Conversion Optimization & SEO: Traffic without Conversion is a Traffic Accident

Volume Nine

I have a true story.

Recently, I was meeting with a group of SEOs (really smart people). We were talking about geeky SEO stuff, when someone tossed out the word “CRO.”

“What’s CRO?” one SEO asked.

There is a dearth of knowledge among SEOs regarding CRO. I totally get this. There are too many acronyms, too many specialties, and way too much marketing jargon.

For a long time, I too existed as a SEO without knowing what CRO was. I was content not to know that I didn’t know what I didn’t know about CRO.

In fact, when I first heard of conversion rate optimization, my first response was, “We don’t need another optimization.” Website optimization. Search engine optimization. Local optimization. Keyword optimization. Content optimization. Social optimization. Mobile optimization.

Agh! All this optimization. Make it stop!


What other kind of optimization can we possibly dream up to make the world any more optimized?

And then it dawned on me. Conversion optimization is kind of a big deal. [Tweet “Conversion optimization is kind of a big deal. “]

Why is it such a big deal? Because conversion optimization is the most cost-effective, scientifically-proven and direct method of improving your revenue.

(Yes, I’m an SEO, and I just said that.)

Let me explain where I’m going in this article and what I want you to do about it.

Where I’m going in this article
First, I’m going to tell you what conversion optimization is. Then, I’ll tell you why it has everything to do with SEO. Finally, I’m going to get all down to business and tell you how to do it with some helpful conversion rate optimization tips.

What I want you to do about it
Conversion optimization is a big deal. Therefore, every digital marketer should be aware of how it works and how to enhance it.

What is conversion optimization? (It’s not complicated.)

Conversion optimization has a few monikers:

  • CRO
  • conversion optimization
  • conversion rate optimization

Let’s just call it CRO, since it saves me from all the extra typing. Besides, it’s cooler.Conversion optimization is the process of turning website visitors into customers. That’s it.


We could get into some of the nitty gritty details — such as how multivariate testing on dynamically generated websites employing Taguchi orthogonal arrays applies fractional factorial designs in order to accommodate variational reduction and ensure statistical validity.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

For now, this is all you need to know: Conversion rate optimization is the process of turning visitors into buyers.

But what’s that bit about conversion rate? What is a conversion rate? A conversion rate is the percentage of website visitors who do what you want them to do.

If 100 people visited your website (traffic), and 10 of them signed up for your newsletter (conversion), your conversion rate would be 10% (which rocks).

Conversion rate optimization, then, seeks to improve the number of total visitors who convert on a given website action.

As an armchair CRO theorist, I prefer the term conversion optimization. At its essence, conversion optimizers aren’t trying to improve a number. They are trying to improve an experience. If we make the experience better, then the conversion rate will rise.

As it turns out, not many businesses are satisfied with their conversion rates. According to eConsultancy only 2% of businesses are “very satisfied” with their conversion rates. 77% respondents are either neutral or dissatisfied with their conversion rates. (Data source) [Tweet “According to eConsultancy only 2% of businesses are “very satisfied” with conversion rates. “]

What does conversion optimization have to do with SEO? Everything.

Now, let’s bring SEO and CRO together. Why does CRO matter in the wide world of SEO?

Because CRO is the logical point of SEO.

The goal of SEO is to improve the quantity and quality of organic traffic to a given website. But what happens next?

I can optimize a website until my limbs grow feeble and my breath wanes — tweaking every line of the robots.txt, disavowing every stray spam link, adjusting every meta title, and organizing every URL — but so what?

I can ramp up traffic to my client’s website until it is purring with traffic to compete with ViralNova and Buzzfeed, but what does it matter?

Here’s what this grand pursuit of search optimization truly comes down to: conversions.

[Tweet “Here’s what this grand pursuit of search optimization truly comes down to: conversions.”]

The reason why I want to improve traffic to a website is so the users who land on that website will do something, sign up for something, order something, visit something, or otherwise convert on that website.

A website is not a receptacle for traffic. A website is a machine for conversions.

[Tweet “A website is not a receptacle for traffic. A website is a machine for conversions.”]

My broad goal as a digital marketer is to help my clients make more money. My narrower goal as an SEO is to make that possible through delivering them the traffic they need.

This SEO goal logically leads to the CRO goal of converting that traffic into customers.

[Tweet “This SEO goal logically leads to the CRO goal of converting that traffic into customers.”]

Here are some of the more granular reasons why CRO and SEO matter to one another.

Conversion optimization affects queries
As an SEO, I’m all about queries. There are three main types of queries, each backed by a particular user intent:

  1. Navigational query – searching for the name of a website. Intent: to get to a specific website.
  2. Informational query – searching for information on a given topic. Intent: to learn about something.
  3. Transactional query – searching for a product or service to purchase. Intent: to buy.

