Many SEOs, especially those new to the game, have a constant feeling of uncertainty.
They spend weeks or months working, but it’s really hard to see if the results are worth their time.
Eventually, they (possible you) realize that without some way of tracking results, there’s no way of evaluating whether all the work you’ve done was worth it or not.
So then, you start tracking a single metric such as keyword rankings diligently. You do that for a few months and see some improvement.
However, a new problem arises: a single metric can’t describe the results of your work.
Unless you’re tracking every single keyword ever searched in your niche, keyword rankings are just one indication of whether your domain’s search authority is increasing. Sometimes, search traffic can go up while rankings decrease or vice versa.
So, what’s the solution?
The solution is to track multiple metrics. If you’re presenting these results to a team, you might hear them refer to these metrics as key performance indicators (KPIs).
Metrics, or KPIs, are hard numbers obtained from your website data. Most of this data will come from your analytics tool of choice, whether it’s your basic Google Analytics or a more advanced tool such as KISSmetrics.
In this post, I’m going to show you 14 of the most important SEO metrics. You can pick and choose which (if not all) metrics you incorporate in your regular reporting.
One last thing you need to keep in mind is that most of these metrics are just indications of your success—not exact measurements of it.
For example, organic traffic usually grows exponentially. An extra 100 visitors in the first month after you do some specific work could really be worth thousands in the future. We’re typically using metrics as indicators of your site’s health and growth.
1. Keyword rankings: know where your traffic is coming from
There’s no perfect way to track your exact search engine authority as a whole, but some metrics are good estimates.
Keyword rankings can be used to measure specific terms you’re trying to rank for. They can also help you determine if you’re targeting appropriate keywords when trying to outrank your competition.
However, there are some pretty big limitations as well. For example, I once shared that 91% of Quick Sprout search traffic came from long-tail searches. Similarly, KISSmetrics gets 91% of its search traffic from long-tail keywords.
Then why do we want to track keywords?
Even though traffic from keywords only represents about 9% of your potential traffic, measuring rankings for keywords with significant search volumes (anything over a few hundred per month) tells us a few things:
- whether you’re targeting the right keywords – if none of your blog posts rank for their target keywords, you need to target less competitive keywords for now.
- whether you’re growing over time – all keywords should slowly improve in rank as you gain backlinks and your site becomes more trusted. If not, something is wrong with your SEO plan.
- whether you’re transferring “link juice” well – when you get a new link to a page, most of its power goes to that page. However, some will also flow to other pages you link to. If most of your older pages never improve in their rankings, you can likely improve your internal linking.
Here’s how you track keywords
Identify anywhere from 1 to 5 keywords for each blog post or important page on your site that you’d like to rank for. If you don’t know how to, refer to my guide on keyword research first.
There’s no need to manually check rankings anymore because you have many tools you can use.
Most keyword tracking tools work similarly.
In Serpfox, for example, start by adding a URL:
Then, expand the URL you just added in your dashboard, and click on the “add keywords” option:
Then, you just add the keywords you’ve identified before, one per line. You can also track a specific search engine or country if needed:
Once you’ve done that, the tool will automatically check to see if you’re ranking in the top few hundred results and will do so every day. You can see the ranking on your dashboard:
You can also click the graph icon to see changes over time.
Obviously free tools are more limited than paid tools, but if you’re just getting started, they will do for now.
Each time you publish a post, you should add keywords to track.
At least once a month, you should export your rankings and see how they do in relation to the three items I mentioned above.
2. Backlinks and linking root domains: track your authority
There’s no doubt that search rankings are becoming more dependent on on-page SEO factors and user interaction patterns.
That being said, backlinks are still one of the factors, if not the most important factor, behind rankings right now. They will continue to play a major role in the future.
What that means is that a big part of any SEO plan should revolve around acquiring backlinks. If you’re not getting any (or many), there’s a problem that’s going to hold back your growth.
You can measure the results of your link-building campaigns by monitoring new backlinks you acquire, both in terms of quantity and quality.
Here’s how to track new backlinks.
Although Open Site Explorer is an option, it doesn’t have as large of a database as the other two options and updates slower as well.
