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SEO Attribution: How to Assign Credit for SEO Leads

SEO Blog
Seo Attribution Tn

Last updated: April 3, 2024

This article lays out the major questions in SEO attribution, covering how to properly identify and assign credit to the SEO channel when analyzing your company’s leads. The two questions are:

  1. How do you determine if SEO was responsible for generating a lead?
  2. What portion of a lead should be attributed to SEO if that lead was touched by multiple channels?

We also weigh in on a long-running debate in SEO attribution: Which is better – first touch attribution, last touch attribution, or a hybrid attribution model?

Determining if a Lead Originated from SEO

The surest way to know how a lead discovered your business is to ask them. Ideally, you would pose the question on a sales call to get a more detailed answer; but for the majority of leads, that’s not a realistic option. The next best choice is to include a mandatory field in your contact form asking how the visitor learned about your business, which is what we do in our own contact form, pictured below.

Contact Form

This approach doesn’t work for all conversion actions—for instance, lower commitment conversions such as registration-walled white papers and blog subscriptions often ask only for an email to minimize friction. For these actions, proper attribution is best accomplished with the help of lead tracking software within a marketing automation platform such as Hubspot or Salesforce. Properly configured, these platforms will display where the lead originated from when a record is created. For example, Hubspot displays the following when it detects a lead originated from Google search:

Created From Search

In addition to attributing a lead to SEO or another channel, lead tracking tools allow you to attribute leads to a specific section of your website (e.g. a set of geotargeted landing pages). These platforms also track which pages a lead viewed before and after conversion, and most importantly for SEO, tell you the page they entered on. Knowing this information allows you to guess with reasonable accuracy what keyword they likely searched. (Note that after Google implemented HTTPS/SSL encryption on all searches, it is no longer possible to determine a visitor’s search phrase with complete certainty.)

For example, examine the screenshot below that shows the user journey of one of our leads:

Page Views

From this path, we can see that they first entered our site on our “B2B SaaS SEO Agency” page, which ranks on the first page of Google for the searches “saas seo services”, “b2b saas seo”, and “saas seo agency”. Combining their entry page with our knowledge of our own Hub & Spoke SEO structure allows us to reasonably attribute this lead to the SaaS segment of our internal SEO campaign.

While single attribution such as in the examples above is relatively straightforward, this process becomes more difficult when attempting to evaluate attribution credit across multiple channels, as we discuss next.

Multi-Channel Marketing and SEO Attribution

Attribution becomes more complex when multiple channels are involved – and they nearly always are.
Most leads make contact with a brand multiple times before converting, especially during the lead nurturing stages of customer acquisition as shown below:

Lead Nurturing Content

This raises the question: if a lead was touched by multiple channels before converting, which of these channels should receive credit, and in what proportion? The answer to this question is of particular importance when calculating the ROI of your marketing investments, as it determines how much revenue is assigned to each channel.

There are three ways marketing teams address multi-channel attribution:

  • First touch attribution, which assigns credit to the first channel a converted lead touched 
  • Last touch attribution,  which assigns credit to the last channel a lead touched before converting
  • Hybrid attribution, which uses a custom model to divide attribution across every channel a lead touched before converting

For example, a visitor might first find your page through SEO, read a post on your LinkedIn page, then later convert only after clicking a PPC ad. First touch attribution would hold that as SEO was the first channel that touched the lead, it would receive 100% of the credit for this conversion. The opposite approach, last touch attribution, would instead attribute the lead entirely to PPC. Already we can see the flaw with both these approaches: in neither model does LinkedIn play any part. This problem is why marketing teams develop hybrid attribution models that more accurately divide a lead between each channel that the lead touched.

Each of these three attribution approaches has its advantages, which can be found in the table below:

Marketing Attribution Models

ModelAdvantagesDisadvantagesBest For
First TouchSimple implementation and measurement
Rewards the channel responsible for initial interest.
Potentially ignores many channels that contribute to a conversion.
Overemphasizes top of funnel activities.
Businesses in industries with short conversion funnels such as consumer ecommerce.
Last TouchSimple implementation and measurement
Rewards the channel responsible for the sale.
Potentially ignores many channels that contribute to a conversion. 
Overemphasizes lead nurturing activities.
Businesses with long sales cycles where visitors touch many channels before converting.
Companies that already have high brand awareness and are less concerned with top-of-funnel attribution.
Hybrid Customizable and more accurate than either last touch or first touch attribution. 
When properly set up, does not overemphasize any part of the funnel.
Defining accurate credit percentages is difficult, and requires an experienced marketer.
Requires greater initial setup as well as ongoing adjustments for best accuracy, and more time must be spent attributing each lead.
Businesses that invest in several concurrent marketing campaigns, for which allocating marketing spend effectively is a top priority.

Although it’s a more up-front work than the first two models, a hybrid attribution model provides more granular (and accurate) data. By allocating credit according to your industry standards and sales cycle length, marketing teams get a far more accurate idea of how well or poorly their channels are performing. Here are 3 hybrid attribution models used by our SEO agency:

  • Linear attribution, dividing credit evenly between each channel touched. This model is nearly as simple to calculate as first or last touch, but does not account for the unique impact of each channel.
  • Time decay attribution, in which we assign more credit to channels later in the funnel. We use this model when working with industries with long sales cycles or fewer high value leads, as it emphasizes conversion over lead generation.
  • U-shaped attribution, in which we assign most credit to the first and last channels touched, with middle-funnel channels receiving a lesser percentage of credit. This is our preferred model for most businesses we work with.

You may be noticing by this point that even hybrid SEO attribution doesn’t remove the subjectivity of the analysis. Different teams weigh touchpoints along the user journey differently based on their own observations and experience with user behavior and each marketing channel. For example, we prefer U-shaped attribution, but give SEO a full 60 percent of the credit when it’s the visitor’s entry point. The notion that the user wouldn’t have known about the business without SEO, and likely trusts Google’s opinion highly, justify that level of credit in our opinion. But others would disagree, and reasonably so. 

The important thing to remember about a custom-defined approach is that it is infinitely tweakable; if marketing teams discover after a period of time that their initial judgements were not accurate, it allows them to re-evaluate and adjust their positions to more accurately reflect the data coming in. This option, unfortunately, is not available via the first two channels.

Implementing the Right SEO Attribution Strategy

Although the basic idea of a hybrid SEO attribution strategy is easy enough to understand, the realities of correctly executing one are difficult. For example, attribution strategies can vary widely between B2B and B2C businesses because of the customer’s mindset and the sales cycle length. Even the most experienced in-house teams occasionally misunderstand how differences like these are considered in your SEO attribution strategy. 

It’s with that reality in mind that many companies, especially those without an in-house analytics team, turn to trusted partners to handle the heavy lifting. Our agency specializes in SEO attribution and provides consulting for companies spanning most industries, particularly highly complex ones. Contact us if you’d like to learn more about a partnership.

Evan Bailyn

Evan Bailyn is a best-selling author and award-winning speaker on the subjects of SEO and thought leadership. Contact Evan here.

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