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How to measure SEO for maximum impact

How to measure SEO for maximum impact John Faris

In the era of Google, web analytics data is plentiful, and pulling ranking reports is a no-brainer. As Google's Chief Economist put it, data is cheap and ubiquitous, but the analytic ability to utilize that data is scarce. When it comes to analyzing SEO data, the key to gaining actionable insights is segmentation. By segmenting and analyzing your rankings, traffic, content, competitors, and links, you can start to understand what's working and where to focus your efforts next.

Actionable ranking reports

Rankings are by no means the end-all-be-all of SEO analysis, but the first (and easiest) step in tracking the effectiveness of your SEO efforts is setting a rankings benchmark before you start optimizing a site. There are many programs available that will let you check your rankings in the SERPs (search engine results pages) across the three major engines (Google, Yahoo, and Bing) for a given set of keyword phrases. The best programs will tell you which of your target keywords the site ranks for, and what specific pages are ranking. Leading ranking software programs such as Raven Tools, Authority Labs, and Advanced Web Ranking will do the trick.

You'll want to track rankings down to the page level for several reasons:

  1. Knowing which pages rank for which keywords will help you understand where your quickest opportunities for improvement are. If a page is already ranking well, moving it up a few more spots is likely to result in a nice traffic spike.

  2. Finding pages that are ranking where there is a better (higher converting) alternative page you'd rather rank is useful. You may even consider putting a 301 redirect in place from the ranking page to the alternative page. Although you'll want to perform a risk/reward analysis before doing that.

  3. Identifying keywords where you have one page in the top 10 Google results and another on the second page of the SERPs is also very useful. In these cases, you can attempt to parlay your rankings into an indented listing in Google. Essentially, all you need to do is get the second web page into the No. 10 position and it will hopscotch into the position directly below your top positioned page.

Once you set a benchmark for rankings, you'll want to continue to track your progress over time. Running a ranking report once per month should be sufficient. As you analyze these reports, you'll want to analyze which of your pages are ranking in the top 20 for one (or more) of your keywords. These pages/keywords represent your quickest opportunities for big traffic gains, since roughly 90 percent of search engine users never make it past the first page of the SERPs. For instance, if you move from page two of the SERPs to page one, you could see as much as 1000 percent increase in traffic and moving from position No. 10 to the top spot could get you as much as 1400 percent more visits.

Improving your position within the top 20 can be challenging because this is where the stiffest competition resides. To improve your top 20 rankings, focus your efforts on building links to the ranking page. Inbound links from third-party sites with keywords in the anchor text are most effective, but internal links from other pages on your site can help too. For pages that are outside of the top 20 search results, you probably still need to focus on basic on-page SEO. Make sure the keyword is in your page title and that it is used sufficiently in the body content.

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Content gap analysis

Once the search engines are able to access and index a website based on proper server configuration, website architecture, and page construction, they rank websites based on their content and the links inbound to that content. For the most part, creating and promoting valuable content is what earns a website links from third-parties.

Consequently, it is important to assess the comprehensiveness of your content in relation to the behaviors and attitudes of your prospects, as well as the content of key competitors. By performing this analysis, you will be able to determine if any gaps exist between your current content and the ideal set of content needed to dominate the SERPs.


By creating content that is based on the needs and wants of your prospects, you can convert more of the visitors that arrive at your site. Gaining a better understanding of your visitor's attitudes can be achieved with surveys conducted on-site through social media channels, via email, or even offline. Regardless of where you conduct the survey, the questions should be centered on the types of content they prefer to consume (e.g., text, images, audio, video, tools), and the topics they expect/want/need you to cover in your website or blog. To get even more attitudinal data, you can utilize focus groups and virtual or in-person usability testing.


Analyzing the online behavior of your prospects is fundamental to maintaining and enhancing the content on your site. Some of the most useful behavioral data for SEO comes from keyword research tools such as comScore Marketer and Keyword Discovery. This external data tells you what people are searching for on Google and other search engines. Obviously, you'll want to create content that satisfies the intent of the highest-volume searches. However, you'll want to take relevancy and competition into account in narrowing down your priorities.

While external data will tell you what is popular on the web, site analytics data will tell you what the most popular (and not so popular) content on your site is. In reviewing your site analytics for content gaps, you should be looking at page popularity and page engagement -- paying special attention to metrics like visits, average time on page, and bounce rate. Look at what content types/topics your visitors are most engaged with and consider creating more content around the most popular/engaging topics using the most popular/engaging mediums.

Internal search logs are also great sources of behavioral data for SEO. Data on successful internal search terms gives you a more granular look at what content your visitors are searching for and finding on your site, while data on top failed searches provides you with very direct feedback on what content your visitors want but can't find on your site. Creating content that can turn a relevant high-volume failed search into a top successful internal search term is one of the quickest, most effective ways to enhance your content for both human visitors and search engines.


A thorough review of your competitors will help you immensely in identifying content types and topics that should be included on your site. It will also give you a sense of the volume and quality of content you need to produce in order to establish sustainable rankings in the SERPs for your priority keyword themes. The first step is identifying your competitors, but don't stop with a list of industry competitors your chief marketing officer is obsessed with. While these "perceived competitors" might be the biggest brands in your space, that doesn't mean they are doing the right things when it comes to SEO. Consequently, you'll also want to look at informational sites and smaller brands that are consistently well-ranked across all of your keywords.

