a number of SEO myths for speakers Michael Gray, Stephan Spencer, Jill Whalen and Shari Thurow to debunk. The group covered all the basics like PageRank sculpting, Flash, duplicate content and everything else you’d expect. The last myth Matt offered up for debunking was, “SEO is about rankings”. The consensus was no, SEO isn’t about ranking. SEO is about money. And when it was declared, I smiled. Finally, truth.

But how accepted is that truth really? Even by the practitioners of SEO themselves?

In the comments of that post, OSM reader Remixman questioned the panel’s response. His comment hit at a lot of great points and I know he’s not alone in this thoughts. I’ll republish the comment here:

At the end of the post you say “No. The goal of SEO is to make money.’ and whilst I agree that almost every sensible action a business makes is somehow connected to making money, we all seem to have lost sight of what SEO is.

The goal of SEO is not to make money. SEO is just one link in the chain of your money making process. The goal of SEO is to bring relevant traffic to relevant site pages from the search engines.

I would love to hear views on this. SEO’s are not all conversion rate experts, this is a completely different skill-set and the next link (after SEO) in your money making chain. Surely SEO KPI’s must be based on search engine traffic (quality and quantity) and not conversions. Why would you be held accountable to something you are not qualified to improve?

I think he touched on an interesting and important discussion. I’ll share my thoughts on the topic and then I’d love for you to share yours.

I don’t think it takes much to look around and see that SEO has changed. It’s evolved and, as a result, so must we. It wasn’t too long ago that the bulk of SEO related to creating structurally sound sites, ensuring they were crawl-able and tugged at the right keywords. But that’s what SEO is anymore. At least, that’s not all that it is.

Today, SEO is just as much art as it is science. SEO has become marketing and the result of that is today’s SEOs are at least partially responsible for conversion rates. To design and market a site without taking conversion rates into account would be like designing a house but forgetting to install windows or doors. If you want people to come in and do something, you have to give them a way in. You also have to watch to see how they’re entering and maybe shave the door down if you find they’re bumping their head or having trouble fitting. And that takes understanding and looking at more than just the technical aspects of a Web site. It’s why I think that while not every conversion rate expert is an SEO, I think SEOs do have to become conversion rate experts.

At least they do if they’re selling conversions to clients. If, as an SEO, all you’re promising is a usable and structurally sound site, then it’s on the client to worry about conversions. But I know at Outspoken Media, we don’t usually take on those clients. We’d rather work on the whole puzzle than give you two or three pieces.

As SEO and the search engines continue to evolve, I think we’ll see an even bigger shift to monitoring conversions. We have to. With personalized search, real-time search, and social search all entering the fray, traffic becomes an unreliable metric to determine the success of a site or a campaign. So does traffic. Who cares if you’re getting 10,000 visitors a day if they all bounce in .8 seconds?

I watch Rae, Rhea, Dawn and the rest of growing OSM team do more than just “textbook SEO”. They work with clients to perfect calls to action that encourage people to buy and design landers that set customers into a specially crafted conversion funnel. As a team we’re tackling things like social media, content optimization, A/B testing, page design and usability, etc. It’s not just about the structure of the site anymore –it’s about the meat. The meant that is designed to do way more than just rank, it’s designed to convert.

Obviously, your responsibility as an SEO is whatever you and the client have agreed upon. It’s important to set client expectations early so there aren’t any surprises down the road. But if you’re asking me what I think is involved in a complete SEO site audit, then you better bet it includes taking conversions into account. Because even though as SEO consultants, we’re merely the coach, we want to do more than just take you the playoffs. We want to make sure you make the shot when you have the ball.

But like I said, that’s just my thoughts. Like Remixman, I’m curious to hear what others think. What’s the goal of SEO to you?

Your Comments

  • Matt Siltala

    The bottom line here is money. If the rankings you get for the client are not converting, if they are doing nothing more than filling up analytics with pretty numbers and charts for you to show off (and there is no money being made) the client could care less (they won’t see it like an SEO), because that is all they see (no sales, and no money being made) – they want sales. I think you said it best though, when you said its just one piece of the puzzle. It really is. I would leave more of my .02 but I gotta go do a webinar right now!!!

    • Lisa Barone

      Thanks, Matt. I think SEOs used to be able to sell the idea of traffic — but business owners want to see more. They want to see that what they’re doing is resulting in an increase of their bottom line. If it’s not, then all the traffic in the world doesn’t matter. Thanks for the comment and good luck with the webinar! :)

      • Chris Miller

        I’d love to agree with you, but I still frequently run into clients who only care about rankings and hits. It seems backwards, that as the SEO Specialist I’m the one worried about their bottom line – but it still seems to happen quite often, especially in the non-technical industries.

        Most of my clients are small, local businesses though, with no experience with SEO and social media – let alone running a business online. I would like to believe that medium to large businesses are catching on a little faster ;)

  • Ryan Jones

    I think it depends on the size of your organization. In a larger organization an SEO may have little influence in optimizing the web page. In those cases, I would say that the SEO is more responsible for visiblity and traffic than revenue.

    I’m not a big fan of measuring SEO strictly on revenue, because content, product, pricing, optimization, creative, etc all can affect revenue AFTER the visitor comes to the site.

    I like to measure SEO by a combination of visitors, unique keywords, and ranking. While I sitll measure SEO by KBAs and revenue, I tend to downplay their importance compared to the other KPIs I just mentioned.

    • Ryan Jones

      I should note that my last comment assumes the SEO is already focusing on revenue driving keywords and has done proper research.

    • Lisa Barone

      So obviously in some cases the SEO won’t be allowed to touch the actual page, but are they still responsible for the recommendations if they see something that needs to be fixed? Or should they only be focusing on what they can touch? Obviously, much of this will be tied to what’s in the contract, but I think the SEO does have an obligation to look at the whole health of the site – which includes things like usability and conversion metrics.

      I don’t know that SEO should be measured SOLELY on revenue, but I don’t think you can ignore it either. If you’re not making the site money, what are you doing?

      • Ryan Jones

        Right. that was my point in a nutshell. You shouldn’t just focus on revenue.

        I like to first focus on traffic. If I’m getting traffic and not revenue, then I can start asking “why?” Is it poorly targeted? Is there a funnel issue on the site? What is that traffic doing once I get them there other than buying? Is there an issue with the shopping cart? What about pricing?

        Start by increasing the targeted traffic for your revenue driving terms, then figure out why they’re not buying. More often than not, the reason they’re not buying requires a more cross-channel solution.

        Disclaimer: I work with larger brand clients. Of the several sites I’m the lead SEO on, only one of them actually has revenue. For the others we use KPIs like registrations, video views, find a dealer, and other actions people can take on the website.

      • ogletree

        “but I think the SEO does have an obligation to look at the whole health of the site – which includes things like usability and conversion metrics.”

        No an SEO does not have any obligation to do this especially if they don’t have any experience doing it. SEO is about ranking. Even if an SEO knows how to do this it has nothing to do with SEO. There are people that make a living doing usability and conversion metrics that know nothing about SEO. Those are separate jobs just like web design. Your trying to make a subset of Internet marketing the main heading. SEO is part of Internet Marketing it is not a synonym. If you hire a large company they will have different people that do different things. I would much rather hire an expert in one thing than somebody who claims to be an expert in everything.

  • rishil

    As a marketing channel its job is to drive the most qualified traffic within the lowest possible costs involved to drive the highest number of sales based within those two parameters.

    Or in simple speak – a business cant live off rankings. If a ranking doesnt add to the bottom line, what is the oint of it? Clever SEOs nee to be more comercial, and target revenue drivers.

  • netmeg

    There are probably as many answers to that as there are SEOs. I don’t really even consider myself an SEO; I call myself a consultant. My clients expect me to bring the right horses to water AND to make them drink. That doesn’t mean I necessarily do all the work myself (I suck at designing landing pages, for example) but I do know what has to be done, and I’m usually the one that has to go find someone to do it. So, yea. I’m responsible for bringing in the RIGHT traffic, and making sure it converts. For organic and paid. And social media. Geez; I need to raise my rates.

