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Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Not All Optimization Is Equal: Don’t Substitute SEO for CRO

By Marijayne Bushey
December 29th, 2010

The end is near… of 2010 that is. A New Year is upon us. It has been 9 months since Brendan Regan wrote a post about the overlaps between CRO and SEO, and I propose that we take a moment to re-read that post, one or two others that do a good job of highlighting a key issue, and get things straight in 2011. What I’m talking about here is the basic difference between Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO), the area of overlap between the two, and how there can be room in any marketing plan for both. Brendan spelled it out pretty clearly in that post, right out of the gates:

FutureNow is not a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) firm. I am not an SEO practitioner. So why blog about it? Because there still seems to be misunderstanding out there in the online marketing world about how SEO does, or doesn’t, fit into a Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) strategy.

It is clear that misunderstanding still lingers. The evidence (as always) is in the GrokDotCom comments posted recently; comments that belie the frustratingly tenacious confusion of CRO for SEO; comments that belie a distressing lack of understanding of what we’re about here at FutureNow, Inc. (FNI) and GrokDotCom; comments that belie an astounding ability to read our posts and miss the point entirely. Here are a few examples of what I’ve seen recently:

In response to “Why the Holidays Are the Perfect Time to Tweak Your Site”, someone quoted part of a line in the post, but his choice of quote is very revealing…

And another on the post “Your Website is Unique. Don’t Settle for Best Practices.”…

Aside from Brendan’s strong opening comments, my favorite part of the post is the handy little Venn diagram Brendan included. It’s a great visual of how the two are distinct practices with an area of overlap. Be sure to have a look at that. I’d like to add to that Venn diagram another visual presenting a slightly different perspective: a very simple linear drawing intended to represent one visitor’s experience and the areas of that experience each discipline impacts…

Now, I realize web experiences really are not linear; for simplicity’s sake, in an attempt to drive home my point, I’ve decided to show it that way here.  Our FNI-Grok blog posts and subscription services are aimed at helping you with that blue (CRO) portion of the spectrum, including the part where it overlaps the pink (SEO).  Ideally, we’d like to work with your SEO expert to come up with search solutions that meet the goals on both sides of that spectrum:

1) produce high rankings and

2) set the right context for a persuasive experience on your website.

Brendan’s post certainly wasn’t the first time an FNI-Grok post acknowledged that CRO is different from SEO. In this 2007 post, Melissa Burdon tackled some commonly held misconceptions about SEO and CRO. While Melissa doesn’t go quite as far as Brendan does to point out that the two are not the same, it is implicit in the perspective her post offers. Melissa acknowledges the benefits of SEO, but is quick to call out the fallacy of “good” online performance based only on search engine ranking. Melissa confronts some of the most common fears of a combined SEO/CRO approach head-on, and explains why we have nothing to be afraid of. Her point is that a good marketing plan is one where the two disciplines work in concert to boost one another’s results; considering our diagram above, it’s easy to see why. So go on, read that one as well.

Before we call it quits here, I want to triage the abundance of SEO comments in another way too… by encouraging readers to really think about their comments. If you want to leave a comment on our blog (or any other credible blog, for that matter), read the post, digest it, and be sure you “get” it. Is it possible that some of the offending comments aren’t as clueless as they seem, but are just spammers, posting comments in a desperate attempt to appease search engine algorithms? One brave commenter actually posed that question:

There are some SEO practitioners out there who teach or preach practices such as posting comments or participating in link exchanges (or content creation/articles on your site). This advice is based on search engines’ current algorithms for ranking search results, which do account for such things.

The problem as we see it, is not so much that you post a comment or write content for your site, but how you do these things. Real comments with real value to add to the conversation are a great way to get your name out there! But don’t spam comment. I may not be a spam whisperer, but for crying out loud, I can pick up on regurgitated quotes from the post I wrote, gratuitous URL listings, and the guy posting the same comment over and over again! There is one word that describes the way some SEO “experts” employ these practices: exploitation. And the search engines are onto them. Search engines are constantly working on tweaking their algorithm to account for bogus SEO practices. After all, they are just trying to deliver the most relevant search results to their users, and practices that fly in the face of relevancy call their own credibility into question.

If you want to be sure your comment makes the cut, comes across as credible to your potential visitors, and is the beginning of an engaging and persuasive experience for visitors, check your comment against the standards in Brendan’s post detailing the “right” way to leave comments on a blog. Bear in mind, his post lists the kinds of comments we’d like to see posted on our blog, and this is not an SEO approach to commenting.

Still have questions about the difference between SEO and CRO?  Don’t be afraid to ask.  We’d love to have an opportunity to clear the air.

