A Holistic Approach To Measuring SEO Performance

One of the advantages of being born closer in time to the birth of the internet than Snapchat compared to some of my We Are North colleagues, is that I’ve seen the true darkness of the pre-RankBrain era. Some say it was a simpler time, others might say it was more like the Wild West.

It didn’t take long for SEO practitioners of the time to learn how to exploit what was a far more mechanical search algorithm in order to boost rankings. And with significantly fewer opportunities to consume search results before voice search was even a twinkle in Amit Singhal’s eye, there were enormous benefits for those using tactics like keyword stuffing.

The early days of Google Analytics saw practitioners devouring the keywords and queries that drove converting visitors. Improvements in ranking had a clear and usually lucrative benefit.

Sadly, while the world of organic search has moved on into far healthier grounds, using rankings as a measurement of success is a beast that lurks dangerously in the background. Hardly a week passes without one of the team discussing how unhealthy it is to obsess over rankings. Our experience shows us just how narrow a view of search this kind of thinking creates.

What follows is a holistic approach to measuring SEO performance, the NORTH way.

Measurement First

If you take nothing else away from this post other than the following point, I guarantee you’ll have a solid foundation on which to start improving the way you measure impact.

Before you start any activity, get a measurement plan in place. Planning how to effectively measure SEO performance needs to be treated with as much importance as planning campaign activity.

I’ve been there myself, six weeks after launching some new, ground-breaking activity, trying to untangle a mess of data. Is that spike in impressions because of me, or Christmas? Can I claim any of these new organic conversions, or has a cut-back in that branded paid campaign left organic picking up the slack?

At NORTH, our preferred method of creating a measurement plan for any channel activity follows a pretty simple formula. We start with clearly defining exactly what success would look like and take steps to exclude anything else from clouding your view of that success.
Let’s break that down a little bit.

Define Success

Surely by now you’ve heard us extol the virtues of useful content. A key aspect in creating useful content is understanding exactly why you’re creating a given piece of content.

The why should form the cornerstone of any activity you undertake, irrespective of the channel. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’ll never be able to define what success looks like.

Spend a few minutes thinking about how, in an ideal world, you’d truly know whether your work made an impact.

Exclude “Clouding” Factors

The next step to effectively measure success is identifying those factors that might get in the way, and taking steps to exclude them from analysis.

It might be best to think of this phase as pre-emptively trying to account for all of those factors that you’d normally try to pick apart after the fact. You should be confident that you’ll be able to separate the performance of your campaign activity from as many other external factors as possible.

You’ve decided to optimise the content that sits on your key category landing pages. You’ve done this in the past, and thought you saw uplift. But you couldn’t say for certain as overall organic traffic to your site increased the last time you were trying to measure a similar kind of activity.

Instead of optimising all category pages in one fell swoop, split them out 50/50. Optimise half and reserve the other half as a control group for comparison. We know it’s a good idea to have as close to an equal split between each group in terms of the current performance of the pages as possible. This assumes that all of your key categories are subject to similar levels of other channel activity. Your control group shouldn’t differ greatly in terms of performance compared to the group you’re trying to measure.

User Engagement

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen people assume that measuring the number of sessions generated is the be-all-and-end-all. Give me 100 new engaged users over 10,000 uninterested pogo-sticking nobodies any day! You might know how to measure new users within Google Analytics, but how do you measure whether someone is engaged?

As part of the process of defining success you should give thought to what kinds of user engagement you’d be interested in tracking. Nothing is impossible when it comes to tracking, especially if you can use the mighty power of Google Tag Manager.

I’ve seen instances of campaign activity that drove plenty of sessions to a specific set of landing pages that looked at first glance to drive no user engagement. However, with the right tracking setup, it became obvious that these users returned in droves, to convert a week or so later. That could have been missed.

In this particular instance, the content was aimed at supporting the customer journey at a higher stage in the funnel. Using Google Analytics’ last-click model here just wouldn’t cut it. Instead, we dropped a cookie using Google Tag Manager whenever a user made their first visit to one of our newly created pages and the source of that session was organic. We then checked for the cookie at the point of conversion and passed it into Google Analytics.

Search Console Is Your Friend

While there are a million incredible SEO tools on the market, you really can work wonders with Google Analytics, Google Search Console and a good deal of strategic thought.

Google Analytics allows you to drill down into user behaviour once they arrive on your site. And a properly configured Google Search Console account gives you all sorts of wonderful information on what search queries are giving you visibility, and your associated rank for those terms. Couple Search Console with the fantastic Supermetrics for Google Drive and you’ve got yourself a handy way to archive all of your historic data.

It would be nigh on impossible to cover all of the different ways in which you can slice and dice your Search Console data to measure your SEO success. But if you’ve followed a measurement first approach, you won’t need me to tell you what data you need.

Our experience building successful SEO strategies shows that if you follow this approach, you’ll be able to craft a winning measurement plan. And trust us, this will be far more useful than measuring rankings for a single query when you’re speaking with senior management, key stakeholders or the board about SEO performance.

How do you currently measure your SEO performance? Let us know in the comments below.