Analytics & Data

Measuring What Matters for SEO (Hint: It’s Not Rankings)

When measuring natural search performance, use the key performance indicators that matter to the bottom line. While each piece of data has its place in managing SEO, only visits and revenue truly identify how your natural search program is performing.

There is no shortage of data in search engine optimization: rankings, keyword data, indexation, error codes, and more. However, you can’t take rankings home and put them in the bank. Your corner grocer doesn’t take error code data as a payment method.

The King of KPIs

Ultimately, natural search revenue is the most important measurement — the king of SEO KPIs.

SEO’s role in the marketing mix is to pour visitors into the top of the funnel so that the site can convert them to customers. Ideally, those shoppers are far enough along in their own purchase decision to pull out their wallets and make a purchase. Ideally, the SEO program has optimized the right pages for search queries with purchase intent, in the right way, to lure the right prospects in to purchase.

And ideally the site experience is structured so that those shoppers are willing to purchase. But the site’s business, design, and technology also play a critical role in converting those visits to sales. Everything from the color of the checkout button to how quickly the pages load to pricing decisions to whether there are three or five steps in the checkout will impact conversion rates.

Ultimately, natural search revenue is the most important measurement — the king of SEO KPIs.

Revenue is what pays the bills. However, SEO professionals always include natural search visit data in the KPI mix as well because there are so many things out of the control of an SEO program that can impact the ability to convert traffic to dollars.

The combination of the two KPIs — revenue and visits — puts the focus jointly on what matters and the result that the SEO program is responsible for driving.


To be sure, other data, including the ever-popular rankings, plays a role in managing an SEO program. However, rankings must be considered diagnostic, because they’re measured in relation to their impact on traffic and revenue.

For example, whether your home page ranks first or third for an individual keyword may have an impact on the number of people who click from search results to your site to begin shopping. Or, it may not.

Whether that change will drive a measurable change in performance for visits or revenue depends on many factors: whether the keyword was branded or not; which competing pages moved up in the rankings; who’s doing the searches; whether the keyword is informational or transactional in nature; what other elements are competing for attention on the search result page; which search engine we’re talking about; and how the rankings data is being collected.

Even taken in aggregate across an entire program, keyword rankings data does not necessarily indicate performance. For instance, looking across all keyword rankings to say that rankings improved in Google by an average of one and a half places month over month is a factor in overall performance, but not a KPI.

Long-tail vs. Head

No tool or SEO platform can measure the bulk of the long-tail keyword phrases that drive traffic to your site, which means that no rankings data can accurately identify natural search performance on its own.

And the long tail of search drives more traffic volume than the measurable head phrases. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for keyword rankings data to fluctuate — those head phrases that can be measured more easily by keyword rankings tools — while overall natural search traffic and revenue hold steady based on the data for keyword rankings that fall into the spectrum of today’s rankings tools.

A brand has a big impact on rankings as well. Chances are, site-branded keywords — the name of your site, not necessarily the brands of the products you resell — likely drive a large portion of your natural search traffic. If shoppers are brand-loyal enough to search for your company, they’re likely to be looking to click on your site even if it falls a place in the rankings temporarily. Non-branded phrases do not share that same level of forgiveness, however.

Thus even in the presence of sexier rankings data, SEO professionals need to keep their eye on what truly matters: revenue and visits. That said, keyword rankings do have a place in the overall measurement and diagnosis of an SEO program’s performance.

For example, when traffic and revenue improve or decline, the first question is “Why?” All the supporting diagnostic data, rankings included, come in to play to understand what happened to cause that change.

If traffic and revenue decrease on a section of URLs but hasn’t changed on others, and rankings across all engines have also decreased for the same URLs, we can look for changes made to the content or templates for those specific changes. If rankings have disappeared entirely and traffic has ceased, we would look for a technical issue. If traffic has stopped and rankings haven’t changed, we might look for an analytics reporting error.

In short, rankings data is another helpful arrow in the SEO quiver of tools. But traffic and revenue are key.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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