KPIs for SEO: measuring SEO success
Wondering what metrics you should use to demonstrate value to your clients? Columnist Marcus Miller shares some of the most useful KPIs in terms of connecting SEO outcomes to business objectives.
Measuring your results is a critical component of any SEO campaign.
There are many, many variables at play in an SEO campaign, so successful campaigns rely on a control system to ensure the work undertaken delivers results. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) act as this control system and allow you to identify what is working — and often, more importantly, provide the SEO with an early warning system if something is not moving the needle as expected.
KPIs also provide a means to illustrate success to your clients (or company higher-ups if you’re in-house). Typical SEO KPIs like keyword rankings and metrics from tools like Moz or Majestic SEO may be useful for you, but the clients you serve want to see an increase in sales and leads — not simply improved positions and hikes in Domain Authority.
In this post, I’ll take a look at how you can use KPIs to better track success and improve results of your SEO campaigns. And possibly most importantly of all, I will show you how to use KPIs to better illustrate the value of the SEO campaigns you undertake to your clients.
Improved results, reporting and client retention — what’s not to like?
Objectives and KPIs
To accurately measure SEO success, we must know what we are trying to achieve and the various steps necessary to do so. If we have followed a structured methodology for creating a digital marketing plan, then we will have identified some specific objectives for the business and our marketing. Our measurement KPIs should map to these objectives, allowing us to clearly demonstrate how the activities we undertake in an SEO campaign are helping us move towards our business objectives.
If a customer comes to you and asks to rank for a given keyword, then you need to dig deeper. You have to ask, “Why? Why do you want to rank for that keyword? What do you believe this will do for your business?” You want to develop a strategic understanding of why the client wants more relevant traffic from a search engine and understand the real business objectives at play.
When you understand the customer’s real objectives behind ranking for a given keyword, you can provide more value and better service. Most importantly, you can tie KPIs to these business objectives, allowing you to talk in a language the decision makers can understand. Keyword rankings are great, but a demonstrable percentage increase in sales from SEO or a lower cost-per-lead for SEO vs. PPC will better illustrate the value of organic and the work you are doing.
Simply put, KPIs are the connective tissue between the business’s goals/objectives and the SEO work that you are doing.
It’s also important to note that we just have a great deal of data now. There is clearly a lot of value in analysis software like Google Analytics, but explaining bounce rate or frequency to the board will often result in blank stares and disengagement.
Decision-makers need something they can understand: less data, more clarity. While the SEO or analyst can do a deep dive, there must be a focus on key information that the business can use to validate their spend and make better decisions regarding marketing budgets — and your reporting should lead with this data.
Confuse your customer and lose your customer.
SEO KPIs for an agency
For an agency, the importance of KPIs is primarily to ensure that the work you are doing is moving the dial for your client. SEO is now hugely complex, and what works for one business may not work for another.
We must factor in all variables and carefully measure the results of each and every tactic we implement. Don’t assume that because a certain type of link worked for one job that it will deliver for the next.
KPIs should provide you with an early warning system if the SEO campaign is not delivering. If you are not seeing the expected results, then you have to dive in and understand why. It is always better to contact a client and let them know that things are not moving as you would like and you are reviewing why, than to be pulled up six months into a project. All too often, we will find historical problems and penalties that may hinder your work.
KPIs provide you with the early warning system so you can identify potential issues and determine strategies to work around them. Use KPIs internally to measure, review and refine your approach where needed.
SEO KPIs for the business
From a reporting and client retention perspective, you must also be able to clearly communicate exactly why a given tactic, like guest blog posting or digital PR, is important. Rankings are not enough. Rankings do not directly equate to more business. We must add more connective tissue to clearly relate our reporting to the stated goals of the business we are serving. We have to be able to clearly show that a given tactic is improving the bottom line for our customers and moving them toward their strategic goals.
