Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of making edits to your website so it’s most effective at meeting search engine guidelines to be both indexed and ranked higher than your competitors. As a result, you’ll gain more visibility and qualified organic search traffic to your website, and ultimately more revenue.
Measuring SEO performance does not come from a single source like Google Analytics alone. It stems from a variety of organic search metrics from several reporting platforms and SEO tools married together to draw out actionable insights.
“How do you measure SEO performance?” is an incredibly broad question, and the answer depends on your vertical or business KPIs. Now, add in “how do you measure SEO performance in 2023” with the wake of rapidly changing consumer behaviors, search engine updates, app adoption rates, social engagement, and generative AI, and you’ll find you’re looking beyond keyword rankings and backlinks to gain insights.
This article isn’t a checklist for how to optimize for SEO or specific ranking factors. It assumes you did the SEO work (or benchmarking) and need to know the performance to determine next steps. As my first mentor once told me 20 years ago, “Until you’re ranking number one for your target keywords, there’s always more to do.”
Let’s take a look at how we find what else you can do when reviewing the key SEO performance metrics Ayima includes within our client’s custom reporting:
8 Metrics to Measure SEO Performance:
- Organic traffic
- Keyword ranking positions
- Impressions & keyword search volumes
- Trust signals & brand perception
- Non-Brand SEO performance
- Website health check
- Other marketing channels
- Organic goal conversions (revenue)
1. Organic traffic - primary metric to SEO performance
For obvious reasons, organic traffic is your primary metrics to SEO success. All other metrics are secondary, and you use them to determine why traffic (sessions) is up or down, and what to do next. We recommend viewing sessions directly from your Analytics account (such as Google Analytics or Adobe) as the primary source of truth. If you feel that this source is not reliable, you should address that with your Analytics department.
Know your industry and company’s seasonal trends when looking at sessions. If month to month sessions are down, this may be expected, especially if you’re an ecommerce website that just closed out the busy holiday shopping season. We also recommend familiarizing yourself with the PR activities, sales/events, and large site changes that occurred year over year. These would all have an impact on the SEO performance you’re tracking and would be exclusive of keyword and ranking changes.
Sources of organic traffic
Ensure you understand the sampling and estimated traffic from other data sources and SEO tools. Google Search Console is very popular amongst SEOs to measure performance, including Clicks. Clicks will never equal the session data (they’re two different sources) because of the sampling in GSC. It will give you a clear indication of trends, but the larger your site, and the more filters applied, the more sampled the data will become. This is why it’s one source, and you can use it as a guide as we look at additional SEO metrics for measuring performance.
Other sources of SEO session changes
Apart from rankings and search volumes, what else can affect your organic traffic and, as a result, click-through rates (CTR)? The search engine result page (SERP). This visual landscape evolves every year, and it differs between mobile and desktop. Knowing the search engine result page updates and their impact on your SEO performance is key in using the following metrics to shape your next steps.
2. Ranking positions - know your search engine features
One of the most frustrating things I see is when SEOs report on a change in the total Average Ranking Position, as they see it in Google Search Console, as an indication of SEO Performance. Wrong! It’s extremely ambiguous and as an average, Google will weigh it by any new keywords you begin ranking for, but at a lower position. Unless a Google Core Algorithm update negatively impacted your entire website, you will need to break down this ranking metric.
What is a better way to measure keyword ranking performance at scale?
- Review the total keyword count within different rank bands
- Number of keywords in position 1-3, 4-10, 11-20 and so forth if desired
- Ideally, you’ll apply additional metrics here like Branded vs Non-branded filtering
- To get the least amount of sampling, Ayima warehouses our clients’ Google Search Console data and reports on it with a custom Looker Studio report. This allows us to both obtain more data and save it over a long period of time.
Ranking performance evaluators
- Did you anticipate the performance change?
- Did the change occur site wide or to a specific page or content type?
- Were there changes to how your content was featured or CTR?
- Utilize Schema Markup to make your content available for more SERP features, which can change how Google calculates rankings. Meta descriptions alone will not cut it in today’s search landscape.
- The search results may include new SERP features you may not know about, and they may have changed how Google counts a ranking. Google has significantly modified the search landscape over the past decade, but these changes have only accelerated in the past few years with ever-changing consumer behaviors (and Bing for that matter). In fact, that topic itself is a separate blog post.
