Are You Measuring SEO Success Correctly?

I've written before about how a SEO program's "success" should be based on the lift of organic search traffic rather than the ranking report. Ranking reports are flawed because they depend on everyone seeing the same search results (personalization affects this; search history affects this; being logged into Google affects this, etc.) and search results change by the hour in many cases.

No, SEO success truly should be measured by the lift in organic search engine traffic. And, for those businesses that have even a little bit of seasonality to them, you should be comparing a year-over-year lift in organic search traffic.

Of course, you should keep in mind that "branded searches" aren't really what good SEO is all about. Certainly, you could have spent a lot of money on a national television branding campaign, and more people would begin searching your company name, and -- without much effort -- your Web site should rank number one (yes, consistently) for searches for your company name.

Now, if you believe that SEO should be measured against lifts in organic search traffic, you need to make sure your analytics are set up correctly. And, if you're trying to compare organic search traffic, year over year, you'll need to have at least one year's worth of data, on the same platform (different analytics providers will provide different counts -- see this report).

Are Your Analytics Reporting Properly?

Many times while working with clients, I've found out that their analytics aren't reporting site visitors properly. Many of our clients run Google Analytics on their site. It's free, easy to install, and easy to monitor. For these clients, I've lately noticed a few common errors that are very easy to fix.

One error is that some sites don't have their tracking code on every page of their site. The easiest way to ensure this file is on every page is to create an include file that is universal across all of your pages, and place your analytics code in that file. If you don't have an include file, make sure to check the source of every page (can be automated with Dreamweaver) to ensure all pages have the code. Of course, this practice is only good if you add the code to any new pages that you add to your site.

Again, make sure this is done before you create the baseline for your SEO efforts. Nothing like an SEO correcting this analytics issue and then saying "look at all of the additional traffic that I'm responsible for," when all they did was fix your analytics tracking.

Another error is PPC data that isn't reporting separately from SEO/organic search data. Many times Google AdWords data is being reported as organic traffic.

To fix this, enable auto tagging in your Google AdWords account. This appends a gclid code to the end of all of your landing page URLs and the data in this code tells your analytics information about which campaign, ad group, keyword, ad position, and other data about that specific click.

This data can then be viewed in analytics under traffic sources and AdWords. To make sure this gclid is working, click one of your ads (yes, you need to click a live ad) and then check the URL to make sure that the auto-tag (gclid=XXXXXX) is appearing in the URL when you land on the target landing page (and that landing page has tracking code on it)

Other Potential Issues

Make sure you aren't performing a redirect on the landing page you're sending traffic to. This creates a disconnect in the tracking and this gclid code will get stripped off the URL and now the traffic is reporting as organic traffic.

Make sure that your Google AdWords and Google Analytics accounts are properly linked. Contact a Google rep to help guide you through this linking process if you aren't familiar with it. Very often, AdWords accounts are linked to the wrong analytics profile.

For tracking of other PPC campaigns, use the Google Analytics URL builder. You can then enhance the tracking of these in a much easier fashion by simplifying the URL to read http://www.example.com/tracking?utm_source=msn&utm_medium=cpc &utm_term={QueryString}&utm_content={AdID}&utm_campaign={OrderItemID}. So for each MSN ad, you only have to generate the basic info and the keyword and other variables will be dynamically added.

There are many ways to mess up reporting SEO "success." If I've helped you get over the hump of not measuring success by ranking reports or -- God forbid -- Google PageRank, but instead have you measuring success by increased traffic from organic search and/or increased leads/sales, then please take the extra step to ensure that your Web analytics are tracking your organic search programs, correctly.

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About the author

Mark Jackson, President and CEO of Vizion Interactive, a search engine optimization company. Mark joined the interactive marketing fray in early 2000. His journey began with Lycos/Wired Digital and then AOL/Time Warner. After having witnessed the bubble burst and its lingering effects on stability on the job front (learning that working for a "large company" does not guarantee you a position, no matter your job performance), Mark established an interactive marketing agency and has cultivated it into one of the most respected search engine optimization firms in the United States.

Vizion Interactive was founded on the premise that honesty, integrity, and transparency forge the pillars that strong partnerships should be based upon. Vizion Interactive is a full service interactive marketing agency, specializing in search engine optimization, search engine marketing/PPC management, SEO friendly Web design/development, social media marketing, and other leading edge interactive marketing services, including being one of the first 50 beta testers of Google TV.

Mark is a board member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association (DFWSEM) and a member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Interactive Marketing Association (DFWIMA) and is a regular speaker at the SES and Pubcon conferences.

Mark received a BA in Journalism/Advertising from The University of Texas at Arlington in 1993 and spent several years in traditional marketing (radio, television, and print) prior to venturing into all things "Web."

Read more of Mark Jackson's columns at ClickZ.