Search Marketers Need Web Analytics

by Guest Author Eric Lander, March 15, 2008

Without Web analytics, search marketers would only be obsessed with generating endless amounts of traffic. While counting unique visitors can be fun, there is no definitive way to prove that more traffic is necessarily a good thing, nor that it equals a higher rate of conversions. This is why we often hear the term "targeted traffic" being consistently associated with search marketing. In short, our success is determined by the quality of the visitors we generate with our work - not the quantity.

Of course, targeted traffic alone does not do the trick. Search marketers must generate targeted traffic for their sites, as well as make sure that visitors are following along the conversion path they have laid out for them, doing whatever it is they want them to do. Whether we're selling shoes online or simply generating leads, monitoring the traffic that is generated from search is what allows us to make the most of our time.

To that end, we can determine that visitors who do not interact with our sites as effectively as we have planned will do little to build our business. That alone is reason enough to invest in a quality Web analytics package.

The Purpose of Web Analytics

On the surface, all Web analytic packages appear to be quite simple. All they do is record information and user behaviors from the instant a visitor enters the site until the moment they leave.

With a little input from us as site owners and marketers, these software systems can provide reports that show an incredible amount of data on a per user basis. They can tell us things like: Did the person who searched for "leather boots' on Google research multiple products? Did they add anything to the shopping cart? If not, where did they leave our site? Did they happen to submit any information, such as an email address, that we can refer to?

These questions, and literally thousands of others, can all be answered by integrating Web analytics into our sites and learning how to read reports.

How Do Analytic Packages Track Users?

Most of my Web analytics experience is rooted in using Omniture SiteCatalyst and Google Analytics. Ironically, one program costs a whole bunch, while the other is completely free.

Most of today's leading analytic programs, including those mentioned above, use what is called "page tagging" technology. With these applications, site owners embed a small piece of code (usually JavaScript) to all of the pages on their Web site. Then, when users access the tagged pages the code will be executed to record that event. It is the job of the analytics package to aggregate all of this data and then determine the series of events that make up each visit to our Web site.

Though not as common, other types of analytic programs do exist. Some packages, for example, will read server logs from your hosting environment to determine the sequence of user activities. Recently, there has also been the emergence of "hybrid" analytics. These applications use page tagging technology, along with server log files, to provide a more comprehensive analysis of your visitors.

Introducing Goals

One of the great things about Web analytics is that site owners can assign various goals to measure their traffic. Let's pretend that we are working with a site that sells shoes online. The first thing we would want to do is to measure the amount of sales generated on our site. That's pretty easy - but there are other activities worth recording as well. Some of the more popular and most useful activities to record include email newsletter signups, file downloads, RSS subscriptions and user account creation. Since goals are usually defined on a per site basis, they can (and certainly should) differ from one site to the next.

For example, an ecommerce site selling shoes should track different user actions than a site that generates leads for a medical office. With all of the advancements made in analytics, chances are that if you want to track something it can be done with one of the market leading Web analytics programs.

Thankfully, each analytics package will assist you with setting up various goals and where they take place on your Web site. If you begin to research goals, you may also want to look for "points of conversion". Some packages treat goals and conversions exactly the same (aside from the labels they use in reports). These points of conversion tend to exist on particular pages where a goal can be executed, such as a checkout button or a sign up form.

Tracking Baseline Information

Before we can measure and improve upon our current search marketing efforts, we need to acquire a sample of data. This sample period will allow us to extract a baseline report of data on our users.

Again, each site and application will vary. I have always found that for sites that are not impacted by seasonal trends, a three month sample is a great baseline range to work with. Once you have determined what your baseline sample will be, it is time to start recording numerical and trended data for future analysis.

As search marketers, when we use Web analytics we must train ourselves to review the information that will help make our lives easier. We can do that by focusing our time and energy on the elements most relevant to search engine referrals.

