In the earliest days of the web, we took a simpler approach to measuring traffic for a website. We’d just download a hit counter widget like this:
…and install it on the page, somewhere between the pleads to sign our guestbook and the webring navigation box. Simpler times on Tripod, Angelfire, and GeoCities!
But there are several problems with such crude tracking methods. There’s no way to tell how visitors got to the page. There’s no way to sort out the actual human visitors from the bots. When people first started building websites, the idea that your little home page could be accessed from any nation on Earth was just so mind-blowing that we felt compelled to track users by country. But this isn’t very useful for modern business purposes. Most web hosting packages include some rudimentary traffic trackers, too, but they’re equally inadequate.
The crux of the matter is: you’re hosting a website to generate business. You’ve likely invested in search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing to increase traffic to your website. Once there, a compelling message and great user experience will convert that traffic into sales. Sounds great, right?
The Importance of SEO Metrics
That’s why measuring metrics is so important. Without website metrics, you’re just blindly throwing your efforts out there into the wind and hoping it gets your more customers. With no way to measure your efforts, you have no idea what’s working and what isn’t. This can cost your company money if you’re throwing this effort down a rat-hole that isn’t producing anything.
The business of measuring SEO efforts is a fine-grain science. There are a lot of surprising results that will come up when you dig into the world of SEO metrics.
- You may discover that a niche product you thought barely worth mentioning actually has a huge amount of interest.
- You may discover untapped secondary and tertiary markets for your product or service.
- You may find out that the clever advertising campaign you launched is bombing.
- You may discover that certain seasons, holidays, or events are a better time to focus on advertising than others.
- You may identify strengths and weaknesses in your content compared to your competitors’ content, and identify key places to shore up your strategy.
- You may even discover technical problems with your website that are preventing visitors from doing business with you.
No matter what business you’re in, prepare for some eye-openers when you get into SEO metrics. It’s very hard to predict the interaction between your brand and the web marketplace ahead of time. The Internet is largely a chaos system, with billions of individual actions coming together to form patterns of activity.
We’ll break the most important SEO metrics down into plain English and show you why they matter, and how to track and use this information.
We have already listed top SEO analysis tools in our previous articles “A Step By Step Guide on the 6 Best SEO Analysis Tools and How to Use Them” and “10 Best SEO Analytics Tools to Get Marketing Insights.” Most of the tools in either of those pages should have all of the metrics-tracking features we’ll be going over here. The free tools have fewer features while the paid tools are a complete suite of SEO analysis metrics.
We will be using SEMRush for our examples, after a neutral decision process in which we polled the office for who had an SEO metrics tool open at the moment.
Definition: The words that users type into Google to find a website
Why it matters: Search keywords are the language of desire on the web. Tracking the exact terms visitors use to find your business is crucial to analyzing how to rank higher in search results. It also gives you insight into your visitors’ thinking, so you can position your business to be more useful to them.
How to track it: Every major SEO tool has a section for keyword tracking, usually under “search,” “keyword,” or some composite of those.
Here is a SEMRush display in the keyword magic tool for “weed killer”:
If our landscaping service offers weed control, we learn right away that people care about (1) natural or eco-friendly solutions, or (2) going with the top name brand. People also chase down rumors about making your own weed killer using vinegar. It may be helpful to make a post on your blog titled “Is Vinegar Really a Good Homemade Weed Killer?” Regardless of your answer, you have established your site as a knowledge authority, jockeyed for placement in a Featured Snippet, and given our lawn-owning visitor a glimpse of our landscaping services.
Note that we have this sorted by “volume.” Going to the right from there, let’s check out these tabs:
- Volume: Sheer number of searches that happen every month
- Trend: A tiny graph showing that volume over the past 12 months
- Keyword Difficulty: A ranking of how competitive that keyword is among websites, in terms of how many other sites focus that keyword and how aggressively they target it
- CPC$ (cost-per-click): The average price advertisers pay to target that keyword
- Competitive Density: How much advertisers compete in bidding on that keyword
- SERP (search engine results page) features: How many of Google’s custom features show up for that term, including FAQs, image packs, reviews, etc.
