How Do We ‘Grade’ SEO Success?

Published on June 22, 2021

Historically, one of the biggest selling points for search engine optimization (SEO) has been that brands with a successful strategy will end up on “the first page of Google.” And while there is, perhaps, some worth to this claim, it’s largely an obsolete idea – to say nothing of the fact that there never really was a “front page” of Google.

You see, today, both searchers and search engines are more sophisticated than ever before. Users are employing more targeted search terms, conducting more site-specific searches, and searching with tools like voice search, which weren’t mainstream even a few years ago. Meanwhile, search engines themselves evaluate sites based on more criteria than ever; Google has also changed the look, feel, and function of its search engine results pages (SERPs) with new features like Featured Snippets and Knowledge Graphs.

What this means, from a practical standpoint, is that different searchers are going to see different SERPs every time, based on a wide variety of criteria – specific search terminology, location, individual search history, and so on.

With this in mind, the “first page” of Google seems like even more of a fairy tale; everyone’s first page – or, more accurately, their initial search results – will be different, every time. So how can you gauge your brand’s SEO success today?

Broadly speaking, SEO practitioners look at three major categories – keyword ranking, total organic traffic, and conversion rate – to evaluate the strength of an ongoing SEO campaign.

Of course, not all of these categories are created equal. Let’s dive into each of them in some more depth: 

Keyword Rankings

One of the first things that many SEO newcomers want to know is the number of keywords that they’re ranking for. Which searches are they showing up for? Are they number one yet?

To monitor keyword ranking and performance, we can turn to keyword ranking tools, including Geek favorites like SEMRush and SERPStat.

Broadly speaking, these tools work by analyzing your website and various search engine results pages. From there, they can register how you rank for various search terms, based on a variety of criteria (how often you appear in searches, how your content compares to your competitors’, and so on).

These rankings can often be quite revealing! For instance, you may well be ranking highly for a term that you weren’t particularly conscious of targeting in the first place.

As a rule of thumb, though, we would argue that these tools – while extremely useful – are better for guiding your SEO efforts than for comprehensively evaluating your individual successes. While these services can offer a lot of value, the reality is that, in a search landscape where individual results are so unique, the utility of these tools is a little bit restricted.

At the end of the day, ranking highly for a search term is great. But it’s important to reiterate that, though you may rank highly according to your SEO tool, you may not actually register in many other individual searches in the real world, due to the complex interplay of factors that we discussed above.

In other words? Your tool may say that you rank highly for “sell my used car”- yet you may still not appear on an individual Google user’s search results, because they’re searching for “sell my used Camaro” or “sell my car in minneapolis.”

Those little nuances add up!  It’s important to remember that much of your SEO success today will come from long-tail keywords just like those – the search phrases that are highly specific, and which may not be highly visible, but which are more likely to generate real conversions and leads due to their dedicated audience. You may rank highly for certain keywords – but if they don’t strike the right balance between relevance and popularity, they may not generate any value for your brand. And, unfortunately, you can’t just leave it up to one tool to evaluate this complex, very human, situation.

What’s more, the rankings on these sites can be extremely variable; speaking from experience, a targeted keyword that you once rated highly for may disappear overnight, for no particular rhyme or reason.

With all of this being said, we’re not here to bury these search ranking tools! They can offer enormous value, if you’re using them in the right ways. For instance, while they’re not necessarily the end-all, be-all for SEO success, understanding your success or failure with certain keywords can be a great way to brainstorm and develop new content, whether that means finding new topics within your “content pools,” optimizing your existing meta-data, or developing a fresh backlinking strategy.

Most of these platforms also offer site auditing tools that can be quite helpful when it comes to evaluating the structure and code of your website, making sure that it’s primed for SEO success moving forward; keyword tools are also extremely useful for paid search engine marketing (SEM) – in which you are actually bidding money on specific search phrases, based on search volume and relevance.

For this sort of pay-per-click (PPC) strategy, understanding keyword performance in the broadest possible strokes is absolutely vital, because you’re trying to reach the biggest audience possible in the shortest span of time; SEO is a more nuanced art form, one that pays out dividends over time, and which flourishes with attention and care.

