The Measure of Success Is…?

Written: 21-Aug-2008 | | Filed under: Search Optimization

Over at Search Engine Journal, Ann Smarty has an excellent post on measuring the success of SEO campaigns, which got me to thinking. What is the best measurement of progress for search optimization?

As Ann points out, keyword rankings shouldn’t be the goal of search engine optimization — they’re a means to an end, not the end itself. But rankings are easy to measure and easy to understand, so they often turn up as the reporting metric from a lot of SEO firms, and they get used as measurements by a lot of DIY webmasters.

The problems with rankings — and some possible alternatives

Of course, a big problem with using rankings as a metric is they change all the time, and not necessarily in response to anything you’ve done as part of your optimization — which makes them an unreliable measurement of how well you’ve been optimizing your site. And what with Google’s push toward “personalized” search results, the rankings you see may not be the rankings anybody else sees… again, not the most reliable measurement of your success.

Ann suggests two alternative metrics: traffic from search engines, and conversions.

Traffic could be a decent measurement, except — as she points out — just because traffic goes up, this doesn’t mean your site is making any more profits. It’s actually pretty easy to drive traffic to a site… as long as you don’t care about the quality of the traffic. High-quality traffic is a bit harder to come by for most of us.

The conversion ratio is possibly a better measurement, because it takes into account the quality of the traffic the site is getting. The issue with conversions, though, as pointed out by some of the commenters on Ann’s post, is that maximizing conversions may potentially require changes in copywriting, site architecture, page layout, marketing strategy and tactics… pretty much everything related to online marketing.

Not surprisingly, all the necessary testing and making all the required changes is labor intensive and time consuming. It may be a bigger chunk to bite off than some small businesses are prepared for, at least when they’re just starting out with site optimization.

And not all sites have easily measured “conversions,” even keeping in mind that a conversion doesn’t have to be a sale. They can be things like newsletter signups, or white paper downloads, or forum registrations.

At the most basic level, a conversion is whatever action you want the visitor to take when they land on a particular page on your site. So every page has a conversion goal, even if that goal is simply for the visitor to read the page and leave. Unfortunately, as you can probably see, not all conversions are created equal, and some are pretty darned hard to measure.

There are other metrics that could be used, particularly for sites that have hard to measure conversions. For instance, if your site is simply an informational site, you might measure success by an increase in page views, or in “time on site,” indicating people are reading more of your content.

And, of course, you aren’t limited to measuring one thing. Perhaps a combination of metrics would be appropriate for your site — maybe traffic plus average page views per visitor, or traffic combined with time on site and conversions.

How do you decide?

As a DIY webmaster, how do you decide what measurement to use to track the success of your optimization efforts?

Well, you know, there’s an old saying: what gets measured, gets managed.

So decide what your goal is for your optimization. Do you simply want more #1 rankings for bragging rights among your business colleagues? Do you want to increase traffic to your site? Do you want people to spend more time reading? Do you want them to buy more of your product, or do you want more people to contact you requesting more information about your services?

Decide what your goal is, and pick metrics that tie directly to that goal. For instance, if your goal is greater sales revenue, then maybe you’d want to measure the overall number of web sales you get as well as the conversion ratio, plus the gross revenue from online sales, the revenue per sale, and the revenue per visitor. Putting all these together would give you a pretty good picture of how well you’re doing, and comparing them over time would tell you whether your optimization efforts are working as planned.

Focus your optimization campaign on things that you think will help get you closer to your goal. What things you choose to measure will depend on what goal you’ve set. Track the changes you make, and the effect they have (if any) on these metrics.

Don’t let yourself get sidetracked measuring statistics that have no relationship to your goal. Statistics can be fun and addictive, and it’s easy to get buried in numbers that look lovely but don’t tell you anything you need to know. So make sure you’re not wasting time measuring and trying to improve metrics that won’t help you get closer to your goal.

Keep your eyes on the prize. You can get there if you maintain focus.

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