Rankings Aren’t All That: How to Really Track SEO Improvements

There are LOTS of people out there that don’t understand what SEO is and how you do it. I wish I had a dollar for every time I was told to go do my “SEO magic” by a client. These same people are hungry to see results to make sure that you are actually doing work that you were paid for. This makes showing progress and improvements to the client very important. Trust me, clients are not going to keep send you checks if you can’t show how your efforts are improving their site. The demise of keywords and the rise of Not Provided have made our job more difficult, but it is not impossible. I am going to review various techniques I use to look at analytics to find how my SEO updates have improved the site. This will help your clients break through the mumbo jumbo and finally understand your worth.

Rankings… Not so much

Search rankings are the first thing asked about when trying to figure out how well your SEO is performing, but it is not that simple.

There are many factors that make rankings less than useful.

1. Personalization –  Search engines personalize your search results based on what they know about you. They know what you have searched for on the web, your web browsing history, who your friends are and where you live. Big brother anyone?

Even if you check your rankings with no personalization, it’s not the same as what you customers will see. Most of them will have some sort of personalized results.

2. Localization – Even if you clear all your personal information out of your browser, search engines still know where your computer is and provide you localized results so you can find the closest Starbucks. Also, if you are using a service to pull your rankings for you, they will use different IP addresses each time they scrape the search engine results pages. This means that Google will give you results based on the location of that IP. This causes fluctuations each time they grab your current rankings.

3. Not tracking the relevant keywords – You may be tracking 500+ keywords, but out of those, how many are actually sending traffic to your site and converting? With that many keywords you will likely be overwhelmed and confused. Instead, you want to keep it simple and focused.

First, figure out the broad keywords that are most important to your site. Then get more focused and find some of the more specific, mid to long-tail, keywords that directly relate to your content.

What you can use rankings for

All these factors make tracking rankings less accurate, but you can still use rankings to help you get a high-level view of how you are doing on certain keywords and see how your site is trending over time. You can also watch your rankings to alert you of major problems (like Google manual penalties). Just do us all a favor and don’t make them your main KPI.

Look for big trends in site traffic

One of the most important metrics you want to look at is the amount of traffic that you are bringing to the site through your SEO efforts. You can find this information on the Organic Search Traffic report in Google Analytics. The problem with this report is that it is hard to see what is going on with it just by looking at it. You can look at the graph at top to see if traffic is going up over time, but it doesn’t tell you what is going on. You need to dig deeper.

Compare date ranges

First, look for short term changes first by comparing this month with the previous month. Are you doing better than the previous month? How well are you doing compared to last year?

It’s great to see how you are improving from month to month, but you need to be careful when looking at this, since you will eventually run into seasonality issues. For example, if your site does well during the Christmas season and you compare traffic in January to December you are going to see your traffic numbers decrease, but this doesn’t mean that your SEO is doing bad. It would be better to look at improvement year over year.

Look for spikes and drops in traffic

Explaining traffic spikes in analytics
Sometimes you will see abnormal increases or decreases in traffic during the month. These will stand out visually on the graph. You can usually find out what caused the spike by looking for the landing page that drove the additional traffic. Finding out what happened is important so you can let the client know what is going on and so you can continue to increase traffic in the future.

Look beyond Analytics

If you can’t figure out why there was increase traffic to a particular page or section by peering into the Google Analytics crystal ball, then it is time to put on that detective hat on, dive a little deeper, and look elsewhere for clues.

Here are some good places to start your search for clues:

  1. Changes to the Site – Even small changes to the site can sometimes have big results. Find out what was changed and when. This can at least give you an idea of what pages to focus on.
  2. Look for Holidays/Events/Seasonal Trends – Look at last year’s data to see if it had the same swing. If so, it might be a seasonal trend for your industry. Also look for big shopping holidays or for big industry or sporting events.
  3. Social Media – Look at the social profiles of the site and see if there was any activity during that time. If you see a spike of social referrals it can help you pinpoint it to a certain event.
  4. Sales/Specials – Is the company having a big sale or special? This often brings additional direct and organic traffic to the site.
  5. Other Advertising –  Was there any old school advertising done? Radio, TV, newspaper, mailers, billboard ads, etc. are still effective. Look for spikes when that advertising campaign started.
  6. News/Press – If there was any news about the company (good or bad) it can definitely send more people to the site.
  7. Ask the Client – You don’t have to waste all your time chasing down everything. Go ahead and ask the client. They might actually know what is going on.

