True Performance with SEO


Written by Hannah Thorpe




At upcoming 3XE, I’m speaking about how SEO is changing – in particular, if we can no longer view SEO as a performance channel.


What is a performance channel?

A performance channel relies heavily on a simple equation: direct investment = direct results. Over time, you might see results begin to show diminishing returns on investment, but there is still a direct correlation between what you put in and what you get out.

By definition, that means performance channels lean much more towards being advertising channels rather than marketing. The difficulty we face when thinking about SEO as a performance channel is that it isn’t “advertising”; it’s marketing.

SEO is so much more heavily reliant on external factors than it used to be. It’s no longer about getting a page to rank in position 1 and reaping all the benefits. Now, it is much more geared towards ranking in position 0 and “maybe” getting traffic, but equally, maybe not. It isn’t just advertising channels you’re competing with, you’re also competing with the makeup of the first page. Things like:

  • Rich results
  • No-click searches
  • Query-less searches
  • Widgets

With all of that to compete with, ranking first doesn’t always mean that you’re guaranteed to get the most traffic, the most engagement, or the most revenue. Because there is no direct correlation between the investment you put into SEO and the results you get from that, SEO has never been further from “advertising”, and thus a “performance channel” than it is right now.

So, is SEO even worth investing in? Of course it is, but we need to be smarter about how we can make it work for us, and what the future of SEO really is if it isn’t in performance.

Two types of search

The way I see it, there are two types of information retrievals that performance SEO doesn’t account for:

  1. Deep relevance matching
  2. Position-aware relevance matching

Both of these focus on different components and are applied for different search types:


Deep Relevance Matching Position-Aware Relevance Matching
Query and text only Relevance matching between query terms and document terms
Query terms are scored relatively to document terms Takes into account context and how these terms match in the documents
Doesn’t account for context where the terms occur


If we look at how Google is changing the SERPs, the different tools and widgets it offers right in the results pages, this shift towards different models for different query types becomes more apparent.

Take a job search query, for example, and now you are faced with the Google for Jobs widget as well as the more traditional “10-blue-links” style results. This is a perfect example of different algorithms working in harmony – the deep relevance/position-aware relevance matching model, working with the “traditional” algorithm we’ve become accustomed to.

But with things like the Google for Jobs widget coming into play, or Google Events, or Google Flights, or any number of Google products that entices users to interact directly in the search results, SEO needs to shift focus to capturing attention instead of driving “performance” as we know it.


  1. Go higher up the funnel

We need to start looking at ways to appear higher up the funnel, capturing user demand at the initial stages instead of just focusing on the end product. To do that, we need to be looking at things like:

  • People also ask and related queries
  • Using social media listening tools
  • Becoming visible on long-tail, question-based terms

2. Talk about your competitors

Capturing people higher up the funnel is great, but how do you get them to choose you over your competitors? You offer comparisons to them. If your product or service is genuinely better than the competition, help users understand why easily.

Searches around price, capability, and service comparisons are common – make sure you’re giving people the information they are searching for without them having to rely on a review site/aggregator.

3. Build trust in your brand

One of the factors growing in importance with recent core updates, particularly in advice/guidance focused verticals, means that building trust in your brand is becoming imperative. Good trust signals lead to places in the knowledge graph. Use everything from Schema, to Wikipedia entries, to press releases to really build on your trust signals and show users (and crawlers) that you are a trustworthy source of information and service.

4. Integrate with other channels

Just because you’re using SEO for attention, doesn’t mean you should stop at organic search. Use other channels wisely to really push your content, products, and services to users when they need them:

  • Retarget content through the display network
  • Bid higher on terms where organic is lower down the page/you don’t own position 0
  • Use SEO as a means to collate data and reach a wider audience

Working with different channels helps make sure that what you do for SEO is seen by as many people as possible, strengthening your position in user minds as well as the relationship across the web.


We’ve already concluded that SEO is no longer just a performance channel, but that raises questions as to how you can really measure the impact it has.

  1. Start thinking beyond “last-click”

Over ⅓ of purchases take place more than 30 days after their first enquiry. If people aren’t converting the same way that they began their search, chances are you’re not getting the full picture if you just report on a last-click model.

These days there are so many touchpoints across the conversion journey, that last-click as a model is almost becoming obsolete. If we move away from just reporting on last-click, and towards models that account for other channels in the journey, we’ll get a much better understanding of how SEO plays a part in the conversion journey, and how SEO is really impacting your performance.

2. Measure “time well spent”

Start looking at how users are actually engaging with your content. Is it meeting their needs? What emotions do users feel before and after they visit your content? When do they just want to complete an action?

If users are spending in excess of 3 minutes on a checkout form, do they really need to? Are you making their journey much more difficult than it needs to be? In contrast, if users aren’t reading all of your content and you know that there is valuable information in there that they aren’t getting to, can you restructure the page to make it more digestible for them?

Time well spent isn’t always about whether they complete an action, e.g. a purchase, sign up, download, but instead it focuses on understanding user needs and how you can best serve them to ensure they have a good experience.

3. Track task completion and satisfaction rate

Understanding whether users are engaging with your content in the way you’d like them to is a crucial part of informing content journeys and conversion journeys. Ask your users for feedback on the information provided:

  • Did this answer your question?
  • How would you rate your experience?
  • Do you have any feedback?

You can also use heat-mapping tools to better understand how users are engaging with the pages and see where they might be “going wrong”, in your eyes.

4. Track % share of SERP

With the SERPs constantly changing to include widgets, local listings, ads, knowledge panels, and a host of other listings, understanding your % share of the SERP is becoming more and more important.

It isn’t about whether you rank in position 1 for a target keyword, it’s about whether:

  • Your ad shows
  • Your knowledge graph shows
  • You’re ranking organically
  • You’re the answer box result
  • You’re capturing the ‘people also ask’ listings

Looking at your % share vs. your organic rank means you have a much broader picture of how you as a business are performing, but also how your digital investment is really impacting your performance.



Hannah Thorpe – Business Director at Found.

See Hannah speak at the 3XE Search Marketing Conference on October 23rd.