Metrics that matter: The basics of measuring SEO success

As with all marketing channels, you can’t understand the success of your efforts without measuring and tracking the right metrics. You’re not alone however if you’re finding this a challenge. In the world of SEO, identifying the best metrics can be confusing and many are misunderstood even today. 

If you’re reading this post and are aware that you may not be measuring the impact of your SEO effectively, then you’re already one step ahead. As an agency, we’re expected to show clients the positive results of our SEO efforts which often involves explaining why we monitor some of the metrics we do and debunking ongoing SEO myths. 

Unfortunately, the world of SEO metrics can get a little murky. There are hundreds of signals used by Google and other search engines to decide search rankings and these signals are changing all the time. This means there are not only many areas you can look at to improve your organic visibility, but also many areas to measure and track. 

The good news is that there are some key metrics, along with the right analysis, that can tell you a lot about your SEO efforts.

Discover the SEO metrics that matter

The problem with measuring SEO

When it comes to SEO performance, many businesses see correlations and assume causation; more people seem to be visiting the site, so it must be because of the optimisations made last month. Even many that are tracking their key SEO metrics are relying on just one or two to tell them the whole picture. Additionally, not everyone fully understands these metrics or what they really say about certain SEO efforts.

Even if your SEO activities are the cause of your recent good performance, you could be missing out on even better results. Understanding why certain changes have a positive or negative impact is imperative to building a sustainable SEO strategy.

Below we have covered off some of the most common metrics and factors used to monitor SEO performance, how to measure them and what to be aware of.

Number of ranking keywords

The number of keywords your site or sites are ranking for is a metric used to show overall keyword visibility. This metric should be of most interest when a website or business is new and is just starting to build their presence on search engines. Showing an increase in overall keywords each month can be used to show that early SEO efforts are working, the site is improving in visibility and Google is indexing the site. 

Keyword visibility can also be used if you are ready to target new areas. If you have already established yourself with your initial keyword targets and achieved great rankings, then you can look at other keyword areas to target to expand your reach even further. This is where the number of ranking keywords and relative URLs could become relevant again.

You can find the number of keywords you are ranking for in an SEO tool

How to measure it

Most basic SEO tools should be able to show you the total number of keywords you are ranking for, there are some that will offer this on their free package. If you use a tool that offers historical data like SEMrush then you can track your keyword visibility over time even if you haven’t been tracking this in the past. Google’s Search Console is also a great place to monitor search term performance and relevant metrics such as impressions and clicks. Using Search Console data in conjunction with data from tools such as SEMrush is a powerful combination.

You an find exact SEO keyword metrics in a free SEO tool
A view from SEMrush as above with an exact figure for ranking keywords

What to be aware of

Keyword visibility is not a substitute for traffic visibility. This metric is about quantity rather than quality. While it can be a great indicator of initial SEO efforts and can help you measure the improvement of your website authority, it doesn’t tell you the quality of these keywords, how much traffic they are delivering and what revenue they are generating. Ranking for a thousand keywords at position 90 will not hold the same weight as even one targeted keyword ranking page one position one. If the majority of these keywords aren’t relevant to your business then you won’t be getting the traffic to the site that you want either. Use wisely and always in conjunction with other keyword metrics to show a full picture.

Keyword rankings

One of the most popular and widely used metrics, keyword rankings are arguably what SEO is all about. When we carry out keyword research, optimise webpages and perform link outreach, it’s usually with those top spots in the search results in mind. Keyword rankings provide a more detailed and accurate measurement of overall visibility. Of course, this also means this area is extremely competitive.

New businesses are continuously targeting existing keyword areas and search engines change their algorithms regularly, which means keyword rankings are constantly changing. This means that your SEO efforts aren’t the only thing affecting this metric; in fact, many of the variables that can improve or diminish your rankings are not directly in your control at all. It requires constant tracking and reaction; businesses can’t just put in the work to achieve a number one spot and leave it there.

SEMrush can show you keyword rankings
A tool like SEMrush shown above lets you see keyword rankings and even sort by ranking

How to measure it

A good SEO tool is the best way to keep track of this metric. You can also get a look at SERPs yourself by simply searching incognito for your target keywords and looking for your business, but remember that every search can affect the rankings. How often a term is searched for and which results get the most clicks on the page can contribute to how Google ranks results in future searches. 

You can tag and track specific keywords and their rankings
Tag and track the keywords that mean the most to your business

The main benefit of an SEO tool like SEMrush is that you can track specific keywords closely alongside an overall picture of all your keyword rankings. Tagging certain keywords you want to track such as high volume or high purchase intent keywords can help you monitor the searches that matter most to your business and immediately identify any drop or surge in rankings.

