KPIs, or key performance indicators, help companies understand what marketing strategies result in profit, or ROI. In digital marketing, analytics yields a vast number of metrics, but not all of them offer the same value. Hence why companies leverage the power of KPIs — they cut out the metrics which matter less and make the entire experience more palatable.
Our SEO and Analytics teams often utilize analytics dashboards such as Datorama or PowerBI or even Google Data Studio to display pertinent metrics. But without isolating KPIs, we find ourselves sinking in data overload.
To run a successful business, we must understand what our KPIs are so we can make decisions regarding advertising campaigns.
But often, SEO consultants and some agencies fail to deploy KPIs for SEO. In paid media, marketers consider KPIs a staple. In SEO, some marketers don’t believe KPIs exist. This is due to the less predictable, harder to track nature of organic search marketing.
However, although SEO notoriously offers more unique marketing obstacles, KPIs should remain a core component throughout the life of the campaigns.
Let’s look deeper into the synergy between KPIs and SEO.
Why KPIs Matter in SEO
Earlier we mentioned that SEO is an unpredictable market. That’s mostly true. Organic search prominence depends on Google’s search algorithm. There’s a lack of control for the marketer. In paid media, you control search placement through bids. You can opt to lower bids to help ROI, or improve the landing page to convert more users into paid opportunities. The marketer controls the bids and the landing page optimization.
The loss of control in Google’s organic search placement obstructs instant marketing gratification. A website may rank high for terms that don’t make much money, or rank low for terms that are profitable. Ranking in the seventh position for some terms may not be profitable because those searchers are more discerning than the ones who clicked on the top result.
These organic rankings also fluctuate dramatically, sometimes by the hour. Moreover, optimizing a page that ranks well with Google poses obvious risks — you might lose that ranking entirely.
Today, Google is more open than ever regarding how the algorithm works and why some websites outperform others. But it remains that they continue to conceal the heart of the algorithm as a way to protect organic search from fraud.
Hence, some marketers avoid KPIs for organic search marketing.
But KPIs matter for SEO and they matter a whole lot.
Without KPIs, we introduce a slew of problems into our campaigns:
- We don’t understand if our SEO efforts are successful (the obvious one)
- We lose sight of optimization opportunities
- We fail to see where to spend more budget/effort, or less
- We miss opportunities to expand
- We aren’t fluid; we don’t adapt
Because SEO hinges on an unpredictable Google algorithm, we, as marketers, more than ever, should embrace KPIs.
Let’s get into the types of KPIs that are relevant to SEO.
Types of KPIs
To understand KPIs in SEO, we must first understand the differing data sources. In SEO, the use of third-party data run via APIs is more prominent than in paid media.
Google Analytics, Search Console vs. Semrush, AHREFS, Moz
Both Google Analytics and Google Search Console are traditional analytics tools. They utilize near real-time data to display user journey and associate that with key search terms. However, as powerful as these tools may be, they come up short in a number of areas for SEO.
For starters, recent changes to how Europe and the United States mitigate data privacy risks to consumers means less pertinent data. Privacy modes on browsers increase the likelihood of relating a search term to a landing page. Read our data privacy deep dive for a more thorough understanding of those points. For now, its important to acknowledge that Google Analytics and Google Search Console should only be one part of your SEO analytics.
To increase your SEO analytics core, you’ll need to leverage the power of SEO software. The key SEO software players remain AHREFS, SEMRush and Moz. SEO software deploys APIs that gather essential data, such as information on backlinks, organic keywords as they relate to volume of search and CPCs, and competitor analysis.
In AHREFS, we find our number of backlinks and opportunities for increasing backlinks. The same can be said regarding keyword rankings.
In Google Analytics, we find essential on-site metrics such as organic sessions, new users, time on page and more.
The point is, both types of analytics sources help an SEO marketer establish vital KPIs in unique ways.
Below, in our SEO KPIs section, you’ll note a blend of both types of analytics to help embolden our organic search marketing campaigns.
Essential KPIs That Support SEO Strategy
Organic Keyword Rankings
The core of your SEO KPIs resides in keyword rankings. Earlier, we discussed privacy issues that relate to Google Analytics/Search Console’s tracking due to data privacy matters.
But it is important to remember that this means you experience obstruction relating a keyword to an organic session in Google Analytics. But when creating a keyword ranking KPI, we use a third party software such as SEMRush or AHREFS.
A keyword ranking directly relates to ROI. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t get a bit more granular here.
When you break down your website’s organic keyword rankings, you’ll note that you hold a lot, if not most, placements in the 11-100 range. Meaning, you have keyword rankings in the 70s, where no one will scroll.
We advise that you pay attention to only two groups.
- Top 3
- 4–15 (or something close)
Your top three keyword rankings are the keywords which typically drive the most traffic. They also reflect the keywords which are most relevant to your website’s content. Google’s AI rarely places a website in the top three for a keyword it does not fit.
