Thursday, November 1st, 2012

SEO Health Check: Why You’re Tracking the Wrong SEO Metrics

The metrics that a large number of businesses track related to search engine optimization (SEO) are, frequently, the wrong ones.  If your SEO team tracks metrics that skew too macro, or too micro, you can end up with a skewed view of your progress in organic search:

The 10,000 Foot View

If your metrics are too high-level, the numbers can mask both problems and opportunity.  A good example is looking only at the total number of visits that your site gets on a monthly basis from organic search.  You may be satisfied if your numbers are stable year-over-year, but what if 90% of your traffic comes from 5 terms, and the only page that ranks is your home page?  That’s a problem.

The 10 Foot View

Many marketers obsess over the rankings of a handful of keywords—sometimes called “vanity rankings”.  Often, these are keywords that drive large volumes of search traffic, or keywords that an executive has decided are strategically important for the business to have visibility for.  While tracking a handful of keyword rankings is fine, you need a broader focus to ensure that your site is performing well in the long tail of search, where 70 percent of total search volume is.

SEO is simple.  But it’s simple the way baseball is simple. The old saying “throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball” comes to mind.  Simple, right?  There’s always complexity lurking below the surface, but just like in baseball, your SEO team needs to have a quick set of metrics they can refer to that give you meaningful information about how well you’re performing.  I call these metrics the SEO Health Check.

The SEO Health Check

The metrics tracked here are designed to give you a quick, directionally accurate view of how well your site is doing in organic search.  It tracks indexation, landing pages, keywords and traffic, (covered in my previous post).

Let’s take a look at how to track each of these areas, and then dive into how to interpret the data:

URLs and Indexed Pages

First, you need to know how big your site actually is.  Usually, this will require feedback from your Engineering or Product teams.  You need to determine the number of valid content URLs that your site is capable of generating.  Relying on a “guesstimate” is not sufficient here.

Next, you need to ensure that search engines can find your content, and consider it important enough to keep in their indexes.  Organic search is like fishing with a drag net – the bigger your net, the more fish you’re likely to catch.  The number of your site’s URLs that a search engine has indexed defines the size of that net, so it’s an important metric to keep an eye on.

The easiest way to get an accurate view of this number is via Google Webmaster Tools.  From the Dashboard, click on “Health” and then “Index Status”.  You’ll see a line graph that gives you a year’s worth of historical data on how many URLs from your site Google has indexed.  How close is this number to the total number of valid URLs on your site?  It’s very rare for sites over 10,000 pages to get more than 80% of their pages indexed, so this is a relative measure.

In the fictitious example, above, you can see that the site had been experiencing some healthy gains in indexation, and then toward the end of June, there was a large, sudden drop.  This kind of data should send your SEO into high alert.  Rapid drops in indexation are usually due to problems with accessibility (your URLs can’t be found by the engines), or penalty situations (engines remove your URLs from the index due to violations of their guidelines).

There are other ways to check indexation levels, like using the site operator.  This method works in Google and Bing, and you can use it to get data on any site you’re interested in (as opposed to just your own).  However, this method is much less precise—it’s only directionally accurate, and less de-duplication processing has been done compared to the numbers you see in Google Webmaster Tools, which has its good and bad sides.  You simply go to the engine and type:

site:www.mysite.com

The number of results is the number of URLs that the engine has indexed from that domain.

If your site has 10,000 pages and only 1,000 are indexed, your site may have barriers to indexation, or may not be authoritative enough for engines to consider indexing the content worthwhile.  In that case, you probably need help either with improving information architecture, increasing link authority, or both.

However, if your site has 10,000 pages and the site operator returns 40,000 results, that points to a duplicate content problem.  You want to make sure that your site is only rendering 1 piece of content on 1 URL, and not rendering the same content on multiple URLs due to technical issues.  There are many causes for this problem, but it’s something your SEO needs to address.

Landing Pages

You also want a significant number of URLs contributing to your site’s success in organic search—you want as many pages as possible “earning their keep”.  If you have 10,000 pages on your site, and 5,000 of them were landing pages for visitors from organic search, that’s great.  However, if you have 10,000 pages, and only your home page is getting organic search traffic, you have a big problem.

In Google Analytics, you want to first select the Advanced Segment of “Non-paid Search Traffic”.  Then in the left navigation, click “Content”, “Site Content”, then “Landing Pages”.

Tracking this metric year-over-year gives you an idea of how new pages are being found via organic search as their link authority increases, and they begin to rank for new keyword combinations.

Ethan Hays is Search Director at gyro

Follow him @ethanhays

Originally published at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network

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