Search optimization is not an exact science. A lot of what we do in SEO is based on assumptions and has some probability of working, but it’s often hard to tell whether it actually does. That’s why it’s important to arm yourself with a few trusted metrics, so you can both measure your results and identify new optimization opportunities.
In this article, I will look at some of the most common metrics used in SEO, as well as the tools where these metrics are found. Measuring the effects of SEO will help you see whether you’ve chosen the right SEO strategy and keep you motivated to continue optimizing your website.
1. Organic traffic
The ultimate goal of SEO is to get more users from search engines, so the main KPI you’d want to track is search engine traffic. A thing to look for is a continuous upward trend, usually very gradual, to the point of being barely noticeable. It is often helpful to evaluate organic traffic against past time periods, usually via a year-on-year graph, so that the changes are more evident.
How to check organic traffic:
- Log into your Google Analytics dashboard and head over to Acquisitions > All traffic > Channels.
- Set the target date range of at least a month, but ideally a year.
- Check Compare to previous period / last year to create a benchmark.
Tip! Keep in mind that as your website grows bigger, you are less likely to see meaningful fluctuations when viewing organic traffic for the entire website. That’s when you’ll have to focus on smaller segments of your website (blog, catalog, product, etc.) or even individual pages. Viewing them separately will tell you a much better story of what’s happening to your search performance. This can be achieved by either creating custom segments or using filter options in Google Analytics.
2. Keyword rankings
Keyword rankings are the positions that your pages occupy in search results for certain queries. The higher the positions, the more your pages are noticed in search, the more visitors you get. On top of that, search traffic is very sensitive to even the slightest shifts in keyword rankings. Moving just one position in either direction could mean thousands of users in gained or lost traffic. Keeping a close eye on these fluctuations and reacting quickly is key to your SEO success.
Tip! It is important to differentiate between what is called a Google dance and an actual drop in rankings. If you see a slight shift in rankings — wait up to a week to see if it’s just a glitch. If the situation does not resolve on its own, then it’s time to take a look at pages that have outranked you and borrow their optimization ideas.
3. CTR benchmarks
Impressions and clicks are the search performance metrics — they represent the number of times your pages appear in search results and the number of times they are actually clicked on. Together, these two metrics give you a click-through rate (CTR), basically a success rate of your pages in search. What you can do is compare your CTRs with the industry standard and learn which of your pages are underperforming relative to their SERP position.
How to check CTR benchmarks:
- Log into your Google Search Console dashboard and go to Search Results > Performance. Activate CTR and Average position, deactivate the other two.
- In the table below, use filters to view only the queries for which you rank in positions one through ten. Sort the list by position.
- Scroll through the list and see if any of your pages have a CTR below what is considered normal for their position in search.
Tip! Once you find a promising offender, go visit its SERP, and investigate the reason for poor CTR. Sometimes the CTR is low because there are too many ads and/or knowledge panels stealing your clicks, in which case there is nothing you can do. Other times the CTR is low because your snippet is not attractive enough, in which case you have to optimize your title and description and look into using structured data to enhance your snippet.
4. User behavior
Bounce rate, session depth, and session duration are all behavioral metrics, i.e. metrics of user engagement. Whether behavioral metrics are ranking factors or not is one of the longest-standing debates in SEO, but I would like to argue that it doesn’t matter. Behavioral metrics are still important indicators of page optimization and, as an SEO, you would do well to stack them in your favor.
How to check user behavior:
- Log into your Google Analytics dashboard and go to Acquisitions > All Traffic > Channels > Organic search. You’ll see all three metrics next to each other, sharing the Behavior tab.
- Choose Landing Page as the primary dimension to view metrics by page, look for those pages that stand out as especially poor performers. There are no strict benchmarks for behavioral metrics as different types of pages are designed for different levels of engagement. In general, it is best to benchmark similar pages of your website against each other, e.g. product vs product, guide vs guide, etc.