    • Lisa Barone

      I like the analogy that you have to find the right horse and get it to drink, even if you’re not the only physically holding the bucket up to the horses mouth. Someone hired you because their horses were dying. Just gathering them all in one place isn’t going to save them. They need to want to taste the water once they get there. :)

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Even if all we look at are higher rankings and more, relevant clicks, the fact is that SEO IS about conversions. Because even in that scenario, the SEO person has their hand in the conversion process. We’re the ones who write the Meta Descriptions, the content, the organization of it, the message delivered in it. We decide or participate in the decision as to where to obtain links from, how to generate link-bait, where and how to do social in order to get mentions and citations…

    So even if we ignore a dozen other things I already touch on in my audit work and training of SEO staffers at client companies, just the above factors alone are more than enough for us to own the fact that we’re marketers and writers first and foremost. We have a responsibility in that work to ensure the highest quality results. And that means we at the very least, participate in the conversion process.

    Anyone who blows steam about “its just rankings” or “I can get a site ranked on links alone, even when the site is not optimized” is just essentially denying the fact that it’s all about money. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who hires such a person is throwing good money out the window.

    • Lisa Barone

      I love the part how it’s the SEO who’s really creating the message by all the little tweaks and actions we complete. It’s so true and if you think about it that way, then we really are responsible for conversions. We’re writing the play, you damn well better believe it’s partially our fault if people walk out in the middle of it. Thanks for the comment! :)

  • Joe Hall

    It really depends.

    If you own your own business then, its all about the money. Rankings are just a part of the puzzle at that point. When I worked as an in house internet marketing manager for a real estate company, SEO was all about leads. After I brought the leads in, then it was the sales agents to make those leads all about money.

    I would imagine that many in house SEOs have different goals/duties depending on their organization. Some organizations might have a complete team of marketers that each handle different areas. And some might even have a whole SEO team with different areas of talent for each member.

    If you are looking at it though from a business owner/investor’s point of view, then yes, money should be the bottom line.

    But apart from what SEO “is” about, what I think most ignore is what SEO “should be” about. And in my honest opinion. It should be about money. And you should structure your strategies around that, not only because money pays the bills, but also because focusing on rankings alone distracts from lost opportunities (ie long tail, social integration, ectra.)

    • Lisa Barone

      With regard to the real estate example, I’d actually say that bringing someone in and getting them speaking to an agent IS a conversion. Because that’s the goal of the Web site. The goal of the site isn’t to make someone buy a house – it’s to put them in contact with the person who’s job it is to sell the house.

      But I think you’re right – one of the dangers of focusing on rankings is that all you see is rankings and you miss out on a lot of other opportunities to increase revenue.

      • Joe Hall

        I agree with you about connecting a lead and an agent as being a conversion. I spent 2 years trying to get them to understand that. This was when the market was falling FAST. And for many of the folks in the industry, they didn’t start calling something a conversion until money was in their pocket.

        I even had one agent claim that all the leads from the site were useless, she failed to recognize that she didn’t know how to sell.

  • gabs

    Back to the oldie question “what is an seo?”

    Maybe we should call ourselves SO’s (signal optimisers)

    Not mentioned once is branding which is pretty massive part of it ..

    my 2 cents is what is the focus of the site ? sales ? traffic? branding?

    • Lisa Barone

      my 2 cents is what is the focus of the site ? sales ? traffic? branding?

      Well, I think depending on the focus of the site, you’re going to be defining what a conversion/money-making activity is. So, the focus definitely plays a part in that.

  • Sage Lewis

    I remember, years ago, talking to a very renowned SEO professional. His theory was that you can bring a horse to water but you can’t always make it drink.

    If I have been hired to just get more traffic from search engines and my life as a Web marketer for a client rests solely on increased sales, I get very nervous. I’ve seen many terrible sales people, many terrible backend systems for managing leads, many terrible calls to action, many terrible shopping cart experiences…. on and on.

    So, consequently, I rarely do a pure SEO campaign for a client any more. I am focused on landing pages, usability, CRM systems, sales process. If my SEO is going to succeed the entire system has to succeed. I need to make sure that freakin’ horse drinks.

    My focus is getting more traffic AND increasing conversion rates. Web marketers have to be engaged in the entire process.

    • Lisa Barone

      Thanks, Sage. I very much agree that marketers have to be engaged in the whole process. That said, I think clients also have to be honest with themselves when we bring the horse to water, make him want to drink, and then their customer service smacks the horse in the face :)

      • Keri Morgret

        And then there are the times you bring the horse 90% of the way to the water, the horse decides to call a taxi, and the taxi company gets all the credit.

        So not the best analogy.. but I do feel it’s about bringing in the money, and it’s sometimes hard, without extra things like call tracking, to prove that it’s SEO that’s responsible for the conversion and not some other form of advertising.

  • Rob Woods

    To a great degree what an SEO can be held responsible for depends on the client. As an inhouse SEO I’m absolutely measured against conversions , not rankings or traffic. Now of course the CEO still wants to see rankings and traffic on a regular basis but at the end of the day I’m measured on the profit SEO activities gererate. That’s fair from my perspective because I’m in house and able to advocate for landing page design, product placement, creative changes and all the other elements which affect conversions. As an SEO who is outside the company I think, if you are good, you need to ask the questions about what keywords are going to actually convert and make recommendations about on-page conversion elements but unless the client actually takes those suggestions and allows you real influence over them, an outsourced SEO can’t be held ultimately responsible for sales or profitability. I’ve used a very very good outsourced SEO to augment our inhouse skill set but I can’t hold him responsible for conversions on my site. Ultimately, it has to be the inhouse manager or business owner who is resoonsible for the conversions generated by SEO.

    • Lisa Barone

      but unless the client actually takes those suggestions and allows you real influence over them, an outsourced SEO can’t be held ultimately responsible for sales or profitability

      Oh God, yes. I totally agree. As I mentioned above, an outside SEO is just a coach. They can make all the recommendations in the world, but if you don’t follow them, they can’t be held responsible for your inability to set up the play.

  • Renata

    Totally agree! Even if it’s not the SEO analyst doing the usability part, it’s important to include it in the SEO project. As you said: it doesn’t matter if you are in the top 3 on google if the guys who visit you don’t convert!

    Great post! ;)

  • Vanessa Fox

    Businesses want SEO efforts to be effective. It doesn’t do any good to rank for a bunch of stuff or even get traffic for a bunch of stuff if 1) you’re ranking for the wrong things or getting the wrong traffic or 2) you’ve gotten those rankings by making the page unusable by visitors who get there (which should be a short term rankings gain anyway). It’s difficult to know if you’re attracting the right audience and sending them to the right page if you’re not at least somewhat of a conversion expert or are working closely with someone who is.

    Secondly, everything the search engines are doing in their rankings algorithms are to find the most useful relevant results for searchers. So understanding how to create pages that are relevant and useful can be one of the best ways to approach the rankings part of the SEO puzzle.

    In other words, Lisa, I agree. :)

    • Lisa Barone

      Secondly, everything the search engines are doing in their rankings algorithms are to find the most useful relevant results for searchers.

      You. Are so. Adorable! [runs away]

      • Vanessa Fox

        Shut it.


        Seriously though, I did qualify that with *rankings* algorithms (as opposed to all the other parts of the puzzle) and that *is* what they are trying to accomplish with the rankings algorithms. Of course they want to show the best results to searchers; otherwise they’d lose their audience. So they’ll continue to tweak how they rank sites towards that goals.

        Obviously, there are lots of other pieces — crawling and indexing issues, site infrastructure, etc. But for figuring out what to rank, it’s all about trying to find what’s useful (just how good or flawed those algorithms are at doing that is another discussion).

      • Vanessa Fox

        And coincidentally, an article I wrote for the SEO 101 series I’m doing for MSN was just published today and includes:

        “Myth 5: Ranking No. 1 is the goal of SEO”

        Also, reading through some of the commenters, I feel like we’re talking at cross-purposes. It’s not that the SEO has to also be the web developer, conversion expert, UI designer, user experience designer, sales closer, etc. It’s that SEO that focuses solely on rankings without considering how that fits into the larger picture isn’t being as effective as it could otherwise be.