For the purposes of this walk-through, I’ll be using Ahrefs.
Start by inputting your domain name into the search bar:
On the main results page, scroll a bit to see a graph that shows the quantity of backlinks and linking root domains over a significant period of time. This should be trending upwards (more important for the linking root domains than the backlinks).
Next, use the navigation menu at the top to select “Inbound links > New”:
This brings up the new links to your domain in the selected time period:
You can see who linked to you and even visit that specific URL. Note that on free plans, you will only be able to see a few results.
How do you track quality of links?
All link-tracking services are built on a few “scores” assigned to links. The higher the score, the better the quality of the link. Majestic uses trust flow and citation flow, while Ahrefs uses URL rating.
When you first search your domain name, you’ll see a URL rating and a domain rating.
You should record these periodically along with the rest of your results. If you’re acquiring quality links, they will both go up. The URL score will take into account only links to the homepage itself, while the domain rating is more of an overall score.
Even if you get 10,000 links, if they’re low quality and from spammy sites, your scores won’t go up much.
If you’re using Majestic, focus on improving your “trust rank” over time.
Why you should track backlinks
Tracking the overall growth of your backlinks is important, but there are three other main reasons to check them regularly:
- To assign a cost per link – even if you acquire a few really high quality links, if it costs you $1,000 per link, it’s probably not profitable. Evaluate the cost of links from different link-building strategies and tactics.
- To see the success of your tactics – similarly to the cost per link, you can also monitor how many links you get from a single tactic. For example, you might see that you get seven links from 100 emails in an email outreach campaign (a 7% link rate).
- To find potential relationships – if someone links to you, they probably like your content. You can send them a quick email to begin a relationship that could lead to more links or other opportunities.
3. Organic search traffic: do search engines love you?
Why do you do SEO?
I’m going to guess that you do it to get organic—free—search traffic (that’s a good reason).
You should track how much search engine traffic you get per month and make sure it’s increasing. Note that you should look at it over a period of at least a few months because seasonal changes can affect traffic.
To start, go to your main dashboard (Audience Overview) in Google Analytics for your site. This initial graph shows you your overall traffic for the last 30 days. Feel free to adjust it for a longer period.
Click on the “Add segment” button to bring up a list of options:
Then, scroll down until you find “Organic Traffic.” Check the box and click “Apply.”
Once you do that, another line will be added to your graph that shows your organic traffic alongside your overall traffic.
You can also break down your search traffic by specific search engine. Use the left sidebar menu to navigate to “Acquisition > Overview,” and then click on the “Organic Search” link:
To see the traffic by day, and not just the overall traffic, click the checkboxes beside each search engine, and then click the “Plot Rows” button:
4. Average time on-page: are you nailing user intent?
What do visitors typically do when they land on a page they are not interested in? They leave.
Conversely, if the page is extremely relevant and interesting, they spend time on it.
In real life, your page exists somewhere in-between the two extremes. Obviously, your goal should be to satisfy your readers as much as possible so that your page ranks highly.
Although you can find out an overall average time on-page metric for your site in the Audience Overview section, that’s not very useful. Instead, you need to dig down and look at how much time visitors are spending on each page.
Start by going to the “Behavior > Overview” option on the left-hand menu:
That will show you a few of your top pages. Look at the bottom right corner for the “view full report” link, and click it:
This will bring up all your pages ordered by the traffic volume. Look at the “Avg. Time on Page” column for each page:
If you only have a few pages, you can record the results in a spreadsheet manually. Otherwise, scroll back up and click the export option to download a spreadsheet of data you can work with:
Typically, time on-page won’t change much once you have a few hundred visits. So you only need to record this value for most pages once.
Sometimes, you might see a really low average time on-page. Record your initial time and the dates over which that data was gathered. Then, work to improve your content, and then re-check the value after you’ve had enough visitors.
There’s no specific “good” or “bad” time on-page for all pages. If your content is really short because it addresses a very specific issue, the visitor shouldn’t spend much time on it (then you can look at other metrics such as bounce rate). If your content is very long, the average time on-page should be relatively high.
