SEO for Small Business Owners – Part 2
Read the first installment in this series, which dispels SEO myths and details current best practices.
Change your perspective on SEO, and learn how to measure search engine optimization performance, from our SEO expert.
“I don’t care about users, I only care about Google.”
If you can’t identify what’s inherently wrong with this opinion on SEO, I urge you to bookmark this page, print it and email it to yourself. Do whatever it takes to read this article through – your future digital success hinges on it.
To understand what’s wrong with that statement, consider this: best-in-class search engine optimizers approach every project with the goal of increasing a website’s qualified leads, conversions and ultimately, revenue. Because if the SEO tactics performed don’t bring in more revenue for a business, then they weren’t worth the money or effort to do in the first place.
“Search engine optimization is about putting your site’s best foot forward when it comes to visibility in search engines, but your ultimate consumers are your users, not search engines.”
To increase revenue, SEO strategies should be based on the desired experience of a target end user, not search engines. This philosophy is even backed up by Google:
“Search engine optimization is about putting your site’s best foot forward when it comes to visibility in search engines, but your ultimate consumers are your users, not search engines.”
Google takes this stance very seriously. Not only does it reduce search engine rank for all sites that clearly optimize for search engines and not end users, but also penalizes specific violators manually. This infamous event against a major retail chain is a warning sign of what can happen when an SEO campaign blatantly violates guidelines.
If a site hasn’t been hit yet, it is no guarantee of safety. Google algorithm updates called Panda (which targets sites with content generated for search engines, not users) and Penguin (which focuses on sites with backlinks created to increase search engine rank, not relevancy for users) are continually updated and refined, expanding reach and accuracy each time. These updates shook the SEO world when they initially rolled out, and fundamentally changed the SEO game. This is also why it’s said that SEO is no longer easy or quick.
So if Google is the ultimate focus for your SEO tactics, change your perspective. Your performance expectations will be unrealistic, and it is only a matter of time before your site is negatively hit with a Google algorithm update.
Unfortunately, this is quite common — there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small businesses that measure SEO efforts only by their appearance on the first page of Google and their keyword rank.
But why does this happen? Tracking and analyzing SEO performance – and better yet, return-on-investment – is not clear-cut or easy, there is no cookie-cutter solution, and generally isn’t a focus for SEOs (at least, not with any I worked with before becoming one myself). Cookie-cutter SEO services and amateur optimizers might show increases in keyword rank, and high level stats such as gains in overall site traffic and organic search traffic, but often, they fail to illustrate how the tactics directly correlate to an increase in converted leads, paying customers or revenue.
This results in business owners who do not know how to properly measure the success of an SEO effort. Fortunately, if you’ve read this article to this point, you can count yourself among the group of well-informed business owners. And keep reading, as you’ll learn not only what to measure to gauge search engine optimization, but how to measure the results of an SEO effort, and why.
So to get started, here are answers to some common performance and analytics-based questions from small business owners. These answers offer a chance to build an accurate foundation of SEO knowledge, upon which we will build in future posts. And if you have questions about SEO for small business that you’d like answered in a future post, feel free to add them in the comments, or email me at [email protected].
1. How and what should I track to understand an SEO campaign’s performance?
The first step in SEO campaign tracking is actually having the ability to track metrics.
The first step in SEO campaign tracking is actually having the ability to track metrics, which is done through an analytics program installed on a website. Google Analytics is a free option that provides great functionality and a slew of useful features for SEO performance tracking. Once it is installed and reporting data, the following metrics should be monitored during an SEO program to evaluate performance:
Organic Search Engine Sessions
From a high level, the first thing to monitor is the website’s number of sessions that originate from organic search engines. These are the users who are coming into a site by clicking a listing on search engine results pages (SERPs) on Google, Bing and others. If this number is increasing over time during the SEO project, it’s a positive initial sign that the campaign is proving beneficial. (Note that this is counted separately from sessions that are the result of clicks on paid search placements through Google Adwords or other pay-per-click tools.)
A good rule of thumb is to measure the number of sessions from organic search that occurred over the past 30 days of the SEO program and compare that to the 30 days before the SEO project started, as well as the comparable 30-day period from a year ago.
Another high-level metric to watch is the number of new users coming to a site via search engines during an SEO campaign. If the program is working well, a good percentage of users will visit the site who are new (having never visited before). Consider this metric as the number of newly discovered potential customers who now have the opportunity to be converted into paying customers.
Like organic search engine sessions, look at the change in the percentage of new users coming to a site over the past 30 days of the program and compare that to the 30 days before the SEO project started, as well as the comparable 30-day period from a year ago.
