How to Measure the Success of an SEO Campaign
- May 31 , 2023
- 14 min read
SEO isn’t a light switch that you flip to get light instantly. Everything from link building to site optimisation will take time for its results to be noticeable. As for when that time will come, no one can really say. Your page may rank on top within a week if you’re lucky, but in most cases, it’s a waiting game that can last months or years.
Then again, sinking money into something without instantly showing results can be frustrating. Fortunately, you can measure SEO success by monitoring specific metrics, and this guide will explain the what, why, and how.
But before getting into the nitty-gritty, it’s essential to understand success. No, I won’t tell you to look it up in a dictionary. It isn’t about what success means but what success means to you.
Why, you ask? Most professionals believe that Google utilizes more than 200 ranking factors in its ever-complicated algorithm. However, because Google usually doesn’t disclose such details (for security reasons, probably), not all factors are confirmed to be in use. To quote Backlinko’s Brian Dean: ‘Some are proven, some are controversial, others are SEO nerd speculation.’
Even if Google confirms they use all 200 factors, tracking each is impractical, if not impossible. There’s a high risk of looking at the wrong metric, leading to results falling short of any defined short or long-term goal. You’d want to limit your chosen metrics to a handful based on what you want your SEO campaign to achieve.
Let’s take a look at one high-profile success story: Hugo Boss. This major perfume brand wanted to boost its sales figures over Christmas. Working with an SEO company, it ran a campaign involving downloadable ‘Snow Christmas Wallpapers.’ The SEO company conducted keyword research to see what keywords would stick during the holidays.
Choosing website traffic (to its landing page) as its success metric, it launched the campaign just before September. Below are the reported traffic numbers for the rest of the year.
That’s a steep rise in traffic if I ever saw one. According to this YouTube short by HubSpot, the keyword ‘Snow Christmas Wallpaper’ was low-competition and high-volume. While it could only be harnessed for a limited time, this keyword managed to get the Hugo Boss name out amid other concerted marketing efforts by its competitors.
Did this campaign lead to increased sales? It’s hard to tell, as there aren’t many reports about its sales figures. Regardless, it’s safe to say that the buzz may have converted some leads into sales.
Back to basics
It’s worth noting that the SEO community has different opinions on the items in an SEO success metrics checklist. For example, some experts add bounce rate to the list, but others argue against it because it can be vague, badly skewed, or both. I’m not saying that such metrics aren’t helpful, but they shouldn’t be a priority when monitoring.
Instead, consider monitoring basic metrics. Their data might not be as complex as those in more specific metrics, but they’re no less fundamental. Here are a few examples.
- Organic trafficThis metric is a no-brainer, not just because Hugo Boss’s successful holiday campaign used it. A sudden increase in organic traffic can mean people have stumbled upon your page in a Google search. This is only possible if your page has ranked favourably in specific searches.Add the fact that nine out of ten pages get zilch traffic from Google, according to Ahrefs. Proper SEO aims to turn that around.
But as we’ll learn later, using a single metric to measure SEO success may not be enough. Organic traffic may be straightforward, but it comes with a downside. While it may show how many visitors are coming in, it won’t get any more detailed when only considered at face value. A site may be getting thousands of visitors, but wouldn’t it also be better to know:
- Where are they accessing the site from?
- What pages are they viewing the most?
- What keywords did they use to find the site?
- How much revenue is the traffic bringing in?
Most analytics tools like Ahrefs Site Explorer let you do that. In fact, while writing this post, I learned that Ahrefs added a new ‘Organic Search’ tab on the Overview 2.0 interface, which breaks down organic traffic data into several valuable reports.
Meanwhile, Google Analytics takes it one step further by enabling users to classify organic traffic by referral channel. Note that Google, while a household name, isn’t the only search engine in the world.
No matter what analytics tool you use, it’s hard to go wrong with organic traffic. When you generate a more comprehensive report from it, you can take planning your SEO campaign in different directions. It can also work if you have no idea what you want your campaign to do.
