Metrics and Levers of an SEO Measurement Framework

You are probably here because you have more SEO data than you know what to do with and precious little time to make sense of it. A framework is exactly what you need.

An SEO measurement framework draws the relationships between all the metrics that you collect and the levers that you can pull to improve them. Frameworks reduce complexity, provide insight, and, best of all, frameworks enable focus.

SEO happens in a dynamic system that spans from technical infrastructure to human relationships and user experience. But SEO outcomes are measured in acquisition, activation, and revenue. I believe (and you should too) in measuring SEO impact against outcomes in an effort to evaluate CAC.  We should also trust a system of metrics to avoid risks, surface optimizations, and identify opportunities. Let’s see what this system looks like.

SEO metrics and levers

Each SEO metric (on the left) can be influenced by one of several levers (across the top). Metrics can be viewed from the top down as a diagnostic tool or bottom up as a progressive checklist – like a “hierarchy of needs” for SEO.

I’ve seen a lot of SEO programs from both the in-house and fractional vantage points, and one thing is consistent: the outcome metrics at the top will matter to every business site, and the lower, more technical metrics will matter more to larger sites and more sophisticated SEO programs.

The purpose of this SEO framework is three-fold:

  • Tie together metrics and levers to measure the impact of each SEO lever
  • Provide a diagnostic for issues or optimization—each metric is dependent upon the levers that influence that metric and the metrics below it
  • Identify the depth of metrics that is appropriate for tracking depending on the scope of an SEO program

Before we get too deep into detail about the usage of the framework, let’s first take into consideration the ingredients for this framework, the data itself.

A Story: The Lifecycle of SEO Data

The intersection between man and machine and search creates a lot of data. To put it all in context, let’s think about it as a story of a lowly web page.

Creating a webpage generates data (it is data!). Publishing the page generates metadata (publish time, author, language, file size, and link relationships). And when you ask Google to fetch the page and submit it to the index, Google collects all this data and generates even more (a crawl date, response code, response latency, load time, and render time). If it decides to index the page… yep, more data (time of indexing).

Now that the page is in the index, it has the possibility to be returned in search results.  Wow, does that generate a lot of data that Google, of course, collects! But for the intent of SEO, we care about the data we get back from Google Search Console (the keyword that retrieved the page, the device, geography, search type, the time of impression, where it ranked, and if it got clicked). Over time, this data really adds up!

Humans are the last part of the story. Search results, like lunch menus at a diner, give humans an opportunity to browse, select, and consume different options and transact with their owners. More data. (technical metrics like page speed, behavioral metrics like time on site, interactions, and transactions, to name a few)

If we step back one step further, we see that these humans are referencing the page from other pages and social media posts. All those references create more traffic, not to mention more data for Google to factor into its algorithms. On and on this goes as Googlebot is hard at work traversing the internet to index a picture of this web so that it can deliver all this data to a ranking algorithm that, combined with humans’ personal, demographic, and interaction data, creates the phenomenon that is search.

Looking at one page, this all kind of makes sense. But when you multiply that by a few thousand, or a few million, things get complicated. Additionally, the data is collected in several different ways and stored in several different places. Let’s use this story from creation to consumption to transaction as the basis of an SEO measurement framework.

Storytime is over. Let’s get on to the metrics!

SEO metrics and levers

SEO Metrics

Each metric, from Crawl to Revenue, is dependent upon the metrics below it. As the story of the lonely webpage goes, a page must be created, crawled, indexed, returned in search results, and clicked for it to have any business impact.

SEO Outcomes

Unlike the universality of SEO performance metrics, outcomes are business-specific. At the outset of any strategic planning for SEO, you must define what success looks like. As soon as it is defined, track that conversion in your analytics tools so that you can measure that conversion completion against each performance metric. This will help you determine where to invest time and resources. Performance metrics will tell you how to invest time and resources.

Performance Metrics

Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. In this way, each metric impacts the one that follows it.

