Measuring the results of SEO changes can be challenging, partly because there are so many moving parts and partly because months can elapse between when changes are made to a site and when results are seen in search rankings and traffic. This difficulty only increases the importance of measuring progress and being accountable for results. This section will explore methods for measuring the results from your SEO efforts.
Keeping a log of changes to your site is absolutely recommended. If you’re not keeping a timeline (which could be as simple as an online spreadsheet or as complex as a professional project management visual flowchart), you will have a harder time executing your SEO plan and managing the overall SEO process. Sure, without one you can still gauge the immediate effects of content additions/revisions, link acquisitions, and development changes, but visibility into how technical modifications to the website might have altered the course of search traffic, whether positively or negatively, is obscured.
If you can’t map changes—both those intended to influence SEO and those for which SEO wasn’t even a consideration—you’ll be optimizing blind and could miss powerful signals that could help dictate your strategy going forward. You should track more than just site changes as well. External factors that can have a big impact on your SEO results include confirmed search engine algorithm updates, competitor news events (e.g., product or company launches), and breaking news. Factors within your own business can have an impact too, such as major marketing or PR events, IPOs, or the release of earnings statements. There are many scenarios in which you will want to try to establish cause and effect, such as:
Sudden changes in organic traffic are obviously notable events. If traffic plummets, you will be facing lots of questions about why, and having a log of site changes will put you in a better position to assess whether any changes you recommended could have been the cause. Of course, if traffic spikes you will want to be able to see whether an SEO-related change was responsible as well.
Changes do not always come as sudden spikes or drop-offs. If you see the traffic beginning a gradual climb (or descent), you will want to be able to assess the likely reasons.
Accountability is a key component of SEO. Budget managers will want to know what return they are getting on their SEO investment. This will inevitably fall into two buckets: itemizing specific work items worked on, and analyzing benefits to the business. Keeping an ongoing change log makes tracking and reporting SEO progress much easier to accomplish.
Your log should track all changes to the website, not just those that were made with SEO in mind. Organizations make many changes that they do not think will affect SEO, but that have a big impact on it. Here are some examples:
Adding content areas/features/options to the site (this could be anything from a new blog to a new categorization system).
Changing the domain of the site. This can have a significant impact, and you should document when the switchover was made.
Modifying URL structures. Changes to URLs on your site will likely impact your rankings, so record any and all changes.
Implementing a new CMS. This is a big one, with a very big impact. If you must change your CMS, make sure you do a thorough analysis of the SEO shortcomings of the new CMS versus the old one, and make sure you track the timing and the impact.
Establishing new partnerships that either send links or require them (meaning your site is earning new links or linking out to new places).
Acquiring new links to pages on the site other than the home page (referred to as “deep links”).
Making changes to navigation/menu systems (moving links around on pages, creating new link systems, etc.).
Marketing activities that may drive upticks in usage/traffic and the source (e.g., if you get mentioned in the press and receive an influx of traffic from it).
When you track these items, you can create an accurate storyline to help correlate causes with effects. If, for example, you’ve observed a spike in traffic from Yahoo! that started four to five days after you switched your menu links from the page footer to the header, it is likely that there is a causal relationship.
Without such documentation it could be months before you noticed the surge—and there would be no way to trace it back to the responsible modification. Your design team might later choose to switch back to footer links, your traffic might fall, and no record would exist to help you understand why. Without the lessons of history, you are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
When you are brought on to handle the SEO for a particular website, one of the first things you need to find out is which SEO activities have previously been attempted. There may be valuable data there, such as a log of changes that you can match up with analytics data to gauge impact.
If no such log exists, you can always check the Wayback Machine (http://www.archive.org) to see whether it has historical logs for your website. This offers snapshots of what the site looked like at various points in time.
Even if a log was not kept, spend some time building a timeline of when any of the types of changes that affect SEO (as discussed in the previous section) took place. In particular, see whether you can get copies of the exact recommendations the prior SEO consultant made, as this will help you with the timeline and the specifics of the changes made.
You should also pay particular attention to understanding the types of link-building activities that took place. Were shady practices used that carry a lot of risk? Was there a particular link-building tactic that worked quite well? Going through the history of the link-building efforts can yield tons of information that you can use to determine your next steps.