OK, in my previous article, I talked about all the reasons why search engine rankings already aren't a good measure of success — and why I think they're only going to become less significant as time goes by. And I promised this time I'd talk more about metrics that I think are more useful to measure than rankings. So here goes…
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 people run to the discussion forums in a panic because they see a rankings 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, “I 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 and/or search phrases. 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 for identifying additional related phrases for further optimization efforts.
If your conversion rate is low, you're not alone. And there are resources to help. A few places I recommend are the blog and archives at GrokDotCom, the research archive at Marketing Experiments, and the free articles and newsletter at Psychotactics. Using the information from these sites, you can come up with ideas for alternate versions of your pages, and then use free tools like Google's Site Optimizer to test them.
You may see articles about things like “segmentation” and “developing personas” and things like that. 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.
These are just a few ideas of metrics you can measure that will give you a much better idea than search rankings will of whether your site is succeeding. I'm a bit of a stats junkie and always eager to learn something new I can chart-and-graph, so what other measurements do you track that have proven useful?
Diane is the website manager for a manufacturing & distribution company in Raleigh, NC. You can read more of her thoughts on site optimization and marketing at BootstrapSEO.