How to Measure and Track SEO Success
Business planning not only involves a firm’s key actor’s identifying business goals, but also defining how those actors will measure the success of those goals. This is particularly important with online initiatives, which inherently provide a wealth of data. Firms must know which metrics, and what kinds of changes in those metrics, will accurately reflect the success; they must understand the relationships between relevant metrics, and they must know which metrics are merely noise. Without a thorough understanding of how to arrive at the goal, it is unlikely the firm will achieve it.
Many firms and individuals think of search engine optimization (SEO) as, primarily, a method to increase site traffic. However, when approaching SEO, online strategists should assess this and other measures of SEO success, when determining a firm’s overall online goals. After all, increasing site traffic is only a means to an end. In addition, many intermediate steps must be taken before a firm sees an increase in site traffic, or other notable results.
Further, there are many analytical measures, as well as software applications, available for use when considering the success or failure of SEO strategies. A thorough understanding of these should be a requisite of any SEO consultant or in-house SEO professional, as they will be integral in measuring the firm’s SEO success.
In this article, we will cover 1) the three most common measures of SEO success, 2) more SEO measures and trends, 3) common analytic programs for measuring SEO success, and 4) analyzing and interpreting the data.
THE THREE MOST COMMON MEASURES OF SEO SUCCESS
The three most common measures of SEO success by far are rankings, traffic, and conversions.
This refers to a website’s position in search engine results. Firms listed on the first page of search results have more credibility in the mind of the consumer. Users are far more likely to purchase a product/service from a company who appears on the first page of search results. Further, prominence in search results heightens overall awareness of a firm’s brand. For this reason, improving website ranking, or maintaining an already high ranking, are common SEO goals and should be considered in the context of the firm’s larger brand awareness strategy and goals.
Improving a website’s ranking generally increases the amount of traffic to the website, often dramatically. SEO professionals must ensure that their websites appear prominently in user search results for common keywords and key phrases associated with the products/services they sell. For example, a local kitchen remodel and appliance retailer in Lansing, Michigan might want consumers searching for key phrases like “best refrigerators Lansing” or “Lansing affordable kitchen countertops” to find their brand, rather than those of their competitors. They also want to increase the number of links on third-party websites funneling traffic to their webpage, which, in addition to increasing traffic, also has the effect of increasing website ranking. Content marketing, when executed properly can increase both new and repeat visitors to the website, while social media marketing can draw in new audiences and spread marketing messages far and wide.
Increased rankings and traffic mean little if, once on a website, consumers are not impelled to perform a particular action. Most firms automatically think of conversions in pure sales terms, but depending on the firm’s inbound marketing and overall sales strategy, there can be multiple times of conversion, ultimately leading to a sale. For example, a keyword search could lead a user to a firm’s landing page to download a free whitepaper on a business topic in exchange for contact information. The number of downloads is a conversion, whether or not a purchase is eventually made. Traffic stemming from user’s keyword/phrases queries generally has higher conversion rates than traffic from referral sites because the user is already engaged and seeking to fulfill a need. Both traffic and conversions should not only be thought of in pure SEO terms but should be closely aligned with the firm’s overall marketing and sales strategies.
As with conversions, there are multiple ways to refine how one measures rankings and traffic. Firms can determine if there are particular search engines in which they wish to improve their rank, what keyword search results in which they wish to appear prominently, and more, as well as set specific targets by specific deadlines.
MORE SEO MEASURES AND TRENDS
Likewise, firms have many measures available they can use to refine how they assess traffic. Here are some of the most common measures firms use:
Number and quality of referring sites
Both of these factors have a definitive impact on ranking, but they each play a role in increasing traffic as well. The more links one has referred to one’s website the easier the site will be for crawlers to index, which can boost website rankings. Further, the more likely, it is for someone to come to your site from that referring site. Websites with high visibility will not only help a firm’s rankings as well but will likely refer more traffic a firm’s site than those from websites with low visibility. For example, an article on the website of The New York Times about the firm will be read by more people, generate more interest, and result in more traffic, than a link from a random individual’s personal blog.
This ranking measure allows firms to assess their search visibility in specific keyword searches. Firms want consumers to come across their products/services when they run queries using general descriptors. Once the general keywords/phrases most commonly associated with the products/services offered by a particular firm are identified through keyword research, SEO professionals should implement tactics designed to increase traffic from each of these keywords/phrases. For example, a local Mexican restaurant in Buffalo, New York” might seek increases in traffic from queries like “best Mexican food in Buffalo”, “great enchiladas Buffalo” and similar frequently searched terms.
Traffic and conversions resulting from keywords
These two separate measures play key roles in not only SEO efforts, but also overall marketing and sales efforts as well. SEO professionals should work towards sustainable increases in traffic from targeted consumers, as well as conversions of those visitors to sales.
It is not enough to create an easy to navigate website full of keyword rich content. Key to conversions and overall SEO is engagement. Content should be relevant, interesting, and consistently updated. Moreover, it should direct visitors to action. Search engines notice when visitors quickly leave websites and rank websites accordingly. Indicators of engagement include a low bounce rate – the percentage of users who immediately leave a website without visiting a second page on it, time on site, time on specific pages, number of pages visited, and actions performed while on the website.
Domain Authority (DA)
DA is a measure created by Moz, an industry-leading SaaS firm widely acknowledged as an authority on SEO. Scored between 0 and 100, it is an aggregate of at least 40 SEO measures and is strongly correlated with high traffic and search rank. In general, proactively, employing white hat SEO strategies can increase DA. Proactively involves not only building a high quality website and building a strong link profile; it also means ridding a website’s SEO profile of factors that harm its ranking, such as irrelevant backlinks.
