Organic search traffic has long been one of the most valuable sources of traffic for any e-commerce site. Not only is the sheer volume of visitors huge, but those eyeballs were often net-new customers coming in from head, torso, and long-tail queries. As any good online marketer knows, organic traffic isn’t "free," but the ROI for organic search is excellent – giving it a prominent place in the marketing mix.
Now, it’s time for the bad news. Many sites that have done everything right – invested in organic search traffic as a strategic marketing channel and avoided the dreaded penalty box – are seeing their year-over-year (YoY) organic traffic tread water or decline.
This post will explore how reporting, search engine results page (SERP) real estate, product listing ads (PLAs) and images have impacted YoY numbers and what actions can make the most of organic search moving forward.
First, let’s look at what used to be a simple science – tracking.
Not long ago, an organic-search query passed right through to your analytics system, giving you a quantifiable click volume and value (assuming your analytics provided conversion/revenue data). Excellent! With that information, you could focus on optimization. For example, you could bring up high-volume queries with low conversions with better content or landing pages; and you could focus on driving more traffic to low-volume queries with high conversions.
Unfortunately, search marketers no longer have such clarity into their organic-search traffic for two reasons: an increasing percentage of traffic is "no query" and a huge portion of mobile traffic isn't categorized correctly, often failing to attribute the traffic to a search rather than "direct."
The graph below derived from BloomReach internal data shows how "no query" traffic is affecting query-level visibility for a very popular e-commerce site. In just the last two years, this retailer’s query visibility has dropped from more than 90 percent to under 50 percent. This has become very common development, indicating that many retailers are trending toward total darkness.
Those with their sleeves pushed up working day-to-day on SEO know the reasons why this is happening – searchers who are logged into Google accounts, Firefox users, and most mobile searchers pass "no query" when they click on organic-search links – causing analytics systems to report it without a query.
Any organic-search efforts that are oriented to a "query" (e.g., looking query conversion rates or SEO efforts oriented to receiving traffic on specific queries) are now completely wrong unless "no query" traffic is taken into account.
The mobile trend is similar. With the rollout of iOS6 and Android 4, a massive portion of mobile organic-search traffic appears as "direct" traffic in analytics. Earlier this month, Apple announced that iOS7 would correct this problem for Safari users, which will help a bit, but that won’t solve the "no query" issue.
Intuitively, anyone who’s pulled back the covers in their analytics to view the actual page URLs from some of this "direct" traffic knows there’s an attribution problem. Clearly, it’s highly unlikely someone would type a long URL string directly into the address bar – with whatever category and page name the site uses. In fact, marketing firm RKG stated that, "analytics packages misattributed an estimated 14 percent of Google organic searches on average in Q2 due to an issue with iOS 6 searches not passing referring URLs."
Imagine a shopper who enters the "funnel" with a search on her iPhone. She clicks an organic-search result that brings her to your site. However, rather than converting on the purchase now, an incoming call sidetracks her. Later that evening, she completes the purchase on her laptop while watching TV.
This is hardly a farfetched scenario, but one that would be recorded entirely wrong in any web analytics system. Why? Because it would attribute her initial visit as "direct" traffic, and couldn’t determine that the eventual conversion was a mobile-assisted purchase – which was likely made by going directly to your website.
Bottom line: Any analytics system is dramatically under-reporting organic-search traffic, making meaningful data flat-out wrong.
Shrinking Real Estate
A recent article referenced an analysis of a SERP composition that found a very small portion of the page actually showed organic-search results. Only 13 percent of the page represented organic results, while 29 percent were AdWords results. It’s important to note that the sample query used was "auto mechanic", and the results didn't include any PLAs, where large images often push organic results even further down the page or below the fold.
Consider another example. The screenshot below shows the SERP for "summer dress," which contains paid ads, PLAs, and approximately 1.5 organic-search results.
In this case, the percentages of each type of result above the fold is dependent on elements like query, font size and whitespace determined by your browser window or device. Obviously, organic results no longer command the prime real estate on the SERP that they once did.
