One of the advantages of having been born closer to the birth of the internet than the birth of Snapchat than some of my colleagues at Silverbean, is that I’ve seen the true darkness of a pre-RankBrain era.
Some might say it was a simpler time. Some 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 to boost their organic rankings, and with significantly fewer opportunities to consume search results (voice search, ha, no chance) the benefits to those on the receiving end of tactics such as keyword stuffing was enormous.
The early days of Google Analytics saw practitioners devouring the keywords and queries that drove converting visitors thus making improvements in ranking something with a clear and usually lucrative benefit.
Sadly, whilst the world of organic search has moved on into far healthier grounds, rankings as a true measurement of success is a beast that still lurks dangerously in the background. Hardly a week passes without one of the team needing to discuss just how unhealthy it is to obsess over rankings and trying to demonstrate just how narrow a view of the world this kind of thinking creates.
What follows is a holistic approach to measuring SEO performance, the Silverbean way.
If you take nothing else away from this post than the following point, I guarantee you’ll have a solid foundation on which to start improving the way you measure the impact of your work on the organic channel.
Before you commence any activity, have a measurement plan in place. Planning how to effectively measure SEO performance needs to be treat with as much importance as planning your actual campaign activity!
Rest assured, I’ve been there myself, six weeks after launching some new, ground-breaking, organic channel shaking activity, trying to untangle a mess of data to figure out just how well it’s performing.
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 more of the slack?
It might seem obvious, but giving adequate thought to how you’ll measure performance long before you actually need to undertake any analysis is by and far the best way to ensure you don’t end up caught in this kind of web.
At Silverbean, our preferred method of creating a measurement plan for any channel activity follows a pretty simple formula; start with clearly defining exactly what success would look like, then take steps to exclude anything else from clouding your view of that success.
Let’s break that down a little bit.
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 planning on creating a given piece of content.
Understanding “why” should form the cornerstone of any activity you undertake, irrespective of the channel that you’re targeting; if you can’t clearly define why you’re doing something, you’ll never be able to define what success looks like.
For a few minutes, forget about how you’ll measure success. Forget everything you know about the available metrics you’re already tracking. Forget the way in which you measured this type of work in the past.
Spend a few minutes thinking about how, in an ideal world, you’d truly know whether your work was having an impact. Further on in this article, I talk about some of the ways in which we measure success at Silverbean, but each of these options assumes that we’ve already defined what success will look like, long before we attempt to try and measure it.
Only once you’ve arrived at a very clear definition of success should you begin choosing or creating the means by which you’ll measure it.
Exclude “clouding” factors
The next key factor in ensuring you’ll be able to effectively measure your success is identifying those factors that might get in the way, and taking sufficient steps to exclude them from your 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 be trying to pick apart “after the fact”. You should end up confidently knowing that you’ll be able to separate the performance of your campaign activity from as many other external factors as possible. An example might help to clarify this further:
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 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 of the category pages in one fell swoop, split them out 50/50; half being optimised, and the other half being a control group against which you can compare. Make sure to carefully choose how to split them in half; 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; it’s no use having a control group that, in itself, differs greatly in terms of performance than the group you’re trying to measure.
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 of a particular piece of activity. Give me 100 new engaged users over 10,000 uninterested pogo-sticking nobodies any day! You already know how to measure new users within Google Analytics, that’s a given, but how do you truly measure whether someone is engaged?
It might sound like a cop-out of an answer, but that all depends on exactly what type of engagement you’re expecting.
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 leverage the mighty power of Google Tag Manager (in the interests of impartiality, other tag management platforms are available).
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 nothing in the way of user engagement. However, with the right tracking setup, it became obvious that these users returned, in their droves, to convert a week or so later.
Without the proper tracking in place, a lot of the success of this campaign activity may have gone unnoticed, or at the very least, attributed instead to the channel that drove the final conversion. In this particular instance, the content was aimed at supporting the customer journey at a higher stage in the funnel. It was apparent that using Google Analytics’ last-click model wouldn’t “cut the mustard”.
Instead, we decided to drop 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 given session was organic. The presence of this cookie was checked at the point of conversion, and passed into GA as a custom dimension.
This kind of setup is relatively straightforward, and means you can get access to a whole slew of information that isn’t present in the multi-channel funnel reports.
Of course, the above is just a single example, where the ultimate engagement we were measuring was a conversion – we just needed to bridge the gap between the point of engagement with our content and the final converting engagement.
There are as many different ways to measure how users engage with your content, or site in general, as there are engagement types. Thankfully, with the proliferation of tools such as Google Tag Manger, it’s phenomenally easy to start capturing user behaviour as events and pass them into Google Analytics.
We’ll be publishing a future blog post detailing our most-loved user engagement events in due course, but to whet your appetite, why not take a stab at implementing your own “engaged users metric” by following this incredible guide by everyone’s favourite Google Tag Manager expert, Simo Ahava.
Search Console is your friend
I’m a firm believer that, whilst there are a million incredible SEO tools on the market, you can work wonders with little other than Google Analytics, Google Search Console and a good deal of strategic thought when it comes to looking at your SEO performance.
Whilst Google Analytics allows you to drill down into user behaviour once they arrive on your site, 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 in order to measure the SEO performance of your work.
If you’ve followed along with a “measurement first” approach, you won’t need me to tell you what data you need anyway!
So, without having gone into too many tactics, the above approach represents what we at Silverbean believe to be the most effective way to ensure you’re thinking about measurement in the right way.
If you follow this approach, you’ll be able to craft a winning measurement plan and trust us, this will help you when you’re speaking with senior management, key stakeholders or the board about SEO performance, far greater than measuring rankings for a single query every could.