Filter results

After looking at the big picture and seeing the general trends you want to dig deeper and look for specific results related to your past optimization efforts. To find those pages you worked on you will have to look at them as a group and compare them to the rest of the site. One of the easiest ways to do this is by creating an segment that allows you to filter your results and see just want you want.

Creating an advanced segment

When looking for SEO changes, it is best to create a segment that looks at organic landing pages and whatever that visitor did afterwards.

Creating a new segment in analytics
  1. Open the Advanced Segment panel and click the “Create New Segment” button
  2. Write the name of your new segment
  3. Define your filter to Include the pages that your segment matches
  4. Set the segment to track Users which allows you to track multiple visits
  5. Define Sequence Start to include the First User Interaction
  6. Add Step 1 set the dimension to Landing Page and set the filter to “Matches Regex” and use a regular expression that matches the pages you want to track.
  7. Add a filter to look only at visits whose Medium exactly matches Organic
  8. Save the segment and test it out by looking at the Behavior >Site Content >Landing Pages report to see if the correct pages show up. If not, then adjust your regular expression or add other filters as necessary.

That’s it, now you have an Advanced Segment that shows only organic users that first landed on the pages you want to look at.

Using advanced segments to see how SEO updates changed traffic

This segments helps you see how these pages helped bring people to the site and how well they converted. You can use it on almost all reports in GA.

Look at those landing pages

One nifty way to see your ongoing progress is to look at the number of organic landing pages that get at least one visit during the month. When you see this number going up, it means that your SERP visibility is growing and that you are generally improving your rankings.

To see this, look at the bottom of the Landing Page report and see how total many pages are included. Then you can compare this to the previous year or right before you started working on the site.

Counting number of landing pages helps track SEO growth

Not all keyword data is lost

Next, you can use Google Webmaster Tools to find out what keywords are ranking for what pages. This isn’t as good as the previous keyword data we used to have before Not Provided. Just know that this data is highly sampled, so don’t look at the traffic numbers too closely, just look what keywords each page is ranking for.

Finding what keywords pages are ranking for

When looking at these keywords, it gives you an idea of what the page is currently optimized for. If you are still not seeing the keyword that you are targeting, then you know you have more work to do.

Track conversions

Getting more traffic is great, but if you are not selling more products or getting more transactions, then you need to take a look to what you are doing.

track goal conversions

Pay attention to transactions and revenue to see if they are going up along with your traffic. If not, you may have some other problems. Also take a close look at your conversion rate, this can tell you if your are sending the right audience to the site or if you have other problems. If you are consistently increasing both traffic and revenue, your client will have no problems with sending you those checks.

You can also take a look at assisted conversions and other attributions models to get a fuller picture on how your organic traffic is affecting the site.

Do you have any other ways to track success of your SEO efforts? Please leave a comment below so we can discuss.

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  1. Hi Ken,
    That was completely truthful and informative solutions for SEO’s reporting problems. And In addition I also thinks that we webmasters need to educate our clients from time to time to make them familiar with all updates, challenges and what hard work we doing for them to reach their business goals is more important too. What your view?

    1. Rajesh,
      Definitely. One of our jobs as SEOs is to help educate our clients. It is best that they know what we are doing and what to expect from our efforts. This transparency will help them value our efforts and understand the results.

  2. Great article Ken. These are tried and true methods to measure SEO impact that I use with my clients.
    I’ll also add that you can look at your multi-channel reports to track the impact of organic on other sources of traffic/revenue.

    1. Paul,
      Yes, I’ve also used the multi-channel reports. It’s great to show clients how organic search interacts the other channels. Definitely a winner.

  3. Hi Ken,
    I am a beginner in this field and enjoyed every word of your article as, it was very well written and clearly represented. By the way, i am trying to do SEO of a wordpress based website. can you please suggest me some useful wordpress plugins or strategy to begin with?
    Every suggestion is appreciable. Thanks.

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