One of the biggest challenges with SEO is getting a good sense of how you're doing, especially if you're just starting out.
Depending on your site's domain authority, it might take anywhere from 3-6 months for new articles to start to bring in organic traffic. Obviously you don't want to wait 6 months just to know if your strategy is starting to work, so how do we keep an eye on how things are doing in the meantime?
There are four key metrics to any content-based SEO strategy:
Since we might not be able to focus on traffic right away, we use all four metrics, at different times in a website’s lifecycle, to track progress. Here's why they're all helpful.
Article velocity is simply a measure of how quickly and consistently content is going up on the site. Even though it isn't a "result" metric, it's the best way to measure how well you're tracking against the eventual results you're aiming for.
Compare two sites. For both of them, we're publishing three articles per week, but one of them is approving articles on time while the other isn't.
For the first site doing timely approvals, we'll be able to maintain our 3-articles-per-week cadence and in three months should have around 39 articles up on their site. But for the site taking longer to approve pieces, if they're a month behind on approvals they might only have 26 articles up.
The first site that is publishing quickly is a whole month ahead on its potential results, despite working on the project for the same amount of time. They have an extra 13 articles that can rank for their target keywords, and since they're publishing more in general, they are more likely to be rewarded with traffic and rankings sooner than the site that's slower to publish.
This is the main reason we like to manage the publishing on behalf of our clients whenever possible. If we include the publishing step in our process, we can guarantee that we'll maintain a healthy article velocity, instead of risking the project getting bottlenecked by a lagging publishing schedule.
Article velocity is one of the most common reasons we see sites fail to successfully execute on a new content plan. Even if it doesn’t seem like a “real” KPI the way traffic and conversions do, it’s essential to any content marketing plan succeeding.
The next metric after article velocity is ranking changes. You won't notice traffic coming to your site for a keyword until it's in the top 10 spots, but you can see a keyword start to move in that direction long before it brings in any noticeable traffic.
For example, here's what Cup & Leaf's traffic looked like the first couple months. It was ticking up, but at its peak it was only getting 35 visitors a day:
That's not very impressive, and it'd be hard to gauge whether the SEO strategy was really working just from those numbers. But here's how its rankings looked:
Those bars show how many keywords we had ranking in the 100+, 51-100, 11-50, 4-10, and 1-3 positions. Even though there were no first page rankings until the end of July, we could see keywords moving in the right direction as early as the end of May, long before we saw a meaningful increase in traffic.
Sure enough, two months later more of those keywords had gotten into strong positions and the site was getting 300+ organic visitors per day:
Then, of course, there's the obvious metric: traffic. This is the last metric we track for newer sites since it takes the longest to materialize, but it is one of the most important metrics we’re aiming for.
There’s much less to say about traffic than the other metrics since it’s pretty self explanatory, but I’ll mention that it’s usually more helpful to look at organic traffic on weekly and monthly trends instead of daily.
Daily fluctuations can be pretty big just from people being more or less likely to search something on different days of the week. You don’t want to look at a few days of traffic and worry that your traffic is going down, when really that’s just the week to week fluctuations.
For example, this day to day chart of Cup & Leaf organic traffic isn’t telling us much:
But when we zoom out to the last few weeks, the trend is a little clearer:
And then if we zoom out a few more months it gets very clear how things are going:
Once your site is getting a good amount of organic traffic, there’s usually at least one key conversion metric from your blog that you want to track.
This varies a lot depending on the site, especially depending on what your buyer journey looks like.
For an affiliate style site, you might just track clicks on affiliate links.
For an info product site, there’s usually a clear funnel like Read Post -> Email Signup -> Buy Product, so we might focus on the Read Post -> Email Signup conversion rate.
Conversion tracking for blog content gets a bit trickier if you have an ecommerce store or SaaS tool since it’s harder to convert cold search traffic directly to sales. In that case, we’ll usually focus on some intermediate part of the funnel like an email signup, product page visit, or requesting a demo.
For Cup & Leaf right now, we track conversion to viewing our tea quiz, since we know that converts very well to email signups and sales:
We typically find that in the beginning, an intermediate metric like this will be more informative than trying to record direct purchases from content, even with multistep attribution.
For a site that’s earlier in its content marketing strategy, all you need to focus on is what keywords and pages are working to bring in more traffic.
For a site already getting a good amount of traffic, you can start to look at how that traffic is converting in simpler ways like our tea quiz example.
And for more robust, developed sites, you can get into really fancy multi-step attribution, per page revenue estimates, things like that. But it’s not worth moving to that step until you’re already bringing in a good amount of traffic.
Which of these metrics should you be looking at for your SEO-focused content marketing work? There are no hard and fast rules, but it largely depends on how much traffic you’re getting.
If you’re just starting out and getting fewer than 100 visitors a day, just keep focusing on article velocity (and links acquired if you’re doing link building).
If you’re starting to get in that 50-250 visitors a day range, you can start looking more at which keywords are ranking to give you a leading indicator of what pages might start bringing in more traffic.
Once you’re solidly in the 10,000+ visitors per month range, you might start tracking conversion metrics. But start with something easy, like email signups, and save the more intricate tracking for later when you’re more in the 50,000+ range. You need a lot of data points to get good data as your funnel gets more intricate.
And how can you track all of this? We primarily use:
If you’re not already tracking at least one of these metrics for your content marketing, now is the time to set it up. The sooner you start watching these metrics, the sooner you’ll be able to get a better sense for what is and isn’t working.
Or, as always, if you want us to do it for you, just contact us to get started.
Google released another update in November 2019. Here's our analysis of what happened.
Our takeaways from the September 2019 core update, based on the 100+ sites we have analytics for.