Search engine optimization (SEO) is hailed as one of the most cost-efficient and beneficial online marketing strategies — and rightfully so. Provided you put enough time and effort into your strategy, you should see higher organic search visibility, increased traffic, sales, and revenue. If your conversion rates are in order, for most businesses, that means a recurring revenue stream higher than the amount of money you’re investing into it.
Unfortunately, there’s a big problem in the SEO world — even though they’re objective and provable, not all metrics give you the full story. In fact, many common SEO metrics can actively deceive you, giving you a biased or inaccurate picture of the success or failure of your campaign. Here are just five ways they can do so:
1. Organic Traffic Tells You Nothing of Behavior. I’ll start with an easy one. Organic traffic is one of the best ways to measure your overall SEO results, as it shows you how many people found your site through organic searches. If this number increases over time, it means more people are finding your site in search results (an indication of campaign success). There’s one problem with this: organic traffic alone doesn’t tell you anything about user behavior. You might have 1,500 more visitors this month than last month, but if those visitors immediately bounced, you aren’t necessarily in a better position. Your goal shouldn’t just be more traffic — it should be a greater volume of more engaged traffic. Use complementary and qualitative measures, such as Behavior Flow in Google Analytics or heat mapping software like CrazyEgg to understand more about how your users are interacting with your site.
2. Likes and Followers Aren’t the Full Picture. Similar to how traffic can’t tell you how your visitors feel about your website, likes and follows can’t tell you anything about how users feel about your brand. You might have attracted 10,000 followers, but that doesn’t mean those 10,000 people are interested in what you have to say. Rather than chasing after vanity figures like “likes” and “follows,” seek out meaningful engagement in the form of comments, shares, and social visits. You’ll find that greater follower counts aren’t always correlated with greater engagement — and greater engagement is what you’re actually after.
3. Links and Shares Offer Gradients of Quality. I mentioned “vanity figures” in the previous section, but any metric can become a vanity figure if it isn’t considered the right way. For example, take the social shares and links that a piece of content on your site earns — it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the higher these numbers are, the better. After all, social shares send social signals and inbound links from other sites pass domain authority that collectively result in higher rankings. However, you also must consider that both links and shares offer varying degrees of value. For example, a link on a low-quality spam site isn’t worth nearly as much as a link from a leading authority in your industry, and social shares can be carried out by robots. Dig deeper to find out who’s sharing and linking your work, and only then should you form a conclusion about a piece’s success.
4. There Are Benefits You Just Can’t Measure. If all these deceptive metrics are bumming you out, here’s an exceptionally positive one: there are some benefits of SEO that simply aren’t measurable in any direct, objective way. For example, how do you measure the brand awareness you gain by being visible to a search user who doesn’t immediately click through to your site? How do you measure the reputation you earn from being the author of one of Google’s rich answers? How can you measure when a non-engaged visitor tells their real-life friends about your site, generating referral traffic, because of how impressed they were when they visited? It’s exceedingly difficult to do so, so keep this in mind when calculating the total value or return of your SEO strategy.
5. Your Cost Basis Is Probably Wrong. Just when you started feeling good about these deceptive metrics, it’s time to bring you back down again. If you’re calculating the ROI of your campaign, you need a solid cost basis in place. You’ve probably gathered up all the subscription services you pay for and any agencies or freelancers you enlist, but those bottom-line dollars aren’t the only costs you need to measure. For example, are you counting the salaries of everybody working on various components of your SEO campaign? Did you count the three extra hours you spent figuring out how to resolve a technical issue? Did you count the two-hour meeting you had with your boss going over the numbers?
If you’re running an SEO campaign, metrics are your best friends. They’ll give you the insight you need to adjust your strategy, and the reassurance that you’re doing things correctly. It’s unfortunate that few metrics are able to show you the whole picture, but you can overcome this setback by tempering your expectations and adjusting your conclusions appropriately. I encourage you to continue using measurable data to build and improve your campaigns — just don’t be a slave to the numbers.