Measuring rankings and traffic for large websites can be a daunting task. Ecommerce and content-management-based sites can have hundreds of thousands to millions of pages, products, and keywords, but understanding search engine behaviors and how to sample and measure search engine data will lay the groundwork for effective rankings management and tracking.
Determining Rankings and Baselining Analytics
A large ecommerce site can easily be targeting thousands to millions of keyword phrases, but it is not possible to run a ranking report with this many keywords. Search engines do not allow for it, and the report would be indecipherable. To make such a task manageable, you must establish a structured process incorporating rankings, trends, and reporting.
Step 1: Setting up ranking categories
The primary goal is to determine keyword rankings and their baseline information, as well as your search engine traffic and its baseline information, by setting up ranking categories or levels. Whether you have an ecommerce site or a content management system, there are generally levels of pages on your website. Using Amazon.com as an example, this type of ecommerce site usually has four levels:
- Level 1: Home page
- Level 2: Category pages
- Level 3: Subcategory pages
- Level 4: Product pages
The primary level is the home page. While it can rank for thousands of keywords, it is optimal to track 25-100 keyword phrases there, some of which will be duplicates from category pages. Since the home page is the most trusted and authoritative page of a website, it is important to include all pertinent keywords. Keywords that Amazon.com likely tracks at the home page level are “amazon,” “books,” “electronics,” and “dvds.”
At the category level, recommendations are to track 5-10 primary keyword phrases on each category page. If your site has 10 category pages, you may have 100 primary keyword phrases you’re tracking across all categories. Examples of keywords Amazon.com likely tracks at this level are “new books,” “digital camera,” and “hd dvd.”
The third level is the subcategory level. Depending on the size of your website, you may have 20, 500, or 5,000 subcategories. This extensive range affects the strategy used to identify keywords to track. If you have a small number of subcategories (20 or less), track 5-10 primary keywords for each page – the same strategy as the category level.
If your website has over 30 subcategories, use a sampling approach. Group the subcategories in three groups: high popularity, average popularity, and unpopular. Next, identify 150-250 keyword phrases from each group. Keep in mind that it is important to have sampling data established to measure the overall visibility percentage for this level. Examples of keywords Amazon.com may track at this level are “science fiction books,” “point and shoot digital cameras,” and “new dvd releases.”
The fourth and final level is the product level. Most ecommerce sites have anywhere from 50 to millions of products. Since it is nearly impossible to monitor every piece of merchandise, use the same sampling strategy recommended for the subcategory level. Group your products into three categories: high popularity (50-100 keywords), average popularity (200 keywords), and unpopular (200 keywords).
The ideal is to define 500 keywords or less. Use this sampling data as a representation of your overall rankings. Examples of keywords Amazon.com may target at this level are “harry potter and the order of the phoenix,” “canon powershot pro series digital camera,” and “atonement widescreen edition.”
Step 2: Configuring and interpreting reports
Now you know how to set up keywords, identify categories, and create sampling data, let’s discuss how to determine your rankings in each area, which will help you understand your website’s trust level.
Using ranking report software is preferable, since manual preparation would be extremely time-intensive, taking a week or longer to complete. Advanced Web Rankings and Web Position Gold are examples of applications to consider.
Note: It is important to be aware of a search engine’s terms and conditions when running technologies that pull rankings from them.
For this discussion, we will use Advanced Web Rankings as our ranking report technology. Begin by creating different projects using the software’s utilities. Treat each category you defined at the subcategory and product levels as an individual project. Run, monitor, and evaluate each project independently every two weeks. Google, Yahoo!, and MSN are the main search engines to query. There is no need to include AOL, as it is powered by Google and displays near-identical results.
Note: At this stage, it is assumed you have implemented an on-page and off-page SEO strategy.
Once you are running reports, examine average rankings growth. Be sure to configure the data in a readable format so it is easier to analyze. Rankings data can be displayed by keyword or by search engine. I recommend viewing by search engine, so you can compare your site’s performance on different search engines. The majority of Internet users use Google, and this method allows you to isolate Google data to optimize your reporting. A consultant or SEO firm can guide you through this entire process, although it is relatively easy to figure out how to run and configure reports using the software’s how-to guides.
