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SEO Benchmarks and KPI

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How to measure SEO success

Recently we learned that most SEOs still consider that rankings are a performance indicator, just less of a value than in the past. Or at least according to a recent poll we held. This all begged the question, what ARE the metrics of measuring SEO success?

Well, in short, there is no cookie cutter approach that is going to work in all situations. What follows are some notes that we (Dojo warriors) put together over some forum threads and chat sessions. And the question was….

What benchmarks and key performance indicators are worth watching?

As we made our way through the various potential benchmarks and KPI metrics, it became clear; all is not at it first would seem. Right away you should understand that each website, each business model and market creates new challenges. This is where the art of SEO comes into play. What is a key metric in one situation may be of secondary value on another.

What are KPI and benchmarks

To get things started we need to go backwards quickly and ask; what is a Key Performance Indicator (KPI)?

  • A metric that an organization measures to help determine its progress towards a goal;
  • A reflection of the tactical performance of an organization;
  • Is used to substantiate an organization's objectives.

Essentially, for our purposes, they are a metric to aid in gauging performance of the SEO program. They are signals that tell us how well we're accomplishing a given set of goals (and how). Obviously this is going to vary from site to site dependent on the business model, but we should be able to at least get a feel of what should be looked at.

And a benchmark? For the sake of this discussion these would be secondary metrics. In many cases the benchmarks can be items that give substance to the larger goals/data. The names aren't as important as the concepts as far as I am concerned. It really doesn't matter as much what we call them. Understanding that there are core and secondary metrics is the important part of the exercise.

And so where does one start? Simple… define success.

SEO KPI and Benchmarks

Define What Constitutes Success

This is where I believe the most important part of this journey begins. The KPI part is far more elusive than the 'benchmarks'. Meaning one needs to understand each market and each unique business/site that they're dealing with. Even two sites in the same niche, in the same region, are going to have slightly different needs and goals. This means that establishing which metrics are important is going to be situational.

We can't seek to pigeon hole a set of metrics that can be plugged into any situation. One must seek a deeper understanding on the construction of KPI to ensure you're fluid. The benchmarks aspects, will be more of the lesser metrics and health points of the site and SEO program.

The process works from the business/site model outwards. Also, a single site may serve a mixture of purposes (ecommerce + support for examples). You will need to define the primary and secondary goals accordingly.

Examples of conversion points

Now, with most sites we will have primary and secondary conversion points. As an example a ecommerce store might have sales as primary conversion points, and possibly 'inquiries' or downloads as a secondary. As with the above, the valuation comes from working with the client to better understand the business model.

Possible Primary conversions

  • Products (onsite)
  • Affiliates sales
  • Lead Generation (off site commerce)
  • Ad Revenue (targeted traffic)
  • Memberships
  • Page impressions (ad revenue based sites)

Some examples of secondary conversions might include;

  • Contact form completions
  • PDF/brochure downloads
  • Reviews submitted
  • Press Release Views
  • Case Study/White paper downloads
  • Lead gen pre-qualifier
  • Newsletter Signups
  • RSS subscribers
  • Social visibility

But, if this is an informational site, not an ecommerce, some of these may actually be primary objectives. These are simply some examples, how one organizes them, (primary/secondary) will depend on the situation and goals. One needs to establish the importance of each element. We want to start off by defining the goals… primary and secondary.

You will need to decide on these for yourself in each situation.

Understanding the model

The next element we'd want to look at is the actual model of the site in question. What's the business model? What is the core type of activity being conducted? For the most part it will break down into one or more basic types, (and often websites will perform multiple functions);

What types of sites are there?

  • Information/News Portals
  • Educational Websites
  • E-commerce Websites
  • Lead Generation Websites
  • Support Sites

More details;

Informational sites – in most cases these sites are ad driven or via download for informational products. There are often actual sales at the core of the primary not just traffic driving Ad views and revenues. Secondary conversion points often are in the form of sign ups or email collection for list building. Other secondary conversion points might also include RSS subscriber increases and even social visibility.

The challenges are often in the form deciding if one wants to focus on the primary/secondary terms or go for the long tail. In the case of a primarily ad driven model, one would likely have a long tail heavy approach. If there are informational products involved, then further attention should be paid to brand related queries. Growth in this area, as with any product, is paramount.

Ecommerce sites – obviously the goals for these sites are going to primarily be the products/services themselves. Secondary conversion points often involve list building of some type. Further secondary conversion points can include inquiries and lead acquisition.

