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SEO: Traffic is Vanity, Conversions are Sanity

Written by Kieran Thomas on .
A screenshot of a Google Analytics report, to visually represent an increase in traffic.

Most business owners will at one point or another, have heard the expression:

"Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, and cash is king"

In case you haven’t, the gist of it is this; it’s great to have a business with a high turnover, but that doesn’t always mean it’s profitable, healthy or successful.

Take the following for example:

  • You’re selling “widgets” at £10 each, and sell 1,000 per month giving you a monthly turnover of £10k
  • You want to increase your turnover to £15k so you reduce the price to £7 to appeal to more price sensitive customers
  • You hit your turnover target (woo-hoo!),

However, there’s a snag….

  • You’re now making less profit per unit
  • Not only that, but you may have had to increase your outgoings, take on new staff to handle the 50% increase in production, lease a bigger warehouse and office, etc.
  • Ultimately your profit margins & profitability have dropped.

If you look at turnover alone, you’d think you were doing great, and that’s where the vanity comes. It’s actually possible to have a loss making business with a high turnover, which is where “profit is sanity” comes in.

(Cash is King refers to the end goal; actually having cash and cash flow which is the lifeblood of any business.)

SEO is actually very similar, which is why I like to say:

“Traffic is vanity, conversions are sanity (and cash is king)”

Understanding why SEO traffic is vanity whereas conversions are sanity

In the above scenario, the company aims to achieve the new turnover by increasing traffic and so they set about ways of achieving that; they spend more time on their social media, they increase their PPC spend, they write article after article like there’s no tomorrow!

Thanks to a large marketing budget and all of their hard work, they’re now getting 100,000 visits a month so they think everything is great. They’re actually feeling quite chuffed

However, there’s a problem.

You see, the (fictional) client in this scenario has a website which, quite frankly… is rubbish.

  • It’s slow to load
  • It doesn’t work well in mobile devices
  • It’s hard for visitors to find what they’re looking for
  • It has a contact form which results in an error, but none of the staff know because they’ve never bothered to test it
  • And it has countless other problems

Meanwhile, to make matters worse those outside of the company can see that…

  • They have a customer services team who sound like they all need either trauma counselling, or anger management help
  • As much as people complain about them via online reviews, the company doesn’t appear to do anything about it.

(I think we can all relate to experiencing at least one of those on an almost daily basis!)

By focusing on “traffic” alone, they haven’t realised they only have a conversion rate of 1% which should be the first warning sign that something isn’t right. Vanity has blinded them to the fact they’re actually wasting opportunities and leaving money on the table.

In a shrinking digital world with greater competition, it’s actually harder to secure new traffic than it is to ensure you’re not wasting existing traffic.

This is where looking at conversion rates (and “conversion rate optimisation”) comes into play.

Conversion Rate Optimisation (or Optimization for our friends across the pond)

Conversion rates in today’s SEO are a much better measure of success than traffic volume alone. They show the user found something of value, and potentially even achieved what they set out to achieve… or at least, started down a conversion path.

“Conversion rate optimisation” (CRO) is the process of improving & maximising the number of users who perform a desired action such as downloading a brochure, making a booking or purchasing a product.

However, at every point where you get something wrong, you’re giving visitors a reason to leave, and if you’re a data junkie like me, low conversion rates are often a great way to spot the telltale signs of potential issues.

The Devil is in the Details

Whenever I plan an SEO strategy for a website, I actually always start by looking at the foundations of the site itself.

  • Is the site fast?
  • Is it nicely designed?
  • Does it look like it has the information I’m looking for?
  • Is it enjoyable to use, or do I keep encountering issues?

These are all human factors which, subconsciously, we all think about every time we visit a website….. and in most cases, we do it in under 1 second (In fact, some studies have shown we re-evaluate if we’re going to commit more time to a site multiple times within the first few seconds alone, but that’s a topic for another day).

If I spot issues, then it’s highly likely that the client’s real customers will have experienced them too, and that’s supported by industry-wide data. Just take a look at these bounce rate stats from a Google study in 2017 relating to a single element of a website…. Site speed:

An infographic showing how page load times influence bounce rates. Full data in the following paragraph

  • Bounce rates increase with every additional second which it takes to load:
    • Increase from 1s to 3s = Bounce rate increases by 32%
    • Increase from 1s to 5s = Bounce rate increases by 90%
    • Increase from 1s to 10s = Bounce rate increases by 123%

So how does that compare in terms of conversion rates? Do faster sites actually increase conversions, or does it just mean there are less bounces whilst retaining the same conversion rate?

Well, a more recent report (June 2020) commissioned by Google shows decreasing mobile site load times by just 0.1 (one tenth) of a second resulted in conversion rates increasing by 8.4% for retail sites, and 10.1% for travel sites.

A 0.1 second improvement of mobile site speed increases conversion rates by 8.4% for retail sites, and 10.1% for travel sites

Source: Think with Google

Now, returning to our fictional scenario above for a moment… just imagine how much easier it would be for them to achieve their new turnover if they could increase their conversion rate from just 1% to 2%. That’s a 100% increase!

So not only would they smash their new turnover target, but they’d have happier customers as a result.

But hold on…. Surely that’s a User Experience thing, not an SEO thing?

Some of my peers may argue that reviewing a website from a user’s perspective is the role of the UX team and not that of the SEO team…and traditionally they would be right. However, as Google and other search engines have evolved to become more intelligent and shift their focus away from “keywords” and more towards “intent” matching, it could be argued that (from an SEO perspective) the two roles have now become inextricably linked.

Indeed, that’s why Google introduced its Core Web Vitals metrics; something all SEO professionals will be only too aware of.

Core Web Vitals are Google’s way of quantifying what are predominantly hard to quantify, human interpretations of a website (i.e. measuring speed is easy; measuring whether a site is “nice to use” is much harder for a machine to understand).

So does that mean we can ignore traffic levels?

Hell no! There are 2 main reasons why:

  1. We actually need to know what traffic levels are in order to calculate conversion rates, and
  2. Every business needs to grow, and growing traffic is part of that strategy. However...

What it does mean is you should spend some time regularly looking for ways to improve your existing traffic.

Imagine our fictional scenario one final time...

To achieve their goal of increasing turnover to £15k, they’d need around 71,400 additional visits based on their conversion rate of 1% bringing their required monthly visits to 171k. That’s no small feat!

Imagine they achieved it; they’d be thrilled; after all, that’s really impressive for many businesses.

Now imagine telling them they could have achieved the same results (or better) with zero additional traffic simply by focusing more on their conversion rates?

From my perspective as an SEO strategist, my goal is to not only increase traffic to our clients sites, but more importantly, ensure it’s high quality traffic which helps them achieve (and smash) their business goals. However, if you work hard to increase traffic without first ensuring your foundations are strong, then you’re just throwing away much of that hard work.

And that my friends, is why traffic is vanity, and conversions are sanity.

If you need help converting your organic traffic, or increasing your website conversations then consider our SEO services near Oxford

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