Crawl: the taken-for-granted pre-requisite

The most taken-for-granted metric in search engine optimization is crawling. That is partly because the vast majority of the internet is either built on a CMS that optimizes for crawling by default or the site is not big enough to have crawl issues. However, there is a class of home-baked websites that, due to developer oversight (aka “job security”), or otherwise, are not crawl-friendly. The bottom line is: if Google can’t find your pages because you didn’t use React Router correctly or you forgot to put up a sitemap, SEO is not happening.

Index: this is an actual thing

The internet is really big- if Google wanted to index the whole thing, it would probably double its electricity bill.

Search engines have to be picky about what they index. If a page is low quality or is likely to have a low search demand, Google can choose not to index the content of the page. Unless your site is millions upon millions of pages, isn’t internationalized correctly,  returns lots of low-quality or duplicate pages, or violates Google’s TOS, it’s likely that all your pages, if crawled, will be indexed.

It is important to consider the flip side of this problem, though: indexing too much. Indexing a bunch of garbage pages can waste Google crawl budgets and make a site appear to be low quality. This lever can be pulled in both ways and depending on the site, there is a right and wrong way to pull it.

Impressions: search impressions and searchers’ impressions

Yay, the site is indexed! Ok, now what? Impressions and the keywords that trigger them measure your site’s effectiveness in SEO targeting. Not all keyword impressions are created equal.

Searcher contexts, like the device or geography, can greatly impact outcomes. Likewise, less traffic from better-targeted keywords can have a stronger effect on outcomes than lots of poor-quality traffic. Keyword impressions are fundamental to your customer understanding and a strategic north star.

Rankings: Oh, sweet competition

Search engine result pages, with stacked ranked lists of URLs, are what create and sustain what we call SEO. Rankings are a moving target, but we have reason to trust our theories about how they work. There is content and links at the core, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other factors. Measuring keyword-URL rankings is important, but understanding why pages rank is almost as important. Measuring how process metrics, like the quantity and quality of inbound links, the quantity and quality of content, and the components of speed, are what differentiate a deliberate SEO program from a spray-and-pray approach.

Clicks: The first “win” (but not the last word)

Traffic is the easiest metric to report and the most misleading. To be useful, traffic metrics should be segmented by keyword groupings or page grouping to understand searcher intent and compared to outcome metrics to uncover if that intent was met appropriately. Traffic is a good indicator of performance, but they are nothing without measures of quality like click-through rate and conversion rate.

SEO metrics and levers

SEO Levers

SEO levers are at the top of the matrix. These five buckets describe the five areas of optimization and growth at an SEO program’s disposal. The dots in the grid represent the relationship between a lever and the metric that it could directly influence.

SEO levers are ordered from left to right, from foundational technical factors to business-wise tactical factors. With few exceptions, you must get the foundation right before thinking about building upon it. Let’s take a look at each of these levers.

Links: The bowl and the cherry

Links are both basic and critical- like the bowl and the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae. Sites need sitemaps and internal links so that pages can be crawled and indexed, and at the same time, external links are a major factor in Google’s ranking algorithm.

When to use this lever: Day one of publishing a site so that the pages have a chance to be crawled, indexed, and returned in search results. Or later on, when you have critical or high-conversion pages that have high impressions but don’t rank very well,—ranking improvement will directly impact SEO outcomes.

Response/Render/Speed: AKA “technical SEO”

Search engine crawlers are not going to waste their time on pages that return an error or that take infinite time to load. Pages that hide a lot of their content behind javascript rendering or user interaction events rank poorly in search compared to their server-side rendered counterparts.

When to use this lever: Always monitor page responses for bots. 4XX’s and 5XX’s response codes will cause pages to fall out of the index. If you find that Google’s reported “Time spent downloading a page (in milliseconds)” is in seconds or that pages feel slow when they are not cached, use this lever.

Meta/Schema/Title: Basic.

