Back to basics: Baseline Metrics

baseline measurements
Google Webmaster Tools

I’ve spent a lot of time at work the past few weeks cleaning up my baseline reports.

I’ve been there for three months, and the results of the work I did in November are starting to appear in the inbound search trends. This is gratifying, but I also know that what I measure, track and report against now will be what will make or break me going forward.

I cleaned up a lot of those reports to ensure that everything was in place to help me succeed in the project in the next quarter, by the end of the year.

One of the ways that I track my project is simply search engine result rankings for a list of 500 popular and relevant keyword phrases. Once a month, we pull this information from Hitwise, and I’ve got a snapshot of my progress. It’s a little simplistic, but it is good for tracking and trending over time.

Unfortunately about 20% of the words on my original report were things we’d never achieve rankings for, so I had to revise the list. I am pretty confident that the new list supports business goals better, and will more accurately reflect my work. But it got me thinking about baseline metrics, and how incredibly important they are for SEO consultants to prove worth and return on investment.

So much of SEO still comes across as smoke and mirrors. So much of it is guesswork. I freely admit to using my intuition almost as much as my analytical skills in my day to day work. If I’m playing hunches, then how can my boss or his boss or some EVP decide whether I’m any good at this, or just a lucky little gambler? The numbers. The results.

And now at the beginning, when I’m still building my reports, I’ve got the one-time shot to decide how to present this case. This is massively important for my success within the company and my success in my long-term career.

SEO and Gambling on Content

Last night, I had a wacky dream where there were three web content strategists competing on some sort of game show.  They had to pick titles of content and see who could get the most valuable content portfolio, but all they could see were Jeopardy-like 2-word titles.

They were gambling and guessing their way through content strategy. And the winner took home the pot because of one factor alone: luck.

I woke up scribbling a post-it note to myself to write about gambling on content. Because unless you’re doing keyword research, looking at insights and trends, and watching your own analytics to see what your visitors are looking for, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Taking a shot in the dark, and hoping something sticks.

Me, I am not so much of a gambler. In fact, I don’t even play the lottery because I prefer to have a dollar in my pocket than dream about lightning striking someday.

Web content costs money. Whether it’s in resource time to write and edit it, or freelancer hours to translate it, or the time and money to negotiate using someone else’s content. Why would you fritter that away on the hopes that luck will win out and you’ll have what people are searching for?

SEO for a Local Business vs. SEO for a Global Content Provider

I’m shifting gears in my professional life as a Search Engine Optimization specialist.  With my recent change in full-time employers, I’m also going to have to change the SEO strategies and tactics I want to use.

Beyond the obvious difference – targeting entirely different search terms – these changes include shifts in:

  • Target Audience
  • Search Goals
  • Site Goals
  • SEO Strategy

Currently, my audience is one major metropolitan area.  If my sites here get attention in the rest of the state, great, but that’s not the focus. If these sites get attention in other states, fantastic! But again, that’s not the point of my day-to-day business goals.  My goal is to get visitors to the site, and to convert them into leads for the purchase of a car.

For this local business, the SEO strategy includes local directories and listings, it includes social media, and the vast majority of the content is, in fact, what’s in stock in the inventory.

Soon, my target audience will amount to… the population of the UK, and other countries that might use UK-English related search terms.  This means I’m basically going to have to master a new dialect of my native tongue. (fun!)   My search goals will include encouraging readers to dig deeper, delve further for more information, and come back for more.

The SEO strategy here will be about site architecture, link-building to individual pages, and the daunting task of page-by-page SEO optimization of thousands of pages of content, as well as creating ongoing content strategy.

What does this have to do with anything?  Just this: if you want to optimize a site – any site – for search, you need to know those four bullet points before you even start researching tactics and getting an action plan together.

  • Who do you want to find your site? (Are they in a particular location? Do they speak a particular language, or have a particular interest?)
  • What do you want them to do once they get there? (What are your success metrics? How will you measure the success of your SEO program?)
  • How do you make that happen? (Which SEO tactics will help you attain your goals? What is the best way to prioritize your effort?)

