For me, the term search engine optimisation (SEO) has always been fatally flawed. It suggests that we optimise solely for search engines. However, search engines don’t buy products, people do.

I’ve always been of the opinion that by focusing, first and foremost, on optimising the customer experience, success in search will generally follow in the medium to longer term.

Yes, there are boxes to be ticked when it comes to SEO, such as the use of certain tags or creating an XML feed but even these can be optimised in a way that focuses on the customer primarily, not the search engine.

SEO is also a term that fails to describe (or give credit to) the full range of disciplines involved in creating and executing a contemporary natural search strategy, for example content planning, social media, PR and analytical skills. Neither does it communicate the benefits, over and above search engine rankings, that these disciplines deliver. 

SEO also of course has a bit of a reputation issue.

All of this has led me to believe that ‘SEO’ needs a long overdue rebrand.

A subtle change to the ‘E’ in SEO

Introducing…‘search experience optimisation’.

From my research, I’m pretty sure the term was first coined back in 2010 by SEO Workers (but don’t quote me on that). However, I don’t think it has quite got the attention it deserves or evolved (as a philosophy) in the way it perhaps should have.

In simple terms, ‘search experience optimisation’ represents the overlap between search engine optimisation and conversion rate optimisation. I’m not convinced there is anything revolutionary in this. Good SEO practitioners have focused both on driving traffic and converting it since day one.

For me, ‘search experience optimisation’ is not just a marrying of two disciplines. Instead, I think it can evolve to encourage a subtle (but significant) change of mind set that, in turn, can help marketers take a more objective view to what they should be doing (and more importantly what they shouldn’t) when it comes to shaping and executing their SEO strategies.

At its very centre is a question I first introduced in my last Econsultancy post on SEO payment models

‘How will this approach or activity deliver a memorable & superior experience for my customers?’

That’s all very lovely, but what do you mean by ‘experience?’

Here’s where things get interesting because I don’t think experience can necessarily be defined, certainly not in the ever-evolving retail sector.

This is because experience is subjective. In other words, one person’s view of a great experience might be very different to the next person. For some, a superior experience might be as simple as the retailer delivering on a promise or when things just work as expected. For others, it might be something out of the ordinary or a pleasant surprise, for example the beautiful packaging, the personalised delivery note, the helpful and knowledgeable shop assistant or the highly targeted post-sales communication.

Regardless of how you want to define experience, there is one common denominator – to win and retain customers, the experience you deliver must be positive and in turn, memorable.

Why does experience matter so much?

I firmly believe that, in time, those businesses that deliver a superlative experience at every stage of the buying journey, from awareness to advocacy, will prosper. Those that don’t will fail.

This is for a number of reasons, which I will briefly explain below:

  • Psychologically, making a purchase is emotive in itself. We buy things to satisfy a need, be that practical or emotional. The overall experience is made up of many smaller parts, which means I might feel a whole range of different emotions whilst researching, considering, purchasing and evaluating my purchase. Get it wrong at any stage and the whole experience can be tarnished. Will that customer come back? Probably not.
  • We are already in a position where most retailers can’t keep pace with the changing habits and expectations of their customers. What is a ‘nice to have’ now will be the expected norm next year. As consumers become conditioned to in-store consoles, delivery on their own terms and a more personalised shopping experience (to give just three examples), they will more readily question those retailers not offering the same. In short, consumers won’t put up with average when exceptional becomes the norm.
  • The competition is just a click away, available 24/7 and, with the massive growth in smartphone and tablet adoption, available anywhere. The consumer really doesn’t have to work very hard to find a company offering a better experience, be that more detailed product information, inspiring content, better delivery terms or customer service.
  • With the exponential growth in social media, the experience a customer receives can be shared in seconds to hundreds, maybe thousands of other prospects and customers. Conceivably, a prospect might build a negative perception of a brand without ever having actually purchased anything from them. This opinion can be formed simply on the basis of what other people are saying about their experiences.
  • Finally, without getting all philosophical on you, many factions of Western society have come to realise that money and material possessions do not necessarily lead to happiness and fulfilment. Instead, pleasure and experiences, such as holidays (or more simply, just a greater amount of time spent at home instead of the office) are being viewed as more life affirming than the fast cars and designer clothes that we had been conditioned to think would make us happy. Of course, this doesn’t mean consumers will stop buying material items, far from it. But if experience and pleasure are indeed becoming more of a conscious mind set then it stands to reason that retailers, despite offering a materialistic product, will also need to deliver a highly engaging and memorable experience before, during and post transaction if they are to win and retain customers. (If this brief philosophical side-step is of particular interest to you, look up ‘post-materialism’, the ‘pleasure economy’ or the ‘experience economy’.)

