Important SEO Metrics and How to Track Them
Make sure you're tracking these important SEO metrics to get the most out of
your content marketing.
You can’t improve what you don’t measure.
We’ve taught you everything you need to build a successful blog. But SEO is part art, part science. There are no guaranteed formulas to success. It will still take time and practice to get really good.
Every industry has its own quirks. The only way to learn them to improve your content marketing is to track your results and tweak your strategy as you go.
Of course, you should be tracking business goals like sales or leads generated. But SEO can take a long time to impact these metrics, so you can’t rely on those alone for effective decision making.
Fortunately, there are metrics you can track today that will help you measure and improve your content marketing as you go. You can even track most of these for free with Google Analytics.
So let’s start there by identifying the most important metrics to monitor.
(If you don’t already have Google Analytics set up on your site, this video will walk you through the process. It should only take 10–20 minutes.)
Metrics That Matter
Google Analytics provides TONS of information. They track over 100 different metrics, which can be filtered thousands of different ways. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in there.
Today we’re going to look at the most important metrics and dimensions to watch. Then you’ll create a custom report to access them quickly each week and monitor your results.
This is the best early metric to watch. It tells you how many visits your site got in a given time period.
Every time someone visits your site, a session is counted. If they leave and come back later, a new session is created. Everything the user does before leaving is counted as a single session.
(Image Source: Google)
Don’t get this confused with pageviews, which represents the actual number of pages visited by people. If a user visits 3 different pages during a visit, then it would count as 3 pageviews but only 1 session.
Sessions are a better way of evaluating your SEO marketing efforts in the beginning since your goal is to use search traffic to generate new visits.
This metric tells you the number of people who visited your site in the time period. It’s often a bit lower than your session count because a user can start multiple sessions during your window.
If someone finds your site from a Google search Tuesday, then comes back to read more content on Thursday it would only count as 1 user, but 2 different sessions. Because of this, your user count will always be smaller than your session count:
In theory, this tells you how many individual people you were able to reach. However, this is a little misleading because it counts the first time a new browser or device visits your site.
If someone visits from their phone and desktop, it will count as 2 different users. You can’t really get around this due to privacy concerns around tracking individual people. But it’s still a handy way to estimate the overall size of your audience.
You’ll also notice a related metric, New Users. This tells you how many people found your site for the first time during this period.
In the photo above, Cup & Leaf received 144,250 New Users. That means the remaining 1,338 users were returning visits from last month. That isn’t necessarily good or bad, but can help to know.
These next three “metrics” are actually classified as dimensions in Google Analytics. They are used to filter and analyze your other metrics (like sessions and users). This helps you understand the metrics better and use them to make effective decisions.
The traffic source dimension tells you what site users came from.
You can use this information to focus on promotion strategies or partners who are driving the most traffic.
Similar to the traffic source, the medium dimension tells you where visitors are coming from. However, it groups sources into more broad categories like organic, social, and paid:
Often these are stacked together in a Source / Medium report to give a more complete picture of where users are coming from:
Top Landing Pages
Now that you know where your traffic is coming from, it’s time to figure out where they are arriving. The landing page tells you the specific page a user started their session on.
This tells you which content is performing the best so that you can invest more resources into it. You can also analyze these articles to understand what makes content successful with your audience and replicate it in future posts.
Focus on the top 10 articles when trying to figure out what works best. Those will usually account for at least 50% of your overall traffic.
This last metric isn’t found in Google Analytics, unfortunately. But it’s a good investment to use a keyword tracking tool that will monitor what position you rank for your target keywords.
Articles don’t often rank on the first page overnight. They generally debut at a lower rank and climb their way up over time. Rank tracking software will let you know which articles are making moves and which are getting stuck so you can adjust accordingly.
We use the Ahrefs Rank Tracker to handle this since it’s included in our Ahrefs subscription. We can easily import our keyword lists from the research phase or add them manually in bulk. But there are plenty of cheaper alternatives such as HOTH Rank Tracker and Authority Labs.
This information is tremendously helpful in a number of ways.
You’ll get a better idea of what content is working sooner so that you can replicate those types of articles. For example, when we noticed that “[type] tea benefits” articles were starting to rank quickly, we started to prioritize publishing others.
Or if we had noticed one article like “black tea benefits” wasn’t doing as well as the others, we could compare the articles to see what it might be missing.
You will also see how certain promotion strategies impact rankings by watching changes over time. Remember that graph in the previous lesson showing you how a successful Reddit post boosted rankings?
We started investing more time into Reddit after noticing this happen a few times.
You’ll also get a sense of where you need to improve content. It’s not uncommon to see articles climb to the second or third page and then stay there in positions ~11–30. These articles are prime candidates for optimization and extra promotion. That’s often all they need to reach the top.
And in the long term, you will notice when content starts going stale and losing its rank. You can then update them before they fall too far and retain your position as a result.
Changes Over Time
It’s important not to get caught up in the specific numbers any given day, week, or month. What really matters is how numbers change over time. That’s why you should visit Google Analytics weekly to check on your site.