Step 3: Baselining and managing analytics
Analytics is another essential tool in determining your website’s performance. If you have not implemented an analytics solution, I’d highly recommend Google Analytics as one of the best solutions currently available (and it is free). Even if you already have an analytics program, it may be helpful to add Google Analytics, to double-check the accuracy of the data you’re using to measure and monitor progress.
Although analytics will include data about all of the search engine traffic to your site, concentrate on organic traffic numbers for this purpose, since the number of visitors gained through paid search ads does not help determine your SEO success.
Once you examine the organic traffic volume for your site, the strong and weak keyword phrases will become obvious. It is essential to ensure you baseline branded versus non-branded keywords. For example, if we were to look at Amazon.com’s analytics report, their number-one referring keyword is likely “amazon,” while the second and third most popular keywords are likely “www.amazon.com” and “amazon.com.” Internet users usually search this way for websites with good brand recognition.
Keywords that include your brand will likely already rank well because search engines organically rank your brand well. Therefore, concentrate on non-branded keywords when measuring your organic search success rate.
Although a successful SEO campaign may increase your site’s organic search traffic by 200%, the campaign may have actually increased your non-branded keyword traffic by 400%. This is the percentage you want to focus on, because it accurately depicts the impact a campaign had on your website’s organic, non-branded rankings and traffic.
After the reports are organized and completed, begin to use the data. Pinpoint keywords and phrases that need better rankings and traffic. Discover what categories or subcategories are invisible to search engines and dedicate resources to those areas.
This information will guide your SEO strategy. Implementing your recommendations properly and effectively will not only improve the reports you worked to create, but will also increase organic traffic and website profit.
Step 1: Building the case for IT resources and managing implementation
Whether you use an in-house programmer, an off-shore programmer, an outsourced firm, or you do it yourself, someone is responsible for making changes to your site. Good business practice dictates that you discuss the importance of search with your IT resources to make sure they understand what you want accomplished. Let those responsible know they are assisting in increasing company sales, which in turn increases their value to the organization. Employees do their job best when they know the strategy and know they can proactively contribute to the bottom line.
Conducting internal quality assurance checks as your recommendations are implemented is crucial. Creating and completing a checklist with the action items to be fulfilled is an effective technique. If you combine this effort with a review of the website post-implementation, you can avoid damaging your SEO efforts.
Step 2: Implementing on-page SEO page by page and sitewide changes
Assess your website page by page when working with webmasters or putting together recommendations. Address the home page, category pages and, if possible, subcategory pages. As with determining keyword categories, define the needs specific to each area to help organize and prioritize optimization efforts.
If you go beyond subcategories, sitewide changes are needed to modify the way titles, meta description, keyword tags, and content blocks are created and displayed on the site. The process dynamically alters the information stored in your database so that it is more search-engine friendly. In-depth descriptions on specifically optimizing these categories, as well as consultants and firms to assist with these efforts, can be found online.
Step 3: Taking credit
Feel confident in taking credit for your work. Once your reporting is established, compile executive summaries detailing the ratio of ranked keywords before and after SEO efforts. Increases in percentages of keywords ranking on the first page and increases in natural search engine traffic are key areas to highlight.
Effective cost-per-click is another impressive measurement. Calculate this number by viewing the increased number of visitors as if they were generated from a pay-per-click campaign. At $2 a click, 100,000 new visitors would have cost the company $200,000. Compare that figure to the cost of your SEO campaign, add in the salaries of any in-house staff who implemented it, and you will likely be able to show significant savings.
Measurement of a website’s rankings needs to be carefully managed. Each step builds on the next. Categorizing keywords is necessary to compile legible and useful reports. The information contained in these reports leads to better analytics interpretation. The data generated through this process informs strategic decisions. These decisions assist in innovative website optimization, acquisition of quality links, and improvement in the bottom line.
Don’t be intimidated by gathering and interpreting search engine information for large websites. The task is not insurmountable if you have a clearly delineated plan that streamlines your efforts, and the results can be impressive.