It’s impossible to determine whether or not a marketing campaign is effective unless you measure the results and experiment. Search engine optimization (SEO) has always been somewhat elusive in terms of measurability because Google is highly restrictive about the types of information it’s willing to give to its users. Its motivation is to keep marketers focused on giving users a quality online experience instead of clamoring over page rank, and it’s worked well over the past several years.
Google’s Panda and Penguin updates have made its search engine algorithms even more extraordinarily complex, putting the last nail in the coffin of old-school optimization strategies like keyword stuffing and traditional link building. These updates also marked the beginning of a new SEO philosophy: user experience is what matters most.
Older SEO strategies were focused on one thing: page rank. The higher you ranked in search engine results for a given keyword, the more traffic you would get. But now that search engine algorithms are so complex and Google is masking much of the data available, page rank is no longer a valuable measure of the health of your campaign.
Instead of obsessing over your ranks, use these important metrics to chart the growth and effectiveness of your SEO campaign:
Imagine you own a fast food restaurant. Visibility is important: if you can raise your restaurant’s sign up 200 feet in the air, more people will be able to see it. But that visibility doesn’t necessarily matter if there isn’t anybody around to see it. It’s more important to have a steady stream of traffic driving by your restaurant, and eventually into your parking lot. Having a highly raised sign might increase that traffic, but there’s no guarantee of that.
In this overly simplistic illustration, the height of the sign represents page rank and the traffic represents organic visits. The higher you rank for a specific keyword, the more people will see your brand, but there are too many other factors that can affect traffic. At the end of the day, organic visits are the truest measure of how successful your SEO campaign is at bringing people to your site; you may be on page one for several search terms but you’re only getting a few dozen hits, or you may have hardly any significant ranks while getting several thousand.
In Google Analytics, you can find your organic search traffic under Acquisition > Overview or Acquisition > Channels. There, you’ll be able to see how many users found your site after performing a natural search, as opposed to visiting directly, visiting from referral sites, or visiting from social media links. If you execute quality work consistently, you can expect this number to grow.
If we extend our fast food illustration from above, your “bounce rate” is essentially the number of people who pull into your restaurant to look at your menu, but leave before getting anything. Bouncing is bad for your site, but you’re always going to have some people bounce. You can view Bounce rate in several areas of Google Analytics, including Acquisition > Channels.
Bounce rate is important for two reasons. First, from a pure ranking perspective, Google tends to favor sites in its search results that have lower bounce rates. Accordingly, if you decrease your bounce rate over time, you’ll have an easier time ranking (even though ranking shouldn’t be your top priority). Second, bounce rate is a good indication of how much your new visitors like your site. If your bounce rate is bad, you might want to improve the design or layout of your site, or offer more engaging content to keep users around longer.
You’ll never get your bounce rate to zero, but if you continue to work to improve your users’ experience, your bounce rate should correspondingly decrease over time.
Social shares are a good measure of how successful your content is. If your site offers a way for users to share your articles on social media, track which articles tend to attract the most number of shares. Alternatively, when you syndicate your content on social channels, monitor how many likes, shares, and re-tweets your articles generate.
Pay attention to the types of titles and subject matter that generate the biggest response. Then, adjust your content strategy to favor the creation and syndication of those types. Over time, you’ll build a more loyal, engaged audience, and you’ll be able to measure the fruits of your efforts by seeing those “share” numbers gradually grow.
Page popularity can also give you insight into which areas of your site attract the most traffic. Check out Behavior > Overview in Google Analytics, and view the full report to see which sections of your site are the most successful at attracting and retaining users. You can measure the bounce rate of each page as well. Here, you’ll be able to determine which pages of your site need the most work in order to keep people interested as well as which pages grow the most as a result of your campaign.
The conversion rate of your website is probably the most important factor for your bottom line as a company. Conversions can be defined in different ways (for example, e-commerce sites would define a conversion as a user making a purchase and completing checkout, while a simple information-based landing page would define a conversion as a user filling out a form), but a conversion is always an indication of a user getting closer to the final stage of the buying cycle.
There are many factors that determine whether a user is willing to convert; the design, call to action, and usability of the site are all important. But in order to see that conversion rate rise, you need to have a high stream of users coming to your site and sticking around long enough to see what you’re selling.
Tracking your conversion rate gives you two immediate insights. First, it shows you the appropriateness and engagement level of your website. A low conversion rate could be an indicator of an irrelevant audience or a failure to generate interest. Second, it shows you the return on your investment. If you see your conversion rate growing from organic traffic, you know your efforts are truly paying off. You can set up Goals in the Admin panel of Google Analytics to track your progress.
With any metrics you track for your SEO campaign, what matters isn’t necessarily where you stand with them now—it’s more about how those numbers change over time. Take a snapshot of your current standings, and check in on at least a monthly basis to compare your new numbers against your long-term goals. Once you’ve spent a few months digging into the data and understanding how it is calculated, you can start running experiments to determine what strategies work best for your brand and your industry; remember, no two companies are the same, and it takes consistent attention and effort to make an organic search strategy successful in the long term.