It can also help to have a month-to-month view to see the whole picture.
To make this data easy to digest we organize it into a simple spreadsheet that anyone on the team can access:
It takes a few minutes to fill out every Monday, but it’s nice to get the essential stats organized for the whole team.
(You can copy our template here.)
Metrics to Ignore
In the beginning, you should ignore almost any metric that I didn’t mention above, unless you know exactly why you are monitoring it.
It’s easy to get distracted by all the interesting insights you can find buried in there. But at the end of the day, most of it isn’t worth your time unless your site is huge. We’re talking over a million visitors a month huge.
If not, you’re best focusing on the core metrics on a weekly basis and only worrying about the rest when trying to answer a specific question.
Here are the most common metrics people stress over for no reason:
This is the percentage of visitors that leave after visiting one page on your site. There is a myth that a high bounce rate hurts your rankings. But this doesn’t actually make sense. Google rewards content that answers the user’s question.
So the best piece of content might only require one pageview in a session. Why would Google penalize you for answering a question quickly?
It can be an interesting metric, but in the case of creating good content for SEO, you can usually ignore it.
Time on Site
You should actually ignore any of the “Time on…” metrics for the same reason you should ignore the bounce rate. It might provide some interesting information but there’s no ideal number to have. So don’t stress out trying to “optimize” it.
Further, these numbers are heavily skewed because Google only calculates time data for visitors that visit another page on your site next. So if 80% of your visitors bounce, it’s only basing the time on site by the remaining 20% of users. Not exactly a representative sample.
Inside your Google Analytics, you’ll usually see a source labeled “(direct)“ traffic under Source / Medium reports.
Officially Google says this represents sessions that started by the user directly entering your URL into the browser address bar (or clicking a bookmark). But this usually is not the case. In practice, Google flags any sessions as “direct” if they can’t attribute the source.
Since it’s so poorly defined and inconsistent, it’s best to ignore it. And keep in mind that some of your traffic channels may be under-reported if the traffic is inaccurately categorized as direct traffic.
There have been case studies showing that a large portion of the “direct” traffic is organic and referrals from other sites. If you have a successful social media post, for example, you’ll often see a spike in “(direct)“ traffic even though it was technically a social referral.
Here you can see a 700% spike in “(direct) traffic” the same week we trended on Reddit
Don’t worry, the Source / Medium information is still helpful and generally accurate. But it’s important to keep in mind that they aren’t exact and consider that much of your “direct traffic” isn’t actually direct.
Traffic will change every day. Some days will be great, others will be terrible. Don’t concern yourself over the day-to-day changes. Try to login to Analytics once a week and resist the urge to check the rest of the time. It’s just a waste of time and energy.
To a degree, this is even true on a week-to-week basis. You can’t expect to grow every single week. Sometimes there will be things beyond your control, like lower search traffic or an algorithm tweak that temporarily lowers your rank.
It can be worth investigating downward trends. But unless they last more than 2 weeks straight, don’t lose any sleep over it. We’ve been incredibly lucky with Cup & Leaf, but even then some weeks saw -10% sessions.
Creating Your Custom Report
One simple way to make your life easier and tracking straight forward is to create a simple custom report in Google Analytics. This way you’ll be able to see the most important data from a single view.
This will save you time each week and prevent you from getting distracted while hunting down specific numbers. It will also keep your reporting consistent — making sure that you’re looking at the same metrics each week so that you can draw meaningful conclusions from changes.
Start by logging into Google Analytics.
Then navigate to Customization > Custom Reports:
Then Click “+ New Custom Report”
Start with a standard report that looks like this:
If you want, you can add more (or fewer) metrics to this page. But keep it simple with 2–5 metrics. And you probably don’t want to mess with multiple dimensions for now either. It just makes the tables more complicated to digest.
Instead, create a new report tab for each dimension you want to analyze. Click on “duplicate this tab” and change the dimension drilldowns:
We use two tabs for most projects — one for Source / Medium and one for Landing Page. This lets us quickly evaluate how much traffic the site is getting, where it is coming from, and where it is arriving.
This lets us know what’s working best so we can double-down on those efforts, whether its specific types of content or effective promotion channels. We’ll talk a bit more about this in our next lesson.
Using the Data
Every Monday, we log into Google Analytics and Ahrefs to copy our key metrics into our tracker:
- Total Sessions
- Organic Sessions
- Keyword Rank
Then we discuss these numbers at our weekly standup meeting, sharing new ranking wins and discussing potential reasons for performance. If needed, we open the custom report to dig deeper into the metrics to help us understand what’s going on.
You don’t need to keep these in a separate spreadsheet or dashboard. We just find that it helps us focus on what’s important. What takes one person a few minutes every Monday morning provides us with a lot of insight.
What comes after tracking and analytics? Where do you go from here?
The past six lessons have walked you through the content machine we used to grow Cup & Leaf past 150,000 monthly visitors. Now it’s time to look to the future. What strategies will we use to double it again?
Don’t miss the next lesson if you want to find out!
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