We all know the key to real estate value is location, location, location. As organic results are bumped further down the page, they’ll yield fewer clicks. The exact real estate that organic results occupy will depend on the search engine and query.
For example, it’s likely that a popular head term like "digital cameras" will have quite a few paid ads, PLAs and local results for nearby stores that carry cameras. However, a long-tail query for more specific camera accessories – like tripods for a GoPro Hero 3 – will have more organic results and fewer paid and local ads taking up valuable SERP space.
A Picture Sells a Thousand Shirts
In addition to PLAs taking up precious space above the fold, they also offer other competitive advantages. PLAs display an image of the product that (hopefully) matches the consumer’s query, because shoppers are very visual animals.
Sure, searchers can scan the images quickly to decide if they’re not a great match for their taste and intent, but will they assume the organic (and even paid) links on the rest of the page – links which don’t provide visual clues as to their relevance – are worth their clicks and time? Conversely, will they take those PLA results as a signal to refine their query or worse – go straight to Amazon.com to search for that right product?
matters metrics even worse, with PLAs siphoning traffic with their visual appeal, Google image changes in SERP pages also have reduced organic traffic.
Let’s be clear, those image clicks in the past were likely not converting at a very high rate, but they may have comprised a significant volume of organic traffic to portions of your site. Now that the image searches actually keep most users on the image SERP page rather than clicking through to the actual image, you can also see a drop in traffic.
However, despite the drop in image search traffic, the conversion rate has increased dramatically, as you can see in the graph below from data across multiple sites. We have even seen the overall revenue for image search conversions increase on sites, despite that total image search traffic taking a precipitous drop.
Plan of Action
Given the measurement, SERP, and PLA challenges, what can an e-commerce site do to maintain or even grow their organic search traffic? Three things:
1. Adjust for Tracking Issues
To quote Tony Stark, "It’s an imperfect world, but it’s the only one we’ve got." In this imperfect world of attribution, it’s important to recognize that:
- You can’t rely purely on your analytics system;
- You must adjust your organic search reporting to estimate "no query" and "mobile" traffic properly for more accurate numbers; and
- All attribution models have inherent biases, so interpretation and intuition are critical - don’t just rely on last click. Ask questions about your assumptions and the implications of each attribution model you use. Last click is a poor representation of the value of organic search given that consumers may begin their journey on organic search, but end it via an affiliate program or a branded paid search ad. Plus, with more consumers beginning their purchasing process on smartphones, connect the dots between a first click on mobile and a purchase in-store or elsewhere online.
2. Measure and Mitigate Cannibalization
Rankings alone won’t cut it if the starting line for organic results is further down the page. So, periodically test a sample of queries (ideally from the head, torso and long-tail) to see how the SERPs evolve over time.
Looking for relationships – correlation and causation – between the locations on the SERP, organic ranking for that query, conversions and revenue can be quite revealing. As many have noted, ranking first in both the organic and paid results for any given query solidifies the brand’s reputation with the customer and increases conversions. Also, as you’re thinking about organic, work with agencies and solution providers that have technology and expertise across both organic and paid search.
3. Get Strategic
Continuing the status quo without any creativity and optimization will yield diminishing returns and/or increasing costs-per-acquisition. If the head and torso clicks are drying up, look to the long-tail to make up ground.
In the long-tail, there is less competition (both for organic and paid, which means there’s often less downward pressure on the organic-listing location on the SERPs) and stronger signals of customer intent. Strategically targeting the long-tail in a scalable way can pay dividends.
If faced with less organic traffic, make sure those clicks you do get turn into customers. Work with the rest of your e-commerce team to make it effortless for those prospects to find what they are looking for, whether on the desktop or mobile device.
The wrong response to these challenges is to either give up or reduce investments in organic search. Remember that the alternatives (paid ads) are only getting more expensive.
When you measure and optimize, net-new customers will still come walking through your virtual door. Plus, in an age when Amazon reigns over many categories, acquiring, converting and cultivating net-new customers is the key to unlocking more revenue potential.