I tend to approach the topic of site optimization from a businessperson's point of view. I know a lot of people who equate search engine optimization with getting better rankings. But to my mind, SEO can (and should) be a lot more.
Rankings? Which rankings?
I recently had a pretty lively discussion over how to measure success of a web optimization campaign. While we all agreed that rankings were not the only way to measure results, there was some disagreement over whether they're worth measuring at all.
Count me among those who don't see much use in measuring rankings. The way I see it, there's a problem with using rankings as a measure of performance. And that problem is: which rankings do you use?
Let's get personal
What do I mean by which rankings? Well, to start with, search engines personalize results. This means they try to customize their search results for each individual, depending on that person's historical search patterns, in an effort to show each person more of the kind of pages they find useful and less of the pages they don't.
In this brave new world of personalization, the pages you see when you search may or may not be what any others see.
Beyond that, in order to handle the huge volume of search queries they receive, Google runs many data centers scattered around the globe. While updates eventually make their way around to them all, they don't show up at each data center simultaneously " and by the time an update makes it to the last data center, several new ones are already be traveling at various points along the pipeline.
Bottom line, rarely are two data centers in complete sync with each other. When you search, your query could be routed to any data center at any time.
All this plays havoc with the concept of using rankings to measure the success of an optimization campaign. If your SEO reports one ranking for your page, and you see another (and your next-door neighbor sees yet a third), who's right? Which ranking counts?
Or as I sometimes put it, if a page ranks number one and nobody sees it but you, does it make a sound?
And I should care because… ?
An even more important question, though, is this: what difference does it make? Does getting higher rankings necessarily mean your business will be successful?
Rankings cheerleaders will tell you that higher rankings equal more traffic for your website.
The truth is, high rankings are no guarantee of traffic. If nobody is searching for the phrases where you rank highly – or if your number one rankings are all on obscure search engines no one uses – those rankings will generate very little, if any, additional traffic.
Then they'll tell you increased traffic inevitably means your business will be more successful. Also not quite true.
In order to be successful, your site must do a good job of converting traffic into sales or leads. Even multiple number one rankings that generate tons of traffic won't result in many more sales if the site itself is of extremely poor quality. Without conversions, traffic alone is just a waste of bandwidth.
And unless your creditors are a lot more generous than mine, you can't pay your bills with rankings or traffic.
So what's going on?
But, of course, it's not all the SEO's fault. There are almost certainly clients out there who blindly insist on getting number one rankings for some vanity term just because they noticed their competitor ranking well for that phrase. There are some of us who refuse to consider other (more meaningful) metrics we might be tracking instead. It can take a lot of time and effort on the SEO's part " maybe more than what's justified by the fees we're paying " to try to migrate some of us away from our rankings obsession.
So what are more meaningful metrics? And what makes them better than rankings for tracking the success of an optimization campaign?
Metrics That Matter
Now right off the bat, let me say this is not intended to be a definitive list of the things you should measure. What will be a good measure for one site (and one site owner) might not be so important for another. To some degree, what you should measure depends on what your goals are for your site.
Rather, what I'm trying to do is get you to start thinking outside the box " start by considering what it is you want to accomplish with your site, and then deciding what metrics will give you the best idea of whether you're making progress… instead of simply tracking rankings because some other webmasters are obsessed with rankings and you think you should be, too.
One of the first things I check every morning is the traffic to my sites. Don't get me wrong " traffic in and of itself isn't a goal for most sites any more than search rankings are a goal. Both are at best a means to an end. Remember, you can't pay your bills with either rankings or traffic… and in fact, depending on your hosting plan, too much traffic might even end up costing you money.
But traffic stats do have their uses. When someone panics because they see a ranking drop, the first thing we generally ask them is how their traffic and sales numbers look. It's surprising how often they answer that their traffic and sales seem to be holding steady!