5. Pages per visitor: track your usability
For most content (not all), you want your visitors to continue to read other content on your site after they visit the initial landing page.
To test your internal linking practices (both in content and navigation), you should track pages per visitor.
You can find the average pages per visitor in your Audience Overview:
If your site and/or blog is relatively new, it’s okay if the number is low. However, you should record it as well as the date when it was recorded. Ideally, you want to increase this number as much as possible over time.
In general, there are two ways you can improve this:
- link more within your content
- add more enticing links in your sidebar or after the post
You can also dig into the pages per visitor for each landing page, using the same report as was described in point #4 (average time on-page). Look for any values that are relatively low, and see whether you can add some appropriate links.
6. Returning users: are you making an impression?
The number of returning visitors your website gets is a measure of how engaging your content is.
If you’re just slapping together some mediocre content, visitors aren’t going to return. You won’t be able to add them to your email list either, which is another way to get them to keep coming back.
No matter how you’re monetizing the site, having visitors who don’t come back is a bad thing.
Within the main screen of Audience Overview, look in the bottom right corner for a graph that looks like this:
Not only can you see the percentage of new and returning visitors individually but you can also hover your mouse over each section of the pie graph to see the actual numbers of visitors.
Record both the ratio and the absolute number of returning and new visitors at least once a month. The absolute numbers of both types of visitors should be going up. The specific ratio isn’t a big deal, but the returning traffic should make up a good chunk of your traffic (at least 20%).
Returning visitors already know who you are and like you, which makes them more likely to buy from you. They are the most valuable traffic you have.
7. Bounce rate: don’t scare off visitors
It’s debateable whether or not bounce rate is a direct factor in search rankings.
After all, for some pages, a high bounce rate could be good. It can mean that a user came to your page, found what they wanted, and then left.
However, it’s still our best indication of pogo sticking.
Pogo sticking refers to users’ behavior of continually hopping back and forth between search results because they can’t find what they’re looking for:
Google wants to satisfy users, which is why it doesn’t want searchers to get frustrated by not being able to find an answer. If too many visitors to your page click the back button and then choose another result, your rank will get worse.
A “bounce” is when a user lands on your page but doesn’t interact with it. They either close it or click the back button. Closing the page might not be a bad thing, but clicking back is. Since we can’t measure this specific action—closing the page, we look at the closest thing—the bounce rate.
Since the bounce rate is important on a page-by-page basis, that’s how you need to look at it.
Start by revisiting the “Behavior > Overview” option on the left menu:
Then, click the link in the bottom right corner to view a full report:
This report will list all the pages on your site with traffic as well as their bounce rates:
Keep in mind that unless you have a few hundred visits to a page, the bounce rate isn’t all that accurate. Have a big enough sample size before drawing any conclusions.
A “good” bounce rate will depend on the topic. If it’s a very straightforward answer you’re trying to provide, like “how many grams are in a pound,” then you will have a high bounce rate because visitors will see the answer and leave.
If it’s a more open-ended question or topic, like “how to reduce your bounce rate,” good content should have a bounce rate of under 50% in general.
If you are interested in learning how to reduce your bounce rate, read this post that offers you 13 ways.
8. Optimize page load speed: bounce rate and speed go hand in hand
Bounce rate mainly depends on two things: good content and its accessibility.
If your page takes too long to load, visitors will leave even before they have a chance to read it. A slow loading web page is a leading cause of a high bounce rate, which in turn will result in lower Google rankings.
Ideally, you want your web page to load under two seconds, but lower is even better.
Enter a URL into the Quick Sprout tool, and submit it. You’ll get a report with an overall speed score at the top:
To get more details, click on the “full speed report” button below. It’ll take you to the report, where you can pick from three tabs:
Each tab will give you different insights about which parts of your page take the longest to load and in what order.
Next, scroll down to get speed recommendations in simpler terms:
Addressing the “high” priority concerns should have the most effect on your page’s loading speed.
Technically, you should do this for every page on your website. In reality, though, that would be a waste of your time. Check all standalone pages such as your homepage and landing pages as well as 5-10 blog posts.