- Results: The total number of websites that rank at all for that keyword
If we sort for reversed (lowest-to-highest) KD%, we find the keywords that nobody is competing for. This gives us a clue for long-tail strategies. Now granted, the top of this list also has 0 volume. No sense targeting a term that’s never used, right? Out of the 400+ pages of stats that SEMRush shows us for this keyword phrase, juggling back and forth between search volume and competition, we find…
The volume of 390 is decent, with an upward trend showing this seasonal topic coming around to higher volume. The difficulty is in the mid-60s, relatively easy to rank for an established site. The CPC and competitive density value tell us this is a worthwhile phrase to target.
This is a brief overview of keyword analytics. It’s so much fun, it’s almost addicting! We cover this in much more depth in “What Are SEO Keywords? Definitive Guide for SEO Beginners” and “How to Rank Competitive Keywords in Google’s Top 10 Organic Results.”
Definition: The traffic on your site that comes in from search queries
Why it matters: Not all visits to your site may come from search queries. Visitors may bookmark your site and return, follow a link from another site, click through an ad you have running, visit from a social media tweet, and so on. SEO is concerned solely with your inbound search traffic.
How to track it: Your SEO tool will usually show “organic search traffic” or some variation thereof.
Here’s the domain overview for SteamPowered.com, the home site of the Steam gaming software store:
We see the organic search traffic tab. We look for “organic search positions” to show us the terms visitors use to find our site in particular, and we can use tools like keyword gap analysis to compare ourselves to our competitor by each search term. Here’s an example of organic search positions:
We sorted here by “position” to show the search terms for which Steam shows up as the top result. Going through the different sort tabs again, we have:
- Position: Where your site shows up on the SERP for that keyword phrase
- Difference: Compared to last month, is your position higher or lower
- Traffic percent: What percentage of your site’s traffic comes off hits from this search alone
- Volume, keyword difficulty, CPC: Same as those for the previous keywords listing
- URL: Target page that query takes visitors to on your site
- SERP: Offers to display a sample Google results page in action
- Update: The time when a keyword was last updated in Google metrics
Interesting, a thousand people per month search for “games like Myst” – a game series last seen in the early 2000s, but with a lasting legacy, albeit some say Myst was overrated. Still, if you ran a game development studio and could produce a first-person point-and-click adventure, you’d definitely want to position yourself for this query.
Here’s another useful tab: sort by “difference” to see what new changes have the most effect. Example:
Here we see the top five improved search rankings for SteamPowered.com this month. Usually, this means a new game was released and published via Steam. Sailaway, for instance, is a new sailing simulator.
Definition: How many consecutive pages a visitor viewed on your website
Why it matters: A useful, engaging website is important in doing any kind of business on the web. Analyzing how many pages the average user visits gives you insight into how easy your site is to navigate, whether users are finding the information they want, or whether your content is making them interested in doing business with you.
How to track it: It’s usually in the “engagement metrics” section, with average numbers given over time.
Here’s the engagement metrics for TVTropes.org, a Wikipedia-style website completely devoted to pop culture. Wikis usually kill it on pages per visit, because you show up to learn about one thing, and then you follow another interesting link. Now add to that effect that this wiki just collects pop culture: want to find out how many actors played Darren on the TV series Bewitched? What crossover comics has Spider-Man been in? What tropes Spongebob Squarepants has in common with Rick & Morty? It’s the website equal to popcorn!
You can also check out the “traffic analytics” section, which will show engagement metrics where domain overview sometimes won’t. Believe it or not, somebody registered the domain air.com, and this is the engagement:
Currently, the domain is parked, which explains why the engagement is so lousy.