Add Your Comments

Comments (35)

  1. Marijayne, good post, though I have something to add.

    a) Your link to the “right” way to leave comments is a broken link.

    b) Why not offer some of those commenting tips in the post? For instance: Don’t anchor text stuff like crazy, Do use the website form if it’s available, Do try to ask further questions or answer somebody else’s question, Do click the “notify me of followup comments”, Do include your gravatar if its available (not sure if your comments allow that).

    Anyways, I enjoyed your post and it even made me laugh a bit. Will def. be checking out more posts here in 2011. Happy New Year.

  2. @Tom – thanks for the heads-up about the link (all of them got truncated somehow). They should be working properly now. :-) Per your question about not having posted some of the tips directly in the article: I’m making an effort to be more concise (as my colleagues will tell you, that’s a challenge for me), and there were just too many tips to include them all! ;-) But I’ll take your feedback into consideration for my next post.

  3. Thanks for discuss clearly about SEO and CRO .I have know ledge about SEO but not about CRO.From this post I have get basic idea and importance about CRO . But i think I need to know more. Have any tutorial ? SEO+CRO= $cash I like your explanation. Thanks.

  4. After reading your article I realize I don’t know much at all about SEO. Your subscription services look like they’re worth checking out and can offer a ton of insights though.

  5. Totally agreed with Tom. Anyway, thanks for this nice post.

  6. @phishing – there is plenty of great information on this blog, and in the resources section of our website. I would look at the “Whitepapers” area under the Resources Tab, and download the “10 Tips to Start Optimizing” paper. To get a sense for what CRO is and the role it plays in your marketing, check out this post. You can also read this post detailing a quick-n-dirty exercise highlighting the way we approach CRO. Here’s an example of how we apply those steps with our clients. Check those out for now, and then email me ( when you’re ready for more. :-) Enjoy!

  7. @sr22 insurance quotes – well, of course I am biased, but YES! our OnTarget subscriptions to make your website better are definitely worth checking out! Remember: we are not an SEO company though; we are a CRO company. That means we are primarily trying to impact that second half of a visitor’s experience, after you’ve showed up in their search results. We do know some excellent SEO companies though, so if we find that you need both SEO and CRO, we would certainly make the introductions. :-) There are plenty of posts on this blog detailing the kind of work we’ve been doing with clients over the last year or so. Take a look at those to get a better sense for what our style of CRO entails.

  8. SEO is constantly changing and what type is done will depend on the desired result. It is not a one-size-fits-all process

  9. I read the other day of the number of abandoned shopping carts just before checkout because of the mention of discount coupons and the web shoppers tendency to go looking for coupons and never returning to finish checkout.

    To me this really highlights the difference between SEO and CRO … bringing the horse to the water but not getting him to drink

    Will contextual search engines help narrow the difference between SEO and CRO?

  10. Site owners have heard of design, and their designer told them they also needed programming so they have heard of programming as well.

    They read about SEO in an in-flight magazine a few years ago and they now think SEO is the 3rd and final piece if the jigsaw.

    They have never heard of CRO and so its always going to be an uphill sell.

  11. SEO and CRO mix, but if you aren’t well versed in SEO, you can’t really speak well for it. You might think that the linear analogy works, but I’d rather get 2x as many people to a website using SEO and suffer a few percentage point hit on conversion rate. Unless you are getting a very very small audience, the key for most small/medium business owners will always be SEO. It is much EASIER and FASTER to fix a poor converting website than a poor SEO’d website. Google’s index takes weeks to change and you can flip a layout to improve conversion on the fly!

  12. Very well made points that offer great insight into SEO

  13. CRO and SEO are really two different animals as stated. Before on-page conversion design changes can even be discussed….you better know your customer personas!

  14. @Hissing Kitty – hmmm… I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I’m sticking it to SEO. I’m not. We want to see our clients working with credible SEO companies, and won’t hesitate to refer them to people we know and trust in the field. I know the linear analogy isn’t ideal… visitor click streams can be configured in a seemingly infinite number of ways depending on the linking structure of a site… no matter how you represent the relationship between traffic acquisition and site performance pictorially, the bottom line is good marketing needs to account for both.

    I am perplexed by your preference to get more people to a website using SEO if it compromises the conversion rate, though… especially given the more profound impact of CRO and increases in the bottom line, and ROI (ie, as you can see from the chart and diagram in that post, increases in traffic only generate a 1 to 1 correspondence in sales increases, but it can be far better than that with a continuous program of CRO). It seems your preference for traffic comes from your belief that it’s easier to improve a conversion rate than it is to improve rank. If CRO is so much easier (less investment), and the results of CRO are exponentially greater than those of traffic increases (more results), then the ROI on CRO is unquestionably better, and investing in CRO is a no brainer.

