5 Huge SEO Measurement Mistakes


This is Part 1 of a four-part series titled “SEO Measurement Mistakes”. The other parts are:
Part 2: 10 Google Analytics Gaffes
Part 3: Crawling and Indexation Metrics
Part 4: Links

Last week, I sent an email to my fellow LunaMetricians asking one question, “what’s some big mistakes you see when it comes to SEO and measurement/Google Analytics?”
The measurement masters came up with some good stuff, and I’ll discuss five high-level screw-ups people make when it comes to analyzing SEO metrics.

Let’s start from the top.

1. Obsessing over Rankings

Ever Google the term “SEO definition“? The results have been getting better, but there’s still some severely outdated definitions ranking highly. Here’s a taste of the bad stuff:

“Search engine optimization is a methodology of strategies, techniques and tactics used to increase the amount of visitors to a website by obtaining a high-ranking placement in the search results page of a search engine (SERP) — including Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines.”

“Stands for “Search Engine Optimization.” Just about every Webmaster wants his or her site to appear in the top listings of all the major search engines…”

The second excerpt comes from a 400 word entry that seriously talks about Meta Keywords and directory submissions as viable SEO tactics. But I digress.

What the outdated and crappy definitions how SEO all have in common is they paint a verbal picture that high rankings are the goal of SEO. That is false.

The goal od SEO is to improve rankings. False. The goal of SEO is to increase the value generated by organic search traffic.

Get it? Traffic value. Traffic value is increased by more traffic and better traffic. Higher rankings are part of the path to the goal, but they are not the goal.

I can outdraw a #1 ranked page in the SERPs if my page has a better click-thru rate. My page could add better value to my site from search engine traffic than your page does for you, even if your page draw more traffic for the same keywords – if my landing page converts better.

The misguided paradigm of higher rankings being the ultimate SEO goal has let to some practitioners using rankings as a KPI for a full SEO campaign.

Rankings should never be a KPI. Ever.

Because a KPI tells you if you are achieving your goal. And rankings are not the goal. If you don’t focus on your real goal, you’ll have a deuce of a time meeting it.

You should track rankings, but only as a metric that helps you understand if you’re maximizing visits for individual keywords.

Rankings have too many limitations. It is impossible to rank track every keyword that matters. Rankings are hard to measure accurately. The impact of personalization of search results on rankings is hard to measure. Finally, rankings don’t tell you anything about the value being generated by SEO.

You should not obsess over rankings.

2. Employing Visit Counts as the sole KPI

Visits are better than rankings. But they’re not everything.

If the goal is to increase value, then traffic value = traffic quantity x traffic quality.

Visit counts only tell you about quantity. And that’s only part of the equation. You absolutely must make an effort to measure quality.

Any SEO that is focused on visit counts only is doing it wrong.

3. Obsessing over bounce rate as the primary indicator of traffic quality

So, traffic quality matters but so does how you define and measure quality. Bounce rate is one metric of many that help you understand visit quality. Unfortunately, many obsess over bounce rate as the ultimate quality metric, to their detriment.

I could tell you why, but digital analytics guru (and partial muse for this article) Avinash Kaushik already explained why bounce rate obsession will get you fired. While you’re in there, you can see why rankings are a horrible KPI, if you didn’t believe me.

4. Not attaching visits to the bottom line

So visit counts matter, quality of visits matter, and you can’t determine quality on bounce rate alone. The ultimate measure of quality would answer “how much did these visits contribute to the bottom line?”

This can be a tough question to answer, depending on your situation.

For e-commerce site, you can simply look at revenue from the SEO traffic segment.(If your managing e-commerce and you don’t have revenue tracking integrated in Google Analytics or other analytics package, get it set up immediately. (Or find something else to do for a living.)) You can then try to understand the revenue an individual keyword brings in. For deep data magic, check into multi-channel attribution as well.

For lead generation sites, measuring traffic quality get’s a little harder, but you should be valuating leads, measuring leads, and attributing them to SEO and the other traffic sources. This post might help.

The point is to always try to determine ROI on SEO.

5. Not separating branded and non-branded traffic

Now when you’re looking at visits, leads, revenue, and goal completions attributed to SEO traffic you need to go beyond the default organic search segment found in Google Analytics. Otherwise, the folks responsible for the SEO campaign are going to take credit for a lot of traffic they shouldn’t take credit for – that’s branded traffic, i.e. search engine visits from when someone was already looking for your site.

