SEO, like business and life, is all about constant improvement – and improvement is only possible when something can be measured.
Measuring SEO, however, is often easier said than done.
There is a staggering number of components and variables in the SEO efforts and several metrics are needed to gauge success. The complexity can be challenging, and it takes true grit to master the art and science of measuring SEO. Yet, the prize is worth it.
Those who go the distance will win the best SERP rankings and gain a much-deserved competitive edge. If you want to succeed in today’s competitive digital landscape, you must make a commitment to be better at SEO than your competitors.
- The SEO-Measurement Struggle Is Real
- Patience Is an SEO Virtue
- Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for SEO Success
- Organic Search Traffic
- Keyword Rankings
- Social Shares
- Conversion Rate from Organic Search Traffic
- Backlink Volume
- Organic Click-Through Rate
- The Mountain Is High, but the Victory Is Sweet
The SEO-Measurement Struggle Is Real
Why is SEO success so hard to measure? For starters, SEO practitioners are bombarded with a huge amount of data to analyze. With so much data, it’s often difficult to reach cut-and-dry conclusions.
Data needs to be prioritized into information that’s important for your particular website. No two businesses have the exact same strategies, goals and objectives – and neither do any two websites.
The SEO data that’s important for one website may not be so important for another.
Data also needs to be “reportable”, so you can clearly explain it to managers and clients. If things get overly confusing, decision makers start getting frustrated with SEO practitioners.
Because the data can become so overwhelming, smart marketers use SEO dashboards that lay everything out into one easily-digestible view. A dashboard isn’t a cure-all, but it can make the SEO practitioner’s life much easier. Check out Cyfe’s SEO dashboard guide and cognitiveSEO’s tool for more info.
The struggle doesn’t end there, and the sheer volume of data isn’t the only challenge faced by SEO practitioners.
Another difficulty is that Google has developed a huge number of factors that go into the ranking process. The challenge is the fact that Google isn’t so quick to reveal what all these components even are. Yes, many of the biggest ranking factors are well known in the SEO industry. But there’s still so much that’s kept mysterious.
Also, SEO involves a diverse mix of several talents. Not only are logic and technical abilities needed to analyze SEO, but a large degree of creativity and problem-solving prowess are also necessary. Moreover, SEO is a multi-team effort. It often requires input from branding teams, marketing, web development, content specialists, and more.
But certainly, one of the most challenging aspects of implementing and measuring SEO is the fact that Google changes its algorithms constantly. The strategies and measurements we undertake today might very well have to be tweaked and adjusted tomorrow. In the world of SEO, experience and expertise is crucial.
Patience Is an SEO Virtue
With all the complexity involved in SEO, it’s no wonder why inexperienced practitioners get overwhelmed almost immediately. Many in the industry want fast results so they can know on the spot whether they’re on the right track. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to get used to measuring SEO over time, with patience and an understanding of how long things can actually take.
Monitoring SEO success is a marathon rather than a sprint.
Why? First, it’s important to note that it sometimes takes months for search engines to update their results pages. And even when they are updated, improvements in rank usually don’t happen simultaneously across all keywords you’re targeting.
Further, smart SEO practitioners aren’t merely measuring their clients’ online performance. They also need to keep track of the performance, ebb and flow of their competitors’ SEO. Like an astronomer monitoring the movements and activities of celestial bodies, the SEO professional studies numerous time-consuming processes that simply can’t be rushed.
How does one measure something as intricate and ever-changing as SEO? It all starts with KPIs.
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for SEO Success
In measuring SEO efforts, one often gets a dramatic sense of just how much data there is to work with. It’s sometimes difficult to reach cut-and-dry conclusions and give simple, direct reports to clients or management. The solution is to know which key performance indicators (KPIs) to use, and to tie the KPIs to the objectives of the client or business.
KPIs are the metrics and measurements you use to determine whether your business activities (SEO activities in this case) are successful.
It’s important to tie your KPIs to specific marketing goals. Your company or client has hopefully created a digital marketing plan that spells out some solid marketing objectives. These are the objectives you want to connect your KPIs to so you can accurately determine whether your SEO efforts are successful.
Whether the objective is to gain awareness for a new product, build a stronger brand or gain new leads for your client, you should know what business objective each SEO effort is striving to achieve.
