How to Measure SEO Performance
Search engine optimization may be a mix of art and science, but it’s as measurable and accountable as other online marketing channels. Knowing what key performance indicators to measure for SEO is the first step. Establishing a regular routine for monitoring and measuring performance will give you the ability to effectively manage your SEO program.
Measure What Matters
Most ecommerce sites will want to measure organic search referred revenue. Selling products keeps us fed and clothed. It’s what matters most at the end of the day — not rankings or visits or indexation or number of backlinks or anything else. Therefore, revenue should be the focus of your SEO performance. All the other metrics factor into the amount of revenue driven, but the true success measure is “How much did we sell?”
Naturally, profit is an even better indicator of success, but tracking profit by marketing channel is beyond the realm of many ecommerce sites.
In an SEO program, the goal is to drive customers searching for specific keywords to the specific landing page optimized to convert to sale. As a result, view the revenue data by keyword and landing page or URL. This data allows us to drill down to see which optimizations are successfully driving the right searchers to the right pages to convert and which are not.
If you don’t know which landing pages should attract which keyword searches, you’ll need to create a keyword map. See my previous article, “Optimizing a Page for Search Engines, Part 2: Keyword Mapping,” for more information. By comparing the keyword map to the data on which landing pages are attracting visits and converting to sales for individual keywords you can determine whether your SEO program is progressing as planned, and perhaps whether your SEO plan needs to be tweaked.
Organizing SEO Data
You’ll be in your analytics every day, of course, and may put together weekly SEO reports as well. But a large monthly analysis gives you the opportunity to analyze the progress of the SEO strategy as a whole and to collect more time-consuming data sets for posterity.
Some balk at the monthly timetable, worrying that they’ll miss developing trends that can presage bigger troubles or opportunities. But doing a deep analysis of most SEO programs on a weekly basis is like chasing your tail. The data is too volatile viewed at a micro level and it’s easy to panic about a change that looks big one day but evens out the next. Keep an eye on daily and weekly trends for potential issues and opportunities, dive in where needed on individual trends, but take a longer view for bigger picture strategic analysis.
Exporting the data into an Excel spreadsheet gives you the freedom to perform more complex analysis than just looking at the topline chart your analytics package shows. Export your organic search visits, conversions and revenue on a regular monthly schedule that fits into your workflow. If there are other conversions that your business values — like registration for an account or newsletter subscriptions — you’ll want to export that information as well.
I like to export the organic search data three different ways: by keyword, by landing page, and by keyword and landing page. Google Analytics makes this data most readily available. Omniture and Coremetrics require custom reports to export the information, but it can be done.
Analyzing visits, conversions and revenue by keyword enables deeper insight into the types of searches that actually drive visitors to your site. At the very least you’ll want to look at the branded keyword visits compared to the non-branded. The non-branded keywords will typically represent the area of greatest growth potential, as well as the strongest competition. In addition you can track key product and category keywords to determine which are driving the most traffic and revenue. Applying profit margins to product and category keywords can also give you a ballpark idea of which are the most profitable and which need an SEO boost.
At this point, though, we don’t know where the customers are going. Just because they came in on a targeted keyword phrase doesn’t mean that Google or Bing landed them on the page you intended. The same product and category analysis can be done on a landing page basis to determine which pages are attracting the most organic search visits, revenue and profit.
However, only by analyzing the combination of keyword and landing page can we get to the heart of the matter: Did the right groups of keywords land customers on the right landing pages to convert? The answer to this question is the basis of the continual tweaking and experimenting that is SEO. If we know what is working and what isn’t at a keyword and landing page level, we can optimize those pages and measure the results. Without this data SEO is shooting in the dark.
Diagnostic Data for SEO
Along the path to visits and revenue, several things need to happen. Each of these stages is an opportunity to collect diagnostic data to help analyze trends. Most of this data isn’t archived anywhere, so capturing it and archiving it manually is a tedious but unfortunately necessary monthly task. I promise you’ll be grateful you did the next time your analytics show a sudden sharp drop in SEO performance, because you’ll have the data to determine what went wrong along the path to visits and revenue.
The first stage is crawling and indexation. You can’t drive organic search traffic or sales if the search engines aren’t indexing the site properly. Track the monthly indexation levels in Google, Yahoo! and Bing, and any other engines you care deeply about. I also like to track indexation levels of major landing page types like categories and products. That way you can tell if one area or another has suffered losses. Then log into Google Webmaster Tools and take a screen grab of the Crawl Errors and Crawl Stats charts, and download the Index Status and Sitemaps reports.
The second stage is backlinks. The quality and quantity of links from other sites play a large role in your SEO performance. Fluctuations in link numbers and where the links are coming from can affect the ability to rank, which will affect visits and revenue. If you subscribe to a tool like SEOmoz or Majestic SEO, download their reports. Log into Google Webmaster Tools and download the reports for Links to Your Site and Internal Links.
You’ll notice I haven’t said a thing about rankings yet — that’s the third stage. Rankings don’t make you money. Visits and conversions make you money. But rankings are merely an important step along the way to achieving visits and revenue. It’s important to track rankings, but with the ever-increasing levels of personalization in search results, it’s impossible to say that a page ranks number one for most searches. If at all possible, break your executives of the habit of obsessing over rankings. They should be obsessing over revenue instead.
If you subscribe to a tool like SEOmoz or WebCEO, download their reports. Log in to Google Webmaster Tools and download the reports for Search Queries by Top Queries and Top Pages.
I also like to keep a log or timeline of the changes made that could affect the site. Track the dates of migrations and launches, when optimizations went live, when links appeared in key publications, when features were added or removed from the site, etc.
Which leads us to the fourth and most important stage: visits and revenue. The combination of the key performance indicators and diagnostic data gives you the ability to analyze in one place the changes that impact indexation, backlinks, rankings, visits, conversions and revenue all in one place each month. When you see a sudden sharp drop or increase in SEO performance, you’ll be able to identify which of the stages were impacted and form a plan to capitalize on the surge or resolve the issue.