Six Ways to Measure SEO Success

Website and business owners who spend money on optimizing their websites in the search engines want to know they are getting a good return on their investments. SEOs need concrete numbers to show these people to prove that the campaign is working, and that they should continue to invest in optimization. But how do you get these numbers? Jacqueline Dooley explains six metrics to use that are helpful indicators for letting both business owners and SEOs know whether a website’s optimization campaign is working, and how well.

There are several good reasons why you should measure your SEO efforts:

  1. To justify how much you’re spending to management, your client, or whoever holds you accountable for getting traffic to your website.
  2. To make sure that all the time and money you’re spending on SEO is actually working.
  3. To secure more money for next year’s SEO budget.
  4. To stay competitive.

It doesn’t hurt to place some industry statistics in front of your boss or client. For example, an article on MarketingSherpa.com titled “How Much Should You Budget for Search Marketing in 2005? (Paid Ads vs. Site Optimization)” states that, on average, a website’s traffic increases by 73 percent within six months of site optimization. This is a powerful statistic, and it can be made even more powerful by combining it with metrics specific to your site.

Understanding industry averages, such as how much the average website owner spends on outsourcing SEO ($100 – $500 per Web page is not out of the question, according to MarketingSherpa.com), and what sort of return you can expect to receive for paying top dollar, are both critical when formulating a plan that will convince the higher-ups to spend the dough on SEO.

The goal here is to lay out some key metrics in a simple monthly report that brings together the entire SEO picture, including how keywords, search engines and search engine ranking affect your website’s traffic and (whenever possible) conversion. Here are six metrics you can track and easily chart which demonstrate the importance of SEO to your bottom line.

The most obvious way to measure your SEO success is to monitor your site’s ranking in the top Internet search engines. comScore Media Metrix listed Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, Excite and Ask Jeeves as the top U.S. search sites (in that order) based on the number of searches performed in December 2004. When you consider that some sites don’t use their own technology (e.g., AOL gets its search results from Google), the pool of search engines becomes even smaller. In fact, according to comScore results, there were only four search providers (a “search provider” provides search results to various “search engines”) responsible for 98 percent of searches in the U.S. in December 2004 – Google (48 percent), Yahoo (32 percent), MSN (16 percent) and Ask Jeeves (2 percent). This information will help you justify to your boss or client why you only need to track your results in a handful of search engines.

Many search engine optimization specialists (SEOs) monitor the top 30-50 positions in the above-mentioned search engines for positioning changes. Arguably, the first page of search engine results (SERPs) is the only page that matters, since many searchers never click beyond this page. However, it is important for reporting purposes to track your site’s positioning beyond the top ten so that you can see for yourself (and demonstrate to your client) that whatever site you’re monitoring is gradually moving up in the SERPs. If you are just starting to monitor your search positioning, you may even want to monitor the top 100-200 results. Yes, appearing down at position 100 is a website no-man’s land, but once your site starts showing up in a search engine, it is a big win for you and/or your client, and should absolutely be reported.

There are many automated position checking tools, but some search engines such as Google frown on them. If you’re just checking a few engines, the best way to monitor positioning is by hand. Perform manual searches by entering your keywords into the search field without quotes. You can adjust the number of sites displayed in the search results by clicking on “Advanced Search” in Google and Yahoo, then setting the number of results to be displayed at 100. MSN lets you view up to 50 results by clicking on the “Settings” link to get to the advanced search features. You can then do a search for your domain by selecting “Edit” and “Find” in IE or just hitting Ctrl-N and typing in your domain.

If you really want to automate the process (and who would blame you?), a great inexpensive tool is Advanced Web Ranking, which gives you the option of using a Google API key to perform searches. There are many other tools out there, including free Web-based tools. One of my favorite free online rank-checking tools is MarketLeap’s Keyword Verification tool, which checks your ranking in seven search engines for one keyword at a time. The catch is that it only looks at the top three pages of results in each engine, and it only reports the actual page your listing appears on, not the exact position.

It is safe to assume that the higher your site is listed in the search engines, the more traffic it will get, with the coveted #1 position delivering the most clicks. Atlas Solutions, the corporate parent of a suite of digital marketing agencies that include Avenue A and Razorfish, released two reports that support this assumption. These reports, titled “The Atlas Rank Report: How Search Engine Rank Impacts Traffic” and “The Atlas Rank Report, Part 2: How Search Engine Rank Impacts Conversions” show that lower positioning in ad placement for pay-per-click ads on Google and Overture translated to lower clickthrough and conversion rates. This data supposedly translates to organic search listings as well, although my advice is to really look at your own data (Atlas gives this advice too) and determine the reality of your clickthrough and conversion rates based on your site’s position in the SERPs.