As an SEO campaign progresses, be mindful of the site’s bounce rate, which is the percentage of users who exit a site after viewing only one page. If the SEO plan is worth its salt, the site’s overall bounce rate, as well as the bounce rate for users who come from organic search, should remain steady or ideally, decrease over time. Take the same 30-day measurements and comparisons as previously stated to determine performance.
Average Session Duration
Formerly known as Average Time on Site in Google Analytics, this metric shows how much time users are spending on a site. Similar to the effects on bounce rate, a well-rounded SEO program will positively influence this metric over time. Again, the 30-day snapshot and comparisons detailed above will show whether or not the SEO project is positively performing.
The above metrics are available out-of-the-box for Google Analytics. These provide a good high-level analysis of an SEO campaign’s performance. But to go deeper and prove return-on-investment, we need to implement some custom tracking options to be able to pinpoint increases in leads, conversions and revenue. Here’s an explanation of these advanced metrics, as available in Google Analytics and other tracking tools:
Events & Goals
Think of events as occasions when a user completes any desired action on a website, such as making a purchase. Performance of an individual event is tracked by creating a goal for it in Google Analytics. In turn, goals can be assigned a monetary value to track revenue, as well as be segmented by traffic source. Common events and goals are:
- Newsletter signups
- Contact form submissions
- Clicking a Call-to-Action button or link
- Resource downloads, such as a whitepaper, ebook or other informational asset.
- Ecommerce purchases
Through events and goals, it is easy to calculate the number of goal completions that came from organic search engines during an SEO program, and make comparisons to both the time before the project was undertaken, as well as the same period a year ago.
Making comparisons for goal performance is absolutely crucial – and perhaps the most important element – for measuring the value of an SEO campaign. Without it, there is no way to tell if the additional search traffic coming to a site is engaging in the desired actions on the site, and in turn, generating additional revenue.
It is important to note that when it comes to evaluating SEO performance, events and goal tracking should be established well before the start of a project, to allow for proper comparisons. Informed decisions on SEO program performance can only be made when there is accurate and established data on which to rely.
This is the percentage of website visitors who complete a goal or event on a site, and this metric can be found in the goals section of Google Analytics. The process of a user completing a goal or event is called converting. During a successful SEO project, the total conversion rate for a website’s goals should increase. More importantly, the conversion rate should increase for users who visit the site via organic search engines. Again, to most accurately gauge SEO campaign performance, the current conversion rate should be compared to that of the time period before the program began, as well as a year ago.
Leads are known individuals who convert on a website through a form-based event or goal, and are potential customers for a business. Most website content management systems (CMS), including WordPress, offer plugins that make form creation and lead management simple. CRMs and even email databases integrated into a website can also be an indicator of lead volume. During an SEO campaign, the overall number of new leads coming from a website should increase. And when goal tracking is implemented in the site’s analytics, it can be determined whether or not a lead increase is the result of the SEO effort, or another source.
If for some reason it is not possible to implement events or goal tracking in the website analytics tool, the form data itself can serve as a performance indicator for conversions and leads in a pinch.
To calculate the conversion rate for a form, divide the total number of form completions over a given time period by the number of users who came to the site during that same period. For example:
100 form completions / 1,000 users = 10% conversion rate
Unfortunately, this method does not allow for segmenting conversion rate by traffic source, therefore it is not possible to determine if the SEO campaign is impacting conversions, or if it is the result of another effort.
2. How do I know if an SEO campaign is working?
For all of the above metrics, measure performance over the past 30 days in the website analytics tool, making sure to filter the data to show only traffic coming in from organic search engines. This will give an indicator of the current results. Then, using the website analytics tool’s comparison feature (in Google Analytics, it is located within the date range selector), measure these figures against the 30 days before the SEO program began. This will show a percentage change for each of the metrics. Lastly, to account for seasonal differences, review the current 30-day results with the comparable period from a year ago.
The fact is – and this might be one of the biggest misconceptions of the SEO industry – that all SEOs, myself included, don’t know how our tactics will perform for a site until they are complete.
In all these instances, a percentage increase indicates that the SEO program is having a positive impact. The degree of the increase, however, really depends on the tactics employed and the weight each element has when it comes to search engine ranking factors. Business owners shouldn’t expect double digit increases from simple strategies such as updating page titles and meta descriptions (though it can happen). Similarly, a single digit increase after optimizing an entire site’s content for target keywords or engaging in a comprehensive content marketing campaign might be a sign that the effort was not properly executed.
In reality, there is no way to accurately predict or judge how much of an increase or impact any SEO strategy will have on a site’s performance. There are too many factors at play, including the efforts of the competition or an unexpected algorithm change, both of which can drastically affect the performance of a campaign. If a search engine optimizer guarantees or claims that a program will provide a specific range of performance increases, tread lightly. Every SEO program and the resulting performance is highly dependent on the tactics, market and website itself.
