Search engine optimization (or SEO for short) has been around for about 25 years. As you can imagine, a lot has changed in these 25 years of optimizing for online search. Search engines have changed. Online behavior has evolved, and the tools we use to practice and keep track of SEO have evolved. So, how can you get a grip on what’s happening? How can you measure your SEO efforts without losing your way in a mountain of data? Let’s find out.
The ‘good’ old days
Back in the day, when SEO (and the internet itself) was young, it seemed a lot easier to get your page to the top of the search results. People would simply stuff a page with the keyword they wanted to rank for, without any second thought on readability. Getting backlinks to your page was also much easier, as the quality didn’t matter much. As SEO was still starting up, updates to the algorithm were way less frequent back then. This meant that any black hat SEO (shady techniques to improve the rankings of a website) could go unnoticed for quite a while.
We’ve come a long way since those early days of ‘tricking the search engines’. SEO is over two decades old and has become much more complex. There’s more competition; search engines are getting smarter by the day, and you get penalized for many of the tricks that worked in the old days.
Online search is ever-changing
One of the things we often say at Yoast is that the only constant is change. This is a good phrase to keep in the back of your mind regarding SEO and online behavior. Although the basics of SEO are unchanging, the algorithm keeps evolving and keeps us on our toes. This might sound contradictory, so let me quickly elaborate on what I mean.
The solid foundation of SEO
Google and other search engines want to provide users with a great experience while using their services. They want to show content from websites that offer a great experience to their users. So, in essence, SEO is all about user experience. Your website needs to be user-friendly and your content has to give people a proper answer to their questions. Google’s algorithm wants to show websites that will help their users. Therefore, optimizing your website for users should always be your primary goal, even when you’re working on search engine optimization.
That’s the fundament on which SEO is built. However, the Google team doesn’t rest and continuously works on making their search engine even smarter. Their algorithm, and others like it, can understand so much more nowadays. It’s not just counting the amount of keywords on a page. It can now understand your pages and consider context, authority on topics, user experience, search intent, et cetera.
Our online behavior evolves
Looking more broadly, it’s not just the algorithm that has become more complex. With more generations growing up in a world where the internet is a given, our online behavior has changed significantly. People can access the web wherever they are by pulling their smartphones from their pockets. It’s literally in the palm of their hand. Social media platforms are being used as search engines, influencers are becoming authorities, and purchases are being made from the comfort of our homes. How we utilize the internet has changed, and the internet has changed our lives drastically.
A strong focus on privacy
Another aspect to mention is the privacy regulations that are now relevant for everyone who has anything to do with user information. These privacy laws are necessary in today’s world, but they do impact SEO. They result in us having less data on our site visitors, making it trickier to get insight into who these people are and how they behave. Related to this, Google Analytics has recently launched Google Analytics 4, their privacy-first approach to cross-channel data tracking, which we’ll get back to later.
Why is this relevant to tracking your SEO efforts?
In the last 25 years, we’ve found our go-to tools and metrics to get a grip on SEO performance. Google Analytics gives us insight into organic traffic, page views, bounce rates, and average time spent on a page. Google Search Console gives us an idea of our average position in Google and the queries people use to get to our site. And there are many more tools like this. But, although insightful, these tools only tell part of the story. Focusing on these numbers too much can lead you astray and eventually get you lost.
The way that people are interacting with your brand has changed. It’s not enough to focus all your efforts on your website. People use different channels to find what they’re looking for, and search engines know that. Google has long evolved from a static search result page to an ecosystem focused on providing users with the type of content they want. Google is not just looking at your website anymore. Users are not just looking at your website anymore. Therefore, measuring the organic traffic to your website is not sufficient anymore.
Get with the times
The online landscape is evolving, so SEO is also starting to look different. That means we need to change our thinking regarding tracking our SEO. Of course, your website is still a vital part of your SEO strategy. But you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger. You need to be visible in more than one place.
Become the authority in your field and ensure you have unique content in different forms. Think of blog posts, social media content, videos, podcasts, interviews, and all of this, not just on your website. Get your name out there and make it hard for people to ignore your brand (in a good way). Stop optimizing your page by constantly tweaking it and focusing on creating great content in different forms. This also means that you need to change your approach to how you analyze the success of your SEO efforts.
So, how can we measure our SEO efforts?
Now that we’ve established that our good old metrics aren’t as helpful as they used to be, let’s look at what we can do. What should we focus on, and what should we stop obsessing over? How can you show your boss or client that your efforts are not in vain?
We need to measure our presence, brand awareness, and audience’s brand preference. We need to determine whether we’re on the right platforms and engaging with our audience in enough (different) places, which means shifting our data-focused mindset to a more holistic and cross-channel mindset.
Know your audience
The next step you’ll have to repeat from time to time is getting insight into your audience. We need to talk to our audience to find out what platforms they’re using, what they deem important, and what they think of our brand. A great way to do this is by conducting user research, which you can do by creating surveys, user testing, or talking to people at events or other contact moments where it feels natural.
For Bluehost (and Yoast, for that matter), the WordPress events are great for contacting our audience and hearing what’s important to them. It takes time, as with lots of things in SEO. But the more you hear from your audience, the more you’ll get a clear idea of what you can do to reach them better and where.