- Keyword rankingI probably don’t have to go in-depth about how indispensable keywords are in SEO. In link building, keywords comprise half of the winning formula, the other being backlinks. That’s how one of my blogs managed to be the top result for ‘tactical link building.’And before you ask, it’s still the top result—seven months after that post went live.
I’ve cited Backlinko’s study on click-through rates (CTR) of the top-ranked search results a few times on this blog, and it’s worth mentioning again. Based on a survey of approximately four million results, it found that the top result earns over a quarter of clicks on the first page.
This trend was also observed among searches using branded keywords.
Knowing where your selected keywords stand in this playing field is crucial, an aspect where keyword ranking can help. The simplest way of gauging this metric is to run a Google search, but it can’t tell anything beyond whether a page is on the first page of search results.
Fortunately, tools such as Ahrefs’ Keyword Rank Checker exist for such a task. Using it is as easy as inputting the keyword and URL and selecting the country where the keyword’s being searched. For example, let’s find out how the NO-BS Marketplace home page fares in search queries for ‘link building’ within the United States.
Number 76. Being in the top 100 can be impressive in some situations. But with this rank in SEO, the site may as well be inexistent, as most users never look beyond the first page while searching. Then again, it’s expected of a generic keyword, in which ranking is super hard.
You can go a step further in measuring keyword rankings by conducting what’s known as a competitor keyword analysis. This process studies keyword data between your business and one or several competitors and shows keywords you may be missing out on.
Once complete, you can proceed with the more meticulous keyword gap analysis. With the keyword data, this next step looks for gaps that can be realistically closed with proper SEO. Keyword gap analysis gets more thorough the deeper into the sitemap you go.
Keyword ranking will have your work cut out for you, but the insights it generates will be beyond valuable. It’ll help businesses maximise their reach, making their presence known among as many search queries as possible.
- Search/SERP visibility While a top-ranked result may be getting the most traffic, it doesn’t answer by how much relative to the other results. For this, you’ll need a more focused metric like search engine results page (SERP) or search visibility.In calculating search visibility, one method described by Moz involves taking all the metrics we’ve discussed so far. It takes the sum of all tracked keywords and their respective ranks and the CTR for each rank (for appropriate weighting) and then divides it by the number of tracked keywords. Search visibility is expressed in percentage.
You can check a site or page’s search visibility with Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. Enter the keyword into the search bar and click whether you want to measure traffic share by domain or page. The figures are displayed in the second column.
From the example above, search results that lead to the Moz website comprise 73% of all the results for ‘link building.’ To put that into perspective, the average search visibility for non-branded keywords rarely reaches over 40%. Meanwhile, search visibility of 0% suggests the site or page is nowhere within the top 50 (less than 1% for some tools).
Note that 100% search visibility is impossible. People will inevitably click on more than one result as they search, even if yours is on the coveted top spot.
Experts liken search visibility to share of voice (SOV), a vital marketing metric that gauges brand awareness relative to those of competitors. Due to their relative nature, both SOV and search visibility are ideal key performance indicators (KPIs) compared to organic traffic.
What not to measure
From this point forward, expert opinions differ regarding the other necessary metrics. Some pros suggest gathering information on website performance, like page load times and core web vitals, whereas others recommend focusing on traffic value and conversion rate. More often, these KPIs are situational and aren’t always a ranking factor.
For example, Moz’s Domain Authority (DA) mechanic has mainly been touted as an alternative to PageRank after the latter’s discontinuation in 2016. However, Moz has reiterated that search engine algorithms don’t use its proprietary metric. The same goes for other proprietary metrics, such as Ahrefs’ Domain Rank (DR) and SEMrush’s Authority Score.
More importantly, it’s a concern Google’s John Mueller has been asked countless times since the discontinuation of PageRank. His answer has always been a resounding ‘no,’ stressing the need for ‘granular’ metrics, namely user signals. While the likes of DA and DR shouldn’t be entirely ruled out, it’s better to use them in a comparative capacity.
That being the case, experts argue that there are some generic metrics that no one should be too concerned about. These examples can be helpful in some situations, but measuring SEO success isn’t one of them.
