So you've started an SEO campaign, either on your own or with the help of an agency or freelancer. You've read all the articles, you've conducted some tests, and you're fairly confident you're doing everything correctly in terms of best practices and ongoing strategies. This is all well and good, but how confident are you that you're actually making progress?
Progress is hard to define for SEO because it has so many independent variables (on-site SEO, content, links, etc.) and so many independent variables (keyword rankings, search impressions, organic search traffic, etc.). If you want a good understanding of where your SEO campaign is and where it's heading, you need to examine these 10 factors.
1. How many people find the site through organic search? This is the single best indicator you have to the overall performance of your campaign, so let's address it first. You can find this under "Organic Traffic" in Google Analytics; it will tell you how many people found your site through search. This is more important than your keyword rankings (we'll touch on those later) because it tells you how many people actually clicked through to your site. This number should grow steadily over time.
2. How many people find the site through referrals? Referral traffic is the traffic you've received through external links pointing to your site. This has nothing to do with search engines, but speaks volumes about the quality of your link building strategy, which is crucial to any SEO campaign. If you're building high-quality links with good content on high authority sites, this number should grow alongside your organic traffic.
3. How many pages get at least some search traffic? It's possible to opt for a specialized SEO strategy, optimizing one or a few pages more than any others, but generally it's better to spread your efforts across your domain. Check out how many pages of your site have gotten at least some organic traffic; this will tell you how effective you are at optimizing every page of your site (as well as how good you are at targeting your search audience with new content).
4. How have my rankings changed? Though organic traffic should still be a more significant indicator of your overall success, it's also important to pay attention to your keyword rankings (even with today's Hummingbird/semantic search-driven engines). Noticing a sudden drop in one niche due to an emerging competitor can help you redirect your strategy to a more competitive target. You can track rankings automically using software like AgencyAnalytics, AuthorityLabs, or AdvancedWebRanking.
5. What new links have I earned? You can use any link profile tool (such as Open Site Explorer, Majestic, or Ahrefs) to examine what links are pointing to your site; do this often, even if you keep strict tabs on what links you build manually as part of your ongoing strategy. You can also use BuzzSumo to get notifications in real-time whenever a new link is found pointing to your site. You'll find that, as you gain prominence and authority, you'll naturally attract links you haven't built yourself. Evaluate the quality and quantity of these links to gauge your authoritative strength.
6. How is my content performing? Take a look at your content performance using comment threads, social activity, and traffic data from Google Analytics as your guide. Which topics are performing well? Which ones are underperforming? Are you seeing a gradual rise in overall effectiveness? Learn from this information and adjust your strategy accordingly.
7. What social signals am I getting? Social signals are not as important to your rankings as some people might claim. Getting lots of social shares does little for your rankings directly, but it does serve as an indication of your content's strength, and does carry peripheral benefits (like earning your brand more visibility and links). Pay attention to which pieces of your content get the most social shares, and how those shares grow over time.
8. How many conversions am I getting? An SEO strategy by itself doesn't guarantee conversions (even if it's top-notch); for that you'll need a dose of conversion optimization. However, the number of conversions made by your organic traffic can give you an indication of that traffic's relevance to your brand. If your conversion rates suffer, it could be due to inefficient audience targeting in your SEO strategy.
9. How have I grown since the beginning? This question can apply to all the metrics we've seen above--how have these metrics changed since you've started? They may have gone up since last month, but what about the months before? Where are you now compared to a year ago?
10. How much am I spending? This may be the most important question of all, since it determines the value of your SEO campaign. You know how your results are changing, how much traffic, and how many conversions you've received, but how much did you pay for those results? After the first year or so, your benefits should start handily outweighing your costs.
This list isn't comprehensive; there are several factors I haven't examined ranging in importance from trivial to marginal. Depending on the goals and structure of your campaign, these questions may be of little use to you; I tried to select the questions that are most important for the greatest number of people. With them, you should be able to gain a firm grasp on your strategy and where it's headed, and make changes as necessary to improve your standing.