A new way of looking at the ‘old’ metrics
Collecting and analyzing data on your organic traffic isn’t the answer anymore. However, that doesn’t mean you should throw all your data out the window. Tools like Google Analytics 4 are still very useful. They help you get an idea of how your website is doing and can help you get inspiration for possible improvements or new content (for multiple platforms).
Google Analytics 4
Google Analytics 4 has a new way of looking at your website data. But, even though it works differently from previous versions, it’s still providing you with valuable insights. The homepage shows how many people visit your website and where they’re located.
But it also comes with the traffic acquisition report, showing how many visitors come from organic search (and other sources). Simply put, this allows you to compare your SEO efforts with other marketing efforts. Another report to watch is the landing page report, which helps you understand how individual pages are performing (organically or otherwise). Another interesting report is the Conversion report, which gives insight into the events that led to conversion on your site.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to dive into Google Analytics 4 yet, it’s worth the effort. It takes some getting used to, but can help you get insight into the customer journey, possible improvements, and the effect of your SEO efforts.
Google Search Console
Google Search Console is designed to help you measure your site’s search traffic and performance. It comes with several sections, but I want to highlight Performance and Experience here.
In the Performance section, you’ll find Search results, which gives you an overview of the focus keyphrases you are found for most and your most visited pages, which gives you a quick list of the pages that need the most attention and keywords you own (or could be doing more for). The Discover and News tab lists pages that perform well in those specific parts of Google.
The experience report tells you how well your site is doing regarding site speed and how Google grades your page experience. It also tells you which pages have issues that you need to solve when it comes to performance. PageSpeed Insights and the Chrome extension Lighthouse can help you figure out how to improve your website’s performance.
Yoast has a more thorough guide on how to use Google Search Console if you’re interested.
Valuable SEO tools
In addition to Google’s tools, you could look into other tools that help you understand your organic traffic and keyword rankings. For example, Wincher helps you track your position (on important keywords) compared to competitors. Semrush works similarly and provides you with similar keywords to focus your content on. These tools make it easier to customize data to answer your questions.
One final thought on organic metrics
Just remember that it’s not painting you the whole picture, and it’s no longer a reflection of how you’re doing SEO-wise, especially with all the privacy restrictions that come with these tools nowadays. And that’s not going anywhere, it will probably become harder to follow the journey of an individual user. It doesn’t give you an idea of how your brand is perceived across all your platforms (even offline). And that’s what you should be looking at.
Google respects authority
Google values authority. It’s part of one of their latest acronyms for evaluating content: E-E-A-T. This stands for Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. If you’re a brand that brings those things, they could pick you over another brand when they want to present online searchers with information.
There are tools out there that will give you an authority score, which can be interesting to look at but only means anything if you keep a regular eye on it. You can also look into page authority for important pages on your website. While these scores can provide insights into a website’s authority, it is not a direct ranking factor used by Google. It should be used as a comparative metric, but other factors like content quality and user experience should also be considered when evaluating a website’s trustworthiness and ranking potential.
To provide you with a more tangible thing to measure, I recommend monitoring the number of backlinks to your website. How many backlinks do you have at the time? Are they from proper, trustworthy websites? And is the number going up? Then you’re on the right track!
Another great tip (from SEO expert Jes Scholz) is to google your brand name and click on the three dots next to your website’s search result. This shows you what Google knows about your brand. If it just says that your website has been indexed, Google doesn’t know you that well. If it properly summarizes your website or company, you know that Google knows and trusts your brand. This means that they’ll be more likely to show you as a search result to their users.
It’s all about engagement
Most of the things I mentioned above are focused on getting insight into your organic traffic and website performance. But as we discussed, it’s about so much more. Don’t forget to talk to your audience regularly and find out where you can find them and their needs.
Make sure to look at the data on your social media posts, most platforms come with their data if you have a business account. This helps you understand whether you’re posting the right stuff and what works (and what doesn’t). It also keeps you in contact with your audience in different places and ways. The same goes for videos, podcasts, and interviews you do. Look at the data afterward and make it possible for people to interact with you and your team.
Also, not unimportant, compare the engagement you’re getting with competitors. Are they doing better? And if so, what can you learn from their approach? What works well for you, and could you be doing more of that? Be aware of your position with other brands.
Finally, I would recommend setting up a content calendar and setting up goals on how much you want to post on which platform. This helps you figure out what you can work on and ensures that your audience sees you and your content regularly. Measuring SEO efforts can also simply define how much content you want to put out there. Content is still the key to all of this.
Watch the talk by Jes Scholz
I hope this post has got you thinking about how website optimization is part of a broader spectrum. If you’d like to hear more about this, I would highly recommend watching the video in which SEO expert Jes Scholz talks about why you should optimize beyond search. She was a speaker at YoastCon 2023, and it was a very inspiring presentation. In it, she explains how Google moves away from indexing websites and towards indexing entities like your brand.
Conclusion on measuring SEO efforts
Let’s conclude what we talked about in this blog post. The online landscape is changing rapidly. And although the art of SEO has a firm basis, you need to be mindful of what’s happening around you. It’s still important to work on traditional SEO as this influences how often Google will show you to your potential audience. But it’s also important to look ahead and stop putting all your eggs in one basket.
Focus on your brand and how it is perceived. Look at your website data, but don’t let it lead you in every decision. Take into account your presence on every platform, not just your website. That way, you can build a future-proof brand!