  15. I’m still a beginner and wasn’t clear on SEO and CRO. But, this helped me understand them better. Thank you!

  16. @CMS Web design – just want to be clear: there may be some good points about SEO in this post, but the point is that you should be doing CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) too if you want to really get the most out of your marketing. It’s not the same thing as SEO. CRO is the primary focus of this blog and our company’s services. If we see clients who can benefit from SEO, we are more than happy to refer them to credible people in the field, who are familiar with CRO practices and whose work will easily integrate with ours.

  17. When doing SEO one should always think of how to convert the traffic into sales (if that’s the goal). On the other hand CRO without traffic is just fiddling with a website. Conversion is important, but without the traffic there is nothing to convert.

  18. @Jerry Grogen – we agree! :-)

  19. I’m aware how SEO works coz I used it often times to optimize my blogs but I can’t help but agree to Marijayne when it comes to constant spammers who are leaving nonsense comments to your blogs. I think the idea of gaining quality backlinks are not that clear to

  20. SEO + CRO is the right combination but do you think that SEO will still be performant in a few years? Search engines will always find a solution to avoid spammers IMO. We will see…

  21. i DON’T AGREE……

  22. SEO is a long term, slow moving process based on rules that are constantly changing. SEO and CRO Can Play Well Together.

  23. Hi Marijayne,

    First for the comment spam: great post! :) Honestly, from heading over to read Brendan’s post about CRO which really has me thinking in a new direction to his post on the Do’s and Dont’s of commenting. Although, I don’t completely agree with using keywords to replace your name. Call me a stick in the mud. I know why a person would want to but… well, just call me a stick in the mud. :p

    I can definitely understand your frustration at times when dealing with comments. I just started a blog and already am getting bombarded.

    It seems to me a big culprit is simply wanting things to happen fast. Rank fast, get visitors fast, make money fast and so on. Sure, we all want to see ourselves on page one holding a high PR but, slow and steady invariably wins the race.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents on the SEO side of things. As to conversion rates..well, I’ll be here for awhile. Very glad I’ve found you. :)

  24. I agree with Tom. However, the post is really good and we are currently working on our CRO strategy.

  25. Agree – with Jerry. Trafic comes first for me, then CRO.

  26. Forgot to mention: There’s certainly two different approaches.
    Mass traffic -> small percentage of conversions
    Highly targeted traffic -> high percentage of conversions
    Which one is right for you, depends on your niche and global strategy.

  27. @Frank – as long as their are Search Engines with algorithms for finding and ranking websites, there will be SEO. It will just keep evolving along with those algorithms.

  28. @plc training in chennai – you say you don’t agree, but you don’t say with what, or offer any reason why. I’d love to hear what you think.

  29. Yeah right as long as search engine applies there will always be an SEO.

  30. Thank you for pointing those things out. The world of internet marketing is wide and it is not always easy to make the difference between the different aspects of it.

  31. I agree – with Jerry.

  32. I think most people who focus on SEO don’t spend enough time focusing on CRO. My understanding of CRO comes from and in order to really focus on CRO payed click advertising is the appears the optimal way to test. If you are focused on getting traffic to your site from organic searches it’s really about optimizing your site lay out for a specific niche and balancing CRO and SEO to obtain the maximum sales. For Instance if after doing CRO traffic decreases 10% but conversions go from 1% to 2% which is doable the CRO was a smart move.

  33. @Melissa – If I may be so bold as to point you toward two other sources for info about what CRO is:
    1) The Art and Science of CRO post on our blog
    2) our Process and Expertise area of our company site, with links to info about our patented Persuasion Architecture methodology.

  34. Thank’s for those two links, I liked the “Article & Sceince of SEO” I’ve never seen it broken down like that before. I’ve heard that balanced is better in most fields, where left brain is needed but the right brain creativity is also needed. I’ve even heard it applied to finance, where you need the numbers but the best financiers have creativity in creating new financial instruments as well as with lawyers.
    What I would like to know is there a way to train my brain to become more balanced or is building a team with a mix of right and left brain thinkers the most efficient.

  35. @Melissa – While you can’t necessarily change your preferred way of looking at things, you can certainly train yourself to be more comfortable when working outside the boundaries of your preferences. And, yes, creating a team with a range of different preferences brings balance to a project and is one way that many business use Meyers-Briggs testing.

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Mj has been proselytizing the merits of customer-centric, data-driven, continuous Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) for FutureNow since 2007.

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