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Tips and tools for measuring your SEO strength

Tips and tools for measuring your SEO strength Grant Simmons

At its simplest, search engine optimization (SEO) strategy organizes and presents information (or marketing) online so it is accessible to search engine spiders, understandable by humans, relevant to user searches, and valuable once found.

It is both an art and science, because ultimate success requires a solid and planned integration of both creativity and technology.

As the SEO discipline matures, good SEO practitioners recognize this integration as a unique partnership of distinct (and disparate) expertise, one that often requires a different kind of collaboration among management, marketing, and information technology personnel.

The goal behind SEO is to attract new, targeted customers to websites via the search engines' natural or organic (as opposed to sponsored) results. Just as other forms of online and offline marketing attempt to attract more customers, SEO is implemented to drive more visitors, higher-quality visitors, and conversions.

How consumers search
The one common currency of search is the keyword. Users typing in a particular word or phrase are attempting to give sufficient information to garner a search engine results page (SERP) that contains relevant answers or information.

As internet users have grown more sophisticated and aware, their searches have followed suit, with search keywords becoming more complex, exact, and often incorporating geographic and/or brand elements.

SEO practitioners need to be aware of both what people are searching for and how people are searching. A good tool for finding search volume for specific terms is Google's Keywords Tool, where you'll also find Google's assessment of "advertiser competition" and new keyword suggestions associated with both search terms and your inputted keywords. The lesser-known Search-based Keyword Tool provides ideas based on your actual site, search behavior and page content.

How do we measure?
Remember, our goals are more visitors from search engines, better quality visitors, and site conversions, so we first have to focus on rankings and being able to track changes over time. As noted above, all other things being equal, higher rankings can (and should) equate to more clicks to your site. There are a number of free and paid tools that can provide ranking reports.

First, the big caveat. Google's terms of service prohibit the "sending of automated queries" to its system without "express permission in advance from Google."

This effectively disallows most of the software solutions out there that "emulate human behavior" or are "search engine-friendly." I won't name names (Google does in its webmaster guidelines), but there are some solutions out there that provide ranking reports as third-party providers, that won't possibly get your IP banned or cause any potential issues with your site's listings.

A couple of the recommended options are:

Both tools can track your keyword rankings, where higher should be better and, more often than not, clients are happy to see rankings increase.

Note how Google bolds keywords for the search "Wooden Bread Bin." Also note the subtle call to action and marketing verbiage used in the meta description tab.

How do we measure clicks?
The key to the measurement of success is the utilization of a solid analytics package. Most hosting providers include basic tracking software that analyzes log files and presents visitor and click data in an easy-to-read format. Your hosting provider offerings may vary, but popular log file analyzers include Webalizer, Analog, and Awstats.

"Pixel" tracking is a little different, in the fact that it uses a small piece of code on your site, attached to a single-pixel image request, to track visitor metrics.

One of the most popular (and free) solutions is Google's own Google Analytics. Google purchased the Urchin software corporation in 2005 and then proceeded to take the web world by storm by giving away one of the most powerful (and simple to use) website analytics packages available. Google Analytics requires only a Google account and installation of a small piece of JavaScript tracking code.

There are many tutorials, books, and seminars on the use of Google Analytics, so I won't repeat those details here, I will step through the metrics necessary for measuring success.

Taming your analytics
To measure SEO or organic traffic, you'll first need to segment the traffic statistics. In Google Analytics, simply go to the top right and click on the "Advanced Segments" tab and select "Non-paid Traffic," deselect "All Visits." Click apply.

Your dashboard will then show you the traffic metrics for the organic search engine traffic -- the fruits of your SEO labor.

By themselves, the numbers can act as a quick checkup on site health, but they become much more valuable when compared with prior data to highlight positive and negative changes. The following chart shows some data for a small corporate site comparing a four-week period in July/August 2009 against a four-week period in August/September 2009.

When comparing time periods, always try to compare the same days of week, as most traffic follows a very apparent 7-day cycle. In this case we're looking at four-week periods from a Wednesday to a Wednesday.

Defining Success

Looking at our visits metric, there can be no doubt our SEO efforts have been successful. A 90-percent increase in organic search engine traffic is an almost doubling of potentially valuable consumers who are ripe for our website's marketing messaging.

Share of search
Most site traffic is seasonal. With retail it may increase around Christmas; for travel it spikes in June; for weddings, spring is high season. Monitoring year-over-year changes can be effective in identifying trends; however, one more metric I recommend using is "share of search."

Share of search looks at the search landscape around specific keywords and illustrates the percentage of actual searches that may be coming to your site for those keywords. Google's Keywords Tool gives approximate monthly local and global search volume. I tend to normalize the data depending on the type of visit the site I'm optimizing for attracts. Generally, I recommend the local search volume for broad match on a keyword list. The keyword list comprises of the main keywords of each page's focus (this is normally the tracking list we use to measure site success). If the list is over 300 keywords, I take the top 300 by volume and use those. On really big sites, I may have multiple keyword lists.

