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SEO Wizard Rand Fishkin Shares The 3 Most Important SEO Metrics

Rand Fishkin

Should you care about keyword rankings or backlinks? What about engagement metrics? How do you know what to measure during your SEO campaigns?

We interviewed the one and only Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and SEO guru, to find out what he thinks are the measurements that matter for search.

He tells us the most important metrics and even the most important one… if you had to choose.

Additionally, he alluded to some upcoming Moz initiatives that may be rolled out this year along with some other cool SEO measurement tools to check out! 

Arketi Group: Why does measurement matter in search marketing?

Rand Fishkin: Fundamentally, you can only improve things you measure – that’s a statement of simple logic. If you're unable to quantify or qualify in some fashion where you're at today, there's no way to know if tomorrow's progress will be better or worse.

With that in mind, what are the three most important SEO metrics for search marketing?

If you could only measure three things in organic search, I would urge you to first measure organic search traffic to your website. This is something you can look at in your web analytics to see how much traffic was sent there and which search engines sent it.

Second, I would look at the distribution of pages that received the search traffic. To find this, review which URLs on your website searchers arrived from and information related to each. You’re looking for things like time spent on the site, bounce rate and engagement – all those wonderful metrics.

The third metric I urge you to consider is rankings – your search engine rank for the terms and phrases you care about most and believe are most likely to attract a high quality audience. The reason rankings are important is they show you where you can improve and tell you where to focus your energy and effort. So, if you see there are search phrases that you think are important, which you’re not ranking high enough for, you can invest resources to try and rank for those.

Unfortunately, we are no longer able to connect search words and phrases directly to the URLs receiving traffic – at least not through Google because it no longer shows the referring keywords. It’s frustrating.

You know that Google sent you a bunch of traffic, and you understand it went to this page, but you can’t necessarily see what keywords resulted in that visit – which is why rankings are critical. If we knew, that would give us a strong indication where to put our effort.

Because we don't know, we have to conduct our own research to understand the keywords for which we do and do not rank. Correlating those is pretty difficult. There's software like Moz, Searchmetrics and Conductor, but the results are imprecise. They guess which terms and phrases they think are likely to be sending traffic in the page, but can't say for sure.

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Are there any false flags or red herrings when it comes to measuring SEO?

Oh sure. Funny – one of the biggest ones we see is people who measure their SEO progress by links or link metrics – and that's probably unwise. It’s certainly true that more links from higher quality sites will help you to rank better, but there's much more to it than that.

If those links are pointing to the pages you care about or are trying to run traffic to, it can certainly harm you if those links disappear over time, come from spammy or sketchy sites, or come from good sites you manipulated in some way. If Google's algorithm or a web spam team figures it out, you're in a world of hurt.

Link metrics are a great way to assess the relative challenge of ranking for a specific term by looking at who of your competition is also ranking for it. I think it's an interesting way to look at your raw progress in terms of link quality, but I don't think I would put it on my top three metrics list. I think people who measure their SEO progress by links and link metrics rather than rankings and traffic are costing themselves opportunities. 

Of the three key measurements we talked about, if you could only measure one thing for SEO, which would you pick?

That's tough. Probably organic search traffic. If I could cheat, I would say search traffic by URL. But I can measure just one single thing, I would look at the raw search traffic that's coming to me, how those visits are converting and all my efforts to see if I'm making progress on that one big metric.

SEO is usually not about just getting rankings, getting links or visibility, but it's about the value that the traffic you get from search can drive. And when we're talking about SEO like that, that traffic tends to be incredibly high quality, highly relevant to what you're doing and much, much cheaper. It takes a lot of sweat equity, but it does not take nearly the same level of dollar investment that paid traffic takes.

Speaking of dollars, what's the most cost-effective measurement in SEO marketing?

Those three raw metrics we discussed are actually useful and helpful in making sure you progress. And if you want to get more sophisticated, look at engagement metrics. Look at the URLs that receive search traffic and understand what that traffic did once it got there. You should ask: Did people stay on the site for long? Did people engage with the page? Did people visit one or multiple pages? What's the browse rate or pages per visit?

If you want to get truly sophisticated and high quality, look into the value of a visitor. You can do that by assigning some form of conversion metric to visitors. You decide a person is worth a certain amount of money. For instance, for every 100 visitors, you sold one item for $50, like an eBook. Therefore, you know each visitor who comes through search is worth $0.50 on average. That’s the dollar value of opportunity you have if you could increase search traffic by X.

“If you're unable to quantify or qualify in some fashion where you're at today, there's no way to know if tomorrow's progress will be better or worse.”

Rand Fishkin, The Wizard of Moz

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What tools would you recommend for measuring and why?

One of the basics you must have to get started is Google Analytics, which measures web traffic. If you are uncomfortable with giving Google your analytics data or you don't trust them or you don't particularly like Google Analytics, there are a few alternatives. Some of them are very expensive, like Adobe, which used to be Omniture. Adobe Analytics, is really pricey, but it can do a lot of sophisticated things.

Another option that is free and self-hosted is Piwik. It's reasonably sophisticated – it doesn't do quite everything Google Analytics does, but it has a broad feature set, and is open-source, so a lot of people are developing on it.

A fourth option that I've only come to know about recently is Gaug.es, a paid analytics tool. It's a little simpler than Google Analytics and it's not quite as powerful in every facet, but it's inexpensive and somewhat easier to use.

If you have a WordPress site, you can install the plugin WP-Stats that tracks a lot of data for you. It's not nearly as powerful as some of the others, though.

From there, given the other things we've talked about today, you need a rank tracking solution of some kind. The cheapest one is free – it’s called Google Search Console, formerly Google Webmaster Tools. The problem is that it’s highly inaccurate. We've done a bunch of analysis on the data in the tool, and you can read some blog posts about that. The reality is we can't really be sure where the numbers are coming from or why they're so wild and all over the place.

Here’s an example that happened to me: our Google Search Console account showed us that “yahoo” – the word “yahoo” – is the search term that sends our site, Moz, the most traffic. To our knowledge, we've never actually ranked on the first two or three pages of Google for that term, so that’s odd. We looked at that specific page on Moz, and Google certainly doesn’t seem to be sending us much traffic to that page. It seems random. Very weird.

So for this reason, I wouldn't particularly trust Google Search Console. If you have no money, however, the platform gives you at least some insight. There are certainly lots of other good measurement things inside of Google Search Console. The crawl data is pretty solid in error checking and so is the mobile-friendly test.

Alternate options are paid tools. There are many, many rank tracking tools out there. Look for one that tracks not only the organic web results – the basic “ten blue links” types of search results, but also all the different features that can appear in Google results, such as an image block, news stories, local and maps, the featured snippets and knowledge graph, the People Also Ask boxes, and all these different things that can change the click-through rates and the positioning of where you might rank.

Moz is certainly an option to cover everything that affects click-through rates and where you might rank. It's certainly good and full-featured. I would say it's one of the best rank tracking tools out there. Other really good ones include Searchmetrics and GetStat. If you're doing large-scale rank tracking, hundreds of thousands or millions of keywords, GetStat is definitely the solution we recommend most. It's a great company, too. Many people also like SEMrush.

In Closing

We can’t thank Rand enough for his time. Hopefully you learned how measure your SEO efforts better for your B2B company. Be sure to check out Moz.com – its Open Site Explorer is one of the best free SEO tools on market!

Join us for next issue of Core when we interview Jen Horton with SiriusDecisions to learn what really matters in demand generation measurements.

In the meantime, check out what the rest of our experts have to say in our Measurements that Matter series!

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