Another simple way to measure the success of your SEO efforts is to keep track of what pages are showing up in the SERPs for a given keyword. Many sites start out with just their home page listed, and as secondary pages are optimized and begin to achieve some PR (backlinks), they start showing up. Pay attention to the actual URL that shows up in the SERPs in a given search site and track it for future reference. This is tangible proof that your SEO efforts are paying off and you are maximizing your site’s exposure in the search engines.


3. Establish your benchmark monthly traffic stats

Bottom line numbers, such as how many unique visitors and page views per month your site receives, are always a hit with upper management and clients. If you’re not already tracking your website traffic statistics, it’s imperative that you get started. Most Web hosting packages come with some kind of basic statistical analysis, or may even provide log files to their clients. Check with your hosting provider or website developer for this information.

Many companies now offer tag-based tracking via an ASP service that enables you to log onto a Web-based console and view your stats in real time or near-real time. These services do not require you to install any software on your machine. You simply paste the tracking code into every page of your site and you’re good to go.

Be sure that whatever tracking tool you use includes the following basic metrics.

  • Total Visitors

  • Unique Visitors

  • Page Views

  • Entry Pages

  • Exit Pages

  • Referring Domains

  • Referring URLs

  • Top Referring Search Engines

  • Top Referring Keywords

GoDaddy.com offers a very inexpensive tracking utility for an extra $2.00 per month to their hosting clients. I also recommend HitsLink.com, which is a tag-based online tool that provides conversion tracking, among other things. The best tools let you customize the date range for the reports and provide you with multiple ways to look at your data (e.g., you can look at top referring keywords and key phrases). Good tools always give you the option to export your data into a spreadsheet or delimited file.

If you have a very large website or a suite of sites and money to burn, you’ve probably got one of the top-tier analysis tools to analyze not just your search engine traffic, but all of your campaign activity. Tools that analyze visitor paths and crunch your numbers a thousand different ways are wonderful, yes, but they are also overwhelming. If you keep your metrics simple and straightforward, your marketing report is more likely to be read by your client or manager. Thus, use the above list of bottom line stats as a guideline to create a simple, streamlined report and leave the more detailed number crunching to the statisticians.

Your traffic statistics will disclose which search engines currently refer the most traffic to your site. Your top referring search engines should be comparable to the top search engines in the industry. That is, if comScore says Google is responsible for 48 percent of the nation’s searches, then at least 48 percent of your traffic should be coming from Google. If it’s not, this is a red flag that indicates you are not as well-positioned in Google for your targeted keywords as you should be.


5. Establish your top referring keywords (as they stand prior to optimization)

Your site’s traffic statistics will also reveal what keywords people are currently using to find your website. This is revealing on two levels. First of all, you may be showing up for an obscure term that was not initially on your radar. Perhaps it’s a unique product that only you offer that you could feature more prominently throughout the site.

As with many things, the words that don’t show up on the list of top referring keywords can be more revealing than words that do show up. If your top keywords don’t show up at all, then this means they are not well listed in search engines. Reviewing this information and keeping track of it is a great way to measure your SEO success, and is also a great snapshot into the behavior of your site’s visitors. It can help you focus your attention on optimizing the correct keywords (e.g., by leaving keywords that already rank well alone) and giving you ideas on how to expand your current list of targeted keywords.


Last but not least, establishing the conversion rate for your website is the highlight of your entire report and often the key metric needed to ensure that your SEO campaign is adequately funded. Establishing your overall site conversion rate is fairly simple. E-commerce sites can simply look at actual sales numbers divided by unique visitors to get their baseline conversion rate. Sites that don’t sell anything, but have online registration forms, contact forms or other forms that collect visitor data would divide the number of registrants by unique visitors to get this number.

Understanding your conversion rate for SEO is not as simple as obtaining your overall site conversion rate. You need to extract the number of organic search visitors from visitors who got to the site via other sources, and somehow tie these visitors to actual sales or registrations. There are tracking tools on the market today that let you do this, but it is often an added feature and it’s not cheap. ClickTracks is one such tool worth looking into. The tool enables you to view conversion for SEO and PPC keywords in a visual environment perfect for showing off to the boss. It gets this information from your site’s log files.

If you don’t have a fancy analytics tool like ClickTracks, you can still make some inferences about the impact of organic search traffic based on the data you do have. For example, if you can show that search engine traffic is gradually increasing from month to month and sales are also gradually increasing, then it is natural to assume that increase organic search referrals translates to increased sales. Be careful with generalizations like this, and be sure to track other marketing events that may have also contributed to sales.

You can set up a basic two-page report template that includes these six metrics (or five if you’d prefer to leave out concrete conversion tracking). Two pages of top-level statistics are more than enough to demonstrate success and provide you with the historical data you need to build a solid quarterly or year-end report that will help you secure your SEO budget in the months or years to come.

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