A couple of months ago I saw a wonderful presentation on some enhanced attribution models based upon conversion data from Google Analytics. As I noted on this week's edition of The Marketing Companion, "last touch" attribution models do not adequately reflect the complexities of consumer behavior, and it's great to see more and more work being done to get this right, or at least make it better.
The presentation I saw was actually from Google, and while the model was more robust than others I have seen, it still showed "Social" as receiving minuscule attribution credit, and "Search" continuing to lead the pack. Search is obviously still enormously important in the purchase process, but the ice leading to "attribution" is still pretty thin, IMHO. Ironically, the best evidence for that is another piece of research from Google (published in Google's Zero Moment Of Truth, and discussed in Jay Baer's latest book, Youtility) that found consumers in 2011 consulted 10.4 sources of information to make a decision, up from 5.3 sources in 2010.
The more sources of information we have to consult before we make a purchase, the more complex attribution is, and the less likely that "Search" is the dominant driver in the purchase decision.
There is certainly an element of purchasing risk at play here. If I am contemplating a low-risk purchase (the online equivalent of the candy and magazines at the checkout counter of my supermarket) then I might very well start my process with a search for "Epson Toner Cartridges Online" and end with a purchase 10 minutes later with no or few intervening steps. But as soon as you increase the risk of purchase (and the cost of a poor decision), then search begins to share the stage with recommendations, reviews, and word-of-mouth--both online AND offline.
For most of the attribution models I've seen, offline behaviors are simply ignored. There might be a hand wave at them, or some kind of black box "model" for them, but the fact is, your Google Analytics account isn't going to tell you what percentage of your conversions started because someone read about your company in the New York Times. And the more that sort of thing happens, the more "Search" is just a utility in the process, and not any kind of driver.
You know this to be true. You run into someone at a conference, and they compliment your dress, or your shoes, or your luggage. They ask you where you got it, and you give them a brand name, or a retailer. Later, that person picks up their mobile phone, and searches for the company you named, and after some number of potential intermediate steps, makes a purchase. Search gets credit in this transaction, but it really did nothing more than serve as a utility to connect an already motivated buyer with a previously unvisited website to make a purchase they were already mostly sold on.
Now let me repeat: I am not saying Search is unimportant, and I am NO expert on SEO or the thaumaturgy that the keepers of this lore practice (and I know some who are very good at this, indeed.) But here is what I am optimizing for in 2014: deliberate, considered searches for my specific brand.
Let me give you an example. I have modest traffic here at BrandSavant (I don't publish frequently or regularly enough to live in the rarified air of some of my peers) but I have traffic, and I look at my Google Analytics. Here are three of my five top search terms for 2013:
- Tom Webster
- Edison Research
My name, my blog, and my day job. How would you interpret this? Well, I will say this. On my company's site, we get our fair share of inquiries from people who search for the types of business problems they have, the products they think they might require to solve them, and a raft of other specific terms. Some of those convert, some don't, but they are all prospects and we work on that aspect of our search optimization.
But why would people search for "Tom Webster" or "BrandSavant?" In this case, it's probably because they already have some interest, and that interest is very likely driven from something I've written or said somewhere other than my site--and there's a good chance that it's from an offline interaction or word of mouth recommendation.
How do I know? I always ask. The majority of the time, people search for me online because they've either seen me speak or someone else has told them to look me up. They didn't search "Brand Research Consultant" or "Marketing Speaker" or "slow-ass runner" or any of my "SEO Terms." They searched for me because they already knew they wanted to find me. What gets credit in that chain? Google. What doesn't? A talk I might have given that started the whole sequence of events in the first place.
So here's what Search Optimization means to me in 2014: I want my top search terms to reflect people that are searching for me or our company because they want to find me or my company (and not "Mesothelioma Asbestos Lawsuit" or whatever today's $25 term is) and I want the number of those searches to increase over 2013. Because that is a direct result of all of my efforts, online and offline, and a pretty good gauge of being not just "findable," but known for something. And I think that gets optimized one speech, post, satisfied customer, and recommendation at a time.
What does that mean for your company? Well, search continues to be a factor, but if your product or service has even a modicum of purchase risk associated with it, then it's going to also mean searcher optimization. It's going to mean being found in 10.4 places before a purchase is made. It's going to be about what my friend Tom Martin calls "propinquity" in his new book, The Invisible Sale (and you can bet that's going to be on my nightstand all year long.)
After all, when it comes to Google, we are all just racing on a dog track, and Google is the little mechanical rabbit. From race to race, the seeds change, performance varies, and track conditions improve or degrade--but the story is the same: tomorrow we race again, and we never catch the damn bunny.