Organic Traffic (and Organic Growth)

Ten years ago, keywording was the bottom line in SEO. The goal was to rank as highly as possible for as many keywords as possible. That’s it, game over. Today, a successful SEO strategy will result in you ranking as highly as possible for as many keywords as possible – but as a byproduct of success, not as an end goal in and of itself.

Today, SEO is about establishing authority and credibility; it’s about making sure that your brand appeals to both search engines and to the real human users who are putting them to work. It’s about reaching a broad audience and the right audience – the one most likely to produce hot leads for your unique brand.

With this in mind, one of the most important metrics for evaluating the success of your SEO campaign is to monitor your organic traffic rates – which you may think of as the number and volume of users that are coming to your site from searches.

Are you reaching more people with time? Are you reaching the right people?

Here are a few key questions to ask when digging into your analytics with your SEO pro:

  • “How much organic (search traffic) am I receiving?”
  • “Is this number growing – month to month, year to year?”
  • “Where is this traffic coming from – is it from users within your target market?”
  • “Which pieces of content are generating the most traffic? Don’t hesitate to drill into specific pages!”

Understanding the big picture is vital! But the right SEO provider will also help you drill into all of these questions in depth, breaking down the how and the why behind the search optimization process.

At the end of the day, we feel that organic growth – taken as a whole – is perhaps the most important metric to track when it comes to SEO.

Regardless of how it’s generated (i.e., from hyper-local searches, from long-tail searches… we could go on), more traffic is more traffic; the larger your audience and the better-targeted your audience, the higher the likelihood that you’ll be able to generate leads or create conversions.

At Geek Chicago, we pride ourselves on creating strong, consistently growing organic audiences for our clients; check out some of our results in action, below:

Actual client results - Geek Chicago
Actual Geek Chicago client results after implementation organic content creation and social media promotion strategies.

Conversion Rates

So you’ve got traffic coming to your site. But are you getting clicks? Leads? Are people making that purchase, filling out that form, entering that conversion, putting themselves in a position for social media remarketing?  

Like keyword rankings, conversion rates are a popular metric for SEO success, and an effective one – but they don’t tell the whole story.

Obviously, it’s important that users are creating for value for your brand after landing on your site. With that said, it’s important to remember that digital marketing works at scale, and it’s more about outcome than ego.

What we mean is that sometimes it’s counterproductive to try to “keep up with the Joneses.” The reality is that different brands are always going to generate conversions at a different rate; it’s more important to consider if your conversion rate is sufficient for your needs than to try to compete with some competitor, real or imagined.

At a certain point, the idea of generating conversions also falls out of the purview of SEO, and more into the realm of comprehensive digital marketing.

For instance, your pages may be perfectly backend optimized for “on-page SEO,” making them appealing to search engines and putting your site in a position to attract organic visitors. But what about the front end of your site? Is your content interesting and readable? Are your forms intuitive to use? Does your multimedia break? Is your site easy to navigate?

All of these questions matter! For one thing, Google heavily factors usability into your search ranking scores. If your users spend a lot of time on your site, visit multiple pages, or convert frequently, then Google will rank your content more highly; if users click away from your site quickly, on the other hand, Google will look less favorably on all of your content, and diminish your overall search standing.

It’s also important to remember that SEO isn’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to generating conversions. It’s part of the digital marketing puzzle, sure, but it will also pay to remember that social media, paid SEM, and email marketing can all be hugely successful at creating conversions in their own right.  

So, what are we saying? We guess it boils down to one idea: When it comes to your online success, everything matters.

Web design and development, content quality and frequency, social proof, smart targeting… When it comes to creating conversions, all of these elements will come into play in some way or another.

That’s why Geek doesn’t just stop at providing SEO services! We recognize that digital marketing for the new millennium is a holistic process, one that will involve an understanding of search engines, social media, email, and a variety of other digital channels.

Looking for help getting a digital marketing campaign off the ground? Ready to really understand your analytics results? Want to increase your traffic or conversion rates this year? We’re here to help! Drop us a line today to get the conversation started!