A potential client recently expressed concern that the stats for my SEO firmâ€™s website were trending lower on SEMrush, an online tool that provides insightful data related to search engine optimization. This seems like an opportune time to write about a topic Iâ€™ve been researching ever since I started doing SEO 10 years agoâ€“which metrics matter and why. Below I examine several key metrics used in SEO and give guidelines for how to interpret and benefit from them.
Rankings. Letâ€™s slay this dragon first. Search engine rank is the metric focused on more widely than any other, and yet in only rare cases is it the metric that matters most. There is certainly something emotionally appealing about ranking #1 for your most desired keyword, but a #1 ranking by itself doesnâ€™t pay employees or contribute to your retirement fund. Rankings are certainly a valuable metric, but they are worthless unless they lead directly to other metrics that truly matter.
Backlinks. Backlinks, also known as incoming links, are a valuable metric, inasmuch as itâ€™s an important part of Googleâ€™s algorithm for ranking websites. All things being equal, a website with higher quality incoming links will rank higher than a website with lower quality incoming links. But incoming links are a means to an end, not the ultimate goal. And quality trumps quantity. A single link from a site like CNN.com (or Forbes.com, for that matter), can be worth hundreds of links from smaller, lesser known sites.
I had an experience with this myself at a recent SEO conference in Hong Kong when I had the opportunity to sit down with Jessica Rose from Majestic SEO. Majestic provides a backlink analysis tool, and Rose was using my firmâ€™s website to show me some of the new features of Majesticâ€™s tool. As we looked at the data, we noticed an alarming trend in that my firm had lost thousands of incoming links in the past month. But upon closer analysis, we realized the links were from a directory network my firm runs. We have been pruning that network and letting many domains expire, and as those websites expire the links to my firm in the footer of every page of every one of those directories are disappearing. Once I explained this we realized these are links I can do without, and losing them causes no harm. Those links were only there to show people who was running the directories, and I was aware they were of little to no SEO benefit. There was a lot of quantity, but little quality.
Note: The one time backlinks should attract almost undivided attention is when your website has bad backlinks that need to be cleaned up, as I covered in my last post.
Traffic. The number of visitors coming to your website is another valuable metric, but like rankings can sometimes draw more attention than it should. Analyzing the total number of visitors can be especially misleading, as Iâ€™ll explain at the end of this post. However, analyzing traffic can be valuable as you see what keywords are bringing in traffic (although that has recently become trickier), what pages are bringing in traffic, and delve into other details.
Bounce rate. When someone comes to your website and then quickly leaves, thatâ€™s called a bounce. Itâ€™s sort of like when you call the wrong phone number and only realize it after you ask to talk to Jim Bob and the person on the other end of the line tells you thereâ€™s no one there by that name. The number of visitors who bounce from your website vs. the number who stay for longer is your bounce rate, and ideally you want few people to bounce, and many to stay and hang out for awhile. Improvements to your title tags and meta description tags, the text that shows up in search engine results, can improve your bounce rate by making sure people who arenâ€™t interested in your site never click through to it, and those that do click on search engine results find what they expect to find. But again, a healthy bounce rate isnâ€™t the ultimate goal. A low bounce rate, traffic, backlinks, and rankings are all what I would call â€œintermediary metrics,â€ in that they matter, but only as they lead to the metrics below.
Conversions. When a visitor comes to your website and does what you want them to do, thatâ€™s a conversion. If you run an ecommerce site, the moment a visitor buys something thatâ€™s a conversion. For a hotel it would be the moment a visitor makes an online reservation. If you run a website for a law firm a conversion wouldnâ€™t be an online sale, but might rather be getting a visitor to fill out an online form requesting more information. If youâ€™re an architect it might be getting a visitor to your website to pick up the phone and call the number they found on your site. Conversions are a much more valuable metric than rankings, backlinks, and traffic, and your website should be designed in such a way as to encourage conversions.
Profit. Even conversions donâ€™t tell the whole story when it comes to metrics, but money does, and especially money defined as profit. If I run an ecommerce site selling triathlon supplies, any conversion is good (assuming Iâ€™m selling products at a profit), but would I rather sell a $2,500 high-end treadmill, or a $120 pair of running shoes? What if by focusing my website and SEO efforts on treadmills I can only sell 10 treadmills per month, but I can sell 1,000 pairs of shoes if I focus on those? The point of such questions is to show that rankings, backlinks, traffic, and even conversions donâ€™t matter, unless they lead to increased profits. For my imaginary triathlon store I might be ok losing rankings and traffic related to running shoes if this happens because Iâ€™m focusing on high-end treadmills, increasing sales of that product, and thereby increasing my overall profits as a result.
If youâ€™re a business owner working with an SEO firm, an in-house team, or doing SEO on your own, what does this mean? It means you should be making every effort to tie your SEO efforts to profits. If you canâ€™t tell if your SEO efforts are generating more profits than you would have otherwise had, how do you know if what youâ€™re spending on SEO is worth it? Sometimes this kind of analysis is easy. If you hire an SEO firm and over the next six months your sales volume quadruples, and youâ€™re not doing anything else that can explain the jump in sales, then you might conclude without too much effort that SEO is what made the difference. But for most businesses itâ€™s more difficult to track the results of SEO. This is why it can be tempting to fall back on rankings or traffic as effective metrics. In some cases that may be all you can do. But if those are the metrics you choose to focus on, make sure itâ€™s only after you find you have no other option.
Returning to the case of my firmâ€™s potential client asking us about declining metrics on SEMrush, what was my response? While I find SEMrush to be a valuable tool, it helps with intermediary metrics related to rankings, backlinks, and traffic. In my firmâ€™s case, we canâ€™t depend on overall traffic patterns as a reliable metric because we have a rather generic name, MWI, which is used by many other companies, including MWI Veterinary Supply, a public company in Idaho with a market cap of over $2B. Chances are if someone is searching on Google for â€œmwiâ€ theyâ€™re looking for veterinary supplies, not SEO. As much as we try to make it clear on our website that we do not sell supplies related to farm animal care, youâ€™d be surprised how many orders we receive for cattle feed or equine antibiotics (sidenote: imagine the confusion if someday MWI Vet became a client of my firm).
So when I saw in SEMrush that there is a declining trend for my firm, I went and compared that to my Google Analytics report. What I found was that while our traffic has indeed declined over the past 12 months compared to the prior 12 months, our bounce rate has been cut by more than half, visitors are visiting more pages on our site, staying longer on our site, and our conversions are up 11%. What that tells me is that less of the traffic we donâ€™t want is ending up on our site, while at the same time we are attracting more of the traffic we do want. Most importantly, weâ€™re attracting more of the type of clients we want to attract, and for us thatâ€™s the ultimate metric, and one that canâ€™t be seen with any SEO tool. I believe these results are coming from sustained high rankings and an ok website (which weâ€™re redesigning to improve both conversions and rankings, although perhaps mostly because I just think our current one looks old and isnâ€™t all that useful). While SEO tools like SEMrush can be an invaluable resource in helping you generate profits from your SEO efforts, donâ€™t forget that the metrics these tools give you are means to an end, and not the end itself.