Beyond Traffic – Making SEO Meaningful with Better Measurement

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Synopsis — Too many online marketers lose sight of the fact that SEO is ultimately about creating opportunities for business, not just getting more traffic to the site. There are many complexities around traffic that need to be considered, as well as the reality that there is a lot of bad traffic out there. More traffic is not always the answer. In his article, “Beyond Traffic — Making SEO Meaningful with Better Measurement,” Gary Angel discusses four key factors that lie behind creating opportunities and more meaningful SEO engagement.

The four factors are:

1.  Optimizing Traffic
2.  Quality of Traffic
3.  Routing
4.  Site Efficiency

With each factor, Gary delves into the the issues involved and offers some tips for making each work to your advantage. Measurement is the overriding element that will enable you to see beyond the broad view of traffic and into the nitty-gritty nuances that will help you find the most effective mix for your website.

Beyond Traffic — Making SEO Meaningful With Better Measurement

True or false? If you are managing an SEO program, your job is to get more organic traffic to the site.

False.

SEO engagements are not about driving traffic. Like any marketing effort, they are about creating business opportunities. And those opportunities are a combination of several factors – none of which can be safely ignored if you want your SEO efforts to be meaningful.

How does SEO create business opportunities? The answer? By a combination of traffic, quality of traffic, appropriate routing of traffic, and subsequent site efficiency in handling traffic. If you think your responsibility ends with driving traffic, you risk a company-wide perception that organic traffic (and your job) isn’t very useful.

The first law of pay-per-click (PPC) ad buying is that bad traffic is almost always cheaper than good traffic. That’s why optimizing for traffic is a bad strategy. For SEO, the close corollary is that bad traffic is almost always easier to get than good traffic. Optimize just for traffic and you’ll likely end up with bad traffic.

How do you get around this conundrum? Start with measuring. There are measurement techniques related to each of the four key factors that drive SEO business opportunity – and each can help drive a more effective, more meaningful SEO engagement.

Factor #1: Optimizing Traffic

Not too long ago, SEO practitioners tended to measure engagement by tracking improvements in ranking by engine for the search terms designated as significant. This often turns out to be a bad way to measure the success of SEO efforts because it creates an incentive to focus on the optimization of the most winnable – but least useful – search terms and engines.

The alternative is to measure the success of SEO efforts by measuring the actual amount of traffic generated from organic search. This is a simple analysis in virtually every web analytics tool. About the only “gotcha” is to ensure that your PPC traffic is properly tagged so that the web analytics tool can distinguish between paid and organic traffic.

One measurement technique that supports traditional SEO optimization is an analysis called “SEO Holes.” The idea is to use web analytics to identify areas of the website that aren’t well indexed by one or more engines. It’s a simple process – just look at the percent of all entries, the percent of all page views, and the percent of organic entries by engine for each important page on the site. Compare the percentage of organic entries by engine for each page to the overall site percentage of organic traffic and the overall site percentage of organic traffic by engine. Pages that have an unusually low percentage of entries from one or more engines are targets for SEO attention.

Be sure to look at site areas as well. For content sites, there is a very long tail in terms of page views. You won’t be able to study every page – and many of them will have very low volume. But analyzed by area or template, they may encompass a large number of page views. By looking at the organic sourcing performance of these areas, you can sometimes find major site-related SEO problems that don’t show up in any obvious way.

Factor #2: Quality of Traffic

Traffic is just one part of the SEO equation. You can drive tons of bad traffic and contribute virtually nothing to the value of the site. Unlike PPC or many other marketing methods, you have very little control over the quality of SEO visitors. About all you can do is to focus your SEO efforts on the search terms and pages that attract higher-quality visitors.

You can evaluate the performance of SEO search terms to your site’s best measure of success. In theory, this will tell you which search terms drive more qualified visitors.

There are two ways to carry out this analysis – same-session analysis or cross-session analysis. In same-session analysis, focus on the percent of visits that include both the measure of success and an SEO entry (by search term and engine). Some tools will let you get this analysis directly. Others will require that you build a single visitor segment of successful visits. Using that segment, you run a report on organic sourcing. Take the numbers from that report and compare them to total organic sourcing to arrive at the conversion efficiency.

For cross-session analysis, you can create an over-time visitor segment that includes all organic entries or that includes all those who succeeded. Using either, you can back into the rate of success over time.