        • ogletree

          Vanessa are you kidding ranking number one is the definition of SEO. Everybody here seems to want to redefine what an SEO is. Why do we nee dot redefine SEO.

          If somebody get the reputation for being able to rank number one for hard terms they are considered one of the best SEO’s and can charge very large amounts of money. People pay big bucks to rank for certain terms. they could care less about what else you might know. The reason everybody wants to redefine SEO is that ranking number one is hard and they are embarrassed that they can’t do it. There is a lot of money in non ranking SEO work as well.

          • Alan Bleiweiss

            ogletree, are YOU kidding? I routinely get clients 1st slot ranking for nationally competitive 2 and 3 word phrases. It takes hard work, dedication, and patience. Yet if all I cared about was getting them those rankings, and if I neglect the user experience in the process, I harm conversion factors. So not only would I not be adding to conversions, I’d be damaging their business.

            Let’s pretend that you don’t have any say in on site content, content organization, information architecture, social media mentions… Let’s say all you do is page titles and inbound links. Even then, I bet you write or suggest meta Descriptions. If you do, those meta descriptions need to motivate people to click the link in the SERP. THAT itself is part of the conversion process.

            Wake up. Seriously. A true SEO process involves several things that directly affect conversions. Unless you don’t participate in anything but phony link schemes for short term ranking.

            • ogletree

              I’m not saying that I don’t do those things my only arguement is that they are not SEO. They are good things that need to be done but they are not SEO. SEO is about ranking only it has nothing to do with conversions. If you hire a big company your not going ot get one person your going ot get an SEO and your going to get somebody who is very good at conversions. There are a few people out there that take on clients and do all these things but I seriously doubt they are very good at any of them. I am not talking about somebody who ranks for a term. A real SEO can take a company on page ten and outrank a major company that ranks. People will pay big bucks for that. Are you telling me that somebody who is only good at ranking is not an SEO. I will tell you that if you can’t take a non ranking website and rank for a hard term your not much of an SEO. Convertions have zero to do with SEO that is another skill. I would rather hire a converstion expert and an SEO instead of somebody who claims to be good at both. You can’t be an expert in both because that means that you have to take away time on one to get good at the other. I have worked in SEO for over 7 years and have read a lot about all these other non SEO things but I will not claim to be an expert in something I have not dedicated my life to. I have dedicated my life to understanding how Google works and how to rank. I can give advice but I know there is somebody who has dedicated their life to conversions that would be better at it than I am.

    • rishil

      2) you’ve gotten those rankings by making the page unusable by visitors who get there

      Actually that is a very important point.

  • Matt Davies

    Kim Krauss wrote an excellent blog on just this the other day. She really summed up my feelings about SEO’s role in generating conversions perfectly so I’ll just drop the link here…

  • Barry Adams

    I’m with Remixman on this one. Only very rarely does an SEO get full control over the website, and without full control I will not take responsibility for the site’s revenue. There’s too many factors, and truth be told I’m not a CRO – I’m an SEO. I get the relevant traffic to the site, what happens next is someone else’s domain.

    As part of an agency we can and do offer that whole package deal, and I think that’s where the crux of the matter is – SEO is not a ding an sich – it’s part of a greater whole of internet marketing efforts and should connect to other aspects like CRO, social media, content development, etc.

    • Lisa Barone

      You may not be able to control the whole project, but does that mean you’re not offering your advice and best practices on what should be done? Obviously, you can’t be held responsible for what the client chooses to ignore, but aren’t you at least responsible to MAKE the suggestions? You can tell me no. I’m just asking. :)

      • Barry Adams

        That all depends on how much I like the client, as I’d basically be giving away free advice. :P But yes I suppose as SEOs we thrive if our client websites thrive, so helping them with their CRO and other online marketing efforts is never a bad idea.

        The thing is, I believe that for the SEO industry to reach full maturity we need to be taken seriously as specialists – not as generalists. We need to establish our niche of expertise, which is search. Like there are many different types of financial specialists, and many different types of construction workers, there too are many different types of online marketers. And just as you don’t let a stock trader do your accounting, or a plumber fix your roof, you shouldn’t necessarily hire an SEO to do your conversion optimisation.

  • Rockfish Search

    SEO is leading the horse to water…
    CRO (conversion rate optimization) is making said horse drink.
    Social Media is that horse telling the other horses where the water hole is, which one is best, which one has rude waitstaff, and which one is closest to where they are located.

    • Lisa Barone

      I’m not sure I totally agree with that, but I like it nonetheless. :)

      I don’t think it’s enough for the SEO just to lead the horse to water. Because if they’re not drinking, what did we lead them to? How could we have made the trail and water taste a little sweeter?

  • Marc Levy

    Believe it or not, I am remixman – Lisa, thanks for your email letting me know about this post.

    Firstly let me apologise for using that alias, it was part of a small test of mine on what responses I get to comments when posing as different people ;)

    This post is exactly the sort of response I was looking for and whilst I agree, it definitely isn’t simple is it?

    Of course clients are interested in the bottom line and of course they will be looking at their ROI when judging your performance. So as an SEO you definitely have to be thinking about that stuff!

    Lisa, you said:

    “It’s why I think that while not every conversion rate expert is an SEO, I think SEOs do have to become conversion rate experts.”

    – But how many SEO’s are selling themselves as this complete service when really they know Jack about conversion? Sure they may have heard a little about A/B testing, but are they good at it, or are they just good at SEO? Should this company be recommending a CRO specialist to this client?

    Maybe we need to stop calling ourselves SEOs or offering pure SEO Services? Perhaps all SEOs should be re-branding themselves as Online Marketers who offer ‘seo, social media, conversion rate optimisation etc. Maybe I just have a problem with the terminology!

    Lisa, it doesn’t say Outspoken Media do CRO on your services page, so are you girls just really good SEOs who dabble a little in conversion? I am sure you are fantastic at what you do btw – but hopefully you get my point.

    As Director of Search Marketing at Matan Media I am constantly questioning this and as I said earlier, it isn’t simple. What I do know is that what Lisa is saying is the future for any SEO (or should I say Online Marketing) Agency worth their salt. If you don’t have skills in CRO, get ‘em! Take a course, practice, get experience, hire someone or create a strong partnership with a company that specialize in it.

    I guess SEO is dead after all ;)

    • Lisa Barone

      Yey a real name! :) Like I said in my email, I really appreciated the comment you left because it opens a complete other discussion. So thanks. And thanks for coming back. :)

      I think you’re right in that not all SEOs are skilled at conversion rate optimization – however, if you’re selling yourself (or your company) as being ABLE to increase conversions, then you better make sure that’s something you have under your belt. And if it’s not, then you should be outsourcing it to someone who is. But I know many SEOs who are vigilant about doing A/B testing on landing pages and site copy to see what converts best. I think it IS something marketers are increasingly trying to understand because they KNOW it’s important.

      As for us, we do list conversions under our SEO Audit Services section because it is something we look for when doing a full audit on a site. So…it is there. ;)

      • Marc Levy

        Yeah, admittedly I did see that bullet point under your Audit section – it’s a little small for such an important aspect of SEO though right ;)

        Anyway, pleased I could contribute to such an interesting discussion.

        Danny does bring up some excellent points below and I think they lend a hand to the argument that a ‘100% SEO’ should be judged on the quality and quantity of search traffic provided and not conversions. I guess it comes down to how you define yourself and your services.

      • Jlee250

        I think you’re right Lisa, marketers know it’s important. It’s the same realization that radio is coming to as they have been scrambling for a digital presence.

        But I think as digital marketers it is easy to paint ourselves into the conversion corner, creating clients that become obsessed with conversion rates and freak out when ROI takes a dive.

        I think it is important to keep a well-rounded view of success metrics, pre-click through conversion.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I’ve seen this argument time and again. To me, the answer is simple. SEO is about driving traffic or visitors generally to a web site from natural listings, or increasing visibility in natural listings. Conversion isn’t part of the job.

