SEO and UX are intimately intertwined; everyone knows site speed is key, but it’s necessary to go beyond that and think about CRO, user retention, and storytelling to rank for most competitive keywords
When we talk about SEO and user experience, site speed via Core Web Vitals, search intent and EAT are usually the first things that come to mind. All of these points are important, however today we’re going to talk about some more advanced and experimental topics. This article will be a little less technical, and more conceptual, or even strategic. We’ll be analyzing both e-commerce and content marketing focused websites.
People often think that their website grows by attracting more visitors, that’s a myth. The truth is that your audience will not grow just by attracting new visitors. It will grow by retaining visitors, who will then become customers, which in turn requires retention strategies. When we talk about growth, we are always talking about retention, whether you like it or not.
‘Bring them in and keep them entertained’
Looking at visits for the sake of visits is the mistake. It’s just a vanity metric: looking only at number of hits, not visitor quality or business generation, will cause you to lose money, even though your SEO strategy looks great.
The goal of SEO is to attract qualified visitors, those who have the potential to buy in the future, but that’s just not enough. You need to entertain them by providing an appropriate and engaging experience, otherwise you won’t be able to retain the visitors who will buy from you in the future.
Second mistake: reducing SEO UX to loading speed
You probably already know that, since the arrival of Page Experience, loading speed has become a ranking factor in Google, and that sites slower than their competitors can lose ranking. Even before Google’s update, a Conversion SEO study in Brazil already showed that there was a strong correlation between loading time and higher ranking.
Third mistake: SEO and UX equals usability
Usability is so fundamental that many people end up equating user experience to usability. The truth is that although usability helps to decrease friction and reduce the bounce rate, UX is much more than that.
For example, you know that Apple is one of the most recognized companies in user experience. However, it isn’t always, let’s say, the easiest to use – but it is almost always different and unique.
What is user experience?
Let’s not dwell on academic definitions of user experience or Customer Experience (CX), which are an increasingly common strategy in companies. We want to be practical here and bring concepts that help you improve your SEO.
What is user experience?
User experience is everything that a person goes through when consuming a product, causing a positive feeling and usually a positive emotional memory. It’s worth pointing out that apps, websites, and e-books are all products as well.
For our purposes, we’ll work with the following pillars of UX for SEO. Our approach will be more experimental, and in a sense controversial, because in fact it’s not at all common to relate these topics to UX:
- Permission Marketing
Permission Marketing: grab your customer’s attention before focus on SEO and UX
Seth Godin is the creator of permission marketing
Traditionally, marketing used communication strategies in an outbound format, meaning it was intrusive and that it interrupted content. Before the advent of the internet, ads usually interrupted content that the consumer actually wanted to see. This is not to say that they didn’t work; in fact, quite to the contrary!
Although outbound still exists and has been reinvented by the Internet, it has enabled something that few companies could do until now. So-called inbound marketing, which, instead of being intrusive, works by attracting the consumer’s attention to interact with the brand, often with relevant and free content as bait.
Inbound is the philosophy of attracting people to your brand
On one hand, outbound forces users to see the ads (sometimes, even if they have ad blockers, even though most don’t use them!). On the other hand, inbound works with content people really want to see and share with their friends. It may seem obvious today, but in the early 2000’s it was one of Seth Godin’s great insights, which conceptualized everything we do today. He has many other amazing books, like Tribes or Purple Cow; Godin is a machine for capturing big trends and expressing them with simplicity!
Of course, every company will always have a mix of inbound and outbound, paid and organic, but nowadays they need to be interesting to attract the user’s attention. A good product is no longer enough, people want to consume the product’s story, they want to be part of a brand community, they want to feel part of something bigger.
Inbound is driven by assets. They are content, tools, or every cool useful thing you could possibly imagine. If what you create is really engaging, people will share and mention it in conversations, or even articles. Your brand will be part of their lives!
Connecting this idea to the SEO context, the assets people want to talk about are the same assets people want to link in articles and blog posts. This concept of linkable assets is extremely important in link building and SEO Off-Page strategies.