Increased leads, increased sales, more engaged visitors, improved acquisition costs — there are many options here to demonstrate the true value of your work. Ensure you are clearly communicating this via SEO KPIs that are mapped to business objectives.
Categorizing your SEO KPIs
To aid in the communication of key performance metrics, you should consider how you categorize your KPIs. The goals for a new product launch are considerably different from those of a business trying to sell more to their existing customers.
If you are a local business, your SEO campaign may be designed to generate more visitors to your store. If you are a service business, you may be looking to generate more leads. A new product may be looking to drive awareness and build the email list. Be sure to categorize and communicate the KPIs in the way that makes the most sense to your customer.
When this is not clear, we have found time and time again that the classic marketing funnel allows for easy categorization of objectives and the related KPIs.
- Awareness: Build an audience for your product or service.
- Engagement: Drive engagement with your product or service.
- Conversion: Drive sales and leads.
We can also look at retention, advocacy and reputation — the specific goals of your SEO campaign and your sales process will often dictate what is important here. There can also be some crossover. Is generating social followers or email signups engagement or retention? Ask these questions, and clarify your own reporting goals.
Ask your customer what is most important, and be sure to illustrate how your SEO campaign is delivering on these stated objectives with clear, categorized KPIs.
VQVC: Volume, Quality, Value & Cost
Another useful way to categorize your KPIs is with the “Volume, Quality, Value and Cost” model. This helps you focus on the four measures that are of any real value in your SEO campaign.
- Volume: Unique visitors, visits, page views and so on
- Quality: Bounce rate, visit duration, pages per visit
- Value: What is the financial value of a visit/lead/conversion?
- Cost: How much does it cost to acquire a lead or sale from SEO?
This is just another way to look at things that I picked up from the ever-insightful guys at Smart Insights, so have a plan and see what best fits your reporting and analysis requirements.
Let’s be straight here: Effectively measuring the results of SEO and digital marketing campaigns is a huge challenge. We have lots of data, but in its native format, a tool like Google Analytics often does more to confuse than deliver insight.
These tools must be customized to the specific objectives of the business, and this must be done by looking at the desired outcomes and connecting these back to your SEO strategies with KPIs the client can understand.
The KPIs that we use in SEO projects at my agency, Bowler Hat, are designed to go beyond simply tracking ranking for a narrow set of keywords. Rather, we look at the impact on organic traffic (awareness), relevance of traffic (engagement) and the overall quality, and how likely this traffic is to lead to a sale, lead or conversion of any sort.
We also want to look at the real-world output of your campaigns, which is often content created to increase topical scope and links built to increase authority and relevant referral traffic. Last but not least, we look at traditional SEO metrics as supplied by tools like Moz and Majestic SEO.
This is not a template as such and will need to be customized around the specific job and goals of your clients, but this should get you 90 percent of the way toward far improved SEO KPIs and reporting.
These are the traditional KPIs we can use to gauge progress. Often, these will need to be compared to competitor values to provide real context. Typically, an increase in the perceived trust and authority of your site will correlate with an increase in the rank for your main search terms and the amount of organic traffic received.
These metrics are important but do not talk in the language of the business — so their prioritization in your reports will depend upon the client’s understanding of SEO (which, of course, you should always be aiming to improve).
- Rank for main converting keywords (local/organic)
- Rank for secondary benchmark keywords (local/organic)
- Majestic Citation Flow
- Majestic Trust Flow
- Majestic Trust & Citation Balance
- Moz Domain Authority
- Moz Page Authority
- Moz Spam Score
Real-world SEO KPIs
Here we want to look at how the work we do impacts the site as a whole. Are we getting more traffic? Are we getting more pages that generate traffic overall, therefore increasing our topical scope? Are we seeing an increase in branded search traffic on the back of our increased exposure? This is where the SEO rubber hits the road, folks, so these metrics tend to be important.