What to be aware of

This metric on its own doesn’t account for relevance or search volume. If you are ranking for 3 keywords in position 1 but none of them are your target keywords or even relevant to your business, then it might not be a true indication of good performance.

Similarly, low volume keywords, even if they are more relevant to your business, won’t be bringing in the kind of traffic that you’re looking for. These keywords are, understandably, less competitive in the first place, so ranking for them is easier than the high volume keywords that most people search for.

Don’t completely ignore these types of keywords, however. All your keyword rankings and traffic to your site are signals used by Google to judge your website authority and this can help you with your other keyword rankings. Targeting lower volume keywords that are less competitive can be a good strategy to help you build some initial authority that you can use later to reach for those higher volume keywords.

Backlinks

Backlinks are all the places around the web where your site is being linked to. You can look at the overall quantity of backlinks as well as quality, but the quality is even more important here than with keyword rankings so the two should always be looked at within the same measurement.

Backlinks have traditionally been one of if not the most heavily weighted signals Google uses when ranking search results and this still seems to be the case today. If other authoritative sites link to yours, Google usually sees this as a good sign that the content or information you are delivering is of a high enough quality that others around the web source it. You can think of every backlink as a vote for your website.

Backlinks are essential to improving website authority

Increasing the number of sources and websites that link to your own assets, especially if they also have a lot of authority, is still one of the best ways to improve the overall authority of your site and improve your rankings across the board. 

How to measure it

As well as looking in your chosen SEO tool, you can look at referral traffic data in Google Analytics to better understand which external sources are driving the most traffic and providing the most value to your business. Rather than just focusing on building the number of backlinks that you may gain and then ignore, this data can tell you which sources you might want to focus on nurturing and improving on an ongoing basis.

You need to track backlinks to measure SEO performance
Google Analytics can also show referring domains along with behaviour and value of those referred visitors

What to be aware of

Even more so than keyword rankings, quality is the main thing to be aware of when it comes to backlinks. In fact, poor quality backlinks can even damage your overall rankings and authority in the eyes of the search engines. Quantity isn’t just missing the full picture, but it could in fact be hiding negative performance. Look out for high authority backlinks from sites that include .gov and .org. Take the time to go to the sites that are linking to yours to see if they look like a credible source. Research their traffic and performance as much as possible.

You also want to avoid any black and even grey hat techniques where possible. Black hat and grey hat SEO building were popular in the past when search algorithms found it harder to sort a quality source from others. Link farms and other easy-wins could gain sites hundreds of backlinks to improve their score, but today these practices just don’t hold water. Search engines are much savvier at figuring out when these types of techniques are being used and in the end, they’ll only damage your authority.

Organic traffic - sessions and users

Organic sessions and users are slightly different metrics but they can both be used to show your overall organic traffic. This provides another layer of insight when used with keyword and backlink metrics. Just because you’ve put in the work and are seeing good results with keywords and backlinks doesn’t automatically mean that people are clicking through and visiting your site. Without visits, you can’t generate conversions and get a return on your SEO efforts.

How to measure it

Google Analytics is the best place to get an overview of your organic traffic. You can get an overview of traffic coming from organic compared to other channels as well as drill down into organic sessions and user metrics.

Sessions are the total number of sessions on your site. One user, for example, may have two or several sessions with your site in one day. Users, on the other hand, are the total number of users that visited your site while the new users metric is the total number of first-time visitors with no previous interactions with your website.

User and session SEO metrics can be found Google Analytics

What to be aware of

If you can see an improvement in organic traffic in tandem with improvements in keyword visibility, rankings or backlinks then this could indicate that your SEO efforts in these areas are having the positive performance you want. Still, you should drill down into other data areas to identify if there are any other reasons for increases or decreases in organic traffic outside of your SEO initiatives. Seasonal or economic trends can also impact this, as well as the competitor landscape such as businesses entering and leaving the market. Mistaking causation for correlation could lead you to make the wrong decisions, such as investing more in your current SEO initiatives when in fact there is a seasonal reason for your recent increase in organic traffic.

Bounce rate

The bounce rate metric is one that is often misunderstood. You’ll find many sources around the web telling you that bounce rate is when someone lands on your page and then immediately leaves. This paints a picture of someone landing on a page and then hitting the back button or closing the page instantly.