Which should you use – same-session or cross-session analysis? It depends on your business. The same-session analysis is simpler and crisper – if your sales-cycle is mostly single visits, you should stick with that. But if your sales-cycle is frequently multi-session, you HAVE to use the visitor-based cross-session method.

This is a good analysis, but using conversion by organic search term as a proxy for quality of traffic can be misleading. The problem with search term performance may not be due to quality, but dependent on the landing page – the way you are routing SEO or the way you are engaging traffic on the page. Before you abandon the optimization of poorly performing keywords, try to determine if the performance problems are related to the landing page or to the quality of the visitors.

Factor #3: Routing

SEO search terms will often land to more than one page. You can compare the performance of the SEO term across multiple pages – the bounce rate is the most common measure used for this. If the performance is consistently bad, then chances are the quality of visitor is bad. But if the performance varies, then it may be a problem with specific landing pages. Can you tweak landing pages? You certainly can. Obviously, you need to be careful with this – changing the page might significantly reduce its SEO ranking and lose you the audience you were trying to test with. Fortunately, you can often tweak a page without seriously endangering its SEO rank.

In some situations, you can try multivariate testing. It is important to make sure you aren’t gaming the system by changing the concepts or fundamental language on the page, but you can reasonably alter the images and placement of elements on a page when testing. Multivariate testing takes place on top of the underlying page and should not affect page rank. If significant creative variations don’t have much effect on yield, then you can reasonably assume that visitor quality is poor.

Another very effective method of tweaking SEO landing pages is to change the navigation portions of the template. Site designers often assume that visitors who have reached content well down in the site hierarchy have passed by various site pages used to present users with the broad choices about what is available on the site. Therefore, at the deep content level, page templates often have little or no routing, and what routing they have is highly specific to the topic.

Highly specific routing elements are not a bad thing, but pages that lack more general tools of engagement often fail when used as SEO entry pages. If your site measurement shows that your SEO traffic is primarily “one and done” on deep-site content templates, there’s a good chance that improving the navigational elements on the site will yield significant performance improvements.

Improving those navigational components means making sure that deep content pages have BOTH good topic specific routings AND general engagers. General engagers – the stuff you put on your home page or main routing pages to capture interest – may improve the stickiness of SEO visitors. And stickiness, for a content site, is value.

Factor #4: Site Efficiency

The bounce rate is usually a very good proxy for the effectiveness of SEO terms coupled with landing pages. However, the bounce rate is by no means the ultimate measure of site efficiency. If you’ve either fixed your landing page problems or are convinced that you are focusing your optimization efforts on the right pages, then you should move your analysis up one level.

SEO optimization is concept-based – and the concepts are almost always tied to specific site areas. It is quite possible that one or more site areas are poor producers when it comes to SEO. To measure this, you need to look at the performance of content groups (also called hierarchy or content category) using your web analytics solution. By measuring the overall performance of SEO entries by content group area, you can track which concepts attract the best visitors.

This information is valuable both in its absolute sense – the absolute rate of success for SEO visitors to each content group – and interesting in a relative (comparative) sense. To measure the relative success of SEO by content group, measure the overall performance for each content group by visitor source. Then compare the success of SEO-sourced visitors to the overall performance of visitors to that content group.

Using the absolute success of SEO visitors helps you target content groups where additional SEO traffic is most likely to create marketing opportunities. That’s important. Tracking content groups where SEO source visitors are high (or low) in quality can help you target the topics SEO visitors are most qualified for relative to overall traffic. This can help you understand places where SEO is valuable relative to other means of driving traffic. That’s important too.

Summary

Too many web marketing efforts are treated as if they were silos. In SEO, this has led to a myopic focus on increasing traffic. This traffic can be virtually meaningless if the quality of the traffic is poor, the traffic is routed to the wrong pages, or the site is ineffective at engaging entry-level traffic on those pages. If you are managing an SEO program, you need to stay on top of each of these factors – and measurement is the best way to understand where your SEO program is delivering and where it may be missing real opportunities.

About the Author

Ten years ago, Gary Angel, president and CTO, co-founded Semphonic, a leading web analytics consultancy, which has been at the cutting edge of online behavioral analysis to drive business change and channel performance. Clients include Financial Service giants like American Express, Charles Schwab and Morgan Stanley, media powerhouses like NPD and AOL, and online retailers like Intuit and CableOrganizer that are renowned for their use of web analytics.

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