Here are six important key performance indicators to effectively measure SEO success.
Organic Search Traffic
This is a useful KPI to measure for companies aiming to acquire new customers or leads. Organic search traffic refers to website visits that originated from search engine results and not through ads. Organic search results are displayed because they are relevant to search terms, not simply because an ad was purchased and placed in the search results.
A related term, organic SEO, refers to the strategies used to help websites earn natural, high placements on search pages.
Benefits: Organic search traffic is a highly effective indicator of overall SEO success. When a website’s content includes keywords that frequently match what users are searching for, that website is likely to appear in a larger number of search engine results pages (SERPs) than competing websites.
With organic search traffic (as opposed to paid advertising,) searchers will find a website more consistently, and they’re more likely to stay on the website longer once they find it.
Challenges: Among the biggest challenges with organic search efforts is the frustration that Google (as well as other search engines) constantly changes its algorithms. When updates happen unexpectedly, SEO efforts can be directly affected without warning. In your analytics, observing sudden setbacks in performance may indicate such changes.
How to measure: Using Google Analytics, open the Acquisition menu. From there, select All Traffic, then select Channels.
You’ll now be presented with a view of a website’s sources of traffic, which are sorted by channel. Select the Organic Search channel for a useful report that displays a site’s organic traffic stats.
This report is a versatile one. It gives SEO practitioners the ability to uncover critical information such as:
- Which landing pages are the most effective at attracting traffic
- Which keywords are delivering the highest amounts of traffic
- Which of the search engines are directing the highest amount of organic traffic to a website
- What pages are frequently the biggest exit pages (or the last page a visitor views before leaving the website)
- And many other vital stats
Best Practices: Because of frequent changes to search engine algorithms (up to 600 changes per year for Google,) an SEO practitioner must be vigilant at all times. An important best practice is to anticipate such changes and have a keen awareness of them when using this KPI.
Keyword Ranking is how well or how poorly a website ranks in SERPs for a given search term. Measuring this KPI is effective for determining, among other things, a company’s ability to build brand awareness. The lower the keyword rank, the better. Ranking on page one – or even better, the first result on page one – has traditionally been the highest goal.
Benefits: The strategy of analyzing your keyword rankings over time can help you determine (and improve) how effective your website is at pulling in organic web traffic.
The best results are achieved by tracking this KPI continually. When keyword ranking is checked on a regular basis, you’re able to diagnose problems early on. The goal is to quickly notice things like steady declines in ranking over a period of a few weeks. If you’re paying close attention over the long haul, fewer problems will sneak up on you.
Challenges: Many factors influence keyword ranking. For any given keyword, results on Google’s page one often look different from user to user.
Google results displayed on mobile devices can be different from results shown on a computer. Results can also vary based on the searcher’s location. Further, personalization (based on a user’s past behavior) can alter what is seen on page one. For example, a website might rank higher in a searcher’s results if that user has already visited that site frequently.
How to measure: Google analytics isn’t as helpful as some SEO practitioners would like it to be as far as tracking keyword rankings. Its keyword tab (within the campaign tab) often displays the phrase “not provided.”
Instead of Google analytics, consider the rank tracker provided by cognitiveSEO. One of its advantages is that it allows SEO practitioners to track keywords at a universal level as well as at a local level. It also allows you to analyze the keyword performance of competitors.
Best Practices: While keyword rankings can help you see the positive (or not so positive) results of your SEO activities, this KPI isn’t good at explaining why your strategies are working or not. Therefore, it’s very important to use this KPI simultaneously with other metrics.
Social shares can be defined simply as the sharing of your content by social media users. While it’s generally thought that Google does not take social signals and shares into consideration when ranking SERP results, social shares are still very important to your SEO efforts.
Benefits: Tracking your social shares is beneficial because of the important impact social media plays in SEO strategies. As more people share your content with their followers, the higher the chances that more people will view it and ultimately migrate over to your website. More visits to your website means a boost in organic search ranking.
Social sharing also boosts the likelihood that blogs and websites will link to your content – which, as I’ll soon discuss, is highly beneficial to your SEO efforts.
Further, social media profiles are indexable by search engines. Social posts with good rankings often have a significant number of social shares. Tweets and Facebook posts are handled as web pages, which is why a company’s social accounts often show up in SERPs along with the company website.