In the same vein as the aforementioned assets, we find the freemium approach to attract new users. Freemium is premium, free products with limitations. They engage qualified leads and after perceiving value in the product, a substantial number will buy the upgraded version. Sound familiar?
Storytelling: what story is your brand telling?
Many people imagine that storytelling is a new resource, a tool that one day they intend to implement. The problem is that, whether you like it or not, every brand already tells a story; what storytelling does, therefore, is to make those stories more powerful.
Another way to look at storytelling is to think of it as the art of making your brand ever present in your customer’s life. As we have already seen, LTV (Lifetime Value) is one of the most important business metrics because it measures the total revenue that each customer will generate for the company. People buy from those who are most familiar to them. Being present in people’s lives will make a brand preferred over others.
Coca-Cola is a master of storytelling
The greater the lifetime, the greater the value, and this is largely accomplished through compelling storytelling. One of the most prominent examples of this is Coca-Cola, founded in 1886, and in Brazil (my country) since 1946. Imagine how much Coca-Cola a person consumes in their life! How much have you spent on Coca-Cola so far?
If during forty years a person drinks a single can of Coke a day, he will have drunk 14,560 cans! At an average price of $1,50 they will have spent a total of $21,840, which is almost the ticket price of a Toyota Camry, one of the hottest selling cars in the US.
Does that sound incredible to you? It’s only possible because Coca-Cola is constantly present in the consumer’s life and their minds.
Every good story has many chapters. The more chapters, and the more interesting they are, the higher your customer’s LTV will be.
In this sense, a pizzeria that sold you a single pizza told you a short story. However, a pizzeria that sold you a pizza every week (be it Domino’s, Pizza Hut, or that neighborhood pizzeria you love) will have told a long and effective story, and their revenue, all the higher for it!
Fourth mistake: you don’t sell to demographic data, you sell to people
Demographic information alone doesn’t tell you much about your audience, especially for post 2000 products. For example, if a company is targeting white, elderly, rich, re-married men, even those living in castles, it could be talking about personalities as different as Prince Charles and Ozzy Osbourne. This is literally true!
While it can still be useful for mass products (maybe Prince Charles and Ozzy both drink Coca-Cola), demographic segmentations have a number of limitations and can generate some weird strategies.
Chief among them is that demographic data provide little depth into the psychology of your prospective customer. It is well known that to tell effective stories and create deep connections you need to connect emotionally with your customers. In fact, one of the things about a rock star’s personality is that he’s not like the others. Ozzy is definitely not like Charles.
Even if Ozzy and Charles are customers of the same brand, the brand will probably sell with different approaches and in different ways to each of them. Building personas is the answer to this challenge. A well defined persona will map out the pains, problems, and desires your customer has and what they possibly could buy.
What are you selling to your customers? If you say you’re selling a product or a service, you’re in trouble. The fact is that people don’t buy products or services.
The greatest companies sell happiness, they sell the escape from pain and the pursuit of pleasure. People who suffer buy less, negative feelings are the enemy of the customer who swipes his credit card. The classic scene from Mad Men about the creation of the Lucky Strike “it’s toasted” slogan illustrates this better than any argumentation.
Genius, isn’t it?
Fifth mistake: companies don’t grow by selling more!
Perhaps the biggest myth of all regarding company growth is that it does so by increasing sales, that is, by increasing its customer base. Of course, increasing sales to new customers is very important, but it is far from being the main growth factor. In fact, a company grows by retaining customers, that is, by not losing customers, and convincing them to spend more and more over time.
Still unconvinced? Imagine that two companies, A and B, are adding new customers at the same rate and selling $50,000 in new monthly recurring revenue per month to their base. If company A has a churn rate (percentage loss of customers) of 2.5% per month and company B has a churn rate of 10% per month, at the end of 12 months company A will be bringing in 46% more revenue than company B. After 24 months, it will be earning 94% more, which is almost double!
This is the fundamental principle of retention. We need to bring these principles to website visitors. Unfortunately, not many people are talking about this!
Bringing in a first time visitor is much more expensive than bringing in a recurring visitor, and besides being cheaper, the chance that they will buy is much higher.
On average, the conversion rate of a recurring user is twice as high as that of a new user, while the revenue of a recurring user is up to 4x higher.