My comrade Andy has an awesome post on the ultimate SEO segment – non-branded organic search traffic.

Make an effort to understand the value generated by this segment, and make sure its greater than the cost of creating this value and you’ll ensure your SEO efforts are a success.

—-Well, that’s all for today. I think we’ll try to get deeper into more technical mistakes in another post. Speaking of which, want to help me write that? Tell me in the comments some big SEO measurement screw-ups you see, and if I use that mistake next time, I’ll give you a shout out.

Reid Bandremer is a former LunaMetrician and contributor to our blog.

  • Guilty as charged… LOL I watch page rankings every day. Its just so weird that I can place for one keyword at #2 for weeks. However other similar keywords will deliver different results every day or so. Hmmmm…

  • Html5-ninja

    I think that to have a traffic value you have to be ranked right? 🙂

    • Reid Bandremer

      Ninja, You have to have a website too. Would you make having a website your goal?

  • Rory

    Rankings are still important – let’s face it, your SEO campaign is a failure if it doesn’t put you on page one for your target keywords. You can’t increase traffic value if you don’t have any traffic in the first place.

    Also sometimes ranking number 1 might be the campaign objective. If a TV campaign’s call to action is to ‘search for abc’, then ranking number one for ‘abc’ is pretty important, so it’s not a mistake in *all* cases, just as one or two niche-specific directory links are still going to help.

    • Reid Bandremer


      Your example for the TV campaign is a solid one for a good use case for rankings.

      The point I make is that – although I recommend using rankings – they should not be a KPI. KPI’s tell you if you’re achieving success. Rankings don’t provide enough information on success to obsess over. You shouldn’t let rankings define the success of your efforts in the big picture.

      You also can’t practically check ranks for all the relevant search queries you’ll get traffic for. On top of the issues with rankings mentioned in the article, rankings obsession usually leads to neglecting the impact of long tail searches. Additionally, few practictioners are able to target the right keywords on the first go.

      So I advocate to obsess over revenue generated and visit quantity and quality. I say track those from the top(all SEO traffic) down to the landing page and to the keyword group level and then use your rankings information to understand if there’s room to improve at the keyword-group level.

      Rankings are like link and indexation metrics (because you need to be indexed and have backlinks to gain SEO traffic too;p)- important to understanding tactical facets of the SEO campaign but they are not KPIs and should not be used to define broad success.

  • Reid, I’m fortunate right now to be working for a company that attaches revenue to Web-related metrics. That gives me an easy way to track organic search value. But I’ve also worked for companies that did not have the tech set up to track revenue, which made it hard to judge value. What KPIs have you used in scenarios like that?

    • Reid Bandremer

      Well I guess it depends what type of site you’re talking about – was it e-commerce, lead generation, or advertisement site? If it wasn’t e-commerce, what were some of the goals you guys were trying to accomplish with the site?

      For example, I’ve worked with non-profits where the goal of the site isn’t to produce revenue, but more like to help the organization accomplish it’s mission/goals whether it be spreading general awareness, getting signatures, getting volunteers, etc… . That’s were it gets really tricky, and you might need a hodgepodge of metrics that represent some kind of quantifiable step towards meeting the mission like newsletter sign-ups, volunteer sign-ups, e-mail clicks, shares, forms filled, qualified visits, engagement metrics, etc…

      It’s really all situational, and rarely perfect, but I always try to start at the end goal, identify measurables that help reach that goal (preferable metrics that are as close to the end goal as possible (like revenue)), and try to valuate those measurables and set them up as goal completions as much as possible.

  • Thanks a lot . Its really healpful 🙂 .

  • Ninja has a point. The facts are that you can talk about traffic value until you are blue in the face but if the rankings fall off the first page for a client who only really had 2-3 main keywords that they are targeting. They will consider the SEO efforts a failure regardless of long tail traffic you might be able to bring in. Reality is great but it is often more peoples perception of reality that ends of being the difference.

    • Reid Bandremer


      We’ve had those clients too. The ones completely obsessed with rankings. It came down to training the clients and showing the clients success in terms of traffic and the revenue contributed by traffic. As a consultant, I see it as part of my job to educate my clients, because if they were experts in my field, they wouldn’t have had to hire us.