    Having said that, a good SEO is often going to help their client (or their own company) go beyond and look at either conversion, the making money aspect. But that’s when you transform from being an SEO and into being a metric marketer, or internet marketer.

    The skills to create a good landing page aren’t the same as the skills of being a good SEO, not necessarily. The skills to create a good selling proposition are different, as well.

    I disagree that any SEO has to be a conversation expert, just as I disagree that an SEO has to be a social media expert or anything else. It’s like saying a photographer must also be a good writer, if they work for a magazine.

    No, you don’t have to do it all — and that’s important, because some people don’t want to do it all. They shouldn’t feel pressured or stressed that they need to acquire skills they don’t want, aren’t interested in, may not have talent for or importantly, might not have time for.

    I can really remember this coming up at conferences years ago, as things like contextual ads started coming in from Google. People struggled to know if they needed to do that, too. My answer then is the same as today — no.

    Having said that, my other answer is that if you don’t want to do these things, you damn well partner with someone who does. If you don’t do social media as an SEO, you need someone who does, who can understand what you do and work with you as a team. If you’re not doing conversion, you need to work with someone who can. Otherwise, you’ve thrown the pass, but there’s no receiver. Or whatever that football catcher person is called :)

    • Ryan Jones

      I think you’re spot on here Danny. In a smaller site, the SEO has a bigger role and is more responsible for conversion / optimization, etc.

      In a larger company, the SEO has other teams with which to take recommendations about content, conversion, & optimization to.

      No matter which situation you’re in though, somebody has to do that stuff for the overall marketing campaign to be effective.

      You’re either a wildcat quarterback running the ball yourself, a pocket passer throwing to a wide receiver, or somebody nobody’s ever heard of sitting on the bench watching others get shit done.

    • Lisa Barone

      So I don’t think you’re really disagreeing with me as much as you may want to. ;)

      Cause here’s the thing – I don’t think it’s enough to be an SEO anymore. It’s not enough to make a site that is technically sound, admire what you’ve done, and then walk away. If you’re an SEO who’s just bringing traffic and rankings that don’t convert – then what are you doing? It’s like wooing someone in a club only to kick them if they ask for your phone number. If you’re just building that site, then you need to partner with someone else who can take care of the rest. Because it’s that whole picture (the picture that includes conversions) that you’re going to be judged on. And the fact that you’ll have to partner with someone to GET that whole picture – I think that does mean conversions are required. Meh, football.

    • Vanessa Fox

      Well, as I commented earlier, I totally disagree with this. If you’re not making the site visible for the right things or bringing in the right traffic or if you’ve created a page just for rankings and not for visitors and they bounce right away because it doesn’t engage them or provide a call to action, what’s the point?

      • rishil

        I am with Vanessa on this point Danny : SEO is about driving traffic or visitors generally to a web site from natural listings, or increasing visibility in natural listings. Conversion isn’t part of the job.

        I would mend that to add relevant traffic

        • Danny Sullivan

          I guess it was inherent to me that were were talking about driving the right or relevant traffic. Part of an SEOs job is doing keyword research, which is all about knowing the people you’re trying to reach.

          But even if you drive the right or relevant traffic, what the visitors see when they arrive is important — but like I said, an SEO isn’t necessarily the person who is best to control that, or be responsible for it. And I stand by that.

          But like I also said, I think a good SEO will do that — or will partner with someone. So I’m not really disagreeing. I just don’t think everyone has the same skill sets. I think you can be a good SEO in many ways even if you’re not a great writer — as long as you can work with someone who’s like that, for example.

    • Rob Woods

      The only thing I’d disagree with in what Danny says, that SEO is “about driving traffic or visitors generally to a web site from natural listings, or increasing visibility in natural listings. Conversion isn’t part of the job.” is that it’s about driving qualified traffic, not just a raw volume of traffic. If all an SEO is doing is driving visits, that might be fine if a site is monetized on raw page views, but not for any other conversions. It’s part of the job of any SEO, in-house or not, to ensure the right traffic is being driven to a site. To some extent conversions are implicit in that. Drive traffic for the best converting terms, not just the highest volume terms, and conversions will follow, all other things being equal. Having said that, the SEO can’t be responsible for total conversions from a site if they don’t have control of the “all other things” part.

  • Elaine Ellis

    My background is in PR and most of what I know about SEO I’ve learned from Outspoken Media, so I’m no expert. But I think there is a general problem with not tying SEO to money. It’s why marketing is always the first department to see cuts when it comes to a recession. As Outspoken has said previously, if your traffic isn’t converting it can be because traffic isn’t targeted and you’re optimizing for the wrong keywords. SEO obviously is part of a bigger picture on whether traffic converts, but if you can’t prove its financial value, companies can chose to put their marketing dollars towards what they feel is more financially valuable.

  • netmeg

    (All you people stop messing with my horses)

    I *warn* my clients ahead of time that they’re going to get a whole lot of advice from me for things they may not have hired me to work on. If they want to ignore it, that’s fine, but if I see something I think is wrong, I’m gonna speak up.

    No, it’s not enough to “just” be an SEO anymore. The “just” SEOs are the ones we see sending emails to clients about how to deliver guaranteed top rankings in Google for obscure search strings having little to do with the site.

    If I corralled all the horses to one place and then handed the keys off to someone else and walked away, I would be doing a disservice to the client AND the horses. No food! No water! No conversions! Nobody wins.

    (Ok, I’m sure you’re all ready to beat the horse metaphor to death; I’ll stop now)

  • Le-Juge SEO

    Hey Lisa,

    the question you raise in very interesting and you are right when you say SEO has evolved and we are more and more involved with our clients business and conversion rate when 5 years ago it was a lot more question of rankings.

    Now having said that, i am neither a usability consultant nor a salesman. I grew more and more involved with my clients “money” with the years and I honestly and kindly tried to help them with their conversion rate and you know what, I discovered it backfires at you way too often. I have learned my lesson now. I am a SEO/SEM consultant – I will bring my client website “potential business”, I will bring you the best possible leads and of course I’ll help your website with its lead conversion rate. This is part of my job. After that what the client does with the leads he gets; It’s not my problem! Too many times some customers think we are business consultant, or sales… we are not and SEO has limits

  • Nancy E. Wigal

    I have to come down on the side of those who see the question as a team effort. I know my piece. Websites, conversions, funnels and analytics are all getting incredibly detailed, plus you couple them with social media, and the next thing you know, that one site can be a full time job. If you’re an independent, you’re juggling a helluva workload. I work with SMEs I trust.

    I think we SEOers have a stake in the whole $$$$ process, no doubt. But there’s so much integration where SEO overlaps – usability, marketing and social media – that it’s hard to isolate one factor. If I recommend usability and optimization changes, but they aren’t implemented, who is to blame?

    Great post, very thoughtful comments. Please don’t stop challenging us!

  • Iva

    I disagree as well, Lisa. I think you’re missing the point when you say things like “To design and market a site without taking conversion rates into account would be like designing a house but forgetting to install windows or doors. ”
    Since when do SEO’s design and market websites? We’re involved in designing and marketing sites, yes. But SEO is not designing and is not marketing. Why I should be responsible for something I have no control of? If a company doesn’t have a proper marketing strategy in place and money aren’t being made, how is that the SEO’s fault? That’s a dangerous path you’re suggesting. I don’t think it’s wise to tell people SEO is really more than just SEO and that basically it’s ok to expect all these things that are not SEO but are related to it.
    Oh I’ll definitely tell the architect when a window is needed. If I am the architect, as I was at one point, it’s perfect, I take care of everything. But when I’m not I have to rely on the architect to do his/her job. And I refuse to be held accountable for someone else’s actions. What you’re saying is very nice in theory, not so much in the real (corporate) world.

  • Naomi Niles

    I think there’s a good area where SEO and conversion rate optimization intersect when we’re focused on getting hard results for clients, as you mention.

    Actually, I think conversion rate optimization is the main way to help all of us be accountable to our clients. Designers, SEO people, marketers, copywriters etc. It’s the main reason I decided to start specializing in it. Well, that and the fact that analysis and testing both float my geeky boat. :)

  • Craig Burgess

    Good post, great comment thread Lisa.