- A mismatch between what’s promised by a search snippet and actual content on the page. In this case, a user visits your page with false expectations and leaves as soon as they aren’t met.
- A lack of internal linking. You’ve missed an opportunity to make your page a part of the sales funnel and now it’s a dead-end, which a visitor has no choice but to leave.
- Your content is of poor quality and/or looks unappealing.
5. Conversion rate
A conversion is a completed activity that benefits your business. It can be virtually anything — a subscription, a download, a purchase, or any other action a user takes on your website. And a conversion rate is a share of these actions relative to the total number of visits.
It is essentially a two-way metric. On the one hand, you can use it to evaluate and optimize the design of your sales funnel. On the other hand, you can use it to evaluate the quality of organic traffic — see whether your SEO effort attracts relevant visitors who are actually interested in your product or service.
How to check your conversion rate:
- Log into your Google Analytics dashboard and navigate to Acquisitions > Overview > Organic Search.
- Choose All Goals or specific goals in the Conversions drop-down menu.
- Choose Landing Page as the primary dimension.
Tip! There are countless ways to view conversion rate data. Personally, I prefer filtering pages by type, e.g. blog posts, and comparing the conversion rates for similar pages. This way I can see which blog topics actually drive value for my website and which ones are just for fun.
6. Backlink history
Backlinks are a major ranking factor and a healthy backlink profile is crucial for gaining better search positions. Which is why you should always keep tabs on any changes to your backlink profile — lose some good links, or gain some bad ones, and your rankings are going down.
Tip! The point of monitoring your backlink profile is that you can perform timely damage control. If you suddenly lose some quality links — the sooner you contact the webmaster the better your chances of recovering them. Similarly, if you gain some bad links — the sooner you disavow them the smaller the chances of being penalized by Google.
7. Core Web Vitals
Core Web Vitals have recently been introduced by Google as the latest user experience metrics and possible ranking factors. For now, there are three ‘vitals’ and all of them are more or less about page speed, but Google has hinted at more UX metrics being added in the future.
Even though there are plenty of other technical SEO metrics out there, I believe that Core Web Vitals are about to gain a lot of momentum and become the focal point of technical optimization.
How to check core web vitals:
- Log into your Google Search Console dashboard and go to Enhancements > Core Web Vitals.
- The report tracks technical issues over time, so it should be fairly easy to figure out which website changes have caused the problem. If not, the report comes with a list of all discovered issues at the bottom of the page.
8. SEO ROI
Last, but not least. SEO ROI tells you whether you are actually breaking even on your SEO effort. Calculating SEO ROI is a very nuanced process and the main difficulty is that SEO is a long-term investment. Each optimization you make, each piece of content you produce has the potential to deliver benefits for years to come. So, naturally, making a connection between the resulting benefits and the investments they originate from is a bit of a challenge.
How to check SEO ROI:
- Log into your Google Analytics dashboard and navigate to Acquisitions > Overview > Organic Search.
- Since SEO has a delayed effect, it is best to set the date range to at least a year.
- Choose eCommerce in the Conversions drop-down menu. This is the revenue originating purely from organic search.
- Now, go to Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions and choose Organic Search. This is the revenue assisted by organic search — meaning the users have visited your website from a search engine as well as from other sources, so the origin is only part organic. Which of these two revenues to use is a matter of personal preference, so I’m leaving the choice to you.
- Add together all of your SEO expenses in the past year, including the hours you’ve put in, software costs, agency fees, paid guest posts, and whatever else is relevant in your case.
- Take the difference between your annual SEO revenue and your annual SEO spending and divide it by your annual SEO spending. For example, if your annual spending is $1M and your annual revenue is $2M, your annual SEO ROI is 100%.
Search optimization may often feel like a black box. You optimize for a bunch of ranking factors and you hope to get a bunch of traffic in return. Hopefully, the metrics above will help you expose some of the mechanisms of the black box and will allow you to apply search optimization where it’s needed most. And, in case I’ve missed any of your favorite SEO metrics, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments below.