User retention as the key to success in SEO and UX: a Shopee case study
One of the biggest recent e-commerce phenomena in Brazil is Shopee, which recently entered the list of the 5 biggest e-commerce sites in Brazil. Its growth is so impressive that even though Black Friday’s November was the biggest month ever for all the other big players, Shopee still managed to have a better December than November.
Analyzing the audience and user behavior data of the largest e-commerces in Brazil, we see that Shopee has the lowest bounce rate and the longest visit duration, being almost double that of MercadoLivre and almost triple that of the other players, thus demonstrating the power of their user experience.
To the dismay of purists: Shopee’s site is full of bugs!
I tried making a purchase myself and it stalled in a loop; other acquaintances have reported such usability problems. But it is still so powerful that it manages to retain users despite the bugs. How is that possible?
As you can see, the user experience of a website is not limited to a single traffic channel, but rather involves cross-channel and multiple-source discovery, not to mention loyalty. The role of SEO is not only attracting new users, but also shielding users from discovering other competitors and considering buying from them.
A common perspective is to equate results to a specific channel. In my view, all channels talk to each other and impact each other, because, above all, there is a consumer journey that takes place on many different channels, at different times, with different purposes. Normal people don’t think about channels, marketers do!
Analyzing Shopee’s traffic in Semrush we can see that in just 1 year it went from 3.8 million visits to 178.3 million visits (it is worth mentioning that Semrush’s methodology measures potential traffic considering search volume and CTR per keyword position, which is different from Similarweb, that has a panel of real users).
In the Semrush ranking, which measures potential organic traffic, Shopee is already the 13th largest site in Brazil and the 3rd largest e-commerce site. It ranks for 8 million keywords, while the leader MercadoLivre, for 8.8 million – only 800 thousand more. Even with less traffic than Americanas (5.7 million keywords), Shopee has more keywords positioned.
When it comes to link building, once again Shopee is not far behind. In its practically 2 years of life in Brazil it has already reached a Domain Rating of 75, compared to 80 for Americanas and 87 for MercadoLivre. The data are from Ahrefs, and below you can see Shopee’s referring domains stats.
What drives Shopee’s success?
Some people look for hacks, but there is no one hack, no one silver bullet, no one single hack that made Shopee grow so much. I’m going to bring the concepts of inbound and storytelling to exemplify everything it does and how it manages to stand out in one of the most competitive segments in the world, e-commerce.
Shopee always has flash offers, with time and stock limits
Shopee tells a very interesting story. They are the internet flea market. While it doesn’t make sense in developed countries, for developing countries (where Shopee acts), even class A customers shop there. Rua 25 de Março is the biggest shopping street and brick and mortar location in Brazil, and Shopee competes with that kind of market.
Users are always looking at inexpensive products that they often really don’t need, with offers that will end at any moment. It exploits the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) like few others in e-commerce. Moreover, it offers low or even free shipping at very competitive prices, which attracts the user’s attention and sellers who also pay lower advertising fees.
With Shopee’s inventory of curious products that you’ve never seen before and want to share with friends, it creates an extremely powerful and viral marketplace ecosystem. They started with cheap products, gained market share and now are facing off with higher ticket product sites like Amazon, MercadoLivre and Americanas.
Content Marketing: Analyzing my Agency’s Growth
Over the last year, Conversion, my agency, which is the largest SEO Agency in Brazil, grew 72% and is projected to triple in size over the next 5 years. To support this growth, we consistently invest in content marketing; note that I am not saying we invest just in SEO, after all SEO is not a marketing strategy but a channel. As I always say: “The best SEO in the world won’t fix bad marketing!”
In the some way that Shopee tells its FOMO story, Conversion has its own story too.
But before talking about that, let’s talk about our persona, which is who this content is aimed at. According to our studies, because you are reading this, there is a 46.1% chance that you are in a company with 50 or more employees and a 60.2% chance that you work in a private company or e-commerce. The chance that you are from an agency is 7.7%, from a public company 3%, from a press outlet 5.7%. The chance that you want to increase your organic traffic is close to 100% and this is exactly what our persona wants!