    I agree with Sage and netmeg on this, and so with you as well. Though I can see Danny’s point as valid. SEO used to be and still is focused only on getting relevant traffic via thoroughly researched keywords to your site. Hopefully, the designers and conversion rate experts have worked together to test and optimize the site so they can convert upon visiting.

    I do the whole enchilada for our small company, and I can tell you, all the ingredients are necessary to get it right – and it doesn’t happen all the time. SEO, testing, optimization, metrics/analysis and landing page design are all part of what I do each week. I can tell you, I sometimes struggle to figure it all out without losing my sanity. All those elements are like making sausage – you grind up all the meat and spices and put it through the machine that makes it into something unified, delicious and ultimately satisfying for your customers.

    If you miss adding one part, the whole product doesn’t taste right… and you don’t make as much money.

    (wow, it must be lunchtime, I’m using food metaphors instead of live stock)

  • Andrew Benson

    SEO = search engine optimization = Get rankings and more importantly, qualified traffic.
    SEO != Web design and interface consultant.

    While an SEO should know enough, and be honest enough to make sure the owner of the site understands that you must not only get traffic, but also convert said traffic, it is not the SEO’s job to explain what to do and/or change unless they sold that service to the client. The metrics an SEO must increase to be a success are: Unique Visitors and Ranking for keywords that a prospective customer might search (ie. ‘New Radiators’, or ‘aluminum radiators’ and not ‘custom built aluminum radiators for 32 Ford by Dillon Radiator’ [though if you don’t rank for something that long with your name in the query, your a pretty crappy SEO] )

    Want to cover more than SEO? Great! Call yourself a consultant and tell them what you can do for them, that you will increase their bottom line!

    Once again though, it would be very poor practice not to make sure your client understands what you will or will not be doing for them. As long as you do as promised, you have done your job.

  • JadedTLC

    I completely agree that SEO is about conversion. As an SEO, we are responsible for touching all the departments of a company – from marketing, to content creation, to editing coders, to teaching leaders in the company about SEO, etc. I think it’s irresponsible to leave them at traffic, just as a Social Media Expert gets them 10,000 bot followers that will never click their feed. Engaged users completing the task you wanted them to complete – that’s how SEO should be sold, that’s the “artistic” addendum that each individual SEO professional brings to the table. If not, then you’re just restructuring a site and telling customers to create Google trends content.

    Long term, that is not a viable goal as an SEO business. Eventually, you will pass 10 customers and not everyone of them can rank on page one for “justin bieber does x.” And the hivemind will change its search tactics when they find enough recycled content boring them.

    People want to connect with the product. Using Lemonade Tycoon as a metaphor: It’s not only our job to bring them to the lemonade stand, but we are there to make sure the recipe is what they were looking for, whether it’s 100 or 50 degrees out.

    Offline products don’t sell when you put a TV ad on about the store and then you get people walking out after walking in. I would hope that the community reads this article and really processes it before nay-saying our responsibility to convert for our customers.

  • DanielthePoet

    Far too often the client’s expectations aren’t managed properly from the beginning because someone responsible for getting the sale isn’t as concerned with “technicalities” as long as they get the sale.

    I agree with something @Ryan Jones said in response to Danny Sullivan. In a very small boutique agency, the SEO is responsible for keeping the client happy. Period. And if those increased rankings and traffic numbers don’t turn into profits, the business relationship is on the decline, even if it takes a couple years to die.

    In a mid to large sized agency, the SEO is often relegated to lesser roles. In those companies, it depends on org chart structure and personnel as to whether or not the SEO is even deemed a vital role in the overall strategy and planning of a web redesign.

    In the end, it always falls back on whatever expectations were set up front. If the client just says, “What can you do for me for $X per month?” Then you’re less likely to have a winning relationship.

    Important point: When the SEO is part of a larger company/agency, he or she has much less say over whether a client is taken on or not. Or whether the statement of work covers what actually needs to be done. The SEO becomes just a cog in a very large wheel, and takes what he or she can get.

    In that scenario, the terms may be dictated and the expectations may be set in such a way that the SEO is trapped into performing tasks too limited or too broad to achieve real success.

    That’s what I’ve heard.

  • Ryan Jones

    I would say that SEOs have input to all departments (from traffic to conversion) but that they aren’t always responsible for them all. That appears to be the major divide here.

    In fact, I just wrote about that divide at much more length:

    • DanielthePoet

      Agreed. But it all depends on management structure as to whether those who implement/execute actually listen to the SEO. Sometimes the judgment call is made that branding/design continuity or something else is too important to sacrifice. That decision is made by someone higher up the food chain.

  • Nick LeRoy

    This topic is a sore spot for me, let me explain … I have a client in which because of what state he sells his products and the licensing needs to mark up the price on all products on his website. His online competitors offer the same products at a lower price because of this. Search traffic is growing but sales do not. I’m convinced that searchers are getting smarter and researching multiple sources before making the actual purchase. In my opinion i’m bringing targeted traffic to the website by the client is losing sales due to not being competitively priced. The rankings are evident but the sales are not increasing – does this make a failed SEO campaign? I would vote NO.

    • Nick LeRoy

      I typed that out way to quickly… hopefully you can decipher my ramblings :)

    • DanielthePoet

      I know exactly what you are talking about, Nick. I’ve had a client or two who simply wasn’t competitive in their pricing. They had their excuses and reasons, but the visitor doesn’t care about any of that.

      I think this is where you look into VoC (voice of customer) analytics. There are tools like iPerceptions’ 4Q software that basically pops up a very simple questionnaire when the visitor attempts to leave. It’s a quick way to get feedback from the visitor. What did they NOT find? Were the prices reasonable? Etc. Armed with a month of data from this type of analytics, especially when they’re combined with Google Analytics for specificity, you can go to the client and show the reasons why conversions aren’t happening.

      You can always test new designs/ layouts for conversion pages, but without some beginning feedback, it may take much longer to find the magic sauce. Clients need something definitive. Look into the free 4Q analytics. It could be a client saver.

  • Jim Summer

    Wow this is a great subject! I feel a certain responsibility to weigh in (to a client) on what a client wants and the possible conversion rate they are going to get. Really… it really IS about money. Even low value terms… that convert… well that’s definitely worth it. Sheer traffic is meaningless without the conversions. Having access to Salesforce or Eloqua data is very valuable as well, as this just comes out and tells you what is converting. There is an outfit here in Jacksonville with a great newsletter on “what really works” if anyone is interested – MECLABS or Marketing Experiments. They focus on the actual on page factors that create a conversion, not guesswork… data. Couple this with SEO techniques that bring qualified traffic to the site and you have a winner imho.

    Thanks a lot,

  • Branko Rihtman

    So if SEOs are responsible for conversion, that means they are responsible for everything that affects conversions on the site? That includes market dynamics, demand, pricing structure of the product… Should we, as SEOs, now study all of these and make sure that after we did the keyword research, on-site optimization, link building and all of that again, the client has priced his product correctly? Do we take responsibility for the shipping as well, as if the client is not capable of bringing the product to the customer within 6 weeks, that will probably decrease the % of sales… ?

    Conversion optimization is a whole different science/art (well, maybe less art) and just as we don’t like it when some web designer recommends building all the navigation in flash, without providing indexable alternative, I am guessing conversion optimizers are not happy when SEOs start dabbling in their trade after reading two and a half blog posts on “10 ways to blast your conversion rate into space within 2 days”.
    I am not saying that there are no SEOs that can also do conversion optimization, but automatically adding that to SEO list of tasks is also wrong. I don’t mess with web design and i don’t mess with coding shopping carts, similarly, I will leave the conversion optimization to the professionals.

    What I do agree with is that it is SEO’s responsibility to point out the need for such professional to take care of the conversion rate, to show when there is a discrepancy between the number of visitors and number of conversions, based on acceptable industry averages. It would be prudent from the SEO’s side to show that the traffic they are helping drive to the site is not completely irrelevant or qualified and that the problem may be further down the purchase funnel…

    • Alan Bleiweiss


      I think where people run scared when we talk about having responsibility regarding conversion, is in the notion that we’re claiming an individual tasked with SEO is also responsible for every aspect of conversion.

