SEO is a long-term strategy to gain more visibility and more traffic for your online brand, but accurately measuring the effectiveness of that strategy can be challenging. Many of the benefits of SEO, such as increased brand visibility, are qualitative and therefore hard to measure, and even objective metrics like inbound traffic can be subject to random variation and become difficult to interpret.
After you’ve maintained an SEO strategy for more than a few months, however, you should have enough information to form meaningful conclusions from your data. Most importantly, you’ll be able to check in regularly to see if there are any red flags that signal something is wrong with your campaign. These red flags can be hard to spot initially, but if you know what to look for, you should have no problem detecting them and taking corrective action immediately.
1. A Sharp Drop in Organic Traffic
Organic traffic is a metric referring to the number of people who found your site through search engines, and it’s one of the best metrics we have to measure the effectiveness of an SEO campaign. To measure your organic traffic, log into Google Analytics and click on "Acquisitions." Here, you’ll see a breakdown of how many visits your site received from organic sources, referrals, social media, and direct visits.
You can click into the organic visits to gain some extra details on the sources of your organic traffic, but the main number is the one we’re most concerned with. Keep an eye on it on a monthly — if not weekly — basis. While you should be seeing some long-term growth patterns, what you really want to look for is any sharp drop. For example, if you’re used to seeing 1,000 hits a week and that inexplicably drops to 200, you might have a major problem on your hands.
2. Stagnant Growth or Decline for More Than Two Months
Like I mentioned, the goal here is to see long-term growth. If you check back on a consistent basis, month after month, you should see an overall pattern toward increased traffic. That being said, organic search behavior is anything but predictable, and random factors beyond your or Google’s control could artificially leave you with a tough month or a brief stagnation. If you notice one month in particular doesn’t result in growth, don’t panic.
However, if your campaign remains stagnant for two months or more, you might have a serious problem. What you want to see is steady, measurable growth in organic visits — if you’re hovering around the same figures or if you start to see a decline, consider it a red flag. There are instances where multiple months of consistent traffic don’t necessarily mean your SEO campaign is failing, but you don’t want to take the gamble by keeping things the same for another month.
3. A Sharp Drop in Keyword Rankings
Keyword rankings aren’t nearly as important as they used to be. There was a time when keywords meant everything to SEO, and getting one to rank highly meant you had found success. Today,keywords are less pivotal; since Google deciphers user queries based on intent, rather than keyword phrases, your ranks are much more fluid. It’s far more important to have relevant, quality content than it is to have content based around certain keywords.
However, your rankings are still a valuable metric to measure because they can indicate the health of your campaign. Keep a handful of keywords as your targets to measure, and check your ranking on them every once in a while (once a month for most campaigns, or once a week for more aggressive campaigns). If you notice your rankings falling on a majority of those keywords, this is a red flag for your campaign.
Tracking Down the Culprit
Let’s imagine that you’ve found one of these red flags. What does that mean for your campaign? It means something is off in your strategy, and it’s interfering with your ability to increase your search visibility. It can be difficult to track down the exact cause of this downturn, especially since it could be multiple factors working together, but it’s important to identify the source.
Are you writing your content with one or a handful of keywords at the forefront? Are you recycling content or using old topics just so you can push more content on your site? If so, you could be over-optimizing, which could be leading to lower ranks. Write fresh, original content on new topics on a regular basis instead.
Poor Link-Building Strategy
Bad link-building tactics are the most common culprit of poor SEO campaign performance. Google’s Penguin algorithm update was launched to penalize such schemes as buying links, building too many links, and building links on irrelevant or low-authority websites. Instead of participating in schemes to manipulate your way up the rankings, try to earn your links through publishing high-quality content and relationship building.
Bad or Missing Reviews
Today’s local search incorporates information from your business all over the Web. If your information is missing from important local directory sites (like Yelp or TripAdvisor), or if you seem to be getting lots of bad reviews, your ranks and search visibility could tank.
Missing Peripheral Elements
Neglecting another important tactic or platform in your SEO campaign can also lead to poor performance. For example, if you don’t use social media or if you aren’t incorporating guest blogging, your results could suffer.
Once you’ve discovered a red flag that your SEO campaign is in trouble, it’s important to take corrective action as soon as possible. Identifying the source is only the first step of the process; you’ll have to work for days or weeks to repair the damage left in the wake of your flawed strategy or one-time mistake. The best course of action is to maintain a solid, high-quality SEO strategy to begin with; as long as you’re adhering to Google’s best practices and working with user experience as your main priority, you shouldn’t ever expect to see one of these red flags.