More specifically, our persona is an open-minded, modern, smart professional marketer in a company under digital transformation. Also, they look for security in their investments as SEO has results in the long term and professionalism is very important for them, they look to us as the largest SEO Agency in Brazil to deliver those results.
Having said all this, we’ve built a story, as far as we know, unheard of in our entire segment. Investing heavily in rich content, we launched freemium e-books, e-commerce reports and courses that could easily be paid content, priced in the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.
An example of this is Next SEO course [in portuguese], which is not only free but is the only SEO course focused on marketing, e-commerce and growth managers (not technical professionals) with a proven strategic approach. Another example is E-commerce Sectors Report in Brazil, which is the largest and best monthly report on Brazilian e-commerce, presenting general trends and for every sector. In addition, the report provides a monthly ranking of the largest e-commerces in Brazil, highly sought after by C-level and middle management executives of medium and large companies. On Google, people find us not just for technical SEO content, but also for sector data.
Conversion tells a story of companies and people who grow and crush their competitors. We don’t talk only about SEO, because this would be a very restricted and technical subject, and would not exactly reach the decision-maker. On the contrary, we talk to e-commerce and digital marketing leaders in Brazil, generating added value for them and creating competitiveness in the market. When they need SEO consulting or traffic growth, guess which company they seek out?
Start optimizing the user experience by building your consumer journey
Now that we’ve espoused our philosophy and concepts that are important for user experience optimization, I’m going to share my methodology for improving user experience with a focus on SEO and some useful tools to assist this process. The first, and perhaps most important, is consumer journey mapping.
Marketing departments are still very much stuck on the idea of channels and don’t think that much about the customer journey. This is a model used to describe the entire path your customer follows from first getting to know your brand, all the way through the consideration and decision making process, to retention and brand advocacy.
This mapping changes absolutely everything in marketing strategy!
A well constructed consumer journey neutralizes a series of weaknesses and increases a company’s strengths; it better manages threats and helps to take advantage of opportunities.
It’s not the end that matters, it’s the journey
In a journey like this the behavior of your persona is much more important than the channels, which are the places where things will happen. It is as if the journey is the strategy and each of the channels (including organic search) is the tactical path; and the big challenge of digital marketing is perhaps precisely this: connecting the macro to the micro. Since there are many channels, be careful not to have an excess of poorly managed channels. Start small, think big! Develop the channels one by one.
It’s important to say that the responsibility for a consumer journey should never fall on a single professional, an agency or SEO team. This journey is actually the entire marketing strategy and is much more the responsibility of a CMO or leader. Although highly experienced SEO professionals may contribute to more effective development.
Ultimately, this entire consumer journey should have one goal: extend customer lifetime, from the first moment they have contact with the brand to becoming a brand advocate, either by buying or consuming content. As my friend Ícaro de Carvalho, one of the best copywriters in Brazil, says: marketing is about turning seconds into minutes.
In other words, attract the visitor and keep them engaged, work to make the user stay as long as possible and compel them to come back. When they come back, through whatever channel, make sure they have a memorable experience and come back again and again for more (you’re the dealer and the drug is your amazing content and experience!)
The first purchase is inevitable, whether it’s a low or high ticket item doesn’t matter at all. A good question is: when will it happen? You can create a strategy of incredibly cheap products (specially if they are digital products) just so that the user gives you their credit card and becomes a new customer.
After the first purchase, it is fundamental that this be the first of many purchases; and that, satisfied, they want to share with everyone how amazing your brand is.
Time spent and recurrent users are the best KPIs
KPIs (key performance indicators) are the key metrics for measuring the success of your marketing strategies. Vanity metrics alone say nothing, my recommendation is that you focus on the metrics of time spent with your brand (whether on the site, on YouTube, on the app) and recurring users, whether on the site itself or across multiple platforms.
For those who work with inbound marketing, I also recommend measuring the open rate of emails. While the marketing benchmark is somewhere from 10% to 15%, but emails should have an open rate of at least 30%, and sometimes hit 40%. Sounds impossible? Not really, even if you’re sending e-mails to your entire base of tens of thousands, especially when you offer an engaging user experience.