      Now I understand there’s several SEO companies that cater to smaller budgets whose model is to charge based on concrete goals with a set number of keywords. That’s still an acceptable model – those clients may lack the budget (or need) to hire a more expensive, holistic SEO agency. I just want people to know that if the only goal and KPI is rankings, then they’re setting themselves up for failure when it comes to SEO as an entire marketing channel.

      Because you can meet rankings goals for 2 or 3 keywords and still totally fail at SEO. As an industry we should educate on the reality of how not to fail, or we compromise our credibility.

  • Reid, awesome post. As an inhouse digital marketing manager with SEO as a primary focus, I can tell you I grieve over some of our current KPIs.

    And to the point about rankings: obviously a focus on rank for a few select keywords is myopic at best.

    That said, I think target keyword rank can help measure SEO traffic quality, but only as single variable in a larger traffic value algorithm.

  • Ronando

    Reid, good article,

    However I can’t help but think there are some issues that proponents of the “don’t focus on ranking #1” crowd keep missing.

    1) Given a system where the public conducts a search query that results in a list of links pointing to pages on sites that are ranked according to relevancy, it’s only natural that the searchers focus on those top search results. (it is an organic search after all)

    2) Given that, “the top listing in Google’s organic search results receives 33% of the traffic, compared to 18% for the second position, and the traffic only degrades from there.” http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2276184/No.-1-Position-in-Google-Gets-33-of-Search-Traffic-Study

    3) Given that the “I just want people to know that if the only goal and KPI is rankings, then they’re setting themselves up for failure” can be said about any other metric (be it bounce, CTR, conversion, etc.) however we never see same argument for not focusing on those other KPIs.

    4) Something that nobody else seems to cover, which is opportunity cost with respect to organic traffic market share. If we are not in that #1 slot, then our competition will be. Not a pleasant thought, especially for ecommerce.

    It just seems like a strawman to keep bringing up the “don’t focus on #1 spot” argument. Yes, if it were THE only metric, sure, but with all of these SEO sites, articles, posts, blogs, etc., I’m not seeing that as THE only focus. A major focus, yes, but not the only focus. Do we obsess? Yes. But we obsess on all of the metrics . Heck, I’ve spent days focusing on just title, H1 and meta description alone and now we have Social (all umpteen) along with LSI (not_provided) to worry about as well.

    From what I gather, the trick is to make them all work, for if you let any one of the metricses (metricki?) fall, then you’re still not optimizing results.

    • Reid Bandremer

      Thanks Ronando,

      I’m not a proponent of “don’t focus on ranking #1”. In fact, I just touched on the importance of being #1 in yesterday’s article:) http://www.lunametrics.com/blog/2014/04/22/the-keyword-equation/. I use rankings data regularly, and I advise all to do so.

      I am a proponent of not over-focusing on rankings data and not using rankings as a KPI for your entire SEO campaign.

      You make good points, and I agree that focusing only on one metric is bad, and I agree fully with points 1, 2, 4.

      I will nitpick at point 3 though;-)
      If I could, let me revise my statement “if the only goal and KPI is rankings, then they’re setting themselves up for failure” to blanketly warn against using rankings as a primary KPI and over-focusing on rankings.

      It seems I’m getting into debates over semantics, specific the term KPI. When I say SEO key performance indicators, I’m talking about metrics that indicate whether or not SEO as a whole is succeeding or failing; KPIs are the metrics that go on the summary of monthly performance reports; KPIs keep you late at work or up late at night if they’re not looking right KPIs are the metrics that your boss or client – people who need to make resource allocation decisions based on ROI – need to see.

      Rankings (or bounce or CTR) shouldn’t be a KPI. Good KPIs include metrics like ROI on SEO, lead value from organic traffic, revenue from organic traffic, organic visits, etc…

      I have seen many people use rankings as a primary KPI for SEO. I’ve talked to way too many people who would obsess about being #1 for keywords x,y, and z, but couldn’t tell me how much revenue or leads from organic traffic have increased. Like you said, over-focusing on any metric is bad; it’s just that some marketing metrics (like keyword rankings) are frequently given way too much weight.

      Rankings are a critical SEO management metric, not a KPI.

      Over-focus on rankings not only takes your eyes of real KPIs but it also is often at the root of myopic SEO that ignores non-rankings-related high-impact SEO activities like landing page conversion-rate-optimization, keyword targeting, site architecture, and (especially for e-commerce) market research.

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