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Beyond Traffic: The Power and Limitation of SEO

For many companies, adding ongoing SEO to their marketing plan often comes down to pulling the budget from paid advertising with the hopes that SEO will eventually replace the need to pay for search ads. This sounds nice in theory but is not realistic or practical. Search engine optimization and organic content hold a unique place in the marketing funnel when the true power and limitations of SEO are understood,

How People Use Search Engines

People use search engines to find information, resources, products, and services. It’s helpful to think of search engines as “answer engines,” where the best answers (content) often get the best rankings. However, just because someone asks a question and you answer, it doesn’t then mean they’re ready to sign up for your service or buy your product.

While keyword rankings and organic traffic are the most obvious benefits of SEO, having a website with optimized content and technical performance delivers additional advantages.

The Power of SEO

Improved User Experience

Most SEO campaigns begin with a technical review and fix-up of the website. Technical issues are addressed such as slow load times, broken links, meta titles and descriptions, and website structure. Fixing these points not only helps search engines crawl your website, but they are also key parts of a good overall site experience. Users spend more time and buy more on websites that load quickly, and they are more likely to return to websites that are easy to navigate.

Targeted Brand Awareness

Online advertising (and all forms of advertising, for that matter) generally falls into one of two camps: brand awareness or direct response. Direct response advertising targets ads to a specific audience with the goal of generating an action “response” to the ad (e.g. sign up, call us, download, buy, etc.). Brand awareness advertising is designed to put your brand in front of a wider audience, including some people who may never need or buy your product/service. Its goal isn’t to elicit a direct response, but to build awareness of your brand.

SEO combines these two goals in a single powerful tactic. Because so many people use Google to find information, getting brand visibility on page one will deliver a large increase of people to your website. Because you can rank for specific keywords that are relevant to your brand, the combination of mass awareness and targeting is powerful and separates SEO from other forms of marketing.

Quality Content Production

Moving beyond the technical side of SEO, quality content production is crucial to getting more organic traffic. While publishing “high quality” content—not just content with keywords in it—has been a focus in the SEO community for years, recent algorithm updates have made this a leading factor in whether a website ranks for more keywords.

Writing strong content not only helps a website rank higher but also builds trust with an audience. With the right strategy and customizations, great content can be repurposed for use on social media, email marketing, and video.

Product Discovery

One of the most popular ways people are introduced to new products is through SEO. Google’s Merchant Center allows stores to upload shopping feeds and rank their products in highlighted sections of its search results pages. This traffic is unique in that eCommerce brands can drive thousands of new users each month to product pages they optimize.

Ways SEO is Limited

Even with its ability to drive high amounts of relevant traffic, organic search has several limitations brands should consider:

ROI Timeline

Search engine optimization is arguably the digital marketing tactic that takes the longest to see tangible results. Unlike PPC campaigns that can drive conversions almost immediately and track things like cost per conversion and return on ad spend, SEO is a long game. The investment into technical optimizations and content strategy carries a larger upfront cost without the immediate satisfaction of leads and conversions. While most brands understand this in theory, it’s another thing to be patient and trust the process.

Although this is a frustrating reality, landing a coveted ranking for a keyword does not – and should not – come easily. If it was, the value of Google would be watered down overnight with brands gaming the system or simply outbidding one another.

Traffic Volatility

When you pay platforms for traffic, they’re naturally incentivized to continue to send you more and more traffic. In organic search marketing, this is not the case. The search landscape is always evolving and improving. Maintaining good organic rankings requires ongoing optimizations and link-building efforts. Otherwise, an algorithm update could potentially impact traffic flow.

When Google releases algorithm updates, they often come unexpectedly. Putting all your digital marketing dollars into SEO can be risky. Diversify your investment to include platforms like Google Ads, social media, and video content to provide a more stable and varied traffic stream. This approach not only mitigates the risk of traffic dips due to algorithm changes but also opens up new avenues to reach and engage with your audience effectively.

Tracking Challenges

This is true of digital marketing channels in general, but tracking results from organic traffic is often harder to quantify than other mediums. We know an organic search is where most people start their buying journey, but unless they end it with another search and click, SEO often underreports when it comes to sales and conversions. The path most users take to a sale and conversion is not linear.

Steep Competition

The investment to get a page-one ranking for many keywords is high, particularly for online brands. SEO, with its power, might not be the best initial marketing investment for a startup or smaller business. The timeline and cost required means these brands ought to focus on getting conversions through paid search or social media campaigns, and then scale their efforts with an SEO campaign.

Why This Matters for You

This article isn’t about why SEO is bad or why it’s better than other platforms. My goal is simply to reframe the conversation around organic traffic and its value and purpose. Instead of viewing search engine optimization purely as a means to more organic traffic or keywords, we should instead see it as the most valuable brand awareness tool available in the digital world.

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Austin Cline

Austin Cline is the founder and principal at Sitemap.io. He is actively involved in the SEO community and frequently writes about the intersection of great content marketing and search engine optimization. You can connect with him on his LinkedIn and sign up to get his posts to your email by joining our email newsletter.

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