Measurement is an integral part of SEO. You decide which metrics you want to improve, make targeted changes, and then re-measure to see if you made a difference. It’s a continual process.
But what, exactly, should you be measuring?
There are a seemingly infinite number of metrics that can give you an idea of how your site is performing, and many of them aren’t very intuitive. If you know which ones to track, though, you’ll get valuable data that you can use to improve your site (or better sell your own SEO services).
In the rest of this article, we’ll go over five metrics you should be tracking, and a few pieces of advice on how to improve them.
What it is: the percentage of people who convert from visitors into customers (more on that classification in a moment).
Where to find it: in the Conversions > Goals section of Google Analytics.
Every business is built on converting customers. Most of the time, that means turning a potential buyer into an actual one. That’s how you make money. But you can define different types of conversions, too.
For example, a visitor signing up for your service and entering their credit card information could be one type of conversion. Signing up for your newsletter could be another. You could even think of sharing a piece of content as a type of conversion, as it turns a visitor into a sort of small-time brand ambassador.
Determining what counts as a conversion could fill up an entire article—or maybe even an article series. So that’s not what we’ll focus on here. What’s important when it comes to metrics is tracking those conversions.
In Google Analytics, conversions are measured in a few different ways, but the most common will be by destination. In this method, whenever someone reaches a specific page, it’s counted as a conversion. This works well if you use it for the thank-you page after a purchase, a newsletter welcome page, or a “thanks for getting in touch” message.
Different campaigns can use different types of conversions, as well. For example, if you’re running a content campaign that aims simply to keep people on your site longer, you can use a duration conversion trigger—if someone stays on your site longer than three minutes, for example, Google Analytics will count that as a conversion.
Whatever type of conversion you’re looking for, it’s a good idea to set it up in Google Analytics right away. You can also add a monetary value to each conversion to calculate the ROI of your efforts (you’ll have to calculate that value through other means). And if you expect a visitor to take a specific path to the conversion page, you can add that as a funnel to see where people are dropping off.
All of this information is extremely useful in planning your SEO and content campaigns.
How do you improve this metric? The answer can be quite complicated, but using available analytics tools can help you figure it out. If you see that people are dropping out of the conversion funnel on a specific page, you can look at that page for performance or content issues. If people aren’t entering the funnel at all, maybe you’re not getting the right kind of traffic from search, and you need to reconsider who you’re marketing to. If no one is signing up for your free demo, maybe you’re not making the benefits clear enough.
Increasing your conversions is highly specific to your site and your goals, but you absolutely need to have a good tracking system in place to get better at converting.
2. Keyword rankings
What it is: the position of your site in the search results for specific search terms.
Where to find it: SEO tools like SEMRush, Moz, and Ahrefs.
One of the specific goals of SEO is to make sure that you’re high up in the search results for terms related to your business. And the best way to see if you’re actually doing that is to keep track of your keyword rankings.
If you’re running an online men’s shoe store, for example, you might want to rank well for “men’s shoes,” “men’s shoes online,” and “online shoe store.” How do you know if your SEO strategies are working? You need to see where you rank for those keywords before you start your campaign, and then again after. If your rankings have gone up, you’ve been successful.
Tracking your keyword rankings isn’t quite as simple as just putting a list into Google Analytics—you’ll need a more powerful tool. Most of these tools require subscriptions, but you do have a few free options. Rankscanner lets you sign up for a free account and track keyword rankings on specific domains. And you can use the free version of SEMRush to view your top 10 keywords—it’s easy to jot down those keywords and your rankings once a month or so to see what’s changing.
You can keep track of highly specific changes and see how they affect your rankings, or you can just get a general idea of how your SEO is working. Both are valuable; the first will give you more detailed insights into the efficacy of your tactics, but it also takes quite a bit of work.
No matter how much detail you record, though, make sure that you’re tracking your keyword rankings. It could potentially be the most important SEO metric to track.
3. Bounce rate
What it is: the percentage of visitors who leave your site after viewing only one page.
Where to find it: in the Behavior > Site Content section of Google Analytics.
When you get people to come to your website, you want them to stay on your website. A quick look at one page isn’t going to do you much good. And a high bounce rate means people are doing exactly that. Usually it means they’re finding your site after a search, clicking on the page, skimming through some of the content, and hitting the back button.