How do we achieve this? We think about user retention all the time.
Although many professionals would say that the subject field of email marketing is by far the most important, not so! The most important field is unquestionably the sender: make your lead want to open your email as soon as it arrives!
Analyzing Heat Maps with Microsoft Clarity
Heatmaps are one of the most powerful tools to analyze user behavior on specific pages (or groups of pages). For a long time, however, you had to use paid tools like Hotjar to get a good data sample. Fortunately, Microsoft now makes Clarity, its UX tool, available for free. Compared to Hotjar, the only thing that it doesn’t do is polls. By using Clarity you allow Microsoft to use the data from your site (who cares?).
Heatmaps usually break down into three categories: mouse over (mouse over regions, which helps measure user attention and, in texts, reading, since many people read with the mouse cursor, in the case of desktop), clicks and scrolls.
All these heatmaps are very useful, and in the case of content pages scroll analysis is one of the most powerful. Combine scroll analysis with mouse over to isolate the content blocks, phrases, and/or words with the highest (or the lowest) user attention.
Retention Analysis: our proprietary framework to improve content experience for users
Over the past few years, we’ve worked hard to make content more engaging. What has become clear from the heatmap data is that it can be used effectively to analyze the performance of blocks of content based on their own metrics and insights. The simplicity of this technique makes it possible to transform content from low visibility to highly ranked, visited and shared. I call this Retention Analysis.
Retention Analysis is our proprietary framework, available for free, to dissect content (whether long or short) in independent blocks, measure the retention over these blocks and then optimize them. These optimizations include rewriting blocks, deleting or reordering them to make the content respond better to search intent. Its simplicity puts incredible power in the hands of SEO professionals and copywriters!
If a user leaves your site, it’s because the content could no longer hold their attention, or they’ve achieved their goal (usually less than 5%). Retention Analysis gives you a systematic and data-driven evaluation tool to see which elements are causing this kind of friction, and which are engaging them.
We developed Retention Analysis to address shortcomings in most analytics tools, which are based on what we call horizontal analysis across pages (from home to category page, to cart, checkout etc.). They ignore very important user behavior, and lack what we call vertical analysis, which shows how the user consumes your content, not just how they navigate your pages.
This framework will help you to understand user retention in the introduction, then in each content block, throughout the page. It’s a given that you’ll lose user attention in almost every block, because people have different objectives and a lot of distractions. For every person that comes to a specific block you need to understand what bounces and what retains them. It doesn’t matter if you have already lost people in previous blocks, because each block is evaluated independently and its retention will be compared to other blocks on the same page.
The absolute retention that you get from heatmap tools is not very useful. You have to transform that data into relative retention, because it measures the users who have already arrived there and this is valuable comparable data (you can’t compare apples and oranges).
You can build a spreadsheet that looks something like this:
Once you have done this, you should work on the blocks with the worst relative retention and create hypotheses for improvement. In this case, the conclusion block has the worst retention, but it is the last section and the one that will have the least impact on the whole. Therefore, it would be worth first looking at these blocks: “Introduction”, “What are the metrics” and “AMP”, in order to create content improvements that will build loyalty.
Create Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) experiments with Google Optimize
Google Optimize is a free and extremely powerful tool which allows you to run up to five A/B or multivariable tests simultaneously. A/B Testing is well known technique to improve conversion rates on landing pages and e-commerce, but few people look at how it helps with micro-conversions and user retention experiments.
To put this into context, we are using conversion here as the main goal of the website (for example, lead generation or sales in an e-commerce). Micro-conversions, on the other hand, are small navigational goals, such as accessing a page or set of pages, signing up for a newsletter, or even… increasing browsing time. Sound good?
Among the free tools, Google Optimize is the only one that can do all this. The only drawback is that, in order to have consistency in testing, you’ll probably want to run more than five experiments simultaneously. That means using the paid version, and the price of the paid version is beyond most small and medium companies. In this case I would recommend using PageSense, which is good, even though it lacks some features, as well asGoogle Analytics integration.
