If you're an SEO professional reporting on the number of links earned, this article is dedicated to you. Our industry is infested with executives evaluating our performance on link numbers, but the truth is links don't tell the whole story.
So what do links really tell you? Let's find out…
Why the Obsession With Links?
The obsession with links can be boiled down to basic human nature. Owning a business is risky, making most business leaders risk adverse. In order to affect change, we SEO professionals positioned our work as calculated risk taking, defined as paying near-obsessive attention to metrics and measurement.
However, our insistence on data is the reason we are held accountable to mere links. Links are a way to instantaneously quantify our activity, providing the much needed "proof" that allows decision makers to sleep better.
Unfortunately, proper measurement of link building ROI is a long-term process, but business leaders want results now. As over-eager SEOs desperate to prove our worth, we pull out the data card and voila! – link numbers come to the rescue.
Reporting on number of links doesn't show ROI. It only shows that an SEO is doing something. Answer this: do links = revenue?
Your answer probably looks something like, "Links improve rankings, so yes they are improving revenue!" And you know what, you're right! However, in that statement links aren't leading directly to revenue. Rather rankings (and a whole lot more) are in between.
The point is, links don't show the whole story, and so merely measuring the number of links isn't showing true ROI. It's only telling us if someone is doing something.
What You Should Be Measuring
This article isn't to say you need to stop reporting on the number of links. They do have their purpose: to put our bosses' minds at ease. And that's OK.
What's not OK is only reporting on the number of links. Rather, you need to do two things:
- Stop calling it link building and start thinking bigger picture.
- Report on the full package of metrics, positioned as both short and long-term goals.
The full package of reporting consists of four tiers:
Before you go into a frenzy thinking "where's the links?!", relax, they are in the consumption stage. These levels can be displayed as a pyramid:
You can think of this pyramid funnel as a timeline. The top of the pyramid will address short-term metrics goals and each subsequent stage will deliver more metrics over time.
Let's dive into a more thorough description of each stage. Note, this is in reverse order, starting from the base up. This is to emphasize the importance of conversions. Also, remember to document historical data for each of these metrics before beginning your campaign so you can compare.
Conversions generally refer to revenue, but in the off case you own a business (say a blog) that doesn't work in monetary measures, we'll refer to it as conversions. This is the most important end goal because we are in business. If we aren't looking at the bottom line, we aren't doing our job.
If you remember one thing from this article remember this: everything you do as a marketer should affect your business' revenue. Thus, make sure all campaigns lead to a conversion end goal.
Typically the data for this report can be gathered 3-6 months from the start of a campaign. Note: it's best to consistently measure the changes in conversions from your campaigns so you can see patterns and draw better conclusions.
Tips for tracking:
- Define the conversion (i.e., revenue, lead, sign-up, etc.).
- Set up tracking and goals in Google Analytics.
A lot of times, changes in conversions come from changes in traffic. Unless your campaign included onsite CRO, you typically won't see changes in conversions unless more people are coming to your site.
Traffic can be measured 3-6 months out from the start of your campaign (unless your campaign included a direct-traffic play). Remember to benchmark these new numbers against historical traffic data.
Tips for tracking:
- Determine traffic increase goals: what would define a success?
- Utilize Google Analytics (i.e., Traffic sources >> Search >> Organic for keyword-targeted campaigns).
- Account for seasonality where applicable (you can use Google Trends).
Go back to our original explanation of how links = revenue and you'll probably remember rankings. You should see a pattern here: links affect rankings, rankings affect traffic, and traffic can affect conversions.
Ranking changes typically occur within 3 months. Note, rankings have become more difficult to track with personalization. Thus, be sure to manage your boss' expectations and explain the limitations.
Tips for tracking:
- Determine what keywords you want to target.
- Remember to turn off personalization.
- Utilize rank checker tools to evaluate performance, such as SEOmoz Rank Tracker or Authority Labs (Pro Tip: use more than one tool to present findings).
With a nod to Jay Baer and his four types of metrics worth reporting, consumption essentially shows how many people consumed your content. Users can interact with your campaign in many different ways, such as social sharing and linking.
We can also measure behind-the-scene consumption metrics, such as views. The beauty of consumption metrics are that they are pretty much instantaneous, allowing you to deliver instant results to your boss.
Tips for tracking:
- Determine the goals for the campaign.
- Implement social tracking via Google Analytics, install a plugin, and set up Google Alerts.
- Utilize link tracking tools and basic organization to track links earned.
- Pull a backlink report on the page in question to do a more thorough report after a few months.
Remember, you're only as strong as what you report on. If you can educate your boss and prove that what you do as an SEO is more than just links, you will be able to position yourself as an integral part of your business' marketing department.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!