The metrics that a large number of businesses track related to SEO are, frequently, the wrong ones. If your SEO team tracks metrics that skew too macro, or too micro, you can end up with a skewed view of your progress in organic search:
The 10,000 Foot View
If your metrics are too high-level, the numbers can mask both problems and opportunity. A good example is looking only at the total number of visits that your site gets on a monthly basis from organic search. You may be satisfied if your numbers are stable year-over-year, but what if 90% of your traffic comes from 5 terms, and the only page that ranks is your home page? That’s a problem.
The 10 Foot View
Many marketers obsess over the rankings of a handful of keywords – sometimes called “vanity rankings”. Often, these are keywords that drive large volumes of search traffic, or keywords that an executive has decided are strategically important for the business to have visibility for. While tracking a handful of keyword rankings is fine, you need a broader focus to ensure that your site is performing well in the long tail of search, where 70% of total search volume is.
SEO is simple. But it’s simple the way baseball is simple – the old saying “throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball” comes to mind. Simple, right? There’s always complexity lurking below surface, but just like in baseball, your SEO team need to have a quick set of metrics they can refer to that give you meaningful information about how well you’re performing. I call these metrics the SEO Health Check.
The SEO Health Check
The metrics tracked here are designed to give you a quick, directionally accurate view of how well your site is doing in organic search. It tracks indexation, landing pages, keywords and traffic (the basis of IRTA, covered in my previous post).
Let’s take a look at how to track each of these areas, and then dive into how to interpret the data:
URLs and Indexed Pages
First, you need to know how big your site actually is. Usually, this will require feedback from your Engineering or Product teams. You need to determine the number of valid content URLs that your site is capable of generating. Relying on a “guesstimate” is not sufficient here.
Next, you need to ensure that search engines can find your content, and consider it important enough to keep in their indexes. Organic search is like fishing with a drag net – the bigger your net, the more fish you’re likely to catch. The number of your site’s URLs that a search engine has indexed defines the size of that net, so it’s an important metric to keep an eye on.
The easiest way to get an accurate view of this number is via Google Webmaster Tools. From the Dashboard, click on “Health” and then “Index Status”. You’ll see a line graph that gives you a year’s worth of historical data on how many URLs from your site Google has indexed. How close is this number to the total number of valid URLs on your site? It’s very rare for sites over 10,000 pages to get more than 80% of their pages indexed, so this is a relative measure.
In the fictitious example, above, you can see that the site had been experiencing some healthy gains in indexation, and then toward the end of June, there was a large, sudden drop. This kind of data should send your SEO into high alert. Rapid drops in indexation are usually due to problems with accessibility (your URLs can’t be found by the engines), or penalty situations (engines remove your URLs from the index due to violations of their guidelines).
There are other ways to check indexation levels, like using the site operator. This method works in Google and Bing, and you can use it to get data on any site you’re interested in (as opposed to just your own). However, this method is much less precise – it’s only directionally accurate, and less deduplication processing has been done compared to the numbers you see in Google Webmaster Tools, which has its good and bad sides. You simply go to the engine and type:
The number of results is the number of URLs that the engine has indexed from that domain.
If your site has 10,000 pages and only 1,000 are indexed, your site may have barriers to indexation, or may not be authoritative enough for engines to consider indexing the content worthwhile. In that case, you probably need help either with improving information architecture, increasing link authority, or both.
However, if your site has 10,000 pages and the site operator returns 40,000 results, that points to a duplicate content problem. You want to make sure that your site is only rendering 1 piece of content on 1 URL, and not rendering the same content on multiple URLs due to technical issues. There are many causes for this problem, but it’s something your SEO needs to address.
You also want a significant number of URLs contributing to your site’s success in organic search – you want as many pages as possible “earning their keep”. If you have 10,000 pages on your site, and 5,000 of them were landing pages for visitors from organic search, that’s great. However, if you have 10,000 pages, and only your home page is getting organic search traffic, you have a big problem.
In Google Analytics, you want to first select the Advanced Segment of “Non-paid Search Traffic”. Then in the left navigation, click “Content”, “Site Content”, then “Landing Pages”.
Tracking this metric year-over-year gives you an idea of how new pages are being found via organic search as their link authority increases, and they begin to rank for new keyword combinations.
Closely related to landing pages, you want people to find your site via a large number of keywords. 70% of total search query volume is in the long tail, so if people are only finding your site through a small handful of terms, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunity.
