The Art of SEO : Measuring Search Traffic (part 1)

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7/18/2011 5:35:16 PM
Classic web analytics data is an incredible asset to SEO. Here are three examples of ways to utilize this data for SEO purposes:
  • Look at your daily referral reports to detect newly received inbound links (the great majority of webmasters click on a link after implementing it, to make sure it works)

  • Look at the search terms people use to come to your site to spot long tail search opportunities

  • Measure the results of your campaigns by tracking the increase in conversions you are driving over time

Web analytics are a must-have for any web publisher.

1. Basic Overview

Your hosting company most likely provides a free web analytics solution, such as AWStats, Webalizer, or something similar. Although these tools provide valuable data, they are very limited in scope, and other tools out there provide significantly more data. Here are six of the best-known ones:

Web analytics platforms track your site’s traffic in two major ways. The older of the two methodologies is to use software that analyzes your web server logfiles after traffic has occurred. Setting up this type of solution generally involves installing the software on an internal server that is able to gain access to the logfiles.

The newer methodology involves implementing JavaScript tags on all of the pages of your website. Provided that you have a basic template for your pages, this generally is a fairly straightforward process. JavaScript then tracks the activity on your web pages as it happens and builds a data profile reflecting that activity.

2. Selecting the Right Analytics Package

Logfile tracking and JavaScript tracking are equally valid methods, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The biggest advantage of the logfile method is that you can track search engine crawler activity on your site. This is something you cannot do in JavaScript implementations, because search engine crawlers do not execute the JavaScript.

The second big advantage of a logfile-based solution is that you run the software in-house, so no third party has a copy of a logfile with your proprietary traffic data on it. This distinction can be a big security issue for some organizations.

Ultimately, most companies opt for JavaScript tracking because JavaScript offers a much greater level of flexibility than logfiles. You can tweak the JavaScript to do custom conversion tracking, or gather pages into logical groupings in a manner that cannot be done in logfile-based applications.

Some companies, such as Unica and Webtrends, will offer you both options, or they will even offer the option to implement a combined solution. This kind of approach can bring you the flexibility and power of JavaScript, but still get you your search engine robot crawling data as well.

Making this decision is only the first step in picking an analytics package. We listed six of the more popular vendors earlier, and there are many more vendors than that. Each of these packages has different strengths and weaknesses. Not only that, they all do their counting a little bit differently. The chart from Stone Temple Consulting’s Web Analytics Shootout report, shown in Figure 1, helps to illustrate the point.

Figure 1. Web analytics accuracy

The chart in Figure 9-1 shows the results of seven different analytics packages (listed on the right). The traffic data for each vendor is reported across five different sites (represented by the acronyms on the bottom).

On the AMD site, the lowest reporting package (HBX Analytics) shows a little less than 750,000 unique visitors, and the highest reporting package (Clicktracks) shows about 1,050,000 unique visitors during the same period—almost 50% more!

These differences result from different decisions in how the analytics packages conduct visitor tracking. None of them are right or wrong, they are just different in the exact thing they are measuring.


HBX Analytics, which is listed in Figure 1, is no longer available, as WebSideStory was acquired by Omniture. In addition, IndexTools was acquired by Yahoo! and is now called Yahoo! Web Analytics.

The more important component of this is whether the functionality of the web analytics software fits your needs. Making this more difficult to understand is the fact that you often do not know what your requirements are until you have used analytics for a while. As you engage with analytics, you will continually learn more things you want to investigate, and develop new requirements.

For many companies, one of the best solutions is to start with a free analytics package such as Google Analytics or Yahoo! Web Analytics and then look to buy a higher-end solution once they have pushed these packages to their limits. By pushing the limits of these free analytics products first, you will end up developing a set of requirements you can use in deciding where to go next.

None of this is meant to say that you should not brainstorm your requirements in detail before selecting an analytics package. You should (and must). Just expect that you will develop new requirements along the way. Web analytics is a journey that unfolds over time.

Based on the requirements you establish in your upfront brainstorming, you may find that you require a set of features that the free packages do not provide. Use that as knowledge to select the right package to start with.

3. Valuable SEO Data in Web Analytics

You can extract all kinds of data from web analytics. Here are a few of the more interesting types of information you may want to extract.

3.1. Traffic by search engine

One of the first things you may want to know is the breakout of traffic by search engine. Figure 2 provides an example of such a report in Google Analytics.

Figure 2. Traffic by search engine

Notice how small the traffic is on Yahoo! compared to Google (about 2.5%). This may be indicative of a problem with the site in question and Yahoo!. This site owner might want to spend some time exploring why the site traffic from Yahoo! is so low.

3.2. Traffic by keyword

One of the basic data points of interest for an SEO practitioner is what search terms are bringing traffic to the website. This provides a quick way to see where the SEO campaign is going well and where it is not going so well. You can also use this to spot opportunities where a key search term is providing some traffic, but not as much as you would expect if you were ranking highly for that term.

You can then look to see where you are ranking for that term. Perhaps you are in a lower position on the first page, or on the second page of the SERPs. If so, it might make sense to focus some attention on this term. With a little effort, such as a focused link-building campaign for the page in question, you may be able to move up several positions and obtain a traffic boost.

A traffic-by-keyword report can also show you the long tail of search as it relates to your current site. Figure 3 depicts a snippet from the organic search phrases report of Yahoo! Web Analytics showing some of the small-volume terms for Stone Temple Consulting’s website.

Figure 3. Long tail keywords

Notice that a lot of names are showing up in the list, in addition to the rather interesting who is the author of Looking into this query data can give you a broad perspective on opportunities for long tail search.

Notice also how two of the names combine Google with a person’s name (jack ancone google and google carter). This could indicate an opportunity to make sure the person’s organization name is a part of the title of the articles in the Stone Temple Consulting interview series.

4. Segmenting Search Traffic with Multiple Parameters

Next, you can consider putting these things together. Even the free tools provide substantial capability for building out custom reports. Figure 4 depicts a screen shot from Yahoo! Web Analytics that shows the search phrases just for Google, and the pages of the site that Google sent users to when users clicked on your link.

This is a key improvement to your SEO research for two reasons:

  • If you are looking into what terms can bring fast traffic benefits as a result of some additional optimization, you are going to want to know in which search engine you are ranking.

  • If you are going to optimize a page to rank higher, you will need to make sure you are optimizing the right page!

5. Referring Sites

It is interesting to look at a referring site report for a number of reasons, but one of the more interesting SEO reasons to do so is to spot when you receive new links. You can often see those new links in these reports first, even before the search engines report them. Figure 5 shows a sample portion of the referring sites report from Google Analytics.

Figure 4. Search phrases from one search engine

Figure 5. Referring sites report

Expanding on this example, consider the site circled in Figure 5, If this is the first time you have ever noticed this site in your referrers, it can be a leading indicator that you have received a new link. This is of interest as it can help you to detect new links that result from your link-building campaigns, and therefore help you measure which of your link-building campaigns are yielding the best results.

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