COMMON ANALYTICS PROGRAMS FOR MEASURING SEO SUCCESS
Many applications and methods allow firms to track and measure the results of their SEO tactics. Search engines, such as Google and Bing, as well as third-party SEO consulting firms, offer analytics programs that allow firms to track their on-page activity in real-time or near-real-time. These programs provide a wealth of data about everything from the type of browsers and devices used to access the site, to the sequence of pages visited by users once on the site. This is invaluable information that can be used to inform site improvements, such as new content development and changes in site navigation, as well as test the efficacy of changes that are made. Some of the most common applications include Google Analytics, Bing Webmaster tools, Adobe Marketing Cloud, Piwik, KISSmetrics, Clicky, and GoingUp.
Google Analytics allows firms a deep dive into website performance through what is known as advanced segments – a feature that allows firms to track performance based on specific visitor segments and create reports based on them. For example, an advanced segment report might include information on visitors being referred by non-branded keywords, those based on specific traffic sources (e.g. all traffic from Twitter), or all based on key phrases containing specific numbers of keywords. Many other analytics programs offer this level of information, but web professionals unversed in data analysis often fail to take advantage of it.
There are also free and paid applications and scripts that firms can use to analyze content for keyword density – the number of times keywords/phrases appear in the content. Similar tools are available to help professionals analyze their use of metadata on a page. These tools allow professionals to analyze their page just as a crawler would, and make changes to the HTML based on this analysis that can improve SEO.
UTM codes are code snippets that can be attached to a specific webpage (or a subset of webpages) that will allow professionals to analyze performance. UTM codes are specifically helpful in tracking how well offline advertising funnels traffic to a firm’s website; by creating a vanity URL and advertising it through a specific medium, and then adding a UTM code to that vanity URL, firms can see how well each type of advertising is performing. This information is not only invaluable for general marketing/advertising purposes, but by using UTM codes to track the efficacy of online marketing campaigns, such as social media campaigns, UTM codes can be a boon to overall SEO as well.
It is important to understand what the competition is doing as well. Keyword intelligence tools like KeywordSpy, SpyFu, SEMrush, or others show SEO professionals how the websites of competing websites rank for specific keywords – that should inform keyword and SEO strategies.
ANALYZING AND INTERPRETING THE DATA
These tools and many others are available for free or for a nominal cost. However, many firms still look at surface metrics of SEO success. A mere increase in search engine results is a superficial way to gauge the effectiveness of an SEO strategy. Trend analysis is critical. Firms should assess spikes or dips in traffic, rankings, and conversions, for cause and sustainability over time. A firm may see a huge spike in traffic from a new article published on a trending topic. However, if the topic’s subject matter is more ephemeral than evergreen, that spike may dissipate in weeks or days.
For web professionals who suddenly find themselves with SEO responsibilities, mere understanding of, and training in, on-page SEO factors like metadata and keyword density, is inadequate. They must understand data analysis, data segmentation, and testing, as well as competitive intelligence. They should also understand that localization, personalization, and other factors affect the ultimate visibility of a firm’s site, and the conversion rates of its landing pages.
Take localization. Firms should focus efforts on local and target markets, as well as global ones. Assessing appropriate local strategies, as well as general ones, can yield increased traffic and conversions, when they inform content and keyword strategies, website structure, content, and culture. Firms in global markets should also incorporate language, prevailing social media networks, and dominant search engine in the market. In the U.S. and many European countries, Google’s search results are of primary importance; however, in China, Baidu has the greatest visibility, as does Yandex in Russia.
Of course, firms want to devote some resources to all of the search engines in their space. A firm might be losing revenue because they rank high in Google search results, low in Yahoo’s search results, and their average consumer predominantly uses Yahoo. It is important to assess how people are finding the firm’s site, as well as know who the major players are in search in the firm’s respective market.
Personalization is another significant factor influencing traffic and conversion rates. Google, Bing, and Yahoo personalize search results for each user; the more they use the respective search engine and its firm’s products and services, the more each search query is refined. This heightens the need for metadata, easy site navigation, and structured data, which crawlers use to understand sites, assess them, and place them in more search results. Building branded social channels rich in keywords, with socially shared branded content, can ensure that websites appear, and reappear, in search results.
Website personalization can greatly increase user engagement and inspire low bounce rates, long times on the site, conversions, and repeat visits. Cookie-based features that identify users by name, reflect their previous actions, provide content relevant to their interests, and offer useful recommendations, can result in dramatic increases in traffic and conversions. They can also stimulate organic links, as third-party news sites, blogs, and others review, and link to, the website.
When analyzing the data, SEO professionals should use multiple analytics programs to ensure the accuracy of web data. They should also take full advantage of the data visualization tools found in common analytics programs or others such as Graphviz or NodeXL. Fundamentally, they should regularly perform analyzes of link profiles, site architecture, and keyword rankings in relation to their site as well as those of their competitors, on a regular basis. They should also regularly assess their own and their competitor’s social media presence, analyzing keyword density and reach of shared material. Competitive analysis will provide technical insights into effective (or ineffective) SEO strategies, as well as consumer insights about the industry, brand perception, products/services, and marketing.
For web developers with SEO responsibility, it may be helpful to consult with in-house or third-party data scientists when interpreting the data. They may be able to provide insights into common biases, such as seasonality, and correcting for them in data analysis.
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