Which, of course, just proves my point – rankings are a poor measure of success. If a site owner sees a big drop, but the site's traffic and sales stay steady, then it's one of two things: either nobody else is seeing the big drop in rankings, or the decline is on phrases that weren't bringing traffic in the first place. Either way, the rankings the site owner is so concerned about don't seem to have much to do with the performance of the site.
If your traffic is staying steady or increasing, then at some level you're probably doing something right. But raw traffic alone doesn't tell the whole story…
When traffic stats get really interesting is when you move beyond simply looking at how many and start digging down into the details.
See if you can discern daily, weekly or seasonal fluctuations.
This can allow you to predict what your traffic should look like – making it easier for you to quickly identify unusual traffic patterns… or to avoid panicking when perfectly normal seasonal fluctuations cycle around again.
Look to see what site(s) referred visitors to you.
Visit those sites. See if you can identify other similar sites that appear to cater to the same audience, and try to get links from them, too.
Check what search phrases people used to find you.
Sometimes you'll find out you're getting traffic from what I call accidental phrases – phrases you never intended to optimize for, but which occurred naturally on one or more of your pages. If those phrases are relevant to your business, just think what you could do if you actively optimized for them!
Conversely, you may also find you're getting a lot of traffic from irrelevant phrases. If these phrases don't lead to conversions and they aren't particularly on-target for the topic of your site, try to identify the pages that are generating this traffic, and see if you can instead optimize them better for other, more useful phrases. (Be aware, sometimes you're going to rank for irrelevant phrases no matter what you do. It's not the end of the world.)
Hitting the Target
Traffic is nice, but as I mentioned, too much traffic can actually end up costing you money. What you really want is targeted traffic: that is, visitors who are actually interested in – and ready to take you up on – what you have to offer.
Sometimes webmasters will say, " can't measure conversions because I don't sell anything on my site." It's true, for a lot of sites, conversions and sales are pretty much the same thing. But not always.
What is it that you most want your site visitors to do? Sign up for a newsletter, download a free e-book, listen to a streaming audio file of your band's newest song, request more information… whatever it is, whatever the purpose of your site might be… when a visitor does that thing, that (for you) is a conversion. Step One: figure out what a conversion is for you.
Then measure your conversion rate. That's the number of conversions you get during a period of time divided by the number of total visitors you got during that same period of time. (If you're not into math, set up Google Analytics on your site, designate your conversion metric as a Goal, and Google Analytics will calculate the conversion rate for you.)
What does this tell you? It gives you an idea of how successful you are at attracting targeted traffic and convincing those visitors to do what you most want.
With Google Analytics (and many other analytics software packages), you can trace your goals or conversions back to specific referring sites. I'm assuming you can figure out for yourself how this information could be useful when it comes to identifying the types of sites from which to pursue links and referrals, or as an entry point to start to identify additional related phrases for further optimization efforts.
If your conversion rate is low, you're not alone. And there are resources to help.
It can seem intimidating. Don't let yourself get freaked out. These are advanced topics, and you don't have to implement them all at once (or even at all, ever). Just start by measuring your overall conversion rate. Eventually you can grow into using whichever of these techniques make sense for you.
The Bottom Line
Along with measuring your conversion rate, you also want to look at the gross number and the value of your conversions, especially if your site is one of those where conversions are sales. Because, after all, the bottom line is the bottom line.
An interesting thing I've discovered over the years is that sometimes when my traffic goes up, my conversion rate goes down. I've heard this same thing from other webmasters, too. What I think is going on is that as your pages start to rank for higher-traffic, more generic terms, the additional visitors may not be quite as, well… focused as the ones arriving from those specific, long-tail search terms, so a smaller proportion of them end up buying.
But often, even with the lower conversion rate, I still end up making more sales (and more money on those sales) just because of the increased volume. And if I can identify ways to better speak to this newer, less-focused traffic to increase their buying percentage – even by a tiny percentage – it can make a big difference to my bottom line.