Using the Google Tool's results of search volume, I then compare them to the "actual" number of visits from that keyword. Divide the number of visits by the total search volume, multiply by 10, and you have the "share of search" percentage for that keyword.

Watching the trend over time -- gathering the monthly search volumes from the Google Keyword Tool or using its "Search Volume Trends" -- can give a good indication of market awareness and share of search success.

For advertising-driven models, where eyeballs on pages equate to ad impressions, an increase in pageviews means more revenue (probably the most obvious metric of success).

A greater number of pageviews can also mean greater level of interest in the site content. For certain information-driven or information-dependant business models, additional pageviews can justify SEO impact. The example above highlights a couple of interesting points, reflected in a third metric: pages/visit. This is a simple calculation of the number of pageviews divided by the number of visits. In the example above, pages/visit actually decreased over the data periods, showing either less interest in content or that visitors found what they wanted quickly, thereby visiting fewer pages.

We look at many different metrics to see which of these two scenarios might be closer to the reality. In this particular site instance, we'll look at actual conversions, to see if the quality of traffic is better, meaning that a greater percentage is converting and a greater number are converting.

Bounce rate
Bounce rate determines the number of "one-page wonders" -- visits that result in just one pageview and then the user either leaves the site or closes their browser. Like many statistics, depending on the amount of change, this could be perceived as either good or bad. Are people not finding what they want, or are they?

To see whether a change in this metric is good or bad, we look at the landing page (which page the search engine directed them to for their keyword query) associated with the visit and whether that page contained a conversion opportunity (and did they convert). Example: If this was a form page, did they fill out the form?

In this particular case, a roughly 4-percent negative change in bounce rate is more than offset by the new traffic.

Average time on site
For the metrics above, I'd definitely want to look deeper into why the time onsite dropped 20 percent over the time period. Time on site often equates to interest and relevance. We tend to find that a decrease in time on the website mirrors a rise in bounces when interest is waning in the site content or that the site's content is not relevant to the searchers' expectations.

Refocusing landing page content and testing and reviewing user behavior in page interaction can often give clues as to why visitors are spending more (or less) time on your site.

A great tool for seeing user click behavior on your site is ClickTale. This tool gives you an actual video recording of how users are interacting, offering insight into how you can improve the user experience and keep them engaged.

New visits
New visits are calculated as the percentage of visitors who have never visited the site before. This is measured by placing a cookie on the visitors' browser. Because some users do not allow cookies, this metric is approximate. Specific to our example, the interesting point to note is that although organic search engine traffic increased substantially, overall the percentage of new visits did not. This means users possibly returned to the site more than once by typing specific ranking keywords into the search box.

I tend not to focus on new visits, because a visit is a visit regardless, but certain sites need to consider this metric as a loyalty indicator, which can have additional value and justification for loyalty-driven business models.

Most analytics packages allow you to see which keywords are driving traffic. If you optimize pages and sections around specific keywords (as you should) you can see the effect of that optimization as more traffic is driven by those keywords.

In our example site analytics, I reviewed a list of the top 500 traffic-driving keywords during our four-week sample, comparing them against the prior four-week period. There was a distinct upward trend around some recently optimized keywords, such as "ecological footprint," that appear to be the main lift in organic traffic.

Utilizing Google's Search Volume Trends, note that actual search volume for those terms appear to have dropped over the time period.

Our stats below, however, illustrate the power of SEO in driving targeted traffic to websites by focused optimization (in this particular case, an optimized section with the topic of "ecological footprint").

Measuring SEO success can be a challenge. The basics noted in this article will get you well on the way to utilizing success metrics to quantify the value of SEO initiatives.

Understanding the basics of search, together with an understanding of the core metrics and how they relate to SEO success, can allow the SEO practitioner to demonstrate solid gains in search engine traffic, which equate to an increase in quality visitors to target websites.

For those working on their own sites, this can lead to greater revenue. For those working on behalf of clients, it can mean justification for continued engagement. For both, good SEO, combined with actionable analytics, offers opportunities to leverage traffic to increase conversions through usability and conversion path optimization strategies.

Grant Simmons is director of account management for The Search Agency's SEO department.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Grant currently serves as Director, SEO and Social Product at The Search Agency, the nations largest independant search agency. Grant brings over 20 years of agency experience managing multi-channel marketing initiatives for industry-leading...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Grant Simmons

2009, September 24

Thanks Chase, hadn't seen your rank checker but looks interesting!


Commenter: Chase Granberry

2009, September 24

Think you pretty much covered everything here!! Nice work.

Also, thought you'd want to know about us (http://authoritylabs.com) ... a simple web-based rank checker.

Commenter: Grant Simmons

2009, September 24


You're more than welcome.

Hope there's the opportunity to share more of the accumulated knowledge in the noggin.


Commenter: James F O' Mahony

2009, September 24

My thanks to Grant Simmons for a most valuable and instructive contribution to the "keywords" lexicon.

It is a model of clarity and precision, captures in one convenient whole the essence of what "keywords" are all about, and presents it to the reader in a readily assimilable form.

He deserves the thanks of all of us neophytes who face the difficult and enduring challenge of reaching that elusive, but attainable, target on Page 1.