How to assess the performance of your SEO agency
Establishing and building a great relationship with an SEO agency is precisely what’s needed to achieve SEO success. But it’s essential to monitor progress and continuously assess ongoing performance along with the SEO strategies and tactics employed by the agency to ensure these remain aligned with your business objectives.
Your SEO agency will be engaged in addressing and optimising technical failings, evaluating your competitors, identifying relevant keywords, creating and optimising site content and carrying out promotional activities to gain links. They will have been routinely providing reports, as agreed, which detail progress based upon defined SEO goals along with relevant key performance indicators (KPIs). But do these reports provide what you need to assess the performance of your SEO agency?
Since engaging your agency, you may have been lucky enough to see increased organic search traffic resulting in more sales or leads, which is great. But are you aware of the tactics your SEO agency has used to gain these apparent improvements?
Businesses need to be very aware of precisely what their SEO agencies are doing to ensure that they are pushing in the right direction using the most appropriate strategies. It is worth scheduling regular reviews to ensure that you are entirely happy with the work carried out by your SEO agency and the progress they are making. This is particularly important in the early days of a new agency relationship.
SEO Goals and Strategies
Your SEO agency should be working toward achieving some concise, clearly defined goals which are based upon your business objectives. These goals will have informed the derivation of appropriate strategies that will support the attainment of these defined goals. The strategies will encompass a variety of specific SEO tactics which the SEO agency has determined are what’s required to support the strategy and attain the desired result.
To evaluate your SEO agency with regards to goals and strategies, you should answer the following questions:
- Is your SEO agency working toward achieving a clearly defined and agreed collection of SEO goals which are aligned with your business objectives?
- Has your SEO agency defined and drafted appropriate strategies to support these set goals?
- Has your SEO agency made you aware of the specific SEO tactics they are employing to support these defined strategies?
SEO goals provide focus and inform the definition of appropriate strategies. It’s essential that these goals are based on the business objectives which they are required to support. Your SEO agency will have decided upon various tactics which they have determined are appropriate and most likely to deliver the desired outcome.
You need to be entirely happy with the SEO goals, strategies and tactics along with how these have been defined, recorded and communicated.
SEO KPIs and Reporting
Search engine optimisation is a process that’s carried out over time and not merely a collection of specific actions which, once ticked off, mean that SEO is complete. Gaining excellent, long-lasting results from SEO takes time, experience and continuous effort. For these reasons, ongoing monitoring and reporting are essential.
SEO key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to monitor progress and assess the SEO status of a website. Monitored KPIs should provide insight into the tactical optimisations that have been carried out or are in progress.
To determine whether your SEO agency is meeting your needs with regards to reporting, it is worth asking the following questions:
- Does your SEO agency routinely provide an SEO report which is understood by all recipients?
- Does the SEO report include details of progress based upon defined SEO goals?
- Does the SEO report include appropriate KPI metrics which accurately reflect the current SEO status of the website?
- Is the SEO report supported by verbal reporting and explanation from your SEO agency?
- Are there any aspects of the SEO reporting process which can be beneficially changed or improved?
You need to be aware of various SEO KPIs which are generally monitored and used in SEO performance reporting. It’s vitally important to ensure that the key performance indicators, used in SEO reporting, clearly relate to defined and agreed goals.
Here’s a list of those which are considered important and useful.
Conversions and Leads
Generating leads or driving conversions is generally the main objective of a commercial website. A lead can be considered to be any form of customer interaction prompted from the site, such as:
- Submission of a contact form
- Sign up for a newsletter
- Registration for an account or webinar
- Phone call.
A lead is any form of customer contact, which might subsequently lead to a sale.
Conversions take place when visitors do something which has value. On an ecommerce website, a conversion takes place when a visitor makes a purchase. Similarly, on a website offering software downloads, a conversion takes place when a visitor downloads a piece of software.
Monitoring conversions and leads is an important SEO KPI as it relates directly to the primary business objective to drive more sales and support business growth.
Organic traffic refers to all visitors coming to your website from search engines. Google analytics refers to sessions, wherein a ‘session’ is a group of interactions (such as page views) from one specific user that took place over a given period.
Your SEO report will typically quote the number of organic search sessions recorded by Google analytics over a defined period, such as a calendar month. This may then be compared with the previous month (month-on-month) and the previous year (year-on-year) to show how organic search traffic has changed.