      What we, who are of the “conversion matters” school believe, or at least what I personally believe, is not that at all. Because honestly, I’d throw half my client’s products and services models right out the window. I’d fire half their staff. I’d probably even tell some of them to go out of business.

      What it means, instead, is that we have a responsibility to acknowledge that SEO is at least part based on conversion factors. SEO copywriters write content all the time. The ones who do so while taking ownership in the fact that the content they write will not only improve rankings or expand the long tail, but also have a direct impact on conversions, are the ones doing the right thing for their clients, employers.

      That’s just one example, yet I think it illustrates the issue quite well. SEO touches and has a direct impact on conversion optimization whether people want to acknowledge it or not.

      • Branko Rihtman

        Alan, my ideal process looks a little bit different than what you are describing. Just like I would want a designer to consult with me to make sure he is not harming my SEO efforts when creating a new section of the site, I would want the SEO expert to work together with the conversion expert on the textual content of the site. It is my job to make sure that the copy is written around the chosen keyword concepts, but when that content is written and optimized, I would send it to the conversion expert to make sure that it will also sell. Maybe the conversion expert wants to include calls for action that are in line with the sales funnel and that i am not aware of?

        Additionally, I think that we are oversimplifying the conversion optimization process a little bit. It is not only about the copy that sells, or images that include calls to action. Often conversion rate will live or die by factors different from call to action – how many steps are there in the purchase chain, what is the warranty offered, will there be similar products offered during the purchase chain, etc. All of these are affecting conversion rate and they are all far beyond the scope of my responsibilities and (to be fair) skill set.

        • Alan Bleiweiss


          I’m guessing we’re more in alignment on this subject than might be seen on a first read. The issue for me is not that we wear all the hats, nor should we be expected to. Instead, it’s that we need to care about conversions, and take a direct role in the process, rather than ignoring it or running away from it. I don’t profess to have as much expertise in conversion optimization as I do in SEO, yet I understand how intrinsically they’re connected.

          I even wrote about this very concept in my Search Engine Journal article this morning – Understanding the User Mind Model

          • Branko Rihtman

            For sure! I have written in my first comment:

            What I do agree with is that it is SEO’s responsibility to point out the need for such professional to take care of the conversion rate, to show when there is a discrepancy between the number of visitors and number of conversions, based on acceptable industry averages.

            It is in the SEO’s best interest to make sure that the optimization expert does the best possible job, since any decision on the choice of targeting keywords is meaningless without making sure that the conversion process is optimized to the maximum, and that is just one example.

  • Jennifer Carr

    There’s no question that Rae is one of the most brilliant minds in SEO and affiliate marketing today. So, it’s with all due respect I say “what the hell do you know about usability?” besides your own personal experience? You don’t even have call-to-actions on your own site. Leave the SEO to SEO’s and the usability to the usability experts.

  • DanielthePoet

    Let me say what I wanted to say earlier but completely forgot:

    I care deeply about my clients’ success. And whenever I have the opportunity, I set expectations up front that we will not have reached success unless they can make a profit on my company’s work. I’ve seen far too many clients leave in the past because they had no metrics for success that could stand up to an economic recession. Only ROI tracking can keep the ball moving in times like these.

    However, site changes/edits/testing are typically outside the realm of my authority. This means I make the recommendations, but the client has to sign off and the designer/developer/whoever has to create and implement. The biggest rub has come with clients who were sold on ranking / traffic stats before I joined, who then balk at my later recommendations for site testing and edits. It simply wasn’t in their budget when they looked at finding someone to do SEO.

    It’s a challenge no matter what the scenario. But those are the most frustrating. When you could actually really help someone but they won’t/can’t spend the money to be helped.

  • john andrews

    @dannysullivan said: “I disagree that any SEO has to be a conversation expert, just as I disagree that an SEO has to be a social media expert or anything else. It’s like saying a photographer must also be a good writer, if they work for a magazine.”

    Interesting analogy.

    There are photographers and then there are photographers whose pictures tell stories. They are quite different occupations. The last person you want to send to document a riot or disaster is a studio product photographer, even though she may be an excellent “photographer”.

    Today’s headline story in my town included a photo of a forklift moving a palette of soda cases across a local warehouse floor. The story was about resistance to a proposed new tax on soda. If you looked at the photo, however, it showed a HUGE warehouse mostly empty, with a forklift easily moving a palette amongst the huge empty space.

    The story told by that photo was that the local soda warehouse was almost empty… the economy being what it is. It was a great photo, but the message was mismatched to that story. Not unlike the guy who paid an SEO to rank info pages on his website; pages which lacked a call to action, or which targeted broad keywords.

    SEO is about rankings, just as photography is about images. Effective SEO, however, has everything to do with searcher intent and message targeting, just as impactful photography has everything to do with placement and context.

    Now who is responsible for deploying that mismatched SEO ? The photo editor, naturally. The same guy we fired to save money during the last round of layoffs.

    • DanielthePoet

      “Now who is responsible for deploying that mismatched SEO ? The photo editor, naturally. The same guy we fired to save money during the last round of layoffs.”

      So true. And sad. But definitely true.

  • ogletree

    It all depends on how you define SEO. It is not the SEO’s job to know how to run somebodies business. We work in way to many catagories to be an expeet in each. There are also people who specialize comnversions and that does have to an seo job. There is nothing wrong with being a specialist. If your really good at ranking kw’s but don’t help the company make money you are still a very good SEO. Ranking for hard keywords is a skill that is sought after.

  • Sean Weigold Ferguson

    It’s “Search Engine Optimization,” not “Search Engine Bot Optimization.”

  • Emily Madson

    Thank you so much for writing about this topic. I work for a company that does data feed optimization, and we have such a hard time getting through to customers that our job is to improve rankings and readership, not make sales.

  • Michelle Robbins

    I think when considering the scope of responsibility for a given specialty – and SEO should be considered that – you might consider Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept. Now add site design, platform infrastructure, usability, copy writing, metrics analysis…that’s a lot of hours to be an expert (or even just competent) in all those areas, and I’m not even including market analysis or pricing and sales strategy. All of those contribute to a sale happening (or not) once a user arrives at a given site. And if all the elements fall into place perfectly – everyone contributes, everyone wins. Responsibility for conversions is a team effort. It’s unlikely that one team member has all those skills, thus unrealistic to hold one person (the seo, the graphics designer, or whomever) solely responsible for the conversions.

    Of course any good consultant or SEO will have a significant understanding of all those pieces, and how they fit together, and be able to work with the other team members on execution and accomplishing the goal. I’m with Danny and Branko on this one – people should play to their strengths. Contribute your specialty, partner and consult with others on theirs.

  • Aleyda

    Hello there :) I agree that SEO is more than achieving high rankings on the Search Engines and high volume of relevant traffic to the site, nonetheless, as always is not black or white, there are other aspects to take into consideration in the process such as the client requirements, restrictions and goals: What does the client want from your service? Is the client open to implement your advice? How competitive is the client service or product? (because even if you do a terrific job optimizing all the aspects of the site if it is a crappy product users won’t buy it!) … I wonder how many clients let a SEO consultant change the way they propose their products or services on their site in order to increase conversion, even if you try to show them with real data through A/B tests it worth it… if these are the *same* clients that are hard to convince to implement simple things such adding more content on their home page or landing pages because of “aesthetics” considerations or whose programmers have a hard time rewriting URLs or “cannot” do it because of their CMS restrictions… (and believe me, there are a lot of *big* clients like that) this is not an easy task!

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    Well I agree that SEO without a look into conversion rates is just an exercise in style, wether the conversion is your duty or on the customer’s end. It’s a very complex matter and a constantly evolving one, especially with new developments like social search and partnerships like the between Facebook and Bing.
    As often in this line of business, we will have to be on the edge of changes in order to deliver results to clients that, too often, are discouraged by the performance of agencies with much less ethics than those you show here, Lisa.