The SEO advantage here is that when a company’s social media profiles take important real estate in top positions of a SERP, that’s less space a competitor can occupy.
Challenges: While it’s true that social media profiles are indexable, it can be frustrating for some SEO practitioners to discover that not all indexable social-media pages actually get indexed. Because of the sheer number of tweets and other social content, Google can’t index all of it.
How to measure: Using Google Analytics, open the Acquisition menu. From there, select All Traffic, then select Channels. You’ll now be presented with a view of a website’s sources of traffic, which are sorted by channel. You’ll be able to view the sources of Search, Social, Direct, Referral, Email, Paid search, and “Other.”
Also, here’s a good resource from Yoast that guides you toward tracking social shares by adding social buttons to your site.
Best Practices: When monitoring this KPI, watch for any inaccurate geographic or business information on any of your profiles. Mismatched address information, phone numbers, websites, etc. could potentially lower your ranking on SERPs.
Another important point to keep in mind as you’re monitoring your social shares is that many users share content without even reading or viewing it first. To gain visitors and traffic to your website, observe which kinds of posts actually get users to click the content along with sharing it.
Conversion Rate from Organic Search Traffic
Companies striving for higher sales should measure conversion rates from organic traffic. A “conversion” happens when a website visitor has been converted into a sale or a lead. “Conversion rate” is the number of visitors who have completed the action or goal you’re aiming for. The goal might be for visitors to make a purchase (if you run an ecommerce site,) or to sign up for a newsletter or opt in to an email list.
Conversion rate is expressed as a percentage. If 5 visitors out of 100 were to do what a business (or individual) wants them to do, the conversion rate would be 5%.
It’s also important to note that a “lead” can mean several things. It can be a sales qualified lead, a marketing qualified lead, or simply any person who has expressed interest by identifying themselves through a web form.
Benefits: Organic traffic generated from inbound marketing is known for producing higher conversion rates than outbound marketing (such as paid ads). Conversion rates from organic traffic are therefore a very effective KPI for gauging the success of your SEO strategies.
Challenges: A high conversion rate is a reflection of good CRO (conversion rate optimization) practices. When measuring this key performance indicator, keep in mind that SEO and CRO professionals have traditionally conflicted when working on the same project.
CRO practitioners tend to be concerned that SEO efforts might affect their work and decrease conversion rates. Conversely, SEO practitioners sometimes worry that CRO pros will negatively affect their traffic-generating web pages.
For both sides of this marketing coin the solution is to look at goals together and work side by side along the same path. The reality is that there’s no conflict between SEO and CRO when they work together for a common goal.
How to measure: Google analytics will help you measure conversion rates from organic search traffic. The first step is to establish conversion goals in Google analytics.
- Log in to Google Analytics
- Select Admin
- In the third column (View), select Goals
- Select “+ NEW GOAL”
Next, give your goal a name, and mark the choice for Destination to choose a web page.
Input the URL your visitors will land on after they complete the goal – such as a confirmation page displayed after making a purchase, or a thank-you page.
Then, if you know a dollar amount for a goal value, add that as well. You’ll now be ready to track your conversions.
Best Practices: Be as specific as you can when setting conversion goals. You’ll want to track the user journey from beginning to end. It helps know your micro and macro goals. A micro goal could be when a visitor lands on a specifications page for a product. The macro goal would be going on further to purchase the product.
Once you know your micro and macro goals, you can track them in Google Analytics’ Goal Completions. You’ll then have insight on whether your website’s functionality and design are effectively facilitating your visitors’ journey all the way up to goal completion.
Useful for measuring the authority and popularity of your website, backlinks (often referred to as inbound links) are links to your website that originate from someone else’s website. Backlinks to your site can also originate from other pages on your own site.
The strategy of acquiring backlinks is important because Google’s algorithm looks at link volume to judge the importance of a website. If your site has a larger number of relevant backlinks than what your competitors have, Google will rank your site higher.
The philosophy behind this is that if a multitude of other websites are referring to your site through backlinks, then the content on your site must be useful and important. And if your site is so useful to web searchers, that’s a signal to Google to give it priority on SERPs.
The key to measuring this KPI is to track your website’s backlink volume (number of backlinks) and compare it to your competitors’ backlink volume.
