The Challenges of Measuring SEO Success, Part 3

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series have covered how to measure search engine optimization (SEO) performance and why the new Google rankings data from Webmaster tools is so important to understanding that performance.

For this article, I wanted to explain how understanding SEO performance impacts different types of businesses. Specifically, I had planned to illustrate the differences in how mom and pop style businesses, small businesses, and enterprise-level companies use this data on an ongoing basis to augment their SEO campaigns.

As I started to analyze my initial hypothesis that there were significant differences in how these companies use this data, however, I came to the conclusion that these companies really differed because of the amount of resources available, the amount of data available, the amount of work that needs to be done (the amount of opportunity) and the amount of reporting that’s needed. But the real revelation was that all of these types of businesses should have a similar strategic approach on how this data should be used to drive the ongoing SEO campaign.

Of course, the tactics of how to then execute those strategies do differ by business type. But, fundamentally what the data is saying, and what you should do from an SEO perspective based on what the data is saying, is the same.

So let’s take a deeper dive into how businesses should use Webmaster tools search rankings, brand versus non-brand traffic, and long tail keyword performance to drive SEO beyond just understanding performance.

Webmaster Tools Search Rankings

The first data set we’ll examine is the Webmaster tools ranking information. In addition to using rankings to gauge performance, this data set is immediately actionable.

The first thing to do is prioritize which keywords are driving the most revenue (or conversions depending on what you’re tracking). Then, identify which significant keywords have moved in the last month, both positively and negatively. After correlating those ranking changes to any changes made from an SEO perspective within the last couple of months, you hopefully have an idea of which ongoing optimization tactics (especially link building) have been effective.

Positive trends based on SEO activities should validate those activities. No movement in rankings over a three or four month period of time might indicate that you should change tactics. A negative movement in ranking immediately requires an audit of content, link structure and technical issues to make sure that the decrease in rankings is not self-inflicted.

Any major algorithm change announcement by search engines as well as overall keyword volume of the keywords in question should also be considered as a possible cause. This exercise is to understand the nature of the decrease and whether you can fix in the short term or if there are long term implications.

Month-to-month trends are important to monitor from a rankings standpoint to understand how well your campaign is growing and to be aware of any negative movements as quickly as possible. Additionally, rankings in the top 30, but not in the top three, illustrate immediate opportunity. These rankings are close enough to be in the top three (which generates most of the traffic for any given phrase) that in many cases, although certainly not all, a relatively small amount of effort may be required to move your site up into the top 10 or even top three and thereby generate a lot more traffic for that keyword.

Brand vs. Non-Brand Traffic

In addition to search rankings, one of the key measurements we talk about in SEO performance is brand versus non-brand traffic levels. In other words, how much of your traffic is related to people who are looking for you specifically and how much traffic is related to people doing general searches for keywords related to your content.

As you would expect, the amount of brand-related search activity that is available is usually correlated to how big of a business you run. Therefore, for larger businesses it’s extremely important to understand your brand-related keywords, their search volume, and what your current performance is against those words. That’s because brand-related traffic converts the best and is usually the result of other marketing efforts that you’re already paying for.

Additionally, the opportunity can be enormous for large brands, especially from a long tail perspective.

For that reason (and this is where enterprise level organizations actually are a little different than smaller companies), it’s necessary for websites with a lot of brand-related search activity to monitor which of their brand-related words have the most permutations and how well they rank for those permutations.

One of my clients had a product which had a brand attached to it. The number of search referrals for the brand was around 250 a month, which didn’t seem substantial. But when we added up the literally thousands of monthly permutations (many of which are too small to identify manually given how large the data set is), the amount of traffic ended up being more than 20,000 visitors monthly. This painted a much different picture about the importance of this brand-related keyword.

Maximizing your listings around the long tail of your brand is a critical part of any SEO campaign.

Long Tail Keyword Performance

The previous example illustrates the importance of looking at long tail performance from a brand-related perspective. But non-brand long tail performance is also important to measure.

This data set has the same potential as the brand-related data in terms of framing the opportunity and highlighting areas with the most potential for gain. However, unlike brand-related search, there is much more likely to be unrelated or undesirable words in a long tail list of non-brand related keywords.

It is common in SEO to inadvertently target unrelated keywords by your optimization efforts. Therefore, it’s important to understand the negative keywords that should be filtered out of long tail, non-brand related keyword lists before using that data to analyze or prioritize resources.


While the size of the business definitely impacts the size of the campaign, especially as it relates to brand-related search opportunity, the fundamental activities based on the data being measured are similar, if not the same. Some of the tactical execution is different depending on resources and scope, but ultimately we need to use this data to understand how our SEO campaign is performing and to prioritize opportunities within the campaign so that we achieve the highest possible ROI.

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