Top 5 SEO data pitfalls to avoid for accurate analysis and reporting

Flawed data assumptions lead to flawed optimization decisions. Learn to critically assess your SEO data to produce accurate insights.

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If you work in marketing or SEO, looking at data is essential to your day-to-day.

You’re probably analyzing performance to see the results of your efforts, assessing the impact of Google’s latest update, or working on a case study to share with the SEO community.

But when dealing with SEO data, things are not always what they seem. How you perceive data on a high level may not necessarily be valid once you dig deeper.

You need to be thorough, or your assumptions or insights that looked solid initially may be inaccurate. 

Throughout my career, I’ve seen many pitfalls that marketing and SEO professionals can encounter when dealing with data. Below are five examples.

1. Misunderstanding the relationship between impressions and rankings

Understanding the relationship between impressions and website’s average ranking metric can save you plenty of time when you’re reporting on SEO performance

Did your website impressions increase and the average ranking metric decrease? Some clients are fixated on this metric and will be very concerned that the average ranking metric is performing “poorly.” But is it?

Let’s take a simplistic example to explain the relation between impressions and average ranking. 

Your website gets:

  • One impression from keyword X ranking 2
  • One impression from keyword Y ranking 1
  • One impression from keyword Z ranking 3

In this case, the average ranking is (6/3 = 2).

Now your website starts to rank for a new keyword, and now you’re also getting:

  • One impression for keyword A ranking 10th

That looks like an accomplishment, but at first glance, for the average ranking metric, not so much because your average ranking is now lower (16/4 = 4). 

So, while the average ranking metric appears to have worsened, it doesn’t necessarily signify a negative outcome because your website is starting to rank for more keywords. Over time, the rankings for those keywords can further improve. Let alone that ranking 10th for a new keyword is a good place to be.

So, it is quite normal that your average ranking increases when impressions increase, too. It’s not a bad sign and does not mean you’re performing any less!

Tip: Think about the relationship between impressions and CTR. When impressions increase (a good thing), CTR may decrease.

Dig deeper: How to make better SEO reports for the C-suite

2. Comparing apples to oranges

It’s common to show SEO improvement by comparing performance month-over-month. While this is a reasonable approach, there are situations where such comparisons are insufficient and need to be accompanied by comparing the performance of the same month of the previous year. Here’s why.

If you compare January 2023 to December 2022, the results can be an improvement in traffic and performance. For many businesses, especially B2B, December (and sometimes November) are low seasonality months, and they face a natural dip in performance during those months.

Therefore, comparing January 2023 to December 2022 can commonly show performance improvement when actually there may not be any, it’s just a “return to normal.”

So saying something like “we’ve compared the Jan. 1 to April 30 period vs. the previous period, we’ve seen an increase in performance by 60%” may be inaccurate. 

In this situation, you may want to:

  • Compare Jan. 1 to April 30 of this year vs. last year.
  • Use an automated tool/script that helps you consider the seasonality fluctuations.

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3. Using vanity metrics

I get it. There’s plenty of pressure on SEOs to show results and improvement. However, this does not mean reporting on vanity metrics that don’t really matter. 

For instance, presenting the quantity of internal or external links created as an “improvement” metric is an invalid approach to reporting SEO activities. 

“X% improvement in external links” is not a sound statement. 

Also, an increase in something does not necessarily mean “improvement.” More is not always more. Is an increase in keyword density of an article an “improvement,” or does it make it spammy? 

Dig deeper: SEO KPIs to track and measure SEO success

4. Reporting migrations as an SEO win

Website migrations are a traditional SEO task, and having a successful migration project is an expectation, not a bonus. It’s common for SEOs to migrate domains/websites and report on the performance afterward.

Once a website is migrated/redirected to the main domain, many SEOs tend to make the mistake of considering the subsequent increase in traffic to the primary domain as a definitive SEO success.

It’s crucial to recognize that this increase is largely anticipated, given that numerous URLs and their associated traffic have been redirected to the main domain. Is this really a win? 

Instead, report the percentage of traffic successfully transferred to the main domain. It may take time to settle, but showing how much of the original traffic was preserved is the real SEO win.

5. Failing to report SEO’s value and attribution

SEO is a complicated channel. Unlike PPC where you can have a clear action to ROI path and conversions are well attributed, in SEO, we sometimes need to dig deeper to show the real value the channel is bringing.

For example, in a previous role, the company ran very few PPC ads, and the website’s main/biggest traffic source was SEO. 

At first glance, everything seems to be clear and straightforward. But when I started looking at data, I noticed a big percentage of traffic (and therefore conversions) was attributed to “direct traffic.” I got curious, so I drew a graph comparing direct and SEO traffic, it came out looking like this:

Direct traffic and organic search

You can see how the SEO traffic directly impacts the direct traffic. They go hand in hand in that when SEO increases, direct traffic increases – and vice versa. 

If this is the case for your business, it is worth mentioning in your monthly SEO reporting.

Another thing to check is the Attribution reports in GA4 under the Advertising section. You can then click on either Model comparison or Conversion paths. Both will give you insights into how the SEO channel contributes to or supports other channels’ performance. This is another thing worth reporting on.

Strive for accurate SEO data analysis and reporting

We must be thorough when looking at SEO data for auditing or reporting purposes.

Making conclusions based on the data you see first is inaccurate, might put you in a tight spot with your clients, and you can potentially miss out on SEO wins that go unnoticed.

Still, we want to balance being thorough and getting stuck in analysis paralysis. More data is not always a good thing. The best approach is to:

  • Define the question you want to answer with data.
  • Ensure it’s valid and valuable.
  • Start your data journey from there.

Lastly, always double-check your numbers, assumptions and conclusions. Remember, there’s more to data than meets the eye!

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Sara Taher
Sara Taher is a Canadian based SEO consultant with over 8 years experience in the field. She is most known for her SEO tips and riddles that she shares on her Linkedin account. You can sign up for her newsletter & check out her blog here.

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