Plan For The Long Run With Data-Driven SEO

“How much revenue is SEO driving to our site/property?”

“What’s the ROI on the resources you’re using in SEO?”

“How should we be thinking about funding SEO on an ongoing basis?”

These are the questions I’m hearing these days within the purple walls of Yahoo.

I don’t know about you, but since the economy started heading downhill faster than a snowboarder at the X-Games, I’ve been seeing a lot more attention being given to SEO than in recent years. Back when budgets for SEM were essentially unlimited and the industry was growing like the hat size of a future Hall-of-Famer on steroids, SEO seemed to get the short shrift for a while. I mean, why work really hard on SEO when you can scale SEM so much faster by throwing cash at the problem, especially when SEM budgets are paying for themselves?

Now that the tide has turned, economically speaking, and with SEM budgets focused more on profitability than volume, it’s time to take another long look at SEO and how to use it to your company’s advantage. Of course, in my world, the work starts by making a business case for SEO, where we quantify opportunity with a data-driven approach. Using a conservative valuation of SEO traffic we can not only make the business case for SEO, but also prioritize some of the ensuing projects. I’ve also written about how to take those priorities and implement them throughout a development process, thereby gaining efficiency and lowering cost and time to market. It’s time to take a step back and think about how to manage this on an ongoing basis in a sustainable way.

What I’d like to talk about here is the ongoing tracking of traffic, value, and opportunity required to build out a long-lasting SEO program at a really big company. Because no matter what size company you’re in, here’s what you’re going to face: Once you’ve gotten the green light to proceed with SEO for your site, how do you quantify what you’re actually doing for the bottom line? The truth is that if you don’t know or can’t prove it, your SEO program is about to die a quick and quiet death. The good news is that if you take the time to put into place some decent web analytics that account for SEO, you will have all the data you need to tell everyone in your organization how much profit you’re driving to the company, and where to invest the next dollar.

SEO referrals

Make sure you have an analytics solution of some kind—almost any kind—on your web property. Ideally, you could have something built just for SEO, but at the very least you should have a package that can isolate SEO referrals from other traffic sources. For us, this meant building a proprietary system that parses SEO referrals from incoming traffic and reports out to users in a bunch of different ways. For most ‘normal’ websites, this usually means something powered by those javascript tags that IT managers hate. They’re easy enough to implement, but from my experience they’re also easy to install improperly and tricky to maintain, and you should know right off the bat that the accuracy of the data they provide is questionable.

But that’s OK. Just try to avoid making a data salad out of your results. What I mean by this is try to stick to one source of truth for all your marketing data. Don’t try, for example, to subtract your SEM clicks, as reported by the search engines, from your total search engine referrals number, as reported by your web analytics software, in the hopes of getting a number for organic search referrals. I can tell you this doesn’t work because I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work. Instead, choose analytics software that can attempt to decipher whether traffic is coming from paid or organic search and then use those numbers. Similarly, when trying to answer the question “how much of my site’s traffic is coming from SEO?,” you will want to use a total traffic number from that same data source, even if you know it is not perfect (see above).

Value your SEO traffic

The same analytics software that will segment your organic from your paid search traffic will probably also track your SEO leads to conversion. This of course depends heavily on your business model, but the general idea is that decent analytics can give you a notion of value for your SEO traffic. At Yahoo!, our internal systems track SEO referrals in-session to a variety of revenue events. In some cases the various pieces of this data chain are disjointed, so it’s by no means perfect, but it does allow all properties to track SEO referrals, and in many cases we can track those referrals to direct revenue dollars. I have also written about different valuation models which, when applied to SEO traffic, can help attach real value to organic search referrals.

Create meaningful reports

I’ve also written in some depth about quantifying SEO opportunity, in the context of making a business case for SEO. Here I will only add that the same principles apply ongoing to SEO. In fact, once you’ve been tracking SEO data for a year, comparing performance year-over-year will help you make your case for continued SEO work. Since things change so rapidly in SEO, one suggestion I always make in reporting on these ‘long-term’ results is to build out your performance graphs on a timeline and then plot out real events that have taken place—site re-launch, shifts in the market or competitive space, outbreaks of swine flu – it will help you explain otherwise mysterious shifts in your SEO metrics, as well as impress your management.

The advanced track

So once you have the basics covered, you’ll be able to report out on SEO referrals, value and opportunity. So what’s next? We’re spending some effort trying to understand how the evolving nature of search is affecting our data. For example, of the referrals we’re seeing from organic search, which are coming from web search, image search, video search and so on. We’re calling this vertical search reporting. Also, we’re building out opportunity reports on a fairly regular basis and pushing them out to management periodically as a regular reminder of what’s still on the table as far as SEO value. Finally, we’re trying to combine some of the metrics we have to make more subtle decisions.

Combining metrics

It’s easy to get mired in all the data, especially at a company like Yahoo!, where the sheer volume of data can be truly overwhelming, but by keeping it simple we can make some useful prioritization decisions.  For example: Search volume is an important component in prioritizing which keywords to go after. You won’t ever be able to get a perfect read on search volume for a given keyword, but there are tools on the market that can give you a general or relative idea of search volume. Rank, when paired with search volume, can help you prioritize keywords and their untapped potential. You’ll need to make some assumptions about clickthrough rates associated with each position. By combining these metrics we can prioritize keyword level optimization efforts. This helps us understand for a given keyword, how much effort we should spend optimizing our site, given the value of the opportunity for that word.

Keep it simple

First things first, remember the basics:

  1. Get an analytics solution in place that can isolate SEO referrals
  2. Attach value to SEO referrals through tracking technologies or valuation models, or both
  3. Find useful ways to leverage the above data to build useful reports for your management
  4. Rinse and Repeat

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength


About The Author: is Vice President, Marketing at Move, Inc., parent company of and other significant real estate-focused web properties. In this capacity, Roth oversees Paid and Organic Search, Affiliate, Mobile and Social Marketing for the Company. Prior to his arrival at Move, Dave was Sr. Director of Search and Affiliate Marketing at Yahoo!, Inc.

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