I test a lot. Different ideas and techniques pour out of my brain; to be honest, some of them are utter crap. I learned the hard way not to take leaps without testing the takeoff and landing first.

One step that seems to be overlooked when people are starting to test their own websites is developing a benchmark or baseline.  Knowing where the starting line is makes the finish line visible, if you don’t know where you started – how do you know where you’re finishing?

Benchmarking data is definitely a subjective practice. Back in the day, the baseline was Google backlinks and Pagerank. Now in the age of hardly changing Pagerank and stingy reporting on backlinks, those metrics  change enough to validate testing unless you’re changing one thing a year – and who has time for that slow progress?

Today, I’ll take you through some tools and data I use to determine a baseline of where my clients are when I start testing something new; mainly to see if they’re affected negatively or positively as soon as possible after the change is made.

Google Analytics benchmarking service

Although this service has been available since May of 2008, I fear its being underutilized in most cases. Honestly, I find this feature to be one of the most valuable tools I’ve used to see how we’re doing as an agency. I also use it to watch increases and declines based on changes I’m making to a clients web strategy or website. Of course, sharing the information with a client is also a smart move as it allows them to compare their website against other websites in that may be direct or indirect competitors.

Benchmarking data can be found in your Google Analytics under Visitors and it must be enabled to start tracking. After you’ve enabled the data to be collected, it can take up to 2 weeks to see the benchmark data. Once you start receiving data, benchmarking is activated, the information is eye opening for sure. Below, I’m sharing some benchmark info for a new client that is a large resort property just north of Playa del Carmen. We converted their old website to WordPress in November and watched our benchmark data to see if we helped or hindered the user. We saw immediate results. Before pulling this data, I set the benchmarking data to compare their website to other hotel and accommodation websites of similar size. Our client is the data in blue, the black is the benchmark average of the aggregate data within the category.

Visits Benchmark

Google Analtyics Visits Benchmark Graphic

Bounce Rate Benchmark (Can you tell when we launched the new website?)

Google Analtyics Bounce Rate Benchmark Graphic

Average Time on Site Benchmark

Google Analtyics Time on Site Benchmark Graphic

As we work on reoptimizing or revamping some pages on this site, I’ll watch this data day to day to see if the changes we make are affecting the benchmark in a positive or negative way.

Eye tracking and heat mapping

These services have been around for a few years – although they’re mostly used for finding problems, I use them to make sure I’m not “creating” problems with my testing and fine tuning. I recommend checking out ClickTale to get a great idea of what is and is NOT working on your pages. I like the heat maps and the movies you can see of your visitors’ browsing sessions. This gives you great insight into where people go and what they “try” to do on your page. As you make changes, watch how the videos change, and if your calls to action, button insertions, image changes, etc are changing things for the better or worse.

Tracking ranking and links

I do tend to agree with the folks that encourage us to not obsess over rankings – they’re not a true measure of how you’re doing. But, do keep in mind when you’re testing – loosing ranking for terms that you did well for can be an indicator of one of those crappy theories I talked about previously. To stay on track and be sure I’m following the Search Marketer’s Hippocratic Oath “try not to screw this up too bad”, I use SEMRush or SheerSEO to track ranking and/or incoming link growth or decline, for my clients. SheerSEO accomplishes both of these and is fairly inexpensive, and the more domains you sign up – the less expensive each is. Their customer service is top notch and they’re easy to work with. You can track hundreds of keywords and have a report emailed to you weekly or monthly showing gains and declines along with nice graphics that show the data for each keyword or as an aggregate.

SEMRush is rolling out new features every day, the one I like right now is the ability to see the number of keywords for which a domain is ranked top 20. That’s a handy measure to track with clients as you’re reoptimizing a site or adding and changing content or structure. The one downside is they only update the data about every 3 months or so. Therefore, any report you ran after December 10th is the same as it is today. That being said, the data is really cool to track on a quarterly basis and the clients love it.

These tools are all great for getting a comprehensive snapshot of the starting line as you test and fine-tune your way to better ROI. But I still think your most valuable tools are going to be common sense and a methodical approach to making changes. If you’re not sure your thinking is sound, don’t be afraid to bounce the idea off a mentor or a friend in the industry. Consider trying your more abstract ideas on sites that, while not necessarily “disposable,” can afford to take a hit or two when it comes to ROI.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Toolbox

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About The Author: is the co-founder of Ignitor Digital, along with long-time colleague Mary Bowling. At Ignitor, Carrie tackles tough technical SEO roadblocks many small business owners don't even know they have. Her experience with analytics and troubleshooting helps her get to the root of issues. When not working, Carrie loves to cook for friends and family, hang out with her pretty awesome kids, and read books that have little-to-no educational value! You can also follow Carrie on twitter, @carriehill.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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