If all those blog posts load in under 2 seconds, the rest typically will as well. You can always check a specific post if you have reasons to believe it loads slowly (like a high bounce rate).
Warning: Optimizing a page’s load speed is not easy if you’ve never done it before. There’s a lot of technical terminology involved that will take a significant amount of time to understand. If it gets the best of you, consider hiring an expert to help you out.
For the DIY approach, here are some of the best guides when it comes to fixing page speed problems:
- How to Make Your Site Insanely Fast
- 10 Ways to Speed Up Your Website – and Improve Conversion by 7%
- Performance Unleashed: How To Speed Up WordPress Load Times
- Ultimate Guide To Web Optimization (Tips & Best Practices)
- A Beginner’s Guide to Website Speed Optimization
9. Monitor and address crawl errors: eliminate indexing problems
In order for Google (or any search engine) to understand what your pages are about and what you should rank for, it needs to be able to crawl it.
Putting it simply, it doesn’t matter how good your content is and how many backlinks you have if Google is having trouble reading your page.
To check crawl errors, log into your Webmaster Tools (now Search Console) dashboard.
Use the left-side menu to go to “Crawl > Crawl Errors”, which will bring up a report:
Most sites have some crawl errors, and some even have thousands. Fixing these can have a significant impact on your overall search visibility.
You’ll also likely see multiple tabs across the top. Google categorizes the errors to make them easier to identify and fix.
Here’s a complete guide to fixing the most common crawl errors.
It’s important to keep an eye on crawl errors on a continual basis because issues can unexpectedly come up and pages that used to be accessible can become blocked. If you don’t catch it in time, those pages can become de-indexed.
10. Check traffic by device: SEO in 2015 doesn’t discriminate
Mobile traffic makes up a significant portion of most Internet audiences. It makes up about 50% of all online retail traffic.
Google recognizes the importance of mobile optimization. If your site isn’t responsive or optimized for mobile, it’s difficult for your readers to easily read your content, which leaves them less satisfied.
On April 21, 2015, Google’s “Mobilegeddon” update was released. It wasn’t quite as big as anticipated, but sites that were clearly mobile-unfriendly took a bit of a hit:
Think of this as a warning shot. Google will likely continue to place more emphasis on having mobile-friendly content, which means that the consequences will only become more severe.
To check if your pages are mobile-friendly, you can use Google’s own checker:
If you fail, refer to Google’s guide to mobile-friendly websites.
Having mobile-friendly content is important not only for SEO but for other reasons too. If your readers can’t easily read your content, you have less of a chance of moving them down your conversion funnel.
To get a general look at your performance on mobile, go to “Audience > Mobile > Overview” in Google Analytics:
Look at the other metrics we’ve looked at (bounce rate, time on-page) for each type of device. While mobile stats are usually a bit worse than desktop, there shouldn’t be a huge amount of difference. If there is, you need to look into making your site more mobile friendly.
11. Pages crawled per day and time spent downloading: invite search engines
If Google likes a site, its bots will crawl it often.
What makes Google like a site? It’s a combination of many things, including good user metrics (bounce rate, time on-page, etc.), as well as having a good page speed (optimized page size) and a lack of crawl errors.
Ideally, you want your site crawled as much as often. That way, when you make a change or publish a new post, Google will notice quickly. A new Quick Sprout post is indexed in minutes usually.
Go to Webmaster Tools, and navigate to “Crawl > Crawl Stats”. You’ll see graphs for pages crawled per day as well as the amount of time spent downloading them:
You want your numbers for pages crawled per day to be as high as possible while your numbers for time spent downloading to be as low as possible.
You need to check this report once every few weeks or once a month and look for any strange differences. If all of a sudden the time spent downloading pages goes through the roof, you likely have a loading speed problem that needs fixing.
Similarly, if the number of your pages crawled per day takes a dive, you could have some new crawl errors that are having a big negative impact.
12. Index status: monitor your site health
Don’t close Webmaster Tools just yet.
It’s time to check your site’s index status, which is a count of your indexed pages.
