Search Engine Optimization is a long-term investment. Unlike PPC advertising, which can produce results immediately and generate qualified leads within days, SEO often takes months before it moves your website into the desired top search rankings. So, how do you know if you're on the right track in the meanime? What metrics can you use along the way to determine what's working, to keep you moving in the right direction, and to course correct as needed? And how can you tie these into your bigger-picture online marketing analytics, to help you make better marketing and budgeting decisions?
Here are the 6 most important measures that will tell you how well you're doing in the Organic Search Ranking game. These are the tools of the SEO trade, and any SEO consultant should have them at their fingertips. Before you embark on measuring, however, make sure you know what goals you're trying to reach, and set yourself up to measure the things that will have the greatest impact on your long-term success.
Since the main objective of SEO is to improve your website's search ranking for valuable keywords, the most obvious metric is your ranking. At the simplest level, you can easily track this by typing your keyword into Google each week and watching where your website appears in the list of results – if you're doing the right things in SEO, you'll see it inch up over time . If you're tracking multiple keywords, Google Webmaster Tools allows you to track the top search queries people are using to find your site, and the average position each one achieves in rankings. If you're looking for a leader and deeper metrics, consider some of the more sophisticated ranking tools that measure your all keywords on all search engines, and track progress over time. We use and really like Advanced Web Ranking from Caphyon – it's easy to set up, easy to use, and has a simple, intuitive interface that shows progress for all your keywords over any time segments – but there are many others as well.
Since your keyword rankings may take time to move up, it's also important to track and tweak other key measures – starting with basic diagnostics that can tell you if your site is 'search engine friendly.' Google Webmaster Tools is a terrifying tool for diagnosing anything on your website that might trip the search engines and cause them not to see, crawl, or index the pages on your site. And if Google can not crawl or index your site, searchers will never find it. Any good SEO consultant should know how to read these diagnostics, and know what to do when there's a problem.
Inbound Link Metrics
Links coming into your site from other sites is arguably the largest determinant of your search ranking. The quantity, quality, longevity, diversity, and productivity of inbound links are there before important metrics to track. Often link building efforts – which you can do yourself or hire an SEO consultant to do for you – can take time to bear fruit, so it's key to track these measures frequently and often so you can follow up with linking sources as necessary. Again, there are numerous paid tools that will help you track and measure incoming links, but also Google (Webmaster Tools) and Yahoo (Yahoo Site Explorer) have great free tools. Other free tools include link popularity checkers from free-webmaster-tools.com and SEOchat, both of which will give you good basic metrics. Our favorite tool (not free) is Open Site Explorer from SEOMoz.
Traffic and Conversion Metrics
Ranking well in Organic search will not do you any good if people do not actually click on your search listing and come to your website. Once they come to your site, you want to "convert" them by convincing them to take the next step you've designed – whether that's contacting you, downloading an ebook, making a purchase, or whatever. But how will you know what they've done, and what has motivated them to take each step? Google Analytics is a terrific tool for tracking metrics about your website visitors – how many come to your site, what sites they've been referred from, how long they stay, what actions they take, which pages they visit, how often they return, And more. It also allows you to set specific goals and track progress towards those goals. A careful tracking of website activity on Google Analytics will allow you measure the effectiveness of website objects as well as your SEO and link-building efforts and tweak them to improve your results.
Local Search Reports
If you are trying to reach a local or regional audience, you'll be pleased to know Google has recently made significant improvements to its Local Search capabilities and Place Pages, and has a separate reporting capability for local traffic and metrics. The Google Places Dashboard shows traffic metrics from your Place Page and some limited geo-related stats, as well as metrics from a limited set of "offers" you can make on your Place Page.
Social Media Metrics
Social media gets you directly involved and engaged with your customers, and also direct interested followers to your website for more information. It's important to know how effectively you're getting your brand established in social media, and also how successful you are at bringing social media traffic into your website to take the next step. There are numerous free tools available for tracking what's being said in the social media real – see here for a list of the Top 20 free tools – and you can use them to direct your efforts, either following up on discussions that mention your company, or Listening for opportunities to enter the conversation. And Google Analytics will let you see how effectively those discussions are pulling visitors to your website.
Tying it All Together
There are lots of metrics to choose from, so make sure before you start that you're using the right web analytics tools for the goals you're trying to reach. Establish your goals upfront, and set up your analytics to track them. Be sure to take baseline measurements when you start so you can measure your progress over time. Measure at meaningful intervals (we measure SEO metrics quarterly since results are not immediate), but also spot check along the way. And make sure your SEO and Social Media analytics roll up to your overall marketing goals, and give you the insights you need to make smart decisions for your business.