Organic traffic is an essential KPI as this is what underpins and drives conversions. Increased organic search traffic reflects a higher level of organic search prominence, which is what search engine optimisation generally aims to achieve.
Traffic volume can often be beneficially subdivided into ‘brand traffic’ and ‘non-brand traffic’. Brand traffic refers to visits from brand-related search queries, and non-brand traffic refers to visit coming from generic keywords which don’t include the brand name. Monitoring traffic volumes based on these brand/non-brand divisions provides valuable insight into organic search ‘brand’ visibility alongside ‘non-brand’ search prominence.
Keyword rankings refer to where site pages are being returned in the search results in response to submitted queries. Keyword rankings can be tracked using excellent SEO software such as SEO Monitor or SEMRush. Google’s search console tool also provides valuable average ranking feedback from the Performance report.
Rankings for specific keywords are an important SEO KPI as this is what businesses generally correlate with SEO success.
But it’s not only the ranking positions for specific search queries that are important. The number of keywords for which a site is ranking prominently is also vital as is the relevance and searcher intent associated with ranking keywords.
Monitoring the number of keywords for which site pages are ranking in the Google top 3, and top 10 are additional, valuable KPIs which can be readily monitored. Also, considering whether top ranking queries are investigational, navigational or transactional is a useful refinement of this KPI.
Traffic Channel Comparison
Deriving comparisons between various traffic driving channels is a valuable SEO KPI. For example, comparing traffic volumes, conversions and goal attainments derived from organic search with those achieved through paid search advertising is a useful way to gauge performance and calculate an indication of the financial value of the organic search traffic.
Average Session Duration
A study conducted by SEMRush in 2017 determined the following hierarchy of ranking factors.
As shown, engagement factors are high on the list.
Average session duration is one of the engagement metrics that can be readily derived from Google analytics. The more engaging the site content is and the more relevant it is to the search queries and searcher intentions that bring organic search visitors to the page then the longer they are likely to stick around.
Average session duration is a notable KPI as it reflects engagement and whether the website is fulfilling the expectations and needs of organic search visitors.
Pages / Session
The number of pages viewed per session is another important engagement metric that reflects the extent to which visitors moved beyond the page through which they entered the site.
The average number of pages per session is a useful SEO KPI that can reflect the impact of content changes or site architecture and navigation changes, which can affect engagement.
In Google Analytics, a bounce occurs as a result of a single page visit to the site. This means that a visitor entered via a specific page and then exited the site without visiting any other pages or interacting with the site. The bounce rate is the number of single-page sessions divided by all sessions.
It should be noted that a high bounce rate is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, if a search user asks a question that is answered from a single page, then this will result in a bounce. The visitor is unlikely to want to investigate the site further if their question has been answered satisfactorily from the landing page.
Bounce rate is a useful SEO KPI as it can reflect the impact of on-page content changes along with site architecture and navigational changes. Also, when a search user clicks on a result in the search results and then immediately bounces back to the search results, this indicates to Google that they did not find what they were seeking. Google uses this information to modify their search results.
Conversely, if a search user clicks on a search result and then spends some time on the site, navigating from page to page, this indicates the ranked page and website is relevant to the submitted search query, engaging to the visitor and trustworthy.
Organic Search Landing Pages
Examining the specific site pages through which organic search visitors entered a website provides an accurate indication of the top performing site content. Looking at the particular search queries which brought people to each page indicates the topical associations, Google’s algorithms have derived.
Noting the top landing pages along with the number of organic search sessions associated with each is a valuable SEO KPI as it reflects content performance in the search results.
Google search console provides valuable insight into Google’s index of site URLs. Establishing and maintaining a healthy and accurate Google index of site pages is fundamental to success in the Google search results. The search console Coverage report provides an indication of how many valid URLs are indexed along with how many have been discovered but excluded along with how many have been found with apparent errors.
These error reports are particularly useful. They include details of URLs which are returning 404 (not found) responses which should be investigated.
Monitoring the indexation status is a valuable SEO KPI as it will reflect the results of indexation optimisation and indicate where errors have arisen which should be investigated and resolved.
Carrying out promotional activity and gaining inbound links from relevant, authoritative sources is a valuable SEO tactic. Also, optimising an existing collection of backlinks can be very valuable.
