SEO Performance Reporting in the Datapocalypse

Thanks to the major U.S. search engines implementing secure search, the keywords that drive organic search referrals are no longer available for meaningful analysis in web analytics. The SEO datapocalypse is here.

Before this month, around half the keywords were still visible for some sites. That’s a healthy sample size, and one I was still willing to use in conjunction with other related data sets to analyze natural search performance. But a visible set of less than 10 percent of the keywords driving traffic to a site is not a reliable sample size. It’s time to adapt new data sources to analyze natural search performance.

Setting Goals for Natural Search Performance

Before we worry about how to measure performance, we need to determine what natural search performance looks like.

Naturally the goals should come before you start optimizing for natural search, but if you don’t have goals yet, now is the time to start. What outcome would you consider successful? What does your management consider a success? Success should tie as closely to the bottom line as possible.

For instance, positive rankings make poor goals because you can’t pay your employees and vendors with rankings. I won’t argue that rankings influence conversions, such as revenue, but rankings are supporting measures rather than end goals. Positive revenue impact makes a much better goal.

For instance, positive rankings make poor goals because you can’t pay your employees and vendors with rankings.

Natural search goals should be conversion-based. If you’re able to track revenue in your web analytics, revenue should be the ultimate goal. This could be, for example, increase natural search revenue for 2014 by 25 percent year over year.

The strategic SEO goal should roll up neatly into the goals for the rest of the organization. Similarly, you’ll probably have initiative- or project-based goals that roll up into the strategic SEO goal. For example, to support the goal of increased sales you may decide to kick off an optimization project for critical section of your site. The measure of success for this specific project would be to increase visits and conversions within a certain period of time on the specific pages within the section that were optimized.

How to Measure Natural Search Performance

The goals determine the data needed to measure natural search performance. Once you understand the goals, measuring their success becomes easier.

If you can’t track revenue, as an ecommerce company this is probably first on your list of things to resolve. In the meantime, substitute actions as far down the search funnel as possible.

Here’s what I mean.

  • Keyword data. Searchers enter a query on search engines.
  • Rankings. Search engines determine whether to rank your site in its organic results.
  • Impressions. Searchers see your result included in the organic search results.
  • Click-through rate. Searchers click your organic result to land on your site.
  • Visits. Your site loads the pages requested and analytics registers each searcher as a natural search visitor.
  • Conversions. Searchers perform a desirable activity, the pinnacle of which is typically a purchase.

Each step in the search funnel is measurable. The closer to the end-goal of conversion, the more effective the action is as a measurement of natural search performance because you’re one step closer to financial gain.

For example, if you can’t measure purchase metrics like orders and revenue, the next step earlier in the search funnel is measuring visits. If you can’t measure visits, it’s time to get a new web analytics package. Google Analytics is easy to install and free.

Notice that rankings are the second step of six in the search funnel. Hanging success on rankings when financial gain is four steps away is no way to run a business.

To collect data on each step in the funnel, consider these options.

  • Keyword research. Google’s Keyword Planner provides good insight into the volume of searches on Google. (I’ve addressed Keyword Planner previously, at “SEO: Using Google’s New Keyword Planner.”) The Bing Keyword Research Tool does the same thing for Bing searches. Other tools like WordStream, Spyfu, and SEMRush aggregate keyword data from various sources. Always investigate the source of the tool’s data so you can understand its biases. (See “My Favorite SEO Tools” for more.)
  • Rankings. Don’t bother checking rankings yourself on your own computer. Rankings are personalized to such a degree that any data you collect will be tainted. There are many ranking tools, but look for those that use depersonalized machines on the country or city you want to check rankings for. I like SearchMetrics, but I know others who prefer the Moz Rank Tracker, Advanced Web Ranking and others. Google Webmaster Tools also reports the average ranking position for each keyword and landing page in its Top Queries report.
  • Impressions. See Google Webmaster Tools’ Top Queries report for Google impressions. Many all-in-one SEO software packages like Rio SEO, BrightEdge and SearchMetrics also provide impressions.
  • Click-through rate. See Google Webmaster Tools’ Top Queries report for the Google click-through rate. Rio SEO, BrightEdge and SearchMetrics also calculate click-through rates.
  • Visits. Turn to your web analytics for reports on natural search visits. Google Webmaster Tools also reports the number of visits it sent for each keyword and landing page in its Top Queries report.
  • Conversions. Only your web analytics package can tell you how your site is converting.

Diagnostic Data vs. Performance Data

If the measure of success is nearly always conversions and revenue, why bother tracking rankings and click-throughs and other supporting data points? Because you won’t always succeed in growing conversions and revenue, and you need to know why.

I consider the data that helps you determine why you succeeded or not as diagnostic data. It tells you more about what happened and why. Performance data, conversely, tells you whether you were successful.

In addition to the keyword data, rankings, impressions, click-throughs and visits, I also regularly collect and examine bounce rates, detailed reports on entry landing pages and keyword referrals, detailed reports on incoming links, a list of release notes that detail what marketing and technical changes were made to the site and when, and other diagnostic data. Without supporting data sets, you know whether you achieved the goal, but you don’t know why or how, to improve.

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