  • Sage Lewis

    I think this is such a big debate because we are all feeling the growing pains of what is happening to us.
    We aren’t SEO’s.
    We aren’t Internet marketers.
    We are becoming marketers.
    The tables are flipping. The offline marketers are starting to take a backseat to us online marketers.

    I, for the first time ever, was asked by a client if we’d be willing to start buying their offline ad space. They were firing their traditional ad agency because most of their ad buys were happening online.

    The few offline buys they are now doing don’t warrant keeping the other agency around.

    That’s interesting because we just hired a person with an offline agency background.

    One person doesn’t have to be everything to everybody. But this is our time. Either hire people or partner with people to become the marketing solution your clients want and need.

    We are the future, people! We are the 21st century marketers.

  • Dan Patterson

    I guess I’m coming a little late to this conversation, but I’ll throw in my two cents.

    Here’s the way I’ve come to look at SEO and what it really it. It’s ultimately a marketing function. It’s also advising the web team on what they should be doing so they don’t screw up the organic marketability of the website.

    Being that it is a marketing function, the results depend on the campaign that’s being running. If you’re running a branding campaign you can worry about just rankings and traffic. If you’re running a money making campaign, then yes you have to look beyond rankings and see what kind of money you’re making.

    Money is what talks to clients and business owners. So really, even if I was running a branding campaign I would still communicate the monetary value of that campaign. As AC/DC said, Money Talks. As SEOs, we have to realize that.

  • Jennifer@voip mpls

    I would agree with Michelle. It seems unrealistic to hold the SEO solely responsible for all aspects of a good internet marketing program. There is the graphic design to consider, the site architecture, the company sales-funnel and how well the site mirrors that. Ranking for a particular keyword, however, is a big part of getting traffic, and without traffic, there can be no sales–especially in an industry where making a sale is primarily a numbers game. The bottom line is, if you have the traffic but not the conversions, something is wrong, and it’s probably not the SEO’s fault.

  • Peter Young

    Surely this is a symbiotic relationship. Without good rankings (on reasonable volume phrases), your never going to achieve decent levels of traffic. If that traffic is not being generated on relevant phrases, then users are going to get to your site and leave straight away. Its not rocket science.

    The role of the SEO as Danny said earlier is to drive traffic to the site. However there is no point driving traffic if its not relevant or alternatively is not suitable to the intent of the user who is searching. Further to this, SEO is a marketing channel. Many other channel is judged by its ability to convert, whether that is display, affiliate or paid search. Just because we think SEO is different to those channels doesnt mean we shouldnt be judged by the same metrics.

    BTW – covered the same topic a while back – Are rankings a reliable metric for SEO success –

  • Mike Kalil

    I think it’s difficult to increase conversion if the SEO, web design, marketing and sales people aren’t at least on somewhat of the same wavelength. While an SEO might want to spam the hell out of a meta title and internal links, the traditional marketer might want to tone it down a bit. The web designer might want to have a neato flash intro, but the SEO knows that doing that just creates another hurdle for search engines. The salespeople want phone numbers, email addresses and more information required when people fill out forms, while the web designers that requiring more info makes visitors less likely to complete the forms.

    Maybe that’s not all entirely relevant, but the point is everyone involved should be sales-minded and willing to make compromises. If you’re doing work for a client, you can’t expect to keep them on if they don’t see any increases in sales as a result of your work. If their site’s built in a way that prevents inbound leads, they should definitely be made aware of that during the process. I think concentrating on conversion, rather than just boosting traffic, is what separates quality SEOs from the ones who offer ridiculously low-prices services.

    And since traditional and online marketing has become so meshed, I think behooves technical-minded SEOs to brush up on their marketng skills if they want to be able to make a good living in the future.

  • Tom Petryshen

    I’m with @sugarrae: “Holy shit there are a lot of comments.” In fact, it’s quite a diverse bag of responses which lends itself to my response.

    The deliverables of SEO are all about what the clients wants, what you as a consultant/agency/in-house agree to and the skills you (your team) have to fulfill the obligations. For some businesses it’s all about the top position, while for other companies others like the one Rob Woods works for it’s about the bottom line. I prefer to work with the later but still have a few clients who just care about being number one on their ego terms.

    In the enterprise world you might have five different groups of stakeholders each with a different expectation on the SEO deliverable. And if you’re going to have a successful campaign you need to be able to deliver what they expect or manage their expectation throughout the process.

    In the end it doesn’t matter what any of us say. It’s all about the client’s expectations and whether you have the goods to deliver on it.

    Cheers… Tom

  • Kim Krause Berg

    I’ve used the horse to water line in my talks but continued work in the field has me thinking differently these days. The only way you can lead a horse to water is if the horse trusts you, or you have a device on the horse to lead it and they have no choice. For me, the comparison to SEO is trust. A trusted brand or person’s name will bring more traffic on credibility and good feelings alone. Its easy traffic that can be squished into a big fat nothing if the follow up of a click is broken at the landing page. Good feelings of trust and customer service can be killed off when a landing page takes someone on a different track, breaks a promise, is confusing to use, etc.

    On the SEO side, I represent a client who has something to offer. I must find those persons who need that something now and are searching specifically for it. SEO’s don’t often talk about the “feel good” confident click. To me, that’s the one I want for my client. I want the searcher to feel confident that what they just clicked on will deliver on the silent promise just made, whether they used JAWS, a mobile device, any browser or any search engine. Some SEO’s don’t have access to the landing side, or their suggestions for a valid landing are ignored. They can’t be held accountable for conversion fails and yet so many of them are.

    Having led horses to water in real life, I’ve learned that they can be fussy. Some like cold water, or fresh only, or warm. Some like a bucket, straight from a hose (always good for laughs), a water trough in a pasture (and that one is like a play toy for some)…Its not the water that’s the targeted result. Its getting them to drink it. To do that, one must understand preferences.

    Conversions are tied to user preferences, meeting a direct need and doing so at the exact moment when that need will be the most appreciated.

  • TallTroll

    Just to be an awkward sod here, but what about blackhat SEOs? Are they leading a horse to water, in order to ram Viagra down its throat, then film the results to swap for other galleries on GFY? You’re taking an awfully corporate view of SEO here, go play in the sewer for a bit and see how other people do it (autodiallers, forced cookie drops, deliberately confusing site design to accentuate paid exits). That’s all got the same relation to SEO as what you are talking about, but I don’t think the people doing that kind of thing share your fuzzy wuzzy views on “engaging with the visitor”, other than by smashing them in the face and stealing their wallet ;)

    I tend to agree with Danny, SEO *is* about rankings. Thats not to say that an SEO can’t have additional skills in CRO, or PPC management, or social media or any of a hundred other closely related disciplines, and that’s all good, it makes you a better resource for your clients, but it’s not SEO. If someone wants me to get them to rank for “blue fuzzy widget repair in slamdunk, TN”, I will point out to them that no-one in Tennessee actually owns a blue fuzzy widget, so the repair market is small, and maybe they should consider other terms, but ultimately, it’s their call. Their site, their traffic, their money, my job.

    Consider the hypothetical case of the Online Marketing Manager for a largish corporation, Example Corp. S/he isn’t terribly knowledgable about SEO, having come from an offline marketing background, and reports directly to the main board, who collectively have enough technical ability to turn on their pointlessly overpowered workstations in a morning, and read their emails.

    The Example CEO is tired of the CEO of Acme Corp constantly needling him on the golf course about how Acmes’ website outranks Examples’ for “rocket powered jet boots”, a product both companies manufacture. So, he calls in his Online Marketing Manager, and assigns them the task of improving the rankings for “rocket powered jet boots”, and while you’re at it, might as well SEO the site to get number one on the Google (NSFW, but funny as hell) as well. Oh, and half your bonus rides on it too. Go now, my minion, and serve me in my pointy-haired glory.

    Enter Little Miss SEO, all full of the joys of “monitoring conversions”, “SEO isn’t about ranking. SEO is about money” and the like, who spots that “rocket powered jet boots” is a terrible term to try and rank for. There’s, like, one customer in Arizona who buys loads of them, but that’s it. So she junks the term, redoes the page names and internal anchor text and such, because SEO is about the money, right?