Monitoring backlink metrics including the number of linking domains, the geo-location of linking domains along with the authority and trust metrics of linking domains is a valuable SEO KPI that will reflect the results of promotional, link acquisition campaigns.
Pagespeed is a measure of how quickly the content of a page is rendered in a visitor’s browser. Pagespeed is often indicated as page-load-time (how long it takes for the complete page contents to be presented) or the ‘time to first byte’ (how long it takes from the page request to the first byte of information received by a browser).
Google has indicated that site speed (which is the combined page speed of multiple pages) is used by its ranking algorithms to rank web pages. Not surprisingly, Google wants to rank only the fastest and most user-friendly pages at the top of their search results.
Monitoring and reporting PageSpeed is a valuable SEO KPI as it will reflect the results of efforts made to improve page load times. Comparing page speed with metrics derived from top ranking, competing sites and pages provides a useful indication of improvements which need to be made.
An essential element in your SEO strategy is technical SEO. Technical SEO refers to all of the technical aspects of the website and server configuration, which can be optimised for search. It includes, for example, the use of SSL (secure sockets layer) technology, resulting in URLs which begin with HTTPs. In 2014 Google announced that websites using this secure technology would be given preference over non-secure sites.
The correct and effective deployment of structured markup is another important aspect of technical SEO, as is the creation and submission of optimal XML sitemaps.
To assess your SEO agency with regards to technical SEO, ask these questions:
- What technical SEO issues exist on the site or server?
- What plans are in place to resolve these issues?
- What technical optimisations have been carried out, and how have these impacted the status of the website?
An essential aspect of any relationship is communication. Regular SEO reporting is just one significant element in your client-agency communications, but there are many others which need to be considered. For example, your SEO agency may have been dealing directly with your web server administrators to optimise the server configuration. And they may have been liaising directly with your website designers and developers to make onsite changes and optimisations. They may also have been interacting with your staff to create fresh site content.
You may have also shared some face to face meetings or Google hangouts meetings, and there are likely to have been any number of telephone calls and emails. In some cases, you might also be using shared project management tools and messaging applications. All of these interactions and channels should be reviewed.
Here are some questions to consider when assessing communications with your SEO agency.
- Does the agency provide the information required promptly and in formats appropriate for the recipients?
- Does the agency effectively communicate with web developers, server administrators and content contributors?
- Are face-to-face meetings and Google hangouts meetings effective and efficient?
- Are shared tools (project management, messaging) being used effectively?
- Are there any ways in which client-agency communications can be improved?
- Do your people consider the SEO agency to be a good ‘fit’ for your organisation?
Identifying content which is performing strongly in the search results, determining content optimisations that can be carried out to existing content and embarking on a content creation strategy are essential aspects of a winning SEO campaign.
Content optimisation and development should be supported by keyword research to determine valuable, relevant search queries which can be effectively targeted.
To assess your SEO agency with regards to content development answer the following questions.
- Has the SEO agency carried out thorough keyword research which is regularly updated?
- Has the SEO agency identified top performing, competing content and shared their findings with you?
- Has the agency optimised existing pieces of web content and if so, what were the results of these efforts?
- Is there a defined content creation plan?
Promotion and Link Acquisition
Backlinks from other websites continue to play an important part in search engine optimisation. But quality is far more critical than quantity. It’s important to gain links from relevant, trusted and authoritative domains.
Evaluating the backlink profiles of competing domains and forming comparisons is a valuable tactic which can elicit useful indications of what’s likely to be needed to stand a chance of ranking alongside existing top ranking sites.
To assess your SEO agencies promotion and link acquisition work, answer the following questions:
- Has the backlink profile of your website been derived and evaluated?
- Have backlink comparisons with competing websites been carried out?
- Has the SEO agency successfully gained any fresh links? If so:
- Where are they from?
- What are the trust and authority metrics of the linking domains?
- What are the topics of the linking pages?
Finding an excellent SEO agency and building a productive working relationship takes time and effort but is very worthwhile and rewarding. It must be remembered that SEO success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, experience, and guided focus to achieve desired results in competitive search spaces.
Routinely reviewing the work carried out by your SEO agency, examining the results that are being achieved, and monitoring performance toward achieving defined goals will help ensure that all parties are fully aware of the importance of their work and serve to improve future efficiencies and communications.