Search engine optimization is one of the rare business areas where there are thousands of self proclaimed experts, but no central governing body that actual certifies it. And there never will be, because search engines have no incentives to encourage the industry.
Google made nearly $28.55 billion from AdWords in 2017. At the same time we know that people wouldn't run ads if they weren't making a net profit. Consider that the average click through rate for an ad is 1.91%. Google is logically enabling a much higher amount of commerce than $28.55 billion, and the organic value of that traffic must be worth much more than their AdWords revenue. SEO isn't a snake-oil industry, it's a multibillion dollar opportunity for anyone who can execute.
Google has every incentive to make sure any industry that would subvert billions in revenue gets destroyed and is delegitimized. Not that SEO as an industry needs any help. Even though it gets harder every year, there are still a stunning number of dodgy & underachieving businesses in the industry today.
Now if you're here, I assume that you're really interested in telling whether or not your SEO company has been bullshitting you for months, if SEO is even worth doing, or if your latest site redesign or SEO consultant worked out. The six steps below should give you a good picture of where performance was, is, and is probably going. Either the picture of success will be nuanced with areas of success, or a complete dud. All that said, knowledge is power. So below are six easy tips for evaluating SEO.
You can check rankings with a variety of tools including SEMrush, SERPstat, or AHREFS. If you're a site owner I highly recommend checking out of any of these tools. (SEMrush has a no-hassle money back guarantee for a week) I'll go through the process of checking rankings (for free) on SEMrush because I think it's the most full featured at the lowest price point of the three, and is free to try.
You Can Also Use the Below Search Bar to Investigate your Domain (or that of a competitor)
Type your domain name into the search bar, and of course click "Start now." (gotta love the fact that they have no sign-up)
The dashboard has great information on paid search keywords, display advertising, and organic search, which is all worth checking out. But the bread and butter of what we care about is rankings. As a note SEMrush has a decent set of backlink data, but I'd recommend pulling data from AHREFS or Majestic before SEMrush.
This is the main dashboard for the Organic Research Dashboard. Information is limited for free, but you can still glean all of the key information from your site here. The first thing to look at is the main bar chart for your current rankings. Ideally what you want to see is the graph from my above client, where there is a clear growth in rankings over time. The other great thing you can see (for free) are ranking trends over the previous two years, one year, six months, and current month. The current month is great for seeing if you're already on a downward slide.
On the flip-side I'd look for a specific drop off in rankings in the previous few years. If you're wondering why business hasn't been so good since 2015, you might see it here.
The other nice thing of this overview is the total number of keywords your site has in the top 100, the estimated traffic from your rankings, and the cost of that traffic if you bought it with AdWords. There's also a nice chart of keywords and their URLs below, but this info is only fully revealed with an account.
As you can see in the video above, there are a few interesting ways you can toggle between the search settings to assess quality. Let's be frank, we want keywords on the first page, and it's important to note what is on the second page and beyond, as an item to monitor for growth.
But what we really care about are the keyword in the top 3. These keywords are going to provide the traffic your business needs to grow. If you don't see keywords in the "Top 3" and "4 - 10" range growing over time, that is a pretty good indication that growth hasn't been that great.
The caveat. With SEO there is always a caveat. The thing to keep in mind with Google search rankings is that 1) you can rank without getting more traffic or revenue 2) you can get more traffic without rankings, 3) you can rank for useless or low value keywords, and 4) long-tail traffic which would be off the radar of SEMrush can be significant. To really assess the quality of your rankings I'd recommend parsing through data on a monthly basis to be completely sure that important keywords were rankings, or that unimportant ones weren't getting shed from your site. The main thing to note is did valuable keyword rankings grow over time or not?
Now the thing with SEO is, keyword ranking can grow even if sessions don't. At the end of the day organic traffic is really the only thing that matters. Any SEO agency worth its salt should have set up Google Analytics at some point. While there are many great things to see there, I'll quickly go into the basics of auditing your organic traffic from search engines here.
Google keeps adding great features to their main dashboard. While some of the information is a nice to have, like the browsers or mobile devices a user is having, it amounts to fluff for our current purposes. (Google Analytics is still worth exploring, especially if you want to diagnose an area in which you're weak. What we want is to see growth, or lack thereof for organic traffic generally. So in the left sidebar click on Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels.
This view will give you information on all of your main channels. Direct are those people that come directly into your site, say existing customers, people who had a friend recommend you, or who have your site bookmarked. Referral is typically traffic from external links on other sites or forums. Email is from email campaigns, and paid is from paid channels like AdWords. Organic is what we care about, and this represents all the traffic from search engines like Google and occasionally Bing, Yahoo, & DuckDuckGo.
To actually assess growth in organic traffic over time you want to click on the date range set box in the top right of your Google Analytics view. You can set any date range you like here, including the previous month, quarter, or just however long you've been working on SEO. The other thing to keep in mind is that the year over year view can be extremely useful for also assessing seasonality.