- Use a secondary SEO tool like SEMRush or Ahrefs to corroborate your Google Search Console data. These tools often provide valuable insights into the SERP features and updates.
- This not only tells you where you gained (or lost) features, but where your competitors have features and your domain does not for the same keyword. This can drive your SEO strategy to gain more visibility on Page One—even if you already rank there.
- Competitor keyword ranking changes
- At Ayima, we use our own proprietary tool, the Ayima Reporting Tool (ART), to track our clients and their competitors from a large set of targeted and specific keywords to monitor performance and then dive deep into changes. I’ll discuss this more later.
3. Google Search Console impressions and keyword search volumes - know what’s changed
In 2022, we frequently answered this big question: “Why are my clicks down when our rankings are up?” More often than not, the simple answer was in the search volumes (which directly tie into the available impressions you can receive).
Let’s take a look at this fashion retailer as an example:
- The client ranks in the top 3 positions for these highly-searched keywords
- Despite maintaining or improving positions, the estimated available clicks decreased -57% for 2022 from the previous year. This is a direct result of fewer searches made. Compare this to the spike in searches in 2021 from 2020, which caused an estimated lift of +26%
One common mistake I’ve seen other agencies make is telling their clients that “search volumes are just down, we can’t change your traffic when there are fewer searches.” This is false. Please do not accept this as an answer. Part of your monthly analysis should include where you have potential and the SEO efforts to go after it!
Tip: Know the source of your keyword search volumes. Different tools aggregate the data differently and pull from a combination of search engines or from a single source. Impressions are pulled from Google Search Console as a metric for how often users see your URL—a reminder that this is a sample but also a strong measure of how your audience searches and any changes in their habits (volumes).
4. Trust signals and brand perception
In the wake of Google’s updates to E-E-A-T and Helpful Content, you cannot ignore trust signals and brand perception as an SEO metric against your performance. Trust is at the center and it means a few things. You can get a pulse on your brand's trust through Branded searches. Are they up or down? Have you experienced any PR that’s sending it in one direction or another? Do you have a brand presence in other channels (e.g. social media)?
Brand sentiment (as a result of the perceived trust) plays a role in ranking non-branded terms. Separating branded from non-branded is key to measuring SEO performance and shaping strategies. And for the first time, Google’s updates will allow SEOs to help make an impact on improving Branded traffic, by improving Trust signals from customer-first, high-quality content. (That topic is also deserving of its own blog post!)
This is why you need to separate your branded and non-branded keywords when tracking SEO performance and evaluating what strategies to use to improve it.
Here is another client where Non-branded amounts for less than 1% of their Clicks and less than 30% of their impressions. We needed to understand the reasons for this to build a unique SEO strategy for the client that aligns to their SEO performance expectations.
5. Non-brand SEO performance
Non-branded SEO performance is the quintessential metric that shapes 99% of SEO strategies. As you can imagine, this is where you’ll spend a lot of time. Depending on your website’s size, you will likely need to slice and dice the keywords into more digestible groupings.
Prioritize your groupings based on the biggest impact to the end goal (conversion metric) and continue to refine your SEO plan. There are three key areas to tackle within non-branded keyword SEO performance.
Priority keywords vs wide net of keywords ranking your content
Most clients will have a set of priority keywords that center on owning market share. If you don’t have this list, make it! And make sure it’s both large and specific. Group the keywords meaningfully and track them strategically. We use our ART to give us the insights we need to monitor keyword performance changes, competing URLs, site changes, and SERP changes.
Page type (or content type)
SEO performance will vary greatly depending on the page type (or content) against a set of keywords. If you’re an ecommerce site, you will track Product Pages differently compared to Category Pages or blog content. Each of these page types works to complement each other, but their optimization strategies will differ. Knowing their performance levels each month will help you prioritize next steps.
You can’t simply look at your ranking data in isolation from what everyone else is doing. The changes competitors make to improve their own SEO performance will directly impact yours. When you track them and their changes, you will find more than just answers and insights; you may also see how Google updates its search result landing pages, content features, and where competitors have an advantage.
Competitive analysis is also a fantastic way to highlight the changes you made to gain an advantage over your competition and to continue to justify your SEO projects.
Ayima’s Reporting Tool makes it easy for us to highlight competitor insights to our clients, changes they made, increases the client has seen, and what is happening in the market as a whole to gain more market share for priority keywords.