One of the more common challenges one can face, especially with service businesses, is when products/services aren't sold directly on the site. The site is more about lead generation than actual online sales. This requires some more involved planning in order to properly track. Another challenge is being a re-seller of a producer whom is also online.

Lead Generation sites – as noted above, some websites aren't actually selling a product or service online, they are generating leads. These can be particularly challenging as far as setting up tracking for the offline elements of the business model.

Secondary conversions can often be newsletter sign ups, white paper downloads and other email gathering approaches. Depending on the market, social media visibility might also be a secondary conversion point.

Support sites – this category isn't one we really see all that much and speaks to a limited presence who's goal is to support offline elements of a business. For the most part the primary conversion points are people finding the information and support for the given situation. Secondary conversion points might be qualitative data collection and feedback on the products/services, newsletter sign ups and the like.

The main challenges here are ensuring a strong brand presence and logical structure for the engines to easily parse. Terms being targeted would be heavy on brand terms as well as informational modifiers ('how to' Brand Name etc..).

Once more, these are example for the sake of this excercise. The important part is to remember to take stock of the various elements and the business model of the site. This helps identify conversion points and goals, which ultimately lead us to our own success metrics.

Potential success metrics for SEO

Potential KPI and Benchmarks for SEO

Ok, so we've looked at how we reach the point of establishing some relevant metrics for the program. Remember, the goal of this exercise is to establish the essence of the program so that we can decide which metrics are important to our situation.

Before we get going, I'd like to warn against getting overly intense on actual conversions. In many cases we as SEOs do not have the amount of control required to effectively affect actual conversion optimization – it is a messy metric at times. Our job is to bring targeted traffic for the site owner to convert. Don't be blind in measuring SEO success by pure conversions alone.

It also bears mentioning that we decided to just list some potential metrics and allow you to break them into values (KPI or Benchmark) on your own. As we discussed various organizations, it was found that they are often interchangeable depending on the situation. Thus I will just present them en mass for you to do with as you please.

Metrics to watch

At this point we start to put our SEO hats back on. You will have researched the business model and decided on some primary and secondary conversion points. You have gone the due-diligence with the KW research and nailed down the on-site. We're ready to start watching the program to begin evolving it further.

Some common SEO metrics can include;

  • Non-branded vs. branded keyword(s)
    • Brand to Non-Brand Mix
    • Returning visitors on brand term
  • Revenues from organic search
    • Revenues per query : avg ranking position
    • Revenues per semantic basket
    • % of revenue generated - natural search vs. paid search vs. other medium
    • Sales-to-visit- ratio by traffic source
    • % of sales by non-brand natural (tracked over time)
    • Ad revenue : program costs
  • Percentage increase of search traffic
    • Month over month
    • Year over year (watch for seasonal)
    • Per engine growth
  • Percentage increase of search traffic
    • Month over month
    • Year over year (watch for seasonal)
    • Per engine growth
  • Unique Pages
    • Indexation : pages getting traffic
    • # of landing pages
    • 404 growth/decline
  • Traffic
    • Top pages getting search traffic
    • Program target page growth
    • Keywords per Page Yield
    • Top entrance pages : total entry pages
  • Keywords
    • Number of visitors per keyword phrase
    • Most common modifiers
    • Keyword engagement (time and depth)
    • Long tail : short tail ratio
    • Top converting terms
  • Search Rankings
    • Core term rankings (short tail)
    • Ranking of top terms : traffic
    • Semantic Group rankings (including modifiers)
  • Universal elements
    • Image search traffic
    • Video search
    • News search
  • Links
    • Link velocity (growth)
    • Anchor text data (internal & external)
    • Actual traffic/conversions from external links

Putting it in perspective

One of the more important concepts to bear in mind that SEO is a finite job. In many ways it is a job of labour costs and we need to maximize the task ROI. By going through the process of establishing goals and measurements, you will also be able to not only identify areas for improvement, but also which activities are bearing the best fruits.

Early on in the process you want to sit down and talk with the site owner or with yourself if it's your site, and work out what the primary success metrics are. Some of the elements here are generally usable in most situations, but you do need to unique-ify the program for each situation.

What I wanted to do here was to get the wheels turning and give you the ability to craft your own metrics. Don't listen to the damned blogo-sphere which may tell you what is important. The process of setting goals and benchmarks is part of the art in this thing of ours, get artistic in your approaches.

I hope you found some insights here... that you can expand on for your situation(s).


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David has been in the world of web development and marketing since 1998 helping clients succeed in more markets than he can remember, (probably 'cause of his advanced age). He's best known as an avid search marketing blogger and information retrieval fanatic.

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Guest Friday, 19 December 2014

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