The fact is – and this might be one of the biggest misconceptions of the SEO industry – that all SEOs, myself included, don’t know how our tactics will perform for a site until they are complete. We have guidelines and best practices from search engines and industry experts, and tactics that have worked in the past. This information provides us with a secure sense that the plan we put together will work for a site. But calculating how much is just not possible.
This is perhaps the primary reason why SEO should be an ongoing maintenance effort for any website. It allows SEOs to test tactics, evaluate performance, try again, change direction, re-evaluate and essentially, maximize a site’s optimization level to the fullest degree. By doing this, a business can expect to get the best conversion rate, most leads and largest return on investment possible.
Unfortunately, when business owners have been turned off of SEO by programs that overpromised and under delivered, failed to set expectations, or did not illustrate how the investment ties back to revenue, it creates an environment of bare-bones budgets and one-and-done optimizations. Most of the time, reaching leads and revenue goals are extremely difficult in these scenarios. Sometimes business owners need to trust their vendors to achieve mutually agreed upon goals, and make an ongoing investment in the future of their digital business.
3. Speaking of goals, what should my SEO goals be?
As discussed above, SEO goals should be tied to increases in leads and conversions, as this will ultimately increase revenue. Best-in-class SEOs will discuss goals before a program is developed, to ensure that a program delivers on mutually agreed upon expectations.
Keep in mind, however, that a business owner’s own expectations might not be realistic based on the current website, conversion rates and budget.
For instance, a client recently presented the goal of having 100 additional people come to the site every day, with 10 of those new users becoming customers. What seemed to be a modest enough goal, in reality, was anything but. Given the site’s current lead conversion rate of 2 percent, and a close rate of 30 percent, the numbers couldn’t work.
Here’s what reality looked like to deliver those 10 new customers to the site:
1,650 new visits daily * 2% conversion rate = 33 leads * 30% close rate = 10 customers
In this scenario, the client actually needed more than 16 times the amount of new traffic than originally anticipated. This is why the expectation wasn’t realistic – 100 additional visits a day would have never delivered the amount of customers needed. Additionally, the investment needed to increase SEO to deliver 100 more visits a day versus 1,650 is wildly different.
A best-in-class SEO will use a site’s current performance to estimate what is needed to meet these goals, determine if that is realistic, set expectations with the client, and finally, develop a program. Keep in mind that depending on the goals, the program may expand beyond SEO alone to inbound marketing, social media, email marketing and others. When custom programs such as these are created to reach a client’s goals, each element contributes to the overall program. Because of this, if some of the recommendations aren’t utilized, it can compromise the ability of the program to achieve the stated goals.
4. When should I begin seeing results?
Another common misconception with SEO is that the results can be seen overnight. The Internet is a big place, and changes take time to discover and fully play out. When new sites launch, it can take four or more weeks for the search engines to index a site on their own. Similarly, when large SEO programs are conducted, seeing results can take some time – even six months or more after a program begins.
The Internet is a big place, and changes take time to discover and fully play out.
This is because for many of today’s SEO programs, tactics go beyond code updates and content optimization, to blogging, content marketing, social media and more. These digital marketing platforms take time to build up an engaged audience that is willing to read a brand’s content and share it amongst their network. The good news is that once the sharing and goodwill begins on these networks, oftentimes it creates a rapid road to success – business owners have to be willing to wait it out, occasionally for months, and let the optimizer experiment a few times to discover the formula that works for that business.
5. I really do care about keyword rank. How can I tell if that’s improved?
OK, I know I said at the start of this article that caring about keyword rank on search engines was an antiquated view of SEO and a dangerous path to a Google penalty. I hope, in reading this article through, that you now appreciate the fact that there’s a lot more to SEO goals than placement on search engine result pages.
And because we’re all on the same page now when it comes to SEO goals, I’ll tell you this: keyword performance does matter, as it can be a leading indicator of how the SEO campaign will perform over time.
For those interested in understanding where a site ranks for various target keywords, there are a few options. The first is Google Webmaster Tools, which shows some of the keywords that send traffic to a site, along with its average placement within the SERPs over a period of time. It’s a good, free tool, however it doesn’t allow for convenient historical tracking, or adding custom keywords.
That is where paid tools come in. Moz is a powerful SEO tool allows business owners to monitor keyword performance over time, and compare a site against competitors, along with the ability to track a slew of other SEO data points.
Before monitoring keywords in any tool, though, it is advisable to make sure business owners track the proper keywords that consumers actually use when searching. Keyword popularity in a designated geographic area can be measured using the keyword planner tool in Google Adwords. Additionally, it provides related keyword ideas that offer alternatives for additional tracking.