The following data can be used as the foundation for an SEM's baseline report:

  • Percentage of traffic from search
  • Conversions (leads, sales, subscriptions) from search
  • Average time spent on site (or "visit duration")
  • Share of search traffic (Google vs. Yahoo vs. LiveSearch, etc.)

Again, please realize that the information you use in your baseline should be unique to your business goals and ambitions. Because of this fact, I would recommend working with the help files and user guides that pertain to your analytics package. Customized training to your site and environment can also be a wonderful thing, and well worth the investment.

Regardless of the Web analytics package you use, it's critical to separate paid search engine referrals from organic referrals. Otherwise, it can quickly become difficult to understand how subtleties in an SEO program, such as descriptions in a listing or slight movement in the SERPs, can impact traffic and productivity. The same certainly holds true with paid search, particularly when you want to calculate your ROI on specific engines, keyword phrases or ad campaigns.

Improving Search Marketing Efforts with Analytics

With our baseline recorded we can now get into the stuff we really care about! As search marketers, we can use different types of reports from any number of Web analytics packages as long as we know what to look for. In all aspects of our analysis, we need to think about a quality search experience. Regardless of how a visitor searches, it is our job to get them the information they want, while also trying to have them perform any number of desired actions. And it's up to us to use the available analytics to do just that.

To help get you started, here are a few tips on items that you can track and measure:

  • Top Search Queries: While this may sound like a no brainer, you'd be surprised how many search marketers lose out on conversions because they're targeting the wrong terms. Keyword research is a wonderful thing, but many times we rank and generate business from search terms that we never even thought to research in the first place.
  • Top Entry Pages: When dealing with top entry pages, it's about the source of referrals. Since we're restricting our discussion to search queries, I would strongly recommend referring back to the search engine results. This is the first point of contact you have with a targeted visitor, so make sure that all the elements speak to the search terms and the type of user you're looking to attract. Subtle changes in page titles, listing descriptions and even URLs can all have a profound impact on a user's desire to click through.
  • Top Exit Pages: In the spirit of March Madness - no one likes to be one and done! If users are consistently leaving your site on a common page, take the time to find out why. The process of "pathing" is reviewing the flow, page by page, that a user takes while visiting your site. In this instance, you want to perform a reverse path analysis to determine why so many people are leaving at this one particular page. If you're lucky enough that your top exit page is your "Thanks for your order" page, you're in the clear. However, situations like these are rare. The most common top exit page will be your home page.
  • Bounce Rate: The bounce rate measures the percentage of people who leave your site while visiting a particular page, and can actually be a really fun stat to measure. If you have specific pages designated for SEO purposes, be sure to measure and track the bounce rate on a regular basis. If you begin to see that quality search referrals come into your site but are always leaving at a particular point, you'll need to work on the content or user experience you provide to close that conversion trap.

Experimentation with Web analytics is key, especially since all sites and report suites differ. Be sure to learn as much as you can about your visitors and above all - don't be afraid to experiment with your reports and theories. There is always more information to learn, and like everything else in life, we often don't even know what we don't now. The only way to shed light on the activities going on with your site is to invest in Web Analytics.


Eric Lander, Independent SEO Expert

Eric has been working in organic search optimization since 2001, when he got his start while co-founding Top Site Listings ("TSL"). While at TSL, Eric managed the organic search optimization for clients including Automotive.com, Fleishman Hilliard, and various divisions of Johnson and Johnson. Since leaving TSL in 2004, Eric has gone on to start and sell a small SEM firm and joined a Fortune 500 in ADP. Eric actively works as the Organic Search Manager for ADP's Dealer Services division which includes web sites for more than 2,000 car dealers in the United States and Canada. Throughout his career Eric has enjoyed writing articles and how-to pieces to share industry information. Articles first began appearing in 2002 on sites like SEO Today, SitePoint and Search Engine Guide. Today, Eric serves as the Associate Editor for Loren Baker's Search Engine Journal.


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