Even if the number of pages on your site has remained the same year-over-year, if you’re doing the right things in marketing your content, then your site is becoming more authoritative, which means that a given page will be able to rank for new keyword combinations.
Additionally, you want to segment your keywords to see what kinds keywords are driving traffic, because they’re not all created equal.
Brand Keywords: This includes your brand name, variations on your brand, misspellings, and your domain name. You can create a Custom Segment in Google Analytics that uses regular expressions to match lots of different variations and misspellings with a single line of code, e.g. (mybrand|my brand|mybrnd|my brnd|.com).
If your brand is strong enough that people search for you by name, that’s great, but you should expect to dominate the SERPs for your brand. Doing well here doesn’t tell you much about how well you’re doing SEO.
Non-brand Keywords: As the name implies, this is every non-branded keyword that drove traffic to your site, and defines the real opportunity in organic search. A sporting goods store is doing well when they start getting traffic for “basketball shoes” and “football jerseys”, etc, rather than just their store name.
Organic Search Traffic
Last, but certainly not least, you want to look at the traffic you’re getting from organic search. I prefer looking at data year-over-year, because it corrects for seasonal differences that skew data when you look month-over-month.
You can get as granular with your segmentation as you like, but often it’s enough to look at traffic segmented by the keyword groups we outlined, above:
- Google Brand Keywords
- Google Non-brand Keywords
- Bing Brand Keywords
- Bing Non-brand Keywords
Interpreting the Data
Let’s take another look at the example SEO Health Check data:
Total Site URLs: This shows that the site grew substantially over the past year, adding 61% more pages (launching new content pages, developing new products, etc).
Indexed URLs: The number of URLs that engines have indexed also increased substantially, growing by almost a quarter.
% of URLs Indexed: This is an interesting metric. Despite the fact that the number of Indexed URLs grew by 24% year-over-year, the rate of increase in indexation is not keeping pace with the growth of the site itself in new pages published. The number of URLs is increasing faster than the authority of the site is able to drive indexation. This points to an opportunity to engage in content marketing and link building to get more of those new pages into the index, ranked, and earning traffic, as well as improving the flow of link authority through improving information architecture.
Landing Pages: The total number of landing pages has increased modestly year-over-year. However, you also want to be very aware of the traffic distribution amongst these landing pages. It’s perfectly natural to have a handful of pages account for a relatively large percentage of organic search traffic (e.g., the home page and 4 category pages account for 10% of total organic search visits). However, the more even your traffic distribution is amongst your pages, the more defensible your traffic is likely to be over the long term. You want to be very wary of having too much of your traffic dependent on a handful of keyword rankings, which can change at a moment’s notice.
Landing Pages vs Indexed Pages: This is a further refinement of the Indexation metrics, above. Getting a URL in the index is an important first step, but that page has to rank highly enough that a search actually sees it and clicks for it to be of any value. As we saw previously, despite the total number of landing pages increasing, the rate of increase is not keeping pace with the rate that new pages are being indexed. Lack of link authority is likely the culprit.
Brand Keywords: The number of brand –related queries people are using to find the site is almost steady-state year over year, which is perfectly fine, and would be expected (unless you had done a major rebranding).
Non-brand Keywords: We’re seeing a healthy gain here in the number of generic keywords that people are using to find our site, which is a very positive sign. This indicates a healthy presence in the long tail of search, which is vital to sustaining long-term growth in organic search.
Google Traffic – Brand: Using the Custom Segment you built for Brand Keywords, you see that Google is driving a modest increase in traffic year-over-year. How you interpret this metric is highly dependent on how much effort and money you devote to brand building. If you’ve invested a huge amount in awareness marketing via online banner advertising, television, or the like, you would hope for a much larger increase. If you don’t invest in brand-building, then numbers that are about even year-over-year would be expected.
Google Traffic – Non-brand: This is what we’re really after. Seeing a healthy increase here indicates that we are making real forward progress with our SEO – indexation is driving ranking, which in turn drives traffic.
The metrics that we discussed take some work to generate initially, but once you get them set up, pulling them on a bi-weekly or monthly basis is a trivial amount of work. Importantly, they are the appropriate level of granularity that, allowing for some introduction to the core concepts, anyone on the product or marketing teams will be able to understand them (this level of detail will most likely not be shared with the C suite). Most importantly, the SEO Health Check surfaces data that give you meaningful insights into your site’s progress in SEO.