For many years, there was agreement among marketers that email was the most effective digital marketing channel. Small businesses took this advice and ran with it. If they had limited marketing budgets, they focused on email and little else.

Today, this consensus has dissipated. Although many marketers do still consider email the top channel, others favor different options, namely social media, content marketing, marketing technology, and SEO.

Top Five Marketing Channels

Late last year, Ascend2 conducted a study called 2018 Digital Marketing Plans. It surveyed 271 marketing influencers to find out what they considered the most effective digital marketing channel. The top choice was social media with 18 percent. It is unsurprising, then, that 57 percent of social marketers said that they would be allocating more budget to social this year.

In close second place came content marketing, with 17 percent. This was followed by marketing technology (with 16 percent), then SEO (with 15 percent), and finally email (with 13 percent).

Although this does mean that email is pushed down to the fifth position, it is also only 5 percent below the top choice. In other words, there is by no means a majority opinion about what is the best marketing channel.

Top Digital Marketing Objectives

The same lack of agreement was true for participants’ responses to the effectiveness of different digital marketing objectives. Top options were lead generation, sales revenue, web traffic, and improving brand awareness. Each of these were named as the top choice by between 14 to 18 percent of those surveyed.

The question, then, is what should small business owners take away from this?

Why SEO Is the Most Effective Channel

Although it came in fourth place, I’d like to make the argument that search engine optimization is, in fact, the top channel for digital marketing. I’ll also assert that this is the case for any businesses looking to gain visibility online, including small businesses in all industries. Let’s look at why.

1. The Majority of Online Experiences Begin With Search

As many as 93 percent online experiences begin with a user typing a query into a search engine. For prospects to find your business, you need to be near the top of the search results, as the first page receives up to 92 percent of all clicks. It is only possible to reach the first-page rankings with SEO. This is extra important if you’re looking to increase web traffic.

2. Websites Receive More Organic Traffic Than Paid Traffic

Whereas you’ll gain an even higher position on the search engine result pages (SERPs) with a PPC ad, you’ll receive far fewer clicks than with an organic result. The average click-through rate in AdWords across all industries is just 3.17 percent for ads in search. This is not to say that PPC shouldn’t form any part of your strategy; only, you should be aware that the tactic is far less effective than SEO.

3. SEO Leads to Improved Brand Awareness

Appearing in higher positions in the search results leads to greater consumer awareness and trust. Local users who consistently see your name at the top of the SERPs will begin to relate your brand with high-quality, informative content.

4. UX and SEO Are Connected

The only way to optimize for Google is to take user experience into account. Long gone are the days when you would just make your pages appear relevant to search engines. Now, Google wants to see that users enjoy interacting with your site and will stick around to explore. Focusing on SEO will also mean that you strive to improve the experience for users. This is critical for encouraging users to provide you with the contact information you need to turn visitors into leads.

5. Once You Have a Strategy, You Keep Improving

Collecting data about your SEO campaigns will tell you more about your audience, particularly what they are looking for in terms of information and offerings. You can use this data to continuously improve your strategy. For instance, you’ll be able to better define your target audience and choose more successful keywords. Both these actions will bring better-targeted traffic to your site.

SEO is about more than just keywords. Search engines take a variety of factors into account when determining your rankings. A major factor is authority. Just because you’re a small business doesn’t mean you can’t become an authoritative source of information. All you need is a well-rounded strategy that includes gaining reviews, building links, and improving your presence on social. You also need to create content for optimizing. SEO allows you to do this.

Put another way, SEO is not just the most effective channel, it is a critical cog in your digital strategy. SEO works by bringing the many pieces of your marketing strategy together.