This article will run you through some of the highlights of the research, based on a survey of 366 professionals in marketing, data and technology as well as in-depth interviews with senior marketing executives at companies including The Economist, Financial Times and IBM.

You can download the full report, here.

The pandemic shines a brighter light on search

Due to recent trends that have forced widespread lockdowns across the planet, companies have had to reinvent entire business models around digital. At the same time, they’ve been rationalizing traditional media budgets as they seek more cost-effective ways to understand shifts in customer behaviour – all the while optimizing content for all their digital channels.

Both Google and SEO grew dramatically during the last financial crisis, and search has proved time and again to be an efficient, measurable form of marketing.

Now, thanks to advances in reporting technology and AI-assisted analysis, it’s an irreplaceable source of business intelligence that can enable firms to keep up with changing customer needs – serving every department right up to the C-suite.

SEO needs to be made fit for purpose

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the majority of executives felt that search performance is a key indicator of business health (78%). While SEO does require an upfront investment of resources, search engine rankings can persist for years. So, any pause in these activities or leaving a website dormant can bring to an end all the processes and workflows that organizations might have built.

This is also reflected by the fact that, according to nearly half (46%) of respondents, organic search influences over a quarter of their companies’ revenues. But worryingly, while the stakes are significant, just one in 10 executives felt that their SEO efforts are “very effective” in meeting marketing goals.

The study also brings into doubt whether some executives truly understand its impact, with 36% saying their ability to calculate the ROI from search engine optimization efforts are “poor”.

Cultural change is needed now

Given the financial impact of the current pandemic, getting the best possible return on investments right now is crucial. The fact that so few of the respondents are positive about their companies’ SEO efforts indicates that they need to have in place structured processes for proactively coordinating and overseeing quality.

The challenge here, as our research highlights, is that for nearly half the executives we surveyed (46%) SEO doesn’t enjoy a high priority within the organization. At the same time, only 2 in ten felt that IT and tech teams fully understood marketing’s priorities. More challengingly, a quarter of respondents told us that SEO is seen as “free” so it is not allocated any budget.

This underlines deeper problems that firms are experiencing. Often marketing lacks the authority to prioritize tech projects related to quality improvement and user experience. With little understanding from tech teams, crucial projects risk being delayed, if not pushed back indefinitely.

Marketers must understand SEO risks

In 2019, ASOS reported a pre-tax profit fall of 87%. The interim results statement in April of that year stated “growth in both active customers and traffic has been behind our plans”. The company’s traffic was affected by a number of factors, one of them being “some instability in SEO performance…caused by multiple customer navigation changes to our websites and our release of 200 local web experiences, which whilst strategically the right thing to do, had an impact on SEO rankings in the short term.”

ASOS worked hard to rectify this issue, and it’s a scenario that’s not uncommon. According to our survey, more than half (55%) of companies have experienced a negative impact on marketing performance from a technical change made to their website. If errors are discovered, fixes need to be made immediately to limit the damage. However, 36% cited delays in on-site changes as a top challenge.

For some firms this could be due to the fact that the on-site experience isn’t treated as a strategy priority (for 29% of executives). While organic search drives significant revenues, organizations aren’t always united when it comes to the prioritization of projects that can improve their on-site performance.

We’ll need to automate to succeed

One area that will significantly help firms move forward in 2021 will be automation. In search in particular, we are entering the new age of automation in SEO.

Enterprises are facing a massive shift in how quickly brands need to react to search trends. Namely, they need to be equipped with real-time insights while the searches are taking place. Keeping up with real-time search manually just isn’t possible, no matter how talented the marketing executive.

But this isn’t the only problem, professionals have too many repetitive tasks and processes to manage. Our study, for example, found that for nearly 6 in 10 (58%) improving on site performance is either largely or entirely a manual exercise.

This takes valuable time away from doing things humans are far better at, which is being creative and strategic – those elements that can drive real business value.

In addition, automation will prove crucial in preventing the bad code released to sites that ultimately end with reduced search visibility and revenue. DeepCrawl’s new tool, Automator, will help in this regard, by automating SEO testing within an engineering team’s pipeline, highlighting where critical errors need fixing before they’re released.

A focus on Top Performers

There are clearly challenges at play, and some of these are likely due to skills (or lack of them) and having the right processes and strategies in place. Indeed, we identified a group of “Top Performers” who had exceeded their top business goals over the last year, and we compared them to the overall average.

It was evident, for example, that SEO and on-site performance are much more top of mind for Top Performers than for the average marketer.

Top Performers are also twice as likely to claim their marketing teams are “very knowledgeable” in both regards, and almost 2.5 times more likely to say they have a strategy for monitoring on-site performance that works efficiently.

What does the future hold?

Even prior to Covid-19, organizations were struggling to keep pace with rapidly evolving customer behaviours.

Fortunately, one of the benefits of SEO is that it has moved from being considered a simple marketing channel to being an accurate reflection of the “voice of the customer” inside the organization.

This was demonstrated by the findings of this study, with respondents predicting that, going forward, on-site performance and SEO will play a key role – if not THE key role – in approaching the new normal.

For example, nearly all of the executives (96%) agreed that monitoring on-site performance will be crucial for mitigating risk and maximizing opportunities for growth, and 90% also agreed that organic search will drive more revenue for business.

Read the full report from Econsultancy and DeepCrawl.