Measuring the returns on your SEO campaign can be tricky. Results often take months to move the needle and show that your efforts are paying off. Add to that the fact that SEO also encompasses those intangible elements like thought leadership and branding, and the idea of measuring anything might make your head spin. This can often be a frustrating experience if you’ve outsourced your SEO strategy and want to make sure your investment is sound. As someone who’s on the other end and has to set and manage expectations despite metrics that so often rely on the answer “It depends,” I get it!
What I can tell you is that hiring an SEO strategist is a lot like hiring a personal trainer: your fitness won’t improve overnight, and a lot depends on what you started with. If you lived a completely sedentary lifestyle before, it’s going to be a bit harder to ramp up. If you see your trainer once a week and don’t do anything between sessions, you won’t be achieving the maximum benefits. If you bought a Groupon for one personal training session and then sat on the couch for two years, you can’t be mad at your trainer for your deteriorating health.
But if you keep at it consistently, you’ll notice one day that you’re not so out of breath, and then you’ll notice that you can run a 5k, and before you know it, you’ll see the results you want. Pending reasonable expectations, of course.
So, what metrics can we look for to know we’re on the road to peak SEO fitness? For most people, a Google Analytics account is all you need to start tracking your results. I’d caution against checking your data too often, because it will drive you crazy. Instead, set some custom alerts so to receive notifications if anything really weird happens (if traffic drops below a certain number, for example); check in once a week or every few days to make sure there aren’t any red flags; and do your heavy data-digging once a month. You can think of it a bit like the stock market: getting caught up in the daily fluctuations may prompt rash decisions or unnecessary worry, but holding out for the long-term and monitoring for steady growth will help you weather temporary storms while doing your due diligence.
Here’s a run-down of what to check:
- The Overview Page – Let’s get the easiest one out of the way first! This page provides a snapshot of all of the traffic on your site, defaulting to a 30-day period. Keep that default, and compare it to the previous 30 days to check on monthly movement, along with the previous year if you can. Year-over-year traffic is the ideal data set to work with for SEO, as it will show the long-term trend while mitigating data killers like outliers or seasonality. Month over month traffic isn’t useless, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, so you’ll have to make up the gaps with external research on trends, peak business times, holidays, events and other wild cards.
- Traffic/Revenue by Channel – This one will show you how your traffic (and revenue) is performing on each of your main channels: direct, paid, social, referral, and organic. It’s useful so you can start to develop an understanding of how your SEO campaign is performing in relation to the other traffic mediums. Did your site’s organic traffic take a drop this month? Seeing if the other channels took a similar drop relative to the channel will provide you with valuable information on whether you should start looking for clues in your organic campaign, or whether something is going on with the site as a whole.
A drop in direct traffic in particular, can be a portent of things to come: when direct traffic is healthy, it means you have good branding, are developing solid external marketing strategies, and provide an on-site experience that people enjoy. If your organic traffic is dropping but so is direct, it’s likely that the organic traffic drop is the symptom of a different problem, or that it became caught in a feedback loop with direct.
- Organic Traffic/Revenue – Navigating to your organic traffic specifically will provide a deeper look than the “Traffic by Channel” data. You’ll get to see your percentage of new users, your conversion rate, your bounce rate and more. You can use this screen to toggle into any of the stuff that seems unusual or interesting.
- Assisted Conversions/First Interaction Analysis – Not everyone takes a straightforward path to conversion. They might find the site via organic search, leave to think about things and come back directly. Or they might use a combination of paid, organic and direct before they convert. Assisted Conversions will show you how many conversions organic traffic helped along, and First Interaction Analysis will show you how your converting traffic first found your site – no matter which path to purchase they used. It’s useful to know about this because it paints a more nuanced picture of the value that each channel can provide. For businesses with a longer purchase funnel – websites that sell big-ticket items that require some extra thought, research, or consultations with the spouse – this metric is crucial.
- Landing Pages – Which pages are pulling in the most organic traffic? Which pages convert the most? Which pages need help? Are there any surprises? This will inform the strategy of your campaign moving forward. If you’re diagnosing a traffic drop, landing page data is an extremely important metric: sometimes, a drop can be traced back to just one or two pages that took a severe hit or disappeared completely (the latter would occur if you no longer sell a popular product).
- Product Performance – Your ecommerce data can provide a wealth of information about how your business is doing, with the obvious indicator being product performance. Similar to the landing page data, this will help you design your strategy moving forward or address any surprises. Pay attention to items that produce the most total revenue and items that have the highest transaction value.
- Conversion Rate – The best organic campaign in the world can’t sell your products for you. If your conversion rate is low, that needs to be addressed – it will ultimately kill your SEO campaign if Google decides people don’t find your site useful. Conversion problems could be traced to a design issue, a UX issue, a price issue or something else entirely; check out your competitors to see if you’re in step, consult a conversion expert, or just ask an objective (and honest) friend to use your site, preferably within the demographic range of your target audience.
- Site Search Tracking – How are people using the search bar on your site? If they’re all trying to find the same product, you might decide to highlight that product on your home page.
- Geographic Location – This is a high priority if you have a local brick-and-mortar; otherwise, it’s just good to know where your search traffic is coming from. Perhaps there are ways to address that audience better, or perhaps you need to strategize about expanding your reach.
- Traffic by Device –With mobile search playing such a huge role in ecommerce, make sure your mobile data looks healthy. If it doesn’t, this metric bumps up to high priority.
We Don’t Care About:
- Individual Keyword Rankings – This is the one that still feels counter intuitive for a lot of people, but it’s important not to fixate on keyword rankings. First of all, if you’re Googling a keyword related to your store and using that to determine the keyword ranking, you’re doing it wrong. That particular search engine results page (SERP) you’re looking at is tailored to your location and search history, so it’s not a useful indicator of the whole. You’ll have to go to Google Analytics or Search Console for (very) incomplete keyword data, or you can pay for a rank tracking tool – but it’s still not going to give you the sense of direction you’re looking for.
This can be confusing for people because keywords are still a cornerstone of SEO. However, when we focus on 3-5 keywords per page to optimize, what we’re really focusing on is the hundreds of offshoots of those keywords. Semantic search – the phenomenon wherein people just search for whatever phrase pops into their brain first, which is unlikely to be the same as somebody else’s brain-phrase – turns each keyword into a little semantic family. And that’s something you can’t just track by checking in on the single keyword, even if it’s the “parent.”
- Any Metric You See on Free SEO Audits – These tools scrape your site sans human involvement, and while they do provide some useful information (duplicate tags, for example), it’s important to approach them with healthy skepticism. Some audits focus on low-priority stuff and use confusing phrases like, “low text-to-HTML ratio,” which just means, “there wasn’t a lot of content on this page.” Some get Volusion’s canonical situation wrong every single time because it takes two seconds and a pair of human eyes to see what’s actually happening, and they only have one of those things. SEO audits are great, but the free ones can only provide the information that is available to their scrapers, which means they’re missing the forest and pointing out trees. Use them for the basics but don’t expect all of them to be a reliable indicator of your campaign’s health.
So, there’s your start! As you check these metrics, aim for steady, year over year progress. Will you see movement during the first month? Maybe. Probably not. Will you start noticing signs of where your campaign is heading within a few months? Probably. Stay true to the bigger picture and put in the effort, and you’ll be in shape for your SEO marathon in no time.