The old saying "what gets measured gets managed," attributed to Peter Drucker, isn't intended as encouragement to measure everything. Instead, it's just as often meant to be cautionary. You will end up managing what you measure, even if it ends up being counterproductive. This is why choosing the right KPIs is essential. Focus measurement on the wrong things and you will end up "optimizing" your strategy in a counterproductive way.
In this post, rather than give you a big list of SEO metrics, we will be doing a deep dive on five SEO KPIs, and the most productive ways to think about and use them. We will actually be discussing more than five individual metrics in total, but the metrics revolve around measuring five fundamentally different things. For your SEO marketing strategy to work, it's crucial that you measure the right things, measure them correctly, and interpret them in the most useful way.
Let's start by recognizing that there are two categories of SEO KPIs.
Raw Vs Business KPIs
Before exploring individual KPIs, we want to draw a distinction here between "raw" SEO KPIs and "business" SEO KPIs.
A business does not, typically, care about rankings or organic traffic. A business cares about revenue and profit, leads, brand impressions, and so on.
Both raw KPIs and business KPIs are important. However, when communicating the value of SEO to clients or management, or when you are developing an SEO strategy, business KPIs must take center stage. Raw SEO KPIs are not worth optimizing in and of themselves, they are only worth optimizing in service of business objectives and KPIs.
Nevertheless, raw SEO KPIs remain very important. SEO KPIs are based on your site's overall performance in search engines and your aggregate search engine traffic. This means you can see patterns and changes, whether they are good or bad, that would get lost in the day to day volatility of business KPIs like revenue and leads. With raw SEO KPIs, you can see changes closer to the source and respond accordingly.
In this post we will divide raw KPIs and business KPIs into two different sections, so that they don't get misused.
Raw SEO KPIs
In this section we'll talk about the KPIs that most directly reflect what is happening with the relationship between your site and search engines. The value of these is in seeing, as directly as you can, the impact of SEO efforts on search engine performance. Use these to see changes before they are reflected in revenue or leads, and understand the nuts and bolts of your SEO strategy. Don't report these to management or clients without tying them to business KPIs, even if the connection is hypothetical in the short term.
1. Organic Sessions
Organic sessions are visits from users who found your site through search engines. Sessions are different from pageviews. Pageviews measure every page a user visits separately, while sessions count every page a user sees during that visit as part of the same session. A session times out if a user doesn't do anything on your site for 30 minutes, and the same user can give you more than one session in a day if they return to your site after a session ends or times out.
This KPI is arguably the best for getting a bird's eye view of how effective your SEO efforts are. They are the metric that straddles the line between raw and business KPIs. If improvements in other raw metrics, like rankings, don't impact organic sessions, they aren't likely to impact business metrics either. A significant change in organic sessions is likely to signal a change in revenue before it can be distinguished from day-to-day or month-to-month volatility.
If the strength of organic sessions is that it most effectively boils down the overall performance of your SEO efforts to a single number, their weakness is that aggregate organic sessions can hide important trade-offs happening on your site.
It is a mistake to assume that all organic sessions are created equal and that each contributes an equal fraction to revenue and other important business metrics.
Redirecting SEO efforts away from pages that don't produce revenue can slow overall organic traffic growth, or even cause it to drop, while still improving business metrics.
For this reason, it's important not only to look at overall organic sessions, but to look at organic sessions across different sections of your site.
Finally, organic sessions still have some volatility and often seasonality of their own, especially when looking at individual pages or sections. A change in organic sessions doesn't always mean any kind of change in raw SEO performance. Your site may be doing just as well with search engines, but there are simply fewer people searching for terms related to your site on that day or during that time of year.
You can find organic sessions in Google Analytics under All Traffic > Channels in the Organic Search row under the Sessions column:
Clicking on Organic Search from here will also take you to a graph of organic sessions over time and page-by-page data.
2. Keyword Rankings
Using SEMrush or a similar tool, you can see which keywords you are ranking well for and how your rankings have changed over time, and the same data for any competitor or other site. You can also set up specific keywords to track on your site in order to get more consistently refreshed data and consistent reporting on the keywords you have identified are most important for your site.
Keyword rankings tell you what position your pages are ranking in for specific search terms. In addition to automatically tracking this information over time and making it easy to report, tools like SEMrush strip away the personalization and location data that can skew how your site ranks in your own browser, so that you can get a broader picture of how well your site is performing.
Arguably, keyword rankings are the best "nuts and bolts" metric for measuring how your site is performing in search engines. The primary way SEO improves search engine traffic is by allowing your site to turn up closer to the top of the search results. There are other factors, of course, such as the click through rate from search results, as well as knowledge cards and rich snippets, but this data isn't usually directly available.
Keyword rankings can help differentiate between volatility or seasonality in search engine traffic, and genuine changes in search engine performance. They also tell you whether pages are moving up or down in the ranks as a result of SEO efforts. This granularity allows you to identify whether specific tactics are working for specific search queries.