- Any time-based metric Time-based metrics in this context refer to metrics that determine the amount of time a user spends on consuming content. One metric used in SEO is the average session duration (also known as time on page), which measures how much time a visitor spends on a site or page per session or access to the site or page.It might sound simple enough: the longer a person stays on the page, the more likely they’re engaged with the content. But how can you tell that’s the case? What if the person started a session but has to go AFK and leave the session open? Unfortunately, analytics has already counted such a scenario as a session.
But according to Ahrefs, the biggest problem with time-based metrics is the way Google Analytics calculates them. Average session duration uses timestamps recorded between the first and last session, generated by certain actions like viewing another page. If Google Analytics only has the first timestamp, it will register zero seconds for session duration.
Zero seconds means the session has bounced, which adds to the site or page’s bounce rate. The result would be inaccurate figures, making time-based metrics less reliable.
- Bounce rate A bounce occurs when a visitor accesses a page but doesn’t do anything else before exiting. The bounce rate indicates the fraction of a site or page’s visitors bouncing; a bounce rate of 40% means two out of five visitors bounce.At this rate, you might be thinking: ‘You can’t be serious. Bounce rate is all too common a metric in marketing,’ and you’d be right. There are even benchmarks for each industry (e.g., 20% to 45% for e-commerce sites).
However, this metric is vulnerable to the same data skewing that affects time-based metrics. Visitors that don’t bounce may register as one because of factors such as using adblockers or letting sessions expire (typically after 30 minutes but can be longer). Some pages, such as contact pages, will bounce because the user has already gained the necessary information.
If you plan on using bounce rate, experts advise refraining from taking these figures at face value. Businesses must make sense of the data through filtering and segmentation, adding a few steps to an already-complicated endeavour.
Ultimately, it boils down to the context in which the bounce rate exists.
- Exit rate Often confused with bounce rate, the exit rate shows the number of sessions that ended on a particular page. Again, this metric is vulnerable to data skewing; consider the diagram below.
If we determine the exit rates for each page, Page A is 33%, Page B is 100%, and Page C is 0%. As you can see, these figures don’t tell the whole story because some user actions don’t count as exits. Page C doesn’t lead to the end of a session, so it isn’t considered an exit.
More importantly, exit rates don’t tell why users ended their sessions after a specific page. It doesn’t necessarily mean visitors didn’t find what they sought; perhaps they did and decided that was good enough. Another possibility may be that they closed the page by accident. Like in bounce rate, making sense of exit rates requires deep scrutiny.
Bad web design can also influence exit rates, as no one wants to deal with a site that doesn’t work as it should. In that case, you’d want to refocus on relevant metrics such as page speed, a confirmed ranking factor in Google. You can learn more about user-friendly web design by reading this blog post.
The beauty of backlinks
At this point, there isn’t much explaining to do about how to measure SEO success. Whether or not you’re at a loss as to what metrics to choose, you can’t go wrong with the big three: organic traffic, keyword ranking, and search visibility.
Then again, I would be remiss if I didn’t save the best for last: backlinks. That’s not just coming from a co-founder of a link-building company. The SEO community considers backlinks a vital resource because they’re votes of confidence. A big-time website such as the New York Times linking to one of your pages is a big deal because it found your content valuable.
Amid the race to earn as many backlinks as possible, remember that quality always wins over quantity. A handful of high-quality (and Google-compliant) backlinks is better than many low-quality ones. To do that, you must determine the worth of each backlink, which is possible by assessing seven qualities.
That’s a lot of qualifiers, but that’s what analytics tools are for. After they’ve done the math, the user must decide whether the backlink is a good fit for their content. While the tools might be a bit overwhelming initially, they’ll be an immense help once you get used to them.
To quote New York Times bestselling motivational author James Clear: ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.’ Long-term success doesn’t come immediately but from hard work over time.
It’s no different in SEO, as working your way toward the top entails constantly showing results. With the help of analytics tools and the right choice of metrics, knowing the payoff of any SEO campaign will be more convenient. Less is more.
Speaking of tools, NO-BS has an array of tools you can use for free. Check them out on this page and make your SEO campaigns more manageable.
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