While there are a variety of places you can check out traffic quality in Google Analytics I highly recommend looking the differences in organic traffic sessions over time. Engagement metrics like the actual goals and revenue associated with this traffic is also key. But ideally you're seeing more green then red in this view.
First click back on the date range box, then select previous year.
From there you should be able to see a data sequence that gives you a slice of what traffic looks like compared to the previous year.
The important thing to note here is that success or failure from your SEO can often be influenced by seasonal traffic trends. Sometimes your pushing a boulder up a hill, other times you might be pushing a boulder down a hill. Either way between rankings and traffic you should have a pretty good sense of what your SEO work has gotten you so far.
Google Search Console (formerly WebmasterTools) is an exceptional place to check the performance of your site. While not as important as it once was, it's still a basic checkbox that any SEO agency or consultant should be checking in on. There are a few things to take a look at that should be dead tells of SEO quality. First make sure you don't have excessive SEO errors, these could be innocuous, but generally you don't want more than a few at any one time. The other thing to note is wether a sitemap has been submitted for Google. As a KPI you should ideally be seeing you indexed ratio (URLs indexed/submitted) improving over time. A large number of non-indexed pages is typically a clear indication of poor performance.
Next let's click on "Search Analytics" to get a bit more data.
Google webmaster tools has a wealth of powerful information for any business. Once you get into the search analytics screen I would recommend checking the impression, CTR, and position checkboxes. This will give you valuable information on all of your traffic data. The best part about search console is that you can compare traffic from the previous month, as well as see a wealth of data from (unfortunately) the last 90 days only. That said this data can give you valuable information on how some of your top keywords (queries in Search Console parlance) and pages that you can't get anywhere else.
Once you compare your performance of the previous months (I would recommend checking frequently) you can easily diagnose drop offs in traffic. Search Console is so powerful precisely because you can see important information like a fall off in impressions (less people even seeing you rankings) or CTR (less people even clicking on your rankings.
Finally you can look at query level data to assess how the specific rankings on your site are actually performing. If you notice a fall off in a specific page's clicks, impressions, or CTR that generally indicates an issue. Alone this data doesn't necessarily help you diagnose problems with an SEO agency or consultant, but over time it can help you assesses wether or not progress is being made.
One valuable area that all site owners should be on top of is the actual amount of work that is being done on their sites. Working on on-site copy, title tags, and meta descriptions are all typical work for any SEO agency (since it's an easy way to manipulate CTR, as seen above). Generally there are two easy ways to actually keep tabs on what is being done on your site. If you are engaged and have a decent cash-flow on-site it's worth having an account with DeepCrawl or Ryte (formerly OnPage) will make it easy to keep tabs on your site. If you're more technically inclined and looking to save some cash I'd recommend using ScreamingFrog. This option will give you better options to audit competitors and more raw data to work off of.
Most SEO agencies and consultants that are serious about growth should give you clear monthly reporting on progress, wether times are good or bad. If any of the data you've seen in steps 1-4 are a surprise that is typically a good indication of a poor SEO agency. They may be doing good work, but they clearly aren't giving you the information you need to judge that.
This is a basic box to check, but any SEO agency worth its weight in salt should create and run a thorough SEO audit. If you don't have one in hand that's better than the automated reports that SEMrush, SERPstat, AHREFS, or MOZ can create then that's generally a clear red flag. I'd recommend referencing their audit every few month and making sure that progress is being made on the initial issues they indicated.
Finally, hard work is nothing without benchmarks. If your SEO agency didn't define and try to meet clear Goals and growth metrics then that's generally a clear sign of an agency that isn't committed to growth.
There is just no central governing body. There could be thousands of issues on a site, and every industry and business is different. But one thing remains constant. The proof is in the pudding.
They do more than just SEO. They're actual marketing experts and care about your business.
Consider this gentleman, Matt Cuts, the former head of Google's web spam team. He successfully destroyed years of bad SEO, saved SEO from becoming useless, and is of course, universally reviled by bad SEO's.
The vast majority of his "advice" can be boiled down to SEO doesn't work and make "great" content.
To be fair great content is a large part of what we do. But SEO still works, it has just evolved, even if Google doesn't want it to, because competitors are imperfect and so is Google (shocking). I know Google seems like a brilliant monolithic force, but think about the task it has at hand, in 2013 it had 100 trillion pages indexed, that's a lot of data. The algorithm can be manipulated and worked with, you just need to be sure you're working with the people who know how to do that.
What to Look for In a Good SEO Agency:
But in a world without a central governing body that handles certifications like you would have with pilots, doctors, plumbers, or lawyers who is a business owner to trust? As a business owner or startup growth junkie it can be appealing to steer clear of SEO and do what Google & Bing want you to do, plow thousands into AdWords, or outdated display advertising, or best yet Facebook. But by auditing an agency you can access the highest ROI growth channel.
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