This KPI is not without its weaknesses. The most clear cut one is that there is no way to distill it down to a single number. An "average keyword ranking" would be essentially useless. Choosing five, ten, or twenty core keywords to track and reporting their average can be useful, but it is a very narrow view of what is happening on your site. Most search engine traffic comes from long tail keywords.
Another issue is that there is simply no tool that can provide you with rankings for every keyword that brings users to your site. Google and the other search engines are the only ones who would have access to this information and they do not provide it. Tools like SEMrush are helpful because they track a wide variety of keywords without needing you to specify to track them, but no tool can track all of them.
If keyword rankings are the best "nuts and bolts" metric for how well your site is performing in search engines, backlinks are one of the best "nuts and bolts" metrics for measuring the actions you are taking in service of SEO.
Before we go into more depth about this, it's important to dispel the notion that "links are the most important ranking factor." The factors that impact ranking algorithms are always contextual. Backlinks are an important metric that search engines use to determine how authoritative a site is. But it is never as simple as "the site or page with the most links outranks the others." A page's relevance to the search query is obviously just as crucial. And various other ranking factors can end up being more important than links under the right circumstances.
That said, backlinks are a good measure of how effectively your SEO team is accomplishing the "hard" tasks. It's not that on-site SEO is easy. The technical knowledge necessary to do on-site SEO well isn't easy to come by. However, a business does have full control over its own site and can change it as they see fit. It's in this sense that it's much harder to convince other sites to link to you. You cannot compel them to link to you, at least not in any way that won't earn you a search engine penalty down the road and isn't potentially illegal.
When using backlinks as a metric, it's important not to use the sheer quantity of links. It is easy to obtain low quality links on sites purpose built for building links, or using other spammy tactics. Setting the raw quantity of backlinks as a KPI can cause you to employ very counterproductive SEO tactics.
Instead of tracking raw number of backlinks, track these metrics instead:
- Referral traffic: It might seem strange to consider referral traffic an SEO metric, since by definition, it is traffic referred from pages that aren't search engines (or social media, email, or advertisements). But referral traffic is, essentially, traffic from users who click on links to your site. The whole idea behind PageRank was essentially to use a very simple model to estimate how much traffic a page would earn from links. Since referral traffic is a direct measurement of the actual traffic sent by links, it is a very good proxy for link authority.
- Links from outreach: If you are reaching out to sites with guest posts and other methods in an effort to earn editorially placed links, you should be tracking your successes. You must have strict quality standards in place and only count links that meet those standards, or this metric could cause you to optimize the wrong things.
- Natural links: In this context, we use this to refer to links that were placed without any involvement on your behalf. There was no outreach, no guest post, and no direct contact of any kind. These links were placed because of the quality of your content and the way you promoted it.
- Page and domain authority: Page authority metrics such as the ones reported by Ahrefs and SEMrush are based not on the raw quantity of links, but the authority of the links. Authority is calculated in a manner similar to the way Google calculates PageRank, by measuring how many links point to a page, how many links point to the pages those links are pointing from, and so on. The page and domain authority of your own site, as well as of the pages that link to you, can be useful SEO KPIs.
Business SEO KPIs
In this section we'll cover the KPIs with the most business relevance. The downside of these is that they have higher volatility than raw KPIs, and they don't tell you what is happening with your site in the search engines at the nuts and bolts level. Nevertheless, these are the KPIs you ultimately need to move in order for SEO efforts to be considered of value to the business.
We could also have called raw KPIs "process KPIs" and business KPIs "goal KPIs." When we move raw KPIs, we should be doing so with the intent of improving performance with business KPIs.
4. Organic Search Revenue And Total Organic Session Value
If organic sessions are arguably the best metric for a bird's eye view of raw SEO effectiveness, organic search revenue is arguably the best metric for a bird's eye view of how effectively your SEO efforts are providing business results.
Organic search revenue specifically measures revenue earned rom organic sessions. You must have ecommerce tracking set up in order to measure it. If site visitors have any capability to make a purchase from your site, ecommerce tracking is a must.
If ecommerce tracking is set up, you can see organic revenue by navigating to Reports > Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels in the left sidebar of Google Analytics, and looking at the Organic Search row of the Default Channel Grouping column:
Look at the far right column labeled Revenue on the Organic Search row. This column will only be present if you have selected eCommerce as your Conversions type from the drop down above.
To see a chart of organic revenue over time, click on Organic Search under Default Channel Grouping. By default, this will display a chart of organic sessions. To see organic revenue instead, click the drop down at the top right of the chart which, by default, will be labeled Users. Scroll down to More Dimensions, select Ecommerce and click on Revenue.
It would be easy, but wrong, to say that the primary goal of your SEO team should be to improve long term organic revenue, and all other metrics are merely ways of drilling down to look for ways you might do that.
Unfortunately, organic revenue has one very serious flaw: it only counts revenue from organic sessions. In other words, if a user discovers your site from search engines, then later visits the site directly and makes a purchase, this will not be counted as organic revenue. It doesn't matter if a user has had organic sessions in the past, if the specific session that led to a sale wasn't organic, it won't get counted.
