When evaluating marketing strategies, it’s not uncommon to pit two ideas against each other — SEO vs. PPC, PPC vs. social ads, social ads vs. display ads. Ultimately, what we want to know is, “Which strategy is best for helping us reach our goals?”
It’s no different with SEO and CRO.
It takes less than a minute of researching the two strategies to learn that people want to know which is better. But comparing SEO and CRO is a little like comparing apples and oranges — they’re categorically different, and it’s that difference that makes them complementary strategies rather than opposing strategies.
We’re going to walk through what SEO and CRO specialists do, how their projects complement each other, and how they can share data to improve return on website investment. If you’re already familiar with SEO and CRO, consider jumping to the section “What happens when you focus on SEO and ignore CRO?” Otherwise, we’ll start with an overview of what each type of specialist does.
Let’s dive in!
A search engine optimization (SEO) specialist is someone who is responsible for improving a website’s visibility in search results.
SEO specialists, then, should understand how to improve the crawling, rendering, indexing, and ranking of a website’s key pages for the purpose of increasing visibility and traffic to those key pages.
A conversion rate optimization (CRO) specialist — sometimes referred to as a digital experience optimization specialist, personalization specialist, or AB testing specialist — is responsible for creating on-site experiences that increase conversions.
CRO specialists will often run tests by coming up with a hypothesis, developing an experiment to test that hypothesis, creating a variant(s) to a control, serving those variants to different visitors, and seeing which version was most successful.
The end goal is constant testing, iteration, and improvements that increase the website’s conversion rates.
If SEO is the strategy that can get more people to your site (specifically people who are using a search engine to look for information), and CRO is a strategy that’s used to convert more of those visitors, then businesses should invest in both if they want to maximize their website ROI.
To put it into marketing funnel terminology, SEO feeds visitors into your funnel while CRO works on closing those visitors in your funnel into customers.
Businesses need not only visitors, but the ability to turn those visitors into customers, if they want to increase their website revenue.
When it comes to getting more customers, it’s not enough to get people to our site. We also need to create experiences for those visitors that compel them to take our intended actions, whether that be signing up for a free trial, becoming a paid subscriber, or purchasing a product.
When SEO ignores CRO, we can end up with what amounts to “vanity traffic” — traffic that looks great in a line graph, but disappointing for your bottom line.
After all, what good is that ranking if no one clicks on it? And what good is that traffic if none of those visitors buy from you? SEO needs to be complemented by some form of conversion optimization or digital experience optimization if it’s going to have the desired impact on your bottom line.
We need visitors before we can think about converting them, and that’s the danger in focusing on CRO at the exclusion of SEO. Organic search isn’t the only traffic acquisition channel, but it is the most sustainable one. CRO needs SEO efforts in order to deliver the traffic that their testing and experimentation relies on.
Businesses that invest in CRO and digital experience optimization may be able to survive without SEO, but they’re missing out on a tremendous opportunity to increase their conversions. Think about it: even without improving conversion rates, an increase in traffic will produce more overall conversions, so just think about what they could accomplish together!
SEO not only drives the reliable traffic that fuels CRO experiments, but evaluating your CRO experiments through an SEO lens can also help avoid changes that may hurt organic search traffic.
Like many things in marketing, SEO and CRO are most effective when they work together — but are there any situations where one can hurt the other?
CRO tests are not bad for SEO, so long as they’re conducted with search engines in mind.
One of the biggest SEO concerns people have about personalization and on-site testing is that it might constitute cloaking, the activity of showing different content or URLs to humans than you do to search engines. According to Google, cloaking is a violation of their guidelines and could get your website penalized.
What does this mean for on-site testing teams? In Google’s own words, “Make sure that you’re not deciding whether to serve the test, or which content variant to serve, based on user-agent.” In other words, CRO teams should not exclude Googlebot from their AB tests.
Some CRO teams opt to conduct their tests via URL redirects, especially if you’re testing a substantial change like a full page redesign. This AB testing option redirects visitors from one URL to another.
According to Google, this option is fine. However, Google recommends “that you define a canonical URL for your variants.”
Although Google treats canonical tags as suggestions, it’s a good step to take in order to prevent Google from indexing your variant/test version rather than your control/original version.
Google also recommends that you should use 302 (temporary) redirects rather than 301 (permanent) redirects when using URL redirection to conduct split tests.
SEO should not hurt conversion rates so long as your SEO strategies are focused on providing value to your visitors.
When Google’s algorithm was less mature than it was today, it was possible to use black hat tactics in order to manipulate your way into ranking well. These tactics were employed purely to rank well, which often made for a horrible on-site experience that would frustrate any self-respecting CRO specialist. That keyword-stuffed page might rank well, but chances are low that it’ll convert.
Although some still attempt those tactics today, SEO has become a much more transparent discipline as Google’s algorithm has matured. Good SEOs know that Google rewards pages that provide an exceptional experience to searchers, which means that strategies to improve SEO success should also be good for the visitor, and amazing visitor experiences are not only good for getting your site to rank, but also much more likely to translate into conversions.
That being said, it’s a good idea to ask the following question before changing something for the purpose of CRO: Does the proposed update fundamentally change the content on a page that is ranking well in search results?
Substantial changes to the content of a well-ranking page can have an adverse effect on its position in and traffic from organic search results. Consider making smaller changes one at a time or finding an alternative way to achieve a similar CRO result.
If SEO and CRO are complementary disciplines that can be used together to increase your website ROI, SEOs and CROs should be sharing as much information as possible.
Whether you’re an SEO specialist evaluating searcher queries or a CRO specialist evaluating the results of an AB test, you’re both in possession of real data from your audience — something that’s valuable no matter what channel or strategy you’re working with.
Consider the following ideas:
There is so much to consider when talking about SEO and digital experience optimization that we thought it’d be best to talk it out in a live webinar that I’m co-hosting with AB Tasty tomorrow at 2pm EST on Search Engine Journal — I’d love for you to join us!
And hey, even if your busy day doesn’t leave room to attend the live webinar, you can sign up anyway to get an email of the recording after.
We’ll also leave plenty of time for Q&A at the end, so come ready with your questions or share yours with me ahead of time so I can make sure to answer them!