6. Site’s health check (technical SEO)
Once you evaluate your Sessions, keyword positions, and competitors, you may need to address technical issues within your site that may hinder your ranking performance. We recommend reviewing technical SEO as a performance metric more than once a year.
You should ensure SEO teams actively monitor metrics in Google Search Console specific to crawling and indexing. This may not be a post on Technical SEO or the long list of items related to this topic, but it is a reminder that you need to check on your Crawl Stats and Log Files when you investigate your site’s performance.
Very often, clients make site changes without informing SEO teams. We only find out about the changes when we notice a sudden drop in performance and then correlate it to a crawling or indexing problem. We recommend that you add a tool to help monitor log files into your workflow.
Ayima has taken this a step further and will automate these alerts directly into our client reports. This allows us to see where we can make improvements at a glance.
7. Monitoring other marketing channels against SEO performance
The request for a holistic digital marketing approach—that is, a channel collaboration between SEO and SEM—increased in popularity in 2023. And for good reason: companies want to spend less on Paid and instead ensure they’re maximizing their exposure in search. I agree that this is a stellar idea. It does require that internal departments work together, which may be easier said than done. It also requires pulling multiple data sources together to create a robust, comprehensive, and valuable report.
How to measure SEO and SEM performance together
Start with the bird’s eye view, so you can compare channel performance in a meaningful way. For instance, look at total sessions sliced by device. Make sure you compare apples to apples: Google Ads traffic vs organic Google Search traffic, for example. You will skew your data if you inflate one or the other from search engines.
The report’s goal is to understand the brand’s overall exposure and where to make changes. Channel partners will decide on performance metrics, and they can vary greatly. Ayima has set this up with considerable success to provide new insights and strategies for both SEO and SEM efforts.
8. Organic goal conversion
Last but not least, you need to look at the conversion point (goal). Why is this the final point? Because SEO isn’t directly responsible for impacting conversions.
The role of SEO is to gain client visibility and drive qualified leads. Goals & Sales are the by-product of increased sessions, and they’re essential to justify a return on your SEO investment. That’s why we recommend including it as part of your reporting.
Here are my takeaways on conversion rates and SEO success:
Identify goal percentage tied to branded vs non-branded search traffic
Branded always has a higher conversion rate. What if branded is down, and non-branded is up? This could mean you need to grow non-branded SEO efforts to offset the gap created from branded declines.
Secondary to this is the quality of the traffic sent to the site. If there is a significant increase in organic traffic and no change to sales, what are the page(s) or keyword(s)? Consider incorporating bounce rate as a metric.
Prioritize your SEO efforts based on conversions
Using an ecommerce site as an example, what if the blog drives significant traffic but doesn’t convert as well as product or category pages? Your best use of SEO resources may be to maximize on the high-profit projects, and see others as secondary but less immediate to the sales goal.
The opposite may be true, too. The client may want to increase trust, authority, and brand sentiment, which makes a high-quality content strategy essential. In this case, you can still easily apply a goal value.
Identify any conversion funnel factors that may impact goals
This happens when we see an increase in sessions for a typically strong converting page, but sales are down. Consider these Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) metrics:
- Barriers to enter the conversion funnel
- Loyalty programs to you or competing brands
- App adoption rates where conversions occur (incentives)
- Supply chain—is there a lack of inventory?
- Pricing—item pricing isn’t desirable, or the shipping cost is too high
It’s not the SEO team’s responsibility to fix these barriers, but you can and should report them to the client for internal investigation.
Summary on measuring SEO performance
The ways in which you pull all of your SEO metrics (KPIs) together is imperative to seeing actionable insights at a glance. You’ll then avoid wasting additional time on reporting each month (or worse, spending no time on it), and instead will have more time to plan and execute on your updated SEO strategies.
Search engines adapt their appearance to users several times a year to meet changing demands for every search query. SEOs must do the same to help our clients succeed. User experience is at the forefront of Google and Bing’s updates, so it’s important for performance measurements to directly relate to the user impacts—and your optimization efforts to satisfy them.
Ayima compiles bespoke reports for each of our clients. Our goal is to ensure the monthly SEO insights we report on will have a direct line of sight into the next month's SEO efforts, so we continue to see performance improvements in organic traffic.
If you enjoyed our approach in this article, feel free to reach out to our team to chat about how Ayima can help you track and analyze your SEO performance today.