- Increase in organic traffic
- Increase in number of pages on the site that generate traffic
- Increase in non-branded search traffic
- Percentage increase in organic conversions
- Percentage increase in traffic from specific geographic regions
- Organic Impressions (Search Console)
- Organic Click-Through Rate (CTR) (Search Console)
A solid SEO campaign can impact your business beyond simply driving more organic traffic. If links are a key part of your strategy, then this exposure can drive more high-quality referral traffic, so it is prudent to demonstrate the extra value here. This helps to illustrate how your SEO strategies have multiple marketing benefits, and often solid referral traffic can convert at a better rate than organic search traffic — so ignore this at your peril.
- Percentage increase in referral traffic
- Percentage increase in referral conversions
- Percentage increase in engagement metrics (bounce, pages, time)
Improved search visibility equates to improved overall visibility — advertising by another name. So we should also look at the increase in branded search traffic and brand mentions and how this correlates to the work you are doing.
- Percentage increase in branded search traffic
- Percentage increase in brand mentions
Links are still one of the big three metrics for improving search engine visibility, and links (plus content) are often the main tangible element of a long-term SEO campaign. Therefore, we must still report on the total amount of links, the links from authority sites and the links from highly relevant sites. These will generally be pulled from our link wishlist and should be customized around your client’s industry.
- Total links built
- Number of links from authority sites
- Number of links from relevant sites
Lead generation KPIs
Leads are a key component of your overall digital marketing, yet the classification of leads and the sales funnel gets ever more complex. As such, we should look to measure the impact our SEO efforts have on lead generation, whether that be social signups, newsletter signups or some other download or lead gen specific to your business.
- Percentage increase in newsletter signups
- Percentage increase in social followers/likes and so on
- Business-specific lead generation goals (data sheets, white papers and so on)
Really talk to your client about what the customer journey looks like and get a handle on the many steps. You may have to work with the customer to develop lead generation incentives, but this will only add value to your campaigns.
Business objective-specific KPIs
This is a little harder to create a generic example for; however, these are crucially important from a reporting perspective. We really must do all we can to connect the business strategy with our SEO strategy via the medium of KPIs. Often, the KPIs detailed above will give you what you want here, so this is more a case of structuring them to be in line with the client’s stated goals (Remember that we can’t just rely on keywords if we want to be a long-term strategic partner).
If our goal is to build awareness of a new product, then we want to focus on awareness metrics: impressions, average position, keywords, clicks and so forth. If we want to drive more signups, then we want to track the number of people looking at the signup and pricing pages. If we are looking at more traditional conversions, then we need to look at the total number of sales/leads/inquiries.
The point here is that you already have the SEO KPIs, but remember to frame them around your customer’s business objectives and clearly shine a light on the fact that you are helping them move forward and build the bottom line. The work you do for the client has much more value than simply moving a keyword ranking — it adds real value to the business, reduces marketing costs, builds the brand and more. Just remember to let them know!
Strategic understanding builds trust
We are all looking for long-term customers, and we all want to do great work for our clients. However, there will always be another company offering SEO as a simple service. You know that the work you do delivers real value beyond simply moving search results up and down a page.
Your customer may not understand just how valuable this work can be, though. You solve this by having a clear strategy that is mapped to the business goals with KPIs the client can understand.
As a simple example we have the following:
- Strategy: Drive more awareness, lead generation and business inquiries through SEO to reduce PPC spend.
- Client goal: 200-percent return on marketing spend (vs. 150-percent return on PPC).
- Primary KPIs: Cost per acquisition, email list signups, social signups.
We, of course, also report on all the myriad SEO metrics detailed above, but we want to clearly connect the dots between the client’s objectives and our SEO strategy with our mutually agreed upon KPIs.
If you can get to this point, reporting has real strategic value — it helps you do better work and it helps the client understand the true value in sometimes confusing tactical components of an SEO campaign. This helps transform you from a simple supplier of SEO to a strategic partner and clearly underlines the value you provide.
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