Search engine optimization (SEO) relies on many factors to be successful, but one of the most important is the marketer’s ability to measure and interpret SEO data. There are a few qualities of SEO that make it depend on this period of analysis to be successful:
· Long-term development. SEO is a strategy that takes months, if not years, to fully develop. It’s hard to see the changes unless you look for them on a consistent basis.
· Lack of precision. Google doesn’t publish its ranking algorithm; we only have case studies and general information to guide us. We know that certain tactics are effective, but we don’t have an objective measure of how they all interact with one another.
· Unique circumstances. Every brand is unique, facing different levels of competition, with different target audiences and thousands of unique ranking factors. Data is the only way to filter out the noise.
Looking at your data, including your inbound traffic, search rankings, and user behavior, is the only way you can know if your campaign is working, how it’s working, and most importantly, how it can be improved. If you aren’t reading that data properly, however, you could end up changing your campaign in the wrong direction.
But isn’t data supposed to be objective? How can you possibly misread it?
Common Misreading Errors
These are some of the most common data interpretation errors I’ve seen:
1. Focusing too closely on one metric. It’s tempting to tie your progress back to one key metric, such as keyword ranking or inbound traffic, but this is a common mistake. SEO depends on dozens of interacting factors, and you could see value from any combination of them. Moreover, just because your rankings are high doesn’t mean your traffic is high and vice versa; only by examining the full picture will you come to a clear understanding of your performance.
2. Falling victim to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a natural human tendency to disproportionately favor information that already aligns with our intrinsic beliefs and assumptions, and disfavor information that disagrees with those beliefs and assumptions. In the realm of SEO, that means if you already believe your campaign is successful, you might unwittingly cherry-pick statistics that imply that your campaign is doing well, and ignore bits of information that imply your campaign needs work. If you want to avoid confirmation bias, refrain from making assumptions until you see the numbers, and review as much data as possible before coming to a conclusion.
3. Neglecting to segment traffic streams. The main traffic path you’ll target in SEO is your “organic traffic,” or the people finding your content from search engines. However, there are other modes of traffic your SEO tactics can influence, including your traffic from social media and traffic generated by links you built in your offsite content. Segmenting these different traffic streams helps you understand and measure the differences in their onsite behavior, and helps you rebalance your strategy accordingly. Treating them all as one lump will prevent you from gaining these insights.
4. Only looking at target keywords. At the start of your campaign, you probably outlined a few dozen target keywords and phrases to serve as ranking goals for your campaign. This is common practice, and a good one at that. However, these aren’t the only keywords you should be examining. Google search is semantically complex, and will rank search results based on context, rather than specific keyword inclusion. Therefore, if you want a true measure of how your site’s visibility is improving, you’ll need to look at semantically related keywords and phrases you may not have originally considered.
5. Confusing similar terms. Google Analytics and other analytics platforms usually have hundreds to thousands of different variables you can examine to evaluate your performance. Some of these terms are easy to understand intuitively because they measure exactly what they sound like they measure. Some terms, however, are more difficult to discern. For example, do you know the difference between a bounce rate and an exit rate? For the record, bounce rates only apply when the page in question is the first one a user has visited, while an exist rate could apply to any user. Make sure you understand the definition of each metric you’re measuring.
6. Failing to tie results to ROI. The whole point of SEO is to earn your company more revenue — enough to cover the expenses of the campaign, at the very least. Your results should be about more than just how many visitors you received or how many ranks you climbed — you need to calculate and understand how those numbers translate into value for your company. Whether you’re reporting to a supervisor or a client, money speaks louder than any other metric you can conjure.
7. Using results for the past, not the future. It’s tempting to use all your new insights as a measure of what worked in the past, evaluating how your performance has been and seeing the data as a kind of “grade” for your tactics. This can be helpful, but it shouldn’t be your main focus. Instead, you should be using your data to decide what you need to do in the future. Is a tactic working? Good — keep it. Are you missing something in a particular area? Brainstorm strategies that could potentially address it.
If you’ve made these mistakes, don’t worry. Even experienced search optimizers fall victim to them on an occasional basis. As a beginner, learn to recognize them proactively, and work to avoid them wherever possible.
Data analysis is meant to be objective, but as human beings, we’re prone to mistakes; all we can do is compensate the best we can and keep moving forward.
For more content like this, be sure to check out my podcast, The Entrepreneur Cast!