Definition: The rate at which visitors leave right after arrival, timed within a few seconds
Why it matters: A low bounce rate means that a visitor found what they wanted on your website, and found it inviting to browse when they got there. A high bounce rate is a red flag showing that users got to your site and left immediately, for any number of reasons.
How to track it: It’s usually included in the same “traffic analytics” or “engagement metrics” section.
Referring to our above example, we see the bounce rate for the parked domain as 93%, while the addictive popcorn of TVTropes releases just 39% of visitors from its kudzu-like grasp.
Let’s talk about bounce rate: as you can see, there seems to be no way to get it below about 30%. That’s because crawlers and other kinds of bots count as part of the traffic too. There’s also the matter of folks who just accidentally clicked a link, were searching for something else, what have you. A high bounce rate on your site, roughly about 60% or higher, is a cause for concern!
A high bounce rate could mean that your site is simply unattractive, malfunctioning, inaccessible, or hard to navigate. You might have too many ads, popups, and auto-playing videos that chase visitors away. Or you might be ranking for lots of unfocused, badly targeted keywords. Whatever the issue is, the higher your bounce rate, the more you should be troubleshooting.
Definition: The length of time a visitor stays on one page
Why it matters: As with bounce rate and pages per visit, this also tells you how engaging your visitors found your site. The long length of time on the page shows greater interest in your topic. A series of short visits to several pages on your site means visitors had hopes of finding what they were looking for but gave up.
How to track it: Again, it’s usually seen in conjunction with the other engagement metrics.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory, so we won’t dwell on it in-depth, but it is a useful metric to determine if visitors are finding what they want and if your content is meeting their needs. Again from our “pages per visit” example, the honey-pot Wiki grabs viewers for an average of 23 minutes, while the parked domain takes visitors 13 seconds to realize they’ve ended up in limbo and click the back button.
Definition: The rate at which your search traffic leads to sales, subscriptions, or leads for your business
Why it matters: All this traffic doesn’t do you much good if it doesn’t end in them spending money with you!
How to track it: Conversions for your business aren’t tracked via typical SEO metrics software. Instead, you do this manually via comparing your site traffic / organic domain visits to your own conversion stats.
“Conversion” can mean many things, depending on the nature of your business. It can mean making a purchase, creating an account, signing up for a subscription, adding items to a shopping cart, making an appointment for a consultation, clicking through to a landing page, etc.
Whatever software you have set up on your website to handle customers should tell you how many and at what rate you are conducting these transactions. Whatever that conversion goal is, you divide the number of goal triggers by visitors to your site within the same time frame, then multiply x100 to get your percentage. A site with 500K visitors and 7.4K sign-ups for the month had a 1.48% conversion rate.
Definition: The percentage of income for your business that is generated entirely from search
Why it matters: This is the metric you use to justify your SEO and content marketing budget. Is the revenue worth the effort? Are you hitting the KPI you expected? How can you improve?
How to track it: As with the above conversion method, you compare your organic searches against your business’ income or sales figures.
As we mentioned above, “organic search traffic” is one of the first figures any SEO metrics tracking software will show. Then you determine your ROI based on that. If your site pulled 350K in organic search for the month while your revenue was $1.5M, you made $23 per organic search.
Bear a few things in mind here: You’ll always end up with an average across visits. In our example, maybe you sell $1.5M yachts and only one out of 350K searches led to a conversion. Some industries are like that. Also, organic traffic endures over time. You can produce enough content to get 100K visits per month and then sit back and do nothing and continue to get 100K visits per month for quite some time. Your ROI hopefully grows over time.
Definition: The proportion of search queries which included a brand name vs. generic product or service search
Why it matters: Visitors who searched for you by brand or business name were specifically looking for you or your line of products. This tells you the brand has a good reputation, perhaps even that you’re drawing repeat business. Visitors who searched for any generic product that happened to land on your brand are higher up the sales funnel.
How to track it: Within organic search trends.
