“Get Top 10 Rankings in Google or Your Money Back” read the subject line in my inbox Monday morning. It was a forward from a colleague, Jim – a marketing piece he’d received.

“Can you give ETR a money-back guarantee on their Google rankings?” he joked in his e-mail.

I thought for a minute before replying. “No,” I typed. “And I never will.” Then I added, “Besides, rankings aren’t really what matters anyway.”

Moments later, my phone rang. “What do you mean rankings don’t matter?” said Jim. “Isn’t that the whole point of SEO?””

“That’s a common misconception,” I told him. “Think of it this way… It’s kind of like saying the whole point of e-mail marketing is blasting your message out. Isn’t the response what you’re really after?”

Jim’s not alone in his thinking. When measuring the success of a search engine optimization (SEO) effort or campaign, many people focus solely on rankings.

Your website’s search engine ranking refers to where your site’s listing appears on the search engine results page (SERP) for a particular keyword. For instance, if you performed a search on Google for one of your keywords and saw that your site was in the number four position on Google’s SERP, then your site would “rank” fourth for that keyword.

Yes, rankings are important for getting your website noticed for targeted keywords and search phrases. But that’s only the beginning. Many fly-by-night SEO agencies would have you believe the job is done once your site starts to appear in the search engine rankings. But, like any other direct-response marketing effort, there are many Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) you should monitor to determine the success of your SEO campaign.

The first step toward measuring these KPIs is to get a great Web analytics tool to measure the traffic the search engines send to your site. There are several available in a wide range of prices and functionality: WebTrends, ClickTracks, Omniture’s Site Catalyst, Mint. Then, of course, there’s Google Analytics – possibly one of the best free tools available right now.

Once you have your tool of choice installed and collecting data, you can start monitoring those KPIs. The first and most obvious of which is:

Unique Visitors

Different analytics tools refer to unique visitors in different ways: “uniques,” “absolute unique visitors,” “unique visits,” and sometimes just “visitors.” But they all mean the same thing – your site’s body count. Literally – the warm bodies who are sitting at computers clicking on your search engine listing and visiting your site.

Why is this important?

Measuring the number of unique visitors the search engines are driving to your site can tell you, among other things, how well your title and META description are converting searchers into clickers. Are you writing compelling copy that accurately represents how relevant your site is to the particular keyword you are targeting?

For example, I recently did a search for “loose leaf tea.” Among the top results were the following:

Loose Leaf Tea, Oolong Tea, White Tea, Organic, Green Teas, Tea
Fine handcrafted full- leaf loose teas and artisan tea ware from Asia. Organic, green, oolong, white, black and herbal teas. Teapots and accessories.

SpecialTeas – Premium Loose Leaf Teas
Premium black, oolong, green, and white teas. Blends, flavoured teas, decaf. Herbals and fruit blends. Asian and English teapots and accessories.

Now even though it wasn’t part of my search phrase, I knew that I was interested in both English and Asian teas. So I clicked on the second result. Because this company’s listing had a compelling and comprehensive description of what I would find at their site, I became one of their unique visitors.

Let’s say your site has pretty decent rankings for your targeted keywords (in the top 20), but you aren’t seeing a high number of unique visitors to your site. You may want to take another look at the description of the page that’s ranking. Is it compelling enough? Did you include a call to action? Remember, you have control over how your site’s listing appears in the search engines with your title and description tags. Not only do they get your site ranked in the first place, they also act as your “ad.”

Another important KPI to monitor is:

Visits

The visits count is typically the total number of times anyone visited your site. Not to be confused with unique visitors, the visits count includes multiple visits by the same unique visitor. For instance, if I clicked on the SpecialTeas listing three times in a month, I would count as one unique visitor, but three visits.

Why is this important?

The number of visits is important in the same way the number of unique visitors is important. But a high number of visits for a particular keyword could be an indication of your website’s relevancy as well as its value as a resource for that term.

For example, let’s say that in my search for loose leaf tea, I’m still in the browsing phase. I click on the SpecialTeas listing and scan the site, but I’d like to see what my other options are. So I go on to visit five more sites before I decide that SpecialTeas fits my needs the best. Maybe they have the best selection, or brands I’m familiar with, or a very user-friendly website. They fit my needs, and I return to their site multiple times.

This is just one example of why someone would visit a site more than once during a search. It’s helpful to keep in mind that, on average, a unique visitor will visit your site three times before taking an action (e.g., making a purchase). So make sure you have fresh compelling content, clean, easy-to-use navigation, and great products to keep visitors coming back.

This takes us to our next KPI:

Average Page Views

The average page views statistic, sometimes called pages/visit, is the average number of pages a typical visitor views during a visit to your site.

Going back to my loose leaf tea example, I may have gone through three or four pages of a particular site before determining that it was or wasn’t the one that best fit my needs. Someone else who searched on the same “loose leaf tea” keyword phrase may have viewed five or six pages. The average page views for those two visits would be somewhere around 4.5.

Using average page views as a KPI can sometimes be confusing. After all, does a high average mean that visitors really liked your website? Or that they had trouble finding what they were looking for?

A great way to determine this is by looking at the most important KPI of all:

Conversions

Conversions can mean many different things, depending on the goal of your website. Is it to sell products? Get newsletter subscribers? Generate leads?

Whatever your conversion goal is, number of conversions is the most important thing you can measure. Otherwise, why spend all your time on this SEO stuff anyway?

All of the KPIs mentioned in this article work best when used together. In combination, they give you a big picture of what’s happening with the traffic you’re driving to your site through your SEO efforts. If you rank #1 for a keyword and that traffic doesn’t convert, you’ve got some investigating to do.

Take a look at your average page views. If they are low for that particular keyword, maybe your optimized page doesn’t provide enough valuable information to keep visitors interested. If your average page views are high, maybe your site’s navigation is confusing your visitors. So these are things you would test – trying different content, modifying your navigation tools, etc.

If you manage to rank for a keyword that drives a high number of unique visitors, visits, page views, and conversions, you’ve hit the jackpot! And now you have to work even harder to keep that position and maintain that flow of valuable search traffic and sales.

So the next time an SEO firm tries to sell you their services by guaranteeing top 10 rankings, ask them if they will guarantee unique visitors, or even conversions.

[Ed. Note: Alexis Siemon is ETR’s resident Search Engine Marketing Specialist. If you’ve been wanting to start your own Internet business, but have been too intimidated to try, join the ETR Internet Marketing Team at our 5 Days in July Internet Business Building conference. You’ll learn everything about how to build your own online business from the ground up. Registration for the conference opens at noon on Friday. ]

After graduating from Florida State University in 1997, Alexis got started in the golden age of the Internet marketing industry working agency-side where she performed everything from search engine optimization (SEO) to web analytics to media buying for several clients. She then took her expertise client-side managing SEO and pay-per-click (PPC) efforts, as well as other print and interactive marketing initiatives for companies in the financial and software industries.

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