Taking this analysis a step further, you can also segment your keyword list into distinct themes and determine which perceived competitors and informational sites rank best for each theme. Rarely do other companies/sites have 100 percent overlap with your service/information offering. For instance, if you are a financial services company, you might offer services and information surrounding individual retirement accounts (IRAs), brokerage accounts, and checking accounts. Your main perceived competitors might not even offer IRAs, so benchmarking your IRA content against theirs won't useful. On the other hand, an informational site might outrank you for a slew of IRA terms, so you should obviously focus your IRA content gap analysis on them. The more you segment your keyword list and analyze corresponding competitors, the more actionable your information will be.

Link gap analysis

While content is certainly a vital element to your website rankings, the search engines require validation that your content is authoritative for the topics you cover. This validation comes in the form of inbound links. Search engines analyze the number of inbound links to your site, the anchor text of those links, and the relevancy and strength of the sites linking out to you. Consequently, links are a crucial element of your SEO program to measure, analyze, and optimize.

Just as you need to segment and review perceived and informational competitors' content, you will also want to see how much link building you'll need to do in order to catch up to top-ranking competitors. SEOMoz Open Site Explorer can help you benchmark your link profile and compare it to the profiles of your competitors. It provides a rough estimation of links inbound to a domain or page from external sites, and it shows a sampling of the anchor text used in the inbound links to a site. You can also use SEOBook's SEO for Firefox to analyze your competitors -- right inside the SERPs.

Isolating SEO traffic and conversions in web analytics

While volumes of quality links and content will result in top SERP rankings for your site, the ultimate goal of SEO is to increase your traffic and conversions. To ensure that your increased rankings are truly impacting traffic and conversions, you need to track these metrics in an analytics package like Coremetrics or Google Analytics. To really understand and maximize your return on investment, you'll need to segment your web traffic into several distinct layers. To begin with, you'll obviously need to separate your search engine traffic from the rest of your web traffic. If you have a paid search program in place, you'll also need to segment organic search visits from paid search visits. Lastly, it is important to parse organic brand search visits from organic non-brand search visits.

Brand search traffic consists of visits from search terms containing your brand/product names and associated misspellings. Non-brand terms are basically everything else -- generic terms that people would use to describe your content, brand, initiatives, services, and products.

SEO typically has the biggest impact on non-brand terms. After all, as long as you haven't committed SEO suicide in some fashion or another, you should be ranking first for most/all of your major brand terms. That means that there isn't much additional traffic you can gain for branded terms through SEO. However, your brand search traffic is impacted by the offline (radio, TV, outdoor, PR) and online (banner ads, social media, blogger outreach) branding that you engage in. On the other hand, a concerted effort in SEO can result in exponential increases in your non-brand search traffic.

Getting to this data in Google Analytics is relatively easy. You may want to avoid Google's advanced segmentation feature as it is still in beta. If you have a site that attracts significant traffic, you'll definitely want to use "filtering" instead of "segmentation," since sampling can wreak havoc on your analysis.

You can arrive at the organic traffic data by going to: "Traffic Sources" > "Keywords" > "Non-Paid." In order to filter out your brand keywords, just go to the "Filter Keywords," select "Excluding," and enter your brand keywords and misspellings (separating each phrase with the pipe character "|" as a delimiter).  Then you just click "Go" and you'll have the list of non-brand keywords driving traffic to your site, along with several key metrics like visits, pages/visit, average time on site, percent new visits, and bounce rate. For a more visual representation of the process, check out this Slideshare presentation.

Once you've peeled away the layers to isolate your non-brand traffic and conversions, you can start to look at keyword-level metrics. When paired with SERP ranking data, non-brand keyword analytics data can be extremely actionable.  For instance, you could recognize that you have the No. 1 ranking for a high-volume keyword that is driving significant traffic, but not converting a significant number of visitors into customers. Since you know what page on your site is ranking for that term, you can analyze the page and apply conversion optimization best practices (e.g., add a more prominent and/or compelling call-to-action) and realize a higher conversion rate.

Moving beyond simple rank tracking to more advanced methods of measurement and analysis is critical to the success of your SEO program. Scrutinizing your page-level rankings, content and link gaps, and web analytics will give you a significant advantage over less savvy competitors and help you get to the top of the SERPs.

Outside of allowing you to analyze your SEO program for further optimization, having non-brand conversion data can also help you develop an ROI model for your SEO program. And since SEO typically has one of the highest ROIs of any marketing channel, you can use the data to justify more budget and take your SEO program to the next level.

John Faris is online acquisition supervisor at Red Door Interactive.

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John Faris is Director of Online Acquisition at Red Door Interactive. He leads a team of experts that maximize high-quality website traffic, engagement, and conversions for Red Door clients, using proven internet marketing strategies. You can follow...

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Commenter: Jeremy Godfrey

2010, August 10

I agree with your approach John, however i would encourage people to look beyond rank too as ultimately website conversions will deliver on your bottom line and that must be the objective of any SEO campaign. Reverse engineering your campaign from conversions to traffic to keyword ranking targets is a great way of understanding the cost of your campaign, as opposed to chasing higher rankings that don't provide the marginal return. Find out more at Tamar, the natural search conversion experts: http://blog.tamar.com/.