The second data point of 4–15 displays the set of keywords that Google feels your website matches, but other websites match more. This data source can be adjusted to 4–11, or as high as 4–20. These keywords reflect keyword ranking opportunities. Often, Google acknowledges through the ranking that your content fits the keyword, but other factors (on-page copy, title tags, or backlinks) are less appealing.
Here’s a visual from AHREFS that shows what we’re talking about. Note that the 11-100 section is unchecked.
Now, our KPI reflects our keywords that drive the most traffic and harness the most opportunities.
In case you are curious as to why the 11-100 aren’t part of the KPI, the answer is simple: The only way a keyword ranked beyond 20 matters is if the keyword is brand new. Otherwise, Google understands that relevance dwindles the deeper the ranking.
You might further ask, is total organic keyword rankings a KPI? Our answer is mostly no. Total organic keywords remains a metric to monitor, but not as an essential SEO KPI. A KPI directly impacts our ROI, or resides on the fringe of it. If you run a cosmetics business and you hold 12 rankings for keywords related to “making up with a scorned boyfriend” in the 70s, those will never impact SEO strategy or ROI.
Google Analytics: New Users vs. Returning Users
In Google Analytics, we discover essential SEO KPIs that reflect the current ecosystem on our website.
For SEO KPIs, we should monitor new users vs. returning users under an organic filter.
There’s no special setup to achieve this. You don’t need a pixel or an event. Simply filter your users to Organic which Google Analytics stars by default and view your users.
Organic traffic should represent a good volume of new users. The new users derive from non-brand search terms. These are people discovering your product, or getting a reminder of your product, via a general search term.
The returning users may be linked to users searching your brand or returning after a non-brand search.
Whether a user is new or returning depends on the setup of your GA account. It could be limited to a single day, a full week or more. We should also understand that GA isn’t perfect in its calculations. A user might be new and revisit the site within the parameters but use an incognito browser and suddenly, they’re new again. If a user always searches using incognito, they are always a new user.
So, we can reasonably tie in new users to non-brand search queries. But what else?
New users tend to spend less time on the site. Returning visitors tend to offer higher conversions and more profit (source via Hotjar).
But the chicken and the egg, folks — we don’t get returning users without first absorbing new users.
We determine ROI via setting up events, such as form fills and shopping cart checkouts. We can isolate both the new and returning visitors and compare/contrast. Overall, monitoring our new and returning visitors is an essential SEO KPI.
Google Analytics: Conversions
In the previous section, we touched on monitoring “events.” To get more granular, an essential SEO KPI most certainly is conversions.
A conversion is an ultimate end-journey destination of a user, whether they are new or returning.
Your goal for a user is to take an action at some point during a session. That action may be subscribing to a newsletter journey, or purchasing a trial to your product. But ultimately, you need to monitor conversions under your organic filter.
There are few SEO KPIs as vital as conversions.
Google Analytics: ROI
Beyond conversions, we find our overall ROI.
We need to track how much revenue is created vs. what we spend to keep our website ranking in Google.
Clearly, SEO isn’t free (as some might have you believe). Third-party softwares such as AHREFS costs money. Copywriters send invoices for their efforts. Technical SEO often utilizes developers. Without paying for infrastructure either in-house or through an agency, you’ll have a difficult time competing. This is why ROI is an important SEO KPI.
We’ve discussed SEO KPIs that are essential to running organic search campaigns. But what about overhyped metrics that some marketers tout as a KPI, but may waste your time?
Google Analytics: Time on Page
Google Analytics is programmed to use red or green on data results. For example, if you compare Time on Page month to month and the most recent month’s TOP is less than the previous month’s, that data shows red.
But what does that mean?
The time on page represents how long a user stayed on your landing page. So if someone searches “organic makeup” and lands on your page, the time spent is assessed by GA.
So if MoM or YoY data results in a red output, why is this bad?
It’s not. Not always, at least.
If you optimize your landing page through sophisticated CRO efforts, the user may have taken a vital, impactful action. Hence, they spent less time on the page because they contributed to a conversion (essential KPI) and ultimately, ROI (another essential KPI).
TOP is a great metric to monitor. It can help diagnose website issues. But as an essential KPI, we aren’t fans.
Overall Keyword Rankings
We touched on this one earlier. Google ranks pages for a slew of keywords, but most of those rankings aren’ relevant to your business’ ROI. Too many SEO consultants and agencies place too much emphasis on all keywords as opposed to the vital keywords found in 1 through 15.
In SEO, KPI is an often overlooked facet in the strategy. But not acknowledging vital KPIs devalues your organic marketing efforts. Understanding various analytics sources and their most impactful metrics drive and evolve SEO strategy.
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