Take a look at some tests we’ve conducted within Google Optimize on the Conversion agency site:
We tested which link anchor text was best and got a 120% increase in clicks
Analyzing the heatmap of our website, we noticed that in the top menu there was an item with few clicks: it was Insights, which takes people to a section of our website with rich content, courses, research, studies, etc. Even being an extremely useful page for the user and an integral part of our journey, it received less attention than all the others (except for the contact link, which is only used to request a proposal).
By analyzing the user behavior, we noticed something curious: the menu link for the Insights page attracted a lot of attention on the page itself (i.e., the user didn’t realize that he was already on the insights page!) In addition, there was a mouse over on the contents text, which drew our attention to something important on that page.
Eureka! We’ve got a new experiment to do: the hypothesis we posed was that, instead of using the Insights anchor, the Rich Content [Conteúdos Ricos] anchor would be more intuitive for the user experience. Put to the test, the variant showed a 94% probability of being the best version within just a few days. The conversion rate on access to that page jumped from 1.52% to 3.36%, an increase of 120%!
How we increased session duration by 1 minute with a simple test
Once again analyzing the heat maps of our blog’s homepage, we noticed something else curious: links to recent posts received the same attention as featured posts, even though they were in the third scroll!
Looking to optimize ‘session time’, our hypothesis was that by being more direct and bringing the recent posts to the top of the page and excluding featured post blocks, people would see more posts and spend more time on the site.
In Google Optimize, with no need for code, we quickly created an experiment that soon went live. Instead of a long page like the gif above, we made the new version much cleaner (a better user experience isn’t always the most aesthetically pleasing).
Test done, we needed a couple of weeks for the experiment to run. We recommend running experiments for at least 14 days. Google Optimize came to the conclusion that the variant had a 100% chance of being better (i.e., more time spent on the website!)
Conduct NPS surveys of your content and run surveys with your audience
NPS (Net Promoter Score), the leading metric for customer satisfaction, is usually directly related to low churn. Even so, few companies still use NPS to measure user experience.
Here at Conversion, we like to use NPS surveys in all of our rich content. It’s amazing how, even with free products, the consumer is very demanding. Although they’re not opening their wallets, they pay with their time. Make your content worth it!
In addition, NPS responses bring a number of insights for improving current or new content. In the example above, the NPS is from an e-book we created. We used Hotjar to track NPS satisfaction (they’ve a limited feature to get feedback from email), although currently we’re using Survicate, because it has better email feedback capture for the price. If you have a limited budget, you could use Zoho Surveys. It has the best cost x benefit ratio.
Instead of email, if you have a segment audience, your web site could be a great tool to capture user feedback or run polls, which is especially useful for generating insights. I love it!
Both Hotjar and PageSense work fine for polls. At the moment, we’re using Hotjar (a budget plan) to run polls, but if you have PageSense for AB testing, it’s a good idea to have everything on one platform. We’ve also used PageSense and got good results.
[Does your company currently hire an SEO agency or consulting? o Yes – o No ]
Whether you use Hotjar or PageSense, running small polls on your site can help you understand both your audience’s profile and their complaints. For example, with the small survey on the right we were able to interview users browsing our SEO pages to understand more about their complaints, their behavior, and how we can improve our communication and customer journey. With each survey, we get deeper into some aspects and are able to generate new hypotheses.
This is some of the most experimental content we’ve produced recently. Much of what I’ve said and brought here is not within the traditional SEO box. You’ll notice we haven’t talked about meta tags, H1 tags, page titles, core web vitals, etc.
For companies to take important steps in this new SEO model, they need to create a culture of experimentation. To do this, however, it’s not enough to start running tests focusing on short term results and not on real innovation. Experimentation begins with a change in culture and the greatest challenge is keeping in mind that even good tests will fail, but they are still good, because iInnovation usually fails “until it works”.
This may sound quite harsh to the more traditional companies, since, in the old days organizations were made to avoid failure, but as a result they missed the opportunity to innovate. This is not to say that they are wrong, but that they are missing out on much of the philosophy driving today’s fastest growing companies.
You can always test without using Google Optimize or other tools. It’s possible to create good experiments, even manually, and generate learning to improve your processes, products and customer experience.
If your company is open to innovation, embrace it; but if not, that’s ok: just begin the change you want to see in the world!