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