This is where you find out the power of a brand. Recall our first example searching for “weed killer,” the brand name that pops to the top there is RoundUp. Here’s another example we did for TheSpiceHouse.com:
We see examples of branding and generic keywording here. People searched for “spice house” and “the spice house” probably because they had been to the site before but forgot the exact URL, or they were referred by a friend or advertisement but didn’t get that link. We see also generic searches for the seasonings “nutmeg” and “allspice berries.” We don’t see a high degree of individual brand recollection here; nobody searching for “Lowry’s” or Emeril’s.”
Compare that to the shoe retailer site sneakerhead.com, and their top searches are all about the brand names: Nike, Puma, Jordan, Adidas, and so on.
So to separate branded from non-branded searches, simply subtract the number of brand identified searches from the total searches.
Definition: The rate at which your website’s traffic increases and continues generating more revenue
Why it matters: We all want our businesses to grow—indefinitely! Your website should grow with it. Charting the growth in traffic for your site tells you whether you should keep doing what you’re doing or whether it’s time for a change of strategy.
How to track it: Starting right from your dashboard, look for any graph charting traffic.
Can we toot our own horn for once, please? Here’s the 2 years trends chart for Cardinal Digital Marketing’s main domain:
In this highly competitive market, you can see that we’ve had growth in spurts, but part of that data is disrupted by the early months of 2020 when the economy paused uncertainly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can then see renewed faith in digital marketing since so much business has shifted online in the wake of the pandemic, leading to the ramp at the end we’re currently riding. Yay for us!
While we did say above that SEO content has enduring value, if you leave your site sit for too long without improving and adding to your content, some other eager beaver out there will eventually overtake you. So you should be watching your site’s graphs and moving to improve your visibility whenever your stats dip.
Definition: The position at which your website link appears in a page of search results
Why it matters: Almost nobody visits page two of Google results. The higher your position, the more traffic you get, even if your site was the best match in the world for what the visitor wanted.
How to track it: Several metrics show your visibility within Google search results.
Search visibility is simple: How high up on the SERPs does your site show up for a given keyword? SEO metric software will show your ranking for keywords in the “position” column, as we see in the examples above. In addition, there are a couple of other points to touch on:
Authority score: This measures your Google Pagerank authority on a scale of 0-100, 100 being the top authority. You get authority mostly through backlinks, which the SEO metrics reporting dashboard will also show.
SERP features: We mentioned earlier that Google has special features, such as featured snippets, FAQs, image packs, reviews, and so on. SEMRush shows this on the domain overview section like this:
Any of those features generally means high placement.
Organic position distribution: This is the breakdown of the terms you’re ranking for by position groups, going 1-3, 4-10, etc. Also on the domain overview:
Don’t fret if you can’t get the columns to line up differently. Most websites have a SERP distribution similar to this setup. But you always want to strive for ranking higher in the top ten results at least. Too much of your search hits in the lower ranks may mean you’re in a competitive market, or your content is very broad without focusing on a specific niche. Here’s another graph, this time from starwars.fandom.com:
A highly specialized, niche website. They don’t talk about movies outside the franchise, but they cover the franchise very, very thoroughly. Need we say it again, wikis kill it! People link to wikis as a reference all the time, boosting their authority. And look at those SERP positions! This is the definition of a niche specialty.
Marketing Metrics in the Big Picture
Your website is an integral part of your business, which should be given the same attention you’d pay to your office. In analyzing your website metrics, you’ll be sure to have a firm idea of how much your content marketing efforts are paying off.
Now that you have the metrics, what’s an effective way to share them with your team? In this lengthy blog post, we took the time to break down terms and explain things so that you don’t have to be a techie geek to follow along. We recommend the same practice with your team. Instead of saying “our bounce rate is abominable,” say “our metrics show that people don’t find our website appealing.”
Being able to communicate the meaning behind SEO metrics is essential. Otherwise, digital marketers can’t justify their budgets, showcase their successes, or advocate for new strategies. Take time to learn these metrics and how they relate to your business’s goals.