Total Organic Session Value
If organic revenue only counts revenue from organic sessions, how can we measure the value of organic sessions that played a part in later sales?
Unfortunately, Google analytics and most packages don't measure what we might call organic assisted revenue. Analytics does measure organic assisted conversions, as we'll see in the next section, but this doesn't measure contribution to revenue directly.
A simple way to put a dollar value on every session is to simply assume that every session on your site contributes to revenue equally. That is:
session value = total revenue / total sessions
total revenue = total sessions * session value
The total organic session value, then, is just:
total organic session value = total organic sessions * session value
Or, more conveniently:
total organic session value = total revenue * organic % of total sessions
To get these figures, navigate to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels in the left sidebar. You will find the organic % of total sessions in the Organic Search row under the Sessions column. The percent figure is listed in parentheses. Total revenue is in the top row of the Revenue column.
Total organic session value is essentially just a way of reporting organic sessions as a dollar figure. This simplicity is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It allows you to put a dollar figure on every session, so that the value of visits that don't result in an immediate sale doesn't get erased. At the same time, putting the same value on every session erases the reality that some pages are more likely to contribute to an eventual sale than others.
To illuminate that, we need to look at conversions and assisted conversions.
5. Organic Conversions, Conversion Rates, and Organic Assisted Conversions
If keyword rankings are the best "nuts and bolts" metric for measuring how your site is doing with search engines, conversion-related metrics could be considered the best "nuts and bolts" metric for measuring how search traffic is earning revenue.
A conversion happens when a user takes a desired action on your site like completing a sale or providing their contact information. You can measure two different kinds of conversions with Google Analytics: ecommerce conversions and goal conversions. If you have ecommerce tracking set up, sales are counted as ecommerce conversions. To count other conversions, such as signing up for an email drip, you will need to set up goal tracking.
You can see organic conversions by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels in the right sidebar. For ecommerce conversions, make sure the Conversions drop-down is set to eCommerce. The organic conversion rate is under the Ecommerce Conversion Rate column in the Organic Search row. Organic ecommerce total conversions are listed under the Transactions column.
To see goal conversions, select All Goals or a specific goal from the Conversions drop-down. You'll find the organic goal conversion rate and total organic conversions in the Organic Search row under the Goal Conversion Rate and Goal Completions columns.
From here, to see a graph of ecommerce conversions over time, you can click on Organic Search under Default Channel Grouping, then use the drop-down menu at the top left corner of the graph to select Ecommerce > Transactions, or Ecommerce > Ecommerce Conversion Rate. For goal conversions, you can instead select the appropriate Goal Set and choose the specific goal you want to graph.
Use organic goal conversions and conversion rates to track the effectiveness of your lead funnel on search traffic, and ecommerce conversions and conversion rates to measure how effectively you are converting leads to sales on each visit.
Conversion rates tell you whether you are investing your SEO efforts in the right areas. Many search queries will attract a lot of traffic with very little opportunity to capture leads or make sales. Low conversion rates can also mean you aren't meeting the expectations of visitors from search engines. It can be a clue to rework your pages to better address the needs of searchers.
The biggest drawback here is that, like organic revenue, raw organic conversions are on a per session basis. They aren't a reflection of the whole funnel or the lifetime conversion rate. To get a peak at that, we need to look at assisted conversions.
Organic Assisted Conversions
Unlike assisted revenue, Google Analytics and many other packages do allow you to track assisted conversions. An organic assisted conversion is a user who, at some point, visited your site from a search engine, then later makes a conversion. As Google Analytics defines them, organic assisted conversions do not include conversions that occurred during an organic session. Only users who previously were organic but were not organic during the converting sessions are counted as assisted conversions.
You can find organic assisted conversions by navigating to Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions in the right sidebar of Google Analytics.
You will see Organic under the MCF Channel Grouping column. Look in this row under Assisted Conversions to see the total number of conversions that organic search traffic assisted. (Remember that this excludes "last click" or "direct" conversions.)
The last column, Assisted / Last click or Direct Conversions (A/D), is a ratio of assisted to direct conversions. The higher the number, the more likely organic search is to be an early referrer, rather than the referrer that leads directly to a sale.
Use organic assisted conversions to track and report on the role search traffic is playing in sales and conversions even if it isn't the source that results in a sale. Neither a high or a low A/D ratio is good or bad, but it does tell you something about the role of SEO in sales and conversions. A high ratio of assisted to direct conversions means that search traffic's primary role is as a source of brand impressions that later become sales. Whether that should change is a question of your marketing strategy.
In this post we've talked about five key performance indicators and a variety of metrics that revolve around them. To make use of them, it's important to prioritize them by recognizing which are considered "raw" or "process-oriented" metrics, and which are considered "business" or "goal-oriented" metrics. It's equally important to truly understand what they mean and how to put them to use. We recommend bookmarking this page and referring back to it to stay centered on how best to put these KPIs to use.