What does SEO have to do with all this?

The approach that is taken to SEO, as part of a wider online retail strategy, can play an integral role in how a brand delivers the kind of experiences that drive repeat business and build brand advocacy.

Firstly, search engines remain the number one method by which prospects begin their discovery of a new product or brand. Therefore, the first impression a prospect may have of your brand will come as a result of how you present yourself (or fail to present yourself) in search engine listings. Search can either act as the starting point to delivering a great experience OR the means by which you lose the game before they’ve even visited your website or store.

Looking more granularly at link building, for example, you could go out and buy a load of links to try and game the system. This will likely see your brand feature on some pretty horrible websites and in turn, you will stand a greater risk of being penalised by Google. (In taking on a new premium brand client recently, who had been hit by Panda, we found they had a link on a Thai porn site – classy!)

Or, you could take a different approach to link building where you view links as the by-product of a wider content and online PR program, the aim of which is to communicate your brand messages and key products in a compelling and creative way.

Which approach do you think delivers a better experience for the customer?

What about content? You could create hundreds of keyword stuffed articles around topics that nobody cares about before submitting them to article sharing sites to accumulate thousands of low quality links really quickly.

Or, you could build a content strategy based on a detailed understanding of your customers’ needs and expectations. You could create genuinely useful, interesting and inspiring content before marketing that content across relevant channels and finding methods to encourage it to be shared to an even wider audience.

Which approach do you think delivers a better experience for the customer?

‘Search experience optimisation’ promotes a customer focused approach

Can you see where I am going with this? You can either focus on a search strategy that delivers multiple benefits, not least a positive and memorable customer experience OR cut corners, take risks and play a game that Google will, in time, almost certainly win.

‘Search experience optimisation’ reinforces the fundamental reason why you are in business; to win new customers and build long term, mutually beneficial relationships with them by delivering something that is superior to that of your competitors. Those businesses that focus on customer experience at every stage of the buying journey will gain competitive advantage over those don’t.

Importantly, the role that search plays in delivering highly engaging, positive and memorable experiences should not be underestimated. In fact, the approach you take to SEO can either make or break that experience.

‘Search experience optimisation’ promotes this view by switching the focus from the search engine to the customer. Because, ultimately, it is the customer who comes first.

Image courtesy of iStock

Ben Potter

Published 1 November, 2012 by Ben Potter

Ben Potter is the former Commercial Director at Leapfrogg and now a new business mentor to aspiring digital agencies. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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Comments (10)

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Laura Phillips

Laura Phillips, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

Hi Ben, great article, thanks. The whole SEO title thing has been bothering me too. As a stand alone it doesn't really make sense anymore, we're part of something much bigger now and closer to PR then before. Our work is an amalgamation of a number of disciplines and in my opinion changing the 'E' to Experience could be a great idea. This could also be a good time to help change the image of SEO for the better.

almost 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Ben,

Thanks for sharing.

I agree with the sentiment here and have long been saying to people - think about your customers, then worry about search engines. Recent updates from Google/Bing regarding quality (content, links, site performance etc) have simply accelerated the need for people to pay attention.

"Therefore, the first impression a prospect may have of your brand will come as a result of how you present yourself (or fail to present yourself) in search engine listings" - that's the key point for me. Web teams should take a look at themselves in SEPRs and ask - "is this giving a positive impression and accurate view of who we are and what we offer?". If you don't care, then most searchers won't either.

However, I also think that trying to get people to use a different phrase for SEO would actually just confuse the situation further. I think the industry is comfortable with "search engine optimisation" even if many people still don't really get what it means and how to achieve it.

