Natural Search’s Growth Explosion, and What It Means for SEO in 2015

Big news for marketers – we always knew that SEO was a strong channel for growth, but the evidence for how fast natural search is growing isn’t always as easily found as it is for paid channels.

In a study of more than 50 brands and 1.1 billion natural search visits across 2014, we found growth stories that will come as no surprise to SEOs and owned media enthusiasts, but might catch others in the digital space off-guard.

Natural Search Is a Tremendous Growth Channel

The big news and number up front: The average SEO-engaged brand saw its natural traffic rise by 19.8 percent year-over-year in 2014.

This lift well outpaced paid search, which a separate benchmarking study show grew at a healthy, but lower 9 percent YOY.

Natural search also well outpaced growth that we saw at a total site level. Natural search drove 21 percent of total site traffic in 2014, well up from 18.1 percent in 2013.

Not only does this show a pretty sharp lift in natural search growth in 2014 compared to other channels, but it’s also helpful to know what share of your site’s traffic should be coming from natural search.

Of course, there are differences depending on the vertical and kind of site. Financial and insurance brands saw lower growth than other verticals – closer to what we saw in terms of PPC growth. Pharmaceuticals and health care, on the other hand, topped 70 percent year-over-year growth.

This difference in performance extended to organic search’s contribution levels. Natural search represented more than 50 percent of total site traffic for travel sites, but closer to 17 percent for lead generation-based sites.

However, one thing was clear across all categories: The volume of traffic from natural search is not slowing down, and in nearly every case is growing faster than other digital marketing channels.

Natural Search Is a Huge Force for Driving Conversions, Whether It’s Leads or Online Purchases

Conversions from natural search – whether purchases at an online store, opening an account, or filling out a contact form – were up an impressive 27 percent compared to 2013. Growth was especially strong for e-commerce websites, with an average natural conversion growth rate above 40 percent – a great sign for retail marketers in 2015 that consumer confidence and purchasing power are back on the rise.

Growing so quickly, compared to an already impressive growth rate for traffic, pushed the average conversion rate for natural search up about 6 percent. This lift stacks up well against other channels; overall, conversion rates for natural search were shown to be 50 percent higher than for sites as a whole.

Conversions from natural search even got more valuable in 2014, with the average e-commerce order value growing 8.5 percent compared to 2013, while total site average order values slipped about 4 percent.

Natural search isn’t just growing traffic. It’s driving qualified traffic to websites of all stripes, which is converting at a higher rate and providing more value than the other channels and tactics that brands typically engage in.

What It Means for 2015

First, the obvious: Brands who aren’t engaged in SEO at any level, and especially those relying on just paid search for a presence in search results, are missing out on a tremendous source of qualified visits who are in a mood to consume your content and purchase your products.

Brands who are actively working to improve their natural search have a deep well of growth potential coming into 2015.

However, search engines aren’t making our jobs any easier.

Greater use of mobile devices makes the experience that we are optimizing most frequently – the desktop – less relevant for our consumers. Our data indicate that there’s a 58/42 split between desktop and mobile site visits coming from natural search, compared to 63/37 just a year ago.

Not only does that mean a need to gear your site experience more toward a phone or tablet user (a 60/40 split), but a need to think increasingly of the content needs of your customers when they’re on the move, rather than sitting behind a laptop or desktop screen.

Google has also promised more moves in its SERPs later this spring around mobile optimization, calling out and boosting sites that have a good mobile experience, and punishing the rankings of those that don’t.

Search engines themselves are changing, and looking to provide answers rather than lists of websites that may have your answer. Those direct answers and deeper insights are becoming richer, more frequent, and are swallowing up real estate previously owned by paid and natural search. The only brand vertical that saw its natural search contribution levels drop from 2013 to 2014 was travel. It’s no coincidence that this drop happened the same year that Google integrated flight pricing into its search results, and enhanced its hotel search experience with anything from pricing to carousel results.

Google and Bing are becoming apps rather than search engines, and making your site the answer to customers’ questions will take more than typical SEO tactics. Semantic markup, a robust presence on Wikidata when it takes over from Freebase this summer, and making your content richer and more Hummingbird-friendly will all determine how well you thrive in the new world that Google and the search engines have planned for us.

Staying ahead of engine behavior and measuring up to your customers’ expectations will drive even bigger results for you in 2015.

Image via Shutterstock.

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