My sixteen-year-old son posed a riddle for me the other day: "How does a white beard work?" When I gave up, he revealed the answer: "A hobo." (Should I have mentioned that my son has Down Syndrome?) Anyway, if that riddle made sense to you, then you probably love to analyze the inscrutable world of search metrics. I got a search metrics question from someone this week that brought to mind my son's riddle. I was asked what the right percentage of visitors to your site should be from search engines. A simple question, really, but just what is the simple answer?
No, it's not "a hobo." (Nice try.)
When people ask me what percentage of your site's visitors should come from search engines, it reminds me of how we started search marketing on IBM's Web site. At the time we started, the average Web site received 7% of its traffic from search, and IBM was getting less than 1%. So, I wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but knew that we should be doing better. I didn't know whether a site as well-known as IBM's would reach the average of 7%, because I reasoned that we had lots of returning customers that bookmarked the site or knew to type "IBM.com" so they might search for IBM less frequently than for lesser-known companies that would get 70% of their traffic through search.
But I was faced with the question, "How much of our site's traffic should come from search?" Now, my answer to this kind of question is usually, "More than we had yesterday." But I didn't think the boss would approve the project unless I put some stake in the ground, so I said "3%."
I didn't have any reason to think there was any right number. I knew that 1% was embarrassing, but didn't know what was right. And, honestly, who cares what percentage of people come from anywhere? What you really want is for more people to come—more people who are qualified to buy your product, that is.
Focusing on the percentage of visitors that come from search seems to me to be the wrong metric. Now today IBM gets 25% of its visitors from search, so that certainly sounds a lot better, but it's only because that has produced a huge increase in real traffic and sales that I know it's really good.
Focusing on percentages is always tricky. Take conversion rate, for example. Raising your conversion rate is only important if you are raising your conversions. If one person comes to the site and buys from you, you have a 100% conversion rate, but you don't have a very large business. I've seen conversion rates go up because traffic from new customers tanks, so it's only the loyal repeat customers coming to the site. That's bad.
So, there's no secret percentage of visitors coming from search that tells you that your search marketing is doing fine. For some sites, repeat customers are unusual and they are unknown, so they need 70% of their traffic to come from search. For others, a far lower percentage is just fine.
But you'd be better off counting the total number of visitors coming from search (adjusted for seasonality) and trying to make that number go up. Or better yet, counting the number of sales that result from searches. That's the real number you want to increase. If you do, you're less likely to end up a hobo, although you're welcome to grow the white beard, I guess, but I don't really know how that white beard works...
Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.
Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.
Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.
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