Benefits: Measuring this performance indicator will go a long way in helping you rank higher. By tracking it, you’ll always know where you stand with what some in the SEO industry view as the most important ranking factor used by Google. When you know whether you’re succeeding with your backlinks, you know how much you need to improve by.
There are several strategies that can be used to acquire more backlinks – including efforts such as nurturing online relationships, blogging, guest blogging, listing your site in directories, and other tactics.
The bottom line is that when you track your backlinks, you’ll know how much work is needed and which link-building strategies to employ.
Challenges: One challenging aspect of the KPI and strategy of backlinks is that the links need to be relevant to your website. For example, backlinks from a pet supplies website wouldn’t be very relevant when linked to a car manufacturer’s website.
Also, to be effective, an SEO professional can’t merely count relevant backlinks and call it good. Backlinks should come from websites that are themselves frequently linked to. Why?
Websites have varying amounts of “link juice.” This is a term casually used in the SEO industry to refer to a website’s backlink volume and the age of the site (a long history on the web is important to Google.) A website that gives backlinks to your site passes some of its link juice onto your site. Backlinks from websites with higher link juice are more valuable to your site than links from low link-juice sites.
How to measure: Using Google Analytics, open the Acquisition menu. From there, select All Traffic, then select Referrals. You can now look at your referral traffic, which is Google’s way of saying “backlinks.”
Also, for a comprehensive backlink analysis tool, cognitiveSEO aggregates backlink data from trusted link databases and analyzes the links on demand for each of their clients.
Best Practices: As with other KPIs, it’s very important to track your backlink volume consistently, over time. Be aware of how many new backlinks you’re gaining week by week, and compare this to how many links your competitors are gaining.
Organic Click-Through Rate
While many marketers think of click-through rates (CTRs) as being tied to pay-per-click (PPC) ads, click-through rates are also very useful in the organic search realm. Organic click-through rate is a good KPI to measure the quality of your website. If web searches like what they see, they’ll dig deeper into your site.
A CTR is a straightforward metric: It’s the number of times a search result gets clicked, divided by how many views (or impressions) the search result has received.
Benefits: This KPI is useful because it helps you determine and demonstrate exactly how effective your search engine listings are at attracting clicks. After all, no matter how high your web site is ranking on Google, it won’t be of any value unless visitors are clicking it.
Challenges: One limitation of this KPI is that organic CTRs don’t tell you anything about the quality of the clicks your listings are receiving. Are you getting clicks from visitors who have no intent to make a purchase? Are you a local business who’s receiving clicks from people outside of your city (or even outside your country?)
Also, CTRs often fluctuate when universal results alter the position of your listings.
A decrease in your CTR might very well be caused by news results or featured snippets that come and go over time.
Another challenge is that CTR can also be affected by the devices used by visitors. Because SERPs aren’t exactly the same on mobile devices as they are on computers, click-through rates sometimes vary between them. While web searchers using mobile will often scroll through to the bottom of page one, they typically don’t view page-two results.
How to Measure: In the Google Search Console, select Search Traffic, and then Search Analytics. Next, choose the options to display clicks, impressions, position. You’ll then want to download this data, open it in Excel, and group all keywords by rank.
Calculating the average CTR of a rank is pretty straightforward. Simply add the clicks for each position. Next, divide the total by the number of impressions. You’ll now have your website’s general CTR curve.
Best Practices: Organic click-through rate should be measured along side of other analytics. Your Conversion Rate from Organic Search Traffic is a good KPI to monitor along with your organic CTR.
The Mountain Is High, but the Victory Is Sweet
If you’re out of breath after reading this post (or worse yet, discouraged,) don’t be overwhelmed! Take heart, force a smile, and accept the fact that victory never comes easy. Success and competitiveness are for those who are willing to work harder and get their hands dirtier. The bottom line here is that you can do this, and it will be worth it.
The keys to good SEO measurement are patience, dedication, and the ability to adapt to change. So get ready for the marathon, and keep your eye on the prize: measurable successes and a steep competitive edge.
About the Author
Sagi is an online marketing expert and the head of SEO at InboundJunction, a premium content marketing agency based in Israel. With his technical and creative abilities, Sagi is constantly looking for the latest SEO trends and tools to formulate a winning search strategy. You can connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.