Those three types of queries affect conversion optimization. A conversion optimizer must understand the intent of the user who is landing on a certain page, to know 1) what conversion action would be most appropriate, 2) what conversion action is most likely to elicit a conversion, and 3) the best method of persuading the user to convert.

CRO and SEO thus have an inextricable link. The organic traffic that the SEO helps to generate will eventuate in conversion potential. [Tweet “CRO and SEO thus have an inextricable link.”]

Conversion optimization affects content marketing.
Too often, CROs neglect the impact of content marketing in their efforts.

Content-rich pages are among the most valuable sources for conversions. A blog like this one isn’t merely a source of free information. (In full transparency, what we want you to do is contact us by means of that little form in the right sidebar. Go ahead; it’s okay.)

SEOs are totally into content marketing. What we need to realize is that our content marketing efforts aren’t merely traffic-generators. They are conversion-generators, too.

Conversion optimization can improve based on the number of total visitors (SEO).
To improve conversion optimization, the SEO can improve the total number of visitors to a website. The more visitors you get, the more conversions you’ll get.

I mentioned earlier in this article that if 100 visitors came to your site, and 10 of them converted, then you would have a conversion rate of 10%. Nice, huh? Considering that the average conversion rate is 2.35% (source), yes, that’s very good.

But what if the SEO worked her magic, and got 1,000 visitors to your site? With the same conversion rate, 10%, you would now have 100 conversions. Even better, huh?

That is the glorious symphony of CRO + SEO. The one enhances the other. [Tweet “That is the glorious symphony of CRO + SEO. The one enhances the other.”]

SEO improves the funnel of CRO.
You can view CRO as a type of marketing funnel. Of the number of visitors who come to a site, only a few will convert.

The SEO plays a part in that entire funnel:

  • SEO improves the findability of the site, which improves the traffic
  • SEO mitigates technical hurdles to the site’s speed, crawlability, and overall function
  • SEO improves the quantity of visitors, which will improve the number of conversions
  • SEO improves the quality of visitors, which improves the rate of conversions
  • SEO improves the usability of the site, which improves the conversion rate
  • SEO improves the quantity of content, which improves the number of landing pages for conversion-ready visitors
  • improves the quality of content, which improves the likelihood of conversions
  • SEO enhances the overall usability of the site, which increases conversions

SEO cannot extricate itself from CRO no matter how hard it tries.

[Tweet “SEO cannot extricate itself from CRO no matter how hard it tries.”]

Conversion optimization is the endpoint of digital marketing.
If digital marketing were a spear, then CRO would be the tip.

SEOs, don’t feel bad. You’re the muscle that propelled that spear to begin with.

Conversion optimization is the end goal of a digital marketing endeavor.

And SEO is a huge part of that.

I can’t afford to be myopic regarding my role as a digital marketer. I am both improving traffic (SEO) and therefore, I am improving conversions (CRO).

Hey, wait. I’m an SEO. How do the two go together?

I am an SEO. I work with SEOs. I work at an SEO agency. I’m interested in SEO. I do SEO.

What in the digital marketing world am I supposed to do with CRO?

I am. Therefore I optimize.
Let me back up and get all meditative and metaphysical for a minute.

Digital marketers are — to be face-palmingly simplistic — marketers.

We do marketing stuff. We optimize crappy sites and nonexistent conversion funnels and defunct meta tags.

Part of marketing is doing the stuff that improves the KPIs of marketing — traffic, revenue, and conversions.

Optimization comes in the form of search (SEO), and it comes in the form of conversion (CRO). And we must do both. 

[Tweet “Optimization comes in the form of search, and it comes in the form of conversion. We must do both.”]

The T-shaped Marketer
As an SEO, I want to be really good at one thing. But I want to have a familiarity with all things digital marketing. In other words, I want to know about more than SEO.

Allow me to intensify this point.

In order to be really good at SEO, I ought to know about these other things such as marketing automation, PPC, content marketing, social signals, user experience, Google analytics, etc.

Do I have to be an expert in all of them? No. Should I be familiar with a lot of them? Yes.

The best way to envision this is by gazing mystically at the diagram below.

The fat orange section in the middle is where we’re at — SEOs. The other blue/gray sections are where we possess understanding and a smidgen of experience — CRO, content development, community building, mobile apps, responsive design, programmatic media, et al.

The way Chuck Aikens explained this approach is brilliant. Building off Rand Fishkin’s T-shaped web marketer principle, and Tim Brown’s collaborative culture, here’s how Chuck describes such a person:

These people are subject matter experts in one area, but can understand and discuss general strategy in other areas….We believe that the future of doing effective marketing on the Internet lies with these ‘T-Shaped’ concepts. In today’s online world, there is just too much complexity, time, resources, and information available to consumers to ignore or avoid any one area.

Make sense?

We don’t just do SEO. We think broadly, reach widely, and take a holistic view of our client’s or company’s digital marketing initiatives.