In fact, the bounce rate is actually any single-page session on your site. It is any session where someone landed on your page and then didn’t go anywhere on your site afterwards. While Google Analytics records this session duration as 0 seconds, this is because “there are no subsequent hits after the first one that would let Analytics calculate the length of the session.” This means that if someone found your informative piece of content in the search results, they may have read the entire piece and then simply left after finding what they needed. This would count as a ‘bounced session’, but the content was still consumed and potentially fulfilled its intended purpose.

Bounce rate is an essential SEO metric

How to measure it

You can find the bounce rate metric in Google Analytics under both the Acquisition and Behaviour sections. You should track bounce rate from different perspectives depending on your business and SEO goals to best utilise this metric. Your site may have a high bounce rate overall, for example, but a relatively low bounce rate across your organic channel or for certain sources and mediums. When examined from various perspectives, your bounce rate can be a very useful metric for highlighting specific problem areas or even high performing areas within your organic strategy.

What to be aware of

Because of the misconception about what bounce rate actually is, you need to be extra careful when using this metric. A high bounce rate isn’t always a bad thing as many people today currently believe. Informative blog content, for example, may have a high bounce rate because it is doing exactly what it’s supposed to. People come seeking information, and your content answers their questions in one handy post. This doesn’t mean that your blog content isn’t performing well. In fact, the opposite may be true. If your informative blog strategy is being utilised to build brand awareness and authority for your brand then you could consider a high bounce rate as confirmation of this.

You can measure bounce rate for SEO in Google Analytics

Alternatively, a high bounce rate on your homepage is almost never a good thing. When people find your homepage, you almost always want them to look around your site further to shop or find out more about your business.

The simple answer to measuring and using bounce rate to inform your decisions is to consider what matters to your business and what your SEO goals are. Look at it from various perspectives before making any snap judgements and take the time to understand what a particular bounce rate might really be saying about a specific area of your SEO strategy.

Time spent on page

Just like bounce rate this metric can be misunderstood. The time spent on a page is the length of the session on each page and traditionally, longer times have been associated with better content and therefore good performance. As with bounce rate, this preconception doesn’t always hold true. In fact, the optimal time spent on a page will entirely depend on the page itself.

While time spent on page can be used to gain insights into website behaviour and help you make optimisations to drive the behaviour you want to see on specific pages or your site as a whole, it has significant SEO value in the search results as well. Content quality is an increasingly important factor for search engines when ranking results and the time a visitor spends on a page can be an indicator of whether the content is of good quality.

Track time on page to measure SEO success

How to measure it

Time spent on page can be found within the Behaviour section on Google Analytics. Similar to bounce rate, you’ll want to monitor this metric across various channels, sources and content types to gain usable insight from it. In fact, even more so than bounce rate, you’ll gain more from tracking time spent on page when you look at it on a page-by-page basis. Identifying the top pages that visitors spend the most and then the least time on and comparing these pages can tell you more about your website performance and highlight potential problem areas.

What to be aware of

Again, you’ll need to think about what the page is and what the goals of the content are to judge whether the time spent on a page is good or not. While you might expect a long page time on a blog post to show that the content is engaging, a similarly high time may be an indication that another page is confusing for visitors. A dedicated lead-form landing page, for example, should have clear call-to-actions and should minimise the steps needed to gain a lead. A high time spent on the page here wouldn’t be in line with the content goals.

Google search console can help you measure SEO performance
Don't forget to use a variety of sources and tools to inform your decision making such as performance from Google Search Console

The importance of measuring SEO properly

There are really hundreds of ways to measure SEO performance. The right ones for you will likely depend on the market you’re in and what your business goals are. This means the metrics you use today may not even be the most relevant ones to use tomorrow.

As well as simply deciding which metrics are the right ones for you and when to use them, you need to be aware of SEO metric myths and how they could be used, either by accident or on purpose, to inform misleading insights about your SEO performance.

Ensuring you understand the metrics, and know how to track and analyse them, is essential to making the right decisions for your business. Without accurately measuring SEO performance, you don’t know if your investments are achieving any return.

If you’re unsure if you’re getting the right insights from your SEO efforts or don’t know which metrics are most relevant to you and how to track them, why not speak to our experts today? With years of experience in SEO and digital strategies, we can perform a quick and free audit of your current organic performance to help you identify areas for improvement and work with you to put together and implement a successful SEO strategy. You can find out more about our SEO packages here or take a look at some of our previous customer success stories to discover more about what we do and how we do it.

Katy Smith

Katy Smith

Digital Marketing Executive

Katy is a Digital Marketing Executive at Netmatter with a degree in Marketing. She has so far gained experience in various areas of marketing including email, copywriting, social media and SEO.

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