    The Example Corp site sees traffic jump by 25%, conversions double, the board award themselves obscene bonuses to spend on recreational pharmaceuticals and ladies of negotiable affection, and the Online Marketing Manager loses half their bonus. Example CEO still gets needled by the Acme CEO though (even though he now has 2 Ferraris. And bigger ones. And they are red), so 6 months later he fires the Online Marketing Manager because “you’re just not a good cultural fit”. Good job, Little Miss SEO

    I think a big part of the disconnect is that SEO is still normally seen as a technical skill, and it’s not, it’s a social one. Yes, you need some technical knowledge to execute and implement, but it’s not the tech knowledge that makes you an SEO. Most serious web designers know more than me about HTML / CSS / JS / Flash / other WWW techs but, that doesn’t mean they have any idea how to rank anything (“Home page – XYZ Ltd – Welcome!”)

    SEO isn’t about the money, it’s about the real world. Usually, the 2 are the same thing, but not always

  • David Curtis

    Bravo, Lisa, you’ve brought SEO back to the root of the question all businesses ask “why bother building a web site in the first place?”

    To me the most basic definition of SEO is that it should attract brand new clients who have never heard the name of the business before and who do not know where it is located; it should improve revenues whether sales be online, through walk-in business or for services provided and it should pay for itself.

    I agree with you here when you say:

    If, as an SEO, all you’re promising is a usable and structurally sound site, then it’s on the client to worry about conversions. But I know at Outspoken Media, we don’t usually take on those clients.

    If all the client can afford is a basically sound optimized site, given the choice, I would prefer not to take on those clients either. The starting point of SEO is on page optimization and back-links, but thereafter the fine tuning should come into play. It doesn’t help a company to run a poorly performing site and it doesn’t help an SEO to waste time filling the web with examples of work that are just barely adequate.

    There’s a catch 22 involved in SEO though which is that in order to pay bills we need to take on the very basic work so we accept what work we can get (and we often perform way more than we’re getting paid to do in order to be able to refer potential clients to examples of fairly good work), while at the same time we require multiple excellent examples of extensively optimized sites that are super-performers that require team efforts and adequate budgets.

    The whole point of SEO (to my way of thinking anyway) is to help businesses grow and earn more money, and how much more money my work helps them earn is my only metric of success. I really don’t like dealing with companies that aren’t interested in performance.

  • Shari Thurow

    Interesting reading. Hard to believe I disagree with Danny, sometimes. I think that limiting ones point of view that SEO is only about rankings is very narrow minded, which makes me glad that to become a better SEO, I stepped outside of the proverbial box and got myself educated and experienced in other industries. Then I REALLY got the big picture.

    SEO isn’t about money only. Someone else said that in the panel. I know I didn’t. Good SEO, in my opinion, is a section of one facet of the user experience — findability.

    A company can implement SEO for money, of course, but that is a very narrow-minded, limited perspective. Findability as a whole is very important to any website. (SEO is a component of findability.) SEO can be used to educate. SEO can be used for credibility. Money isn’t the only motivation.

    But in the search industry, I certainly acknowledge that money is a primary motivator. Which is probably one reason that most websites really stink.

    I sincerely hope that you allow this post, since, in the past, I have not seen a great deal of objectivity from people at this firm. Everyone, whether you disagree with them or not, is entitled to his/her opinion.

    • Lisa Barone

      I sincerely hope that you allow this post, since, in the past, I have not seen a great deal of objectivity from people at this firm. Everyone, whether you disagree with them or not, is entitled to his/her opinion.

      If you were at all familiar with this firm or blog, you’d know that we’ve never silenced or demeaned a commenter for not agreeing with us. I wish I could say the same for how you treat people while on stage at conferences. But we’re all entitled to own opinion and behavior.

      • john andrews

        Wow.. great way to end a post (not). As for “Everyone, whether you disagree with them or not, is entitled to his/her opinion” that is actually a myth.

        Social controls such as “your neighbor is watching you” (e.g. witch trials, McCarthyism) and “the Russians have a bomb aimed at our heads” (e.g. bomb shelters, bay of pigs, COPS TV show, War on Drugs ) failed to keep USA free will-ians inline by the time the late 60’s arrived. Killing uppity types didn’t stop it (King, Kennedy 1 &2, Panthers, etc). The post-hippy 70’s started this “free to express my ideas” myth. The greed-is-good years from 80s to 2003 or so encouraged the myth, since it kept naive followers distracted while they raped the economy and the future economy.

        The reality is speech and free expression of ideas is not free in most places around the world. The vast majority of societies cannot maintain civil order while allowing everyone to have and express their own opinions anywhere at any time. It is also not free in a “cost to society” sense. It may be necessary to maintain a certain level of progress (subject to interpretation), but not to maintain order.

        People don’t need to stomach anyone’s opinion anywhere at any time, and this blog like most blogs is a privately-funded public commons most of us appreciate.

        Lisa feel free to delete this if it sullies the thread… no worries.

        • Lisa Barone

          You’re good with me, John. And I agree that not every opinion is valid (and we have deleted comments and make no apologies for it. Hell, I’ve deleted some of Rae’s comments. :) ), but there’s a difference between not welcoming ANY opinion and not welcoming differing opinions. To even allude that OSM kills dissent is insulting, especially coming from Shari Thurow.

  • Jami Broom

    Interesting conversation, everyone!! As one person offering an array of Internet marketing services, I have to say that whether “making money” should be included in the title of ‘SEO’ is dependent on the focus of the person doing the “SEO”. If you’re an SEO consultant, offering a company the only advice they get on SEO, you better know how to track conversions. if you’re an employee doing only ‘SEO’ as part of an overall strategy that has been pre-determined by a group of people, your job should not have to include also thinking about conversions — but someone better damn well be paying attention to them!

  • Matthew Edward

    This reminds me of a bit of standup:

    When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. All right, you’re a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script? That’s not fair. That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, “OK, you’re a cook. Can you farm?

    Mitch Hedberg

    Ok, it isn’t an ideal analogy, but still funny :]

    Commercial Web visibility is more than about getting found–but this isn’t news, it always has been.

    Often, the concept of optimizing for site conversions is a mystery to Web developers and designers–those with more technical and less marketing/sales backgrounds.

    The reverse is often true for marketers less adept at the technical intricacies of search visibility.

  • CmsBuffet

    SEO is about ROI.
    We must make sure the clients’ ROI (return on investment) makes sense.
    Driving millions of web visitors and no sale – is an SEO failure.

  • David Hawkins

    I agree with every point you made Lisa. “Show me the money!”

    I think this question needs to be asked before any action is taken – before you even set your sights on traffic.

    If you eyes are set on traffic then perhaps you’ll rank for the keyword ‘Samsung LE32D450’. However, if your eyes are set on the money you’ll take a second look and notice that the keyword ‘Buy Samsung LE32D450’ has high commercial intent, even though it get’s an eighth of the search volume (just an example).

    I know what I’d prefer to be at number one for!

    I just had a quick ramble about this on my blog if you’re interested –

    Thank you for striking a chord with me!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Lisa, I really like your point of view and the way you put your arguments forth.

    I do find it a bit short-sighted of people to say that the bottom-line is money. Let’s take it a step further. It’s all about benefits. SEO is the tool that gets you what you want out of your website. For most businesses of course that’s profits and money. For some NGOs it can be increased cause awareness. For others, including a few friends of mine, it’s all about popularity, fame, being the talk of the net, no compensation necessary. For all of these people, what do we recommend, us web folk? SEO!

    I love how you put it too: “Today, SEO is just as much art as it is science.” That’s what I have been telling clients, and they do not understand most of the time, and believe it’s all a scam. They aren’t completely wrong though. We have faux-SEOs to thank for that, who focus on getting traffic in sneaky, dishonest and useless ways, which doesn’t lead to conversions.

    I’d like to share this article with you — a nice sequel to your article — which highlights the benefits of SEO and tackles common SEO client concerns:

    I never really thought of conversions as being part of the SEO core. Thanks for pointing it out for us!