The page title, meta description, and schema markup can have the biggest impact on SEO with the least amount of work. Optimizing a page title for a target term can significantly influence ranking and Click Through Rate. From quick one-off metadata optimizations and site section-wide A/B tests to sitewide implementation of markup, these optimizations can always yield benefits.

When to use this lever: Always unless you’re certain you have something better to do.

Content: Keep humans happy. Keep bots happy.

Content is the only lever that affects literally every SEO metric. Page content determines if a page is worthy of indexing and of repeated bot crawls to check for fresh updates. Along with page title and schema, content determines what keywords will surface a page for in search. The content will also affect SEO outcomes as the topic of the page could target more or less search volume or conversion-oriented keywords. And of course, the content is ultimately there to influence a user.

This is the shallow end of SEO in some respects, but when things get competitive, this is a critical lever. More content usually means more traffic. Better and fresher content usually means more on top of that.

When to use this lever: Need to start getting traffic? Create content. Need better traffic? Create content that target’s the right keywords. Need to maximize conversions and capture every possible edge to compete with tough competitors? Test the crap out of your content.

Experience:  You grew the fruit, now harvest the juice

Experience, like crawl optimization, is often dismissed, taken for granted or believed to be outside of the purpose of SEO programs. Those are dangerous opinions. As Google considers more inputs into its ranking algorithms that proxy user experience (for example, how frequently a searcher bounces back to search results), the more important user experience becomes.

Let’s not forget you’ve done a lot of work to get searchers to your site! It is now your duty, not to mention your goal, to optimize the experience to the point that users are happy, ready, and able to convert. No part of SEO happens in a vacuum, and just as content impacts experience, experience could impact ranking. Recognize this as part of the system.

When to use this lever: Always, but especially if organic traffic is hard to come by or you are heavy on traffic and light on conversions. And never let poor experience hurt your rankings.

SEO Reporting

A holistic picture of the SEO is great, but it doesn’t do anything unless you do something with it. As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets managed.”  Reporting on the right metrics sets the focus of an SEO program.

First, two underlying truths about reporting and one smart suggestion:

  • Metrics are only valuable to the degree that they can be impacted. Just because you collected a metric does not mean you need to report it. In many cases, alerts are just fine.
  • Reporting cadence should match the pace at which a metric can change—too fast is noise, and too slow can be too late.
  • Investment in data collection should be proportionate to investment in SEO efforts

Reporting needs and focus will differ from business to business. The important thing is that they capture the goals and the actionable metrics and do not create noise. Collecting a lot of data is great, but most of it is only good when you need it to understand a cause or effect.

I think of reporting in three levels. Each level increases in granularity and narrows the scope of information. At the forefront are the business outcomes that SEO has yielded. Each level after is more for the operations of an SEO program rather and less for external stakeholders.

  • Outcomes“How is SEO doing?”

      • Cadence: Match Weekly/Monthly/Quarterly business reporting
      • Metrics: Organic Traffic, Signups, First Orders, App Downloads
      • Dimensions: Period over Period or Over Time
  • Performance / Outcomes in Context – “Why is SEO working?”

      • Cadence: Real-time / Daily Update Dashboards
      • Metrics: Impressions,  Rank, Clicks, Signups, First Orders, App Downloads
      • Dimensions: Period over Period or Over Time, Geography, Page Template, or Keyword Grouping
  • Process /Monitoring – “What is the status of program X?”

    • Cadence: Dashboards / Ongoing monitoring and analysis of current programs or experiments
    • Metrics: Crawl rate, Speed, Impressions, Rank, Clicks, Page Interactions, Inbound Links
    • Dimensions: Response Codes (crawlers), Page Template

Measure the Metrics, Move the Levers

If there is one message to take from all this, it would be to understand that you may not need to track and manage every metric but you must know what metrics are important to achieve the intended outcomes of your SEO program. If you understand what metrics matter, it becomes easy to create focused strategies to achieve the right outcomes.

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