Setting SEO Priorities: What do I do First?

I’ve already addressed the idea of outsourcing SEO or hiring someone to do it for you.  Well, the other option, of course is doing it yourself.   I’ve recently gotten several emails from friends and connections who are attempting to do just that.

While I can give the basics on keyword research, optimizing content, optimizing images, and so on, that would be an exercise in repeating what’s already been said all over the web.  Needless to say, there is a lot that can be done to a website to make it friendlier for search engines.

I find that these small business owners are running into the same problem time and again while attempting to optimize their home-grown sites on their own: they get overwhelmed.

Trust me, this is my full-time job. I know it can be overwhelming, particularly if you have a business to run on top of the SEO project!

Here are 5 tips to help you prioritize your on-page SEO project so you can get the most out of it right away:

  1. Set up Analytics. If you don’t already have an analytics program running on your site, this is a mandatory first step. You can’t make key decisions if you don’t know what people are doing when they visit your site. Do this a month or two before you plan to get started.
  2. Use the Analytics to identify your goals for your SEO project, identify 2-3 competitors for your keywords, and research your keywords so you can use that information later in your project.  Are you selling a product or service? What counts as a “conversion” from a web visitor to a sales lead? What counts as a “conversion” from a lead to a sale? How will you track that so you can improve it later?
  3. Optimize your homepage. Make sure it is fast and light, that you are encouraging clicks to deeper in your site, and that you provide basic usability on this page.
  4. Know your top-selling pages, products and topics.  Start there. If you sell more of one product than any other, work on the landing pages, product pages, and content that is relevant for that product first.  Organize the rest of your project in descending order from there. This will give the money-makers more oomph, and help you pay for the time you’re spending on optimizing your site.
  5. Keep going.  Use your analytics to check in with progress and to decide the best direction. Touch your homepage frequently, tweaking links to subpages as they gain importance and relevance, testing to see if you can get more conversions or fewer bounces.

SEO Strategy: Top 10 Domination

This morning, Site Reference enewsletter appeared in my inbox, with a nice little article about “SEO that’s not really SEO“, which focuses on business directories and how to take advantage of those listings. I like this article, it points out something I’ve been doing for a while now, but it doesn’t finish the picture.

I believe that in addition to getting the #1 listing on Google searches for a target keyword phrase, the secondary goal of an SEO consultant should be to dominate the Google top 10 listings.

If you do a search for a vague business term, such as “barber shop in suburbia” you will notice how many times the same barber shop’s name appears in the search results. If not consciously, your subconscious is drawn to repetition and we tend to believe that this repetition increases the relevance of that particular listing.

Business directories like Google Places, Bing Listings or YP.com are just the tip of the iceberg of well-ranked pages that can include your name. And the best part? This isn’t spam, it’s not even gray hat it is so honest, and it’s a valid way to dominate listings.

Here are my favorite places to keyword optimize a local business name to have it dominate the search results:

  1. Search Engine Maps – Google Places, Bing Listings – these often aggregate reviews, so pay special attention to #3
  2. Business Directories – BBB, Chamber of Commerce – simple directories with name, address, website & nothing additional in the profile. Be sure to select well-traveled, well-thought-of sites for this, and don’t pepper link farms with your URL.
  3. Ratings & Reviews Sites – Yelp, Kudzu, Superpages, etc. – there are dozens of these sites out there, some specific to industry. These will need monitoring and attention, responsiveness to reviews, etc. But they are worth it.
  4. Social Media Sites – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, LinkedIn – a social media plan should be in the back pocket of any good SEO, and not just for back links (which are only so-so anyway).  These sites rank well, you can name your own URL in many cases, and it’s another easy entry in the top 10 that leads back to the business!
  5. Partner Sites – If you advertise enough on a given partner website, or if you donate enough money to charity, sometimes they don’t want to pass you link-love from their website as an inbound link. A second choice would be a landing page on their site with your business name in the title tags, with details about your partnership.