  • Speak up. Do you see the opportunity for conversion optimization with your company or client? Say something.
  • Think deep. Are you intrigued by conversion optimization or any other broad skillsets in digital marketing? Think about it. Research it. Implement it.
  • Work smart. Digital marketing takes work — brain numbing, bleary eyed work. Be smart about the way you approach your role as an SEO and marketer. You might optimize the heck out of a website, but if said website lacks a conversion funnel, it’s not going to do much good. Organic traffic? Yes. Conversion funnel. Thbtb.

Uncomfortable truths about SEOs and CROs.
At this point, I’m going to have to talk about something that’s kind of uncomfortable. Go ahead, have a seat.

Historically, SEOs and CROs haven’t played nice with each other.

You know? Hatfields and McCoys. Montagues and Capulets. CROs and SEOs. It’s kind of like that. Here are some examples.

  • CROs are afraid that SEOs will mess up their testing and ruin their conversion rates (source).
  • SEOs are afraid that CROs will mess up their traffic-gaining pages.
  • CROs create duplicate content through split testing (source).
  • SEOs create pages for traffic that are not effective for conversions.
  • SEOs neglect to see the direction and path of the marketing track, and how it applies to the conversion funnel.

Here’s how Rand Fishkin expressed it:

I’ve heard conversion specialists say, “We’d love to do SEO on our website and we’d love to get more search traffic, but we just can’t afford to mess with the conversion funnel, because we have optimized these pages for conversion.” To which I shake my proverbial fist in the air and say, “That’s insane. There’s no conflict between the two.”


But Rand does not merely rage at the CROs. Here’s his epithet for the SEO:

And the same is true the other way around. If you are doing SEO and you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, I got my page in perfect condition. Google just loves me, and I’m ranking number one. I don’t want to touch it, man. I don’t want to mess around with CRO and testing different versions of the landing page. What if I change something on the page and Google doesn’t rank me as highly anymore?” That’s crazy too. More proverbial fist-shaking.


The great thing is, CRO and SEO go together.

How to accomplish world peace.
How do we overcome the bitter rift between CROs and SEOs?

We put CROs and SEOs in the same room, and let them talk about their goals, plans, and implementation. There’s no inherent divide between the two methodologies or roles. There is, however, a sweet spot at which CRO and SEO connect to form a powerful marketing nexus.

[Tweet “There is a sweet spot at which CRO and SEO connect to form a powerful marketing nexus.”]

When SEO and CRO play nice, the world becomes a better place. Conversions rise, executives smile, you get a raise, and your client wins.

(And unicorns might prance in fields of rainbows.)

The more marketing methods we implement, the better we can make our websites. Econsultancy discovered that 95% of companies who used several methods of optimization (e.g., conversion optimization and copy optimization) saw conversion rate improvement, compared to websites that only implemented CRO (72%). (Data source)

SEO and CRO together are more than the sum of their parts. Together, CRO and SEO create a seismic force that is virtually unbreakable in a company’s pursuit of higher revenue and profitability.

[Tweet “Together, CRO and SEO create a seismic force that is virtually unbreakable.”]

Conclusion: 4 things that every SEO should know about conversion optimization.

  1. It’s a thing. A very big thing. The conversion optimizer isn’t some languid cubicle dwelling bean counter on the outer fringes of digital marketing, ready to lose his job at a moment’s notice. CRO is at the very essence of turning visitors into customers. It matters. In the years ahead, as search becomes less optimizable and marketing methods become more sophisticated, CRO will most likely rise in significance and importance.
  2. You can’t apply formulaic CRO recommendations to clients. Some people rely on simplistic cliches to make life better: “Be happy.” “Don’t worry.” Stuff like that. Life isn’t that simple. Neither is conversion optimization. Conversion optimization doesn’t happen when you “make the CTA button bigger,” or “use a killer headline.” Instead, conversion optimization must first understand the customer, optimize the website, test elements of that website, and then iterate further optimization changes.
  3. The best person to do CRO is a CRO specialist, not a digital marketing generalist. An SEO might make a great CRO, but usually a CRO needs quite a bit of focus. It helps if the CRO doesn’t view his SEO colleagues as the enemy. A CRO specialist is someone who can collaborate with others, understand customer psychology, conduct split tests, and make necessary changes on a website.
  4. Every client could use conversion optimization. Yes, every client. Every website has a raison d’être — a purpose for existing in the vast interwebz. What is that purpose? Altruistic release of information? No. Every website demands a response — a conversion. A conversion is more than a purchase. A conversion could be social sharing, downloading a brochure, signing up for a free trial, filling out a contact form, accessing a whitepaper, signing up for a mailing list, signing up for a contest — the list goes on and on. That’s where conversion optimization steps in, takes stock of the situation, and helps to make even more customers convert.SEO and CRO are not enemies. In the pursuit of digital marketing awesomeness, they are allies.

If your SEO program has been overlooking the role of CRO, I suggest taking some time to learn about this important trade, and finding out how you can serve your clients with strategic recommendations and smart initiatives.

Let’s go make websites better.