As you might expect, it’s a good thing if all your pages are indexed as only indexed pages show up in search results.
Under the “Google Index” category, click on “Index status”, and then on the “Advanced” tab:
You’ll be able to see how many pages are indexed. On top of that, you’ll be able to see all the main errors that caused your pages to be de-indexed. So if your indexed pages started to drop at any point, you’ll be able to see why.
13. 404 pageviews: don’t lose your audience
Some website owners go through all the trouble of getting links and traffic and then send them to non-existent pages.
I don’t think I need to spell out how much of a waste this is. You aren’t getting maximum value from your traffic or your backlinks.
If you grow to a certain size, you’ll inevitably have 404 errors. Most of the time, it’s simply other websites linking to the wrong address.
If you have that problem, invest in a custom 404 page. When you get a 404 page on Quick Sprout, you see this:
At the bottom, there are two links to popular parts of the site so that I don’t automatically lose the visitor.
When it comes to finding broken links, you have a few options.
Option 1: Quick and dirty method
This isn’t the best method, but it gives you a quick overview of the size of the problem.
Go into Google Analytics, and go to the Behavior Overview tab:
Then, go to the full report (bottom right):
Now, sort the pages by either bounce rate or time on page. But click twice so that it’s sorted from worst to best.
If someone goes to a page that doesn’t exist, it’s going to have a near 100% bounce rate, or zero seconds spent on the page.
Alternatively, if you have a 404 error URL, you can just look at the number of visitors that came to that page.
Either way, this tells you how big the problem is—but not what’s causing it. Which is why either of the two other methods are best.
Option 2: Use Webmaster’s Tools (Search Console)
Go back into your Webmasters Tools, and navigate to “Crawl > Crawl Errors.”
This time, we’re specifically looking for “Not found” pages:
When you click on one of these URLs, a pop-up will appear with error details. You can then click on the “linked from” tab to see which pages link to it.
Fix the link on those pages and then mark the problem as fixed.
Option 3: Ahrefs broken links tool
To find out when someone else has linked to your pages incorrectly, search for your site in Ahrefs.
Then, under the “Inbound Links” dropdown menu, click on “Broken Backlinks.”
This will bring up a list of sites that incorrectly linked to a page on your site. You can then contact someone from the site and nicely ask that they fix the link.
If you don’t hear back from them, you can 301 redirect the incorrect URL to the right one.
14. Conversions (goal completions): find out if you’re making the most of your traffic
Search traffic is great, but what you’re really after is traffic that converts.
Once you understand how well your search traffic converts, you can figure out how much you can afford to invest in content and link building.
A goal is a specific action or event that you can track in Google Analytics. For example, a goal can be a visitor visiting a specific page that is only available after making a purchase (like a thank-you or receipt page).
To create one, go to the “Goals > Overview” link at the very bottom of the left menu:
Then, pick a template for your goal. Typically, it’s going to be something like making a payment or signing up for an email newsletter:
After that, pick a type of goal, which is usually a destination (a specific URL they visit).
The final step is to input that destination’s URL as well as to assign a value to that event. For example, you might know that every email subscriber is worth $20 to you, so you can quantify the value of your search traffic.
After some time, you can go to the “Goals > Overview” tab again, but this time you’ll see a graph of your goal completions:
You can then click on the “Source/Medium” option in the bottom left to see how well your search traffic is converting.
If you need to sell your work to your boss in order to keep your job or get a bigger budget, this metric is great. Show them exactly how much money you are making them.
Additionally, you can also see if any particular pages are converting well by going back to the Behavior tab and clicking on the site content option and then landing pages:
If you don’t track metrics, it’s impossible to know what is and isn’t working.
If you don’t know how effective your SEO work is, you could end up spending time and money on work that has a poor return. This could cost you your job or your business.
Metrics aren’t sexy, but they’re important.
You can’t leave them up to chance. Decide which metrics are most relevant and important for your website’s SEO (it probably won’t be all 14), and then decide how and when you will track them.
Follow a tracking schedule, and take conscious action to improve each of the metrics over time.
Let me know which metric(s) is most important or useful to you and your SEO work in a comment below.