This is closely related to the phenomenon of “pogo sticking,” in which a user clicks on one result, quickly goes back to the results page, clicks on the next result, quickly goes back, clicks on the next, and so on.
Whether bounce rate is an important ranking factor is up for debate. But many of the things that can cause a high bounce rate can definitely affect your search rankings. Usability, for example: if your site takes a long time to load, people are going to hit the back button before they see your content. And slow pages tend to be ranked lower.
Not having the content that people are looking for is also going to hurt your search rankings. If your page title is misleading, it could be drawing a lot of visitors in, but not holding them very long. Again, not a good practice.
Because these factors affect your bounce rate, it can be a very important metric. Getting users into your conversion funnel is crucial for success, and if they’re bouncing right back to search results, that’s not going to happen. So you need to figure out why they’re not sticking around.
Is it because your page doesn’t provide the information they’re looking for? Consider adding more valuable content that will keep them hooked and get them interested in the rest of the content on your site. Is it because your site is really slow? Take steps to speed it up. Is it because you don’t have a strong call to action on your page, so people don’t feel compelled to click through to somewhere else on the site? That’s an easy fix.
Take a close look at your pages with the highest bounce rate and aim to reduce that number. There’s no gold standard for a “good” bounce rate—it depends largely on the type of site and your goals—but if you can get to the 50% range, you’re doing well.
4. Time on page
What it is: the average amount of time any user spends on your page before hitting the back button, clicking a link, or closing the page.
Where to find it: in the Behavior > Site Content section of Google Analytics.
This metric is closely related to bounce rate, but it gives you some important distinct information. If you have a very high bounce rate, there’s a good chance that the average time on page is low—if people aren’t liking your content, they’re going to head right back to the results page without spending more than a few seconds perusing your page.
The time on page metric is best thought of as an indicator of the quality of your content and its value to your readers. While your site usability can affect bounce rate, the amount of time someone spends on your page is more likely to be related to how valuable your content is and how hooked the reader was.
When time on page dips into the sub-1:00 range, your content may not be very good. If your page is short, the content is thin, or you’re just not providing much value, people aren’t going to hang out very long. And that’s not a good sign.
This metric isn’t likely to directly affect your search rankings, but like bounce rate, it can be indicative of things that will. If your content isn’t providing value, it’s not going to rank well. So when you see that your time on page is really low, it’s time to add more value. Exactly what that means depends on your site, but adding more content that answers more readers questions and solves more problems is going to help.
That’s the sort of content that ranks well, regardless of time on page.
And it should be noted that you want the time on page to be short in some cases. If your page exists mostly to get people to sign up for an email course, a low time on page could mean that they’re signing up quickly, for example. You have to take these sorts of things into account as well when looking at this metric.
5. Acquisition channel breakdown
What it is: the percentages of visitors that get to your site through different methods (organic search, social, referral, email, and so on).
Where to find it: in the Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels section of Google Analytics.
How are people finding your site? If you don’t have a good answer to this question, you’re not taking full advantage of analytics. Understanding how people are finding you—and how that changes over time—can guide your efforts in getting more traffic.
For example, if you see that you’re not getting much referral traffic (which tends to be of high value, because referred visitors are usually well-qualified), you can engage in a link-building campaign. Or if your social acquisition goes down, you can start a new social campaign to drum up interest.
Unlike the other metrics on this list, there’s no way to simply improve your acquisition channel breakdown. It’s all relative to your goals and campaigns. But not tracking it would be a big mistake.
You can also use acquisition channel as a useful secondary metric in your other analytics. For example, when looking at your conversion rate, you can sort by acquisition channel to see which types of traffic are converting at the highest rate.
If people who get to your site from social channels tend to become customers more readily than those who come from organic search, you can put extra effort into social. Or if you see that people who come from your email campaign aren’t converting at all, you could reapportion your efforts elsewhere.
Start tracking, start improving
I won’t give you the ultra-cliché line about measurement here. But I’ll say that if you track the right metrics, as well as what you’re doing to improve them, you’ll have a really good idea of what’s working and what’s not.
And building on that knowledge is the key to successful SEO.