I can imagine the conversation:

Client - Tell me how we should improve our search engine optimisation
Me - well actually you should think of it as search experience optimisation
Client - so is SEO no longer relevant?
Me - no it is, but it's now SEO - get it?
Client - no. What's the difference?
Me - it's the same thing, just trying to get you to focus on more positive outcomes, not obsessing over search engines.
Client - so search engines aren't as important anymore then?

And so on......

So I say keep the phrase the same but educate people about putting the customer first and using SEO to support the business/marketing plan, not using SEO to drive the plan.

What do you think?


almost 6 years ago

Ben Potter

Ben Potter, Director at Ben Potter - business development mentor

Thank you for your comments guys. Specifically in reply to you James, I am definitely not trying to make 'search experience optimisation' a standard industry term. I totally agree that this would cause even more confusion!

My angle is much more about education than it is about an actual change to an industry term that most are now pretty accustomed to.

I love your imaginary conversation - I can see it now...

almost 6 years ago


David Quaid

Good post Ben. We still have to understand the search engine of course but if we're both trying to do the same thing - the best for the user - then win-win-win!

So I welcome the change in name!

The problem for content marketers will always remain distribution.

Facebook now has an algorithm that decides what is the right content for users (and guess what: it doesn't read it) but it can be bypassed with an advertisement. Sound familiar? :)

almost 6 years ago


Brian Leleux

I absolutely agree. We have discussions here with varying viewpoints about how to optimize and organize the site, headings, titles, keywords, and inter-category or product linking. I have always held firm on optimizing the site by asking "what would I search for if I wanted to find "X" or, depending on the product, "how would my wife search for this" and what words would come out of her mouth if she were talking about it. Granted, everyone thinks differently and therefore searches differently, and even the search terms sometimes change with geographic regions, but still, we need to optimize for more of an organic or human thought pattern instead of a logical, calculated pattern. And, as we all well know, human thought patterns are not always logical, so it is very important to do keyword research, pattern research etc and I always find some type of relation between words and products that I would not have thought of logically speaking.

almost 6 years ago


Depesh Mandalia, CEO & Founder at SM Commerce

SEO has always boiled down to getting your site to rank well in a search engine. Nothing's changed there.

However the work involved in ranking has certainly changed so whilst Search Experience Optimisation sounds great, agree with James that it would confuse matters for a well established acronym. One of the first on the teamsheet for online marketing to steal a footballing analogy.

You could also add Search & Social Optimisation (SSO) or Search & UX Optimisation (SUXO) etc etc to your heart's content - ultimately I think as SEO'ers its our roles to continually educate our peers, clients, seniors and rookies about what good SEO entails, to ultimately generate good rankings. Not that anyone knows exactly what it entails since it is a living and breathing beast, and this is part of the thrill of being in SEO, but you can only try your best

p.s. good article nonetheless!

almost 6 years ago

Albie Attias

Albie Attias, Ecommerce Director at King of Servers Ltd

I agree with James that web/marketing teams planning or pitching marketing campaigns need to start with the customer rather than the marketing channels. Whether it's SEO, PPC or any other discipline, all too often the approach centres on the available resource/skillset and the silo'd or established way of doing things rather than what's going to work best synergistically.

I wonder how many agencies pitching for new business still tout their services via distinct proposals (PPC, SEO, socialmedia etc) when perhaps a single customer focussed acquisition proposal is a better way forward?

almost 6 years ago


Mahesh Sharma

You are absolutely right, SEO is not just about getting higher rankings but also getting good conversion rate. Thanks for sharing such a nice article!

almost 6 years ago

Vincent Amari

Vincent Amari, Online Consultancy at Business Foresights Ltd

As search engines 'robots' such as Google do actually try to account for user experience, then it's one and the same thing surely?

almost 6 years ago

Andy Killworth

Andy Killworth, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

Excellent post. Quite recently I had a client, after I made some simple points about, frankly, how poor their site was, said literally "I'm not worried about that, just get me traffic"; missing the point that their bounce rate was ludicrously high as the site sucked.

Often clients get drawn into 'vanity' figures.

almost 6 years ago

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