When reporting on SEO success it seems to be common practice to include every metric possible as a KPI in the hope that some of the numbers will look good.
Whether you are measuring KPIs because your predecessor did, your boss asked you to or your client swears they need to know them, stop. Consider what they are actually telling you. More importantly, consider what they aren’t telling you.
There is so much data available to us as digital marketers that it might seem intuitive to include a lot of it when discussing SEO, to give a full picture. However, data misused can be misleading.
Here are 5 commonly used data points that yield little insight.
1. Site-wide bounce rate
A bounce is a visit to your website in which the visitor does not interact with your site further. Bounce rate is the percentage of visits to your site where the visitor bounces. It can be seen as indicator of the audience’s engagement with your content.
But it isn’t.
Legitimate reasons for high bounce rate
A visitor may bounce from a site for a variety of reasons. It could be that they on the page and realise it doesn’t contain the information they need. It could also be that they found the information they need straightaway and had no need to continue looking through the site. A blog article about FAQs might not have a call to action for instance. A visit could register as a bounce even if the visitor read the entire page of content, found the answer they needed and then left. In this instance your content has fulfilled the user need.
SEO and bounce rate
SEOs will often use bounce rate as a measure of how well targeted the page is to searcher intent. If visitors bounce from the page a lot it could mean the page is ranking well but not fulfilling what most visitors want when searching that particular topic.
That’s the problem with using bounce rate as an engagement metric. It’s a classic “it depends” metric. In some instances a high bounce rate is bad news for a page, in others it is to be expected.
To measure performance from this metric it is important to look at it on a page level, not site-wide.
Using site-wide average bounce rate as a measure of engagement in SEO just leads to the concealing of insight.
If some pages are expected to have a high bounce rate and others aren’t, how can you tell if the average bounce rate figure going up is a good or bad sign?
Google Tag Manager
The other problem we have with bounce rate is that it can be easily altered simply by using Google Tag Manager. Introduce “scroll depth” tracking, i.e. seeing how far down a page a visitor scrolls before leaving and you will suddenly see a huge decrease in your bounce rate. If your trigger is set up to fire a tag when a user scrolls 25% of the way down a page then on the majority of visits to the site a tag will be fired.
This is an interaction. Remember that a bounce is a visit without an interaction?
Bounce rate can halve instantly because of an accident with tracking code. Apply Google Analytics code to your site but then also choose to implement it through Google Tag Manager and you’ll have a case of double-counting. Your visits will artificially double, and your bounce rate will halve.
Essentially, looking at this metric as an average across the whole site is next to useless. It doesn’t aid in identifying success.
2. New vs returning visitors
Google Analytics has two dimensions called “new visitor” and “returning visitor”. For a visitor to be classed as “new visitor” Google Analytics must consider this to be the first time they have visited the site. A returning visitor is one who has been to the site at least once before.
An often reported metric in SEO reports is how many organic users are new during the measured time period and how many are returning.
Lack of insight
What does this tell us? Actually, not much on its own. I’ve seen it used as a measure of how successful SEO is at new visitor acquisition. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really give any context as to whether they converted, bounced, or interacted with the site.
The metric of how many users fall into the “new visitors” category and how many are classed as “returning visitors” is not very helpful without context. However, looking at these two groups as segments makes this knowledge much more valuable.
For instance, being able to understand how first-time visitors are interacting with your site is very useful. Are organic visitors landing onto your blog first and then returning to product pages during their next visit? Perhaps they visit a product page and several others before leaving and returning a few days later to purchase. Building up a picture of your organic audience’s behaviour once on your site is invaluable. Simply knowing how many of them return to the site is less so.
3. Average session duration
Another frequently used metric disguised as an insightful measure of organic traffic engagement is “average session duration”.
This is a measure of how long your visitors have stayed on the website during a visit.
For SEO it is often used as an indicator of how valuable a visitor found the site and therefore how well the SEO activity has performed at bringing in qualified visitors.
The problem with this metric again lies with the vagueness of it. If you know on average that an organic search visitor has spent 2 seconds less on the website this month than they did last month what marketing decision can you make off the back of it?
For the people receiving our reports this does not give them any usable insight in isolation.
4. Percentage of organic traffic
Ah, a lovely pie chart. The biggest slice is usually organic search, unless there is a particularly successful campaign running. But what does telling a client or a boss that organic search brings the most traffic to the website compared to other channels really get you? A better understanding of where budgets should be allocated? Perhaps.
Really though, organic should be winning the most visitors to the site. It has the widest reach. Paid search campaigns are more narrowly targeted to the keywords that trigger them (unless you want to waste a lot of budget). Emails are only received by a specific audience.
So, why show a graph that highlights that organic search wins the most visitors to the site?
Changes in channel share
You might say that actually what’s more important is how that percentage changes over time. But so what if organic search generated 38% of visits one month and 35% the next?
Unless you are looking at the specific volumes of traffic generated by each channel, not their relativity to each other, then you aren’t going to be able to identify peaks and troughs.
For instance, 38% of 20,000 visitors is less than 35% of 30,000 visitors.
Assigning worth to a channel getting the highest share of traffic doesn’t really give any indication of how to improve your marketing efforts. It definitely doesn’t give you an indication of ROI and therefore whether budgets are being allocated successfully.
5. Average keyword rank
A stalwart of SEO KPIs. The average keyword ranking. Across all of the keywords you are tracking for your website, what is their mean average rank.
It would be understandable for you to think that the average rank decreasing is a sign that your SEO is paying off. Is it though?
Average rank can change over time for a number of reasons. Fluctuations in the lower ranks is common and often very volatile. This could cause your average rank to fluctuate too.
Lack of actionable insight
If you are focusing on the average ranks of your keywords then you will not get enough detail to understand where your content is losing or gaining visibility.
If the average rank decreased over the course of a month, how would you know which pages need reviewing?
With ranking drops it pays to go into the granular detail to diagnose what has happened. Looking at an average rank across all the keywords you are tracking will prevent that.
Adding more keywords
As soon as you add more keywords to the group that you are taking the mean from you will see a change in the average rank.
This renders it impossible to compare ranking changes over time.
Rankings don’t equal ROI
A potentially contentious point, but rankings are not the “be all and end all” of SEO KPIs. There are other factors such as click-through rate and conversion rate impacting how valuable your content’s visibility is.
It is helpful for SEOs to know how their content is ranking and it can be beneficial for diagnosing traffic increases and decreases. Rankings are not necessarily a good measure of how profitable content is from a search perspective.
Rankings alone should not be considered a measure of SEO success, but should be used in combination with other metrics. It should always be at a content or keyword topic level. Average rankings across all your keywords can’t help you discern this.
It is easy to get side-tracked by the sheer volume of data points available to you. When choosing performance indicators it is important to consider what the goals of your activity are. Once you know that you can work backwards to discover select KPIs that definitely show whether those goals have been met.
Especially when reporting on KPIs to stakeholders it is necessary to be choosy. Only include metrics that provide insight. If you do you are less likely to confuse. There is a lower risk they will get hung-up on fluctuations and changes that don’t demonstrate progress.